Masters of the Maze
The dream had returned and Quace found himself in the same scenario as the night before. Running at full speed towards the outstretched arms of his children, who grew further in distance from him with each step taken.
"Daddy, help us! Help us!" his youngest boy, Ty was pleading.
He awoke with a start, although not bathed in sweat as he had been the prior morning. He realized now that this dream would visit him during each sleep cycle and he would begin to welcome it, believing that with each dream, he would come closer to finding them. During his waking hours, he would formulate a plan of action in the back of his mind and employ those strategies in his nocturnal quest. for now, he shook off the dream and turned to check on Ari in the bunk across the way. He had kicked off his blanket during the course of the night and lay sprawled on his stomach, small arms above his head.
This was good news to Quace. It meant that the boy was out of his coma. People in comas did not stir in the night, let alone kick off blankets.
He felt the stirrings of desire as his eyes swept the sleeping form of Ari. The jumpsuits had not been designed to be constricting, but they certainly accented the young form that wore it. Quace found his eyes drawn to the pert little boy butt and felt himself stiffen. Yesterday, he had awakened to the same desires and had begun to act on them with Kyler and now he wanted to relive that moment with Ari. Part of his mind still refused to accept this new side of him but the battle was slowly being won in this side's favor.
"You like him, don't you?" It was Kylers soft voice.
Quace turned and looked into the wide blue eyes of the boy. He had pulled the blanket up around his neck and met Quace's eyes with no malice. He was just a boy who had asked an innocent question. Nothing more and nothing less.
"I guess I do." replied Quace. "I don't understand these feelings. I must admit that they are rather foreign to me."
"I know that he will like you too, Quace." the boy said, his eyes sparkling.
Quace tried to place the meaning of the statement into context. Was Kyler saying that Ari would welcome his advances or was he merely stating that the sleeping boy would consider him like a father figure or big brother?
Quace was still pondering this over when Kyler slowly pulled the blanket down to his midsection and then used his good leg to kick it off altogether.
Suddenly, Quace forgot everything that had happened since awakening and stared transfixed.
Kyler had disrobed during the night and now lay there naked, his legs slightly parted and his small member dangling between them. Lowering his hand to his crotch, the boy began to fondle himself, arching his back slightly as he did.
Quace sat there unblinking, his attention focused on the naked midsection of the boy, his erection beginning to throb as he watched the boy begin to stiffen from the attentions of his own hand. Kyler was cut and fully erect at two and a half inches.
Kyler swung his hand over to Quace and grabbed the big man's hand, swinging them both back to his crotch and dropping Quace's hand into his lap.
Immediately, Quace went to work, kneading the acorn sized testicles and stroking the boy sized shaft. The war for moral supremacy had just been lost as Quace gave in to the desire that overwhelmed him.
"Go ahead, Quace." the boy whispered, his voice hinged on the throes of ecstasy.
Quace climbed from the bed and knelt beside it, his hand never leaving the tender flesh of the boy. He looked up at Kyler, but the boy's eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted.
Quace lowered his head between the boy's legs and swallowed the young member, his tounge working expertly at bringing the boy to an orgasm. The faint scent of boy came from deeper between his legs, adding a new level to the pleasure already experienced by Quace. His hands worked in unison with his mouth, running the length of each smooth thigh before returning to the small bulbs and gently fondling them.
Suddenly, Kyler arched his hips and his entire young body began to shudder as the pleasure waves of his dry orgasm overtook him. Collapsing back onto the bed, he smiled down at Quace who returned the smile and climbed back into the bed. Kyler snuggled into him and he wrapped his arms around the boy, kissing him on the face and inhaling the fragrance of his scalp.
Kyler reached down and began to work the zipper of Quace's jeans. Noticing that the boy was having trouble, Quace rolled onto his back and opened the passage for the boy. Kyler wasted no time in freeing the stiffness from it's nest. Immediately, he gripped the shaft and begin to pump, his small hands working almost expertly, bringing Quace to the brink in a matter of minutes. Then it was his turn to arch his back as he exploded into the air. Kyler continued to caress the shaft gently as Quace regained his composure.
For a moment, they lay there, arm in arm, the experience leaving the both of them refreshed but temporarily exhausted.
"I love you Quace." Kyler whispered into his ear.
Kissing the boy on the nose, Quace looked him in the eyes and lost himself in the brilliant blue orbs. "I love you too." he answered. "Now let's get cleaned up, shall we?" He sat up, reached for the blanket and cleaned himself the best he could, feeling guilty for using the blanket, but deciding that the pleasure experienced was well worth the trade off.
Kyler reached for his jumpsuit and slowly wriggled into it, mindful of his injured ankle. Soon he was redressed. He watched as Quace rezipped his jeans and climbed from the bed.
"Glad to see that we're not going to sleep the day away." Thor boomed from the door. He was still curled at the entryway, a position Quace assumed that he had maintained throughout the night.
"Thank you for the morning wake up call." Quace replied good naturedly, offering the panther a wink. "Maybe you can double as our alarm clock each morning to ensure that we get moving at a decent hour."
"As if I don't have enough to do, being a boy transport and all." Thor's eyes twinkled again. "But your request is duly noted, nevertheless."
A slight moan from the neighboring bed caused all heads to turn in unison to the stirring form of Ari. His eyelids fluttered, then opened, focusing on the bottom of the bunk above him.
"Where am I?" he said to no one in particular. He had not yet seen the remaining members of the party.
"ARI!" Kyler squealed with excitement. Had Quace not stopped him, he would have sprung from the bed, reinjuring his ankle in the process.
Ari's head turned to face the voice and a smile crossed his face as he saw his friend. "Kyler, I thought that I would never see you again."
Quace went to the bunk and knelt beside the boy. "My name is Quace and I'm here to help you and your friends get out of here. Are you feeling well enough to sit up?"
The boy sat up slowly, using his elbows for support at first and then his hands to complete the action. "A little dizzy." he replied shakily.
"Just give it some time, it'll pass." Quace reassured the boy. He glanced over at Kyler. The boy was practically hopping up in down in his bunk, his excitement at Ari's recovery mixed with his agitation at not being able to apply weight to his injured ankle.
Quace rose from Ari's bunk, crossed the way and gently scooped Kyler into his arms. He had just made love to this boy and the warmth of the experience would stay with him forever. Of that he was sure.
He deposited Kyler onto Ari's bunk and the two boy's immediately embraced. Something about the manner in which they hugged each other made Quace remember back to what Krost had said while just an image on the vidscreen. He had mentioned that these four boys had somehow formed a pact aboard ship. At the time, Quace had dismissed the idea as nothing more than four lonely orphan boys banding together and forging a bond. Witnessing the embrace between these two boys made him rethink his original stance. He was unable to put his finger on it, but he sensed that whatever it was, it was more than mere bonding. Was he reading too much into this simply because he now had a vested interest in these boys or should he trust this newest intuition of his and follow through with it. He opted for the latter and waited for the boys to finish their reunion.
"This one of my best friends, Quace." Kyler said, beaming.
"I can see that." Quace replied, extending his hand to the second boy. "Call me Quace."
Ari reached out and his small hand disappeared in the big man's paw. "Nice to meet you, sir." he said.
Quace chuckled and knelt beside the bed, his hand still swallowing the boy's soft hand. The softness of this boy was equal to that of Kyler and he felt for a moment as though he would never let go of this hand. He resisted the urge to suck on each slender finger and pleasure this boy as he had Kyler.
"First off, let's cut out the sir stuff, okay? You can call me Quace." he said, finally letting go of the small hand.
A smile crossed the boy's face. "Okay, sir......um....Quace."
Quace smiled at him and offered him a knowing wink.
Kyler and Ari turned towards the voice and Ari noticed Thor for the first time. His reaction was radically from Kyler's initial reaction. His smile became a wide toothed grin at the sight of the panther. "Quace, that's a very pretty kitty you've got there." he chuckled. "And he's big too."
"It may surprise you to know that I can talk as well." said Thor with mock indignation.
Ari's eyes grew as wide as saucers at the voice that echoed through his young mind. "A talking cat!" He spun to face Kyler. "This is great! A talking cat is so cool."
"If you're nice to him, maybe you can ride him like I do." Kyler replied, his smile matching that of his friends.
"My dear boy," Thor began. "as much fun as you might think it would be to ride atop my back, I assure you that the honor would be all yours. Whereas, I may enjoy the company of capricious young boys, having them straddled across my back does nothing to fluff my image."
"Ari, may I introduce Thor. Apart from being a slight bit touchy, he has proven to be a great asset in our search for you and Kyler and I suspect that he will continue to be such throughout the duration."
"That introduction will earn you few brownie points." replied Thor as he lumbered over to the bunk and allowed Ari to pat him.
"He's so soft." exclaimed the boy as he ran his hands through the thick fur.
"As are you, dear boy, as are you." Thor telepathed, his eyes narrowed in pleasure as he allowed the small hand to caress his back.
Quace reached down and plucked Dingo's rucksack from the floor. Reaching into the pocket, he extracted the remaining jerky from the outer pocket. "Who's hungry?" he asked, waving the jerky in the air.
Both boys reacted in unison, reaching for the salted meat. Quace passed each boy two slices, reminding them of the need to conserve.
"I know I'm hungry." Quace said, offering a slice to Thor who accepted it with a gleam in his eye.
"It would seem that some of us have already had breakfast." Thor chuckled.
Quace was caught by surprise and attempted to cover his embarrassment at having been caught. "I have no idea what you're talking about." he replied, the smile creeping up on him.
"Of course you don't." the cat countered, chewing on his allotment of the jerky.
Quace allowed his smile to broaden. He should have known that the telepathic panther would have honed in on he and Kyler as they explored each other. He had been so caught up in the moment that the world had stopped spinning for him during his tryst with the boy. He felt no guilt at being caught, but a little uneasy at having let his guard down if even for a brief moment. There had been no malice in the cat's tone and Quace knew that his unfolding relationship with Kyler would not be considered taboo by Thor. He sensed that he would have been ripped to shreds, had his intentions been anything more than noble and loving.
The boys had finished eating, and Quace addressed Ari. "Do you remember anything about being in that room?" he asked, trying not to sound threatening.
Ari wiped his mouth on his sleeve, eliciting a smile from Quace. Typical boy.
He had awakened on a table after going to bed in his bunk aboard ship. A tall man wearing a lab coat had been leaning over him, a syringe in his hand. Ari had fought to clamber from the table, but had found himself unable to move. It felt as though he had been glued to the table. He had been able to do nothing but watch in horror as the man in the lab coat had plunged the hypodermic into his left shoulder.
"I remember getting sleepy." the boy finished, shuddering at the memory.
"Did the man say anything?" Quace pressed gently.
"He talked about clowns alot." Ari replied thoughtfully. "Then I went to sleep and woke up here."
Quace absorbed this information and tried to process it. The more he tried to put this puzzle together, the more the pieces began to change shape. What did clowns have to do with any of this mess? Was it possible that Ari in being a boy, had misinterpreted the meaning of what the man had said?
"Was there a clown in the room?" he asked the boy.
"Nope." the boy shook his head vigorously.
"Any idea why he would talk about clowns?"
"Clowns and twins." the boy amended.
Quace ran the scenario over in his mind. None of these boys were brothers, yet alone twins so that ruled out the possibility of the boys being snatched for looking alike. The man that had given Ari the shot had been wearing a lab coat, so that ruled out the possibility of him dressing like a clown. The more he puzzled, the more confused he became. He prided himself on his problem solving techniques, but they were failing him now and he felt slightly cheated.
"If I may...." inquired Thor, interrupting his thoughts.
Quace welcomed any fresh input that the panther may offer. "You have an idea?"
"I do." replied Thor. "Suffice it to say that the boy was mostly incoherent upon awakening on the table. The inability to move coupled with the vision of a man hovering over him with a hypo would do nothing to ease his discomfort with the situation."
Quace had run this through his mind already, but sensed that the cat was approaching the same problem from a different angle, one that he had not yet attacked it from.
"It is quite possible that he misinterpreted the man when he mentioned clowns," the cat continued. He turned and looked into Ari's eyes. "Do you know what he meant when he talked about twins?" he asked.
Ari thought for a moment, his mind replaying the scene. "I think he was talking about my twin."
"Yet, you have no twin, do you?" Thor pressed.
"I don't." the boy replied, confused by this line of questioning.
Suddenly, the light went on in Quace's mind, illuminating the problem and thrusting the answer into the light of day. "He wasn't talking about clowns. He was referring to clones. Cloning you would give him your twin."
"My thoughts exactly." Thor telepathed back.
"What's a clone?" Kyler inquired, wanting to be a part of the conversation.
For a moment, Quace entertained the idea of trying to explain the concept of cloning to two eight year olds, then thought better of it. The clock was still ticking and there were still two boys in need of rescue. Once all of them were off this ship and safely settled back aboard Conastoga One, he would be more than happy to engage in that conversation, but for now, the priorities needed to be set straight.
"How about we discuss that as a group after we find your two other friends and get off this tub?'
Visions of adventure swarmed through Ari's head, while Kyler vividly remembered the recent past and the uncertainty of the future. He trusted Quace and knew that the big man and the black panther stood between him and his friends and utter despair. Nodding in unison, they announced agreement.
Quace stood and moved to the hatch in the center of the floor. Kneeling down, he gripped the wheel and turned it to the left. With a whoosh of escaping air, the hatch released and Quace lifted it into the air, peering down into the inky blackness beyond.
"Let's see what Dingo's map says about this."
Reaching into the rucksack, he fumbled for the map to no avail. He reached into his jacket pocket and then his leans pockets, also to no avail.
The map was gone.
Thor nodded his head in the direction of the doorway they had entered through the night before. "It's probably being run through the spin cycle in the corridor out there." he said without humor.
The loss of the map was a blow to Quace, but not a major setback. He had gotten this far with minimal assistance from the map and he would continue on because he had no choice. His only regret was that he had not been afforded the opportunity to memorize the map. It would have given him an edge.
Extracting a solar flashlight from the rucksack, Quace speared the beam into the darkness beyond the hatch. A metal ladder ramrodded it's way downward, disappearing into the black beyond the beam of light.
"Looks as though I go down and check things out." Quace mumbled as he lowered himself onto the top rung.
Thor nodded his understanding as the big man began his descent.
A glance upwards allowed Quace a final look at the three faces he had grown to love, before he disappeared into the thickness of the dark.
His mind paced off the footage as he descended down the ladder. At fifty feet, he touched bottom. Retaining his grip on the ladder, he swung the solar light around.
The image of a car loomed into view.
Quace remembered back to his childhood and the hours he had spent sitting in front of the television watching reruns of The Twilight Zone. He had always loved the twists that each episode offered.
Somehow, he had been thrust into his own little episode of that show and like Alice on the opposite side of the looking glass, he was finding things here to be curiouser and curiouser.
He played the light in a sweeping motion and caught bits and pieces of other cars and the yellowish tint of the crumbling wall tiles of the tunnel. He was in a car tunnel and his vision was limited to the spear of light that stabbed at the darkness.
Moving slowly from the ladder, he advanced on the nearest object. It was the car he had seen in his first sweep of the tunnel. The car itself, was a Mercedes, the seats appointed with the richest of Corinthian leather and woodgrain dashboard, but it was not the luxurious nature of the car that drew Quace's attention. It was the occupant seated in the drivers seat.
The driver of the car was dressed in the finest of suits, the tie neatly knotted and the double breasted jacket buttoned fashionably. A diamond studded wedding ring adorned the ring finger indicating that the driver had been married before his death.
But the driver was most certainly dead, his smartly dressed skeleton the only sign that he had ever lived.
Noting the amount of time elapsed and the time remaining, Quace shook off the heebie jeebies and swung the flashlight around. After a ten minute search he had found everything there was to find in this section of the maze. This Mercedes was accompanied in the tunnel by an ice cream truck, a fire truck, an ambulance, mini motor home and one other car. The sole occupant of the tunnel was the skeleton seated behind the wheel of the Mercedes.
Formulating a plan of action, Quace reeled the hose from the fire truck and then yanked it free from the truck with his cybernetic arm. A search of the motor home had yielded a second thermal lamp and Quace switched it on. The brilliance of the lamp chased the darkness into the farthest reaches of the tunnel. Apologizing to the skeleton, he kicked it over so that it fell into the passenger seat of the Mercedes. laying eyes on a skeleton would not be conducive to the well being of the boys. Out of sight, out of mind he thought.
Clasping the brass section of fire hose in his hand, he returned to the ladder and began to climb. Given the events of the last two days, he was almost sure that the ladder would begin to come apart at some point, but he had decided back on the bridge, while rescuing Kyler, that any hesitation would cost valuable time. He would need to proceed with caution and haste if he were to locate the remaining boys and get them all safely aboard the Conastoga.
Kyler was all smiles as he saw Quace light the thermal lamp, the light exposing any potential harm between it and him.
Quace broke through the opening and received a hug from both of the boys, Kyler supported by Ari.
"Looks like the Holland Tunnel down there, but there is a mini motor home and with any luck we'll be able to ride in luxury for the next leg of this journey." he smiled down at the two boys.
"Why don't I climb down first and then I can warm up the car whilst you gather the rest of the clan." mused Thor good naturedly.
Ari seemed genuinely amazed by this statement. "He can drive too?" he questioned.
"I assure you my dear boy, that I am no better at driving than I am at peeling a banana." the panther retorted, his eyes dancing with delight at the innocence of youth. Quace sensed that the big cat would have wrapped his arms around each of the boys in a warm embrace, were it within his power.
"I'll peel it for you." replied the boy, his own eyes sparkling at the thought of helping the cat in some way.
"The next time the mood should strike me to eat a banana, I shall immediately conduct a search for you." Thor quipped back.
"Deal." Ari said, his grin broadening.
Quace went to the bunks and looped the brass end of the firehose around the leg, tying it off in a knot. "Unless you learned how to walk overnight, I'll have to lower you down in a makeshift harness." he said to Thor.
"In the wake of the indignities suffered upon me as of late, a harness hardly seems to be an inconvenience whatsoever." the panther replied.
In a few moments, Quace had fashioned a crude harness around the cat's chest. With some effort, he lifted the panther and positioned him over the small opening, his real arm straining to compensate for the lack of strength possessed by his cybernetic one. "I may not be strong enough to lower you all the way, so get ready for a jolt." he said, wondering if the legend that cat's always landed on their feet was true.
"It is, but I hardly wish to prove the point to you at this point in time." shot back Thor, as Quace began to lower him down. It seemed like an eternity before he felt the canvas in his hands slacken, before Thor had reached bottom.
"Ari, I need you to climb down this ladder and untie Thor for me. Think you can handle that?"
Without a word, the boy eagerly lowered himself into the hole and began his descent, Quace and Kyler anxiously watching his progress. Reaching bottom safely, Ari began working on the knot in an effort to free the panther from the harness.
"Let's go for a ride, shall we?" Quace addressed Kyler as he stood on the uppermost rung of the ladder, Dingo's bag draped over one shoulder. Kyler hobbled over to him and climbed onto his back, wrapping his arms around the big man's neck and his legs around his waist.
The boy remained still as Quace took each rung slowly and deliberately and soon, they had joined Thor and Ari on the floor of the tunnel. Ari had successfully unshackled Thor from the harness and stood petting the beast as if he were an ordinary house cat, which in a sense he was.
Keeping Kyler on his back, Quace walked past the Mercedes towards the motor home, the panther and Ari in tow. Neither boy noticed the well dressed skeleton lying in the front seat of the Mercedes and Quace breathed a silent sigh of relief.
Opening the door of the motor home, he tossed the dwarf's bag inside and clambered in after it. Ari had grabbed the thermal lamp and followed Thor up the step and into the vehicle.
The motor home itself was the van type with a bunk over the cab, a small table that folded down between the opposing seats to form a bed, a small refrigerator and sink and a few cupboards. A rear bunk stretched it's way across the rear of the van.
Setting Kyler into the passengers seat, Quace climbed behind the wheel of the van. He had noticed earlier that the keys to all of the vehicles had dangled from the ignitions, so searching for keys or hot wiring the van was not necessary.
"Let's see if this baby has any juice left." He turned the key.
The engine sputtered a little than sprang to life, eliciting squeals of glee from the boys and a smile from Quace. During his time down here, he had taken the time to check the levels of each gas tank. The fire truck and the ice cream truck were both diesel operated, as was the Mercedes, so he had siphoned the contents of the remaining car and the ambulance into plastic jugs retrieved from the ice cream truck and filled the van, stowing the remaining half a jug in the storage bin just behind the right rear tire. The only thing he hadn't done was ensure that the van would start. Now that it had, he relaxed a little and offered Kyler a warm smile.
He switched on the headlights and the twin beams of light cut through the darkened tunnel, illuminating the slight curve up ahead. His choice of the motor home had been one more of elimination than it had been of comfort. The van had been the first in line of the six cars, parked diagonally across the lanes, blocking the other vehicles that shared this section of the tunnel. Had the firetruck or the ice cream truck been the first vehicle in line or had the van not started, he would have made the necessary corrections.
Grabbing the column shift, Quace shifted into drive and the van began to roll forward slowly. Quace had no idea what they would encounter around the next bend and he wanted to leave ample reaction time, should something occur up ahead.
They rode in silence, each of them lost in their own thoughts. The tunnel offered no further resistance. This left Quace troubled. This was day three of the five day time limit set by Gaston and therefore he had graduated to level three in this game of games. As of yet, the day had been uneventful.This meant that the worse was yet to come and he could only hope and pray that he would rise to the occasion and meet any new conflict with the same degree of stamina with which he had weathered the last two days.
The roadway tilted slightly upwards and Quace noticed daylight up ahead. He steeled himself for what could be an ambush, instructing the boys and Thor to lie down on the floor.
Quace accelerated in the belief that the image of the van bulleting from the tunnel would startle any potential ambushers just long enough to buy a few moments. Rocketing through the last section of the underground roadway, the van punched it's way into daylight, all four tires leaving the ground for a few seconds before gravity regained it's senses and brought them into contact with the road again with a thud. Quace fought to gain control of the van as the boys whimpered somewhere behind him.
Applying the brakes slightly, Quace brought the van to a halt and slammed it into park, leaving the engine running. Snatching up his solar pistol, he instructed the boys to remain on the floor of the van, then opened the door and jumped onto the broken tarmac, the pistol at the ready.
He was met with no resistance.
He was standing on what had once been a secondary road, a faded yellow line stretching into the horizon. He was surrounded by thick foliage and his mind flashed back to the paths that he had walked upon his arrival to this madhouse. The only difference was the width of the path and the broken pavement that attempted to cover it.
Climbing back into the van he turned to the back to check on the boys. They were each cuddled around Thor who was doing his best to shield them.
"Well, we're out of the woods for now, but we found some new woods to play in." he announced.
Suddenly, a shot rang out, shattering the drivers window and punching a hole in the dashboard. In the flash of an eye, Quace slammed the door, yanked the column shift into drive and lurched the van forward, just as a volley of shots pelted the side of the motor home. Quace judged the safety of his speed, gauging the condition of the road and weighing it against the speed needed to put distance between them and their attacker. He drove for a mile or so along the deserted road before stopping, his mind registering this new development.
Just off to the left of the road was a building or rather, the top five stories of a skyscraper. The structure seemed to have sprouted itself from the ground, just as the foliage surrounding it had done.
The complexities of this situation would have to wait for later examination. For now, Quace spun the wheel to the left and accelerated into the bushes, headed for the building just as a second hail of bullets slammed into the rear of the motor home. The undercarriage ran roughshod over the thick underbrush, which retaliated by ripping sections of the exhaust away. A section of the muffler broke free, puncturing a tire as it bounced it's way free from the underside of the careening van. A pothole took out a second tire as Quace desperately tried to keep the van on a straightforward course.
"Keep your heads down boys." he yelled. Moments later, the motor home smashed it's way through a plate glass window on the lower floor of the skyscraper, spraying shards of glass into the interior of the building. The van plowed into a row of cubicles and office furniture turning them into kindling, before coming to a halt against the far wall of the office. Quace shook away the dazed feeling that threatened to overtake him and stared through the spiderwebbed windshield. He felt a trickle of blood worm it's way down his forehead. He had reopened the wound incurred during his fight to rescue Kyler from the bridge.
"Everyone okay?" he asked, spinning around to the rear of the motor home. It was a mess. During the run through the trees, the cupboards had opened up and disgorged their contents onto Thor and the boys, but thanks to Ari, they were all unharmed. The boy had grabbed the seat cushions just before running the gauntlet and had used them as shields. A few minor bumps had been the only injury.
Ari jumped up and pushed on the side door of the camper, swinging it open. Swiftly, but gently, he lifted Kyler to his feet, being mindful of his friend's injured ankle, and the two of them hobbled their way from the wrecked camper.
"Perhaps I should have driven after all." quipped Thor. "Four paws are better than one." the gleam in his eye returned.
Quace was climbing out of his seat when the floor under the camper began to give way under the added weight. Quace was tossed back into the seat as the front of the camper tilted to a forty five degree angle, sending everything loose cascading towards the front seats. A soup can launched itself into the windshield, spidering it further. Thor managed to jump through the side door just before it slammed shut sealing Quace inside.
At least one of us got out to be with the boys, thought Quace as the camper shifted yet again. A section of flooring speared it's way through the windshield, inches from his head and he sprang into action. He raised his cybernetic arm and brought it swooping down, snapping the broken floor support from the floor itself and the windshield disappeared. Had the floor not been directly blocking his escape, he would have crawled through the windshield. He spun in his seat, setting his feet on the dash and began to climb his way up the inclined floor of the camper, the doorway, not more than five feet away.
Suddenly, he heard a series of shots and the scream of children. He refused to believe that the boys had been harmed and redoubled his efforts to escape from the sinking camper. Maybe this structure was filled with earth below, but on the off chance it wasn't, the camper would generate momentum once free of the floor and crash it's way down to where it no longer encountered resistance, maybe one floor, maybe a hundred floors. Either way, Quace was not going to take that ride.
Another series of shots rang out, only this time, no screams followed.
Grabbing at the leg of the table, Quace pulled himself to the door of the camper. The knob was on the left hand side which meant that at this angle, it would open upwards. He pulled himself to the angled seat, placing his feet against the backrest. The camper lurched forward slowly in short, jerking movements. It was now or never. With his cybernetic arm he slammed into the top hinge of the door, snapping it free. A second blow to the lower hinge freed the door completely and it toppled outward and hit the floor with a dull thud.
Yanking the solar pistol from his jacket, he leaped from the camper, landing atop the smashed door. He met with no resistance, but heard the gunfire return, only this time from one of the upper floors of the structure.
Thor and the boys were gone.
Scanning the destroyed room, Quace found the nearest stairwell and ran towards it. The floor of the office chose that moment to give in to the punishment applied by the weight of the camper and the two of them plunged into the chasm, crashing it's way through multiple floors before hitting the bottom. The roar of the explosion hit Quace before the fireball mushroomed it's way upwards and thrust itself into the room. A thick cloud of smoke billowed outwards, and Quace took the stairs two at a time. His mind was racing. The boys were safe with Thor, but probably scared nonetheless. Did they believe that he was dead and if they did, would that effect Thor's efforts to get them to safety?
The fire was the other concern. If the fireball had dissipated, then it would be of no concern, but if it caught, it could turn this building into an inferno in a matter of moments, dependent upon the contents hidden in each room.
Another series of gunshots punctuated the air and Quace gauged the distance. As near as he could figure, he was one floor below the mysterious shooter. He reached the landing of the floor below, his solar pistol thrust in front of him. With urgency and safety woven into a tapestry, he proceeded up the next flight.
The doorway at the next landing had been half torn from it's hinges and dangled lazily to one side. With a few quick steps, he bolted towards the open door, slamming his back against the wall and peering around the door jamb.
In the center of the room stood a tall man clad in chaps and a vest, a gunbelt around his waist and a cowboy hat perched atop his head. Right out of the old West, he thought as he took aim with his pistol and fired.
The shot missed it's mark by a fraction of an inch, slamming to a concrete pylon and leaving a scar in it's wake. The gunslinger turned and fired into the stairwell, each shot slamming into the wall and peppering Quace with chunks of concrete.
Without wasting time on the wisdom of such a decision, Quace stepped into the open door, dropped to his knees and fired a series of rounds into the gunslinger. Each of these shots found their mark. A shower of sparks erupted from the gunslingers chest as the shots jerked him backwards and he collapsed to the floor.
Cautiously, Quace stepped from the stairwell, his pistol concentrated on the sparking figure on the floor.
The gunslingers six shooter had flown from his hand and skittered across the floor, coming to rest at a nearby cubicle that had been peppered with bullet holes.
As Quace bent to retrieve the gunbelt, a shot rang out and Quace fell to the floor, the searing pain in his thigh telling him that he had been hit. Thinking on his feet had reached a new height for him, but the safety of the boys was first and foremost in his mind. As he hit the floor, he ignored the pain and rolled away from the jerking robot on the floor, his solar pistol firing in the direction of the shot in an attempt to buy time to find cover.
Reaching a metal desk, he yanked it over onto it's side and peered around the corner.
A second gunslinger had appeared in the stairwell and he emptied his six shooter into the desk, pockmarking the metal top. As Quace readied the solar pistol for a volley of his own, a loud clanging noise filled the stairwell. Peering over the top of the desk, Quace saw the gunslinger turn and look up the stairwell as the noise grew louder. The gunslinger reacted by taking aim up the stairs, but was cut off as a desk slammed into him with full momentum, pinning him to the floor and eliciting another shower of sparks.
"Quace!" It was Ari's voice and the big man turned to see the boy running towards from him, tears in his eyes. The boy crossed the distance in seconds and knelt down beside Quace, his small arms wrapping themselves around his neck. "I was worried about you." he sobbed into Quace's chest.
Quace returned the boy's embrace, stroking his hair and kissing the top of his head. He felt a sense of relief wash over him as he saw Thor padding his way towards him, Kyler perched on his back. They had survived yet another onslaught.
"Glad to see that you broke off your camping engagement in order to be with us." Thor said, a hint of gratitude evident in his voice. Kyler pulled himself from the cat's back and joined his friend in embracing Quace, who welcomed him with an open arm. He knew that he would love and protect these boys forever and he felt the tears well up in him. He felt as though he had abandoned them earlier and the guilt at leaving them was suddenly replaced with the joy of reunion.
"You are hurt." Ari sobbed, noticing the blood that soaked Quace's jeans. He stood and ran to the inert form of the gunslinger. Ripping a section of the shirt from the prone body, he returned to Quace and began to dab at the hole in the big man's jeans, the tears flowing from his face as he did. "You have to get better, you just have too." he sobbed.
Quace stopped the boy, cupping his hand under the smooth chin and gently lifting his head to meet his own eyes. "I'm okay honey. I'll live, I promise you that." he said soothingly. The boy relaxed slightly, sniffling and wiping his face on his sleeve.
"You remind me of my youngest son, Ty." Quace told the boy. "He used to wipe his snot on his sleeve all the time. Used to drive his mother crazy." he smiled wanly at the boy.
"Your boys are lucky to have a dad like you." Ari replied. "I don't have a dad. I wish you could be my dad."
Quace felt the lump grow in his throat and fought back the swelling in his heart. He ached at the thought that these boys had been forced to deal with situations never intended for them. They had become orphaned for whatever reason and the despair that accompanied that unseen betrayal had left it's mark on them. He opted not to inform them of the death of his sons. It would accomplish nothing.
"I see no reason why I couldn't give adoption a shot, once we get to where we need to be." he replied.
"Really?" both boys shouted in unison. "You mean it?"
"The day that I lie to you will be the day that Thor will start peeling bananas." he offered a wink to them.
"For the record," Thor added, " I detest bananas, so I foresee no reason for me to educate myself in the art of peeling them."
Tousling each boy's hair, Quace attempted to stand, the searing pain returning to remind him of the bullet he had recently taken.
Ari and Kyler stood on opposing sides of him, each boy doing their best to support him, Kyler hampered by his broken ankle.
"Kyler, I think it would be best if you were to take the driver's seat of the black panther express." Thor stated. "It would seem as though the bus loses direction when you are not at the helm."
Quace silently thanked Thor for his comment. He knew that Kyler would wind up reinjuring his ankle, should he continue in his attempts to assist him in his effort to walk. Thor nodded his acknowledgement.
"As for you, young man, it would help me more if you could round up the guns and gunbelts. I don't think they will be in need of them any longer." Quace said to Ari.
For a moment, Quace stood there, his heart swelling with pride as he watched Kyler climb atop Thor's back and Ari scurry after the usable items left over from the battle.
"I am truly glad to see that you managed to escape from that mobile coffin." Thor telepathed.
"And I wish to thank you for getting the boys to safety and keeping them safe." Quace replied.
"As I said, the bus seems to wander in the wrong direction when the driver is not behind the wheel and Ari has turned out to be quite a fine navigator," the panther responded.
Kyler squeezed himself to Thor in response and Quace caught the gleam of love flicker through the cat's eyes. He had trusted this animal implicitly and Thor had done nothing more than reaffirm his belief with each passing moment. He knew that Thor would give his life for these boys, as would he and the sense of commrarderie grew.
Ari returned with four guns and the two belts he had stripped from the robotic bodies on the floor. Quace wrapped the first of the two belts around his waist, then emptied the second belt of the remaining bullets before tossing the belt to the floor. He filled the belt around his waist and each of the pistols, dropping the remaining three bullets into his jacket pocket along with two of the fully loaded pistols. The last two pistols, he holstered.
"I feel like John Wayne." he chuckled.
"Who's that?" Kyler inquired, his head slightly cocked to one side.
"When we return to Conastoga One, I'll have to show you one of his old movies." Quace replied.
The boy had returned to the boyish world of wonder and imagination. His mind was filled with visions of a movie hero that he had never heard of and he looked forward to watching the movie snuggled safely in Quace's arms.
"That was some fancy footwork with the desk on the stairs." Quace said to Thor.
"As much as I would enjoy taking credit for that slice of genius, I must confess that these paws played no part in that scenario. Neither did the boys."
Quace was puzzled, but Thor's words rang true. He and the boys had been on this floor all along and as such, were incapable of launching the desk down the stairwell. If they had not been party to that action, than they had a mysterious benefactor out there and Quace suddenly felt the need to search out this savior and shake his hand.
A boys scream cut through the air and Quace responded immediately, his ears attuning themselves to the direction of the screams. They were coming from above.
"Find a hole and dig in, Thor." Quace said, headed for the stairwell. He entered the stairwell and stepped over the remains of both the ravaged desk and the robot that it had crushed. Turning his head back to the room he had just left, he saw Thor and the boy's scramble into one of the cubicles. Returning his attention to the stairwell, he stepped onto the first riser. Ignoring the pain in his thigh, he slowly advanced upwards, his solar pistol ready.
"Show yourself or I'll carve this kid up like a Christmas ham." an adult voice boomed from above.
Quace doubled his pace, the pain in his leg keeping him from going any faster. Cursing himself for allowing himself to be shot, he ambled up the stairs and stumbled out into the room at the next landing.
It was a laboratory of sorts, the walls lined with a mixture of glass vials and jars, each containing a different colored liquid and labeled accordingly. A metal examining table was bolted to the center of the floor and standing behind it was a tall man dressed in a lab coat, a pair of wire framed glasses perched on his nose. His tie was loosened and hung askew and beads of sweat were forming on his balding forehead.
Had this been the only form greeting Quace upon his entry to the room, he would have blasted first and asked questions of the corpse, but he stopped in his tracks at the scene that greeted him.
The scientist had the look of pure fear in his eyes and a his hand held a bowie knife to the throat of a young boy, which Quace guessed to be one of Kyler and Ari's friends. The boy stood frozen in fear, the sharpened blade of the knife already having drawn some of his blood. His dirty blond hair was disheveled and his jumpsuit was torn in places. For a brief moment, Quace thought about just plugging this jerk and taking his chances, but the danger posed to the boy was too great.
"Well now. It looks as though, you've been quite the problem as of late." the scientist sneered at him.
"Yeah, I'm becoming rather adept at that." Quace returned, his pistol unwavering.
The scientist shifted his weight, the knife never flinching as he did so. "How about we make a deal. You drop your weapon and I won't give this boy his first and last shave."
"Why don't you let the boy go and you won't be eating all your future meals through a straw." Quace countered. He knew that if push should come to shove, he would drop his weapon in a heartbeat in order to save this boy. He silently prayed that it wouldn't come to that.
"So now we've reached an impasse." the scientist replied. "Yet it would seem as though I am holding the stronger hand, wouldn't you agree?"
"Are you okay son?" Quace asked the boy.
"P-please, d-don't let him k-kill me." the boy stammered, pleading for his life. tears began to roll down his cheeks.
Quace felt the need to comfort the boy before he formulated a plan on how to best set him free.
"My name is Quace, what's yours?" he asked.
The boys eyes darted back and forth before answering. "M-Mio."
"Family hour is over Quace. Drop the weapon or you can watch as I gut this kid like a fish." the scientist threatened, his knife hand pushing the blade closer to the boy's jugular.
Quace changed tact, hoping to draw the scientist into conversation. "And you would be who?" he asked, his eyes never leaving those of the startled man.
The tactic worked. The scientist's ego had suddenly gotten the better of him. "I am one of three genetic scientists aboard this ship. We tried to board Conastoga One well over a year ago, but you refused us entry, so we built our own ship and we conduct our own experiments."
"What's your name?" Quace pressed.
"Call me Gene." the scientist laughed at his own joke, the knife never wavering from Mio's exposed throat.
"Well Gene, you're making a big mistake. If you harm this boy, I can personally guarantee a very painful death. On the other hand, you can let the boy go and join us aboard Conastoga One where you can put your abilities to good use."
The scientist called Gene chuffed at the thought. "Why should I do that when I can create multiple copies of this boy and abuse those copies to my heart's content?"
Quace felt his stomach tighten at the thought of this boy being repeatedly raped at the hands of this demented being. He fought back the urge to take his chances by blasting away and sending him to the lower depths of hell.
"So you like hurting little boys? Does it make you feel like a man to exercise your power over them?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"You don't get it, do you?" the scientist countered.
"I would never harm this boy. The act of cloning him creates an exact duplicate. I can play with my cloned toy without causing damage to the original specimen. Placing him in stasis, allows me to reclone him and try out new and different scenarios. It's actually quite remarkable in it's simplicity."
Quace felt the bile rise in his throat. With a valiant effort, he kicked it back. He regained equal control of his anger. This man was desperate and in his present state, was incapable of logic or reason. His own twisted logic had seized control of his mind and he would not be swayed.
Suddenly, Gene arched his back, the knife in his grip clattering to the floor as his tightly closed fist opened.
Mio reacted instantly to his sudden freedom, making a mad dash around the examining table as the scientist fell forward, his face smashing into the the polished metal table top.
In the flash of an eye, the scenario unfolded before Quace. Gene falling forward, an arrow protruding from between his shoulder blades, and Mio rushing him, arms spread wide.
Mio slammed into him and Quace had to fight to regain his balance. The boy wrapped his arms around Quace's waist, sobbing openly now, no longer frozen in fear.
Quace scooped the boy into his arms and backed his way out of the room. Someone had launched an arrow into the scientist's back and until he knew who that someone was, he was taking no chances.
The pain in his leg had all but disappeared during his verbal exchange with Gene, but now returned with a vengeance as he hobbled down the stairwell, the added weight of the boy aggravating his leg.
Thor was the first to appear, peering around the cubicle wall to make sure the coast was in fact clear. A nod by him brought Ari running at full speed. Thor padded his way out a few moments later, Kyler perched in his usual spot on his back.
The reunion between the three boys was joyous, each of them hugging an kissing each other, the tears of joy flowing freely. Quace stood near Thor and the two of them watched the scene unfold before them.
"What happened Mio?" Kyler asked, his blue eyes dancing in anticipation of the heroic story to follow.
"Mr. Quace saved my life." the new addition to the party stated proudly.
Quace decided against reminding the boy that it was an unseen benefactor that had killed the scientist. He was finding himself wrapped up in the imaginative world created by each boy, amazed at how easily they intertwined with each other.
"How did he save your life?" Ari inquired, his eyes lighting up in anticipation of the same story.
"Because I hoped it." Mio bragged, a broad smile crossing his face.
"You're hurt." Ari cooed, reaching out to touch the small wound on Mio's throat.
Mio gently brushed away his friend's hand. "It's nothing." he commented.
"Are you sure?"
Mio's blue eyes flashed for a brief moment. "I kept hoping that somebody would come and save me and Mr. Quace came in and saved me from the knife." he replied.
"It would seem as though you are developing a fan club of sorts." Thor mumbled to Quace.
"What was that?" asked Mio, the
sparkle leaving his eyes and the look of
"That's just Thor." answered Kyler.
"Just Thor?" the big cat feigned despondency.
Ari and Kyler introduced Thor to Mio and the boy began to pet the cat. He was soon joined by the other boys and the panther dropped to the floor, rolling onto his back, paws in the air. As three sets of hands began to pet his exposed belly, he began to purr.
"Are you content?" Quace asked the cat.
"Wouldn't you be with three little boys stroking your body?" the panther replied.
"Point made." Quace responded with a smile.
"Jealousy does not become you." Thor retorted.
Each of the boys chuckled at the banter between Quace and Thor as they continued to pet the black cat and Quace found himself thanking Thor silently. The cat had become not only a trusted friend, but a form of continuing therapy for each of the boys. His feline antics had broken the ice for them and Quace was grateful for the help.
While the boys continued to pat Thor, Quace descended the stairwell. He was hoping to see the extent of the damage incurred by the explosion of the camper. He hobbled downward one floor and stepped into the remains of the office, studying the impact area for any signs of fire. A few remnants of the floor were aflame, but the explosion had not set off the conflagration that he had thought it might.
His sense of relief was mixed with a sense of defeat at the loss of the provisions he had stockpiled. Dingo's bag and all it's contents had gone down with the camper, as had the spare gas and all the food stocked in the cupboards of the camper.
"There is always hope," Mio's voice rang out from behind him. "Without it, we are defeated."
Quace scooped the boy into his arms and looked him in the eye. "You are most certainly correct, my young friend." he said to the boy and made for the stairwell.
Rejoining the other's, Quace sat on the floor. Thor and the boy's joined him, forming a circle.
"We lost all of our provisions when the van crashed through the floor." he stated.
"But you did find me." Mio expounded. "There is always hope."
Quace tousled the boy's hair. "I'm glad that we did, Mio." he replied. "We now seem to have an ally of sorts. An unseen somebody who pushed a desk down the stairwell to crush one of the gunslingers and shoot an arrow into the back of the demented scientist. Since I have no idea whether or not this someone has their own hidden agenda, we need to stick together."
"Me not somebody. Me Dingo!" the dwarfs voice boomed through the office.
All heads spun as one, focusing on the small figure that stood in the stairwell, a bow in his hand and a quiver of arrows strapped over his shoulder.
"Dingo!" squealed Kyler with delight. Apparently he had taken an immediate liking to the small man and now his eyes sparkled with glee as he realized that the little man was not dead.
"Dingo shot while saving boys. Quace repay favor by losing bag." the dwarf accused, pointing his stubby little finger in Quace's direction.
Quace erupted into laughter at the sight of Dingo standing there, feigning righteous indignation. He had actually liked the dwarf himself, but had given him up for dead when the cybots had attacked.
"See? Someone like Dingo." he squawked as his short legs scurried across the floor to embrace Kyler.
Quace regained his composure. "I thought you were dead. That laserblast hit you square in the chest." he said.
Dingo pounded on the scarred chainmail armor on his chest as if he were imitating Tarzan. "Dingo smart, play dead. Cybots stupid, believe Dingo." he smiled exposing his crooked teeth.
"This is Dingo," bragged Kyler to his friends. "He's a midget."
The dwarf hopped up and down in mock anger, his glasses bobbing up and down as he did so. "Dingo dwarf. Not midget!." he exclaimed.
Quace felt the need to come to the aid of the dwarf, before the boys lost themselves totally in fits of laughter. Composing himself he turned to Ari and Mio. "Dingo was with us before we found Ari lying on the table. He was extremely brave in defending us against the cybots."
"Me Dingo." the small man bragged. "Save you all." his short arm swept the group in emphasis.
"And we are eternally grateful for your heroics, little man." Thor stated. "It hasn't been the same without you."
Dingo ignored Thor's sarcasm and turned to Quace. "Where bag and map?"
Suddenly Quace felt as though he were being caught in the act of doing something wrong. "They're gone. I lost the map in a spinning corridor and the bag just plunged a few stories in a wrecked van."
"Shot down while saving boys. Lay in pain for hours. Gone less than one day and you lose both map and bag." the dwarf scolded. Quace remembered back to when he was a boy. He and a friend of his had been in charge of collecting their class' homework assignments and delivering them across campus to their instructor's study. A windstorm had cropped up as they crossed the campus and the papers had been whisked away by the ensuing winds. The instructor was a small man and had stood in his office, wagging his finger as he scolded the two boys. The memory flooded back to him as the dwarf wagged his finger in admonishment. "You need Dingo, yessiree." he finished.
"Put a stopper in it, Dingo." Thor cut in, his amusement with the little man, evident.
Ari and Mio appeared to be as taken by the dwarf as Kyler had been. Quace didn't bother to question the reasons behind their curiosity. It was evident that they were smitten by him and that they felt comfortable being around him and that was good enough for Quace.
Dingo ceased his raving at the sound of Thor's voice, then switched tacts. "Dingo find food upstairs." he squealed, his finger pointing into the air.
The boys all agreed that they were hungry and even Quace began to feel the pangs of hunger creep into his stomach. He snatched up the empty gunbelt that he had discarded before, extracted the two six shooters from his jacket pocket, slipped them into their respective holsters and tossed the entire assembly to Dingo who reacted with surprising agility and speed, snatching the gunbelt from the air.
"Dingo thank Quace." the small man saluted.
"Quace thank Dingo." Quace returned the salute, feeling slightly silly as he did.
Dingo wrapped the belt around his waist and laced it tight. Quace chuckled at the sight of him. The image of Dingo reminded him of a movie he had seen many years earlier about a group of dwarves who had made off with the Supreme Being's map of the Universe, intent on pilfering every piece of loot they could get their greedy little paws on and keeping it for themselves.
"About that food." Thor interrupted.
"Upstairs, good food." Dingo stated proudly. "Dingo good cook."
The dwarf led the small caravan up the stairs with Kyler and Thor just behind him. Mio and Ari did their best to support Quace as the small group slowly made their way to the uppermost floor.
Nearing the top of the last flight, the aroma of cooking food wafted through the air and greeted his nostrils. His stomach started to rumble as Ari and Mio assisted him to the top landing.
Stepping through the doorway, Quace felt as though he had entered another world. They were in a penthouse apartment that extended the length of the entire floor. The lavishly furnished living quarters were appointed with a plush sofa and easy chairs, oak coffee table and matching end tables and a deep piled carpet. Just beyond this room was the kitchen and Quace resisted the urge to force his way in there and devour the contents of the pan responsible for his growling stomach. But the two boys responsible for him were guiding him towards the sofa. He took a seat and breathed a sigh of relief as the stab of pain subsided considerably.
Dingo disappeared into the kitchen, promising to make dinner extra special.
Thor stopped at Quace's feet and Kyler dismounted the cat and knelt at the big man's feet, flanked by Mio and Ari. Quace watched in amazement as Ari reached up and unsnapped his jeans. His small hand gripped the zipper and pulled it down, the flaps folding over to reveal Quace's boxers.
"Now is not the time boys." Quace moaned in pain.
"We need to clean and sterilize the wound before it becomes infected." explained Ari, concern in his eyes. He gently tugged at the jeans. Kyler and Mio each gripped a section and soon, the three of them were slowly removing the jeans, ever vigilant of the wound in Quace's thigh.
"Lie down." Ari said, running his small hand through Quace's hair.
Quace obliged, his mind and body surrendering to the soothing effects of several small hands caressing his legs. The events of the last few hours began to catch up to him and he became aware of how much his body ached and the soothing touch of each boy's hand.
"He has a fever." he heard Ari say, concern in his voice.
He heard Dingo return from the kitchen and volunteer to go down to the lab in search of medicine.
He heard Thor comforting the boys as they began to cry.
He felt a slight stab of pain as someone applied a compress to his wound.
He heard footsteps and the return of Dingo announcing that he had found medicine.
He felt the prick of the needle as it entered his arm and then he faded to black.
His eyes fluttered and then opened. Ari was there, his slightly freckled face beaming with delight. "He's awake!"
In moments, the other's were there, crowding around him. The pain was gone, replaced by a warm flood that surged through his body.
"What happened?" he asked.
"You passed out about two hours ago." replied Thor from somewhere behind the boys.
"I feel loopy."
"Antibiotics and Morphine." Dingo chimed in.
Quace was stunned. Antibiotics would help stave off infection, but morphine would cloud his judgement, rendering him useless in battle and severely handicapping his ability to think on his feet.
"We must get moving." he said thickly, the morphine slowing his thought process.
"Sun gone down now. We rest." Dingo said from far off.
He fought against the effects of the painkiller to no avail. He gazed into the loving eyes of Kyler and the concerned eyes of Ari. Mio offered a glimmer of hope to him as he faded away for the second time.