Masters of the Maze
Quace was dreaming again, only this time he wasn't running after his boys and they were no longer being pulled from him. He stood there in a sterile environment, a room painted white and lined with vials and jars filled with a variety of multi colored liquids.
Ty, his youngest at seven, and Xander, his oldest at ten, both lay unmoving, floating a few feet above the twin examining tables meant for them.
He reached for them, calling their names, but his feet refused to move forward and his calls to them went unanswered. Their eyes were closed and they remained unmoving.
Suddenly, a door opened and Gene, the demented scientist strode into the room, a pair of syringes in his hand. His face was smeared with blood and it had trickled down to stain the starched collar of his white shirt. He noticed the image of Quace immediately and he smiled, exposing a few broken teeth from his collision with the table. He turned slightly and Quace noticed the arrow protruding from his back and the blood that stained the lab coat.
Ignoring Quace's threats, Gene slowly unzipped each boy's jumpsuit to the crotch. Exposing one shoulder of each boy, he placed the tip of the syringes to the fleshy part of each boy, his bloody grin becoming wider as he noticed Quace's helplessness.
"I have something extra special in mind for these two." he sneered, depressing the contents of the syringes into each boy's shoulder.
Quace sat up abruptly, the sweat pouring from his forehead, a silent scream on his lips. For a moment he sat there, convinced that that the scientist was still alive on board this ship and making his way towards his sons. He felt groggy and disoriented, as though he had been injected, rather than his boys.
In a rush, it all came back to him. He was in a skyscraper of sorts and had been shot by a robot sentry disguised as a gunslinger. His own little Twilight Zone episode.
"Are you okay?" a boys soprano voice inquired.
For the first time since awakening, Quace realized that he was no longer on the couch in the penthouse suite, but in a bed lined with soft sheets, the pain in his leg, nothing more than a dull throb. He turned to the sound of the voice and found Ari sitting next to him, a look of concern etched into his face.
Quace opened his arm and the boy scurried under, the two of them collapsing into the softness of the mattress. "For a while, I thought that I may not be, but now I know that we'll all be fine." he said, kissing Ari on the cheek.
"There is always hope." the boy responded.
"There is always hope." Quace agreed.
"Always hope and always yet another project to undertake." the voice of the panther echoed in his head.
Shaking the cobwebs from his head, Quace looked into Ari's blue eyes and cupped the boy under the chin. "Would you give me a moment to talk to Thor?" he asked.
Ari's eyes grew wide with excitement. "I can go tell the other's that you are awake. Dingo is cooking breakfast and they will all be glad to see you." He made to jump from the bed and Quace gently gripped his arm. "Thor and I need to talk so I'd appreciate it if you'd ask them not to all rush in here. I'll come out when I'm done talking to Thor. Okay?"
"Okay Quace." the boy said eagerly, climbing from the bed and disappearing through the door leading into the living room. Quace could just imagine the boy squealing with excitement at being the one to announce that Quace was okay, and he chuckled inwardly at the thought.
"They are all splendid boys." Thor announced as the door slammed shut. "It is my hope that you will honor your promise to adopt them upon your return to the Conastoga."
Quace was taken by surprise by the panther's statement. His word was as good as gospel, and he had never gone back on it, and he saw no reason to start now. "I have every intention of keeping my promise to them." he said flatly.
"Please, do not misinterpret my concern for the boys as an inability on your part to make good on your promise," Thor replied. "I have no reason to doubt your sincerity in this matter, yet my primary concern is for their individual well being, a task which may require more involvement than you may realize. The honor of your word is not in question."
"And I see no reason not to consult your vast wisdom in these matters, should the need arise to do so." Quace returned.
"You speak as if I will be joining you on the return trip." the panther replied.
"I see no reason for you not to." Quace said, unsure where the cat was headed with this line of talk.
"My unique ability is both a blessing and a curse. Since it has never been introduced into the population at large, the reaction to my telepathic prowess may very well upset the apple cart and I have no desire to be probed and prodded as though some form of new virus or such. Besides, there is no reason to believe that my ability to communicate will extend beyond this realm. Simply put, I belong here."
Quace was stunned. He had given little thought to what would happen to his travelling companions after they had accomplished their mission, yet he could not envision life without this cat, or the dwarf for that matter.
"I have been instructed to destroy this ship upon completion of this mission, in order to alleviate any future problems with Gaston. I cannot and will not in good conscience, allow you to perish along with this floating garbage scow."
"Nevertheless, this is where I belong. A freak among freaks." replied Thor.
Quace needed to convince Thor to accompany them from this ship or the boys would never forgive him. He envisioned weeks of grieving, followed by months of questions, all of them directed towards his decision to leave the cat behind when he knew that the ship would be destroyed. He changed his tact.
"Is that how you really feel about it?" he asked.
"It is." Thor responded.
Quace spun himself on the bed, so that his feet touched the floor. During the night, someone had taken great care to bandage his wound and insure that it would be safe from infection. "What will it take to change your mind, Thor?" he asked.
"Nothing short of divine intervention." the cat telepathed back. "The question of need overrides that of want."
Suddenly, Quace let go with a scream of agony, grabbing onto his injured leg and rolling his eyes up into his head for emphasis.
"You wouldn't." the cat challenged.
Quace halted his screaming and smiled at Thor. "I just did." he countered.
The door flew open and Ari, Kyler, Mio and Dingo swarmed into the room, each of them with concerned looks on their faces.
"What wrong now?" Dingo questioned in an exasperated tone. He had been perfectly content to remain in the kitchen and cook breakfast, chatting with the boys.
"I just needed a little divine intervention." replied Quace as he eyed the response from the panther.
Each of the boys had immediately jumped onto the bed hoping to soothe Quace should he need it, and they now sat there, surrounding him, looks of puzzlement etched on their faces.
Thor remained quiet and waited for Quace to finish his game, sitting on his haunches, unblinking, his eyes boring into Quace.
"Thor has just informed me that he will not be leaving the ship with us and it may be because he feels unwanted by us." Quace put on his best disappointed face for the smoldering Thor.
As one, the boys left the bed and placed themselves around the panther, three pairs of hands stroking the soft fur. Each boy showed the strain of dealing with this new development and the tears began to flow. Their world had been turned upside-down when they had been snatched from their beds and the last few days had began the process of returning them to a sense of normalcy. Thor had become a very important part of that return and they showered him with kisses and cooed to him, each of them insisting that they both needed and wanted him to return with them.
Slowly, the cat's glare melted, replaced by a look of utter embarrassment. "It would seem as though, this family is in desperate need of a pet that will maintain the dignity that it so righteously needs and deserves, so I have altered my original stance slightly." he telepathed to the entire group.
"Dingo stop making breakfast to hear confession of cat?" the dwarf asked, his small hands jerking into the air as if in defeat. Dropping them to his sides, he turned and stormed back into the kitchen, mumbling under his breath.
Thank you boys," Quace quipped. "Go eat your breakfast and I'll be out shortly."
Squealing with glee over their victory with the cat, Ari and Mio supported Kyler and the three of them headed back into the kitchen, visions of Dingo's feast dancing in their heads.
For a moment, Quace and Thor sat opposite each other, their eyes locked. Finally, Thor broke the silence. "It would seem that I underestimated you from the outset. Your powers of manipulation are equalled only by those of your mechanical limb."
"The boys were responsible for your change of heart. I was merely the catalyst. Their reaction would have been no different had you waited until our departure to break the news." Quace quipped back.
"Nevertheless, you are a cad." the panther's eyes twinkled.
Quace changed the subject. "I had a dream just before awakening." he began. "I was confronted with the bloodied form of the scientist, but he was standing between the hovering images of my boys. They were unable to hear me calling them and I was unable to reach for them. I could only stand there helplessly as he plunged syringes into their arms."
"Yes." Thor replied. "It is possible that your boys were cloned."
Quace had been taking his dream in a different direction, but the cats' comments redirected his thoughts. He had never allowed himself the luxury of thinking that his boys may have been cloned, simply because they were rarely out of his sight when he was aboard ship and rarely out of his wife's sight in his absence.
Thor absorbed this information and processed it as Quace finished replaying it in his mind. "Perhaps they were the original specimens, selected while they slept and transported here and cloned during the cover of night. The cloning process itself would be rather simple. Extract a DNA sample from each boy and then return them to their beds aboard Conastoga One. Not one soul aboard would be the wiser, including your boys. Gaston would see to that."
"Somebody killed my family Thor, and I was sent into gladiatorial combat as punishment for killing them. Is it possible Gaston killed them?"
"The possibilities are endless, my friend, yet logic dictates that killing your family would do nothing to advance his theory."
Quace was lost. "What theory?" he questioned.
Ari suddenly opened the door and burst his way into the room. "Are you okay, Quace?" he asked, his blue eyes filled with the cloud of concern.
"Couldn't be better." he winked at the boy. "Just finishing up my talk with Thor. If we are to keep him as a pet, then he needs to be clear on the location of the potty box."
Ari chuckled his understanding and left the room.
"Remind me to repay that compliment at the earliest possible time." Thor telepathed. "Perhaps an unwrapped gift tucked into the sheets."
Quace allowed the panther time to regroup from the interruption, waiting patiently.
"I know very little of Gaston. He is most certainly a madman, as this little game of his clearly demonstrates."
"Go on." Quace urged, his interest piqued.
"Madness and genius occasionally walk hand in hand. Six months ago, I was a wild animal, content to live the life chosen for me by my creator. I was taken from the wilds and became one of Gaston's experiments, his first I believe. I was injected with the DNA of one of his advisors who had recently passed on. This advisor had all but mastered the art of telepathy, a skill he had picked up from the aliens held at Area 51 many years prior."
Quace shifted his weight on the bed and allowed the cat to continue. He was fascinated by the story and had many questions, but was anxious to see where it was to lead. Thor would make his point in his own time.
"Genius can conceive the idea, but it requires madness to achieve results immediately. The inventor will experiment with smaller versions of his original idea. Trial and error will ultimately decide success or failure. It is this small detail that earns him the title of genius. The zealot will eliminate the finer details and cut straight to the chase, tossing caution to the winds and earning him the title of madman."
Thor shifted his weight and continued.
"History is filled with those who have crossed the fine line separating the two. I believe Gaston to be the next in line to attain such status."
"How does this relate to my boys?" Quace questioned.
"I do not believe that Gaston has crossed that line concerning cloning. I believe it possible that he took your boys in their sleep and cloned them, yet for whatever reason, was dissatisfied with the results. This would prompt him to find new recruits to experiment and what better subjects, than four boys who would not be missed?"
"Yet, they were missed." Quace countered.
"One of the aforementioned details."
"That offers an explanation as to why he kidnapped these boys, but offers no reasoning for the murder of my family."
Thor rose from his haunches and strode to the window. For a brief moment, he stood peering into the morning sunrise. Turning, he slowly padded back to the bed. His eyes narrowed slightly as he resumed his original position on the floor.
"The act of cloning is a very delicate procedure. Even the novice understands the need to preserve the original specimen. The cloning of a clone and so on will witness a breakdown in the original genetic material, much like copying a copy of a tape and so on. Eventually, the copies become grainy and illegible."
"What are you saying, Thor?"
"I do not believe that your boys were murdered that night." the panther replied, his voice heavy with concern for Quace.
Quace ran this scenario through his mind a dozen times. With each replay, the same vivid images assaulted him. Each of his boys had been stabbed repeatedly, as had his wife and daughter. He had seen them sprawled in their beds, their bodies lifeless and unmoving.
"I saw them butchered in their beds, Thor." his voice beginning to rise in spite of himself. Thor had hit upon a sore spot for him and an inner battle raged. He wanted to hear what his trusted friend had to say, yet the painful memories were still fresh and merited some hesitancy on his part.
If Thor sensed Quace's inner turmoil, he did not acknowledge it. He waited patiently for Quace to meet his gaze before dropping the last shoe. " Gaston did not murder your boys, Quace. He killed their clones. Your wife and daughter meant nothing to him, so I believe he killed them as well to cover his tracks. He then proceeded to frame you for their murders. By doing this, he would remove you from the picture as well."
A rush of emotions surged through Quace. If there was any ring of truth to what the cat had said, then his boys were still alive and somewhere on board this ship, kept in stasis. He would find them and free them, in addition to the last orphan boy and then he would kill Gaston and destroy his playground permanently. He would not however, be able to bring his wife or daughter back from the dead and his elation at the possibility that his boys were still alive was short lived. His fifteen year old daughter and his wife had been taken from him and no clones would replace them. For a few moments, he sat on the bed, his entire body rippling with emotion.
The door to the bedroom flew open and the dwarf strode into the room, indignation evident on his face.
"Dingo make good meal. Cat and Quace sit in bedroom and play games." his small arms threw themselves into the air to emphasize his point. "Dingo like boys in small doses, but three boys equal one big dose."
He turned and stormed his way back through the door, leaving it open.
Quace had regained his composure and looked into the haunted eyes of the cat. It seemed obvious to him that the panther had refrained from relaying this information earlier in an attempt to shield him from the truth until such time as it had become absolutely necessary. Both his timing and his delivery had helped to soften the blow. He silently thanked the panther and renewed his vow to put an end to this madness once and for all.
Thor acknowledged the thanks with a nod and rose to his feet. "The clock still ticks and a full stomach is a most assuredly the proper way to beat it." He turned and padded from the room.
For the first time since awakening, Quace took stock of himself. He was still wearing his boxer shorts and the pain in his gunshot wound had been brought down to a manageable level. Slowly, he stood and applied weight to his injured leg, grimacing slightly as a small stab of pain pinched at the wound. He had stopped bleeding which meant that the wound itself was not a critical injury. He would be able to continue on in his quest to find the remaining orphan and his own boys. He had no reason to doubt the panther's theory as to Gaston's experiments, nor could he dispute the fact that this genius had crossed the threshold into madness. Quace now believed that his boys were still alive. If Gaston had wanted them dead, he would have killed them during the initial slaughter. But for some reason, he had decided to kill the clones and was now probably keeping the boys in stasis until such time as he could perfect his weird little experiments. The words of Gene came flooding back to him. He had said that by keeping the original specimens in stasis, he could clone them repeatedly and have his way with the copies, leaving the genuine article free of damage and virginal for the next round of cloning.
A sudden and blinding flash of light from the other room slammed into Quace, bringing him back to reality. It lasted only seconds and was silent in it's approach and departure, leaving the big man standing there. He blinked several times to clear the yellow spots from his eyes and then hobbled out into the next room to find the source of the flash.
Thor, Dingo and the boys were all gone.
"It would seem as though you have graduated to the next level of play." a voice boomed from somewhere above. "The gamemaster has a responsibility to keep the more talented players at their very best. Wouldn't you agree?"
Quace resisted the urge to lash out at in anger. If Gaston had reached the status of madman, he would not be above eliminating some of the players should he either get bored or angered. Quace was confident that his performance thus far had not bored the gamemaster and he had no intention of angering him.
"The boys are nothing more than pawns in this little game of yours. Allow them their freedom and you and I can finish this." he said, hoping he was being successful in keeping the rising anger from his voice.
"Contrary to what you may believe, I wish to keep the boys. You see, they are more than just pawns. By keeping the original specimens in stasis, I can experiment with their DNA. Both Ari and your son Ty have that cute little twist in their mouth that even you have found attractive. Mio has that full mouth with the pouty lips and dimples and Kyler has a splash of freckles and that cute little gap between his two front teeth. Each boy has a nice little ass, but your son Xander, has that perfect little boy bubble butt and Galen has a slight overbite that you just can't pass up. By extracting the proper gene from each boy, I can create the perfect boy and play with him to my heart's content. Further experimentation can only achieve new heights of pleasure for me."
Suddenly Quace knew that angering this madman would not harm the boys at all. He had been allowed to board the ship as a contestant in some form of bizarre gameshow. He was here simply because it amused Gaston to watch him run the maze and attempt to rescue each boy. The boys themselves would not be harmed because they were kept in constant stasis, awaiting future cloning experiments. Quace felt his anger rise.
"Am I getting too close? Is that it? I have found three boys and have jumped through each of your hoops to get to them. Am I such a talented player, that you think I have a chance of winning? Is that why you're handicapping the field of play?"
A chuckle rippled through the room. " Each door represents a decision and each decision has a predetermined set of consequences. You have found three boys thus far, but ask yourself this question. Are they the real thing? Is it possible that they may be clones of the actual specimen? "
The possibility that the boys were clones slammed into Quace with tremendous force. He had never considered the possibility that each smiling face could be that of a copy and not that of the real boy. His mind begin to spin. If each of the boys were, in fact clones, than he was no closer to achieving his mission than when he had first stepped foot on this ship four days ago and he had wasted precious time.
The seed of doubt had been planted, and Quace alone was responsible for nurturing it full term or destroying it here and now. He made his decision.
"I will run with the ball that I have in my court now. Should I be wrong in my assumption that I am right, than you will be a few steps ahead of me, but if I am right, than you and I will be talking face to face very soon and I have yet to meet a gamemaster that does not wish to look into the eyes of his finest player."
The overhead voice was silent for a few moments, than boomed into the room. "I will afford you ten minutes time to decide for sure on your course of action. At the time you render your decision, you will be transported to the proper consequences for that decision. However, the clock will continue to tick away and extra time will not be afforded you or your pitiful excuse for a party. A little over a day's time remains for you to achieve your mission. This will not change, regardless of your choice and there will be no other allowances for change of heart."
Quace wasted a full minute making sure that there were no further rules to this subgame. He returned to the bedroom, sat on the bed and began to type into his arm.
"HAVE LOCATED SECOND AND THIRD BOYS. NAMES ARE MIO AND ARI, BUT NEED CONSULTATION ASAP!"
For another full minute, the screen in his mechanical eye displayed only his message and then sprang to life.
"BEGINNING TO THINK YOU WERE UNSUCCESSFUL IN MISSION. GOOD NEWS ABOUT BOYS. CONSULTATION TEAM ASSEMBLED AND READY."
Quace wasted no time in responding. His critical thinking skills were being pressed into service and he needed information.
"HAVE REASON TO BELIEVE THAT BOYS MAY IN FACT BE CLONES. DESPERATELY REQUIRE PROOF POSITIVE THAT THEY ARE REAL."
Again, the screen was inactive, as Quace waited for what seemed like an eternity for a response. He could almost see the Council frantically searching for an answer to his unusual request.
"EACH BOY HAS IDENTIFYING HALF MOON BIRTHMARK. STUDIES ON OLDER SUBJECTS INDICATE REPLICATION OF THESE BIRTHMARKS TO BE NONEXISTENT FOR UNKNOWN REASONS."
Quace breathed a sigh of relief. His memory flooded back to his early morning lovemaking session with Kyler. As he had pleasured the boy, he had noticed an odd shaped birthmark on the boy's inner thigh but had thought nothing about it. He hadn't even commented to Kyler about it.
"MESSAGE RECEIVED. OTHER FORMS OF POSITIVE IDENTIFICATION APPRECIATED."
While he awaited the response, Quace reflected on the time spent with both Ari and Mio. He had not explored their bodies as he had with Kyler and had not noticed any visible birthmark on either boy. His first rescue attempt had successfully snatched one of the orphans from the clutches of evil, but his doubt at the remaining two boys nagged at him. Had he made the right calls while under pressure? Had he spent the last two days saving clones or did he actually have the "original specimens"?
The screen in his eye sprang to life. "UNFORTUNATE,
BUT NO OTHER POSITIVE FORMS OF IDENTIFICATION
APPLY AT THIS TIME. BEST OF LUCK. PLEASE
"QUACE OUT." he typed back.
Quace reran the last few days over in his mind again and again to no avail. Gaston had said that each door had been a decision and each decision held it's own set of consequences. His hand had been forced at every turn and only one escape route had been available at each turn. He had had no options.
"Has the jury reached a decision?" Gaston's voice boomed through the bedroom.
Quace steeled himself. "I stand on my prior decisions." he said simply.
A second flash of light slashed it's way into the bedroom, knocking Quace backwards onto the bed. He lay there stunned for a moment before the patter of little feet approached the door and Ari bolted into the room.
"You must eat to get your strength back." he said.
At the sound of his voice, Quace pushed himself into a sitting position. He had been returned to this moment in time as if he had never left.
"Ari, do you have a birthmark?" he asked the boy.
For a moment, the boy stood there in silence, bewildered by the question. Slowly, he reached for the zipper on his jumpsuit and pulled it down.
Quace fought his desires as the boy's nipples exposed themselves to him. He was looking for a birthmark, a sign that Ari was real and not just a clone.
Ari slid the jumpsuit over his left shoulder and pointed to a half moon shaped birthmark. "You mean this ugly thing?" he questioned.
Quace smiled and opened up his arms, encircling them around the boy as he ran to him. Kissing the boy on the ear, he whispered. "Ari, that couldn't be more beautiful."
If Ari seemed puzzled by the exchange, he didn't show it. Quace had embraced him and made him feel loved and his childlike mind accepted the love without question.
"Let's go eat." Quace said to him.
Ari helped the big man to his feet and together, they walked into the main room and then on into the kitchen.
Dingo, true to his word, had made a sumptuous breakfast and Kyler and Mio were busily devouring their portions. Kyler looked up from his pancakes, syrup smeared across his mouth and smiled. "Hi Quace!"
Mio popped a sausage link into his mouth and chewed it vigorously before he too, smiled up at Quace. "Always hope." he mumbled through the food.
Thor had taken a plate on the floor and was busily wolfing down an entire package of link sausage.
Quace sat down at the breakfast bar between Mio and Kyler. "Certainly smells good." he said glancing at Mio and hoping to catch a glimpse of a half moon shaped birthmark.
"Of course! Dingo good cook." the dwarf replied.
Quace noticed Dingo for the first time. He had lost the leather aviators cap and goggles and now a lopsided chefs hat adorned the top of his head. He smiled a crooked smile at Quace. "Pancakes and sausage very good food." he said.
"Set me up little man." Quace chuckled.
Dingo set about preparing a plate for Quace and the big man found himself glancing over at Mio a second time.
"Ari has a cute little birthmark on his shoulder." he said in an off hand manner. "I wonder if you have a birthmark that can top his."
Mio swallowed a piece of syrup covered pancake and looked over to Quace. "I don't have a birthmark." he said and stuffed another sausage link into his mouth.
Quace kept his surprise in check. His batting average had been .500 up until now and he felt a sense of unease wash over him. The boy he had rescued from the demented scientist named Gene was a clone. He had been so sure that he had been right in each of his decisions, that the sudden realization of an error on his part slammed him like a fist. Mio was a clone, that much was true, but that made him no less a boy and no less in need of the same love afforded to the others.
Thor had finished his plate and padded his way over to Quace. "You are troubled." he stated flatly. The panther had read his mind and was now demanding that Quace face the music and deal with the situation. One part of Quace detested the panther for forcing his hand, yet another part of him silently thanked Thor for making him face this new development head on.
All eyes turned to Quace as he cleared his throat and dove into his explanation. He relayed the conversation he had had with Gaston alone in the empty penthouse suite and the subsequent conference with Conastoga One.
"I'm not real?" Mio cried out. He jumped from the breakfast bar and bolted into the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind him.
Quace sat numbed. He had not wanted it to come to this. He could envision Gaston rolling on the floor in glee over this newest development and he felt his anger at the man grow.
Kyler and Ari sat as if in a trance, their young minds incapable of processing the sudden deluge of information that flooded them.
"He is no less a boy." Thor reminded him gently. "Go to him. I will attend the matters that prevail here."
Quace rose from the breakfast bar and limped towards the bedroom door. He could hear the soft cries of the boy as he opened the door and stepped inside.
"Go away!" Mio mumbled, his face buried in the pillow.
"Funny you should say that." Quace said as he advanced on the bed. He sat next to the boy and placed his good hand on the youngster's back. "I have no intentions of leaving until you and I have a talk." he cooed.
"But I'm not real." the boy sobbed into the pillow.
Quace gently turned the boy onto his back. "You are as real as I am. If ever anyone tells you different, you come to me and I'll set them straight."
Mio continued to sob, his small chest heaving up and down in jerky motions. Quace looked into his tear stained eyes and felt his heart swell at the thought of the boy's despondency. Reaching out to the boy, he lifted the small form into his arms and embraced him. "I have plenty of love to go around and I have no intentions of keeping you from that." he kissed the boy on the top of the head.
Mio continued to sob quietly into Quace's chest as the big man gently stroked his hair and cooed to him. Quace silently cursed Gaston for being so callous as to not consider the feelings of the clones themselves.
"Hey, you need to finish your breakfast if you're gonna keep up with us today. We still have alot to do and I know that we will need your help."
Mio's clone pulled himself from Quace's chest and looked up into his eyes. "You really mean it?" he asked through his tears.
"I will find Mio and Galen and my sons and every other boy trapped on this tub and get them safely off, but you are never to think that you are not special in your own right just because you are a clone. Okay?"
Mio nodded silently, wiping his tears on his sleeve and Quace knew the boy would be okay.
"I'm going to change your name right now. That will give you your own identity."
Mio's clone cocked his head slightly, a puzzled look stenciled across his face.
"Since you are a real boy and not Mio, you need your own name. How about you pick a name for yourself?"
The boy's eyes lit up at the prospect of naming himself. "You mean it?" he asked, the boyish excitement returning to his voice.
"Of course I mean it." Quace chuckled.
"Any name I want?"
"Any name you want." Quace confirmed, his smile growing.
The boy screwed up his face in thought. "How about Zack?"
"With a 'k' ?" Quace asked.
"Of course." replied the boy with a wide smile.
"Of course." Quace repeated, returning the smile. "No go finish your breakfast, Zack, before Thor finds your plate." he winked at the boy.
Armed with a new name and a new identity, Zack leapt from the bed and ran through the doorway into the kitchen. Quace remained seated on the bed and listened to the exchange.
"I have a new name!" Zack exclaimed.
The excitement in the boy's voice grew as he filled Ari and Kyler in on his newfound identity and Quace sighed with relief as the other boys accepted him as if a long lost friend.
"Zack is a cool name." Kyler intoned.
"Yeah, cool." mirrored Ari.
"Another beast put to bed." Thor intoned from the doorway.
"We need to stop this madness, Thor." Quace replied. "I refuse to allow any boy to go through an identity crisis because some madman sees fit to clone them at will and use them for nothing more than some form of sex toy or slave."
Thor approached the bed and sat on his haunches, his eyes boring into Quace's. "I believe that we are closer than we thought. Had we chosen differently, I suspect the gameplay would have remained relentless, yet subdued. The heat of our present situation is slowly reaching a boiling point and the stakes become higher, accordingly. I believe that Gaston is facing a situation that was never anticipated and therefore feels the need to make the game tougher."
Remembering the flash of light, Quace rose from the bed and made for the door, turning to Thor as he did.
"We are the sole protectors of these boys, and I have no plans on letting any of them stray from my sight." he turned and walked through the door.
They finished breakfast and gathered in the living room, Quace and the boys on the couch, Thor curled up on the floor with Dingo sitting next to him, his floppy chefs hat replaced by his signature aviators cap and goggles.
"As much as I hate to leave this little slice of Heaven, we still have a mission to accomplish." Quace said. He was beginning to tire of this little game with Gaston and finding Mio's clone had set him back further than he expected. He was very happy to have Zack as a member of the party and harbored no regrets about saving the boy, but he was not Mio. With less than two days remaining on the clock, Quace could almost see the sands of time mock him as they slipped through the hourglass. Two boys remained to be located, as well as his own two boys, if Thor was to be believed.
Dingo shifted on the floor and stabbed his stubby arm into the air.
"Tell me you memorized the map, little man." Thor shot from next to him.
The dwarf turned to the panther and scowled at him. "Dingo no need to memorize map. Had map. Quace lose map. Not Dingo's problem."
"It is now." the cat telepathed back. "You're sitting in the same boat as the rest of us."
Dingo stood and ran into the kitchen, returning a moment later, a small leatherbound book in hand. Adopting a victorious stance, he opened the book and glared in mock anger at Thor. "No need boat. Got book. Should help."
Quace refrained from reaching for the book, content to allow Thor to handle the matter. He glanced at each of the boys, noticing the smirks on their angelic faces, and the rapt attention to the scene being played out before them. The banter between the dwarf and the panther was amusing to them and they contented themselves to watch as the story unfolded. Quace guessed that for them, they were living a bedtime story, imagination becoming reality. With everything going on around them, they were still returning to that magical world of boyhood on occasion and he felt his heart swell with gratitude and pride.
Thor must have read his mind. The twinkle returned to his eyes as he faced down his miniature opponent. Quace braced himself for the banter to come for the amusement of the boys.
"You expect me to follow a book that smells like a rectal cavity?" he said, turning his head towards the boys as he spoke.
Each of the boys burst out in sudden fits of laughter, their young minds picturing the sight. Quace was briefly reminded of the boyish humor his sons' had found in the grossness of bodily functions.
Dingo turned and faced the boys. "Ha! Ha! Funny?" he queried of them, but the merriment in his eyes was detected only by Quace and Thor. The dwarf turned back to Thor and narrowed his eyes in an exaggerated manner. He was in on the joke.
"Book smell much better than Thor!" he countered. "Thor smell like poopie box." he said, hamming it up for the benefit of the boys, who howled in laughter.
"I coughed up your twin this morning, little man. One big hairball and a little snot and there you were."
Quace found himself caught up in the giggly fits of the boys. The jokes themselves were stale for him, but the giggling boys brought him into their world and he laughed at the sounds of their laughter.
Dingo must have realized the seriousness of the situation, or Thor telepathed him directly. Either way, the dwarf became serious and laid the open page in front of the big cat.
For a moment, Thor's green eyes scanned the pages, absorbing the information inscribed on them. He finished and looked up at Quace, a look of disbelief etched across his face.
"What is it?" Quace asked. Something had disturbed the cat but he trusted Thor's discretion in relating the information to him. He knew that the panther would hide any bad news from the boys.
"It's not bad, if that's what you're inferring. Just odd." the cat telepathed. "The DNA I carry from Gaston's advisor?"
"What about it?"
"In his advisory capacity, my donor had access to information not privy to all."
Quace sat forward, his attention focused on the cat. "Go on."
"This book was retrieved from the wreck of an alien ship that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico many years ago. In his capacity, my donor was assigned to decipher the information in this book." the cat's eyes glazed over as the memory of deciphering the codes came flooding back to him. He was there, reliving each new discovery and committing it to memory.
Each of the boys sat riveted, their eyes focused on Thor as the memories returned to him. At last, his eyes unglazed themselves and he turned to face the boys.
"BOO!!" he telepathed at them
Each of the boys had been so wrapped up in witnessing his trance, that they had failed to notice his return to reality, the three of them leaning attentively forward. The well timed comment made each of them jump back in fright.
"Gotcha!" the panther's eyes twinkled in response.
Zack was the first to recover from the slight scare Thor had given them. "We knew that you were kidding."
Ari and Kyler quickly chimed their agreement, their eyes sparkling with delight at having been caught.
"The nature of boys." the panther replied, the twinkle seeming to grow.
Quace chuckled at Thor's joke on the boys. The cat was dealing with a rash of changes in his life and yet he had taken the time to entertain the boys as though this entire situation had been pre-scripted and he was nothing more than comedic relief. His respect for Thor was elevated to a new level.
"Encryption was never one of my donor's better abilities, but the limited knowledge that I posses of this book, tells me that it is essentially a book of spells, albeit for the alien set."
"Can any of these messages assist us at all?" Quace felt a tinge of guilt pass through him for pressing the issue, but time was running out and the discovery that Zack was a clone meant that two boys remained to be located. In addition, the seed of his sons' possible survival had been planted. Many things had changed in the last few hours, but the time frame for completion of the mission had not. Less than two days remained to locate four boys and put an end to this madness once and for all. His capacity to think on his feet was being tested on higher levels and he needed to wrangle all hands to the deck.
Thor understood the urgency in Quace's voice and eyed him directly. "The first entry deals with interstellar travel and the need to understand the languages of the culture visited. The second and third entries deal primarily with the degrees of environs that may be encountered and the best way to deal with each."
Quace held his questions at bay, fully aware that Thor would find his way to the chase in a short time.
"The fourth chapter is incomplete, at least as far as my donor is concerned. The last entry logged in his memory is an incantation designed to transport those who invoke it to other areas of the ship without having to exert themselves. From what I can gather, it is a formula for molecular disruption, a form of teleportation."
Again, Quace awaited the next statement. He didn't wait long.
"I am deeply troubled that this is where the knowledge ends and the speculation begins. My donor was studying several sections of this book at once. He had deciphered only three quarters of this incantation at the time of his death. Simply put, the first half of the spell allows the caster to distort his molecules in such a way as to allow travel from one place to another in the blink of an eye. It is my assumption that the second half of the spell addresses the destination. Having never invoked the spell, it is merely speculation as to the specifics."
Quace hoped that the sagging of his shoulders would bypass the eyes of the boys. He didn't need to pass along the seed of doubt that had been planted in his mind to them. Thor was implying that the symbols in the book had yet to be completely deciphered, and until they were, any attempt at a positive action by them, could result in a negative reaction by factors unknown.
"What's the ratio?" he asked.
"Sixty to forty." the panther replied.
"I've had much better odds." Quace said, his eyes travelling to each boy.
"As have I."
Quace tried to calculate the odds in his head, applying all of his critical thinking skills. Balancing these odds against the unknown odds of the wilderness outside was equivalent to comparing a pair of boots. Apart from the obvious, the varying differences were so minute that comparison was virtually nonexistent.
"Any idea of the dimensional parameters?" he asked.
"Dimensional parameters?" asked Kyler, his eyes growing wide. "What is that?"
"Those, my young friend, are the boundaries that define how far we may travel should we decide to use the book." Thor explained. "It would be quite the scare if we were to travel by this means and find ourselves on a planet ruled by dinosaurs or giant bugs." he furrowed his brow in mock disgust, eliciting a chuckle from the boys.
Quace found himself relieved to see the boys returning to a sense of normalcy. With all that had happened thus far, and the specter of the unknown hanging like a swinging noose before them, he had hoped that emotional scarring would not become a problem for any of the boys. Each of these boys would need considerable help in dealing with the aftermath of this experience, but he was hoping to keep it to a minimal. Damage control was an important factor for him and Thor was helping him tremendously in keeping that set of parameters as small in size as possible.
Thor shifted slightly and looked into Quace's eyes. "Again, it is my assumption that the dimensional parameters are to be found in the second half of the text."
Quace felt the noose slowly tightening around his neck. This book had promised an alternate means of rescuing the remaining boys, but had come up short on the delivery, the essential ingredients buried just beyond reach. They had been given the opportunity to jump several obstacles at once, only to have the victory snatched from them at the last minute.
"I believe that these parameters are localized, meaning that we should remain on board this ship. Future chapters touch on what appears to be a more in depth study of this ability, but they hold their secrets even closer to the vest."
"Is it possible that picturing the final destination would complete the spell?" Quace asked.
Thor furrowed his brow in thought for a moment, playing Quace's scenario out in his head. "It seems as though it would be a likely probability, but only raises the chances of success by ten percent or so."
"Only ten percent?"
"The travellers that we found alive in the shuttle that crashed in New Mexico, were sentient beings, not so different from your race. Many similarities existed between the two. This is why the existence of Area 51 was kept from the general public. Gaston was placed in charge of securing the entire area and tightened the clamps whenever he could. Integrating the travellers into our society would have been the smart thing to do, but would have made a mockery of the scientists themselves. For countless years, they had expounded on hostile creatures from other planets with misshapen or enlarged heads, zooming down and wreaking havoc on the planet. The fact that these visitors were actually quite docile by nature did nothing to play into their hands, so they chose to bury the entire project and placed Gaston at the helm."
"Because of the number of similarities between the two cultures, countless assumptions were made regarding the travellers. They walked in the same manner as we did so it was assumed that the infrastructure of their bodies mirrored those of our own. No attempts were made to prove or disprove these assumptions."
The boys sat riveted, their eyes glued to the panther as he telepathed the story to them.
"I don't understand how this applies to the book." Quace said, not wanting to hurry Thor, but being ever mindful of the clock.
"Conservatively speaking, we have a sixty five percent success ratio should we invoke this spell. That leaves a thirty five percent X factor. Given the many similarities between the two races, it was also assumed that molecular distortion would be equally as possible for us as for them."
Quace began to understand where Thor was headed. "So no scientific study was done to prove or disprove this theory."
"None that I'm aware of." the cat responded.
"So the possibility exists that this spell may not even work for us."
"That is correct." Thor finished.
Dingo stood up and adjusted the glasses on his bulbous nose. "Dingo test.Go from room here to room there." he said, thrusting a short arm in the direction of the kitchen.
"I can't allow you to do that." Quace said. "It's too dangerous."
Dingo clutched the book to his chest and narrowed his eyes at Quace. "Dingo find book. Dingo hear story, want to help. Quace need proof, Dingo give proof. Be guinea pig."
Opening the book to the correct page, the dwarf looked down at the characters and symbols that filled the page. A confused look scrawled itself across his face. Turning the book around, he thrust it into Thor's face. "What say?"
For a moment Quace thought that the panther might take a swat at the little man, but Thor focused on the book and telepathed what he knew of the incantation to Dingo.
Dingo reacted immediately, lowering his head into the book and uttering a series of low guttural grunts, punctuated by an occasional high note, then he too disappeared.
Zack and Ari sprang from the couch and bolted for the kitchen. Quace was glad that Kyler was sitting next to him. He was able to stop the boy from doing the same and injuring his ankle. Lifting the boy into his arms, he hobbled into the kitchen.
Thor lay in a corner of the kitchen, the dwarf atop him, his scarf entangled in the cat's front legs. Dingo frantically tried to unentangle the scarf but succeeded only in making it worse.
"Get off of me, you silly little man." Thor said, trying to roll out from under Dingo.
"Dingo hero. Do brave deed. Not silly." the dwarf shouted back, climbing from Thor's back and giving the scarf a final tug and pulling it free.
Thor ignored the dwarf and stood facing Quace and the boys. "It would appear as though the initial testing phase was a success." His eyes narrowed in pleasure as the boys began to pat him, congratulating him on his achievement.
"What about Dingo?" the dwarf asked, a tinge of jealousy in his voice.
"Let's not forget Mr. Molecule himself." Thor replied sharing the limelight.
Each of the boys took turns patting Dingo on the back and congratulating him on a job well done. The dwarf grinned from ear to ear, exposing his crooked teeth and relishing in the praise. He felt a part of this family now and had proven to be an asset, despite his odd look and oftentimes difficult demeanor.
"May I suggest that we each take a boy and focus our attention on the control deck of this ship." Thor interrupted the small celebration. "Should just one of the lads mispronounce even one of these symbols, the likelihood of his reaching the appropriate destination is greatly diminished."
Quace nodded his agreement and turned to Dingo. "Where can I find the next boy, Dingo?"
The dwarf scratched at the stubble on his chin, lost in thought for a moment. His knowledge of the ship had expanded since being left for dead in the rock tunnel and Quace hoped that he might tap some of that knowledge now.
"Dingo find much activity in one section of ship. Dingo think something big happen." he stretched out his arms for effect.
"Describe the room for us in as much detail as possible." Quace instructed.
"If I may interject.." Thor interrupted. "A description of the room, no matter how detailed, may apply to any number of rooms on board. It is possible that we could each envision the same room, yet a slight alteration in the image could result in separate destinations for some of us. The kitchen was an ideal place to experiment with simply because the image has been burned into the memory. A single room seen by only one of us, throws a huge X factor into the equation."
Thor was right. Two people reading the same story would see the big picture overall, but the smaller details would vary from reader to reader. Each of them would imagine the same scene in two entirely different ways. In the case of the story, the finer details would do nothing to alter the story itself, yet here and now, those same details could be catastrophic if not seen in the same light.
"What do you suggest?" he inquired of the panther.
"Since Dingo is the only one of us to have seen this room, he should be the one to invoke the incantation. The rest of us should clear our minds totally and hold on to each other and Dingo. Our bodies will all be connected to Dingo, so we should be transported as well."
"In theory." Quace stated flatly.
"In theory." the panther agreed.
Quace calculated the new odds. He didn't want to risk the lives entrusted to him by following a path that had a sixty five percent chance of success, but the unknown factors lurking outside would reduce the success rate of that path by at least fifteen percent.
"Was there anybody in or near this room?" Quace asked the dwarf. He had already decided to take the risk, but needed more information before actually committing the party to the unknown. The more ammunition he had going in, the better the chance of surviving upon arrival. This game was boiling down to percentages and his mind was hastily calculating the next set.
"Big room. No people, just forms under sheets. White coats walking outside." Dingo said excitedly. Killing Gene, the scientist and rolling a desk down a flight of stairs to finish off the second gunslinger had given him a taste of action and Quace sensed that he was eager to grab a second slice of the pie.
"Did you see any weaponry?" he asked pointedly.
"No guns. No cybots. Just white sheets and white coats."
"The clock continues to tick." Thor reminded Quace.
Quace knelt in front of the boys and drew them to him. They had been listening attentively to the entire conversation and understood the game plan. The eyes of a boy saw the situation differently. To them, it was a boyhood adventure come to life. The dangers were real, but the three of them felt protected by a telepathic panther, a big man with a robotic arm and an impish dwarf wearing an aviators cap and goggles.
"I need you boys to hold on to Dingo and don't let go until you hear my voice on the other end. Can you do that?" he asked them.
Nodding in unison, the boys offered him their smiles and he returned them with one of his own. He stood.
"Let's do this." he said to Thor and Dingo.
"Your pants."said Ari.
"You need your pants. You're almost naked." the boy elaborated pointing to Quace's boxers.
"It would be rather inappropriate to drop in on our guests in a half dressed state, invited or not." Thor quipped, the twinkle returning to his eyes.
Zack bolted for the bedroom and returned a few moments later with Quace's bloodstained jeans. Amid some nervous laughter, the boys helped him slide them on and then, as a group, they encircled Dingo, each of them clutching a piece of the dwarf's chainmail armor. The dwarf recited a slightly different chant than before and the entire group disappeared from the kitchen of the penthouse suite.
The sensation was something that Quace had never experienced before. He felt a tingling course it's way through his body, pushing all other thoughts from his mind and taking control. For a brief moment, there was only himself and the sensation that seemed to become an integral part of him.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying in a prone position, something covering his face. Reaching up, he grabbed the offensive object and was about to pull it free with force when he realized that it was Zack. The boy had landed on top of him, his small legs straddling either side of Quace's head, his crotch pushing against Quace's face.
Gently he rolled the boy to one side and sat up, his mind racing with the possibility of an ambush and concern for the welfare of the boys. He was staring into the smiling face of Kyler.
"We made it." the boy exclaimed.
Quace looked around him, locating Thor, Ari and Dingo before commenting. "Looks as though we did." he said, offering the boy a wink.
"But you had Zack pee-pee in your face." Kyler chuckled in his boyish manner.
Quace poked him in the ribs good naturedly and smiled. "Maybe someday I will for real." he said.
"Maybe someday, I'll let you." Zack responded, rolling himself into a sitting position. He was also smiling and Quace chased his desire away. He wanted to please this boy in the same manner as he had Kyler, and he knew that at some time he would. But their immediate situation warranted total control. The grains of sand were continuing to slip through the hourglass at an alarming rate and any lack of concentration on his part could prove fatal for all of them. He winked at Zack and turned to Ari. "You alright?" he asked.
The boy shook the cobwebs from his head and offered him the thumbs up sign in response. The molecular disruption had affected him differently and he was still trying to clear his head.
"It would appear as though the four legged animal with all the fur and the little man with the aviators cap and goggles are equally as well." Thor commented from behind Ari.
Quace stood shakily, the experience of the transport still with him. As he shook it off, he looked around, absorbing the scene and attempting to decipher it's meaning. Dingo had been right in his description. The room was large and seemed to be home to fifteen or so beds, each bearing a single form covered with a sheet. A quick glance around told him that at present, there were no other beings in the room. Making sure the members of his party were all okay, Quace took stock of their inventory. He still had his solar pistol, the gunbelt and two six shooters taken from the gunslinger and twenty four bullets between the fully loaded guns and the belt. Dingo was the only other one carrying weapons and had managed to hang on to his bow and quiver with thirteen arrows. Tied loosely around his waist was the second gunbelt and two additional six shooters, each fully loaded and a compliment of about thirty or so bullets. Adding Thor with his razor sharp teeth and claws, Quace knew that they stood a fighting chance should something surprise them.
Heavy glass doors at each end of the room were the only entrances. The glass in each door had been smoked, distorting any shape that passed by. They had materialized near a large shelving unit stocked with the same types of vials and flasks that Quace had seen in the room that he and Dingo had rescued Zack from.
"Cloning technology courtesy of Area 51." Thor intoned from behind him. "From my limited knowledge I can try to fill in the blanks."
Quace turned to look into the eyes of the animal that he now considered a friend. He felt a strange bond with the panther and sensed that bond would do nothing but grow with the passage of time. "What can you tell me?"
"As I mentioned before, some of the later chapters in the book dealt with the subject of molecular disruption in greater detail. Gaston had us trying to decipher the entire book simultaneously, but we found that to be nearly impossible. It seemed to us that the author of the book wanted each chapter to be understood individually and in order, although it took us quite a while to learn this."
"I think we already passed the lesson in molecular disruption, Thor." Quace replied with more sarcasm in his voice than he had intended.
Thor ignored the comment and continued. "So we obliged the author and started at the first chapter, working day and night. It took us nearly forty years to punch our way through the first two chapters. It was that difficult a code, but it was of an alien culture so our tried and tested methods failed at every turn."
The boys gathered around Quace and Thor as Dingo plucked a six shooter from it's holster and diligently kept watch, his beady eyes darting back and forth.
"After deciphering the first two chapters we reverted back to our scientific roots. We had found that certain symbols and characters from the first chapters were repeated in latter chapters."
"Wait a minute." Quace interrupted.
" I thought you said that you were an
advisor to Gaston."
"Gaston surrounded himself with a special breed of people. Each and every scientist was well versed in several fields of study. Yes, I was an advisor to him, but in more ways than one, encryption being only one of my talents."
"Fill me in."
"I will be happy to oblige you when time warrants, but I believe only pertinent information applies here and now."
Quace relented. "Go on."
"A few of the scientists believed that they had tapped into a wealth of knowledge hidden in one of the latter chapters, so they broke from the pack and began to experiment, attempting to incorporate the deciphered symbols and characters into the latter chapter. They believed that some of these topics covered cloning. The results of those findings have all been incorporated here. Each of these vials contain the basic genetic material needed to create a human being. Mixing any of these combinations will create the perfect test specimen. In this case, they appear to be children."
Quace waited for Thor to continue, looking into the eyes of each boy as he did. Kyler and Ari sat, their attention focused between the panther's story and Dingo's ever vigilant guard. Zack, on the other hand, sat riveted, his small body unmoving as he listened to Thor's explanation. He was learning about himself.
Suddenly, the heavy glass door at the north end of the room was ripped open and and three soldiers dressed in camouflage swarmed into the room, their automatic weapons firing indiscriminately into the center of the room. Several bullets found the sheet covered bodies, staining the sheets with blood and infuriating Quace as he dove for cover behind a shelf burdened with chemicals, pushing Ari and Zack ahead of him.
Thor threw himself over Kyler in a protective gesture as a series of bullets punched themselves into the wall above him.
Dingo had been facing towards the south end of the room and whirled around at the sound of the intrusion. With amazing speed and agility, he fired off three rounds from the six shooter, catching one of the soldiers in the chest and neck and dropping him to the floor. The remaining two soldiers turned their attention to the dwarf and concentrated their firepower on him, each of them emptying clips into the wall just above him.
As Dingo dove for cover, Quace pulled the solar pistol from his jacket, poked it through the row of vials and drew a bead on the closest soldier. The apparent lack of concern for the boys incensed him and he fired, the blast catching the soldier in the chest and lifting him from the ground and into a nearby shelf of vials. The force of the impact sent the shelf toppling over and both the soldier and the shelf crashed to the floor in a hail of splintering wood, shattering glass and spraying liquid.
Thor guided Kyler to limited safety behind the shelf that hid Quace and the other boys and then darted back out into the fray, his sharp teeth bared as he leaped into the air at the last of the three soldiers. A single shot rang out as the panther fell onto the attacker, his teeth sinking into the throat of the man.
For what seemed an eternity, Quace peered through the vials on the shelf, his eyes riveted to the unmoving forms across the room. After a long wait, he slowly stood. Instructing Dingo to watch over the boys, he cautiously circled his way from behind the shelf and advanced towards the prone forms of Thor and the last soldier. The cat lay unmoving, his body sprawled across that of the man whose throat he had torn out.
"Talk to me Thor." Quace said as he approached them.
Not receiving an answer, he moved closer, kneeling and rolling the panther from the dead man.
The gaping wound in the cat's chest told the tale. Thor was dead. He had sacrificed himself in order for Quace to rescue the remaining boys and escape from the maze-like prison.
Quace felt the sting of tears began to overwhelm him. He was looking into the dead eyes of an animal that he had formed a relationship with only a few days ago. One by one, the boys came out from hiding, each of them advancing towards the lifeless form of Thor. As one, they knelt at his body, the tears streaming from their faces. They sobbed silently, their hands gently petting the fur of the animal that they had grown to love, and Quace felt his chest tighten at the thought of life without Thor.
"He was your friend." a voice intoned from behind him.
Quace spun to face this new intrusion, his anger and frustration reaching the boiling point with ever increasing speed and he was ready to tear the head from this new intruder, but stopped short at what he saw.
It was the glowing outline of a woman, or what appeared to be a woman. The image seemed almost transparent, the soft features barely discernible. Quace found himself immersed in the radiant glow, his mind analyzing the image before him yet refusing to believe it. This female image appeared to be formed of nothing more than pure light and hovered only inches from the floor.
"I am Daystar." the glow said, the voice calm and very faint.
Quace turned back to judge the reaction of the boy's and Dingo, but was surprised to find that they seemed frozen in time, unmoving, lifelike statues in a museum.
"Be not afraid. They remain unharmed. Time has stopped for you."
Quace fought to regain his composure. His personal Twilight Zone was becoming more and more surrealistic and he felt himself, for the first time, questioning his ability to complete this mission.
"What is it that you want?" he asked of the image.
"Gaston was right when he said that each decision represents a door that when passed through cannot be reopened."
Quace stood and faced the apparition directly. His anger slowly faded as he looked into the soft glow of Daystar's features. He began to realize that he was talking with one of the aliens that had crashed in the desert so many years ago and the realization shook him to his roots. The events of the last few days melted away, replaced by a sense of serenity. The sense of urgency remained, but was now unencumbered by the anger, frustration and grief that had plagued him as of late. He opened his mouth to speak but Daystar gently raised her hand and pressed her fingers to his lips.
"Time is short and my offer will shorten it further." the image said as she floated towards the frozen figures of the boys kneeling near Thor's body, Quace's eyes never leaving her. "The animal called Thor is a close friend of yours. I sense it in your grief."
Quace found his voice. "I cry for the boys and their loss. It is they who will bear the brunt of the scars." he said.
"The cat merely sleeps, but the act of awakening him comes at a price beyond my control."
Quace tried to hide the confusion that crossed his face, to no avail. "I'm afraid that I don't follow you."
"The human species is not yet ready to achieve the godlike status that so many of them seek. This is evidenced by the existence of this ship. Time has no meaning for us, yet the human species revolves around this one phenomenon."
"We are born to die." Quace replied. "The moment of our birth can be pinpointed, but the moment of our death remains a mystery. The importance of time is relevant to our lives because we are unaware of how much of it we have. Consequently, most of us attempt to spend what time we do have learning about ourselves and striving to make life better for future generations."
"The death of your home planet would seem to dictate otherwise, but the future you speak of is right here with these boys and your friends. Perhaps someday, your race will be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to gain knowledge but for now, time remains an important commodity for you and those you care about." she waved her arm over the frozen forms gathered on the floor to emphasize her point. "It is this very commodity that prevents you from understanding the concept I speak of."
Quace ran the possibilities through his mind. The amount of "time" taken to explain the concept to him could be a millennia for him yet, nothing more than the blink of an eye for her. But she had frozen his time and appeared to him for reasons that was now beginning to surmise. "And yet, you choose to help me. May I ask why?"
"We are both in the unique position of helping each other. I am in search of the book that the dwarf possesses. It is the only text form of our culture and has been used as a bible for the atrocities committed here aboard this ship. Relinquish the book to me and I will awaken the panther from his sleep."
Quace ran his hand through his hair. The offer was fair enough. The book had helped him reach the nerve center of the ship, but the words of Daystar rang true within him. In Gaston's hands, the book had been used to create an army of playthings. As long as it remained in the possession of those who did not understand it, it would cause nothing but trouble. Even in the hands of Krost and the Council, the possibilities for disaster remained.
"You mentioned a sacrifice. My guess is that the book does not constitute that sacrifice."
"Awakening the animal you call Thor will consume several hours of your time. He will awaken before your eyes, but you will have lost the remainder of your day. Your search for the remaining souls you seek will be shortened by that amount of time and you will be no closer to finding them. In addition, you will have no memory of me or the book."
The showdown between he and Gaston would take place the following day. Of that much, Quace was sure. Time was no longer an issue for him. He would find Gaston and kill him and then take whatever time he needed to find the remaining boy's. After rigging the ship to detonate from afar, he would shuttle them all from the ship and put this nightmare behind them for good. He walked to where the book lay at the frozen feet of Dingo and retrieved it. Returning to Daystar, he handed the book to the glowing image.
Daystar reached for the book and the world exploded into a brilliant flash of light.
Quace consoled the boy's the best he could. The loss of Thor would be felt for some time and he could do little to ease their grief right now. Time would be the only medicine to heal these wounds.
As he glanced at the body of his friend one last time, he noticed the gaping wound in Thor's chest was gone and the panther was beginning to moan and stir.
One by one, the boys reacted to this new development, their eyes growing as wide as saucers as they witnessed Thor's return from the dead.
Kyler threw himself across the cat, hugging him fiercely. Ari and Zack followed suit and soon the three boys covered him.
"Perhaps I should play hero more often." Thor telepathed to the boys.
The boys quickly pulled themselves from him and wiped the tears from their faces.
"One would think that each of you were crying over the dead." Thor joked.
"But you were dead!"Kyler exclaimed. "There was a hole right there." he jabbed his finger into Thor's chest to indicate where the hole had been.
A glance into Quace's eyes told the cat that Kyler was not imagining things. "Well then," he said. "it would appear as though I used up one of my nine lives."
The statement earned him another round of hugs and kisses.
Groggily, he got to his feet and the boy's helped to steady him. "I only regret that I have but eight lives left to give."
Quace tried to reason through what he had just witnessed. He had seen Thor take the slug and fall, mortally wounded. The boys had witnessed this as well and his concern for their mental well being had taken a new twist. Then, as if by magic, the wound had disappeared altogether and Thor had essentially risen from the dead without reasonable or logical explanation. Quace imagined countless future problems and nightmares from each of the boys as a direct result of what they had experienced, and this new development was nothing more than another high in an emotional rollercoaster ride for them. He could only hope, that by dealing with the present as efficiently as possible, he could stave off any future nightmares. The events of the last few days would take their toll on the boys further down the road, but miracles such as the one that had just taken place, would help alleviate some of the negativity they had been witness too. At least in theory.
Kyler stifled a yawn and looked over at Quace. "I'm getting sleepy." he said quietly.
Quace glanced at the timeclock on his mechanical limb and froze for just a moment. He had periodically checked the timepiece, keeping track of the countdown. He had last checked it moments before being transported into this room and had noted the time remaining at thirty one hours. The digital readout on the clock now flashed at twenty four hours and Quace found himself startled at this new revelation. Maybe he had damaged the mechanism in the heat of battle or in the act of protecting the boys, but the clock has sustained much harder hits in the past few days and had continued to function in the manner that it had been designed to. Discounting this possibility left only one other unsettling option. Somehow, they had lost seven precious hours during this short fracas.
Opting to keep this from the others, he pulled Kyler close to him. He hated keeping secrets from the boys, but the emotional rollercoaster ride that they had endured thus far had just ended on a high note with the return of Thor from the dead and he saw no reason to dampen the mood. He would operate on the assumption that the timeclock was accurate and press his quest accordingly. The boy's however, needed sleep and he realized that this was not a suitable environment for rest. Somehow they had gotten past the outer defenses of the maze and now found themselves deep inside the inner sanctum. The nooks and crannies available in abundance in the maze, would not be found here. This was the nerve center of the ship and constant attention would be paid to any unwelcome visitors or uninvited guests.
"We'll need to find a place for you guys to catch forty winks then, won't we?" he tousled Kyler's hair in a playful manner, hoping to keep the spirit of humor alive.
"It would seem as though my short nap has rejuvenated my back. Should my young passenger wish to clamber aboard, we may began our search for a more adaptable environment in which to sleep." Thor addressed Kyler.
Quace lifted the boy onto the cat's back and turned to face the remaining boys and Dingo. "I'm proud of all of you. You all were very brave during all of this, but we need to rest so that we can search for the others tomorrow."
"Dingo no rest. Dingo keep guard and protect friends." the dwarf blurted out, his six shooter still at the ready.
Quace smiled at the little man. He had become an integral part of this strange family and would remain as such long after their departure from this ship. He found a new measure of respect for Dingo. He had jumped into the fray, either blissfully unaware of the consequences or totally oblivious to them and had earned his place in this little drama. He was no longer comic relief. The call to duty had reached out to him and he had answered without hesitation.
"Sounds like a plan to me." he said to Dingo, "but we still need to find a safer place to bed down for the night."
Without another word, the dwarf cautiously advanced to the heavy glass door that had been ripped from it's hinges as the soldiers had burst through it. Peering into the hall beyond, he turned to give them all a thumbs up.
The ragtag group slowly advanced their way into the corridor, Dingo in the lead, the six shooter taken from the gunslinger, in front of him and arcing from left to right and back again.
Rounding the bend, the dwarf pointed out a door labeled "SHUTTLE BAY SEVEN".
Quace gripped the seal of the sliding doors and pulled, breaking the seal and parting the twin steel. With a groan of protest, the doors gave way and slid apart, revealing a small bay containing a pair of small shuttles, each the size of small house.
"No use arm with shuttle, huh?" Dingo said with a grin.
"Only if I have too." Quace replied.
"The little man is correct in his belief, Quace. Forceful entry into the shuttle could very well compromise the integrity of the seal. Consequently, any attempt to leave this ship could be met with disaster when the bay doors are opened."
Quace glanced around at the small group. His need to save these boys was overwhelming and up until now, his critical thinking skills had been pressed into service whenever they were needed. Should the need arise, he would implement them with the shuttle as well, but Dingo and Thor had the foresight to understand that compromising the integrity of the shuttle seals may not be necessary after all.
"Can you get those doors open?" he asked of the dwarf.
Dingo holstered the six shooter and turned to face the first shuttle. "Dingo's brain open door." he said simply without turning around. Without a further word, he began to study the panel to the right of the door.
"Watch the boys, Thor." Quace said to the cat.
"You speak as though you have unfinished business." Thor replied.
"I need to check on the forms under those sheets."
"I'll go with you." Ari blurted out, his eyes brimming with concern for the man he had grown to care for.
Quace embraced the boy. "You are much safer here than with me. Besides, I will be back before you even know I'm gone." he offered the boy a knowing wink.
Reluctantly, Ari allowed Quace to go, the tears forming again in his eyes and for a brief moment, the big man entertained the idea of taking him along, then quickly discarded it. His plan was risky enough to tackle alone, but taking the boy along could prove to be tantamount to suicide for the both of them. Should he fail on his own, both Thor and Dingo would insure that the boys would get off of this ship. His own death would have little merit in the rescue of the remaining boys, but at least Kyler, Ari and Zack would be free from the prison that had been their home for the last week or so.
But Quace did not intend to fail. He would finish this macabre little game and see the end of Gaston, once and for all.
Each of the boys hugged him fiercely, as if they would never see him again, before reluctantly pulling away from him and retreating to Thor and the comfort he offered.
Quace started for the bay doors and turned to look upon his new family. A dwarf, a black telepathic panther named after a hammer wielding God, and three young boys. For the time being they were safe and he felt a sense of relief wash over him.
Thor had the boys sitting around him in a semi-circle, their backs to Quace. "There is this story of a black cat, we shall call Thor...." he began, his eyes meeting Quace's and speaking volumes.
With a mixture of sadness at leaving the boys and a renewed sense of purpose for rescuing the clones on the tables at the scene of the last battle, he disappeared from Thor's view and made his way back to the lab.
The corridor was clear, free of the commotion Quace would expect from the aftermath of a battle. There were no soldiers or cybots worming their way through each room in search of the enemy.
Rounding the bend, he saw four chimps dragging the body of one of the soldiers from the lab. It was the body of the soldier that Thor had killed while taking a slug in the chest. He resisted the urge to shoot them with his solar pistol, remembering Thor's comment on his shooting of the last chimp.
Each of the animals were dressed in the same NASA uniform as the prior chimp had been. None of them appeared to notice him as he made his way into the room. They seemed intent on cleaning up the remnants of battle and concentrated on this task, scurrying around him as though he were not there.
Seven of the sheet covered forms on the tables had caught bullets in the gunfight. Quace checked each of the bodies for a pulse. Finding none, he bitterly forced back the tears. He would mourn their loss upon the completion of the task at hand.
Working quickly, he yanked the sheet from each of the tables and checked each occupant for a pulse. The remaining eight boys were all nude and kept alive via some form of stasis. Determining the status of each boy was out of the question. The boy he had thought to be Mio, had become a clone, but remained no less a boy so status was no longer an issue for him.
Locating a gurney, he methodically ran the room and placed each boy atop it. He felt as though he were stacking cordwood back on earth, but wasted no time on the decision to do so. If this was the only means available to rescue the boys, then it had to be done. The semantics of his decision could be wrestled with later.
The uniformed chimps continued to work around him, cleaning the blood from the floor and mopping up the mess from the shattered vials that littered the battle scene. With a final glance around the room, Quace wheeled the boy laden gurney into the hall and aimed it towards the shuttle bay.
His trek went uninterrupted and soon, he was wheeling the gurney into the shuttle bay, the voice of Thor booming out in story.
".....so then I met this behemoth of a man with a mechanical arm and an eye patch." he was saying when Quace came through the door. The act of shifting his eyes to Quace as he entered did not go unseen by the boy's. As one, they turned their heads and squealed in glee. Ari and Zack supported Kyler and his injured ankle as the three of them rose from the floor of the shuttle bay and hobbled towards him, like some five-legged creature.
Moments later, Dingo cracked the code on the panel and the shuttle doors opened. To the right was the cockpit, the instrument panels lit like a Christmas tree. To the left lay a galley and rows of bunks. Inside, the master control panel beeped and blinked at them as they began the arduous task of carrying each of the eight boys up and into the hold and securing them into the many bunks that lined the rear of the shuttle. Closing the door behind them did little to settle Quace's stomach. Gaston was surely aware of their location, yet he had opted not to attack and this sat uneasy with Quace. The game had reached new levels and the clock was running out. The atmosphere was one of extreme caution on the part of Quace and Thor. Dingo set about the task of settling the boys for the night, while the panther and the big man tried to get a handle on this new twist in the game.
"He knows that we are here, Thor." Quace said flatly.
"Given the events of the day, it would certainly seem as such." the cat telepathed.
Dingo entered the cockpit of the shuttle, his short arms raised in the air. "Boy's insist Quace tuck them in. No Dingo, just Quace." he said in a frustrated manner.
Quace stood and looked at his two newfound friends. "Keeping a watch is a good idea. Wake me up in four hours and I'll finish out the night." he said.
"Should one of the boys awaken during the night, they will seek out their safety net. Should you not be there, it may become an issue." Thor replied.
"I shall never be more than a heartbeat from any of these boys, as will you. This I know to be true. Wake me in a few hours and we can discuss it then, should the need to do so still be present."
Bidding goodnight to each other, Thor opted to take the first watch and settled in for his shift as Quace worked his way to the rear of the shuttle.
The eight boys he had rescued earlier remained in stasis, their bodies tucked under blankets rather than sheets.
Zack had fallen asleep while waiting for Quace to come to him, so the big man leaned into him and kissed him on the cheek. The smell of the boy's skin reminded him of his own sons' smell when he would tuck them in at night. Pushing the memories back, he kissed Zack's forehead and moved to the bunk occupied by Ari.
"Zack is feeling sad about being a clone and that makes me feel sad." the boy whispered to him.
Quace kissed the boy on the top of the head. "I can't think of a better friend for him to have." he winked.
Ari returned his wink and settled under the sheets. "I love you Quace." he whispered.
"I love you too."
Ari closed his eyes and was soon fast asleep, his boyhood dreams soon to follow.
Kyler's eyes were heavy as Quace sat on the edge of his bunk. "I'm scared Quace." he muttered.
Quace rose from the bunk and knelt beside the boy. "I am here for you. Thor and Dingo are here for you as well. All you need to do is call our names and we'll come running. I have no doubt that the three of us can scare away any know boogey man. Maybe even a few unknown boogey men." he smiled down at the boy.
"Hold me, please." the boy whimpered softly.
Gently, Quace lifted the boy and nestled him to his chest. "Goodnight sweet boy. Sleep now and chase the monsters from your dreams."
Slowly, Kyler drifted off to sleep and Quace lowered him to the pillow and tucked the blanket under the boy's chin.
Standing, he made the last round, securing each boy under their blanket, before climbing into a bunk himself and allowing the armies of sleep to overtake him for a short time.