Dot moved slowly and carefully through the store. She placed a hand on the floor for the added balance and weight distribution, then slid the hand left to right and back again, pushing it through a layer of dust that gathered and tumbled onto the back of her hand.
She was glad for the fingerless glove she wore, because it let her feel the finer details while keeping it clean and warm. The floor was cool and moist. The exterior wall of the store was letting the rain in, and the rain traced a path through one portion of the store, cutting thin rivers through the dust. Wet in places, dry in places, but persistently clammy and dirty. Perpetually colorless.
It was the lack of color that got to her the most.
It was one of the big stores, where everything was gathered together into tall stacks and piles beneath and on metal racks. The lights were fluorescent, and they flickered. The buzzing sounds the lights made were more constant than the light.
A menacing sound. Menacing, glaring lights.
It was safer to climb on the stacks of cardboard boxes than it was to walk on the floor or to make contact with the wood and metal of the shelves.
She paused as she climbed to a higher shelf, figuring out how best to ascend while minimizing dangerous contact. Finally, she decided to take a risk by grabbing a metal cross-bar, hauling herself up, and setting her feet on a series of plastic bottles in cardboard trays, stacked higher than a man was tall.
She couldn’t read well, but she could recognize the labels. Pills. Vitamins, probably. If these were here, then there might be better offerings close by. She searched the nearby piles until she found cardboard boxes with cartoon characters on the front. Pictures of cartoon character heads were beside not-cartoon images in shiny monocolor shapes.
Dot opened a box, careful not to make noise, and fished inside. A plastic bottle within, and inside the plastic bottle… a colorful assortment of gummy vitamins.
She fished out the contents and pushed them into her mouth until she could barely close her jaw. The artificial taste overpowered her nose and mouth. Her eyes rolled back into her head with the effort of chewing.
A loud noise made her freeze.
The doors had been opened. She heard loud footsteps.
She climbed deeper into the stacks of vitamins, listening and watching.
“Hellooooo!” the call was drawn out. Dot tensed, listening as the greeting bounced around the building interior.
She waited, silent, peering through the gaps between the cardboard boxes and plastic bottles.
Another voice could be heard saying, “Lights are on and nobody’s home?”
“They could be out, or a group of refugees might have stopped in on their way to the portal. They could have set up power and scavenged before leaving things behind for others.”
Dot winced with every tromp of boot on tiled floor. She could hear people rummaging, pulling down boxes and tearing into the contents. Things fell to the ground.
She changed locations, putting some distance between herself and them. It didn’t help; their explorations meant they drew nearer to her as she lurked on a high shelf.
“…names you can’t pronounce, grab that first.”
“Preservatives, yep. Keep a close eye out for the products with the wrong names.”
“If it’s not called soap, but a ‘cleansing bar’ that means it’s so loaded with crud that they weren’t legally allowed to call it soap. That shit is gold to us, because the chemicals in it mean it lasts. If it lasts, it can be resold back home.”
“Soap goes bad?”
“It can. I’d rather take the misnamed shit that lasts than take something more legit home and find out it went bad.”
“We’ll teach you all the tricks. It’s a good gig, believe me.”
“Yeah. Hey, are those fridges?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Power was probably out for months to a year before someone got this building back on line.”
“You think they have ice cream? Or those push-freezes?”
“You don’t want ice cream, remember? You want-”
“Frozen dairy-like desserts or something.”
“Now you get it.”
Dot watched as the younger man jogged across the floor to what was almost certainly his imminent demise. He opened the glass door to the fridge display and began picking his way through cardboard boxes.
She could see the green lights appearing in the background of the display, flicking on one by one, apparently at random.
The older man noticed, stopping in his tracks.
“Jackson!” he screamed the word.
The machine rammed through the wall. Six feet tall, six feet wide, with two legs, it slammed past metal racks, past food in cardboard boxes, through the glass doors, through the metal that the doors were attached to, and into Jackson.
Both legs broken. From the way he hit the ground, his arm might have been broken too.
One mechanical leg thrust out, then dragged Jackson back into the hole in the wall. Another reached out and began depositing a thin white fluid on the bloodstain.
Jackson’s mentor was running and the machine was just starting to clean up the blood when two more belatedly thrust their way out through the walls. They paused where they were, seemed to decide what they were doing, and then used wheels on their underbellies to roll along the floor, the two forelimbs out and ready.
Gaps appeared in the face of each machine as they drew closer. Jackson’s mentor shouted to friends elsewhere in the building as he rounded a corner in the shelves and stacks.
He made the mistake of grabbing onto a metal strut at the edge of one set of shelves. The face of the strut moved, changing in angle, and jerked upward. A machine had taken a blade and camouflaged it to look like the red-painted metal surface, and it managed to carve deep into Jackson’s mentor’s hand. The machine that controlled the blade moved. It wore a cardboard box.
Dot made a mental note of that as she remained frozen, watching.
The people were running, gathering together. They narrowly evaded the machines, using corners and their small size to stay clear as the machines from the fridge wall careened down the wide aisles.
It didn’t matter. They were already dead.
She could hear the gasps and shrieks. Here and there, weapons were deployed. Sprays of darts, more blades from innocuous surfaces, wire.
The gasps became more numerous, the sounds strained, and the activity of the scavengers slowed. The ones who realized what was happening didn’t have the words to report it to the others.
Gas. Invisible, odorless. They gasped and used everything they had to try to draw air into their lungs, but the machines were putting something heavier than oxygen on the ground floor of the store. Now they drowned.
Dot had lost family to this very same thing. She had seen how painful it was, and she had known how painful it was to watch someone she cared about die that way.
She took her time picking through the boxes of vitamins, putting them in her bag. It was nice that the gummy vitamins didn’t rattle. She picked up other things as she navigated the shelves, including bandages and some random bottles.
An explosion drew her attention.
Someone in a costume.
Another explosion, followed by two more, and one of the big machines from the fridge wall collapsed.
Apparently alerted by one of the dying, the woman in costume climbed up onto the shelving units, to get to higher ground where there was air. She threw a blue light out of her hand, and it detonated on impact with the next machine.
Back at the fridges, some of the fridges and surrounding wall had already been reconstructed. Two more of the large cube-shaped machines squeezed through the gaps in the wall that were still there, before getting their wheels under them and hurrying in the direction of the woman in costume.
Dot moved closer to the ground to get a look. It was important to know just how far gone this building was.
The entire area behind the fridges was gone. Green flashing lights, wires, computers and metal twisted into shapes that helped it to provide a framework. Machines were working slowly and steadily to refine and develop things.
In the opposite corner of the building, the hero climbed behind a stack of cans. A spray of flechettes punctured the paper with no resistance- there was no tin to the cans, only the labels and the haphazardly perched tops. The machines had already collected everything and then put things back so it looked like it hadn’t been touched.
The heroine fell and hit the floor. She had been darted, punctured across the face and shoulder.
You die too, Dot observed.
Against all odds, though, the heroine had managed to hold her breath. She got to her feet and she ran.
Dot climbed carefully, avoiding suspicious surfaces as she navigated the piles. She kept one eye out for things she could use and one eye on the heroine.
A box cutter, left on the surface by a past employee. Useful. Dot grabbed it.
One of the machines shifted position. Two legs on the ground in front of it, backside resting on the ground. Its face opened wide, and a salvo of missiles fired forth. Ten, twelve, metal canisters with streams of vapor painting the air in their wake as they flew in lazy arcs or even tumbled through the air before getting their bearings.
However haphazard they looked, they didn’t hit anything they weren’t supposed to. They traced courses between stacks of pasta and boxes of cereal, through the struts of metal shelves, and through the two-inch gaps between shelf and the floor below.
The heroine shot at shelves, bringing down the contents in showers that might block the missiles. Some missiles detonated. Others navigated the falling debris, and the heroine shot at those next.
Some missiles didn’t detonate, but they weren’t missiles in actuality. They were tricks.
The heroine backed up, then saw the two new arrivals, two more of the big ‘soldier’ machines. She ran for the door.
But the machines had had her since she had let them know she existed.
The heroine made it to the door, and then a metal skewer harpooned her hand.
Blow it up. Lose the hand, Dot thought. She realized she was rooting for the heroine despite herself.
The heroine fought, and she’d had to stop running to fight. More skewers impaled her forearm, then her other hand.
She used her power, she shot at shelves, but she lacked the angle. The machines reeled in, using the wires attached to the skewers, and the heroine was hauled into the air, arms out to either side, legs dangling.
Dot sat, and she waited. She ate more gummy multivitamins and she observed the machines. She watched as the mess was slowly cleaned up, boxes pulled back into position, products lined up, and sections of floor that had been shattered by missiles were fit together like jigsaw pieces.
Here and there, deep in the craters and crevices, the ‘trick’ missiles had delivered payloads that weren’t explosive. They looked like veins of metal in rock. In weeks and months, they would ‘hatch’, revealing the machinery that had built itself within. For now, they were paved over. Smaller machines filled in cracks with something white that would harden, with daubs of black for the speckles in the tile. A blade scraped away the excess, and a small nozzle provided a covering of dust to match surrounding floor.
A close eye would notice where the floor was different, but it would have to be close and careful.
The machines weren’t too challenging to destroy. Dot’s groups had sometimes destroyed them. The trick was that they set in roots wherever they went. Each time they reached a new place, they would keep emerging from that place, from walls and floor and rock and tree. It took care and attention to get the machine out of each of those things, and while that care was being taken, machines elsewhere would emerge, march, and make inroads along the flanks.
Green lights here and there went dark, the machines hibernating. Dot deemed herself safe to move.
She stuck to the high ground, while the still-active machines continued their work below. She eased herself closer to the heroine, and paused, observing. Here and there, the woman kicked or struggled, and the machines didn’t respond. Blood streamed down and dripped from her toes to her floor. Each time blood accumulated enough to drip and make a small splash on the floor, a machine zoomed out to spray at it and then wiped it away before returning to its hiding place beneath a shelf.
Dot leaped. She landed on the woman’s shoulder, and the woman’s face twisted, contorting into a wordless scream at the sudden, added weight on her injured arms and hands.
Then the woman looked at Dot, and her expression changed again. Fear, alarm.
Dot was small, only about as large as the woman’s head, and she was colorful. Her clothes had been stolen from dolls and pieced together with diligent care. Her tail with its fur tuft on the end swished with the box-cutter it held..
Dot shook her head.
“I have people who are counting on me. I have a sick sibling, they need me to bring in the money from this work.”
“I have people too,” Dot whispered. She stuck her tongue up to pick her nose, then drew it back into her mouth. “Some sick too.”
The heroine made a small sound, bowing her head. “I’ll help you, I’ll- I’ll convince people to give you medical care. We can trade.”
Dot reached out with one hand, and she pushed the tab that extended the blade from the box-cutter.
“I’ll do anything,” the heroine said.
“Anything,” the heroine said, seizing on the pause.
“My king,” Dot said. “Where?”
“I can take you.”
“No you can’t,” Dot said. She hugged the box cutter against her chest with two spotted arms, red spots on yellow-white flesh. “You die here. I’m not big or strong. Machines are. If I go for help then you dead before I’m back.”
“Tell me where my king is and I’ll be fast. Merciful.”
“I don’t- this isn’t about me. Can you- can you let them know the Machine Army is this far north? They shouldn’t be on this side of the Raleigh chasm.”
“They kill me on sight.”
“Find a way? Please? I’ll tell you where your king is, I help you, but you need to tell them. We need the Wardens to stop them before they get their roots in.”
Too late, Dot thought to herself.
The woman seemed to take it as assent, when it wasn’t. “The Wardens’ headquarters, probably. It’s- it’s on Gimel, where a lot of the trains go. The train nearest here goes there. You’ll want to look for a building with a statue of a knight with a sword at the front.”
Dot took a two-handed grip on her box cutter.
“Tell the Wardens. Let them know, so they can take measures. Tell them Burnish said it. It might save your King’s life.”
“Yes,” she said.
Then she cut into the woman’s throat, until blood sprayed from the artery. She opened her mouth wide, until the teeth on the upper half of her mouth pointed in the same direction as the teeth on the lower jaw, and bit in deep, locking her mouth in place. She swallowed the blood, gorging herself.
Vitamins, protein, nourishment. She would fill herself here, then visit her brothers and sisters. Then she would set out on her quest.
A distance below them, machines washed away the blood. After the heroine had been kept up and out of the way long enough to ensure her power wouldn’t be a problem, she would be cleaned up too.
Dot felt energized, her focus as sharp as the box-cutter. She knew where their king was.
King Rinke. Nilbog.
She clung to the underside of the train. The ground was a blur beneath her, periodically studded with rocks and branches.
Those of her kind who ventured into the human’s civilization didn’t tend to return. She knew it was a risk. She knew she had a one percent chance when it came to this. She’d said her goodbyes accordingly.
Blackspot would be left in charge. He’d been unwell lately, and he might be too unwell to lead their group. He was thirteen and that made him old, and after their discussion, her communicating in broken English and gesture and him communicating in chirp, he’d agreed. She suspected he’d made the decision because he hoped she would bring their king back somehow. It was Blackspot’s only chance at being recycled and made into new life.
Lump would be second in command. Lump had been injured a year ago, after running into humans. He barely moved now. When he died, the group would be more free to move, but they wouldn’t leave him behind until then.
Lump was one of the only big ones that were left.
Dot used her tail to fish out a gummy vitamin from inside her tunic where it sat close to her belly. It stuck to her skin and had to be peeled away. She chewed it slowly and carefully.
She was thirsty. She hadn’t anticipated how dehydrated she would get. The chewing got her saliva flowing, though some unfortunately flowed out through the corners of her wide mouth.
There was a hole that smelled like shit, leading into the train interior, but she didn’t want to climb up into there. Shit didn’t bother her, but the smell would hurt her ability to stay undetected.
She was a scout and a spy, a messenger to a king in captivity.
She would endure. She clung to the bolts and bars, arching her back when she saw a branch or rock that might scrape at her, and she chewed.
The train slowed. She shifted her position, ears reorienting to catch more sound. Every detail she could pick up would matter, now. She was in hostile territory.
The train rolled to a stop. Doors hissed as they opened, and the crowd began to make their way out. Dot peered between the wheels and up, to see the refugees and the scavengers, as well as the men and women and boys and girls in uniforms who came and went.
She dropped to the tracks, and she moved to the dark corner, crawling through the dust and grime to help cover up the color of her spots and outfit.
Too many for her to slip across the platform. Would she have an opening? She crept along, looking for vents, for cracks, or anything where she could slip through.
Too new a building, too maintained. This was nothing like the kingdom or the ruins she had known during her five years of existence.
The only time she had seen this many humans was when their kingdom had been invaded. She had been aware as each set of humans boarded at different stops, but for all of them to get off here, for there to be no more tracks? This had to be the end. Their destination and hers.
She trembled with anticipation as the stream of people from the train slowed.
Boots were more serious than shoes. Matching boots were most serious. She associated matching boots with the men with guns that worked with the people in costume. When men with matching boots and people in costume got together, it was often to kill her kind.
She would save her king.
She crept along the underside of the ledge, where the platform jutted toward the train. When the train left, would she be exposed?
She would do anything for her king.
Her weapon was ready. The box cutter. It still smelled like the blood of the heroine. Of Burnish.
Thinking of the blood made her think again about how thirsty she was.
“Christ,” one of the boots said. “Incoming.”
Someone else groaned.
“Good afternoon,” a woman said.
“Afternoon,” was the curt response.
“You’ve got a thtowaway.”
“A thtowaway?” was the response. There was a sound of an impact, light.
“Is this like when you had us stop the train, put the entire city on hold, made us get the bomb disposal bot under the train with a camera, all to show us some squirrel roadkill caught in the machinery?”
“I’m here for a reathon. Thith ith what I do.”
“Every time you jerk our chains you lose trust, and you’ve jerked our chains a lot. You haven’t done much to regain that lost trust.”
“I wouldn’t jerk your chain, Adam,” the woman said. “I thpecialithe in noticing thmall thingth, and I know how thmall and thort your chain is.”
There was laughter.
Dot wondered if she had any options. There hadn’t been anything she could use to disguise herself as roadkill. What would she do if the train started moving?
“Can you actually see short, uh, chains?” another woman asked.
“I think we have a camera we can drop to the track. It should be up at the station proper. We can do a quick search. You want to grab it, Adam?”
“I’ll make a call, ask them to keep the train put while we search. Stay close, Rat?”
“The name’th Ratcatcher. I’ll thtay clothe.”
Dot made her way along the car, until she found one of the holes near the shit-hole. This hole didn’t lead up into the car, there was a grate barring her way, catching hair and other gunk, but it was just wide enough for her to squeeze most of the way into.
She waited, listening, until she heard the clatter.
Her role in the community had been a scout, to start with. She had ended up a leader after a while, but she was still a scout at heart. Exploring new places, figuring out ways to deal with traps, with the enemies that lurked out there.
She had dealt with the Machine Army. This little toy wouldn’t stop her.
With clawed toes and the opposable toe on her foot, she clawed some of the hair out of the drain.
Patience. Care. Machines were predictable, once they had revealed their tricks. The challenge was to find the tricks without being discovered or caught.
She watched as the machine passed under her. Dropping from her hiding place, almost noiseless, she landed right behind it. She used all of her strength to tip it over, then wrapped the hair around the wheel and reached up, tying it to a bit of metal at the base of the hole, where a passing rock or branch had made the metal rougher.
Snagged, caught, but in a believable way.
She darted away, as voices commented on the situation, trying to riddle out what had happened. A human dropped down between the platform and the train itself, ducking low to peer between wheels, looking for the little camera drone.
The platforms were mostly empty, and most of the watchful eyes were focused on the little drone and the issue.
She stuck her head up, ears low and close to her body, tail swishing beneath her, and then made a break for a vent.
A human moved, making a run for her. Shoes slid on the smooth floor of the station platform as the human put herself between Dot and the vent.
“Not so fatht,” the woman said, as Dot skidded on the floor, stopping.
The woman was small, as humans went, and she wore a costume that covered most of her body. Her mask was roughly cone-shaped, but the paper or wire that kept the mask pointy had been dented or damaged at one point, and the nose drooped a bit. Rodent-like, with ears sticking out and back at the side, flat against the side of her head. The eyes behind the eye-holes were large, dark, and moist. If Dot unfocused her eyes a bit, it looked like there was nothing behind the eyeholes. Dark hair draped around in front of the ears and down the back of the woman’s head. As pointy as the mask was, she wore a hood or a hat with a point going the opposite direction.
She wore a jacket, denim, with a threadbare collar, a striped shirt beneath, and a thin chain belt with mousetraps dangling from it. Her socks were striped as well, extending high enough that they just barely met her denim cut-off shorts.
Dot was willing to admit that if she was going to die, at least it was at the hands of someone with a good aesthetic.
“You thall not path,” Ratcatcher said.
Dot remained where she was, frozen.
“Can you talk?” Ratcatcher asked.
“Yes,” Dot said.
“I like your colorth.”
Dot stretched out her hands in front of her, looking at her arms.
“I bet you’re beautiful when clean,” Ratcatcher said.
“Yes,” Dot said. She was. She wasn’t interesting looking, but she could talk and she could use her hands, feet, and tail, well, and she had some pretty patterns: her namesake spots.
“I want you to go home,” Ratcatcher said. “If we fight, I’ll win. I thpecialize in dealing with your type.”
“I’m here to deliver message,” Dot said. “That all.”
“Burnish. She went to a store. Machine Army was there. She wanted me to tell. North of the Raleigh chasm. They were surprised.”
“We thought it was your people,” Ratcatcher said.
“No,” Dot said. “I watched.”
“You didn’t help?”
“Too small, too weak.”
“That’th no ekthuthe. Burnith was a good one. Nice to me. I’ll mith her.”
Dot remained where she was. She looked back. No sign that the men who were investigating under the train even realized she wasn’t there anymore.
“Thank you for your methage.”
“I’ll go now,” Dot said. “But can I have water? I’m so thirsty.”
“Come. Vending machine. Have you theen thethe?”
Dot had, but she shook her head.
Ratcatcher held out a hand. Dot was wary, but she ventured closer.
“Thay hello to Raththputin,” Ratcatcher said. “Thtay in my pocket for now.”
In another time, another world, Dot might have stayed.
But she had a king to rescue. A king adored by his people. A truly great man.
As Ratcatcher reached into a pocket, change jingling, Dot saw opportunity. She leaped for the ground, went under the vending machine, and then ran along the wall, darting for the vent.
Big people were often slow. Ratcatcher wasn’t. Fast reflexes. Fast in general.
But Dot was faster. Had the vent not already had a corner peeled away, Dot wouldn’t have been able to make it inside. As it was, she ducked inside, and Ratcatcher’s gloved fingers only managed to seize the ends of the hairs at the end of Dot’s tail. Dot hauled herself free.
Ratcatcher moved her mask aside, fingers going to her mouth, and then whistled. “Trouble!”
But Dot was already in her element.
She ran through dusty vents, navigating the guts of the building. Flashlights periodically shone into the vents, illuminating areas. She avoided most of those beams of lights, going this way and that, until she found another convenient point, where two pieces of metal weren’t flush together. She squeezed through and pulled her bag after her.
It was another minute until she realized two things.
Ratcatcher had friends.
The convenient openings in the vents and leading from vent to the inside of the walls of the station were there because of those friends.
Dot had dealt with rats before, but these rats were the sort that were very ugly and very large. In the right light, they might have been mistaken for very ugly, small dogs. Dot had always liked that story when the King read it from the scary children’s book. The children got the dog and the dog turned out to be a Mexican sewer rat.
These rats were that sort, apparently, and they smelled like Ratcatcher’s pocket had.
She drew her box-cutter, extending the blade, and sized up her opponents.
Three rats against her and her boxcutter.
It might have been an even fight, but she had her devotion to her king on her side.
She would rescue her king.
The building that held her king was fitting for the stories. The statue lacked color, but it had the right atmosphere. She was bleeding but she told herself that this was how things were in those stories. The heroine at the foot of the castle of the evil empire, the king in captivity. She hurt from the battles already fought and faced the greatest challenge yet.
Getting inside wasn’t hard, but getting up was. The vents were barred and had cameras, and people were already on guard when she arrived, keeping a close eye on those same vents.
She could only wait.
Patience was essential to a scout. The fact that every inch of her hurt from her fight with the sewer rats made the patience a little different. She had been hurt before, and she had been hurt in a way that made each breath an effort.
Breathe in, breathe out. If she did that once, she was one step closer to being better and being okay. She knew it was a long journey, but surviving was important.
Surviving was especially important now.
He was close.
She would free him, and he would usher in a new age of greatness for her and her people. She might even have a place at his side, where she could be close to him at all times.
She wasn’t even sure what that would be like. She had been ecstatic when she had seen mere glimpses of him, back in the old Kingdom.
Breathe in, hurt, breathe out, hurt again, feel the scratches and the bites when she shifted position. Breathe in, breathe out, double check she wasn’t anywhere she might be found.
She licked at her wounds, and she licked at the dust and grit, so her colors would be bolder. She licked her hands and ran wet hands over her hair, smoothing it.
She had arrived early in the morning, on the train, and now she waited until the sun was high in the sky. Each breath was a step closer to wellness and moving again.
She dug in her small pack for the bandages. They were the small kind, with sticky sides. She had brought the colorful ones with cartoons on them for luck, and now she placed them over her wounds, along with little bits of cotton and fabric to soak up the blood.
It seemed like there were more people who came and went than there were stars in the sky, but her senses might have been playing tricks on her.
The trickle of people slowed. When some made early returns, they smelled like food. Midday meals, then. She waited until everyone was back and working, sluggish from the food in their bellies, and then she made her move.
Up the underside of the stairs to the second floor. Into a crack between a booth and the wall. Up to the third floor, in a similar way.
There was security guarding the way from the fourth floor to the fifth. A commotion gave her a chance to slip through. It helped that she was small and it helped more that she was experienced.
Now she explored. The fifth floor didn’t seem much like a prison. The sixth was closer, with more security, more computers, more monitors.
She heard a voice, and she caught a familiar name.
“I don’t see the point. He’s a broken man.”
Dot clutched at her chest, just over her heart.
“He’s a great man. Him being broken or not broken doesn’t change that.”
“I don’t see the point, Riley. I don’t think I’d gain anything, and I don’t think the people I care the most about would be very happy about me hanging around with him.”
“You hang around with me.”
“Someone has to check your work.”
“Whatever. I’m going to go talk to him. I think you should join us. You can check my work after, we’ll make it fast.”
The pair started to walk away. Dot checked the coast was clear, then followed.
Up to the seventh floor, then higher. Her body ached, every one of her movements harder than they had been before she had started climbing up to the top of this monstrous building, but she knew she was close.
A dining hall, with lots of tables, and a kitchen off to one side. It smelled like a hundred different foods.
The two girls didn’t talk much as they walked. The younger one was on the cusp of adulthood, but she smelled like blood and sickness. She was blonde, wearing a dress.
The older one had crossed the threshold to adulthood. Her arms were striped or marked somehow, almost completely covered with freckles, and her brown hair was tied back into a ponytail. She wore jeans and a top with spaghetti straps, and had a jacket folded over her arms, which she held close to her body.
“You don’t find it sad? Spending time around him like this?”
“Sad?” Riley asked. “No. It’s… reassuring.”
“It’s a crazy, fucked up, upside-down, inside-out world. I think he understands that. He lives in that world. Not in a fantasy version of it.”
“It seems to me like he lives entirely in the fantasy.”
There was another security checkpoint. The two passed through, and Dot was forced to hang back, watching them go through. She couldn’t pass herself. It was sealed off like the old kingdom had been. What was the word?
She found vents, and she climbed through the vents. The vents, too, were quarantine-sealed.
She hated that she was so close. Her king was in arm’s reach, and she couldn’t touch him. He was talking, right this moment, and she couldn’t hear him.
Patience, she told herself.
Patience. A scout had to know patience. She was here to free him, to give him power again, even if it meant him taking her apart and turning her into another kind of life that he could use. Achieving that goal had always been something that would take time.
She searched vents, and she found one that had a gap she could use. She worked at it, wedging her box-cutter into the gap and wiggling it until she could get fingers in the gap. She used strength to widen it further, felt air escape through the rubber seal she’d peeled away, and knew she’d broken through the quarantine protection.
With more work, she was able to get an entire arm through. Screws scraped against metal as she worked them through.
She found her way into the walls, and from the walls, she found her way to a double-layered window with wire mesh between layers. She could see glimpses of the scene from an angle, distorted, by peering through the side of the thick glass pane.
The girl and the woman sitting at a table, separated from King Rinke by another thick glass wall.
Almost frantic, Dot searched the interior of the walls, looking for gaps, anything she could use. Everything was sealed, everything secured.
The answer ended up being the power outlet. She worked at the outlet, clawed at the seal that cemented it to the wall, and moved it enough that sound could get through. Later, when it was quiet, she could get through too.
“…a Red Queen and an Alice, then.”
“Or you could call me by my name.”
“I’m quite fond of Alice. She was a chaotic force in the worlds she visited, you know. She questioned, she challenged. A revolutionary in absurd worlds held captive by their own conventions and riddles.”
“This supposed Red Queen and I are friends, you know,” Alice Riley said.
“I’m not sure I’d go that far,” the Red Queen said.
“They were friends and enemies both in the story,” King Rinke said.
“You know, Jamie, I told the Queen here that you were one of the people who really got it. I drew comparisons to our friend Valkyrie. The Queen and Valkyrie know each other, you know.”
“I’m flattered by the comparison, my Alice. I’m not surprised they know each other. Queens are well-connected.”
“I’m getting sort of sick of being called a Queen.”
“My dear, you have all the power in the world. You can move in any direction you choose.”
“Less than you’d think.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“I’m… I think if I’m here, it’s because I’ve been checkmated by her. She implied she’d waste my time if I didn’t go along with this.”
“It’s very, very easy for even a Queen to be checkmated, if she doesn’t act like a Queen.”
“I’m starting to think I’m not smart enough to keep up with this conversation.”
Riley the Alice laughed.
“You should visit again, Red Queen. Have tea. Keep an old man company.”
“You’re more than an old man,” the Alice said.
“A king without a kingdom,” King Rinke said.
“A fallen king is still a king,” the Alice said.
King Rinke tittered. Dot, hiding in the wall, smiled at the expression of joy.
“Yes, I do remember that,” King Rinke said.
“We should go soon,” the Alice said. “We’ve finished our tea, and we’ve got work to do. The Red Queen needs to check over the, ah, vial I’ve created that says ‘drink me’, and make sure it’s safe.”
“Please don’t make anything like that,” the Queen said. “I’d hate to see it go wrong.”
“My work doesn’t go wrong. Thank you very much. It was wonderful to see you, Goblin King. I’m sorry the visit was short. I mostly wanted to introduce you two.”
“It’s been an experience,” the Queen said.
“What’s next for you, Red Queen? What will you do, once you’ve seen what our Alice has been up to?”
“I’ll… I guess I’ll be at my father’s side while talking to some of the most powerful people in all the known worlds, and I’ll see my parents, trying to say goodbye and yet unable to pull away, or making my greetings and being pushed away, and I’ll continue to feel like I’m in the wrong places every step of the way.”
“You’re a queen. You have such power. You can go anywhere you want, if you’re willing to wield that power. Your struggles are because you’re trying to be something you aren’t. Take that as advice from a king who has lost his kingdom to a Queen who has yet to claim hers.”
“I don’t like what happens when I try to use power to claim anything.”
“Then use position. The fact that you’re a queen affords you power by default. If you stand in the right places, things will change as a result. Use that. Recognize it. Things may start going the way you hope they might.”
There was a pause.
“I’ve said similar things,” the Alice said.
“Yeah,” the Queen said. “I worry because the only people willing to talk to me say similar things, but I’m not sure they’re people I should listen to.”
“A king without a kingdom,” King Rinke said.
“Let’s go with that,” the Alice said. “That’s probably it.”
There was a slight commotion, chairs moving, dishes clacking against surfaces, as the girl and the woman gathered themselves together and stood from their seats.
“Come again, Red Queen.”
“I can’t make promises, but I’ll be in the building a lot, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
There were more noises, and then doors shut.
Knees pulled to her chest, tail wrapped around her, Dot felt warm and happy, her king’s words wrapped around her, filling her up.
She barely dared to move the outlet, to force her way past it, to break the spell and to try to have more.
But she had to save her king.
The King had a bodyguard, a strong soldier of a man, taller than the King, muscular, and clearly dumb. The bodyguard noticed her before the King did, and reached out to touch the King’s arm.
“Ah,” King Rinke said. He had a sad expression on his face. “They’ve been watching me closer for the better part of the morning. I suppose you’re why.”
Dot wasn’t sure what to say or do.
“Come. Can you talk?” he asked. He seated himself, his bodyguard reaching for the chair to steady it as the King sat. The King stuck one leg straight out in Dot’s direction.
“Yes,” she said. She leaped forward in the same way and lurching way her heart leaped into her chest. She ran up and along his leg, up him, to him. Clawed fingers and feet clutched for the fabric of his shirt. His gray-touched beard tickled her head and back.
She could smell him and he smelled like home, like family and love. She felt his hand on her back, and she felt it pet her.
She could have cried, if she weren’t so dehydrated, if so much of her body’s energies and fluids hadn’t gone into bleeding and healing. Every ache and pain, from hours of clinging to a shuddering train to fighting rats and scaling a building interior, prying her way past sealed building fixtures, it became a dull, throbbing reassurance that she’d done right.
“You worked hard to get here.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“You’re the third to get this far. One of only two that could talk.”
Third? She wanted to ask, but she was worried about the response.
“I didn’t make you, did I? You were birthed. You look like Polka’s get.”
She nodded, hard, head rubbing against his shirt as she clutched tighter. He knew her. He didn’t know her but he knew where she was from and so he knew her.
“Polka the third?”
“Fourth,” she said. “But thank you for thinking I’m like the third. She was the most beautiful and clever.”
“The fourth was clever too,” he said. He stroked her.
“I come to save you,” she said. “You can use me for material.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “Not for one as beautiful and noble and brave as you. No.”
She felt the tears well up. Noble. Highest of praise.
“No,” he said again. He gave her a stroke, from head and ears to tail, and then he reached down, hands on her arms and shoulders, and he moved her back and away.
“No,” he said, a third time.
With that, she understood what he was saying no to.
“We need you.”
“The others get sick and die. They want to be recycled.”
“No,” he said. “No, daughter of Polka. I’m too old, and I’m watched too closely. They’re watching and listening even now. We had our chance, and as our Kingdom stood on the brink of war, your king chose the wrong allies. The Alice that just visited me was one.”
Tears flowed now, but they weren’t tears of joy.
“We lost. I’m firmly in check.”
“No,” he said. He stroked her, then held her firm with one hand around her shoulders, while he reached for his tea. Gently, carefully, he tipped it to her mouth. “Drink. You’re thirsty. You look exhausted. The caffeine will help.”
Dutifully, she drank.
“And then you should go. Go back. Find the others. Take care of them. Be gentle with humans you meet. So few of them understand power, and so many of them have so much, now.”
He moved the cup again, and she drank again.
She shifted her feet, placing them under her, and then stood, one foot on each of his legs.
She embraced him, arms in his beard, clutching at his shirt. His hand pressed against her back, and her tail wrapped around his wrist.
As quiet as she could manage, she whispered, “You say this because they’re listening. You must want to be free.”
She felt the hand at her back move, pulling her back and away again. She leaned against it, moving back so she could see his face.
She understood now, why the Alice had used the word ‘broken’.
“There are things I’ve talked to my Alice and the Valkyrie about, but reclaiming my kingdom or starting another anew isn’t in any of the many realms of possibility or fancy.”
“No,” he said, one last time, and the look of pain in his eyes was proof to the word.
As she’d jumped to him as her heart had leaped with joy, she jumped away at the pain, both his and hers.
“Your name, child?” he asked.
He smiled. “Fitting, for the daughter of Polka.”
She nodded, but she didn’t feel like smiling.
“Go home, noble dot. Do us all proud. Tell the others whatever they need to hear.”
Her hand clutched at her chest, over her heart, and then she turned to go. Into the wall. Back the way she came. Every ache and cut and scrape felt magnified as hurt radiated through her.
Going down was as hard as going up had been, but this time she didn’t have anything to go to.
Back to Blackspot, with his sickness and his hope of being reborn? Back to Lump, who got weaker every day?
To tell them what?
More rats waiting for her, probably. Other things. More pain. More machines, inching into their territory.
As much as she hated to admit it, the others were dead. She was one of the strongest who were left, that she knew about. There were other tribes and groups, there were armies, but they fought for a kingdom that hadn’t had a king for a very long time.
Hurt and pain turned black and angry inside her.
She thought of the machines and she thought of Burnish’s words. The fact that warning people of the machines might save her king.
By the time she’d reached the sixth floor, moving slowly, the idea had found its root in her head, much like the the machines found root in rocks and metal, seeds of machinery that spun out and made it so a rock could crack like an egg, revealing gears and a thousand moving pieces. Machines that made machines, all hiding and deceiving and inching forward with endless patience.
Small things were capable. She had power of her own.
She needed purpose to drive her forward, and her purpose, the goal in her mind, was to go back to that store, to find a piece of machine, and then to put it on the train.
The machines would hatch in the heart of all the known worlds and the humans would lose their kingdom too.
It was that hate and thirst for vengeance that pushed her forward, now that she didn’t have her king to serve that role. Those feelings boiled up, leaving wet streaks on her cheeks as she crept forward, from hiding place to hiding place, shadow to shadow.
The stairs were tricky. From the sixth floor to the fifth floor, it was open area, trick to navigate. Someone sat on the stairs.
The Red Queen.
Dot settled in, finding a place to sit and wait. She watched the one the King had called a Queen, and she licked her wounds, both real and metaphorical. She wished she was interesting enough in design to lick her own heart.
Something, a huff of pain, a wheezing breath, a scuffle, it made the Queen look.
The pair locked eyes.
“We got a warning about you,” the Red Queen said. “You’re not getting up to trouble, are you?”
Dot shook her head.
“You’re hurt. Come here.”
Dot hesitated. Then she crept closer. She flinched as the Queen moved her hand.
“It’s okay. Move your hair aside. I’ll touch the side of your neck.”
Dot pawed at her hair, moving it. She felt the touch at her neck.
The pain around the cuts and the bites faded. The aches and sore joints sang with euphoria as they became normal and the endorphins that had flooded her body to help remained.
She reached out, with arms and tail, and wrapped herself around the Red Queen’s arm. She stared at the tattoos, black and red, tracing one hand along the ray of a sun. Not colorful enough, but… not bad. She had spots, too, but of a very different sort.
“Why are you sad?” the Red Queen whispered.
“My king doesn’t want me,” Dot said.
“Can I?” the Red Queen asked, moving her hand, and Dot saw. Dot nodded, and closed her eyes as the Red Queen stroked her. A different, lighter touch.
“I’m stuck too,” the Red Queen said. “I’ve finished my work for the day, but someone I’m supposed to stay away from is just downstairs. I think I know how it feels.”
“If I could have one thing only, I would have him close.”
“As a friend or a master or a King or anything.”
“But I can’t.”
“And that anger of yours? What are we going to do about that?”
Dot might have been surprised, but King Rinke had called this woman a Queen and Queens were supposed to be capable of great things.
She kept her mouth shut. Amazed as she was, she wasn’t dumb.
“How about… in exchange for that healing I just gave you, you keep me company for a little while?”
Carefully, slowly, Dot crawled into the Red Queen’s lap.
The Red Queen stroked her, and each stroke was like the inhalation, the exhalation, the single step toward feeling a little bit better.
Even when the hand stopped moving, and rested on Dot’s shoulder, when Dot stared at the missing fingertips, she felt a little more okay.
They sat there, long after the coast was clear for the Red Queen. It was only when people came up the stairs that they were forced to move. The Red Queen moved Dot closer, putting on her jacket, and closed up the jacket so Dot was held close, and it was good, Dot’s ear pressed down to the Red Queen’s heart.
The Red Queen started down the stairs, one arm helping to keep Dot in position within her jacket.
“I’ll help you with your anger if you help me with mine.”