Thyal’s prediction was correct. It took laborious time to learn cakrei, even with the so-called easy method. The sessions were exhausting, both physically and mentally, but Sunday persisted. It wasn’t as if she had anything else to do, and gradually, she began to match Thyal’s stronger, sturdier frequency with her own.
A strange sense of pride bubbled up inside her. He wasn’t having to tune himself down as much now, to match her waves, instead, she was joining a harmony they weaved together. Eventually, it would flow effortlessly, she was sure of it.
Sunday flinched, touching the back of her neck at the sharp pain in her spine. Thyal paused from his forkful of noodles.
“Don’t push it, Sunday.” If liquorish had an accent, Thyal’s voice would have been liquorish. It was velvet and salty; a high twang from his stately childhood, but a coarseness from being barely used.
“I know.” She sipped the broth of her own lunch. Thyal stood, stretching. It had taken time to get used to the clattering of his chains, and to his height, but eventually the normality of his presence settled like a comfortable blanket.
Dragging his chains to the middle of the cell Thyal bounced on his legs, somersaulting, and landing smoothly on his arms. This was what boredom over fifteen years did to a man, it made them do handstands, and learn how to do push-ups, while doing said handstand. Thyal could do a lot of really particular, but extraordinary things within the limited range of his chains. His current ambition was managing to get her to jump high enough to touch the largest of the stalactites on their cell ceiling. So far, she’d not really had much luck, but it was an amusing game to waste time on.
Sunday paused from her stretch. Thyal had dropped onto his hunches, his attention shifting to the cell door and the corridor beyond. For the first time since meeting him, his frequency had plateaued, and the sudden silence and emptiness within her mind was terrifying. Was this what life had been like before she’d arrived on Aburu? How had she even managed with such an emptiness.
Then a wall of static slammed into her. Sunday hit the ground, curling into a ball as her mouth opened in a silent scream. Thyal grappled for her, clambering to pull her upright. She could feel his hands clasp her head as he pulled her against his warm fur in a smothering hug.
“Tone down your frequency. Tone it down. Like I taught you. Right down. All the way. Further. Further.”
She squeezed shut her eyes. Imagining a dial, like the ones on old radios, and she twisted it, rapidly. The static eased.
“Keep going.” Thyal whispered into her ear. “Keep tuning down until there is no pain.”
Why, when she’d spent so long trying to match him.
“No one can match Skarlar, so don’t even try.” Thyal cradled her. “I’m sorry. I had no idea it’d ever visit. It’s never visited before.”
Sunday peered through her tangled hair at the figure the prince faced behind the bars of their cell. Thyal couldn’t have seen it, not with his mask, but its presence was overwhelming, even with her frequency tuned down as far as it could go.
She’d never forget those red eyes that had peered at her from the darkness. Camera lenses, flickering and clicking, refocusing as they accessed surrounds analytically. No longer was the tiny creature shrouded in an enormous hoodie, it stood in a shirt with a NASA logo branded over it, and a pair of old-fashioned shorts that matched the knee-high socks and bright red sneakers.
“A little green alien,” Sunday whispered.
“Cybernetic silicon lifeform, actually. We called ourselves Zaprexes. Lame. I know. I voted for Epic Death Machine.” The tinny voice replied to her English. It held up its hands, making a crude gesture with its middle fingers.
Sunday looked up at Thyal. “I’m okay,” she assured.
He stood to his feet, settling her down and she rubbed at her stinging eyes.
The static was bearable, for now. Thyal left her side, approaching the cell bars, stretching out his chains as far as they went. She followed, and found herself looking down at the little green alien in its oversized NASA shirt.
“Skarlar, what are you doing down here?” Thyal gripped the bars. “You’ve never visited before.”
“Eh, I was bored.” The tiny creature shrugged.
Thyal’s long ears flattened. “You expect me to believe that.”
“No.” Skarlar twirled about on its red sneakers. It flashed a manic grin in her direction, revealing small sharp teeth. “You must be Sunday Jewel Riverstone. Tell me, how does Attack on Titan end? I only have to the end of season two in my database.”
Sunday shook her head. “I…um…got…transported here before the Final Season ended. I don’t know.”
“I gather you didn’t read the manga then.”
“Didn’t want to spoil the anime.”
“Blehhh.” Skarlar stuck out its tongue. “You’re one of those. Let me guess, you watch Dubs.”
“Both, actually.” Sunday huffed, crossing her arms. “You get a different story with each language. It can be an interesting experience.”
“Wow, you are annoying.”
“And you’re a tiny goblin.” Sunday retorted.
The fairy snorted. “That’s your come back. Darling, I’ve surfed on suns with hotter temperatures than that burn.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Sunday Jewel Riverstone.” Skarlar tipped back on its heels. “Sunday. Sunday. Sunday. Now how did you end up with a name like that?”
Sunday sighed. That wasn’t an unusual question. She’d received it most of her life. “Well, my mother was a bit of a…um…”
“Hippy?” Skarlar offered, its long ears tweaking upright curiously.
“Well, yes, I suppose so.” Sunday smiled fondly. “But my father, Archibald—”
“Noooo…no…” Skarlar erupted into laughter. “Archibald? Really? Archi! Archi!”
“What’s wrong with Archibald? It’s a handsome, strong name. Anyway, what’s with Skarlar?” Sunday shot back.
Skarlar bounced into the air, crossing its legs, floating. “Gamer tag.”
“Ah, so it’s not your real name.”
“Of course not.” The imp scoffed. “That’s the point of having a gamer tag, it keeps your real identity hidden. Easier to troll that way.”
A small bot floated up and Skarlar tapped it playfully, opening up a slot in its head to pull out a can of cola that it cracked open to sip. Sunday licked her lips, hearing the familiar hiss of carbonation. She’d missed that hiss and zesty, fresh taste of bubbles.
Skarlar grinned as it took another sip.
Its gaze shifted to Thyal. “Oh, do stop looking so disgruntled. Be happy! I am here with good news!” Each word was punctuated with an enthusiastic inflection that caused the nearby light to flare. “Well, technically good news, and some bad news, but mostly good news.”
“So, you are here for a reason.” Thyal’s tail flicked irritably.
“Stop being picky, brat.” Skarlar snapped. Its antennae sparked. Sunday flinched as the static suddenly increased. Thyal’s hand twisted around her arm assuredly as she wondered if he was muffling the worst of the effects of the powerful frequency in front of them.
“Prince Thyal, how would you like to earn your freedom.” Skarlar eyebrows wiggled playfully.
“Freedom?” Thyal whispered. His ears flattened completely against his skull. Sunday could feel his tail around her leg, tight and stiff.
“Indeed. Freedom.” Skarlar threw up its arms, causing the cola within the can it held to splay about. “In about three months, there will be a lustrous opportunity for you, and all whom I deem worthy, to climb free of The Crack.”
A leer was sent their way. “If you can make it past the denizens also scrambling out, and in the allotted time. You may die by falling, or by being mauled to death, or perhaps be caught up in the Time Dilation Field…” Skarlar shrugged. “But…you could also make it out, and finally bring your fiery revenge down upon those whom hath imprisoned you.”
Thyal’s fur spiked around his neck. He breathed in deeply, as if the thought was a tantalizing scent.
Sunday grabbed his arm. “Wait. I don’t understand. I came down in an elevator. If you’re offering him freedom, why wouldn’t you just use that? Wouldn’t it be simpler?”
Skarlar’s eyes focused on her, widening into large red plates behind its square spectacles. “TDF. Time Dilation Field. Time that is below, is not as time is above.” The imp sandwiched its hands together, moving them back and forth. “Right now, the Time Dilation Field is the only thing that is stopping the infected area within The Crack, and the tainted denizens, from bleeding out into the terraformed land masses above. However, recalibrations must occur periodically, and when this happens, the TDF weakens, causing the infestation to bleed forth.”
“The primordial denizens get out.” Thyal’s claws tapped the metal bars.
“Yes. This wouldn’t be a problem, but they are infected with something that has festered down here. Something I haven’t been able to cure. It cannot be allowed to reach the terraforming machines.”
“That doesn’t explain why we can’t use the elevator.” Sunday huffed.
“The jouramine who took you down here, yes? You recall him?”
“You recall that big, whooping suit of armour he was wearing.”
Sunday frowned. “Yes.”
“Well, it serves a purpose other than being a terrifying monstrosity.” Skarlar floated back, holding up a can, letting it hover in the air. “The jouramine have developed some remarkable technology for withstanding Aburu’s atrocious habitats. That ancient suit is one such treasure. It can withstand the effects of the Time Dilation Field, which is at its strongest around the crash site of my ship, and the elevator that the miners left behind happens to be directly above my ship. The reason you were not affected by the Time Dilation Field is because you were standing right next to him. If you’d been a few feet away, you’d have de-aged on your way down, to the point of non-existence.”
Sunday covered her mouth, gulping back air. “Oh.”
She’d been so hysterical, and yet, she’d been so close to a different sort of death than what she’d even been considering. Sunday swallowed nervously. Perhaps it had been a good thing the jouramine had held her so tightly.
Skarlar shook its head. “So no, you cannot use the elevator. Indeed, you cannot go near my ship without a jouramine suit, even when the recalibration starts, the Time Dilation Field will still be in effect the closer one gets to my vessel.”
That almost sounded as though it was some sort of shielding, or a defence mechanism that had gone haywire. Perhaps protecting the vessel from the infected denizen’s it was mentioning.
“Then, give us suits.” She insisted.
Skarlar arched an eyebrow. “My dear, I can’t even use the elevator. Do you think I haven’t tried getting out! I have sent up prisoners, time, and time again, standing right next to jouramine guards, and they turn to dust. I’ve suited them up, and they turn to dust. If you are not a jouramine, it is a one-way trip down. Even then, the jouramine who go up and down suffer considerable cell degeneration.”
Right. The elevator wasn’t an option.
“If this recalibration is a frequent occurrence, why are you just now offering me this opportunity?” Thyal gripped the cell bars. “What has changed? I’ve been languishing down here for fifteen years.”
“Well, naturally, I had to wait until the Jouramine Empire collapsed into a trash pile and forgot about your existence.” Skarlar blew a rasp. “Besides that, I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my black, tarry heart.”
The imp launched forward suddenly, grabbing Thyal by the metal chain around his neck, smashing his head against the cell bars, causing his iron mask to clank. Sunday flinched at the sudden electric buzz that filled the air, the static grew louder, filling her mind with a loud flickering.
“You, my prince, are going to be the saviour this world so desperately needs.”
“And why would I ever do anything for you.” Thyal choked out.
“Because I can give you the key to resurrecting your long-lost kingdom.”
Sunday grabbed her skull at the sudden loud clang that overwhelmed the buzzing static. Her vision blurred. She staggered forward.
“Sunday!” Thyal’s arm snatched for her. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She struggled against her weak knees, shaking away the pain bleeding down her back. All her nerves were on fire, racing heat through her skin and burning even her fingertips.
Skarlar casually leant on the prison bars. “I don’t care, Thyal, if you decide to burn Middrift to the ground in vengeance. Such petty squabbles are not my concern. However, you will take up the mantle of being my tool, and you will protect this planet I hate so much.”
“If you…if you hate it so much…” Sunday squinted up at the imp. “Why go to all this trouble to save it?”
Its mouth split in a hysterical grin, revealing rows of tiny, teeth, tinted brown by cola consumption. Large red eyes re-focused into tiny pinpricks with a flickering shudder sound. “Because I crash landed here, and now I am obligated under the most oppressive programming imaginable to protect all life upon a seeded planet, despite the fact I never actually authorised the seeding process! So here I am, Miss. Riverstone! Here I am! Condemned to an eternity in a pit of misery, watching as the foul little creatures I gave life to waste the blessings I gifted them.”
Abruptly the imp zipped forward, snatching at the bars, grabbing them and peering in as sparks of electricity ignited through the air. “So, you climb out, Thyal. Climb out. Bring me wrath and ruin, and reset the game board. Climb. Climb. Climb.” It burst into maniacal, high-pitched laugher.
“You will…you will give me my kingdom?” Thyal asked, raising his chin.
Skarlar’s laughter stopped abruptly. “I didn’t say I’ll give you your kingdom, I said I’d give you the key to finding your kingdom. You, my dear child, must climb and fight, and win for what you want. If you fail…well…” It flapped out his arms. “I guess I finally get my wish and get to die.”
With a mocking huff, it twirled away, snatching up its cola can from the air.
Sunday staggered onto her feet. This was the only opportunity she’d likely have to ask the single question, from the only creature that likely had an answer.
“Can I get home?” Sunday called out to the retreating imp.
Skarlar glanced back, its eyes flickering. “No. Miss. Riverstone. I am afraid you and I are quite stuck, although, unlike me, you do have the option of climbing out of this crack. I suggest you take that option and make something of yourself while you can.”
Sunday hesitantly looked to Thyal. “I’ll only slow him down…” she muttered in English.
Skarlar’s hand was suddenly through the cell bars, grabbing her jumpsuit, pulling her face close to its. Sunday wince as she was pressed tight to the metal bars. Bright red eyes fixated on her, the lenses focusing. Now that she was close enough to see them, they looked like tiny, burning stars within a dark void. Her throat constricted tightly. Skarlar’s thin, metal nails dragged over her cheek, splitting the skin and blood leaked out.
“I do not care how pathetic you think you were, or how pathetic you think you still are. You exist. You were created. You have value. Seize that value deep inside yourself, hold it like a fierce blade, and strike at anything and everything in your path with all the rage of a supanova. Declare loudly, I am here, I am of value, I am of worth because I was created. Not for what I do, not for the deeds I have done, not for the blade I weld, or the children I have carried, nor the man I love, or the worlds I have seeded, but because I am.”
It released her and she slid to her knees. Sunday covered her mouth, struggling against the tears threatening to overwhelm her.
“You sound as though…you’re…saying…that to yourself…”
Skarlar smirked sardonically. “I am.” It flicked its gaze to Thyal as he knelt beside her, wrapping her in a comforting arm. “You have three months to prepare this pathetic princess for the task I have chosen for her.”
“That isn’t enough time.” Thyal protested.
“I suggest you get started.” Skarlar flicked her forehead. “Use that old, ancient tradition your family was so fond of.”
Thyal’s tail thrashed back and forth. “This is inhumane, Skarlar.”
“I don’t care!” The Zaprex’s laughter was muffled as its presence dimmed down the long corridor. “Just get it done.”