If there had been some way to cross the chasm without alerting the pair of guards beneath him, Troy hadn’t thought of it yet.
His stomach churned something fierce as he snuck a peek over the side of the rockface and caught sight of just how far away his intended target was. The access terminal he needed to reach in order to get to the forbidden city must have been a good two stories below him, maybe more depending on the angle. Every move seemed to disturb his surroundings, shaking loose a flurry of the red topsoil high into the air, forcing him to be slow and deliberate with each movement.
Despite the distance, the terminal was easy enough to spot. A series of long, off-white antennas surrounded the dust-coated metal panel that served as its base. Each of the stalks moved in such a way that almost made them seem alive, their heavy poles bobbing back and forth against the force of the high winds like a cybernetic patch of uncut grass. The sensors affixed to the ends of their rounded tips blinked a faint green color every few seconds, a signal to those watchful eyes surrounding them that all was well, the eyes he was desperate to avoid alerting.
Troy hadn’t realized how high up he actually was until he finally emerged from the metal slender maintenance hatch. That route led through the guts of the entire facility, why did it end so abruptly? It didn’t make any sense. He’d followed Ursla’s directions to the letter while navigating the winding subterranean tunnels, careful to mind each and every turn she had listed on the crinkled up little pocket map. Even still, there he was, trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Ursla, ugh. That whitecoat gave him the creeps, even before she defected to their rebellion. According to the route she’d mapped out, he was supposed to have bypassed the arid cliffs entirely and emerged right by the terminal. So why didn’t he? What had changed? Was this so she could see how well her weird contraptions functioned in combat scenarios again?
It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d done something like that. Probably won’t be the last, either, even if he ended up splattered at the bottom of this ravine.
Ursla’s last attempt to field test her experiments had led to the deaths of several operatives, an outcome that almost cost the mad scientist her position. Almost. Whatever the ill-fated tests had managed to accomplish must have been mighty important to Jackie Aguillar, the late leader of the Reclaimers, especially if she allowed the whitecoat to keep her position in the fold afterwards. Maybe it was just circumstantial. After all, the mission was to save Jackie. Why botch it? Whether the error had been intentional or not, the tunnel terminated all the same. Might as well accept it.
He wrinkled his nose, resigned to his misfortune as he reached for the pair of binoculars on his belt, the aged leather pouch creaked quietly as he lifted up the flap to pull them free. As he fit the rubber eyecups around his weary eyes, he stifled a shiver as the cold material pressed against his skin. Reaching a middle finger forward, Troy pressed down and adjusted the focus wheel until the guards were in clear view.
It was kind of funny, really. The guards didn’t seem like bad folks at all. Not by just looking at them, anyway. Looks could be deceiving, he supposed, but still. The frontmost guard was a younger man, he couldn't have been a day over twenty. A sad attempt at a moustache occupied the space along his upper lip. The guard next to him was a woman around the same age, her face leaner, more experienced looking than her compatriot. They bore a striking resemblance to one another. Their nametags were obscured by the camo pattern of their uniforms, but they both seemed to begin with a P.
Or maybe it was Parker?
No, no, not Parker.
That was going to bug him.
Troy hoped that wasn’t the case, that they weren’t any sort of relation. No one deserved to watch their family die in front of them, not even the brainwashed minions of the Gatekeepers.
After putting away his binoculars, Troy traced the length of his leather-bound arm, pulling back a hidden partition that revealed a small metal control panel of the jacket sleeve. On it were several sets of chrome switches and a blackish-teal face plate. He didn’t much appreciate playing lab monkey for a bunch of wackos, but his feelings on the matter were of little import. He had a mission to accomplish, a promise to keep, and that was that.
He glanced down at the messenger bag slung over his shoulder, huffing quietly before flicking one of the small toggle switches.
Several other panels that ran the length of the jacket opened along his forearm as a long cylindrical steel tube sprouted out with several quiet hisses. Troy extended his arm outwards, allowing the tube to guide itself down past his wrist before the momentum planted the control apparatus firmly into his waiting palm. He felt the smooth contours of the trigger pressing against the inside of his inner fingers as it emerged outwards from its shell, signaling that the contraption was ready to fire.
A bead of sweat trickled down his temple as he squeezed the trigger, sending a metal cable rocketing towards the antenna spire closest to him. It quickly encircled the metal pole, wrapping itself around it several times over before latching back onto itself, securing the hold. After another deep breath, he twisted the rubber grip of the handle and Troy found himself rocketing at breakneck speed towards the guards. The loud groaning sound from the mechanism’s reeling drew the gazes of both guards towards the rapidly approaching insurgent.
Troy grimaced, his shoulder burning from the force of the rampant acceleration. The inner lining of the jacket was supposed to take the strain off of his joints, but clearly Ursla didn’t have the design perfected yet. What the whitecoat had managed to perfect was the switchblade sword attached to his other arm. With single flick of his wrist, the gleaming blade emerged from its hidden sheath, reflecting the confused expressions of the guards back at them as the insurgent hurdled towards their necks.
Troy disengaged the cable as he reached the zenith of his arch, corkscrewing between the two Gatekeepers like a lethal gust of wind. Before either could manage a scream, he had already blown past, spinning to a halt a few feet in behind them. He flicked his blade, casting a long trail of blood onto the dusty metal platform beside him before retracting the sword back into its sheath. He looked up, his expression vacant as he watched the guards slowly crumple to the ground, their faces twisted into what he could only assume was confusion, or was it regret? Who was he to know?
As he rubbed his shoulder, Troy was finally able to make out the names embroidered on the pockets of the slaughtered guards’ uniforms. Perez, both of them. He felt a slight stinging sensation in his eyes as he stormed past the carnage onto the platform. Another family broken by their ongoing war.
Once he approached the terminal, Troy managed to bring his mind back to the task at hand. The terminal was rather boxy in its composition, its matte silver face displaying a series of dials and buttons, just as Ursla had described to him. He hated to admit it, but the frau was certainly proving her worth on this run.
With the hands of a man possessed, Troy’s fingers danced along the control panel of the terminal, various beeps and boops followed as several sections of the screen began lighting up one after the other. After several moments, the platform shuddered to life underneath him. A metallic groan began radiating out as the metal mass started rising up towards the sky. He leapt down from the platform, watching intently as the terminal continued its seemingly unending ascent.
Alarms began blaring out as other Gatekeepers were alerted to Troy’s handiwork. In the distance, several clusters of loud, erratic voices began shouting indistinctly as the sounds of activity grew steadily closer. Troy’s eyes widened as he peered down into the deep indention that had been left behind by the platform.
There, in the middle of all of that flattened earth, there was a beautiful door with a polished bronze doorknob. Inscribed along the glossy dark wood in a flowery golden filigree was the words: Public Library.
He felt his heart leap in his chest as he read the text, his mouth nearly hanging agape as he absentmindedly clutched the shoulder strap of his bag.
The door! It was really there!
He almost couldn’t believe it. All of their hard work, their sacrifices, the friends he’d lost...it wasn’t in vain. All he had to do was cross that threshold and everything they’d suffered through will have been worth it. The Reclaimers would survive.
Troy winced as he felt a sudden stinging along his cheek. He reflexively reached up to touch it and furrowed his brow. There was something wet covering his fingers, something red. Wait, blood?
Several shots whizzed by his head, thumping into the ground next to him as a group of Gatekeepers began advancing on his position, their numbers steadily increasing. Troy rolled forward into the crater, narrowly avoiding another volley of shots as he moved. Bullets peppered the ground around him as he reached for the doorknob, his desperate fingers clutching around the cool metal handle as he went to twist it.
As he pulled open the door, he felt himself becoming engulfed in a strange bluish light. It wasn’t harmful, not in a way that he could perceive, anyway. The light was warm, like sunshine on a spring day. He closed his eyes, the warmth continued filling him, as if it were hugging his every cell. A sense of weightlessness overcame him, lifting him from his feet before plucking him from his dimension, from the very world itself, and stealing him away to another plane of existence altogether.
When he opened his eyes once more, Troy blinked, his eyes slowly focusing on the magnificent mahogany desk directly in front of him. A tall, slender man in a light brown suit and tie stood behind the desk, a stack of ancient-looking books positioned by his hands, which seemed both too long and too thin to be anything other than supernatural. The man’s face was drawn tightly against his skull, giving him a permanent smile that made him seem both jovial and maniacal. A mound of straw-colored hair rested atop of his taught scalp.
The figure leaned over the massive desk, his empty eye sockets glowing that same mystical blue color as the light that transported him there.
“Ah, well I’ll be, a new patron here in the forbidden city! Welcome, fine sir,” the ethereal desk clerk said, “what brings you to my little library?”
He should’ve been horrified, that was a given. But for whatever reason, he wasn’t. Whether or not this strange sense of serenity was a result of his journey or just a side-effect of the light, he couldn’t tell. It was a puzzling feeling.
“I’ve come to return an overdue book and repay a debt,” he said.
“A return? AND a debt, you say?” the clerk quipped, “how might a young man such as yourself have gone about acquiring any debt here? I’ve been the librarian at this branch since the foundations were laid some two hundred years ago and I know for a fact you haven’t been in here before. Your aura’s untainted to boot, pure as the virgin snow...even after you killed those twins. That’s something.”
“The debt isn’t mine, sir. It is my superior’s. As for the book, that’s a different matter altogether,” he said.
“I see. Whom is it you represent, sir?” the librarian asked, cocking his head, his neck crackling and snapping like a pile of dried leaves as he moved.
“Jackie Aguillar, leader of the Reclaimers.”
“Jackie Aguillar, eh? That’s interesting,” the librarian said, reaching with his spindly fingers to open the ancient book directly next to him, the blue flames in his sockets glowed intensely as he flipped through the book’s aged pages to the relevant entry.
“Hmm, Aguillar, Aguillar. Ah, here she is. Well, that can’t be right. This is a debt we have already collected. Let me just check here—ah, yes. Soul reaped. Reclaimed, as it were. Ha, who says the universe isn’t filled with its little ironies? In any case, I’m not sure what it is you’re looking to do here, sir. That transaction has been finalized.”
Troy reached into his messenger bag and produced a small black book, its binding sleek and pristine, as if it were brand new.
“Like I said, I’m here to make a return.”
“Where did you get that?” the librarian asked, his voice losing its jovial tone. Its glowing slits locked onto the book.
“The Gatekeepers have been using this for some time. Altering fate, the little bastards. We had no idea how they’d managed to wipe our group out so quickly, but once you all collected Jackie’s soul, it didn’t take us long to figure out who was responsible. This is how they did it, isn’t it? They used your own journal against you?”
“You’re toying with forces you don’t understand, boy,” the librarian whispered, his tone flat, yet harsh.
A smile crossed Troy’s lips as he held the journal aloft in his hands. He hadn’t been the biggest fan of the plan when he’d first heard it. Interdimensional travel was spotty at best, and souls? If you didn’t have leverage, you didn’t have a prayer when it came to collectors. But to stand there, to hold power over one of the fates, no matter how briefly, that was as close to godhood as any mere human could get.
“Return Jackie’s soul to her body, forgive her fee, and this journal will be yours once more. Don’t, and I’ll just find someone else more willing to cooperate. You have a lot of people vying for your gig, did you know that?” Troy asked, “I don’t think I could manage it, myself. I’d be far too paranoid.”
For a moment, the librarian’s face remained stoic, his eternal grin drooping ever so slightly along the stretched corners of his mouth. Then, a chuckle escaped him. It hung in the air a moment, lingering like a specter. Then came another, then another. Soon, he was outright cackling, a stream of tears ran freely from his sockets.
“What is your name, sir?” the librarian asked once he’d finally settled down a tad.
“Troy, Troy Maxwell.”
“Ha, ha. Troy Maxwell, well met,” the librarian said as he reached out his hand across the desk. Pinched between the creature’s two fingers was a small green card.
“What is that?” he asked, his eyes drawn to the object.
“If you want to conduct business here, you have to have a library card.”
“So that means...”
“Yes, yes. Your terms are accepted, sir,” the librarian said, “and don’t gloat, it isn’t proper.”