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We had walked less than five feet in when without warning the wall reappeared behind us and everything went completely black. I groaned, and Eddie said a word he probably shouldn’t have.
“Quiet!” the janitor whispered. “You think I don’t know my way around? All you gotta worry about is staying close to me.”
I hoped he was right. Plowing blindly through a dark tunnel was scarier than I liked.
As I waited for my pupils to dilate, I tried focusing on other senses.
The first thing I noticed was the slope of the tunnel floor. It wasn’t level. It sloped slightly downward, and the further we walked the steeper it became.
That meant we were moving underground.
The air inside the tunnel felt surprisingly fresh. I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint any kind of smell or odor, but nothing came. Listening was useless too, since everything was silent except for our shoes tapping on the metal floor.
It took about thirty seconds for my eyes to adjust enough to start making out specifics of my surroundings. Like the floor, the tunnel walls were also metal, and there were no corners at any edges; the floor curved smoothly into the walls and they curved smoothly into the ceiling. Everything looked unmarked, untouched, and very smooth.
Even weirder, the walls were warm to the touch – not cold like I’d expected. A dim red glow provided a little light, only there weren’t any light fixtures. The glow seemed to emanate from everywhere at once.
The whole place felt like something out of Star Trek. Eddie must have been thrilled.
After a minute or so of walking, the tunnel floor leveled out and branched into two paths. Even here, there were no corners; everything looked smooth and clean, and the temperature felt quite a bit warmer than it had in the school – again, opposite of what I expected.
Despite the branch in the tunnel, the janitor didn’t slow down. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. He veered right and continued straight for another fifty or so feet before holding up his hand. Eddie and I stopped as he got down onto his knees and pressed an ear against the floor.
“…Damn,” he whispered. “I can’t hear a thing and I don’t like it. It’s not like the Zargansk to hide, waiting for us to come find them. They usually prefer to blast their way in.”
That didn’t sound good. I glanced nervously down both sides of the tunnel, but everything was still calm, silent, and really creepy.
Eddie, however, looked like he was having the time of his life.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
He grinned and shrugged as our fearless leader jumped back to his feet.
“Well,” the janitor said, scratching his head, “they won’t be here for something friendly. Time to arm up.”
He continued several feet down the hallway then began feeling the wall. His actions implied looking for something, but whatever he sought must have been well-hidden since every square inch of the silver walls looked identical to me.
While the janitor searched, I took another shot at analyzing our surroundings. My eyes had pretty much adjusted to the darkness and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
For one, the tunnel ceiling was awfully tall – probably ten, twelve feet high. And, like all the floor and walls so far, it too was made of unending, unmarked, bright silver metal. I wondered how anyone could keep track of where they were down here.
As I contemplated this, the janitor stopped searching and turned to face me.
“Have you used a gun before?”
“Uh, I…what?” I sputtered. “What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’ Have you used a gun before? It’s a simple question!”
“Well yeah, dad’s a hunter and we’ve–”
He turned to Eddie.
“Uh, I’m pretty good at arcade games that use plastic guns. Last summer I beat the all-time high score of 350,000 points on–”
“Okay, okay,” the janitor said, shaking his head and rubbing his temples nervously. “This may not have been a good idea. Let’s just hope you don’t accidentally shoot me with these…”
He then held out his left hand and pressed it against an unmarked spot in the wall. A bright white light in the outline of his hand appeared, flashed twice, then disappeared. He removed his hand and turned to face the opposite wall, where a dim rectangle the size of an electrical panel had just appeared. The janitor once again removed the diamond-shaped black pendant from around his neck, then brought it slowly toward the panel. The pendant glowed an effulgent blue – the same blue that had filled the upstairs room just minutes before – as he inserted it into a small hole on the bottom-right corner of the panel. Without turning anything, a soft click sounded and the panel swung open, revealing a hidden gun rack.
That was some kinda pendant.
The gun rack was stocked with four identical science-fiction-looking rifles; each was long, thin, and made of the same polished metal that lined the silver walls of the tunnel. The janitor removed three of the rifles, one of which he handed to Eddie, another to me. He then removed a 6-inch metal rod from the bottom of the safe and stuffed it in his back pocket.
Then he closed the panel and turned to face us. I found his expression somewhere between totally psychotic and totally worried as he grimaced and motioned over his shoulder.
“Follow me, boys. We got us a Zargansk to fry.”
And he started jogging down the tunnel.
“Hey!” Eddie said. “What is this thing – some kind of sci-fi rifle?”
The janitor slowed.
“You bet it is. Works like a normal rifle, only it uses vaporized silicon powder instead of powder or projectiles. Real powerful, real quiet.”
He glanced at our guns, then smacked his head.
“Oh yeah – almost forgot. Switch that lever on the right to red and pull the trigger if you see anything move. Just don’t hit me with the blast, ‘cause like I said – that’s no ordinary gun.”
And as if that were an acceptable explanation, he turned and continued jogging. Eddie and I switched the levers on our rifles to red and hurried to catch up.
After another fifty feet we reached a four-way intersection. The janitor plowed straight through it then took his next left. After several more turns I was hopelessly lost. I hoped Eddie was having better luck tracking our location.
Five minutes of jogging later, I had to fight to keep my breathing slow and steady. I was in the back of the line; the janitor still lead the way with Eddie in-between us. I caught myself reflexively glancing over my shoulder, because while we hadn’t seen anything yet, I half expected to see some monstrous, bloodthirsty creature sneaking up on us. I had assumed these Zargansk guys to be some brand of assassin or ninja or secret agent – but what if they were something else entirely?
I tried not to think about it as we took a sharp right turn.
Suddenly the janitor slowed and raised his hand. Eddie and I stumbled to a stop, both of us sweating and breathing heavily. I was way too out of shape for the amount of jogging I’d had to do in the last hour.
It was then that I realized the janitor wasn’t breathing heavily. He was breathing normally, and while Eddie and I were dripping with sweat, he looked dry as sandpaper.
Who was this guy? Some kind of superhero in disguise?
He mumbled something to himself and scratched his head while I leaned against the wall and tried to catch my breath. Eddie did the same, though after several seconds he leaned in and began whispering between labored breaths.
“Dude. Vaporized silicon – the stuff the janitor said was in these guns – from what I know about it, I bet it looks exactly like the green blasts we’ve been seeing.”
“Really? You think these are the same kind of guns the bad guys use?”
“I think so,” Eddie whispered, nodding excitedly. “Which means we’ve got the same firepower they do, only they don’t know it.”
Finally, some good news. Part of me couldn’t wait to try my new gun on a Zargansk, but another part of me – the sane part – secretly hoped this was all just a mistake. I didn’t know if my pounding heart could handle another gunfight.
Eddie was about to say something else when the janitor raised a triumphant fist in the air.
“Of course!” he said quietly. “I bet something went wrong with the portalgate! Serves him right for using it to transport! Ha! C’mon, boys!”
Back to jogging down the hallway. I was really, really sick of running, but the thought of being left alone in these creepy alien-looking tunnels really didn’t appeal to me.
So I followed. Grudgingly.
Three hallways later the janitor again raised a hand, bringing us to a halt. He waited for a moment before placing his hand against the wall.
Somewhere in the distance a sudden crash rang out, followed by a loud scuttling sound scurrying away from us.
…I knew that noise.
It sounded like what I’d heard at the school Friday morning, and the same noise had also sounded at the hospital just moments before my family and I were brutally attacked.
That noise was always associated with green blasts.
The janitor cursed and took after the sound at a run, Eddie close behind him. I tightened my grasp on the silver rifle, tried to clear my mind, and sprinted after them.
Two turns later we entered a very long, very wide hallway. A blur whisked past the end of the tunnel and the janitor unhesitatingly fired. Sure enough, a brilliant green sphere the size of a golf ball burst from his rifle and soared down the hallway, dissipating with a hiss into the far wall.
The enemy glanced around the corner and fired back. This time it was a yellowish sphere; all three of us dived frantically out of the way and the blast barely missed the janitor’s leg before hissing angrily onto the floor.
“Phenx!” the janitor yelled. “I’m gonna kill you!”
A horrible, scaly laugh resonated from the far end of the hallway.
“Oh really, Joseph?” it hissed. “You want to kill me? I’m shocked. I thought we were friends.”
The janitor cursed and hammered his trigger. Multiple bursts of bright green energy lit up the tunnel before smashing into the far wall.
“Arrrgh! Why’d you come back through the portalgate? Why!”
“Must I explain everything to you? The project is over. Foolish Kepik is finally imprisoned, Zyken’s HIRC forces are in place, and I no longer wish to deal with you. I have come to kill you and collect the portalgate.”
The janitor roared and fired off another round of shots. A creepy, hissing laugh slithered from the end of the hallway.
“Foolish man. Will you use all your weapon’s energy firing at the wall?”
The janitor cursed again. By now the still-sane portion of my mind had kicked in, and I realized I really didn’t want to be forced to fight if his gun ran out of power. I reached out and set a frightened hand on his arm.
The shooting stopped, but the janitor looked absolutely murderous.
“Enough of your games, Phenx. Come out and face me like a man.”
The hissing laugh returned.
“Like a man? What an ignorant statement. Why don’t you come down here and face me like a Zargansk? Or are you afraid for your imprisoned family? I’d hate to have to punish them for yet another mistake of yours…”
The janitor grimaced as Eddie and I traded startled glances.
“You know the deal, Phenx,” he responded, his voice slightly quivering. “You can’t hurt them. Your laws won’t allow it.”
“Ah, but laws can be changed. With Kepik imprisoned, many representatives – including myself – are moving for complete termination of Project Earth. Complete termination, Joseph. Do you realize what that means?”
Somehow I didn’t like the sound of that. Project Earth? What was this Zargansk with the weird voice talking about?
“No way,” the janitor replied. “They’ll never allow it.”
“Ah, Joseph. You have so much faith in something you know so little about. We Zargansk are not like you.”
“It has nothing to do with race, Phenx! It’s about basic moral decency!”
“Do not lecture me. I am not here to philosophize with you. Now come face me – as you say, like a man – so I can kill you and be done with this ridiculous game we have been forced to play.”
More laughter still.
“And Joseph, how convenient that I can kill you here, where first we met! How fitting!”
I glanced at the janitor, whose face had become frighteningly inexpressive. How did he know this Zargansk by name? Were the Zargansk a different race? The conversation had seemed to imply that. Why did the Zargansk talk about us like we were aliens? Were they that detached from the rest of mankind? And what was this crap about ‘Project Earth’ being terminated?
So far this secret meeting with the janitor hadn’t clarified anything. In fact, it made things a thousand times more confusing, and now I was about to face down some elite assassin dude with a weapon I’d never even fired before.
“My only regret,” the Zargansk suddenly hissed with unmistakable sarcasm, “is that no other humans are around to hear your final screams. I wish all the universe could watch as I end your pitiful, meaningless life.”
And then it dawned on me.
Our opponent didn’t know he was facing multiple opponents. The Zargansk named Phenx thought the janitor was alone.
That gave me an idea.
I whispered my plan to the janitor, who – after a startled smirk at my boldness – nodded grimly and continued arguing with our enemy. Eddie raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask any questions, and he followed quietly as I began creeping down the hallway.
The janitor was yelling loudly now and I prayed that would be enough to hide the sound of Eddie and my scuffling feet. I double-checked the switch on my rifle; it was still at the red mark, which I could only assume was the maximum setting. I hoped that would be powerful enough.
Like before, my pounding heartbeat seemed fully audible. How could the enemy miss it? The pounding seemed to surround me, engulf me.
Eddie looked equally frightened. He seemed very eager for adventure, but based on my past experiences with him, whenever excitement actually arrived he usually found himself wishing there was less excitement.
But at least I wasn’t alone.
I just hoped this plan would work, because if it didn’t we would be sitting ducks. I focused all my attention into creeping as quietly as possible.
We neared the end of the hallway. The janitor continued his ranting.
Dim red light pulsed around us, covering everything in dramatic crimson hues.
I held my breath and tightened a finger around the rifle’s trigger.
Just then, I realized janitor-man was no longer yelling. I turned to see why when a powerful, hissing voice screamed out “THAT IS ENOUGH, HUMAN!” and a large shadowy form stepped out from behind the corner.
There was no time to think; I swung around and mashed down my trigger finger. Eddie followed suit.
Green bursts of energy blasted from our rifles. The hallway lit up and our target let out a horrifying scream.
I fired again. The enemy darted right, sprinting for a room at the end of the tunnel.
Eddie and I sprinted after him. The janitor yelled but I couldn’t really hear him. Hopefully he didn’t say anything important.
Our opponent was huge and unbelievably nimble. His giant form plowed through the door at the end of the hallway. Eddie and I plowed through it after him.
He was already halfway toward something in the corner of the room. I raised my rifle and prepared to fire again, but the janitor – who had somehow caught up to us – smashed my gun awry.
“No, Teal!” He yelled. “Don’t fire at the portalgate!”
The enemy shrieked again – a horrible, banshee-like shriek – as it darted toward a strange three-dimensional orb in the corner of the room. I raised my rifle again – the shot would’ve been clear – but the janitor wrenched the rifle from my grasp, leaving me to watch helplessly as the enemy plowed into the orb.
What happened next was totally unbelievable, even now.
The orb, previously a milky black, flashed bright white as it engulfed our opponent; it swelled from its original size – maybe 8 feet high by 6 feet around – to nearly twice that, the swelling accompanied by a series of violent vibrations and a loud, low pulsing noise.
I thought for certain it was going to burst. The janitor set a hand on mine and Eddie’s shoulders and pulled us backward, apparently fearing the same thing.
The three of us huddled together and watched, spellbound, as the numinous spectacle continued.
After several seconds the orb’s vibrating slowed and, slowly and almost painfully, it tediously began to shrink, its color fading from white to gray as the pulsing noise softly diminuendoed.
Eventually it reached its original size, and when it did the janitor let go of my shoulder.
I immediately turned to face him.
“…What just happened?”
“Well for starters, you shot a high-ranking Zargansk soldier. That’s gonna piss them off.”
My stomach dropped. The janitor stared at me for a moment before bursting out in laughter.
“And a damn nice shot it was, kid. I’m impressed. You got guts.”
He patted me lightly on the shoulder.
“Is that a portalgate?” Eddie whispered, pointing at the orb. It had shrunk to the size of a gallon of milk and its color had returned to deep, milky black.
“Yes. It connects this room to Orionis.”
“Yeah, Orionis. Just be glad you didn’t shoot it – that would’ve collapsed the portalgate and blown the city of Franklin to smithereens.”
The janitor snickered as if this were somehow funny. I didn’t find it funny.
I started to ask my next question when a sudden pop reverberated through the room. I spun around to find the orb/portalgate-thing bright white and flashing. Another pop rang out and something fell from its glossy surface before slowly drifting to the bright metal ground.
The janitor frowned and walked over to the object: a small, plain-looking square of something like paper. He bent over, read something written on it, read it again, then slowly stood, one hand holding the paper and slightly trembling, the other pressed tightly against his forehead.
“Well, this changes things,” he mumbled. “Guess I’m going in after all.”
“What?” yelled Eddie. “You can’t be serious! You know they’re not supposed to be used like that!”
Huh? What were they talking about?
“I don’t have a choice,” the janitor replied. “He’s going after my family.”
“But you could die! Those things aren’t meant for transporting humans!”
“I’ve watched them drag enough humans through that stupid orb to know it’s possible. I can do it.”
“And what about Teal? What about your mission to protect him?”
The janitor looked from Eddie to me.
“I’m sorry, Teal, but I can’t stay here and protect you any longer. I have to go after Phenx, and I have to do it quickly.”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the metal rod he had taken from the gun cabinet. He gave it a longing glance, then handed the rod to me.
“Guard this with your life. Once I go through the orb, I want you to throw this rod at it. That will close the portalgate…at least for a little while. After that, I need the two of you to track down a man called Cronus. He’s the only one that can help us now. Do you understand?”
Did I understand? Was he serious?
“Hell no, I don’t understand any of this. What’s going on? Give me some answers!”
The janitor looked at me, then turned and walked toward the portalgate-orb-thing.
Unbelievable. He was going to leave without answering any of my questions.
“Oh no you don’t,” I growled, grabbing his arm. “You haven’t answered a thing! What’s going on here? What is all this? Who are you?”
The janitor pulled my hand off his arm.
“There’s not enough time, Teal. My family is in danger and I have to catch Phenx. Just remember this: the two of you must find Cronus. Stick together and you’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me, either. I’ll be fine.”
Then he grew stern, raising a warning finger into the air.
“And whatever you do: DON’T TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS, especially the police. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Zargansk have eyes everywhere. Every time you mention them by name, you risk revealing your location. You should also know that they’re not going to be happy about shooting Phenx, so they’ll probably send a lot more horrible creatures to hunt you down.”
My stomach dropped again. If it dropped one more time, it’d be exiting via…
…well, you get the picture.
The janitor seemed to sense my worry. He smiled and shook his head.
“But don’t be afraid. Shooting Phenx probably bought mankind a couple extra days of peace. That slimy Zargansk was a major force in trying to start a war between us and them. When this is all over, you’re gonna be a hero.”
He looked straight at me.
…Huh? What did he mean by that?
“Anyway, take this advice seriously: you need to find Cronus quickly, because your lives will be in serious danger until you do. He can protect you. Do whatever you have to do to find him.”
The janitor turned to face the orb. Shockingly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Eddie was also – surprisingly – silent.
“I’m coming,” the janitor whispered as he bowed his head. Hands firmly around his rifle, he closed his eyes and stepped into the center of the portalgate. It seemed to reach out and surround him, sucking him into its center.
Eddie and I could only watch, speechless, as the portalgate went through the same process as when the Zargansk named Phenx had touched it. Its surface rotated swiftly through dark hues of purple and blue as it swelled and began to shake.
Then suddenly it flashed an image of an empty green field with the janitor standing in the center of it. As quickly as it had appeared, the image disappeared and the orb faded to a pure, dark black.
I looked down at the smooth silver rod in my hand. Was I really supposed to throw it at the orb…?
I looked back at the so-called portalgate, which had slowly begun to shrink. I was almost tempted to jump into it myself but I had no idea where the thing led. Orionis? Where was that? And what if it didn’t take me to the same place as the janitor? The thought of being alone in a place I knew nothing about was even worse than being stuck here, wanted by some Zargansk things for more reasons than I could count, most of them reasons I still didn’t understand.
So instead I took a deep breath, wound up my arm, and hurled the rod at the orb.
Although I’d thrown it as hard as I could, the rod seemed to travel through the air in slow motion. As it floated nearer and nearer to the center of the orb, its two ends glowed a dim, delicate blue.
Slowly the rod came to a complete stop, hovering mysteriously in mid-air.
The portalgate began to surround it.
As soon as the surface of the orb touched the rod, both began vibrating dangerously. The rod seemed to be sucking the orb into both of its lit ends; the portalgate resisted, cycling rapidly through violent shades of color as it slowly slurped away.
As more and more of it disappeared, the pace of the sucking increased.
Suddenly the last of the orb disappeared in a furious blast of light. Eddie and I threw our hands over our faces as the rod fell to the ground with a dull clunk.
Several moments passed before I reluctantly uncovered my eyes. A quick series of glances showed the room to be intact; apparently the blast had only been bright – not explosive or damaging.
After trading nervous glances with a wide-eyed Eddie, I cautiously approached the thin metal rod lying innocently on the floor, half expecting it to somehow look different.
I reached out and tapped it. The rod was warm to the touch, but other than that it looked like a normal metal stick. I picked it up, placed it in my back pocket, then turned to face Eddie.
…And then I just laughed. What could I possibly say after everything we had just experienced?
Eddie looked angry as he shook the alien rifle still clutched in his grasp.
“I can’t believe he went through the portalgate. He’s lucky he lived! And what are we supposed to do now – find some random guy named Cronus? That’s probably not even his real name, just some codename they use so they don’t set off Zargansk sensors. It could be anyone! And now the Zargansk are gonna come after us even more than they already have! This is getting way too dangerous, Teal…”
I frowned. My life was hard enough without Eddie panicking. Obviously things were dangerous, and they had been for some time.
“Enough, Eddie. We’ll be okay. We’ve been okay so far.”
“We? You’ve been okay so far, Teal. Or maybe lucky is a better word for it. Do you even know what we’re up against?”
I shook my head.
“How could I? Everyone that promises me answers ends up disappearing!”
Eddie grimaced and brought a hand to his forehead.
“Well I don’t know everything, but between my research this weekend and what we’ve seen here, I do have some answers. But here’s the thing – school is about to start.”
School? I had totally forgotten about school. I glanced at my phone to find that Eddie was right. We would have to hurry to make it to first period on time.
Wait a second. What was I thinking? School? Why should I care about school at a time like this?!
“Are you joking? Eddie, look at us! We just watched a man go through some crazy portalgate thing, we’re being chased by these Zargansk men–”
“They’re not men,” Eddie interrupted.
“What? Are they women?”
“No. They’re…well, it’s complicated.”
Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I’d heard that in the last 72 hours…
“Whatever. My point is – school doesn’t exactly matter right now. My family has disappeared, my bodyguard has disappeared, and I just shot a space-age rifle at some really important Zargansk soldier. An algebra class seems pretty irrelevant right now.”
“Okay, you got me there. Tell you what: let me go check out – I’ll just say I’m feeling sick – then we can meet up and plan our next move. Cool?”
“Cool. Now let’s get outta here. This place gives me the creeps.”
I set my silver rifle on the floor where the portalgate had hovered, then we headed back into the tunnels. A dim red glow still lit the silent hallways and we used its light to find our way back to the tunnel where we’d first encountered Phenx.
Fortunately for me, Eddie seemed to know the way from there. I paid careful attention to the route; somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that knowing my way back to the portalgate room would someday prove useful.
Eventually we reached the long ramp leading to the entrance, and – thankfully – the secret door at the top had re-opened. I hurried the last few steps out of the room and breathed a sigh of relief once we were safely back in the janitor’s closet.
Eddie walked over to the bucket of sawdust. The strange pole with the blue light on top was no longer visible, and if I didn’t know better, it really would have looked like a normal, nondescript bucket of sawdust.
I smiled at the thought.
Outside, the first bell rang. I picked up Eddie’s spare backpack – both of us had left our packs upstairs when we’d followed the janitor into the tunnels – and handed Eddie his. I double-checked to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, then flicked off the light.
Eddie opened the door and I followed him into the hallway, letting go of the door as we exited. It swung quietly shut.
Then I halted.
So did Eddie.
We slowly faced each other, then turned to look at the door.
Eddie groaned as I cursed. Loudly. The halls were busy, too, which drew me some strange looks. (Even stranger then the looks we’d received when we exited the closet together; who knew what rumors would be spreading about me now…)
“Teal, I can’t believe we just…”
He tried reopening the closet door, but it was most definitely locked. I could only shake my head in disbelief.
“We just locked ourselves out. The janitor should have left his keys because now we’re never getting back inside.”
“Even worse than that,” Eddie replied. “He didn’t leave his magic necklace either – the one that opened the secret doorway. What if it closes? We have no way to get back inside the tunnels even if we could get back into the closet.”
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. That seemed to be the new theme of my life.
And now I had a whole new list of questions, like how were we supposed to find this Cronus guy? Who was he anyway? Was he going to be as cryptic as the janitor? Who were the Zargansk, and were they really going to chase me more than before? What was I supposed to do with the metal rod in my back pocket – the one holding the portalgate the janitor had disappeared into?
What a stupid mess. I really needed to stop thinking in questions.
“Why don’t you hurry up and check out,” I told Eddie. “I’m going to the vending machines by the lunchroom to grab some more food. I’m still starving.”
“Okay. I’ll meet you there in a minute or two.”
Eddie scampered toward the office. I watched him leave, then started toward the lunchroom.
Maybe some snacks would help me feel better.
(…I doubted it.)
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