Car wheels screamed against asphalt road. Allie laid in the trunk of a ran-down minivan, trying to position himself in such a way that would save his arms from being dislocated by the jolting of the road. The floor was padded with two well-loved coats, their surfaces rubbing against his stone skin with a grittiness only cheap plastic could achieve.
Outside the car, on the road south, hail struck the earth; except, instead of balls of ice, the hail was 0.7 mm calibre bullets. He couldn’t hear any of it. The rumbling of the engine, the malfunctioning air conditioning and the car’s battered walls were enough to block out the barrage of bullets against the ground.
RIM-593, uncategorized and currently codenamed “Tears of Jivilos” raged on, triggered by some unknown event in the past three days. The cloud threw its metal slugs at the Earth at a velocity of 1500 metres per second. It was a gorey, painful death.
The bumps of the road stopped. A deep voice cursed from the front row. Someone punched something.
Oh, Allie thought with bemusement. So we’re in that timeline.
He screwed his eyelids shut and quickly dipped into the cacophony of noise and light. A flash here, a peek there, a couple hundred thousand anomalies that he could count on being eliminated on account of their sheer lunacy. Time was running out; both in the prime timeline and in its aberrations. He took one last look at the labyrinth of causality and pulled himself out.
The back row seats vibrated as he pounded his fists against their feeble backing. To him, it felt like he was gently knocking on the seats, but judging by the incessant shouting from the front row, it was a lot more than that.
“Whaddya want, Allie?” Olivia’s voice boomed.
‘OUT’ He pounded in morse code.
“Sorry dude, I can’t understand you, guess yo- hey, what’re you doing-?”
The back of the car lifted open and Allie went tumbling out. He didn’t realize how tightly he had been squeezed into the trunk; it amazed him it even managed to hold at all. The distinct smell of smoke and incense greeted him as he pushed himself up. Loriad stood over him. Her entire body was made of smoke, grey and wispy and currently smelling vaguely of moldy car air conditioning. Tints of orange occasionally peaked out, like glowing magma beneath a shattered crust.
“What is it?” She asked tersely.
“The car won’t start again,” Allie signed urgently. His other arms swung and twitched, some of them forming into intricate signs out of muscle memory. It was a shame most people only had two arms. “We have to find somewhere to hide.”
Loriad yelled the message over the car roof to the others, squeezed inside of the car like canned fish.
“Hide where?” John said, poking his head out of the car. For a moment his dark blue skin blended into the night, and he was just a pair of white sclera with dark pupils. “This road goes on for miles. Where do we go and hide from literal raining bullets?”
“Certainly not this car!” Alizebeth kicked her car door askew. Her deer legs left a dent.
Loriad looked at Allie expectantly.
“Don’t know,” he signed. “Too far away, too many choices. But there are some. The timeline does not end here.
“Would be a lot easier if I just set that cloud on fire,” Olivia muttered.
“With all due respect, Olivia,” Jaren’s smooth voice came from inside the car, where he was busy assembling his wheelchair for an upcoming mad dash across fields. “I doubt raining bullets that are on fire is much of an improvement from normal raining bullets. Which direction, Allie?”
He just finished explaining why he didn’t know which direction to go to. He squinted and again dipped into his visions of the future. More sights and sounds assaulted him and his headache steadily grew worse. It felt like his skull was fracturing. He stared at the array of possibilities, of words and occurrences that appear in an uncanny amount of timelines.
“RIM-384-Savini?” He said, which was not a direction.
“Savini,” Loriad repeated to herself. She began to tap her foot against the ground. “The RIM-subcategory for sentient locations.”
“There’s a subcategory for that?” Olivia looked amazed.
“Wasn’t my idea.” Loriad scowled. “The Pantheon was barely functioning prior to the 1900s. They left a bunch of the grunt work for lower committees, and now I get to deal with their paperwork from hell.” She had now erupted into a full-on pace, fidgeting with her (dead) phone. “384, I believe, is a bomb shelter from the 1800s, during the War of Ten Rivers. It’s sentient and only lets people in if they answer a question.”
“Sounds tame,” Alizebeth whistled.
“It only accepts a single visitor to answer its question. The first exploration team got blown to bits, the second one evaporated, and one of our interviewers was stupid enough to bring a buddy along and they both got eaten.”
“Still better than 03,” Alizebeth said.
Anything was better than 03.
“So only one person can go in?” Jaren asked. He was now edging himself out of the car.
“No, we can all go in.” Loriad shoved her phone back into her pockets. “It’s just that we need to get one person to answer the question first before we try to approach it. Effective radius for obliteration is…” she looked down, deep in thought. “…I don’t remember. Operuses, I don’t remember.”
To the south, the sound of bullets dashing upon land crept closer. A cold wind blew, breaking up the quiet nighttime with a sharp chill. Olivia pulled a coat out of the car trunk as if it had suddenly grown wings.
“We stay here.” Allie snapped to get everyone’s attention. “We all go, we die. Spectacularly.”
“What an image!” Jaren chirped.
“Send one person to answer, and we are safe.” Allie held up a hand to stop John’s words. “I do not know which direction.”
They fussed over directions and launched into a discussion about which tactic was most likely to leave them all not so riddled with bullet holes or “blown to bits.” Jaren suggested everyone going out in a singular direction, but the idea didn’t work when they only had one 1-way communicator. Alizebeth and Loriad busied themselves looking through their six phones, trying to access the RIM database with the meagre batteries and choppy signal.
“The War of Ten Rivers was mostly a naval battle,” Olivia mused. “They probably would only have built shelters near water, right?”
“Maybe,” John said. “But battalions fought on land too. Any settlement that was connected to or near a river would be in danger, not just directly coastal ones.”
“That should rule out the south-west.” Jaren had at some point started drawing a map of their location on a notepad. “The rivers diverge from the point to the east.” he drew lines radiating out from a fork. “The west was settled, but their industry was built on mines and their water came from groundwater. There would be no reason to waste time to attack them. Directly east at the fork, too, was too much of a warzone for anyone to consider staying there long-term enough to build a shelter.”
Allie scowled. That comment about the industries was wildly incorrect; the west had had a booming manufacturing industry then, although mostly consisting of bombs and cannons and such weapons of war. The area was, indeed, very lucrative to attack during wartime.
“But did the residents know that?” Olivia said. “They could’ve built it out of panic.”
“No,” Loriad said. “14 is spacious is well-built. And.” She began drumming on the notepad. “14 is not a mortal cast. The shelter itself was not what was special, it’s the land it was surrounded by. It’s a casting by a Fifth Orbital, an Unbound.”
“Who, though? And why?” Alizebeth began drumming her hands on her arms in a way that mirrored Loriad. “Someone to do with war?”
“The Roscheni goddess of naval warfare.” Allie said as the pieces clicked, recalling a mythology book he’d read on the continent’s major faiths. “Her lairs sit in deep lakes, where salmon flock and the water never freezes. Her name was…”
“Toreisaka,” Loriad finished. “Not only naval warfare, but also the goddess of fish and safety, and of compassion for the poor. Legends say that once, an army general who hurt an innocent fisherman had his throat torn open while eating fish that night because the fish still had the hook in its belly.”
“Humans certainly are creative with their mythology.” Olivia absently scratched at her throat.
“Good going, folks” Jaren circled a nearby lake with his pen. “This is the only lake nearby large enough to fit the description. It’s probably it. Now, who’s going?”
Olivia and John’s hands shot up.
“You’re not going?” Alizebeth poked at Allie and he cringed. He could understand why; with his stride (4 feet) and stamina (literally made of stone) he could make it there in half-time. His muteness shouldn’t be a problem either, the communicator transmitted video just fine and most RIM objects created by benevolent deities were accepting enough of sign language.
Truth be told, he just didn’t want to find out what happened to the people who got 384’s questions wrong.
“I’m staying behind to carry Jaren,” Allie lied. Jaren gave him a thumbs up, but the expression on his face somehow made Allie feel like a misbehaving child. He shuffled away from him, imperceptibly.
“-re too short.” John and Olivia were having an argument on who would go. Loriad was busy overseeing them with a bored expression on her face. She looked about ready to go herself, just to make the two of them stop arguing.
“What does being short have to do with it?” Olivia said. “I run fast, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m going,” John said.
A blank fog overcame Allie’s thoughts. For a split moment, before it settled, his mind revolted and fought against the blanket of obedience, but then it was snuffed out. It was like there were strings attached to him, not only his limbs but also his mind. The others fell into a similar trance, quieting down and handing John a coat and their communicator as he set out. Veins bulged out of Olivia’s neck.
It was like the feeling of waking up from a strange dream. His conscious mind was writhing against something it knew was untrue yet a feeling of ease settled over him all the same. As John disappeared into the night, his dark clothes like camouflage, the fog cleared.
Of course, the one time John used his power ‘Command’ it’d be to convince them to let him go off and do something stupid. Allie massaged his temple. As unnecessary as it was, he liked to entertain the idea that perhaps it would lessen his metaphorical headache by a few notches.
“Yeesh,” Alizebeth said.
“Well said,” Olivia muttered. “I don’t know if I’m mad at him for getting me or impressed that he got me.” Sparks flew at her fingertips. She crossed her arms.
“That’s probably just the after-effects.” Alizebeth patted her on the back. “Let it wear off on its own.”
“I can’t even go chase after him for his stupidity.” Olivia sighed and plunked down to the ground. “And I’m freezing. This sucks.”
They huddled together like a bunch of penguins around the palm-sized receiver. The chill picked up. Winds blew their hair into their eyes and it flew around their scalp like thousands of spasming limbs. Allie was not chilled by the wind, Ap-kofs cared very little for temperature unless they were in the hundreds of kelvins that were enough to melt their bodies.
Loriad headed inside as the wind picked up.
“Didn’t you say the castings protected you against this stuff?” Alizebeth asked and looked Loriad up and down. Smoke was noticeably drifting off of her, torn off by the wind, but it didn’t pose any real threat to her with the standard castings in place.
“Well, yeah it does,” Loriad said “but imagine you’re in a room full of knives. Doesn’t matter how much kevlar you’re wearing. It’s still uncomfortable.”
“Not really,” Allie said.
Loriad gave him a withering look from the cracked window.
Alizebeth filled the air with nervous chatter while the razor-sharp wind continued to ring in their ears, against the backdrop of ever-nearing bullets. They sounded almost like a thousand subdued thunderclaps, or the hooves of a hoard of stampeding mammals. Jaren cocked his head to observe the distant region where moonlight occasionally hit the bullets at just the right angle to create a sight that almost looked like a shower curtain.
“It’s coming in forty minutes,” he said. Allie bounced his knees, up and down, up and down, like he was shaking the anxiety off of him. The receiver was still silent. How far away was the shelter? He didn’t know. Would it be better if he knew? He didn’t know that either.
Between his knees bouncing up and down, Alizebeth’s fidgeting, Jaren’s eyes constantly scanning the area every other minute and Loriad tucked away into the car, the tension wound up like a snake around Allie’s neck. It sprung higher and higher, like a hose slowly ballooning with water.
The receiver crackled. The bubble burst.
“This is John, arrived at 384, the question has been answered. Haul yourselves over. There’s some radio equipment over here, I’m getting into contact with leadership. Don’t be dead. Over.”