Trapped was not a pleasant word.
I stared at Ella. She met my eyes, but her lips quivered until she pressed them together.
Finally I said, “If they know how to close a rift, do they know how to open one?”
Ella’s eyes widened, then glazed over, unfocused as if she was looking at something I couldn’t see.
“Give me a moment.”
I waited. A moment passed. And then another.
“Uh-huh.” Her eyes did not regain their focus.
I started counting. I was going to give her thirty more seconds before I poked her, hard. Probably in the stomach, and possibly not so hard that it would hurt, but not gently either.
But before I reached thirty, she sighed and shook herself back into awareness. “Maybe? I’m getting the access denied message, no matter how I try to phrase the question.”
I did poke her. Hard.
She yelped and jumped back from me. “What was that for?”
“For being annoying. What are you talking about?”
Ella clapped her hands together and held them before her, fingers folded as if in prayer. “Lila, it’s so wonderful. It’s so —“ She stopped as if overcome by emotion, words not sufficient to express her feelings. Then she opened her arms wide, leaped forward, and flung them around me.
“Oof!” I gasped.
“But I’m so glad you didn’t die. So, so, so glad. I can’t even tell you how glad I am. I’m just —“ She squeezed, her head on my shoulder, her arms tight around my own body and arms. “— So glad.”
“Can’t breathe.” I gasped, through the quantity of dark curls covering my mouth and nose.
She squeezed even harder for a second, then let go.
“Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “But I’ve been so worried. I love the System, I do, it’s the most wonderful thing ever — like a library, in your head, all the time — but it wouldn’t have been worth losing you. Really. And not just because Mother and Father would have been so angry at me when they found out. I mean that would have been bad. Really bad. I wouldn’t have liked that at all. Well, no one would, although I’m not sure they ever would find out. I mean I don’t know how they could know that we’re here. But—“
“Ella, stop.” I broke into her stream of babble. She always talked too much when she was nervous. “What were you doing just now and what is this System you keep talking about?”
I will spare you Ella’s meandering explanations. The short version, if such an explanation can ever be short, is that the nannies Ella mentioned previously had built machines inside our bodies.
These devices generated the visual artifacts I’d already noticed, allowing one to control elements of our surroundings; the doors, windows, lights, and so on. Those empty classrooms we’d walked by weren’t empty at all. The students within them were surrounded by vibrant displays invisible to people without System access. Their school books, their chalk boards, all the tools of learning, were created by the System.
The System contained vast quantities of information, plus entertainments unlike anything we’d ever seen or experienced. It was also a tool for communicating with others; an artificial telepathy machine, if you will. Plus it could record everything you saw or heard, monitor your health, map your location, maintain your schedule, and much, much more.
In truth, it was a miraculous device.
Ella adored it, of course. An entire library stored in her head? It was her idea of paradise.
I found the idea profoundly disturbing. Having machines — even tiny machines, invisible to the eye — inserted into my brain without my permission offended me.
But no one had asked me and it was much too late to complain. I had been unconscious for six whole days while the nannies did their work. (Or their damage, depending on how you looked at it.)
“Six days?” I said in disbelief when Ella told me that. No wonder I’d wobbled when I stood up. I’d never been sick for so long before.
Ella nodded. “I was sick, too, for the first few days, but nothing like you. Za Kestrel and Za Aviv swore you would be all right, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe them. I could See that they thought they were telling me the truth, but…” She shrugged.
Six days. The thought was appalling. When had our family realized we were missing? The servants would have noticed we were gone when we skipped dinner. Most likely, they would have waited to inform our mother until her return from the Grovers. Would she have sent for our father immediately? Even if she waited until after they’d searched and failed to find us, by now he would certainly know we had disappeared.
But that was what we’d wanted. Or at least what we’d committed to when we entered this world. The sick feeling in my stomach had nothing to do with the nannies and everything to do with the thought of home, but I swallowed hard and pushed the feeling away.
If we were trapped here, we would simply have to make the best of it.
Perhaps the danger would enable me to gain the control over my magic that mere societal disapprobation and genteel punishments had never been sufficient to ensure.
One could hope, anyway.
During the six days in which I had been unconscious, Ella had been being typically Ella. Dimples, curls, and curves were potent social weapons when properly utilized. Add her Truesight and Persuasion to the mix and a stone wall would have trouble resisting Ella’s charm, much less the type of people running a school for refugee children. She’d made many friends, and had already gained a position of trust with the senior staff.
Although that, as she pointed out to me, might have been due at least in part to the shortage of adults. The school contained four hundred children — four hundred and two, if Ella and I were included in the count — with a mere twenty adults to both manage them and meet their needs. The staff was, to put it charitably, overwhelmed. Extra hands were more than welcome.
The situation was thus: the school was named Domas, which was a term laden with untranslatable nuances. Something like “safe haven for unfortunate souls,” perhaps, or “sanctuary for those lost in a storm.” Nothing so simple as “orphanage” or “boarding school,” although those were implied as well.
It was located near a town named Verdun, in the country of Dalais, on a world named Salazie. But the children at the school came from another world, Lucerne.
Unlike our world, where rifts were almost unknown, Salazie and its neighboring worlds were plagued by them. And, as had been apparent by the prompt response of the Swords to our arrival, not everything that came through the rifts was as harmless as Ella and I were.
Lucerne had been invaded by monsters. The children at Domas were the survivors. They ranged in age from barely out of infancy to slightly younger than Ella but the majority were young, six or seven or so — small enough to hide in cupboards and closets when the attacks began, old enough to run when they had a chance to escape.
“Some of their stories…” Ella shivered. “Monster tales as scary as any our nurses ever told.”
“But more truthful?” I asked. It was not that I doubted the existence of monsters, but I knew how stories spread and grew along the way. At least half the tales about our father seemed highly implausible to me. Perhaps not entirely wrong, but even he acknowledged that the tidal wave he’d summoned during the siege of the island city of Mazlair had been only a few feet high, nowhere near enough to demolish the city’s well-built structures. Of course, the saltwater had contaminated their fresh water sources, which did devastate the city, forcing their complete surrender, but not as the stories would have it.
Ella stared into space for a moment, then said, “Do you see a yellow dot in your peripheral vision?”
I looked and I did.
I reached for it, hand lifting.
“Not like that. Just think it.”
My eyes narrowed as I tried to understand what Ella meant, but I let my hand drop and imagined myself touching the dot. A quiet voice inside my head said, Transmission from Ella Smith.
“Smith?” I said aloud.
“An alias,” Ella replied, as if it should be obvious. And it was, of course. Not using our real name was a sensible precaution, in case our parents managed to reach this world while searching for us.
“But Smith?” It was so mundane.
“I was on the spot. It was the first name that came to mind. It’s not important.“ Ella shook her head impatiently. “Just watch.”
“How?” I asked the question, but the voice in my head was already responding to my intention, saying, Displaying transmission.
Suddenly my eyes were no longer my own. I squeaked and grabbed for the nearest object, which happened to be Ella’s arm. The room around us hadn’t disappeared. I could still see the walls and the window, but they were overlaid with an entirely different reality: a dirt road, mid-winter, with barren fields on either side bordered by low hedgerows and shrubs with glossy, deep green leaves. The road was rutted, barely wide enough for two farm carts to pass.
“Heads up,” a male voice sounded, so close it was almost as if came from my own throat. I glanced down, but my view of the other world moved with me, the dirt road now running down my chest and torso.
“Hot zone ahead, Rye,” a female voice replied calmly. “I’m reading red.”
I wanted to look in the direction of the voice and see who was speaking, but I had no control over the sights I was seeing.
“This is a major incursion,” a third voice said, this one from behind me. I couldn’t tell from the pitch whether it was male or female, but a tightness in the timbre sounded like stress.
“Ahead and to the left, about a hundred meters, I’m getting a small patch of idezee.” The voice kept talking, but the words were nonsense to me, and Ella was speaking over it.
“It’s easiest if you look at the wall, somewhere blank and open. You’re watching a recording made by a Sword on Lucerne. It gets… unpleasant.”
“A what-ing?” I asked, but I was distracted by the images. They were moving now, as if I were moving, rapidly hurrying down the dirt road. I’d never seen anything like it.
I’d also never seen anything like the sight before us as the movement slowed. My eyes tried to make sense of it. The square brown shape, that had to be a farm cart. But where there should have been a horse, or at least a pony, between the traces, there was… a thing. It huddled low on the ground, and was lumpy, brown and mottled, with weird bulbous protuberances on the top and sides.
“What is that?” The voice came from one of the invisible speakers, but I wanted to know the answer, too. And then abruptly the strange shapes shifted into meaning in my brain, and I gasped.
It wasn’t one thing, but two. The bottom brown lump had once been a horse, but now it was a desiccated shell, crumpled in on itself. The mottled lump on top of it was an insect, with a segmented body and globular eyes like a wasp. Or perhaps a more appropriate description would be insectoid-like creature, as it was vastly larger than any insect I’d ever seen.
“Stop, stop!” I heard Ella’s words underneath the almost incomprehensible speech of the invisible speakers, but I was too distracted to pay attention to her. The speakers’ words were still doing that strange thing in my head where meaning was assigned to them, even though the words themselves were unfamiliar, but it didn’t help: I had no idea what they were talking about.
“Jase, take my six.”
“Position green, Brie. Harmony, your read?”
“Idezee nine point nine. This is fresh.”
The creature was moving, rising into the air. It pulled a serrated proboscis as large as a broadsword free from the dead horse, dripping red liquid as it hovered.
I flexed my fingers. Where did insects hide their hearts? Did insects have hearts?
Slap. The sound of Ella hitting my face broke my concentration a split second before the sting in my cheek would have done the same.
“Ow!” I glared at her.
She grabbed my wrist and yanked my hand into my line of sight. Tendrils of flame were crawling along my skin. “Tell the System to stop playing the transmission.”
I repeated her words obediently and the world overlaid on the room disappeared.
“You hadn’t even gotten to the awful part yet.” She shook my arm, sending the flames flickering. “You have to be more careful.”
“It felt so real.” I closed my fists, suppressing my fire.
“It was real, to the Sword whose eyes you were seeing through. The System records their missions and sometimes, if it’s in the public interest, they’re shared. Children don’t have access to recordings like that, but Za Kestrel let me see this one because many of the children here at Domas came from that incident.”
“Incident? The bug?”
“More than one. There was a swarm of them. Hundreds. They sting their prey and their poison liquifies the prey’s insides. Then they suck it out and eat it.” Ella shuddered.
I stared at her. She seemed to be telling the truth, but it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever heard.
“And they did this to people? The children’s parents?”
Not just disgusting, horrifying.
“Ella…” I started. Our world was far from perfect, but there were no monster bugs liquifying people’s innards on it. Surely we could find a way back there.
“Those creatures aren’t here,” she said hastily. “And the Shields and Swords protect this world. We’re in no danger. Well…” She let go of my arm, eyeing my hand. “Not from monsters, anyway.”
They would think I was the monster, I feared.
I put my chin up. “I will do better. It was just so real.”
Ella’s mischievous grin flickered. “Wait until you play some of their games. Amazing! But you might not want to try any quite yet, not until you’re sure you can separate reality from the System.”