You've Come A Long Way, Baby Chapter 14

By Imrahil

“Okay! We have to stop!”

“Only a few hundred yards more, that’s all!” the boy yelled over his shoulder at the tiring group of runners behind him.

Marle shook her head in disbelief. How had she gotten into this mess, anyway? She thought that defeating Magus’ enemies would be a simple matter. But look at what she was having to go through! She was on another planet, years in the future, trying to hunt down a mysterious wizard called Poe. Some little kid they had met seemed to think he had seen a sign with Poe’s name on it, and so her friends had wisely decided run blindly in the general direction the sign was supposed to be. She didn’t even want to think about how her hair must look, not to mention her clothes. She just knew they were full of rips and tears. Too bad it was too dark to really look closely.

If only Crono would get over his macho trip, she might find these occurrences bearable. But his mind had seemed to be somewhere else the entire journey. It almost was like he was trying to compete with this alien – Alex – to prove to everyone that he was better than Alex was. Marle sort of understood. Alex had almost immediately become the group’s leader; a place that Crono had retained for a very long time. Marle frowned. So what? “The least he could do is run beside me,” she thought.

Marle looked at the muscular form of the police officer in front of her. Sweat glistened off his back, giving his entire body a smooth, sexy look as he ran. She smiled. Alex certainly had his virtues. She looked over at the smaller, less-developed form of Crono. But she loved Crono, and Crono loved her. She loved their relationship. Why couldn’t she get her mind off of the police officer, then?

The boy in front of the group suddenly slowed down considerably. “And here we are!”

“This is hardly another town,” Magus said after he returned to the ground. He was the only one that wasn’t out of breath, besides the boy, mostly due to the fact that he had been flying the entire way. Marle wished Magus would sometimes think of others, for once. She looked down at her blue pants. Long, jagged tears streaked down the seams, revealing her bare legs underneath. She almost screamed.

“Yeah, I know, but everyone out here considers this place to be two towns because of the big wasteland in the center of it. Anyway, the Garage is right up here.” The small boy seemed anxious to show his companions the building, and then to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Soon, the group caught their breaths and they followed the boy until they reached the huge warehouse. The words ‘POE’s Garage’ were plastered above the huge doorframe in a thick, red paint. The building itself was quite drab, constructed only of a dull gray metal, which was rusted in some places. Marle scrunched up her nose as she noticed the skeletons around the door. “Great,” she thought.

Crono smiled. “Finally! Man, it took us a long time to get here. What are we waiting for, guys?”

“Look,” the boy said. He pointed out the many blackened skeletons that were scattered over the ground in front of the doors to the warehouses, as well as the windows, to the overanxious Crono. As the group approached the carcasses, it seemed they could see expressions of intense pain on the skulls of the humans, as well as the skulls of a few large animals. “This place is evil. Those that get too close, die.”

Alex bent down and touched the rib of a fallen animal. He brought his fingers to his face, and wrinkled up his nose. “Simple electrocution—except a lot more voltage than I thought possible out here.”

“Can we get into the building?” Lucca asked. She was eyeing the door, looking for familiar mechanisms.

“Probably not. The whole place is probably rigged to burn anything to a crisp within a few feet. Obviously, this is the right place,” Alex said as he half-smiled grimly.

Magus touched his temple and spoke solemnly. “There is a huge power source underneath this building. I sense three or four people moving around in a structure below the building, as well.”

“Hey, I can probably short out the electrical system in there. Then we can get in,” Crono said hopefully.

“There are people in there? Strange. Okay, Crono, see what you can do,” Alex said.

Crono slowly walked towards the door, and turned back to his friends and shrugged. Marle was getting very nervous. She watched as Crono slowly reached for the doorknob, and put his hand on it.

“Nothing. Let’s go in,” Crono yelled to his friends behind him. He pulled the door handle down and opened the door, revealing the dark room behind it. Crono waltzed in, smiling and nodding to himself. “Not dangerous at all—”

“Wait!” Alex and Marle yelled at the same time. The group quickly ran into the building after their friend and they were surprised to find themselves in a well-lit room. The five people barely fit in the tiny, plaster-walled room, as they were suddenly forced into extremely uncomfortable positions. Everyone groaned and began raising their voices as they questioned their new surroundings. Well, except for Marle. She found herself neatly packaged in between Crono and Alex, and she was enjoying it very much. She didn’t even notice that the small boy had disappeared, even though he had run into the garage, as well.

“Where did the door go?” Lucca asked, raising her voice above the din.

“This is impossible. What kind of evil has come to pass, now?” Magus said. No one actually understood him, however. You see, his face was currently pressed up against one of the walls, and he was unable to turn around due to the presence of his other friends.

“Someone’s stepping on my foot, dammit!” Lucca yelled.

“Sorry,” Alex said sheepishly.

“Oooo,” Marle cooed as the two men beside her tried to turn around to the center of the room, rubbing against her.

Suddenly, a strange mechanical male voice blared in the room.

“Standby for sterilization.”

“What?” Magus said into the wall.

“Sterilization?” Crono yelled.

A bluish light bathed the room for a few seconds, and then the all the lights went out leaving the group in complete darkness.

“Crap,” Lucca said.

The group was suddenly made to squint as a blinding light appeared in front of them. They were now in a much larger, colder room, and they were able to move freely again. A dark panel of mirrored glass was now in front of the group. Unfortunately, every person in the group was now completely nude.

“Holy crap!” Lucca said as she tried to conceal herself from her friends. She was not only without clothes, now, but her glasses as well.

“How embarrassing,” Magus said as he deftly crossed his legs and turned to the side.

Marle screamed and turned a brilliant red. “Don’t you DARE look at me, Crono!”

Crono turned away and covered his eyes with one hand as he covered himself with the other. “Sorry,” he said meekly.

Alex was not there. He hadn’t been transported into the room with his friends. His friends might have noticed and become alarmed, but they had other things on their minds. A loud voice, this one different from the mechanical one in the first room, was suddenly audible.

“They are each perfect specimens, in every way. I detect no genetic enhancement in the unexpected exhibits, but their DNA is quite alien. They are extraterrestrial in origin. I suggest further observation at a later date. Interesting. The alien subjects seem to be just as genetically superior as subject Raine. They are quite capable. Downloading new information.”

The voice lulled on and on. The group was becoming restless.

“I believe we could easily escape this room if we combined our efforts,” Magus said. He seemed to have lost a bit of his indisputable authority due to his current state, however, and no one paid much heed to his wise words.

“What’s the big idea! Where are our CLOTHES!” Marle screamed at the dark panel. Crono looked up at her in surprise during her outburst, but was loudly rebuked. “Eyes on the floor!”

The voice continued.

“If subjects become unmanageable, immediate termination is advised. Requesting immediate transfer to debriefing facilities. Thank you.”

The light went out, and the group found themselves in complete darkness once again. Just like before, a brilliant light appeared and the group was in a different room. This room was not empty, like the two before, and there was a man and a large woman in white lab coats and facemasks standing in front of the group.

“Get on the tables,” the man said harshly.

“Hey, what did you do with all our clothes and stuff?” Lucca said angrily.

“Nurse. Get them on the tables,” he said with much the same acerbity.

“Certainly,” she said in a manly voice. She pressed a button on the bottom of a cart she had in front of her, and chuckled.

Without warning, Marle was forced to take her hands off of herself by an invisible force. She screamed and screamed as she floated towards a table and was set down upon it, stretched out and unable to move. Each one of the friends were treated in this manner, and found themselves embarrassingly displayed on the four medical tables in front of the two technicians. Even Magus was unable to move, despite the fact that he was trying numerous spells to free himself, or even attack the man or woman in front of him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t concentrate hard enough to finish a decent spell, mostly due to his intense embarrassment. He had never been embarrassed before. Then again, he had never been naked in front of Crono’s crew before. The mage gritted his teeth.

“Inoculate the aliens, nurse. Perform the standard psychological tests on all of them, and then call up a reconnaissance-clothing program. Send them on down after that. I will be in the next lab if you require any help.” The man left the room through a sliding door behind him.

The nurse pressed a few buttons on the cart in front of her, and each of the ‘aliens’ yelped or grunted as they each felt a series of sharp pains in their arms. Another bluish light bathed every one of the patients after the nurse punched in a few more commands into the cart.

“Let’s see what there is for you to wear today, my friends,” she said, in an even more masculine voice than before. She pushed one button on the cart, and all the patients were suddenly clothed (thankfully) in very similar attire. They were each decked out in heavy black metallic-looking suits that consisted of a flexible torso piece with long sleeves and gloves, and heavy black pants made of the same materials. They each were wearing extremely heavy iron-soled boots and black arm and leg braces, as well.

The strange force that had been holding them down on the tables evaporated, and the four men and women jumped up.

“What is the meaning of this?” Magus yelled at the nurse with a formidable fury in his voice. His tall form suddenly became ominous and threatening as he towered over the stout nurse.

“Have a nice day,” she said nonchalantly, completely ignoring the mage’s intimidating tone of voice.

Magus most likely would have thrown a tiny bolt of volatile dark matter at her, causing her head to disappear in a puff of red smoke, had it not been for the fact that he now found himself in an entirely different setting.

The infuriated group was now in a small, well-lit office. Poe was standing in front of a small wooden desk, facing his visitors with a wide grin. Despite the fact he was indoors, Poe was still wearing his mirrored shades. Alex was now with them again, and he was wearing the same type of clothes as the others. Apparently, he had gone through the same processes, only separately.

“Welcome, my friends. I am sorry we could not have met earlier, but the Elders insisted that we test you.” At this point Poe did something very uncharacteristic; he stretched his arms wide and laughed loudly. “I am just so glad that you all passed!”

“What the hell was the big idea with the…clothes?” Marle said through clenched teeth. It seemed as if she was about to explode with rage.

“Oh, just standard sterilization and inoculation. We had to make sure you weren’t bringing anything…unwanted into the environment. And, of course, you being from another world, we wanted to make sure you were immune to the diseases down here. I was so afraid you wouldn’t survive! How extraordinary!” Poe smiled, showing his very large and very white teeth.

“Why are you so eager to accept us, now, man?” Crono asked. He seemed a bit preoccupied, however, since he was looking around himself for his sword. “He isn’t the brightest boy in the world,” Marle thought.

“The prophecies all make perfect sense, now! We had no idea there was more than one Chosen. I mean, they’re such vague prophecies. But it’s all come clear now, and we welcome you into our very, very grateful arms.” Poe looked as if he was about to hug Magus, who was closest to him, but he quickly stopped himself after seeing the irate expression on the mage’s face.

“Prophecies be damned; where is the equipment we brought with us?” Magus asked with his arms folded in front of his chest.

“Yeah!” Crono said after finally giving up on finding his sword.

“Ah yes. Unlike your clothes, your weapons couldn’t be incinerated. Which is very strange. But, I feel obligated to give them back to you, so—” Poe walked around behind his desk and pulled out the group’s weapons, and handed them all to Alex. Alex gave each weapon to its owner, and then spoke to Poe in a quiet, contained voice.

“What did you do to them, Poe? I told you they were not to be touched,” the police officer said.

“Just the same sort of tests you were put through the other day, my friend. I mean, there was no need for you to go through them again, so we transported you here separately,” Poe said, his smile disappearing.

“The other day?” Lucca asked.

“Alex must have been abducted by the rebels on that day he mysteriously appeared in our room. That explains why his clothing and equipment were missing,” Magus said softly to Lucca. Suddenly, Magus noticed something different about her. “Your glasses, Lucca! Can you see?”

Lucca put her hands up to her face and smiled. She could see perfectly, yet she wasn’t wearing her glasses.

“Yes, we thought we might as well fix that problem for you. Your brain chemistry was simple enough for us to understand how to do that much for you. Any other questions before we continue, my friends?” Poe was smiling strangely, again.

“Yeah. Why did we go through all of that pointless stuff outside just to get here?” Crono asked.

“Well, your only test was to defeat the three Vorhies provided, and then enter the Poe’s Garage located behind you. Unfortunately, you somehow missed it, and continued into the wastes on the city road,” Poe said, chuckling. “But you somehow found another one of our locations, didn’t you? There are many to choose from in these parts, I suppose.”

“You mean – we didn’t have to run?” Marle said, mouth gaping open.

“Well, it was mostly our fault. At first, we could only scrounge up one Vorhy, and it took us a while to get three ready for fighting. Sorry about that. But everything’s fine now,” Poe said.

“What about the child that led us here? What happened to him?” Alex asked.

“He is…taken care of. Do not worry. Now, are we ready to begin?”

Alex narrowed his eyes.

“Wait—you incinerated my clothes? I loved that shirt!” Lucca yelled.

“A sterile one can always be replicated. Plus, it doesn’t provide the protection you are going to need. Speaking of which, this is officially your mission debriefing time, so let’s get started shall we? Good.”

The group watched as Poe took out a small black rectangle lined with several buttons. He pressed a few, and a strange holographic image appeared in front of them above the wooden desk. The lights in the room suddenly went out, as well.

“This is a research center in Hope Layer. It houses the most advanced technology in the world. Weapons of immense power are located here, in the underground storage bays, and it will be your job to recover them.” As Poe spoke, the hologram kept becoming more and more detailed, focusing on a single point in the huge building that was the research center. Soon, the weapons bays were so detailed, that the group could actually identify individual weapons lined on immeasurably large weapons racks.

“Tonight, at 0130 hours you will break into the building, and recover as many weapons as you are able. Let me debrief you on the specialized equipment you’ll be using—”

“Listen to me, now, ‘friend’. We did not come here to attack petty research centers. We are here to dethrone a despotic government. I believe the best way to do this is to take their citadel by force. Now. Lend us an army of your most well trained soldiers, and we will take over this world by tonight.” Magus bared his teeth as he spoke.

“Oh, if we believed we could take the Law Layer by force, we already would have. Unfortunately, an army down here is about the same as three hundred people. We are terribly outnumbered,” Poe said grimly.

“What about those big monsters you command? Couldn’t you sic them on the government, or something?” Marle asked.

“Oh trust me, we do, all the time. Unfortunately, we only have a few of those. I mean, about half a dozen, so we have to use them very wisely,” Poe said even more solemnly.

“What exactly is it that you have that could help us?” Crono asked in an annoyed voice.

“Well, we—let me show you. Hand me your sword,” Poe said, pointing at Crono’s katana. Crono reluctantly handed it to the mysterious black man. Poe threw the sword straight up, towards the ceiling, where it suddenly disappeared right before hitting the white plaster above them.

“Hey, where’d it go?” Crono asked, shocked.

“Let us wait only a few moments,” Poe said as he slowly extended his arms forward. Without warning, Crono’s katana fell straight into Poe’s open palms. “And there you have it.”

“A pathetic and simple trick. What have you proved by this inane demonstration?” Magus sneered.

“Pathetic? I think not. I successfully sent his sword thirty seconds into the future. We have mastered time travel. And this is just the beginning of our new technology. Given time, we will have improved upon this primitive form of time warping. This is our advantage. We can appear whenever and wherever we please.” Poe handed Rainbow back to Crono.

Lucca rolled her eyes. “Wow,” she said sarcastically.

“Yes, amazing, isn’t it? Using this technology, you can easily break into the research facility, and transport an incredible amount of weaponry back here in a matter of seconds.”

“How, Poe? With what device can we do this?” Alex asked.

“With you, Alex. We implanted a nano-friendly computer chip into your brain the other day. Did I forget to mention that? Yes, it will give you the ability to use this power at your whim,” Poe said as he grinned.

Alex furrowed his brow. What else had they ‘decided’ to do to him yesterday?

“Why don’t we just transport ourselves into the midst of the government’s sovereigns while we’re at it, fool?” Magus said vehemently. Apparently, the mage was becoming quite impatient. Lucca merely found his anger amusing, and added on to it.

“There’s no reason why we should waste time stealing weapons while we could strike at the root of the problem! Your plan doesn’t make any sense!” Lucca said, almost as impassioned as her paramour.

Poe had angrily snapped his head towards Magus when he had been called a fool, but now his wrath was directed at Lucca. For some reason, the two had struck a nerve in the composed black man. He reached towards the girl’s throat. “How dare you question me! I am your superior; you do not even belong here—”

A loud and obtrusive snapping filled the tiny office as Alex moved with lightning speed towards the encroaching form of Poe. Poe staggered backward, holding his arm. Blood filled his palm as he clenched his teeth.

“What have you done! My arm!” he yelled.

“Thanks Alex, but I could have handled myself,” the purple-haired woman said with her arms crossed.

“Sorry, I just kind of…did it,” the police officer said, almost sheepishly.

“You…you,” Poe stuttered. Almost miraculously, however, he quelled his rage. “I…am sorry. I shouldn’t have…trespassed on you in that way. The Chosens’ words are…law. Please forgive me, I—”

Poe suddenly screamed, holding his head with his bloody hands. The kneeling form of the large black man suddenly disappeared. The only evidence that he had ever been there was the large spot of blood on the blue carpet.

“What the hell?” Alex said.

“Jeez, that must have sucked for him,” Crono said.

“He obviously overstepped his authority. I don’t think those ‘Elders’ he spoke of would approve of his…potent…behavior,” the dark mage said. No sooner than he had spoken than the setting around the group shifted once again. They suddenly found themselves standing in front of a high podium, much like the one in the courtroom of Guardia Castle. Only this one seated five people instead of one. Each person wore a black cloak and cowl, and their faces were hidden. The rest of the room was hidden by darkness, as well. Whispers could be heard behind the group, emanating from the dark, however.

“We apologize for the misbehavior of…Poe. He is reprimanded,” one man’s voice boomed loudly. The way he said ‘is reprimanded’ sent chills up the spines of the group members. “However, the mission that was presented to you is to still be carried out. Will you agree?”

“Hold on a second. We need to know more facts. Like, what exactly was done to us during those tests? And what did you to Poe, and that little boy that led us here?” Alex said loudly, almost yelling, to the men high up on the tall podium.

The men were silent at first. Finally, one spoke, this one just as loud, but with a lighter voice.

“It is not customary for the Elders to answer the questions of those who come before them. However, since you are the Chosen, we will allow you to ask us one question. Before you answer, though, think about what it is you want to ask. Think hard. You may confer with your companions.”

Alex turned to his friends, an incredulous expression on his face.

“What kind of crap is this?” Lucca hissed softly.

“They’re pulling some kind of macho trip, as if they think they’re in complete control, here,” Crono said angrily, fingering the hilt of his katana.

“Perhaps we should ‘persuade’ them to answer us any question we deem worthy of asking?” Magus said with a sly half-grin.

“Definitely; but not right now. Let me get them to answer me one question. I think you can probably guess it, Magus,” Alex said sadly.

Magus’ eyebrows rose, and then he resumed his usual grim expression.

Alex turned back around and addressed the panel of Elders. He knew there was only one question he wanted to ask, and for some reason, he thought the Elders would know.

Magus thought about pushing the large policeman aside and asking a similar question, but he already knew the answer to his own. Plus, what would these Elders know about his sister, anyway?

“I have been searching…searching for a girl named Claire who I found half-dead in the Darkscape. We…were together for a while, and suddenly she left. Disappeared. Can you tell me where she is?” Alex seemed very vulnerable as he spoke and all the authority in his voice failed him.

The panel of Elders sat silent for a moment, and then one spoke. This one had a dry, gravelly voice that was hard on the ears.

“We anticipated that question, Chosen. But you must first realize that the woman you name does not exist. The one you are looking for is called Noria, and she is currently out of your reach. We suggest you halt your search for her. She is unavailable to you.”

Alex was surprised to get an answer, even if it was only half-complete. Alex wanted more, however. “You said you would answer my question. If you know where she is, tell me.”

Immediately a female voice, very commanding, came from the podium in response. “You desire an answer, and you will get one. She is here, with us. She is part of the rebel movement. You are not permitted contact with her, however.”

The first man spoke again. “Now that you have asked your question, we desire an answer to ours. Are you ready to go through with your assignment?”

“The mission is pointless; it’s a frivolous effort. We should strike at the citadel that houses the government’s leaders, and take their place,” Magus said powerfully.

The room was silent for a few moments as it absorbed the echoes of Magus’ impressive voice. The gravelly Elder spoke again, with displeasure in his voice.

“We have considered your…idea…ever since it was first presented to Poe. The Elders have ruled against it, however, and the original plan is to be followed. In addition, we have ruled that the Chosen will not be involved in the creation of any other mission plans, whatsoever.”

“You seem to be confused. We are the ones in control, here. You have to listen to us, and do what we say!” Crono yelled inarticulately.

Another commanding female voice echoed through the hall. “Quite on the contrary, Chosen. Your lives are continuing in accordance with our wishes. We are in control as long as you are here, in our realm. The Elders have decided that the Chosen shall not speak in their presence unless called upon. You will complete the mission proposed to you, and you will do it with efficiency.”

“It is not up to y’all to decide what we’re going to do!” Lucca said angrily.

“Wrong once again, Chosen. You agreed to join us. You are part of us, and you must do exactly what we ask of you. Otherwise, we will be forced to…reprimand you.”

“Whoops,” Marle said as she allowed a few dozen icy daggers to fly forth from her hands and wedge themselves into the lower part of the tall podium. “Yeah, we’re going to do just like you ask”

The Elder with the lighter voice reluctantly spoke, but he seemed nervous. “The technicians did not mention that the aliens had micro-implants. No wonder they were able to pass our test; they possess greater power than we had anticipated. I suggest we introduce another test on account of the introduction of this new information.”

“They do not have implants; the technicians detected no synthetics in their bodies. What they do…is impossible. I would not know how to begin to test them,” the first female Elder said.

“No matter; they will still serve our purpose. Chosen, listen well: we apologize for our…abject behavior; we need your help to dethrone the Upper Layer government. We believe – we know – that the best way to do this is to begin by disarming them. We need you to complete your mission so we will have distinct advantages over them in case anything…unexpected occurs.”

“I don’t want to help these jerks; let’s get out of here,” Marle said with her arms crossed.

“We don’t have a choice, Marle. We have to defeat the government, and they believe this is the best way. Let us do as they ask, since there is a larger chance of succeeding in our efforts if we work with the rebels,” Magus said. Marle was surprised to hear this from the mage, since he had been the one most opposed to the rebels’ plan.

“What do you think, guys, should we try cooperation this one time?” Alex asked the group.

“I guess, if it’ll get us home faster,” Lucca said while looking over at Magus.

“Whatever you guys want,” Crono said as he shrugged. “Marle?”

“Alright. But if they pull any more of that macho-ass ‘I’m better than you’ stuff, I’m quitting,” Marle said. The other of the members of the group had never heard her use profanity before, even on such a low level. They gave the princess some surprised stares. “What? Just because I’m royalty doesn’t mean I can’t cuss!”

“Alright. Elders! We will assist you on this mission. However, we believe that we should be included in any future decision-making. As you said, we are part of you; we deserve as much authority over what we do as you have over yourselves,” Alex said as he authoritatively addressed the Elders.

“Done. You may rest for seven hours before disembarking.”

In the blink of an eye, literally, the group found themselves in a large, underground cavern. Immense stalactites and stalagmites dotted the ceiling and floor, and the walls had a glowing pinkish hue to them. There were several stone tables and benches on the cavern floor, and a few people were eating at them. They were strange looking people, and they wore the same dark clothes that the group was wearing. One of the men looked up from his meal, and furrowed his ugly, knotted brow, and then returned to eating.

“This place sucks,” Crono said.

“When did you start saying ‘sucks’, Crono?” Lucca asked.

“A heard some guy say it while he was talking to a maid in the hall the other night. Here, ‘sucks’ means ‘is dismal’. Pretty neat, huh?” Crono said. He was quite proud of his ability to pick up on the earth dialects.

“Sure, whatever. Where are we, Alex?” Lucca asked the police officer.

“Don’t ask me. I mean, I guess we’re in the rebels’ underground mess hall, or something.” Alex led the group to one of the empty tables, and sat down. “The Elders did say we could relax, and I’m not about to refuse their hospitality. Besides, I haven’t eaten for a couple of days.”

The rest of the group sat down at the same table, and examined the small neatly wrapped packages in front of each seat.

“What is this?” Crono said with disgust as he ripped open one of the packages. A yellow mass of hard material lay inside.

“Some kind of nutrient bar. It won’t hurt you,” Alex said. He took a big bite out of his own, and he grimaced as he tried to chew it. “Tastes…so…bad…”

Lucca, Marle, and Crono laughed loudly, and their cheerful chuckling echoed throughout the cavern ominously. They stopped immediately after looking up and seeing that one of the ugly people in the hall had come over to them, and was standing silently at the end of their table.

“Yes? Can we help you?” Magus asked the unattractive intruder. The slack-jawed man wore a stingy grimace on his craggy face that repulsed the mage. He also took his time before answering Magus’ question right away. Magus detested people who did that.

“You’re the…people that are…going to the Layers, right?” His raspy voice grated offensively in all of the friends’ ears, and, to add to the disgusting nature of the fellow, a few droplets of mucous-like fluid landed on the table as he spoke.

“Yes, yes we are. Is there anything we can do for you?” Magus was grinding his teeth together as he spoke.

“Just wondering why you’re here, that’s all…hey, what’s that?” The horrid man extended a flabby arm in the direction of Crono’s sword, which was lying on top of the table. His stubby digits tried to grasp the weapon’s hilt, but Crono abruptly stopped him.

“That’s my sword, sir!” Crono said loudly as he neatly tucked it away out of the man’s reach under the table.

“Sword? Are you a knight or something?” The grotesque individual screeched with raspy, high-pitched laughter, amused with his ‘joke’. A few other disgusting individuals in the hall chuckled as well.

Lucca and Marle exchanged wide-eyed glances, and looked very worried. The man walked behind Marle slowly, as if he was going to leave, but instead turned back around so that he was positioned directly behind the blonde girl. He shoved his dirty hand directly into the young girl’s hair and rubbed her head violently.

Crono, Magus, and Alex shot up from their seats in a blink of an eye. Before he could gather his thoughts, the horrid man found himself on the floor, pinned down by three different men at once.

“Augh! My hair!” Marle screamed. She pulled out a lavender brush and began working on it immediately, without the help of a mirror.

“Are you alright, Marle?” Crono asked loudly.

“No! Who knows what I look like now!” the young girl yelled.

“You look fine; here let me,” Lucca said as she got up and assisted the blonde girl.

“What the hell were you thinking, asshole?” Alex hissed through clenched teeth to the fallen vagrant. Alex had his forearm positioned on the man’s neck, and had his face very close to him. The police officer could easily smell the stench emanating from the man’s gasping mouth, but he didn’t move.

“Never been this close to one of them, before…I just wanted to…touch her…” the man said nervously. He was truly frightened.

“Let go of his arms, guys. Get the hell away! Don’t come near us again,” Alex said as he pulled the man up. The offensive individual quickly scampered into the darkness of the cavern, and disappeared forever.

After a moment of brief silence, and after Marle’s hair was returned to the norm, the group began conversing again.

“Something is dreadfully wrong here,” Lucca said quietly. “These people are just as wretched as the homeless people on the surface that we met coming here.”

“I know what you mean. If these are the people already living under the rebels’ regime, what will the rest of the world be like if they take over?” Magus said.

“I’m a lot more worried about other things. Like, when they said Poe ‘is reprimanded’, I got the feeling they…did something really bad to him. I don’t know; there’s something creepy going on.” Marle wrapped her delicate form around Crono’s arm as she spoke.

“I’d like to know what they did to that kid that was helping us. Wasn’t he with us when we walked through the door?” Alex said.

The group shrugged.

“Why is it that every time we confront one of the rebels, a fight almost breaks out? I get the feeling they don’t like us, or something,” Crono said absent-mindedly.

“Hey, Alex. Who’s this girl you keep asking about; you know, the one you’ve been ‘searching for for so long’,” Marle asked the police officer, saying the last few words dramatically.

“You know how I told you that police officers aren’t allowed to associate themselves with other Layer dwellers? Well, this girl was worth it; easily worth the risk—” Alex began.

“What risk?” Lucca asked. She had begun to snuggle up close to Magus, and the mage in turn had put his arm around her. Alex’s audience was well prepared for a long, drawn-out story.

“Well, getting recycled, of course. Anyway—”

“Recycled?” Marle asked. She was cheek to cheek with Crono, causing him to blush a very deep red.

“Uh…that’s sort of where they take your body and mash it up into its component elements. Then, those elements are used to create needed materials.”

Marle scrunched up her nose.

“Anyway, I met her in the Darkscape, and I brought her back to the Upper Layers. I bought her that room that you guys are staying in, and I used to visit her every chance I got. She was recovering from…wounds, you see.”

“I think I got it. Guy helps injured girl; girl falls in love with guy; and they live happily ever after, right?” Lucca said with a familiar half-grin. In fact, it looked a lot like the half-grin so often seen on Magus’ face.

“Well, it didn’t really work out like that. More like: guy helps injured girl; guy falls in love with girl; and girl disappears without a trace.” Alex looked down at the table for a moment.

“Ah,” Lucca said. A period of silence ensued.

“But the Elders said that this chick is somewhere here, right? We got seven hours; we could probably find her, right?” Crono was glad that there was something else for them to do. Marle’s roving hands were becoming quite distracting, not to mention embarrassing.

“Right. We don’t even know where we are,” Lucca said.

“We aren’t going to sit here for seven hours, are we?” Magus said as he looked into Lucca’s soulful eyes.

“I…guess not,” Lucca said. She really wanted to touch the mage’s lips, but she knew he would never allow it.

“Okay, well, there’s nothing here to eat, or anything, so let’s leave,” Crono said. Lucca and Magus stood up, and everyone else followed. The group began to leave the large hall by way of a dark corridor, holding the malevolent gazes of the wretched denizens of the strange mess hall as they walked out.

* * *

“Noria? Sounds like a Consul. I wouldn’t know anything about that. Just go to Nexus and somebody there will tell you something. Just leave me alone.” The hunched man pointed vaguely down the dark tunnel and scuttled off toward one of the caverns the group had hopelessly meandered through already. They were lost. Really lost.

“Okay, this is just fantastic, Crono,” Lucca said. “We’re now going down another tunnel to find a – a ‘Nexus’, or something. What is that, Crono? Can you tell us?”

“What are you asking me, for? This is Alex’s little quest!” Crono said angrily.

“You were just so enthusiastic to do this little errand, and now we’re nowhere!” Lucca shouted, raising her arms.

“Are you guys always this loud?” Alex said softly.

“Just shut up! Both of you! There are brighter lights up ahead,” Marle said as she pointed down the tunnel. Sure enough, the group emerged from the dim light of the dismal tunnel into an enormous cavern filled with gleaming lights. The group was perched on a high cliff above a conglomeration of strange structures. Literally hundreds of unidentifiable buildings lined the floor of the cavern, each one harboring bright signs and lights. The streets of this enormous subterranean city were bustling with the movement of unattractive and angry men and women, adding to the uneasy atmosphere. It seemed that the same malevolence that the group encountered in the out-of-place mess hall was here, as well, and that upon entering this city, the group would be ostracized, or perhaps even harmed.

“The…Nexus?” Magus said as he scratched his chin.

“I suppose. Should we…” Alex trailed off as he started down the steep hill towards the eerie town.

After the short trek, the group found themselves walking down the narrow streets, looking from side to side at all the buildings around them. The stores were predominately of a pornographic nature, although there were a few restaurants, wares shops, and even a barber.

Large, toothless men at every corner yelled to the group, advertising the sin contained inside the structures they worked at. Hurried individuals crashed into the shoulders of several of the group members as they scurried past. Neon lights of all colors blasted at the senses of the five friends as they staggered down the narrow, dirty streets. Without hesitation, Crono led the group into the nearest store, away from the loud noise and bright lights of the world outside.

“How horrible,” Lucca said sadly once the group had closed the glass door of the store behind them. The small shop was filled with various leather armor and accessories, and the musty smell of dried cowskin hung in the air. A small, hunched-over man sat behind a glass counter fiddling around with a small piece of machinery. He was a balding, gray-haired man with very thick glasses, and he paid absolutely no attention to the group of people who had entered his store.

“It’s…horrible…out there,” Crono said, lost for words.

“Yeah. It’s just like the Darkscape cities. Exactly the same.” Alex scratched the back of his head as he spoke.

“If this is the Elders’ world…” Magus said, deep in thought, “…is our assistance well-placed? The world above is so much…better.”

“Guys, I think we just made a deal with our devil,” Marle said.

“There’s got to be an explanation for this, I—” Alex started. Unfortunately, before he was able to finish, the group’s surroundings changed again. They were back in the room of the Elders.

“You have strayed from the designated repose chamber,” the female Elder shouted.

“Yes, we have,” Alex said. “We’d like to know just exactly—”

“There is no time to answer your questions. A great window of opportunity has been opened. You are now to be sent directly to the research center. Alex, you have the power to return, and we do not. We can only send you. Good luck.”

“Wait!” Alex yelled, but he was abruptly cut off. The poorly lit hall of the Elders was suddenly exchanged for an even darker room, and the disoriented police officer’s protest died away.


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