Sven and Robert Nickel followed the pillowbeak down the narrow path leading to the City. Their guide seemed to be ignoring them, staring straight ahead, his bottom jaw jutting out slightly. Even though he was about half as tall as the two men and twice as wide, his limping gate moved him at a surprisingly fast pace, and the pair soon found themselves lagging behind.
“Man, for being a squat little fellow, he can sure move!” Nickel said, puffing his cheeks, his round face red with perspiration.
“I imagine that he has a somewhat flexible spine, judging from the looks of him. And if I had to guess, I’d say that his range of leg swing is somewhat larger than our own. Of course, he’d need a significantly powerful heart to pump all of that blood. I wonder if they even have blood like that of a mammal…” Sven trailed off, his eyebrows scrunched atop glinting eyes. Robert glanced over at him. He knew that look. It came across his colleague’s face every time he encountered a new puzzle for his mind to work over.
“Fascinating,” he muttered. Even if the pillowbeak did have a large heart and flexible body parts, he certainly did not. Some hospitality, he thought.
“Uh, Yo? Hey… Yo! Do you think we could turn the pace down a notch or two?” Robert huffed.
Their guide swung his head around, swivel-style, startling both of the men.
“Oh sure, I don’t mind taking all day. This whole trip is completely convenient for me,” Yo snapped back.
“You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that monkey is trying to sass us,” Robert said with a grin.
“I heard that!” Yo bared his teeth as he forged ahead. For scientists, those idiots sure needed to work on their nomenclature. Ah well, he thought, it won’t be long before I’m rid of that pestering one, at least.
The group made their way across the echoing floor of the cave. Sven had been surprised not to note any running water or murky pools, as one could expect to see in caves on Earth. In fact, the atmosphere around them was not moist at all. Just the opposite, it was dry, devoid of smell, heavy, and yet it gave his lungs a kind of hollow feeling. Equally as perplexing to him was the fact that despite a lack of water, the cave was not without its own flora and fauna. Gangly, moss-like growth clung the walls of the cave, crept onto the path, and even hung like stalactites from the ceiling. If he didn’t know any better, Sven would have said it was emitting the same lavender glow that he had observed in Dr. Octopi’s lab. Perhaps it’s phosphorescent, he thought. Here and there throughout the plants, he could spot insects crawling through the tangled fibers. Or were they insects? In truth, they resembled some sort of land-jellyfish, tentacles and all.
Sven had been so absorbed in trying to mentally classify the specimens around he barely noticed when they reached the outskirts of the City. The limestone walls seemed to melt seamlessly into the first arching building, which had a metallic quality to it that Sven had never seen before.
Robert, too, was transfixed by the metropolis that lay before them—now that Yo had slowed down enough for him to catch his breath. His eyes widened as he took in the stretch of buildings, the twisting streets and stairs that lead upwards to various levels of the structures. Above him, these walkways twisted and met at odd angles, reminding him of the intricate weavings of a spider’s web. Periodically, they’d pass elevator shafts, that would send metallic orbs zooming to upper decks. It was like something out of a dream he’d had when he was a boy—a fully running, operating, bustling, secret City. Except…
“Sven, you notice anything weird about this place?”
“Well, I would assume everything about this place is weird to us Robert, seeing as we’ve never quite encountered anything like this before. First experiences like this do tend to be unusual since it’s not exactly our norm.”
“Now, there’s no reason to be a smart-ass. What I meant to point out was the fact that there are no people here.”
Sven looked around. Now that he took his focus off of the metallic quality of the buildings, he became aware of the movement—the doors opening, windows slamming, all the general flurry that one could expect in a city—and yet, Robert was right. There were no people.
In front of them, Yo gave an exasperated snort. “Why, of course there are people here you moronic dolt. Do you think all of this is happening on its own? No, no. Look closer—if your substandard eyes can see what’s there, that is.”
Robert grunted. “Now hold it right there, you oversized coach cushion. Do you know who you’re calling a moron? If I had…”
“Robert, shut up.” Sven placed his outstretched hand on his colleague’s chest, staying him. His eyes scrunched and focused on the air. It was empty, it was nothing, it was… something moved in front of him. A glimmer, or a puff of smoke. He let his eyes relax and soon began to distinguish the outline before him. Incredible, Sven marveled as he discerned the shape of a human being. The smoke-human shimmered ahead of him, its form more distinct as it stopped moving. It shifted its hand—if that’s what it was—slowly towards Sven, almost as if to shake his. Sven, heart pounding with excitement, moved to grasp it. An uncomfortable sensation overcame him as he met the creature’s hand, like a sharp tug from behind his belly button and knee caps. He let go.
“What are these organisms?” he asked, turning to look at Yo.
“Organisms, what organisms? Sven, have you lost it? I still don’t see what you’re talking about,” Robert said, glaring as he looked back and forth between him and the pillowbeak.
Yo rolled his eyes and ignored Robert’s inquiry. “The common name for them is ‘mirrorling.’ They are much like humans, or at least… in form. In substance, they’re made of a type of anti-matter that Dr. Octopi discovered.”
“Anti-matter!” Robert said, startled. “Well are they safe to be in contact with, I mean surely…”
“They’re perfectly harmless you laughable excuse for a scientist,” Yo interrupted nonchalantly. “In fact, I think you’ll find their home much to your liking. It contains many of the luxuries that you humans enjoy in your own world. Theaters, restaurants, lounges… something you call a disco…”
Robert chuckled. “Disco? Oh man, that brings me back. You need to update yourself on pop culture, shorty.”
“It’s Yo, you idiot. Shawty is my brother.”
Sven began to move past the bickering pair. Looking around, he was starting to notice all of the smoky mirrorlings. The street was full of them. And all of them seemed to be migrating towards one building—the largest of them all by far. It stretched the length of ten blocks, and the revolving doors at its front continuously moved. He stepped closer in the direction of the structure, almost as if he were being drawn to it. All of the sudden, his vision went fuzzy, and as he threw out his hand for balance, he heard Violet’s voice, as clear as if she was in his own head.
“Sven… Sven! Hear me! Hear me! Please hear me, before it’s too late!”
“Hey! Where do you think we’re going?” Sven shook his head, hands on each temple. He turned around to see Yo glowering at him.
“I… I thought I’d take a look this way. Seems like that’s a popular area,” he said, nodding his aching head in the direction of the towering building.
“What? That building? Just a public service headquarters, nothing interesting,” Yo replied. He began to march ahead again, and Robert and Sven had to double their pace to remain in step. As they passed the building, Sven peered up to look at the structure. He noticed that while there was quite a bit of traffic entering the building, the flow outwards was tremendous—the shiny mirrolings pouring out in a stream almost. Sven’s stomach gave a jerk as a group of them passed him. He glanced up at the building’s face again. There was something written on it. The language looked familiar and yet… backwards to him. He shook his aching head as Robert muttered something about uppity primates beside him. He tried to focus his eyes once more on the engraving.
Sven sucked in a soft breath of understanding as he recognized the characters. It was English, but not in the form he was used to. The words looked as if they were written… in a mirror. Everything was completely backwards. Sven tried to decipher the letters as Yo picked up the pace in front of them.
Sven shuddered involuntarily. Violet’s words echoed inside his head. “Hear me before it’s too late.” How many times had he ignored his sister before, playing off her words as silly banter? Now he had the overwhelming feeling that her words were exactly what he needed to hear. And yet he had no idea how. But whatever she would tell him, he knew it would have something to do with whatever the City was hiding—whatever was in that building. He needed to get in there somehow.
Yo shot a look at him from up ahead, as if he could read Sven’s thoughts.
First thing’s first, he thought. We’ve got to ditch the monkey. Robert will be thrilled.