By Gonzo's estimation, every direction lead only to death. To his left, the dreadful, plodding march of thousands of citizens, all in boiler suits identical to his own, evacuated from the apartment blocks in lines and formations by the thrasher bots and incinerator tripods. To his right, a steady, hollow female voice on loop over loudspeaker, harsh and tinny, echoing through the courtyard.
"May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? An uncooperative actor has been identified among you. For your safety, follow the instructions of your assigned Citizen Escort Agent. Authorities have been notified. Further details will follow. Thank you for your cooperation."
"Uncooperative actor," Gonzo whimpered to himself, clinging to the concrete wall for any semblance of security. "Come on, man..."
The phrase was nothing new to him. Like the sad, lingering voices of the abducted, rumors circulated among the citizens of what the cave aliens did to "uncooperative actors". Lurid tales of blood, enzymes, and hormones being drained from the helpless, conscious victims, their dying sight being that of the cave aliens splashing each other with buckets of the mixture. Throats, eyes, and tongues would be removed with cellular precision "for later". Unlucky children would whisper their tales of finding the corpses in the fields beyond the edge of Colony 31, paper white with empty heads and an amber fluid seeping from the mouths. These things stuck in Gonzo's head, and subsequently, his throat.
With nowhere to turn but the shadows, Gonzo stifled his breathless grunting the best he could and peeked out over the crowds. They hadn't located him, but they weren't far off. The best place he thought to hide was under his own feet; a few of the storm drains in the colony had bolts missing, and with some prying, it'd make for—fairly unpleasant—shelter...assuming their aura-sensing scanner drones couldn't see through the feet of brick and concrete.
A few radioactive orbs blew past him on the sidewalk while he thought. Gonzo only jittered away from them.
The Guardian hovered Gonzo with her eyes a nervous blue. There were no scanner drones or eye-gougy pool party cave aliens—only a brown bunny wriggling in his sleep, tormented by gnats no one else could see. In a desperate attempt to rest away from danger for once, Gonzo had taken shelter in the Art Gallery's meditation room, building a small shield of pillows around himself on one of the couches and promptly collapsing. Interpreting his dreams was a last-ditch effort in finding out what was wrong with him.
Colton hung over the arm of another couch and watched diligently. "And you can see what he's dreaming about?" he whispered to her.
"Yes," she nodded, her heart heavy with pity. "He's trapped inside a...brutal dystopia he has created inside his own mind."
"Dys—topia?" Colton clung to the end of the word, unsure of its meaning.
"A scary city, Colton. Very...grey and scary." She took a deep breath and filled the air with another cloud of comfort pheromones, trying to ease the nightmare as best she could.
"...Can I look too?"
The soft blue of her eyes turned icy and anxious, and she pulled a face. "I'm afraid not."
Colton sat up. "Why not?"
"You may regret what you see."
"But what's so scary about it? I've had nightmares before."
"...There are—aliens with "incendiary cannons" that they use to melt people. And—robots with harvester blades on their arms."
Colton was unfazed; if anything, the descriptions only heightened his curiosity. "Doesn't sound too bad. I can handle it..."
The Guardian shifted in her seat, impatient with him pushing the issue. She instead thought to be frank. "Colton, I have never tried being a dream conduit. I can't say if you'd even see much of anything."
"...But it's worth a try, right? Maybe I can see something that can help Gonzo."
Alas, the more she hesitated, the more stubborn he got. "If you insist, I will try," the Guardian sighed in resignation.
"Lie out on the couch and ease yourself..."
Gonzo shivered as he splashed through the ankle-deep rainwater pooled at the bottom of the culvert. The water was unpleasantly brisk thanks to the harsh overnight lows and frosts that Colony 31 were known for this time of year. Any other time, Gonzo might've worried about losing a paw to the stuff, but it was the best shelter he had at that moment.
The bunny focused his eyes and ears upward on the arched brick ceiling, listening for the street chatter that haunted him prior. Things were uncomfortably silent. Nothing sounded deeper in the sewers either. They weren't close, and even if they were, the tunnels were fairly well-lit with recessed lights scattered plentiful among the bricks. At the very least, nothing could sneak up on him down here.
Colton, squirming uncomfortably clad in his identikit heavy denim boiler suit, clung to a maintenance ladder and stared into half a foot of inky black water below him. The dream conduit worked perfectly, but now, he had a much bigger problem: finding Gonzo without scaring him off. He could hear him wading deeper within, right down to the fork of the tunnel system he occupied, but getting there himself without Gonzo taking it as pursuit would prove trickier.
"Tread lightly," the Guardian whispered from somewhere above the dream world. "I will pull you out if it gets to be too much."
The raccoon boy nodded and kept himself gentle descending into the pool—until he didn't. With a frightful yelp, Colton missed a rung and slipped off the ladder, falling to his hands and knees and soaking himself in frigid rainwater in the process. For a brief moment, he'd thought he'd ruined it all—but as he recovered, he noticed that the rampant, startled splashing he expected from a flighty bunny wasn't returned. Gonzo wasn't running.
Of course Gonzo heard the fall, and of course it startled him, but it didn't inspire fear, necessarily. The yelp was squeaky, distinctly native, too organic to be a bot or an augmented attacker—he'd heard it before, somewhere. Was someone he knew in this with him? Was it the cave aliens using his own memories against him? Gonzo couldn't tell, but he wasn't about to go looking. Instead, he stood still in the pool, silencing his own splashes in the process.
With less to go on as far as Gonzo's location—or if he was even still there—Colton followed the fork in the tunnel that lead to the noises he'd heard last. He moved slow, painfully slow against the gnarly, stained concrete walls, the water stinging and numbing his toes as he writhed in the heavy denim suit, but it was worth it if it meant Gonzo's comfort. Before long, a biped could be seen deeper in, standing dead still, and Colton froze to match him.
"...Raccoon kid?" the biped spoke.
"Gonzo?" Colton replied. Assuming being recognized meant the coast was clear, he picked up the pace, but the bunny only stepped back.
"Whoa, whoa, little man," Gonzo cautioned. "I gotta make sure you haven't been followed or nothing."
Colton looked up and all around and overhead, perhaps for any other maintenance ladders hiding aliens. Not a soul stirred. "Well, I don't see anyone..."
Gonzo only listened, sniffing a little, chilly and pained as his nose was. His own eyes and ears put him at ease, and soon, he approached Colton himself. "Sorry about that, raccoon kid. You never know. How'd you get past the tripods?"
"I—hid in my room," Colton hesitated. Why didn't I think of a story? "And—when everyone was gone, I—ran out of the—building."
Thankfully, Gonzo seemed satisfied with the answer. "Good you made it out, man. You get hit with those cannons—they melt your bones and stuff, into a little pile! It's like you were never even there..."
"Great." Colton pulled a face and winced, lifting a foot at a time out of the water in a vain attempt to keep them from going numb. "U-um, listen, is there—someplace less painful we can go?"
"You're asking me, raccoon kid. This water bites. I think this stuff drains to the lake that way, if the grate's open."
Colton nodded, eager to find it. "S-sounds good."
Fifteen minutes down the tunnels, and the floor of the culvert had indeed angled upwards just enough to make the walk drier. Colton was at ease. He hadn't forgotten where he was, and he was getting very curious indeed about what control he had over the dream world. More than once on the stroll, he glowed, almost giggling in giddiness at silly little ideas he had to try out. Gonzo was too busy jittering anxiously at every errant drip to notice.
"They're gonna be looking for you too, man," the bunny warned as he shot a glance over his shoulder. "Haven't you heard the rumors?"
Colton looked up from his feet. "Oh?"
"Anyone who gets outta line...they torture 'em. Suck all their juices out, a-and—steal their tongues!"
"And you're awake for the whole thing." In a moment of melodrama, Gonzo stepped out in front, leaning over Colton with a hunch and a squint. "Laying there, all strapped down and helpless, pain shooting across your body...as they use these big straws to suck out your bone marrow."
The raccoon lad could only stifle a giggle at the new, absurd low the descriptions had sunk to. "And then the big slicey robots come in, right?"
Gonzo grimaced. "Aren't you scared? Don't you know what they'll do to us when they find us, little man?"
"If they find us." It was Colton's turn to stand in front of Gonzo, this time with his hands hid behind his back conspicuously. He only smirked, his gaze zipping around the tunnel.
"...I don't get it."
"You think they'll get to us when we have...one of these?" With his own dramatic flair, Colton revealed his right hand, pulling a spindly brass pistol from thin air. Various bulbous widgets, thingies, and doodads stuck out angularly from the grip and along the length of the gun. A strange knob was planted on top in lieu of a sight, and the muzzle stuck out at least half the length of the gun itself. To any observer in their right mind, it would've looked like a mere toy.
Gonzo was instead stunned. "T-that's—!" he cried, reaching out limply to hold it himself. "A—CICADA."
"It is? I-I mean—it is!"
For a moment, torn between nervously holding his ears and being breathless over cave alien technology having at long last fallen into the hands of the people, Gonzo only stared. "How'd you get one?"
In truth, Colton had watched too many old B-movies in his youth, but that wouldn't have made for a gripping tale. At this point, he was so gleefully far down the rabbit hole, so impressed with himself for pulling off materializing one that he had to keep going. "I'm—part of a...rebel alliance, my friend." Colton stuck his hand out, as if to stop Gonzo in his tracks. "Imagine there, just two weeks ago: me and my little gang of rebels...we breach the doors on where they keep all their guns and we take everything!"
"Everything. Their big guns, their little guns...and they had this weird beepy scanny gun with a little screen on it too. It was in this big glass case with locks on it! I don't know what it did, but they weren't happy about us taking it. Oh no—they ambushed us. Outnumbered, we were, Gonzo! The cave aliens made a circle around us, but we dodged all their fire!" Completing the retelling, Colton started to jump and prowl around, posing with the gun and making shrill laser noises with his mouth.
He knew it was weird and ridiculous, and he expected him to reject it somewhere down the line—but Gonzo grew more and more starry-eyed at the thought. "W-wow...I didn't know there were rebels, man..."
Simmering down, Colton returned to Gonzo's side, smiling wide. "There are. In fact, we beat them so much, I expect them to come hunting for me alone—"
A short, weak explosion rang through the tunnels, followed by the sounds of clattering footsteps flooding in.
"—A-any moment now."
Two squadrons of faceless, hideously thin, freakishly tall alien mercenaries, layered in bodysuits, gasmasks, reinforced vests, and jackboots such that not a single bit of skin nor scale was exposed, emerged at the end of the tunnel. They carried rifles—jet black, finned pulse rifles that shot projectiles closer to lightning than simple rays. The sight of one soldier would've been enough to paralyze Gonzo—ten of them, stampeding, storming the pike could've stopped his heart.
Colton was no less jarred and jittery himself. The "dystopia" was suddenly very real, more real than he could've imagined it'd be from goofy descriptions of pulling eyes and tongues from heads. His knee-jerk reaction was to call on the Guardian to break the dream conduit, but as the initial burst of adrenaline started to set in and he looked over at his new partner, helpless and resigned to the invaders, desertion was off the table. I'm not leaving him behind.
Instead, untrained with a gun of any stripe, he held the pistol up to eye level with both hands and fired two ionizing shots at the closest of the soldiers. Both shots whined and whirred through the air, and a horrific, bitcrushed scream garbling in the soldier's gasmask followed. The wounded mercenary fell to the ground, large holes melted clean through his gasmask and bodysuit.
The scream was enough to knock Gonzo out of his trance. "Gah!"
"I—I did that," Colton whispered under his breath. Suddenly, his nerve returned. "Gonzo, follow!" he called, bolting away from the phalanx, and the bunny did follow.
The other soldiers returned fire with their rifles, generating nasty, blinding crackling, concussive thunderbolts meant squarely for their targets. Gonzo held his ears in pain, whimpering with each lightning strike, and Colton's skin crawled the same. The distance between them and the soldiers giving chase grew ever wider as they rounded the corner towards the lake discharge point. They thought they could breathe easily there.
Any hopes of escape were quickly dashed when Colton and Gonzo ran headfirst into the side tunnel leaking sunlight, barely tall enough for them to stand up in—and right into a sewer grate. Once upon a time, it was meant to keep teenagers out of the culvert, but now, it was keeping them trapped inside. The view out of it was perfect too—forest to hide in, a dock with a strange boat parked alongside it, not to mention the length of the lake with who knows what on the other side...
Gonzo looked ready to cry. "I-it's no use!"
"Like heck it's no use!"
Colton jammed the barrel of the pistol up against one of the bolts holding the grate in place and fired another shot. The rays from the CICADA boiled hot enough to melt a bike lock—rusted screws were no problem. He tried again on the other side, firing again, gripping the metal frame tight with his hand and pushing with his foot to prey on the slack. One of the bolts was already missing, so after the third, the grate clattered outwards.
Free at last, Colton made his move through the cattails and the rushes with Gonzo at his heels. The boat parked at the dock was something else indeed—flat-bottomed, with a bizarrely large propeller caged on one end and a double seat in the middle. Conveniently enough, someone had left the keys on the driver's seat.
Gonzo was the first to clamber aboard, fascinated. "I've never seen a boat like this..." he mumbled to himself.
"Me neither," Colton replied, strapping himself in with his pistol still at the ready. "You drive."
"Uh...I dunno how to, man. There's no wheel."
"Try the lever."
As instructed, Gonzo pushed the lever forward, and the propeller spun up quick and the boat slid from the harbor. The mercenaries were long left behind, still climbing out of the pipe as they passed, and feeling powerful, Colton took a few more shots at them. The noises of the colony on high alert rang out in the air behind them, and the old, repurposed weather sirens warbled dreadfully above all else.
Gonzo's shaky handling of the boat stabilized as the two zipped out onto the open water. Gliding across the water's surface, the two felt almost weightless, so entranced by the sights and the gentle, smooth ride of the boat that the roar of the propeller barely bothered them. Of course, Gonzo knew that wouldn't be the last of the mercenaries, and as the lake morphed into the wide open river, two helicopters took flight over the trees.
"Man, not again..." Gonzo sighed as he gazed up at them.
Colton was still optimistic. "Maybe we can beat them. Boat's pretty fast."
With the control stick jammed as forward as it'd go, the boat roared ahead. They each nervously watched the chopper on their side, hovering and sweeping back and forth and whipping the trees around in the rotor wash. They didn't seem to do much, nor was there much in the way of firepower on board, but that only proved to heighten Gonzo's nerves.
"Boat's not fast enough!" he called above the propeller noise.
"We'll lose them sometime," Colton reassured, though growing less assured himself. This was looking more and more like a stalemate, an uncomfortable dead heat he couldn't see much of a way to win. He didn't know the area, nor how big a military he was up against, nor was he even in control of the boat. No wonder he never gets to sleep, Colton thought, this is war!
A loud crack rang from the forests downstream. The oldest, tallest pine trees around them started to sway unsteadily, dangerously, before splitting from their bases and clattering like boulders against the riverbed.
Colton's eyes shot open, and he flinched in his seat with each splash. "They're trying to block our path!"
Closer, closer the boat came to the trunk of one of the downed trees.
In panic, Gonzo slammed on the controls, yanking and pulling on the stick like a trapped animal. "HOW DO YOU STOP THIS THING?"
"JUST TURN AROUND!"
Mere feet before the collision, the ship pulled a sharp right, kicking up enough water to soak both the tree trunk, its deck, and its passengers. Facing back upstream with its inertia almost completely lost, the boat only drifted dead center in the river. At once, Gonzo killed the engine, threw off his seatbelt, and hopped into the drink, his racing heart following closely behind.
Colton played third wheel; he didn't want much to do with it at this point either.
Weak, weary, and waterlogged, the two paddled their way to the water's edge. Colton plopped down on a boulder, groaning and miserable in his drenched clothes; Gonzo likewise collapsed into his lap in the grass. With the propeller spun down, the air around them grew still again, almost peaceful. Even the busy river seemed like a whisper next to the former roar of the airboat.
Colton noticed another absence in the calm. "Helicopters are gone."
"They'll be back, raccoon kid," Gonzo mumbled, looking up into the sky through tired eyes. "They always come back."
Gonzo leapt out of his skin and turned to face the voice. An unfamiliar face, a bright-eyed quokka with a big, stupid nose a bit smaller than the ears that stuck out of his wool hat, emerged from the cover of the trees. His outfit told the rest of the story: his own boiler suit, identical to the ones they'd gotten soaked and ruined in the river, hidden under an olive drab field jacket.
"Were you two the ones tearing up the river?" The quokka's voice was warm and low, a welcome respite from the constant barrage of machinery and augmented alien utterances that could've passed for machinery. Colton took special note of the accent; it was glossy, with R's seemingly misplaced throughout his sentences.
"Y-yeah...was us," was all he could think to reply with.
"You gave the cave aliens a good run, you did. I take it you're not looking to return home to the colonies."
The two shook their heads in unison. "No going back now, man," Gonzo added quietly.
"No going back," the quokka agreed. "If you'd like, I can show you back to the outpost."
"Outpost?" Colton wondered aloud. "Like—rebel outpost?"
"Yes, what else?"
In their search for shelter, Colton and Gonzo took a chance on the stranger and accompanied him to the outpost. It wasn't too far of a walk, and fairly easy goings thanks to the makeshift path cleared of shrubs and debris some time prior by rebel forces. The path lead to a tiny, abandoned wooden shack nestled between the trees further downstream. Barely anything was inside, save for a weathered, splintered desk and a stained couch. Branches littered the floor, having fallen through the large holes in the roof.
"It's down here," the quokka explained, pulling up a small door in the floor that'd been obscured partially by the couch.
Gonzo almost couldn't believe his eyes. Far from the trap he'd been expecting, there was an entire, sprawling stone bunker hidden under the shack, filled to the brim with former citizens—all dressed like the quokka! Some were busy with maps and markers, making plans to push back against the cave aliens. Others were busy chatting with fresh escapees, training them with CICADAs and rifles and even ordinary military shotguns in hand.
The lively little scene quieted as the three stepped off the ladder. A few rebels even stopped in their tracks to get a good look.
"Found a few more," the quokka announced to the crowd's scattered cheers.
Gonzo's relief was palpable, the exhaustion and the fear easing up out of his shoulders. For all he'd been through, for as messy as this nightmare had been, for as wanted as he now was by beings he didn't even quite understand—he was in good company in good spirits, at the very least.
Colton quietly excused himself back up the ladder, and Gonzo and the quokka gave him space. With the trapdoor closed and hidden from view, he peeked up at the bluish-greyish sky with his grabby little hands clasped together, smiling. My work's done here.
"Pull me out, Guardian," he whispered.
It would be late morning when Gonzo would rise from the dream world. He'd sprawled out in his sleep and awoke to find himself practically hanging over the edge of the couch. His fort of pillow had collapsed, with some scattered onto his body and some onto the floor.
The bunny lad sat up, looking around the meditation room. The paranoia in his chest he'd grown so accustomed to had all but disappeared, and all he had left were quickly evaporating memories of the dream he'd just had. He didn't know what to make of it.
While true, the Guardian and Colton had both deserted the room long ago, he wasn't alone in the building by any means. Riley was hosting another art exhibition later in the evening, and footsteps, some loud and heavy, some much quieter and clickier, came from both sides of the hall.
Any other time, Gonzo might've wandered out of a side exit without arousing suspicion. Instead, he poked his head out of the doorway, quietly watching the movers and shakers carry paintings and furniture through the gallery.
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