The Executive sat in his spin chair as a tiger strapped down for immunization, cracking his knuckles back & forth ’bove his cold barren table while he gazed o’er his short empty cage covered in shiny windows—meant so he could see everything that went on outside, but felt as if everyone were watching him, as if he were a murder suspect under scrutiny by the police.
So much stress running the tallest mall in Boskeopolis.
But god damn if he wasn’t going to do the best job he could do to ensure the packages passed hands on time, the preferred product was properly pushed, & the lobby maps were always accurate to a fine degree. Sure people called him o’erbearing, anal, & a fucking asshole; but those people were always fired, so he didn’t have to hear it for long.
’Sides, he was saving Boskeopolis—yeah, that’s right: saving the whole city. Not that anyone would e’er appreciate him for his good work, though. See, what the Executive knew—& no one else did, since he knew they’d just slander his good name if he dared mention the truth that no one e’er wanted to admit—was that he had to keep this mall running tip-top if he wanted to avoid causing catastrophe throughout the whole city.
¿How, you might ask? Well, the Executive could tell you: he happened to know that lurking in the icy bottom basement caves o’ this 12-story mall was the Mammonth, a woolly tusked monster with an insatiable hunger for profits. Keep it fed, & everything was all right; but let its supply for cold #s slip for e’en a week & its fury will boil till it bursts up from its subterranean cage & rampage through the city, demanding profits.
This was what caused him to rattle in his squeaky chair & pop pills to shut up his heart’s wild pounding; this was what caused him to sit up in the middle o’ the night in chilly sweat a’least 1 night every week from nightmares o’ the woolly Mammonth shattering through concrete streets as if they were cardboard sets with its bronze tusks.
Then, whenever he had these flashbacks, he would sit back, breathe deeply, & muttered to himself, “It’s OK… The profits won’t fall… the profits won’t fall… ¡I won’t let them!”
He didn’t care if anyone snapped him dirty looks—he’d fire them all, too. So long as the profits kept up, they could call him “King Cuckoo”—which he knew they did ’hind his back, the traitors—for all he cared.
Unfortunately, a power drill would soon jump into the cogs that kept those profits steady on the ensuing dark Friday—& that power drill’s name was Autumn Springer.
Since there was no visible sun that afternoon, there was no sunset: the sky-covering ghostly white faded directly to blue while the windows & doors o’ the Sterling Mall lit up. Autumn & Edgar walked ’cross the car-clogged lot like mice, with no understanding or interest in these regular-human devices, only that they were obstacles that needed to be dodged on the way to the true object o’ interest.
That object was the glass doors @ the front, shining with festive light like the glowing throat o’ a gold mine. Crossing that threshold, they found that the lullaby o’ wind & crunching steps was replaced by a ragtime o’ droning jingles & the march o’ thousands like hundreds o’ free-jazz musicians playing @ once.
Edgar gazed @ this scene as a child in Disney World. Autumn held mo’ practical views: though she usually bristled @ so many dangerous elements, this time she knew it’d be an advantage to her scheme.
Her attention was aimed ’bove in search for a suitable shop as they ventured through the maze o’ people, keeping Edgar closely clutched to her so he wouldn’t get lost. She found this difficult with the variety o’ signs glowing with bright primaries, all screaming for her attention @ the same time, but with completely different words.
She stopped when she saw the sign that said, “Armor Identity,” & then oozed through the stream o’ shoppers inside. There the walls & the center were so clogged with clothes, one could hardly see: T-shirts in pink or black, with text in tedious fonts that spouted phrases far less creative than its writer probably thought; denim skirts & pants with holes already poked in for customers; hair bows that protected gainst instant death or petrification; & the convenient fire shield for the volcano dungeon just ’head. & if that didn’t obscure vision ’nough, the crowds clamoring in this Marxmas rush offered supplement.
Perfect, thought Autumn.
She & Edgar crept with bent knees & backs, pretending to be ducking under this woman or that man & pretending to peer @ a particular advertisement as paid apparel, Autumn nabbing articles as she went. Their trek ended under the awn o’ a row o’ clothes pressed gainst a wall with the clothes collected by Autumn propped in front o’ them, concealing them from all but the barest eyes—& in this blizzard o’ pumping moccasins & hands waving in every direction, every eye was bound to be bound in the equivalent o’ thick winter coats.
Every step was gradual & inconsequential, so that ’less one were to watch each, no one would think a thing ’bout what they did, or e’en where they went.
Still, Autumn’s coffee-carved eyes bounced all round the shop, her heart & lungs putting in extra work to ensure she had ’nough blood to fly the second a threat presented itself.
These expectations elongated for hours till the crowds dissipated. This was when Autumn & Edgar’s nerves gripped themselves mo’ tightly, for here was when they’d be the easiest to spot.
They weren’t. The last staff member clicked the lights off & then left, leaving no sound but the squeaking o’ the door as it fell shut.
Autumn waited a full 5 minutes ’fore confirming for herself that the staff were gone for the rest o’ the night. Now she just had to keep them concealed from the cameras while ’scaping their hiding place.
Perhaps if we rushed ’way, the clothes should fall, & maybe the camera will follow it ’stead o’ our movement.
That’s a risky assumption to make.
With the way her whiny arms began to bristle under her jacket, she figured her shivering would set off the alarms if she didn’t hurry ’way soon, anyway.
O, duh: ¡that’s it!
She whispered in Edgar’s ear to hold the clothes in front o’ them up while Autumn pulled off her jacket. Then she held the clothes ’gain while Edgar took off his own, steeling her body gainst the cold as he did.
Autumn whispered in Edgar’s ear, “Follow me quickly.”
They zipped to the left, staying under the shadow o’ the hanging shirts while the shirts they’d been holding plopped onto the floor ’hind them. A second after it fell, she stopped, grabbing Edgar & stopping him suddenly, too.
Then she waited to see if the camera had caught them. She eyed it slowly turning its long, peering eye o’er the store for minutes.
It made neither sound nor abrupt change in appearance. It merely maintained its pattern, left & right, left & right.
I wonder if it’d simply silently call the police or security personnel if it caught me, deliberately not changing its outward appearance to lure any thieves into false feelings o’ safety.
It wouldn’t benefit me to remain either way.
Every time the camera looked ’way, they gradually moved sideways, keeping their jackets in front o’ them. Autumn considered it lucky that her worry o’er being caught caused her to sweat ’nough to counteract the frigidity inside & hoped the same happened to Edgar. As far as she saw, he hadn’t seemed to shake, a’least.
’Ventually they reached the other side o’ the store—where the front door was—without the camera showing any signs o’ seeing them. Now she just had to figure out how to get on the other side o’ the door & do so without being spotted still.
Considering ’twas liable to be locked, that was simpler said than satisfied.
E’en if the camera weren’t there, our best bet’d be to chuck something heavy through the glass & climb through. With the alarms they must have, that’d be suicide.
Fuck. ¿Why couldn’t you plan better?
E’en if there is an alarm in that camera, if we hide ourselves under a pile o’ garments as we go out, the camera won’t capture our image & no one who looks @ the tape later will recognize us.
She continued to stare @ the door, glancing every few seconds back @ the camera, as if she hoped it’d suddenly collapse & die.
No risk, no reward…
He’d been waiting for this moment to come every second so that when it finally did he wasn’t surprised in the slightest. After mo’ false alarms than he could count—the sound o’ a scurrying rat or a slid paper—he had no trouble bolting to his feet the second he heard this authentic 1.
I warned them… They didn’t listen, but I warned them…
The Executive sat back down & flipped his main camera to the “Armor Identity” whence the alarm rang. He flipped them all there. Every 1.
But when he saw it, he saw no one there anymo’. Everything was empty, save the flashing red light. All he could see that was different was the shattered glass splayed ’long the floor in front o’ the front door.
His fingers were so shaky, he failed twice to grasp the switch that’d switch his monitor to monitor the lobby outside the “Armor Identity”—& when he did, all he saw was mo’ empty darkness. His victim arms assaulted by such alarm were no match for the invisible danger so that no matter how fast he tried to change his monitors, the danger would always elude sight before that time.
That was when he thought ’bout switching each monitor to different places, which made him think ’bout where to switch, which made him think that he didn’t have time to think. ¡Action! ¡Now!
He began switching each monitor to different places, which made him think ’bout how he needed to think ’bout which places he’d already switched to so that he didn’t create redundancies.
¡Damn it! So busy & yet nobody else can do this—but ’course nobody can do this. Nobody else can be trusted.
He felt a rumble ’neath him. A’least, he thought he felt a rumble ’neath him.
He knew the Mammonth wouldn’t be pleased.
The spy droids were everywhere. Thankfully, they weren’t as smart as true humans: they only saw directly ’head o’ them & their line o’ sight was only a few meters. Thus, Autumn & Edgar could hide gainst the wall o’ a lobbyway perpendicular to a droid’s path without being spotted.
Thus ran the pattern: Autumn would stop @ the last safe spot, wait for a bot to trot past, illuminated by the beam o’ its flashlight eyes, & then zip ’hind it & stop @ the next last spot that was safe.
’Course, as was nature’s course, their course became coarser farther in, straining this pattern so that Autumn had to rely mo’ & mo’ on quick intuition. Bots walked in mo’-tortuous patterns, moved through spaces arranged mo’ & mo’ complexly, & went @ a brisker pace; & there were also many more o’ them per area. While squeezing ’tween the beams o’ 2 droids just turning ’way from each other, Autumn always had to remember Edgar ’hind her, & had to time her tracks to keep him out o’ their vision as well. For some arrangements, she had no choice but to exploit potted plants’ property for blocking beams.
This was far riskier on the escalators, as she had to organize her climb in tandem with automatic motion while seekers swiveled back & forth from both sides.
Midway through the 2nd floor, she saw a shop that seemed to have valuable goods, while being far ’nough ’way from “Armor Identity” to elude immediate suspicions. By this point, the alarm had stopped yelling; but what security made o’ the obvious broken glass in the “Armor Identity,” she couldn’t predict.
They couldn’t mistake that for a false alarm.
Though, I s’pose they could guess I went out the front door & left the mall.
Much mo’ likely that they all already know that a virus is on the run & would rather stop shouting it ’loud to lead me into illusive assurances.
It won’t matter anymo’, anyway.
She stopped in front o’ the shop with the sign labelled, “Everywhere Electronics,” with bold, dark blue-gray font & the icon “Ee” in an orange bolt in the left corner. Using her diamond ring, she scratched out the window o’ the front door till ’twas bending subtly off a small portion o’ the left corner. Then she went to the opposite side o’ the lobby, a few steps ’way so that the door was @ an angle ’way from her. There she pulled a stone from 1 o’ her pockets &, after checking the vicinity to ensure no droids were nearby, tossed the rock @ the corner o’ the door, fleeing just after. A moment after, she heard a crash & then an alarm.
As last time, she fast-walked as fast as she could without being noisy till she reached an escalator ’bout 10 shops past, & then hid under said escalator.
Now was the worst part o’ the heist: waiting a’least a few hours for the security to confirm the absence o’ all trouble near the “Everywhere Electronics.” This still held many risks: such a long duration would give them plenty o’ time to find her. They may e’en expect her to wait this long, expecting them to leave, & keep their eyes on “Everywhere Electronics” all night.
That was when she had an idea.
She whispered it directly into Edgar’s ear quickly, & then rose &, allowing for a quick search so as not to run into any security, fast-walked out & down a few mo’ stores. There she repeated the same trick on a different store: throwing a stone @ the door, followed by running back the direction whence she came, hiding under the escalator once mo’.
She decided only to wait ’bout 10 minutes for this. ’Twas still risky, but less so. Her main risk, after all, was that they predicted her plans & preempted them; thus, her main deterrent to their deterrence was convolution to induce as much confusion as possible.
When she checked her phone & saw that it’d been ’bout 10 minutes, she rose & led Edgar back to the “Everywhere Electronics.” Her breathing eased a bit when she saw hardly any bots round—no mo’ than before—& that the door’s glass hadn’t already been repaired, leaving a gaping hole.
With fewer windows—none—inside the “Everywhere Electronics,” ’twas much darker. Autumn preferred it that way. She crept aisle-to-aisle, dodging cameras as they turned their heads. ’Long the way, she stopped here & there to take commodities, visible only by subtle differences o’ blackness, & stowed them, stopping only when her pack could hold no mo’, building its weight so that it yanked down on her shoulders with the force o’ infinite twin karate chops.
Then she snuck ’way ’hind the desk—the area blocked off most from outside view that was still accessible—& examined each good in detail under her flashlight. Here was where her tedious planning, development, & testing would hopefully profit: she pulled out the device she made for removing security tags, setting aside those with aberrant tags incompatible with her device.
When she saw it work on the vast majority o’ wares, her heart pumped double the pace o’ its already-rapid rate, feeling her brain fill with intellectual sugar, like a sweet tooth being deluged with syrup, like the last square o’ a Sudoku being filled.
Too early to feel cocky. Still need to ’scape… still need to sell them & not be caught…
She rose & dodged the cameras 1 last time out the store, & then dived for the nearest plant to give them a safe place to get a carefuller look @ the danger points.
OK… she thought as she waited a moment for her & Edgar to replenish their breaths ’gain. Just need to sneak back to the front o’ the mall & then charge out & back home.
It wasn’t just the present ordeal added to the ordeal she still expected to go through that formed the sum o’ her exhaustion, but the realization o’ the puny sum she’d gain from her heist &, in connection, how many o’ these she’d have to do to make much.
It brought her back to that e’er-hungry question: ¿why keep stealing? ¿Wasn’t she rich ’nough that she ne’er had to worry ’bout running out o’ money—or a’least to the point that the risks o’ robbing were worse than the risk o’ somehow running out o’ ₧?
But then she remembered the high she felt ’pon detaching the security tags & how it subtly sucked her in like a nearby pack o’ cigarettes…
No time for sperging out on this shit now, Autumn thought as she rose, & then went onward.
Someday the Russian Revolver I fetishly click gainst my head will finally blast my infected brains out for good.
After what must’ve been hours o’ fiddling with these useless controls, wherein the Executive’s heart felt as if ’twere losing mo’ & mo’ air, he practically jumped out o’ his ergonomic chair when he saw moving figures—moving figures that were not his security robots.
He quickly set that camera—¡no, the 1 ’head!—to his main screen & zoomed in. There he saw dashing downstairs 2 figures dressed in black ninja garb, 1 o’ whom was albino with the darkest & thickest eyes he’d e’er seen.
He sat back so heavily that his chair spun a centimeter or so.
Albino or no, no human has eyes like those. This isn’t just a thief—he’s working with the occult…
He’s intentionally trying to wake the Mammonth.
¡I must stop him immediately! he thought as his hands wavered o’er the controls confusedly, searching for code for sending security toward that area.
Then he stopped. With 1 hand, he reached into his jacket, pulled out a handkerchief, & began wiping the profuse sweat while the other hand grasped the arm o’ his chair.
We have to think ’fore we act, ol’ boy. By the time they get there, they’ll already have passed. I need to think ’head o’ them.
1st, I need to send security to watch all exists just in case she does allow the Mammonth to ’scape, he thought as his fingers moved.
Then I need some guarding the gate to the Mammonth’s tomb ’fore they reach it.
His hands flew, pulling levers here, pushing buttons there, & typing in codes o’er in that spot right there. He impelled his weak heart not to foil him now. There was no time for panic. Every second wasted was a % point added in the favor o’ the Mammonth & the destruction o’ the whole city—& all, including he & them, were worth sacrificing to ensure that the city’s engine ne’er crashed.
Shit. I didn’t think ’bout that.
Autumn stopped when she saw the 2 security droids @ the far other end o’ the lobby, right in front o’ the front doors, stationary.
Our only chance is to cause ’nother disturbance to distract them from their posts.
So she went back round the closest turn, taking particular note o’ the drought o’ droids here compared to when she passed by in the other direction.
Someone knows I’m here & is just trying to lead me into a trap.
¿Or maybe I just didn’t go through this part before? I can’t e’en remember.
Your skills are becoming blunter. You’re slowly dying, & 1 day you’ll blow it all.
She shook her head & returned to work. When she confirmed ’gain that she wasn’t being watched—a’least as much as she had all o’ the other times—she tossed ’nother stone @ ’nother window & then ran round the corner ’gain, this time going ’way from the front doors. However, as they hid ’hind ’nother plant box, they saw the security not budge a byte.
¿Those guards won’t move, will they? They probably setup multiple types o’ security so that they can prevent the very technique I’m trying. Shit.
She glanced o’er her shoulder & almost jumped when she saw a bot head toward them. She slowly slid them o’er to the adjacent side o’ the box, & then the next adjacent side when the bot was by her original side, only for the robot to curve round the other side.
¡Shit! Don’t remember this pattern. ¿Have I ne’er gone through this hall, either?
But when she tried going round the next adjacent side, she saw ’nother bot coming from the other direction. Edgar must’ve realized their precarious state, since he held onto Autumn mo’ tightly than he had earlier in their heist.
Judging stealth to be futile @ this point, Autumn rose & ran round the box, only to feel a crane-like hand grasp her shoulder. She immediately swung that arm o’ hers gainst the robot arm, to no avail.
She felt an electric pulse drive into her shoulder, causing her nerves to feel as if they were loosening, till she felt her arms & head fall limply gainst her control. She then saw the lobby swing round & then move toward her.
Autumn witnessed herself being dragged down into a much grayer world, bright windows & cheery logos replaced by dusty shelves full o’ splotched white buckets & lines o’ metal pipes.
’Bout a dozen meters in, Autumn felt her nerves gradually regain sense. ’Cause o’ these, she was able to feel the tight grip security had on her 2 arms & could discern that they already guessed that this would happen—& that trying to ’scape now would only risk further paralysis.
1 o’ the bots opened an equally-gray door & led her inside. There, sitting with his back to a machine full o’ buttons & a wide screen with many li’l screens inside it, was a bald man with thick brows in a dark gray business suit. Though his eyes tried to remain angry, she could tell by the way he bit his lips & kept rubbing his knees that he was mo’ fearful.
“Take off their disguises,” he said in a thick, raspy tone.
Autumn felt ’nother hand grasp the top o’ her head & yank back, pulling part o’ her hair with her mask.
Perhaps I should’ve invested in dye & skin bleach, after all.
The businessman jumped out his chair with such a jolt that his chair was thrown almost a meter ’hind him.
“¡I knew it!” he shouted as he thrust a finger toward Edgar, who was just now having his mask removed. He then turned his finger toward Autumn. “¡You’re working with the occult! ¡You are trying to waken the Mammonth!”
Autumn was so surprised that she couldn’t stop her pupils from dilating.
Before she could respond, he raised his hand & exclaimed, “¡Aha! ¡I knew it!”
Perhaps I misheard him. Perhaps “waken the mammoth” is some word turn I’ve yet to learn. If I e’er get out o’ here ’live, I ought to look it up or ask Edgar to ask that friend o’ his…
The businessman looked ’bove their heads—probably @ the security—& said, “Throw them ’hind the gate.”
& with that, Autumn saw the room round her turn—this time feeling it as well—& then was led out the door. As they were dragged ’way, Autumn mused o’er whether it’d be easier to ’scape now or while in “the gate.” After a few minutes’ lost time, she decided on the latter.
Spoiler alert: she was wrong.
Autumn wasn’t surprised when she saw her captors lead her farther downward, since that’s logically where a mall prison would reside.
What did surprise her was that the “gate” wasn’t embellishment: she saw a true gate o’ black iron, its bars climbing to intricate parabolas with arrow tops. So comically chilly was this sight that she swore she could feel actual icy wind drift in through its bars. Through them, rather than the drab gray to be expected—’specially since ’twas everywhere else down there—she saw rocky walls o’ shining blue, covered with white dust.
She was impressed. Rather than not caring for the comfort o’ their prisoners, like most would, they put effort into making their prisons unhospitable.
She heard a buzz near her ear & in other places & then saw 1 o’ the security droids walk up to the gate & begin swiveling its head left & right. This was when Autumn remembered where she’d heard that sound before: the buzzing o’ headphones in students ears back when she was in school.
The manager must’ve told them to check to ensure there are no weak points I can exploit.
After a few minutes’ search, the droid in front swayed its arm before the middle o’ the gate, causing the room to shake mildly & for the gate to open out from the middle like a mouth. Then, in 1 swift motion, she was practically thrown past the gate, & then she felt the ground rumble & the gate’s bars scrape gainst the ground. By the time she turned back, she saw that the gate was already almost closed.
She stared out the gate with wrinkled eyes o’ sadness & horror while she shivered with her arms wrapped round her. The latter didn’t require much acting, since it truly was freezing in there. The wind she thought she felt was authentic, after all, since she could clearly feel it seeping through every hole in her clothes.
When the security bots had gone, Autumn turned back to the rest o’ their cell. She walked closer to a wall, noticing her shoes crunching o’er a sandy texture so cold that she could feel its chill seep through her soles. She rubbed a finger o’er the wall & could feel the sharp ice crystals,—as well as the bumpy but smooth texture o’ stone—e’en through her mittens.
¿What, was this mall just build o’er a cave & they decided that they might as well use it for something & used it for the purpose wherein comfort is least important?
That would be a rational use o’ resources.
Before she had time to do anything else, she felt a puffy pressure slowly clamp round her & looked to her side to see a shivering Edgar.
He leaned upward to Autumn’s ear & whispered, “¿You have a plan?”
Autumn sighed, & then whispered slightly mo’ loudly than Edgar had, “No. I wouldn’t invest stock in us ’scaping e’er.”
Edgar didn’t respond.
If only I still had my—
That was when Autumn realized she did still have her pack. He ne’er thought to tell his security droids to take it ’way. Autumn struggled to keep her lips low when her heart pounded for it to rise like a flag on a moon.
This was only dampened by Autumn’s shuddering body begging her to dig through her pack for a robe to wrap round her & Edgar, which conflicted with her mo’-austere mind’s fear o’ emphasizing her pack’s existence to whatever security was watching them.
He may have left his robots to watch us while he went off to sleep… & due to the limits o’ AI, they’re probably too simpleminded to think to recognize my pack…
If true, this will also mean they’re ability to recognize attempts to ’scape should have holes to exploit…
As she led Edgar forward through their cell, she began to witness just how much larger ’twas than she’d expected. Though the entrance was only ’bout a dozen meters wide, it opened to a far wider vestibule that split in 2 directions.
¿Why would they make our cell a maze, which will only create mo’ places they will have to watch & encourage us to hide to throw off their attention?
I take back what I said ’bout their hard work in torturing their prisoners; this prison was clearly an afterthought after all.
Autumn shrugged in the middle o’ the hall & said, “I guess we’ll just go left.”
When they were far ’nough into the hall that they passed the entrance, Autumn bent down & opened her pack to pull out her thick robe from the back part o’ her main pack pocket—the part not hidden & not holding the stolen electronics.
She then stood & wrapped the robe round her & Edgar—as well as her pack.
Wish I’d thought o’ that before.
Then ’gain, he might’ve found that, too, if he bothered to go through with taking off our whole disguise.
Despite the robe o’er them, the frigid air still seeped into them. ’Twas definitely colder down there than outside. What was worse was the way it affected their naked faces, as if the wind’s hand were grasping Autumn’s nose to squeeze all o’ the snot out.
Surely this deep coldness couldn’t be natural. Not so near the much warmer area outside the gate.
They did do extra to make this cell unbearable.
Though she quickly disposed o’ such worries as paranoid, she did briefly wonder if they were not merely being held here till the police arrived to take them to jail, but were being left here to die, urged by the contrived temperature.
Either way, she could tell by the deep ache the cold left in her stomach & throat that spending too long down here could be lethal.
¿So why am I wandering through here so I can get us lost, closer to the source o’ the chilliness? I mean, I’ve already established that I enjoy suicide for li’l gain; ¿but does Edgar deserve the same?
Perhaps if I find the source I can make it shut off somehow.
She figured they must be getting closer, judging by the slight rumbling she began to feel under her feet & the whir screaming from afar.
Hopefully we’ll last that long, Autumn thought as she held her nose with her mittened hand.
The most annoying part is that we’ll probably catch colds or pneumonias from this, which will impede my work.
Though, now that I think ’bout it, I don’t think I’ve e’er seen Edgar develop any illness since I’ve met him.
The rumbling & noises increased. The noises transformed from whirs to what sounded like deep squawks, & felt as if they penetrated their ribcages mo’ than the quakes.
Autumn’s eyes screwed tightly in concentration.
That sounds… off for a mere freezer.
She felt Edgar’s shivering increase, & knew ’twasn’t all ’cause o’ the temperature. She could feel her own chest fill with the familiar sting accompanied by augurs grim.
I wonder if we should head back…
If there’s a danger that can get us farther in, it can get us farther out.
A smoky gasp ’scaped Autumn’s mouth. Surely they didn’t…
We’ve already established that they must’ve put effort into freezing this cell colder than outside…
¿So why put effort? ¿To kill us?
If they’re willing to expend such resources to have us killed, ¿why not expend robotic monsters to have us killed, too? & perhaps the maze isn’t here out o’ laziness: perhaps it’s there to help us become lost & mo’ vulnerable to a robot programmed to perfectly know the maze as well as it knows 2 + 2 = 4.
Autumn shook her head, not just to clear her o’ such wild conjectures, but also to shake off the drowsiness, her body squandering so much energy on keeping its insides liquid—which was evidently hard, judging by the stiffness she felt in her limbs.
She checked under the sleeve o’ her sweats, but didn’t see any change in skin color.
Hopefully that’s a good sign.
Though it’s not as if I know anything ’bout hypothermia.
What was odd was that Autumn persisted in heading further into the icy cave, despite all o’ the risks. ’Pon introspection, she realized ’twas due to a macabre curiosity.
Watch it turn out that the “monster’s” just a malfunctioning heater.
That was when Autumn entered the room & saw it: almost filling a cage o’ translucent crystal bigger than her & Edgar’s apartment room was a sparkling golden-haired creature in the shape o’ an elephant, but with 2 hook-shaped silver tusks on each end o’ its hose nose.
The mammoth… ’Course…
Autumn’s awe @ the mammoth was replaced by greater awe @ the material encasing it. She walked up to it, despite Edgar’s uneasy, “Autumn…” & the mammoth’s attacks gainst its cage, & examined said cage to see that it was formed by what must be millions o’ diamonds, crystals, rubies, & other jewels all connected.
¿Dare I try taking them?
¿Dare I not? ¡All o’ these would be worth trillions! ¡It’d be the most amazing heist anyone could e’er do! E’en if I died afterward, I’d have died doing the best that I could e’er do.
But when she grabbed a diamond, she found it wouldn’t budge, & she was quickly knocked onto the ground by ’nother slam o’ the mammoth.
She sat back up with a sigh. Shouldn’t get my hopes up so high—’specially after the surprising success I’ve had so far with the electronics. I need to recognize the reality that that’s the best I can manage.
She didn’t however. She stood & twisted her brows as if they were keys to twisting her mind into higher gears. She dug her hands through her pockets, enumerating each tool by the touch o’ its shape, when she felt the smooth silver-colored plastic o’ her lighter.
¿Why didn’t I think o’ that as a source for heat?
She pulled out her lighter & stared @ it. Then she turned to Edgar, whom she had noticed in the corner o’ her vision had been staring concernedly @ her.
With sad eyes, she said, “Sorry, but you know how greedy I am. ’Sides, I have a plan for how it’ll help us ’scape.”
“Get a head start,” she continued. “You know risking yourself won’t make me safer in this regard.”
To this Edgar also nodded, & turned & went. Knowing Autumn perfectly, he said nothing. He knew saying, “Be careful,” would be superfluous.
A few minutes after having seen Edgar disappear from outside the entranceway, she extracted an empty sack from her pack—kept in case o’ unexpected opportunities such as this—& held it as steadily as she could under the cage with 1 hand as the other held the lighter up to the cage. This was complicated by the mammoth’s constant headbutts constantly knocking her back; but ’ventually, the heat o’ her flame grew on the jewels, causing the ice locking them together to melt, & causing them to spill all o’er her bag, some e’en falling in.
As it turned out, the mammoth’s ramming did help in 1 regard: it made breaking the cage far easier. After a few minutes, when ’nough o’ the ice had melted, the mammoth’s tackles were able to break off pieces o’ the jewelry, too.
Now’s the game o’ chicken: the longer I stay, the mo’ money I get…
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop her hand from shaking the bag & lighter, causing e’en mo’ jewels to miss.
…& the greater the risk o’ losing everything.
When Autumn saw 1 thrash cause the floor to scatter in jewels, she decided to bolt ’way back to the entrance. Looking o’er her shoulder, she saw the next headbutt break right through the cage.
¿How the fuck am I going to outrun a mammoth?
Her legs pumped her forward & forward in attempt, ne’ertheless.
¡Shit! ¿Why do these halls have to be so thin? ¿Why’d the gate have to be so far from the mammoth?
¡’Cause they want it to kill you, stupid!
This was when Autumn began to ponder if perhaps the jewelry jail was just a trap to trick her into devising her own demise. Who wouldn’t assume a thief looking @ a cage made o’ jewelry would immediately see ’nother pilfering op—
Autumn halted these thoughts when she noticed the quakes under her feet become louder. Unable to resist curiosity, she glanced o’er her shoulder to see the mammoth gaining.
¡Shit! ¡Think o’ a way to slow him temporarily!
Sighing, she scooped a hand into her bag & dumped a handful o’ jewels onto the ground.
However, with an eye still on the mammoth ’hind her, she saw it trample o’er the gems as casually as shoes o’er pebbles.
¡Fuck! ¡What a waste!
I wonder if fire will do better.
She pulled out her lighter ’gain & frantically clicked @ it. On the 4th click, she finally birthed a flame, & then chucked the lighter o’er her shoulder.
This time, when the lighter’s flame touched the mammoth’s face, it backed ’way with its front legs up, emitting ’nother scream.
Hopefully that’ll gain me ’nough time to reach the gate.
Just as she thought this, she saw the hallway curve ’way, which she remembered led back to the fork just in front o’ the gate.
Just a few mo’ meters…
But when she returned to the gate, she realized how thin the entranceway was.
No time to change plans. I’ll just have to try. If it’s futile, it’s already futile, & I’ll just have to accept failure.
Autumn stood with her back right gainst the gate, feelings its sharp chill pierce through the back o’ her robe. She tried to keep still gainst her rattling nerves.
You just have to keep your spine straight for this 1 critical moment, & then you can be as fearful as you want, she told herself, though she faintly remembered promising the same many times before.
The mammoth skid to a stop before the turn to the entryway, having seen her make the turn herself. It turned to her, its eyes shrouded in black under its thick, hairy brows.
’Twas in this moment, as the mammoth scratched its feet in preparation for ’nother charge, that Autumn wondered if she needn’t stand here after all—if the mammoth were truly after an exit from this pit as much as she were, & not after her blood for the sin o’ helping it ’scape.
She hadn’t time to form an answer. The mammoth stampeded through the short entrance. Seeing that the mammoth wouldn’t have time to stop before hitting the gate e’en if it wanted to, Autumn hopped to the side as she ran for the other side.
She saw for only a second the mammoth veering toward her with its head tilted downward ’fore she felt a thick spike stab up through her chest, followed immediately by hard metal slamming her back, causing the mammoth’s horn to bury deeper. Though the pain erupted sharply o’er her entire body, it soon drained, as well as all other sensations but a flood o’ numbness mo’ jarring that the pain itself.
She did feel some substance rise to her throat, causing her to whole face to heave repeatedly, though nothing came out.
Though she probably would’ve found these last few minutes to be o’ utmost importance, she spent them thinking the same simple line, I should’ve ducked ’stead… I should’ve ducked ’stead… I should’ve ducked ’stead… like a broken record.
For probably the 1st time, Edgar felt relief @ the sound o’ busting metal.
If they can’t already see everything we’re doing, I doubt they could hear what we’re doing, & it’d save time if I tell her where I’m hiding now.
¿But wouldn’t Autumn call out if it’s safe to speak out?
O, I wish I were better @ making these kind o’ decisions.
After a few mo’ seconds o’ silence, Edgar’s itchy bones pressed him to his feet & out o’ hiding.
It shouldn’t hurt to walk out a’least. After all, I clearly heard the—
Edgar gasped with his hands grasping his head when he saw Autumn’s flushed body lying in a pool o’ dark blood, her face wrinkled & splotched dark.
Gasps grew into sobs as Edgar turned ’way, dropping to his knees with his fingers drilling into his skull, his eyeholes staring straight into the ground, but still seeing afterimages, his temperature 180ing to a cinder.
¡We don’t have time to blubber: there may be a way to save her!
He took a big inhale, most coming in through his snot-filled nostrils, & turned back to Autumn. He bent down next to her & moved her arm, only to shudder @ the blood that leaked out from the now uncovered gash—so huge that he could see crushed bone & ruptured red meat…
Edgar turned ’way ’gain, his bone feeling as if ’twere on fire. He fell on his hands, eyes gazing down @ the icicles ’gain, no matter how many times he tried to tell himself to help in some ’way—¡You’ll have plenty o’ time to do that! But he couldn’t. His mind refused. It kept staring & staring till he lost track o’ time, & finally consciousness.
All the Executive could do was slam his fist on the console & shout, “¡You fools!” as he stared weary-eyed out through the monitor, watching the peaceful black night set red in frigid flames & gradients o’ smoke while sirens blared in all directions.
But he knew ’twas too late. There was nothing any o’ them could do. For centuries, nobody’s known how to lock the Mammonth back in its bejeweled cage; they only knew how to keep it there for years & years mo’.
He knew there was no ’scape now. He knew the Mammonth knew that he was the one ’hind its centuries-long lockup & would be searching for him—& would ’ventually find him. Too late to take a plane now. The Mammonth thought ’head: busted all the airports & seaports. Tactics.
The Executive stood from his ergonomic chair, imagining the microscopic quakes too far ’way now to feel, but would be felt soon, o’ the Mammonth heading this way this minute. He moved a bookcase full o’ self-help books like “No ’Scuses,” “15 Ways to Succeed in Self-Help Writing,” & “20 Things We Thought Up & Thought Sounded Cool,” revealing a dark passage ’hind. He carefully walked down the steps, closing off the remnants o’ light ’hind him.
This was the future now: the fore’er. ’Twas just canned food & tea now. He’d live like an animal. No choice. We all have to survive.
Then he remembered he still had his cell & checked it to see if it still worked. He could tell by the error message he received ’pon trying to send a message that it didn’t.
He frowned. He was hoping he’d be able to call an outside plane to come & pick him up. Sitting round down here eating canned corn sounded as if it’d be awfully boring.
I do hope someone rebuilds the cell phone towers soon, a’least.
Edgar woke as if he woke in an alien spacecraft. He gazed round @ the blue rocky walls covered in dusty white ice till he saw ’gain Autumn’s body lying in a pool o’ blood & felt his groggy numbness flipped to a stinging ringing throughout his entire body.
He sniffed. There’s nothing I can do now.
He turned to the gate to see that ’twas now bent & on the floor.
Since I’m still ’live, it must’ve gone far ’way.
He took a deep breath & forced himself to look @ Autumn’s corpse ’gain.
I can’t… I can’t just leave her here…
¿But… Should I just carry her on my shoulder or something?
He could imagine Autumn’s mouth twisting, as it always did ’fore she said something snarky, & then her voice saying something like, “I doubt my body will be much valuable anymo’—if it e’er was.”
Still, Edgar wasn’t sure if he could do that. Sure, he knew that whether someone’s… corpse is buried, burnt into ashes, or left to be devoured by rats or piscodemons, she was still dead; But… but some things weren’t based just on physical reality: People do all o’ this superstitious stuff ’cause how you treat corpses is sorta like how you treat the person after they’re dead, e’en if they d—e’en if there’s no difference.
I’m probably being silly ’gain. I’m not thinking clearly. I don’t think I e’er will & don’t think I e’er want to ’cause, ¿what would that mean if I could?
Maybe Dawn could revive her or something.
This made Edgar’s body buzz with such excitement that he was able to o’ercome his deterrence to picking up Autumn—or rather, a horrifying parody o’ Autumn, that looked somewhat like her but also somewhat not, whose skin felt somewhat like skin, but without warmth, & had some scratchy crustiness on her chest that made him want to fall ’gain &—
No. You have to do this now. No stalling. Autumn wouldn’t want that.
Finish this 1 quick task & then you can be as ’fraid as you want.
I just hope I don’t attract trouble if I’m seen…
Edgar giggled a second @ the image o’ him—looking like a li’l grim reaper, too—dragging someone’s corpse through the mall, only for his eyes & nose to burn in shame immediately afterward.
“If it makes you feel sweeter, I’m sure I’d have this huge hole spewing blood all o’er my chest, joke or not,” he heard Autumn’s voice say.
Either way, I have to get us out o’ here.
The problem was, Autumn’s body was heavy—so heavy that he could hardly lift it. He knew he could a’least drag it while leaning down, though.
I should probably take care o’ her body as well as possible, in case it affects Dawn’s ability to revive her—if she can.
He decided to call Dawn, figuring that an emergency like this would be worth the rudeness o’ waking her. But when he tried, he received a strange error message telling him it couldn’t connect.
Our phones must’ve been shut off or something. Edgar sighed. Guess there’s no choice but to bring her to Dawn’s.
E’en with such a broad glimpse @ the outside world, he knew something was wrong—something spreading through Boskeopolis. Though his phone told him ’twas still only 4 AM, the sky was filled not with black or purple, but pulsing reds & oranges. In contrast, the streetlamps near him were all dead, the streets empty o’ all cars & people—but full o’ holes—& the buildings were all replaced by mounds o’ tattered metal scraps & thick brown dust. These soon caught his attention not by themselves, but by the wavering orange flames spreading all o’er them.
The only noise Edgar heard was sizzling wind.
He called out for people—anyone—but knew before he started that no one would answer—that no one, that was all.