Trench Wars by WantedHero | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

CHAPTER 5 - Down The Rabbit Hole

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The greatest enemy you will ever face is yourself.

With outposts in our own mind, we carefully craft and construct each brick and bar to our own prison, creating walls of fear and self-loathing. Then, without a thought, we lock the door, sealing the prison…to which we then stand guard, for fear that we might escape.

 

  

Alhannah joined Lili in the changing room. It was a cold environment, without windows, pictures and the walls were barren of everything but bright white paint and grey lockers. The gnome removed her shoulder straps and weapons.

“Might as well be comfortable while we’re here, right?”

Lili remained silent.

The florescent tubes overhead flickered, the buzz of electricity humming dully. Jiggling the locker open, the gnome grinned, “I kind of missed being home. The games, the fights, the locker rooms.” She clunked her swords and weapon belt down into the base of the metal container, “It’s nothing like adventuring or fighting live enemies, or seeing the world—but there’s something to be said about meeting an organized challenge. Something that’s been engineered specifically for you…that knows you’re coming and has prepared just as hard as you have to beat you if it can.” She unlatched her bracer and flinched so hard, she nearly fell back over the bench. “OW!”

Lili reached out and caught her by the shoulder, “What’s the matter?”

Lifting the metal from her forearm, Alhannah noticed a hole in the plate mail. “That’s weird.” But the hole didn’t stop. Whatever had eaten through her outer defenses had also gotten through her shirt and leather glove. She pulled back the last layer of cloth to uncover a black bruise on her forearm, just above her wrist. The skin looked dry and charred. “I don’t remember getting hurt…” She poked at the surface of the wound and immediately regretted it. Pain like knives being raked up her arm besieged her. “ARGH!”

Lili started to leave. “Let me get Deloris. She can…”

Alhannah grabbed her arm, “No, I’m alright. It’s just a stupid burn. I’ll look at it later—we need to get you ready.”

Lili nodded and knelt down to unlace her boots.

“You going to be ok? This is a lot to ask—hooking up to technology that only hours ago, you were terrified of.” She pulled off her other bracer carefully and inspected it. No markings or damage. “You didn’t put up much of a fight.”

Clenching her hands to get the to stop shaking, “I didn’t see anyone come to my defense.” The gnomes had taken a sheet and cut a hole in the center for her head. She pulled the cloth over her head, then grabbed her soft leather belt from her britches to wrap around her. “Not that it would have mattered. I know the mägo is right. Wendell gave his life for me…and I don’t understand it.”

“But going in someone else’s head?”

The material folded around her torso and legs, the ends falling to mid calf. “That not much different than the teachings of my own people, or using the methods of the Bala. They use their spirits to rescue the souls of the damned and the afflicted, those who give themselves to mourning the loss of loved ones and drown in their own sorrows. Is this really that different?”

 

****

 

Nat helped Dax and Lili position themselves properly on the beds, then attached them to the machines. Lili laid in what seemed to be perfect calmness as wires were taped to her forehead, neck and limbs. Dax, however, fought every step of the way—asking questions, posing doubts, listing expectations and breathing threats. Chuck waved and pretended to cry, dabbing his face with a handkerchief and mumbling that he would miss them, which didn’t help the situation.

Only when a large needle was brought out, did Lili panic.

“It’s alright,” Nat assured her. “This is called a needle. You see this golden liquid inside the vial? That’s a solution of nanobots along with a sedative. It’s something to help your body relax and go to sleep. No, it’s alright—no need to panic, I promise. Your mind has to be relaxed to interpret the electrical impulses from Wendell. Now, I’m going to poke this through the skin in your arm. You’ll feel a pinch and then some pressure, but it’ll pass. Ready? That’s it…almooost…done. There, you see? All over.” He smiled sweetly at her, “Now count to ten.”

One by one, Nat administered the sedative and, one by one, they each lost consciousness.

When Dax finally ceased mumbling and fidgeting, Nat took his place at the computer console. Morty and Alhannah sat beside him watching the monitors, while Chuck stood behind them in his glistening white lab coat, safety goggles and heavy rubber gloves. Motherboard watched intently at several angles, from screens hanging from the ceiling.

“So we’ll be able to communicate with them while they’re…” Alhannah fumbled for words, “in there?

Nat chuckled, “Yes, once we include one last vital program.” Looking up to the camera’s overhead, he said, “I’m assuming you’ve been listening?”

Of course,” replied a deep male voice. It reverberated from every speaker in the room.

“I need you online, Cryo. Lets keep Deloris and our guests safe and linked to reality, shall we?”

Morty leaned over the console and whispered, “Who are you talking to?”

“That, Mr. Teedlebaum,” grinned the large face of Motherboard, “is Cryo64. The most advanced artificial intelligence engine ever built.”

Stop it,” replied the voice, again from everywhere, “you’ll embarrass me.

Nat turned a silver dial on the console in a steady motion, “In 3, 2, 1…”

The room flashed several times, like a strobe light over the main table. The blue images faded, the fog converging at the very center, rolling in place, becoming a ball. A small box hummed overhead, running along a metal runner bolted to the ceiling. It stopping over the table. With a click, click, click, the box rotated a tiny lens downward…and a beam of light pierced through the center of the fog. It wiggled…then jiggled, then looked up from the table.

The ball of blue translucent fog transformed into a face with gaping, vacant eyes, nostrils and a mouth. A mouth which smiled.

CRYO64…ONLINE,” it said, this time mouthing the words, while the sound came from a single speaker on the side of the camera overhead.

Chuck immediately slapped the goggles over his face and fell into a defensive posture--hands up, ready to strike. “Ok, that’s freaking me out.”

Now it was Motherboard who laughed, “Gentlemen…and lady, may I introduce our Critical Recall Yielding Omnipresence. We call him Cryo for short.”

Alhannah slid off her chair and walked over to the table. Cryo turned as she passed, keeping her in line of sight. “What does the 64 stand for?”

Nat stared at the floating blue face with an air of pride. “That was how many stages it took to develop him from mentally retarded to omnipresent.”

Chuck stood upright and lowered his hands, but kept an eye on Cryo. “You’re not letting that thing in Wendell’s head, are you?”

“Not exactly, no. Think of Cryo as a relay station. We say something to him and he can instantaneously translate, encode and transmit that information to the nanobots which are almost to the brainstems of our party. In reply, the electrical impulses, both from the cortical networks in their brains and the smallest impulses through their muscle mass is transmitted  back, through the nonabots to Cryp64, who then reverses that translation and feeds it to us.”

“Wow,” gasped Morty, “so in essence, Cryo64 is Deloris while she’s in there?”

Nat shrugged, “Pretty much.”

Alhannah stuck her tongue out at Cryo, who stuck its tongue out in response. She chuckled. “But what if they say something simultaneously?”

Two more boxes slid across the grid overhead and fired two more beams of light down to the floor. Both on the either side of the console. In their wake, two more faces appeared and winked at the gnome warrior.

Then I shall adapt to the circumstances,” said one.

To make sure I perform as expected,” added the other.

“AHH!” yelled Chuck, falling back from the console and raising his fists. He huffed and puffed, his front leg flinching, ready to kick. “REALLY freakin me out now…”

Motherboard laughed. “Cryo is perfectly safe, Morphiophelius, and can do you no harm. Of that you can be certain.”

“Bah,” the wizard snapped back, “The only thing I’m certain of is that a blue fart hovering in the air can talk…and pop out kids without so much as a date!”

One of the faces behind the console gave Chuck an extra wide grin.

Beeep. Beeep. Beeep. The console lit up under Nat’s hands and three figures appeared on the monitors. Below each image a heartbeat bounced rhythmically across the screen.

Nanobots online Dr. Taylor.

“Then make the connection, Cryo. Take them into Wendell’s mind.”

Connect in 3…2…1…

 

****

 

Lili opened her eyes to a blue sky and a warm breeze. Birds chirped in the distance, the moist scent of grass tickled her attention until she felt the blades under her neck.

“Just relax,” Deloris said, “sit up slowly when you’re ready.”

Lili blinked, then took a deep breath. She felt rested. Calm.

“We’re here? In Wendell’s mind?”

“We are.”

With a bolt, she sat upright. The images around her swayed and the sensation immediately hit her stomach. Her insides felt like they were churning. She gagged.

“Slowly I said!” Deloris knelt at her side, supporting her shoulders. “Our brains are adjusting to the connection, dear. There’s an information exchange going on and it takes a while to stabilize.”

Lili fell backwards, “I…have no…idea…what you just…said.”

Looking up, Deloris called out, “Cryo, would you increase the dampener for Lili until her mind can accept the feed?”

Of course,” replied a voice from nowhere.

Lili started, grabbing the gnomes sleeve, “What was that!?”

“Calm, sweetheart. It’s alright. That’s Cryo and he’s a friend. Our guide and protector you could say.”

Hello Ms. Lili,” said the voice.

She flipped her head around, trying to locate the source of the sound. “Hello?” Then at Deloris, “Where is he?”

The images around her slowed, then stopped swaying altogether. The colors and sounds grew bright, crisp and clear.

Is that better Ms. Lili?

“Much better…thank you..” she looked to Deloris, unsure.

“Cryo.”

“Thank you Cryo,” she repeated.

My pleasure.

Dax was still lying on his back, eyes closed.

“Is he alright?”

Deloris checked his pulse. “Cryo, have the bots made the connection?”

Yes, but he seems to be resisting. I’ve tried to stimulate his attention by repairing defragmented perceptions in his memory…but all I get is feedback. A looping set of jumbled words.

“Words? What words are you hearing?”

The voice paused for several moments, then added, “I have looked up the literal meanings and my moral code programing believes it inappropriate to repeat such words in the presence of females. There is a repeating string however. I’m gonna kick his butt to Unrest. I’m gonna kick his butt to Unrest.

Deloris laughed. “Thank you Cryo. He’s fine.”

He could not be referring to me, as I do not have a posterior body part for anyone to kick.

Lili joined in laughter. “It’s not you he’s talking about.”

With a sudden jolt, Dax flipped over onto his belly, coughing and heaving, as if out of air. “HO BOY!” he blurted out, then wretched onto the grass. When all he had left was air, he wiped his face with the back of his hand. “I do NOT want to do that again! Sliding down the black insides of a gutter worm is not my definition of fun. Ewww! Who thought that up anyway?”

Lili looked at him puzzled, “You were in a…worm?”

He looked between them, “Weren’t you?”

“I didn’t see anything at all.”

“He was fighting the transition the whole time, dear. Makes it harder.”

Dax growled, “Whatever.”

They helped him to his feet and Lili gasped.

“What?” he grumbled.

“You’re tall!” But it wasn’t only Dax. The three companions stood together, all the exact same height. This wasn’t the only change she noticed. All of them had laid down in white clothes, but were standing in their original dress. Dax in his boxers, Deloris in her dress and Lili in her leather britches and tunic.

“There will be many variations in our perceptions,” Deloris explained, “because anything we think or feel in Wendell’s mind can be overridden by his own perceptions and belief systems. Oh, and I need to let you both know that we’re on a timer. The longer we’re in here the more unstable the connection becomes.”

Dax gulped. “Unstable?”

Nodding, “The stress placed upon our minds it tremendous right now. We can last an hour, at most, then we have to exit. There’s also no telling if or when we can come back. The mind develops new defensive mechanisms when it’s invaded like this. We may not get another shot.”

Lili knelt down and ran her fingers through the grass. The blades were soft and warm and vibrant green. Two small daisies grew between the blades, their tiny shadows resting on a fist-sized stone next to them. “But if this is anything like dream walking, we could live hours, days, even weeks in that span of time.”

“Weeks?” Dax whimpered, looking around at the field of…nothing. “What’re we gonna eat? Drink? There wouldn’t happen ta be a pub around here is there?”

“You won’t need food or drink, Dax…and we need to use every moment wisely,” Deloris said sternly, “so let’s get going.”

“But where?!” gawked Dax, throwing his hands into the air, “there’s no where to go! Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

The field of grass was flat as a calm lake, the warm breeze blowing across the blades, which swayed and rippled around them. There were no mountains. There were no trees. There wasn’t a single landmark in any direction.

“Pick a direction and lets get moving.”

Dax sighed and trudged on ahead, but not before stomping on the two daisy’s first.

“That was rude,” Lili snapped.

“Only if ya like flowers,” he snorted and marched on.

For nearly an hour they walked, sweating in the sun that didn’t exist. The breeze, though they could feel it on their skin, gave them no relief. The fields never ended and no matter how far they walked, they could not detect any change on the horizon.

“This is pointless,” Dax finally yelled aloud. With a curse under his breath, he flopped back onto the ground and laid still in the grass. “Can’t we blow some magic horn or slay a dragon or something? It would be easier, ya know.”

“The mind is a puzzle Dax,” said Deloris.

Dax looked around and scoffed, “Ya gotta have some pieces to call it a puzzle, sister.”

“Hey Dax,” Lili called, “come look at this.”

Grumbling another curse under his breath, he walked over and flopped down next to her. “What now, find a secret lever?”

“Maybe,” she smiled.

“What?”

“Look at this! The two flowers you stepped on…here they are, perfect as can be.” Deloris knelt next to her, as she reached out and caressed the daisy’s.

“You’ve got heat stroke, kid.”

She shook her head, “No, there were two flowers, identical to one another, growing together. I haven’t seen another flower in this whole field.”

He yawned, “So?”

“So,” she said excitedly, “it also had a single stone next to it. The only stone I’ve seen since we got here. Everything else is just grass.”

“So you found a rock and two flowers,” he rolled his eyes, “how’s that supposed to help us?”

“Well I don’t see you doing anything other than complaining!”

Deloris waved her hands, “Wait. Stop arguing you two—it doesn’t help.” She leaned closer to the flowers. The corners of her mouth curled up until she had an open mouth grin on her face. “Look at the flowers again Lili.”

She leaned closer, studying them. Then she looked at her own arms. “They have a shadow.”

“Exactly,” confirmed the gnome.

“What are you two yappin about now?”

Deloris whipped around suddenly and grabbed one of the golden earrings in Dax’s ear…and twisted.

“Ow…OW, OW, OW! LEGGO!”

“Listen to me,” she said cooly, “we are here to save this boy’s life. If you don’t change the attitude, and I mean right here, right now—we can cut this trip short and you can explain to everyone why the Gnolaum was left, trapped in an undead state and useless to everyone.” With a sharp, final twist, she added, “Are we clear?”

“We’re clear, we’re CLEAR!” he squealed.

Pointing to the flowers, “Those are the only things that have a shadow. Not even we have a shadow…and there isn’t a light source.” Feeling around the base of the stone, she discovered that it was lying on top of the blades of grass. Shifting it around the flowers, the shadows didn’t leave the rock. When she lifted the stone up and away from the flowers, the shadow remained on the stone, as if had been painted there. Neither of the flowers cast a shadow onto the grass beneath them.

“Is it a hint?” Lili asked.

“I don’t know—but it’s certainly our first puzzle.”

Dax watched the shadows on the rock drift as she rotated the object in place. No matter how the gnome turned it, the residue of the flowers pointed behind them. He plucked the flowers from the soil and waved them over his palm. No shadows. “Maybe it’s a compass,” he added, and sprinted in the direction the shadows pointed—the opposite direction in which they had come.

Before he’d gotten ten feet from his companions…he was thrown back with a thud, landing roughly on his backside.

“Ow,” he grumbled, but immediately crawled in the same direction. Hand over hand, he inched forward until he felt it—a solid barrier. He tapped the air with a knuckle, but it made no sound. Curious, he pounded on it and noticed a faint ripple expand through the air. He looked to the gnome, “What do you think it is?”

Deloris reached out and softly glided her hand over the surface. There was no temperature to it. It was smooth, with a mild give or flexibility to it. “You were right, Dax—it was a compass. To point toward this…our way in.”

Lili joined them at the invisible barrier and gave it a push. It didn’t budge. She kicked it and got the same result. “How do we get through?”

“Well, that’s the puzzle now, isn’t it. This is about Wendell’s mind and personality.” Then she paused, “Wait a minute.” Deloris pushed Dax aside, staring at the ground, “The flowers and rock are back.” Sure enough, the two flowers and rock lay not more than a few few in front of where they stood.

Lili pointed in front of them, “And there is another set of flowers.” She frowned, “…right there in front of…us.”

“What’s the matter, Lili?”

“It’s a mirror,” she said.

Dax was already on his knees, one of his ears folding back as he leaned against the barrier. “Kneel down and look—the grass, as you move it with your fingers, also moves in the reflection of the barrier. When Lili stands in front of the flowers, they vanish in front of us.” He grinned, “She’s right, it’s a mirror.”

“You’re smarter than you look, Dax,” Deloris said teasingly.

He smirked, “Well don’t let the rumor spread. People will expect too much.”

“What does this mean?” asked Lili.

Dax hopped back and snatched up the rock from the ground. “If it’s a mirror, then it means that the right amount of force could shatter it and we have a way in!” He cocked back his arm to throw, but Deloris jumped in his path.

“DON’T!!” she screamed, “You could hurt Wendell!”

“What? Fer crying out loud, woman—then how are we supposed to get in?!”

Pacing through the grass, the gnome made hand motions in the air as she talked to herself. “Mirror. Light, but no sun. Rock and two flowers that repeat in a pattern. Small enough to be hidden…unless…you’re looking for it. Becomes a compass…” She glanced up at Dax and Lili with a look of triumph. “I think I’ve got it.”

“Explain it then,” he grumbled, “times tickin, remember?”

Jumping in between them, she grabbed Lili by the shoulders and turned her towards the flowers behind them. Then did the same with Dax.

“Look at the flowers,” she said softly, “…and the rock that just left Dax’s hand.”

“Heyyyyy…..” he started to say, looking around his feet.

“Dax, just listen. Wendell is a young man who wants to feel some peace. That’s what this field represents. It’s serene in a way, going on forever—uninterrupted.”

“It’s boring,” Dax grumbled.

“Shhh!” Lili snapped at him, but the gnome grinned wider.

“No, Lili, Dax is right. It’s boring. Even for Wendell. This is something he doesn’t really want—it’s simply something he puts on for others to see and believe. This is all fake. This field doesn’t go on forever. It’s a small repeating patch of hope, calling out to be found.”

She frowned, “I don’t understand.”

“Think about it,” Deloris pointed at the rock and flowers. “The smallest hints to be found, but only if you’re really looking for them. He wants to be noticed, but not obvious as to ask for help. He’ll let us in, but not if we’re doing this for him out of pity. It’s why we can’t go forward. The barrier. It’s a perspective. Wendell’s perspective.”

Dax sighed, “Doc, ya ain’t makin sense here.”

“But I am, Dax, you’re just not listening. Wendell wants us to enter and help him. He just desperately wants someone who will try to see things from his point of view.”

Grabbing both their hands, Deloris stepped backwards, pulling Dax and Lili with her. They stepped through the barrier without resistance.

…into nothing.

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