Keeper of the Kingdom
"Halt, intruder! In the name of Zaul, the Protectors command you to surrender!"
Matt ignored the warning and continued to run. A vibrant blue ball of light flashed past his head. He fell to the ground and covered his ears as the shimmering sphere of Xeleron struck the wall and exploded with an almighty boom. The stench of burning chemicals filled the air. Tiny fragments of plaster rained down as if he were in the middle of a sandstorm. Matt could taste the dust on his tongue and feel bits of debris tangled in his hair.
Two Cybergon Protectors were visible in the distance; the fine silver barrels of their Xelerays were aimed straight at him. A direct hit would mean instant death.
Matt struggled to his feet and carried on; his life depended upon it. The walls of the corridor flashed by as he frantically searched for a way out.
"Halt, we command! You will not escape the Protectors. Surrender or be eliminated!"
A second ball streaked past, made contact with the floor twenty feet ahead and detonated. Using his personal computer, Matt shielded his face from splintered fragments of tile, which hurled through the air towards him. A sharp pain seared through the back of his hand. Gasping in agony, he pulled a jagged piece of floor tile from his flesh. A long crack now wound its way across the lid of his laptop.
The dust settled. An enormous blackened crater, still sizzling from the intense heat, blocked the way forward.
"How do I get out of here? Someone help me please!" Matt cried. But in this ghastly place there was no one to hear.
Breathing heavily Matt battled to his feet again. His eyes fell on an exit to his right. He dove through the archway as the ceiling behind him exploded. The force of the blast sent him spinning across the cold floor tiles. Out in the corridor, debris fell to the floor in chunks, blocking where he had just entered. A cloud of dust surged inwards stinging his eyes and attacking his lungs. He picked himself off the floor, coughing violently. The pile of rubble would delay the Protectors and give him vital extra minutes.
Masking his eyes from the bright sun, which pierced through an enormous transparent domed roof, Matt staggered further into the hall. He turned quickly in circles to survey his surroundings, shaking with fear as the awful reality dawned on him.
"Nowhere to hide, thereís nowhere to hide. Gotta find somewhere quick," he muttered in a daze.
Everything was unfamiliar, a strange mixture of primitive and yet very advanced technology. Silver ceiling pipes wrapped their way through the roofing beams. Strange white grids broke the monotony of the deep red floor tiles. There were no windows, a single closed door, and a staircase barely visible at the far end.
Canít keep running, he thought. Gotta try and outsmart them.
His eyes desperately scanned the stark white walls and dozens of angular steel pillars, which supported the elegant glass roof. He hated heights but the clever way out was up.
Matt staggered towards an enormous pillar in the center of the hall. It was a woven mesh of thin metal struts spiraling towards the ceiling, an ideal climbing frame. Above, a broad steel girder linked one side of the hall with the other. It would make an excellent hiding place,but could he reach the top before the Protectors broke through?
The back of Mattís hand throbbed. The cut from the flying debris was deep. Blood stained his jeans in large red patches where he had pressed his hand against his thigh to control the bleeding. Climbing with his personal computer would not be easy, especially with an injured hand. Matt quickly pried open the top studs of his denim jacket and placed the black computer inside, firmly refastening it afterwards. The jacket waistband was fairly tight; he would have to risk it slipping out.
There was no time to waste assessing his options. Already he could hear voices in the corridor and the movement of the fallen concrete. The Cybergon Protectors were ruthless and were not easy to out-run. With no human emotions and a programmed purpose, they would pursue a target until the end. They were closing in on him.
Matt shoved the toes of his Nikes into the latticework and began the climb. The steel edges of the pillar were cold and smooth. It looked a long way to the top.
The smell of his sweat was strong and he could taste the salty perspiration forming above his upper lip. His right hand felt numb.
Keep going, youíre doing fine. Donít look down, he told himself over and over, as he grappled with his fear of heights.
His shirt stuck to his back. The heat of the sunís rays bore down upon him through the glass dome. Every inch he climbed felt as though it would be his last. He fought back the tears.
The clammy fingers of his left hand finally curled over the edge of the steel girder. They slid as he attempted to haul himself onto the beam. Matt grabbed the girder with his weakened right hand and attempted to lift his left arm over the top. In the endeavor he lost his footing. For an awful heart-wrenching moment his legs dangled in the air. Using every ounce of remaining strength, Matt hauled himself on top and disappeared from view just as the Protectors entered the hall.
The Cybergons clambered over the rubble and walked resolutely toward the center of the room. Matt pressed his body flat against the steel girder, hardly daring to breathe as the footsteps stopped abruptly beneath him. His heart pounded against his chest cavity. Surely, he thought, this is some kind of nightmare?
The sharp corners of Mattís personal computer dug into the base of his ribs. He gripped the beam tightly ignoring the discomfort and found the courage to look over the edge. The height was dizzying.
Two Protectors stood directly below. Tight navy suits covered with numerous protective plates hid their robotic form. They were indistinguishable from one another except for the large gold numbers stamped on their sleeves and across the front of their metallic helmets. Penetrating purple eyes glared through a narrow slit. Matt shuddered.
"The intruder has escaped us," said Protector 21, disarming his Xeleray, and pointing it at the stairs.
"Commander Z will not be pleased," said Protector 34.
"Then we must find him."
"Agreed. He cannot get far; he has no where to hide," said 34. "The workers will not help him. They know the punishment for hiding a fugitive."
"We must notify the other units of a security breach immediately."
The shiny silver weapons hung loosely by their sides. The Xeleray was unlike anything Matt had seen before. Long and thin with a large viewing sight on the top, the weapons seemed weightless as they swung by the Protectorsí thighs, yet he had already witnessed their destructive capabilities.
A third set of boots entered the room. They walked more lightly and at a quicker pace. The tall human figure adjusted his tailored purple jacket as he approached the two Cybergons standing in the center. Only a wide mouth and pointed nose were visible through openings in a silver fabric hood. The manís eyes were concealed behind a dark rectangular band of Acrylic Sheet. Displayed on the sleeves were several gold stripes, indicating a superior rank.
"Commander Z, we have no further news of the intruder," reported Protector 21. "We assume he took the stairs to the lower level."
"I am not impressed, 21," shouted the Commander. "How can you let a boy elude you?"
"He cannot get far, Commander, Sir," said Protector 21.
"That is no excuse for your incompetence," replied Commander Z in an agitated tone. "I presume that you have informed all other Protector Units of the security breach?"
"Protector 34 was about to key in the alert, Commander, Sir," said 21.
"Then do it quickly, 34!" snapped Commander Z. "Before the intruder manages to leave this sector completely."
Protector 34, was one of thousands of programmed Cybergons under the control of twenty-six human Commanders. He walked towards the far side of the hall where a concealed door opened in the wall, revealing a small computer terminal. From above, Matt watched an image appear on the large rectangular screen.
Protector 34 began his conversation. "Contacting all Protector Units. Commander Z requires you to be on Red Alert. We have a young male intruder. No further description available at this time."
Matt suddenly felt very ill. His eyes focused on the deep cut across the back of his hand, which tightly gripped the edge of the steel girder on which he lay. He watched in horror as a thin line of blood trickled over his knuckles and splattered in fine drops on the floor in front of Commander Zís boots.
"Is the intruder a Worker or a Liberator?" Commander Z asked Protector 21.
"Unknown at this time, Commander, Sir," 21 replied.
"Exits must be closely monitored, 21."
"Agreed, Commander, Sir."
"We must catch the intruder and make an example of him. All Workers must see what will happen if they attempt to escape the Kingdom of Zaul and join the Liberators," said Commander Z with authority. "The last thing I want is a rebellion on my hands!"
Further drops of blood fell to the floor. Matt could only watch and pray that the color would not be noticeable on the red stone tiles. He dare not alter his precarious position for fear of losing his balance. Another trickle rolled to the edge of Mattís hand and down to his knuckles. No, please, please, donít fall, he thought.
Protector 34 called across the hall to the Commander. "All Units now on full alert, Sir."
The Commanderís attention was temporarily diverted. He turned to acknowledge the Protectorís report.
"Very good, 34."
"The identity of our intruder must be determined, Commander," said Protector 21.
"Agreed. We will start with a roll call of all Workers. The Keeper will expect a full account of this incident. "
The blood fell to the ground as the Commander walked away. Matt felt a wave of relief flood over his body.
Commander Z and Protector 21 joined 34 on the far side of the hall. The three figures stood together on a series of green floor tiles adjacent to the computer terminal. A red light flashed on the screen and the floor began to vibrate. Mattís deep blue eyes widened as he witnessed Commander Z and the two Cybergon Protectors slowly disappear from the vast hallway.
It was some minutes later that Matt found the courage to move. I can do this, I can do it, he told himself firmly. He slowly shuffled backwards until he could feel the steel pillar at his feet. His legs shook violently with the shock of all that he had endured. Matt had never been particularly athletic, and todayís events would have tested even the physically fit. He knew that his ordeal was far from over.
Slowly Matt retraced his steps, trying not to look at the ground as he descended. He had climbed at least thirty feet and finding a foothold was not easy. Matt reached the halfway point. He clung to the metal struts and took a breather. The concealed entrances used by the Protectors worried him. He wondered how many other hidden doors the computer terminals would open and if vibrations always preceded their use. Would he be aware of the arrival of anyone else in the hall before it was too late for him to take cover? His legs felt like rubber when they finally hit the ground.
It took Matt a few seconds to compose himself. The computer screen on the far wall was now blank, and any attempt to use the Protectorís System would be futile without knowledge of the exact computer entry. To pass through a concealed door without awareness of what lay on the other side could be fatal. Might he be able to clamber through the gap in the rubble and retrace his route?
No, the Protectors would surely be sent to repair the damage to the corridor, he thought. The staircase is my only option.
Looking only ahead, he clutched the computer still tucked in his jacket and ran as fast as he could across the hall. Matt reached for the handrail, his lungs aching, his breath coming in gasps.
The steps spiraled steeply downward. It was impossible to see in the low light how far they went, and visibility faded with every step. After the brightness of the hall above, it took his eyes some time to adjust to the change in light. The steps were concrete, and it was very difficult to descend quietly. He listened for the sound of anyone coming upwards.
The carpeted corridor at the bottom was dimly lit with small yellow lights spaced several feet apart down the center of the ceiling. The starkness of the white walls and metal pillars of the level above was now replaced with a dark eerie atmosphere, which was even less inviting. He still had no idea in which direction he should head to find an exit and avoid further confrontation with Protectors. A hum of machinery could be heard in the distance to his right and so it seemed the obvious choice.
The pungent smell of chemicals grew stronger. At the end of the corridor two steel doors prevented Matt from continuing. He hesitated, wondering if it would be stupid to walk blindly through into the unknown. A dark alcove to the right contained yet another wall-mounted terminal.
Mattís curiosity got the better of him. He could not resist the challenge of an unknown computer. He placed his good hand on the keyboard and lightly fingered the round plastic keys. Unlike his laptop, there were no recognizable letters facing him, but a strange array of symbols.
The huge doors suddenly opened. Matt sprung away from the keyboard and moved towards the back of the alcove in panic. Three humans in dark baggy coveralls heaved a heavy trolley through the open door. A body lay motionless on the top, covered with a white linen sheet. Matt noticed a limp arm hanging down. One person was weeping quietly.
A Protector suddenly appeared in the doorway. He threateningly waved his Xeleray at them.
"Hurry to the Disposal Room. You still have another four hours work. The time will be added to your day."
"Yes Protector 13," they mumbled in unison.
Protector 13 tapped his Xeleray, studied the trolley for a few minutes, and walked back inside. The heavy doors swung closed.
The trolley squeaked as it was wheeled along the corridor. Matt followed closely behind in the shadows. The three figures silently pushed the load past the base of the stairs and into a small doorless room on the right. Matt peered round the open entrance to witness the removal of the sheet. A young woman wept over a pale and lifeless body of a boy, which lay on top of the trolley. She stroked his forehead tenderly.
"Is Targon still alive?" she asked the others.
"Barely, Dana, but I think we may have fooled Protector 13 this time. We have to get the boy to see Dorin fast."
"Can you carry him, Balder?" Dana asked.
"Sure, but you and Norak will have to cover for me. Protector 13 will not accept my absence for very long," Balder answered.
"Dorin works the night shift, so you should find him in his room. Itís the ideal time for this to happen," said Norak, running his fingers thoughtfully through his blonde hair.
"Return the trolley and pretend that the boy has been disposed of. Take the ID tag from around Targonís neck as proof of his death, and tell Protector 13 that I had to visit the Cleanliness room," said Balder. "Now hurry or this wonít work."
"Good luck Balder," Dana and Norak said. They quickly wheeled the metal trolley back out of the room and into the corridor. There in front of them stood the frightened figure of a boy dressed unlike any of their own kind.