Keeper of the Empire

Chapter 1

 

Matt rolled onto his back, dazed and disoriented. He squinted to see, blinded by the light from the brilliant sun. Wonder where I am this time? he thought.

Tall corn stalks surrounded him. They rustled gently in the breeze, dancing above his head. He sat up slowly and brushed the loose dirt from the sleeves of his denim jacket.

A girl screamed.

Matt tensed.

"Get your dirty great claws off me!" she protested.

"Be still, young lady," a gruff voice replied. "Donít make it worse than it already is."

Matt lay back down. He turned carefully onto his stomach and listened to the commotion.

"I wonít cooperate with the likes of a Vorg!" the girl snapped. "You Vorgs are the most hideous things that ever walked on two legs."

"All renegades will be caught and desensitized. It is in your best interests to accompany me peacefully."

"Never!"

"So be it," the Vorg growled. "You will be desensitized and sent to The Gilded State. It is useless to fight me."

"The Gilded State? Is that what you call it? Iíd rather die, you sorry excuse for a life-form!"

Desensitization? What was that? It didnít sound like something Matt wanted to experience. His heart pounded. The brilliant day and idyllic setting seemed to take on a sinister air. He heard the girl shriek. The sounds of scuffling and struggling grew louder as they came through the field, closer and closer to where he hid.

The corn stalks swayed in a gust of wind. Matt dug his fingernails into the earth. If he shifted his position, the unnatural movement of the corn would give him away. He pressed his cheek flat against the ground, willing himself to be still.

Seconds later, right in front of his face, legs thrashed and flailed between the stalks. He held his breath, praying that they would pass by without seeing him. A huge, thick-soled brown boot came to rest inches from his left hand. The urge to run was overwhelming, but Matt lay stone still.

"Okay, just a few more feet to the road. Then Iíll get you in the airbug with the others," the Vorg growled.

"Ouch! Let go of my hair, you oaf!"

"Quit complaining, girl. Donít make me use my venom. I really donít want to inflict further pain on you."

"Then set me free, you grotesque being!"

"My, you have spirit to match that mop of curly red hair. Pity. Youíll not have such a fiery personality much longer."

"You just wait . . . no Vorg will ever break me!" the girl yelled.

"Thatís what they all say. Desensitization will be over before you can count to ten, and then I guarantee youíll be tame."

"Never!"

"Whereís your name tag, girl?"

Matt heard the jingling of a metal chain and a deepóbellied laugh.

"Angel? Ha! Your mother got it wrong. Devil would have been more appropriate."

The girl spat.

"Learn some manners!" shouted the Vorg. "I warned you! Now youíll see what my venom can do!"

Matt heard a loud smack followed by a muffled cry. He listened for more of the girlís objections, but she was silent. Only a loud hiss broke the peace of the countryside.

The Vorg turned, and the enormous boot crunched Mattís fingers. His eyes watered with the pain. He counted to ten silently and bit his lip so hard that he tasted blood. If only they would leave! Then, as if someone heard his thoughts, the loud rustling of the corn returned to a quiet whisper. Had the Vorg dragged the girl away?

"Hey, Renx. Keep the airbug open," shouted the Vorg. "Iíve caught another oneósheís a real hothead."

The voices faded. Then the high-pitched whirring of an engine and the rushing of air overpowered the sounds of nature, peaceful and reassuring.

Mattís fingertips throbbed. He remained motionless, listening carefully as the whirring sounds disappeared. A few minutes seemed like forever. After a while his breathing relaxed and he allowed himself to move. He cautiously inched to his knees and then got to his feet, crouching so that he could just see above the ripening husks.

The field of corn stretched as far as he could see, rippling like an ocean under a gentle wind. A long dirt track, only feet from where he hid, wound its way across the expanse of green and out of sight between the distant scrubby oaks.

Matt stood upright. His eyes caught movement in the stalks close by. He ducked in panic.

"Matt . . . hey, Matt, itís me!" came a soft voice.

Matt sighed with relief at the familiar sound of his friend and stood up again. Not far in front of him, a thin, frightened face, framed by straggly blond hair, popped up.

"Targon, you made it here!"

"Looks like I did." Targon sneezed, and rubbed his nose vigorously with the back of his hand. "I think Iím allergic to this stuff." He sneezed again. "I pinched my nose while those goons were dragging off that poor girl."

"I felt really bad for not helping her," said Matt, "but I didnít know what I could do on my own." He swept the husks back with his hands, walking forward to meet Targon halfway. "I didnít dare take a look even though they were so close to me. I was pretty scared. The Vorg stepped on my hand." He held it out.

"It looks bad," said Targon, studying Mattís swollen fingers. "I think youíll just have to suffer a while. There wonít be any ice around here."

"That guy must have weighed a ton."

"Guy?"

"Yeah, thatís got to be the biggest boot Iíve ever seen on a human being! His feet were at least ten sizes bigger than mineóand thatís saying something."

"Those goons didnít look like any kind of human to me!"

Matt looked up from his red fingers and stared blankly at Targon. "What do you mean? You actually dared to take a look? And you keep saying goons as if there was more than one."

Targon nodded and sneezed again. "At least twoóif not three . . . and they werenít men who took that girl. They were . . . um . . . I donít know what they wereóbut they definitely werenít human."

"Well, I heard her call him a Vorgóbut I assumed he was from a place called Vorg."

"Well, you assumed wrong."

"Were they androids?"

Targon shook his head. "Donít think so."

"Well, what were they? Then at least Iíll know when I run into one."

"Oh, youíll know. You wonít miss an eight-foot walking reptile with stubby jaws and rolls of skin under his chin . . .oh, and spikes down the back of its neck." He chewed his nails.

Matt chuckled. "Very funny. Good joke. Ohóand they just happen to be bright green, speak English and wear clothes, right?"

Targon looked over his shoulder nervously. Matt waited for him to break into laughter, but Targon turned back and just stared at him with wide eyes.

"Youíre not joking, are you?" said Matt, recognizing his friendís uneasiness.

Targon removed his fingers from his mouth and clenched his fist. "Deadly serious. Iíve never seen anything like them. Besides, you shouldnít be surprised. This is your computer game weíre in. After meeting the Cybergons in Zaul and then the Noxerans in Karn, what did you expect on the third level?"

Matt shuddered. He suddenly felt like he should hide. He ducked beneath the stalks and yanked on Targonís tunic top until he sat down too. His voice turned to a whisper. "Youíre right, of course. The game instructions did warn that this level of Keeper of the Kingdom would be an even bigger challenge."

"Well, here we are in Level 3. I canít say Iím looking forward to dealing with the Vorgsóthey make the Noxerans look like fairies."

Matt smiled briefly. "I think Iím glad I didnít have the guts to look at one." He sighed and looked up at the tops of the waving corn. "You havenít seen Varl, have you?"

"Letís hope heís somewhere close, and we find him before one of those creatures does. Have you got your computer?"

"No," Matt replied. "Once again Iíve arrived with nothing but the clothes Iím wearing."

"Oh well, we may be lucky and find it," said Targon, starting to retrace his steps.

Matt could feel his friendís despair. He got to his knees and crawled in the dirt until he reached the area where the corn had been flattened by his arrival. Matt peered through the stalks in all directions. Where was his computer? Searching for a needle in a haystack was an appropriate cliché to describe his situation, he decided. His computer could be anywhere in this enormous field. Even if he took days to search it thoroughly, he probably wouldnít find it. Discouraged, he crawled back to Targon, trying not to put pressure on his throbbing fingers.

"Impossible, if you ask me," Matt said, sitting crossólegged. He sighed deeply.

Targon nudged him in the ribs. "This happen to be yours?" He produced a black laptop computer with a cracked case from behind his back.

Matt grinned and took it from his friend. "Great going, Targon! Weíre in luck this time!"

Targon beamed. "Well, come on. Donít waste any more time. Open it up before those Vorgs return, and tell me what weíve got to do to win Level 3 of your Keeper of the Kingdom game. I thought you wanted to get home!"

"Of course I do!" said Matt, eagerly raising the lid.

The sky suddenly darkened and a shadow fell across the corn. The birds stopped singing. A deafening drumming broke the peacefulness of the countryside. Matt covered his ears and looked up. Targon did the same. An enormous elliptical object came rushing down toward them. Matt threw his arms over his head, thinking that he was about to be crushed to death. He held his breath and waited. But nothing happened.

When he realized that he was still alive, Matt dared to lift his head. The object hovered above them, filling the sky. Mattís head ached with the constant pulsating noise. Should they make a run for it?

The object came lower. Matt gulped. His heart raced. Targon grabbed his sleeve.

Then, as quickly as the object had descended, it zoomed off into the distance. The sunlight returned, the drumming noise subsided, and the birds began to sing again.

Matt drew in a deep breath.

"What . . . what was that?" Targon stammered.

"If I had to make a guess, Iíd say it was a UFO."

"A what?"

"An unidentified flying objectóyou know, a flying saucer," repeated Matt.

"Whatís a flying saucer?" Targon whispered. "Iíve never seen one before."

"Neither have I," said Matt. "But that sure looked like descriptions Iíve heard." He scrambled to his feet, and with shaking knees dared to peer over the corn husks. The elliptical object was still visible, hovering on the horizon. Matt watched with keen interest. He didnít believe in UFOs, but he could find no other explanation for this strange thing. Finally it disappeared from sight.

Matt sat down again and looked at his friendís blank expression.

"So, what is a flying saucer?" Targon asked again.

"Itís a spaceship that comes from another planet."

"Oh," said Targon, who looked stunned by the explanation.

"Yeah, exactly," said Matt, hardly believing what he had just seen.

"Do you think theyíll be back for us?"

Matt sighed. "I hope not. We donít know if they saw us or if they were looking for humans like the Vorgs who took that girl away." He swallowed hard as an awful thought dawned upon him. "Say, Targon, I hope weíre still on Earth. You donít think this is another planet, do you?"

Targon shrugged. "What did your game rules say?"

Matt picked up his computer. He ran his good hand over the lid as he thought back to the time when he ripped open the Keeper of the Kingdom box and read the game instructions. "The instructions said something like ĎSave the people and defeat the Keeper on Earth in 2540 AD.í"

"So, wouldnít they have mentioned another planet?"

Matt stared at the closed laptop. "I guess so. In Level 1 of my game, Zaul was a kingdom on Earth in 2540 and in Level 2, Karn was an underwater realm on Earth in 2540. I must admit, this feels like Earth. In fact, this place looks very much like the area around my hometown."

Targon got to his feet. "Well, wherever we are, I donít much feel like sitting in a cornfield all night. Vorgs could return at any minute, and thereís nowhere to hide. Try to run in this field and theyíd catch us easily."

"I agree," said Matt. "Itís not safe here. We ought to find somewhere better. When we do, Iíll open my game instructions, and perhaps weíll have some clue as to where we are."

"So, which way do we go?"

"Letís stay low in the corn until we reach the edge of the field and then follow the track past those oaks. We canít see much else from here."

Targon shuddered. "It would be nice if this were your hometown."

"Somehow I donít think weíll be so lucky. There arenít any Vorgs where I come from!"