Keeper of the Realm
"Someone help me, please!" Matt screamed.
A vibrant blue ball of light flashed past his head. Matt ignored the warning shot and continued to run. There was no time to rest. Every yard he put between himself and the Cybergons could make the difference between whether he lived or died.
A second shot sped past, perilously close. He fell to the ground and covered his ears as the shimmering sphere struck the wall and exploded with an almighty boom.
Before the smoke cleared, Matt struggled to his feet and shook the splintered fragments of plaster from his blonde hair.
"The Forbidden HallóI must find the Forbidden Hall. Itís my only hope."
Matt raced down the corridor looking for the distinctive curved entrance that he knew. He dove through the elegant archway as a third ball whizzed by and the roof behind him exploded. The force of the blast sent him spinning across the cold floor tiles. A cloud of dust surged at him, stinging his eyes and attacking his lungs.
Coughing and spluttering, he picked himself off the floor a second time, and staggered blindly forward into a swirling mass of creamy-colored gasses. The vapor billowed into his face, filling the air with a vile, sulphurous stench and making his blue eyes water. Little oxygen found its way into his lungs. Matt cupped his hand over his nose and mouth and took short rasping breaths, desperate for air.
A bright light shone through the haze, drawing him towards its brilliance. He strained to focus through the settling dust and found the strength to stagger a few more feet. The clouds began to dissipate and a wave of fresh air enticed him further. He looked for the staircase to the lower level that he had used once before, but it wasnít there.
This isnít the Forbidden Hall, he thought, as the air cleared. Where am I?
Not believing what he was seeing, he squeezed his eyelids firmly closed and then opened them slowly, but he remained in the same place. There were none of Zaulís familiar white walls or angular steel girders and no silver ceiling pipes or huge floor grids. Matt beat the palm of his hand against his forehead in frustration. Had he leaped through a different archway by mistake?
"Which sector of Zaul am I in?" he questioned in a hoarse voice while frantically scouring the area for Cybergons. There were none in sight.
Relieved, but with his heart still racing furiously, Matt took a few seconds to survey a very different environment. He stared ahead at dozens of powerful circular lights, which lit the metallic tube-like corridor. It was as if he were inside a huge metal drain. On the curved sides were large red lettersónot the strange symbols he had seen on the Cybergonsí computers. He traced the words ĎArea 5 Ė DANGERí with his index finger. Then the reality dawned upon him. Mattís stomach churned. He felt hot around his neck as panic set in.
"This isnít a different sectoróthis isnít even Zaul! Where am I?" he shouted. Where am I? Where am I? his voice echoed.
A hand rested heavily upon his right shoulder. Matt had been so transfixed by his new surroundings that he hadnít heard anyone approach. He froze. A chill ran from his neck through every bone to his waist, as the fingers tightened and pressed down on his collarbone.
"Zaul? I do not know of such a place." A deep voice stressed every syllable. "This is Karn. Please present your identification chip."
Matt held his breath as he twisted slowly around to face the owner of the large hand. The stilted baritone voice did not seem to belong to the tall athletic figure that looked down at him. Dressed in black from head to foot, the manís muscular arms bulged beneath the thin material of a zippered top. The young manís skin had a metallic golden sheen, which glistened as he turned his head. His dark sparkling eyes exuded warmth, but his jet-black unkempt hair and austere facial expression made Matt shudder.
"Identification chip?" stuttered Matt.
"You are in Area 5. Do you have clearance?"
Matt stared blankly up at his captor. "Area 5? Iím sorry I didnít realizeóit was a mistake."
"You will please come with me," said the young man, tightening his grasp close to the blood vessels in Mattís neck. His captor displayed no weapon and had even used the word please, but Matt felt sufficiently threatened to accompany him without question. A sliding door, which curved in line with the side of the tunnel-like corridor, opened quietly as they approached.
"Please descend." The man pointed to a set of sharply winding stairs.
Matt led the way down. The hallway at the bottom was dimly lit, and there was nowhere to go but into a confined elliptical chamber. Matt hovered at the entrance and then, realizing that he had no alternative, stepped slowly into the enclosure. The door slid closed behind trapping them both in the claustrophobic surroundings.
There were six padded seats fixed in pairs down the center of the small room. Matt was ushered to sit down in the front row. Without a word, the man leaned over Matt and roughly pushed the boyís arms through two shoulder straps, anchoring them together with a metal fastener across his chest.
"This is for your safety during our journey," he informed.
Mattís eyes focussed on the manís leather belt, which separated his long-sleeved top and skin-tight pants. Elaborately engraved on an enormous silver buckle was the letter "S." He looked up at his captorís face as the man adjusted the tightness of the harness. There were no imperfections in his metallic skinóno moles, scars or blemishesóbut on each side of his thick neck were three red parallel markings. Matt swallowed hard. His throat felt dry and tight. Was his captor human?
Matt wanted to ask so many questions, but he had a feeling that this individual who used so few words would not answer them. He diverted his thoughts to the enormous glass windows surrounding him. Even the ceiling appeared to be transparent. But, Matt could see nothing. It was black and ghostly beyond the thick windowpanes.
"The pod will reach Area 4 in five minutes," said the expressionless figure, clipping himself into the seat alongside Matt. "Be prepared for some initial discomfort."
Matt braced himself, unsure of what to expect. The words of his captor indicated that perhaps they were in some kind of elevator or transportation device, but he felt no movement up or down.
Suddenly, a loud rush of air engulfed the chamber and the pod shot forward. Intense pressure pushed Matt deep into the back of his seat as they sped along giving him both the exhilaration of a theme-park ride and the fear of the unknown. His neck felt as though it might snap with the tremendous force, and momentarily he had no feeling in his fingertips. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the pressure subsided, and the pod was propelled out of the darkness and into a clear tunnel. Their speed slowed considerably, enabling Matt to take in the views through the windows on either side.
"Weíre underwater!" he gasped.
"Karn is exactly 300 feet below sea level," replied his captor. Matt leaned as far forward as the belt would allow. It seemed as though he were staring into an enormous aquarium. The scenery was breathtaking. He saw vibrant pinks and oranges of coral beds and iridescent colors of unusual fish. Matt was dazzled by the brightness of the huge underwater lights, which illuminated the coral reef. Small dark shapes shot past the pod and then the more recognizable forms of six to eight foot Bull sharks.
Without warning, the penetrating eyes of a giant eel glared through the glass. Matt threw himself back into his seat, shaking with the shock, as the lengthy body slithered past the window. The pod continued to lose speed and rode gently into dock, making a quiet connection with the propelling mechanism at the other end of the tunnel. The windows beyond the cramped enclosure turned black, and once again Matt was sealed inside an eerie tomb.
A high-pitched tone signaled the opening of the doors. The man pulled Matt to his feet and pushed him gently forward toward the exit. Matt was faced with another winding set of stairs back to the upper level. He began the climb, his captor close on his heels. At the top an illuminated metal tunnel, similar to the one in Area 5, stretched endlessly before him.
Mattís shoes clanked on the floor, which was constructed in sections of metal mesh suspended across the diameter of the tunnel. He could see through the tiny gaps in the latticework beneath his feet. Thick silver pipes ran the length underfoot and flexible black cables intertwined with the pipes at various points. The curved walls of the corridor were monotonousóhighly polished with little to distinguish the first ten feet from the last.
Several similarly dressed individuals passed by. They all looked briefly in Mattís direction, but walked past without so much as a question. Each man was clothed in black from head to toe with large slip-on shoes, a chunky belt and no sign of a weapon. Their facial features were different, but each individual possessed the same shiny gold-tinged skin color and similar markings on the neck. After his encounter with the Cybergons in Zaul, the thought of being held captive by another race of androids made Matt very nervous.
At the end, the tunnel divided. Matt followed silently down one of the many forks and through a single sliding door into a bright windowless room. Several abstract paintings carefully placed on the walls picked out the warm orange tones of the paint-work. A wide bed with a yellow covering was molded into the back wall. At one end a soft pillow and folded rectangle of silver cloth were stacked neatly.
Matt felt hot. He was unsure whether the temperature of the room was noticeably higher than that of the tunnels, or if he was sweating with nerves. Or perhaps the bright colors of the room made him feel warmer? He removed his jacket and stood in the center waiting. Waiting for what? he wondered.
"Rest here, please. You will be seen later."
"Seen?" questioned Matt.
He was not answered. His guide departed the way they had entered and the door slid closed. The silence in the room was hauntingóno sound of voices or appliancesójust an eerie stillness.
Matt kicked off his Nikes, dumped his coat over the back of the tubular chair in the corner of the room, and clambered onto the bed. He curled his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth. He was sick with worry. Only hours earlier he thought he would be leaving Zaul and returning home. Instead he was hereósomewhere called Karn.
He bent his head in dismay, near to tears. "Home," he muttered. "How I miss home. How do I get home?"
He dared not think about whether time stood still during his mysterious travels. Was his mother even aware that he was missing?
"Bet sheís frantic," he worried. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Matt slapped his cheeks hard, as if he thought he might awaken from some terrible dream, but the room seemed even hotter. "Matthew Hammond, pull yourself together!"
He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the bottom of his T-shirt and lay back on the bed feeling utterly miserable.
* * * * *
Matt became aware of the presence of someone else in the room. He opened his eyes a crack and tried to focus. An older person was peering down at him. The short gray hair glinted under the bright ceiling lights and the pale green eyes showed familiar warmth.
"Matt, my boy! It is you!"
"Varl?" questioned Matt, propping himself up on one elbow. Matt beamed when he opened his eyes fully and recognized the elderly scientist. "Am I ever glad to see you!"
"Likewise, my boy," said Varl, extending his long bony fingers. He grabbed Mattís hand and helped him upright on the bed.
A figure bearing another familiar smile stepped forward from the shadows in the corner of the room.
"Targon! Youíre here too!" shouted Matt with glee.
"Hello Matt from 2010, sleeping again?" he teased, playfully thumping Matt on the back. "Perhaps your computer thing can explain what weíre all doing here!"
"Or, even better, where we are and what time period this is," added Varl in a serious tone.
"Computer?" questioned Matt. "Zang it! My laptop! Iíd forgotten I had it."
Varl smiled at his choice of words. "Iím pleased to see you remembered some vocabulary from Zaul."
"Where could it be?" asked Matt, ignoring his comment.
"You put the CD thing in the slot and pressed those white buttons the last time we saw you," replied Targon.
"It was called a CD-ROM," said Matt, stressing the correct computer terminology. "And yes, I was typing in the final commands on the keys, because I thought I had finished the Keeper of the Kingdom game."
Varlís face lit with excitement. "You were expecting to get back to your own timeóI donít suppose weíre back in 2010 and this is your home?"
Matt stretched his arms above his head and yawned. "Sorry to disappoint you guys, but this is definitely not my home and probably not my time."
"Well then, my boy, I certainly hope your computer is somewhere about," said Varl, his hopes dashed.
"So do Ióor Iíll never get out of this computer game and back home."
Varl shook his head. "You still maintain weíre in your computer game, eh?"
"You said you were a scientist, Varl, and therefore you believed anything was possible," Matt reminded him.
"True, but I always wondered if you were really a time traveler. Now Iím more convinced. It seems that on this trip you have brought us along too!"
Matt sighed. "Iím not a time traveler, honestly. Right now, Iíve no idea how I got here and even less of an idea how you came too. Iím just as confused as you are, and to be honest, Iím really missing my home! A week in Zaul was bad enoughóno offense to you guysóbut now, I find Iím here!"
"Where is here?" asked Targon. He turned his back to Matt and ran his index finger along the frame of one of the abstract paintings.
"Karn, Iíve been told."
"Well then, youíve been told more than us," added Varl. "And where exactly is that in relation to Zaul?"
Matt shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, but Iíve absolutely no idea. I wasnít told anything else. If I could find my laptop. . ."
Varl propped himself against the bed. "So, how long have you been here?"
"A couple of hours at a guess. One minute I was with you in Zaul, the next I was right here. Without my laptop, Iím sunk!"
"I think we all are, literally," said Varl, trying to find something humorous about their situation. "This underwater paradise is mighty strange."
Targon groaned when he got the pun on words and Matt forced a smile.
"Believe me, this place is no stranger than Zaul," said Matt. "So, how did you get here?"
"Presumably, the same way as you. Targon and I suddenly found ourselves in some glaringly bright corridor and were escorted here by a very untalkative individual. The last thing I remember before that, is sitting in a room in Zaul, and seeing the horrified look on your face when your computer showed the program-error warning. You and I both knew that your game information wouldnít be saved if the computer shut down. I guessed that you thought youíd be starting Keeper of the Kingdom all over again."
"And thatís what I donít get," said Matt, raising the palms of his hands upwards. "I did start my game again."
"You did?" said Targon, trying to understand the computer talk.
"Well, just briefly. I found myself running from the Cybergons all over again. I looked for the Forbidden Hallólike I did the first time I landed in Zaul. Only something weird must have happenedóbecause when I dove through the same archway I ended up here instead."
Varl scratched his unshaven chin as he contemplated Mattís explanation. "Iíll soon have a beard like Dorin," he grumbled.
"Oh, no! Dorin!" Targon lamented. "Weíd forgotten about him!"
"You donít suppose Dorin might also be somewhere in Karn?" said Matt, alarmed. "There were four of us in the roomóhis roomówhen I entered the final commands of the computer game."
Varl scratched his chin again as if it irritated him immensely. "It would make more sense for Dorin to be here than for him to have been left behind in Zaul. He was sitting closer to you than Targon. If I remember correctly Dorin actually had his hands on the lid of your laptop."
"Then why isnít he with us?" asked Targon.
Matt jumped down from the bed and found his shoes. "Perhaps heís here in Karn but hasnít been found yet. Perhaps heís still in Zaul. Who knows?"
Varl frowned. "So, Matt, what do you make of our situation?"
"Youíre the scientist, VarlóI was hoping you could tell me!"
"Sorry, but Iím out of ideas. Your laptop holds the answers."
"Where do you suggest we look for it?" asked Targon.
"For now, nowhere." Varl sat down heavily on the chair. He raised an eyebrow. "I would say that we are at the mercy of whoever has chosen to hold us captive."
"Iím sure we could find our way out of here and back to the place where I came into Karn," said Matt, tying his laces hurriedly. "The corridors werenít exactly busyówe might get lucky." He walked towards the door.
Targon groaned. "You wonít be going anywhere. Iíve already tried the door and it wonít budge."
"Youíre not seriously suggesting that we just wait here to see what they do with us?" said Matt, glowering at them both. "Neither of you would have waited for the Cybergons to return in Zaul!"
"Look around you, my boy. Thereís nothing here. Without tools, and a basic understanding of what weíre dealing with in the way of technology, I donít see that we have any other choice!"