Guys, we’re coming down the homestretch! There are only two more parts of Flickering Lights after this one! If you fell behind, you can hop on over to the Flickering Lights page to get caught up. :)
So, here is Flickering Lights 8: Worth It.
“I’m going to be sick.” Marcus’s hands were numb as the boat bound for Antigone Bay dipped. Winston’s aqua-lantern was locked into a compartment next to him, and Winston flitted around, unaware or un-phased by the rolling of the boat.
“What did you say, Marcus?” Penelope was perched on the other side of the cargo bay, thumbs locked into the safety straps that kept her from sliding around with every sickening move the ship made. Her pale face seemed a little more angular since her hair was straight, making her nocturnals look bigger and rounder, and he still wasn’t used to it. The boat lurched to one side. Oh, wow. Yep, any second he was going to lose his lunch of Hermes’s favorite fuel bars. “I’m going to be sick.”
Hermes leaned over to look at him. “Eh, well, you do look kind of pale.”
“What?” Penelope jerked a little bit. “You wouldn’t be able to tell on Marcus! His skin’s so dark!”
“You just can’t tell because you’re too far away, but his skin is… chalky.”
“I’m still here, you both realize that, right?” Marcus leaned his head back against the headrest. He tried to steady his breathing. Had his stomach ever felt so terrible? He groaned. No, definitely not. “This is so not worth 100 digits a day.”
Hermes sighed and then started. “Back in Kindle I got some things that I’ve heard help with this sort of thing.” He strained against his straps, pulled his pack onto his lap, and started sorting through it.
“Wait.” Penelope held up a hand. “So, the rail on the way to Kindle gets blown up with you in it, and then you go trekking across the murklands looking for the guiding light over here.” She motioned in Hermes’s direction. “And then you nearly die at the hands of the pale ones, and then there’s an earthquake–”
“–And don’t forget about how he almost fell to his death chasing down the second rail to Kindle.” Hermes dumped some things out of his pack onto his lap.
“Yeah, and that, and then you have to endure the pit that is Kindle, and somehow, this isn’t worth a hundred digits a day?” Penelope pulled off her nocturnals and stared at him. “Somehow this is worse than all of that?”
“Yep. It’s just not worth it.”
She fell back against her seat. “Well, Marcus, perhaps we need to discuss what ‘worse’ means and gather some proper perspective.”
Hermes chuckled softly. “Here, Marcus.” He held out several small, pale squares. Marcus took them warily. They were scratchy and fragile. “What are these?”
Hermes zipped up his pack again. “Crackers, you eat them. They should help with your stomach.”
Marcus eyed the crackers before taking a bite of one. It was tangy and dry, absorbing all the moisture in his mouth. It was hard to swallow and almost got caught in his throat, but at last it went down. The boat rocked, and Marcus moaned as his insides sloshed around.
“Eh, uh.” Hermes scratched his head before brightening. “Penelope! Marcus is an information formatter.”
She blinked. “So?”
“So, he knows a ton of science… stuff. You could probably ask him anything about science!”
Science stuff? It’s okay, Marcus. Illiterate people will be illiterate.
Penelope narrowed her eyes. “Why would I want to?”
Hermes blinked rapidly before raising his eyebrows in Marcus’s direction and making a small jerking motion with his chin. Oh, great. The beacons were being weird again.
“Oh! Oh!” Penelope folded up her nocturnals and stowed them in her pack. “So, um, the pale ones.”
Marcus sighed. Why did they feel the need to talk? Well, maybe the distraction would be nice. “What about them? We hardly saw them.”
“Yeah…” Penelope nodded, clicking her fingernails on her armrest. “But, like…” She stalled again. “… How… do they survive?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oxygen. Oxygen!” She sat up straighter. “How do they survive without oxygen?” She tossed her hair, obviously pleased with herself.
A smile twitched on Marcus’s lips as he leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes again. “About 10% of Murk’s atmosphere is oxygen, but when we started measuring the oxygen levels about 500 hundred years back, it was at 19%. Technically, the pale ones don’t need oxygen stations and such like we have, but they definitely have a lot more hypoxemia and hypoxia—low levels of oxygen in their blood and tissues—than we do. The three cities are hubs of oxygen, places where we ‘manufacture’ oxygen using mainly electrolysis, but also what little photosynthesis we can muster.” Marcus furrowed his brow, and his eyes flicked open. “It could be that the tunnels and caves that the pale ones live in have pockets where the air is richer with oxygen, but there is so much that’s merely speculation about them. They probably just have some sort of oxygen source we don’t know about.”
Penelope nodded. “Hm, oh…”
Silence settled, and Marcus nibbled on his crackers. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead.
Hermes cleared his throat. “I saw a houseplant once.”
Marcus perked up.
Penelope sniffed. “A what? What is a houseplant?”
Marcus blinked. She’s even more scientifically illiterate than Hermes. “It’s organic matter that rich people keep in their pods. It makes oxygen, but it needs a lot of light to survive.”
“What?” Penelope was incredulous.
“Yeah, you’ve heard of trees, right?”
“Yeah, who hasn’t?”
Marcus shrugged. “A houseplant is a mini-tree of sorts. But, like I said, it needs lots of light to survive, and so that’s why only rich people have them.”
“A mini-tree,” Penelope echoed.
Hermes shifted in his seat. “Back before darkness, trees were all over Murk, and they made most of our oxygen, but when the light went away, the trees died.”
“No more light, no more trees, no more oxygen.” Marcus sighed.
“Oh.” Penelope cocked her head. “Wait a second! How in the deeps is Winston still alive?”
Marcus and Hermes exchanged a glance. “What?”
“I’m back to all the things that have happened on this trip, of course.”
“But seriously! How is he alive? How has his aqua-lantern not been busted open?”
Marcus stroked the aqua-lantern. “This is Chryseis Enterprises’s 459TY Ultra-Crack Resistant, Iridium-Enforced, Mark 11 Aqua-Lantern. This thing is nearly indestructible.”
Penelope huffed. “You lost me at 549T-something-something.”
Hermes laughed. “It’s just a really techy, durable aqua-lantern.”
Marcus ate another cracker and ignored the beacons. Why he had even written all those reports and formatted all that information on scientific advances if the populace wasn’t interested in reading them? He sighed. He was almost beginning to think the crackers were helping when the ship crashed on another wave, and everything came up. He strained forward, body trembling, as he lost the crackers and fuel bars and what felt like the entirety of his internal organs onto the floor of the cargo bay. His throat burned, and the horrible taste stuck in his mouth like glue. He gasped like a fish out of water, weak and sagging against the straps keeping him in his seat. As he breathed carefully, his senses returned.
A hand was rubbing his back. “Ah, wow. Whoa. Um, it’s okay. It’s okay. Just, uh, breathe. Do you want some water?” Penelope.
“Do you want to lean back?” Hermes.
He nodded, and hands landed on his shoulders and pulled him against the back of his seat. He drew a shaky hand across his forehead and groaned.
“Hold still.” Penelope mopped his mouth with a damp piece of something before holding a canteen to his lips. “Here’s some vitamin water.”
He took a couple sips, and then his head flopped back against the headrest. The beacons didn’t speak, but Marcus could picture them trying to figure out how they were going to help him via wild hand gestures and facial expressions.
It was a long time before he opened his eyes, he guessed an hour. He looked around. Penelope was now curled up on the seat on his left, her pack abandoned on the other side of the cargo hold as she dozed. Marcus’s stomach lurched when he saw the vomit sliding across the floor of the boat. Hermes chewed his lip and then flashed Marcus a smile.
Marcus swallowed. “Remind me. How long is the ride to Antigone Bay going to take?”
Hermes cringed. “One day down, ten to go.”
The remaining ten days might as well have been ten years to Marcus. Hermes had paid the captain for a share of the provisions onboard so that they didn’t have to use up as much of the supplies in their packs, but Marcus didn’t eat much besides crackers and vitamin water. They only saw the crew of the ship occasionally, sometimes when they went to the supply room to eat. Hermes and Penelope tried to distract him from his constant seasickness. They came up with more questions to ask him about things he knew about “science stuff”, and he dutifully answered. Penelope played with his flexpad, checking to see if there were an updates, but apparently, long-range communications were still unavailable.
The last day, they were eating breakfast in the supply room. Hermes and Penelope sat down at the table, while Marcus filled up his canteen with vitamin water. He turned and sat down at the table with them, trying not to jostle his stomach any more than was absolutely necessary.
“So.” Penelope watched Hermes over the rim of her cup. “What is Chimo like?”
Hermes paused mid-bite as his gaze flicked from his plate to Penelope and then back to his plate. He chewed slowly and then took a sip of his water.
Penelope shoved her spectacles-style nocturnals onto the top of her head. “Well, out with it!”
“You don’t want to know about Chimo.” Hermes shifted in his seat.
“Um, yes I do.”
Hermes shook his head. “If you knew about Chimo, you’d wish you didn’t.” Something broken surfaced in Hermes’s eyes, and Marcus flinched internally. Penelope was going to press until Hermes either told her or snapped, and since Hermes wasn’t the snapping kind, he would end up telling her. Marcus shook his head. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to know anymore beyond, “On Chimo, we never took our boots off. We always had to be ready to run or fight or chase or scavenge. If you weren’t wearing your boots, you were either dead or about to be.” Yeah, he was pretty content with leaving his knowledge of Chimo at that.
“Come on, don’t be like that, Hermes. I can handle it.” Penelope’s voice broke through Marcus’s thoughts.
Hermes was still for a few moments. “When you’re first arrested, the sepios take you to a little island right off the coast of Chryseis.”
Marcus sighed and ate a cracker. Great, Penelope, just great.
“It’s a volcano. They use the volcano’s heat to heat up a brand, and they brand your neck like this.” Hermes tilted his head to the side and pulled the collar of his shirt down. White light filtered through a puckered scar in the shape of a C. Marcus hadn’t seen it close up before, and he swallowed.
Hermes let his shirt spring back into place. “Then they inject you with thousands of microscopic trackers which record your location and your vitals. Then they take you out by hover and drop you a few hundred feet off the coast of Chimo. If you survive the fall, your first priority is to get to shore. If you survive the swim to shore, your first priority is oxygen.”
Hermes rubbed the back of his neck, fiddling with his plate. “If you don’t find oxygen, you die. If you don’t find fresh water, you die. If you don’t find food, you die. If you try to be a loner, you die.”
Marcus nibbled on his cracker, any semblance of an appetite gone as he stared at his plate. Hermes drummed his fingers on the table. “If you have sturdy clothes, most likely, you die. If you’re a woman…” Hermes ground his teeth together. “If you’re a woman, you wish you had died. On Chimo, you’re only hope of survival is to live through initiation into one of the three gangs that has access to one of three supply pods dropped on the island every other week. Otherwise, you die.”
Penelope held up a hand. “Okay, okay, I get it! Basically, you die! Sorry for asking.”
Before Hermes could reply, a voice came on the ship’s coms and announced that they were docking at Antigone Bay. Marcus lurched to his feet, swiping his pack from the ground and yanking his nocturnals over his eyes. “Let’s get off this boat!”
Penelope hopped up and cleared away the plates, as if she was trying to get away. Hermes brushed his hands together, a small smile brightening his eyes. “I have to get my pack from the cargo bay.”
Marcus almost bounced on his toes. Dry, solid, land. The thought almost made him salivate. “I have to grab Winston too.”
“I’ll meet you guys up on deck.” Penelope shouldered her pack and dropped her nocturnals onto her nose.
Hermes led the way to the cargo bay. Marcus cleared his throat. “Hermes. I’m still thinking about what we talked about in Kindle.”
Hermes paused in the doorway of the cargo bay. He glanced back at Marcus, and a smile lit up his entire face in true Hermes fashion. “Really?”
Marcus pushed past him into the cargo bay. Winston glowed stoically in his aqua-lantern. “Yeah, I just… need to think about it more.”
“Well.” Marcus could hear the smile in Hermes’s voice. “If you have any more questions, whatsoever, about El Roi or anything, really, don’t hesitate to ask. Ask me, ask Penelope.”
Marcus chuckled under his breath and unlocked Winston’s aqua-lantern from its holder. “Penelope doesn’t like it when I ask her things. She says she can’t answer well-enough and to ask you. But, I haven’t really felt like doing anything besides dying for the past eleven days.”
Hermes laughed outright, slipping his arms through the straps of his pack. “Well, Penelope knows a lot when it comes to El Roi. Like, a lot. Definitely a lot more than I first gave her credit, but she just… struggles with putting all she knows into practice.”
Marcus quirked a brow. “And she’ll probably get violent if we leave her up there in the cold for too long.”
“It’s not that cold.” Hermes led the way out of the cargo bay. “And it will be warmer than it was at Kindle since we’ve gone south quite a ways.” A few cramped hallways later, they came to the ladder leading up to the deck. Hermes paused, his hand on the first rung. He turned back to Marcus. “About El Roi.” He chewed his lip for a second. “I’m not going to tell you that He’s going to give you instant healing. I’m not going to tell you that it’s always going to pleasant. I’m not going to tell you that it’s going to be easy. But I can promise that He is worth it.”
Marcus blinked and then nodded. Hermes flashed a smile.
“Marcus! Hermes!” It was a shout from Penelope, but she didn’t sound angry. She sounded scared.
Hermes bolted up the ladder with Marcus close behind. His stomach was still a little unsteady, but the crackers had helped. Chilly air whipped around his head as he hopped onto the deck. Penelope’s white light stood out against several figures who stood beside her on the dock, and one of them had a gun shoved under her chin.
Marcus’s heart rate doubled, and he clenched the handle of Winston’s aqua-lantern as he followed Hermes across the deck.
Hermes slowed a little bit, and Marcus almost bumped into him. “Sepios, Marcus.” Hermes’s voice was low and fast “Marcus, they’re probably here to arrest me, and they might take Penelope too if she’s been difficult. You cannot let them take her from Antigone Bay. If they take her from this compound, they are taking her to Chimo. She cannot go to Chimo, Marcus.”
Hermes came to the edge of the deck. “Don’t cause a fuss here. We don’t want someone to get shot, but don’t let them take her from this compound.” He paused on the gangway. “What is it, officers?”
“Hermes Glass?” One of the sepios shifted his weight.
“You’re wanted for questioning.”
“All right.” Hermes stepped onto the gangway.
“Hands in the air, Glass!” This came from the sepio with the gun to Penelope. “No one has to die today.”
Hermes lifted his hands. “Don’t worry. I’ll come quietly.”
Marcus stuck close behind him as Hermes whispered to him. “I’ll be praying, Marcus, but I don’t know how this will end. Get the letter from Pierre out of my pocket. If it comes to it, you and Penelope have to take it to Pollux without me.”
Marcus reached into Hermes’s jacket pocket, but his fingers met empty air. They were almost to the dock. He checked the other one. Nothing. “It’s not there!”
Hermes didn’t have time to reply before they reached the dock and he was jerked forward by two sepios. They pulled his hands behind his back, and he didn’t struggle. Marcus’s legs were wobbly the instant his boots hit the dock. A sepio patted him down and then shoved him away.
His blood pounded through his head. What do I do? He couldn’t move. He could hardly breathe. He glanced at Penelope. He couldn’t see her eyes through her nocturnals, but he could see the lightning fast rhythm of her pulse in her neck. His hands were sweaty, and he readjusted his grip on Winston’s aqua-lantern.
Once Hermes was safely cuffed, the lead sepio released Penelope, and she staggered back. Marcus reached out to catch her, but she regained her balance and rounded on the sepios. “What? Where are you taking him? You can’t arrest him!”
“Penelope, come here.” Marcus’s voice sounded strange in his own ears.
She circled to one side of the sepios. “Stop!”
Marcus’s muscles were so tight they hurt. “Penelope!”
But it was too late. The lead sepio snapped an order, and two other sepios grabbed her arm and cuffed her hands behind her back in the blink of an eye. “Penelope!” Hermes’s voice was sharp, and it stilled her. Marcus’s throat was dry as the sepios pulled Hermes and Penelope off the dock. Marcus started to follow, but Hermes’s eyes met his. “Marcus.” Hermes shook his head and mouthed, “Wait.”
Penelope struggled against the sepio that held her. She squirmed. Penelope, no. Don’t make it worse. Her legs struck out and kicked the air, much like she had when Marcus first met her in the murklands. “Let me go!”
Marcus ground his teeth and watched the sepios drag them around the corner of a building. Sweat broke out on his forehead, and he glanced around, holding the aqua-lantern aloft. Antigone Bay wasn’t big, a compound smaller than the Kindle Waystation, but open air while the Kindle Waystation had a ceiling covering the entire complex. Walls reached high, protecting the inhabitants from the pale ones, and buildings of all shapes and sizes cluttered the compound. Where could he go? Who would help him? How could he get Penelope and that letter back? His heart raced, and sweat beaded on his upper lip.
A scream rent the air.
His blood thudded through his head for a second before he scrambled after Hermes and Penelope, still unsteady on his feet. As he rounded the corner, he slowed, Winston’s aqua-lantern banging against his leg.
Hermes was on the ground, a pool of blood around his head. What? Had there been a gunshot?
Penelope thrashed against her captor only to be thrown off balance. The sepio stomped on her leg. It snapped. Penelope screamed louder this time, down on the ground gasping.
The sepio grabbed her by the waist and hauled her away. “Marcus! Marcus!” She was sobbing now, all the fight kicked out of her as her leg dragged uselessly behind her.
The other sepios picked up Hermes by his armpits and dragged him away.
Marcus pressed himself against the wall of the building, fighting the urge to run after them, fighting the urge to defend them. Think. Think! A flash of light caught his eye, and he jerked. There, white light. Dim but persistent, unflickering. He shoved off from the wall, legs still wobbly from coming off the ship, and he staggered towards the light. Get the letter. Don’t let them take Penelope to Chimo. And he would, no matter what it took because they were worth it.
You can read Flickering Lights 9: Whatever It Takes here.
Anybody wanna go to Chimo?
And, wow, things aren’t going so fantastic for the group. Penelope gets her leg stomped, Hermes gets possibly killed, Marcus gets left all alone with Winston.
Honest thoughts, peeps–are you still liking Flickering Lights, or is it getting *whispers* old?