Content warnings for this episode include: Heartbeats, Abuse, Animal Death (implied about some birds), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Electrocution
Intro - Ancient Scribes
The instruments sing like a choir, and you smile. First, low notes—the hum of computers and generators. Next, the middling voices of monitors and alerts, resonating over the whispers of your colleagues. And lastly, the highest melodies, a conspiracy of chittering reconstruction arms. A heartbeat punctuates the rhythm. Bm-bm. Success. Bm-bm. Miracle. Bm-bm. Alive.
Her eyes open for a moment, behind the glass, and you pause. They are large and grey and fixed on you, even as the fabricator arms keep putting her together, print skin and muscle, powered by technology beyond science—you have simply given hands to ancient scribes and told them to write. Write they have, and they stare into your soul.
She’s not supposed to be awake. And yet, she stares, and you feel for the first time that you have flown too close to the sun, and she is awful wax, dripping like blood to spell Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I am standing in the light of a glowing sun, forgotten melodies and voices echoing in the darkness. No one is supposed to be here—in a perfect show, you cannot step behind the stage to examine the woodwork and the trapdoors. Nevertheless, one stands here with me, and I suspect she can hear a little of what I say, but her attention dwells most with the communication arrays of Dreaming Box Andromeda, and hopes that she will live through the next few hours. The theme of tonight’s episode is Errors.
Story 1 - Overwhelmingly Awake
Danielle O’Hara stood in the world behind the Prime Dream, the backing to its carefully embroidered tapestry of imagination and memory. She had been here longer than she had ever stayed before, but she had nowhere else to go. She had missed her appointment for the psychological evaluation, and the dreamscapes of her parent’s home crawled with flies, little lurking presences or friendly neighbors in suits or passing salespeople. If there was any time to leave, it was now.
Out here, in the emptiness, the back rooms of the sleeping world, she could hear other sounds too—and what she listened for, most of all, the workings of the shadow. Communication arrays and security alerts and the delicate threads that allowed the workers of the Prime Dream to supervise the world outside. The wall of darkness was full of hidden windows and letterboxes, doors to secret places, and she hung nearby the security complex, listening to each activation of the long-range box defenses. Birds dropped dead as soon as they crossed the threshold, but the wildlife of Yosemite National Park sometimes required more deterrence, and she listened and hoped that Riot would not be the next target.
Valerie had not resurfaced in the Prime Dream since the other Riot had appeared; had not been connected in a while. I wonder if she’s sleeping unplugged, Danielle wondered? So far, she had only tried reaching out to speak to Riot, a single-minded point of focus. Now, though, might be her last chance to try and let Valerie know what was coming. Danielle closed her eyes, and tried to feel past the darkness—entirely beyond the universe of the Prime Dream, where a country of shadow and sleeping light was laid out. There was a small light in the sky above her, and Danielle pulled herself closer, brushed it like a ship coming to anchor.
She shuddered as music washed over her, a storm of electric guitar and drums like rolling thunder. It was music she had scarcely listened to, stolen away by Botco’s censors, stripped from their archives. It was glorious, the more so for the waving crowd spread out before her, and on a stage lit in celestial reds and yellows and whites, a band was playing. A drum illustrated with a furious statue read ‘Stonemaiden’, and center stage, screaming into the microphone with hands racing along a grey guitar, was Valerie Maidstone.
“Excuse me,” Danielle said, but she was a whisper in a hurricane of sound. There’s no point in being polite, she thought; Riot and her team could be here any moment. From the sound of it, Riot had powerful friends on the outside—Danielle could only imagine a squad of seasoned soldiers, resistance fighters who could survive Botco’s onslaught. She blinked, and immediately was on the stage, illuminated by a dozen lights, and the music fell to a single screeching tone as Valerie looked up.
“Danielle?” Valerie said. She had the face of her younger self, the ruffled hair of her music videos. “Am I… dreaming about you? Or are you here?”
“I’m here,” Danielle said, glancing out over the crowd—now shadows frozen still; Valerie’s bandmates stared into the concert hall with empty expressions. “Riot is coming. The real Riot. She’ll be here soon. She’s going to get you out of here.”
Valerie stared at her, and seemed older, the woman she’d first seen in the depths of Botco’s nightmare chambers. She sighed, and brushed her guitar strings. “So I am dreaming.”
“This is for real,” Danielle said. “They’ll take me out too. If they can. I might get to really meet you.”
“I wish that was true,” Valerie said, and the auditorium began to vanish; it was more a bar stage now, no audience watched from the floor. “Even if it was… I don’t think Riot wants to go. This is her world now.”
“It’s not,” Danielle said. “Not the Riot I know. I have to go. But be ready. It’s going to happen soon. Remember that.”
She left the dream, and fell back into shadow as if collapsing into a dark pool, the stage shrinking away into distant light. The darkness beyond the Prime Dream was alive now, lights illuminating the void, chaos and sound. It had begun.
This is it, Danielle thought. The end of my life. And if I am lucky, also the beginning. There was a hailstorm outside, unseasonable and impossible for the middle of summer in California, and the technicians and security teams traded alarmed messages—the stones were too large, set off the motion sensors on the box defenses, sent the defense grid into devastating hyperactivity. And then, they brought it offline, closed the great eyes of Box Andromeda to rest until the storm passed.
That’s too strange to be coincidence, Danielle thought—but how in the world?
Scattered reports now. Lightning strikes above, leaving little scars in the roof. A hangar bay hinge damaged. And sudden, a flurry of interest as a sensor became faulty on an unused supply door at base level. The plan she’d given to Riot. She was here.
“Oh I am going to be in so much trouble for this,” Danielle said to herself, and reached out to the darkness. Burning white lines traced in the shadow—a thousand doors, she felt, responding to her presence.
“Open,” she said.
And they opened.
And suddenly no one was concerned about the supply door, because every door was open, and thousands of employees across Box Andromeda responded with spontaneous panic. The last thing she did was to pick her way across a million little boxes, the invisible catacombs in which she was buried.
“Time to go,” she said, giving one last look at the glorious sun of the Prime Dream, and pointed at the interface of her own coffin.
“Open,” she said. And in a way she had never felt, something was shaking her whole world, and her dreams vanished entirely into darkness, and Danielle was awake, terribly, painfully, overwhelmingly awake.
Interlude 1 - Ask For A Phone
There are few means by which you can reliably escape the troubles of life. Nevertheless, some general points of advice may serve you well in the strange and violent world in which you find yourself.
If your car breaks down on a rainy night, stay in it until the morning. Do not approach the neighboring castle to ask for a phone.
If being chased by a towering figure with a sharp object in their hands, do not look back at them. Look instead ahead of you, to make firm your footing.
If you are chased by a towering figure after your car has broken down at night, do approach the castle. The terrible host inside may scare away your pursuer.
If you grow close to the master of the castle and decide, once your car is repaired, that you no longer wish to leave, be careful. They have a complicated history with the towering figure, and it will not go well if they rush into a new relationship with you before resolving their issues around vulnerability.
We go now to one storming a castle.
Story 2 - The Andromeda Heist
The wind was a perfect fury around Olivier Song, and he drew the weather from miles away, funneled it into a single turning point, a vortex that raged over the gigantic forests and distant mountains. Lightning crackled with each flick of his wrist, an angry storm responding to his spirit.
It felt good to let loose once in a while.
The hail was heavy, and he focused on making it bigger. Better. It had to be severe enough to render their motion sensors unusable, and so he called fist-sized stones into the forest canopy, pelted Box Andromeda on every side, waiting for the great red eyes to stop lighting up the torrential fog.
And then they went dark, and far beneath them, Diggory flew through the undergrowth, tearing through the great trees to reach the corner of the titanic monolith—Box Andromeda was the size of a mountain, polished vertices as high as Olivier’s stormclouds. Diggory laid their knife fingers into a crevice in the distant metal, and peeled open the smallest door, and slipped inside.
That’s my cue, Olivier thought, wind flying in his cloak and around his heels. He drew a last mighty volley of lightning to spiral across the top of Box Andromeda, where a smooth surface would hopefully give way to hidden hangar bays and doorways, and then fell hundreds of feet through the trees. The storm had to stay heavy as he descended, and required constant focus, but he managed to find the meeting point regardless, a great fallen tree with a trunk as thick as the RV itself. Riot took shelter beneath it, sword strapped to her back, and stared up at the monument to mirrors.
“All good so far,” Olivier yelled, steering fatal hailstones to either side with a flurry of wind.
“Diggory, how are you?” Riot called into her walkie-talkie. Olivier could not hear exactly what the revenant said in reply, but Riot put it away solemnly, and looked up to him.
“Promise you won’t drop me?” Riot said.
“I promise,” Olivier said, and reached out a hand to her, and pulled them both up into the sky. It was not flight so much as a direction of the wind current, boiling beneath them both and propelling them against gravity, shielding them at the same time from the cascading hailstones as they rose towards the titanic structure beyond.
Riot shouted something in the wind, but Olivier could not hear in the rush; it was hard to talk and fly.
The box was impossibly huge before them, a skyscraper in all dimensions. And yet, the security grid remained asleep as they reached the edge of the roof, a corner like a city block. It was colder here, far above the height of the redwood trees, and Olivier’s shoes slipped on the surface, which was piled high with bouncing hail. He let go of the lightning; allowed it to remain in the clouds above.
“Holy crap,” Riot called. “I’m standing on a Dreaming Box!”
“Let’s not do that for long,” Olivier said, and shifted his attention to the roof. He kicked among the hailstones, and found a metal seam running across the ground, thirty feet in each direction. And then, the ground shifted, and every door in the roof came peeling open at once.
“Was that you?” Riot screamed in the wind. Olivier shook his head, but from one of the nearby hangars, a rising Cluster—or something like it, huge and black and buzzing on rotor wings—crawled upwards, and was immediately barraged by the hail. A wing of blades exploded, and it flipped over onto the roof, sending metal debris flying. Across the rooftop in the distance, similar catastrophes occurred—whether they were emerging for maintenance or to get rid of them, Olivier was not sure.
“This way,” he heard Riot call, and looked over to find her standing at the entrance of a little trapdoor, with a ladder descending into the darkness below. Better a service port than a hanger full of needle drones, Olivier thought, and followed Riot down into the shadow. There was a lot of noise above now—blaring voices, and another sound of spinning rotors bursting against the metal. Olivier hoped they had been lost in the calamity, and pulled the trapdoor quietly shut.
The ladder rungs were slick against their shoes, and dim red lights set into the shaft provided a little light as they descended.
“Remember, we’re looking for the residence level,” Riot said. “Do you know what that looks like?”
Olivier did not.
“Yeah,” Olivier said. “It’ll be nicer-looking than the work areas. If they’ve got all these hangars and hatches near the top, I bet it’s kind of the level below that. So people can visit.”
“Right,” Riot said, and dropped ten feet to the ground at the end. “Smart.”
She shoved open the door in the room at the end, and scanned the hall beyond before walking out. Olivier followed, anxiety churning in his stomach, and a flicker of lightning at his fingertips. He could not hear footsteps, or even the hushed voices of real people—only distant sounds of mechanism and piston. He wondered what Botco employees even looked like, if not large hats and heart-shaped sunglasses.
At the end of a narrow hall, metal walls and emergency lights, there was a room the size of a canyon, where a thousand drones like buzzing beetles moved between docking bays. There were little ones, barely bigger than a frisbee, and some the size of large appliances, and Clusters, and unidentifiable black shapes even larger.
“Now would be like, a terrible time to sneeze,” Riot said, breathing very quietly from the hallway door.
“Why would you even say that?” Olivier said.
“It’s just in movies this is always where it happens,” Riot said. “Some stupid little thing alerts all the crawly guys and then you have to run.”
Olivier waited a moment, watching the hangar doors above seal shut in defeat, and only red light cast down across the vault. It’s worse news for us, he thought; the drones don’t need to see.
“You’re going to jinx it,” Olivier said. “Let’s keep moving. Look for an elevator.”
“Are those doors or an elevator?” Riot said, gesturing to an opening at the end of a far hall. “I can’t tell.”
“Let’s find out,” Olivier said, and crept forward, trying to keep his wet shoes from squeaking on the metal. He could barely see, and he kept a hand on the wall for guidance.
“I think it is an elevator,” Olivier muttered, and the double doors swung open as they approached.
“Or a trash compactor,” Riot said. “But I’ll take my chances.”
Olivier stepped in, and kept his cloak out of the way as the doors slid shut. There was a little white light in the top of the metal box, but they were damp and closed in on all sides, mirrored walls reflecting a girl with a shaved head and a sword and a genderfluid witch in every direction, curving around green to infinity.
“Are you okay?” Olivier whispered, glancing around. There were no buttons or screens; just a little silver box set into the wall. A single red eye glowed in its surface, watching them.
“I’m fine,” Riot said, and loosened the sheath from her back, slung it around her shoulder for easier access. “I’m good. I’m rolling.”
“Please identify yourself,” the little box said, eye flashing in the elevator walls.
“Lady Ethel Mallory,” Riot said, in her best impression.
The little eye seemed to stare for a moment suspiciously.
“Riot Maidstone, you are in an unauthorized area. This elevator will return you to the residence floor.”
“How does it know your name?” Olivier said.
“I don’t know,” Riot replied, and cast him a worried grey glance, and smiled. “But it’s doing what I want.”
The elevator shook a little, and seemed to drift sideways and down as it moved. When the doors finally opened, it was to a very different environment, lit by bright overhead lights, white hallways straight from a minimalist design catalog. Frosted glass doors and meeting rooms stretched off in every direction.
“This seems right,” Olivier said, following Riot out of the elevator. “Do we know where they’re keeping your mom?”
“Danielle wasn’t that specific,” Riot said. “But they’ve got to have guards or something up here. So let’s look out for that.”
Olivier kept a careful watch behind them, listening for any wayward footsteps. Thunder from outside the dreaming box. Riot dashed ahead down a hall, and Olivier sighed—no idea where she was going, most likely. He hurried after her, and had almost reached her as she rounded the corner and ran into a woman.
She had curly dark hair, and wore a white coat, and was not at all what Olivier had pictured as the menacing force of Botco. The woman stared at them both with a dawning frenzy for a moment, and put her hands on her hips. Olivier balled his fists and prepared to kill her.
“Riot,” she breathed, and Riot froze, hand on her sword tucked at her side. “Are you okay? Why are you so dirty? This storm is pretty crazy, huh?”
She glanced over to Olivier, suddenly. “Who are you?”
“I’m… Oliver. from the marketing program,” Olivier said, and frowned.
“For the last time, if marketing wants to work with Riot, they have to work with me. I’m in charge of managing that, thank you, and you do not have clearance to so much as get a selfie with her without my permission. Do I make myself clear? Now get lost, Oliver.”
Olivier nodded, and backed away as politely as he could. Pretend this is Downing Hill, he thought; pretend that’s a professor. He retreated around the hall corner, and stayed close to the wall, listening in. What was going on? She didn’t seem surprised to see Riot at all—there was something off about her eyes, he thought. Little black specks beside her irises.
“...back to your room until all this settles down,” she was saying to Riot down the hall.
“I want to see my mom,” Riot said. “Please?”
There was a quiet moment, and the woman spoke again. “On one condition, okay? I hate to bring this up right now. But we can’t have any more marketing mixups, alright? After that broadcast—which we’ve talked about—I’ve been in kind of hot water. Don’t love that. We’ve got to work together, you know?”
“Okay,” Riot said. “Okay. Yeah. Just take me to my mom.”
There were footsteps, and Olivier crept down the hall, staying a turn behind them each time. For a brief, terrifying moment, there was someone at the end of a hallway—a man in black body armor, a helmet with a smooth face. He did not seem to notice Olivier, though, as he slid to safety.
The woman in white led Riot down a final corridor. Olivier peeked around the corner to find them standing outside of a glass door, with a drone perched on either side, smooth and black and poisonous.
“I’ll be back to fetch you once the storm is done,” the woman said. “And remember. Best behavior now. Also… is that a sword?”
“Thanks,” Riot said, and looked down to her weapon. “It’s, uh, a prop. You know. For a thing.”
“Right,” the woman said. “Well make sure to get cleaned up before the morning, alright? We’ve got a meeting for ten.”
Riot said nothing more, but turned to the glass door, and pushed it open, and left the corridor. The woman in white seemed to stare after her for a few moments, and walked to the far end and was gone.
Olivier breathed deeply; thank god she hadn’t come back this way. He smiled. It was going to work out. They were halfway there.
He stepped into the hallway, and began to approach Valerie’s door, and froze. Immediately, there was a bark of sirens as the two black drones lifted from their perches, buzzsaw wings filling the air with a grinding scream, and the light in their glassy black eyes glowed bright and deadly red, and flashed like hot fire towards him.
Marketing - Polite Discourse
Lady Ethel: …Marco, how are we looking? I… oh. One moment.
Hello, dreamers. A few days ago, a live announcement by new dreaming box resident Riot Maidstone caused something of a stir! And all I can say is…
Good for her. It is difficult to stand up and say what you believe, even when it is unpopular. Especially when your audience is so very large. But she had strong feelings about how Botco is managed—that we have even more room to improve as a company. That we can do so much better for you. And we must remain open to these conversations if we hope to build a brighter future together.
Personally, I hope to hear much more from Valerie Maidstone’s daughter in the coming months. If our company truly values individuality, progress, and free opinion, they will let her speak. She differs from the Stonemaids of course. This is the difference between rampant destruction and constructive dialogue…
Story 2, Continued - The Andromeda Heist
How many sides must you play, Lady Ethel? I think you play none at all. I think you are a spider, sitting in the center of a web of lies, each strand a line out to someone you have ensnared. I would be almost impressed if you were not abhorrently loud and lacking a real personality.
We return now to Olivier Song.
The first light was agonizing, seared Olivier’s flesh like a hot brand, and he dropped to the ground immediately. A burst of sparks marred the wall behind him. The drones flickered and began to strike again, but he had not trained all those hours for nothing. With one hand he whipped himself to the side, a slim gathering of wind, but enough to toss him away from the floor as another two bursts of light shot up from the ground, and the lightning was at his fingertips then, and he sent a wave of electricity, pouring blue and white arcs down the hall and into the drones. They recoiled from the energy and fell into the floor loudly. They laid on their backs like dead insects, pouring smoke and twitching with sparks, and Olivier dashed along the hall and threw himself into the open door and slammed it shut. The alerts still blared outside, and fire sprinklers turned on and soaked him immediately, and he could hear distant feet and rotors on the move.
The night sky was a gleam in the room’s mirrored windows, and Riot stood beside a hospital bed with her arms wrapped around her mother.
Olivier had seen a picture of Valerie, once—a wayward magazine that had made its way into O’Connor’s collection. The woman in front of him was older, hints of wrinkles around her eyes, and her flurry of hair was cropped and ragged. She backed against the raised portion of the bed as he entered the room, and looked down to her daughter.
“Riot, who is that? What’s going on? Are you in trouble?”
“He’s my friend,” Riot said. “I’m so glad you’re okay. We’re going to get you out of here, okay? And then we can talk about all of it. There’s a lot. A lot a lot.”
“Riot, we just… I…” Valorie said, but could not seem to get her thoughts straight. Olivier smiled, despite the pain coursing through his seared arm. Lady, you haven’t seen anything yet. He reached down to the pocket in his cloak, and removed his walkie-talkie.
“Diggory, how are you doing,” Olivier said. “Do you have Danielle?”
“Yes,” the answer came back. “Have you found Riot’s mother?”
“She’s here,” Olivier said, looking up to Valerie for a moment. “It’s time to get out of here. Rendezvous back at the RV, okay?”
Olivier nodded to himself, and tucked the radio away, and there was tromping from outside the door, voices raised in argument, but the glass door had not yet slid open.
“Hey guys?” Olivier said, as Riot pulled Valerie out of bed. “Take cover.”
“Sorry, I didn’t understand that,” said a little silver box on Valerie’s nightstand.
Olivier turned to the window, and raised his hand, and pulled the weather into the side of Dreaming Box Andromeda.
The first crack of lightning only scarred the mirror-wall of the dreaming box, blinding white on the other side, but the second and third and fourth and fifth snapped one after the other, and the shattered craters punched through into their room, the hail and ferocious wind pouring in from the night, scattering smoldering debris and embers across the floor.
“I won’t drop you!” Olivier shouted, and went sprinting across the room, and leapt into the night, a hundred feet over the tallest redwoods spread out before him. The weather embraced him, caught him in its torrent, and he pulled the entire room out. Bed and nightstand and little silver box went flying into the forest below, but Valerie and Riot he lofted, pulled through the storm as the door to the room burst open and men in black armor came streaming in. There were drones too, black pieces of machinery with eyes that lit the night, but as they followed him into the storm-filled sky, he brought the hail down with fury.
Olivier could barely feel his arm, could barely think—just had to do it. Do it all. Muster wind to keep them aloft, three people at once, more than he had ever carried, balancing trajectories and direction. Ignore the screaming Valerie, and Riot who was trying to tell him something. A shield above them, so that the deadly hailstones would not knock out his brains and leave them all to plummet. A storm to drive furiously into the side of Box Andromeda, scatter the men in armor, beat their drones down into the forest. Olivier screamed against the pain, and lightning came racing down the side of Box Andromeda, lighting the hole in the mirror surface with flame, and Olivier carried all three of them into the hailstorm, faster than a bird in flight.
He tried not to think, not to let his thoughts creep in until he could see the pale little box of their RV on a bend of the highway below, and he brought them down carefully, kept the shields up, his energy falling out just as they touched the asphalt. He rolled and came to rest on his back, wrapped in his cloak, white and blue enveloping his vision. The hail died almost as quickly, retreating away from the highway and peeling off into the distant trees, a light sprinkle of rain. He looked over to the side as the great red eye of Dreaming Box Andromeda, perched between the distant cliffs, as though it had smote the landscape in two, came to life.
And the red light flickered, and went out.
He looked up at the sky, and laughed. Of course the eye was closed. He’d put a hole in it.
There was an arm around him, then, pulling him to his feet, and it was not Riot but her mother helping him towards the RV as Riot scurried into the driver’s chair.
“Hi,” the woman grunted, scarcely walking in a straight line herself as she helped him to the side door. “I’m Valerie.”
“Hi Missus Maidstone,” he said. “I’m Olivier.”
He found his seat at the back table, and leaned against it, still seeing stars. In the front, Valerie climbed into the passenger seat and shut the door.
“I have a lot of questions right now,” Valerie said, and looked at Riot. “But the first one is, who are you? And why do you look like my daughter?”
Interlude 2 - Make It So
Space is full of masters. Have you noticed this with your telescopes? Perhaps not. Masters of emptiness and dark science. Masters of sunlight and furious stars. Masters of souls and fires and forges, of dream and sight and storms and knowledge. So many great powers in this universe, devoting themselves to their particular specialty—even some with less impressive specialties, like mud.
Nevertheless, for all our diverse talents, I have yet to encounter a being that could change time. That could make use of gravity or space or instantaneous travel to reverse what has occurred, to peel back the flesh of our reality and realign its bones. Time moves at different speeds in different places, but once something has happened it is done. Irreversible.
Does that seem fair to you, dreamer? In a universe where I can blink and be in the ruinous temple of Irdith-Mal, blink again and visit the Dream-City of Distant Kazanth, blink again and stand at your bedside. We can do so much in the moment, and absolutely nothing once the moment is gone.
I have been confined at times in my life, locked away and forgotten. For all my freedom now, I still feel shackles, except my new vessel is the past which I should have prevented. A present, which I cannot change. For you and I alike, there is only a future left for us to alter. This is the life we are given, impossible to make perfect.
Even now, when I have lost so much, I suppose all I have is the hope that the future will be different. That there is good ahead for me that I cannot yet perceive. I do not doubt it, dreamer, because I will make it so, or meet my end in the process. This is why I am telling you a story.
We go now to one reshaping a future.
Story 3 - To Share A Jacket
The halls were dark, but that was alright. Diggory Graves saw best in the dark. Their footsteps drummed against the grated floors of the corridor as they walked for a flight of metal stairs.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Percy said, keeping pace with their shoulder. The locket around Diggory’s neck jingled with each step. Diggory only smiled in response, and looked up the middle of the flight of stairs, going up eternal into some distant floor above. They leapt upwards through the center, clearing thirty feet with each bound, dagger-tipped fingers finding purchase in the metal banisters.
“I thought there would be more people here,” Percy said. “Workers and stuff.”
“I am sure there are,” Diggory said. “If we are lucky, we will not encounter them. Danielle told Riot to follow the access halls—this is an emergency exit of sorts, if I am correct.”
“And your sense of direction applies to scary metal labyrinths?” Percy said. “Are you sure one of your old selves wasn’t a Botco engineer or something?”
“I do not think so,” Diggory said. “However, I feel that this is our door.”
“I’ll follow your lead then,” Percy said. “And burn whoever gets in our way.”
“Atta boy,” Diggory said. The door was open, and led out into a larger space. A hum grew louder in the air, like a thousand machines had formed a Sunday choir. Dim red lights were installed in the walls and machinery high above; the room seemed as large as the outdoors, and in all directions spread a gigantic metal form—a box within a box, rising into the mist and steam above. This core was not solid silver as the one outside, though, but filled with metal doors and gateways and arms like those of great insects. From an opening thirty feet above, two of the machine’s lengthy digits pulled an object free, and slid it down to the floor level on which Diggory stood. It was a metal box, cramped as a coffin, with lights and screens and long tubes clustered all around it.
“Do you think that’s her?” Percy said.
“I do,” Diggory said. The box was propped up on its end, leaned back slightly. Diggory could not help but think of the stone table on which they had been made. There was a hiss of steam, and the lid of the coffin lit up with light, and cracked in several places, and began to fold away into itself. The lights began to die, and cables and wires convulse and retract from the shell.
“Danielle?” Diggory said. “Is that you? My name is Diggory Graves. I am here to help.”
There was a groan from inside the box, and Diggory stepped forward, glancing around at the dock level—although they might have heard footsteps, they could see no one.
The person inside the coffin was pale and wrinkled, shrouded in long hair and a bedraggled beard, and lay still, barely breathing.
“Danielle?” Percy said, drawing near. His voice seemed like a static shock of life, and Danielle nodded slightly, and grunted again. Her hands shook, but did not rise, and she continued to lay in the box.
“Do you need us to carry you?” Percy said, and was met with another trace of a nod.
“If she has been sleeping her whole life,” Diggory said, “do you think she will survive this? Will she be alright?”
“It’s better to try than to stay trapped,” Percy said. “Even if it takes time. It’ll be better. I wish we had some clothes.”
Diggory glanced around in case someone had left clothes out for her—after all, when they had woken up, their clothes had been folded nearby, waiting for them with a little tag sewn in the jacket. There was not, so Diggory took off their jacket, and placed a hand carefully behind Danielle’s back, and pulled the spiked leather over her shoulders. It was long on her, and Diggory leaned in close.
“Your name is Danielle,” Diggory whispered. “You are alive. And we are going to get you out of here.”
Diggory wrapped their hands carefully around her, and lifted her from the Dreaming Pod, and hoisted her in their arms. She weighed so little.
“Diggory?” Percy whispered. Diggory looked up, and found a person standing in the darkness of the access room, staring at them.
“Riot?” Diggory said. “You are supposed to be with Olivier. Have you ended up down here?”
“Um,” Riot stuttered. “Yeah. Down here.”
“Olivier is not with you?” Diggory said. Riot looked at them with wide eyes, glancing around at the doorways and the person in their arms.
“No,” Riot said.
“I don’t think she’s okay,” Percy whispered.
“Diggory, how are you doing,” a voice crackled from Diggory’s radio. “Do you have Danielle?”
“Yes,” Diggory said, finding the walkie-talkie in their pocket. “Have you found Riot’s mother?”
“She’s here,” Olivier said. “It’s time to get out of here. Rendezvous back at the RV.”
Diggory tucked the radio into their pocket, and looked up to Riot. “Are you ready to leave?”
Riot looked back to the darkness, and nodded. “Yes. Yeah. Let’s go.”
Diggory nodded, and began to move swiftly through the corridors, staying slow enough that Riot could keep up. They could hear sound now, an uproar somewhere above, lightning and thunder crashing. The entire box seemed to be waking up, groaning as if rising from sleep. The lights flickered for a moment.
“Where is your sword?” Diggory whispered in the shadow. “Did you lose it?”
“...I don’t know,” Riot said. “Yeah.”
This surprised Diggory, but then again, perhaps others did not care for their things so deeply. After a few hurried minutes, plummeting through the shadow of the stairways and tunnels beneath Dreaming Box Andromeda, they were out through a pale window of light into the bare expanse of earth that surrounded the box, and could see the forest beyond. With one hand they lifted Danielle, and with the other pulled loose the metal door they had broken through on the way in. It gave way with a shriek of hinges, and Diggory hoisted it above their head—a makeshift shield to keep the hailstorm from falling upon their heads. And then they walked, bathed in the red light of the dreaming box above.
“Stay ahead of me,” Diggory said to Riot, and motioned her in front. “If it strikes, it will kill me first.”
The red light died, then, halfway through their crossing, and Diggory hurried with Riot into the treeline, and clambered through the sweeping belly of the redwood forest. The hail fell hard for a few minutes, but in time fell away, too, and the night was filled with the sound of buzzing like a thousand flies behind them, growing ever louder.
“We need to hurry,” Percy said. “Diggory, can you carry them both?”
“Riot, may I pick you up?” Diggory said. Riot gave them a strange look, but often they could not make much of such expressions. Diggory reached down a great clawed hand, which she seemed only to stare at. Diggory moved it towards her gently, and lifted her over one shoulder, Danielle over the other, and began to run.
They were fast; the wind flew in their hair, and in the deep blackness of the forest they could see everything. Footsteps glanced across stones and sent mud flying, splintered bark as they kicked off of trees, and they raced through the brush for where the RV was parked. The lights were on, although it appeared battered as if by a great many stones. The side door was thrown open as they approached, climbing up the last of the cliff to walk upon the highway, emerging from the belly of the forest.
Olivier was inside, waiting by the door. Diggory set down Riot, and carried Danielle in, and then the door was shut and they were driving.
“Who is that?” Olivier said, helping Diggory sit the gasping Danielle onto the sofa.
“That is Danielle,” Diggory said.
“I was worried you wouldn’t make it,” Riot said, sitting in the front seat and flooring the gas pedal. In the rain behind them, Diggory could see little black shapes rising over the clouds.
“Riot, what the hell is that?” a woman said from the front.
“Hello, mother of Riot,” said Diggory, and tried to give a nice smile, and looked around to take stock of their companions.
Danielle, body shaking, eyes flashing open, making quiet sounds as if trying to speak.
Percy, keeping pace with their vehicle as they began to drive.
Valerie, in the passenger seat, looking exceedingly shaken.
Riot, in the driver’s seat, looking up suddenly in the rearview mirror with horror.
And Riot, beside them, in the back of the RV, staring wide-eyed in return.
The Riot at the wheel screamed, and threw on the brakes, and reached for her sword, and the RV screeched across the hail-strewn road, and the air was alive with the sound of a thousand rotors rising behind them.
Outro - Errors
Errors. It is tempting to look back on our time spent living and feel a sense of regret. For missed opportunities, we feel, for the paths we did not take, for the futures we denied ourselves.
But we are all here, stumbling through life and learning how to live as we go. You have chosen paths to left or to right, by forest or river or stream. Each one would have brought you something different. Good and bad. There is no perfect path. No quintessential way to be. And if regret is heavy in your heart, and guilt follows your conscience like a wolf, be comforted if only by an abundance of tomorrows.
You will get to try again. And again. And again. And when the day comes when you can no longer try, if you still grieve for what you have lost or missed, know that the memory will grow less sharp with each passing aeon, and the sun will rise on you one day where that moment no longer pains your soul.
Searching for the right path to take, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting apologetically for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Measure Twice', and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!