Please note, the following interlude is a joke that should not be taken seriously. It is just for fun and is meant to be a silly one-off parody of sorts. If that kind of thing is not something you enjoy, you can safely skip this one and not lose any plot. Except you might still want to read the tags at the bottom, as they are factual.
Three small stones rolled quickly through an empty grass field. As they reached the middle of the field, the two smaller rocks stopped, while the third, slightly larger one rolled on another few feet. Then it too came to a halt. The pitch-black stone had been truly chiseled and handsome once, though the years had not been kind. Years of work. Years of keeping the Mother Stone safe.
“Corporal Anthracite, front and center!” the dark rock bellowed.
Immediately, another stone, this one not quite as dark and somewhat smaller, came rolling up from another patch of grass. He passed the two bodyguard stones, who rolled aside to admit him before resuming their position of watching for any unwelcome intruders. “Corporal Gary Anthracite reporting, Commandant Obsidian!” There was a bit of nervousness and anticipation to the corporal rock’s voice. He had been waiting so long for this day. He knew just how important it was. Not just for them. For everyone. For everything.
“How long, Corporal?” Darrius Obsidian asked, adjusting his tone a little. He had the instinct to snap, instinct born of centuries of hard military work. But Gary was a good Anthracite. And a good rock in general. There was no need to take things out on the kid just because he was nervous. They were all nervous.
“Sir,” the corporal quickly replied, “according to the scouts, ten minutes. The field’s secure. We have four snipers on the trees there, there, there, and there. They’re Scoria, sir, they know what they’re about. Any punks show up, they’ll regret it.”
“Good,” Obsidian murmured thoughtfully, his mind already racing about the possibilities. “We can’t have any interruptions. Not with this. It’s too important. There’s too many people trying to make sure this goes sideways.” He looked over to the younger rock. “You’re not relying just on the snipers, are you?”
He was rewarded with a quick headshake. “No, sir. We have a full squad of Sylvinites and Itacolumites waiting just over the ridge there. Shit goes down, they’ll send those intruders straight to the bedrock.”
“Hm,” Obsidian grunted, “they’re good kids, but Sylvinites and Itacolumites can both be pretty soft. You sure they’re up for this?”
“Don’t worry, sir,” Gary assured him, “they’ve got back-up. They’re just the quickest ones in. We’ve got the Skarn trio and half a dozen Eclogites rolling through the bushes. Trust me, Commandant, we’re ready for this. We spent two weeks clearing this place out and making sure it’s clear for this. We are good to go.”
“And your man,” the commandant prompted after giving a slow look around the field. “He’s ready? You’re sure he’s the right one for a job like this?”
“Sir,” Corporal Anthracite replied firmly, “he is the only one for a job like this. Believe me when I tell you, if he can’t get it done, there’s no one in this world that could. He’s the one.”
Watching him for another moment for any hint of doubt and finding none, Obsidian finally relented with a pointed, “He better be. I’m not exaggerating when I say the fate of the Mother Stone depends on it. We’re putting all of our lives in the hands of your man. So to speak.”
“He’s up for it,” Anthracite insisted, turning a bit. “In fact, here he comes now.”
Both rocks turned a bit, watching as a third, smaller stone approached them. Once more, the two bodyguard rocks waited for a sign from their leader before moving aside to allow the newcomer admittance. He rolled to a stop, bowing a bit in recognition. “Commandant Obsidian, Corporal Anthracite, sorry for the delay, sirs. I was saying a few last words to my little pebbles since it’ll be awhile before I see them again.”
Lifting his gaze a bit in surprise, Obsidian quickly asked, “You have children, Agent?”
“Ah, no, sorry, Commandant,” came the response. “I’m afraid I haven’t been blessed with my own. But I volunteer in the Big Boulder program. They might not be mine, but I love those little pebbles. It’s gonna be hard stepping away from the home slab for so long.” His voice was a bit wistful as he thought about the tiny rocks he was leaving behind for this.
Clearing his throat, Anthracite looked back and forth between the other two. “Ahem, yes. Commandant Obsidian, may I officially introduce you to Agent Dacite.”
“Agent Dacite,” Obsidian greeted him with a simple nod. “I hope you know how long we spent looking for the right rock for this job. Years, son. We spent years interviewing every single bit of slab and rubble out there. The corporal’s vouched for you, and we’re all hoping he’s right. Because if he’s not…”
“I won’t let you down, sir,” Agent Dacite promised, standing as straight and tall as a semi-spherical rock with no legs could manage. “I know what’s at stake. I’ll protect that girl with my life.” He added a sly grin at the end, his voice lightening just a bit. “And hey, if we pull this off, maybe we’ll have something to say to the Sling boys in Tehran who haven’t shut up about how they took down that Goliath guy. I mean, sure maybe he was a giant, but get something new to brag about, right?”
With a tiny, reluctant smile of his own, Obsidian coughed. “Believe me, Agent Dacite, you do your job here and those Sling boys’ll be the ones buying you beers. They’ll buy all of us beers. Hell, you pull it off and I’ll buy everyone any kind of beer you want. Just get it done. Protect the kid. No matter what.”
“No matter what,” Agent Dacite agreed before looking toward the middle of the field, where the subject of their conversation had just appeared. Not that she was visible through the school bus that had brought her. But he knew she was there. His future partner. The person he would protect from all the many, many terrible things that were waiting for her. The girl he would die for, if it meant protecting her, for the sake and safety of the Mother Stone.
Felicity Chambers. His human.
He just hoped they got along.
Flick Chambers was the best partner anyone could ask for.
Well, for a human, anyway. And Herbie, because he was Herbie now and always would be as far as he was concerned, would let himself crumble to dust before allowing any harm to come to that kid. His sword had been pledged to her protection since before he’d received it, of course. This was his job. But now? Now it was personal. He was that girl’s protector, her guardian stone. And may Mother Stone break apart should he ever abandon that duty.
And what a duty it was. That kid was brave, he’d give her that much for sure. But she had a habit of attracting so much trouble. At least he had help now, even if they were raw recruits. And former enemies at that. Not that it was really their fault. They’d been the tools of their previous owner. But now they were here, and he was going to make damn sure they were ready for anything that came their way.
“Ambush maneuver Kappa!” he called out while resting up on the windowsill of the room that his human shared with Avalon Sinclaire. He could see the whole area from here. Including the floor, where the two cyberform mice, Jaq and Gus, stood at attention. As he barked out the command, both of them sprang into action. Jaq ran to the nearby door, scrambling his way up the side to perch on the small wooden lip just above it. Meanwhile, Gus went for the nearby desk, climbing to an open spot just under the drawer before setting himself there at what would be about knee level for a human.
“Good boys!” Herbie praised them. They were kids, they needed to hear it. They needed encouragement. “That’s right. Jaq, you see an opening from up there, you take it. Necks, throats, ears, you can do a hell of a lot of damage. And Gus, you sneak your way into any bag they’re carrying, or hit a wrist, a knee, anything to disarm them. Excellent work, you two.”
The mice chittered excitedly, resuming their place in the middle of the room. Both were fairly quivering with eagerness. They were ready to fight, ready to do anything it took to keep their human alive. Just like Herbie himself.
Yup, the kid definitely did well when she picked up these guys.
As a reward, Herbie rolled off the windowsill, dropping to the floor. He made his way over to a nearby toolbox, using his sword to flick the latch open before rolling up the side of it. His sword dipped down into the box, producing several metal washers, which he tossed out to the floor. To their credit and his deep satisfaction, the mice stayed perfectly still, though their eyes followed the treats longingly. They wanted to move, wanted to feast. But they were too well trained.
“It’s okay, go for it, boys,” he proudly assured them. “You’ve earned it.” He watched then, smiling to himself as the cyberform mice dove onto the metal washers, quickly downing them. Yes, sir, he was definitely glad to have the help. These kids might’ve been young, untrained, and wet behind the ears. But they were loyal. They were competent. They were the best young rookie troops he could have asked for.
And with the way Flick collected enemies like some humans collected… well, rocks, they’d need all the help they could get.
“I’m sorry, Mother Stone.” Herbie’s voice was quiet, as he sat perched on top of a fallen log, his eyes focused on the lights twinkling in the sky far above.
Was one of those lights his home? Was one of those lights the Mother Stone from which he had come? No. No, they were too far away for that. So far away that… none of those lights would be the Mother Stone. So far away that… that he was afraid he might never see her again.
They were in Seosten space. Hours earlier, he, Flick, and the other kids had been transported up to that Seosten space station, and from there to this world before running for so long to find this hiding place where they could finally rest. Now the humans were sleeping and he was standing guard just outside of the cave they were holed up in.
Here, so far from the home that he had known for so long, Herbie felt all of the worries that he tried so hard to set aside. He worried about how he would protect his human, about how his little pebbles were doing, even about how Avalon, Scout, and the rest of their team were. For magma’s sake, they were a billion light years away! If anything happened to them while he and Flick were stuck out here, he would… he would…
He’d never forgive himself, he knew that much. Damn it! How had he let that evil psycho bitch take them by surprise?! He should have seen it coming. He should have warned Dare.
No. No, he couldn’t dwell like that. He couldn’t let mistakes cloud his mind. Especially now. He’d made a mistake, yes. He’d learn from it. He’d grow from it. And he would make damn sure nothing happened to these kids out here. Whatever it took, no matter how many enemy forces he had to cut through, he would get Flick and her friends back to Mother Stone.
Her friends… and that new Seosten kid. Boy had that ever been a surprise. Herbie had been so taken aback when Tabbris revealed herself, he’d nearly rubbled himself. And that explanation, the realization of just how much help the kid had been… he’d wanted to hug her. Especially once he realized how scared she was. Poor kid.
She was family. He’d vowed that even before Flick had accepted the girl. Seosten or not, she was family, and he’d make damn sure she was safe from all this.
Hearing a noise behind him, Herbie turned slightly, only to find Jaq and Gus there, watching him. He offered them the most reassuring smile he could, tipping his snazzy hat. “I know, guys. You’re worried too, huh?” When they answered with a pair of quick nods, he rolled off the log to drop in front of them. “Don’t worry, boys. We’re okay. Doesn’t matter where we are, or how far from the Mother Stone we go. She’s watching over us. And we’re watching over each other. You got that? We watch each other’s backs. And we take care of our humans.”
The two mice chittered affirmatively, each rising onto their hind legs before giving a firm, sharp salute.
That time, the smile that he offered the pair was much easier to summon. Herbie was proud to call them his troops. No… his partners. “Okay, boys. Let’s scout the perimeter. You two stay together. Shout if you see anything suspicious. And I mean anything. We’re in unfamiliar territory here. You even think you’ve got a whiff of trouble, you holler and I’ll come rolling. We’ll deal with it together.”
There was another quick pair of affirmative squeaks, and the two mice scampered off into the bushes. Herbie watched them go before turning to roll the other way, to check the opposite side of the area surrounding the cave where the humans were sleeping.
Yes, being away from the Mother Stone was terrifying. But this was the job he had volunteered for. No matter how scary it got, he would stick with it. He would do his duty. He would protect his human. And her newfound little sister.
Someday, he knew, they would make it back to the Mother Stone. Together.
Well, things had certainly gone to hell pretty damn fast. One night, and not only was Gaia Sinclaire now imprisoned, but the rest of them had been driven right out of Crossroads itself.
Most of them, anyway. Poor Sean. Hearing that the kid had been left behind, it was all Herbie could do to stop himself from going right in after him again. Only telling himself that his job was to protect Flick had been enough. Even then, if she’d said anything about going after the boy, he would’ve been right there alongside her. Sean was part of the team. They didn’t leave the team behind.
But they’d had to. They’d had to leave him. For now, at least. They would go back for him, of course. Yet the thought of what those psychopaths might be doing to that kid in the meantime made Herbie’s minerals rumble. He wanted to take his sword and put it through a few toes and fingers.
Five minutes alone in a room with that Ruthers son of a bitch. That’s all he asked. Five minutes. He’d show that guy just what he thought of him. And the rest of his loyal Crossroads stormtroopers.
But now they were in a safe place. And dare he say it, he liked this one better. He’d always enjoyed the time he and Flick spent here at the Atherby camp. It felt more… real than that island. The people here, the other rocks, they weren’t blunted by so many centuries of living under Crossroads Heretic oppression. They were free stones. And he’d already been assured that there were reinforcements waiting to join in should he give the word.
Yes, as scary and dangerous as that whole situation had been, the camp had been the right place to come. He was sure of it. Especially with the rebellion now ramping back up.
“Mother Stone to Agent Dacite.” The voice of Corporal Gary Anthracite drew Herbie’s attention once more, reminding him that he was reporting in. He and the other rock were both meeting behind one of the larger trees on the outskirts of the camp, where they wouldn’t be overheard.
“Sorry, sir,” Herbie quickly replied while drawing himself up to attention. “I was just scanning the perimeter one more time. To be on the safe side.”
“Don’t worry, Agent,” Anthracite assured him, “as I said, we have men surrounding the entire camp. No unauthorized intruders are getting past them. Not without us getting ample warning.” He smiled then, offering a nod to Herbie. “You’ve done well, Agent Dacite. Actually, you’ve done so well that I’ve been authorized to inform you that, if you want, you can go back to your pebbles.”
Blinking once, Herbie tilted a bit to the side. “Excuse me? Fli–the Chambers girl is still in danger.”
“Yes, she is,” Anthracite agreed. “But you’ve gotten her this far. And now that she’s not in Crossroads, we can put other agents on her guard detail. You’ve done plenty. Hell, son, you spent months away from the Mother Stone. Take a load off. Have a vacation. Get back to that Big Boulder program. We can take it from here. We’ve got the whole woods filled with our men. That girl will be safe.”
There was no pause, no hesitation. Herbie shook back and forth. “Sorry, Corporal, I have no intention of leaving. This is my duty, my assignment. Flick, she’s… she’s my partner. I’m not abandoning that when we’ve just gotten started. We get this far, and you think I’m just going to walk away? No fracking way.”
Meeting his gaze intently, Anthracite quietly asked, “Are you absolutely sure about that? This may be your only chance to back out of this assignment for a long time, Agent Dacite. You stick around now and… well, you may be in it for the long haul.”
“Sir,” the dashing young rock firmly replied, “first, with all due respect, you’re not the one who put me on this assignment for the long haul. Flick did, when she threw me through that portal. She brought me into this. She’s the only one that’ll take me out of it. And second, it’s not Agent Dacite anymore.
“My name is Herbie.”