The portal took our group out to an old airfield in the middle of nowhere. We were met by a small army of Alters of all shapes and sizes, who were heavily armed and very clearly nervous about our presence. None of them looked happy that we were there. Our group stayed as still and non-threatening as possible, for whatever good it did, while Paul stepped over there and had a brief, yet clearly somewhat heated discussion with the futuristic metal-armored canine-humanoid figure who was apparently this group’s leader. While that was going on, Nuliajuk spoke quietly.
“They are some of the city’s guards for our time here in this place. They call themselves Strangers. And yes, that is a deliberate appropriation of the term your people use for all non-humans. They wear it as a point of pride, just as their entire town has dubbed itself Strangefield. It is entirely intentional.”
She was clearly making no attempt to hide what she was saying to us, because I saw several of the armed soldiers look that way at her words. A couple of them nodded and one stared right at me. He looked like a living squid with armored plating and a ring of eyes surrounding his entire head. Three of those eyes were focused solely on me, and I literally felt his determination. If we ended up being a threat to his home or his people, he would stop us, no matter what that cost him.
Right, I had the feeling this guy had some kind of ability to project his emotions or his general… thoughts or something to that effect. Maybe that was how he communicated? Either way, I simply gave him a slight nod, hoping that he would get the point. We weren’t there for a fight. Okay, well, we were. But not a fight with him or his people. We weren’t there to attack Strangefield. We were there to get the missing kids and Jiao and get out of there, that was it.
Finally, Paul stepped back and the armored canine-like figure (he didn’t really look like a werewolf, more like an anthropomorphic doberman pinscher) cleared his throat before looking at us. “Right then! Here’s the deal,” he bellowed in a commanding voice. “You all are here to talk to those… outsiders north of town. You are not here to hunt or kill any of ours. You understand that?”
Outsiders north of town? These… Kotter people were outsiders? Hadn’t Oberon said that they were important within the town? I supposed the people being important in the town didn’t mean they lived there, or that they were actually part of it, or… Huh. Now I was even more confused about what was going on.
The man continued. “You will be escorted everywhere you go, and if any of you try to pull anything, you will regret it. Our people are under our protection. We won’t put up with any bullshit! I don’t care what you think you’re doing or who you see. If they’re not your targets here, you leave them alone, period.”
Scanning the group with a hard, piercing gaze, he belatedly introduced himself once no one argued. “My name is Decker. All these people here, they’re my people. Any of you mess with them, and you’re going to mess with me. Now if we all understand that, we can take you up to the outpost.”
Outpost. Outpost of what? For what?
Asenath took the lead, stepping forward as she spoke in a calm voice. “They understand. We understand. No one here wants any kind of war with Canada, or with Strangefield. We just want to find the children for Las Vegas to prevent a war there, and my mother. That’s all. These aren’t the same kind of Bosch Heretics that you or your people are accustomed to dealing with.”
“Oh, we know exactly what kind of Heretics they are,” Decker assured her. “Believe me, we’ve had the experience. A few of our people, and many more of our ancestors, fought alongside humans before the Bystander Effect existed. They had an entire civilization together. Then the Bystander Effect came and erased all of that. It came and suddenly our ancestors were forgotten or hunted. Our families were torn apart and destroyed. For centuries it was like that. Then the first Rebellion came and our people were told things would be different. Again, we fought alongside the humans. We did everything we could to make this world better for everyone. We trusted the humans again. And once more, their memories of us were erased. We were taken from their minds yet again, our alliance broken and some of us killed in the process. Many of our own memories of the rebellion were destroyed until so very recently. So why would we follow such things a third time? Why would we open ourselves to yet another opportunity for the humans to have their memories erased and make us their enemies again? We have all been slapped in the face more than enough, thank you very much. We are of no mind to extend ourselves again. Our people will not take that kind of risk with humans who will only forget us, who will only turn on us. You can do your business here, then leave. We will have none of your trouble.”
There was a hardness to his voice, but more than that. There was also pain and regret. It was the voice of someone who had been hurt too many times to risk being hurt again. He had definitely been part of at least this last rebellion, my mother’s rebellion, and had been hurt when it was erased. I wondered if my mother had known him. Probably. God, it was so easy to forget or not even think about what it must have been like for people living through the creation of the Bystander Effect, or the Rebellion Eraser. No wonder this guy, and his people, were so jaded.
Yeah, I couldn’t blame him for any of what he said or felt. So, I just stayed quiet while Asenath replied, “You’re right, there’s a lot of pain involved in that entire situation. But that’s not what we’re here about now. Do you know anything about the one called Azlee Ren Kotter?”
For a moment, the man didn’t answer. I could see a few of his people look at one another in a way that made it clear they recognized at least part of the name, which made sense given what we had heard. There was a general, quiet murmur before Decker quieted them with a glance. Then he turned back and pointed to the hangar nearby. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “We can discuss the situation on the way. As I said, we’ll take you to the outpost and you can have all the Kotters you need. The sooner all of this is over, the sooner you can all leave this place.”
Haiden agreed. “He’s right, let’s go.” The man gave us all a slight nod of encouragement, his hand gently squeezing Tristan’s shoulder before he started to move. “There’ll be time to talk.”
As we all walked together to the dusty and very clearly broken down hangar, I could see December talking quietly to Tabbris. The two of them had their heads close together, and there was a strange expression on December’s face. I couldn’t read it very well from where I was, but somehow I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t happy about something. I was going to have to ask my little sister about that later, if it was something she could actually talk about.
Either way, we reached the hangar, where the bus was parked. It looked like any old bus I had ever seen. Nothing about it stood out. Which may have been the point. As a group, we filed onto the bus. Even Babe joined us, taking up a spot near the rear where a couple rows of seats had been removed. We were also accompanied by a dozen of our armed escorts, who took places in the back and front, leaving us to sit in the middle between both groups. Yeah, they weren’t taking any chances.
Shiori and I sat next to each other. I let her have the window, glancing across the aisle to where Miranda was sitting with April. “Boy, Randi, this sure is some field trip, huh?” I teased.
Snorting, the other girl glanced to me before noting, “Let’s just hope it goes better than the one we took to that soda factory. I don’t think these people would react as well as those ones did.”
With a huff, I insisted, “I still say that guy looked really shifty and if we hadn’t gotten lost when we followed him, we totally would’ve blown that whole thing wide open. But uhh, yeah, let’s not wander off by ourselves this time. It’d definitely go a lot worse. And they might still call my dad.”
Leaning up from the seat behind Shiori and me, Jason curiously asked, “So, uhh, is that the kind of story the whole class can hear about?” He grinned. “Because it sounds pretty interesting.”
Exchanging a brief glance with Miranda, I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, we should probably focus on how we’re going to find this Azlee. Whoever they are.”
As though in response to that, the bus started moving. I could see Haiden, Paul, and that Decker guy standing at the front, next to the driver (a short, totally white pudgy guy who looked a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with a trucker’s cap and flannel shirt). The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, occasionally glancing our way before returning to it. Obviously, it had to do with this whole outpost thing and the Kotter situation. Was Decker telling them that we had to leave the Kotters alone? Or that going after them was dangerous? Did he know who Azlee was in relation to the rest of the Kotters? Did–yeah, I didn’t know. I was just sitting there speculating wildly while they had their own private conversation.
I wasn’t the best at sitting patiently while adults had secrets around me. It just wasn’t my thing.
Finally, the other two sat down and Decker turned to face the rest of us. His hard gaze passed over mine before he spoke. “Okay, now that we have a minute, you should all know that you need to tread very carefully when it comes to the Kotters. This is not a group that you can run in demanding answers from. They’re not a group you can push around.” He held a hand up to stop any objections. “I know, you don’t feel like you’re doing that now. And you’re not. I understand, believe me. Sorry if I sound gruff about all this. You’re playing nice with us. Fair enough. How much of that is because of the king and how much is your choice, we’ll see. But the point is that even if the king didn’t exist, you would need to be careful with these people. They aren’t exactly from this place. And by this place, I mean Earth.”
From where she was sitting beside Bobbi, Asenath asked carefully, “That’s not exactly a rare situation, so why do you feel the need to point out that the Kotter family isn’t Earth-native?”
“Because they aren’t a family,” the man replied coolly. “Kotter isn’t a family name. It’s a title, used within a certain organization. A title given to some people who work for this organization. And as an organization, they don’t react well to outsiders making any demands of them. They’re very… particular about their secrets, let’s say.”
After letting that sink in, he continued with, “To that end, at their request, we keep their existence here very quiet. To almost anyone in the town itself, they would appear to be simple shut-ins. King Oberon is aware of them, of course, though he leaves them to their own devices for the most part, because of the service they provide.”
My head shook quickly as I blurted, “What kind of service do they provide, then? What is this organization and what are they doing here on Earth that’s so important? Who are they, exactly?”
“We have made certain promises, enforced by magic, that prevent us from saying too much about who they are,” he replied. “It’s better if you talk to them yourselves to get your answers. With any luck, they will explain the situation adequately and you will be able to leave satisfied.”
“Not without the kids and my mother, we won’t,” Asenath informed him. “Whoever this group is, whatever they’re up to, they have no right to start a war in Las Vegas by abducting children.”
“I don’t believe they–” In mid-sentence, Decker paused. Then he shook his head, exhaling in a low sigh. “Sorry, you’ll have to see for yourself when we get there. There’s just some things that they are going to have to explain. I know how frustrating that is, believe me. But it is what it is.”
“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Vanessa asked from the seat ahead of Shiori and me. “Anything you can say to help prepare us for talking to these people when we get there?”
Decker seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a short nod. “I can tell you that these are hard people, but generally not bad ones. They make very difficult decisions for what they see as the ultimate good of the universe and every person in it. Some of them are a bit too rough, that’s for sure. It’s inevitable in their work. Just keep in mind, when you find out the truth, what they’re trying to do and what kind of consequences there would be if they screwed it up.”
Well, those words sure led to a lot of questions. I had no idea what he could actually be talking about, what kind of group this was. There were a ton of possibilities swirling through my head, but we just didn’t know enough. One thing had become increasingly clear ever since we went to Vegas, however. And it was even more clear now. This absolutely was not a normal kidnapping.
We also still had a couple hours ride before we would get to our destination. So, I sat back and chatted with the others. Shiori eventually leaned her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I put an arm around her, gazed out the window at the beautiful Canadian wilderness we were driving through, and tried to keep myself calm for the inevitable… excitement that was probably coming.
Finally, we reached Strangefield itself. and boy was it aptly named. I had to wake up Shiori so she could see for herself. The whole city was built up into and around a canyon between two tall mountains. The buildings were a mix of styles from the past several thousand years. Some were modern, others look like they had come out of the old Revolutionary War times, a few were essentially Victorian or even older. I saw a couple buildings that looked as though they had been directly transferred over from medieval times. And more, different structures from every conceivable time period, all bunched up together as if they’d been transported directly here from wherever they had begun their existence.
Then there were the futuristic buildings. Tall structures of gleaming metal and glass in fantastic shapes. A few of them, I belatedly realized, were actually ships. They were literal spaceships that had been parked and left as buildings, with fences and yards put up around them.
“Holy shit,” I heard Columbus murmur from his seat with Twister, “this place is amazing. No wonder they have it all the way out here where no one will bother them. They’ve got the King to keep Heretics out, and they keep the city far from Bystanders so no one has to be nervous.”
“Yes,” Decker confirmed with a glance. “That is the point. And it’s why you will do your business here and leave. Our people have no desire to spend any more time than they have to around humans who will inevitably forget any kind of alliance we have and turn to murder yet again.”
Yeah, that one hurt. Flinching, I glanced back out the window. Not only was there a totally wild assortment of buildings, but there were plenty of people too. I could see dozens of figures all going about their ordinary lives. They were all Alters. An entire Alter city just existed up here far away from humans. They were all people who had been hurt and betrayed in the past thanks to memory alteration, people who had decided to give up on getting along with humans and simply created their own town, their own place to live where they could be safe and not killed or enslaved. It was like Vegas, or Wonderland, but on a much bigger scale than either of those.
A few people glanced up at the bus as we passed, but none seemed to react much. I had the distinct feeling they didn’t know who or what was on it. The windows appeared to be pretty heavily tinted, probably for this very purpose. If Decker had his way, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t ever directly interact with any citizens of his town. They’d never know we were there.
Winding our way through the town, we eventually passed to the other side of it, and traveled for another fifteen minutes out of the canyon before finding ourselves at the base of a hill surrounded by a massively high metal wall and gate. Beyond the wall, a road led up the hill toward a black obelisk-like building. There were turrets positioned along the wall, making it very clear that whoever lived in the obelisk did not exactly invite many visitors.
The bus only stopped for a few seconds before part of the wall slid aside. Whoever was in there had obviously been waiting for us. Once the gate was open, the bus pulled through and continued up the hill. Behind us, the wall sealed itself once more.
At the top of the hill was a small parking lot, with a couple other cars and one rather spiffy looking spaceship the same size as our bus. As we parked, Decker gave one last look, his voice gruff. “Just remember what I said. Keep yourselves under control.”
The door opened and he climbed off. The armed escorts who were in front of us joined him, and we followed, with the rest of the escorts picking up the rear. All of us stepped down from the bus, forming a loose group in front of the base of the obelisk building. Up close, the place still seemed to have no windows or doors. It just looked like a black version of the Washington Monument.
There was a man there, I realized a moment later. He had been waiting in the shadows of the building, before finally stepping out into view. He had dark blue skin, somewhat reptilian with very smooth scales, and yellow, vertically-pupiled eyes like a cat or a snake. He also wore dark body armor, with a pistol of some kind strapped to one side of his waist and what appeared to be something similar to the laser swords I’d seen the Seosten use attached to the other side.
“Good day,” he spoke smoothly once we had all noticed him. “I speak for our people. I am called many names on many worlds. Here, I am most known as Prelate. Prelate Kotter. I have been told that you seek business with one of our guards.”
Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?”
“Many things,” came the reply, “including Kwur, the vile creature who, in an attempt to escape our facility, has caused the very situation which brings you to our doors. You see, we are a prison. More specifically, what you see here is but one simple outpost of a prison organization which exists throughout the universe. An outpost that has been established here on this world for several reasons.”
He looked directly to me then, his gaze centering on mine. “Such as the recapture of the escaped prisoner Thirty-Four.
“Or as you, Miss Chambers in particular, know him… Fossor.”