I've finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road
rating: +43+x

The hum of the machinery and pipes around them was dull and constant. Malcolm's little sister curled up on the floor with a blanket. Small, silly looking green men covered it like polka-dots. The only light came from a cracked blue computer screen that gleamed in Malcolm's hands. Malcolm noted today's air quality was at 39% and cursed to himself. The patrols wouldn't be coming down this particular corridor for a few more hours. Running was going to be hard today, though.

His sister mewed in her sleep and rolled over. Malcolm stopped, raised his eyebrow, made sure she wasn't awake, and kept scrolling. Malcolm had been waiting for an opportunity like this since right after his sister was born. It was on the news then, too. A trade ship had landed. Supplies meant a lot, but the important part was it meant they had a way out of here if they played their cards right.

Malcolm tried to picture his mother's face then. They'd dreamed about it together. He looked down at his sister again. Maybe she'd looked like that? Short blond hair, like the both of them? An oval face that came down to a point at the chin? Large wide set eyes?

He tried to place it, but he couldn't conjure anything he recognized. Somewhere in the intervening years his mother had become a feeling of warmth and love. Which was weird, 'cause even when she was around she seemed annoyed that he existed half the time.

The machinery around him knocked hard as the morning cycle started. His sister snorted and sat up on the blanket. "Is it morning?" she said.

"Uh, yeah."

His sister stood up and smacked her lips. "There any water left?"

Malcolm rolled his eyes. "Yes." He tossed her a half filled plastic bottle.

Glenda drained what was left in a few gulps and put the lid back on the bottle. "Well, if you listened to the director, you'd know we're in a shortage."

"The guys at the top aren't having a shortage." Malcolm mumbled to no one in particular.

"Oh my god." Glen chucked the empty bottle at Malcolm. "Join the Serps already."

Malcolm laughed. "I can't, I have to keep you from joining the Empties."

Glen pointed her finger at Malcolm. "Stop right there! Do you have clearance to be in this area?"

Malcolm pointed a finger back. "Yeah, it's called being alive! I'm a free person!"

The two of them paused, looked at their finger guns, and laughed.

Glen started to gather up their only blanket and they went to go find breakfast.

The Crossroads was full of all kinds of people, lights, and sounds. Men and women hawked their wares from small booths along the brown sidewalk. Passers-by avoided the gold tinted street that split the area twice. From time to time a shining vehicle would roll through, almost too quick to see.

The flashing lights above them pulsed orange and green. Each of them displayed advertisements for various products that neither of them could afford. Every once in a while one of the bundles of rags lining the sidewalk shifted. A withered hand would extend and then retract as the siblings passed by.

Black clad guards patrolled the streets beneath reflective face-plates. Citizens gave the guards a wide berth, and the few people who walked near them got a light rap from a baton. Just a reflexive tap on the nearest body part before they both continued on their way.

Glenda was their point-man for this particular operation. Both of them avoided the Empty's batons with well practiced grace. One of the vendors, a large, barrel chested man with a long beard, was selling meats and fruits in small wrapped bundles. He caught Glenda's eye from across the way and perked up. He waved off the withered skeleton of a man who was currently staring at his wares.

The man wandered away, revealing a sign attached to the side of the stand that said "Little Liam's". Glenda flashed her smile at Liam and walked over. Malcolm kept a respectful distance as he stalked around the stand.

Glenda broke eye contact at the last second. "Hey."

Liam leveled his eyes. "Glen. Been a while."

"Yeah, sorry. Been busy with school."

The vendor snorted for a minute before stopping himself. "Sorry. School though? Really?"

"Yes," she said as her eyes widened.

Liam looked Glenda up and down with a practiced eye. "Seems like a waste, but ok."

"Well. You're used to selling meats."

Liam grabbed at his heart in faux outrage before settling back into leaning on the counter. "You buying?"

Glenda leaned onto the counter, getting face to face with the man. "Come on, Liam."

Liam's twinkling eyes went cold. "Not today. There's a shortage. You runners probably didn't get the news down in the tunnels."

Glenda put a hand on the side of Liam's face. "You don't have a little something for me for the day?"

Liam stood up straight and moved away from her. "Come back after I close and we'll see what we can do."

Glenda suppressed a snarl. Then she saw her brother moving away from the back of the stand and shrugged. "Sure hun. Same time as always?"

Liam nodded and grinned until one of the skeleton men bumped into the side of the wooden building and caught Liam's attention. Just to the left of where Liam looked was Malcolm, carrying several bags of food. Liam's eyes went wide, then he looked back into his stall and saw the back door was open. A few other gaunt figures were already helping themselves to part of his stock.

"Thieves!" he bellowed, pointing at both Glenda and Malcolm.

The two of them ran into the crowd as the faceless guards chased them.

They'd settled into a corridor near the spaceport, completely out of breath.

The underground tunnels that crisscrossed the station ran under the docking bays. Usually there was no one out here, docking ships being rare like they were. Today, though, the entire port was crawling with Empties and important looking people. Glen and Mal observed the quiet corner near their maintenance shaft from behind a ventilation grate.

The hangar was large enough to accommodate the massive ship that sat in it, and not much else. The ship was flat on the bottom and rounded on the top, with a series of windows along the sides. The thing was dull white with some lettering on the side that they couldn't quite make out from this angle. Small pods covered the underside. None of the hundreds of people between them and the boarding area were moving things off the ship.

The two siblings melted back into the shadows of the maintenance corridor. An Empty patrol passed as they made their way towards the core of the city again.

"This is the last one, right?" Malcolm whispered, unsure. They'd stopped to avoid another patrol. Glen smiled. Mal knew the tunnels and patrol routes like the back of his hand, but he wanted her to feel included.

She ignored the question. "We don't have enough time to map out the patrols in the hangar. They're all new."

"We won't have to. We'll grab some supplies after they get offloaded, sell them ourselves, and end up living beneath the Spire instead of the Crossroads."

"Big dreams."

Malcolm laughed. "You gotta dream big if you're gonna live big. You wanna keep running around down here like rats?"

Glenda pursed her lips, shook her head, and then said, "They weren't offloading any cargo. They've been here three days and they haven't unloaded anything."

Malcolm cocked his head to the side. It was information he'd already absorbed, but it still didn't make any sense, so he'd ignored it. It was a trade ship, they must've offloaded already. Or maybe they were waiting for something.

Malcolm broke his concentration and said, "I think we gotta talk to Bobbie. She'll know what to do."

The siblings backed into the shadows and continued towards the core of the city. Behind them, a small flying machine tracked their movements.

The air was thick and stifling this close to the core of the city, especially underground. The siblings burst out into the Warrens with only a little bit of fanfare. The Warrens were a massive underground complex, built into the underlying mechanical architecture of the city. It was one of the few places down here that didn't get regular patrols. Maybe ten or twenty thousand vagrants lived down here, in and around the moving machinery.

A pale and disheveled family passed by the narrow entrance corridor as the two of them came out. The father looked up, but the mother and two children didn't bother. Like everyone else making a life down here, their skin had a sickly green pallor. Without knowing how well they'd been fed, those kids could've been anywhere between 5 and 12 at that size. Either way, the family kept moving, holding to a well practiced habit of avoiding unnecessary trouble.

It was rare, actually, to see a whole family together like that. Kids with living parents were few and far between. Not to mention how many ended up in the Spire's containment cells. The sibling's father had been one of those. Stealing food like them, but not as fast, and not as smart. One day he never came back, and they had to fend for themselves. Their mother took it badly, and then when she got sick…

The two of them moved further into the Warrens, passing dozens of alcoves filled with people and purpose. Most of the people down here had lived their entire lives just beneath the gold streets of the Crossroads, just a few meters away from… well more pain and misery, actually. Being of both worlds themselves, the siblings knew that the people below always thought those above had it better.

Which gave Malcolm pause. Maybe the people living in the Spire were starving like they were. That line of thought stopped once they reached their destination. The First Temptation, a seedy bar at the center of the Warrens, glowed bright green and red in this otherwise dark place. The signs were likely scavenged from above, which meant that those inside had some means, at least.

The First Temptation was, so they'd been told, the first permanent building in the Warrens. The owner, Bobbie Johnson, built it for the Runners and Scavengers that had, before, made their homes in the far flung and forgotten parts of the undercity. Runners like Glen and Mal would never settle down, but having a place to stay from time to time was convenient. The Scavs, on the other hand, made this place a home. And the Empties, try though they might, couldn't get them out.

The rumor was that when it was first built, the Empties came down in full force to clean the undercity once and for all. None of them ever made it back. The bar stood as a monument of sorts to that fight, but no one still alive remembered it happening. There had to be some reason, though, that the empties only came here to chase specific fugitives.

Malcolm opened the door, under the glowing green and red sign depicting a snake wrapped around an apple. The two of them went inside.

Neither of the siblings recognized the song playing on the speakers. They did notice the click as the door behind them locked. The bar was furnished with a collection of metal chairs and tables carved from the undercity itself. A collection of small Christmas lights lined the ceiling in regular intervals, giving off a multicolored glow that illuminated the entire room. The tables were empty except one. Bobbie Johnson, the bar's owner, sat nursing a drink.

Bobbie Johnson was a dark skinned woman with braided hair, parted down the middle. Her eyes were piercing, with red irises flecked with gold. She glanced up at the siblings as they entered and made a sweeping motion with her hand at two empty chairs in front of her.

"Take a seat, children."

Mal and Glen knew better than to argue with Bobbie. The woman had an ethereal quality about her that unsettled them both. Her reputation was one of a dangerous and unpredictable enemy. They needed her to be their friend right now.

They both sat down. Glenda opened her mouth before Bobbie interrupted her. "He doesn't know, does he?"

"No," Glenda said, lowering her head.

Mal looked puzzled. "Don't know what?"

Bobbie smiled. "The Spire is being evacuated."

Mal's eyes went wide and he looked at Glenda. "What…?"

Glenda put a hand up. "They aren't offloading anything. And the patrols have been getting sloppier and sloppier over the last few days. They're undermanned. We stole food and they barely bothered to chase us."

Mal's shoulders slumped. "Why?"

Bobbie's eyes lit up. "Ahh, I can get that one. This place is dying. The supplies are overstretched, the air is dirty, and we lose more and more water every year. In ten years, everyone and everything here will be dead." She paused for a moment, considering the siblings. "You want to get out of here, right?"

Malcolm nodded first, followed by Glenda.

"The ship is a bad choice. The Foundation doesn't play around, and even if you managed to stowaway it wouldn't matter. In a best case scenario, you'd be prisoners, worst… they'd jettison you into space."

Glenda spoke up. "If we're going to die in ten years anyway, what's the harm in trying?"

Bobbie shook her head. "You two aren't going to die here. You're going to save the world." Bobbie paused and broke into a large smile. "But first, you're going to save others."

The siblings looked at Bobbie with a similar confused expression.

Malcolm broke the silence. "Look, all we need are weapons, and we'll fight our way onto the ship. If you send out the word, the rest of the Serps will try to get on board too. They can't stop all of us."

Bobbie smirked. "They can, and they will. Besides, great behemoths of metal with ancient engines are all well and good, but there are other ways."

Just then, a harsh rapping sounded on the door to the bar. The siblings jumped a bit in their seats. Bobbie stood up and pulled a gun from a holster under her arm. She handed it to Glenda and pointed behind the bar. "Go. There's a door back there that leads to a hallway. Keep running until you reach the end. You'll know when you're there."

The rapping on the door stopped. A loud thud followed. Someone was trying to break in the door.

The two siblings looked at each other and ran behind the bar.

Bobbie pulled two more guns from her hips and leveled them at the door as it began to cave inwards. Another thud and it smashed inward, hanging off the lower hinge as the other hinge flew across the floor. Bobbie opened fire immediately as the faceless guards and flying machines poured through.

Malcolm and Glenda were in the back room as they heard the gunfire begin. They ran. The hallway was dark with a faint gold glow at the end. They continued until they passed through and suddenly the oppressive darkness gave way to… blinding light.

Their eyes took time to adjust to the new environment. Their lungs, though, immediately noticed the difference. It was like breathing for the first time; like they'd been drowning all their lives and never noticed. And as their eyes adjusted to the landscape, they understood something important. This place was different from anything they'd ever seen before.

A vast green meadow stretched out before them in all directions. Hills spotted with clumps of trees broke up the flat plain on occasion. Brilliant flowers of all colors covered the ground. Malcolm looked up at the sky and saw nothing but blue at first, with a shining bright orb above them. Near the horizon, he spotted two moons: one a dark brown, and the other, about half as large, a pale gray.

A large flying creature of some kind passed overhead, casting a shadow on them as it went on its way. The siblings looked at each other with a mix of wonder and horror.

Then, a man's head appeared about 4 feet from the ground, out of a similar gold colored portal to the one they'd entered. It sized them up and grinned. "Come on. We've got work to do."

"Uh, what?" Malcolm sputtered.

The head was now accompanied by a disembodied hand that motioned them over. "I don't have all day. Bobbie said you'd have an MTF on your tail?"

Glenda, not for the last or first time that day, looked confused. "MTF?"

"The Empties. Look, I gotta close the ways with or without you. You coming to the Library or not?"

Glenda and Malcolm looked at each other and nodded. Then, they followed the floating head away from paradise.

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