Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Golden Lion, Chapter 3

Les rode on a blast of pure black speed for what seemed like forever, and yet like one impossibly suspended moment. Then there was a lightning crack, and with it the movement simply stopped. Les clamped his eyes shut against the gray light that was suddenly there. When he opened them, a little at a time, he saw that the couple with the baby was gone, and all the nearby seats were vacant.
"Hello?" he called out. The hollow silence supplied the answer he instinctively feared: he was alone. Did I black out? It didn't feel like he had passed out. He thought he remembered the whole thing: the burst of golden light, the sudden darkness, the directionless whoosh of acceleration. But where is everyone? He must've blacked out, he decided, at least part of the time. It was the only way to explain the absence of the other passengers.
"Hello," he called again and tried to stand. His seat belt, still fastened, yanked him down. Les felt for the buckle, found that it was jammed and wouldn't release. A small, electric spark of dread coursed through him. Was that why he been left behind? Because his seatbelt was stuck? Was anybody coming back for him? He couldn't believe they would just leave him all alone.
Les began to notice strange things about the plane. For one, the cabin was completely unlit, illuminated only by the dingy daylight coming through the windows. The light strips that bordered the aisle were out, as were all the ceiling lights. It was as if the plane's power had been cut off, yet the plane itself was perfectly intact. Then there was the undeniable tinge of gold. It was everywhere: the seats, the floor, the entire interior of the cabin. At first he wondered if perhaps the brilliant bombardment he had endured was having a lingering effect on his vision. But when he looked down at himself, his clothes were unaffected, and his own skin was its usual bronzy-brown. Confused, he looked to the window and was startled by another difference: the glass in his window was missing. He raised a finger, and slowly pushed it through the opening. "What the--" he mumbled. "The window's gone?" He twisted around, checking the others. All of them looked empty, as if someone had come along and collected all the glass. When could that have happened? he wondered. And why?
Les's stomach, which he had forgotten about, began to writhe again. With a low moan, he glanced outside. Only then did he notice they were not on an airport runway, or at an airport at all. Instead, it appeared that the plane was parked on gray rock, flat as concrete, spreading out in all directions. In the far distance Les could see a towering, arcing wall of sheer rock of the same gray color, its upper edge visible only when he cranked his head to one side and peered upward through the window. Where are we? He scanned along the base of the cliff, and finally found a solitary building, dwarfed beneath the high wall. Beyond that, he could find no other sign of life, not even a single shrub, or a blade of grass.
Must've had to make some kind of emergency landing, he surmised. But that still doesn't explain where everyone went, or why they left me here. He swallowed hard, blocking the rising terror at his throat. Wait, he told himself. Maybe everybody else is on the other side of the plane where I can't see them. Or maybe they're in that building. "If I could just get this stupid seatbelt off," he snarled. Grasping it with both hands, Les tried his best to force the buckle to open. He pulled until his arms began to tremble, and his strength gave out, but it still wouldn't budge. Then he tried to wriggle out from under the strap, but he couldn't move more than a few inches either way. Frustrated, Les threw himself back against the seat. His head struck a cushion that he knew was made of soft foam, but felt hard as steel. It clanged hollowly.
"Ow!" he cried, twisting back and giving his seat an evil look. "What is going on around here?"
He was still rubbing his head when movement outside the window caught his eye. A man was crossing the expanse between the plane and the building. Within a few minutes, he had drawn close enough that Les could see he was dressed in some kind of pale blue business suit. The bright yellow flash of his tie stood out, even at this distance. The man appeared to be quite large, though that was difficult to judge against the emptiness of the surroundings. He carried some kind of bag in one hand, and walked at a brisk pace. Les watched him, nervous but hopeful that he was coming to free him.

The man stopped as he neared the aircraft. Les could see that he had short, semi-curly black hair, thick eyebrows guarding dark eyes, and a square face. The man scanned the line of oval windows. When he spotted Les, a smile spread broadly over his face, and he raised his hand in a friendly gesture. "Hello there," he called. "Are you alright?"
"I think so," Les said, relieved. "What happened?"
"Let me help you out of there. Then we can discuss what happened."
Les nodded, and the man disappeared under the plane. Les took a deep breath. The others must already be in the building, he reasoned. But what happened?
A few moments later, Les was startled by a loud clanging sound from the opposite side, and then again by a second, ringing thud. A few subsequent, barely softer thumps followed and then Les saw the man's face abruptly appear, more than filling the open window of the emergency exit door. "This will only take a minute," the man said. "But you may want to crouch down as best you can there."
Almost before Les could comply, a whining metal screech filled the cabin. Les covered his ears and ducked forward. A shower of colored sparks flew by, arcing overhead and bouncing along the floor. The door fell in with a massive crash, and the whole plane shuddered. Les looked up to see the man pushing through the opening. Crouching low, and working his shoulders sideways, he finally squeezed through. Once inside, the man stood up.
He wasn't quite a giant, but he was, by far, the most gigantic man Les had ever seen. The ceiling of the cabin was not high enough for him to stand fully upright, so he had to hunch over, and hold his head bent awkwardly to one side. It was like watching a grown man trying to stand in a child's playhouse. The giant man looked sideways at Les and smiled.
"Hello young master," he said. "Welcome to the Portal. My name is Polydeuces, but most call me Pol." He bowed his head slightly forward, which was almost impossible, as his chin was already against his chest. "And," he continued, "unless there's been a terrible mistake, you must be Les Mendoza."
Les didn't answer, dumbstruck by the man's sheer size. He must be ten feet tall, Les thought. And built like a bulldozer. Massive arms led to fists the size of circus mallets, and the slope of his neck from the base of his head to his shoulders reminded Les of nothing more than the sides of a volcano. Finally, he managed to nod.
"Good," Pol said, smiling. He glanced back at the hole behind him. "At any rate, I'm glad I brought tools. Smaller conveyances I can usually handle," he said, running his eyes over the tube-like interior, "but I have a feeling this might have taken awhile." His eyes fell back on Les. "If you don't mind my asking, what is this type of conveyance called?"
But Les wasn't listening. On the spectrum of his imagination, the man was a cross between a fairy tale giant and some juiced up WWE wrestler. "What?" he stammered at last.
"This conveyance, young master," Pol said, indicating the plane around them. "What do you call it?"
The question slowly penetrated Les' disoriented brain. "This?" he finally said, looking around with a stupefied expression. "You mean an airplane?"
"Airplane," the man repeated slowly. "Airplane." He spoke carefully, as if trying to wedge the word into his memory.
Les stared in bewilderment. Does he really not know what an airplane is? How is that even possible? There was a stabbing chill in the pit of his stomach, and the prickle of hair on the back of his head. Something's wrong here. The man's enormity, the way he talked, the way he entered airplanes. The way he claimed not to even know what an airplane was, none of it was right.
The giant man seemed to take notice of Les' bewildered expression. "Naturally, you have many questions about where you are and what has happened to you. If you will permit me, I will free you from your seat now. Then we can return to the Portalhouse, and we shall answer your questions in a place of greater comfort." Pol began to wade down the center aisle towards him. "Clearly," he said, grinning, "these – what are they called again? – airplanes, yes, yes...are not intended to convey people my size." He paused before adding, with a look of peculiar amusement, "No reason why they should, of course."
Les pushed himself away from the approaching giant. Unfortunately, he barely moved at all, thanks to the seat belt. He could only watch with growing apprehension as the man loomed close.
Once he reached Les' row, the man removed some kind of tool from the pocket of his trousers. A thin, protruding blade-like edge glowed green. It looked enough like a knife that Les's eyes grew wide with fear.
The man, leaning over him now, held up. "Ah, rest easy, young master," Pol said with a smile, "I am not here to hurt you." Then, with a quick swipe, he slid the tool across the strap. Watching mutely, Les saw that it left behind a faintly glowing score mark. "There," the giant said. "Give that a moment or two, and-" There was a short buzzing sound, and the strap snapped apart, just where it had been cut. "Done," Pol said, slipping the tool back into his pocket.
Les wrested the stiff strap from his lap, bending it back until he was finally free. He got to his feet, eyeing Pol warily even as he glanced around the empty plane. "Where did everybody go?" he asked, pressing himself against the curved wall of the cabin.
Pol looked perplexed. "I don't know what you mean," he said. "There are others?" His heavy brow furrowed for a moment, and then eased. "Oh, I see. There were others on this convey—I mean airplane. Well, that stands to reason," he said, surveying the rows of seats surrounding them. "It is a large vehicle of transport. There is easily room for a hundred and fifty men. Reminds me of some ships I've sailed on, long ago though that's been." He slapped one of the chairs, which rang solidly. "Much more comfortable seats, though. And of course, no oar handles sticking through the ports."
Les had no time for the giant's ramblings. "The plane was packed," he sputtered. "Where is everybody? Are they in that building over there?"
"Well," Pol replied, scratching at his chin, "There is nothing to worry about with respect to your friends. They didn't go anywhere. They're still on the...ah... airplane, I would presume. In all actuality, it is you who left them, not they you."
Les shook his head. "I didn't say they were my friends, I-" he said, and then halted as a growing look of disbelief spread across his face. "What do you mean," Les said, "I left them behind? That can't be. Look around. I'm the only one still on the airplane!"
"You are upset," Pol said, speaking calmly. "Of course that is quite understandable-"
"Yeah I'm upset!" Les nearly shrieked. "You'd be upset too if you were me. All I know is one minute I'm sitting on a plane – a crowded plane – waiting to take off, and then all these crazy things start happening, and then suddenly I'm sitting here in the same seat on the same plane, only everybody else is missing. So please, stop messing with me, and just tell me where they've gone." Les could feel himself losing control, the hysteria welling up, practically boiling over. His glance darted from the giant to the back and then the front of the plane, checking the exits. The signs above the doors were dark.
"Perhaps I should give you more room," Pol said, backing away slowly. He crammed his body further back into the aisle, leaving an open path to the doorway. "If you want to run, you can. I will not try to stop you. But you should know there really is no point."
"Just tell me the truth!" Les exclaimed. "Where is everyone?"
"Young master, what I have said is true. I swear it. The others are not here. It is you the Olympians have summoned, not they."
"What? There's no way," Les screeched. "This is the plane. What did you do to them?" He looked down, intending to grab his backpack and make a break for it. When he didn't see it, he dropped down to the floor, but the space underneath the seats was clear. "And now my backpack's gone," he muttered, climbing back to his feet.
"I can help you understand everything that has happened to you, if you will only allow--"
"No," Les cried. He lunged into the aisle and dashed to the opening. Without stopping, he leapt through the gaping hole and down onto the wing. Unfortunately, Pol had left his bag precisely where Les landed. He tripped and then tumbled down the wing's angled surface, just managing to catch himself short of the edge. Regaining his footing on the slippery metal, Les scrambled up to the front of the wing. From there he looked down, catching his breath and gauging the distance to the ground. What was it, twelve feet? Fifteen? Whatever it was, it was far enough that he might hurt himself if he tried to jump, maybe badly. Still huffing, he lifted his eyes, taking in the cliff that completely encircled him. It was like the plane had landed in an enormous moon crater, though it was too perfectly formed to be a natural feature. Above, the sky was a solid gray, like the inside of a pot lid. He looked around helplessly. Where had the others gone?
Pol's head appeared in the plane's massive hole, and Les instantly knew he had made a mistake. Instead of being at the top of the wing, he should have stayed at the bottom, which was substantially lower, closer to the ground. Now it's too late.
Pol, however, made no effort to come through the opening. He simply stood hunched inside the door. "Good," the giant said with relief, "I was afraid you had jumped. That would only have complicated things. I promise you, I will stay where I am as long as you promise not to jump. Is it agreed?"
Les didn't answer. He continued scanning the surrounding area, still searching for signs of the others. Finally he looked at Pol. "Where is everybody? They can't just be gone."
"There is something you must understand," Pol replied. "This," he said, bumping the plane lightly with a fist, "is not quite the thing you think it is. Granted, it has the appearance of an airplane. But in truth it is merely a shell of the airplane you were in. Hephaestus calls it a net, but it makes more sense to me to think of them as shells. Please do not ask me to explain them any further." The giant gave him a cockeyed look. "Have you not noticed that it is different?"
Les shook his head in wild denial, but Pol's words stirred a murky suspicion that had been building in the back of his mind. Some things about the plane were different, he had to admit, things which he had disregarded because he couldn't understand them. "What do you mean, shell?" Les said, trying to keep his voice level.
"By shell I mean that this is a casting made from the airplane you were in. It is not the airplane itself."
Les's mind reeled. In a way, it made some strange kind of sense: the way everything on the plane was so metallic, the lack of lights and power, the slight golden tinge to everything. But, in every other way, it made no sense at all. "" he stammered.
Pol seemed reluctant to answer. "Please, young master, all your questions can best be answered from the safety of the Portalhouse. Allow me to help you down from this conveyance, and then we shall talk."
Les shook his head violently. "How?" he said, and then shouted, "How?"
Pol took a long breath, reluctance clouding his face. "In order to extract you from your realm, a conveyance was required. The Olympian Hephaestus, who is master of all things metal, fashions the conveyances. To do so, he requires only a source, an object containing metal in some certain percentage. I do not know exactly how much; he has told us, but..." Pol shook his head. "Well, simply put, it is beyond our ken. Your airplane – and by that I mean the original one, the one that exists in the Gaian realm – must have contained metal enough to serve as the source for this conveyance." He pounded the opening again. "The net in which you were caught."
Les could make little sense of what the giant was saying, but certain words: extract, Gaian realm, conveyance, netcaught, stuck out, triggering successive waves of deepening dread. He couldn't stop shaking his head, as if he could fling the words, and the terror they were bringing, out again through his ears. "No, I don't understand. It doesn't make sense."
"It is difficult to comprehend, I know," Pol replied, and then added firmly, "But I shall say no more until we return to the Portalhouse."
Les looked wildly about, then raised a shaky finger, pointed it at Pol. "I can't trust you," he said. "I can't trust any of this," he said. He turned away from Pol and looked nervously at the ground. Abruptly, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled to the wing's edge, muttering, "I have to get out of here."
With an alarmed expression, Pol exclaimed, "Les Mendoza, listen to me. Do not try to climb down there. If you must, cross to the lower side. I give you my word – I will not interfere."
But Les, now sprawled along the leading edge of the wing, wasn't listening. Bewildered tears trickled from his eyes. "I can't trust you. I can't trust anything," he repeated, sliding his legs over the edge until they dangled freely. Slowly, he began to lower himself, his arms pressed flat against the metal.
In response, Pol tried to push through the doorway, but his enormous body lodged in the opening. "Young master, please stop!" he cried, stretching out an arm. "This is not wise! If you will only-"
At that moment, Les's grip on the smooth surface failed. He felt himself fall for only a fraction of a moment, then felt the sick crack of his own head slamming against the ground, and then nothing.

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