Chronicles of Paidia, Part One: Exodus From Montana
Written by Jasmine Moore
All except Mae, who'd stayed up into the wee hours watching a documentary about arctic penguin behavior.
Mae, who had her first thesis check-in with Dr. Barker in 45 minutes.
Planner, phone, wallet, she recited, plucking each item from the chaos of her studio apartment.
From the shelf opposite a cramped kitchen, she grabbed a big brown tote and trusty gray cardigan. Into the former she tossed her essentials, then poked her arms through the sleeves of the latter.
Binding forest green locs into buns on either side of her head, she glanced in the mirror and shrugged.
Snatching a last vital book from the dining table, she bounded out the door.
It wasn't until she'd reached Grizzly Square – halfway to the Tharp building – that she realized her error.
"I forgot breakfast!" she huffed, stomach grumbling in protest.
A couple walking past quizzically glanced her way.
What? Like y'all never forgot to eat? she thought. That is, before she realized what they were staring at.
The Compendium. To be fair, it wasn't the most subtle of books.
It hardly fit under her arm – a hulking volume on dinosaurs complete with diagrams, pop-ups, and a ferocious velociraptor on the cover.
To others, it must've looked a tedious weight. To her, it was an enduring comfort.
The hardcover was frayed at the edges, the spine cracked down the middle. Its pages were streaked with highlighter and graffitied with notes.
Even the velociraptor hadn't escaped, heart stickers over its eyes from the time her little cousin "decorated" the cover.
Mae flashed the couple a timid smile, clutched the compendium closer, and kept on. Leaving Grizzly Square, she turned a corner and was greeted by the welcome aroma of freshly-ground coffee.
Planet Java. The shop's caramel lattes and oversized croissants were one of the few pleasures Mae found here. Perhaps today will be alright after all.
She arrived at Dr. Barker’s office with a minute to spare. Gobbling the last of a croissant, she breathed deep and knocked on the door.
"Ah, Mae." he said, waving her in. "I was wondering when you'd arrive."
Setting her things on a stool near the door, she sat in the chesterfield opposite him.
A wooden desk dominated the space, topped with endless papers and a green banker lamp; bookshelves flanked both walls, competing for space with the doctor's countless framed degrees. At every turn, Cretaceous fossil fragments sat proudly in glass cases.
It was, in a word, daunting. Mae's fingers curled, eager for the heft of her compendium.
"Sorry about that. I stayed up watching a documentary about arctic penguins and woke up late," she said, whipping out a notebook. "Did you know that Emperor penguins spend approximately 68 days per year molting?"
Dr. Barker's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "Fascinating, though I'm sure you'd rather use this time to discuss your thesis?"
"Of course!" Mae said, hating the wobble in her voice. "Have you had a chance to read my abstract?"
Mae frowned at the doctor's blank expression. For weeks she'd honed her thesis concept, hopeful to spend hours delving into the life and migration habits of the Paralititan. A rarely-studied Cretaceous herbivore, she found the combination of its Egyptian origin and theorized social structure fascinating.
"I have, though I must admit I find it baffling. You're bright, Mae. But this preoccupation with a single creature is… pedestrian at best. Don't you feel your talents would be better suited to contemporary scholarship? Geothermal currents, perhaps?"
She didn't, though she raised no argument as he proposed a new topic, as he boasted his connections with Smile Co., as he listed all the opportunities a "properly guided" thesis could provide her.
Instead, Mae recalled how happy her grandmother was when she announced her acceptance to the university's doctorate program.
"My little Maebug, a doctor!" she'd cried, crushing Mae in a hug. "Tell me all about this… what'd you say it was again?"
"Geology," Mae grinned.
She spent an hour explaining it but eventually gave up, content to blush goodnaturedly as Gram bragged to her friends on the phone.
Mae blinked, catching the tail of Dr. Barker's question.
"So what do you think?" he said, sitting back in his chair. "You publish a decent thesis on geothermal energy, and I'll look into getting you placed at Smile Co.?"
Wrestling her face into some semblance of gratitude, Mae nodded.
"Of course. Thank you, Doctor." she said, tamping the urge to cry as she gathered her things.
There was a tub of butter pecan in her freezer and the throwback channel had an all-day Scooby-Doo marathon. She'd call her Gram, tell her she was getting a job at "that place on TV."
Scooping up the compendium, she ignored the doctor's remark about carrying "that old thing" everywhere. Mae hurried out the door and down the geosciences hallway, a single thought rattling her brain: Just gotta make it back home.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Maybe it was the crappy meeting with Dr. Barker. Either way, she hardly realized that she tripped on her own untied bootlace.
What she did notice, snapping out of her increasingly morose mood, were two distinct things.
First, that her knee hadn't registered impact with anything – not concrete, not wood, and certainly not the Tharp building’s stale carpet.
And second, that she was in the middle of… absolutely nowhere.
Looking down, Mae was baffled by what she saw. Her hands were splayed to catch her fall, her compendium a few feet away. But they lay on a plane of endless black.
Not black as in "room with the lights off." This was true darkness, the void observed on starless nights. Mae screamed, scooting away.
Where was the ground, the trees, the sky? Anything that constituted reality? Seemingly everything around her was nothing but darkness.
As she got to her feet, a light sprung up in the distance. It was faint– a dead pixel on a black screen – but there all the same. Counter to every movie she'd ever seen, Mae took panicky breaths and walked towards it.
Her compendium, which originally seemed just out of reach, was far ahead of her. Mae blinked once, then twice, brain clawing for some sort of explanation.
"I must've hit my head," she muttered, taking stock. Her clothes were the same and she had all of her possessions with her. "Yeah, that's it."
Did that explain the void yawning in all directions, or the pale green glow that kicked up as she drew closer to the light?
Nope. But any other explanation was too grim to contemplate, so she kept walking.
She hardly took twenty steps before the light was almost blinding. At this distance, it burned like a miniature sun, its surface ever-shifting.
To her surprise, around her Mae could make out… stars? Except they weren't. The ones closest to her were floating orbs with a singular glowing eye and iridescent wings – butterflies, if Silicon Valley got a hold of them. The orbs hovered high above her, swimming listlessly through the darkness.
“Weird,” she mused, tempted to see if she could jump up and touch one.
But the fact remained she was likely in some concussion-induced dream, and lingering meant brain damage. She bent down and grabbed the compendium, which was thankfully within reach again.
As she bent to pick it up, one of the bizarre metal butterflies leapt up from under it.
It seemed different from the others. For starters, its wings beat with purpose; tiny metal arms twitched to life in a little shrug, its legs kicking a little jig.
The not-butterfly blinked at her, flapping blue iridescent wings.
Most of all, its eye glowed a bright friendly green. At a loss for any other word to describe it, she settled on “cute”, reminded of the egg-shaped digital pets she had as a kid.
Then it spoke.
“Oh my circuits, thank you!” it said, twirling in excited little circles. Suddenly it stopped, realization dawning:
“Wait a minute. Bipedal, two eyes, opposable thumbs – you’re h-h-human, aren’t you?”
Mae nodded, too stunned to speak. The not-butterfly tapped its little arm against its head as if trying to shake a memory loose.
“O-okay, bare with me a moment – I haven’t seen a human in 150 years, give or take…”
More muttering, in which Mae thought she could hear him searching for something. She watched the scene unfold with a sort of unreality, blood in her ears drowning any logic she attempted to apply.
If she stayed still, it wasn’t so bad. But the floating orb reached out to her.
“...The protocol’s in here somewhere. Ah yes, here we go!” it said, ending its internal search.
Training its happy gaze on her, it spoke with newfound authority: “Greetings! My name is DUX-AUTO 001, Dux for short. What is your -"
Mae shrieked, swatting it with the compendium.
The creature faltered, its flight momentarily disrupte d. It was level again in the blink of an eye, hovering a bit further away.
"Ouch," it said, bending a wing to swipe its face. She could've sworn it glared at her. "Please refrain from hitting me, I'm only trying to help."
Mae's questions came rapid-fire. "Am I dead? Who are you? What is this place?"
"No, you most certainly are not dead – or asleep, for that matter. As I said – I'm Dux AUTO 001, a bug-bot developed by Ferival The Maker. You can call me Dux. And this is Blank Space."
"Blank Space? Like, a lobby?"
Dux perked up, seemingly glad to be asked questions. "Yes! You can certainly think of it that way. It's a pocket dimension in time and space."
Mae clutched the compendium to her chest, brown face paling.
"Time and space? No no no. Listen to me, Dux AUTO whatever you are –"
"DUX AUTO-001. I’m a creature designed to guide those who find themselves in Blank Space."
"Right," Mae said, steadying her breath. "What you said isn't possible. I was walking out of an academic building in Montana and I tripped – that's all. Now you're telling me I'm not concussed and I'm not passed out, but that I'm in some sort of black hole?"
The bot flipped a wing as if to scratch its chin, then answered: "Precisely."
Mae stared. The bot drew a little closer.
"Let me see if I can explain. First, you'll just have to accept that there are other inhabited planets besides Earth. Other species as well.
One of those species created Blank Space, but I’m afraid no one’s quite determined how. Regardless, the result is the same – the species went extinct, but Blank Space remains. Luckily for you, you fell near one of its destination portals."
This is nuts, Mae thought, though her denial lacked the conviction of a few minutes prior.
Concussions usually produced less brain activity, not more; and if she were dead, well – the lights would've gone out altogether. Despite her attempts to deny it, the butterfly robot might just be telling the truth.
"Portals?" she asked, lighting on the end of the bot's explanation. "Where to?"
"To places around Paidia, of course. This is the only safe portal I know of – it lets out at New Terra, a city founded in the 1800s by The Mariner and The Maker after they came through a Blank Space portal. Nicknamed the 'City of the Sun', it sprung up from an old crater from an explosion in –"
The bot must've seen her distress, folding both wings over its eye in apology.
"I'm sorry, I got carried away. New Terra is Paidia's capital city."
"And this Paidia, it's another...planet?"
"Precisely! You're a fast learner..." The bot trailed off. "I don't believe I've caught your name."
"Excellent! Well Mae, Paidia's full of all sorts of wonders. Especially those," it said, pointing a little metal arm at her book.
Mae puzzled. "Dinosaurs? I'm sorry, are you telling me that dinosaurs are still alive on this, Paidia?"
The bot quirked its head.
"Yes, of course!" Dux said, as if it were common knowledge. "The Dagus are a reclusive bunch, but I'd be delighted to guide you to them. I warn you though – last I saw them, they were suffering."
Mae puzzled at the term “Dagus,” brushing it off as a difference in language. What stuck with her, however, was the suffering Dux spoke of. She didn’t know how or what she could do to help, but the sheer fact that dinosaurs were alive – that she could meet the giants she’d read about for years – galvanized her to aid their plight.
Unconsciously she began walking toward the portal, Dux right at her side.
"You'd do that? But you hardly know me."
"I was designed to guide those who enter Blank Space. It's been ages since I've seen anyone at all, much less an Earth-born human."
Mae shook her head.
This morning she had her thesis dream crushed and was intent on spending the day eating ice cream. A few hours later she was in a pocket dimension with a sentient guide bot at her side.
"Fair enough. Lead the way," she said, patting its head. Dux flinched for a moment, then leaned in, trilling its motor.
The two walked on. Her initial fear fading, Mae got the vague impression that she'd made a friend.
They soon came upon what appeared a docking station for bots. A gray slate pillar rose up from the formless ground, it's only feature a wing-shaped indentation in the center.
Mae pointed to it. "Is that for bug-bots?"
"Yes, it is. Knowing we'd need occasional breaks from our duties, The Maker created these restports. At them, we can charge, clean the space dust off our wings – even upgrade to the latest firmware."
"Handy," Mae said, touching a finger to the smooth material. "This Ferival guy you keep mentioning. Is he still alive?"
"Oh yes, The Maker should be alive and well – 221 years old, I believe. Dwellers live for ages on Paidia, especially descendants of the borophagus."
She stopped short. "Borophagus as in wolf ancestors? You mean to tell me your maker is a sentient wolf?"
Dux kept on ahead, seemingly unfazed.
"In a way, though I'm afraid I've painted a strange picture. Paidia is a land like any other, with bright patches, dark spots, and everything in-between.
Sure – its landscapes are different, and its species include what Earth-borns regard as 'talking animals.' But to us… they're everyday people, for lack of a better phrase."
Mae considered this. She too was "everyday people," though Montana frequently made her think otherwise.
Unsure whether it was the field she studied, the compendium she carried, or her locs, she was keenly aware that her presence was a spectacle in some spaces.
I won't do that to them, she thought, resolving to calmly acquaint herself with whatever Paidia had to offer.
Before long, they were at the mouth of the gate. Its previously blinding light was now the strength of a standard fluorescent. The gate itself hummed, an eerie tinkling sound that reminded Mae of the wind chimes on her grandmother's porch.
Dux turned to her. "Ready?"
Mae stared at the portal, heart racing at the unreality of what she was about to do.
"Does it hurt?" she inquired, still skeptical.
"Absolutely not. Even if it wasn't my directive, I'd never advise a course of action that would cause you pain."
She snorted, taken aback by the little bot's candor.
Sobering, she asked something else. "Hey, Dux. If I step through, can I ever get back home?"
The bot was silent for a moment, its green eye turning a deep blue.
"I'm afraid I don't know. 150 years I've roamed this plane, but I've never heard of anyone who managed to go back the way they'd come."
Mae drew a halting breath, beating back the thought of home.
Not Missoula – true home. She thought of her parents' house, the crisp mountain air, and sappy summer trees she climbed as a child.
She thought of the campfire coffee her mother brewed, the days they spent foraging for mushrooms.
She thought of her father's signature red flannels and Eliot, the Komondor dog who doubled as a mop.
She thought of her Gram’s house and the surrounding Carolina marshes that winked with fireflies.
Dux must've sensed her hesitance.
"Though I can't tell you how to get back, I can tell you what waits on the other side, if you're curious?"
Mae nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"A city of white buildings and stone roofs etched into the mouth of a crater. Fruit trees line the streets, free for anyone to enjoy. Its people are a bit eccentric by Earth standards, but among the kindest you'll ever meet.
Staying here won't hurt you, Mae. You won't get hungry or cold, or even tired. But I promise what's through that gate is far better than wandering around for an eternity in search of a portal back."
She watched the bot, weighing her options. Glancing back at the formless void, she hoped her family could somehow hear her.
"I promise I'll come back someday."
Without another word, Mae turned around and stepped through. For an instant, a burst of shimmering green light. Her body buzzed, a hive of shaken honeybees. She glanced at her hands, shocked to see droplets of transdimensional dew falling from her fingertips.
Her feet hovered gently above the ground, steps like a jaunty skip across a grassy green field.
In a word, it was mesmerizing, though the journey only lasted the span of a breath.
As soon as they’d entered the portal they were on the other side, greeted by an elegant stone staircase. Mae held a hand out to steady herself, feet fumbling as they came back in contact with solid ground.
"This way," said Dux, flitting toward the stairs."I have no idea where we are, but this is most likely the way out.”
A trip to the bottom and through a decorated hallway revealed the lushest garden Mae had ever seen.
Towering trees resembling oaks were crisscrossed with vines and bursts of tropical flora.
Closer to the ground were bushes and shorter trees bearing fruit she couldn't identify. Fencing the garden on all sides was a pale marble four-story building overlooking the courtyard.
At the building's apex sat a glass dome of a thousand colors, scattering rainbows across everything below. The effect was spellbinding, a storybook land come to life.
Mae observed all of this in quick succession, amazed by the people who roamed this place – humans of all hues, sizes, and ages, chattering in languages she could almost make out.
Prosthetics and mobility aids wove seamlessly into capes and wide-cut pants embroidered in gem tones. Some wore simple canvas jackets, some cozy dresses, others still in vivid ensembles that bordered on costume.
What truly floored her were what Dux called “the Dwellers” – towering creatures descended from wolves. Their fur came in all colors – auburn-dappled ivory, mottled grey, sleek black, and red – their attire a refined version of the elven costumes Mae saw at comic conventions.
The wildest part? No one around them batted an eye.
One of the Dwellers caught her gaze and grinned, gold eyes glittering under afternoon light. Mae smiled back.
"Welcome to New Terra!" chimed a friendly voice. In her awe with the Dwellers, she hadn't noticed the person who'd wheeled up to them. "You must be our newest Earth arrival."
They sat in a chair with wheels rimmed in solar panels and some sort of glowing material. On their head was a hat with a shifting text panel, its characters switching until they lit on words she understood: Arrival Guide.
"I guess I am. And you are?"
"Kastel, a guide to all newcomers from Blank Space. I've got to ask you a few questions before I set you up with a room. You will be staying with us until you're settled, right?"
Mae looked again to her bot companion, who nodded.
"I'd advise it," said Dux. "You're new, and I haven't been here in over a century.”
With no better ideas, she answered Kastel: "Yep."
The guide took out a roll of what appeared to be glowing parchment. "Great, glad to have you! Onto business – did you encounter any other living things in Blank Space?"
Dux stepped in. "They mean, 'did you come across any other humans, extraterrestrials or hostile creatures’?"
Mae shook her head clear, refusing to entertain the thought. "No."
"Good. Did you take any non-Paidian food or drink with you here today? If so, it'll need to be confiscated and burned immediately lest it becomes unstable antimatter."
She frowned, glad she'd finished her croissant. "No."
"Lovely! Last one – did you experience any rubberized bones or unnatural flexibility upon stepping through the Blank Space portal?"
She whipped around to Dux. "You told me it wasn't dangerous!"
"No, Mae, I told you it didn't hurt. The risk of experiencing dimensional travel sickness is extremely low for a first-timer. That's more of a serial hopper issue. "
Kastel spoke up. "I'll take that as a no. Mae of Earth, you're all set!"
Wheeling ahead, Kastel led the way through the crowd. Dux hovered at Mae’s shoulder, almost as awestruck as she was.
“So that’s what they did with that block of stratustone,” he said, pointing to what appeared to be an arbitrary column. “I was there when they first mined it, you know.”
Mae nodded occasionally, amused as he went on about this little detail or that. New Terra had changed dramatically since the bot’s last visit; she was glad not to be the only newcomer.
Catching up with Kastel, the three crowded into a windowed elevator, its doors shutting with a distinctive shunk.
New Terra erupted on all sides as they ascended, a tapestry of stone and wood linked by a web of vivid canvas awnings. Mae reached a hand out to the glass; the city from this height resembled the candy bowl at her Gram’s house – chocolate, vanilla, and rainbow taffy.
“Here we are!” Kastel said, the elevator dinging to a stop on the fourth floor.
They rolled out, beckoning Mae and Dux with slight impatience. “Come on you two, no time to waste. I want to make sure you’re settled before my tour group arrives in fifteen.”
Mae glanced down the open-air corridor. Rooms lined the wall to her left, their doors framed by all manners of exotic plants; wooden chairs with plush cushions dotted the space to her right. A continuous glass half wall lined the balcony overhang, decorated at intervals by cascading greenery.
The whole place had the air of an eco-resort, groups of friends chatting over mugs of tea.
Watching them, she didn’t anticipate the pang of loneliness that lanced her heart. How long had it been since someone – anyone – asked the girl with the dinosaur book to hang with them?
Ages, she lamented, cringing at the thought of her last failed attempt – a geology department mixer where she spent half the night nursing a rum and coke.
Dux cut her ruminations short, perching on her shoulder like they hadn’t met just an hour ago. Mae cheered, smiling as it gave her a little wave.
At least the bot thinks I’m cool.
Kastel stopped at door number 415. Fishing in their pocket, they handed her a holographic room key.
“There you are, the key to your own little kingdom,” they said, rattling off instructions in full tour guide mode. “You’ve got your own bedroom and vaportub, plus a mini-kitchen for whipping up snacks when you’re peckish. The full caf is down the hall to the right – just swipe your room card at the till and you’re good to go.”
Whipping around in a stylish circle, Kastel headed back toward the elevators. Mae looked at Dux in panic, who shrugged.
Chasing after them, she called out: “Wait, Kastel! You haven’t told me anything about anything – what am I supposed to do here?”
The guide turned, a reassuring smile on their olive face. “Live, Mae! Just take a deep breath and live. Welcome to Paidia.”
With that they were gone, waving as the elevator went back to the first floor.
As it turned out, living here was a pretty easy proposition.
Her room was surprisingly well-appointed, a pleasing combination of plants, wood, and the same synthetic material as her room key.
On the back wall, a round window afforded her a generous view of the inner courtyard.
The furniture was simple: a freshly-made bed with plain white linens and an adequate wardrobe beside it, a wooden desk near the window with shelving above, and a modest cooking station near the front door.
Mae whistled. Dux flew around the room.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” he said, resting in the window frame.
“I’ll say,” Mae answered, setting her book down on the desk. “A place like this would be wild expensive back home. Speaking of which, how do I pay for this? Do they take ePay?”
Dux shook its head, though Mae couldn’t tell if it was in confusion or disbelief.
“You don’t owe anything. Paidia is a communal place. Everyone gets a stipend for their essentials, but generosity is extended with the knowledge it will someday be returned.
Orders of work are reserved for bigger things – you might trade a week’s worth of fresh bread for an artisan garment, but that’s a barter agreement between two people. For most matters, general helpfulness and contribution are enough.”
Mae shook her head. The concept of a functional society without direct payment was entirely alien.
“And that works?” she asked, unable to keep the skepticism from her voice.
Dux gestured at the cozy room. “You tell me.”
The next few days were a pleasant blur. Mae made fast friends with the neighbors on either side of her room.
On her left was Feldri, a tall wiry blonde with a wispy beard and hair worthy of a shampoo commercial. In the midst of painting his toes one morning, he offered to paint her hands. The rest was history.
On her right was Elia, a whirling dervish of curiosity topped with a shock of pink hair.
“You’re from Earth? My parents were refugees! They used to tell me about somethin’ called the World’s Fair… you ever been to Chicago?”
Initially overwhelmed, Mae did her best to answer. Yes, she’d been to Chicago, no she wasn’t from the 1800s – there’d been more than one World’s Fair.
Despite the sheer number of them, Elia’s questions had none of the caustic, incisive edge Mae was accustomed to back home.
Venturing onto the balcony one lazy afternoon, Mae found Elia basking in the sun.
“Hey El?” said Mae, toying with the sprocket Elia left on the table.
Elia was a member of the Dweller-Human Coalition of Technologists (DHCT) in New Terra, a guild responsible for developing new tech. In the days since they met, Mae learned that Elia favored teasing out optimizations for Nimbus Ridge’s mining exosuits.
The tinkerer cracked one green eye open, turning it towards Mae. “Yeah?”
Mae’s stomach growled. “I’m hungry.”
“Have Dux snag you a snack from the caf,” Elia replied, not budging.
“He’s resting up. Besides, I’m not in the mood for mooberry tarts or tato thins…I wanted to try my hand at something from back home.”
That got Elia’s attention. She sat up, wiping the sun from her eyes.
“Alright, alright, I’ll bite,” she said, attempting to sound annoyed; the big smile on her face said otherwise.
Mae rounded on the single food she’d craved since the day Dux walked her through the Blank Space portal.
Knowing full well she was about to change Elia’s life, Mae donned a conspiratory smile and asked: “You ever heard of pizza?”
And that’s how Mae, Feldri, and Elia ended up in the fourth-floor caf kitchen up to their elbows in flour.
A blend of new-age tech and traditional outfitting, the kitchen sported slab countertops, an ancient-looking range, and a brick oven perfect for what they were making.
Floor-to-ceiling cupboards held every manner of grain, sweet, and spice a cook would ever need. Instead of a fridge, there was cold storage embedded in a counter by the range, making it easy to grab essentials mid-cook.
Which is exactly what Mae did, throwing the finishing touches on a vat of sauce. It’d taken some experimentation, but she found a blend of ingredients that approximated her favorite pizza joint back home.
Feldri handled the dough, surprisingly deft at tossing it.
Elia worked on the toppings, grating a cheese-like ingredient made from Paidian mushrooms.
She tried explaining it to Mae, who simply said “If it tastes good, that’s all I need to know!”
In the span of an hour, they’d cobbled together three respectable pies.
“What if your friends don’t like it?” Mae fretted, pulling out the first two pizzas. They certainly smelled right, but the unfamiliar ingredients had her concerned.
Feldri clapped a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“More for us then. Besides, this bunch is always up for free food.”
Mae perked up at this. Feldri had recently joined the Adventurer’s Guild, often telling her how interesting it was. “It’s about so much more than fighting. You learn to forage, cloudsail – even how to climb!”
This summary was always followed by a “You should try it!”, though most recently it was also followed by a scroll flyer. Even Mae had to admit that the image of the ship soaring through vapor clouds had an appeal, one that grew as she grew more comfortable with New Terra.
She’d begun venturing out: visiting the merchant quarter and trekking with Dux through the city’s countless parks.
Even with these outings, it was hard to ignore the call of adventure beyond the city walls.
It wouldn’t be so bad to learn the basics, she thought. Just in case…
Mae had just pulled the last pizza out of the oven when the Adventurers rolled in.
There were five total, decked out in boots, bracers, and sporty gear. Shoulders squared, they walked with a bravery and purpose she’d not seen anywhere else in the city.
Just then, Mae caught sight of the group’s leader.
A striking figure in gray, blue, and gold, she towered over the rest. Two braids framed her short black hair, ending above a top crisscrossed with supply pack straps; dark eyes danced within a tan face, the bridge of her nose and broad shoulders slightly sunburnt.
Scars from the teeth of a massive beast spanned her thigh.
Feldri tapped Mae’s shoulder.
“Mae, I’d like you to meet Laurelei, the leader of the Adventurer’s Guild.”
Laurelei held a fist out to her. Mae bumped it with her own, willing her racing heart to slow.
“Nice to meet ya, Mae,” said Laurelei. “Feldri tells me you fell outta Blank Space from Earth.”
Mae shot Feldri a dark look. He flashed her a sheepish smile.
She shrugged, praying it looked casual. “Something like that. He tells me you’re the go-to person to learn how to fend for myself out here.”
Laurelei laughed, a happy full-bodied sound. “Something like that.”
They passed the rest of the afternoon eating pizza and telling jokes. Elia showed off her modified tools to the group. Feldri made origami animals out of napkins on the table; even Dux made an appearance, sleepily flitting in to rest on Mae’s shoulder.
Surveying it all, Mae felt a contentment she’d not known in years. Sure, there was no Planet Java here. She wouldn’t see the Montana hills again, or smell snow on the wind in November.
But there was light here, wonder and care she never thought possible. And friends.
Patting the Adventurer’s Guild flyer in her pocket, Mae took a bite of pizza, sat back in her seat, and made up her mind.
Can’t hurt to check it out.