Chapter One – Dark Rise
The boy was outside of the window, looking down from the ledge. A rope was all that held him in place, but he could not see the bottom below. Darkness had already fallen down there.
“Ottie, see anything?” Another boy from inside the building asked.
“No. Too dark down there,” he responded and pulled himself back up to the ledge with a flick of the wrist and then he was standing on the ledge and he rope disappeared up a sleeve. Ottie was just a normal-looking boy in light blue pajamas again as he climbed through the window.
“Then we have less than a kilomin before it’s bedtime and lights out,” an older blonde-haired boy said who the others looked toward and nodded, “That means if anyone is on deck, or exploring below or out by the water tower meeting a girl, they need to start back before the stalkers appear.”
Another older boy with close-cropped dark hair looked around the common area and crossed his arms, “I don’t see Danny or Maxwell. These kids...”
“Danny was one deck below,” a younger boy with a smart-alec sneer, “I think he said he was playing with a stalker pup.”
The boys groaned and shook their heads. Imaginary pets were against their code because it might make one more sympathetic to the stalkers. The oldest boy looked around and chose one of the younger boys, “Sam, go and find Danny and drag him back before bedtime.”
The boy nodded and took off through the far exit of the room.
“Now, does anyone know where Maxwell is?”
The boy was sitting on the edge of the platform swinging his legs above the abyss far below as if he had no worries at all. Across a space too large to jump was a similar platform, both built around very large metal tanks. A girl, also in pajamas, was sitting on the edge of that one.
“How long do you think we’ll be here?” she asked.
“Forever probably,” the boy answered.
She scrunched up her face, “Maybe we’ll be adopted someday.”
The boy looked doubtful and frowned, “When’s the last time anyone was adopted from here? Do you remember the last time anyone even visited?”
She thought and shook her head, “I don’t remember very far back.”
The boy nodded, he had already figured out that nobody could remember farther back than a few solar cycles. It had been his private hobby to investigate this, it was a slow process and had become a secondary thing since he had met Loria.
“Do you want to come over here?” he asked her.
She smiled but shook her head, “It’s getting late, Max, and if I go over I might not be able to make myself come back to this side.”
Suddenly another boy was standing next to Maxwell. Max looked up to see Ottie there holding a rope that was dancing in the air such as should have been impossible.
“You should be heading back,” the boy said, “Hi, Loria.”
“Oh, hello Ottie,” the girl said starting to stand up, “I think it’s time to go. Good night Max, I’ll see next time!”
Maxwell was disappointed, “Ottie, I know what time it is.”
He got up and looked into the abyss below to see that the darkness had risen farther than he had realized. He nodded to Ottie, “Are you ever going to teach anyone else how to do rope magic?”
Ottie looked offended, “It’s my thing, find your own.”
Maxwell laughed as they started moving from one platform to another back toward the main boys building past the water tanks. Then they froze when they looked back and saw a grayish creature on the top of the one they had just passed.
“It’s too early for a stalker!” Maxwell said.
“It’s not messing with us, though. Not until darkness rises,” Ottie pointed out.
The wolf-like creature covered in a grayish exoskeleton paid little mind to them. It was as if it was enjoying the last bits of light the way someone might get up really early and look at stars.
“Let’s just hurry,” Maxwell said. The last part of their journey was a climb of a few stories back into the building. He looked over to see if Loria was okay and saw a figure already climbing through a window on that side.
“Let me do this, Max. It’s cool,” Ottie said, Max was going to ask what it was but a rope tightened around his chest and under his arms and both he and Ottie went airborne all the way to the outside ledge of the proper floor. Then the rope disappeared again.
“How do you do that?” Maxwell asked, Ottie just laughed and shrugged.
As they entered the large bedchamber the other boys were already in their beds and the light was dimming.
“Hurry! Get in your bed!” one of the older boys said.
Ottie and Maxwell had beds on the far end since they were younger, so they took off running. The room was getting darker and they could hear the other boys chatter. It was getting dark faster than normal and hey had almost been late.
Ottie whimpered and nearly stumbled. Maxwell looked back to see if he was okay and he could see a dark spot near the entrance. His stomach knotted.
“Stalker!” someone yelled and the animal looked in that direction, momentarily distracted.
Maxwell was near his own bed and was thinking of helping Ottie but then a rope appeared from the boys sleeve and he was flying through the air towards his own bed. Rope magic again. Maxwell hopped onto his own bed and pulled the covers over himself.
Ottie and everyone was safe. The stalker would pad around the whole chamber for hours but there was little for it and its pack to do but patrol. Nobody would dare get out of bed before the twilight.
The only human that was safe from the stalkers and other threats was the Caretaker. The Caretaker was a chubby younger man who walked slow and talked slow as if he were dim-witted. Max knew the guy was probably smart though, he just wondered if the man was motivated.
Chub had been the assistant once upon a time. There had been a much older man, Martin, with a gray beard who had been in charge for a long time. Something happened one night, though. As far as Max could gather, a boy and a girl had been caught out in the dark-rise and the old man Martin and Chub had tried to save them.
Apparently those two orphans had entered a mirror gate to escape and were never seen or heard from again. There were more than stalkers around in those days and Martin had tried to appease the angry creatures who had lost their prey. He had somehow slipped and fallen down into the abyss.
Maxwell had tried to formulate a time-line through all of the events. He could not make it work. As far as he could tell, the passage of time was not uniform at the orphanage. It seemed impossible but he once tried to calculate how long he had been there. It came out to sixteen solar cycles, which was impossible because he was twelve and he had been dropped off when he was seven.
If sixteen cycles had really passed Max figured he would be full-grown by now. He wasn’t and this was proof that his calculations were wrong. Even if someone were manipulate time and the clocks, they couldn’t mess with how fast someone grew, right?
Maxwell had always listened and made mental notes when the older boys spoke. Over time he had found that Wendell, the oldest, arrived at age nine. The second oldest kid, the blonde named Ranger said he had been about ten. But Ranger had arrived first somehow and nobody seemed to see or understand the discrepancy.
Nuggets of information collected over a long time was suggesting that time was not linear, and Maxwell could not wrap his mind around it. It was a puzzle he was unable to solve and he didn’t dare mention it to anyone else. It was his thing, like Otties’ rope magic.
Chub was on the deck, at the top of the orphanage. He was peering down into a circular pit that was like a miniature abyss. A black rope tied off nearby disappeared into its depths. The Caretaker was waiting for something to emerge. Finally something did.
A black-colored version of a stalker pulled itself out of the round abyss and stood there. The Caretaker nodded.
“Well, Barnabas, did you detect anything?” Chub asked. In response the creature whimpered.
The man nodded in a resigned way, and started pulling the rope back out of the abyss, “I guess tonight is not the night, then.”
Once the rope was completely out of the abyss, it disappeared and was once again solid metal, just another part of the deck. Chub yawned and stretched. The darkness should be on its way back down soon and the kids would be awake again. Twilight was always his favorite part of the day, you could briefly see all of the stars and sometimes the husk would pass overhead.
Thankfully none of the kids remembered ever seeing the husk. That would bring forth far too many questions. Even if they might occasionally steal away to see the stars, none had so far seen the burned out wreck of space station that still orbited the abandoned planet.
The only way off this planet now was through a portal and those were far too dangerous. Chub could get away with a little occasional exploration by sending Barnabas through but he shuddered to think about what would happen if the kids learned of it.
Chub had been worried when Ottie had found about his rope magic. He had awaited the rush of kids trying to figure out their own gifts, but none of them had. It was a relief that most of them was completely disinterested and continued their routines. The charm had worked to suppress that normal instinct in humans, that which made a person ask “Why?”
Wendell was nearly ready to be made Assistant Caretaker. Soon enough he would be taken off charm and Chub would start showing and telling him about the ways of this world. Without charm his curiosity would explode of course, but the answers would anchor him quickly.
Barnabas growled and looked up at Chub. Chub smiled, “Go home, boy!”
The creature ran off to join the stalkers and other creatures that fled as the day returned. Their realm was the darkness. As the creature leaped over the edge, Chub wondered briefly if it would be back. Except that it always came back.
The light soon obscured the stars, their presence between the dark and the light never lasted very long.
“It’s morning, time to make a head count and get them breakfast,” Chub said to himself.