You continue staring at the bus when you suddenly realize something very important about your decision.
“Is there food at the Solstice?” You haven’t eaten anything since you were in the Green Gash. Your stomach is beginning to ache as it mourns the last morsels of your Honey Yummy Bar.
“Yes, Icarus, there’s food,” Fisher says, looking out over the cliff.
You can hardly think of a better decision that it is more important than to follow the small duck to your destination. As his route will provide you with sustenance faster than any alternative.
“I’ll follow Philip to the Solstice.” You feel confident in your decision—until, that is, you see the look on Fishers face. “What’s wrong now?”
Fisher takes hold of his head. He begins to shake back and forth. “But I’ve always wanted to ride a bus.” Fisher’s eyes start tearing up.
“If you want to take the bus, then take the bus.”
“What if I never see you again, Icarus?” The very idea of losing you is apparently too much for your new friend. Fisher begins to cry—the second time he has done this today.
“Fisher, a day ago you tried to kill me.”
“That was circumstantial!” Fisher screams.
He understands circumstantial, but not the word ‘toy’?
“It’ll be fine. I’ll meet you at the Solstice, Fisher. I promise.”
His face makes you uncomfortable. His weeping has turned his face remarkably red, and his tears are not helping his appearance. You feel as if you are staring at a giant ugly tomato. “I promise. Now, get a hold of yourself.”
Fisher slowly stops crying and wipes the tears from his face. He opens his mouth to speak, but a warning honk from the bus cuts him short.
“I think you should hurry, Fisher,” you warn.
“Yes. Yes, you’re right. I need to leave.”
You hold out an open hand to say goodbye to Fisher. He ignores it and crushes you inside a big hug, tilting each of you left and right before letting go and jumping down into the basin. For a second you worry he might hurt himself, but this worry fades while watching him glide down the sandstone as if it were a giant slide.* I might never see that bizarre man again, you think with a smile, but I sincerely hope I do.*
After the warm thought, you turn to P.S.D. and notice that the duck has already flown away. Running after him, you reach your guide and return to a calm stride. The scenery has now moved back into the seemingly never-ending fields of yellow grass. The world looks unchanged without the presence of Fisher.
Now alone in the field of yellow with P.S.D., you begin to ponder the scenery’s many curiosities. Besides the cardigan-wearing duck, there are a few quirks to the nature of things. For starters, the grass is yellow: not dry green grass that has withered yellow, but perfectly healthy yellow or golden grass—grass with a sunny disposition, instead of an envious temperament. It isn’t even a mix of other plants: the fields are exactly what they’re known to be. In the past day you’ve seen no dandelions, four-leaf clovers, flowers, or shrubs, only fields of grass.
Another strange aspect to the nature of the world is time. The general duration of how long you’ve been awake is confusing. When you first met Fisher, it was practically dawn. Now, after what has felt like nine hours, the sun remains in essentially the same position. Though there’s no way to know without a watch, you assume it is at least 4 p.m.; however, from the location of the sun, one would guess 10 a.m. Either your perception of time is wrong, or the sun is malfunctioning.
This isn’t the only solar surprise though, for the sun is being remarkably inconsistent in one of its most obvious side-effects: giving you sunburns. The general rule is, or was, if outside on a sunny day for more than an hour, your skin starts to burn. You must have been in the sun for at least four hours now, but your skin is perfectly fine. This fact, along with the others, makes you very uneasy about your state of affairs.
I hope when I reach the Solstice I’ll find someone who can help me understand all of this. It’s not like Fisher’s been any help. But I doubt people in Europe are anything like Fisher. At least not the colonizers anyway. ‘In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, with open arms and a raping crew… How does that song go?
In the middle of this thought you trip on something hard and take a hard fall. The sting from the craggy rock, as opposed to yellow grass, creates a painful landing. Picking yourself up, you now notice a two-inch plateau composed of red igneous rock. The plateau goes on for a few miles and seems to end at another endless field of grass, offering a dramatic change from the yellow surrounding.
“I don’t understand Europe at all,” you confess to the world. After admitting your ignorance, you decide to trudge onward towards your guide who has stopped several feet away from your fall. Taking the first step on the red plateau, you suddenly hear the large boom of a gun and see a piece of rock fling upwards. The rock originated less than two feet from where you stand and flies higher than you’d imagine a gunshot-propelled rock would fly. You look around wildly to spot the shooter, but you can’t see anyone on the plateau or in the grass. Could that have been a stray bullet? Or was it even a bullet? Is there a possibility this strange land has jumping rocks that bang?
Another shot is heard, and this time you feel the tremor of the bullet whizzing past you. That was definitely a bullet. Philip flies away in fear and you decide to follow suit. Sprinting across the plateau, you hear bangs and cracks behind you as hailing gunshots give chase. You swerve in a manic serpentine avoiding the hailing gun shots while searching all around for the person, or persons, responsible for this assault. After the twelfth shot you see your shooters twenty feet ahead, parachuting down from the sky.
The four attackers drift down in a line, holding their six-shooters pointed at your direction. As the men gracefully descend, they continue to fire their terrifying aerial assault. With your assailants now in sight, you stop running and throw up your arms in surrender. The gesture stops the barrage of bullets. As they fall toward the ground, you see a few of the gunners look disappointed at your failure to counter-attack. Slowly the men land and holster their guns not on their hips, but instead at their ankles, right above their blue leather high-tops.
With a strange swagger they march toward you. Their walk or landing has activated their harnesses, which automatically reel in their parachutes’ suspension lines and fold their canopies back into manageable backpacks. You stare awestruck at the advancing paratroopers’ phalanx. This awe diminishes slightly once you notice the four gunmen each wear ripped-up jeans with tight T-shirts. The man on the far left wears a forest green T-shirt with a small pocket on his left side a shade darker than the rest of the shirt; magma-red for the shooter to the right of the first (no pocket); seafoam-blue for the next gunner in line; followed by a particularly young chap in a black T-shirt printed with Chinese or Japanese characters on it. You and the four strangers stare at each other for a moment, until the man in seafoam blue steps forward. On his right arm, he flaunts a variety of tattoos, and above his eyebrow, a black piercing.
“Do you know where you are?” asks the gunman in the seafoam T-shirt. He bellows the question with the bravado of someone who has consistently lived against the System and against the Man.
There is no way I know where I—we are. Maybe I should just guess. I can’t be too far from Turkey after all… actually, that’s a bad idea. These guys were just shooting at me. I can’t imagine what they’d do to me if I guessed wrong, but I bet it’s worse than what they’d do if I just admitted I don’t know. The strange line of logic leads to the decision to tell the truth. “I honestly don’t,” you quietly respond. “Can you please tell me?” The gunmen laugh among themselves. The man in the magma-red T-shirt steps towards you. He is quite tall and flaunts a handlebar mustache.
“This is the Highlands, fool. This is our territory,” the man in magma-red explains pretentiously. The group again laughs. Looking at the igneous plateau you find it does stretch out for miles; however, its depth and height never change. You wish to question the validity of the name, but once again, you remember the guns. At this point a third gunman steps forward: the one in a forest-green T-shirt. This gunman stands out among the rest because he is the only black man among the group—or, for all you know, Europe.
“Do you even know who we are?” The African-European gunman looks you up and down as he asks his question. The others don’t laugh this time. Instead they stare, waiting for an answer. You try to think of any European celebrities that may fit their description, but can’t seem to think of any.
“Are you possibly the police?” you ask meekly. Each assumes a look of disgusted confusion. The last and shortest gunman, the one wearing the black T-shirt with Chinese or Japanese writing on it, is the one that responds to your guess.
“Who the hell are the police?” asks the gunslinger dressed in black.
Oh my goodness, she’s a woman. Quietly surprised, the pitch of this gunman’s voice is that of a woman, an androgynous woman.
“Man, we’re the Hipster Desperados!” the woman screams. “We own the Highlands!”
After this introduction, the group begins to howl and cheer. A few of the members dance in celebration of their existence.
“Oh,” you quietly reply, “is that right?” You slowly begin stepping back, preparing yourself for a dramatic retreat. “I’m sorry I’ve trespassed. Believe it or not, my duck—yes, I said duck—brought me here,” you explain. These men and woman don’t look like they’re going to be reasonable. Starting the conversation with gunfire doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for civil conversation.
“Well that’s too bad for you, isn’t it?” The handlebar-mustached gunman sardonically admits. As he does so, he steps forward along with every other member of the Hipster Desperados. Not a lot of places to hide. Scratch that, there’s nowhere to hide. I’m going to have to run to the Solstice where they hopefully can’t hurt me. Another step is had, and again they pace forward. This backwards walk you’ve started continues for five more steps. Maybe I can throw Philip at them. He seems marginally hostile. The armed group continues to match your pace. With nowhere to go, running would surely mean your doom.
“Listen,” you say, trying to buy yourself some time, “I don’t know what you want from me, but I can assure you—”
Hoping your words may provide a momentary distraction right before you sprint away, a sudden hissing noise screeches forth. You and the Desperados turn to find the source of the high-pitched whistle. Three feet from where the magma-red T-shirt had been standing, a jet of white steam now blasts from the ground. More steam vents begin to erupt all across the plateau, and with each new vent, the volume of the hissing increases. More steam-jets spew out across the plateau, both nearby and miles away. The white wet spray spilling out all around turns the world around hot, humid, and painfully loud.
With the twentieth eruption, you clasp your ears for relief. Turning back to the Desperados to find an explanation for this geological event, you instead see all four of the Hipster Desperados kneeling with arms out at the ready. In the chaos of the white howling you beg the group for answers.
“What’s happening? What are you doing?” you scream over the orchestra of steam. Barely anything can be heard other than yourself. With a coy smile, the forest-green gunman replies something inaudible in all the noise. The hissing increases even further and the earth starts to rumble. “What?”
Howling with all his might, the forest-green gunman answers the question. “Welcome to the Highlands, fool!”
Unknowingly following the cue of the Desperado’s introduction, the territory jumps from a large explosion beneath the ground. The tremendous force throws you down to the ground. Even after landing straight on your back, the force continues to push you deeper into the ground. Comprehension and spatial awareness are blinded in the sensory overload of the explosion; all that can be figured now is the single white cloud falling over you. Flinching as the water vapor smacks your body. Swallowed inside the cloud light disappears; the stinging waters rips across you in your ascension. Choking against the beads of moisture and lack of air, the dark world soon retracts as it had in birth and the sun blinds for attention.
Closer to the sun than you have ever been before you fear you may live the legacy of your name as you fly upward. In flight, the force holding you slowly subsides until it cleanly retracts your body upwards. The new world around you is now visible. As you reach the still apex of your ascension, things become apparent several miles above the igneous plateau that is rightfully named: The Highlands. The explosion below has brought you to a height that illustrates the expanse of the Highlands below and the never-ending yellow fields stretching out to the horizon you had once seen. This force is in a momentary stalemate with gravity; and for a brief window, you are unbound by anything and remain still in the sky. Huh.
At this height, everything can be seen and things become somewhat clear. Below more and more explosions are heard and seen sending fragmented pieces of the plateau into the air in thin fragmented islands like the one the carried you upward. Eventually I’m going to fall. You’re not wrong. But, look at this view. It’s a great view. I should really paint more. That’s true. Oh no. Gravity activates. Your arms flail in the beginning of the fall. Everything starts to sink faster and faster, including the piece of rock that launched you into the air. Plummeting downward, you see the Desperados above you have all opened their parachutes and unholstered their revolvers. They pay you no mind as they survey the air. Following their eyeline, you see pieces of earth shoot up all around. With a startling velocity, a piece of the plateau rockets up in your direction. You roll on your side as the igneous rock crashes into you. The force of the collision pins you down after breaking your arm on impact.
Moving atop the boulder-sized rocket, you again reach the summit of flight, where gravity and ascending velocity tie for a lofty second before the persistence of the former overcomes the endurance of the latter. Plummeting in a second mad descent, you become light-headed, your consciousness limping towards a blackout. With your eyes fading into darkness, the rising world comes into view one more time. The yellow earth rushes towards you as more and more pieces of the plateau rise into the air all around. You roll in the wind and see two Desperados sinking down, frantically firing into the unknown.
The slip into the darkness of your subconscious is quick. Passed out the pain of your broken arm disappears into a heavy numbness. In this world, feelings are muted in an unaware body. All is unconsciousness. In the black you see the woman in yellow. She waves while holding a baby against her hip. The baby looks familiar. Wanting to call out to them, your voice is nothing compared to a new terror. Awakening you out of your slumber is roar, one so big and powerful it eclipses the half coming death. Once you open your eyes again you see the great beast flying on your starboard side, looking like a giant, blood-drenched whale. The titan swims in the sky as it would any ocean, its giant nose pointed up and its massive jaw opening to scoop up its feast.
The creature does not notice as you flop directly behind its blowhole. With a soft collision against the giant creature, you feel its slimy blood slip all under you in its pursuant movement forward. The blood causes you to slide off the monster’s side and drop to the grassy field below. Thanks to the whale’s low altitude, the drop is not entirely life-threatening, although it hurts your arm and leaves you too dazed to stand. You roll away through the grass, and feel yourself blacking out again. As the world grows darker, you watch the remaining Desperados fight and die against the great flying beast, its screams monstrous and angry complementing their panicked cries.
(go to Fourteen.)