Ellison gestured back towards the trees but it was George who led the way back up the path a little way, then across the grass and into the trees.
“I’ve spent a lot of time hiding out here these past months,” he told Ellison as he and the two women settled in to wait behind a large fallen tree trunk.
“Days,” said Ellison.
“Really?” asked Benedicta. “It sure feels like months. What took you guys so long?”
“We had to find out where you were, then travel here,” said Ellison.
“Why didn’t the Royal Season just make the grid tell them where we were?” asked Margarett. “I’m sure the company has spent a lot of money here. Enough to get some customer support.”
“You all signed the terms of service,” said Ellison. “Kidnapping isn’t illegal. It’s part of the game.”
“And if you were free, you could have just killed yourself at any time, without waiting for us to come get you,” said Ellison. “I die at least a few times a week. It’s not so bad after the first few times.”
The three former captives wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Then they all flinched as heavy gunfire rang out behind them.
When the shooting stopped, George and Benedicta raised their heads and peered over the log.
Ellison pulled on Benedicta’s robe. “Wait for the all clear.”
“I think it’s over,” said George, starting to raise himself to his feet, just as they heard Clinio’s voice.
“It’s clear,” the security chief yelled at them. “We’ve taken the temple and the gate.”
Margarett looked at Ellison. “That means we can go home, right?”
He nodded and climbed to his feet.
“First thing I do, I’m going to take a long bath,” she said. “No, first, I get my tail back. I’ve missed it. Then a bath. Then I’m going to have a refreshing carbonated beverage and fries.”
“Ice cream.” Benedicta followed George and Margarett back out of the woods. “And a cigarette.”
“I didn’t know you smoked,” said Margarett.
“I don’t,” said Benedicta. “But now I feel a sudden urge to start.”
Ellison and the two women followed George out of the woods and back towards the temple. Clinio was at the front entrance, standing over the body of a head commando.
Cleeve Freer walked outside, a rifle over his shoulder. “We got them all,” he said.
“Did you find Wynefrede?” asked George.
“No,” said Clinio. “But the cult leader is missing, too. They may be out there somewhere with him.” He gestured back towards the trees. “Or heading towards an escape ship.” His eyes focused on something over Ellison’s shoulder.
Ellison turned around. Welton had just appeared around the corner of the temple, accompanied by two of the guards who’s stayed behind with the Storm Bug.
When Welton saw them, he slowed down, panting, waved his arms, and stumbled the last few steps.
“We had a problem,” Welton said, gasping for air.
“The prisoner we took got free,” one of the guards with him said. “Threw the body of the other one overboard and went into the water himself.”
“We couldn’t recover them,” said the other.
Welton saw the dead commando in the temple entrance and sighed with relief. “Good, we can bring that guy back with us.”
“I wasn’t planning on going back,” said Clinio. “I was thinking of going out through the gate.”
Welton looked torn. “I should go back with the body…” he muttered. “Take some guns back, too.” He glanced at the temple entrance. “But it’s not like my presence will make the ship go any faster. I really should get back and report.”
“Actually, I’ve got some questions for you first,” said Clinio. “About the gate.” He nodded at the Singletons. “They tell me that the hypergate leads to some kind of a hell world, full of flames.”
“I think it’s the volcano,” Margarett said.
“Is it safe to go through?” Clinio asked.
“Sure,” said Welton. “Users with private gates have their own private welcome areas. The area ore outside of the Krim world simulation. They’re just normal metaverse sites. If there are any flames there, they’re just for decoration.”
“Sounds good,” said Clinio and he, Freer, Welton, and the Singletons filed into the temple.
Matilda was already there, standing in front of the gate.
She turned when she saw them walk in. “We searched the whole place,” she said. “We found some paperwork in one of the rooms. And a crate full of guns in a storage area on the other side of the gate.” She pointed at the glowing blue surface of the portal, which took up a big chunk of the back wall in the large main gathering area. “The head cult guy went through the gate before we could stop him. I didn’t see the prisoners.”
“They could have been taken through before we got here.” Clinio glanced back at the exit. “Or they could still be out there somewhere.”
“Well, there’s one way to find out,” said Ellison. He stepped over a body of a commando and walked towards the gate.
“Are you sure it’s safe to go through?” Margarett asked.
“Absolutely,” said Welton. “Like I said, the gate will just go to a custom welcome area. It’s not dangerous.”
Ellison stepped through the portal.
As promised, there was a hellscape on the other side. He moved away from the hypergate to leave room for the others to follow him and looked around.
They were on the top of a hill. The landscape was barren except for black volcanic rocks and sand. The sky was dark, and the flames and smoke limited visibility.
As everyone else came through the gate behind him, he raised his hands and opened a screen in public mode. It chimed three times before the face of Ellison’s brother appeared.
“Hi, Jerald,” said Ellison.
“Oh, good,” said Jerald. “I was just about to mail you a letter. Wynefrede Aumberden, also known as Cassia Stylianoum, just pinged.”
Behind Ellison, someone sighed in relief.
Clinio leaned in over Ellison’s shoulder to peer at Ellison’s screen. “What about Finnbogi Sturluson?”
“Yeah, did you see Finn?” said Matilda.
“Hold on, I had him on my watch list,” said Jerald. He waved his hands, then brought a floating display into view. “There he is.” He pointed with a finger. “They’re both in the same place you are.”
Matilda peered into the smoke around them.
“Let’s spread out,” said Clinio. “They might not realize that they’re off Krim.”
Matilda headed off to the right. “I see them!” she yelled and broke into a run, several of Clinio’s guards chasing after her.
“Well, I’m going to go back to headquarters,” said Welton. “I’ll shut down this gate. Until that happens, I suggest you post someone on the other side to wait until it’s closed to make sure that nobody comes back through.”
Clinio nodded and glanced back at George and the two women. “You three can go home,” he said.
“We’ll wait until you find Winnie,” said Margarett. George and Benedicta nodded.
“She could be wandering out there in the fire,” said George.
“Wynefrede’s gone,” said Jerald, his face still on the screen floating in the air in front of Ellison. “She’s teleported out…” his fingers fluttered in the air in front of him. “She’s still outside of Krim, but her status is labeled private. She could be home.”
“I heard a ping,” said Clinio and looked away into the distance with a look Ellison recognized easily as someone accessing his own interface. “She just sent a message to the Royal Season. Pleasance says…” Ellison waited for the man to finish scanning his communication feed. “Wynefrede will come to the office tomorrow and tell us what happened. She’s also requested a meeting with the authorities.”
“Tell her we’re all safe and sound,” said George.
“We’ll be going home now,” said Margarett.
“Yeah, to file lawsuits,” said Benedicta. She glared at Welton, Ellison and Clinio. “You’ll all be hearing from us.” She raised her hands and winked out, followed immediately by George and Margarett.
“I’ll be going, too.” Welton signed. “Time to do some damage control.” He paused and looked at up Clinio. “Remember, keep someone at the gate until it’s closed. And make sure the guns and bodies get back to Krim City.”
Clinio stared back at him. “Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a Royal Season problem,” the security chief said. “As long as we have our people back, we’re done. From now on, you’ll be hearing from our lawyers.”
“Umm, guys?” Ellison looked back at his communication screen, where Jerald looked worried. “I think something happened to Finnbogi,” his brother said.
Clinio stopped glaring at Welton and looked back at the screen. “Is he back on Krim?”
“No,” said Jerald. “I don’t know where he is. He disappeared off the map.”
“Did he teleport home?” Ellison asked.
“No,” said Jerald. “He’s somewhere else. Not Krim. Not any of the known private worlds, either.” Jerald’s hands moved in the air in front of him. “I’ve never seen this before. He’s just gone.” He looked up at them.
“Is he dead?” asked Clinio.
Jerald looked away. “I’m doing a health and safety check now… No, he’s still alive. He’s hosted in a facility on Mars…” Jerald’s fingers flickered in the air. “The data center is operating nominally. There are no problems on their end. Finnbogi is just… gone.”
“They’re gone!” Cleeve Freer ran out of the smoke and up the hill towards them. “They all went out through another gate. We couldn’t get to them in time.”
“Who did?” asked Clinio.
“The main cult guy,” said Freer. “A couple of big guys in robes. Some commandos. They were carrying a prisoner. The gate closed before the rest of us got there.”
“The rest of us?”
“Matilda went through.”
Ellison turned back to the display screen still hanging in the air in front of his face. “Can you find Matilda?” he asked his brother.
“I should be able to,” he said. “I’ve got all her data, same as Finnbogi…” Jerald’s fingers fluttered in the air and he mumbled something under his breath. “She’s gone,” he finally said. “Not dead. Just vanished. I’ve never seen this before.”