The commons cavern reminded Julia of a Moroccan market place she once visited. Everywhere vendors had set up shop for trade. Where they got these items and what value they could possibly hold escaped her. She walked behind her group, watching Avery unsuccessfully explain to Byron the inner workings of the relays and the universe itself. She kept her distance from Quincy, the man fish. Julia also kept a close eye on Wesley, who led them through the commons to a small eatery on the far side from where they entered. They sat at a long table with bench seating. Soon the proprietor brought them some rolls and what looked like beer. Avery quickly grabbed three rolls before anyone else could get one.
“Alright Byron, last try,” He smacked one of the rolls on the table. “This is your world!”
“That roll?” Byron scratched his head. “Earth?”
“No, not your planet; your everything. This roll is your solar system, your galaxy, your universe.” Avery put down a second roll next to the first. “This could be my world. See how close together they are? We both speak the same basic language. Our worlds are both called Earth. They are very similar, but not the same.” Avery held up the third roll. “This is where we are.” Avery tossed the roll across the cavern.
“Hey! I would have eaten that!” Byron snatched the other two rolls before Avery could desecrate them too.
“Do you get it? The reason Wesley is here and in your world is because this universe doesn’t run on the same plane of time and existence as your world, or mine.” Avery searched Byron’s eyes for understanding. Byron looked blank so Avery gave up and took a long drink of the cave beer. Byron felt a tug at his shirt and noticed Lilana had been beside him the whole time. He smiled at her. She smiled back and broke a roll in half then hand fed it to Byron. He took her hand and tried to silently implore her to eat as well and not worry about him. She frowned and attempted to feed him again. Byron took a roll and tried to feed her back. Lilana looked shocked and pleased by his action.
Down the table, Julia sat quietly opposite Wesley who was deep in conversation with Quincy. They both spoke the strange fish language. She took a sip of the beer drink and regretted it.
“It’s a little strong isn’t it?” Wesley took a drink from his own beer. “I threw up the first time I had it. They make it from this sea weed growing in the lake. They make just about everything from it. Turns your piss green.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Julia bit into the roll and instantly recognized the sea weed taste in it as well.
“I’d actually like to thank you.” Wesley slipped his hands over hers. “I lost hope of ever getting home. But now you say you’ve seen me! I hope I didn’t look too much older?”
“No, no just a little grey in your hair that’s all.” She pulled her hands back, out of his grip. “So how does this place have light and food? It seems so dead on the surface.”
“Ah, well most of the technology was scavenged from the ruined city deeper in the cave.” Wesley drank and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “They built some huge windmills on top of the cliffs, safe from most of the sandstorms that generate the electricity. The food, well the sea seed grows naturally in the underground lakes. There are some eel like creature in there we eat too.”
“And what color do they turn your piss?” Julia asked playfully.
“Ha!” Wesley drank to that. “You know you’re the first human woman I’ve seen in months? Not that there’s anything wrong with some of the alien ones!” Wesley elbowed Quincy who grunted and left the table. Wesley laughed. “So where did you pick up that Avery guy?”
“He kind of helped us out of a bind.” Julia looked down the table to see Avery drinking and laughing with Byron. “You don’t approve of him?”
“It’s not that, he just seems very Vanguard-ish.”
“I’m sorry I don’t follow.” Julia pushed her dirty blonde hair out of her face.
“The Vanguard are kind of a police force for the relays. They are trained to feel the relay and manipulate them to their will. They use bio-tech appendages to further increase their skills. Avery doesn’t seem to have any of those, which means he probably got kicked out. They only kick you out for doing something really bad.” Wesley took a small sip of beer and noticed Julia’s concerned look. She thought back to the large scar on Avery’s back, in the shape of the relays. “Oh, but what do I know? He looks like a very upstanding gentleman with his scruffy long hair and dirty fingernails and such…” Julia began to smile and then laugh. “Hey, there’s a smile. It’s good to see one of those.”
Behind them a large group of people entered the restaurant area. They were talking and laughing very loudly. When they approached Julia realized they were not humans. They greatly resembled humans, but their face structure was off. Behind the group walked a couple dressed very different from the rest. They all sat at the table and began to eat when one stood and made a proclamation. Julia had no idea what he said, but everyone cheered it and the strangely dressed couple stood and walked into the open area of the eatery. The couple embraced as music began to play from an instrument Julia failed to notice until now, sitting in the corner of the establishment. They began to dance. Soon others from the party joined them.
“Is this a wedding reception?” Julia asked Wesley.
“Indeed.” Wesley stood and bowed to the bride and groom. They waved him over. “Julia, they’d like me to join them. I’d look pretty sad dancing alone. Care to join me?” Wesley walked over the table and offered her his hand. Julia looked at him strangely for a moment before taking his hand and joining the celebration. Lilana also watched the dancing with great interest. Byron offered her another piece of bread, but she declined it. He watched her eyes as they followed the bride and groom. He sat down his mug of beer and stood. Having no idea how to ask, he simply held out his hand. Lilana looked at it, then at Byron. Instead of taking his hand she jumped to her feet and hugged him tightly. Byron patted her on the back and they walked to the dance floor. Avery finished another beer and watched the dancing with disgust. Quincy sat beside him and provided another drink. He took it and continued to hammer away. He did, however, keep a close eye on Wesley and Julia.
That night, Julia, Byron, Lilana and Avery all shared a small tent positioned in a smaller cavern off from the commons. Four cots with blankets awaited them inside it. Lilana made sure to get the cot closest to Byron’s. Avery made sure to get the cot farthest from anyone. When they extinguished the candle the absolute darkness of the cave engulfed them. Byron stared into the blackness for a long time before he slept. He considered Avery’s explanation of the universe and how any of that could be possible. Who made the relays and why? His eyes began to adjust to the dark. He rolled to his side and noticed Lilana looking right at him. Byron smiled at her and closed his eyes. Lilana did the same.
Julia found it easy to sleep tonight. Running through her mind was comfort taken from the wedding celebration earlier. It took her mind off of Mabry and her lost sister. It showed her happiness was still possible in this world, or universe, or where ever the hell she happened to be. She also thought about Wesley. She thought about his awkward lanky way of walking and his kind voice. She thought about the way he looked at her back on Earth and wanted eagerly to know what emotions spurred it. Right before she fell asleep her heart sank a little as she thought, inevitably at some point Wesley would be separated from them. He made it back to Earth and Nathan said he was the only one. Her thoughts also lingered to Avery. Julia pushed both thoughts away as she fell to sleep.
It’s often difficult to discern morning from any other time of day when sleeping in a deep cave. Julia felt rested and awake, yet none of her senses told her it was morning. She sat up on the cot and looked around. In the low light she saw only shadows. One shadow, the one of Avery, was missing from its bed. Julia stood and felt her way to the entrance of the tent. She pushed her head out of the flap. This small cavern was filled with other tents. Snores erupted from some, and candle light from others. Straight ahead she noticed an open fire with chairs around it. Avery sat at one of these chairs, cautiously smoking some sort of pipe. Julia walked to the fire and sat beside him. Avery coughed after a long hit from the pipe.
“Damned sea weed again.” Avery’s cough continued. “They use it in everything.”
“What time is it?” Julia looked into the fire.
“No idea what so ever dear. I hate caves.” Avery added more fuel to the fire. “Wesley said he was going to set up a meeting with their leader, Zachander. That was hours ago, or so it seems. I can’t keep track down here.”
“Will he be able to help us find the next relay?”
“That’s not the problem. They know where it is. Getting to it is the problem. I’m told it’s a three week journey down an underground river. But even before that, getting to the river involves navigating through the ruined city. They don’t like to talk about that at all, which makes me nervous.”
“You, nervous?” Julia looked at Avery and smiled. “We must be in trouble.” Julia laughed at the strange face Avery made. Byron then stumbled out of the tent with Lilana quickly behind clinging to him. He kept politely putting distance between himself and her, only to have her move right by into his personal bubble. They sat around the fire.
“Avery, I’m wondering if you’d be able to tell Lilana I appreciate the affection, but I need some space.” Byron looked at her and smiled. Lilana smiled back and tried to hold his hand. Byron pocketed them.
“Sorry mate, I don’t speak her language that well. You did save her life. I’m guessing she feels indebted to you.” Avery puffed the pipe and coughed some more. “She’s not terrible to look at; you could always just enjoy yourself.” Julia scoffed at this and slapped the back of her hand on Avery’s shoulder.
“He should do no such thing!” Julia looked at Byron, with Lilana hanging off his arm. “Leading her on would be terrible. Just let her be. She is alone and scared and can’t express it to anyone! Not to mention pregnant.”
“Okay sis, chill out.” Byron kicked a runaway ember back into the fire and began to drum his hand on his knees. “Any chance we can get some more food before this meet and greet? I’m starving.”
“Get used to it.” Avery gave up on the pipe and tossed it into the fire. “It won’t kill you to miss a few meals.”
“That was mean…” Byron would have continued, but Wesley approached the group.
“Zachander agreed to meet with you in five days,” Wesley paused for the groups outrage. Avery stood and opened his mouth to yell but Wesley started again before he could. “I talked him down to three. It’s the best I could do. He is very busy.”
“So what do we do in the mean time?” Julia seemed unhappy about staying in the cave any longer.
“I’ll just have to give you the grand tour.”