((Author's note: This may make more sense if you've read my fictionpress story 'Perdix Rising' and my Earthbound-themed NaNo entry 'I Miss You', on my homepage, as this is set in the same world a few years afterwards and features some backstory, such as the full story of why Lucas is there and why Mini Elevator isn't.))
"I didn't know we had a mailbox." mused Aeolia's Table, "When did we start having a mailbox?"
"I didn't know we had anyone to write us mail." said Tent Person, "I thought it was just us out here."
"And who exactly would deliver the letter?" Dung Beetle contributed, "Why would they know we lived here? How would they know where to find us?
"If they know about us, and they're friendly enough to deliver the mail, why don't they come and register as one of us?" asked Aeolia's Table, "It really isn't helpful when people don't register. We need to know how many of us there are."
"Are you going to open it, then?" asked Dung Beetle.
"You open it! I haven't got hands." the huge red face smudged itself into a slightly darker shade of red. She didn't like being reminded that she didn't have hands.
"I can't open it, I have to scan it for anomalies!" Dung Beetle's cyberware, a telescopic eye with full sensor capabilities, an all-terrain life support system on his chest and a cross-shaped device on his forehead that glowed red and played Snes games, were neatly integrated into his his grey full body smartsuit. His sensors showed no anomalies – apart from the stability in this area that was, in itself, unusual in the Prototype Realm. The Sanctuary was one of the rare oases in their realm where things stayed where they were and didn't sink through the floor, jolt violently offscreen or downgrade to a previous release. They had built a house and a garage in it. Currently, they were all sat in the living room, which was dark due it being permanently stuck on midnight and contained a large sofa, a TV and some games consoles.
Aeolia's Table swivelled around to look for more people with hands. Train was asleep. Clayman stood guard over him, holding a frying pan full of bacon, a rather forlorn look on his face. The boy had forgotten to tell him he could let go of it, or offer any bacon to the others. Lucas was asleep, too, on the other end of the sofa to Train. Aeolia felt sorry for the boy. It was difficult for any outsider to be in the Prototype Realm for even a few hours, and yet Lucas could not leave. He had nowhere to go. His old world was destroyed by his own hand and he did not belong in the new world, where his twin brother did not exist. He seemed to be adjusting to life here quite well, though. He had the other children to play with, several of whom were versions of himself or his twin brother that never quite were. This fact he accepted as perfectly normal. Compared to the things that usually went on in his head, it probably was. Train was happy having another brother to play with, too. As for compatibility issues, the Realm seemed to have accepted him almost instantly as the other fractured parts of itself.
She remembered Tent Person.
"Oh, Tent Person! You've got hands too! Can't you open the letter?"
The winged alien sighed and scooped the letter out of the mailbox.
"Its from Rope Snake."
"Rope Snake! We haven't seen him in..." Aeolia's Table stopped, remembering that time was completely broken in this region of the Realm and that her diary had been eaten by a freak glitchstorm three Rooms ago, "Since he went away! I wonder where he went and what he did?"
"I can't trace the letter's signature. Although from the lack of damage, I would say it was the same tier as us, with readable data, probably life-supporting if it contains Rope Snake, and not too far away to travel." said Dung Beetle.
"It has an address written on it." said Dung Beetle, "It also says... 'We've found a big haul, something you won't believe when you see it. You have to take yourselves and the equipment down here pronto!'"
Everyone piled into the bus.
Their bus had served them since before they could remember, perhaps for the entire time they existed, and was still intact and made of its original components, despite what they had driven it through. Clayman, who never tired, drove the bus while Dung Beetle, whose sensors included a mapping system, navigated. Not that anything stayed in one place for long enough to map. The children were still asleep when Clayman carried them onto the bus and deposited them on their seats. The bus was silent as it sped down the road, away from their Sanctuary, into the darkness. There was an unpleasant static sensation as they crossed the threshold of the Room. The gap between Rooms was just visible, like a white dotted line for them to tear down. Clayman and Dung Beetle slid the bus perfectly through the gap. There was always a danger of getting stuck.
The next Room was also dark. Not the gentle darkness of the night, but the hollow, empty darkness of a light socket with a broken bulb. Light wasn't working at all in this Room. Clayman switched on the headlights,which made a ghostly pattern as they danced like will-o-wisps. Not that there was much to see in the barren expanse of things that just flat hadn't worked. A few boulders floating in midair, the ruins of a building with no ground floor, a patch of withered trees. It made Tent Person sad, to see parts of his Realm like this. One day, their Realm may well collapse due to complete instability. It was a miracle they still existed at all. They sped quickly past this Room, into the next, in which it was night, and looked like a Windows XP screensaver.
"We should stop here again one day." said Aeolia's Table, "It was fun, last time. We could have a picnic."
"We'll see." said Dung Beetle, "We still have a way to go."
Their journey took them through twenty of such Rooms, each of them different, and a good portion of the day. The twins were now awake and everyone was bored of looking out of the window, so they returned to their games consoles. Aeolia had a DS and Tent Person had a Game Gear, which they had swapped with each other years ago. Aeolia mostly still played Sonic games, though. The twins had a DS each too, and were playing Mother 3. Dung Beetle used his cybernetic interface to interact with his laptop while still navigating, or hacked Tent Person's Game Gear to annoy him. There was a difference to the ambience, when everyone was playing games. It was as if the buzzing of the monitors got into the air, filled the world with life, a life just beyond some thin veil that you could just peer into and out of.
They were still playing when Dung Beetle announced that they were in the right place.
The sun was going down. Scrubland and old machine parts dominated this part of the Realm. A small machine factory with white walls, probably abandoned, lay some distance from the road. The outline of a mountain was visible behind the factory.
"Have we been there before?" asked Aeolia's Table, "We should look through it for parts."
"Well, we might as well. This is definitely the right place, so we need to look for Rope Snake." said Dung Beetle. Clayman brought the bus properly to a stop, then opened the doors, "Okay, people, this is an unprotected area, so we need to be careful. Train, Lucas, keep your DSes on."
Heather crackled under Clayman's feet. The breeze whispered thinly, fading in and out, bringing with it echoes of music. They hardly sank through the floor at all – in fact, there was a heavy atmosphere to this place, as if it was deliberately this way, or as if an Event was about to happen. Tent Person wondered if something from the other world was about to come through. A pang of sadness hit him. Sadness at the fate of Mini Elevator and fear of Sign, of what would happen if It ever re-appeared.
Dung Beetle examined the machine parts. They were definitely from robots, although a very primitive design – chunky and unwieldy, as though someone with a low budget had cobbled then together from dustbins, toilet cisterns and Dreamcasts. They were also heavily dented, as though they had been quite battered. As they walked closer to the factory, more and more intact robots were found. He doubted any of these parts were practical to wire to himself, although he would have to take one apart to look at the smaller components.
"I'm sure I've seen robots like that before." said Lucas, yawning.
"They look cool." said Train, "Can't we try and fix one up? Maybe it could be Clay's friend."
"We'll see. We have to find a whole one, first..."
"ROPE SNAKE!" yelled Train, breaking into a run. Lucas bolted after him. Train tripped over a loose pixel in the floor and Lucas ran straight into him. Clayman lumbered over and lifted them upright before the ground could eat them.
"Who's that?" demanded Rope Snake, pointing at Lucas.
"Oh, this is Lucas. He's new." said Train, "He's my brother."
"You look just like me!" exclaimed Lucas, "Except your eyes are all googly."
"Oh yes, you two haven't met, have you? Rope Snake left on his journey way before you arrived." said Tent Person, "Hey, what've you been doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"This really isn't the middle of nowhere. You have no idea how important this place is." said Rope Snake, "C'mon, I'll show you. The Vapors are here too."
"Really? Both of them?"
"Yeah, come and look!" the child ran off and the twins ran after him, taking more care over where they put their feet this time. Train's pet Golem ambled after them, somehow meeting their pace despite being made of clay, considerably heavier and not having the most flexible knee joints. They headed towards the factory. The door was wrecked, but the building itself was still standing. The piles of robots grew larger, denser and contained more intact robots as they came closer, although none were functional. The children clambered over the rubble and into the factory.
Just inside the factory, in the foyer, Vapor and his prototype clone, Vapor-2, sat on white leather chairs, peering intently at a laptop and several printouts of complicated diagrams that they had arranged on the coffee table, while sipping tea.
"Vapor!" yelled Dung Beetle, "I thought you'd gone back to your own world!" Vapor actually lived in the released world. He was a Government official responsible for immigration to and from the Prototype Realm.
"I got an urgent summons from Snow Bunny."
"He's here too?"
"He couldn't leave the computer, but he's over the comm link." He flicked the laptop around so that they could see the screen. Snow Bunny's cheerful, innocent, slightly dazed face peered at them. He waved, surprisingly free of lag and unsurprisingly free of clothes apart from his speaker headphones.
"Can you still not wear clothes?"
"I don't need clothes to operate the computer." responded the boy, "We have more important business to attend to, anyway."
"What exactly IS going on here, anyway?" asked Aeolia's Table, looking over at the papers. She didn't understand a word of what was written on them.
"Its best just to show you." said Vapor, rising from his chair. His clone followed him, hands in pockets. Vapor-2 actually looked and acted nothing like him. A lot had been changed between their release dates. Vapor-2 was quite resigned to the fact that he didn't work, never did and probably would never do anything.
They went through the factory floor, which was fairly small, dominated by the conveyor belt, a few heavy construction machines and piles of broken robots everywhere. Nothing was online. A large hole had been blasted in the far wall. The robots filled this hole as well. Some of them looked as if they were deliberately trying to clamber out of the hole.
The trail of robots continued as the ground became more rocky and the mountain loomed into view. The positions they were frozen in were slightly unnerving to Aeolia's Table. They looked as if they had been desperately trying to drag themselves along the path with the last of their strength, even as their life ebbed away. As they reached the mouth of the cave, they had begun clambering over each other and tearing frantically at... something. Something that was warping their frames, leaving them twisted and charred.
"Is it a good idea to go in there?" asked Aeolia's Table.
"It doesn't hurt us." said Rope Snake, "Although its dark and weird. I don't like being in there for too long."
Lucas sniffed the air, tilted his head, then walked up to the cave mouth. Ignoring the looks that the adults gave him, especially the ones with faces, he poked his head in.
"Oh, its that again. I've been there before." he announced.
"You have?" asked Vapor.
"Yeah, its boring. You just wander around in the dark and..." he stopped, "No, wait... its open! The gate's always kept locked. Who left it open?"
"Gate to what? What's in there, Lucas?" asked Train. Clayman had positioned himself in front of his master. The Golem looked very agitated at being too near the door.
"Is it as we calculated?" asked Vapor, "Have we really found it?"
"Earthbound 64." said Lucas, "The gates of Earthbound 64 are open!"