“Can’t… hold on… much longer!”
The orange yarn pal’s arms were stretched thin like a rubber band and tightly wound around the train tracks at the top of the hill. All of the other yarn pals screamed in terror at their doomed fates. Those spikes glaring at them from below the broken railroad did not look friendly. Only one person could save them from plummeting to what would surely be their deaths. If only that person would do something about the situation sometime soon!
Shay was in no rush. He knew the outcome of this “mission” would be no different from all the others. Truthfully, the only reason he hadn’t yet lifted a finger was so he could mess around a little. How long could these guys keep screaming? How far could that orange guy stretch? Did he already ask if any of them needed a spoon? He should ask them again, just to be sure.
After just two minutes, Shay had already had enough. Time to get this over with.
“Wake up, Bridge Man!”
The mountain opened its wide mouth, and its long tongue rolled out, forming a bridge over the terrifying pit of spikes. The little yarn pals waved their hands in the air and cheered. Finally! The brave hero had saved them!
As the train began to roll down the hill, Shay got an idea.
“Back to sleep, Bridge Man!”
The mountain fell back to sleep just as quickly as it had woken up. Its tongue rolled back into the caverns of its mouth, and the train now hurtled at full speed off the edge. The yarn pals started screaming again, this time, in a mixture of terror and confusion. Did the young hero seriously just kill them all? What was happening?
To the yarn pals, this was the worst rescue mission ever.
But to Shay, it was the best.
Shay was thrown out of the cramped, kid-sized train car, and into the open air. Wind rushed past him, whooshing through his hair and whipping around the fabric of his clothes as he fell. He spread his arms and legs out, catching the air on his body, feeling every part of him dropping and accelerating downwards. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, making his heart pump faster than ever before. For the first time in what felt like forever, he laughed. He laughed and he whooped, and despite the sound being almost completely swallowed up by the wind, it felt amazing!
The thrill, the excitement, the danger—this was what Shay had been waiting for his entire life!
And then it was over.
Shay landed on spikes as soft as cotton, not a single bruise on his body, nor a hair out of place. The yarn pals had gotten the same treatment, although they were much less thrilled about what just went down. Literally.
It had only lasted for a few seconds, but in that short amount of time, Shay felt like he was free. His repetitive daily routine, the yarn pals’ perpetual state of jeopardy, the Computer’s constant mothering—none of it mattered. He deviated from the script. He made the choice of letting the train fall. Sure, he wouldn’t hear the end of it from the Computer later, but it had been so worth it, just to get a taste of what his life could be. Maybe someday, when he could finally step onto the surface of a foreign planet, he would be able to feel this way again.
His wish came true, albeit a bit differently than expected.
This planet might not have been very foreign after all, but that didn’t stop Shay from finding the beauty in it. There were so many different places to explore—so many different things that he had only ever seen either on a screen or made of yarn. On top of that, there were things here that Shay never knew even existed. Talking kitchen utensils were nothing new, but talking trees that vomited sap? That’s awesome!
Shay was currently walking through a colony of peachy pink clouds: Meriloft, the people called it. All the while, his mind buzzed with observations. The way his feet slowly sank into the fluff as he walked, the overwhelming presence of diverse avian life, the fact that there was a cloud colony in the first place—how did it stay afloat? What did the people eat? Were these birds friendly? Were there other cloud colonies elsewhere, or was this the only one?
While he was musing, a peculiar spot in the clouds caught his eye. Rays of light shone through the bottom, and the clouds seemed to swirl around like a spiral. The wooden path ahead deliberately skirted around the spot, as if it was warning him not to go that way. Of course, most people would gladly heed that warning and think nothing more of it.
But Shay was not like most people.
For a while he stared at it, thinking about what it could possibly be. He figured he could simply ask one of the locals about it. On second thought, no, that would be too easy. Well, what if he stuck something inside of it? A quick glance at his inventory told him he couldn’t do that. He doubted that Spoon would be a willing participant in the experiment.
If I could just get a closer look, Shay thought to himself. He carefully stepped off of the wooden path. He could already feel the clouds sucking him in, but as long as he kept moving, he shouldn’t fall through.
While he was approaching that weird spot, a familiar feeling came over him. His curiosity drove him forwards, yet he could hear a faint voice at the back of his mind.
“Shay, where are you going? It’s not safe!”
He should be feeling concerned by those words. Instead, he was feeling more determined.
He remembered hearing this exact same voice earlier, right before he had encountered that snake. He could have just walked away, and probably spared himself from some unpleasant red marks around his ribcage in the process. But in retrospect, he was glad he stuck it out. His clingy, scaly friend proved to be a huge help to that choking man in Shellmound. Besides, he had lived through that hug attack just fine. If he could handle that, he could surely handle whatever this thing was.
Or so he thought.
As Shay finally got close enough to look at the swirling pool of clouds, a sudden gust of wind blasted him from behind. The strong wind knocked him off balance, and Shay was sent stumbling forwards into the hole.
Hole? Oh, of course it had to be a hole!
He dropped like a brick. Screaming and grabbing at the clouds did no good to stop his descent. He was falling, and he knew there wouldn’t be any fake spikes at the bottom to catch him this time.
Nope. Instead, it was a large purple bird with a nest strapped to its back. It caught him after only a moment’s notice, carrying him up and away from danger.
Shay sighed in disappointment. Couldn’t the bird have just waited a few more seconds before catching him? This place was no more fun than his fake spaceship.
These thoughts faded once he took a good look down below. He told the bird to wait, prompting an impatient squawk in reply. Nonetheless, the bird obeyed.
Shay could see everything. He could even see places further beyond, where he had never been before. He stared in awe at how beautiful it was. The forest and the beach seemed so small from this high up, and the people were like tiny specks of dust. Sure, he had seen many of the same sights during the climb up that ridiculously long ladder, but how he felt then couldn’t compare to how he felt now.
In fact, he noticed something this time that he hadn’t noticed before.
Way out on the horizon stood a giant wall. It was covered with strange symbols, and although it was difficult to see from this distance, Shay thought he could see images of skulls carved into it. It loomed forebodingly over the barren lands around it, casting a dark and imposing shadow. It seemed big from here; Shay couldn’t imagine how much bigger it was up close. Weirdly enough, the wall appeared to be surrounded by a deep ravine, wide enough to deter even the most hardened explorers. Why would a wall need to be built around a place that was so unvisitable anyway? What could possibly be on the other side?
Little did Shay know that he would soon find out the answer for himself.
There he was, up close and personal with the Plague Dam. Behind it lied Loruna, his home. The idea left an unsettling imprint in Shay’s mind. He had spent his entire life in isolation on a fake spaceship; he wasn’t sure if calling Loruna his home was right. Besides, after all those years of being fooled, he wasn’t ready to trust anything he couldn’t see with his own two eyes.
And right now, what he saw was his distressed mother calling out to him from their melting ship.
Shay didn’t have to look down to know how deadly the drop was. Unfortunately, the gangway of the ship didn’t even remotely cover the distance across. Still, he should be able to make the jump if he could just get a running start.
The molten metal seeping out from the opening behind him quickly shut down that plan. It was overflowing at a steady pace, getting closer by the second. Shay tried to back away, only to find himself teetering on the edge of the path with nowhere to go.
Nowhere but forwards.
He took a deep breath, bended his knees, and leaped. The whole world seemed to disappear. There was no meltdown, no ship, no Loruna—only him and his mother.
She would always protect him.
She would stretch her arms out to him. She would call out his name. She would wait for him to come closer, so she could envelop him in one of those tight, warm hugs that she always loved to give. She wouldn’t let go until she knew her baby had enough. It would be just like when Shay was very young, and his parents didn’t need to use the ship’s computers to interact with him.
They could be a normal family again. They could take back all those stolen years. They still had a whole future ahead of them and a big, beautiful world to see. It couldn’t end like this, right?
Shay began to fall.
His mother’s hands missed him by mere inches.
Her voice echoed in his mind as he sank further and further into the ravine. She was gone just as quickly as she had appeared. Nothing but a flash of her panic-stricken face remained.
Shay thought about all those times she told him “I wish you’d call me Mom,” or said “I love you” right before bedtime. He thought about all those times he had brushed her off, or outright ignored her. He had seen her as nothing more than a thing. He probably hurt her, although she never showed it. In order to protect her baby, she had to be strong. Shay felt like he understood that now.
But it was too late. He would never be able to take away that pain she kept hidden for so long—to tell her that he was sorry.
And that was worse than any fall.
Suddenly, Shay felt his body make an impact with something solid. The whistling of the wind stopped. He was no longer falling.
In fact, he was rising.
For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating. Maybe he was falling so fast that it only looked like he was going up, kind of like how a spinning wheel would start to look like it was spinning the other way if you stared at it long enough. Perhaps he was already dead, and his soul was being lifted into whatever place it was that people went to after they died.
Yet, he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He was alive, but how?
Shay didn’t immediately notice the giant robotic hand underneath him, cradling him as if he were an injured bird. The hand gently laid him down on the ground. Grabbin’ Gary, that present from his mother, smiled at him from above, right before disappearing into the melting mass of the two ships.
He had been saved again.
But this time, he was thankful.
As raindrops began to fall and trickle down Shay’s face, he felt his heartrate slow to a normal pace. His mother and that girl, Vella, stared at him from across the newly formed bridge. Almost involuntarily, his feet carried him forward. Vella did the same. The two teenagers met in the middle. Here was the girl who helped him turn his life around. Shay could have said so many things to her in that moment.
But he didn’t need to.
It was all over now, and that was what mattered.
He was free.