Tim sat on the wobbly chair in his room behind the blacksmith's shop, grinning up at Eddie. This was the older Tim—Barlow, with his open jacket and a wild look in his eyes, but he wore his old spectacles rather than the menacing mask.
"You know what to do," he said, a Polaroid picture held eagerly in his two hands.
"Tim—Barlow," Eddie stammered. "Who are you really?"
"What do you mean? I'm Tim. You're Eddie, and you've got a job to do."
Tim rolled his eyes. "What have we been talking about? You've got a mission. You've got to find this for me." He thrust the Polaroid at Eddie.
Eddie reared back, unwilling to touch Tim. Carefully, he took the polaroid. He studied it, confused. "I don't get it."
"The wallpaper, Eddie."
The picture showed Tim, his hair much longer, clumped in messy dreadlocks, a pointed goatee on his grinning face. He sat at a small table, his elbow poised beside salt and pepper shakers shaped like dolphins. Behind him, a pattern of yellow-green banana bunches covered the wall. The wallpaper was faded, torn in one place above the table.
"Banana wallpaper," Eddie said.
"That's right. Find me banana wallpaper. That could be the key to everything."
"Banana wallpaper is the key to everything," Eddie repeated.
"It's just a figure of speech."
"Which part? The banana wallpaper part?"
"Well, yes and no. I mean, well, you know what I mean."
"I really don't."
Tim reached out to grip Eddie's forearm. Eddie lurched away losing his balance. He fell backwards...
...and landed on the hard concrete floor of the stadium stands.
"Huh, you're up," Bryce said. "They're about to serve food."
Eddie shivered. He found himself wedged in the narrow gap between two rows of benches. His memory of how he'd gotten here was fuzzy. It had been dark in the stadium the night previous.
When they'd come in, there was no one to guide them. Hopeless faces peered up at them from the shadows. It had been confusing and uncomfortable and they'd ended up surrendering to fatigue, finding the first empty spot on the benches to curl up and sleep.
Eddie poked his head up, took a look around and gasped.
"Weird place, huh," Bryce said. His face was blank, his voice holding none of the wonder that Eddie now felt.
The stadium was enormous with two tiers of bench seats. Armed soldiers marched around the upper tier with their red-beret counterparts. The lower tier was half filled with a bizarre assortment of refugees from dozens, perhaps hundreds of different realities, all of whom had probably gravitated to the city hoping to find sanity and civilization in the face of chaos. Just down the aisle from Eddie, a man and woman sat together, their skin bright red, elaborate horns protruding from their foreheads, their clothing bright, their expressions hopeless and docile.
The playfield below was unexpected. Rather than the orderly lines of a football field or a baseball diamond, the dominant features in this field were two stone pyramids, one on each end. Rather than a full lawn, the field had only patches of grass in the otherwise bare earth. Each side of the field featured concrete bunkers and short foxholes. A burbling stream bisected the field.
There were more refugees wandering through the bottom of the field. From somewhere below, a forlorn animal bellow of dismay echoed through the stadium.
"What do they play here?" Eddie asked, astonished. But he knew the answer. From somewhere in his memory, he pictured teams of men and women in bright colors dodging across the field, wielding non-lethal projectile weapons, carrying something similar to a football.
"Who cares what they play here," Bryce said. "We're here now. Stuck. Forever."
"I wanted to leave Graden," Eddie said. "Phyllis did too." He looked around. "Where is Phyllis?"
"She and Syd are down at the portable johns." Bryce pointed down at a row of portable toilet boxes that lined one end of the stadium ground.
Eddie's stomach growled. "How do you know they're serving breakfast?"
Bryce pointed up at a huge leaderboard at one end of the stadium. There was a schedule there, posted in English, Spanish, and a few other languages, all of which Eddie recognized.
7:00 AM - Breakfast - Portals G, H and J
8:00 AM - Refugee Processing - Proceed to Portal A when your number is called. Serving Refugee Number 210 Next.
Eddie checked the number stamped on his hand. 5236.
"It looks like we're going to be here a while."
"Yeah," Bryce said. He nudged Kai, who lay curled in a fetal position on the bench next to him. "Get up, kid. Time for breakfast."
Kai stirred, yawned, and sat up. She looked around herself but showed no surprise.
They stood in line for twenty minutes at Portal G behind a family of pig-faced refugees. No one spoke. The faces of most of their fellow detainees were hopeless or indifferent. Their dread was infectious, and Eddie and the others were silent. Kai huddled against Bryce, her face buried in his leg most of the time to hide from the world.
Soldiers lined the food service area, watching the refugees with disdain. Each refugee received a bowl of cold oatmeal, dried fruit chips and a bottle of water. They took their food from men and women in drab aprons without exchanging words.
They found Syd sitting on a bench near the playfield, munching his fruit chips without expression. Eddie and the others joined him. When Bryce finished his oatmeal, he said, "I don't think I can stand this place for long."
Syd stirred his oatmeal, staring at it, not eating. "Me either. But my father is depending on me."
"The worst part is," Bryce said, "I don't even have the strength to complain. There's something about this place that just... makes me give up."
Eddie listened, bewildered. He watched Kai for a moment. She dug a finger through the fruit chips, taking a nibble every few minutes but otherwise staring listlessly at the steps beside her, not moving.
Eddie had finished his food first. He wanted seconds. Now that he had eaten, he wanted to punch a guard and escape. Usually, Bryce took the initiative, making plans before Eddie even realized plans needed making. But Bryce looked broken. They all did. As Eddie scanned the stadium, he found that all the faces there were the same. Lost, vacant, depressed, some sobbing.
Except for the soldiers. They seemed immune to the malaise. The line of armed soldiers above on the second tier included red berets, watching the refugees below with uncommon intensity. There were groups of soldiers down on the first tier, always in groups of three—two armed and one in a red beret. All of them stood at attention, watching the listless crowd.
Eddie felt the footsteps more than heard them. The floor shook as a giant of a woman in a monkish blue robe stomped down the stairs towards them. She swiped a bag of fruit chips from an old man on a bench, emptied the contents into her upraised mouth, and continued down. Here was one refugee at least who had not succumbed to hopelessness.
She stopped when she reached Eddie's group. She stood over Syd and glowered down at him. "Give me your porridge."
Syd stared up. He said nothing for a moment, blinking, fighting to understand her.
"Now!" she demanded.
Syd raised his bowl.
"Is this enormous lady bothering you, Syd?"
The giant spun around. Behind her on the stairs stood Phyllis, who smiled up at her. The giant glared down at the cyborg who stood half her own height and bared her teeth. "Go away."
The giant flinched, her face showing brief surprise. Then she snarled. "Go away or I smash—"
As she moved to jab Phyllis in the chest, Phyllis caught her hand, gripping the giant between the thumb and index finger with a death pinch. The giant woman buckled, her eyes watered, and she fell to her knees. Phyllis was now eye to eye with her. "Why don't you move on?" she said slowly.
The giant rolled away onto the steps, forced back a sob and retreated down into the playfield without a backwards glance.
"What's wrong with you all," Phyllis asked once the giant had moved out of earshot.
"That's just what I was wondering," Eddie said.
"What do you mean?" Bryce asked. "We're trapped and there's no way out."
"Do you honestly think they can keep me here if I don't want to stay?" Phyllis asked.
"We can't escape. My father..." Syd heaved a huge sigh.
"Your father didn't expect they'd lock you up in a concentration camp."
"But there's... there's no way out."
Phyllis frowned down at them all. Her eyes stopped on Eddie.
"I'm all for escaping," he said, sitting up. "This place is creepy."
"It is," she agreed, her eyes now taking in the whole stadium and its docile population. "How are they able to keep so many people subdued?"
"You think they poisoned the food?" Eddie considered his empty oatmeal bowl.
"Syd's been like this since we got here. And he was awfully trusting of the soldiers that led us into this trap. I don't get it."
Eddie frowned. He rubbed at the green ink of his hand stamp. Poison in the ink? " But you and I are okay."
"Are we? We're here. We aren't starting fights. We're..."
Three soldiers marched down the steps past them, the classic set of two armed soldiers and one in a beret. They ignored Eddie's group, their attention focused on the giant woman who now harassed the pig face family for their fruit chips where they sat on a patch of grass.
As they passed, the soldier in the beret spoke in Hadish to his companions. "If I can't subdue her, you'll need more than one tranquilizer dart to take her down."
"Hell, she'll probably take a whole magazine," said one of the armed soldiers, now taking aim.
They stopped a dozen yards from the giant, still within earshot of Eddie. "Excuse me ma'am," said the one in the beret in English. "Is there a problem here?" He held his hands up.
The giant squared her shoulders and glared at them. "I'm hungry!" she bellowed. "These pigs don't eat, so I make them to share."
The first armed soldier turned to his companions. "She's immune to the shroud," he said in Hadish.
The second soldier gave him a sharp look. "Shut up."
"No one understands us," the first armed soldier said. "These refugees are all adle-brained. They all speak monkey."
"You don't know that."
"If they spoke Hadish, they'd already be in reprogramming."
The one in the beret kept his eyes on the giant woman, his palms up towards her. "Silence," he said in Hadish to his companions. "I think the shroud's working now."
Eddie heard all of this. He didn't know what the shroud was, but as he watched, the giant's shoulders slumped. The fire in her eyes dulled to cold vacancy.
"Do you want more food?" beret man asked.
"I... I think so."
"Come with us. We can get you more food."
"Where are we taking her?" one of the armed soldiers asked in Hadish.
"There's a place for hard cases like her," said the other. "She's too high maintenance to keep her in with the general population."
"She'll never make it through reprogramming. What will we do with her?"
The second armed soldier glared at the first. "What do you think?"
The soldier in the beret gave his companions a warning look. He turned back to the giant. "Do you want to come with us?"
The giant woman lowered her head and nodded. She followed the beret soldier, his two armed companions closing in behind her. The walked back up the stairs, the giant now compliant, her eyes fixed on the steps as she walked.
Eddie sat in stunned silence. Phyllis watched them leave. The rest of their companions hadn't even noticed the exchange.
"What just happened?" Phyllis asked.
"I think we're in trouble," Eddie said.
As Phyllis scanned the stands above them, her eye widened. "We've got more trouble than you know."
Eddie turned. It only took a second for him to see what she'd seen. Kardhoom the dragon rider stood at the portal entrance above them, his hands shading his eyes from the morning light, scowling down at them.