Tilly Keyes © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Each shuffle of clothing and stomp of impatient feet increased Zero’s thumping heart. The curtain muffled the words of the audience, but they increased in volume until a unified grumble shook Zero’s bones. Being ten minutes late was part of his plan to build anticipation, but he hadn’t envisioned the wait would have him close to fainting from nerves.
Zero pursed his lips and exhaled slowly. He brushed his sweat-soaked palms on his suit, then removed his top hat and wiped his brow on his sleeve. He wanted to wear something more flamboyant with tassels and twinkling lights, but he softened his look and chose a stripped black-and-silver suit, and his trusty black top hat. The night was all about his invention, and he dressed down to put all emphasis on it.
“This is such a bad idea.”
Honey’s words pulled him from his thoughts, and he turned to her, widening his eyes.
“You’re here for support, not to further my anxiety.”
Zero could see her normal ellipse shaped pupils had narrowed to a line of black, splitting her lime irises in two. She was afraid for him, and he couldn’t deny that fear when his heart tried to escape his chest.
“If—If only you’d tested the machine.”
Zero pushed his hat firmly on his head. “I have tested it.”
“But never like this. You haven’t done this with a living thing—”
“It will work,” Zero said.
Honey gripped his arm. “But what if it doesn’t?”
He frowned and glanced at her paw that gripped his arm. She blinked then retracted her claws with a softly spoken apology.
“This is my moment. I can feel it in my bones. My life is about to change.”
“Dying is life changing, life ending,” she replied.
Zero shook his head. “I won’t die—hopefully I won’t die, and if I do, I hope it will be quick.”
“What if you walk through and only half of you appears on the other side?”
Zero lifted his hand and tilted it one way and then the other. “Well, if that happens, I’ll die quickly, so it’s not so bad.”
Honey hissed and flattened her ears. “Don’t make jokes.”
“I wasn’t joking,” he said, turning to face her. “If it goes wrong and I die, then you know I died doing what meant the most to me. Besides, I couldn’t live with the shame of a failure, so let’s hope it is either roaring success and I appear in the opposite arch or it’s unable to put my atoms back together and I die instantly.”
Honey shut her eyes and bowed forward. Zero rubbed at her arms, but she didn’t straighten to look at him. She sagged further.
“I can’t go out there until I see your smile,” he whispered.
She sniffled and shook her head. “I don’t feel like smiling.”
“Please Honey, for me. I need to see it. You’re my lucky charm.”
“Fine,” she said with a huff. “But you better not die.”
Zero thought better than making that promise. It was a strong possibility, not that he admitted it to her.
Honey lifted her head and twitched her cheeks. Her nose rose, and two daggered teeth showed through her narrow lips.
“Thank you,” Zero said.
The second the words left him, her smile dropped, and she breathed heavily through her nose.
“Right,” he said and clutched his lapels. “Here I go.”
Honey moved her arm fast and Zero flinched at the elbow near his face. He straightened when he realised she was using the fur of her forearm to mop his brow. He sighed and closed his eyes. Honey smelled sweet, and her amber fur was soft and warm.
“Thank you,” he said.
“My fur’s super absorbent.”
Zero chuckled lightly. “I meant being here. Being…being by my side.”
She dropped her arm and stared at him. “Don’t say stuff like that. Don’t di—”
“Yes, don’t die,” he said, then pinched his suit lapels. “I mean, come on, I can’t die wearing this bland thing.”
“I think it looks good on you. The silver’s the same shade as your hair, and the mauve lining is the same colour as your eyes.”
Zero pulled at his suit and sneered at the shiny material inside. “My eyes are a nicer mauve than this.”
Honey rocked back on her heels and flicked her chin out. “Stop stalling. If you’re gonna do it, do it now or else I’m gonna cling to you and drag you from the stage.”
“Please don’t do that…again.”
Zero turned from her and walked up to the quivering curtain. He glanced back to check Honey had left the stage, delved his hand into his trouser pocket and clicked the button for the force field.
The curtain vanished, and the mumbles of irritation went with it.
He had everyone’s attention in the theatre, and he paced the stage linking eyes with as many as he could.
They were the first thousand that would marvel at his teleportation machine, shower him with praise, and cement his importance in history for centuries to come. He wanted to remember individual faces, wanted to see their eyes widen and their jaws drop in shock. There were some hot life-forms, some that he would enjoy getting acquainted with after the show.
His nerves dispersed, and he chuckled, then winked at the human in the front row with the emerald hair. The man smiled in reply and winked back.
“Zero!” Honey hissed from the edge of the stage.
He shook his head to be clear of any rising lust and stood in the centre.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. I have gathered you here today to show you an invention that will change our world forever.”
Zero paused at the edge of the stage and lifted his hat from his head. He rolled it down his arm then gripped the edge and flipped it back on his head.
“Prepare to be amazed.”
He walked to the other side of the stage removing the hat once again. He twirled it hypnotically fast in his hands before slotting it over his hair.
“This will blow your mind.”
He walked to the centre of the stage and gazed out at the dimly lit theatre. His attention lingered on one member of the audience and he swallowed hard. Not the emerald-haired man but someone else.
Apollo, his ex-boyfriend, sat a few rows back. His blond hair hung long and luscious against his face, and he pouted his rose lips. His suit was gold, and even in the low lighting of the theatre he managed to shine with his importance. He noticed Zero watching him and smirked into the back of his hand.
“Focus,” Honey said out of sight, and Zero snapped out of his momentary paralysis.
“This is an invention so amazing, so miraculous, that it will make the flying car obsolete and old.”
Apollo dropped his smug grin and narrowed his eyes. Zero inwardly grinned at his reaction and rubbed at his chin.
“I promise you, what you’re about to see will be the single most incredible event you’ll witness.”
Zero turned and wagged his finger at the arch closest to him. A rainbow of wires wrapped around the frame and vanished beneath the floorboards of the stage.
“I will walk through this arch…and reappear through that one.”
The audience mumbled and whipped their heads back and forth to take in the stage. Only one arch shared the space with Zero, and he waited until the agitated mutterings got louder. He pressed his forefinger to his lips, and like obedient children the voices faded to silence, and the life-forms stilled in their seats.
Zero pointed up, and the eyes of the audience followed his cue until they caught sight of the other arch. It stood on a clear force field, fifty metres off the ground. The rainbow wires hung down from the ceiling and wrapped around the metal frame. The arches appeared identical, but it was the one by Zero’s side that had taken him years to perfect. He had tinkered and experimented for almost a decade to get the machine in working order, and he was finally ready to reveal what it could do.
Zero waited in silence to build more anticipation. The audience murmured and shook their heads, and he pressed his hand to his chest.
“Hold your scepticism and wait and see.”
His words were a cue for Honey to switch on the machine. The lights and force fields of the theatre flickered, and the metal components of the arches sparked. A static noise increased, and bright white light appeared in the centre of the arch. The light twirled and danced and Zero dropped his gaze to spare his eyesight.
He blinked at the floor while his sight adjusted then glanced up again able to stare at the hypnotic white.
Apollo bit at his knuckles and shook his head, and Zero wondered whether it was for fear of him being killed or worry at the invention outdoing the flying car.
He lifted the hat off his head and bowed. “See you from the other side.”
The audience gasped and got to their feet.
The light from the arch pulsed towards him, and he stepped forward with as much confidence as he could muster. His skin tingled to the point of pain, and his mind muffled to nothing as the white light consumed him.
A deafening bang drowned out the gasps of the audience.
The ground beneath Zero vibrated, and he struggled to open his eyes. A repetitive pressure shoved at his shoulder, and through his clouded hearing he heard the desperate shout of Honey.
He wasn’t dead, which meant his invention must have worked. He tilted his lips into a smile and braced himself to hear the unified cheer and applause of his audience.
Zero forced his eyes open and linked eyes with Honey hovering over him. He blinked at her with a frown, wondering how she got up to the high arch. He saw the theatres ceiling beyond her head. Not close as it should have been, but far above. He breathed in the scent of burning and gawped at the remains of the second arch smoking above them.
Zero rolled towards the audience and propped his body up. They were out of their seats and leaving the theatre. The stage shook with the many feet that passed by, and Zero focused on each mocking expressions and stifled laughter.
Honey crouched beside him. She puffed her amber fur out and flattened her ears. Zero’s hearing sharpened at her hiss, and the sound of his failure attacked him in full force.
The arch that hovered on the platform had broken in two, and the one beside him had a flume of smoke escaping it. They both spluttered sparks of defeat, and Zero’s eyes watered at the contamination in the air.
The theatre that had taken an hour to fill emptied in mere minutes, and the last audience member to leave was the one man Zero hated.
Apollo climbed to his feet and dusted his hands together. He didn’t move to join the queue of people exiting but walked towards the stage.
“That was it? You believe that would make me obsolete and old?”
Zero swallowed and bowed his head.
Apollo smirked and unbuttoned his gold blazer. He stroked his hand down his neck to his chest and grasped the medallion that rested there.
“You will never get one of these, never be remembered for millenniums to come. You are nothing, Zero, just like your name.”
Apollo lifted the medallion to his lips and kissed the circle of gold.
Zero climbed to his unsteady feet and walked away from the mocking man. Honey hissed furiously, and Apollo released a bark of a laugh. His footsteps plodded from the theatre, and Zero collapsed to the floor. There was no need to switch the curtain back on when the theatre was empty.
Honey rushed towards him and crouched down. “What happened?”
Zero laughed bitterly and shook his head. “It clearly didn’t work.”
“Well, no, but what did happen?”
Zero rubbed at his brow. “I don’t understand… I stepped into the arch and woke up on my back.”
Honey wiggled her nose and shot a look to the back of the stage. “The white light pulsed, and coils of silver crackled around the arch. The one on the platform exploded, and this one looked like it was gonna, but then a figure appeared.”
“What do you mean?”
She craned her neck out and sniffed. “A man appeared in this arch. He smacked into you—”
Zero got to his feet with a growl. “A stage invader! Sabotage, I bet Apollo had something to do with it.”
She frowned. “I’m not sure.”
Honey gestured to the back of the stage and Zero sneered in the direction.
He pointed to the shadowed area. “You see him?”
Honey’s lime eyes shimmered, and she nodded. “Yes. I see him.”
“Come out here now!”
The man in the darkness didn’t move, and Zero tapped his foot to the floor.
“I don’t recognise him,” Honey whispered. “And he smells odd.”
“I don’t care how he looks or how he smells. He ruined my grand moment, and I will make him pay—”
“Wait, he’s coming out.”
Zero puffed in a furious breath through his nose and exhaled slowly. Honey angled her shoulders up ready to pounce, and her fur stood on end in offence.
“I—I don’t know what’s going on.”
Zero narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on? You’ve ruined my moment, now come into the light, so I can see the face of my enemy.”
The man left the safety of the darkness but kept his distance. “Enemy?”
Zero didn’t think it was possible to dress blander than his striped suit, but the man wore a plain charcoal shirt with no embroidery or pattern. His trousers didn’t sparkle or shine, and his shoes were matt black.
“Who are you?” Zero growled.
“I don’t know where I am. Is this some kind of joke?” the man said, gripping his face.
Zero shot a look to Honey, who lessened her aggressive stance.
“No one’s laughing,” Zero muttered.
“I—urm. I don’t know what happened…maybe it was something I ate, maybe I’m dreaming.”
“You jumped up on stage and overloaded my machine.”
The man shook his head. “I didn’t—I don’t know what happened. I was at the club, and then…and then I got pulled in.”
Zero shook his head and took a step closer. The man ran his hand though his chestnut hair, not even a strand of glitter sparkled at the movement. Not just his clothes were bland, but his face and hair too. The man’s eyes were wide and unfocused, and he swayed on his feet.
“How much have you drank?” Zero asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing. I swear.”
Zero approached, and the man retreated. “Do not play games with me. Now tell me your name.”
“Logan, my name’s Logan.”
Zero sneered at the name. “Well, Logan, I hope he pays you well for destroying my life.”
Logan recoiled and sunk back into the darkened area of the stage. Zero turned and marched back to Honey.
“Deal with him how you wish,” he said, before continuing his march to the exit.
He hoped Logan would become accustomed to sharp claws in the next few minutes.