Zatea pulled out a knife and got to work on the animatronic, carefully peeling off its rubber skin and unscrewing the parts she needed. This would work much better than anything she had found before. That wasn’t to say that she hadn’t made do—but parts that were built to look and move like a human would save her a lot of time.
She examined one of the hands closely. There was almost no rust. Although a couple joints had to be coaxed into doing so, all of them moved smoothly. This place was remarkable. Z wrapped the hand in a slip of fabric and stuck it in her bag.
Then, she heard shuffling.
The entire room was pitch black except for the area covered by Z’s flashlight. It was one of the larger scenes in the ride, and the sheer amount of stiff, humanoid silhouettes hadn’t fazed Zatea until now. Her fingers tightened around her knife.
Zatea swiveled toward the whisper and heard a yelp as her blade stopped just short of a stranger’s chin. She gasped. The figure before her seemed to be another automaton, but with eyes nearly as realistic as a human’s.
It stuck its hands in the air. “I’m not gonna hurt you!”
The hands were definitely human. This was just... a person wearing a mask? “God— what the fuck?” She still held the knife towards them, mostly because her body was already in that position and she was too frightened to move.
“I said hello!” the stranger complained.
“Behind me in a dark room where no one’s allowed to be!” She tried her best to keep her volume low while still clearly expressing her anger.
As the two of them caught their breath, Z glanced at the rest of this person. They wore a colorful, layered skirt that looked horrible to run in, and a good part of their midsection was exposed. “What are you wearing?”
They were still holding up their hands, but they laughed. “What?”
Z supposed it was a silly question. She decided to explain herself anyway. “You can’t run or climb with that skirt on, and you could get really scraped up with so little covered.”
The stranger rested a finger on top of Z’s knife. “So now you don’t want me getting scraped up?”
Zatea exhaled, lowering the knife without losing her grip—not that she’d need it. She could take this person in a fight without issue. It was genuinely hard to believe they’d risk running into guards like this. “Nevermind. What do you want?”
“...To say hello.”
Zatea was too tired, or possibly too confused to respond.
“Look, I’m usually the only one here,” explained the masked stranger. “If anyone else has the guts to break Swweets’ dumbass rules, I’d like to shake their hand. So...” They held out their hand.
“I don’t get it.”
“...You shake it.”
There was too much happening that just didn’t seem right. It had to be some kind of trap. Zatea stepped back.
The stranger’s shoulders drooped as they sighed. “Suit yourself.”
At that moment, another noise came into focus: boots marching closer.
Zatea held her bag close. “I knew it.”
The stranger played dumb. “Knew what?”
Z turned off her flashlight and attempted to back herself against a wall, but miscalculated her step. She stiffened at the sound of tumbling debris, hoping in vain that the guards wouldn’t notice.
“Great job,” hissed the stranger.
She shushed them. The marching quickened and the beams of three flashlights entered the scene. It was over. Zatea would be thrown out of this place just as quickly as she was let in.
The capture was a blur. Zatea had never been any good at close combat, and she knew that that stranger wouldn’t defend her for more reasons than one. The guards led her, hands tied behind her back, to a fluorescent-lit hallway she recognized from her first day. Pushed past the Captain’s office and thrown into an empty room, Z assumed she was alone until that same masked figure from the water ride stumbled in, too.
Zatea cocked her head to the side. After she regained some composure, she remarked, “I thought you were bait.”
The stranger looked up from examining a large tear in his skirt. “What?”
“Why are you in here?”
“Because you gave us away.” It was surprising how much accusation they could convey with their eyes alone.
Zatea would have none of it. “You’re dressed like a clown, and I gave us away?”
They responded casually, “Yeah, that about sums it up.”
Z groaned and tried to find the least horrible-looking corner to sit in. The stranger went back to silently examining the damage to his outfit, so it seemed like the best time Z would have to think of a way out. Folding her arms across her knees, she rested her head and closed her eyes.
All she needed to do was find her bag, and she’d be fine, but she couldn’t figure out a way to get it back before she knew where it was. And how would she even find out? She was quite sure she had no leverage for negotiation, and quite unsure that negotiation would help her chances of being allowed to stay in the Park. Where would she go after she was kicked out of here? Could she ever find a better place? She could already hear the disappointment in Anevon’s voice.
How useless, thought Zatea. She squeezed her eyes closed tightly before opening them up again, then jumped at the sight before her. The masked stranger was staring straight at her from across the room. They waved.
Z couldn’t help herself. “What is your problem?”
Completely unfazed, the stranger replied, “This room is boring.”
They were even worse at making sense than most people Zatea met. “I know. It’s a cell.”
“They couldn’t’ve spiced it up? Added some chained up skeletons or something?”
“That would be horrible.”
“Not worse than this! At least something would distract me from the smell of piss!”
Zatea massaged her forehead. “Thanks so much for reminding me.”
“You’re welcome.” They crossed their arms and stayed quiet for only a few seconds before speaking again. “So I’m guessing it’s your first time here?”
“Yeah.” As little as she wanted to keep talking to this person, it probably would have been worse to ignore her. “I’m guessing it’s not yours.”
“I practically live here,” they asserted proudly.
Zatea perked up. “So the Captain hasn’t kicked you out for breaking in?”
They chuckled. “Oh, no. He wouldn’t dare.”
Now this was interesting. Was the Captain not the highest authority here? “Why not?”
The stranger crossed her legs elegantly and straightened her posture. “I’m just that important.”
“And what exactly makes you important?”
“My connection to the Maelstrom,” the stranger said with a flourish of her hand.
“Hm.” Z narrowed her eyes and relaxed back against the wall. Anevon was the only person she’d ever met who had admitted that out loud, and she had been wary to do so. Then again, Anne was wary of most things. Maybe Sensitivity was treated differently here. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I can see beyond this reality.” They were starting to take on a showman’s tone and to add theatrical gestures to their sentences, which made Zatea even less inclined to believe them. “And I can leave this reality, too.”
While that did sound like Sensitivity, it also sounded a lot like bullshit. Zatea didn’t realize she was making a face until the stranger started laughing. When Z tried to straighten out her expression, the stranger’s laughter only grew to a cackle. Z’s face reddened. “What?”
When the stranger calmed down, he simply sighed, “I just love meeting new people.”
Z crossed her arms tighter. She couldn’t tell whether or not she should take the gamble of trying to get on this person’s good side. Either they were telling the truth that the Captain needed them here, or they were lying to watch Z crash and burn with them. The latter seemed a little more likely, given how volatile they’d been. But before Zatea could think of something else to ask, there was a loud knock on the door.
The stranger hopped up, greeting the Captain with obviously fake admiration. “Why, is that the Captain Swweets?”
Zatea followed suit and stood up, thinking that it might be a sign of respect here. It was also, conveniently, a better way of getting a head start at running. When the Captain closed the door behind him, Zatea held her breath. She felt like he was looking straight through her.
And then, he turned his attention to the stranger. “Why’d you drag Zatea into this?”
“I didn’t drag her into this,” said the stranger indignantly, “I was there, and she was there, and then she tripped over some shit and gave us both away.”
“Great job throwing her under the bus,” remarked the Captain.
The stranger protested, “I’m literally just saying what happened! Uh-” To Z’s dismay, they turned to her. “Zatea? I guess? Tell him what happened.”
Z blinked. Too much was going on at once, and the words couldn’t quite make it from her brain to her mouth. Zatea must have looked a bit like a deer in the headlights, because the Captain took the brief gap as an opportunity to chastise the stranger again: “Don’t pressure her.”
“Would you let her talk?”
The Captain rolled his eyes and looked toward Zatea again.
“They’re right.” Was all she could say.
“That you two were there separately?”
The Captain nodded thoughtfully, and the cell went terribly silent. Z could feel her heartbeat in every part of her body. The Captain finally shattered the quiet with a heavy sigh. “Look, Zatea. You’re new here; I’ll give you an offer.” Zatea’s shoulders relaxed just a little. Maybe she wouldn’t be doomed to another few years of scavenging the Nowhere.
“I’ll let you stay in the Park if you work as part of my crew,” said the Captain.
Zatea had hardly begun to consider the offer before the stranger interrupted, “You ass.”
“Stay out of this, Selfen.”
“No! I’ve never heard you offer this to someone you’ve captured before.”
“That’s because they’ve all been associated with you.”
Now that Z thought about it, it did feel strange that the Captain seemed defensive of her as soon as he came in.
The stranger—Selfen—suddenly adopted a commanding tone. Z might have thought they looked formidable if they didn’t have the air of a costumed chihuahua. “You’re going to let her go on a warning.” Maybe they were just that important.
The Captain dismissed Selfen’s order with a simple yet powerful “No.” Or maybe not. “What do you say, Zatea?”
It also seemed strange that, of all the people that lived in this park, The Captain remembered Zatea’s name after meeting her once. Something was wrong here—but what other choice did Z have if she didn’t want to lose a place to stay? She did the only thing she could think to do, which was talk without giving a direct answer. “I can’t fight, but I can make things. And fix things.”
“What kinds of things?” asked the Captain.
“Anything with lights, wires, motors... mechanical things. I can work with guns, too, but they’re not my specialty.”
“So is that a yes, then?”
If she was reading this situation correctly, it seemed like the Captain needed her to work for him, or at least badly wanted her to. She tried to keep her face steady, but she couldn’t prevent it from giving off a slight smirk. If he needed her, that meant she had room to argue. “I’ll work for you, but not only for you. I want anyone in the Park to be able to ask for my services. And I want to be paid in parts.” She realized that was vague. “Mechanical parts, I mean. Not small amounts.”
Obviously surprised at the demand, the Captain considered what Z said for a moment. He countered, “Fine, but I’ll be your priority.”
“If you give me my bag back. With all the stuff in it.” It was possible Zatea was getting too cocky for her own good, but she felt like she might as well use it while she had it. “I’ll consider it my first payment.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, making her wish she hadn’t spoken again; but to Z’s relief, he concluded, “Fine. But I don’t want to see you in my headquarters again.”
“...Unless I’m working for you?”
He paused and exhaled. “Yes. And speaking of not being in my headquarters—” He addressed Selfen once more, suddenly sounding much more stern. “You have used up the last of my kindness.”
“When did you get that?” asked Selfen.
The Captain ignored the gag. “Next time you get put in here, you’re staying for a while.”
“You said that last time.”
“But I talked with Corin since last time,” the Captain added with the grin of a conqueror. Zatea couldn’t see Selfen’s expression, but their silent stare said everything. “She agreed that you’re abusing your end of the deal.”
“You’re bluffing,” Selfen tried.
“Well, either ask her yourself or see what happens next time.” The captain smiled with a pointed pleasantness, then opened the door and gestured into the hall. Both Zatea and Selfen stood there for a moment, unsure whether or not even this simple gesture was sincere, but Selfen eventually left the cell. When Zatea passed the Captain, he said, “I’ll get your bag for you. Wait outside the entrance.”
Selfen was leaning against a street lamp outside the headquarters while Zatea waited for her bag. The droning of unseen insects began to fill the air as the sun set. Selfen addressed her suddenly: “Zatea—” They paused and looked upward just in time for the lamp to light them from above, then continued, “I’m sorry if it seemed like I was trying to sabotage you or something. I didn’t mean to.” It was strange to hear that earnestness from such an uncanny-looking source. Underneath the lamp’s glow, Selfen’s mask cast a deep shadow over her eyes.
Z’s reply was automatic. “It’s fine.” Surprisingly, Selfen had no reply of her own. There seemed like no better time to ask, “Who’s Corin?”
Selfen crossed their arms, seeming to want to choose their words carefully. “She sorta lives here and sorta doesn’t. She was supposed to be keeping Swweets in line.”
Selfen shrugged. “He doesn’t like disappointing her, I guess.”
A guard walked outside carrying Z’s bag, began to ask, “Which one of you is—” and promptly gave the bag to Zatea upon noticing Selfen. As soon as Zatea took the bag, she quickly scanned through its contents to make sure everything was there and intact. All of the parts she’d taken from the animatronics were there, plus her flashlight, knife, and tool kit. Finally, she could relax.
“You know, you should stop by the Gift Shop sometime,” said Selfen, “It’s a pretty fun place.”
Z looked up just in time to see Selfen starting to walk away. “What’s the Gift Shop?”
“It’s right on the Plaza. Paintings in the windows. You can’t miss it.” They raised their voice as they moved farther away. Just before heading out of view, they called out, “I live there!” as if it had just occurred to them.
Zatea blinked, took a deep breath, and headed in the opposite direction.