Though she strove to keep her face as placid as she could on the outside, inside, Zirconia’s thoughts were traveling a thousand kilometers per second.

<Find a clear space—what’s that over there— was that a light?!?!—no, not a monster— this way?— no, too many people— are they listening to us?— this looks empty—dodge that—ah, just a metal pole— we’re still here, why are we still here— we haven’t been taken back yet— is the girl anywhere?— I don’t see her—why was the soldier taken?—no now’s not the time—don’t turn too much, don’t look suspicious— find a space—don’t go too fast— don’t lose the princess—where? There? Here—>

As they searched for what she hoped would be a safer location, Zirconia beheld Princess Amber’s words equally alongside her own whirlwind of thoughts.

“—and I could barely even understand that old guy, what was his deal?? Was he like, talking about my clothes, or something???” Princess Amber said in incredulous tones.

Zirconia didn’t answer: drunken men were not a priority right now.

They continued trekking, still within the towering rows of great, rectangular buildings flanking them on either side, each with their own rectangular windows and doors. Zirconia barely registered them. Although an abandoned room would be best to gather their bearings, she could assess enough to know they were near nothing of the sort so far. Too many brisk people were around this otherwise open path; more, in fact, coming out from behind some of the doors as the sky was growing lighter and lighter overhead.

“Z, what’s going on? Why’d Kaito get taken and not us?? What just happened??? How do we get him back??” the princess demanded, returning now to voicing Zirconia’s shared, unspoken worries.

Later,” Zirconia insisted.

ggggGGGGGGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrr” A steady, low, sharp rumble was approaching them.

“Wait—what’s that sound?” Princess Amber said, looking around.

Zirconia did not falter. Instinctively, she stopped walking and drew as close as she could to the very surface of the nearest brick wall— preparing for the large, typical dog and brutalny soldier riding atop to come lumbering down the path. With one arm still firmly gripping BirdBot 2.0, Zirconia put out her other arm and made to pull the princess to the side as well…

…Until she saw what was making the noise: one of the many wheeled, crate-like robotic vehicles of this world. As soon as the vehicle came into their sight, it sped on by, just as quickly as it had approached. A few seconds later, another slightly smaller vehicle sped by them in the opposite direction. 

Zirconia breathed out in relief, putting her arm down. She reminded herself: in this world, there were no carrier dogs—none of the brutalny. Instead, there were many robotic creations similar to hers—these vehicles being especially common.

“WOAH! Z!!!! Did you see what just passed us???” Princess Amber piped, eyes wide and brows furrowed. She grabbed onto Zirconia’s arm herself and pointed to where the vehicles had driven.

“Oh, and look! These things are the same!” Princess Amber motioned to the long row of similar-looking, stationary vehicles a couple of meters away from them on the opposite side of the path.

“All these, like, big, shiny… boxes— I think they’re… metal?? And, hey! It looks like they have wheels just like your robot, only these are HUGE!” said the princess.

She walked closely up to one of the stationary vehicles and glared sternly at it. “I don’t know what they’re made of… but are all these things robots too? Huh, I think they also have glass, I can see myself in this one.”

Nearby, a woman standing next to a pole with a sign at its top eyed the princess up and down, concern clearly in her expression. She clutched the bag she was carrying closer to her chest.

Princess Amber didn’t notice.

“I don’t feel anyone else’s energies to these,“ she continued, turning back to Zirconia, who’d nervously stood beside the princess as she surveyed the vehicle, “But those ones that passed us must have had some crazy telepathy from SOMEBODY to go so fast!”

As the princess said this, Zirconia noticed even more people standing by the pole disconcertingly eyeing them. An elderly couple arched their eyebrows.

Yes, yes, quickly, Princess, we still need going,” Zirconia said under her breath, scurrying back into movement with BirdBot 2.0 clutched in her arms. She turned sharply around a corner where some trees grew beside still more buildings, still with similar colors, painted doors, and windows. Here, the buildings seemed to taper and change shape some, with pointier roofs, clusters of chimneys, and wider gaps in between with staircases and trees; but there still didn’t appear to be a place safe enough to stop.

“Wait up, Z!” said Princess Amber, running a little to catch up as Zirconia quickened her pace. “Z!!”

Briefly, Zirconia glanced at some of the writing and pictures on the walls they now passed, not slowing down– trying to get a better sense of wherever they were.  She could understand some of the written phrases: “Beer and wine”… (That could explain the drunken man from before…) “Tailor…” (Would they need to get new clothes to fit better in? But this wasn’t the time to think about haggling…) “Real… ‘estate’ for sale…” (Zirconia didn’t know what ‘estate’ meant, real or otherwise, but with ‘sale,’ at least she understood they must be in some kind of market section.)

This town, as ever, was completely new to her. 

For the past two years now, Zirconia had found herself walking out of Society and into the strange pockets of places this world seemed to hold. Where each space was always different, (at least, with the organic delta portals that is, versus the one the three of them now had materialized,) Zirconia could never stay long enough to truly know where she was… let alone why she was there. In fact, Zirconia once reasoned that if it weren’t for the tools and parts she managed to nick each time, she might well believe herself to be crazy. Who else in Society had she ever met that knew of these places??

That was why when the solider… Kaito… had surprised her, knowing of this place as well, she could not help but loosen up a little and trust him. And for what it was, he had not, after all, hurt them, taken the princess away… or… punished her.

She felt a twinge of worry for the soldier… but, pushed that out of her mind just the same. At the moment, she still had herself to worry about, not to mention the Princess.

Zirconia kept walking down the concrete path, her mind now in deepest thought.

As she glanced up, she could see the sun shining more prominently through white fluffy clouds: for some reason, yellow here, versus Society’s deep magenta-red.

While this had first been a shock to Zirconia, after enough times seeing it, she eventually accepted the sun’s difference as a strange fact of this world. She recalled how Princess Amber knew of this peculiarity as well, having researched her “documents” as she had put it, back in the forest. However, the princess was not able to give much more information about this world than what Zirconia herself had already learned: apparently, whatever mysterious sources Princess Amber had were very old, very secret, and very limited in nature. (According to her.)

That would not help them much right now.

Zirconia quickly reviewed all the facts she knew in her mind, now almost entirely tuning out what the princess was saying behind her. (–“Z!! Where are we even going right now?? ”–)

Each time Zirconia went through a portal, she could never stay for very long: sometimes minutes; sometimes merely seconds at a time; maybe an hour at most. Yet now, at least an hour had passed; they were still there, nothing pulling them back.

All other places Zirconia had gone to prior were always different locations— sometimes exteriors: places with HUGE rectangular-prism-buildings, covered in shiny panels of glass and surrounded by many people walking… surely as huge as the Palace itself. Sometimes, interiors: what could well have been the innards of these buildings. Zirconia didn’t know.

Either way, she was used to having to manage in these new locations quickly, each and every time. As the newness of this location itself wasn’t unusual, this alone didn’t tell her anything useful either.

Then, her mind turned to the very thought that apparently helped bring them there from the start: her one anchor that Zirconia grew to learn she could rely on.

Always, no matter which location each portal brought Zirconia to…

(…and for what it was, it was always somewhere Zirconia could spot her before being inevitably brought back to Society without being spotted in return…)

There was the same girl with the shiny black hair and exhilarating sparkle in her eyes… who, once, Zirconia was sure, she had seen fly.

And at that, Zirconia could still remember everything about that very first occurrence. Scrounging for raw material amongst the cliffs… then walking through to this world— to a soft breeze like she had never felt before… the curious, fresh green grass and rows of trees with gentle pink leaves.

And, clearly, the sound of song from behind her, coming from a melodic voice that instantly felt familiar to Zirconia, even though she could not understand why.

“I wish I was a bird, what would I ever come down for… Nothing but the dirt… could hold me to this cage.”

Zirconia remembered those words clearly… could never forget them. Somehow, even as it was in sung the same foreign language she had had to work to learn, she knew them… could feel the melody, the sound speak to her.

And Zirconia knew… that that girl had been singing her own desires as well.

She blinked, then shook her head a little.

Coming nervously back into the moment, it was perhaps this that unnerved Zirconia the most… even more than Kaito’s disappearance, people’s increasing stares, and solely the two of them still there somehow, as more and more time passed.

Where was the girl?

Off into the distance, across a rather large stretch of the hard, stony-gray-and-painted path on which they walked, Zirconia could see the outline of what appeared to be a small mountain.

It would do: nature would always do as the best of thinking spots.

Zirconia assessed. Although the mountain was within sight, not far away at all, there were now many vehicles passing in front of them left and right. As far as she could tell, no other person walking by crossed where these vehicles were treading. 

She furrowed her brows, considering all relevant data from Society that could possibly be comparable to this situation. Was this a special path they could not simply cross? Was it restricted to nobles? Was there an entryway where they could traverse? Did this space require a fee or inquiry at some kind of tollbooth? Could they spare the chance to study and find out?

As she weighed what it might take to make it to the mountain safely and inconspicuously enough, Princess Amber’s words came back into her consciousness.

“Ugggggggh, HEY! If you don’t wanna slow down for a second, then why don’t I just borrow one of these robot-boxes and make it zoom and carry us, like your old underwater boat, huh???!!” Princess Amber yelled grumpily. Again, several people turned their heads and stared.

Sigh…  

Nyet. For now, it seemed they would have to keep looking for an easier, closer space to reach.