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NaNoWriMo 2006

This is the longest story I've ever written. It didn't finish up until June, though my writing pace did slow considerably after Novemeber. All the characters in it are people who are (or were) on my f-list. I did 'win' NaNo, but perhaps at the expense of my (any anyone who read this) sanity.


 

I noticed the penguins first, though they turned out to be the least of my worries. They were actually quite helpful in the days to come. Their knowledge and assistance saved my ass more times than I can count while I was trying to save the universe. Oh, not this universe - the other one. Though in a way, I guess, it was also saving this one, because they said without an alternate reality our timeline gets all gafarbled - don't ask me how, it was complete gibberish to me when they explained it. Something about unstable nizbits and the flow of pipteps and anti-pipteps. It wouldn't destroy our universe, but it sure would get all weird. Sorry, weirder. Of course, maybe they were just saying that to secure my help. If my universe was about to be taken over by a raving lunatic, I'd say just about anything to get the help I needed.

But like I said, the penguins were actually quite helpful in my quest to save that universe, preserve our timeline, and protect the only gummi bear factory in existence - all while trying to save my own hide and get back home. Unlike most of the people I ran into - and over - in that universe. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

It started out like any other day where you get sucked into an alternate reality. It started with me trying to drag my carcass out of bed to get to work in a vague semblance of 'on time'. The funny thing is that on this particular morning, I actually woke up early - before the alarm clock! - but could not, for the life of me, drag myself out of bed. It was so warm and comfortable, and I was so very, very tired. Part of me wonders if my subconscious was trying to tell me something - maybe I shouldn't have gotten up. Maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe it all would have happened, but it would have been someone else's problem. Who knows? Last month I would have scoffed at the idea of such a premonition, but now... now I'm not willing to dismiss anything out of hand.

Still, the point is that I did eventually get up, but much later than I should have. I dragged myself into the shower and stood there blinking blearily at the tile wall. My mind raced with excuses for calling in, none of which sounded the least bit plausible. I’d already claimed flu last month, and had allergy problems last week. My boss had heard me begging a tampon from a co-worker two weeks ago, so cramps were out. In the end my weary brain decided it was probably easier to go to work and stare mindlessly at the computer screen than to come up with a good enough excuse.

By the time I got dressed I was running really late. I didn’t have time to wait for the coffee pot to brew a pot of coffee, and it was looking as if I wasn’t going to have time to duck into the coffee shop on the way to grab a cup, either. Which left me with the bleak prospect of drinking the office coffee – not a cheery thought. But if you’re dying of dehydration you’ll drink your own urine, and if you’re about to suffer a massive caffeine-deprivation headache, you’ll drink the swill at the office.

All of this leads to the fact that I was rushed, tired, and cranky thinking about the distasteful notion of that coffee when I flew down the stairs to the subway station. Literally. Somewhere near the top, maybe two or three steps down, I had a sudden attack of vertigo unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The world shifted sharply to the left, then back to the right, and suddenly I was sailing down the stairs noggin over butt. I had a brief moment of clarity and understanding halfway down. That frozen-in-time, impending-doom moment when you realize, ‘oh shit, this is going to hurt… and there is nothing I can do to stop it.’

A moment later I landed in a rather unseemly heap at the bottom, stunned but amazingly unharmed. No one even bothered to stop and ask if I was okay, they just kept rushing along, little penguins darting about underfoot. That’s the thing about living in a big city. People are amazingly self-absorbed. You get so used to misery all around you that you don’t even bother to look any more. Frankly, it’s too depressing. And half the time when you do try to help someone, it backfires. Too many thugs and criminals pose as helpless victims in order to lure you close enough to knife. People can’t afford to try to help other people. At best it can cost them their wallet – at worst, their life. So I wasn’t terribly amazed that no one came to my rescue.

I pulled myself up and dusted myself off. My knee was rather badly scraped, my pantyhose a ruined mess. Luckily, I keep several spare pairs at work, so I headed to the restroom to shuck this pair and clean up my bleeding knee. Only, the bathroom wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I’d been in this subway station hundreds of times, and I’m well acquainted with the location of the bathroom. (Don’t ask) And it wasn’t closed, or boarded up, or being renovated – it was simply not there. I stared at the blank wall for a moment, trying to wrap my head around this startling turn of events. One of the penguins bounced off of my leg and muttered a brief, “Excuse me” before hurrying on. I muttered back the appropriate, “Oh, excuse me” as if it was equally my fault. Which, of course, it was not. I was just standing there, not moving. But it’s a knee-jerk polite reaction. Like thanking a cop for a ticket. As if you’re actually grateful!

I set off down the hallway and after a brief search I located the wayward bathroom a few hundred yards further down. And not only is it in the wrong place, but once I duck inside I notice it’s also the wrong color. Where there were cracked puce tiles before there are now neat, pretty sea-foam green tiles. The ugly brown bench has been replaced by a classy scrolled wrought-iron one. The chipped and splotchy mirrors are now clean and shiny. I hurried to one of the mirrors and inspect my cranium for trauma. I figured I must have hit my head during the fall. A head injury would explain everything. Except for the choice of sea-foam green. I’ve always been more partial to bold colors, so I can’t figure why I’d conjure up such a pastel bathroom, pretty though it was.

There was no sign of blood in my hair, though, so I grabbed a paper towel and wet it in the sink. I shuffled over to the bench and sat down, my knee beginning to throb as well as sting. I peeled off the pantyhose and began dabbing at my knee. Of course, if there is severe enough head injury – say, I’m passed out and dreaming all of this – would I see it? Would my subconscious let me recognize the injury inside of my dream? I would agree that if I was just slightly woozy and disoriented I’d probably be conscious enough to notice the injury, but to be completely incapacitated, or truly hallucinating… But then, I’m definitely noticing the injury to my knee. So why would my brain allow me to notice one injury but not another? Is it because if I saw blood on my head I could explain this away, and my mind wants to keep me confused? Am I playing a Wizard of Oz mind-game with myself?

Suddenly I realized I am no longer daubing at my injured knee. A small, cartoon-ish, wing-like hand had taken over the job. I looked up to see a small penguin-like creature frowning at my knee. Much like the creatures I saw darting about on the platform earlier and the one that bumped into me. I blinked and, I’m ashamed to say, stared. Quite hard.

I say it looks like a penguin only because that’s the closest equivalent we have in our universe. But it doesn’t look like a real, live penguin. Imagine, if you will, a 2 foot tall stuffed baby emperor penguin. Then divide the end of its wing to give it fingers, like they do in cartoons. Cover it in something that is a cross between downy feathers and fur, in fairly traditional emperor penguin colors, but a little more on the blue-ish side. Now, broaden the beak a little, and make it soft and leathery. Add some teeth and you’ve pretty much got what I was staring at.

Forget the Wizard of Oz. My mind had stuck me into a Disney movie.

Luckily the little penguin was so engrossed in cleaning up my wound – its little tongue sticking out slightly in concentration – that it didn’t notice my faux pas. By the time a second penguin rolled up on a skateboard-like contraption, I was blankly staring at the back wall, trying not to flinch too much as… he? she? it gently tried to clean the grit out of my now-swelling knee.

The second penguin rolled to a stop next to the first, handing over a small satchel. The first penguin nodded in thanks and pulled out a small tube of something that it began to squeeze onto the scrapped portion of my knee. The burning pain began to subside immediately, and the penguins worked together to wrap a roll of gauze around my leg. Then they applied a small ice pack and wound a strip of elastic bandage over the top of that. Once the dressing was secure, the first penguin patted my leg in a comforting manner.

“There you go, love, good as new,” it said in a soft but clipped English accent. It nodded to the other penguin. “This here is Tjstein and I’m Maryeve. Anything you want or need, let us know.”

“But right now,” Tjstein chimed in the same soothing voice, “we need to get you to the head office. You’re already running a little behind schedule and we do need to get things moving. We do apologize for the abrupt transition, but you have to believe us when we say there was no other way.”

“Yes, we’re sorry,” Maryeve nodded in agreement. “But it was the only way. Your knee should be good as new in a few days, there’s no permanent damage done. But now we need to get you moving. Are you able to walk?”

I opened my mouth to reply, threw up, and passed out.

******

“Do you think she’s okay?”

“Did she hit her head?”

“I don’t know - did you see her fall?”

“There’s no blood, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a concussion.”

“Then again, it could just be the pain or shock.”

“Wait, is she moving?”

The babble of voices around me fell silent when I moaned and tried to open my eyes. My knee was still throbbing and there was the beginning of a vicious headache starting behind my eyes. I tried to open my eyes, but the moment the light hit them there was a stab of pain and I quickly shut them. At least, I thought, my initial reaction of a head injury was right. I would have laughed over the penguin hallucinations if I wasn’t sure it would make my head split open like an over-ripe melon.

“Where am I?” I asked groggily.

There was a momentary silence, then a brusque male voice said, “You’re at the Head Office, in the Councilor’s antechamber. Is there anything I can get you?”

“The where? The who? And, yes, coffee,” I said.

There was a soft muttering of voices and then a slightly nasal voice said, “We do not have… coffee. I can offer you a cup of herbal tea, if you like.”

Great, I thought, of all the places they take me to near the 187th Street subway station it had to be that new-age store. What was it called? Something about Karma and… I couldn’t remember anything but the frighteningly grotesque sun-face design they had on their storefront. At least they had a comfortable place to lie down, though.

“Can someone please please please run across the street to The Inner Bean and get me an extra large Café Mocha?” I pleaded. “I seriously need the caffeine.”

“The what?” the nasal voice replied. There was more muttering, and I heard the clacking of a computer keyboard. I finally pried my right eye open and blearily stared up at an elaborately carved mahogany ceiling. Turning my head slightly, I could see that I was in a plush reception room, complete with several long, low couches and a small desk, where the three other people in the room were huddled around a computer. My left eye slowly opened and the room finally came into full focus.

I blinked several times and surveyed the room again. There was something odd about it, but I couldn’t place it. The walls were a somber brown with a Venetian plaster texture. The few pieces of art that hung on the walls were vibrant, abstract pieces. The type that look like they had been painted by a four year old - or an elephant. There was a bookcase behind the desk crammed with old, leather-bound books, and next to it, an elaborate, carved doorway, the door hanging open a few inches. The interior of that room was dark, probably a store room. I couldn’t see the door that must lead out to the shop, I figured it was behind me.

“Is this were you do the readings and séances?” I asked, pushing myself up into a sitting position. I swiveled my head and saw the other doorway, with the same elaborately carved frame, but with the door securely shut. I thought I caught a whiff of fragrant incense in the air, but something still seemed a little wrong.

The tall figure at the desk looked up at my question. He strode over to the couch and sat beside me, frowning slightly. “The what?” he asked.

“You know, the Tarot cards, contact with the dead, all that stuff.” Suddenly I noticed what must have been bugging me about the room. It had no windows. Of course, that made sense – they could make it very dark for the candlelight rituals.

The man sitting next to me looked puzzled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Like I said, this is the Councilor’s antechamber at the Head Office. It’s where the Councilor’s guests wait if he is otherwise occupied, though in your case, he was waiting for you to regain consciousness. I have it on good authority,” he winked at me, “that these are the most comfortable couches in the building.”

I looked down at the plush velvet couch. It was soft. And it had been very comfortable. I yawned and thought about lying back down, just for a minute. Suddenly I remembered where I had been going when I had tumbled down the stairs and groaned. “Do you have a phone I can use? I need to call work and let them know I won’t be in.” At least this was an excuse I didn’t have to make up, and I certainly had a very swollen knee to prove it.

“That’s been taken care of,” the man with the nasal voice said as he walked toward me. He, too, was somewhat tall, and gaunt in a slightly menacing way. His face was hard and angular, and even though he didn’t look unfriendly, there was something slightly off-putting about him. The third stranger in the room trailed behind, a small pert-looking woman with a friendly face.

“Excuse me? How can it be taken care of? I don’t know anyone here.” I looked at each of them in succession for emphasis, “so there’s no way for you to know where I work or who to call.”

“I didn’t say I’d called them, I said it had been taken care of,” he repeated. The woman rolled her eyes slightly and finally spoke up.

“I think she’s still confused as to where she is. Remember she asked us to run to The Inner Bean?” she asked him pointedly. She turned and addressed me. “Men. They don’t understand anything unless you smack them over the head with it. Subtlety does not work.”

The man next to me snorted. “Ha! Telling us outright doesn’t even work half the time.” He stuck his hand out at me. “Hi, I’m Poskunk. That’s Nyarhotep and she’s Triskellion.”

Triskellion and Nyarhotep nodded at their respective names. Just then a small penguin poked its head in through the door behind the couch.

“I just wanted to see if she was okay,” the penguin said. I froze, staring at it. It was just as I had imagined… no, remembered it.

“Uh, Maryeve?” I said hesitantly.

“I’m Tjstein,” she said, smiling. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to tell us apart. Glad to know the shock didn’t mess up your memory, though.” And with that she ducked back out the door, shutting it behind her.

I blinked and looked around once more. “I wasn’t a dream or a hallucination, then?” I asked calmly.

“Are you going to pass out again?” Poskunk asked.

“I think that depends on your answer,” I said slowly.

“No, it wasn’t a dream or a hallucination,” Nyarhotep said. “This is… your world… I mean,” he broke off, looking frustrated.

“What he’s trying to say,” Triskellion said smoothly, “is that this is an alternate reality. Or, from our perspective, you live in an alternate reality from this one. Parallel universes.”

“Technically, it’s more of a set of twined universes,” Poskunk cut in. “Think of DNA strands… they run alongside one another, but with connection points. At these connection points it’s possible to cross over, if you know what to do and how, precisely, to do it.”

“Not to mention keeping the balance. If the cross-over isn’t balanced in both directions, the connections could become unstable and the universes could break apart,” Triskellion added.

“And what would happen then?” I asked.

“Bad things,” Nyarhotep said.

“What sort of bad things?” I asked.

“Really bad things,” Poskunk said.

“Meaning you don’t know,” I said.

“Er, no, we don’t know for sure. But we have an idea or three,” Poskunk said. Nyarhotep and Triskellion nodded in agreement.

“So,” I said tentatively, almost afraid to ask, “what did you swap for me?”

“A model DF-6700 fully functional android unit programmed with the details about your life we were able to get with a bit of detective work. It’s not perfect, but it’ll fool most people until you get back. If you’d been married, or had close friends, it may have not worked,” Nyarhotep said.

“But because I’m a loser and a hermit you could do it?” I snapped.

“Pretty much,” Poskunk said.

I turned to glare at him, but he just smiled at me. “You’re an ass, you know that?” I snarled. My headache was getting worse by the minute. “Look, if I don’t get some caffeine in me soon I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

“We don’t have caffeine here,” Nyarhotep said stiffly. “It was banned in 1854 as an addictive substance.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said.

“’Fraid not,” Poskunk said. “The good of the people, you know. I can take you to get a nice cup of herbal tea, though, or maybe some juice?”

I nodded glumly. “I guess.”

“We’ll be back in a few!” Poskunk said as he stood up. He pulled me up by the arm and walked me out of the room. I was still a little unsteady on my feet.

“Could you slow down a little?” I asked.

“This is slow.”

“No, it’s not. I’m going to have to jog to keep up with you, and if you subject my knee and my head to that right now you’re going to end up wearing whatever is left in my stomach.”

“How charming,” he said, but slowed fractionally. Six turns and countless passed corridors later we stood in front of a wall panel with an impressive array of buttons and knobs.

“Ladee Jane,” Poskunk said to the wall, placing his palm on a scanner.

“Yes, Poskunk?” the wall responded.

“I would like a triple Poskunk special, pale and sugary, please.”

“Coming right up. Who’s the newcomer?”

“This is…” Poskunk frowned, suddenly realizing he didn’t know my name.

“I’m Smeddley,” I said. “From the alternate reality.”

“I wondered why your scans were so odd,” Ladee Jane said. “The readings are similar, but there are some differences.” The voice from the terminal sighed, “No one ever tells me anything – you’d think they’d at least give me a heads-up that they were doing another cross over!”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Ladee Jane is… she’s not an A.I., but she’s not… real, either,” Poskunk said. “She exists in the computers, but she’s a real person.”

“Wait, this sounds just like that book I read,” I frowned. “Orson Scott Card. The Ender series. Her name was even Jane there.”

“Where do you think he got the idea?” Ladee Jane asked. “He was a crossover several years ago, another one of those important missions to save the universes. Only that time it was your universe that needed the work, so he spent his time just chatting with me and writing. Glad to see it came to something when he got back.” A door in the panel opened up and there sat a steaming mug of a muddy brown liquid. “One triple pale and sugary Poskunk special.”

Poskunk picked it up and handed it to me. “Our little secret, right?”

I eyed the cup suspiciously. “What is it?”

“Just a little something that might help your headache.”

I shrugged and tossed back the cup. The overwhelmingly bitter taste of extremely strong coffee hit me like a ton – make that two tons – of bricks. I almost choked. Not even the cream and sugar in the cup did anything to cut the taste of the thick coffee. “What,” I coughed, “was that?”

“Coffee,” Poskunk said in a low voice, taking the empty cup from me and putting it into a disposal panel. “Ladee Jane works it so a few underground growers are able to move the beans, and she’s sweet enough to make sure I have a good supply.”

“That is like no other coffee I have ever tasted,” I whispered. “How do you make it?”

“How else?” Poskunk looked puzzled. “Is there more than one way to make coffee?”

“Of course there is,” I said, starting to feel a bit dizzy. My heat was picking up speed at an alarming rate. “You can have a drip brew, or you can use a pressure-based technology to make stronger coffee. There are even the old-style French presses that just hold the grounds in the bottom.” I was beginning to sweat. One the up side, my headache was subsiding.

“Grounds?” Poskunk asked. “What do you mean by grounds?”

“You know,” I said, my stomach beginning to turn uneasily. “You and grind up the beans, then run water through them to make the coffee.”

“Right, you grind them up and suspend them in water – the strength is determined by how many you use per cup.”

“Suspend? No, you don’t drink the… oh god, how many coffee beans did I just drink?”

“In a triple? I don’t know, fifty or sixty, probably.”

The muscles in my face were beginning to twitch and my stomach was starting to clench. I was also starting to sway alarmingly. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“There’s one right down this hall,” he said, pointing.

I took off at a dead run and barely made it into the restroom before I threw up for the second time in as many hours.

******

I laid on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, letting my stomach settle. I still felt very twitchy, but at least my heart rate was slowing to a more reasonable rate - I no longer felt like I was about to have a John Hurt moment.

I flopped over onto my back and stared at the ceiling. This one was far less interesting than the last – simple acoustical tiles suspended in a framework of metal strips. Very ordinary, unlike the extra-low penguin-accessible toilets and sinks. I concentrated on the very ordinary ceiling, willing myself to wake up on the floor of the bathroom in the subway station, as disgusting as that might be. It would still be better than this.

My eyes had just begun to water from staring intently at the tiles when the bathroom door swung open. I didn’t look over, and soon I heard the patter of little feet coming towards me. I kept my gaze firmly locked on that tile. ‘Just like the ones in the subway station,’ I told myself. ‘Exactly like those.’

Suddenly a little penguin face invaded my field of vision. She waved her hand over my face.

“Hello, are you all right?”

“Just peachy,” I groused, sitting up. She folded her little legs under her and sat down in front of me, a worried frown on her beak.

“You don’t look so good. Can I get you anything?” She tilted her head to the side.

“No… Maryeve?” I replied.

She grinned. “Yes?”

Suddenly I felt a bit on the hyper side and very, very thirsty. “Where can I get some water?”

“The panel outside’s the easiest.”

“I don’t know if I trust it not to try to kill me again,” I said. My hand began to twitch and I started drumming absently on my thigh.

“What do you mean?” She stared at my hand, worry creeping back into her face. She reached out a hand as if to touch mine, but pulled back.

“Um… never mind.” My other hand joined in the rhythm, and soon my foot began to wiggle.

The door opened a crack and Poskunk called in, “You all right in there?”

“Finejustfine” I said, hopping up.

Maryeve stood up and looked at me worriedly. “You don’t look so fine. Are you sure you don’t need to sit down, rest a little?”

“Me? Nonononono. Rest is the last thing I need.” I practically hopped out the door and bumped into Poskunk standing right outside.

“Ready to get back?”

“Waterfirst. Ineedwater.”

“Whoa, slow down. You what?”

“Water-water-water-water-w-a-t-e-r. Cool wet stuff you drink.” I was bouncing up and down.

“Ladee Jane,” Poskunk said to the panel.

“Gotcha covered,” she replied, and the panel slid open to reveal a bottle of clear liquid.

“Here you go,” he said.

“What’s in it? What’s in this one? What strange way do you make water? Huh huh huh?” I peered at him suspiciously.

He stared at me for a moment. “You got me. It’s hydrogen hydroxide. We have a special process whereby we bond – hold on to your hat – an oxygen molecule, a hydrogen molecule – and here’s the kicker – another hydrogen molecule!”

I glared at him as I struggled to open the bottle. “Don’t be a smart ass. Goodness knows what passes for water here. I mean, it could be like those wacky Australian who call ‘jello’ jelly and ‘ketchup’ tomato sauce!”

He took the bottle from me gentle and opened it in one smooth motion. Then he handed it back to me and waited until I’d taken a long swig.

“We’re not that weird. There are some sedatives in it, though. I couldn’t have you going back to the office that hyper – even if Nyarhotep didn’t notice, Triskellion would have known something was up. And I can’t have her getting suspicious on me right now.”

“You drugged me?!” I stared at the water bottle. “But… it was sealed.”

“Uh, you do know how the panels work, don’t you?”

“Of course I don’t. It’s not like I made field trips to the alternate reality in grade school. Seriously, did you ever see a troop of alternate universe kids parading down the hallways? The teacher pointing and lecturing, ‘Now children, in case you ever fall down the subway steps and find yourself sucked back into this dimension, there are a few things you should know. See this panel here?’” I paused to draw in a deep breath. “No, you didn’t, and since you’ve been with me pretty much the whole time I’ve been here and conscious, unless you told it to me I. Do. Not. Know. It.” I ground the last few words out past clenched teeth.

“A wee bit testy, isn’t she?” Poskunk looked down at Maryeve, and she shrugged.

“I can’t say I blame her, it is a lot to take in,” she said mildly. “If you don’t need anything else…?”

“I might need a referee. Or an ambulance,” he said as I glared at him. “No, go ahead. I’ll yell if I need help.” He grinned at me.

“Oh, you’re going to need something,” I sputtered. My mind swum as I tried to come up with an appropriate insult. “You… you… you…”

He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall, eyebrows raised. “Me what?”

“Nothing,” I grumbled, staring at the floor.

“No witty insult? No slam on my character? No belittling of my manliness? My, you’re slipping.”

“I just can’t think right now. What was in that water?”

“I don’t know, just something to counteract the caffeine.” He pushed himself off the wall and started down the hallway. “C’mon, let’s get back.”

I shuffled after him, the high of the caffeine rapidly being replaced with lethargy. I stifled a yawn as I trotted to keep up.

“So how do they work?” I asked.

“What?”

“The panels.”

“Oh! Those.”

We walked along the hallway a little longer without speaking. Finally I said, “Yes, those. How do they work?”

He turned to look at me. “Hmmm? What? Oh! The panels. Right. Trust me, you’ll be disappointed.”

“Why would I be disappointed?”

“Because you’re probably expecting it to be like that TV show you guys have… you know, Star Trek?”

“I know Star Trek,” I replied.

“Of course, it doesn’t top the Star Wars movies, especially the gold bikini scene,” he said, waggling his eyebrows at me.

“We were talking about the panels,” I ground out.

“You’re no fun. Fine, the panels. Not like Star Trek, they don’t materialize anything out of thin air.”

“But if it was just like a vending machine, you wouldn’t have been able to slip anything into the water – unless,” I yawned, “all the water had it in it.”

“Or, perhaps, I’m good at slight of hand. One, I’m the one who took the bottle from the panel. You don’t know if there was anything else in there. Two, I opened it for you. There’s a possible explanation right there!”

“So is that what happened?” We had reached the door to the antechamber and stood facing each other. Or, more accurately, I was facing his chest and he was looking over my head. I craned my neck back to look at him. “Is it?”

“Maybe,” he smiled, and opened the door. He strode into the room and I was left to follow, glaring at his back. He seated himself on a sofa and I plopped down next to him.

“You’d certainly think you’d be nice to someone you want to keep a secret, wouldn’t you?” I hissed at him out of the corner of my mouth.

“Yeah, you would think that, wouldn’t you?” He grinned at me and winked.

“Are you feeling better?” Nyarhotep asked from across the room. He and Triskellion were hunched over the computer on the desk. Whatever news it was bringing them, it didn’t look good. Nyarhotep had a deep frown on his face and Triskellion looked worried.

“I’m…” I glanced at Poskunk. “I’m fine. Still in shock, but… fine.”

“Good, good,” Nyarhotep said. I had the distinct feeling I could have said I had adders sprouting on my head and was hearing voices telling me to tap-dace naked down the hall and he still would have said that. “We need to brief you now and get you on your way.”

“Really, I’m more partial to boxers,” I said. Beside me, Poskunk stifled a chuckle. Triskellion started to smile, but quickly suppressed it. Nyarhotep just rolled along as if he hadn’t heard me.

“Now, there’s a lot you don’t know, but we don’t have time for all that. So here are the basics. There’s a good deal of commerce that passes between the two universes. You already know that the trades have to be even, so if something on either side is disrupted… It could be disastrous. We have reason to believe that the factory in question is the Gummi plant.”

“Gummi?” I frowned at him. “As in Gummi Bears? Why would we need to import them? There are bunches of places that make Gummi Bears. And Gummi Worms, and Gummi Fruit, and-”

“Yes, you have plenty of places that form the Gummi into different shapes, but no where in your universe can you manufacture the Gummi itself. Same with us and Easy Cheese. We swap the raw materials back and forth,” Nyarhotep patiently explained.

“You don’t have cheese?” I asked. “How can you not have cheese? No cows? What about beef? Oh my god what am I going to eat while I’m here?”

“We don’t have Easy Cheese,” Poskunk reassured me. “We have plenty of real cheese. And beef. Say, are you hungry?”

My stomach did a little flip. “Probably not the best idea to eat right now,” I said. “Considering recent events.”

“What recent events?” Triskellion arched an eyebrow and stepped forward, looking closely at Poskunk.

“Didn’t Maryeve and Tjstein tell you I puked on them?” I saw Poskunk relax out of the corner of my eye.

“No, they didn’t. That could be serious. You could have H.U.R.L. syndrome,” she said, wandering closer to look at my face. “Are you feeling tired? Dizzy? Confused?”

“Um, yes, yes, and yes, but do you think – and I’m going out on a limb here – it might be because I fell down a flight of steps, got sucked into an alternate reality, and have just been told there’s some grand mission I need to go on. Oh! And I’ll probably have to risk my life, too!” My voice was rising to a shriek. “And to top it all off – the proverbial cherry on the sundae – I find out that Easy Cheese apparently isn’t made from cheese. So what the hell have I been eating all these years?!”

Everyone was silent for a moment, then Poskunk leaned over and said softly, “You really, really really do not want to know.”

******

“Okay everyone, let’s get down to the brass tacks,” Nyarhotep said. He officiously adjusted his suit and leaned against the edge of the desk, trying to regain control of the conversation. Of course, it didn’t work.

“What does that even mean?” Triskellion cocked her head to the side and stared at him. “I mean, I know what it means, but… why does it mean that?”

“No one really knows,” I said. “There are several theories, but it’s one of those saying whose origins are unknown. The theory I’m most partial to is the one that relates it to upholstery – tacks are used to bind the webbing to the frame, so by getting down to those you’ve pealed away the fabric and the stuffing and can see what you really have. At least I think that one makes the most sense in the way the expression is used today. But who knows?”

“It could be that there was an original expression with an original, different meaning, but that meaning evolved over time, and so did the explanation of its origin,” Poskunk mused.

“True. I’m rather fascinated by the use of the expression ‘toe the line’ these days. I recently read a book where a juvenile delinquent character was told he was expected to ‘toe the line’ in a manner that suggested it meant ‘stay on the straight and narrow.’ Which, of course, is not the intent of the saying,” Triskellion pursed her lips and tapped a finger on them. “Which book was that…?”

“Actually,” I said, “that was exactly the original intent of the saying. It’s not the more commonly used modern version. So this saying illustrates the point of evolving language and sayings pretty well. For instance, nowadays in baseball terms, there’s the expression ‘Toeing the Mendoza line’ which means a batter is dangerously close to falling below a 0.200 average.”

“And that’s what I’d think it meant – like a racer who was edging forward, literally sticking a toe on the start line. You know, pushing things as far as possible while still staying just on the right side,” Poskunk said.

Triskellion nodded. “That’s how I most often hear it used. Where did you read about the origins?”

“Oh, I looked it up one day because I was curious. I had heard it used both ways one day and way curious as to which was right,” I replied. “The question now is, if something is accepted as common in language, does that make it ‘right’? True, language does change, but at which point is it less of an evolution than genocide and cyborg replacement?”

“What do you mean?” Poskunk asked.

“Let’s look at text messaging,” I said, starting to get worked up.

“And I’m sure this is all a very fascinating discussion that we can have at another time,” Nyarhotep said loudly. “In the meantime, remember that whole ‘universe to save’ thing?”

“Oh, that,” I said glumly, deflating. “I’d rather not talk about that.”

“You don’t have a choice,” he said grimly. “You’re not going home until this is sorted out, and if something goes wrong in this universe, you’re going to suffer the consequences along with the rest of us. So it’s in your best interest to not only talk about it, but give it the good ole college try.”

“Threats, now? Did I miss the bribe part?” I bit back.

“What, the continuation of life as you know it wasn’t bribe enough?” Triskellion said softly.

“Considering my life… no, probably not,” I said flippantly. “It was time for a change.”

“This would not be a positive change,” Nyarhotep said.

“You keep saying that. But you don’t know, do you? Maybe it would be better, more exciting, more… interesting,” I said.

“The grass is always greener eh?” Poskunk asked.

“When you’re living on a concrete slab, yes. Even brown grass looks appealing,” I replied.

“Wow, that was deep,” Poskunk said sarcastically. I stuck my tongue out at him. He laughed.

“Can we get back on track here?” Nyarhotep said impatiently.

“Can I ask a question?” I replied.

“I guess,” he sighed.

“Why me? I don’t mean that in a whiny way, but as a serious question. Why did you choose me, of all people?” I shifted in my seat and leaned forward. “There have to be tons of people better equipped in the hero field. I can’t think of a single thing I bring to the table.”

“What do you mean? You were chosen for your talents,” Triskellion said. She walked over to the desk and picked up a manila folder. “We coded certain requirements and exclusions into the program, and ran it through the database of known, available alternate universe people.”

“Why did it have to be a person from the alternate universe? Don’t you have heroes here?” I asked.

“Of course, but…” Nyarhotep trailed off.

“But what?” I pressed.

“It’s not in accordance,” Triskellion started, but Nyarhotep gave her a biting look and she broke off, her eyes downcast.

“Oh my god, please please please tell me this is not some hokey prophecy deal,” I moaned.

“It’s not some hokey prophecy thing,” Nyarhotep said. “It’s a deadly serious prophecy thing.”

I snorted. “You have got to be kidding me!”

“No, and I find it highly offensive that you aren’t taking this seriously,” he sniffed.

“Oh come on, those prophecies can be twisted around to fit anything. There are a bunch in my universe and people are always ascribing events to them – after the fact. Funny how they can’t actually be used to prophesize anything, but events can be squeezed in to fit the little rhymes afterwards,” I scoffed.

“These aren’t vague,” Nyarhotep frowned at me.

“Right. I’ll believe a prophecy when it comes right out and tells me something,” I said.

Nyarhotep took the folder from Triskellion’s hand and plucked out a yellowing page. He pulled a small pair of reading glasses out of his pocket and perched them on his nose, then read:

“On the 1st day of the month of November in the year 2006
You shall procure the needed help on the subway stairwell on 187th Street at 8:15 am.”

He looked at me over the top of his glasses, and I shifted in my seat again. I cleared my throat. “There were tons of people on that platform. It could have been any one of them!”

He arched an eyebrow and looked back down at the paper.

“Her name shall be Smeddley, a woman of talents necessary to complete the task set out, though it may not be obvious how or why. It has been foreseen that she is the one, and you must not doubt the validity of the prophecy…”

“Look, it’s a common name! I’m sure the prophecy meant some other Smeddley, and if you go back tomorrow you can probably catch her!” I said. He shook his head at me and kept reading.

“…though she may appear to be a right pain in the ass.”

I shot to my feet and snatched the paper out of his hand. “You are so making that up!” I snapped. I looked down at the paper, which was a copy of a page of very old script. The writing was curly and ornate, and it took me a little while to wind my way through it. My cheeks began to burn as I realized it did, indeed, say just that. It also went on to describe my physical characteristics in great detail, right down to the color of underwear I was wearing.

“That’s… that’s… quite a coincidence,” I stammered. “But I still don’t believe I’m supposed to save the universe. I can’t!”

“But it says you can. So you will,’ Nyarhotep said.

I looked at the other two for support, but neither would meet my eyes. Either they believed in the prophecy, or they weren’t going to show their doubts in front of Nyarhotep.

“This. Cannot. Be. Happening,” I spit out each word. I flopped back on the couch with an overly dramatic sigh.

“You’re not going to faint again, are you?” Poskunk asked warily, scooting a bit further away from me on the couch.

“No,” I snapped. “I am not going to faint again.”

“Look, back to the bad guys…” Nyarhotep started, but I cut him off.

“Seriously, look at all I’ve been through. Can you blame me? I mean, here you are, making it sound like some horrid failing that I can’t handle the whole ‘sucked into an alternate reality to save the universe’ scenario right out of the box, but I’d like to see any of you deal with it better if you were in my position,” I said, taking deep breaths to try to calm down. “Now, tell me how many villains I’m dealing with.”

“Are we counting sidekicks?” Triskellion asked, consulting a sheet of paper from the folder.

I frowned. “I don’t know. I guess it depends. Are they a threat in their own right? If the villain was knocked out of action, would the sidekick be able to take over? If not, then no. If so, I think we have to go for yes.”

She nodded, and began ticking off the names on the list. “Akirad’s the first threat, with his sidekick – a capable one – Penchaft. He has some ‘bath the world into submission’ plan. Details on that are still sketchy. There’s an unknown villain we’ve dubbed Naked Blue Ninja, for, um, obvious reasons. We’re not sure of the motivations there, she might just enjoy causing general havoc. So far we haven’t been able to spot a clear motive or target. You also have Alphabet, Happyconfusion and Jennafern. They’re a trio of villains we’ve dubbed ‘the triple geeks’ working together to disrupt the connections between the universes. Actually, to say they are villains is a bit of a misnomer. They think what they’re doing is good and right – something about not messing with nature and all that – but they way they’re doing it is pretty darn villainous. They’ve set up a mobile computer base and are launching viruses by the hundreds. You have Oh Lah and Elaran working on the Gummi factory – we’re not at all sure the motivation there. It’s either about trade inequities or a labor dispute. But they have quite a few supporters, so it’s been tough to counteract them. Oneworldvision is heading a cult that promises unified universes through peace, love, and meditation, but we’re positive it’s just a front and she’s bent on world domination. Interesting thing there, we’ve spotted Penchaft there as well. At least, someone who looks a lot like her. But that doesn’t make sense, since Akirad and Oneworldvision are sworn enemies. At least, publicly. We can’t rule out that they are secretly working together. Then there’s the rogue ship S/V Galena that’s gone haywire and is blowing up seaports. But that’s only if you have time.”

“Right.” I swallowed hard. “And on my side?”

“You have me and Nyarhotep here at the Head Office, though we’re restricted to giving you information as we can’t leave the premises. We’re trying to keep this very low-key, and we don’t want it to appear as if anything is wrong. Ladee Jane can help you with information where ever there’s a computer terminal, though. Maryeve and Tjstein can run errands and spy for you. Poskunk will show you around, acting as your liaison. We have Clare-Dragonfly encamped outside Akirad’s compound, though she hasn’t been able to gain access. Foxfirefey is infiltrating the triple geeks with the help of her twin, Coyote. Gelsey and Nicked Metal are working with the Gummi resistance, and Pinkjennywriter, Revoked Soul, and Sicsempersoy have joined Oneworldvision’s cult. Whirring Mind has set off after Naked Blue Ninja, but we haven’t had a status report from her in awhile. Pizzamaker1000 is on the trail of S/V Galena. Last I heard she had made one attempt to board but had not succeeded”

“Oh, is that all?” I asked. “Piece of cake.”

The door swung open and a young woman walked in, dressed smartly in a black business suit. “Are we ready?” she asked.

“This is Rebecca,” Triskellion said. “She will be your driver. Tell her where you need to go and she’ll get you there.”

“I think I can drive myself,” I said.

“Not here, you can’t,” Poskunk said. “Vehicles function a wee bit differently. And unless you have a port-jack in the back of your neck,” he lifted my hair and peered at my neck, “then you’re out of luck.”

“Really?” I turned to look at Rebecca again.

“Yes, really.” He stood up and pulled me to my feet. “I suggest we get moving.”

“Where to?” Rebecca asked.

“She said cake, and now I’m hungry. I say we start with a brainstorming session at the Lazy Goose. They have a killer chocolate cheesecake.”

I shook my head and followed them out of the room.

******

We walked outside the building and I got my first look at the outside world. I have been bracing myself for this, figuring it could go one of two ways. One, I wouldn’t notice much of a difference, except for perhaps some architecture and technology differences. Rather like the bathroom at the subway station – subtle differences, nothing that screams out at you. Two, it would be completely wonky with a purple polka-dotted sky and red plaid grass outside of the relatively normal buildings. But nothing prepared me for what I saw. Or rather, what I didn’t see.

There was no sky, no grass, nothing visible at all. All I could see was a very dimly lit street. There was hardly enough light to see ten feet in front of you, let alone up to the sky or down the block. I stopped suddenly, and Rebecca and Poskunk turned to look at me.

“Well?” Poskunk said impatiently. I thought I heard his stomach rumble, but I can’t be sure. “What’s the hold up?”

“It’s… dark. I didn’t realize it was so late,” I said. But even as I said it, I knew that couldn’t be the answer. It was too dark for it just to be nighttime. There were no stars, no moon, nothing but absolute blackness above.

“It’s not,” Rebecca said. “It’s only ten in the morning.” She frowned and ushered me towards the car. “And if we don’t get a move-on you’ll miss the breakfast special!”

“And we can’t have that,’ Poskunk grouched. “I’ve been craving a breakfast sandwich for a week, but they keep expecting me to do this work thing and I miss out on breakfast time.”

“Couldn’t you just get up early?” I asked, but did hurry myself towards the car.

He shot me an acid look and simply said, “No.”

We clambered into a small bullet-shaped capsule parked at the curb. Rebecca took a seat at one end and gestured us towards the other. We sat down on a padded bench and I started looking for the seatbelt. Poskunk and Rebecca watched me paw at the seat for a few moments before he finally broke down and asked me what I was doing.

“I’m looking for the seatbelt,” I said.

“We don’t have any,” Rebecca said, picking up a slender cord and sliding the jack into the back of her neck. “No reason to. There are no crashes.”

“How is that even possible?” I asked, but Rebecca closed her eyes and I felt the little capsule begin to move. I couldn’t tell what direction we were heading, and there was no sound at all.

“It’s all controlled by computers,” Poskunk leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Sure, she tells it where to go, but the computer does all of the work maintaining the buffers between other vehicles and building. It also calculates the best routes and lanes to use. Very efficient mode of transportation, but unfortunately to drive yourself you have to be… altered. Because you need the port to interface with the computer. So most people who aren’t wealthy enough to hire a driver take cabs or the public transport tubes.”

“Why can’t you just tell the computer – like with the panels?” I asked. “That sort of a connection seems like overkill for a simple navigation input.”

He sighed. “It’s not just that. The computer is making the calculations, but it’s using her brain to do it. That’s why she can’t talk right now. We don’t have the energy resources to power a supercomputer big enough to do all of this, so we use people. It’s efficient, clean energy.”

“Still, it seems… wrong. Using them like that.”

“Any more wrong than using a factory worker’s hands to assemble a product? We’re not doing anything against their will. They signed up for the job.”

“I just…” I broke off.

“It seems like it should be wrong, doesn’t it? You want to twist it into some Matrix-like scenario where the government is deceiving its people.”

“Well… yes. It does seem wrong.”

“But why? How is it any different from using your noggin to figure drainage calculations?”

“It’s invasive. It’s in her head!”

“As it is when you think. It’s really no different. Ah, we’re here!” He stood up and walked past the now blinking and smiling Rebecca. “Are you coming in?” he asked her.

“No, I have some reading to catch up on, and unlike some people, I get up early enough for breakfast!” She smiled and pulled a thin volume out of her jacket pocket. I shuffled by her, not quite looking at her and the cord that still trailed out of her neck.

“It’s just creepy,” I said as we entered the small diner.

“It’s just different,” he corrected me. A waiter (who was not, to my surprise, a penguin) escorted us to a table and handed us some well-worn menus.

“You say ‘toe-mah-toe’, I say ‘toe-may-toe’” I muttered under my breath. He gave me a look but didn’t say anything.

We stared at our menus in somewhat companionable silent for a few minutes. I was waffling between the pancakes and the French toast when he suddenly said, “So what’s the plan?”

“I was thinking of going with the pancakes, actually. I see they have boysenberry syrup and it’s my favorite. Though I can’t say the French toast didn’t give it a run for its money. Sometimes I’m more in a French toast mood despite the syrup choices, but I’m not feeling much like eggs at the moment. And I do have to remember that I’m not at home, and I’m not certain what sort of eggs would be used in any case. Though, come to think about it, pancakes have eggs in them, too. So it’s really a no-win situation. Maybe I’ll just have a bowl of oatmeal. And probably a glass of orange juice, though I wish I had some real coffee. You?”

“Not about breakfast,” he said, exasperated. “Though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that French toast is just regular toast cut into the shape of an acorn, and pancakes are made of potatoes, no eggs. I was talking about the mission! Remember the whole save-the-universe thing? What’s your plan there?”

“Plan? I have no plan. I don’t need no stinkin’ plan. Because I’m not going to do anything. And why on Earth would cutting something into the shape of an acorn make it French?”

“On Earth it wouldn’t. You’re not? Why?”

“Because I don’t see the need to risk my life in some hair-brained plan that may or may not lead to a ripple in the time-space continuum. For all you know these thins could have no effect and I’d be dead for no reason. And that would suck.” I signaled for the waiter and he came over and took our orders. Once he was gone, Poskunk sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“What if I can convince you it’ll be in your best interest? And not in the ‘good of the universe’ altruistic best interest, but something that would effect you personally – and deeply. How would you feel about it then?”

“I guess it would depend on how deeply and personally it will effect me. And how would you convince me?” I cocked my head to one side and stared at him speculatively.

“I can take you to the monastery where the prophets live. We can talk to the one who wrote your prophecy – see if there’s anything he can do to convince you.”

“That’s your grand plan to convince me? You know I still think the ‘prophecy’ that you already showed me is horse hockey. You probably wrote it while I was unconscious. Which means someone looked at my underwear.” I scowled at him.

“Don’t look at me. I have no way of knowing you have on happy face underwear.” He smiled smugly.

I glowered at him. “So I either have to accept the prophecy is genuine or deal with the fact that you were sneaking a peak at my underwear while I was unconscious.”

“Well, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Could be both.” And then he had the audacity to wink at me!

“You… you…” I sputtered.

“What, at a loss for an insult again? Man, I’m good!” He grinned at me. “Seriously, though, it’s worth a try. What do you say?”

“Fine,” I said, just as the waiter returned with our food. We ate in silence, the air somewhat tension-filled but all in all not bad considering the circumstances. I would have expected a cloud of tension visible to the naked eye and so thick you could cut it with a spoon. But somehow I couldn’t stay mad at him, even though he was a complete ass. He was a cute, charming complete ass.

When we finished he paid the tab and we went back to the waiting capsule. I still couldn’t quite look Rebecca in the eye as she greeted us and inquired as to our destination. Poskunk told her, and we all settled in for the short, silent ride.

******

We pulled up outside of an old, crumbling structure. I could barely see large walls rising out of the gloom. The architecture reminded me of the buildings I used to make with my Legos when I was a kid – blocky and awkward, but functional. Only their Lego blocks were all a dull adobe color and didn’t have the connecting bumps and divots on the top and bottom. As a consequence, several of the building’s walls were beginning to slide apart and bow. I looked nervously at them. Small chunks seemed to be missing in an odd, haphazard way.

“Is it safe to go in there? I mean, it looks like the whole thing could collapse at any minute!” I asked as we approached the front gate. There was a line of people waiting to get in, and every now and then a person would come out and the line would inch forward. Poskunk guided me to the front of the line, and I could feel the hostile glares of the other people.

“Of course it’s perfectly safe,” he said, pulling out an identification badge and showing it to the guard. He nodded and let us in. I could hear muttering behind me.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t wait in line?” I asked anxiously. I gestured vaguely to the line. It stretched out into the darkness and unknown distance. “They seem a little upset about us cutting.

He turned to look at me. “We don’t have time. That line stretches for miles. It could be days, even months before we’d get in. And your mission is a little more pressing. And time-sensitive.”

Suddenly there was a commotion outside the gate, and I rushed back to look. In the distance, growing closer, we could hear someone shouting.

“Did you just hear something about a squid?” I asked Poskunk, but he was already scrabbling in his coat pocket.

“Quick, come here!” he grabbed my by the arm and pulled me to him, covering us both with a thin plastic sheet. I looked around and saw several of the guards doing the same. The people at the front of the line were starting, their mouths hanging open in shock at something moving rapidly towards the gate. I could hear it more clearly now.

“I’m a squid! You’re a squid! Squirt and be free! Free! Yahoooo! I’m a squid – be a squid – feel the squid! The squid-ness holds the key. You shall be saved! Free! Squirt, my friends, squirt!”

A woman, completely naked and painted blue came streaking past the gates. She has something plastic on her head that resembled a surgical glove, the fingers blown up and waving in the wind. She held a bottle full of an inky liquid that she was squirting on people as she ran by shrieking at the top of her lungs. If it hadn’t been for Poskunk’s plastic sheet I would have been completely blue. And then, as quickly as she had come, she was gone.

Poskunk neatly crumpled the thin plastic sheet ink-side in and tossed it into a nearby trash can. He pulled on my arm until we were moving towards the doorway of the small, squat building in the center of the complex. We stopped outside of the ornately carved wooden door.

“What was that?” I asked.

“That was the Naked Blue Ninja,” he said grimly, shaking his head.

“What was she doing?”

“No one knows, really. She’s not as clear-cut as the Triple Geeks or the Gummi Resistance. There doesn’t seem to be a clear agenda or target. It’s very random. Although the squid trick is one of her favorites.”

“Is it possible she’s not really doing anything?”

“What do you mean? She’s causing quite a disruption!” He watched my face closely for my response.

“But she doesn’t necessarily have any evil intent. Maybe she’s just…” I hesitated, chewing on my lip. “Maybe she’s just weird.”

“Nonsense. There’s no mental illness here. We have genetic screening for that.” He spoke slowly, still keeping his eyes on my face. It was as if he was testing my response.

“I don’t mean mentally unbalanced. Just… weird. Likes to do kooky things. Has an odd sense of humor. You know – eccentric.”

He smiled at me. “I have to agree with you there, Bob. I’ve been trying to convince them for ages that she’s no real threat, just a few cards short of a full deck. That doesn’t mean she can’t cause problems, though, so we do have to do something. We have a very ordered life here, and we can’t have it disrupted by fun things.”

“This is a very weird place,” I said, screwing up my face in a moue of distaste. “And you never did tell me why it is so blasted dark!”

“Ah, yes. The Dome. It protects us from the sun,” he said.

“Why? Is your sun more powerful than ours?”

“No, but exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer. So sunlight was banned, and they built a giant dome over the city to protect us.” He looked wistfully at the sky.

“But people need the sunlight! They need it to produce… oh, one of those vitamins. I think it’s D. Otherwise you’re terribly unhealthy!”

“We have vitamins we take. They’re not as effective as the sunlight, but they work. They’ll probably be coming through with the meat ban any day now,” he said sourly. “As if rationing us to five ounces a week wasn’t bad enough.”

“Who makes these decisions?”

“The High Council, of course!” he smiled sadly at me. “The old and wise ones. The ones that know what is best for us young whipper-snappers.”

“Have you ever been outside, then?” I asked suddenly.

Instead of answering me, he pulled on his watch so it slid slightly up his arm. Even in the gloom I could see the tan line. He winked at me again as the doors to the building opened.

A small, wizened old man stood before us. He ushered out the previous occupant and shooed us into the room. It was even darker inside, with only a few candles to light the space. I could see a few large pillows on the floor in a circle, and he gestured to those.

“What is it you wish to know?” he asked in a high, reedy voice once we had all settled on the cushions.

“Smeddley here needs some convincing about the whole quest thing.” Poskunk said.

“So, dear, you’re a doubter, are you?” he asked as he leaned forward and grasped my hand. His hands were cold and clammy, and I suppressed a shiver of distaste. His eyes fastened on my face and I noticed that they were slightly milky and clouded with age.

“Well,” I licked my lips, “yes, I guess you would say that.”

“And you really wish – no, need – to see the future in order to be convinced that you must do this? You are quite certain of this? It is no trifling matter, and once done cannot be undone.”

I glanced over at Poskunk, but he looked detached, bored even. I wanted to laugh it off, but the old man was making me a little bit nervous despite my rational side telling me it was all a trick, a hoax, a sham to get me involved.

“Um, yes. Yes, I’m afraid I will need proof.” I stuck my chin out and stared back into his eyes.

“Very well,” I heard him say and then I was falling. Not physically, but I could feel my mind sliding downward. It was a dizzying drop, and suddenly I was at the bottom. I could see nothing, but I heard the old man’s voice coming from far off.

“You shall see two possible futures. The one on the left will occur if you do not undertake the quest. The one on the right will occur if you do. I cannot control what portions of the future you see – your own mind will decide what is most influential and important to you. These visions will have their roots in the past – when you see them, they will be tied to thoughts and feelings that you’ve had. These are immutable futures. They will happen. Are you sure you want to see?”

“Yes,” I said, but my voice wavered slightly.

The screens flickered and began to glow. One event at a time I was shown a side-by-side comparison of the two futures. I saw a total of eleven events before I called out.

“Stop! Stop! I believe – I understand. Please, just stop!”

I felt myself being jerked upwards until I was once again sitting on the cushion. I sat there in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

Poskunk grinned in relief and the old man bowed and led us out of the building. I blinked in the comparatively bright light of the outdoors. I felt tired, drained, and very edgy. Seeing your future is not something to be taken lightly. I’m not sure if I regretted it, but I’m not sure I’d want to do it again, if I were given a second chance.

We got to the capsule and he was about to open the door when he turned and looked at me. “So, what made you decide? What did you see?”

“That’s a highly impertinent question,” I said with mock severity.

“I’m a highly impertinent person!” he said.

I looked at him closely, and I almost told him what I had seen. Almost, but in the end I couldn’t burden him with what I had seen. Not when it would impact how he acted around me. I couldn’t bear to see the look in his eyes if he knew how much, not to mention how, my actions would affect him. In the end I plucked out the most innocuous vision I had seen.

“If I don’t do this, Cleveland will lose the Browns again. And I cannot be responsible for that,” I said blithely as I opened the door and stepped into the capsule.

******

He started after me as I climbed in, not sure if he should take me seriously. I just smiled at him as I took my seat, though my mind was racing. I thought back over all that I had seen, not only what would happen in my own universe, but what would happen here.

“Where to?” Rebecca asked, looking up from her book. She placed a slender ribbon in to mark her place and put it back in her pocket.

I looked over at Poskunk, who shrugged. “Where ever you want to start.”

“Well, what all do we have to do?” I asked. I tried to think back over all of the various villains Nyarhotep had listed, but my mind was still stuck on those visions. I shook my head in a futile attempt to clear it.

He shrugged again. “Beats me. You’re the one on the mission.” He and Rebecca exchanged a subtle glance. I stiffened.

“But you have the folder, right?” I looked about the capsule desperately. “Didn’t Nyarhotep hand you the folder?”

“No, why would he have done that?” He looked puzzled.

“I… I don’t know.” I cleared my throat nervously. “Did he hand me the folder?”

Poskunk suppressed a smile. “I don’t think so,” he said gently. “Why don’t we find a panel and request it?”

“We can do that?”

“Sure, that’s what they’re there for – the quick and efficient transport of goods.”

“You never did tell me how they worked, you know.”

“I didn’t? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m positive.”

“Huh. Go figure. I could have sworn I did.” He looked at Rebecca. “We need a panel on the main feed – I don’t want to wait too long for too many transfers. The closer you can get us to the main tube, without going too far out of the way, would be good.”

“There’s the central branch of the library a few blocks over, what about that?” she asked.

“That’ll do,” he said, and settled back into his seat. I stared at him. “What?”

“The panels,” I ground out.

“What about them?”

“How do they work?”

“Are you sure I didn’t tell you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Positive?”

I’m not proud to say that at that point I emitted a sound that was a cross between a primal scream and a grunt, and launched myself at him. My hands aimed for his throat, but he deflected me easily. I bounced off him and landed back in my seat, arms folded, glaring at him. He laughed.

“Okay, okay, fine. I will tell you the story of the panels. If you promise never ever ever to make that noise again.”

I stuck my tongue out at him, then nodded. “I promise. I doubt I could anyway, even if I tried.”

“Okay,” he said. “A long long time ago, but in this very spot, goods and services were transported by ‘runners’. You’d order something on the computer, and a driver with a cargo capsule would be dispatched to deliver it. It worked fine, except for the problem with traffic congestion. Even with all of the computers controlling the flow, they couldn’t manage the enormous amount of traffic being generated by all of the orders.” He paused and looked at me. My confusion must have been evident. “Okay, remember, it’s not like your world. You can’t hop in a car and drive to the corner market. And everything here is too spread out to walk. So every time someone needed something – a stick of butter, their dry cleaning, anything – a runner was sent out. And since there was no coordination of the deliveries, they were driving back and forth all over the city snarling up traffic. There was a push to centralize the order system, but people baulked at having to wait in a queue for their deliveries. Even if it was only going to be an extra half-hour. They wanted their order sent out, and they wanted it sent out NOW. So Akirad devised a better system.

“Wait,” I broke in, “isn’t he one of the bad guys?”

“Sort of. He’s mostly an inventor. Sure, he has plans to take over the world – what mad scientist doesn’t – but for the most part he’s been mostly harmless, and even has had a few good ideas. It wasn’t until he took on Penchaft as an assistant that things got dodgy. Suddenly all of his inventions were specifically geared towards world domination. No more little money-making fluff ideas, things designed to help humanity, but more importantly, lined his pockets. Of course, with what he made on the panels, he never has to work again… so maybe it’s a coincidence, but I’m not so sure it isn’t mostly her influence.”

“It’s possible she pushed him over the edge. Concentrated his evil efforts,” I mused.

“True, but in that case you have to figure she has some agenda. There were far more powerful people she could have hooked up with at the time – people who, recently, have mysteriously disappeared. So there has to be something more to it, I just don’t know what.” He shook his head.

“It bears keeping in mind. But back to the panels…?”

“Ah, yes! His greatest invention. Well, not really an invention – he didn’t think up anything new. Just put the components together in a way they operated smoothly and efficiently. Basically, he designed a giant underground pneumatic tube system. Everything is transported in capsules through these tubes, and you have varying size tubes and capsules, varying priority lines and delivers, etc.”

“That sound very complicated.”

“It would seem that way, yes. But it’s really not. Each building has a small reception room in the basement. A sorter receives the capsules from the main tube and supervises the routing to the appropriate panel, if they are small enough. Larger items are held in the receiving room for pickup.”

“But,” I frowned, “you’d have to have a tube going directly from every building to every other building! That’s an astronomical number of tubes!”

“No, you see, the capsules are coded with the destination and are routed out of the main tube at the appropriate station. Like,” he paused and though for a moment. “Like your highway system. It picks the right off-ramp. But the coding…ah, that’s a story unto itself. Oh, we’re here!”

Our capsule had stopped and Rebecca was once again reading her book. She smiled briefly at us as we disembarked. I smiled back, realizing I was slowly coming to terms with the cord hanging out of her neck. “Can we get you anything?” I asked.

“A bottle of water would be lovely, if it’s not too much trouble,” she said.

“Not at all,” I replied as I hurried out of the capsule.

I glanced at the building in front of me, but once again the darkness made it virtually impossible to pick out much detail. But even with the limited visibility I got the impression of a giant, imposing structure. It felt as if it loomed over me, brooding menacingly in the darkness. I shivered slightly, and Poskunk glanced down at me.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“No, no, I’m okay,” I said.

“You can have my jacket,” he offered.

“No, I’m fine, really,” I said.

“Good, because then I’d be cold,” he said, and strode up the steps to the library doors. I followed behind, suddenly realizing that it was starting to get a bit nippy out. I shivered again, this time from the cold. I was rethinking my response when Poskunk reached for the door and pulled it open, then stopped so abruptly that I smacked into the back of him.

Standing in the doorway was a small girl, looking very sweet with her hair gathered in two pigtails. She was wearing what looked like a Catholic school uniform, a pressed white shirt and a pleated plaid skirt, with knee-high socks and Mary Jane shoes. She was clutching an armload of books and frowning at the library slip perched on top as she started to walk through the open doorway, then stopped abruptly as she realized someone was blocking it. She slowly looked up at Poskunk and I could see the change in her expression as she recognized him.

“So, we bump into each other once again. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were following me,” she sneered. “And who’s your little lap dog?”

“No one,” he said hurriedly. “Just someone I was holding the door open for. What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”

She looked unconvinced at his explanation, and I didn’t blame her. He was a horrible liar. She looked at me, sizing me up, while Poskunk became increasingly and noticeably agitated. I stared back at her, taking her measure even as she took mine. I realized that there was a coldness, a hardness in her eyes that jarred with her ‘innocent schoolgirl’ appearance. Above all, she looked shrewd and intelligent, and not someone to be dismissed lightly – ponytails notwithstanding.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she said finally, and rolled her eyes and pushed past him. She walked quickly down the steps and disappeared into the gloom of the street.

“What a… charming creature,” I said slowly, still shaken up by the encounter.

“Don’t let that innocent-looking exterior fool you. She’s no angel,” he said grimly. “That, my dear, was the nefarious Penchaft.”

******

We quickly retrieved the file, a few bottles of water and some snacks from the panel just inside the library’s massive front door. Well, not exactly quickly – there was a brief struggle to remove my head from the panel door. I was trying to see how it worked, and made a minor miscalculation as to head size. But a little pulling and I was soon free, though I had a sinking feeling that the ‘incident’ would not be soon – if ever – forgotten.

We were turning to leave the library when I asked, “So what was Penchaft doing here?”

“That’s a good point!” Poskunk smacked himself in the forehead. “C’mon!”

He spun me around and we headed further inside the library to the information desk. Perched on the chair was a penguin, beak buried in a book. Poskunk cleared his throat as we approached, and the penguin looked up, eyes lighting in recognition.

“Poskunk! Smeddley! What are you two doing here?”

“Tjstein, am I glad you’re the one on duty today! I need some info,” Poskunk said.

“I thought you worked for the Head Office,” I said, puzzled.

Tjstein smiled at me. “Officially I’m just a librarian, dear. We don’t mention my… outside activities.”

“Ah, I see,” I said. “Sorry.”

“No harm done. What can I do for you?” she asked.

Poskunk shot me a ‘you’re in charge, don’t look at me’ look, so I plowed onward. “That girl who just checked out – the schoolgirl dressed in the plaid skirt - what did she check out?”

“Penchaft? Lemme see.” Tjstein’s wing-hands flew over the controls. “Five checkouts, three holds. I can print you the list, if you like.”

“That would be lovely,” I said gratefully. She pressed a key and then hopped up and waddled to a printer. Grabbing a sheet of paper she waddled back and handed it to me.

“Anything else I can do for you?” she asked.

“No, thanks. You’ve been a great help,” I said. I turned and started walking back towards the front door, scanning the sheet as I went. Poskunk trailed behind me.

“So, what does it say? What did she check out? Nuclear Missile Building for the Layperson? How to Take over the World on Less Than $20 a Day? What?”

Wordlessly, I shook my head and frowned. I handed him the list.

Checked Out:

The Elegant Bath by Ima Raisin
Home Fixture Fixes by N.E. Spigot
Spa at Home by Bill Melater
Bathroom Layouts That Work For You by Dee Ziner
Laying Tile for Morons by Seymour Grout

On Hold:

What Subflooring Means to You by M.D. Eff
Pipes, Spigots and Showerheads by Plum Burrs-Tape.
The Professional Plumber’s Directory by Justin Case


He frowned at the list. “What the heck does this mean?”

“How would I know? Maybe…” I paused, shrugging my shoulders. “Maybe she’s just renovating a bathroom?”

“No, Nyarhotep said that Akirad had a plan to ‘bathe the world into submission’, but that no one had any idea what it meant. I guess they assumed it was code, but what if it wasn’t? What if his plan has to do – literally – with bathing?” He flipped open the folder and thumbed through it. “Hmm, the info sheet doesn’t give us any more information. It says here a spy heard the phrase, ‘..and the pathetic morons will bathe while we take over the world, powerless to stop us… [evil cackle]’”

I was staring off into space, trying to parse this new information when a napkin swirled down and hit me in the face. I clawed at it, crumpling it in my hand. “How did that happen?” I asked Poskunk. “There’s no wind. I’m officially spooked.”

He started to shrug, then tensed. I cocked my head to the side and could hear it, faintly. A scrabbling sound coming from the wall above us. I jerked my head up, but in the gloom I couldn’t make out anything. I saw movement in every shadow, and my skin began to crawl. I stared at the napkin in my hand and slowly uncrumpled it.

It was a typical diner napkin, complete with a coffee ring in one corner. There was also a big blob of blue ink in the center, but it didn’t completely cover up the drawing.

napkin

I whistled through my teeth. “Now this, this is creepy.” I looked up again, but there was no sound from above. “Let’s get back into the capsule.”

We hurried back to the capsule, me looking over my shoulder the whole time. I know it sounds completely corny, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was being watched. Someone had wanted me to get that drawing, and someone was sticking around to see what I would do with it.

“So, where do you want to go?” Poskunk asked. He handed Rebecca the water and a package of chips. She smiled gratefully, and they both turned their attention to me. I blew out a deep breath.

“Well, someone is on our side and wanted to make sure we got this,’ I said, holding up the napkin.

“Or someone is trying to look helpful and is really leading us into a trap,” Poskunk said.

“Thank you,” I said through gritted teeth, “I was trying to remain optimistic.”

“And I’m just trying to remain realistic,” he replied neutrally.

“Okay, but either way this is here, it’s one of our missions, so I say we deal with it now,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said, shrugging nonchalantly.

“Okay, so obviously we need to find Akirad’s lair. The file,” I said, picking it up and leafing through it. “It says you have Clare-Dragonfly attempting to infiltrate. Is there any way you can contact her and find his location? Damn, we should have followed Penchaft!”

“Or, we could just look him up in the book,” Poskunk said.

“The book?” I replied blankly.

“Okay, it’s not literally a book, it’s an electronic directory, but, yes.”

“He’s listed in the phone book?”

“Phone?” Rebecca looked puzzled.

“It’s the way they communicate in her universe,” Poskunk explained. “Like a low-tech version of our holo-coms.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding. “I can access the Purple book through my link and get the address. Is he listed under the villain heading, or do I need to look him up by his last name?”

“There’s a villain heading?” I asked.

“Of course! How else would you find a villain when you needed one?” She looked puzzled.

“I… I wouldn’t know,” I stammered. “I guess just be word of mouth. You know, a friend of a friend of a friend. Or something.”

“That seems terribly inefficient. How do they make a living?” Poskunk asked.

“They charge a lot? I don’t know. But you can’t advertise that you’re a felon or they’d be able to find you and arrest you.” I said.

“For what?” Poskunk asked.

“For being a villain! Doing bad things. Breaking the law!” I exclaimed.

“Being a villain doesn’t necessarily mean you’re breaking the law,” Poskunk said. “Most mad scientists are also cross-classified as villains, and so are most lawyers.”

“Yes, yes it does. That is the definition of villainy,” I said.

“I have it,” Rebecca said timidly. “Do you want to go now?”

“Yes,” I said, and she closed her eyes and the capsule began to move.

I settled back in my seat, scanning the open file in my lap. There wasn’t a lot of information about Akirad in it, though they had included some news articles and fact sheets on his patent of the panel. Included was a very small article about a court case being brought about the coding that went into the capsule navigation system, but it was woefully sparse on details.

“When you were telling me about the panels,” I said to Poskunk, “you mentioned that there was something about the coding – some dispute. What was that all about?”

“Ah, yes. That was the great schism of ’04. Drove the mad scientists into two camps, broke up the society. They’ve never recovered,” he said.

“So what happened?” I asked.

“Well, Akirad is a brilliant inventor. Great ideas. A little lax on the follow-through, and also lacking in some specialized knowledge. Like I said, a lot of the technology used in the panels was old hat. So old that no one person can lay claim to it. There’s nobody around who can say who should get credit for a system of pneumatic tubes, it’s just one of those things that’s ‘always been around’. But the coding was specific, and a very complex program.” Poskunk paused, gazing down at the file in my lap. “I’m not exactly sure how it all started. I don’t think they were really friends, more like acquaintances or coworkers. At any rate, Foxfirefey wrote the coding for the tubes. I don’t know if she knew that’s what she was writing it for, or if he spun some story for her. But she’s the one who put it all together, and…”

“And when he patented it, he didn’t give her any credit,” I said.

“Right, and no credit means no share of the royalties,” he said. “She tried to fight it, but there was no proof that she had been the one working on it. The files were all on portable drives, not registered to anyone. So he said they were his, she said they were hers, and it was a case of whose word to believe. Since he was the one to bring it in for the patent, he won, though most people that knew him knew that he wasn’t that good at coding.”

“Wow, that’s… crappy,” I finished lamely.

“She’s a little bitter,” he said. “But it did spark the practice of hiding your signature in code, and now there’s an annual contest to see who can most creatively – and undetectably – hide their signature in a program. The things they can come up with! It’s quite a spectacle. The guy who won last year somehow had hidden enough bits of code here and there that if you simultaneously pressed three keys, the computer played ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ while flashing his name on the screen. The crack coders that were judging never did find even one piece of it to remove it.”

“That sounds like fun!” I said.

“It is,” he said, “though Foxfirefey has never entered.”

“We’re here,” Rebecca said. She pulled the book out of her pocket and began reading as we climbed out and onto the dim street corner.

******

Poskunk climbed out after me and stretched. “It’d be nice if they made those things just a tad bigger, you know?”

“A little cramped and uncomfortable, eh?” I asked.

“Just a bit,” he said.

“Awe, poor baby,” I said sarcastically.

“What, a little sympathy would kill you?” he asked.

“Very possibly,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“We should probably make contact with Clare-Dragonfly and see if she’s been able to find out anything that she’s not been able to report. But we can’t let anyone of Akirad’s goons see us talking to her.”

“How do we do that?”

He glanced at his watch. “It’s dinner time, so she should be at the saloon. Hopefully she’ll be eating at the bar and we can sit next to her, and she’ll be sure to get any information to us.”

“Okay,” I said, and he ushered me into a nearby building.

My first observation was that it wasn’t much brighter inside than it was outside, and what little extra light was in the room was scattered by the amazing amount of smoke suspended in the air. Through the haze I could see there were only three people in the place – a woman at the bar, a man at a table, and the bartender polishing glasses behind the bar. I sneezed violently.

“Dog bless you,” the young woman at the bar said. She was young, with long, glossy black hair and a welcoming smile. She was wearing a long, dark velvet and lace skirt and a gauzy top. Around her neck was a large, brilliant blue gemstone.

“Thank you,” I said. “I love your necklace!”

The man sitting at the next table over glanced up as we began to talk, looking at the young woman through narrowed eyes.

“Thank you,” she said. “It’s a dragonsblood blue, set in mercurite. I love your shirt.”

“This old thing?” I smiled, fingering the blue raw silk shell.

“The color is superb with your hair,” she said.

I noticed the man’s eyes beginning to glaze over. He yawned and looked at his drink. Poskunk had drifted towards the bar and was motioning to the bartender.

“Why thank you,” I said, “though I would kill for your hair. How do you get it so shiny?”

She smiled broadly. “You’re too kind. It’s all thanks to Sir Spenser’s Shines a Lot. Have you ever tried it?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said. The man at the table had completely lost interest in our conversation. And we hadn’t even gotten to the shoes yet!

“You simply must!” she exclaimed. “I have some in my purse, though we need some water. Come with me to the bathroom and I’ll show you.”

She pulled the bottle out of her purse and showed it to me as we went into the bathroom. The man at the table didn’t even glance up as we went by. As soon as we were in the bathroom she opened the doors and looked in each stall. Satisfied that we were alone, she stood very close to me and said softly, “I’m Clare-Dragonfly. You’re here with Poskunk from the High Office, correct?”

I nodded, and she said loudly, “No, it’s just a small, pea-sized dollop. Smooth it through your hair like this.” She brushed some of the stuff through my hair as she lowered her voice again. “All the information you need is on this. Don’t let on to the other man out there – he’s watching me, and I’m this close to getting in.” She held the fingers of one hand an inch apart while pressing a small disc into my hand with the other. I fingered it for a moment and then placed it in my pocket.

“Wow,” I said, “that really does make your hair shiny. And soft.” I ran my fingers through my hair. Whatever it was that she had smoothed through it had done wonders. I tossed my head lightly and watched my hair swirl around my shoulders. She smiled, and we walked out of the bathroom. The man at the table peered suspiciously up at us. I ran my hands through my hair a few more times, made some inquires as to where to buy the product, and then Clare-Dragonfly and I parted ways. She went back to her place at the bar, and I went to sit at the table Poskunk had staked out.

“What do you think?” I asked.

He stared blankly at me, his eyes flicking around the bar, then back to me. “About…?”

“My hair! Isn’t it shiny? And soft – so very soft! Feel!” I learned over the table, thrusting a hank of hair at him. He timidly brushed it with one finger.

“It’s… nice,” he said.

“No kidding! I haven’t seen anything manage to detangle and shine like this – without weighing down my hair and making it look oily – since, well, never.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the man at the other table stifle a giggle. I kept on going, giving Poskunk a running, detailed description of all the great and terrible things I had done to my hair over the years. He got a bit of a kick over the tale of me accidentally dying my hair a deep, forest green, but for the most part he looked tremendously bored. But I kept going, through ordering dinner, seeing Clare-Dragonfly leave, eating dinner, and, finally, with one more sad shake of his head, the other man finally left the bar. I settled back and finally, to Poskunk’s relief, shut up.

He blinked at me a few times, the said slowly, “I truly hope that was all to throw Akirad off the trail, otherwise you’re an incredible boring conversationalist. I mean, you could have at least picked a topic I might be able to contribute to!” He stared at me pointedly, and my eyes trailed up to his shaved head. I turned pink.

“Sorry,” I muttered, “but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think a thing about me going back to meet with Clare-Dragonfly now!”

“And if that’s all it was, bravo. Great job,” he said.

“It was. I’m not that obsessed with my hair, really,” I said, trailing a piece of it through my fingers absentmindedly.

“Not if it’s green, at any rate, right?” he teased.

“Right, let’s forget I told you that little bit,” I said.

“Never. Now, what did she say when she was shining your hair?”

“Not anything, but she gave me this.” I handed him the small disk.

“Excellent,” he said, taking it from me. “Let’s go see what’s on this bad boy.”

We left the bar and headed back to the capsule. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the man from the bar – Akirad – watching us. I grabbed Poskunk’s arm and said in a loud, whiny voice, “We sat there all that time for nothing? I mean, we could have at least waited in a place with decent food. Or you could have bought me a drink.”

To his credit he didn’t even glance around or bat an eye. “Look, I’m sorry, I can’t make people show up. Maybe they were unavoidably detained. Maybe they didn’t have anything to tell us. We’ll come back tomorrow and see if we have more luck.”

“Ugh, again?” I complained as we climbed into the capsule. “Are you sure you can’t call your contact and get the place changed? I’m not sure my stomach could handle another soy-tofu casserole.”

The door closed behind us and Rebecca looked up from her book. “No luck?” she asked.

“No, methinks the eagle-eyed Smeddley here spotted someone watching us?” Poskunk raised an eyebrow and stared at me.

“Yup, Akirad was just down the road. Does he know you, then?” I asked.

“Not personally. But I’m sure he has a file on everyone working at the Home Office, even us flunkies. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be much of a villain,” he said.

Rebecca snorted. “He’s not much of a villain. If he has updated files it’s because of that Penchaft. Akirad doesn’t think outside of his little world. He’s a mad scientist – self-absorption is a requirement for the job title!”

“That is true. Before Penchaft came about he wasn’t really considered a threat. Now he makes it into the top ten,” Poskunk said.

“So why is it Akirad you’re calling the villain, and Penchaft the sidekick?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t get us wrong, Akirad’s smart – he just isn’t naturally evil. For the most part he’ll use his inventions for good, or be evil to the extent that he wants to make a few bucks off of them. Now Penchaft – she’s evil just for the hell of it. But she lacks the pure inventing skills of Akirad, so she needs him,” Poskunk said.

“And he’s the financially stable one,” Rebecca said.

“Right. Can’t be a poor villain, not if you want to succeed. So they really compliment each other, and we consider Akirad the ‘main’ villain because on his own he has the resources to create trouble, but without him, Penchaft can’t create large-scale chaos.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t underestimate her,” I said slowly, remembering our one encounter. “She’s with him for a reason, and I think we need to find out what that is.”

“Well, then, maybe we should have a look at this!” Poskunk pulled the disc from his pocket and stuck it into a small, hand-held device with a large screen – much like a portable DVD player, only… it played alternate reality holo-discs. On the screen was a three dimensional picture of the inside of a laboratory.

“Is that… is that Akirad’s lair?!” I snorted, slapping my hand over my mouth to try to keep the laughter from spilling out.

Poskunk bit his lip, and I could see Rebecca’s eyes watering from the effort to keep from laughing. We watched the screen for a few more minutes as it panned around the room, Clare-Dragonfly’s voice breaking in now and then to describe various pieces of half-finished machinery. Finally the picture settled on an odd bathtub. It was the bathtub we had seen sketched out on the napkin.

“You can see here,” her voice said on the disc, “the prototype is ready for testing. He’s selected me as one of the test subjects, and I’m very afraid that if I don’t get this information to you soon, you will never see it. I have a feeling I’ll be a very… ideal subject.” She paused and cleared her throat. “At any rate, it works like this – the dirty water is constantly replenished with fresh, warm water either through the gentle rain-head shower fixture or through and underwater nozzle. The water cascades over the inner tub rim and into the outer tub basin onto the hot rocks, producing a lovely steam vapor.” Her breathing on the tape quickened slightly. “But here’s the genius part – there’s an infrared keyboard projected onto a pull-out tray, and a monitor embedded behind non-steam glass. And! And the bottom of the tub is not a nasty hard ceramic, but a mildew-proof soft foam that cradles your body. So you have the ultimate comfortable bathing experience, plus a full-use computer/tv system to keep you entertained! And if that wasn’t enough, I think he plans on marketing a line of highly addictive bubble-baths and oils.” There was a rustling sound and the recording abruptly cut off.

“Wow, that sounds really cool,” Poskunk said. “I’d buy a bath like that. But how does it help him take over the world? Other than providing him with more money, which he doesn’t need. The panel royalties are enough to finance dozens of take over the world schemes.”

“Well,” I said slowly, “It sounds like he’s trying to get people addicted to bathing. If they’re too busy in the bathtub, then they won’t notice his secondary plan, which will take over the world. Maybe?”

“Maybe, I guess. But what is that secondary plan?” Poskunk asked.

“I have no idea. It looks like we’re back at square one.” I said. “Though at least we’ll know where to find Clare-Dragonfly if she disappears!”

*****

“Where to now?” Rebecca asked.

“Is Akirad still watching us?” I asked.

“Do you see any windows in this thing?” Poskunk asked.

“Wouldn’t I just be looking out them if I did?” I asked.

“Well how else would I be able to tell?” he asked.

“How would I know if there was another way to tell?” I asked.

“Don’t you think I would have said something if I knew he was still watching?” he asked.

“Would you?” I asked.

“Yes…?” Poskunk paused, then cursed. I did a muted happy-dance in the interior of the capsule.

“I win at questions! I win at questions!” I sang.

“What was that all about?” Rebecca looked puzzled.

“Don’t get her started again,” Poskunk said.

“Just ‘cause you’ll lose again,” I taunted.

“Right, yeah. You mean I’ll let you win,” he said.

“As if!” I huffed.

“Never mind,” Rebecca said. “Where to?”

“We need to head someplace innocuous, just in case Akirad is trailing us. Preferably somewhere we could lose him,” I said.

Poskunk and Rebecca looked at one another. “The catacombs?” she asked.

“Or the market, either one would probably work,” he said. “Depends on if you feel like losing him in a warren of passages or a crowd of people.”

“Oooh, catacombs!” I said. “Let’s do that.”

“Right,” Rebecca said, leaning back and closing her eyes. I settled back in my seat and did the same, trying to relax the kinks out of my neck. The stress was beginning to take it’s toll on me, despite my best efforts to remain nonchalant. In a lot of ways I wished I never had seen the future, never seen what was personally at stake. But then, if I hadn’t, would I have taken on the seemingly insurmountable task? Good questions, and ones not likely to be answered –

My musing was cut off abruptly by a jolt. The capsule suddenly swerved madly and spun like a top on a merry-go-round, twisting in several directions at once. I felt myself being thrown from one side to the other, colliding with Rebecca, Poskunk, and the wall before the capsule finally came to an abrupt stop. I groaned and picked myself up off of the ceiling, testing my limbs gingerly for broken bones. When I was reasonably sure everything was working appropriately I surveyed the inside of the capsule for my fellow passengers. There was only a dim light from the blinking console to see be, and I could make out two other lumps, neither moving.

“Poskunk? Rebecca? Are you okay?” I crawled over to the closest of the two lumps, which turned out to be Poskunk. He groaned and pulled himself into a semi-sitting position.

“What happened?” he asked. “Are you okay? What about Rebecca?”

I gestured to the other non-moving lump. We both crawled over to her. She wasn’t completely still, her arms and legs were twitching slightly. In the dim light I could see her eyes were vacant and glassy.

“Rebecca?” I said, leaning over her.

“O…okay,” she rasped, “Virus. Computer. Crashed.”

“But you’re okay? Physically? Do you need a doctor?” I peered at her, my hands methodically checking for broken bones in her arms and legs.

She nodded faintly. “Unhook.”

I reached behind her and pulled the cord out from her neck. She went limp, her eyes closed and her breathing easier.

“We need to get her help!” I said to Poskunk.

“How?” he asked. “All of our communications go through the system she just said crashed. No, we need to find that virus and stop it, and the only way to do that…”

“Is to find the person who released it,” I finished.

“Because they surely have a way to protect their own computers,” he said grimly. He put his shoulder to the capsule door and forced it open. We crawled out onto the road to fins wrecked capsule littering the street.

“Funny, I never saw that many when we were traveling,” I said. “Where did they all come from?”

“They travel up to high to see in this light, and since they don’t’ make any noise, you never notice them,” he said. “But they were always there.”

I shivered again, wrapping my arms around myself.

“Yeah, it’s pretty freaky,” he said, noticing my shivering. “I even have to admit I’m a little disconcerted.

I stared at him in blank confusion. “What? Oh, the shivering?” I asked. He nodded. “No, you dolt, I’m freezing. Why is it getting so blasted cold?”

“Oh, the sun probably set hours ago, and the dome messes with the thermo regulation. We can grab you a coat, I guess.” He gestured to a nearby building. “We crashed right in front of a department store, anyway.”

“Oh, why thank you,” I said frostily. My snide remark was somewhat ruined by a yawn. “Though if it’s getting that late, shouldn’t we be heading somewhere to sleep?”

He glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s only seven o’clock, but if you’re that tired, I guess we can. Provided we can get anywhere, that is.”

I rubbed my face, stifling another yawn. “You just said the sun set hours ago. Granted, it’s getting late in the year and all…”

“The sunset and sunrise don’t really have anything to do with the time. A long time ago, after the dome was built, some geniuses decided the calendars and clocks were too complicated and unreliable, so they recalibrated the second and changed the number of days in each month so they’re now equal. The only problem is that now there are only 360 days in a year and each 24-hour day is really like a 23.8 hour old day, which was based on the planet’s rotation. So we’ve slowly been slipping off of ‘real time’ ever since. Not that it makes any difference, because you can’t see the sun.”

“So what time would it really be?”

“About 3 am.”

“And what time is it in my universe?”

“3 am.”

“And you think that might have a little something to do with me being,” I yawned, “a wee bit sleepy?”

“That’s no excuse, you were unconscious damn near half the morning, anyway.”

“Gee, would a little sympathy kill you?” I snarled.

“It might. Now, do you want a coat or not?”

“Yes, please.”

We trudged up the steps to the store in silence, him leading and me glaring at his back. I felt ten times more tired now that I knew what time it was. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut and convinced myself that it was only seven.

I yawned again as he opened the door and ushered me inside. The room was brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs, and whatever virus had hit the capsules seemed to have no effect on the cash registers. They were humming as people scrambled to make purchases in some knee-jerk survivalist reaction. How twelve pairs of argyle socks would help in the face of the collapse of all known transportation was completely beyond me, but the two women fighting over them were making a fair argument for it. I stopped to watch and listen, amusement buoying my flagging energy momentarily.

The smaller woman with long, dark hair had a grip on one end of the carton and was tugging in short, sharp pulls. The taller, paler dark-haired woman on the other end was holding on as she was being tossed side to side.

“Oh my dog,” Poskunk said, pulled me behind a rack of clothes. “Do you know who that is?” Seeing my eyes roll he continued. “Of course not. The one on the left,” he gestured to the one holding on for dear life, “is Happyconfusion – one of the Triple Geeks. And the one on the right is Elaran, of the Gummi Resistance.”

“This cannot be a coincidence,” I said. “We need to hear what they are saying.”

We crept through the milling people until we were right behind a rack of clothes ten feet from where they were tugging back and forth on the carton of socks. Even through the general babble of voices we could hear them clearly.

“…virus didn’t seem to disrupt commerce,” Elaran said.

“But anything that disrupts transportation will disrupt commerce. You can’t have commerce without being able to transport goods – and get the people to those goods,” Happyconfusion shot back.

They fell silent for a moment and I heard the rustling of another person near them.

“You need all of those socks?” a timid voice asked.

“Yes,” they both shot back, and Elaran added, “now bugger off!”

A moment later they resumed their conversation. “It just seems a completely moronic way to go about it – not at all like we had agreed,” Elaran said.

“Agreed? We never agreed on anything. You had a completely stupid plan you told us about, and we devised a better one,” Happyconfusion snarled back, and I heard the rip of cardboard.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Elaran cired. “You manage to ruin everything. There’s no way this plan of yours will work.”

“Just you wait and see – the virus isn’t done yet.”

“There’s more?”

“Of course,” Happyconfusion snorted. “You thought this was it? Silly girl. This is just the start. We had to get our foot in the door somehow. We’ve created an opening into the computer system where we can upload even more potent viruses. The transportation computers were their weak link, because of the human interface. One infected human, and you’ve taken down the whole system. From there, we can work our way into the other systems. Just like we planned.”

“That’s brilliant,” Elaran said.

“Yes, we are,” Happyconfusion said smugly. “No give me the damn socks!”

There were some muttered curses and then silence from the other side of the rack. Poskunk and I looked at one another in amazement.

“Well that was fortuitous,” he said.

“You’re telling me,” I replied, reaching out and grabbing an ecru cardigan off of the rack. “Just what I need to keep me warm, a nice, neutral color, and 40% off, to boot!”

******

He bought me the sweater and we hurried out into the street, just behind Elaran, who was looking sourly at the bag of striped socks she had bought. Happyconfusion had won the argyle war, and Elaran was downright grumpy about it. I had seen her giving Happyconfusion the most vile, hate-filed looks at the register. It didn’t help that Happyconfusion had openly gloated about her victory, loudly proclaiming to one and all the ‘find’ she had made in the hosiery section.

We trailed as far behind Elaran as we could without losing her in the gloom, but even I, with my lack of knowledge of the layout of the town, could tell she was just aimlessly roaming the streets. She doubled back several times, and kept looking up in the sky.

“She’s just as lost for a way to get home as we are,” Poskunk said. “Without the transport capsules, no one can get anywhere. Bit of a flaw in their plans.”

“Are the panels still working?” I asked.

“Unless they’ve launched a secondary infection, they should be. They are on separate systems. Why?”

“If we can get to the Triple Geek headquarters before they launch the secondary virus, maybe we can stop them. And with the transport down, they won’t be expecting anyone, right?”

“Yes, but that’s the point – the transport is down. The closest people to them are Coyote and Foxfirefey, but even they are too far to do any good quickly, even if we can get word to them through the panels.”

“I’m not thinking of using the panels to send a message,” I said. We had stopped in front of a furniture store, its windows cheerfully lit proclaiming a ‘Holiday Sale.’

“Then what in the hell are you talking about?” Poskunk followed me up the steps to the store. “Don’t you think this is an inappropriate time to go furniture shopping?”

“How do they deliver furniture to people? Through the panels, you said, if things were really big they kept them in the basement for pickup. Do they send things like dressers and mattresses through the tubes?”

“No. I mean, yes, they do, but no. No way!”

I wrenched the door to the store open, dragging a still-protesting Poskunk with me. We made a bee-line for the customer service desk, where a small penguin sat looking over a pile of receipts.

“Hi, I’m-” I cut off as I recognized the penguin. “Maryeve, fancy meeting you here!”

“Night job. Can’t survive on what the Head Office pays, you know. Plus it’s a good cover. What can I do you for?” she asked cheerfully.

“Well, we’re in need of some transportation,” I said.

She looked perplexed. “I can’t really help you there. Surely you know that the virus wiped out all of the transport.”

“Even the panels?” I asked.

“No, we’ve still got deliveries going out – people are panicking, and somehow have it in their mind that only a French Provincial dining room set will tide the through the crisis. Go figure.” She rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, we’ve already seen the havoc the last carton of argyle socks can create,” I grinned. “People are insane. Anyway, we need you make us a delivery.”

“What of?”

“Not what, us. We need you to deliver us,” I said.

“Yes, but – oh, no, you can’t be serious!” she exclaimed, horrified. “That’s… that wouldn’t be safe!”

“Neither would letting the Triple Geeks further infect the systems. What, you thought we could go on this mission to save the universe without taking any risks? Even Kim Possible has to stick her neck out sometimes, you know!”

“Who?” Poskunk and Maryeve said in unison.

“Never mind, it doesn’t matter. I need two things from you – the address closest to the Triple Geeks where there’s a sizable enough panel, and we also need to take a tube to see Coyote and Foxfirefey. We need to see if they have any fresh information, and we could use their help.”

“If you’re sure…” Maryeve looked hesitant.

“Positive. It’s the only way. Unless you have any brilliant ideas, in which case, now is the time to let me know.” I stared at them, and they looked at each other.

“No,” they both said.

“Well, then, let’s get cracking! Which way to the shipping room?”

We walked down a flight of stairs to a large warehouse full of capsules being loaded with furniture and stuck into large, clear plastic tubes. The workers would close the tube hatch and with a giant ‘Whoosh’ the capsule would spurt out of sight. After a moment, they would open the hatch back up and stick another capsule in, and the process repeated itself. I found myself almost hypnotized with the rhythmic monotony of it. Finally Poskunk poked me.

“Are you still sure about the?” he whispered.

“Not at all! Where’s Maryeve?” I said chirpily.

Maryeve had wandered over to a group of workers and was in deep conversation with them. They kept glancing over at us with an expression of horror and amazement as she explained our plan. Finally, they shrugged and started gathering up blankets. Maryeve waddled back over to us.

“Well, we can get you a block from the house where Foxfirefey and Coyote are staying. We have a small furniture showcase there, so no one will notice. Fred is calling ahead to let them know what to expect. Here’s the address to an apartment building about a mile away from the Triple Geek compound.” She handed me a scrap of paper. “I’m afraid that’s the closest we can get you with the tubes. There is a sewer line connecting the compound to the creek, through, so you might be able to sneak in that way.”

“Lovely,” I sighed.

“Well, I’m sorry, but-” Maryeve started, looking offended.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You’ve done a great job. Just the thought of climbing through a sewer line – even a storm sewer – is not thrilling. You know what lives in those things?”

“I think I’d rather not hear all the gory details just now,” Poskunk said. “Otherwise I might not be able to do it.”

“True. Mostly I’m afraid it’s going to get a bit claustrophobic down there. I mean, sure, you can probably wiggle your way through a fifteen inch pipe, but it’s not going to be pleasant.”

Poskunk looked a little green. Maryeve waved us over to a capsule that was loaded with shipping blankets, and we crawled inside. It was a little cramped, but not bad. There were two large cargo webs stretched across the interior. She had chosen a capsule just big enough for us to sit up in, but not one so large that we had to much room to bang around. I curled up in the front cargo net, and Poskunk folded himself into the back one.

“Now, we can’t say for sure how rough the ride will be,” she said.

“You mean to tell me no one ever does this for kicks? Kids getting in here and going for a ride?” I broke in.

“It’s against the law,” she said, looking aghast at the notion. “And we are nothing if not law-abiding citizens.”

“Precisely. You could get hurt doing something that fun, so it was banned before they even got the panel system up and running. Because who in their right mind would send capsule back and forth from their friends’ houses, to see who could eat the most pizza and drink the most pop and then make the trip without throwing up?” Poskunk said.

“And we have no way of knowing that if you lean into the turns you can get the capsule to tilt and pick up speed,” Maryeve said slyly.

“Or that you’d better keep a firm grip on the tie-down straps,” Poskunk said, nodding at the dangling straps. “We, uh, assume, that the cargo nets will keep you mostly in place, but it… that is, we’d assume that holding on would help with the disorientation.”

“Because of course,” I said, “if you knew these things you’d have broken the law. And if you didn’t act properly horrified at the thought of breaking the law, you wouldn’t be good citizens.”

“Right-y oh!” Poskunk said. “Are you ready for this?”

“Now’s not the time to tell you I hate roller coasters, is it?” I said nervously.

“Not a good time, no. Do we need to get you a barf bag?” Maryeve asked.

“No, I think I’ll be okay. Best to just get it over with.” I swallowed nervously.

They swung the capsule door shut, sending us into pitch black. I felt the capsule swing over and settle into the tube. It was silent for a moment, and then I heard a great rush of air and the capsule catapulted forward.

I can’t describe much of the ride as I was completely numb with terror for most of it. Imagine riding a roller coaster with your eyes closed, so you can’t anticipate any of the drops and turns. Now make that roller coaster have completely vertical drops, sheer vertical climbs, and seemingly ninety degree bends all taken at what felt like a breathtaking speed. Except you couldn’t judge speed, because you couldn’t see anything or feel any wind. The only sound was the soft rush of air that was propelling the capsule. I think Poskunk asked me a few times if I was okay, and I’d like to say it was kindness on his part, but he later admitted he was just worried I was going to puke on him. I think I managed to reply with some strangled sounds, which probably didn’t put his mind at ease. When we finally pulled to a stop I was shaking and had developed a monster headache. My stomach was slightly queasy and I dreaded uncurling myself from the fetal position I had adopted. When the light came in from the opened capsule door it was as if someone stuck a butcher knife in my eye.

One of the shipping workers quickly pulled me from the capsule and held me over a bucket where I tossed my cookies – or rather, soy tofu - for the third time that day.

******

When I had sufficiently recovered, we left the store and went in search of Foxfirefey and Coyote. What, or rather, who, we saw was a bit disconcerting. Just as we turned the corner onto the street where Foxfirefey and Coyote lived I caught a glimpse of a plaid skirt and ponytails. Poskunk and I glanced at each other.

“Did I just see what – or rather, who – I think I saw?” he asked.

“What was she doing here?” I asked.

We shrugged at each other and kept walking down the street, but we both kept our eyes peeled for signs of other nefarious characters lurking in the shadows. We never did see anyone, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was being followed. Perhaps it was just nerves, but like my crazy step-uncle Jeremiah used to say, ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’

We turned to go up the steps to Foxfirefey’s and Coyote’s apartment, but stopped when we head the cursing coming from the side of the building. The round of swearing was followed by a solid ‘thunk’ and ear-splitting ‘clank,’ and then a howl of pain. We went back down the steps and rounded the corner of the building to see a petite young woman hopping up and down on one leg.

“Foxfirefey,” Poskunk said, “are you okay?”

She turned and peered at us, then hobbled over closer. “If you call having no mode of transportation, no means of communication, and a lost sister okay, then, yeah, sure. Oh, and a broken foot, to boot.” She grimaced as she tried to put weight on her right foot.

“What happened to your foot?” I asked.

“Kicked the capsule,” she muttered under her breath.

“Ah, well.” I cleared my throat. “What do you mean no means of communication? What about the panels?”

“The communication part went down about 15 minutes ago. The deliver system’s still up, as far as I know, but I haven’t gotten a reply to the message I sent – on paper, can you believe that?! – to the Home Office.” She grimaced and sat on the edge of a low wall surrounding the building.

“They’re working faster than we thought,” Poskunk said. “We have to hurry. Come on!” He grabbed Foxfirefey’s arm and pulled her to her feet.

“Where are we going?” she asked, gingerly testing her foot.

“We need to get to the Triple Geek’s compound before they shut down the transport system,” Poskunk said.

“What do you think I’ve been trying to – oh, gotcha,” she said. “We’d better hurry, I’d hate to get stuck inside a tube if it goes down.”

I suppressed a shudder. The thought of them disabling the tube system while we were in route hadn’t occurred to me. Now, it was all I could think of as we hurried back to the furniture warehouse. Along the way we filled in Foxfirefey with what sketchy details we had, and she told us everything she had learned, which was regrettably little.

“And to top it off,” she said miserably, “they have Coyote. And with her all of her knowledge. Luckily – and I use that term very loosely – they nabbed her and not me. At least they won’t be able to stop us if we can get into their programming. Only I know of a lot of the trapdoors I left in the transport system. I can ferret out their viruses and hopefully counteract them before they even know I’m there. Her forte was the factory programs. I can only imagine what they plan to do with that knowledge.”

“I don’t know if that was at all lucky,” I said. “If they really are working for the Gummi Resistance, all of these other viruses might be red herrings to keep us busy while they do the real work.”

“And what would be the real work, then?” Foxfirefey asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Well, if I can get in contact with Coyote I might be able… that is, if she isn’t too far gone…” she broke off.

“Let’s just concentrate on getting ourselves closer to the compound for now,” Poskunk said grimly.

We made the rest of the short journey in silence, and were quiet as we strapped ourselves into the capsule. There was a momentary hesitation when the workers asked if we were ready to go, but we all nodded and were plunged into darkness. This ride was as stomach-churning as the first, but for different reasons. This time I wasn’t worried about what the next movement of the capsule would be, I just wanted there to be a next move. But then a thought occurred to me.

“Hey, guys,” I said timidly. “If the system goes down, will we stop, or just keep looping around the tube system indefinitely?”

“Depends on how they take it down,” came Foxfirefey’s voice. “If they disable the air pumps and power, we’ll glide to a halt. If they disable the navigational software, we’ll loop until we run into something.”

“That’s a cheery thought,” Poskunk said. “Either way, we should know pretty soon.”

As if on cue there was a soft ‘thud’ and the capsule stopped. We all held our breath until we felt the capsule being picked up and moved out of the tube. The rush of joy I felt when the capsule door was opened has only ever been equaled on the day – but that’s getting too far ahead. For now, I was ready to kiss the ground outside the capsule when we climbed out, but managed to refrain. The ground was not exactly sparklingly clean.

“Where are we?” I asked the other two as we walked up a set of rickety steps. We were in a grimy, crumbling old building that reeked of sewer gas.

“Cheap apartment building,” Poskunk said. “They’re all over the city. There’s been a movement to try to get them all torn down, and decent housing put up, but that costs money, and then the people who live here couldn’t afford to live in the nicer building, so…” He shugged.

“Same old problems, different reality,” I said. “And here I thought you had a safe, wonderful, utopian society.”

Foxfirefey and Poskunk exchanged a glance and snorted with laughter.

“That may be what was intended,” Foxfirefey said, “but that was not the result. There’s a lot of unhappiness here, and more people support some of these radical groups than the Home Office wants to admit.”

“The meat ban, if it goes through, may push a lot of people over the edge, too,” Poskunk said. “You can only tell people what’s ‘good’ for them so many times and in so many ways.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Like when they tried to ban alcohol in the 20s. That went over like a lead balloon,” I said.

“Tried to ban?” Foxfirefey asked. “You mean it didn’t work? You can drink alcohol?”

“Um, yeah. Oh, right – how would a place that bans coffee for being bad for you allow you to drink alcohol?” I shook my head.

“Coffee?” Foxfirefey repeated. He eyes lit up. “You have coffee?”

We reached the outer door to the apartment building and I cracked it open, peeking out. The street looked empty, but just as I was about to push the door open further there was suddenly a face pressed very close to the outside of the door, staring at me. I didn’t need to recognize the features to know who the blue skin belonged to. We stared at each other for a moment before she spoke softly.

“2-5-6.”

“What?” I asked, but she had vanished. I threw the door open and looked up and down the street, and then up the side of the building, but there was no trace of Naked Blue Ninja. I turned to look at Poskunk and Foxfirefey. They shrugged in bewilderment, and we walked out onto the street, all of us looking around nervously for any sign of pursuit. The street was eerily deserted and the quietness felt like an oppressive blanket. The temperature had dropped even further and I shivered despite my sweater.

Poskunk noticed and said, “It should start warming up soon. The sun will come up outside and warm the dome.”

“But we’ll be down in the sewer system and probably won’t notice much,” I said sourly. The lack of sleep and the stress was beginning to make me quite cranky, I have to admit. I rubbed my eyes and stretched slowly.

“We’re taking the sewers?” Foxfirefey asked.

“Yeah, unless you have a better way of breaching the compound undetected,” Poskunk said. “With the transport system down the old delivery-man ruse won’t work.”

“No, no, that’s fine,” she said. “I just wish I’d worn some heavier clothes. And maybe some rubber boots. Depends on what route we take, there might be some fairly deep puddles.”

“Now, when y’all say sewers, are we talking sanitary or storm?” I asked nervously.

“Storm?” Poskunk asked.

I glanced up at the dark sky. “Right. Sanitary it is.”

“We should probably start at the transfer station,” Foxfirefey said. “From there it’ll only be a few blocks to their basement drains.” She turned down a side street. Poskunk glanced up at the street sign and followed her.

“Are we going to fit all the way through?” I said as I turned to follow the two of them. I thought of the four inch drain in my basement.

“Should be able to,” Poskunk said, “especially you. Might be a little cramped for me.”

“Was that a short crack? I think that was a short crack!” I feigned outrage.

“Here we are,” Foxfirefey said. We were standing in front of a short, squat completely nondescript building. There was a small sign on the door proclaiming, ‘Sorry, we are closed’. She reached forward and pulled on the door and almost fell over backwards when it unexpectedly opened. We all exchanged nervous looks.

“That was odd,” Poskunk said.

“And the understatement of the year award goes to…” Foxfirefey joked, but no one laughed. We stood peering into the dark interior of the building.

******



“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I said with more bravado than I felt. I stepped into the dim interior of the building and groped for a light switch. Behind me I heard Poskunk mutter something that sounded like, ‘nothing lost, either’ but I ignored him. I finally located the switch and flipped it. The room was suddenly bathed in a sickeningly dull yellow glow. The overhead fluorescent light bulbs hummed in an annoying off-key pitch. But nothing moved, and as my eyes swept the room I didn’t see any sign of another person. It was a typical front office with cheap reception furniture and a service counter at the far end. I tensed as I thought about what could be hiding behind that counter.

I walked slowly and cautiously into the room, Poskunk and Foxfirefey trailing behind me.

‘The door leading to the pipes is over there,” she whispered. She pointed to a swinging metal door at the far end of the room behind the counter.

“Of course it is,” I whispered back.

I tip-toed over to the far end of the counter and crouched down near the floor. I edged forward, holding my breath, and carefully peered around the corner. There was nothing there. I let out my breath in a woosh and stood up, motioning Poskunk and Foxfirefey to follow me to the door. There was a small porthole window in the top of the door above my head, and I could see light coming through it. The light switch must have turned on all of the lights in the building, not just the ones in this room, I thought, unless these had already been on. But then we would have seen them from the front door, I told myself. Unless someone else was here and flipped them on at exactly the same time as I did. I shook my head. Paranoia was definitely getting the better of me.

Poskunk leaned forward to look through the window. He stood still or quite some time, his eyes sweeping back and forth across the room inside. It looked, I thought with a stifled giggle, like he was watching a rather slow tennis match. Then, his eyes still on the room, he gave the door a little shove and set it swinging ever so slightly. After a moment he looked at us and shrugged. “I didn’t see anything,” he said.

I squared my shoulders and pushed into the room. Nothing happened. I was standing on an iron grate staircase a story and a half above the ground, overlooking a large industrial room. There were fair-sized mouse-hole like cutouts all along the walls and the floor was covered with a maze of troughs connecting and combining the tunnels. There were metal walkways and bridges all over the room. I tentatively took a few steps down the staircase, my footsteps ringing and echoing in the cavernous space. Poskunk and Foxfirefey followed, and the combined sound of our footsteps on the metal walkway made me wince.

“I guess anyone who’s here knows we are,” I said over my shoulder.

“What?” Poskunk said.

“Nothing,” I called back.

We clanked our way down to the bottom and Foxfirefey scouted the room, scurrying quickly over the walkways and peering at the numbers chiseled into the stone archways over the tunnels. “This one,” she said finally, stopping in front of one of the tunnels.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“No, I just thought I’d pick one at random.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course I’m sure. The whole city is laid out on a very specific grid, and all services, from the utilities to the panels to the sewage are designated with the grid numbers. Since the compound is North of Broadway Boulevard but south of State Avenue and West of Parkway Lane but East of Catalina Drive, then it’s grid designation is 44-78-86. And see?” She pointed to the chiseled numbers, and one of them was, indeed, 44-78-86.

“Ah, yes. Clear as an unmuddied stream,” I said, nodding. We moved toward the entrance to the tunnel. I turned and looked around the room. “Any chance of getting a flashlight? It’s pretty dark in there.”

“There should be a supply cabinet right…” Poskunk scanned the room, then pointed. “Over there.”

We made our way to the supply cabinet, crossing over rivers of sludgy water. I suppressed a shudder at the thought of wading through that. Luckily, there was absolutely nothing left in my stomach to heave up.

“Here we go,” Poskunk said as we reached the bank of lockers. “At least one of these has to be openable – most lockers you can just jiggle open if you work at it a bit. We each reached for a locker simultaneously, and to our surprise, each of them opened.

“Maybe they just don’t lock their lockers around here,” Foxfirefey said. “After all, who would want to steal equipment that’s been in the sewers?”

“You have a point,” I said. “I think I can safely say that crap-encrusted rubber boots are pretty low on my ‘steal it if I could’ list.”

We pulled out three sets of hip waders – mine came up to my eyebrows, Poskunk’s only came up to mid-thigh. Foxfirefey’s fit perfectly.

“Maybe we should switch,” I said to Poskunk.

“You think?” he said, and we swapped waders. As soon as we were all properly attired and gripping giant yellow rubber flashlights, we made our way back to the correct tunnel. I was pleased to see that there was a walkway along one side of the tunnel that was mostly out of the river of sewage. Even so, our boots made a wet slapping sound as we walked and the stone was incredibly slippery. More than once each of us came close to taking a header into the slime.

Every time we came to a fork in the tunnel Foxfirefey would consult the numbers chiseled into the stone and lead us in the appropriate direction. Sometimes we had to cross the sewage river, making me immensely grateful for the hip waders. I still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling I had about the unlocked door and lockers, but I shoved it to the back of my mind. If we were walking into a trap, I’d deal with it when it was sprung. No reason to stress over it now.

We’d been walking for about ten minutes when something fair-sized and furry darted past me. I stifled a shriek, and watched it scamper off into the tunnel ahead.

“Did you see that?” Foxfirefey said, her voice full of awe.

“Big nasty rodent thing?” I gulped. “Yeah, I saw it.”

“Nasty?” she sniffed. “Hardly. That was a rare and endangered sewer rat. Magnificent specimen, too. Glossy coat, good gate, looked well fed.”

“Endangered sewer rat?” I asked. “You have got to be kidding. Those things are a plague!”

Poskunk leaned over and tapped me on the top of the head. Reflexively, I reached up to swat his hand away, but he’d already withdrawn it and all I managed to do was overbalance myself and come perilously close (again) to pitching into the water.

“In your universe,” he said.

“Oh. Right,” I said. “So, Foxfirefey, are you a big fan of rats? I mean, in my reality people do keep them as pets, though usually not the sewer rats.”

“Pets?” She frowned. “You can’t keep them as pets, it’s-”

“Let me guess, against the law?” I broke in.

“Well, yes, but also, they’re too smart for that. It’d be like saying you’d keep a person for a pet. And, to answer your question, I do like them – a friend of mine in college had a bond with one, but I’ve never been so lucky.” She sighed wistfully.

“Bond?” I asked.

“Friendship, really. Rats are incredible judges of character and to be accepted as a friend by one is pretty amazing. They’re very loyal friends, too,” she said, and suddenly stopped. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “There he is!”

Her flashlight beam wavered slightly but I could see the furry outline on the path about twenty feet ahead. It was sitting back on its haunches, front paws clasped together in a gesture of patient waiting. As we stood and watched, he cocked his head to one side, and then with a giant sigh began tapping a back foot against the ground. A front paw waved at us in a ‘come on’ gesture.

Foxfirefey edged forward until she was standing a few feet away from the rat. It craned its neck to watch her approach, and when she stopped it gave a chitter of annoyance and raced up her leg, perching itself on her shoulder. She took a deep breath and turned to face the rat.

“What’s your name?” she asked him. He cocked his head back and forth and twitched his whiskers. Then he began to beat on her shoulder with his foot. It was a repeating pattern, and it sounded familiar. On the fifth pass through I thought I had it.

“Marley?” I asked him.

He squeaked and nodded his head, his whiskers quivering with happiness.

“How did you know that?” Foxfirefey asked.

“He was tapping in Morse code,” I said. “I’m not particularly good at it, but I can do it in a pinch sometimes. It just takes me a bit.”

“What is Morse code?” she asked, and I explained it, Marley pitching in when I got stuck on a letter. He clearly understood human speech, but was just not able to create intelligible sounds with his little rat vocal cords. So they had started using Morse code. Heck, for all I know they invented Morse code, and we got in from them.

By the time we had gone through the alphabet a dozen times and Foxfirefey was communicating fairly well with Marley, we were almost out of the tunnel. Unfortunately, there was a large iron gate with a keypad stretched across the tunnel, barring the way.

“Does it go all the way to the bottom, or can we,” I shuddered at the thought, “swim under it.”

‘No, it goes all the way down,’ Marley tapped out. ‘You have to know the code.’

“Great, just great. We come all this way, and now,” Poskunk threw his hands in the air, smacking the top of the tunnel. “Ouch.”

“Wait, let me just…” I reached out to the key pad and pressed the 2 key, the 5 key, and the 6 key. The gate sprang open.

“How did you know?” Poskunk asked.

“I didn’t. But it just seemed so…” I shrugged.

“Convenient?” Foxfirefey prompted.

“Something like that,” I said.

******

We passed through the gate and continued to follow the tunnel as it began a slow incline back up to the surface. My legs began to ache from the slow trek upward, but as the others didn’t seem to be affected I gritted my teeth and pushed on. I was exhausted, but this was neither the time nor the place for a proper nap. Or even an improper one. I was yawning and about to cry uncle when we rounded a bend and suddenly there was light at the end of the tunnel.

“Look, light!” Foxfirefey exclaimed.

“Probably a train,” I grumbled. They looked at me.

“A what?” Poskunk asked.

“Never mind,” I said with a sigh and led onward to the entrance of the tunnel. It dumped us out into a small, cramped room full of pipes. I heard a faint trickling sound and said, “Watch out!” but it was too late. Poskunk got doused with what looked like a load of laundry water. He stood there, dripping indignantly, and I began to laugh.

“This is not amusing,” he said stiffly.

“Well, it kind of is,” Foxfirefey said, stifling a giggle. Even Marley was chuckling, his whiskers wiggling.

“Look on the bright side, it could have been worse,” I said, and as if to emphasize my point we heard a faint flushing sound. We all looked at one another and bolted for the door. I wrenched it open and we all tumbled out into the hallway just as a torrent of smelly water and a few suspicious-looking chunks rained down into the room.

“Shhh! Marley hears something,” Foxfirefey whispered suddenly, flattening us against the wall. Shortly I, too, could hear voices drifting back at us.

“Look, I’ve tried to reassure them, but they’re – at least she – is really touchy about it. I don’t think that they believe we have their best interests at heart,” a voice said with a chuckle. I recognized that voice from the department store.

“Well, you’re going to have to try harder,” another female voice said. “Because if they don’t stick to the plan, we’re all going to be in hot water. I knew it was a mistake to form such a… traceable alliance with them. Now if one of us fails, we’re all going down.” The voice was bitter, but pragmatic.

“And you’d know they’d turn on us,” Happyconfusion said. “You should have seen how bent out of shape Elaran was over a carton of argyle socks! Imagine what they’re going to do when we-”

“Shhhh,” the other voice said. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Happyconfusion said. “What, Jennafern?”

“I don’t know. But I think we’d better get moving.” And with that I heard footsteps retreating down a far-off corridor. And then there was silence.

We stood still and utterly quiet for quite some time before Poskunk said, “Well, now what?”

“We need to find Coyote,” Foxfirefey said. “She’s the key to reversing the virus.”

“We also need to round up Alphabet, Jennafern, and Happyconfusion and get them into the authorities,” I said.

“Should we split up?” Foxfirefey asked.

‘No,’Marley thumped on her shoulder. ‘We need to stay together.’

“I agree,” I said. “We don’t have any means of communication if we split up. We need to stay together, at least for now.”

We crept down the hallway, Marley hopping off Foxfirefey’s shoulder and leading the way through the maze of corridors. They were all identical: a peeling, antiseptic green painted concrete with a distinctly musty smell. I began to feel very disoriented as we twisted and turned from one corridor to the next, the lights above making an unpleasant buzzing sound. Through that white noise I swore I heard voices – not like the ones we had just heard, clear and distinct voiced of the living, but rather a fuzzy echo of the dead. I passed a doorway with a metal-grate window and shuddered slightly.

“Do I want to know what this building was?” I asked softly.

“I don’t know, do you?” Poskunk asked with a puzzled frown.

“It’s so very sinister – like an old, abandoned psychiatric hospital. You know, the kind from back before they knew any better and just basically tortured people?” I glanced up at the ceiling, at the rows of flickering fluorescent lights and imagined myself strapped to a gurney, being rolled along this corridors. My shuddering increased. Behind me, a light pinged softly and flickered out.

“I… guess,” Poskunk said uncertainly. “But it’s not. It’s actually an old Tinker Toy factory. I think these were the research and development rooms.” He reached out at the next door and twisted the knob, shoving it open.

The room was pained in cheery primary colors and had a soft, rubber coated floor. When I steeped into the room it felt like I bounced ever so slightly. I wandered over to the tabled heaped with old Tinker Toys and absently picked a few up and began assembling them into an amorphous shape. Poskunk and Foxfirefey stood in the doorway, watching me and exchanging confused glances. I found an old bag in the corner, shook off the dust and filled it with a heap of the small rods and disks.

“What are you doing?” Foxfirefey asked.

“I don’t know, I thought they might come in handy at some point,” I said, closing the bag. “It’s like those games where you pick up everything you can and eventually it has a use. Even if you don’t see it at first and have to combine things in the weirdest way. I mean, honestly, who would think to combine a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a broken office chair?”

“Ohhhh-kay,” Poskunk drawled out. He and Foxfirefey exchanged another worried glance. “Whatever you want – and can carry.”

I picked up the slightly heavy bag and we continued down the hallway, Marley still in the lead. He stopped to sniff the air and twitch his tail at every intersection, then briskly trotted down the next corridor. I was beginning to flag – again – when we came to a doorway and stopped.

‘Through here, down the hall, first door on the right,’ Marley thumped.

“Ready?” I asked, my hand on the doorknob. There was no window in the door, and I had no idea what we’d find on the other side.

“No, but I have a feeling we’re going to go for it anyway,” Poskunk said.

I slowly turned the knob and threw the door open. On the other side was an empty corridor, almost identical to the one we were standing in with the exception of the paint color. Instead of pea green, the new corridor was a sickly pale pink. The sharp smell of ozone permeated the hall, and Marley twitched his nose in distaste.

I lead the way to the first door on the right and paused again, my hand on the knob. Marley scampered up to Foxfirefey’s shoulder and buried his nose in her collar. I took a deep breath and slowly opened the door.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but the cartoon-like interior of the room was not it. The entire back wall was covered with a maze of switches and blinking lights, straight out of a bad science fiction movie. The walls were painted a dizzying assortment of clashing colors, inducing both a sense of vertigo and the intense desire to attack the room with a good coat of primer. A few carts with various bits of machinery stood around the room, their cords trailing on the ground.

“Look!” Poskunk said excitedly, hurrying over to a nearby cart. “It’s the machine that goes ‘Ping!’”

“That what?” I asked, but Foxfirefey was already hurrying over to join him.

“I thought these were all destroyed! And it’s in mint condition,” she said breathlessly.

I shook my head as they continued to fawn over the machine and went to the cot on one side of the room. A pale figure lay covered with a thin sheet, a wire snaking from the back of her neck into the bank of machinery along the back wall. She looked identical to Foxfirefey, with the exception of her frightening pallor. Her face looked drawn and tense, and there were deep, dark smudges under her eyes.

“Coyote?” I asked hesitantly. Her eyelids fluttered open and she stared uncomprehendingly at me. “We’re here to rescue you. Your sister is here…” I hesitated.

Coyote licked her dry lips. “She was sidetracked by they machine that goes ‘Ping!’ wasn’t she?” she asked in a dry, hoarse whisper. I thought her lips twisted into a small smile.

“Just a little,” I admitted. “But we need to get you out of here.” I reached for the cord that attached her to the computers, but she reached out a weak hand to stop me.

“You can’t just unplug me. There are fail safes,” she said.

“What do we need to do to reverse this?” Foxfirefey asked. She had come up behind me and was peering at her sister over my shoulder.

“Whatever you do, don’t plug in,” Coyote said. “You’ll just get infected. This is going to have to be done the old fashioned way.”

Foxfirefey scanned the room, her eyes coming to rest on an old, grimy keyboard and monitor on a cart against the other wall. She wheeled it over and plugged it into the computer jack closest to Coyote. Immediately, the screen was filled with lines of code.

“This could take a little while,” she said.

“That sounds like a bit of an understatement,” I said, watching her begin to cut, paste, and slice code on the screen with a speed that amazed me. But even at that pace, there was so many lines that needed to be read through it’d be a wonder she’d be able to get done before we were discovered. “We need to buy you some time. I think now is when we need to split up.”

******

“You fix the virus-thingee and get you and Coyote out of here. Poskunk and I will create a diversion to give you time, and then round up the villains,” I said.

“Do I get a say in this?” Poskunk asked.

“No,” I said.

“Just asking,” he said, and went back to examining the various machines in the room. “But if you guys can smuggle out the machine that goes ‘Ping!’ that would be great.”

“Oh, you bet that’s coming with me,” Foxfirefey said, her eyes still on the screen as her fingers flew over the keyboard. “I need about thirty minutes, I think, to re-code, then upload, and it’ll probably take us about fifteen minutes to get back to the start of the sanitary tunnels. So, say an hour. Can you do that?”

“I can try,” I said. “The question is, which way to best place to create a diversion?”

‘Out the door to the right, fifth corridor on the left, then the first right,’ Marley thumped.

“Thanks,” I said, and grabbed Poskunk and pulled him out the door. He was still grumbling as we turned into a baby blue hallway that smelled strangely of cloves.

“What kind of diversion are we supposed to pull?” he asked.

“I guess it depends on what’s in the room Marley sent us to,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, and stopped in front of the door. “I guess we’re about to find out.”

We opened the door and stepped into another brightly painted room filled with computer equipment. In the center of the wall were four large, cheerful buttons with writing on them. The left-hand yellow button was old and worn, and only the word ‘Alfalfa’ was discernable on its surface. The second button, a green one, had the words ‘Disco Day’ faintly embossed on it in a bubbly, round script. The third button was red with something that looked like ‘Polka’ written on it in pale yellow ink. The last button, on the far right, was purple with the letters ‘T.G.I.X.’ on it.

“Well?” I asked.

“Well what?” he asked, looking around the room curiously.

“Which one?”

“Which one what?”

“Which button?”

“Which button what?”

“Which button should we push?” I said through gritted teeth.

“You’re just going to push a button, not knowing what it’s going to do?” he asked incredulously.

“That’s the plan.”

“Not much of a plan.”

“Do you have a better one?”

At this he was silent for a moment. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it. Finally he said simply, “No.”

“Then which one?”

“I’m torn between Polka and Disco,” he mused. I held my hand over the buttons and waited. “On one hand, Polka is annoying and might make the best distraction. On the other hand, we’re going to be stuck in whatever is going on, presumably, and Disco is marginally more tolerable, though still quite annoying. So I’d have to say… whichever you think.”

“Thank you so very much,” I said crossly. I closed my eyes and jabbed blindly at the wall, my hand landing squarely on a button. Nothing happened. I slowly opened my eyes, letting out a breath in disappointment. “Well, that was…” I trailed off as I looked at Poskunk. He was looking at a bank of monitors over my head and his mouth was hanging open in astonishment.

I followed his gaze and saw that the monitors had turned on and were showing various rooms in the compound, all now lit with flashing, multi-colored lights. He reached up and pushed a red button on the bottom of one of the monitors and the speakers began to blare out a lusty rendition of ‘Roll out the Barrel.’ On the monitor to the far left I saw a man and two women looking around, stunned. I recognized the one with her hands clamped over her ears as Happyconfusion, and I assumed the man was Alphabet and the other woman was Jennafern, since we hadn’t seen anyone else in the compound.

“There they are!” I exclaimed, shouting to be heard over the music. Poskunk reached up and pushed the button again, and the room fell blessedly silent.

“Where is there?” he asked.

“I haven’t the foggiest.” I looked at the monitor again and noticed there was a label at the top that said ‘Meeting Room 3A.’ I scanned the walls and found a faded map covered with a scratched plastic cover. It was barely legible, but I could make out the ‘you are here’ star and the room names. I found ‘Meeting Room 3A’ and it looked to be just down the corridor. I fixed the location in my mind, memorized the route, and glanced up at the monitors one more to make sure they were still in the room. There were, and it looked as if they were gesturing and shouting to one another.

“You’d think they’d be hurrying down here to shut it off,” Poskunk said.

I had been about to bolt out of the room to catch them, but I paused. “Maybe they don’t know where here is,” I said. Then I looked thoughtfully at the button. “And if we go there, it will be noisy and…”

“To bad this thing doesn’t have a remote,” Poskunk said.

“No, no remote,” I mused. Suddenly I dumped out the sack of tinker toys and began hastily assembling a tower-like structure. “How long do you think it will take to get to the room?” I asked.

“Running?”

“Yeah, but at my pace,” I clarified. I continued building rapidly, creating a series of ramps and drops. I lined up the end of the contraption with the button.

“It’s only two corridors away, so maybe ten, fifteen seconds at a sprint?”

I picked up a small metal ball and positioned it at the far end of the structure I’d built. I took a deep breath, and let it go. It rolled and bumped its way towards the button as I counted silently. When it hit the button with a ‘clank’ I glanced up at the monitor. Happyconfusion had removed her hands from her ears and the lighting had returned to normal. I quickly reached over and punched the Disco button, and I saw their stricken faces as a giant Disco ball descended from the ceiling, flashing brilliantly, and undoubtedly some Disco hit began playing loudly. Happyconfusion’s hands rose once again to her ears, but Alphabet began to dance. I watched, transfixed for a moment and he began to do the Saturday Night Fever dance. I don’t know its official name, but it’s the one where you point and snap your hips back and forth. I finally looked away and scooted the contraption I’d built over and lined it up with the Disco button, then held the ball at the other end.

“We have ten seconds,” I said. Poskunk opened the door and I dropped the ball and bolted out of the room and down the corridor, with him trotting easily behind me. My timing was impeccable. We burst into the room just as the music cut out.

“Staying alive, stayin’ alive!” Alphabet sang enthusiastically into the suddenly silent room. He was slightly off-key, and as he realized that the music had stopped he turned a beet red. All three of them turned to look at us.

I stood there, gasping for breath, unable to think of what to say. My mind raced like a hamster in a wheel – furiously, but with no progress. Suddenly I blurted out, “You’re under arrest.”

All four of them glanced up at the ceiling. Then they looked at one another, shrugging.

“Under a what?” Poskunk leaned over and whispered.

“It means,” I cleared my throat. “It means that you’ve done something illegal, and you’re being taken to the authorities.”

“What have we done?” asked Jennafern. “We’ve been here in our home, minding our own business. You’re the ones who broke in. You’re the ones breaking the law.”

“Oh, well, yes, but…” I trailed off. “Does that really apply to villains’ lairs?”

“We’re not villains, even so,” Alphabet said. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Nothing wrong? Nothing wrong?” I sputtered. “Taking poor Coyote and hooking her up to that machine, infecting her with who knows what virus, and all of those poor drivers, too. Plus the disruption of communication. And the plots – oh yes, I know about the plots – to… to…” I suddenly realized I didn’t know what the whole plot was, but I soldiered on gamely. “To do Really Bad Things.”

“Coyote is our guest and friend, not our prisoner,” Happyconfusion said. “She’s helping us with some… technical things.”

“We saw her. She didn’t look or act like I guest,” I said. “She seemed pretty eager to get out. So why don’t you just let her go?”

“She’s free to leave at any time,” Alphabet said.

“Well, then…” Suddenly I realized that I didn’t have anything else I could say about Coyote without divulging the fact that Foxfirefey was in there, freeing her. I shifted uneasily. “Well, then…” I repeated. “There’s still the matter of the plot.”

“There’s no plot. Who told you there was a plot?” Jennafern said stiffly.

“Oh, there’s a plot. And I think you’d better tell me all about it.” I tried to give them a hard stare, but it disintegrated into a yawn.

“Oh, where are our manners?” Alphabet asked suddenly. “Come, come, sit down.” He ushered us to a sofa in one corner of the room, and brought out a pitcher and five glasses on a tray. “Lemonade, anyone?”

“What sort of villain are you?” I asked.

“One with impeccable manners,” he replied stiffly, pouring the lemonade.

“Thank you,” I said, accepting the glass of lemonade. I told myself I really shouldn’t drink it, poison was the oldest trick in the book, but I really was so very thirsty and it had been poured from a common pitcher, and Jennafern had already taken several sips of hers. I gave in and took a small sip. It was light and fizzy and sweet. I drained the glass.

“Now then, who are you?” Alphabet asked.

“My name is Smeddley. I’m here from an alternate reality to foil your dastardly plans,” I said, then giggled. “Yup, still sounds outrageous.

“Foil? Are you sure about that?” Happyconfusion said, leaning forward. “Because-”

Jennafern cut her off with a wave of her hand. “How do you know what you are supposed to do?” she asked me.

“Well, there was this oracle. Prophet. Thingee. And he said that horrible, horrible things would happen if I didn’t undertake this mission.”

“If you didn’t undertake the mission, he said? Not ‘is you don’t stop them’ or something along those lines?” Jennafern smiled encouragingly.

I frowned as I thought back. “Undertake the quest – that’s what he said I had to do.”

“Interesting,” Jennafern said, leaning back in her seat and exchanging a glance with her companions.

“How so?” I yawned.

“Look, it’s late and you’re tired. Why don’t we retire for the evening, and we’ll talk about it in the morning?” Alphabet said, stifling a yawn himself.

“Why on earth would I stay the night in a villain’s lair?” I asked. I glanced at Poskunk, but he was just sitting there impassively, watching the exchange and sipping his drink.

“Because they’re not the bad guys,” Foxfirefey said from the doorway.


******



There was a bit of hemming and hawing on my part, but I was so very tired. Foxfirefey didn’t seem infected or affected by anything, and she also seemed very adamant in her position that we had nothing to worry about. She said that she had found something, and Coyote had told her a few interesting things she had learned, but that we would talk about it after a good night’s sleep. And so I was shown to a comfortably furnished room where I stripped off the rubber waders I hadn’t realized I was still wearing, flopped down on the bed, still fully dressed, and was out instantly.

When I woke up it was with that groggy, surreal feeling when you don’t know where you are or how you got there. I yawned and stretched, and noticed someone had come in and left a stack of clean clothes at the end of the bed. I went into the small but clean bathroom attached to the bedroom and showered and changed, feeling much refreshed. My stomach was just making its displeasure are being empty known when there was a light knock and the door opened slightly.

“Are you up?” Jennafern called in.

“Yes,” I said, coming to the door and pulling it all the way open.

“Good, the clothes fit,” she said, taking in my appearance. I was now wearing the loose, but comfortable clothing that had been left for me. They looked rather like a pair of flannel pajamas and were incredibly soft. And, if I do say so myself, the rich purple and deep blue looked good with my hair. Quite an improvement from the dirty, damaged skirt suit I’d worn all of yesterday, and certainly a huge step up from the smelly rubber hip waders.

“Okay,” I said, following her out into the corridor. “Now what?”

“Everyone else is already up and having breakfast,” Jennafern said pointedly.

“I was tired!” I sputtered indignantly. “Your time is off from mine, so I was up like… 24 hours!”

She said nothing and I continued to follow her through a maze of corridors until the faint smell of bacon permeated the air. My mouth began to water and my stomach rumbled. I’d forgotten how long it had been since I’d eaten. Or, more importantly, how long it’d been since I’d eaten and managed to keep food down.

When we got to the dining room, everyone, including Coyote, was seated somberly around the table, picking restlessly at their food. There was a platter of bacon, a plate of eggs, and a bowl full of some unidentified fruit sitting in the center of the table and an empty place setting left at the far end. I ambled over to the table, picked up the empty plate and loaded it down with food. Then I sat down and began stuffing my face. It wasn’t elegant or pretty, but I was starving. Alphabet poured me a glass of some type of faintly sweet fruit juice that I guzzled, though still wishing for a cup of coffee.

After I had finished wolfing down my food, and no one had said anything, I sat back and sighed. “Now what?”

“I think you should listen to what they have to say,” Foxfirefey said.

I glanced at Poskunk, but his expression was unreadable. I nodded.

“You have to understand,” Coyote began, “that nothing that they did was harmful. They didn’t put out the virus, they merely… activated something the government had hidden in the coding a long time ago.”

“Not that long ago, really,” Happyconfusion mumbled.

“Okay, then, let’s just say they put it in when they designed the system,” Coyote amended.

“But you told Foxfirefey not to hook in or she’d be infected,” I said, thoroughly confused.

“And that is true. The snippets of code the government had hidden were, in true bureaucratic fashion, overdone and convoluted. I went in to try to fix it, but it overwhelmed me. I knew if we had any hope of finding a way to reverse it, she’d have to do it from the outside. And, of coure, she did.” Coyote smiled at her sister.

“But… but what were you doing when you activated the virus?” I asked, gazing at Alphabet, Happyconfusion, and Jennafern in turn.

“We were looking for it,” Jennafern said simply.

“We knew there was something hidden in the coding – something that would give the government power in a time of need. We didn’t mean to trip it when we did, unfortunately, it was rather badly designed and…” Alphabet shrugged unhappily.

“That’s when they came and got me,” Coyote said. “It took some time for the virus to take effect, so they had hoped I could reverse it… but I wasn’t fast enough.”

“And now?” I asked.

“And now what?” Alphabet looked puzzled.

“Is it reversed? Can we communicate? Use the panels? What about the people who were plugged in when it all went crashing down?” I thought of poor Rebecca, lying in the crumpled remains of the capsule. I hoped someone had collected the nearly catatonic drivers.

“It’s reversible,” Coyote said. “Right now we have it in a state of…”

“Suspended animation, if you will,” Foxfirefey finished when her sister trailed off. “It’s not getting any worse, and we know how to reverse it – when the time is right.”

“And when will that be?” I asked.

“After we find out what the purpose of the hidden virus was,” Foxfirefey said.

“Isn’t it obviously?” cried Jennafern. “The government is behind this. It’s a plot to keep us all sheep! They can threaten us with this at any time – do it, or we cut off your means of transportation, your communication, your very livelihood!”

“That sounds a bit… conspiracy theory,” I said slowly. “I mean, have they ever threatened before?”

“No, but they’ve been pushing us into a more and more restrictive society. It’s only time before someone balks.” Alphabet leaned forward and picked up the last piece of bacon. “The meat ban might do it. People are sick and tired of being told what is good for them, what is right. The black market business is thriving – but only as long as goods can be transported. It’s only a matter of time before the government sees shutting down all movement as the only way to stop the smuggling.”

I sighed and sat back. “So what do you want me to do about it?” I asked wearily.

“Nothing,” Happyconfusion said.

“Nothing?” I echoed.

“Yes, nothing. We don’t expect you to fight on our side, but we hope you won’t actively fight on their side,” Alphabet said.

“So you want me to just… walk away?” I asked.

“Yes. Well, sort of. We would appreciate it is you told one tiny little white lie for us,” Jennafern said.

“And what is that?” I asked.

“We want to be dead,” Happyconfusion said.

“Come again?” I tilted my head to the side like an inquisitive bird.

“We want you to tell them that we are dead. It’s the only way we’ll be able to escape cleanly,” Happyconfusion said.

“Escape to where?” I asked.

“The outside,” Jennafern said wistfully.

“The outside?” I echoed, again. I was beginning to feel like a deranged parrot. I quickly added, “You mean outside the dome?”

“Yes. We can get there, but we need to make sure our records are destroyed here. Otherwise, if…” Jennafern bit her lip. “If what we hopes comes to pass does, we want to be secure in our new identities. We don’t want the past to be able to rear its ugly head.”

“Not that it should have any reason to, but, well, you know,” Alphabet added with a nod.

“How will reporting your death erase you? There will still be records,” I said.

“No, not here,” Foxfirefey said. “Remember that you are in a confined space with limited resources. Unused and unneeded information is purged to make room for new.”

“You mean once you’re dead all traces of you is just… gone?” I gasped. “That sounds… horrible!”

“Only from the official government files,” Coyote corrected gently.

“Right,” Alphabet added hastily. “It’s not as if we’ll be obliterated completely. There will still be news stories and pictures, all that jazz. But the information that could positively link us to these identities – fingerprints, DNA, memory mapping… that information will be purged. So the best anyone would be able to do would be to say, ‘gee, you look an awful lot like...’ but they wouldn’t be able to prove it was me. A case of he said she said!”

“Yeah, we know that the public library will never forget anyone,” Foxfirefey said with a grin, and Coyote rolled her eyes.

“Tell me about it,” she commiserated.

“Oh?” I asked, my mind whirling and grabbing for anything remotely normal.

“Yeah, we had a bit of a problem doing some research our senior year in high school,” Coyote said.

“We?” Foxfirefey asked archly, an eyebrow raised as she stared pointedly at her sister.

“Okay, it was mostly Foxfirefey doing the research,” Coyote grinned. “But I was the one who almost failed because of it. You see, our Grandmother had evidently turned in a book late some fifty years ago. It was a paltry two-cent fine at the time, but for whatever reason, she never paid it. It must have been towards the end of her life, and she just never went back to the library. At any rate, our parents weren’t big library buffs, so the fine didn’t rear its ugly head again until we tried to use the library our senior year. By then, with the interest and penalties, the inherited fine was $5,390.97.”

“You have got to be kidding me!” I said. “Libraries don’t charge interest and penalties, or at least, they shouldn’t…”

“Here they do,” Foxfirefey broke in to my mumbling. “And they can be quite… militant about getting their money.”

“So did you pay them?” I asked, curious.

“No, we didn’t have that kind of money. This is what made us such super geeks. We had to hack into the system,” Coyote said.

“So you hacked into the library system and erased the fine,” I said.

“No, no, no! The library system is far to secure. We hacked into the government records and changed the line of succession. We turned Grandma’s line into a dead end, so no one else would inherit the fine, and grafted ourselves onto a different line – a distant relation to our real family tree. It was so bloody simple,” Foxfirey said smugly.

“It… sounds it,” I said. “So why can’t you just hack the system and delete them?”

“We could,” Foxfirefey said, exchanging a glance with Coyote. “But without the public news story of their death, it…”

“It doesn’t properly put a lid on things,” Coyote finished for her. “People would… remember. There’s a chance there are backups somewhere we can’t get to. If there’s an official death, then even if they dig back into it…”

“I see,” I sighed. I looked at Poskunk, who had sat quietly through the whole conversation. “What do you think?”

“I’m just your liaison,” he said with a grin. “You do what you think is right.”

“But you work for the government,” I said. “You’d be able to tell them what happened. Or, rather, what didn’t happen.”

He shrugged. “As if they’d believe me. If they have evidence, they’ll take that over eye witness testimony any day.”

“Yes, but how are we going to get them evidence?” I sighed.

In answer to my query, Alphabet reached under the table and produced three large jugs of a reddish liquid.

“What… what is that?” I asked shakily, my stomach beginning to somersault.

“In the absence of a corpse,” he said gravely, “sufficient quantities of blood has been used to establish death.”

******

My stomach rolled but I managed to keep my food down this time. I stared at the jugs of viscous red liquid, my mind whirling.

“That’s… your blood? I mean, they’ll have to ID it, right?” I asked, my voice quavering only slightly.

“Yes, we’ve been saving it,” Jennafern said distastefully. “A necessary evil.”

“We’ve been ‘donating’ blood to the refrigerator for quite a few months now. We each have about three quarters of our total blood volume saved. Enough to establish we couldn’t still be alive without it,” Happyconfusion said.

“But won’t they be able to tell it’s not… not fresh?” I asked.

“Not the way they’re going to be testing it,” Poskunk said. “In a clean lab setting with a good sample, maybe. But not scrapped from a crime scene and mixed with all sorts of foreign substances.”

“And we plan on being murdered in the dirtiest room in the compound,” Alphabet said.

“Murdered?” I squeaked. “Now I have to make up a murder?”

“Yes, and there’s not much time,” Alphabet said. “The time lag thus far can be explained by lack of communication, but we have them set to come back on-line in a few hours. You can seem like you’ve been trying to get word for a few hours, at least.”

I sat back and shook my head in amazement. “You really think this is going to work?”

“Yes,” Alphabet said. “Provided you do your part.”

“I don’t even know if I believe you, let alone am willing to help you!” I said. I rubbed a hand over my eyes, which felt dry and gritty despite the night’s sleep. I was tired, utter physically and emotionally exhausted from the roller coaster of yesterday and I couldn’t think straight. Poskunk leaned forward and touched my shoulder. I looked up and he was staring at my sympathetically.

“I know this is hard, but for what it’s worth… I think you should do it,” he said gently.

“Do you know something I don’t know?” I asked.

“I know a lot of things you don’t know,” he said mischievously.

“Right, smart ass, do you know anything that pertains to this case that I don’t and would help me make a decision?” I amended.

He paused and thought about this for a moment. I watched the various muscles in his face alternately tense and relax as he considered my question.

“Yes,” he said.

“Yes what?” I hissed, exasperated.

“Yes I know something that you don’t and that is pertinent to the case, something that might make your decision easier,” he said.

“Fine. What. Is. It?” I spit out.

“I know that they are telling the truth,” he said simply.

“And how do you know that?” I asked wearily. I let my head loll back against the chair, rolling my shoulders to try to loosen some of the tension.

“That’s a secret,” he said with a wink, and leaned back in his chair.

I scowled at him, but any witty retort I may have flung back was cut off my the arrival of a fur ball on the table. Marley had streaked into the room and hopped into the center of the table, commanding our full attention.

‘The are on their way,’ he thumped out. ‘Two or three hours before they get here.’

“Who?” I asked.

‘The police. They were dispatched when they couldn’t contact you. Their orders are to stake out the place and see what is going on,’ he said.

“How do you know all of this? I asked. Marley just grinned and hopped up on Foxfirefey’s shoulder, curling up with a yawn.

“They have eyes and ears everywhere, and can communicate with each other over a long distance. I sent him out this morning to gather any information,” Foxfirefey explained.

“I see. Well, this looks like it’s shaping up pretty well, assuming we can stage a convincing scene and assuming I don’t break down during questioning and assuming they can’t tell I’m lying,” I said.

“Great,” Alphabet said, ignoring my morose sarcasm and hopping to his feet. “We’d better get going.”

“Yes, I’ve intentionally left the lab messy, and it’s been driving me crazy. The sooner we get this done the sooner I can move on to a nice, clean lab,” Jennafern said.

“And I just can’t wait to see the sun again,” Happyconfusion sighed wistfully.

“Okay, then, let’s get busy,” I said, reluctantly heaving myself to my feet.

“We need to get back to work on the virus,” Coyote said. “There is still much to be learned.”

“Okay,” I said, “You guys do that. Go back to where you were, and we can tell the police you were trying to save your sister when we wandered up here and found this. Act like you don’t know about the murder when they tell you, okay?”

“No problem,” Coyote said, and she and Foxfirefey trotted off to the computer room.

The rest of us headed for the lab. We walked for a few moments in silence before we came to an unremarkable door halfway down a puce hallway. Jennafern produced a small key and we went in. The room wasn’t very large, maybe twenty feet by ten feet, filled with long waist-high countertops. Stacked neatly on the counters were electrical devices of all kinds – boxes, circuit boards, trays of little bits and pieces covered every surface. I turned to Jennafern.

“You call this messy?” I asked, an eyebrow raised in astonishment.

She shuddered. “It’s just awful, isn’t it? I mean, everything just sitting out there, so haphazard…”

I looked at Poskunk and he shrugged. “Got the blood?” I asked Alphabet.

He produced the jugs of blood and I set them on a nearby counter. I scanned the room again, considering my options.

“What’s the motivation for this murder? Who are we trying to finger?” I asked.

“The motivation will be the virus,” Alphabet said, sounding as if that were more than enough of an explanation. “And it can just be a random crime, can’t it?”

“No, that won’t fly. We need to make this look authentic.” I tapped a finger on my lips. “Do you have some plastic suits, you know, the kind you wear when you paint and stuff? And how about some plastic baggies?”

“I’ll get them,” Jennafern volunteered, and headed out down the hallway.

“You,” I said, pointing at Poskunk, “break down the door.”

“Beg your pardon?” he asked, startled.

“Lock the door, go outside, and force your way in,” I said. He shrugged, and went to comply. The door closed, and I heard a muffled ‘thump’ and an ‘ow!’ “You can force the lock with a screwdriver, if that’s easier,” I shouted.

“It would be if I had a screwdriver,” he shouted back. I opened the door and handed one to him.

“Just hold onto this one, we don’t want to leave it here. It’d look odd if the screwdriver used to force the door came from inside the lab,” I said. I closed the door and turned back to Alphabet and Happyconfusion. “Trash the place.”

“What?” they asked in unison.

“We need to make it look like a struggle. Sweep stuff onto the floor, smash things, throw things around,” I said.

“Jennafern’s not going to like that,” Alphabet said nervously.

“Is there anything in here that she needs?” I asked.

“No, she cleaned out everything she wanted to take with her yesterday,” Happyconfusion said. “This is just all leftover junk.”

“Then get smashing,” I said.

They went about tearing apart the room and I perched in a corner, thinking. There had to be some way for me to fake a convincing crime scene. I’d read enough mystery novels, but that was fiction. This was real life. Sort of.

By the time they’d finished demolishing the room, Poskunk had mangled the door open.

“It’s not pretty,” he said ruefully, looking at the twisted metal of the lock and doorframe.

“It’s not supposed to be,” I said. “That would defeat the purpose. That’s perfect.”

Just then Jennafern returned with the plastic clothing and bags. Her mouth dropped open as she stared into the disaster zone that had been her lab.

“Now this,” I told her sternly, “is a mess.”

She sagged onto a stool by the door and I gave her a moment to let it all sink in. Then I said brusquely, “Everyone on with the plastic suits. We don’t want to soak up any of the blood, if we need all of it to prove sufficiently fatal blood loss.”

They looked at me skeptically, but they all suited up in their plastic protective gear, including gloves. I positioned the three of them about the room while Poskunk filled baggies with blood, careful to keep them separated and labeled. Suddenly, I slapped my forehead.

“We need something sharp – knives, ice picks, things like that,” I said.

“There are some box cutters in that drawer,” Jennafern gestured to a drawer next to her.

“Too small. Anything bigger?”

“Hmmmm,” Jennafern mused, riffling through the drawers. “What about these?” She held up some long, heavy metal files.

“Perfect,” I said. “Now, hold these.” I handed her bags of blood that had come out of the jug marked ‘J.’

She tentatively gripped the baggies and I raised the file above my head. “What are you doing?” she shrieked.

“I’m going to stab you. Or rather, the bags. Hold still.” I said, bringing the file down sharply and piercing the bag. I repeated the motion several times, fling the blood against the walls and ceiling. “Now, slump to the floor and let the rest of the blood ooze out of the bags.”

She so, and without moving I sad, “Alphabet, grab your bags of blood and come attack me. Poskunk, do to Happyconfusion what I just did to Jennafern, over in that area.” I gestured with my head.

Alphabet came over and I pivoted and stabbed his blood bags, flinging more blood all over the room. When all three were slumped on the floor, I looked around, considering my next move.

“Everyone’s blood bags empty?” I asked, eyeing the pooling blood.

“Not quite,” Happyconfusion said.

“Almost,” Jennafern said.

“Squeeze the rest out then,” I said. “And then we’re going to drag you to the door. You’ll need to peel out of your plastic suits as we get there, so it looks like you were loaded into a cart and taken off.”

“Or we could just load them into this cart,” Poskunk suggested, gesturing to a large, flat cart hidden under the counter by the door.

“Perfect!” I said, and he rolled it out of the door into the hallway. Together, we dragged the three ‘bodies’ out of the room and up onto the cart. Alphabet and Jennafern managed to stay limp and lifeless to make the blood trail look as authentic as possible, but the ticklish Happyconfusion proved more problematic. There wasn’t a place we could grab her that didn’t send her in to convulsions and fits of giggles. But we finally managed to get her dragged onto the cart.

They sat on the cart in their bloody plastic suits as we surveyed the damage. Poskunk started to take off his suit but I stopped him with a shake of my head. “Not yet. Now, where would someone go to dispose of a body around here?”

“The incinerator,” Alphabet said.

“Tell me how to get there,” I said, and Poskunk and I pushed the dripping, bloody cart down the hallway to the furnace room. Once there, we all stripped off our bloody coveralls and shoved them into the incinerator, making sure to smear copious amounts of blood around the opening, as if a body have been shoved in.

“There you go,” I told them. “You are dead. Best to disappear quickly. By Coyote’s estimation the communication system should be coming on any time now, and we need to start tying to transmit soon.”

“Thank you,” Alphabet dais. “You did the right thing.”

“I can only hope,” I sighed.

“It’ll all become clear soon enough,” Jennafern said cryptically.

“See you on the flip side,” Happyconfusion said, shaking my hand and grinning.

“Don’t step in any of the blood and track it anywhere, or you’re ruin everything,” I called as they filed out of the room. They nodded, and then they were gone.

I looked at Poskunk. “Time to go find a panel and start trying to send a distress call, I guess.”

He nodded, and we carefully left the room in search of communication with the outside world.


******



We found a panel that was working, albeit sluggishly, and Poskunk called up Ladee Jane.

“How can I help you?” she yawned. “And why am I so tired? I didn’t think I could get so tired.”

“Virus,” he said curtly. “You should be up and functioning normally soon. You were completely out of commission there for a bit. But now I need you to concentrate and get a message to the Home Office – directly to Triskellion, if possibly – quickly.”

“Sure thing,” she said. “What’s the message? Oh, and how long was I out, if I may ask?”

“Um, about twelve hours, I think. We’ve been trying to get through, but…” Poskunk faltered. It wasn’t really a lie, we had been trying to rouse her for the last twenty minutes or so, at any rate.

“Okay, I’ll need to reset my clocks,” she said. “Oh, my! My dataways are so jumbled!”

“You can fix that later. Now I need you to tell Triskellion that we found the Triple Geeks – sort of. We’re in their lair and it looks like there’s been some sort of… incident. She needs to send the police.”

“What sort of incident?” she asked.

“Blood. Lots and lots of it,” he said grimly.

“Bodies?” she asked.

“Not that we can see,” he said.

“She has the message,” she said. “And she says to tell you there are already police at the gate, you just have to let them in.”

So we went out and spent about ten minutes trying to figure out how to work the gate mechanism, but we finally got it open and led the police to the lab. The Sergeant in charge let out a low whistle, and ushered us to a nearby room to await our interviews.

The police questioning went better than I could have hoped. They pretty much took our story at face value, took a few pictures and samples, and ushered us out. Coyote and Foxfirefey went back to the Head Office to try to explain the virus, though they left out the part about it coming from the government. There was still the loose end of the ‘who’ in the case, but the Sergeant managed to give me a way out of even that.

“Did you witness them arguing with anyone during your surveillance?” he asked Foxfirefey.

Before she could respond, I said, “Wait, I did – just yesterday.” I recounted the story of Happyconfusion and Elaran arguing in the department store, and the Sergeant nodded his head.

“No honor amount villains,” he said grimly, treating the case as open and shut. I didn’t dissuade him. If they wanted to blame the Gummi resistance, I wasn’t going to stop them. I did, however, decide to make the Gummi resistance my next stop.

Rebecca greeted us warmly at a capsule waiting just outside the compound.

“Should you be up and about so soon?” I asked.

“I’m fine, just fine,” she assured me. “Besides, I want to help. This cut a little close to home.”

“I can understand that,” I said. “We need to get to the Gummi Resistance. Do they have a headquarters somewhere?”

She plugged in and consulted an electronic directory. “Yes, they do. It’ll only take a few minutes to get there.” And with that, we were off.

I noticed the official folder from the Head Office was set primly on the seat of the capsule. I grimaced as I remembered how I had abandoned it after the crash. Confidential information, just left lying out there in the open. Not good form for a hero.

I picked up the folder and leafed through the information they had on the Gummi Resistance. Most of it was anti-trade propaganda leaflets: ‘Stop Exporting Gummi Unfairly!’ and the like. There were a few profiles, which I studied more intently. Oh Lah and Elaran were the cheir instigators in the resistance, though they had built up quite a following. It was the usual platform, better wages, better benefits, and a more fair trade agreement. Neither were listed as violent, but there were some unsettling – though unproven – instances of sabotage. Gelsey had worked her way up in the ranks of the resistance as a spy, and now held a key place in the organization. As such, she had access to a lot of information, but it would be hard to get in touch with her. That’s where Nicked Metal came into play. He was sent in after they began losing contact with her. As a minor member, it wasn’t unusual for Gelsey to be seen talking to him, but unlike her, her could then slip away and relay information to the outside. It was a pretty good set up, as long as no one spilled the beans and wrecked the cover.

We got to the little town outside of the factory in good time. By then it was past lunch and my stomach was reminding me that I had missed a few too many meals lately and it wasn’t going to let this one slide. I asked Rebecca to set us down outside of a nice restaurant, and though she didn’t reply, when the doors opened we were parked outside of a lovely corner café.

“Is there anything I can get you?” I asked as we disembarked.

“No, no, I’m fine,” she said, and picked up her book once again.

Poskunk and I made our way to a small table in the corner of the patio and ordered sandwiches. We waited until the waitress had left to start laying out our strategy.

“Obviously, we want to get into contact with Nicked Metal. But how do we do that? The file was very vague on where he hangs out,” I said.

“Are you looking for me?” a gravely voice said behind me. I turned to see a young man dressed in a shabby sports coat and jeans standing behind me.

“And who are you?” I asked.

“Nicked Metal,” he replied, pulling up a chair and sitting down.

“Then yes, I am,” I said. “Is it safe to talk?”

He smiled a wry, sad smile. “Sadly, yes. The cat’s out of the bag. Gelsey was uncovered and is being held captive. My connection to her was also uncovered, but I escaped before they could lock me up.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” I asked.

“They’re demanding a meeting with the Head Office to discuss the labor disputes. The Head Office, of course, said that they refuse to bargain with anyone who takes hostages, and is refusing to send a representative. They told me to find you and tell you that your mission is to break Gelsey out. Then they can go in and crush their spirit,” he said, and fell silent as the waitress brought us our food. He ordered a sandwich as well, and we sat in silence until it, too, was brought out. When we were finished eating our sandwiches, he spoke again in a low, hushed voice. “But just between you and me, I’m not sure how much she’ll want to be rescued. I got a message to her shortly after her capture – an escape plan, though not a good one – and she sent word back declining. Of course, she couched it in the terms that it was too risky, and there was no need to stick my neck out, too, but… but I could sense an undercurrent. It’d been there for months. I think she was really starting to sympathize with them. And not, mind you, that I blame her.”

“So you think she is willingly making a martyr out of herself for the cause?” I asked.

“Something like that,” he hedged.

“You’re not even sure she’s that much of a martyr, are you?” I guessed.

“It just goes back to the leak. I can’t find anyone who would have leaked the information, except…” he trailed off.

“Except Gelsey herself, to set up this hostage situation,” I finished.

“Right,” he said grimly. “But I never said that, you understand?”

“I understand,” I said, nodding. We paid the bill and got up to leave. I slipped off to the bathroom, and when I came back around the corner I saw Poskunk and Nicked Metal deep in conversation. I thought I saw Poskunk slip a folded piece of paper into Nicked Metal’s hand, but I couldn’t be sure. They fell silent as I approached.

“Nice meeting you,” Nicked Metal said, holding out his hand.

I shook it, and we parted ways. He headed off into the dim street and Poskunk and I climbed back into the waiting capsule. We sat for a moment, not saying anything. Rebecca read placidly, waiting patiently to see what we wanted to do.

“Well,” I started, then stopped.

“Yeah,” Poskunk said.

“I guess we pass ourselves off as representatives so we can at least get a good idea about what’s going on,” I said.

“Sounds like a plan,” he said.

“Not a very good one, but a plan,” I agreed. “To the Gummi Resistance headquarters, Rebecca!”

She nodded, put down her book and we began to move. I sat back in my seat and tried to plan my next move. Which, without knowing all the details of the case, proved fruitless. When we arrived in front of the run-down little cottage I was no closer to a plan than I had been when we started the trip.

******

The Gummi Resistance was headquartered in a very quaint, old, deteriorating cottage on a street in the bad section of town. The street lights cast barely enough glow to see your hand in front of your face, and up and down the street you could hear the sound of shouts and banging of domestic disturbances. I stepped out of the capsule uneasily and hurried up to the front porch. Poskunk followed, keeping a wary eye on what little of the street was visible. I knocked on the door and it was answered by a pert young woman not much taller than me.

“May I help you?” she asked pleasantly, looking terribly out of place in the run-down surroundings. Her clothes were neat and stylish, her hair perfectly groomed, and she wore a matching set of diamond jewelry. Definitely out of place in this neighborhood.

“I’m looking for Oh Lah and Elaran, please,” I said formaly.

“And who would you be?” she asked, surveying first myself, and the Poskunk behind me. I thought I saw a flicker of recognition when she looked at his face, but it passed so quickly I wasn’t sure it was even there.

“My name is Smeddley and this is Poskunk. We’re from the Home Office,” I said.

“So they finally decided to bargain, did they?’ she asked her manner thawing slightly.

“Sort of,” I hedged. She looked at my quizzically, but held the door open wide enough for us to pass through.

I quickly surveyed the inside of the cottage. It was small and cramped, stuffed with old, musty oversized furnishings. It smelled faintly of mold and I stifled a sneeze. There was a faint light cast by some gloomy, hazy light fixtures, and I could see it was hardly larger than a small studio apartment. There was the tiny, dingy kitchen immediately to our right, a living room to our left, and along the back wall there was the door to a bedroom and a door that presumable led to a bathroom. There was also a small dinette buried under an avalanche of yellowing newspapers. I tried to soften my expression, but my distaste must have showed.

“It’s not much, but it’s all I can afford,” Oh Lah said. “It was my great-aunt’s, and I really haven’t had the time or money to fix it up. And even if I did…” She shrugged. “I don’t think it’s worth bothering, not in this neighborhood. Mostly I just come here to sleep.”

“Cut it with the poor act, Oh Lah. You might fool others with that, but I know better,” Poskunk said.

She shrugged at him. “My parents cut me off when I started pushing for the worker reform. You can believe me or not, I don’t care. This is all I have.”

I took in her clothing once again. It was good quality, but it was starting to show a bit of wear. Consistent with someone who used to have money, I thought.

“Okay, let’s get down to it. What are your demands?” I said brusquely.

“Shall we sit down?” She motioned to the sofa and chair in the living room. I moved to couch and sat delicately on the edge. She did likewise, and Poskunk remained standing, his arms folded across his chest.

“How much do you know about the Gummi Factory and the Trade Agreement?” she asked me.

“Not much,” I admitted.

“Just what they,” she shot a glance at Poskunk, but it wasn’t accusing, just thoughtful, “have told you?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” I said.

She took a deep breath and launched into her schpeal. I have to admit, by the end of her tale I was feeling quite sympathetic to her cause. It didn’t seem as if the workers were being treated fairly, and, in all honesty, our reality was getting the better bargain in the trade agreement. It was, to use her analogy, like agreeing to give someone diamonds in exchange for nuclear waste. Which I disagreed with in the assessment of real cheese, but did have to concede that she had a point with the Easy Cheese.

“So what do you propose?” I asked stiffly.

“Here,” she handed me a sheet of paper. I glanced at it, but in the dim light it was very hard to focus on the small type. “It’s a plan to streamline the Gummi process, put in place safety procedures, and a renegotiation plan with your universe.”

Squinting, I read through the proposal. It looked more than fair, in fact, it looked like a very good idea. I chewed on my lower lip.

“What are their objections to this?” I asked, looking at Poskunk for help.

“Sadly, they don’t really have any objections to the plan. If someone else were to propose it, or something similar, it would probably go through. But they refuse to bargain with…” he waved a hand at Oh Lah.

“Why? I mean, I understand why not now, with the whole hostage situation, but why not before?”

“It was all a misunderstanding,” she said. “They think we sabotaged the plant. After that, they wouldn’t even talk to us. The irony is that it wasn’t us, and the breakdown was one of the reasons that we formed the union for change.”

“So if it wasn’t sabotage, what happened?”

She settled back with a weary sigh, her eyes misting over slightly. “It was six months ago,” she sniffed. “I was working the pull line, where you work the Gummi to the right consistency. Margie was working next to me, and she got tangled up in a particularly sticky strand. Which never would have happened if the dryers were working properly, but they were on the fritz – again – so the Gummi was sent on still tacky. So she gets caught it in, can’t get her hand out. Then the back end of her strand gets snagged in a gear and pulled onto the conveyor. And it pulled her onto the conveyor, too. Which disconnected her harness and should have stopped the machine, but the sensors hadn’t been updated because of budget cuts, so in she went. I scrambled for the emergency stop button, but someone had stacked cartons in front of it. A flagrant violation of safety and fire codes, I might add. By the time I had tossed them out of the way and pushed the button to stop the belt, she was already onto the next belt. I tried to get to the overall emergency shutdown, but the rope that dangles from that was too high for me to reach. They cut it because they were afraid that someone might accidentally push the rope and turn the machine on,” she snorted, then sniffled. “Bloody idiots. Anyway, I couldn’t shut it down so I tried to call to the next section to warn them, but there was no one there – layoffs, you know – and poor Margie went all the way down into the rollers. She was… pancaked.”

I sat in stunned silence, afraid to say anything. Oh Lah sat sniffling quietly, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Poskunk shift his weight impatiently. When I looked at him, he rolled his eyes.

“Oh, come on, Oh Lah. Everyone knows you hated Margie and threatened to dumpt her into the melting pot more than once. Don’t pull out the waterworks over her death,” he said a bit harshly.

“Fine,” she shot back. “It’s true, she was a right old biddy and I don’t miss her. But the fact is, next time it could be someone I did like. Or me.”

“It indicates multiple acts of sabotage here,” I said, regaining my composer. What else happened?”

“Nothing major,” she said. “No one else has died – yet. The rest were machine failures, really no more than we’d had in the last year. But since we were starting to get vocal about the conditions, they suddenly had a scapegoat. A fifty year old grinder goes out? It must be sabotage! It couldn’t possibly be that the machine was only supposed to run for ten years, no.” Her voice was bitter, but oddly resigned. The underlying note of weariness that crept into it touched me more than the tale of the poor flattened Margie, which, to be honest, was just a little… funny. In a sad way, of course, but none the less a bit chuckle-worthy.

“If it’d been anyone other than Margie, it probably would have turned out differently,” Poskunk mused. “Or if someone else had been the first to rally the troops. But, sadly, they saw what they wanted to see to save their own hides, and can’t turn back now.”

“So what we need to do is find a way to make them change, and give them an out,” I said suddenly.

“Why do we want to let them save face now?” snarled Oh Lah. “They’ve certainly blackened my name enough without caring. People actually called me a murderer! They believe that I killed a woman just to start this.”

“No, we’d love to rub their noses in it, but there’s no way to do that and get the changes you want. They’re not going to budge, unless maybe another person dies,” I said.

“What did you say?” she asked, straightening.

“I said they’ll never admit fault unless another person dies – and there’s no way to blame it on you,” I added.

“That sounds like an idea!” She snapped her fingers. “What we need to do is to get me and my followers out of commission. Then we need to stage an accident!” Her face glowed with the excitement of the plan.

“Uh, okay, yes, in theory it sounds easy, but…” I looked at Poskunk for help, but he just shrugged.

“But what? It could work! This could really work!” She glanced at me thoughtfully. “But would you be willing to do it? Would you be willing to help us?”

“All they told me to do was fix the problem,” I said. “I don’t care how it gets fixed, so long as no one gets hurt.”

******



“Well, first off we need someone willing to ‘die’,” I said. “But not someone they’d think you were connect to in any way.”

“But at the same time, it’d have to be someone that would be willing to do it, then disappear forever. What about you? You could just go back to your reality, and they’d never know.” She looked at me hopefully.

“I can’t,” I said. “I still have…” I paused to mentally count. “I still have four more villain to take care of.”

“And one nasty sidekick,” Poskunk reminded me.

“Oh, thanks, yes, and one nasty sidekick,” I sighed.

“Who?’ Oh Lah asked. “Maybe I can help, in exchange for you helping me.”

“Well, there’s Oneworldvision’s cult, Akirad and the sidekick, Penchaft, and… Oh, the Naked Blue Ninja, and then there’s that ship, the S/V Galena. But only if I have time, they said.”

“Penchaft? Or Weaselistic?” she asked.

“Who?’ I asked, but Poskunk smacked himself on the head.

“Of course! No wonder she always seemed to be everywhere. I’d forgotten, it’d been so long…” He shook his head in disgust.

“What?” I repeated.

“Weaselistic is Penchaft’s twin sister,” Oh Lah explained. “I went to school with them, and you never knew which was which. They’d switch places whenever they felt like it. And they were truly indistinguishable. It was creepy. I mean, with most twins there are some differences, maybe not big ones, and you may not notice them unless they were side by side, but with these two… I don’t think their own mother could tell them apart.”

I thought back to Foxfirefey and Coyote. There were subtle differences, and I though that if I walked into a room and only one of them was there, I would be able to tell which one it was.

“Wow, that must have been…” I faltered, not sure what to say. The lack of sleep and excess of stress was starting to wear on me again. I needed a nap, or at least a strong cup of coffee.

“You haven’t heard the worst part. When they were sixteen they were sent away to a special school. It was a school for gifted, but difficult children. It’s since been closed down, in part because of what they did there, and what it revealed. You see, it was not a nice place. It was believed that the only way to keep these geniuses from ‘acting up’ was to… torture them. But Penchaft and Weaselistic… they wouldn’t stand for it. They turned the tables on the instructors, and drove several of the mad, in fact. The story leaked out, and other students came forward, and the school was shut down. They made the mistake of thinking that Penchaft and Weaselistic were like the other gifted students – insecure and malleable. But they were very, very wrong.”

“It sounds like they did a good thing, to get the school shut down,” I said.

“Yes, that’s true. But several of the things they did – things that ultimately drove the teachers mad – were not only highly unethical, but a wee bit illegal. The problem was, they couldn’t tell which one did it. Each one claimed that it was the other one who was completely at fault, and that they were completely innocent. They were willing to testify against each other, in fact.” She paused, and I frowned.

“That doesn’t sound very nice of them,” I said.

“Sure it was. Think about it. They are each accusing each other and professing their innocence. No one else can tell them apart, so eyewitness testimony is completely useless. They were very, very careful to leave no fingerprints, and they have identical DNA. So who do you try? Who do you put in jail? What if one of them was completely innocent?”

“Oh,” I said in understanding.

“Oh, indeed. They had no choice but to let them both go. And for awhile it seemed like they truly had a falling out. That they hated each other. Weaselistic disappeared – or at least it seemed that way. Then, about a year ago, Penchaft began showing up in two places at once. At first, we all thought we were just mistaken about times and places, and that she was just really on the go. But then… then we realized what it was. Weaselistic never disappeared. They just both became Penchaft,” she said grimly.

“That doesn’t sound good,” I prompted when she paused.

“No, no it’s not. It probably means they’ve been plotting something. But what, we don’t know.”

“I can’t believe the big brains at the Head Office didn’t think if this,” Poskunk chimed in.

“I honestly thing they’ve forgotten about Weaselistic. I know it’s only been five years, but memories seem very short these days,” she sighed.

“Well, thank you,” I said sincerely. “You’ve already given me more information than I had before. But right now we need to concentrate on finding you a person willing to… well, die, I guess.”

Poskunk snapped his fingers. “I may have the person, but we need to go now.”

“Okay, can we meet you somewhere in a bit?” I asked Oh Lah.

“Yes, I have a lot to plan. I’ll meet you here.” She tore off the corner of a slip of paper and scribbled an address.

“We shouldn’t be too long,” Poskunk said, and I got up to leave.

Oh Lah showed us to the door, and we hurried out into the dark street and to the waiting capsule. We had to knock on the door to get Rebecca to unlock it, and it made me feel better that I wasn’t the only person who felt uneasy in the neighborhood.

Poskunk gave her the name of a hotel and we were off. I settled back on my seat and regarded him for a long moment.

“Whose side are you on?” I asked softly.

“Why, yours,” he replied with a grin.

I shook my head. “You really are obnoxious,” I said.

“It’s what I do best,” he said.

“So who are we going to see?” I asked.

“It’s a secret,” he said, inclining his head ever so slightly at Rebecca and winking at me.

“You know how much I love surprises,” I said with forced cheerfulness. If Rebecca heard us she gave no indication, and a moment later we pulled up to our destination. As soon as we were out of the capsule he leaned towards me.

“It’s not that I don’t trust her,” he said softly. “But…”

“But you don’t trust her,” I finished.

“I don’t know whether or not to trust her. I don’t know where her loyalties lie. She’s very private, and no one has been able to get much information out of her. Most drivers are that way. I think they’re chosen for that very reason. Mostly I’m afraid that her link with the computers is a live one. And that things said and done in her presence are funneled to the powers that be.”

“I understand,” I said.

“Good,” he said, stopping in front of a bank of elevators.

“Um, an elevator?” I asked nervously.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I don’t like elevators.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, you don’t understand. I really don’t like elevators.” I was rocking slightly now, my nervous energy spilling over.

“It’s a short ride,” he reassured me. “It’s perfectly safe.”

“How short?”

“Ten flights.”

“Where are the stairs?” I asked, and he looked startled.

“Stairs?”

“Yes, I’d like to take the stairs,” I said firmly. “I’ll meet you up there.”

“It’s ten flights,” he said, as the elevator arrived. “Just get in.” And he shoved me into the elevator. I stood frozen for a moment, to scared to move. I was standing in a little box supported by nothing but steel cables. Or maybe not even that. Who knew what they used to construct elevators in this reality? I was turning to get out of the elevator, but my movement were too slow an deliberate and the doors shut. I slowly reached out a hand and grasped the handrail tightly enough to turn my knuckles white. I concentrated on my breathing and stared at the floor, unmoving.

“Are you all right?” he asked, taking a step towards me.

“Don’t move!” I cried. “Just… don’t move. Don’t rock the car, don’t even talk to me.”

The elevator arrived at the floor and he started to get out, but stopped when I glared at him. “Okay, okay, I’m not moving.”

Very slowly, I shuffled out of the elevator. Each step was gentle and deliberate, so as not to rock the car at all. When I finally reached the hallway, I turned and motioned for him to follow. He strode out of the elevator like it was a normal piece of flooring. I shuddered as I saw the floor of the elevator wiggle slightly.

“I told you I didn’t like elevators, you…” To my horror, I burst into tears.

He reached out to hug me gently. “I’m sorry,” he murmured into my hair. “I thought you were just being… you. You know, a grumpy pain in the ass.”

I smiled despite myself, but didn’t let him see it. I pushed out of his arms. “I once walked up twenty six flights of stairs to avoid a particularly scary elevator, I’ll have you know.”

“Duly noted,” he said solemnly. “No more elevators.”

“Or walkways,” I added.

“Or walkways,” he repeated.

“Or balconies,” I said.

“Or balconies. I’m beginning to see a trend. Are you afraid of heights, by chance?”

“No. I’m not afraid of heights.”

“Afraid of falling, then?”

“No, the falling part would be fine.”

“What then?” he asked, puzzled.

“I’m completely terrified of hitting the ground after having fallen from a great height. It’s the deceleration that scares me.”

He laughed, and pushed me towards a hotel room.

“Who are we here to see?” I asked, but he ignored me and knocked. A moment later, Nicked Metal opened the door.

******

“I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” Nicked Metal said.

“I didn’t expect it, either, but circumstances have changed and you might just be the perfect man for the job,” Poskunk said.

“Well, come in, come in, don’t loiter in the hallway. The walls have ears, you know,” he said, and ushered us into the room.

After he had firmly closed and locked the door, he shooed us to the small settee along one wall. I sat down, as did Poskunk, and Nicked Metal brought over a chair from the small table in the corner. He pulled a small metal disc out of his pocket and set it on the coffee table between us. He flicked a small switch and the disc hummed merrily and cast a faint blue glow.

“We may talk freely, now,” he said. “What might I be the perfect man for?”

“What does that do?” I asked.

“It keeps people from eavesdropping,” he said.

“But won’t they become suspicious if they just don’t hear anything?” I asked.

“Ah, you are a bright one!” He winked at Poskunk, and I shifted uneasily. “Yes, it would. But this nifty little gadget takes what we say and jumbles it into ordinary conversation, broadcasting that and blocking out our real conversation five feet away.”

I stood up and walked over to the kitchenette, and heard Poskunk say, “And how is Sue, haven’t seen her in ages. You two still talk?” Only his lips didn’t moved. Then Nicked Metal replied, “No, we lost touch a few years back.”

I scampered back over to the settee and settled back down. “That… is just so creepy-cool!”

“It’s one of my favorite gadgets,” Nicked Metal admitted. “I use it all the time. Now, what might I be perfect for?”

“Oh! Right. We need someone willing to die,” I said.

Nicked Metal looked startled, and said, “Excuse me?”

“Not for real,” Poskunk chuckled. “We need someone willing to fake their own death, then disappear. And since you were already set to disappear, I though you wouldn’t mind the dying first part.”

“If it’s not for real, then, no, I don’t mind dying before I go,” he said. “What did you have in mind?”

“It’s about the Gummi Factory,” I started, but he cut me off.

“You’ve become sympathetic to their cause, have you?” he chuckled.

“Maybe a little,” I said defensively.

“Calm down, calm down. I’m not saying I blame you. The whole thing’s one big cluster. You’d think there’d be an easy way to fix it,” he said.

“There might just be,” Poskunk said. “But it will probably take a death. One that can’t be linked to the Gummi Resistance. Then they’ll have to see that the factory is unsafe.”

“You’re assuming they won’t be able to pin it on something else, someone else, some other group,” Nicked Metal sighed. “Trust me, there’s always someone to blame.”

“We just need to get the public’s attention, I think,” I said slowly. “If a good majority of them see the truth, then maybe we can force the factory owners to turn things around.”

“The government, you mean,” Nicked Metal said.

“Right. Them,” I said.

“It just might work, if you plan it well enough. Okay, I’m in. It’s no skin off my nose, anyway, and it could be fun. What’s the grand plan?” he asked, settling back in his chair.

“Well, we’re working on that,” I said slowly. “We somehow need to get the Resistance rounded up and out of the way. Then we need to get you into the factory, stage an accident, and convince them you’re dead without producing a corpse.”

“Oh, is that all?” he asked sardonically.

“Yup, that’s all,” I said with forced cheerfulness. “Oh, and some good media coverage would be great.”

“I can call on my buddy at the paper, Pizzamaker1000,” Nicked Metal said.

“That name sounds familiar. Wait, isn’t she the one on the trail of S/V Galena?” I frowned in concentration, trying to recall the details in the manila folder.

“Oh, that. She’s convinced that old legend is true. Of course, half the population is convinced of it. She goes off and chases after it every so often. But she’s a newspaper reporter the rest of the time,” he said.

“Legend? But I thought the ship was going around blowing up seaports. Though come to think of it, do you have seaports? How do you have seaports under a dome?” I looked at Poskunk.

“Ah, I never really explained that, did I? Sorry,” he apologized. “The city covers an entire island – a fair sized one, at that. There’s enough room between the shore and the edge of the dome for shipping traffic, as well as a deep canal that bisects the city. Originally, it was thought that shipping would be a convenient way to transport goods, but then came the capsules, then the panels, and it’s too expensive to shrink the dome or fill in the canal. They’re mostly just used by kids out having fun and causing trouble, and people who escape.”

“Escape?” I asked. “You keep using that word. What do you mean?”

“According to official reports, the world outside the dome is toxic and bad for you. The dome is your friend. The dome is good. Stay in the dome,” he droned, and he and Nicked Metal laughed.

“I remember those Public Service Announcements,” Nicked Metal said.

“Worst acting ever,” Poskunk agreed. “Anyway, the idea was to impress upon you that the dome was keeping the bad things out, when in reality, it just keeps people in. Unless you escape.”

“Which most people do from time to time. It’s considered the primo exotic vacation spot. Completely illegal, of course,” Nicked Metal said.

“Which makes it all the more desirable, right?” I said.

“Of course,” Poskunk said.

“But then why ever come back? I mean, let’s face it, this place is depressing,” I shuddered.

“Somebody has to try to change things,” Nicked Metal said, looking pointedly at me.

“I am so confused,” I wailed, and flopped back on the couch. “Let’s just take this one crisis at a time, shall we?”

“Okay, let’s talk about how I’m going to die,” Nicked Metal said cheerfully.

“Well, first off, it has to be during something that’s getting media attention,” Poskunk said. “So Pizzamaker1000 can be there reporting.”

“So, something like a tour?” I ventured. “A tour to show off how safe and great the plant is once the Gummi Resistance is locked away?”

“That sounds like a plan,” Nicked Metal said. “But why am I there?”

“Aren’t you an employee, still?” I asked.

“Well, yes, I guess so…” he trailed off, looking confused.

“So, you’re just there at work,” I said

“But my cover was blown. Why would I go back?” He shook his head. “It just wouldn’t make sense.”

“Unless, because they’re going to be very short handed once all of the Gummi resistance workers are gone, you stay and help like a good little worker bee,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, the light dawning.

“You know, just long enough for them to train new people, so they’re not left high and dry,” I continued.

“Okay, okay, that’ll work. And I’m on the mixing crew, so I’ll be stationed over a kettle, if that helps with the planning of the accident,” he said.

“Actually, I’m going to need a lot more information about the plant floor to be able to plan the accident,” I said. “I don’t even know the basic process, so I’m pretty much lost.”

For the next few hours I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the process of making Gummi. There were several steps, most of them unpleasant, and a lot of specialized machinery. Nicked Metal had diagrams, pictures, and, most importantly, reports of old and malfunctioning equipment. I was staring at the floor layout when inspiration struck.

“Can you walk along here,” I tapped my finger on the diagram, “just as the tour group goes by?”

He studied the diagram. “Sure, no problem.”

“And this, you said, makes steam if you hit this lever?” I pointed to a machine along the walkway.

“Yeah, we’re always hitting the blasted thing with our rods because they won’t move it. Luckily it’s not a really hot steam, but it’s annoying,” he grumbled.

“Okay, so all we have to do is get you enveloped in a cloud of steam just as you’re walking on the narrow walkway with the broken handrail over the kettle, and then make you disappear,” I said.

“Right, because that’s the easy part,” Poskunk said.

“Hey, if David Copperfield can make the Statue of Liberty disappear, then we can bloody well find a way to spirit a man off a catwalk, can’t we?”

******


“David who?” Nicked Metal asked.

“Never mind, that’s not the important part. All we need is a way for you to effectively ‘disappear’ for a few seconds – presumably fallen into the kettle. I once read a book on using mirrors for that, but the problem might be the background. Ever wonder why magicians’ stages are always so symmetrical? Okay, so it looks nice, too, but it’s also for that. Let me think about this for a second.” I riffled through the stack of photographs and tried to construct a three-dimensional image in my mind.

I was still pondering the possibilities when there was a knock at the door. Nicked Metal and Poskunk exchanged a glance, and then Nicked Metal got up to open the door. When he came back, he held a slim book in his hand and a puzzled frown was etched into his face.

“Who was it?” Poskunk asked.

“I don’t know. There was no one there, just this book.” He held up the book for us to see. We gasped when we saw the title.

Disappearing Acts for Morons by Janice Smoke and Maurice Mirrors

“I thought you said no one would be able to hear us!” I said.

“They shouldn’t be able to,” Nicked Metal said, inspecting the device on the table. When he was satisfied that it was still functioning properly, he shook his head. “I have no idea.”

Poskunk and I exchanged a glance. We were remembering the suspiciously convenient code, the unlocked doors, and the hip waders. Perhaps I had been wrong in my assessment of Naked Blue Ninja. Perhaps she wasn’t just a free spirit. But she seemed – for the moment – to be helping us, and that didn’t make any sense, either.

“Well, we can either abandon the plan, or run with this,” I said, flipping through the book. “Whoever left this seems to want to help us, albeit anonymously, so I think we should go with it. Besides, I’m not sure I can think of anything else.”

“I agree,” Poskunk said. “I can’t think of anything else, either, so we might as well assume the person who left this is sincere in their desire to help us.”

“Do you really believe that?” Nicked Metal asked.

“Yes, I believe that. When was the last time you were on the outside?” Poskunk asked.

“It’s been a few years,” Nicked Metal admitted. “I’ve been busy, you know, it’s always one thing of another…”

“Ah, well, I think you’ll see why I say this when you get there,” Poskunk said cryptically.

“Um, how about clueing me in here?” I poked Poskunk in the side.

“No, I think I’ll leave that as a surprise,” he said with a wicked grin. “But for now, just trust me, okay?”

“Why would I do that?” I asked.

“Have I steered you wrong yet?”

“In a word: Tofu,” I said and pulled a sour face. Nicked Metal laughed.

“That,” Poskunk said, “was not my fault. It was a limited menu, and trust me, it really was the best thing on it. You wouldn’t have liked the Pot Pie Surprise.”

“As much as I hate to say it, I have to agree with Poskunk here,” Nicked Metal said. “I’ve had Pot Pie Surprise, and even having grown up eating this crap I had a hard time keeping it down.”

“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll trust you, but I won’t be happy about it.” I harrumphed and crossed my arms in a huff. They stared at me for a moment, and I sighed and picked up the book once more. Poskunk glanced at his watch.

“We really need to go meet Oh Lah,” he said. He looked at Nicked Metal. “I think you should meet us there. Best to minimize contact, just in case.”

“I understand – what’s the address?” he asked.

While Poskunk gave Nicked Metal the address I flipped through the stack of photographs he had surreptitiously taken at the Gummi plant. Suddenly my gaze locked on a slightly blurry figure in the back of a picture of a mixing kettle. I couldn’t be sure, but I was positive it was Penchaft. I slipped the picture into my pocket as we got up to leave.

“I’ll meet you there within the hour,” Nicked Metal said. “I know a back route that will lose anyone even attempting to follow me.”

He ushered us out and we stood awkwardly in the hallway for a moment.

“The stairs are this way,” Poskunk said, gesturing to the end of the hallway.

I started walking and he fell into step beside me. “You don’t have to, you can take the elevator. I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

“That’s okay, I could probably stand the exercise,” he grinned.

We had clomped down two flights of stairs when I first heard it. A soft click, followed by a giggle. There was the sound of footsteps racing lightly down the stairs, then another click, this one slightly louder. We froze, and waited. When we didn’t hear anything further, we continued down the stairs, but a few flights later it happened again. This time we didn’t wait, just ran down the remaining stairs and flung open the door at the bottom just as a security guard was racing towards it.

“You see anyone in there?” he asked gruffly.

“No, but we heard someone,” Poskunk said.

“Where?”

“Probably up on the fifteenth or sixteenth floor,” I said. “It was above us, but I couldn’t really say how far.”

He pushed past us and started racing up the stairs. We hurried out to the lobby, where the phones on the reception desk were ringing like mad. I stopped a bus boy with a cart load of baggage.

“What’s going on?’ I asked, waving a hand at the frenzy of activity at the front desk.

“Someone’s pranking the rooms,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, the usual. Short sheeting beds, that sort of thing. Your typical camp pranks,” he said, and with a shrug pushed the baggage cart towards the elevator.

I turned to Poskunk. “You don’t think…”

“No, I don’t think. I know. We need to get going.” He took my arm and propelled me to the front door. We hurried to the capsule, and when we were climbing in I turned back and glanced at the hotel. And gasped.

In the windows along the front of the hotel someone had used a phosphorescent paint to draw letters. Perfectly centered and glowing blue in the dim light, the front of the hotel now proclaimed “Naked Blue Ninja.” As I watched, another letter began to form on the next floor, but Poskunk pulled me into the capsule and we drove off.

“What was that all about?” I asked. He simply shrugged, and I went back to morosely sitting with my arms folded. I had planned to sulk moodily, but found myself nodding off. Poskunk shook my shoulder gently when we got to the address.

“Time to get up, sleepyhead,” he said.

“What time is it?” I yawned.

“Late. But we need to have this meeting, so move it.”

Grumbling, I pulled myself out of the capsule and stretched. We were parked in front of a stately old mansion, a worn but well-preserved building. I could make out large columns gracing the sweeping porch, and stained glass windows decorated the front door. I thought that it really lacked something without the glorious gardens that should have graced the grounds, but I held my tongue. Poskunk was already knocking on the large front door, and I hurried to stand beside him.

The door was opened by a girl I recognized from the department store – Elaran. She stood there staring at us for a split second, then swung the door open and wordlessly motioned for us to come inside. We were led into a brightly lit drawing room with soft velvet couches. I sunk down into one gratefully and curled up on my side. Poskunk sat beside me, and Elaran drifted out of the room.

I must have fallen asleep again, because the next think I remember was someone shaking my shoulder.

“Lack of caffeine really dragging you own, eh?’ Poskunk asked with a chuckle.

“You could say that,” I yawned. “Or it could be that I haven’t had a spare second to catch my breath since we got here.”

“Well, you’re in luck. We’ve decided we’re all too tired to think properly, so we’re going to call it a night and meet in the morning.”

“You dragged me all the way out here just to turn around?” I glanced around the room, and noticed that Nicked Metal, Elaran, Oh Lah and one unidentified woman were all staring at me.

“Oh, no,” Elaran said. “You can stay here.”

“Should we really do that?” I asked Poskunk dubiously.

“I don’t see why not,” he said.

“Fine,” I yawned. “We’ll meet in the morning. Where do I sleep?”

Elaran showed me to a small, but elegantly furnished bedroom. I tried to engage her in some small talk as we walked up the curving staircase and along the plush carpeted hallway, but she replied with monosyllabic, non-committal noises to all the questions I peppered her with. Finally I gave up, and we traversed the rest of the hallway in silence.

She stopped in front of a doorway and swung the door open, staying on the outside of the threshold. I tentatively stepped in and looked around the room. It was old-fashioned, with a canopy bed and small dressing table, and lots and lots of lace. Not my style, but I had to admit it was pretty and fit the style of the house. There was the faint smell of lilac in the air, and I took a deep, cleansing breath. I looked into the gilt-framed mirror, but it appeared Elaran had already left me to my own devices.

“Is everything satisfactory?” Her voice behind me made me jump. My eyes flew back to the mirror, but it showed an empty doorway.

“Fine,” I squeaked, and turned around slowly. She stood framed in the doorway, her cool, appraising gaze settled on my face, watching for my reaction.

“Just let me know if there is anything you need,” she said, and when I nodded she glided off down the hallway. Her steps were so graceful she hardly seemed to be walking at all, I thought. Come to think of it, in that long, flowing skirt I couldn’t be sure she was even walking…

I cut off my jumbled thoughts. My imagination was getting the better of me, I told myself. I couldn’t believe that I would have even thought – even considered that… I laughed mirthlessly to myself. I was definitely too tired if I was thinking along those lines. Still, I couldn’t help but dwell on how different Elaran had appeared here. In the department store, and later on the street, she had seemed a bit jumpy and high-strung. Here, in what I assumes was her home, she was calm and self-possessed. Relaxed, and… regal. Like a queen reigning over her domain.

I yawned again and stumbled towards the bed. I noticed a white linen nightgown draped over the end of the bed, and after a moment of indecision, I slipped out of the clothes I was wearing and put it on. Then I climbed under the cool sheets as instantly fell asleep.

I’m not one to put much stock in dreams, but looking back on it, I have to admit that my dreams of that evening were pretty prophetic. It was a jumbled, confused set of images and small movie-like flashes. It started in a smoky maze, where someone was pursuing me. I was running, but I felt languid and sluggish, and part of me, the tired part, wanted to stop and let the person overtake me. The logical part of my brain was screaming, telling me to run, run, run! But the weariness overtook me, and I stopped in the middle of a giant mirrored room. The room began to move, spin, and twist, and I had to close my eyes to keep from getting dizzy. Then there was someone else there. I couldn’t open my eyes to look at them, but I could feel their presence. A whispery, gentle touch. Then I was falling.

Suddenly, I was on a roller coaster, plunging down the first gigantic hill. I screamed, and turned to the person next to me. It was Naked Blue Ninja, and she was grinning happily, looking relaxed. ‘Isn’t this fun?’ she shouted. I tried to say no, but when I opened my mouth I felt water pour in. And I was underwater, someone holding me down. I fought and kicked, but finally, my lungs burning, I blacked out. When I opened my eyes, I was in a small, windowless room, chained to a metal cot. I tried pulling on the frame, but the bed was bolted to the floor. I yelled, but all I heard was a faint, mocking laughter. Then a curse, and a shout, followed by more laughter. More than one person.

I looked back down at myself and I was covered in a gooey red substance. I tried to move, but the more I twisted, the tighter the sticky stuff bound me. A cold trickle of fear raced down my spine, and as I turned my head, I saw the machine that goes ‘Ping!’ in the corner of the room, blinking ominously. I began thrashing in earnest, but I couldn’t get free.

Suddenly Elaran’s face floated in front of me. ‘You’ll need this,’ she said, extending a long, thin hand. There was an old-fashioned skeleton key resting in her palm. I reached out and grabbed it, the metal cool and smooth against my hand.

“Smeddley, Smeddley! Wake up!” I felt hands shaking me, and slowly opened my eyes. I was laying on the floor of the bedroom, the sheets knotted and twisted around me. Poskunk was peering at me with a worried frown.

“I’m up,” I said, but he remained silent, looking intently at my neck. Instinctively, I raise my hand to touch the side of my neck, and realized that there was something in my hand. I opened my fingers and gazed down at a heavy brass skeleton key.

******

Poskunk looked at the key, and back at my face. I set the key down on the floor and reached up to touch my neck. It was tender and felt bruised. I shoved myself to my feet with a groan and shuffled to the mirror to look.

The right side of my neck was slightly bruised, and there were two long scratches down it. My eyes caught Poskunk’s in the mirror.

“Bad dreams?” he asked mildly.

“What?” I asked him incredulously, still examining my neck in the mirror.

“Dreams. Did you have bad dreams? It sure looks like you banged yourself around a bit, and goodness knows where this came from.” He held up the key.

“I don’t… I don’t know,” I admitted.

He stared at me for a moment longer, then nodded. “If you don’t need anything else…”

I glanced at the clock, and realized it was 3 am. “I’m so sorry to have woken you,” I said.

“It’s okay.”

“Thank you,” I said softly.

“No problem. Holler if you need anything else,” he said, and left the room, shutting the door firmly behind him. I stared at the closed door for a long time, kicking myself. I should have asked him to stay. There was no way I was going to be able to sleep now. I paced the floor for a minute, then went to the door and eased it open. Voices floated back at me, low and urgent.

“Why?” I heard Poskunk say angrily.

“She needed it,” a female voice drifted back. It was hard to identify, but I thought it was Elaran’s.

“And you couldn’t just hand it to her and say, ‘here, this might be useful’?” Poakunk said wearily.

“It wasn’t just the key,” Elaran said. Her voice was growing fainter, as if they were walking away, down the hallway. “She needed the guidance, the visions, even if she doesn’t remember all of them or can’t make sense of them now. The information will be there when she needs it.”

“Still, couldn’t you-”

“No.” Elaran said something else, but her voice was too faint to make out what it was. My heart pounding, I slowly closed the door, wincing at the slight click it made when the latch caught. I tip-toed back to bed, stopping to grab the key. I held it tightly in my hand, curled up on my side in a ball in the middle of the bed. I was afraid to fall back asleep, but the weariness overcame me and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When I next opened my eyes there was a bustling coming from downstairs and I could hear voices. Looking at the clock, I saw it was 9 am, and I pushed myself upright. I wanted to believe that last night had been a dream, but I could feel the cool weight of the key in my hand. I dressed hurriedly, slipping the key into a pocket and wincing as I caught sight of the faint bruising on my neck. I shuddered. It just… couldn’t be, could it?

I hurried downstairs to the dining room, where Poskunk sat eating a bowl of what looked like Cream of Wheat. I sat down opposite, grabbing a piece of fruit from the serving tray.

“Can I ask you a few questions?” I asked suddenly.

“I suppose,” he said warily.

“How long has the city been covered with the dome?”

“Longer than anyone can remember,” he said, looking surprised at my question. “The history is pretty vague. What we do know is that the dome was built somewhere between three and four hundred years ago. It was supposed to protect the people, and there are a few reports the survived the fire that tell of people who disregarded the warnings, and left the dome. They came back terribly sick and burned, some to the point of having black patches. They all died, and people stopped trying to leave.”

“But they tried again?”

“Yes, because those records were lost at the time. About a hundred years ago, some kid found a scrap of paper washed up on the shore. It was from a newspaper, dated about a week prior. But it wasn’t any newspaper printed here. So he got the bright idea of leaving the dome. He did, and returned with tales of a fantastic world, full of people and animals. Some of his friends were skeptical, but several others went with him the next time he ventured out. They came back with equally exciting tales, prompting more people to start sneaking out. That’s when the Public Service Announcements started, and, coincidently, when the old reports resurfaced.”

“You said there was a fire,” I said slowly, “and all of the records were destroyed. So no one knows the original intent of the dome?”

“It wasn’t just a fire,” he sighed heavily. “There was a plague, too. A lot of people died, and even more went crazy. People shut themselves up in their houses for years. When it was over, those that survived refused to talk about it. Very little information pre-disaster survived. There are speculations, of course, but…”

“Speculations about what?” I pushed.

“Well, that the dome was built to protect people from the sun, people with a special sensitivity,” he said hesitantly, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“I’m guessing you’re not talking about people with Xeroderma Pigmentosa,” I said dryly.

“Uh, no,” he agreed, and went back to picking at his cereal.

“Why do I think you know a whole lot of things you’re not willing to tell me?” I chewed slowly on the fruit, starting at him through narrowed eyes.

“Because you have more that two brain cells to rub together and I tend to be as transparent as a sheet of glass?”

“Why won’t you?” I asked, ignoring his attempt to lighten the mood.

He sighed heavily and pushed away his nearly empty bowl. “There are a lot of things I could tell you, but for one, I don’t think you would believe me. And two, I don’t want to bias you.”

“But this might be information that would prove useful. Maybe even protect me!” I waved a hand vaguely at my neck.

His eyes rested on the bruising for a moment, then he took one of my hands in his. “I’d never let anything hurt you,” he said softly. “I promise to give you any information that could save you before you need it.”

I sighed and looked away, but didn’t pull my hand from his. We stayed like that until Nicked Metal bounded into the room, announcing that everyone was meeting in the drawing room to go over the plans. We followed him out without saying a word to one another.

******



We assembled in the small, flowery drawing room, crammed into small, overstuffed couches. The coffee table was littered with the papers from Nicked Metal’s hotel room, along with some other pamphlets and sketches. Everyone was talking to one another, and the babble of voices made it hard to hear anything clearly.

“I need to show you something,” I leaned over and said into Poskunk’s ear.

“What is it?” he asked.

“This,” I said, pulling out the photo with the figure in the background. He took it and looked at it for a moment. “Is that who I think it is?”

“It looks like it,” he said. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. There’s something that we don’t know. Something big is afoot.”

“I just wish I could see the connection,” I said, and suddenly had a flashback to my dream last night. The cell. Being rapped in Gummi. The machine. That laugh. And something else. Something I couldn’t remember, something just out of reach in my memory. I shook my head to clear it.

“Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe she’s just stirring up trouble,” Poskunk said.

“Remember what Oh Lah was telling us about her and her twin? She thought something was up, too. So I think we should at least keep this in the back of our minds as we tackle our more immediate problems.”

“Agreed. And maybe I should have Ladee Jane poke around and see if she can find any more information on Penchaft. It seems like the department should have more information, given her history.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe the file on her is so skimpy,” I agreed. “But for now, don’t say anything about Weaselistic. I don’t want anyone to know we know about that, and are thinking along those lines. I don’t have much working in my favor, so if I can get even the slightest advantage from the element of surprise, I want to take it.”

He nodded in agreement, and Oh Lah stood up at the end of the room, clapping her hands to get our attention.

“Now, what we have here is a multi-step plan. First, we need to get the Gummi Resistance out of the picture. This is going to be a considerable sacrifice to some of us, but we must do what we must do. Gelsey has a plan for that.”

The woman I hadn’t recognized the night before stood up. She reminded me of a fairy, small and slim with long, flowing blond hair. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a pair of gossamer wing unfolded behind her. She cleared her throat nervously.

“The Head Office knows I’ve been taken hostage,” she said. “This is not really true – I engineered the hostage situation in a vain hope that it would make them bargain. Obviously, this has failed. So we have to turn this around to our advantage, somehow. I suggested that I ‘escape’ with the help of Nicked Metal and report on a meeting in progress.”

“Then the police can go and round up the Resistance at the meeting,” Oh Lah continued. “I’ll set up a meeting and get everyone to attend. They’re all more than eager to find out if the hostage situation is working to our advantage. Don’t worry,” she held up a hand, “no one but us knows that it’s not a real hostage situation. We’ve kept that tightly under wraps.”

“So one I report on this meeting and they round up the Resistance, Nicked Metal and I will be free to go back to the Gummi plant and stage the accident,” Gelsey said.

“It will be nice to have another insider,” I said.

“Plus, I think you’d have a hard time convincing them that Nicked Metal was going back out of some kindness of his own heart or a strong work ethic,” she said, grinning at him.

“Hey! That hurts,” Nicked Metal looked stricken and put a hand to his chest. “Oh ye of little faith.”

Gelsey just smiled at him and shook her head. He dropped the mock-hurt look and grinned back at her.

“Like I said, it will be more convincing if we both go back, after I lean on him a little, of course. The press conference and tour will be a breeze to stage. I probably won’t even have to subtly hint at it. They will probably suggest it themselves,” she said.

“They are big on tours and publicity,” Elaran said sourly.

“Now we only have to worry about making Nicked Metal appear to die,” I said.

“Preferably without causing any damage to me,” Nicked Metal chimed in.

“I think that goes without saying,” I said, but then caught the gleam in Oh Lah’s eyes. “Or, maybe not.”

“And how are you planning that?” Elaran asked.

“Do you have the book?” I asked, turning to Poskunk and Nicked Metal. Nicked Metal pulled it out of a coat pocket. “Thanks. I was thinking that this setup,” I flipped the book open to the appropriate page, “would work perfectly. The only problem is that it requires significant setup. We’ll have to rig the trapdoor so that it works perfectly but is undetectable. And we need a quick-grasp, lightweight harness. I’d really like a clasp that can be worked reliably with one hand.”

They took turns studying the book, nodding in agreement.

“But what about… remains?” Gelsey asked tentatively. “I know it’s going into the kettle, but they’d be able to find traces, wouldn’t they?”

“I can provide a suitable corpse, as long as you’re sure all of the identifiable bits will removed by the heat and the Gummi,” Elaran said.

We all turned to look at her for a long moment. No one said anything for awhile. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know the specifics, but we really needed the body, so I just asked, “Is it… is it a body that could be mistaken for him? The right gender, approximate age and build?”

“Yes,” she said. “But the appearance, including the hair, is all wrong. So if they get to the edge too quickly, before it’s obliterated…”

“You might want to dye the hair,” Gelsey said. “We can’t be sure someone wouldn’t rush right forward. And if you toss it in face-down, that should cover the discrepancies in the facial features.”

“Oh, and I can get you one of my uniforms to dress him in,” Nicked Metal said.

“Good, good. And I think we can be sure it’ll just be a pile of bones by the time they fish it out, according to what I’ve read about the dangers of Gummi production, so we only have to really fool them for a short amount of time, over a fair distance in a steamy environment.”

“What about the DNA?” Oh Lah asked. I couldn’t help but think that the way she looked at Nicked Metal, nothing would have made her happier than for him to be the corpse they fished out of the kettle.

“We’ll need to irradiate the corpse before we toss it in. It should mess up any DNA tests they try to run enough to make them unsure of the results. Bone is notoriously hard to get DNA samples from, anyway, so we should be able to pull it off,” Poskunk said.

“And they may not even bother to test it,” Gelsey said. “After all, several people will be witness to his fall. Hopefully it will even be on tape.”

“I wouldn’t put too much faith in that, but yes, it’s a possibility. And it would be great,” Poskunk said.

“We’ll err on the side of caution. Can you arrange all of that?” I asked Elaran. She inclined her head.

“Now, on to my plunge,” Nicked Metal said, rubbing his hands together.

“This is how it’s going to work,” I said, and leaned forward to tell them all the plan.

******

We spent the next few days making preparations. Poskunk and I hung around the Gummi factory and poked our noses around, as if we were still investigating. Nicked Metal laid low, ostensibly trying to ‘rescue’ Gelsey. Oh Lah continued to make noises about negotiations, and at night we all got together to work on the rig.

I had to admit that it went together more smoothly than I would have thought. The trapdoor worked, and the run-throughs we simulated went off without a hitch. Of course, you’d have to factor in nerves on the real thing, but even so, I was beginning to feel optimistic about the whole endeavor.

Then Gelsey made her triumphant escape, aided by Nicked Metal. The Gummi resistance was found and arrested peacefully at their meeting. The tour and media event was immediately scheduled, and Gelsey and Nicked Metal didn’t even have to pull the phony ‘we want to help’ line, as they were conscripted to work the day of the tour, for appearances’ sake. Everything was moving along well, and it was starting to make me nervous. I’ve always believed there was such a thing as too much luck, and that if things are going too well, it means that a giant disaster is looming right around the corner.

Poskunk and I were invited to join the tour group, despite the fact that the Head Office was somewhat disappointed with our performance thus far. After all, as far as they knew, I’d done nothing but stumble across a murder scene, then bumbled about asking questions while their agent was the one who mounted the rescue.

The day of the tour arrived, and I held my breath as we approached the sight of the planned disaster. I saw Nicked Metal walking around the top of the kettle on the rickety catwalk, and suddenly had a vision of him plunging in for real. We’d reinforced many of the badly corroded areas when we were installing the trap door, but the whole platform was still very unstable. Suddenly, as we pulled up next to the kettle, Nicked Metal walked round to the side, his large adjustment wrench ‘accidentally’ catching the fume monitor machine, which bumped the steam line, knocking off the loose connection. He flailed backward, hit the railing, and was enveloped in steam. We heard a faint ‘plop’, and when the steam cleared, all that was there was a gaping hole in the railing.

Everyone stood stock still for a moment, then the president of the company, a large, florid, unpleasant man, stepped forward.

“No need to be alarmed, move along,” he said. Below we could see glimpses of a frenzies activity, as a group of workers tried to pull the body from the kettle. The murmur of voices grew louder. “We will take care of it, let’s keep going.”

The crowd was stunned, first by what they had seen and second, for the caviler attitude the president was taking. A man had just died! they began to shuffle off, but Pizzamaker1000, who had been standing at the back of the crowd, suddenly pushed her way forward. Nicked Metal had, after much debate, filled her in on what was happening. She was more than happy to go along with the ruse, as she had several relatives that had been injured in the Gummi plant.

She began to pepper the president with questions. Questions she had prepared in advance about safety protocols, as well as questions specifically about what she had witnessed, which she made up on the spot. I had to hand it to her, she was good. She had me sweating nervously, and I wasn’t even the one being interrogated!

“This was not about out safety procedures,” the president was declaring. “It must have been more sabotage.”

“But the Gummi resistance was locked up,” a reporter shouted.

“We can’t be sure we got them all,” the president protested. “Or it could have been something they set up in advance.” He grabbed the dangling railing and held it up to the reporters. The cameras all zoomed in to the rusted, twisted metal.

“Really?” Pizzamaker1000 said. “How does one fake rusted out metal?”

“They must have switched out this piece with an old, scrap piece,” the president said, sweating even more profusely. “The railing is very secure!” He leaned against another section and it gave way beneath his bulk. He pin wheeled on the edge of the walkway for a moment, looking as if the slightest breath would push him over the edge. I can’t say I didn’t exhale with a bit of vigor in his direction, but in the end he regained his balance. And the crowd of reporters descended on him like a pack of socialites at a Macy’s shoe sale. He was driven down the walkway by their shouted questions, and eventually locked himself in his office.

Poskunk and I slunk off to a nearby café for an herbal tea and a sandwich. I grimaced at the faux meat product, but my body was becoming used to the environment and the food. It’d been a whole three days since I’d puked! I sighed and sat back, sipping my tea slowly.

“So, what now?” he asked.

“I’m exhausted. My arms are killing me from all that construction. And we need to sneak back in and remove all traces of the trick floor and harness attachments tonight, after everyone leaves. I don’t think they’ll do too much investigating today, they have their hands full with the press. And if they do, we’ll just have to hope we did a good enough job hiding all the work we did.”

“We do need to do that. What about tomorrow?”

“Don’t I get a day off? Everyone needs a day off,” I whined.

“What would you do on your day off?”

“Sleep,” I responded without hesitation. He chuckled.

‘That’s all you ever want to do.”

“Not true,” I sniffed. “I also enjoy eating, watching TV and reading.”

“Ah, all very demanding activities,” he said.

“Shut up,” I said, and we lapsed into silence for a little while.

Finally he spoke up again. “So what are we going to do tomorrow?”

“Same thing we do every night, Pinky…” I started, but he cut me off.

“Try to take over the world!”

“Ooooh, are you a Pinky and the Brain fan, too?” I asked.

“But of course. And don’t forget the Animaniacs.”

“We seem to share a lot of the same things, sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m in a whole other universe. How is it that you know so much about our culture?” I asked.

“Well,” he started, then paused and thought for a moment. “There’s no really good way to explain it. I guess you’d have to say this city is less of an alternate reality and more of a parasite universe. Because it’s so isolated, not to mention lacking a sun, they have to get so many supplies out of your universe that smuggling is inevitable. We’re not supposed to have Animaniacs DVDs, but there’s a black market for them because it’s a profitable side business for the traders. If you were to go outside the bubble, you’d not find many people who know anything about your society. It’s very different there.”

“But I thought the trade system had to be even, matter-wise, in order to preserve the balance or something,” I said, puzzled.

“Ah, that old line. Sorry, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We import ten times what we ship out. We have people who move there specifically to run a trade station, since we can’t really pop into your reality and buy something with our currency.”

“So how do you buy things?” I asked. “There, I mean.”

“Trade and barter, and through a set of shops we’ve set up to earn some income. Ever heard of DeBeers?”

“The diamond company?” I hummed the theme music, “Ba-ba-ba-bump, ba-ba-ba-bump.”

“Yeah, that one. We own it, and most of the gems are brought over from this universe. Diamonds are costume jewelry here. But we have to be careful, because if we import too many, they’ll lose their trade value.”

I thought back to the diamonds I had seen dripping off of Oh Lah. The necklace along would be worth a small fortune to me, but to her it was nothing. Just a pretty piece of fluff.

“So what passes for valuable jewelry around here?” I asked. “And, before I go, can I get some diamond jewelry? I promise not to sell it, I just want some.”

“Yes, I’ll get you some jewelry,” he said with a smile. I grinned happily. “But can’t you guess what would be valuable here?”

“Um…” I thought about it. “I’m guessing it’s going to be something not particularly valuable in my reality.”

“Or in the rest of this one,” he said.

I had been about to guess plastic, but that comment made me pause. My mind raced through the jewelry aisle at my local craft store. Suddenly it dawned on me. “Hemp!”

“You are correct. Since it doesn’t grow here, and is an incredibly strong fiber, and thus durable, it’s very sought after. Though not, in my humble opinion, very attractive. But then, a lot of people here find diamonds tacky and low class.”

“Go figure,” I said. “The grass is always greener, I guess.”

He laughed, and I chuckled when what I said hit me.

“So, what are we going to do tomorrow?” he asked again.

“You’re not down with taking over the world?” I asked innocently.

“Well, I am, but in all honesty I’m too lazy to actually do it.” He yawned and stretched in his chair. “I’ve already done more work in the last three years than I’d done in the last three months. I’m due for a vacation.”

“Yeah, I tend to be pretty good on planning, poor on execution. I make lists, and they just sit around.” I heaved an exaggeratedly heavy sigh. “But I guess we do have to do something.”

“Well, two villains down, three to go,” he said.

“Four,” I corrected.

“You’re counting Penchaft separately?” he asked.

“No, there’s Oneworldvision, Akirad, Naked Blue Ninja, and S/V Galena.” I ticked them off on my fingers as I listed them.

“I don’t think I’d worry about Naked Blue Ninja,” he said, his eyes sliding from my face to focus on the table top.

“Is this one of those times that you know something you’re not telling me?” I asked sternly.

“Maybe…” he hedged.

I heard a commotion in the street and peered out the window into the dim street. “Speak of the devil,” I said.

Naked Blue Ninja streaked by, acrobatically jumping over obstacles and flipping out of the grip of the police who were chasing her. She was laughing merrily and tossing something to the people on the streets by the handful from a bag she had slung over one shoulder. As she drew up to the café, one of the police managed to grab the strap pf the bag. He tugged, and the strap broke, spewing the rest of the contents out into the street. The people walking by lurched in to see what it was, and Naked Blue Ninja slipped away and out of sight. The police, hemmed in by the crowd, squawked impotently into their radios, but she was gone.

I pushed my way outside and through the throng of people to retrieve one of the items that had spilled into the road. It was a small, flat disc wrapped in aluminum foil, about the size of a Peppermint Patty. In fact, it smelled suspiciously like a Peppermint Patty.

I took it back into the café and showed Poskunk. His eyes lit up and he grabbed for it. I held it out of his reach.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing,” he said feigning nonchalance. “Can I have it?”

“Not until you tell me what it is,” I said, studying the disk. I unwrapped the foil and took out the brown, chocolate-looking wafer inside. Sniffing it, I was convinced it was exactly like a Peppermint Patty. I set it on the table, and examined the wrapper. It was blue foil, with intertwined white letters inside an emblem on the front. Flipping over the wrapper, I saw a giant ‘E >>’ printed in black ink. Glancing up, I saw that Poskunk was staring at it hungrily. “Do you want this?” I gestured to the candy.

“No, not my favorite, but I’ll throw that wrapper away for you,” he said casually.

“Remember that conversation about you being a bit transparent?”

“Uh-huh,” he said cautiously.

“Yes, well, this is one of those times. What’s up with the wrapper?”

“Fine, if I tell you can I have it?”

“Of course,” I said.

He opened his mouth to explain, and the building across the street exploded.

******



“Don’t think for one minute this gets you off the hook,” I shouted as we ducked under the table for cover. I’d seen him grab the wrapper right before the window of the café exploded.

“I think we have bigger things to worry about,” he said testily. Obviously, he was hoping I hadn’t seen him grab the wrapper and could say it was lost in the blast. He was wrong.

“I’m just saying, eventually,” I said, standing up and brushing the bits of glass and debris from my clothes. A quick check revealed a few scratches, but no serious cuts. “I’m fine, are you okay?”

“Yeah, nothing seriously damaged,” he said, after a quick check of his own extremities. “You have some glass bits in your hair.”

“Thanks,” I said shaking my head lightly. “So, do you still think Naked Blue Ninja is so harmless?” I asked.

“You think this was her work?” he asked, aghast. “Oh, no, it does rather look that way, doesn’t it? I wonder if that was the intent. C’mon. Let’s go see what we can find out.”

He grabbed my hand and pulled me out into the street, where he flagged down an emergency worker. The worker waved towards a man inside the cordoned off area. Fire crews were already on-scene and working to put out the blaze. I stood and watched them work while Poskunk talked to one worker after another. He came back to where I was standing with a group of gawkers, shaking his head.

“They say they don’t know what caused it,” he said grimly. “They’re preliminarily calling it a gas leak, because the gas company reported an unusual spike in usage about ten minutes before it blew. Just the right amount of time to fill the building.”

“But the question is, was it an intentional gas leak? And what set it off? What was in that building?”

“Thankfully, it was an abandoned building, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone seriously hurt. And the firefighters got here really quickly.”

“Suspiciously quickly, in my mind. But I could be seeing conspiracy and plots everywhere because of… because of recent events,” I caught myself, realizing that there were a lot of ears around me.

“That is a little odd,” a voice said below me. I looked down to see a pair of penguins grinning at me.

“Maryeve! Tjstein! How’s it going?” I greeted them enthusiastically.

“Oh, not bad, not bad,” Maryeve said.

“We were just on our way to work, and saw this,” Tjstein said. “And it is odd that fire crews could respond so quickly, since this is a zone four area. Unless they just happened to be out and about, and just happened to be driving by…”

“Zone four?” I asked.

“There are different zones, like lopsided rings around each fire station. The boundaries are determined by response time. Zone one has a response time under two minutes, zone two is two to five minutes, zone three is five to seven minutes, and zone four is seven to ten minutes. Nothing should take more than ten minutes to reach. So it’s odd the firefighters got to a zone four fire in, by my calculations, one minute and forty-six seconds,” Tjstein said.

“But that’s just a rough estimate, eh?” I smiled.

“Give or take a second or two, yeah,” she said.

“Plus, this building was just emptied and slated for demolition,” Maryeve said. “So you have to wonder if someone was just trying to save money. The fire stations often get wind of those plots and in the interest of public safety will patrol the suspected area. Of course, if that’s it, it’ll come out eventually. As rumor, if nothing official.”

“And do you think it was to frame Naked Blue Ninja, or just coincidence that she was just here?” I asked.

“That’s a tough one,” Maryeve said. “I don’t know of anyone I think would be specifically out to get her, but you never know. Something like that would require quite a conspiracy.”

“I know, I’m starting to sound like a bit of a conspiracy nut,” I admitted sheepishly. I just can’t help it! I’ve been surrounded by some pretty weird things lately.”

“Still having problems adjusting to the new universe? How’s the stomach?” Tjstein asked.

“I think I’m adjusting pretty well - I have managed to keep several meals down, anyway,” I said. I looked up at the burning building. “I just have such a hard time believing all of this is just coincidence.”

“Coincidence happens,” Poskunk said.

“I know, and it could be that, or it could be a red herring. I just can’t help but feel there’s a connection. I don’t know why.” I shrugged my shoulders.

“Well, consider this. If the gas leak started ten minutes before it blew, it couldn’t have been her- at least not alone. Remember, she was being chased by the police at the time,” Poskunk said.

“But that’s a pretty good alibi, all you need is an accomplice,” I said.

“I’ve never heard of her working with anyone here,” Tjstein said, and Poskunk shot her a look.

“What do you mean, here?” I asked sharply.

“Nothing, nothing,” Tjstein said quickly.

“It’s not nothing. I saw that look. It’s definitely something. Something outside the dome?” I peered at the two of them. “Do you guys go outside the dome?”

Tjstein flapped her wings at me. “Duh, aquatic bird here. Of course we slip under the dome.”

Poskunk shot her another look and she shut her beak. I glared at him, and Maryeve shuffled nervously.

“We’d better get going,” Maryeve said, nudging Tjstein. They waddled off down the road and caught a transport capsule at the curb. Staring at the pod, I was suddenly struck by something that had been nagging at the back of my mind.

“Hey.” I poked Poskunk. “What happened to Rebecca? She dropped us off at Elaran’s house and I haven’t seen her since.”

“She went back to the Home Office,” he said. “I told them we needed to work more undercover, and having a personal driver draws too much attention to us.”

On the surface what he said made sense, but there was something in his tone that made me think I wasn’t getting the whole story again. I hoped it wasn’t anything bad, but resigned myself to not knowing. Trying to get information out of him was like getting blood from a stone. Granted, you didn’t have to worry about a chunk of rock flying up and blinding you, but it was difficult, fruitless work.

“Well, I miss the luxury of being chauffeured everywhere,” I said lightly. I turned and watched the fire across the street. The firefighters had it contained, but they weren’t making much progress in putting it out. The flames leapt so high that I could faintly make out the roof. But it wasn’t an engineered roof I saw. It was rough and craggy, like natural stone. “Poskunk, what is the dome make of?”

“I don’t know,” he said evenly. “There are no records surviving of its construction. Why?”

I pointed up at the ceiling. “That doesn’t look built. It looks natural. Is there any record of the dome on the outside?”

He looked at me in puzzlement for a moment. “You know, now that you mention it, no. And there should be, you’d think. There’ve always been people living on the outside, so there should be some record…”

“Have you ever looked?” I asked.

“Not specifically for that, but when I first went out there I did study up on their history. I can’t believe it never occurred to me that it was missing.” He grinned sheepishly.

“Maybe we need to take a trip out to investigate,” I said.

“Maybe – after we take care of the three remaining villains,” he said pointedly.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I groused. “And don’t forget we still need to clean up from out last adventure tonight.”

“Speaking of, we need to get going if we’re going to slip into the plant before they close,” Poskunk said, and we went to hail a public transport capsule.

******

After the tedious cleanup of the Gummi factory, I got a half-decent night’s sleep by blocking out any thoughts of upcoming events. We were still sleeping at Elaran’s house, though she and the other members of the Gummi Resistance were still being held for questioning. So far the authorities hadn’t been able to charge them with anything, and hadn’t uncovered any proof of a plot. With the cleanup of the stage complete, I felt much more confident that we were going to have pulled this off. Nicked Metal was off to parts unknown, Gelsey was taking a vacation, and I thought it was high time I got to relax just a little. There was too much to stress about, and I preferred to pretend, for just one night, that I was simply on vacation. I grabbed a book off the bookshelf and curled up in an armchair to read.

At first glance, I thought the book was a work of fiction written in the style of a personal diary, a la Bridget Joneses Diary and the slew of teenage girls’ books that came out after that. the script was neat enough to have been printed by a machine, but as I got several pages in I began to see variations in the forms of the letters, and realized I was reading a real diary. I stopped, unsure if I should continue. It was, after all, someone’s personal thoughts. On the other hand, it had been out on the bookshelf for anyone to find…

I riffled through the pages until I found a date. November 30, 1798. The diary was over 300 years old, and I decided that any statute of limitations on its privacy had long since run out. I resumed reading.

At first, it seemed your typical twenty-something girl’s diary. She wrote in a funny, light style that was amusing and highly entertaining. There were stories about parties with friends, misadventures, and heartbreak. But five months later, her tone changed. She began to talk of ‘them’ watching her. Her light and bubbly tone vanished, to be replaced by a terrible fear and paranoia. She babbled on about how no one would believe her, and they were all treating her as if she were insane, but she knew ‘they’ were real and that ‘they’ we coming to get her. One particularly poignant entry had her weighing the pros and cons of being committed to an insane asylum versus being taken. Then one day, the entry simply said: ‘They have come for me, and I shall go with them. They have allowed me to retain this journal, and in its pages I hope to record what may some day see the light of day and serve as a cautionary tale to others.’

There were several days without entries, and then she resumed writing in a shaky hand. She described a dark place, a mansion lit only by candle light. As she went into more detail I realized that this was the house she was describing, though some minor redecorating had taken place in the intervening years. At first her entries were cold and mechanical, detached, as she spoke of her life as a servant girl. At how much she had to learn, and how very different her life was now that she was part of the working class. I have to admit, I didn’t have much sympathy for her at this point, and almost put the diary back. But something compelled me to continue reading.

She described her employers in general terms, at first with a cold hatred for ripping her away from her family, then with a neutral tone as an employee, and finally, with a fondness. I never found a single description of her employers, not even something as simple as a ‘he’ or ‘she’. It was always ‘they’ and ‘them’. No mention of any names or physical descriptions anywhere.

Her entries became more rambling and incoherent as she seemed to draw closer to ‘them’. She wrote of how ‘they’ would soon accept her, and the pages were filled with a recounting of her strange and terrifying dreams. Dreams that were so very real, even as they were completely abstract. I remembered the dream I’d had the first night I stayed in this house, and reflexively clutched at the key I had strung on a ribbon and wore around my neck. Parts of that dream were still crystal clear, but others felt murky and distorted. Every day I woke up remembering less and less, and felt the importance of what I was forgetting pressing down on me. So I knew exactly how she felt.

I couldn’t make heads or tales of her dreams, as they contained references to people, places, and things I’d never known. She seemed to think they were prophetic, and gifts delivered from ‘them’. She talked more and more of her closeness with ‘them’ and her desire to become one, though it would mean forsaking any hope of returning to her old life. To her, it was worth the price.

The last entry read: ‘I am one of them, now. Only time will tell if I shall regret it.’ And it was signed with a single name.

I stared at the book in my lap, telling myself I was wrong. This wasn’t what I thought. It couldn’t be what I suspected. It was impossible. Completely, totally, one hundred percent impossible.

“I do regret it, you know,” Elaran said suddenly. I jumped out of the chair. I hadn’t heard her come in. She nodded at the book.

“Are you saying this really is you, not some other Elaran?” I asked, waving the book. “You honestly expect me to believe that you are over three hundred years old?”

“Yes,” she said simply.

“Seriously? I mean, you’re really a… a…” I trailed off, not able to give voice to my wild, and quite possibly inaccurate suspicions.

“There is no politically correct term for it, and yes, I really, truly am.” She gave me a cool smile.

I drummed my fingers on the cover of the book, and she reached out to pull it from my fingers. As her hand brushed mine, I felt a rush of memory, flashes of images from my dream. When she withdrew her hand, they were gone. I shrank back and she smiled sadly.

“I don’t blame you,” she said softly. “But if you need me, I am here.”

“So… so the police released you?” I asked lamely.

“In a manner of speaking, yes. They decided it was in their best interest to let me go.”

“Did you threaten them?” I asked, and the question caught her off guard.

“Threaten? No, no, I would never do that. I simply convinced them of the folly of trying to pin charges on innocent people.” She looked offended at the idea that I would accuse her of such a thing.

“People, you said. So what about the rest of the resistance? Did you ‘convince’ the police to let them go, too?” Stress was giving my voice an unpleasant edge, and I struggled to tone it down.

“Yes, they, too, were sent home. They have no evidence and no basis to hold us. Congratulations, it was a perfectly executed plan.” And with that, she left the room. And I don’t mean she walked, or even glided. I mean, she left the room. One minute she was there, and the next, gone. I blinked my eyes, rubbed them, and sat heavily on the chair. Hallucination, I told myself, brought on by to little sleep and far too much soy by-product. It was a toss-up as to which was doing more damage to my system.

I curled up sideways in the big arm chair, my head pillowed on one arm. I yawned and closed my eyes, and immediately fell asleep. When I woke up next, it was the middle of the night and I had a very painful crick in my neck. I sat up slowly, rubbing my neck to soothe the abused muscles. I picked up the book from the floor where it had fallen, and I noticed a slip of paper sticking out of the binding. I very carefully pulled it out, and was rewarded for my efforts by a receipt. Someone had stuck a dry-cleaning receipt in the binding of the book, fairly recently by the looks of it. I quashed my disappointment that it wasn’t a super-secret map or message, and shuffled off to my bedroom, in hopes of getting a few more delicious hours of sleep.

It turned out to be a peaceful, comfortable and dreamless sleep, which was good, since it was the last time I had that luxury for a long, long time.

******



I met Poskunk the next morning at the breakfast table and told him about finding the diary in the library. I summarized what it had said, but left out the part about Elaran being there and telling me it was actually her diary. I did tell him that it was signed Elaran, but he didn’t’ outwardly react to that tidbit of information. He seemed more interested in her writing about the time just before, and then immediately following, her abduction. I went to the library and retrieved the book for him, and we moved into the living room. I sat sipping my tea while he flipped through the books saying “um” and “hm” a lot.

“So, what do you think?” I asked when he reached the end.

“I don’t know what to think. I’m still thinking about what you said yesterday – about the records that should exist in the outside world. There hasn’t been any natural disasters recorded that would have obliterated all historical documents pertaining to a city of this size. In fact, the only really big disaster in the last three hundred years was a massive earthquake, but it was centered around a mountain in an uninhabited region. There was some flooding, and a sizable chunk of the landmass broke off, but it wasn’t a big deal because…” He paused, remembering. “Because it was a place the people were afraid of. An evil place, they said, filled with unholy creatures. They saw it as divine intervention that the place was, well, smote.”

“But she said that people thought that she was insane for talking about such nonsense,” I said.

“Superstition is a weird and tricky thing. Sometimes it’s okay to believe it, but you’re not allowed to talk about it.” He shook his head. “I guess this poses one possible answer, but…”

“I know,” I sighed. “It’s just too fantastic. I can’t wrap my head around it.”

“But it makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, it all makes sense if you allow for…” His gaze fastened on my neck and I reached up to touch the fading bruise. I shuddered slightly.

“Yeah, I guess it does,” I said.

“So,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “What’s on tap for today?”

“I really was hoping for a day off,” I yawned. “I mean, look, it’s already one o’clock. More than half of the primo ‘save the world’ time is gone. We might as well just write off today, don’t you think?”

“Or we could investigate that building exploding.”

“Eh, I’m kinda over my curiosity about that. Besides, I think I have enough things on my plate at the moment.”

“Okay, so which one do you want to tackle next? Akirad and Penchaft, or the cult of Oneworldvision? Or do you want to go after that mysterious ship, S/V Galena?”

“Why did Nicked Metal call the ship a… what was it he said? I can’t remember, but he didn’t seem to think it existed, even though Pizzamaker1000 has gone after it more than once. Is it this universe’s UFO?”

Poskunk paused to think through the comparison. “Not quite. From what I understand, UFOs in your world are supposedly from other planets – the name ‘UFO’ has been pigeon holed from its original meaning, that is, something that simple was not identified, not necessarily of unnatural or extraterrestrial origins. And, interestingly enough, since they are classifying it as an alien spacecraft, it’s not really that unidentified any more, is it?”

I laughed. “Touché. Okay, I’ll restate the question. Is it like this universe’s version of our flying saucers?”

“No – the S/V Galena was a real ship, built back in the days when they thought the channels around and through the city were going to be the main mode of cargo transportation. It is – was – a smaller craft, but highly maneuverable. It was going to be used for the tricky, small channel deliveries. But something went wrong in the programming of the main computer. It developed a personality all of its own, and the programmers were unable to scrub it from the system.”

“What sort of personality? Was it dangerous?”

“No, not in the traditional sense. It was a rather flippant, happy personality, truth be told. But it did love to stir up mischief. So it was decided that the vessel – though a model of modern engineering at the time – would have to be destroyed. By this time the plans were in the works for the panels and capsules, so most of the other ships were being scrapped and recycled, too. Only, legend has it, S/V Galena escaped and has been trolling the waters ever since.”

“Sounds a bit like an urban legend,” I said.

He nodded. “And that’s why most people don’t believe it, even thought there have been numerous sightings reported.”

“I see. But what about the seaports blowing up? The Head Office pinned that on S/V Galena, so I’m guessing they thing the ship still exists.”

“They want a good, plausible explanation for what is happening, because they don’t want to face the truth about what’s going on there.”

“And what is the truth?” I asked, fully expecting to get the ‘you don’t need to know’ speech.

He paused, but then said, “Escaping the dome is tricky. The government doesn’t want people leaving, for obvious reasons. So when the scare tactics don’t work, they resort to force. There are all sorts of sensors along the edge of the dome, and if you’re caught tripping one they lock you up. And not in a nice country-club prison, either. It’s more of a really crappy mental institution.”

“How do they justify that?” I asked in horror.

“Well, if they’ve told you that the outside world is toxic and will kill you, and you try to do it anyway… they say you’re trying to kill yourself.”

“That’s… that’s… idiotic!”

“Yes, it is. So is suing a tobacco company because you smoked cigarettes you knew would increase your chances of cancer for thirty years, and suddenly come down with cancer,” he said pointedly.

“I never said my universe was perfect,” I groused. “We have plenty of stupid problems.”

“Point being, people go to great pains to fool the sensors and escape. You just have to know which type of sensor you’re trying to fool. They alternate they types along the border, and the combinations and locations are supposed to be a secret, but…”

“Anything is available for a price,” I finished for him.

“You got it. So there are about a hundred different ways to fool the sensors – some take a lot of time and finesse, but are completely undetectable. Some are faster and messier, and leave evidence behind.”

“I see. So you’re saying you don’t want to go after S/V Galena at all, because you’re… well, you’re part of that group.”

“Not specifically that group, I’m much sneakier than that, but you’re right in that I don’t want a hand in catching those people and dooming them to that punishment. But you’re wrong about me not wanting to go after S/V Galena. I do, it would be an amazing find. I just don’t’ think we should follow the trail of explosions when we do.”

“But do we even have any other leads?”

“There are the sightings. But that’s going to involve a lot of leg work and even more interviewing. It’s going to take time. I say we leave it for last.”

“Okay, that brings us to Akirad, Oneworldvision, or Naked Blue Ninja. I’m not,” I said as he began to protest, “taking her off the list.”

“Fine, but let’s agree to leave her for second to last, maybe?” he wheedled.

“Okay, but don’t forget that you owe me an explaination.”

“For what?”

“I saw you take that wrapper before the window shattered. The price was the information.”

“What wrapper?”

“The one from the candy Naked Blue Ninja was dispensing.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said innocently.

“Don’t make me hurt you,” I threatened. He laughed, and I glowered at him.

Just then Elaran came into the room, soundlessly gliding across the floor. I tried not to stare, but I didn’t want to look as if I was avoiding looking at her, either.

“This just arrived at the panel for you,” she said, handing me a slim envelope. Her hand brushed mine again, and just like before I had vivid flashes of my dream.

“Thank you,” I said in a slightly shaky voice.

She bowed her head, and left the room and quietly and gracefully as she had entered it. I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of folded paper. I read the hastily scrawled message, then turned to Poskunk.

“It looks like the decision has been made for us.”

******

I handed him the slip of paper. On it was the simple message: ‘Help needed urgently.’ It was signed: ‘Revoked Soul.’

“Well, then,” Poskunk said. “We’d better get going.”

“Revoked Soul was the one in the cult, right? What happened to that manila folder?” I frowned and thought back to the last time I’d seen it.

“The folder’s back at the Head Office. We could request it, if you want, but, yes, Revoked Soul was infiltrating the cult. And I’m worried. In all the years she’s spent as an agent, she’s never sent an SOS. This must be serious.”

“No time to lose, then. I’m ready, let’s get going.” I got up and we headed out the front door to the nearest Public Transport Capsule station.

We didn’t speak much during the ride, both of us acutely aware of how many curious ears would overhead our conversation. I was becoming more and more paranoid each day, I thought to myself. It must be the darkness. It’s so unnatural. I missed the sun, the fresh air, the rain – even the snow, though icy roads did slow down the commute to work, and I wasn’t particularly fond of freezing my butt off. It still beat living in a cave.

When we got off at a corner, Poskunk guided me into the mouth of an alley. He glanced around to make sure we were alone and that no one could overhear us.

“Did you see him?” he asked.

“See who?” I asked.

“On the capsule, in the back. I couldn’t tell if she was with him or not – there was a rather large man in the way – but it was definitely Akirad.”

“So? Villains have to get around and do their grocery shopping, too.”

“Not in this part of town he wouldn’t. And he got off at this stop. Coincidence?”

“Maybe,” I said thoughtfully. “But a doggone suspicious one, if it is. Didn’t someone say that Penchaft was seen with Onewolrdvision, and they thought it odd because Akirad and Oneworldvision were sworn enemies?”

“Well, at first I was dismissing that since we found out the Weaselistic was in the picture. But now…”

“What was the feud over?” I asked. “Anything like the Foxfirefey code scandal?”

“No, nothing so straightforward. In fact, it was kind of hard to get the whole story. Some say it was an investment scheme gone sour, some say it was an argument over a mutual friend, and some say it was just a comment that sparked it. They had a lot of very loud, public arguments, but never really said anything specific enough. Just a lot of noise, swearing, and name calling.”

“Almost like it was staged?” I glanced up and down the alley again. I felt as though we were being watched, but I couldn’t see anyone.

“Very much like that.” He nodded appreciatively. “In fact, exactly like that.”

“So we’re going to not discount the possibility that they are working together, but on what?”

“I think we’d better get to that compound,” Poskunk said, and led me out of the alley.

Just as we were stepping out into the street, I tripped and went sprawling. I thought I saw a movement next to the dumpster to my right, and I could have sworn I heard a faint rustling sound, but when I turned my head to look, there was nothing there. I swore crossly and began to get to my feet when a flash of silver caught my eye. I reached under the edge of the dumpster and pulled out two clip-on badges.

They belonged to one Sister Paige and Brother Jeremy of the Oneworldvision Life Center. On the back of the badges were small proximity sensors. I handed them to Poskunk.

“I guess this solves the problem of how we get in,” he said.

“Convenient, that, isn’t it?” I said acidly.

“Well, yes, it is. I guess it’s lucky you are so clumsy.” He reached down and helped me to my feet.

“I am not clumsy. I never fall. I can walk across a sheet of ice, easy as you please. Low center of gravity, you know. No, I was tripped.”

“Are you saying I tripped you?” He looked at me like I was balmy.

“No, someone else. Someone who seems to want to help,” I raised my voice, “and could have just handed me the damn things, but no… What, is it just more fun to torture me?” I winced as I put my weight on my right leg. The kneecap was a wee bit tender.

I could have sworn I heard the sound of very faint laughter floating back from the alley. Poskunk said he thought it was just the wind, but I think he was just trying to soothe my jangled nerves.

We walked the last few blocks to the cult compound in silence. I was limping ever so slightly, but I didn’t think there was any permanent damage done. Still I couldn’t help the visions of kicking some blue butt from running through my head, even though I rather assumed I would not be the one with the upper hand in that fight.

When we got to the gates there was no one on duty. I flashed one of the badges in front of the sensor and the gate slid back. I looked at Poskunk, took a deep breath, and we plunged forward. The building was an ugly, squat cinderblock affair. I hesitated at the plain, solid wood door, then turned the handle and walked in.

My first impression proved to be spot-on. I thought it was a dentist’s office. And when I whispered this to Poskunk, he confirmed that the building was previously a high-class dental practice, specializing in sedation dentistry, for those that were too scared to go to a regular dentist and had the money to spend on special treatment.

The walls were a pale blue and nondescript landscape pictured hung framed on the wall. We were standing in a reception area, though no one was manning the front desk. The faint sound of muzak drifted out from hidden speakers.

“May as well act like we belong here,” Poskunk muttered. We pushed our way through the swinging door that separated the reception area from the rest of the building. This part of the office had changed somewhat since its days as dental stations. The small cubicle-like partitions were still in place, but gone were the dentist chairs. Instead, in each cubicle there were bed rolls and knapsacks overflowing with personal belongings. We worked our way down the row of cubbies, but didn’t see anyone. Then we heard a woman’s voice coming from the back of the office.

We crept towards the back room, following the sound of the voice. As we got closer, I was able to make out what the woman was saying.

“You see, dear ones, the path of enlightenment is not to be found through violence. There are those, like the Naked Blue Ninja, who would stir up trouble and cause chaos. But that is not the way. The way lies with reflection, meditation, and, above all, love.”

We had reached the doorway and I peered around. There were about fifty people sitting cross-legged on the floor in a semi-circle around the woman who was speaking. She was a striking figure, with her dark hair and bright, flowing white robes. She moved about the seated figures as she spoke, touching a shoulder or head here or there.

“Let’s start our relaxation exercises,” she said. “We shall become one with ourselves, come to love ourselves and our lives. Acceptance is the first step in the path to enlightenment. Contentment is the second. We are all working on the second step, correct?” There was a murmur of accent that ran through the crowd. “Good. Now I want you to close your eyes and relax. Breathe deeply. Envision yourself on a beach.”

I turned to Poskunk. “Can we say brainwashing?” I asked, then noticed that his eyes were closed and he was slumped against the wall, taking long, slow deep breaths. I could hear Oneworldvision still giving directions behind me, so I dragged Poskunk further away from the doorway and into a nearby cubicle.

“What is wrong with you?’ I hissed.

“Nothing,” he said. “What’s wrong with you? You seem a little high-strung. Don’t you find this place just terribly relaxing?”

“No, I do not,” I said with a puzzled frown. “Not in the least. In fact, I’m feeling more edgy than usual.”

“That’s pretty bad, then.” He grinned at me, a dopey, lopsided grin. Then he chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“This, that, everything,” he said, waving a hand in the air. “That picture in particular.” He laughed.

I looked at the picture. I’m not claiming to be the end all be all authority on humor, but I’d be willing to bet no one of sound mind would find anything funny about that picture.

“Look, we have to get out of here. Come on.” I tugged on his arm, but he stayed rooted to the spot.

“Why do we have to leave? It’s nice here. So much less stressful than the outside. You said you wanted a vacation,” he said.

“Not like this,” I grumbled, tugging harder on his arm. “Come on!”

“I don’t’ wanna,” he said sulkily.

I pressed my fingertips to my temples and rubbed gently. I was getting a headache. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I told myself.

I grabbed a handful of the front of his shirt and yanked his face down to mine. Then I kissed him. When I pulled back he had another dopey, happy grin on his face.

“Now,” I said, forcing my voice to sound low, gentle, soothing and seductive at the same time. “If you want more, you need to follow me.” And with a wink, I turned and walked down the hallway.

******

When we got back into the semi-fresh air of the outside, Poskunk remained dopey and confused for a few minutes, then shook himself and looked at me.

“What just happened?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, but something in that building affected you quite a bit.”

“And… you kissed me!” He grinned.

“Just to get you out of there without making a scene,” I replied grumpily.

“Oh, come on, you’ve wanted to do that for days!”

“Right, I just had to wait for the perfect moment, to save you from being brainwashed,” I said sourly. “We need to get further away from here.” I tugged on his arm and we made our way out of the compound and to a nearby café. It was dinner time, and I was getting hungry.

We sat at the table for a long while after we’d ordered and eaten, not saying anything. I ran over all the facts I knew about the cult, which were pathetically few. But it still felt like there was something I knew, something just out of the corner of my mind that was screaming for attention.

“Is there anything else known about the cult?” I asked Poskunk. “Did Oneworldvision train in anything, mind control, hypnotism… anything?”

“Not so far as anyone can find out, but that’s not to say it isn’t possible. But I didn’t feel hypnotized. And if that was the case, you were there – why weren’t you effected the same way?”

“Maybe I can’t be hypnotized. They say the key to that is to be able to clear and quiet your mind, and I can never do that.”

“Then I don’t think that’s what happened. I was thinking a million things in there, they just… didn’t seem to matter so much anymore.”

I sat up straighter. “More like you were drugged? I asked sharply.

He nodded slowly.

“That would make sense!” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t I realize that sooner?”

“Realize what?” he asked.

“Come on, we need to get some more information,” I said, grabbing his arm and dragging him up from the table.

“If I don’t move, do I get another kiss?” he asked, not budging from his chair.

I rolled my eyes at him. “No, you get a smack upside the head. Let’s get to a panel. I need some information on that building.”

He sighed and got to his feet, doing his best to look crestfallen. I stood by, tapping my foot impatiently as he paid the bill. Then he led me to a nearby semi-private panel.

“Ladee Jane,” I said as soon as the panel came to life.

“Yes?” came the computerized voice.

“What can you tell me about the history of the building that Oneworldvision now uses as a headquarters? I know it used to be a dentist’s office, do you have any plans, schematics, permits, those sorts of things?”

“Probably, let me check the records. Okay, it looks like I have the original building plans – but that was for when it was a grocery store – and a set of modifying plans to turn it into a dentist’s office. There were a few minor structural changes. Then a hazardous materials permit with an accompanying schematic.”

“The hazardous materials permit. Show me that.” A plan showing piping and gas cylinders appeared on the screen. “That’s what I thought,” I said grimly.

“Nitrous oxide?” Poskunk asked, peering at the diagram.

“Yup. You said it used to be sedation dentistry. They would have had NO stations in every room. Oneworldvision simply removed the masks, left the valves wide open, and flooded the place with it. It explains the calm, quiet mood of the place.”

“But that wouldn’t be enough to explain the brainwashing! As soon as you leave the place your senses return.”

“And that’s probably when Revoked Soul sent the message. But how often do you suppose they’re allowed to leave? Not often, if at all, until they are fully indoctrinated into the cult. I bet the NO, on top of discouraging them to leave, makes them more susceptible to the other brainwashing techniques.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“If we can stop the gas, maybe some of the newer recruits will come to their senses – at least long enough to arrest Oneworldvision for mass drugging of unsuspecting people. That has to be a crime, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to make the charges stick. I bet you dimes to dollars she’ll claim that she didn’t know the gas was there, and since she’s under the influence of it as well…” He trailed off, grimacing slightly.

“But if we can even get her out of there for a little while – maybe we can uncover something bigger. You make a good point when you say that she’s under the influence as well. There’s something fishy going on – something that I would bet has to do with Akirad or Penchaft and Weaslelistic.”

“They’ll be able to hold her for at least forty-eight hours once we show the air samples contain enough NO to influence a person.”

“Would you like a sniffer?” Ladee Jane’s voice came from the panel, and I jumped. I had forgotten she was there, and listening.

“Yes, that would be great,” Poskunk said. He opened the door and pulled out a small instrument with a large plastic tube attached. He fiddled with the keys for a moment, then handed it to me. “Just push this button when you’re inside.”

“Okay,” I said, and turned to go, but he put a hand on my arm.

“Out of curiosity, why weren’t you affected?” There was a hint of suspicion in his voice that made me shiver involuntarily.

“I don’t know. I once went to a dentist that offered NO, and I decided to try it. But it did nothing for me. Actually, it did worse than nothing. It made me even more jittery and nervous, and I ended up with a dreadful headache. I guess it just doesn’t play nice with my biochemistry.”

“Huh,” was all he said, but he let my arm go. We walked back to the compound, not saying anything. I held the sniffer in one hand and my phony badge in the other. As we reached the gates and I was just about to enter, we saw a deliver truck rumbling out of the compound. I waved my arms and he pulled over just outside the entrance.

“What were you delivering?” Poskunk asked, flashing his Home Office badge.

“Nitrous,” the driver said nervously. “Got all the papers in order, the building’s cleared for it. Nothin’ wrong with it.”

“It wouldn’t be if this were still a licensed dental practice, no,” Poskunk said. “But as it’s not, then, yes, we may have a problem.”

“But the permits were all in order!” the driver cried.

“Who signed those orders?” Poskunk asked sharply, and the driver handed over the sheet. At the bottom was a completely illegible scrawl. “Do you remember the name?”

“Uh, it was… hang on… rodent. Rat? No… ferret, maybe, though that doesn’t sound quite right… hold on, I remember it reminded me of that kid’s song… Pop goes the Weasel. Weasel something.”

“You just installed new tanks?” Poskunk asked. “Do you have empty ones?”

“They’re mostly empty, yeah,” the driver said.

“They’d need to be completely empty. How about oxygen tanks. You have any of those?” The driver nodded, and Poskunk climbed up in the cab with him. “Let’s go switch them out, then. You,” he looked at me, “go get that reading now, before the gas is shut off.”

I nodded curtly and didn’t wait while the delivery truck turned around in the driveway. I walked swiftly to the front door and flung in open, holding the sniffer out in front of me like a shield.


******



I felt the gas begin to affect me as soon as the doors had closed behind me. A dull ache started behind my eyes and my stomach pitched. Okay, so the last part could have been due to the quality of the food I’d been eating, but the gas probably didn’t help. I punched the button on the sniffer and it beeped at me. The display was flashing ‘Message Sent – High Priority’. I turned to leave the building and bumped into a small, dark-haired woman who was eyeing my suspiciously.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Just… checking the place out,” I said evenly, holding the sniffer down at my side and trying to shield it with my body.

“What’s that?” She gestured towards the sniffer.

“It’s… it’s my PDA,” I said, holding it up to show her the still-visible ‘message sent’. I was just answering a few e-mails while I waited to talk to someone.

“Oh,” was all she said, but she frowned in concentration. I stayed silent and watched her. She seemed to be in the middle of an internal debate and I wasn’t entirely sure it would be in my best interest to interrupt her. “Who were you looking for?”

“Revoked Soul,” I said. “She’s an old friend form high school.”

“You’re lying,” she said sharply, and a little loudly. The accusation echoed in the foyer.

“Why don’t we take this outside?” I said slowly, edging towards the door.

“We’re not supposed…” she broke off and bit her lip, again looking torn.

“C’mon,” I said, holding the door open. “I won’t tell if you don’t!”

She finally conceded and followed me out the front door. We sat on a bench along the side of the building, neither of us speaking for a few minutes. She took long, slow deep breaths, unconsciously clearing the NO from her system. A few minutes later she was frowning again.

“What is wrong with me? What have they done?”

“Nothing irreversible. You should be back to normal in a few minutes, in fact,” I said. “What can you tell me about what goes on in there?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Smeddley, here on assignment with Poskunk. Judging from your reaction back there, I’m guessing you’re Revoked Soul?”

She nodded curtly. “So, you got my message, then. I was beginning to worry.”

“What is going on in there?”

“I couldn’t tell you. But there’s something influencing us – I know I can’t think straight once I’m inside the building.”

“Not that – we’re taking care of that.” I proceeded to fill her in with the details of the NO. At first she looked startled, but then she was nodding in agreement.

“That makes perfect sense. Maybe if I’d ever had it done I’d have realized, but this sense of calm was something I’d never experienced before. I thought they were drugging the food, so I stopped eating, but that didn’t work. I tried not drinking anything – not even tap water – but I couldn’t keep that up long enough to be sure that it wasn’t the source. And it was so hard to care about why I was feeling that way long enough to try to research it. I just wanted to sit and relax, meditate and contemplate life. And that is terribly unlike me!” She hopped up off the bench and began pacing.

“But beyond the drugging, what else was going on?”

“Nothing!” she cried. “It was all… boring. No pleas for money, no instructions to infiltrate and take over the government, no recruiting of other members, nothing! It was exactly what it purported to be – a sanctuary to rest and meditate. All very relaxing, all very above board.”

“Maybe you weren’t in deep enough,” I suggested.

“No, I talked to the older members. Everyone’s very open and relaxed in there. I came close to breaking cover so many times I lost count, and I never do that. No one but a highly trained agent could have kept up the act under those circumstances, and we ran very detailed background checks on everyone. Nothing suspicious. Just people who wanted to escape their lives, for various reasons.”

“So there was nothing suspicious at all?” I asked.

“No! They even had a trained psychotherapist that did one-on-one sessions with some of the more troubled members of the group. She did a lot of good, too, helping them. You could see the difference. Everyone was healthy and happy. If that’s an evil plan, I just don’t get it.”

“Did you go see the psychotherapist?”

“Only once. I wasn’t ‘emotionally disturbed’ enough to warrant extensive care, since there are so many of the members who are far more traumatized than my fictitious background makes me. She seemed nice. She actually seemed rather familiar, come to think of it.” She frowned again.

“How so?”

“I…” she started, but stopped suddenly.

“You can’t say,” I said.

She nodded, and tried again. “It’s not that I don’t know, but I can’t say that she…”

“Were you hypnotized during your session?”

She nodded again. “I know it was stupid, but… at the time it made sense. There was something, some reason I had to…” She shook her head angrily. “I can’t…”

“Post-hypnotic suggestion. You’re prohibited from telling me what you know. There has to be some way to reverse that, though it will probably necessitate another session of hypnosis, unless we happen to find the release trigger.”

“Release trigger?”

“I went to a hypnotist’s show a long time ago, and one of the things he left the people with was that they couldn’t pass through the doorway out of the room until someone gave them a penny. Once they were handed a penny, the restriction was lifted. If she put some sort of failsafe in your mind, all we have to do is find out what triggers it.”

“It could be anything!”

“Exactly. And while it could be something impossible, I doubt it. I’d bet she’d want to bring your memories back so she could gloat at some point. Evil geniuses always gloat.”

“So it could be something like a simple phrase?” She looked hopeful.

“Most likely, it is. But the possibilities are endless. It could be ‘Do you know the mating habits of the giant squid?’ or ‘The Wankle Rotary Engine is a work of genius!’ or ‘This just in from the International House of Pancakes: Waffles Suck.’”

“Penchaft! It was Penchaft!” she shrieked excitedly. “I remember now! I recognized her when I walked into the therapist’s office. And she recognized me, too. And then I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye… and you’re going to think I am crazy, but it was Penchaft, too! She was behind me, and still in front of me, and then she jabbed me with a needle and… it all gets blurry after that.”

I saw the delivery truck trundling back up the driveway towards the gate, and Poskunk came around the side of the house. He saw Revoked Soul and greeted her warmly. I filled him in on what I’d learned. He whistled softly.

“I agree that there’s more to this than meets the eye. Neither Weaselistic nor Penchaft would spend their time mentoring people without an ulterior motive. But what could they be hoping to accomplish? We have to be missing something,” he said.

“Of course we’re missing something,” I shot back. “We’re probably missing half the puzzle!

“You need to talk to Pinkjennywriter and Sicsempersoy,” Revoked Soul said. “They’ve undergone far more psychotherapy than I did. I don’t think Penchaft recognized them, which makes sense. They’re both fairly new to the Home Office.”

“We’ll need someone fairly good at hypnotism to interview them, though. We can’t bank on being lucky like Smeddley was,” Poskunk said.

“Lucky? No such thing. That was pure talent, my friend,” I said with mock smugness.

“Too bad Gelsey’s on a mission,” Revoked Soul said. “She’s one of the best.”

“It just so happens she’s done with her mission,” Poskunk said. “But I didn’t know she was a hypnotist.”

“Oh, yeah, she was trained awhile back when they thought the mafia was going to take over, and they planned on using hypnotism to extract information. This was before the whole pudding affair effectively ended the mafia’s reign, of course. She was going to infiltrate the mafia… wait… is that what Penchaft was doing? Infiltrating the cult?”

“Possibly,” I said, “though I don’t imagine the cult was much of a threat. I think it was more a case of using the cult as a recruiting ground.”

“A recruiting ground for what?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I have no idea.”

******

We called in Gelsey, who was somewhat grumpy about having her vacation cut short.

“First time off in three years! Three years!” she muttered as we showed her into the small office. “I was about to…” she trailed off as she looked about the room. “Nevermind, but I was about to have some fun, at any rate.”

“I understand.” Poskunk nodded conspiratorially. “But you’ll get a long vacation after this, they’ve promised.”

“Right, right. And their promises mean so much,” Gelsey groused, but went to work setting up her desk.

“Found them,” Revoked Soul said, popping her head into the office. Gelsey nodded and she ushered in two other women. “This is Pinkjennywriter and Sicsempersoy.”

“Hello,” Gelsey said, and motioned towards the chairs across from her desk. “If you two would sit here, and the rest of you take seats along the wall.”

We all sat down and Gelsey started to speak in a low, soft voice. I felt myself getting sleepy, and struggled to stay awake. Poskunk poked me in the side. I smacked ineffectually at his hand. Gelsey glared at us.

“Now,” she was saying, “I want you to go back to the last time you were in this state. I want you to remember. I want you to tell me what your previous instructions were.”

“We can’t say anything,” Sicsempersoy said, “until we hear the code words.”

“That’s right,” Pinkjennywriter said, “the code words. Until then we don’t say anything to anyone. If you’re the right person, you’ll know the code words.”

Gelsey frowned at us. “This is bad. In this state the post-hypnotic suggestions should be malleable. This is intensive conditioning.”

“We can’t just guess. I doubt we’d get so lucky a second time. Unless she used the same code words for everyone?” I looked around the room, and they all shook their heads.

“Unlikely,” Poskunk said. “She probably used the same ones on some people, but it would be based on when she wanted them released from the suggestion. Like you might cue all the auto workers into ‘Wankle Rotary Engine’, but you might want to use ‘Yellow Chicken Peeps’ for the mothers of grade-schoolers.”

“Let me try something,” Gelsey said. She addressed Sicsempersoy and Pinkjennywriter again. “Can you give me a clue to the code word?”

They looked towards one another and shrugged.

“We could,” Pinkjennywriter said.

“Then, would you?” Gelsey asked.

Sicsempersoy cocked her head to one side and frowned. She gnawed on a fingernail for a moment, then snapped her fingers. “Fantasia! Unlikely graceful character!” She tried to say more, but couldn’t.

“What is she talking about?” Revoked Soul looked startled. Gelsey and Poskunk exchanged glances and shrugged.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” I said, bouncing in my seat. “I think I know!”

The all turned to stare at me. I grinned back.

“Well, get on with it,” Poskunk said. “We don’t have all day.”

“Hold on, I just want to savor the moment. I know something you don’t know…” I smiled sweetly.

“You act as if that’s unusual,” Poskunk said. “You know lots of things I don’t know.”

“Right, like what a purl stitch is and the best way to get candle wax out of a carpet. No, I mean this is something important that I know!” I smiled broadly.

“Incidentally,” Gelsey leaned towards me, “how do you get candle wax out of a carpet? I have this one spot-”

“I don’t think this is the time,” Poskunk snapped.

“Put a paper towel over it, then run a warm iron over the top. It’ll melt the wax and the paper towel will draw it up. It’ll take quite a few paper towels, but it should get all the wax up. If the wax was colored and left a stain you’d just treat that with your usual stain remover after most of the wax is up.” I stuck my tongue out at Poskunk. He rolled his eyes.

“Back to the matter at hand…” he ground out.

“Right. Fantasia. Hippos dancing in tutus. Ballerina hippos. Hippopotamuses doing ballet in tutus. Dancing hippopotamus.” I tried a variety of combinations.

“Code word accepted,” Pinkjennywriter said. “Thank you.”

“Now, what were your instructions?” Gelsey asked gently.

“To do nothing,” Sicsempersoy said.

“What do you mean?” Revoked Soul asked. “Do nothing when?”

“Whenever. Always. Just… do nothing,” Sicsempersoy said.

“What kind of instructions are those?” I asked no one in particular. They all shrugged.

“What about after you heard the code word?” Gelsey asked.

“Then we could do whatever we would normally do,” Pinkjennywriter said.

“Whatever?” Poskunk asked. “As in, please resume normally scheduled programming? As you were? Carry on with your life, thank you very much?”

“Exactly,” Sicsempersoy smiled. “That’s it.”

“That’s weird,” Revoked Soul said. “What kind of a villain gets people under their control just to have them do nothing?”

“Maybe it does make sense,” I said. “Maybe… what was it Claire Dragonfly said Akirad was working on?”

“The bath. And the line of bath products,” Poskunk said.

“Right, a bathtub that let you play on the computer, read, listen to music, whatever, all with fresh hot water all the time. And a line of highly addictive bath products to keep you coming back. So, in essence, he was trying to get people to just… stay in the bathtub. All the time. Doing, in effect, nothing.”

“So this whole evil plot is all about making people inactive?” Gelsey asked.

“Wait, even those not under the hypnotherapist’s care in the cult would feel that way,” Revoked Soul said. “It was all about being calm, relaxing, and not doing anything.”

“So we know that Penchaft and Weaselistic basically want the public out of the picture. But why? Is it something as simple as an overthrow the government plan?” Gelsey looked confused.

I nodded towards Pinkjennywriter and Sicsempersoy.

“Oh!” Gelsey exclaimed. “Right, sorry. Is there anything else you can tell us about your experiences under hypnosis?”

Pinkjennywriter and Sicsempersoy both shook their heads ‘no’. Gelsey talked them back to consciousness and they thanked us for releasing them from their suggestions. Rebecca had come from the home office to pick them up, and I waved at her from the doorway. She smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up.

“I do miss having a driver,” I sighed.

“You’re so spoiled,” Poskunk said.

“But aren’t we done blending?” I asked. “Or is there more to it than that?”

Poskunk hesitated just a fraction of a second, but I saw it, and knew what it meant. “Of course that’s it,” he said. “And, no, we’re not done blending.”

“You say so,” I shrugged, and we went back in to talk with Revoked Soul and Gelsey.

I sat down in a chair along the back wall, and Gelsey, Revoked Soul, and Poskunk pulled up chairs around me.

“So what now?” Gelsey asked.

“Aren’t you on vacation?” I asked.

“Sadly, no, I have to work on deprogramming the rest of the disciples. Then we’re going to have to figure out if Oneworldvision was really in on it,” she said.

“Can we bring her in here now?” I asked Poskunk. He nodded, and went to find someone to bring her to the room. “What do you think?” I asked Revoked Soul.

“Honestly, I think she’s the genuine thing. I know that sounds like I’m still brainwashed, but she is just so… nice,” Revoked Soul finished lamely. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”

“I met her once,” Gelsey said, “a long time ago. She did seem like a nice person. Too nice – and shy – to work for the Home Office. I think she was pressured into trying, and then she dropped out. She moved into a compound, I think, before she formed her own. I don’t know where people get the idea she’s bent on world domination, unless it’s just that they can’t fathom someone being that nice. They’re jaded and cynical enough to think there has to be an ulterior motive.”

“Doesn’t there?” I asked. “Okay, so put me in the cynical camp. I can’t imagine that there’d be that much interest unless there was something else. I mean, there have to be other cults out there, right?” The nodded. “So why aren’t they getting the attention? Why aren’t they under such scrutiny?”

“Maybe they are,” Revoked Soul said, but Gelsey shook her head.

“They’re not. The others aren’t even a blip on the radar screen at the Home Office. So you’re right, there has to be something,” she said.

“I bet it’s money,” I said. “It’s always the money that shows the connections. There’s some sort of money trail that leads…” I trailed off.

“Leads where?” Revoked Soul asked.

“Now, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Pun intended?” Poskunk asked from the doorway. He was followed into the room by the woman I’d seen speaking inside the meeting room. She nodded shyly at us.

“Oneworldvision, I presume?” I asked.


******



“There is a trail,” Oneworldvision said, “but not even I know where it leads.” She bit her lip and sat down on the edge of the chair. “I’d like to say I didn’t know what was going on, but… on some level I had to.”

“So you’re saying you did get money from someone?” I asked gently. She nodded.

“I didn’t have the capital to start up the center. This place was on the market, and it was a great price, but I couldn’t get a loan from any of the traditional banks. Even though, because of the price, there would be immediate equity in the building. They kept saying I was too much of a risk.”

“But you obviously got the money,” I said.

“It wasn’t so much that I got money… You see, someone else bought this place while I was trying to get a loan. They then offered it to me at an even lower price – one that I could afford, but was probably a tenth of the actual value. There was, of course, a condition.”

“There always is,” Revoked Soul snorted. Gelsey glared at her.

“Yes, well,” Oneworldvision blushed, “I didn’t think there was any harm. Not really. It seemed like such a small thing. You see, the people that bought the building – it was a trust – said that one of their members was studying to be a psychologist, and thought the idea of my center was perfect… would be perfect for her research. Oh, they sold me a whole story on how it wouldn’t harm anyone and all that, but really, it wasn’t a hard sell. I realized I could have my center and I… I signed. I should have known something more was going on.”

“So you didn’t know who the hypnotherapist was?” I asked.

“No,” she replied promptly, but there was a flicker in her eyes. I looked at Gelsey, who nodded that she had seen it too. Either Onewolrdvision was lying, or she’d been as much a victim as the rest of her flock.

“Is there anything else?” I pressed on.

“Well…” Oneworldvision shifted in her chair. “There are rumors. Some of the members say they’ve heard things in the night. Seen things, people, going places they shouldn’t be able to. I don’t know for sure, but I think there might be some underground passages under this place.”

“What was here before the grocery store?” I asked.

“Oh, I remember the stories about that!” Revoked Soul cried. “It was the Stallinwert Estate … wait, or was it Stallenbert… anyway, it was an old mansion. We used to dare one another to go in it when we were kids. It was a crumbling heap – lucky no one got killed in any of those excursions! There was only one safe place in the whole building. The study was carved out of sold rock.”

“The office in the back is rock walled,” Oneworldvision said. “And that’s where they are reporting strange sights and sounds. Do you think that was still part of the original building? Do you think it’s… haunted?”

“Part of the original building? Perhaps,” I mused. “Haunted? I don’t think so. Can we take a look?”

“Sure, sure,” she said, getting up and leading us out of the room.

We followed her to the back of the compound where there was a small, tidy office. The walls were covered in floor to ceiling bookcases and the small desk was neatly stacked with piles of papers.

“Sorry, about the mess,” Oneworldvision said, hurrying to the desk and tapping the papers into even neater stacks.

“It’s fine,” Gelsey said. She was squeezed between Poskunk and a small, hardback chair. Revoked Soul was smushed up against a side wall and I was crammed against the front of the desk. None of us could really move comfortable.

“Excuse me, sorry,” Revoked Soul twisted and tried to worm her way towards the door.

“No, here, wait, I’ll move…” Gelsey tried to squeeze herself even flatter against the wall. Poskunk shifted sideways, Oneworld vision leaned forward and I tried to slither between the edge of the desk and a bookcase. And then, suddenly, the back wall swung out.

Gelsey screamed and started to pitch down the now visible stone staircase. Poskunk reflexively reached out and grabbed the only part of her he could reach – her long braid. He tugged, and Gelsey fell backwards onto us. She rubbed her scalp.

“I guess I should thank you,” she said, eyeing the steep, dark staircase. “And I’m sure I’ll be grateful once I know all my hair’s not going to fall out.”

“Yeah, sorry about that, but it was the only thing I could reach,” Poskunk said. “How did that open, anyway?”

We all shrugged. “It could have been anything,” I said. “We were all moving.”

“Well, that makes more sense,” Oneworldvision said. “That was what one member reported – seeing a strange person go into the office, but when he went to investigate, no one was there. I think he was approaching it from the ghost angle, but this certainly makes more sense! I wonder what the trigger was.” She looked around the small office. “I don’t spend much time in here, and there are so many nooks and crannies in the walls.”

“I wonder where it goes,” Gelsey said, creeping forward to peer down the staircase. “Do you have any flashlights?”

“I can get some, if I can get through…” Oneworldvision said, and we filed back out into the hallway. She went to get some flashlights and we stood around, not saying much to one another. When she returned bearing 5 flashlights we filed back into the room and down the staircase, Poskunk in the lead.

“Wait,” Revoked Soul said, “shouldn’t we leave someone up there to make sure the door doesn’t close?”

“Well, I don’t want to stay – I want to see where it goes!” Gelsey said.

“Me too,” Oneworldvision said. “But I can get one of my members – or two – to stand guard if you like.”

“That would be good,” I said. “Just in case. And they can look for the mechanism, too.”

“Okay, lemme just grab someone.” She turned and walked back through the doorway. I heard her call to someone in the hallway, and as she was walking back towards the door, it started to swing shut.

“No!” I cried, and lunged for it. Through the diminishing crack I saw her standing there, unmoving, a small smile on her face. I reached the door just as it clicked shut. Frantically, I shone my flashlight around the doorframe. On the left side there was a small button. I pressed it, and the staircase was filled with a dim light. I turned to face the others. “Good news is, I found a light switch. Bad news is, I can’t find anything to open the door.”

“Well, I’m sure Oneworldvision will be looking for a way to get us out,” Gelsey said.

“I… I wouldn’t count on it,” I said in a low voice.

“Why?” Revoked Soul asked.

“Look, it could just be my imagination, I don’t know. But the expression on her face as she watched the door swing shut… She wasn’t worried, or upset, she looked… happy. Smug. And it’s not like they’re yelling reassurances that they’re looking for a way to get us out. I don’t hear any thumps or banging, either,” I said.

Gelsey walked past me and pressed an ear to the wooden door panel. She stood there a moment and then turned to the rest of us and shook her head. “Not a sound.”

“Great, now what?” Poskunk stood idly clicking his flashlight on and off.

“For one,” I said as I marched down the stairs to him and snatched the flashlight out of his hands, “you don’t waste batteries. You don’t know when we might need them. As for where we go, I guess the only way is… down.”

They all looked at me and one another uneasily, but then nodded. We started down the winding staircase in silence, the only sound the echoing thump of our footfalls. I heard Gelsey start to say something a few times, and then stop herself. I was fighting the urge to start babbling just to break the creepy silence when we came to the bottom of the staircase. The hallway opened into a giant room crammed with papers and books, with dozens of doors set into the walls. We fanned out, each of us taking a different section of the room. Gelsey went to a desk and started riffling through the papers. Poskunk stood at a bookcase, reading the spines of the books. Revoked Soul and I started opening doors. Each led to a hallway, some with stairs that went up, a few with stairs that went down, but mostly just dark, flat hallways.

“Do you know what this is?” Gelsey cried, holding up a sheaf or paper.

“The lost records!” Poskunk said. “It’s all here – newspaper articles, birth and death certificates, bills of sale – everything from before the fire!”

“So, can we finally find out what the crisis was?” I asked. And, I thought to myself, if it really had anything to do with… well, what I thought Elaran was.

“The crisis?” Gelsey asked.

“The one that caused them to build the dome,” I said.

“Toxic atmosphere,” Revoked Soul said, still circling the room looking through the various doors. “They said it became too polluted to live.”

“But you know that’s not true because-” I stopped and glanced nervously around them.

“Because we’ve all been outside?” Poskunk said.

“Right,” I said. “Because you know there’s a perfectly good atmosphere out there.”

“It could have cleared up,” Revoked Soul said, dubiously. “Or something.”

“But you know that they have records dating back more than 300 years and they don’t show any evidence of a natural disaster. So it has to be something more… secret,” I finished lamely.

“You have a theory?” Gelsey asked.

“Well, yes. Sort of.” I shuffled my feet. “But it’s stupid and probably not at all right.”

“Hmmm,” she said, flipping gingerly through a very old book. She frowned and brought the book closer to her nose in order to read some fine print. “Umm-hmmm,” she muttered.

“What? What is it?” Poskunk asked, edging towards her and trying to read over her shoulder. She held up a finger in the international ‘wait-a-minute’ gesture.

We stood there as she flipped through five more pages, the shock on her face growing more and more evident. As she closed the book, her eyes were wide and her mouth actually formed an ‘O’.

“Uh… you’re not going to believe this…” she started, the shook her head and stopped.

“But they’re vampires?” I finished overly casually with a dopey grin.

“How did you know?” Gelsey asked.

“You mean she’s right?” Revoked Soul asked.

“According to this,” Gelsey pointed with a shaky hand at the record. “They first started talking about sealing the underground city off after a woman named Elizabeth Bathory was imprisoned, something about bringing too much attention to them, and I think they worried she would speak of their meetings. It appears either she did not, or they couldn’t get everyone to agree, though, so the city was not sealed for another 50 years. They simply cite ‘rising tensions and suspicions’ as the cause this time. It says here that each family was allowed to bring in as many peasants as they ‘needed’,” Gelsey shuddered, “and enough material goods to start a functioning city. They began on the barter system, it appears. People and goods.”

“How could something like that be forgotten?!” Revoked Soul stopped her pacing to stare incredulously at us. “I mean, seriously. Vampires? How does one forget that you are… well, food?”

“It has to have something to do with the illness. And the fire,” I said. “Can you find any records of that?”

“I can try, they do seem to be mostly in chronological order. Give me a minute,” Gelsey said, and resumed rifling through the papers.

Revoked Soul resumed her pacing and Poskunk idly flipped open some of the books on the shelves. I stared moodily off into space. “We still have to decide how we’re going to get out of here,” I said morosely. “Do we just pick a door, any door?”

“We could,” Revoked Soul said, crouching by a door. “Or we could follow the ones with the recent footprints.”

I walked over and crouched down next to her. On the uneven stone floor in blue ink were unmistakable barefoot prints leading down the tunnel.

******

“I vote that we follow them,” I said. “She hasn’t steered us wrong yet, for whatever reason. I mean, she’s helped us out of a lot of jams. Sure, she could have been trying to gain our trust, only to trick us at the end…” I trailed off as all three of them vehemently shook their heads.

“I say we go for it. But… we can’t just leave all this stuff here!” Gelsey said. She looked around at the piles and piles of paperwork and her shoulders slumped.

“We can’t carry all of it. And do you think it’s going anywhere?” Revoked Soul asked.

“We can carry some of it, and you never know who might come down here and destroy it,” Gelsey said stubbornly. She glanced at the doorway we’d just come through, the one that led to the possibly treacherous Oneworldvision’s office. It, like most of the others, had a heavy wooden door.

“Fine, we can try to bar the door, and try to carry out some of the most important things. Why don’t we take a few minutes and sort through this and take out the most valuable records,” I cut into the argument before it could escalate further. “Then, we can come back later for the rest, and hopefully the door will be enough of a deterrent.”

The nodded their agreement and we spent the next half an hour pouring through documents as fast as we could, sorting them roughly into piles. At the end, we had four sacks full of what we thought were the most complete, most important records. We used the rest of the sacks, pouches and other bags lying around to hastily pack up the rest of the records for quick retrieval. Then we swung shut the heavy wooden door and moved several bookcases in front of it. We were all panting and sweating by the time the last one was in place.

“There, that should hold. Too bad we didn’t bring any water,” I said glumly, sitting for a moment on the edge of a desk.

“Who would have guessed we’d be stuck down here?” Gelsey said sympathetically.

“At least one person,” I said, nodding in the direction of the blue foot prints. They all exchanged an uneasy glance, or perhaps it was my imagination, but we all fell silent as we caught our breath. Finally, Poskunk stood up.

“I think we should get moving.”

We each slung a bag over our shoulder, and, weighted down, trudged along the blue foot printed hall. There were tunnels leading off in both directions every few hundred feet, and I worried when the footprints started to fade out, but every time they began to get almost too faint to see, they would suddenly re-appear, full strength.

“It’s as if she’s making sure we don’t lose the trail,” I whispered.

“Good thing,” Poskunk said, eyeing all of the possible paths. “If we get lost, we could be lost down here forever.”

A chill went down my spine. Despite the others’ reassurance, I was still not convinced of Naked Blue Ninja’s sincerity. They knew something I didn’t, and I wished desperately that they would tell me so I could have the same faith. But every time I asked, I was met with evasion. And the occasional, cryptic ‘But you don’t want to spoil the surprise!’ from Poskunk.

When the foot prints suddenly forked, going off in two directions simultaneously, we stopped and stared at one another.

“Now what?” Gelsey whispered. Her voice echoed eerily in the confined space.

I looked closely at the corner where the wall forked. On the right-hand side, the wall leading along the offshoot, was a small, smudged picture of a sun. Crude, cave-man style graphics, but distinctive. The main tunnel had a small, x-eyed smiley face with its tongue protruding.

“Sunshine or death, it looks like,” I said grimly. “Gee, I wonder which one to choose?”

“I don’t think it’s death,” Poskunk said thoughtfully. He reached out and touched the drawings, his fingers coming back smudged with blue ink. “No, she wouldn’t lead us that way if it was all it had to offer.”

“And you’re so sure about that,” I snapped.

“Well, yes. I think.” But there was a hint of doubt in his voice, now. Then again, being trapped in a network of underground caves might be enough to make anyone uneasy enough to doubt their own mother, let alone a naked blue stranger.

“Why don’t you just tell me what you know about her so I can make an informed decision?” I asked icily.

“Because… because. Just because. What I have to tell you won’t help you make up your mind, I don’t think. You still don’t know enough about what’s going on down here. In a way, the things I know might even prejudice you the other way, at this point. No, there’ll be a time and place when I can tell you, but not now. Not if it might jeopardize the mission.” He looked down at the ground, his shoulders slumped.

“Fine. I shall simply have to take it on faith that what you say is true, then,” I said, the sarcasm dripping from my voice.

“Yes, that would be nice,” he replied amiably, either not noticing the sarcasm, or, more likely, ignoring it.

“So not death, but not something good, either,” Revoked Soul said nervously, breaking the tension.

“Evil?” Gelsey asked.

“Could be,” Poskunk said. “Maybe… maybe it’s the way to Akirad’s lair. I’d say an evil villain’s compound would justify that sort of marking. Tell you what, why don’t Gelsey and Revoked Soul take all of the records and head for the exit. You guys can manage the heavy load for a bit, I think. Then you can organize people to come back in and haul the rest out.”

“And, let me guess,” I sighed wearily. “You and I will go beard the monster in his den?”

“And unusual expression, but, yes, in a manner of speaking.”

“Why me?” I muttered.

“Blame the prophecy,” Poskunk said with a smile. He handed Gelsey his sack, and I handed mine to Revoked Soul. They nodded, and started down the hallway.

“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to die we go!” I mumbled sarcastically as he took me by the arm and started dragging me down the corridor.

“Is that what you saw in the future?” he asked, not slowing or turning to face me.

“No, no. There are fates worse than death.” I gave a deep, theatrical sigh.

“And am I doomed to one?”

“You or I. Depends on your perspective, I guess.”

He stopped abruptly and gave me a shrewd look. I flushed, worried that I might have said too much. But gradually, the suspicion faded from his eyes, and he shrugged and resumed walking. We followed the footprints in silence until we came to a heavy, wooden door. It was slightly ajar, and a thin sliver of weak light filtered through into the hallway, illuminating the fine mist that snaked tendrils around our feet.

We crept up to the doorway and peered through the crack. On the other side of the doorway was a dungeon. Or, at least, it used to be a dungeon.

******

“Martha Stewart is doing dungeons, now, apparently,” I said under my breath.

Poskunk said nothing, staring in amazement at the room. Where there had been dreary, grey stone walls, there was now a cheerful, subtle cream stripe pattern. The manacles that hung from the wall had be repurposed – they were covered in prettily patterned cloth and served as towel holders for the large, fluffy towels laid out on the torture table/wrack come concierge station. The pits, originally used for covering people in rats, were now filled with a thick, oozy pore-cleansing mud. And finally, set around the perimeter of the walls were a dozen of Akirad’s prototype bathtubs. All but two were full, and the ones in use were bubbling over with a deliciously scented foam. The people in them were engrossed in a number of different activities, from watching TV, playing computer games, surfing the internet, reading, to sleeping.

As we took in the details of the steam filled room, which included some lovely pressed and framed wildflowers on the wall, the heavy wooden door at the other end of the room opened. Poskunk and I shrank back from the opening, far enough that we hoped we wouldn’t be seen, but could still have a fair view of what was going on in most of the room.

“And if you’d like to start with one of our mud baths,” Penchaft said, gesturing towards one of the pits. She had changed from her school girl outfit and was wearing what I would consider standard issue villain sidekick wear. Black pants and a black turtleneck shirt, boots and a minimum of jewelry. She looked ready to break and enter, or invade a small country. The small, slender girl following her nodded, and headed towards a mud bath on the other side of the room. “Afterwards,” Penchaft continued in a low, soothing voice, “I would highly recommend a eucalyptus bath oil in one of our cutting edge bathtubs. No need to shower off beforehand, the bath both soaks and cleanses at the same time.”

“I don’t know about taking the time for a bath…” the girl said hesitantly. She had moved out of our line of sight, so I couldn’t tell if she was in the mud bath yet.

“Don’t be silly, you’ll have to clean that mud off somehow. And the bath really is just as quick as a shower – maybe even faster!”

There was an inaudible reply from the far end of the room, and Penchaft nodded happily. We watched as she turned around and left the room, then slowly opened the door. The bathers gave no sign that they noticed us, but the girl in the mud bath peered at us suspiciously. I crept over to a bathtub located at the far end of the room.

“Clare-Dragonfly,” I whispered in her ear and shook her gently by the shoulder. She looked up dazedly at me.

“Yes?”

“C’mon, we have to go!” I grabbed a towel off of a manacle and shoved it towards her.

She looked up at me blankly, and then went back to staring at the computer screen.

“Come ON!” My voice rose involuntarily, and I looked around quickly to see if anyone else had noticed. They were all still happily sitting in their bathtubs, but the girl in the mud bath was starting to look nervous. “If I were you, I’d skip the bath,” I told her. She nodded slowly, and went to shower off the mud at one of the wall spigots.

Clare-Dragonfly was still stubbornly sitting in the bathtub, and was now scrolling down a web page. I looked helplessly at Poskunk, who just shrugged. I tried once more.

“We have to go!”

She finally looked at me, irritated. “I just found this wonderful web page full of words! And not any old words, no, they’re beautiful and old and archaic… How can I leave now?”

“You have to, remember your mission!”

“The mission can wait,” she yawned. “At least until I’m done with my bath! Now, stop disturbing me.” Her voice had risen sharply, and suddenly I heard the door open.

Penchaft stood there, smiling. In her hand was a small device that may have been a weapon, or it may have been a pasta maker. By the expression on her face, I was erring on the side of weapon.

“How nice of you to join us,” she said softly. “Now, what to do with you?”

“You know what would be a novel idea? Letting us go. It’s just not done, and it would make for a wonderful twist,” I said.

“Right. Do you think I was born yesterday?” She sniffed disdainfully. “You!” She gestured to Poskunk. “Into a tub, now. And use this in the water.” She tossed him a bottle of foamy liquid.

One eye on the gun, he quickly got into the bathtub and poured the foam into the bathwater. At least I assume he did, because of course we turned our backs to give him a little privacy. And I swear I didn’t peek. Much.

Once he had settled in with a contented sigh, he looked at me dreamily and said, “You really should try this. It’s heavenly.” He flicked on the computer and up came a list of available games. I groaned, knowing even before he excitedly clicked on the split screen option and simultaneously turned on a sporting even and started up a game that he was a goner.

“No, no,” Penchaft said with a grin. “We have other plans for you.”

“But a bath does sound lovely,” I said, edging away from her.

Penchaft sighed heavily. “Look, if it were up to me, I’d just as soon stick you in a tub and forget about you. You’ve done nothing but mettle, and I’d love to see you out of the way. But as I’m sure you well know, it is not up to me, so if you will kindly come this way.” She gestured with her free hand towards the door, the hand holding the weapon (or pasta maker) never wavering.

“Fine,” I retorted, wishing I could come up with something witty or clever, but feeling too tired and resigned to even try. What I needed on this mission was a script writer. I mean, who ever heard of a hero without a script writer?

We trudged out the door and up a long, winding flight of stairs. My fatigue was catching up to me be the top of the stairs and Penchaft had to nudge me up the last few. I finally stumbled to the top and found myself in the middle of the laboratory I had seen on Clare-Dragonfly’s recording. I stifled a giggle as I took in the décor. It hadn’t been a trick or something to do with the camera. He really decorated his lair in-

Just then the far door swung open dramatically. Somehow – perhaps I was imagining it, but I think not - I actually felt Penchaft roll her eyes from where she was standing behind me. I gapped in amazement as the figure strode – no, swaggered – no, *swaggered* - from the doorway over to where we were standing. I slapped a hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

It wasn’t that he was dressed badly. The suit was actually quite well-cut and expensively made, and it was even a lovely shade of black. (Many people don’t realize this, but there are many shades of black. It ranges from deep, inky, soul-catching black to an ordinary, every day black down to a faded, tired black. You have to be careful when wearing more than one black, as they can clash.) The cape was a bit of a pompous touch, but it also looked to be an expensive, well-cut garment and matched the suit to perfection. And the tie… even though it matched the décor of the room, and was therefore a bit… unusual for a villain, it added a touch of whimsy that would have been cute on many men.

It wasn’t even that he was ostentatious enough to carry a walking stick he obviously did not need. It was an ornately carved ebony walking stick with a lovely silver handle. I wondered, briefly, if it concealed a sword. Even that thought wasn’t enough to completely suppress my desire to laugh. And then, suddenly, in my mind I pictured the Giggle Loop sketch from Coupling and completely lost it.

Akirad broke the pose he had struck (which I had found so very funny, it would be difficult to describe in any manner that would do it justice, but you can start by imagining a peacock crossed with the Queen of England and mix in a little Pope and you’ll probably come close) and scowled at me.

“Here now, what’s so funny?” he sniffed. I laughed harder, until tears were streaming dowm my face. I heard Penchaft snort once behind me.

“I say! What are you on about?” he said again, quite cross by now. He positioned the walking stick in front of him and leaned both hands on it, crossed slightly. I imagined him breaking into a chorus line and dance-kicking his was across the lair, brandishing the cane. This brought more gales of laughter, which finally, mercifully dissolved into a case of the hiccups.

“You said you wanted to bring her up here. I told you it was a bad idea,” Penchaft said, moving to stand beside me.

“I’m sure she’s just deranged or some such. They’re all mentally deficient in the other universe, aren’t they?” He peered at me quizzically, and I felt the laughter start to bubble up again.

“I –(hic)- am so sorry. (hic) It’s just that –(hic)- your lair is, um… (hic) Let’s just say it’s not –(hic)- what I expected. (hic) And you’re quite –(hic)- quite a… posh villain, if –(hic)- you know what I mean.” I gulped in air in an attempt to stop my rampant hiccupping.

“Penchaft, get her a teaspoon of sugar to deal with those hiccups,” Akirad said.

“Sugar doesn’t work,” she said crossly. “She needs to drink a glass of water upside down.”

“Oh, please, that never works. How about…” he paused dramatically, then suddenly whipped a sword out of his cane and brought it to rest at my neck. “You will soon die, you know,” he said in a menacing tone.

“(hic)!” I said.

“Oh, scaring her sure worked,” Penchaft sneered. “Or maybe it’s not that you’re even scary enough to frighten the hiccups out of someone!”

“Now see here!” Akirad protested, but Penchaft cut him off with a wave of her hand.

“How about this. If you can hiccup again, I’ll let you go,” she said.

Akirad stared at her, his face turning red. He stared to say something, but she stopped him with a glare. I stood still, trying as hard as I could to summon another hiccup. But I knew that this was one of the few things that did cure hiccups, and was unable to hiccup again. Unable to come up with a suitable, snappy saying, I stuck my tongue out at her. She laughed, and Akirad finally relaxed.

“So, now what? Do you tell me your evil plan, use me as a bargaining chip, kill me, or what?” I asked.

“Now I brainwash you and make you a spy for me!” he cried, tossing his cape theatrically and pointing to a large machine standing at one edge of the room. It was a dome-shaped structure that had a cushy chair in the center and a small helmet dangling from some wires in the center. On one side was a control booth, and directly in front of the chair was a large TV screen. Overall, it was your typical, average brain-washing device.

“Will this brainwashing make me stop laughing at the décor?” I asked sarcastically. This time I swear I heard a giggle escape Penchaft.

“Not you, too,” he said wearily. “I’ve explained it to her a million times. What says manly more than anything else? C’mon, woman, it’s your reality, you should know. What says rugged more than a cowboy? And what do cowboys have?”

“Besides ridiculously large hats and uncomfortable looking boots?”

“Yes, besides that. A symbol of freedom, of an untamed spirit, something that embodies everything that is the Old West!” he cried.

Penchaft leaned over to me and whispered out of the corner of her mouth. “We picked up a case of Louis L’amour books about six months ago and he’s been addicted ever since.”

“Um, a…” I wracked my brain while staring at the room’s decorations.

“It also,” he continued acidly, “is a very sporty car. So not only is it rugged and manly, it’s sporty and manly. What could be more perfect?”

“Oh! A Mustang,” I replied. “I have one of those. But… I think you’ve made a slight miscalculation. Have you ever seen a mustang?”

“The car? Yes, I saw an ad for it.”

“No, the animal. You see,” I gestured to the things displayed around the room, “these are not mustangs.”

“Oh? And what are they, then?” he asked stiffly.

“They’re… they’re My Little Ponies,” I replied, dissolving again into a gale of laughter.

******

“What?!” Akirad cried. “What do you mean, these aren’t mustangs? They’re horses – even I can tell that.”

“These are to horses what Barbies are to people,” I said, still snickering. “They’re cartoon versions of the real thing. I mean, what cowboy would have a horse with a rainbow on its butt?”

“I figured it was a brand.”

“Of a rainbow.”

“Well, yes. Why not?”

“It’s… complicated. Nevermind. If you’re going to be a proper villain we need to do something about this lair. And your clothes. And maybe your plan. What is your plan?”

Penchaft had been standing quietly by while Akirad and I had discussed the pony issue, a bored look on her face. But suddenly she became animated and began frantically signaling Akirad to be quiet.

“Well, as you probably know, the bath tub and the bath products are the cornerstone of my plan,” he said as he stepped forward and took my arm. He started to pull me to one side of the room and Penchaft made a strangled sound. “What now, Penchaft?” he asked irritably.

“Ixnay on the anplay,” she hissed.

“What?” He turned to scowl at her. “I’m sorry,” he said to me, “where was I?”

“The bath tub,” I prompted. He led me to a large display board in the corner of the room. Penchaft hurried after us.

“See here,” he said, pointing at the upper left corner of the board. “This is the tub and its projected effects.”

Penchaft tugged on the back of his cape. There was a faint ripping sound.

“What?!” he snapped at her as he turned around. “What, what WHAT?”

She started at him for a moment, looking a little shocked. Not, as he probably thought, at the fact that he had yelled at her. I knew what she was upset about, and I had to stop her from stopping him.

“She’s just jealous of all the attention I’m getting,” I cooed at him. I touched his arm briefly and winked at him. “Maybe she’s afraid I’ll take her place.” I fluttered my eyelashes. I say Penchaft gagging out of the corner of my eye.

Akirad grinned broadly, his chest puffing out. “Well, we’ll just have to see about that. I can’t say I wouldn’t mind having the prophesized one on my side. Quite a coup that would be, indeed.”

“You… men… stupid, stupid, stupid,” Penchaft sputtered. “I cannot believe you would fall for such… such… obvious tactics!” She rolled her eyes and stamped her foot. Akirad looked at me questioningly.

I turned up the charm, putting my years of civil service placating people to good use. “Oh, she is jealous! I bet I could be a better sidekick than she is.” I touched his arm lightly, smiling sweetly up at him.

“She laughed at your lair,” Penchaft said.

“So did you,” I countered.

“She’s…” Penchaft stopped abruptly. “I am not doing this. I am not engaging in this battle with you. I sound like a jealous fishwife.” She looked mortified. “You can have him!” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. Akirad started after her, but I put a hand on his arm.

“You’re better off without her. She was just going to mutiny and take over after you’d done all the hard work. Do you even know what all she was up to with the Gummi factory and Oneworldvision’s cult?”

“She – what? The cult? What was she doing there?” He looked surprised. I smiled gently again, patting his arm.

“Don’t worry, I think we’ve mostly taken care of that.” I forced the vision of Oneworldvision’s grinning face as she locked us in the underground cavern out of my mind. “She was going to brainwash as many people as she could so they wouldn’t act against her when she decided to take control. When she took control, not you.”

“She was going to betray me?” He looked crushed.

“Well, yes, but… she’s evil. That’s her nature.”

He sighed heavily and looked at me. “I’m still going to have to brainwash you to trust you. If I couldn’t trust Penchaft… when I thought I could…”

“Oh, yes, yes, I understand. But why don’t you tell me about your plan before you do? That way I can give you constructive ideas based on what I’ve learned so far.” I forced a bright smile, though my stomach was churning. Sure, it was a staple of the movie industry, but it didn’t mean it would work.

“Right,” he said, brightening. “Where were we?”

“The bath tub.”

“Okay, so I figured if I got enough people addicted to being in the bath – and especially using computers and TVs, I could have a captive audience long enough for my subliminal messaging to work.”

“Oh, clever,” I said, truly impressed. I hadn’t thought there was much to it other than keeping them in the tub. I felt a sudden twinge as I remembered Poskunk down in a bath tub. “Have you started that on your test subjects? How is it working?”

“The subliminal messages haven’t started yet – I was trying to get the Triple Geeks to help me out, but they got stuck on some other big project. Plus,” he lowered his voice conspiratorially and leaned closer to me, “I think they had their own agenda. I’m not sure I could have trusted them to broadcast what I wanted.”

“That’s true.” I nodded. “They were uncovering some government plot.”

“Plot? Really?”

“Well, not so much a plot as a safeguard, I think. There are some things about this society that, if – I mean, when – they come to light will be quite a shock. I think they wanted to be sure they didn’t lose control when it happened.”

“I see,” he said. He rubbed his chin in a thoughtful gesture. “I was right not to trust them, then.”

“Very much so. I’m certain the message they would have broadcast would have been anti-government, instead of… what was the message you were going to send?”

“I wanted to make people crave mangoes.”

I was silent for a moment. “Mangoes?”

“Yes. You know, the fruit with the giant pit? Quite juicy, used in a lot of smoothies.”

“Mangoes.” I repeated. “Your world domination scheme rested on mangoes?”

“Is that a problem?” He was starting to look angry.

“Oh, no, no,” I said in a hurried, soothing voice. “There’s nothing wrong with it, I just don’t understand. You have to explain these things to little ole me!” I batted my eyelashes again. I was briefly worried that I was overdoing it, but he puffed up again and looked down his nose at me.

“Of course, of course. I forget that you don’t know the whole plan. And you probably don’t realize that mangoes are a very rare commodity here.” I shook me head. “They are, very rare,” he continued. “So people are going to crave mangoes like mad, but they won’t be able to get any. Unless they get a mango smoothie at one of my smoothie stores. I haven’t come up with a name yet. I was thinking ‘Smoothies R Us’. What do you think?”

“I think we can work on the name,” I said tentatively. “Probably want to do some market studies, see what people like.”

“Ah, good idea! Anyway, so they’ll flock to my smoothie stores, and the smoothies will all contain an addictive ingredient. One from which withdrawal is so hideous you can’t even contemplate.”

“Heroin?” I asked.

“No, what’s that?”

Oh, gee, only the one drug that withdrawal from can kill you, I thought to myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I said to myself. You don’t have to say everything that pops into your head. “Nothing, really,” I said aloud. “Just a… recreational drug we have in our reality.”

“Hmmm, I’ll have to look into it,” he said thoughtfully. I mentally smacked myself again. “But I was thinking of caffeine.”

“Caffeine? As in… coffee?” I stuttered.

“Yes, you know of it?”

“Of course.”

“Have you taken it? Have you gone through withdrawal? What can you tell me?” he asked excitedly.

“Oh, well, it’s…” I thought back to my first day in this reality. I then thought about what it would have been like if I hadn’t understood my addiction, and from what I was suffering withdrawal. I suddenly thought that his plan might work. “It’s awful,” I said truthfully. “Headaches, nausea, tiredness, the whole works. You’ll feel like crawling under a rock. It only last a day or so, though.”

“By then they’ll be hooked on my snake-oil treatment serum for the new ‘epidemic’ that is plaguing our society,” he cackled gleefully.

“Lemme guess – it’ll contain caffeine?”

“Righty-o! And when people find out that they’ll have to take the serum for the rest of their lives – it’s not a cure, just a treatment! – they’ll flock to check into my medical clinics. Where I will, among other things, slowly and gently wean them off the caffeine and ‘cure’ them!” He grinned broadly at me.

“What are the other things?” I asked.

“Ah, yes, the whole crux of the matter. Since they are sick, they will need all sorts of medical tests. Blood work, scans, the works! And I will finally find the secret.”

“The secret to what?”

“I think I’ve told you enough,” he said, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the brainwashing machine.

“Oh, you can’t leave me hanging,” I said desperately. “I have to know!”

He buckled me into the machine, and leaned towards me. “All right. I seek the secret to immortality.”

“Immortality?”

“Yes. There are certain people who have lived here for hundreds of years. I’ve scoured the records, and though they were clever and tried to cover their tracks, I’m positive these people have been alive far, far longer than they should be. And I intend to find that secret and live forever!” He raised his arms in a dramatic gesture, spreading his cloak wide and raising his voice at the last word. He dropped his arms and laughed maniacally.

I looked into the distance over his right shoulder. “Oh, that,” I said dismissively. “I could have just told you that.”

“Sure,” he scoffed.

“Oh, no, I do know the secret, and if you want to be virtually immortal, all you have to do is ask the woman standing behind you.”

******

He gave one glance at my restraints to make sure I was secure and spun around quickly. But he was no match for Elaran’s superhuman speed and strength. She flipped him over and down to the ground, pinning him with one high-heeled boot against his neck.

“Who are you?” he croaked.

Elaran looked up at me. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, fine.” I said, shrugging against the restraints.

“Gelsey and Revoked Soul will be here in a minute. They…ah, couldn’t travel as quickly through the tunnel as I could.”

“Where did they end up?” I asked.

“In my basement. Or rather, at the bottom of the outside stairwell that leads to the cellar space. I never go down there, too many spiders.” She gave a delicate shrug, and Akirad made a choking sound. “Oh, you’re fine,” she said to him.

“You’re choking me,” he gasped dramatically.

“No, this is choking you,” she said as she leaned more of her weight on the foot holding him down. He made louder choking noises until she eased up. “Now, are you done complaining?”

He nodded slightly. I noticed his hand groping for his cane. “Um, Elaran, you might want to…”

Before I even finished the sentence she had pivoted and her other foot was pinning his wrist. “Aren’t you a naughty boy?” she asked impishly. He heaved a sigh and fell still.

“So,” I said casually, “they appeared outside of your house…”

“Right, and I was just taking the trash out and ran into them. They babbled out the story, we got the rest of the Gummi Resistance over to start carrying stuff up and the three of us came after you.”

“You’re not concerned about those documents seeing the light of day? I mean, not literally the light of day, because there is no light, because there couldn’t be for a society of vampires, right, but I mean… you know, people finding out?”

“Of course I don’t want everyone to know that I need to feed of off human beings! But freedom of the press and all that good stuff. People have a right to know. If they come after me with a stake, so be it. I’ve been alive a long, long, long time.”

“How can you say that like it’s a bad thing?” Akirad wheezed.

Elaran looked down at him. “You just don’t understand, do you? You don’t get what it’s like to have to prey on people to survive. I’m not an evil person, I never was, but I’ve been forced to do things…” She looked up at me and shrugged. “I am sorry about that.” I raised an eyebrow at her, and shrugged.

“Eh, whatever, no harm, no foul. There was no harm, right?”

“No harm. Nothing worse than donating blood, I assure you. I tried to control myself, but I just get so hungry.”

“But you get to live forever!” Akirad cried. “I fail to see how this is a bad thing.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to be hungry all the time,” she hissed at him. “You don’t understand the moral dilemmas. You think you want this, but…”

She stared hard into his eyes. He flinched under her gaze. Suddenly, she reached down and grabbed him by the front of the shirt and hauled his neck up to her lips. She bit down and he went limp. A moment later she looked up at me.

“He’s not evil,” she said. His blood glistened on her lips. “He’s… misguided. If I turn him, it will be hard on him, despite what he says. Despite what he thinks. I don’t think he was even going to be able to go through with brainwashing you. He was counting on Penchaft for that.”

“So, it would be the worst punishment possible, is that what you’re saying?” I fidgeted in the restraints. Where were Gelsey and Revoked Soul?

She grinned at me. With her teeth elongated and still dripping it was a grisly sight, and my stomach clenched involuntarily. I hoped my reaction didn’t show on my face. “I think you may be right,” she said, and turned back to the still-limp Akirad.

She seemed to drink forever. Finally she laid his deathly pale body down on the ground and wiped her mouth. Her teeth retracted back to a normal length. I looked from him to her a few times.

“Hey,” I said. “How are you so tan?”

She chuckled. “Self tanners. They’ve come a long way since the orange, streaky age.”

“Why do you do it?”

“Tan?” She looked thoughtful. “Probably because I look less like people’s idea of a vampire then.”

I nodded agreeably. “True, true.”

Akirad stirred and began to push himself up off the ground. He blinked and looked around. He licked his lips.

“Thirsty,” he croaked.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. But it’s no big deal, is it? I mean, you have prey already tied up!” I widened my eyes at her in a ‘what the hell?’ gesture. She winked at me. I glared at her.

“Ah, yes,” he said, getting shakily to his feet. He smiled and I saw his teeth getting longer. Walking over to me, he said casually, “You, ah, wouldn’t mind, would you?”

“I most certainly would!” I exclaimed. “I’m already, what, a pint down from Elaran here, and you’re only supposed to donate blood once every eight weeks.”

“C’mon,” he said, edging closer. “Just a little…”

“No,” I said firmly.

“Go ahead,” Elaran purred. “Why don’t you just take it?”

“I can’t.” Akirad gritted his teeth. “Why can’t I?”

“Oh, did I forget to tell you? Much like the superstition about inviting vampires into your house is true, it’s also true that we cannot drink from an unwilling victim.”

“Are you saying that I was willing?” I asked.

“You weren’t… unwilling,” Elaran admitted. “It’s a grey area – I seduced you with the mystery of the vision, and then… while you were distracted…”

“Ah. I see.” I chewed on my lip. “I think.”

“So… how do I…” Akirad looked pained.

“I suggest you work on your seduction tactics,” Elaran said, and with a saucy switch of her hips sauntered out of the room.

I was about to call out to her, even if it ruined her grand exit, because, hello, still tied up here! But Gelsey and Revoked Soul came through the far door, followed by Poskunk and Clare Dragonfly. The latter two were still dripping slightly.

“Am I glad to see you all,” Akirad crowed. “Anyone spare a pint or two of blood?”

“Noooo,” Gelsey said. “Why?”

“He’s a vampire!” Revoked Soul cried. “Did you know about that?”

“It just happened,” I said.

“Elaran!” Gelsey cried. “How could she?”

“He asked for it,” I said, “so you can’t blame her.”

Akirad walked wearily over to Revoked Soul. “Just a drop or two?” he pleaded.

“Um, no,” she said. He gazed pleadingly at Clare Dragonfly.

“In your dreams,” she said.

“And don’t even look over here,” Poskunk said.

“But I’m so thirsty,” he wailed.

“Hello, still tied up here!” I said, tapping my foot impatiently.

“Oh, sorry,” Poskunk said, and came over to untie me. Once he had loosened all the straps and I stepped out of the machine, I turned to Akirad.

“Maybe you should go to a blood bank? Maybe they have some old stock?”

“It’s an idea,” he said, and trudged out of the room.

“I almost feel sorry for him,” Gelsey said.

I shrugged. “He asked for it. Besides, he’s the least of our problems. We still need to find Penchaft.”

******

“But should we just let him go like that?” Revoked Soul asked, looking in the direction Akirad had morosely trudged. “I mean, as a vampire, isn’t he more a danger to society than before?”

“It’s not like being a vampire turns you into pure evil, you know,” Gelsey replied huffily. “There are plenty of perfectly nice vampires.”

“So you knew?” I asked, surprised. “You sounded so surprised down in the storage room…”

“I made a promise. I wasn’t going to break it.” Gelsey folded her arms stubbornly.

“So you knew there were dangerous, blood-sucking creatures out there and you kept it a secret?” Clare Dragonfly asked.

“They’re not dangerous, and to blab it all over the place would just incite panic. And that would be stupid and dangerous,” Gelsey said.

“Like yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” I said. “She’s right.”

“How can you say she’s right? How can a vampire not be a danger?” Revoked Soul asked.

“Yeah, they could just go around and feed on all of us and turn us into mindless zombies,” Clare Dragonfly retorted.

“No, not the way Elaran tells it,” I said. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. There are… codes and restrictions on feeding, and I don’t think they have the power to turn anyone into a mindless zombie.”

“Pretty sure is a long way from sure,” Clare Dragonfly grumbled.

“Besides,” I said stiffly, “I’m pretty sure even if there weren’t the restrictions on vampires, Penchaft would still be more of a threat. We need to find her before she puts her back up plan into action.”

“You think she has a back up plan?” Gelsey asked.

“I’d bet my life on it.” I started walking to the door when it suddenly slammed shut and a large bolt slid home. I whirled around, but the door Akirad and Elaran had used was also closing, the large locking mechanism already engaging.

“Funny you should use that phrase,” a disembodied voice said. It echoed eerily on the stone walls. There was a clunking sound, and stringy red globs began dripping from small holes in the ceiling. I was suddenly reminded of watching The Blob on television as a small child. I’m not ashamed to admit I had a mild panic attack.

“What is that?!” Revoked Soul cried, dodging a glop that had been aiming for her head.

“Unrefined Gummi,” Gelsey said grimly.

“What does that mean?” Clare Dragonfly had been about to reach out and touch a strand, but she quickly yanked her hand back.

“It means,” the voice said again, “that you will all suffocate and die, and no one will be left to come after me!”

“So you can do what, exactly?” I asked.

“Nice try. I’m not falling for that ‘the villain tells you the whole plan, giving you time to escape’ ruse. And just in case you do survive – not that I think you can – this way you won’t know what I’m up to.”

“Elaran already left. She’ll come back for us,” Poskunk said.

“No, because the first thing I’m going to do is to… Ahhhh, nice try. I’m not falling for it. And now, I bid you good death.”

There was a click, then silence.

“Well,” I said. I was determined to stay cheerful, since the alternative was to run around in circles screaming my head off. I took a deep breath and forced a smile. “What do we know about this fortress?”

“Not much. At least, not much about this part,” Poskunk admitted.

“Well, then, let’s start exploring exits. Poskunk, start working on the door to the underground hallways. Revoked Soul, check out that door leading upstairs. Gelsey, Clare Dragonfly and I will look for other ways out.”

We worked in silence for several minutes. Gelsey, Clare Dragonfly and I scrambled around the edges of the room looking for vents, doors, anything that might provide a passage out. Revoked Souls and Poskunk prodded and pulled at the locks on their doors. The floor was now covered with red Gummi, and it was getting harder and harder to pull my feet off the floor. Suddenly Gelsey cried out.

“I’ve found something!”

I dragged myself over to where she was perched high on a stack of crates. She had uncovered a small, heavy wooden door with a large iron lock in the center. It was an oddly ornate door, arched at the top and covered with worn carvings, and why it would be positioned six feet off the ground was beyond me.

“What the heck is that?” I asked, cocking my head to the side in the manner of a curious puppy.

“I bet it’s the old coal chute!” Poskunk said from right behind me. I jumped.

“How did you get here so fast?”

“Long legs, lots of leverage. Point is, if we can get that open we should be able to climb out of here.”

“That’s a big…” I broke off. “Wait a minute!” I scrambled up the stack of crates. At the top, I pulled the key out from around my neck.

“That would be too easy,” Gelsey said. “But I’d take it.”

I smiled and tentatively fitted the key into the lock. It slid in smoothly. Holding my breath, I gently turned it. It rotated easily, then suddenly the door flew open. Hundreds of pound of black coal poured out of the chute, knocking me off of the crates. Gelsey grabbed the open door and hung on. Revoked Soul and Clare Dragonfly scrambled backwards as fast as the Gummi-covered floor would allow. Poskunk stood his ground and plucked me out of the cascade before I was buried. When the dust had settled I was cradled in his arms and he was thigh-deep in old, crumbling coal.

“Guess they never used that last load,” he said.

I cleared my throat. “Guess not.”

He set me down and I scrambled back up to the doorway, cheeks burning. Gelsey smiled at me, and a flashed her an evil look. Her grin broadened.

“So we just climb up?” Revoked Soul asked.

“Yup,” I said. “One at a time. Hopefully we’ll all be out of here before the Gummi reaches a critical height.”

“Hopefully the other end is open,” Clare Dragonfly said.

“Yes.” I hesitated. “Good point. Who wants to go first?” No one moved. “Fine,” I said, “I’ll do it.”

I stuck my head inside the chute and sneezed violently. It was pitch black and dusty as all get out. I clamped down on the uneasy feeling in my stomach and pushed myself into the hole. Immediately the blackness surrounded me and took on a frightening, suffocating air. I took a few shuddering breaths, closed my eyes, and began to climb.

It was surprisingly easy. The Gummi coating my shoes gave me a bit of sticking power and made it easier to ascend the steep slope. I’d been climbing for about five minutes – sneezing every few steps as fresh dust settled over me – when my head bumped into something. I wedged myself into the chute as securely as possible and began exploding with my hands. After a panicked moment of clawing around I found a small latch. I twisted and pulled, then heaved the door upwards. The dim light of the outdoors greeted me. I took a deep breath, then sneezed violently three more times. I groaned and heaved myself up and out of the chute.

“C’mon up, guys!” I called down. There was a muted cheer, and I flopped over on the ground, staring up at the dome.

******

The others climbed up and out of the coal chute, each covered in black dust. They flopped down on the ground next to me, each coughing and sputtering in an attempt to get the fine powder out of their noses and throats.

“What now?” Poskunk asked.

“Well,” I said, still staring up and the dome, the cool concrete pressing unevenly into my back. “I don’t know. We need to figure out what Penchaft is going to do next.”

“Don’t forget Weaselistic,” Gelsey said. “Remember that there are two of them. And I seem to recall that at least one of them was a master of disguise – she could apply makeup in such a way that the subtle changes in her appearance would make her unrecognizable. I can’t say if they can both do it, though.”

“True – we can’t discount the fact that she has a partner,” I said. My eyes were glazing over, heavy with sleep, as I continued to try to make out the beams and girders that held up the dome. In the gloom I thought I could barely make out the shadows way up in the distance. By my calculations, we were towards the edge of the city where the dome would be curving down to meet the ground. And yet the dome was still so very high. Suddenly I felt a niggling sensation at the back of my brain. Something was important, but I was too tired to grasp it.

“But how do we figure out what she’s going to do? It’s not like she left us any clues, and if she did, they’re buried under ten feet of Gummi.” Revoked Soul said, still coughing. She rolled over to her side and let out a long sigh. “We just need a good night’s sleep.”

“What time is it?” I asked. The lack of sunlight completely obliterated any internal clock I possessed.

“It’s only 8 pm,” Clare Dragonfly said. Her voice sounded heavy and tired. “But it sure feels later. All that stress really wears you out.”

“What, just because we were almost buried alive in sticky, gooey red stuff?” Gelsey giggled. “Happens everyday.”

We all chuckled, and fell silent again. I closed my eyes and wished the sun was overhead, warming my face. I always liked lying, eyes closed, in the warm sunlight and thinking. Somehow the sun’s rays made me sharper and more creative than usual. Too bad about the dome, I thought again. And that sensation came back – that odd, forgetting something important sensation. Like when you dream you’ve walked into the office naked, but don’t realize it. You just know you’ve forgotten to do something very, very important.

“Wait,” Poskunk said slowly. “She did leave a clue. It’s not much, but it has to mean something.”

“What?” I asked. I tried to recall everything she had said, but my mind was foggy. I sneezed again.

“You said that Elaran had left, and would know we had been there and would come looking for us. She started to tell us why she wasn’t worried about that, and stopped.” He sat up, dusting himself off ineffectually.

“I don’t know, maybe she-” I broke off suddenly, all of my thoughts from the last few minutes coming together in a moment of perfect insight. “You say this place is just a dome, but what does it look like from the outside?”

“From the outside?” Poskunk repeated, puzzled.

“Yes, when you leave the dome, and look back, what do you see?” I asked impatiently.

He cleared his throat nervously. “Well… rock. It looks like a mountain.”

I heard the other three murmuring. “I know it’s not right to admit you’ve been outside, but this is important. Anything anyone else can contribute would be helpful.”

“It’s a very jagged mountain,” Gelsey said timidly.

“The way in an out is an underground river. You have to submerge to go under the lip of the mountain, but you can only do that in two places,” Revoked Soul added.

“But everyone just uses the one, because it’s closer to-” Clare Dragonfly broke off as Poskunk made ‘cut’ motions with his hand.

“Closer to what?” I cried.

“The town,” Poskunk said. “The nearest town.”

“Right,” I said, knowing I wasn’t getting the full story. “How much higher is the mountain than the dome? Could it just be that there’s a rock surface to the dome, or are we buried under hundreds of feet of rock?”

“I don’t think there’s ever been a formal study-” Gelsey started, but Poskunk cut her off.

“The deepest the rock gets is about two feet at the very top. There are places along the edge it’s only about eight inches. And that’s over half-inch steel plates,” Poskunk said.

“How did you know that?” Revoked Soul asked, her eyes wide.

“The specifications for the dome were in that pile of paper we found. The interesting thing was the date. According to those plans, the dome was not built 300 years ago. It was designed and constructed over 1,000 years ago,” Poskunk said.

I sat up slowly. “I don’t see how anything like this could have been built even 300 years ago, let alone 1,000! I mean, the processes to make steel weren’t even… well, I don’t know exactly when they were perfected, but it wasn’t that long ago.”

“In your reality, no. But our universe is more advanced. Our city was, too. At least, it was before the great catastrophe. Since then we’ve not only stalled, but started slipping backwards. Outside the dome, though… they’re still progressing,” Poskunk said.

“You mean they have cooler things than human-interfaced flying cars and pneumatic transport tubes?” I asked.

“Yup.” Poskunk nodded solemnly.

“Like what?!”

“Wormholes.”

“Wormholes?”

“Wormholes.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Gelsey said, “but shouldn’t we be formulating a plan?”

“Can it involve wormholes?” I asked. “’Cause that sounds really neat.” And then I giggled.

The four of them stared at me. I found this even more hysterical, and laughed harder.

“It’s shock,” Revoked Soul said quietly.

“Textbook case of hysteria,” Clare Dragonfly agreed.

“Poor thing,” Gelsey said. “It’s been a tough week for her.”

I snorted indignantly. “Tough? Tough?” My voice rose to a pitch used in dog whistles. “TOUGH?!”

“Calm down, calm down.” Poskunk made reassuring shushing noises.

“Don’t you tell me to calm down, buster. I will calm down when I’m good and ready, and I will not need your permission to do so. Calm down?! Do any of you realize what I’ve been through? This isn’t even my UNIVERSE, for dog’s sake. Calm down indeed.” I grumbled and flopped back down on the ground. My head hit a sharp rock. “Ow,” I pouted.

Everyone was quiet for awhile, and Poskunk finally said, “Are you better now?”

“Just about,” I huffed. I fumed silently for a few more moments. They stayed very still and didn’t say a word. When I thought I’d exhausted my frustration for the time being, I sat back up and said, “So, are we ready?”

“Ready for what?” Gelsey asked.

“To thwart Penchaft and Weaselistic, of course,” I said. “And, you know, save the universe.”

“Sure, but… how are we going to do that?” Revoked Soul asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked smugly.

“The dome,” Poskunk said.

I threw him an evil look. “Yes, the dome,” I ground out. “They’re going to find a way to get sunlight in here and incapacitate any remaining vampires.”

“You think they’re going to blow it?” Clare Dragonfly asked, looking horrified.

“It’s a possibility, but the falling debris would cause an awful lot of damage,” I admitted.

“That wouldn’t stop them,” Gelsey said grimly. “They’d probably enjoy the extra carnage and ensuing panic.”

“How else could they do it?” Revoked Soul asked. “I mean, they could punch smaller holes, but the light wouldn’t be as even, and might not be strong enough.”

“Unless they used mirrors,” Gelsey said.

“True, true.” Revoked Soul nodded.

“But either way it involves breaking the dome, at least in places. So they’d have to be using explosives. How do we find them, though? The dome is huge, we can’t just climb around up there and hope we run into them all,” I said.

“She wouldn’t just place them willy-nilly. There would be some reasoning to it – perhaps corresponding to the weak points in the dome? We have the schematics, if we could find someone well versed in demolition, we’d be able to figure out where to look,” Poskunk said.

“And just hope we got them all, is that it?” Clare Dragonfly asked sarcastically.

“Well, it’s better than nothing,” he shot back.

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” She sighed. “I’m also craving a bath – and not just because I’m hopelessly addicted to Lavender Dreams bubble bath.” She brushed ineffectually at the dust coating her arms.

“Where are we going to find someone who would know how to blow up a dome? And someone who could help us get to the bomb? And someone who could disarm it?” I sighed at the enormity of the task.

“I might be able to help,” a voice said out of the shadows. Slowly, Naked Blue Ninja stepped forward into the pool of light cast by the streetlight.

******

I… have some experience with explosives,” she said as she walked towards us. “But I am not,” she glared at me, “responsible for the buildings blowing up.”

“I never said you were,” I replied.

“Oh, but you thought it.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“How do you know what I think?” I said stiffly, climbing to my feet. I drew myself up to my full height, but still fell several inches below hers. Thankfully, she was wearing a loose t-shirt and a pair of flannel lounge pants, or I would have gotten an eyeful of blue boob.

“You telegraph your thoughts on your face,” she said.

“Do not,” I said huffily, and caught myself frowning. I looked around the group. One by one, they nodded. I glared.

“Well, you do,” Poskunk said.

“Whatever,” I snapped. “Forget about that – for now - we need to stop Penchaft before she blows up the dome.”

“First question – has she been outside? What kind of explosives does she have access to?” Naked Blue Ninja pulled out a small hand-held electronic device and began tapping it with the stylus.

“There’s the problem. We just found out that Weaselistic is alive and well, and they’re working together. So while we’re pretty sure we know where one’s been the whole time, the other… could have been anywhere,” Poskunk said with a shake of his head.

“Okay, okay,” Naked Blue Ninja replied, still tapping furiously. “I have a sweep going on the outside, even through the shielding it should be able to pick up any electromagnetic signatures, if she went that route. If she went with conventional wiring, there’d have to be a drop point somewhere, for ignition, so…” She tapped a few more times. “We can have dogs sniff the perimeter at the most logical points. If they find nothing there, they can expand the search, but that’ll take… Hold on, we got something. Yes! Electromagnetic signature consistent with a type five remote activator.”

“A… what?” I asked dumbly.

She glanced up from her excited tapping. “Oh. It’s a small device, about yay big,” she held her hands, one still grasping her Palm Pilot, the other holding the stylus, about ten inches apart. “It coordinates a detonation sequence. Used mostly in imploding buildings, because you can set it up in such a way that it doesn’t harm other structures.”

“Imploding?” Gelsey asked, her face white.

“Well, yes, I said mostly. But that’s just because few people care about carefully exploding something. Usually you’re just going for broke when you do that. But in this case, if she wanted to blow the top clean off without letting too much debris fall down…”

“Or, if she wanted to blow small, strategic holes…” Gelsey chimed in, nodding slowly.

“Either way, we disable that controller, there’s nothing she can do. I’m keeping the dogs patrolling, just in case she has a backup, but I think this it. It’s up there, though, so we need to get climbing if we’re going to reach it in time,” Naked Blue Ninja turned and grabbed a backpack that had been hidden in the shadows.

“We?” I echoed softly.

“Yes, we. I need some help up there, and unless you want to risk running out of time by me calling in one of my own people, then it’s gonna be one of you guys.” She surveyed the group. “Volunteers?”

We all looked pointedly elsewhere. She cleared her throat. Time dragged on, no one spoke. Finally, Gelsey broke the silence. “I’d love to help, really I would, but I really, really need to find Elaran and get to work on those documents. I’m certain they’re making a right mess of it without me. And we do need all the information we can get.” With a quick, semi-apologetic glance around, she dashed off.

Revoked Soul stood up. “And I should go help try to round up Oneworldvision. Let’s not forget it was her that started this whole mess by locking us is those caverns. I have some insight into her and might be able to help flush her out.” With that parting shot, she, too disappeared down the gloomy street.

I looked at Clare Dragonfly. She grinned, held up a small vial and said, “And I managed to sneak a sample of the bubble bath. I should probably go get work getting this analyzed.” She hoisted herself to her feet and trotted off without so much as a backwards glance.

I stared at Poskunk. “You have anywhere pressing you need to be?”

“No,” he grinned.

“Good, then you go up there. We’ve been over my fear of radical deceleration.”

“I’d love to, sweetie, but there’s a small problem.” He gestured to the harness Naked Blue Ninja was holding. “There’s no way I’d fit into that.”

I stared at the harness, and with a sinking heart realized he was right. While the climbing harness was adjustable, there were limits to it. And there was no way it would stretch to fit around his tall, lanky frame.

“Fine,” I snapped, snatching the harness and struggling into it. Naked Blue Ninja helped me secure the clasps and attached me to a rope. “But how are we going to get up there?” I looked up at the beams just visible in the gloom above our heads.

“We’re near the edge, though not quite at it. I’d say it’s only about 30 feet up. Should be in the range of this puppy.” She pulled out a small hand-held harpoon gun with a grappling hook attached to the end. I paled visibly and felt my insides flip over.

I swallowed, hard. “We’re going to climb up a rope?”

“Nah, this baby’ll pull us up, once I get it secured. Wish me luck!” And with that she aimed the hook upwards, then paused. “Oh, and be ready to duck and cover if it doesn’t grab. If I miss, the hook has to come down somewhere, you know!” She smiled cheerily and pulled the trigger.

Happily for us, she got a good, solid connection on the first try. She grabbed my harness and snapped me to hers, then clipped herself to the harpoon gun. And before I could protest we were being pulled up the rope. I closed my eyes and clutched at her waist. It took me a minute to realize when we had stopped moving, and she was gently trying to pry me off of her.

“We’re here,” she said. I opened my eyes long enough to transfer my death grip from her waist to the nearest beam. Standing on the narrow steel ledge, I squeezed my eyes shut again and chanted silently, ‘Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down.’

“You’re going to have to open your eyes eventually,” she said, uncoiling a short length of rope and knotting it expertly to our harnesses. A free end with a carabiner dangled from each of us.

“No, no I don’t, because I’m not moving.” I said, tightening my grip on the beam.

She sighed heavily. “You have to. Remember the whole ‘fate of the universe’ bit?”

“What do I care, it’s not my universe.”

“Well, that’s just selfish of you.”

“Yeah, and?”

She sighed again, the exaggerated, patient sigh of one dealing with a small child. “And you really need to do this. I know it, and you know it, even if you don’t want to admit it. And I’ll do everything I can to help, but you have to start by opening your eyes.”

I slowly opened my eyes, keeping my gaze tilted upwards. I swayed slightly and Naked Blue Ninja clamped my carabiner to the beam. “Now,” she said slowly, “I’m going to go as far as the rope will allow – it’s about ten feet. Then I’m going to clip on. Then you unclip your end, climb past me, and clip on again. Understand?”

I nodded, starting to shake visibly. She edged away from me, then nimbly climbed up as far as the rope would allow. I took deep, calming breaths, my stomach sinking with the realization that I had to do this. Get a grip, I told myself. You can do this. Besides, this whole thing is probably some head-trauma induced dream. I’m probably safe and sound, tucked into a hospital bed after that nasty fall in the subway. Well, as safe and sound as a coma patient can be. I wonder if anyone told work what happened to me. Oh, man, what if I’ve been fired? How shitty would that be, waking up from a coma to find out you’d been sacked? I haven’t enough savings to keep my apartment. I’d have to find a job right away. But who’s going to hire someone fresh off a brain injury? And if I was fired, do I lose my medical insurance? Or do I still get that hangover month? How long do I have before I’m not only broke, but in debt? When was the last time I watered my plants? Are they going to die? I’ve raised some of those from clippings, they’re like children to me. Did I give Alysen a key to my apartment after I changed the locks the last time? She’d water my plants, if she knew. Surely someone would tell her. I just-

“Are you going to get moving sometime today?” Naked Blue Ninja called. She was perched just out of my range of vision. It was darker up her in the dome, and I switched on the small light attached to my harness. The beam was large and diffuse, not enough to illuminate her, but good for giving me a clear view of the beams in front of me. I took a deep breath, unclipped the carabiner, and started moving.

“Can you at least give me some motivation?” I called, dragging myself upwards. At least whoever had constructed the dome had given thought to access. It was very much like climbing a very oddly constructed ladder. The term ‘clambering’ had never been more appropriate.

“You mean, other than saving the universe? That’s not good enough for you?” The sarcastic reply drifted towards me. I was close enough to make out her outline in the darkness. She hadn’t turned on her light.

“I need instant gratification. The whole ‘save the universe’ is too fuzzy and vague. Can you turn on your light?”

She flipped on her light, and I was strangely comforted by its glow. I kept up my silent chant as I edged closer to her. ‘Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down.’ The darkness up in the beams helped. I knew the faint light below me was the streets, but it wasn’t bright enough to draw my attention. I kept my eyes focused on the weak pool of light immediately surrounding me.

“Fine, what do you want?”

“How about some answers?”

“I’ll do what I can,” she replied as I pulled even with her. “Go that direction until the rope is tight. The call back when you’re securely clipped.”

I nodded, and headed in the indicated direction. “What’s the big secret about you?”

“That, I’m afraid, I can’t answer.”

“Why not?”

“It’s my policy. You have to leave the dome and find out for yourself. I’ve found curiosity is a great motivator.”

“So you’re trying to encourage people to leave the dome?”

“In my own subtle way,” she said. “I can’t directly oppose the government – they have too many strangleholds on the technology that keeps the city running. But if I can get as many people as possible to realize the truth… maybe there is strength in numbers.”

I thought back to the hidden program Coyotecult had tripped. There was something fishy, but I didn’t have enough of the puzzle pieces to get a clear picture. But I would, I vowed.

“Okay, then, fine. How about a simpler question, then? I’m clipped!” I had reached the limit of the rope and secured myself to a beam. I grabbed it and held on for good measure, locking my arms around it.

“Like what?” she asked. I could hear her moving swiftly and confidently towards me.

“Why are you blue?” I blurted out.

She drew up next to me and grinned. “That,” she said slowly, “is a funny story…”

******

“…it really was a simple mistake, I didn’t follow the directions correctly, I guess. But what 8-year old does?” She gave a wry grin and clambered past me to clip onto the next beam. “Now, get yourself moving, and I’ll tell you the rest.”

In bits and pieces, as we moved up the dome, she told me the rest of the story.

“I’m originally from your universe, you know,” she said.

“I had no clue,” I admitted. “You’re such a celebrity here, I wouldn’t have guessed you were an outsider.”

“Oh, yes, I was born and raised in Canada. I ran away from home when I was ten, and through some freak accident, ended up here. I must’ve fallen through an open portal, I honestly don’t remember. I was walking along the streets at home, then, suddenly, I was on a street, but it wasn’t the same. I blinked and everything changed. I tried turning around, but…”

“The portal must have closed,” I finished for her. She nodded. “Why were you running away from home?”

“I was just sick and tired of being teased. I thought, if I went somewhere new, somewhere they didn’t know me, then maybe they’d accept me the way I was. You know, blue.”

“So you were born blue?”

“No, no, and I think that’s why I thought running away would help. Because if people never knew a non-blue me, then they’d have to accept me the way I was, right?”

“Makes sense to me,” I said. “How old were you when you… turned blue?”

“I was eight. And if I hadn’t wanted that tank so badly to shut up Jeremy Philips, I might never have ended up here. Which, I have to admit, would be sad. I like my life now, even though it was rocky getting here at times.” She smiled wistfully.

“Tank?”

“Right. See, I was determined to have the best Halloween costume for that year’s school party. The prize was either a Barbie house or a G.I. Joe assault tank. I was, of course, going for the tank,” she said, winking at me. “Jeremy had just gotten the aquatic assault vehicle, and wouldn’t stop bragging. I thought if I got the tank, I could show him up.”

“Did you?” I asked. She grinned and motioned for me to continue my inching progress.

She continued with the story. “A store-bought costume wasn’t going to win any prizes. They were far too plebian and badly made to even compete. The people that won,” she confided, “made up their own. It displayed not only creativity, but talent. Two things necessary for a guaranteed win.”

I nodded and kept moving. I had noticed that if I stopped, she paused in her storytelling. It really was an ingenious way to keep me going.

“Since I had no sewing skills to speak if, I went to the local chemist’s shop, intent on bypassing the whole sewing issue. I asked him if he had anything that would turn my skin blue. I figured that, coupled with a small swath of fabric tied around me, and I’d be set.”

“You wanted to go as a Smurf?” I asked.

“No,” she said in a resigned tone. “Though that’s what everyone thought. I was going as a Pictish warrior. You’d have thought the spear would’ve clued them in. Instead, I was the Smurf with a grudge.”

“Oh, so you didn’t win?” I asked, maneuvering around a beam. As we got higher, it was easier work moving, because we were climbing more horizontally than vertically.

“That’s the sad thing, I did,” she replied.

“Still, why are you still blue? Surely the chemist wouldn’t have given you something that would permanently dye you blue.”

“Not if I had used it correctly. It said to rub it into your skin on the bottle, in big bold letters. Good for temporary tattoos, it said. But it was liquid, so…”

“You didn’t!” I gasped.

“I did.”

“You drank it,” I said, just to make sure.

“Um-hmm – watch your step here, this beam is a little rusted – every last drop. I don’t know how or why, and neither did the chemist, but it not only turned me blue, it kept me blue. After that, my parents home-schooled me until I ran away to this universe. I’ve been on my own ever since.”

“Bummer.” It seemed an inadequate thing to say, but it was all I had.

“Yeah, but it’s all worked out for me.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah, as I got older and filled out, the blue didn’t seem to discourage men. In fact… well, to be quite honest, it seems like a bit of a turn-on. I can get it any time, any where, all I have to do is beckon. They come running. Even before I was filthy rich, so I know it’s not just the dough.”

“That’s… odd,” I said slowly. “Though I can see it. You’re certainly unique!”

“That I am,” she replied with a smile. “Of course, once word got out about how good I was-“

“WHOA! Too much info, thank you,” I cut her off. “I don’t need to know that. Hey, is that?”

“Yup, we have arrived.” She appeared unruffled at my cutting her off so abruptly. She slid around to the other side of the box. “I’ll need you to hold some tools for me. Remember, there are people below us, and if we drop anything, it could become a very dangerous projectile.”

Stupid me, when she mentioned the people below us I instinctively looked down. I could see little twinkling lights in the distance. The far, far, far distance. The world shifted slightly, and I grasped the beam with both hands and squeezed my eyes shut. But it was too late for my stomach. I spewed my last meal out into space, to rain down on the unsuspecting victims in the streets below. The thought of a vomit rain was enough to turn my stomach even more, causing me to finish emptying out the contents. I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself.

“At least that won’t kill anyone,” she said dryly. “Now, look at me, don’t look down. Look at me!” She snapped her fingers and I reluctantly opened my eyes, careful to keep my gaze on her and not let it drift down at all.

Now, hand me a Philips head screwdriver,” she said once I was looking at her. I carefully unwrapped myself from the beam and reached into the sack. I pulled out three different items before I found what she wanted and handed it too her.

She deftly removed the cover of the timing unit and peered inside. Nodding to herself, she riffled through the innards and pulled up two wires – a yellow, and a green. She glanced up at me.

“Which one, do you think?” She looked serious, her lips pursed slightly in thought. She cocked her head to one side and regarded me.

“How would I know?!” I was beginning to panic. “You’re the expert!”

“Sheesh, calm down. I’m just kidding. It’s really the blue one you have to cut first.” She winked and pulled up a blue wire. “Hand me the wire cutters.”

A bit more rummaging and I came up with a small set of wire cutters. We swapped, and she snipped the blue wire. I couldn’t help myself, when she did it I squeezed my eyes shut and prepared for the worst. When nothing happened after a moment I opened my eyes. She was regarding me sadly, shaking her head slightly.

“Oh ye of little faith,” she lamented.

“Well, you shouldn’t joke about things like that!” I cried. Literally. I was on the verge of tears. The combination of the stress of the situation, sleep deprivation, and weird, crummy food was finally beginning to take its toll. Plus, I realized, I was probably PMS-ing big time. There’s a whole problem I hadn’t even thought of. But then, I had only expected to be here for a few days.

“High strung little thing, aren’t you?” she asked mildly. I glared at her. She shrugged, and sighed, and went back to work. More rummaging, a few more snips, and she declared that she was finished. “We’ll still need to come back up and retrieve the explosives, but there’s no way for her to detonate them in the correct sequence now. At least, she can’t use the ones connected to this controller. So far we haven’t found any evidence of another controller or a back-up set of explosives. But we’ll keep looking.”

“It’s time to climb back down, now, isn’t it?” I asked dully.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“You realize I can’t do that without looking down,” I said.

“Uh-huh.”

“This is going to suck.”

“Blow, more, really. Chunks,” she added, to make sure I got the joke.

“Yes, so you go down first, why don’t you?” I said evilly.

She stuck her tongue out at me and we started the climb down. I managed to make it without throwing up again, although whether that was through self-control or just because there was nothing in my stomach I’ll never know.

******

Once we got to the bottom I had managed to compose myself. As the ground got closer and closer I relaxed more and more. When we got to a non-lethal height my stomach unclenched and I was able to move easily. I still sank appreciatively to the ground the moment my feet touched it, amusing both Naked Blue Ninja and Poskunk.

“Did you succeed?” Poskunk asked.

“Pretty sure, unless she was really crafty about her back-up plan,” Naked Blue Ninja said.

“Oh, I’m sure she has a back-up plan, though it may have nothing to do with explosives,” I said.

“You’re right, she’ll have some sort of fall-back in case the place doesn’t explode on schedule,” Poskunk agreed. “The question is, what?”

“I think we need to work through it as if we’re formulating the plan ourselves,” I said. “What would you do?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have gotten my primary explosives disabled,” Naked Blue Ninja said wryly.

“Well, besides the obvious,” I said with a grin.

“I would have set up a decoy,” Poskunk said. “That way you’d think you were-”

“Oh my god. She fed us that hint, just in case!” I exclaimed. “This wasn’t her main plan, it never was. Here we thought we were being crafty and staying one step ahead, and… I was so stupid!” I slapped my forehead in frustration.

“You don’t think that was her main plan?” Naked Blue Ninja asked.

“No, I don’t. Granted, the mass hysteria that would result from the exposure of a secret vampire society would be a perk, but I don’t think that was her main objective. Panicked people are hard to control. She wants control. I think the explosives were a red herring.” I began to pace back and forth.

“Do you think there even were explosives?” Naked Blue Ninja asked. She glanced, involuntarily, up at the dome.

“Man, I hope so. I’d hate to think I make that climb for no apparent reason!”

Naked Blue Ninja and Poskunk grinned. “It built character,” he said gruffly. I smacked him not-so-lightly on the shoulder.

“Seriously, we have to try to get a step ahead of her,” I said.

“It may be too late for that. We just need to be able to catch up. Before it’s too late,” Naked Blue Ninja said.

“It may already be too late, if she was timing whatever else she had planned with peak sunlight hours outside. According to my calculations, it’s almost noon.” Posunk glanced at his watch. “We probably have about twenty minutes.”

“So we have one shot. Where should we go?” I glanced between the two of them. They looked at each other, then a me.

“The Home Office,” they said in unison. I nodded.

“But how do we get there?” I pursed my lips and frowned. “I don’t relish the idea of riding the tubes again, and who can we get to give us a ride? All the drivers are tied into the system. We can’t trust them.”

“We’re only a few blocks away,” Poskunk said. “We can walk.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised. I glanced around, and admitted to myself that despite the last few days wandering around, I was hopelessly lost. Every dim street looked like every other. The storefronts casting a weak light on the pavement all looked alike. I had always prided myself on my sense of direction, but I had never realized how much the sun, moon, and stars helped me to navigate.

“Well, if by ‘a few’ he means ‘around a dozen’, then yes,” Naked Blue Ninja said.

“A few, a dozen, whatever. Close enough. We can still make it if we hoof it,” Poskunk said. He grabbed my hand and took off at a pace that had my trotting to keep up. Two blocks, and I was already gasping for breath. At the end of four blocks I was ready to collapse.

“We… have… to… slow… down,” I gasped, desperately gulping air. “I’m… not… going… to…. make… it.”

“You’ll get your second wind,” Naked Blue Ninja said cheerfully. I glared at her and tried to drag my hand from Poskunk’s. But he had a stranglehold on my wrist and continued to pull me along at a breakneck pace. The rest of the trip passed in a blur, all I could concentrate on was the next labored breath and setting each foot in front of the other. When we got to the front of the building housing the Home Office, neither Poskunk nor Naked Blue Ninja was the least out of breath. I collapsed against the wall, unable to eek out a single word between my rapid breathing. I slip down the wall and sat there like a sack of laundry, my mouth open and gaping like a dying fish.

“Are you going to survive?” Poskunk asked doubtfully. He looked honestly concerned. I wondered how bad I looked, then immediately decided I did not want to know.

“Perhaps,” I said dramatically. “But if I don’t, it’s all you fault.”

“How is it my fault?” he asked.

“I asked you to slow down!” I narrowed my eyes and glared at him.

“We weren’t going that fast,” he said. “Besides, we were in a hurry.”

“I realized that,” I gritted out. “But it does me no good to arrive dead, now does it? And do I need to point out that I have much shorter legs? I can’t walk as fast as you.”

“It’s certainly not my fault you’re a shrimp,” he said.

“You-”

“Let’s not lose sight of our objective,” Naked Blue Ninja interjected anxiously. “We won’t get very far fighting among ourselves.”

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. “Fine. What now?” I raised my eyebrows and stared pointedly at Poskunk. ‘This isn’t over,’ I was trying to project.

He either didn’t get the message or didn’t care, because he turned back to Naked Blue Ninja and was all business. I sulked – and tried to finished catching my breath – as they talked.

“Well, what now?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.” He started to pace. “It depends on how complex her plan is, and how many people are involved. Which, of course, depends on her plan.”

“Well, that’s helpful. We could figure out what she was going to do if we only knew what she was going to do,” Naked Blue Ninja said sarcastically.

“Perhaps I could help with that,” a voice said from the deep shadows.

They jumped slightly, and I would have if I’d had any energy. Honestly, I felt like I could take a nap. My whole body was heavy, and sore. With an effort I gathered myself together and stood up as Akirad stepped out of the shadows.

He looked awful. He was paler than before, and looked tired and drawn. His clothing was dusty and streaked with dirt. There were a few twigs stuck in his hair.

“You have something.” I motioned over my head with my hand. He sighed and brushed the debris from his hair.


“Thank you, it’s been a rough few hours. Nothing is going as planned,” he said sadly. He slumped against the wall and looked so dejected I almost felt sorry for him.

“Obviously. Have you… uh, eaten?” I asked.

“No,” he wailed. “No one will let me, and these damn restrictions…”

“I’m, um, sorry to hear that.” I said, edging a little further away.

“But I have some information you need,” he said, a spark back in his eyes. “And it’s yours, in exchange for…” He grinned, showing his fangs.

“Um, no thank you. I think we can figure it out on our own,” I said.

“Hold on,” Naked Blue Ninja said. “Just what do you know?”

“Uh-uh,” he said, wagging his finger. “You’re not going to trick me into giving you the information for free!”

“Fine, you can have a drink, but…” she hesitated, then finished lamely, “not too much.”

He swooped down on her neck and took a long draw. She grimaced slightly, but didn’t move. As I watched, she paled slightly. Actually, she pinked. The blue faded a bit and she was closer to normal than I’d ever seen her. Akirad raised his head and I gave a visible start.

“What?” he asked, wiping his mouth. His sink looked less drawn and there was more light in his eyes, but… he was also a vibrant cyan.

“N-n-nothing,” I stammered. “It was just disturbing to watch, that’s all. I was remembering being a snack for another vampire.”

He looked at Naked Blue Ninja and Poskunk, but they gazed steadily back at him, their expressions betraying nothing.

“Now, the information,” Naked Blue Ninja said sternly.

“Fine, this is what I’ve been able to piece together from things I overheard. At the time, they didn’t make sense. But now, taken together…” He shrugged. “There’s someone named Nyarhotep that she’s working with. Or, sort of working with. I can’t quite tell. There were snippets that seemed to indicate they were partners, but others… she’s probably planning on double-crossing him. And I did some digging on Weaselistic. She – they – are definitely in league with Oneworldvision. That’s a partnership I’m sure is pretty solid. I found out a connection. They go way back to grade school.”

I nodded slowly. “I’m sure she’s planning on double-crossing Nyarhotep. She needed him to gain the high-level access, but she won’t have any use for him after she takes over.”

“Except for-” Akirad broke off what he was going to say. He chewed nervously on his lower lip.

“Except for what?” I asked.

“Food,” he finished softly.

“What, she’s a cannibal?” I asked, shocked. “I didn’t realize…”

“No,” Poskunk said slowly. “Cannibalism is eating your own kind. She’s not one of us, is she?”

“Well, she… kind of… no, no she’s not.” Akirad admitted.

“What is she?” I asked, completely confused. “She looks human.”

“That’s because we don’t have a moon. Werewolves in this city can change at will.”

******

“Well, that explains how she traveled so quickly,” I said. I nodded to myself. “Yeah, that explains a lot.”

“Certainly explains the killer instinct,” Poskunk said.

“And the waxing bill,” Naked Blue Ninja said.

Akirad shuffled his feet. “Yes, well, I just thought you should know. Know what you were really up against.” He sighed and looked up at the dome. “She said she’d kill me if I ever told anyone. I wasn’t even supposed to know. It was an accident I found out.”

“Just how did you find out?” I asked.

“It was a few months ago. I was sitting in my lab, trying to work out a problem. I was bouncing a tennis ball off a wall. She came in, presumably fresh off a change, and…”

“She took off after the ball,” Poskunk said.

“Yeah. Must’ve been some instinct. She not only went after the ball, she caught it faster than humanly possible. And in her teeth,” he said miserably. “I thought she was going to kill me right then and there, but I guess she figured I was still useful. She made me promise never to say anything.”

“Well, at least now you can defend yourself,” I said. “You have superhuman strength and speed, too.”

“That’s true,” he said, brightening. “I keep forgetting that.”

“Though aren’t werewolves the only thing that can kill a head vampire? Though I guess that would work in reverse, too… And it’s not like you’re a head vampire. And does it have to be a special werewolf?” I mused, half to myself.

“Were did you get that idea?” Naked Blue Ninja asked. She slanted a quizzical glance at Poskunk.

“Van Helsing,” I said softly, ducking my head in embarrassment.

“Ah.” Naked Blue Ninja grimaced. “Never mind that, we have more pressing concerns. There will be plenty of time later to enlighten you on the truths about vampires and werewolves. I’d forgotten how much our universe had wrong.”

“I hope we survive to have than conversation. It sounds interesting,” I said grimly. “But you’re right, we have to stop her. Do you have any silver?”

Naked Blue Ninja rolled her eyes. Poskunk and Akirad looked pointedly at the ground. I turned bright red.

“Right. I’m just going to shut up and listen now.” I pressed my lips together tightly.

“Good idea.” Akirad nodded sagely. “Pleasure doing business with all of you, but I think I’m going to go now. I really don’t want to be around when it hits the fan.”

And with a small salute, he was gone. I glanced at Naked Blue Ninja. “Is he going to stay that color?”

She shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if it’s akin to a human eating tons of carrots and turning slightly orange, or if it’s a biochemical reaction that will be permanent. Only time will tell.”

I nodded, and looked again in the direction Akirad had gone. I fought against the urge to feel sorry for him. He’d be fine, even if he was permanently blue. We had more important things to worry about.

Poskunk turned to Naked Blue Ninja. “Are you going to be able to stick around and help us with this?”

“I should, I know, but I have so much to get done… and I’m no match up against a werewolf. Allergies, you know. She’d hear me sneezing a mile away.” Naked Blue Ninja handed Poskunk a small PDA. “But just send an S.O.S. if you need me. If I can’t help, maybe I can find someone who can.”

“Thanks,” he nodded grimly. “We might just do that.”

And then she was gone, vanished into the darkness. I listened closely but didn’t hear any evidence of her retreat. Poskunk looked at me and squared his shoulders. “Ready?”

“If I say no do I get to go home?” I asked.

“No.”

“Then I guess so. Might as well get it over with.”

“That’s the spirit!”

We opened the door to the Home Office and stepped into the dim corridors. The bulbs overhead flickered eerily and there was an absolute silence that set my teeth on edge.

“Gee, you think something’s wrong here?” I whispered at Poskunk.

“I don’t know what gives you that idea,” he said with a grin. It was a bit strained, but he was trying. He motioned me into a side room. “Ladee Jane? Are you there?”

“Is that wise?” I asked. “She could be…”

“Compromised? I assure you I am not,” her voice said from the small panel. “Incapacitated, yes. But not compromised.”

“What happened?” Poskunk asked.

“Penchaft and Weaselistic waltzed in and demanded an audience with Nyarhotep. No one was more surprised than yours truly when he agreed. They went into the conference room, just the four of them-”

“Four?” Poskunk broke in.

“Triskellion,” she said. “Anyway, a few minutes after they went in there things started going higgly-piggly. Three of them came out – Nyarhotep, Penchaft, and Weaselistic. They went into his office, and… then almost all communication was shut off. I only have access to a few minor systems.”

“Which conference room?” he asked.

“2335B,” she said.

He grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the room and into a stairwell.

“Please tell me that room 23-whatever is on the second floor, not the twenty-second,” I moaned, looking at the staircase.

“Actually, it’s on the third floor,” he said. “Are you going to make it?”

“Oh, that makes perfect sense.” I rolled my eyes. “I’ll be fine.” I regretted those words by the time we had made it to the second floor. Sure, technically it was on the third floor, but they must have some awfully high-ceilinged rooms. By my estimation I’d climbed enough stairs to have made it to at least the sixth floor of my office building back home.

I sat down on the top step and held up my hand. “I need a minute, here.”

“We don’t have a minute,” he snapped.

“Excuse me, I know that, but I can’t go on. Haven’t you ever heard the adage that in order to finish first, you must first finish? It won’t do any good for me to get to the top of the stairs and not be able to move.”

“Fine,” he said, and stood tapping his foot impatiently.

I concentrated on slowing my breathing and relaxing my body, hoping my heart would stop pounding quite so hard. When I was satisfied it wasn’t going to burst from my chest I opened my eyes and was about to climb to my feet when something caught my eye. Along the edge of the wall, a bright lime green tennis ball was wedged amidst the piping. I reached over and plucked it out.

“People play some games in the stairwells,” Poskunk said when I held up the ball questioningly. “That’s probably left over from a game of tiered tennis.”

“Tiered tennis?”

“Yeah, it’s probably closer to racquetball in your universe. You have a person with a racquet on each flight, and the object is to maneuver the ball up and down the staircase. You get points based on how many bounces it takes on your landing. Lowest points win, so if you can deflect it without it touching any of the walls,” he gestured to the three walls along the sides of the landing, “it’s best. They also have a goal-oriented version, where you prop the doors open and the object is to get it past the person guarding it and into the hallway.”

“That sounds hard, since you can’t see the other landings,” I said. I scurried to my feet, still clutching the tennis ball.

“Well, in the high-tech courts they use electronic helmets with heads-up displays, but some people swear that makes it harder. I think they’re two entirely different games, if you want my opinion. I’ve never met anyone that was good at both the professional version and the low-tech one.” We were climbing the stairs again, and he was taking two at a time effortlessly. Must be nice to have such long legs, I thought sourly. I could feel my lungs starting to burn again, but at least we were almost to the top. Just a few more…

Poskunk reached the third floor landing and cautiously opened the door. He checked to see if the hallway was clear and motioned for me to follow him. I did, on only slightly jellied legs. I resolved, once again, to start exercising.

We crept through the hallway and to the conference room door. He pressed his ear against it, looked at me, and shrugged. I shrugged back. He opened the door slowly.

******

The conference room was completely dark. The little bit of light that spilled in from the open door was barely enough to make out the dark, hulking shapes of the table and chairs. Poskunk was reaching for the light switch when we heard a thunk. He froze, and we stood still, listening.

“Mmmppphh!”

We looked at each other. I grimaced, he shrugged and called out softy, “Hello?”

“Mmmmphhh! MMMMPPPPHHH!”

“It’s coming from that end,” I said. He flipped on the light and the room was bathed in a cool blue light. I winced at the sudden brightness. By the time my eyes had recovered, he was already hurrying over to where Triskellion was bound and gagged in the corner. He quickly pulled the gag out and started untying her.

“Thanth thou,” she said, and worked her jaw to try to get some moisture back into her mouth.

“You’re welcome,” he said, grimacing as he pulled on a particularly stubborn knot. “What happened?”

“He was in league with her. Er, them. All along. He’s been planning this since… I don’t know how long. Everything he did. Said. It was all a lie, wasn’t it. He never…” she broke off with a sob.

“Who?” I asked.

“Nyarhotep,” she said, composing herself. “Evidently, beneath that jovial demeanor lies the heart of a monster!”

“He’s in cahoots with Penchaft and Weaselistic?” I asked.

“I don’t know how stable of a partnership it is,” she said. Poskunk finished untying her and helped her to her feet. “I don’t know that he’s one to share the glory. Actually, I know for a fact he’s not. When I think back, all the signs were there. All the clues. I should have known!”

“Nobody even suspected,” Poskunk said. “It’s not you fault. You know how much screening he went through to get that high up in the government! If none of those highly trained experts caught it, why should you?”

“Thanks, I know you’re trying to make me feel better,” she sighed.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“We need to stop them before they hatch whatever plot they’ve been sitting on. Any idea where they went?” Poskunk asked Triskellion.

She bit her lip. “I don’t know for sure, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say the main control hub. It’s just off his office. If they’re going to compromise any of the computer systems it’d be from there.”

“We know they went into his office, so I’d say that’s a good place to start. How do we get there?” I asked.

“Up two flights, then down a hallway. That’ll get us to the side door.” Triskellion started for the door to the corridor.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Poskunk asked.

“You’re going to need me to get past the security sensors on that floor,” she said.

“I’m sure they’ve locked you out of the system. You go get us help. See if you can’t round up some of the Gummi Resistance,” Poskunk said firmly.

“You don’t trust me, do you?” She threw him a hurt look.

“Nope.”

“Fine.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, and then she turned and flounced out of the room. He stared intently at the PDA Naked Blue Ninja had given him. After several long moments he shrugged, stuck it in his pocket and turned to me. “Shall we?”

“What was that all about?”

“I put a tracker on her. Turns out she would have been trustworthy, she went straight out of the building and was heading in the direction of the last known Gummi Resistance headquarters.”

“Oh.” I started for the door, then paused. “Did you put one of those tracking things on me?” I asked suspiciously.

He raised an eyebrow. I started twisting and swiping my hands over my clothes. “Seriously!” I cried. “Did you?”

“No, no, of course not,” he chuckled. “Why would I do that?”

“Why indeed,” I mumbled as we crept out into the hallway.

“Triskellion was right about one thing, there’s no way we’ll be able to bypass the security and get into the office without some sort of access code,” he said.

“That’s only if we’re going to try going in through a side door. Why not just go in from the front?” I asked.

He stopped and stared at me. “That’s insane.”

“Just insane enough to work?” I grinned hopefully.

“No, just insane.”

“Oh.”

“But it may be our only option. So, who wants to live forever, anyway?”

My hand shot up in the air and I began waving it wildly. “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!”

“What?” He looked puzzled.

“Me! I want to live forever.” I stuck my tongue out at him. He rolled his eyes, and we proceeded up two flights of stairs and down a long corridor to the large, carved word doors of Nyarhotep’s office.

If you discounted the ominous silence, the lack of a receptionist and other people milling about, and the dim light, it looked just as it had before. The doors weren’t quite closed, and through the crack I could see flickering light spilling out. It was a vibrant white-blue, and accompanied by a hissing sound.

“Are they arc welding in there?” I asked, just as the sharp tag of melting metal hit my nose. I quickly smothered a sneeze.

Poskunk looked at me and shrugged. “Sure seems like it, but what would they be welding?”

We stood there a moment, listening to the hiss of the welder and watching the flickering light. I shifted my weight a few times, and was just contemplating sitting in the receptionist’s chair when we head a loud “Ah-ha!” followed by a resounding THUMP.

We edged toward the door and each plastered an eye to the crack, him easily leaning over the top of my head. I saw Nyarhotep step through a large hole that had just been cut in a steel door on the opposite side of the room. There were no signs of Penchaft or Weaselistic. I nudged the door open and slipped into the room.

“What’s through there?” I whispered.

Poskunk followed me through the door and took a quick inventory of the room before answering. “That’s the main control room.”

“So why were they locked out?”

“That’s a good question. If they seized control swiftly enough to lock Ladee Jane out of the main systems, I don’t know who – or what – is locking them out now.”

“Coyote and Foxfirefey?” I inched around the couch and slithered towards the hole in the door. I could feel a slight heat still emanating from it.

“That’s what we’d like to know,” Penchaft said, standing in the opening. At least, I think it was Penchaft, it could have been Weaselistic. “My god, doesn’t anyone know how to sneak anymore? We could totally hear you in there.”

I groaned and slumped against the wall. Poskunk looked unperturbed. Weaselistic (or Penchaft) and Nyarhotep appeared behind Penchaft (or Weaselistic) in the doorway.

“Well, it looks like you two are in a bit of a pickle,” the second Penchaft/Weaselistic said.

“I don’t mean to interrupt your grand standing, but could you tell me which of you is which?” I gestured towards the twins. The looked at each other, and the first one shrugged.

“Why do you care?” the second one asked.

“You’ll think this is crazy, but I’m kind of narrating this in my head and it’s getting right messy with all the ‘Penchaft slash Weaselistic’ notations. And not ‘slash’ as it’s come to mean, no, I mean the ‘either or’ variety of old,” I said.

“But you’ve dealt with not knowing up until this point,” the first one pointed out.

“Not well, I have to admit. I really should go back and edit. Maybe if I narrated from a more omniscient viewpoint? Then I could know, but I’d lose that first person touch. And I do seem to like the first person.”

“You know this is an insane conversation,” the second one said. “Completely unbelievable.”

“Well, yes, but I had to keep you busy while my partner maneuvered into position,” I said.

They both looked at Poskunk, who, to my chagrin, hadn’t moved an inch. He’d been just as transfixed by the conversation as Penchaft and Weaselistic, and hadn’t used their inattention to plan anything. I shot him a ‘what good are you’ look with my eyes. He shrugged and gave me a ‘you should have told me the game plan’ look.

Nyarhotep, however, had not been interested in the conversation and had taken the opportunity to edge towards the welding equipment. He picked up the heavy cutting torch and swung it with all his might at the second twin, who crumpled to the ground in an untidy heap, blood oozing from the gapping wound in her head.

******

We stood there, dumbly staring at the body on the floor for what seemed like forever, but in reality was probably only a few seconds. When I looked up, Nyarhotep had disappeared back into the computer room. The second twin was looking at the body with a curiously unemotional expression. Poskunk was dialing into the desk panel.

“No!” cried –

“Excuse me,” I said politely. “Which one are you?”

She looked at me with an exasperated expression. “I don’t see why that is important,” she snapped. Then she leaned down over the body and felt for a pulse. When she looked up she gave a little shake of her head. Poskunk muttered something into the display and clicked it off.

“Well,” I said, “not to be indelicate, but we kinda need to know who died, don’t we?”

“No,” she said simply, and turned to follow Nyarhotep into the room. Poskunk and I exchanged an uneasy look and hung back. A moment later, raised voices could be heard from the control room. The lights flickered. I moved unconsciously towards Poskunk, and he draped an arm over my shoulders.

“Should we… should we go in there?” I asked out of the corner of my mouth.

“I don’t want to,” he replied.

“Well, duh, neither do I, but-”

My reply was cut off by a loud crack and a brilliant flash of blue, just like a transistor blowing. A sickening, burning smell wafted out from the room. A moment later she appeared in the doorway, gave us a long look, and strolled towards the door. Poskunk and I looked at each other for a moment, then raced into the computer room.

Nyarhotep was strung up among the cables and wires, his body still twitching as the electricity coursed through him.

“Oh my god,” I said.

“I’m guessing he’s dead,” Poskunk said drolly.

“You think?”

“Just a hunch.”

“Huh.” I shook my head. “Is there any way we can-”

“Turn off the electricity?” he finished for me.

“Yeah, that.”

“I don’t think so. I think they’ll have to turn it off at the breaker box. And maybe even disconnect the backup generator. Remember, this is a critical control center, so they don’t want to accidentally lose power.”

We turned around and headed back to the main office. Poskunk strode over to the desk to call… whoever was going to clean up the mess. I stood in the center of the room, my eyes wandering around the room. Something seemed off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“Poskunk, is something… different?”

“Huh? No, I don’t think so.” He made a hand motion to shush me, and spoke to the person on the other end of the connection. I only heard snippets, but when my ears caught the word ‘body’ it clicked.

I smacked myself on the forehead (for dramatic effect) and motioned wildly at him. He looked cross and tried to ignore me, but I just got more exaggerated in my movement. Finally he turned to face me.

“WHAT?!”

“The body,” I said.

“Yes, I’m trying to get the electricity turned off, and it’ll go much faster if you don’t distract me.”

“No, the other body,” I explained patiently.

He stopped for a moment and looked around the room. There wasn’t so much as a drop of red to mark the spot where, just moment before, a body had lain oozing copious amounts of blood onto the carpet.

“Now that’s odd,” he said.

“You don’t say?” I knelt down and stared at the carpet, running my hand over the area where I thought the stain had been. It was dry, but when I pulled my hand up there was a slight red tinge to my palm.

Poskunk had returned to earnest conversation with the guy on the screen, and I wandered over to him and held up my hand.

“Now what?”

“There was this reddish stuff on the carpet.” I shoved my hand towards his face.

“I see that,” he said pulling back. “What is it?”

“How would I know?”

“Well, don’t touch anything else, we’ll have a tech swab your hand and test it.”

I heaved a sigh, and dramatically holding my hand out in front of me I carefully sat on the edge of a chair. A few minutes later, the cavalry arrived. One tech swabbed my hand, and another used a small, powerful vacuum on the carpet. A third headed into the computer room, but reappeared a moment later, looking puzzled.

“I thought you said there was a body in there?” he said.

“How can you miss it?” Poskunk asked. “It’s hanging right in the middle of the room!”

He ducked back into the room, the tech trailing after him. A moment later they both reappeared.

“…no other way out of that room, I swear,” Poskunk was saying. “We were here the whole time.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” the tech said. “There’s no residual signs of a body having been there. I tested the air,” he held up a small box-like instrument, “and there’s nothing to indicate anything being incinerated. And any time a body is electrocuted, there’s proof in the air.”

“But we smelled it!” I exclaimed. “It smelled like… you know. Burning… person.”

“There are certainly a lot of benzene rings in the air, but none of the other trace chemicals you’d expect. It’s like… someone sprayed the place with air freshner.”

“Ode de dead body?” Poskunk quipped.

“That’s not funny,” one of the techs said.

“Killjoy,” Poskunk scowled.

“So… you’re saying that someone staged the death? Or, in all likelihood, both deaths?” I asked.

“Yeah. That’s what it looks like.” The lead tech gave a hand signal and they all started packing up their gear. “We have enough samples, we’ll be able to tell you how they did it, if that’s any consolation.”

“Not really,” Poskunk said. “I don’t care how, I care why.”

“Sorry, I can’t help you there,” the tech said, and they all filed out of the room. Poskunk turned to look at me.

“What, like I know?” I asked.

“I thought you might have an idea.”

“I have plenty of ideas. For instance, I think they should have pet food dishes that cover themselves automatically to keep pests out. Then, when your pet gets close enough, a transmitter on their collar would activate the dish and the lid would retract. They already have the transmitter technology, they use it on pet doors – the flap will only swing free when the pet, or rather, the transmitter on their collar, is close enough. Keeps raccoons and whatnot from coming into your house. It’s a short step to adapt that to food bowls. And it’d help with mice and ant infestations, without having to take away your pet’s food.”

“Yes, that’s fascinating, I’m sure, but-” he stopped suddenly, and snapped his fingers. “That’s it!”

He dug in his pocket and pulled out Naked Blue Ninja’s PDA. Pressing buttons frantically, he muttered to himself. I stood by, completely confused. “Damn!” he said suddenly.

“What?” I asked, but he waved me off.

He pressed a few more buttons and got a hold of Naked Blue Ninja. “Do you have anyone near Eighth and Walnut? I mean, real close. We have no time.”

I couldn’t hear Naked Blue Ninja’s response, but I guessed it was negative.

“No, it’s okay. They’ll be long gone. We’ll just turn over what we have to our counterparts, and let them deal with it. There’s nothing else we can do.”

There was more tinny sound coming out of the PDA, but I couldn’t make out any words.

“Out of our jurisdiction, so no. But I’ll pass along the info. Thanks!”

More speaking, and he grinned.

“Of course! Probably by tomorrow. You too. Bye!”

“What was all that about?” I asked, tapping my foot impatiently.

“What you said. About the transmitter, and permission. Once Nyarhotep was dead – and I reported him dead, so the powers that be knew that – all of the codes, permissions, and whatnot were deleted. Just in case someone managed to get his pass codes in the last minutes of his life, or after his death. And someone has to take over in that case.”

“His second in command?” I asked.

“Exactly.

“Triskellion,” I said.

******

“You think she was in on it?” I asked as he grabbed my hand and dragged me from the room. “Slow down! Where are we going?”

“We need to hurry if we have any chance of catching them,” he explained, not slowing his pace at all. I did a little hop-step-jog to try to keep up.

“Where?” I panted. We’d only gone down the hall and down one of the two flights of steps and I was already severely out of breath. My arm felt like it was being torn from its socket with him tugging on it. He, of course, wasn’t the slightest bit winded and looked back in annoyance at me.

“Hurry up. We’re going to the transfer station.”

“The what?” The words came out as a thin wheeze. We burst out of the head office and smacked straight into Rebecca.

“What’s up?” she asked.

Poskunk stared at me for a split second. I was bent in half, panting heavily. “You’re not going to make it, are you?”

I glanced up at him. I could see the battle going on in his head. Trust Rebecca - and the computers - or trust that I could make it on foot. It wasn’t much of a battle. Before I could suck in enough air to reply, he turned back to her.

“We need to get to Transfer Station D, in a hurry. Can you do that?”

She didn’t bat an eye, didn’t ask why, just shrugged and motioned towards the capsule. “It’s a bit of a bumpy ride right now, but if you’re willing, I can get us there.”

We hopped into the capsule and she plugged in. As she had warned, the ride was rough. I could see the strain on her face as she tried to control the craft, tried to keep it from bouncing around like a super-ball in a swimming pool. Poskunk and I sat very still and quiet, holding onto the cushions as well as we could.

A nauseating ten minutes later she set the craft down with a noticeable ‘thump’. She took a deep, shaky breath and gave us a weak smile. “There you go!”

“Thanks,” Poskunk said, grabbing my hand and pulling me out of the capsule. “I owe you one!”

We ran into a small, squat, plain building set back from the road. From inside I could hear a slight whine, like an engine revving past its maximum recommended RPM. Poskunk hesitated at the door, then slowly, cautiously, edged it open.

The interior of the room was cool and dark, with just a sliver of light coming from under a door off to the right. We paused to let our eyes adjust, then slowly and quietly moved into the room and towards the door.

Quietly, that is, until my shin connected with a coffee table that was hidden in the shadows. I let out a string of curses as I hopped up and down. I had hoped they were ‘under my breath’, but by the tension I could feel emanating from Poskunk, I gathered he thought people outside the dome could have heard me. And he was partially right – not about the dome, but at least about the room. The door suddenly flew open and I was temporarily blinded by the sudden light.

Penchaft (or Weaselitic) stood framed in the doorway. I couldn’t make out her expression, but her sneering tone made her feelings pretty clear. She wagged a finger in my direction as she slowly stalked towards me.

“Thought you could stop me, did you?” She paused, then snorted in disgust. “God, that sounds so cliché. Next I’ll be blabbing on and on about my plans and that will give you time to capture me!”

“Uh, what are your plans?” I asked. squinting at her as I continued to rub my bruised shin. She had moved far enough away from the door that the backlighting was no longer blotting out her expression, and she looked a mixture between triumphant and pissed off.

“Well, while you’re ineptly fumbling around in the dark out here, we’ve been calibrating- damn it! No, no, I am NOT going to tell you. Stupid characterizations! And I am certainly not going to show off and bring you into this room. No way, no how.”

“Okay, okay,” I said, backing away slowly. She was getting a little too close for my comfort. “No one’s forcing you to say anything. I’ll just… Oooph!” The backs of me knees connected with the coffee table and I sat down heavily. Unfortunately, only half of my backside landed on the table, and I tumbled over sideways to land in an ungraceful heap on the floor. Penchaft laughed, walked back into the room, and slammed the door.

I lay there for a moment, unwilling to move enough to even pull myself up off the floor. Sure, I was twisted into a fairly uncomfortable position, with my left arm pinned awkwardly under me, but if I didn’t move too much, it didn’t hurt that badly. And it just seemed like too much effort to move. I listened to the sounds of clanking and whirring coming from the other room with a sort of detached interest. Something was wrong, though, something I couldn’t put my finger on.

“Why aren’t you either laughing at me, or helping me up?” I asked Poskunk, but there was no answer. I groaned as I pulled myself up, my eyes straining to see in the darkness. There were plenty of large, dark blobs in the room, but none seemed Poskunk-shaped. I inched my way back to the doorway, neatly avoiding any more run-ins with furniture, and found the light switch. I flipped in and the room was bathed in a cool white light. Poskunk was no where to be seen.

Suddenly, the lights flickered. There was a popping sound from the far room, then everything fell deathly silent. I held my breath. The door swung slowly open, and Poskunk stepped out, grinning. I didn’t think, I just ran across the room and threw myself at him. Thankfully, he caught me in a hug and saved me from my second embarrassing tumble of the evening.

“Worried about me, were you?” he asked.

“Only because I don’t know how to get back to the Home Office,” I said loftily, trying to pull away.

“You could have relied on Rebecca for that,” he said, holding me tightly.

“Oh, right. Yeah. But, um…” I faltered. “You promised to tell me what was up with Naked Blue Ninja.”

“Right, and that’s the only reason?” He arched one eyebrow.

“As far as you know,” I said, and wiggled my way free. I dashed to the door, yanked it open, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Rebecca was waiting.

“Well?” she asked.

I paused, realizing that I had no idea what had just happened. Other than the ‘making a fool of myself’ part, which was not something I felt like sharing.

“They’re gone,” Poskunk said from behind me.

“Gone where?” Rebecca and I asked in chorus.

“Uh, you know, I’m not entirely sure. I just messed around with the settings a little – thanks for the distraction, by the way – and I have no idea what effect that had,” he said.

“Well, they’re either in this universe, my universe, or… they’ve disappeared entirely, right?” I asked.

Poskunk hesitated. “In theory…”

“In theory, what?” I prompted when he trailed off.

“Well, that’s what they say, but there have been reports of some botched transfers, and… the people who came back had some interesting stories to tell. Before they were hushed up, that is.” He looked uncomfortable.

“So you’re saying we have no way of knowing if they’re alive, or still a threat?” Rebecca asked.

“Pretty much, yeah. I mean, they could have been sent to a black hole, or the center of a sun… or a shopping mall in downtown Chicago.” Poskunk reached for the door of the capsule. “But, there’s nothing we can do about it now, might as well get back to the Home Office and see if we can’t get this mess straightened out.”


******



We all rode silently back to the Home Office, each absorbed in our own thoughts. Rebecca was doing her best to give us the most comfortable ride possible, I was mulling over the possibilities for what would happen now, and Poskunk… for all I knew he was contemplating the possible picks in the next NFL draft. He sat, bouncing one leg rhythmically, his face unreadable.

As we stepped out of the capsule, his transmitter squawked to life. He answered it, and this time moved away from me and spoke so softly I couldn’t even make out his end of the conversation. I stood awkwardly next to Rebecca on the sidewalk.

“So, uh, thanks,” I said lamely.

“No problem. Hey, you guys going to need anything else?”

“I don’t think so. At least, I hope not. I’ve had enough excitement for the day. I think I need to sleep for about a week.”

“Okay, tell him,” she jerked her head at Poskunk, “I’m off. I’m technically on medical leave, like most of the pilots who were hooked up during the big crash, so if he needs anything else he should contact the transportation department. Rides will be slim, though, since few of us were off-line at the time.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry! And we asked you for a ride…”

“Oh, it wasn’t really a problem, only…,” she grimaced. “I wouldn’t tell anyone, just in case there are liability issues. Since I wasn’t on duty, and they frown on us using company equipment on our own time.”

“The leader of your government and his assistant were plotting to overthrow the country and… well, honestly, I don’t know what else, but it was bad, I’m sure. I never did get the whole evil plan speech. Leaves a lot of loose ends, really. Anyway, I seriously doubt they’re going to care if you borrowed a capsule to help foil the plot.” I rolled my eyes. “There are bigger fish to fry, as they say.”

“Well, you never know. This is the government, after all.”

“True, true,” I nodded. “We won’t say anything, promise.”

“Thanks,” she said, and headed off down the street. Poskunk was still deep in conversation with whoever had called him. I stuffed my hands deep in my pockets and shuffled my feet. I yawned, them began to pace. Poskunk looked up and threw me an annoyed look. I made the international hand signal of ‘move things along’. He shot me another international hand signal. I stuck my tongue out at him. He turned his back and finished his conversation. I sighed heavily and resumed rocking back and forth. A minute later he finished his conversation and strolled over to me.

“Ready?” he asked, grinning.

“Ready for what? Sleep?” I yawned again. “Definitely.”

“You want to sleep now?” he asked, incredulous.

“Is this where you tell me that we just turned a government upside-down, and the technology base that runs this country is in shambles, and we need to sort out the truths, lies, and inform the public of what is going on and try to straighten out this mess before we can rest?’ I asked wearily.

“No, and… no.”

“No?”

“Well, not really. Yes. Sort of.” He paused, considering. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

“Don’t we have to tie things up here, straighten out the mess?”

He shook his head. “This is real life, not some TV sitcom. Things don’t wrap themselves up neatly at the ‘end’ of the story. Partially because there is no ‘end’ to the saga. Partially because there are too many variables, too many things that could go wrong. But mostly because life is just messy and complicated.”

“But you can’t just walk away!” I protested.

“Well, sure, I can. Because I’m no longer in charge of this dog and pony show, and the powers that be have granted me a vacation.”

“Powers that be?”

“Elaran and Gelsey are coming in to assume command. They’re rounding up Foxfirefey and Coyote, plus ‘resurrecting’ Jennafern, Happyconfusion, and Alphabet, to work on the transport system. Elaran’s putting together a ‘vampire awareness’ campaign to introduce them to society.”

“I’m sure that’ll go over like a lead balloon,” I grumbled, rubbing my neck involuntarily.

“Not necessarily. Tjstein and Maryeve said they’ve perfected the artificial blood-serum drink. They should be at production stage when the announcement comes out. There’s really no reason to have a beef with vampires if they’re not going to have to suck your blood, is there?”

“I… guess not. Still, people…”

“People will be people, and it won’t be easy. But, given time, I think they’ll come to accept them.”

“Okay, sure, but what about Penchaft, Weaselistic, Nyarhotep, and Triskellion?”

“What about them?” He shrugged. “We don’t know what happened to them, so we’ll deal with it if and when they show up.”

“And Oneworldvision? And Akriad?”

“On the run, whereabouts unknown, and he’s on his own – technically, he hadn’t done anything that we can arrest him for, so if he keeps his nose clean he should be okay. But it’s up to him.”

“And the Gummi plant, and… Marley! What ever happened to Marley?” I was getting slightly hysterical, as the past week caught up with me.

“You really do need some sleep, don’t you?” He eyed me critically. “I can’t take you there in this condition. Marley is fine, he’s with Foxfirefey. They get along quite well, I gather. Look, why don’t we go somewhere you can get some rest?”

“That sounds like a grand idea,” I said, then promptly crumpled to the ground.


******



I awoke in a soft, warm bed, nestled down between heavenly scented sheets. I was confused and disoriented, but comfortable. My mind drifted aimlessly, from the adventure at the Gummi plant to the vampires, to the evil machinations of Penchaft. What an odd dream, I thought. It was so vivid! I glanced over at my bedside clock, but it wasn’t there. The bedside table held only a small, Victorian lamp. The room was dim, as if it were twilight out. My confusion mounted. I tossed off the covers and stood, looking around the room. It definitely wasn’t my room.

“So much for the ‘it was all a dream’ plotline,” I grumbled. I didn’t recognize the room, but I did recognize the décor. This had to be Elaran’s house. I pulled open the wardrobe and slid into a long, flowing robe. I decided not to think about how I’d gotten dressed in the skimpy silk shift I was wearing. I headed for the door and made my way down to the dining room. Poskunk was sitting at the table, snarfing down a plate of eggs, bacon, and some unidentifiable brown stuff.

“Good morning, sunshine,” he chirped. I resisted the urge to chuck a roll at his head. Instead, I filled my plate with food from the sideboard and sat opposite him. I sullenly nibbled on my breakfast, grumbling loudly about the lack of coffee.

“There’s coffee where we’re going today,” he said brightly. “As soon as you’re done and get dressed, we’ll be on our way.”

I stopped eating. “Are you serious?”

“Yes-” The word wasn’t even out of his mouth and I’d bolted up the stairs and into the small bathroom. I showered, dressed, and was back downstairs in record time.

“Lets go lets go lets go lets go.” I was hopping up and down.

“Okay, okay.” He eyed me critically. “Think you might be a little too addicted to that stuff?”

I gave him an evil look. “And what of it?”

“Nothing, nothing,” he said, making placating motions with his hands and backing away slowly.

“That’s right, you better back down,” I said menacingly. “Now. Get. Me. My. Coffee.”

“Right this way,” he said, ushering me out the door.

We took a capsule to the edge of the dome, then boarded a submarine-like vehicle. It was cramped and claustrophobic, and I fought to keep the panic down. It was not worse than riding in the transport tubes, I told myself. I kept my eyes tightly shut throughout the surprisingly smooth ride, and my stomach managed to stay settled.

I wasn’t prepared for the brightness of the outside world. It’s amazing how quickly you forget how bright the sun is. I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to its warmth. “I’ve missed this,” I said softly. “Well, you know, except the treat of skin cancer, age spots, and wrinkles.”

Poskunk took me by the elbow, still looking a bit wary. He pulled me over to a small cart and the delicious smell of coffee enveloped me like a welcome friend. I inhaled deeply.

“What can I get you?” the vendor asked.

“A cup of-” Poskunk started, but I cut him off.

“Give me whatever drink you have that has the most shots of espresso combined with an obscene amount of cream – and none of that low-fat crap. If it has a ton of syrupy goodness, even better. Chocolate would be a plus. And whipped cream on top. Maybe even some sprinkles. I really don’t care, though, as long as it has enough caffeine and sugar to kill an average person, it’s good.”

“One large Triple Full-fat Mocha with whipped cream and sprinkles coming up!” he said cheerfully, and proceeded to make the drink in a cup the size of a two-liter bottle.

“Uh,” I whispered, leaning over to Poskunk. “I don’t have any money.”

“It’s on me.” He winked, and pulled out a few bills. The vendor took them and handed me the giant drink. I took a gulp and sighed contentedly as it burned its way down my throat.

I took a few more swigs, then Poskunk held out his hand. “Can I have a bit of that?”

“Ew, share a drink with you?” I feigned horror.

“You really think you can finish that all on your own?”

I eyed the drink. “Eventually.”

“Yeah, eventually as in, a week from now?”

“No, by the end of the day, easily.”

“It’ll be cold by then,” he said.

“So?” I shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with cold coffee.”

“Yes, there is, that’s disgusting.”

“It is not. It’s better than reheated coffee,” I said.

“But isn’t it better to finish off the coffee while it’s still warm the first time around?” He wiggled his eyebrows and stared at the cup.

“Fine,” I said, thrusting the cup at him. He took several long sips and handed it back to me.

“C’mon, let’s catch the next tram.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

“I want to know!”

“Too bad,” he said, taking my free hand and pulling me along. We walked about a block and joined in a queue of people waiting by the side of a road. An open-sided trolley rolled up, and the line moved forward. A few minutes later, another trolley appeared, and the line inched up even more. Three trolleys later, and with half the coffee gone, we were seated and on our way.

“Now will you tell me where we’re going?” I asked petulantly.

“No. You’ll see it when we get there.”

“So, how are things going in the government?”

“I don’t know.”

“How can you not know? Aren’t you curious?”

“Not particularly,” he said. “Look, it’s coming up on the right.”

“Don’t try to change the-” My admonishment died in my throat as the park came into view. I counted the peaks of at least 25 different roller coasters. As we crested the hill, I looked down at dozens upon dozens of smaller rides, games, and shops. “What is that?”

“Naked Blue Ninja Land,” he said. “Biggest and best theme park in all the known universes. And since you have to buy tickets in advance and there are hundreds of rides, you rarely have to wait more than 15 minutes for anything.”

“How can that be cost effective? Most theme parks pack people in to make the money,” I said.

“For one, they do charge quite a bit for the privilege of not having to wait in much of line. secondly, it’s open 24 hours a day. Ticket prices vary, depending on how long a pass you buy and what time of day – or night – you buy it for. And then there’s the merchandizing. That’s, I think, where the bulk of the money comes from.” He pointed out a little boy who was clad in a blue ninja suit, clutching a stuffed blue sword in one have and blue ninja plush doll in the other.

“Ah,” I said. “And what was the deal with those ticket things?”

“You remember that, eh?” He grinned. “It’s a bump ticket. Like I said, there aren’t lines very often, but occasionally the newest ride will gather quite a crowd. Those were ‘go to the head of the line’ tickets.”

“I see.” We’d reached the end of the trolley line, and we jumped down and headed to the ticket booth with the rest of the passengers. Poskunk handed a ticket-seller a card, and she cconsulted her computer. After a moment, she handed him two plastic cards, about the size of credit cards. They had a hole punched in one corner, and Poskunk grabbed two bungee cords.

“Hold onto this, it’s how you get on the rides. And let me know if anything happens to it, and we’ll report it right away. Most people know better than to try to steal them, but every now and then someone desperate for one last ride will chance that they can get one in before the owner can report it stolen.”

“How long do we have?” I asked, eyeing the rides with enthusiasm.

“We’re special. These passes,” he leaned close and lowered his voice, “never expire. And I’ve booked a room at the in-park hotel for a week.”

“A room?” I asked, my eyebrows raised.

“Yes, a room,” he said.

“Cheeky of you.”

“Optimistic of me.”

“Right, what do you want to ride first?” I grinned, and grabbed his hand to pull him into the park.



******




Several hours later, I was worn out, sunburned, and extremely happy. We were sitting in the patio café outside the hotel, looking out over the ocean. The cool breeze and the wine were making me pleasantly sleepy. We’d had a wonderful dinner, and I was about to suggest a quick nap before heading back to the ride when Poskunk suddenly stiffened.

“Well, I’ll be. She wasn’t crazy, after all.”

“What?” I yawned.

“Pizzamaker1000. I have to admit that even I was doubting her. But it looks like she was right!” He pointed out into the harbor, where several tall-masted sailing vessels where rocking gently in the tide. One, though, was moving quickly towards a cluster of anchored ships. She was lower, sleeker, and faster-looking than the rest. I had to squint to make out the flag she flew, but even from this distance it was the unmistakable skull and crossbones.

“A pirate ship?” I asked.

He nodded. “And not just any pirate ship. That’s S/V Galena, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well. Um, since the edict to chase her down came from the previous government, do I really have to…?”

He considered that question as we watched the skirmish out in the harbor. It wasn’t much of a battle. The pirates were well-trained and efficient, and within half an hour they had unloaded all the cargo they wanted from the anchored ships and were sailing off. Only about half a dozen cannon volleys had been fired, and I was willing to bet casualties had been minimal. Rescue boats made their way out to the attacked ships, and everyone on the patio went back to their conversations.

“I think,” he said slowly, “that we do. I mean, it is piracy, and that’s wrong. So, yeah, I think we have to finish what we started.”

My face fell, and my shoulders slumped. I had only gotten one day of my week-long theme park vacation! I sighed heavily.

“But,” he added, grinning. “I don’t think another week will hurt anyone. We have a well-deserved vacation to finish!”

I grinned happily, and threw my arms around his neck in a big hug. “Thank you thank you thank you! Now,” I said, settling myself on his lap. “What do you want to do now?”


Epilogue



We did, indeed, eventually go after the pirate ship. We also found out what happened to Penchaft, Weaselistic, Nyarhotep, and Triskellion.

But that, as they say, is another story.


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