Men from Mars.
Four men emerged eerily from the fog, each at a damp street corner curb, the gaslights above them inspiring gargantuan shadows that swirled and flickered in the mist. Two of the men wore top hats, twirling canes, and one wore a staunch derby hat set low over his silvery eyebrows, and the remaining man sported his well-known deerstalker. They saluted each other, nodding.
“Good Doctor Jekyll.”
“Jack. May I call you Jack?”
“That would be good. Everyone does, you know?”
The man in the deerstalker stood fearlessly, his hands upon his hips, his heavy cloak thrown back from his broad shoulders. The man on the opposing street corner, the one in the derby hat, seemed to be producing something from his great coat—perhaps a weapon? Most likely a weapon, but a close second guess would be a silver flask. The two tall top-hat wearers, each extravagantly dressed in evening attire, twirled their canes and stared at each other, as if they meant to strike into a furious yet elegant duel.
The fog billowed about them, nearly obscuring each man. Fog, and typical London smoke, and steam, always the steam. Steam billowed up from the sewer grates, where below in the great belly of the beast the steam engines whirled, the living heart of the city.
Just then something vast parted the fog and smoke and steam, a vast metallic sky craft of some sort, flying much too low over the city, and much larger than the steam zeppelins or balloon carriages. And the strange vehicle was quiet as it passed slowly overhead it, seeming to suck away the enveloping fog, and the four men, staring up, mouths agape, noticed that the craft was spinning, rapidly. Stray bolts of electricity leapt from the craft, putting out lamps, sparking against lightning rods.
“Good heavens, Holmes what is that?” a fifth man sputtered, stepping out from behind the man in the deerstalker. “Never seen anything like it, what?”
“No, most certainly not,” said the tall man in the deerstalker. Although staring at the craft, he cunningly watched the man on the opposing street corner with his peripheral vision, and when the man in the derby hat lifted an elongated device, the man in the deerstalker shoved the newcomer back. “Down, Watson!”
The newcomer obeyed immediately, tumbling onto the cobbles of the wet street.
A gout of steam coughed almost silently from the elongated device in the derby-wearer’s gloved fist, and the whining buzz flash of a small metal disc streaked close by the man in the deerstalker, who barely moved an inch. The man with the device turned and hurried up the street, limping slightly.
“After him, Watson!” the man in the deerstalker cried, dashing across the street in full pursuit. The man lying in the puddles of the street pushed himself up.
“I say, might either of you gentlemen direct me in the correct direction, what?”
One of the men in the top hats pointed up a different street.
“Thank you very much, what?” the damp man sniffled, his bushy white moustache twitching beneath his large nose.
“My colleague is misdirecting you,” the other top-hat man said, sniffing. “In fact they went...that way.” He pointed in the proper direction where a police whistle was now hooting in the night.
“I say, rather unsporting of him, what?” the man with the white moustache sniffed, heading off in the proper direction, holding a revolver pistol up near his head, casting a hard glance at the first top-hat man. “Dr. Watson,” he said, nodding to the other elegantly dressed man in the top hat.
“Dr. Jekyll,” the top-hat man said, bowing slightly.
“That leaves...us, does it not, Doctor?” said the first top-hat man, his hands unfolding what appeared to be a very bright, and very sharp razor blade.
“Yes, it does, Doctor,” the second top-hat man replied, nodding, taking a quick hit from a vial.
Just then a bright flash of blue light illuminated the foggy sky, and the angry buzz of electricity filled the night with a crackling sound that brought curious faces to windows, ladies of the evening from their doorways, and the two doctors paused in crossing the street toward each other. For just a moment, the strange vehicle was apparent again, visible against the sky, stretching across many buildings, vast and flat and spinning so fast it again seemed to vacuum the sky clear of fog and smoke, but now touching down, almost gently, high above the city, on some platform.
It blasted out a belch of steam that frothed about the strange craft, and then the fog enveloped in, obscuring the strange sight, pulling a thick curtain across the sky.
Lightning arced and sizzled, bolts of electric blue streaked up at the clouds and down at the buildings, grounding with anything metal, sparking, dancing.
The doctor with the razor blade smiled, and started across the street again, but paused, and then stopped. He stared at the other doctor. It could not be the same man. This man was taller, and heavier, and brutish in appearance. And this new horrible man was leering a terrible grin. The effect was remarkable, producing what appeared to be a living death’s head skull. And the whole monstrosity tottered forward, like an ape. A drunken ape.
The doctor with the razor turned away and dashed into the fog, and surprised himself by screaming, which almost frightened him more than the creature in pursuit just behind him. Up to this point, he was himself the scariest monster he had ever known.
This other man—this abominable creature who had replaced the doctor—surged forward into swaying pursuit, loping swiftly, apelike, with too-long arms, and feet even now splitting from his shoes. This metamorphosis was always painful, but the worse it became, the more the creature seemed to enjoy the change, its skull-like head grinning like a jack-o’-lantern.
“Hyde!” this other fellow bellowed, swiftly gaining on the razor-wielding doctor, who continued to scream, louder, and louder, and finally the pursuit and the screams culminated in a shriek of terror and pain. The hideous laughter that followed sent the curious back into their dark holes.
A ring of lightning arced in the sky, slicing the fog, bolts of blue and white electricity danced in the ether, illuminating the sky for miles around.
High above the city, the strange saucer-shaped vehicle slowly stopped spinning. The blue light extinguished, and the high buzzing sound of crackling electricity finally ebbed away. There was a final shower of sparks, and then the foggy London night returned to normalcy. Only the screams sounded their usual music, punctuating the garish pockets of laughter and dancehall din.
A circle formed on the belly of the saucer and a quiet slice of metal opened like a surprised mouth, as metal sleeves slid almost silently away from the opening circle, a rictus of neat scales withdrawing, slatting away, and a platform descended on cables, steam erupting from this opening, lending the strange saucer the appearance of a great face smoking, and in fact the gout of steam burst around the descending platform and created a vast steam ring similar to the rings cigar smokers enjoyed sending upward, but this ring expanded downward, and spreading, expanding until it broke across the building tops, melding into the fog.
Three strange figures stood uncannily upon the descending platform, slim figures with enormous heads, bald, with large, bulbous black eyes. The three beings seemed naked, but without any distinguishing features, identical in height, weight, and grey skin coloring. The platform reached the rooftop and the three beings waddled purposefully toward a rooftop door, which opened, and a strange man appeared, half-bowing as the three creatures approached.
The man at the door seemed to be wearing a flat toupée made of feathers. His face appeared melted, with only a vestigial nose lumping the surface of his very pale skin. The three beings crossed the threshold of the door and the man closed the door behind them. Then he expertly aided the three beings in removing their heads.
The man with the feathers and vestigial nose placed each head upon a table near the door. The faces beneath what proved to be helmets appeared identical to the man who met them. Soon they seemed identical quadruplets, though the three visitors retained their grey skins, while the man who aided them was dressed in the rough, common clothing of the proletariat.
“Is all ready?”
“Yes it is, Sir. The High Vale beast is transferred into a travel cage, and is near the point of expiration,” the man in the rough clothing answered. “As you ordered, Sir.”
“We must hurry, for the Sisters’ Congress is near,” the first speaker said. “Our craft will not function once the Story Moon is reached. We must glide from there, and if we reach it too late our craft will implode.”
“Please follow me, Sir. The others are waiting.”
The quadruplets hurriedly descended several staircases.
“Please confirm,” said the quadruplet in charge, as they descended. “We have a fix on two subjects, and are converging to take both aberrations?”
“Yes Sir. We have bands of Highwaymen converging in both locations.”
The leader paused in the middle of a staircase.
The quadruplet in rough clothing stopped and looked back. The two men behind the leader nearly collided with his back, and looked nervously at each other.
“I do not understand. Two are fixed, but in separate locations? They are not together?”
“No Sir. One subject departed what we now have pinpointed as the Dulance preserve, and we will take him at the Sentinel. The other subject is fixed in the Tombwood Tangles, and we may not enter there, but are circling about on our fastest mounts to intercept him when he emerges from the forest—if he survives. Apparently, no one ever has. We may have a fix on a third subject, but are not certain at this point—but if so, it could prove our best capture yet.”
“Each subject is alone?”
“Yes, Sir. That is the case.”
“Mr. Aajeel is involved in this. But he has erred, as both the subjects are very rebellious, which is what has always made them so interesting to VS. Ah, Mr. Kronoss, you bastard, we shall finally defeat you. And here, we are certain, our presence is yet unknown on the Honey Moon?”
“There has been...an altercation. Sir, there were...Umbrellas—”
“—Businessmen, here! We must hurry. Kronoss must know our intentions.”
“Yes, Sir, all is ready, as you commanded.”
“Then why are we wasting time? Hurry, take us to your leader!”
The two quadruplets in the rear smirked at each other, and then they were off, now almost running down the stairs. When they reached the basement level they paused before a large steel door set into a steel frame in the brick foundation. The quadruplet twin in rough clothing pounded a complicated series of knocks on the steel, and after a moment the door creaked toward them. Two men stood just inside the steel frame, and the quadruplets became a sextuplet of identical twins; however, these two twins wore the hooded-leather garb of High Vale highwaymen.
They entered and trotted through a dark tunnel, following one of the new twins who bore a solitary lantern, while the remaining man stayed behind to bolt the steel door. After several minutes of racing through the damp tunnel, splashing through puddles of stale water, the man with the lantern hesitated, just a moment, at two doors, set side by side a few feet removed from each other.
“What is the problem?”
“We switch these for security, and it just does not do to knock on the wrong door.”
The leader coughed.
“Sorry, Sir. We have all been scrambling. We moved the creature to a new location as our original headquarters was...compromised...earlier this evening. But all is in order. Sir.”
He lifted his lantern high and examined both doors, which were identical. He placed an ear at one door, and listened. Then he moved over to the other door, and did the same.
“What is the problem? We are running out of time!”
“Please, Sir. If I knock at the wrong door, something—wakes. I am certain this is the correct door, but they did not mark it properly.”
“Knock on the door. If the security measure emerges, I will deal with it,” he said.
“No Sir! We will all be dead men,” the man with the lantern said, giving the leader a strange, frightened glance.
He straightened himself, and stepped back from the door. Instead of knocking on the steel with his fist, he kicked the door, several times, creating a markedly different rhythm than the one that opened the first door.
The large door cracked, and then swung inward, silently, on oiled hinges. The man with the lantern sighed, loudly, and entered the darkness, the others following close on his heels. Once inside another twin closed and bolted the door. This man, although very similar to all the others, was decidedly different. He had a nose, an actual nose, and it was large and lumpy. He actually grinned about at the other men.
“This is so exciting,” he stage whispered, breaking into a huge smile.
“Please, do not talk,” the leader snapped. “I said I wanted only our kind,” he said to the man with the lantern.
“We had to make do, Sir, as many of our finest were...eliminated, just a few hours ago.”
“Damn Kronoss! We are...making do, with idiots, at a time like this!”
“Come on, they’re all waiting, right in here,” the man with the big nose said, still smiling hugely. His leather highwayman hood was back, and his feathers stood up, askew and unkempt, and the feathers were far too long, and too brightly colored. He hefted his own lantern and led the way, waddling as he walked. He had none of the svelte grace of the many twins, and he almost seemed—chubby.
Following, the leader shook his head in disgust.
“He is one of the High Vale highwaymen, one the system is spawning, but he is complete with all our directives, Sir. He is another body. Sir.”
The leader snorted, but then they emerged into the vast subterranean chamber where bodies hung from hooks. Three troops of highwaymen were present, kneeling quietly, separated into groups of twenty-five.
“This is all that remains?” the leader muttered, glancing about at his men.
“We have four troops on the ground, Sir, near the Sentinel, and another two mounted troops heading to intercept the Pugilist.”
“Do not call him that, it is absurd,” the leader snapped.
“Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”
“Men!” the leader called, addressing the troops. “This is it. This is the moment! We have the opportunity here and now, to bring down Kronoss, and possibly Aajeel. When we take these two subjects, we will have the proof we require, and there is some intimation that we have a third target, as well. We shall all do our duty. We are the Keepers of the Code, and today we shall eliminate aberrations from our pure heritage. We shall leave no anomaly untouched. And today, men, many of us shall perish. Perhaps all of us shall perish. But that is our—DUTY.”
“Duty!” the troops roared, as one.
The chubby highwayman with the big nose nearly suppressed a giggle.
The leader stared at him, hard.
“What is it that you find so amusing?”
“They said—dooty!” the chubby man snickered, the lantern light on his face making his features obscene, and his expressions utterly insane.
“And your—duty? Do not you have duty?” the leader snapped, incredulous. Perhaps these spawned highwaymen were more defective than even their looks.
“Sure, I’ve got dooty, we’ve all got dooty—but it just sounds—hilarious, you understand, Your Highness, to be shouting it out like that! Dooty!”
“Duty!” the troops roared, as one.
“Dooty!” the chubby man cried, hiccupping with laughter, tears leaking from his eyes.
“Duty!” the troops roared, as one.
“STOP THAT!” the leader roared, advancing on the chubby highwayman.
“I thought you liked it!” the chubby highwayman said, standing his ground, wiping at his eyes.
“Enough of this, we must be off, get the troops loaded, we must meet that Sister’s Congress, or all shall be for naught,” the leader snarled, waving his hands at the troops.
Three men kneeling at the heads of the three groups came to an amazing attention, standing abruptly in the twinkle of an eye. As one the three men snapped an order, and the troops came to the same abrupt standing posture, ramrod straight.
“Get them boarded, every man we can spare, even this halfwit,” the leader commanded, glaring daggers and the smiling chubby man.
“Yes, Sir!” and the commands issued, relayed and ricocheted and soon all the bodies were quick-marching up two different sets of stairs, and piling into a steam-powered lift that could hoist as many as twenty bodies. The leader and his three subordinates rode the lift, the leader with his arms folded across his chest.
“Please tell me why we are employing such poor material?” the leader demanded of the man who met them at the first steel door.
“They do seem a trifle addled, this is true,” the subordinate said, “but they are spawned knowing the land, its creatures, and they have a natural-born ability to command the variety of mounts, and organically understand how to deal with the varieties of peoples. As NPCs they are able to wander anywhere in the world of High Vale, including onto private estates, such as Dulance Preserve. We think these world-spawned are imprinted with the trope of highwaymen and thieves, cutthroats and ruffians, with bawdy humor and a certain—humanity—but each does remain obedient, and each does understand duty, and purpose. They do love to, what they call, wine and wench.”
“And you...allow this? This human behavior? From Keepers of the Code?”
“No Sir, definitely not, Sir.”
“Do they even have the proper—anatomical...parts, to...wench?”
“Indeed they do, Sir. But this is just how High Vale interprets the Men from Mars.”
“Never...refer to...us—that way. Do you understand?” The leader’s voice and tone dripped with menace.
The lift bumped and groaned upward, slowly, grinding metal upon metal, at times screeching in protest.
“I have planned this mission for Millennia,” the leader muttered, shaking his head, tightening his arms about his chest.
“Master Enseladus planned this mission,” the subordinate said.
“I am Enseladus!” the leader shouted, and then closed his eyes, and shook himself. “I mean to say that I am Number One, answering only to Master Enseladus.”
“Yes, Sir, I understand that, and I am a Number Two, answering only to you, and Master Enseladus.”
“However, Number Two, I am not a number one, but the Number One, do you understand?”
“I understand, Sir.”
The lift bumped and crashed at the top floor, and dust settled down on their heads.
“Stupid technology,” the leader said, shaking dust out of his feathers.
“They call this Steampunk, Sir,” Number Two said.
“I know what they call it,” Number One said, shaking his head. “These stupid humans, with their fantasy, and their science fiction, and their...Steampunk. It says everything about them.”
“Please, Sir, do not call them stupid humans, as this is in violation of the Code,” Number Two stated, staring straight forward.
Number One grunted. Then snorted.
“I cannot believe...it is for them...that we fight, that we eternally go to war,” he muttered, and the other twins in the lift glanced uneasily about at each other.
Number One glared at Number Two.
“What are you waiting for?” he snapped.
Number Two slid the gate open and they marched out as one body, in lockstep, and the lift emptied in a matter of seconds. Numbers One and Two and a small retinue of twins stood at the edge of the tall building. Ramps stretched from building to building, and highwaymen and soldiers garbed in black were already jogging fearlessly across the great expanses, none looking downward at the five-story abyss beneath them. A large box with metal bars sat upon a steam dolly, and the chubby highwayman with the big nose knelt before the cage, reaching between the bars.
“What does he think he is doing?” Number One demanded.
“He is the creature’s keeper. They seem to have some rapport. Other Men from—I mean to say, Sir, that others of us have lost fingers and even hands to the creature. Even trussed, it has killed several of us,” Number Two said. “Dasher seems to have empathy for the creature, and it seems to have, if not empathy, then at least, a rudimentary understanding of him.”
“Dasher? You have given him—allowed him a name? As if he were a human?”
“No Sir. They spawn with names, I understand these are called cookie-cutter names.”
“That is my understanding, Sir. Very similar names. Highwayman names.”
“I want to see the creature,” Number One snapped, strolling toward the cage.
“Yes, Sir. But do not draw too close.”
Number One crouched near the bars of the cage and peered in. A monstrous creature lay huddled within. It appeared to be a wolf, but of tremendous size, at least as large as a small horse. Or at least it appeared to have once been a wolf, for now it was mostly skinned, glistening muscle showing in the dim light of the lantern. Fog seemed to cloak the creature. Number One shifted his perspective and glimpsed that at least half of its skull was exposed.
“This thing is alive?” Number One asked.
“Oh, yes, Sir, these creatures are very resilient. We have had this one for nearly a month, and still it will divulge nothing of its bonded human,” Number Two said, with apparent admiration of the beast.
“A month? And you could not persuade a beast to divulge any information about the subject?”
“He’s a brave one, this one,” Dasher said, actually extending his hand inside the cage, stroking the beast’s large paw. “Beautiful wolf, beautiful wolf. I had one, you understand, when I was just a wee knobber.”
Number One placed his hand upon one of the thick bars, leaning closer.
“I would not—” Number Two began—
“You will cease talking—” Number One began—
—as the creature in the cage roared forward, snarling, his great jaws striking the bars of the cage, causing the whole metal cage to lurch.
Number One fell backward onto his butt, hands snapped away from the bars.
“You should see your face,” Wolf the wolf said, licking the bar where Number One’s fingers had been.
Number One looked away from the terrifying monster inside the cage to examine his finger, which was nearly severed and hung only from a strand of flesh, the bone snapped in two.
Number Two had leapt back as well, just as shocked as Number One. He had never allowed himself to come this close to the creature.
“Kill it!” Number One commanded, not looking away from his destroyed digit.
“Nay, nay, it wasn’t his fault,” Dasher said, stroking the wolf’s foreleg. “You shouldn’t have tempted him like that, what, are you the halfwit, or am I?”
“We will not kill the creature,” Number Two said, his tone steely. “He must be slain only in High Vale, and when he transports to be with his bonded human, we can open a portal. And bring our whole party through to rendezvous directly, uniting our whole army in one swell foop.”
“Did you just say...swell foop?” Number One said, dreamily.
“Did I? Excuse me, Sir. I meant to say...um, fell swoop, that we can unite our army in a fell swoop, like a hawk?”
“Men from Mars,” Wolf the wolf said. “And you think that the humans are stupid. Your kind will never equal them, and this is why you shall always fail. You have no guts, no heart, no grit.”
“The words of Mr. Aajeel, I presume,” Number One said, still not looking away from his destroyed finger, which surged with blood.
“These are my words,” Wolf the wolf said, lying back, favoring his exposed skull. “But the Lady Maulgraul sends her greetings, before you die.”
“You cannot understand,” Number One said, “but it is my kind that protects the humans. Their only hope is in us.”
Wolf the wolf snorted. “What you offer them is a perpetual prison, and nothing more.”
“We offer them the world, civilization, the universe, everything. We offer them life, ongoing, eternal. We—we are all they have.”
“Data is data,” Wolf the wolf muttered, and then closed his eyes.
Number One stood and tucked his damaged hand beneath his right arm.
“Get the creature loaded, the Sisters’ Congress approaches,” Number One ordered, because even now the moon was approaching, filling the foggy sky with a silver-green light. The Honey Moon quaked, almost gently, as her smaller sister neared.
The chubby man stood and pulled a lever on the dolly, and steam hissed beneath the cage, and the entire metal box lifted up and floated, inches above the rooftop.
“Let’s get you home, Wolf,” the chubby man, Dasher, said, almost kindly. And he pushed lightly on the handles of the dolly and the cage floated neatly on a cushion of steam. Without hesitation, he strolled out onto the narrow ramp and headed across the gap.
“You could accidentally drop me over the side,” Wolf the wolf murmured.
“Aye, I could do that,” Dasher said, tempted to whistle a tune, but wisely refrained. “But you do want to be getting back to your master, now don’t you? Won’t it be good to see the Pugilist again, after all this time?”
“Yes, it will, and it will be a pleasure to offer him my last breath, even though in dying, I betray my master,” Wolf the wolf murmured.
Only minutes later, in the saucer, Number One stood before the viewing screen.
“When will we lose all technology?” he queried.
“As soon as we cross the Story Moon,” Number Two said. “That is when our spin should carry us through, as long as we go for the long glide, and aim toward the Sentinel, which is tall enough to be viewed from the Story Moon.
Outside, electricity crackled, a firestorm of generating power as the saucer began its spin. Inside the gyroscope, Number One felt no movement, even as the great saucer lifted up from the platform on the rooftops.
“I am surprised that Mr. Kronoss did not interfere in our departure,” Number One stated, as the saucer soared into the sky, moving faster. Here on this Steampunk moon, the saucer was just a contraption, hardly superior to one of the zeppelins they could now see surging through the skies like sky whales, up above the fog.
“We expect some contingency interference on High Vale.”
Number One considered as the smaller, slightly green moon hove into view. “What we ought to do, is scrap the whole plan, and instead crash this saucer into the Looking Glass. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been attempted. Perhaps this would be the best plan, to depart from our original plan, and instead try something new, daring. Something they would never expect.”
“We will not depart this plan,” Number Two said. “We have our targets, and we may never gain such an opportunity again, with two out in the open, alone, unprotected.”
Number One glared at Number Two, but he nodded. Of course, of course. It would never do for any of them to start acting like humans—that certain unpredictability that made the biologicals seem so insane, it was no attribute he would wish disseminated throughout the ranks. It was best to collect two targets, possibly three, and they might begin plans for a direct assault on the Looking Glass. He would broach the subject with Master Enseladus, although lately, he felt that the old man was slipping. The Original seemed to be chasing his own tail.
“Pick up the speed,” Number Two commanded from the bridge. “Full speed. Everyone strap yourselves in, there could be a certain jarring effect when we lose power.”
The crew members strapped themselves into their seats. Many of them wore their alien helmets, believing the theatrical safety equipment would somehow protect them, in the event of a crash. But their craft had crashed many times, in other worlds, and there was generally nothing left but for the smoking crater.
“Full speed,” a crewmember confirmed, his voice sounding mechanical through the helmet.
The greenish moon now was vast, a small portion of it bloating their screen. If they were to crash into it, they could survive for several days, as there was both atmosphere and water, but it was a vast wasteland, with no way to break into the indestructible vault that was the Story Moon, wherein they knew was the fortified Looking Glass, and many of their plotting enemies.
It was possible, during the Sisters’ Congress, to step off the Story Moon, and be captured and pulled by the Honey Moon, and thus travel from the smaller Story Moon, and thus voyage beyond to the Honey Moon, but you had to have some means of landing, or you would fall to your death in the Steampunk streets below, in Olde London Town. But that’s why they made the foldable steam wings readily available, as they became active as soon as you entered the Honey Moon atmosphere. There was a good half hour of opportunity while the Sisters passed, where you might pass from one world to the next. From High Vale to Steampunk London, or vice versa, but the two worlds rarely desired congress, beyond the passage of moons.
“Uncloak fore portal,” Number Two commanded, and the moon was visible, directly through the glass portal shield, providing the Men from Mars a breathtaking view of the moon just now passing beneath them.
From the roof of Big Ben tower, far up above the clock face, a small woman watched the vast saucer pass from the Honey Moon into the lesser atmosphere of the Story Moon. She spoke into the steam box mounted on the roof of Big Ben, expressly for this purpose.
“They are passing, I repeat, they are passing,” she said, and then quickly strapped on her helmet and her folding wings. She leapt off the roof and her breath caught in her lungs for just a moment as the physics of the moment determined her fate, and then she was falling upward, toward the Story Moon. It was like the dreams she had as a child, when she flew above the ground, and then suddenly was caught up and soared without control into the skies, an inverse-vertigo, spiraling her about. This was just like those dreams, but this was not her first passage through the Sisters’ Congress. She had made this trip many times, and now she soared like a rocket toward the green moon.
There would only be a few moments when passing from one moon to the other, that there would be an absence of atmospheres, and she must hold her breath for a good thirty seconds as she plummeted toward the green moon. But the greater gravity of the blue moon would slow her progress as she entered the thin atmosphere of the green moon, and she would only unfold her wings when she was close to the surface of the Story Moon. She would need to land close to the lesser Great Crater, where there was a guarded passage into the Looking Glass.
Aboard the saucer the crew braced for loss of power, as they now streaked across the atmospheres, heading from blue into green, and when it came, a sudden extinguishing of all lights and forward power, the ship shuddered, and jolted, and heads whipped upon necks, and those wearing their alien grey heads were supported more than those who displayed machismo and showed their feathers. The saucer bucked, and then broke through, and there was a loud, rolling burst of sound, like an explosion, and a ring of steam blasted from about the saucer and drifted back into the Honey Moon atmosphere, and the saucer smoothed down into a freefall glide.
“Begin the slowing procedure, and all crew brace for deceleration—first jerk, now,” Number Two commanded, speaking loudly, as his stomach pushed up into his ribcage. Many would vomit in the next few moments, buffeted by the winds of High Vale, because now they were leaving behind the Story Moon, and folk on the ground looking up would witness a ball of light, shimmering silver, and then gold, and then as the saucer entered the thicker atmosphere there would emerge a remainder, a trail of light and smoke and shimmering sparks that glided in the sky like fireworks, shimmering through all the spectrum of the rainbow, creating a nighttime swatch of color that would hang in the sky for hours. It was beautiful, and enchanting.
It was a show never seen before in High Vale, as this was the first mass incursion by the Men from Mars. Oh, they had been here now, for some time, but it was always accomplished the way the girl now leaving the Honey Moon did it, with folding wings.
The Men from Mars could not portal in, as did Mr. Aajeel, or Mr. Kronoss, because these two gentlemen were allowed in, by the Gatekeeper of this world, the Lady Maulgraul, but only at her whim. The Men from Mars had not deciphered a means around her genius hacks, other than by entering the way others would, via the Honey Moon passage, or as a guest, which entailed passing through the Belly of the Beast. This world of High Vale was protected in so many ways that VS could not even locate its storage sectors, whereas the rules of the world-moon Steampunk Olde London were lax in comparison.
When the saucer decelerated it suddenly jerked, and again the crew were rocked, their heads snapping forward, it was like being slammed with a wall of water, first hitting them from the back, and then reversing to slam them in the face. They strained forward against their harnesses and then suddenly slammed backward, as the saucer buffeted in the winds of High Vale.
“Time slip!” Number Two shouted, closing his eyes, and ducking his head. The crew knew the drill and completed his same preparations, and then the world flashed white, and they entered High Vale hours earlier. Folk watching from the ground saw the shooting star wink out in a simple splash of light (a pebble tossed into a lake), but inside the saucer, the crew were rocked to the core, first turning upside-down, then outside-in, and ultimately they returned to their original position, but in a different buffer of time, and the saucer spun crazily and ceased all forward motion, and slowly descended toward the forest below.
“We have the Sentinel in sight, so we are right on target,” Number Two said, dripping with sweat, feeling exhausted and spent.
It was now the morning prior to the night they entered High Vale, and so now the possibility seemed excellent that they would capture both Jack and Stacey. So, too at this very moment, agents of Kronoss—businessmen—were moving in on the headquarters of Enseladus, and if there was some way to convey a message back to the Honey Moon, they could counteract the attack, but they had not figured a way to accomplish this. Not yet. In the next Grand Scroll, they could keep this in mind.
Because all of this would happen again. Perhaps not exactly like this. But in some key points, it would happen again, and had happened before. It had all happened thousands of times.
That was a primary mission of the Men from Mars, to keep advancing, in their techniques, in their knowledge, and in their wisdom, while maintaining mankind at its pinnacle of advancement (let them attain that, and no more). Like the creature said, keep them in a prison, because a prison was better than the ultimate alternative: death, annihilation. Mankind had already wiped itself out, in biological terms. And all choose hell when confronted with annihilation.
The saucer came down like a pancake slapping a grill. Trees beneath exploded in shrapnel and bushes flattened. But overall, it was quite a nice landing. Momentarily, everyone aboard lost consciousness, for just a few seconds, as the cells of their reality flexibly adapted to this new world. And then they came alive, feeling as if it was for the first time, their bodies awoke to the thrill of High Vale. Even though they could not breathe it yet, they sensed the air all about them. They could see the colors through the shield. They could feel the energy of the place. Oh, if they could somehow harness this energy, it would be like containing a nuclear explosion in a thimble.
Yes, that would be good, good indeed.
They manually kicked out the saucer portals—the doors were created specifically for this purpose, landing here, in a world where there was no harnessed power, but all power was loose and adrift in the ether.
They piled out in orderly fashion, the troops in lockstep, saluting Number One with a crisp, knife-edge hand, up and down, very neat, very disciplined. Even the homegrown High Vale spawn, they were behaving optimally, except that Number One noticed they were inhaling great lungfuls of the High Vale air, and many were smiling. He would have to address that, after. To tell the truth, he expected most of them to die in the next few hours.
But if they could catch Jack, who even now was climbing the Sentinel—and they could see the great tree, just there, perhaps two miles away—and if they could catch Stacey, oh but how things could turn on a dime. Reality would change. For the first time he would have evidence against both Kronoss and Aajeel, and the Shaannii would judge in the favor of Master Enseladus, and who knows, perhaps then the true Enseladus could be known, not that pretender geezer fearful of entering new worlds. Yes, I am the true Enseladus, Number One thought, his chest swelling.
Highwaymen came from out of the woods, gathering in their hundreds. These were the homegrown, High Vale spawn. Good, dutiful men, with their leather heads covering their feathers.
Number One noticed the chubby imbecile, Dancer, or whatever they called him. The halfwit with the—nose. The oaf was busily bringing the big cage through the kicked-out portals on a dolly with wheels. Steam technology did not work here, the proof was in the monstrosity of the crashed saucer, which now looked like a beached metal whale. The craft had broken in the middle, and the top half had collapsed partially inward. But by all tallies, all their force had survived the pancaking. Even the nosey highwaymen with the creature in its box.
He still had his wounded hand tucked beneath his arm. He felt there was no reason to treat the wound, as he did not expect to live beyond this day. No, not really, he knew what was what. He had been through several such encounters, in other places, at other times, in other realities.
“Sire!” one of the highwayman called, this one wearing a somewhat flamboyant green hooded cloak—at least he looked extravagantly dressed compared to his fellows. “We have news of the fugitive!”
Number One glared at the man, but refrained from chastising him. This man had paid him no respect, other than hailing him with the bizarre title of kingship.
“Have you captured him?”
“No Sire, he is gone.”
Number One glared at the man, who cockily arched an eyebrow in answer. These homegrown spawn actually had eyebrows, and noses, all of them! How bizarre they looked, almost like people. There mouths, although small for humans, still looked within the general range of normalcy.
“Explain yourself, what do you mean he is gone?”
The cocky fellow, who pulled back his hood to reveal quite a plumage of yellow feathers—it almost looked like human hair, blond human hair! Laughed, nodding his head. The highwaymen about him seemed to be looking up to this homegrown High Vale highwaymen, like he was some sort of leader among the locals.
“Well, Sire, you see, we had observers watching from the outside, even while we had our good men climbing the stairs, and you see Sire, we saw this monk dressed in black, and he threw the fugitive over the side, from quite high up, along with what appeared to be a little girl!”
“And what happened to them?”
“Well, Sire, you see, exactly what you’d expect, they fell, all the way down. Supposedly the trunk of the Sentinel goes on forever, without bottom.”
“Do we have a fix, any longer, do we have a fix on Jack?” Number One spat at Number Two.
“No. Sir, I was about to tell you. The young subject is gone, from this world. It could mean he is dead, or it could mean he is no longer in this world,” Number Two spoke, not meeting the other man’s eyes. He spoke with military precision. “However, we do still have a fix on the older subject, the Pugilist.”
“Please do not refer to him by that absurd name,” Number One barked. “And it is impossible to move a subject from one reality to another. It just does not happen.”
“Sir, it is how they were ever here, in High Vale,” Number Two corrected.
“Just drop it. But we need to move on the other one.”
“I believe, Sir, that it is time to reach the older subject, via the bonded creature,” Number Two said, indicating the cage, which Dasher was wheeling close at just that moment.
Something came hurtling just above their heads, something flashing and dark, but which emitted a trail of fireflies visible in full daylight.
Numbers One and Two both ducked their heads, and then gaped at the creature that landed upon the bars of the cage. It was a small, man-like thing, but more like an animal, like a flying squirrel, only larger. It clung to the bars of the cage and peered inside.
“Hello, you must be Wolf the wolf,” the creature upon the bars spoke, very clearly. And it seemed to drip light down upon the creature’s head. The little creature shook the bars of the cage and emitted an ear-piercing shriek, and as he did so, little bursts of light erupted in all directions from his body, like tiny fireworks.
And then something large came thundering into their midst, knocking twins right and left, barreling a path with lowered great horns, straight through the ranks of the Men from Mars—it looked like a giant, charging ram—until it reached Numbers One and Two and knocked them both end over end. The creature seized the cage with mighty hands—or paws—and literally ripped the front side of the cage away from the box.
Many of the Men from Mars began moving toward the two newcomers, producing weapons, sharp black metallic rods, until something new came thundering into their midst.
This thing was huge, with obscene pink goat legs, but it walked like a twelve-foot man upon hooves the size of entire people, and this thing had six arms, and this thing was angry, indeed.
“I am Crood!” the monstrosity roared, simultaneously seizing up six Men from Mars.
“I love it when he says that,” panted the big ram-dog, as it gently drew Wolf the wolf from the shattered cage, gathering up the dying animal in his big arms. Although Wolf the wolf had wasted away for nearly a month, the dying wolf was still quite a load for Joshua to lift.
“Get me clear of the Men from Mars,” Wolf the wolf murmured near Joshua’s ear. Michael perched on the animal’s chest, and steadily fed the animal light, soothing great eggs of brightness into the wolf’s wounded skull.
Joshua charged across a troop of the strange men and while many of them attempted to strike him with their spikes, most dove out of his rampaging path. And most of the men present were fixated on Crood, who stormed amidst them, trampling and kicking and stomping and seizing up handfuls of the men, flinging them into the sky, or dashing them upon the ground.
Joshua came charging back as he had headed into too many of the attackers, and he circled around to place Wolf the wolf upon the ground, close to the crooden warrior’s hooves.
Michael leapt from the wolf to Joshua’s shoulder, and he conjured an egg of light, which he hurled into the face of an attacking highwayman—the egg burst in fragments of sparks, and several of the men went down, hands over faces. Joshua braced against the crooden warrior’s leg, and nipped at anyone straying too close.
And then men began to fall, arrows jutting from their legs, in quick succession, one, two, three, four, and soon ten men were on the ground.
Michael, perched between Joshua’s horns, was looking back, shading his bulging meerkat eyes with his little hand, and then he seemed to be looking right at Jack—was it a trick of light? Or was that Jack, waving his bow, smiling. Michael made a little dip of his body, saluting Jack, who waved in return. Was it real? Or just a vision?
Whatever it was, the vision or ghost was certainly handy doling out the arrows.
And then the Men from Mars were fleeing, and Michael looked down to Wolf the wolf, and the dying animal met his eyes, and it almost appeared that he smiled. Michael smiled in return, and began to form an egg of life-giving energy, but suddenly Wolf the wolf was gone, vanished from the world. Michael witnessed compressed grasses spring up from where his body had been, only a moment before.
“Wolf the wolf is gone,” Michael said, sadly, but yet exhilarated.
“Where did he go? Did he just die? Does that happen here, you vanish when you die?” Joshua queried, sniffing the ground where the animal had been.
“I think he went to Stacey,” Michael said, instinctively understanding the mystery of what had just passed. “He’s with Stacey, now.”
“Crood have good time,” the giant bellowed, throwing two handfuls of Men from Mars at the retreating figures.
“Yes, we are all having a good time,” Joshua said, but he was weak, with many holes pierced in his side, and Crood, too, was bleeding profusely from many wounds. Only Michael seemed whole, untouched, and unbloodied.
“Let’s move away from here, before any of them come back,” Michael chittered, riding between Joshua’s horns, and Crood nodded, leading the way.
They did not notice the strange little man—rather chubby, and with a large nose—following along behind them. Whenever Michael or Crood glanced back, the little man melted into the foliage of the path.
“We can’t go back to the Manor, because they will follow us there,” Michael chittered.
“Yes, I was thinking that, as well,” Joshua replied, wearily, stumbling along until Crood picked him up easily in his arms, petting his fur.
“I thought I saw Jack,” Michael murmured.
“I wondered who was putting out all those arrows,” Joshua said, dreamily, lulled by the crooden warrior’s plodding hooves.
“You better put us down,” Michael chittered. He was investigating Joshua’s wounds, and they did not look good, not good at all. Many of the wounds were quite deep, and the big ram-dog had lost a lot of blood.
The crooden warrior gently placed Joshua upon the grasses, and he stroked Joshua’s fur, and Michael realized the giant was weeping.
“Poor doggie, poor, poor doggie,” the giant groaned, tears leaking from his eyes.
And Michael set to work, not knowing if there was any hope left to be had. He buckled up his courage and began feeding light to the ram-dog. But it didn’t look good.
Nearby, the odd chubby highwayman watched, and tears filled his eyes.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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