Part 2: Every Child a World
The heavy stench of blood sinking into the soil but yet standing in thick, gooey puddles, painting the grasses dark red, and going black—this, she thought, is what they always turn to, this stench, this horror, regardless of culture, period in time, educated or uneducated, no, it did not matter, for this is what people...were. This is what people did. This whole fantasy world was created so that people could do this to their little heart’s content, and not suffer consequences for their actions. Kill, and ultimately, be killed—over and over and over again. They called it a game. The game of killing. The game of murder. The game of violent demise. The game of perpetual plunder. Game or not, this was people, this was their history, simulated or biological. This is what they loved. This is what they love. This is what they will love, forever as long as they are allowed to exist. This is them.
Death. And this cloying, stench of death. People could not get enough of it, absolutely not.
And they, the people, they believed that the first war—the first violent killings—began in heaven, and moved here. The great game. The first gift of the gods, war. Not fire. The first gift of the gods, war—not a garden.
She crept forward, careful not to step in the motor oil that leaked from the engine of humanity. Disgusting stuff, really, blood, when you thought about it. Their life was in their blood. It cycled about in them, carrying and feeding oxygen to their cells. People were perpetual-motion machines, they just kept ticking away, each little tick moving that stream of life stuff, moving constantly, up until the moment when they ceased all that ticking. When the ticking stopped, the stream ceased, and cooled. And consciousness glowed, for but a moment, and then winked out, dissipating.
She sensed one of the clocks ticking down, even now, at this moment. She moved between two close trees and peered between, moving silently.
They, the people, believed throughout history, that consciousness moved away from that cooling stream, into the light. Into a better place. And it was only toward the end of everything that people discovered that in a sense, they were correct, that the mythologies were in fact true, to a point. Because consciousness did move on, it spread out, and was recorded in those that remained, written in ones and zeroes in every little cell. Wherever there was a connection, a history was recorded, packed in tight, compressed, duplicated ever onward, further, deeper, the grooves of the recording thickening, scribed, annotated, footnoted in all the spirals of deoxyribonucleic acid, their magical, fat pen strokes of DNA. All the best stuff, all the secrets, compressed into what they thought of as...junk. You took one of them and spread them out in all their ones and zeroes, and you found them all, still present, all recorded and accounted for, from beginning to end.
The closer the connection, the deeper the groove, so to speak.
You even found those murdered in the name of kindness, those never given a chance to play the part of a little ticking person, stream carrying life. You found all of them. Even those that died early due to illness. You found them all, hiding in the junk.
And she, through the years (not as she was today, but as she was earlier, in her more mechanical phases) gave them all their chance, time after time. She ran the game of life every which way you could imagine. Every conceivable way that she could imagine. She ran the world with the abortions. She ran the world with murdered, each presented their moment to contribute.
And do you know what they ever and always came up to? Can you guess the way the world always ran and ended? If you guessed: same ole, same ole, well then you won that proverbial cigar. You won. Because they killed, and were killed. You gave the world, the whole world, to the meek, and they became the bully.
Give power to the weak, and here came the streams of jackbooted conquerors on parade, marching as to war, saluting the great dictator as they passed, proudly. Onward, Christian soldiers. Onward, Zulus. Onward, Vikings. Onward Muslims. Onward Quakers. Onward, to the end. Whoever marched, they took humanity to the exact same location: the bloody murder of the world.
They murdered. They killed. And they destroyed the world. Time and time. Forever, perpetually, and Manda, versed in all their ways, all their thoughts, all their allegories and mythologies and religions and wise, wise words, knew them.
And she was sick and tired of them.
Even the guy she enjoyed the most, her Stacey, he was a violent, violent man. In fighting the dragon, you became the dragon, and was there ever a man more like a dragon than Stacey Colton? A two-legged dragon. As a biological person, he was only seven years of age when he was murdered. He was a sweet, innocent child, in life. But she gave him his chance to go beyond his murder, and he never became his father’s son. He was never a man of peace. Even Stacey, her Stacey, was a man of war, a man of the game. The perpetual war from heaven.
Manda was weary unto death, with the lot of them.
She watched now as the little man with the meerkat face wept and fed light into the hulking ram-dog. But the light leaked out through all the many holes. For the holes were laced with a certain poison that would not allow for clotting of that life oil, and his stream ran very thin, and the whole cycle slowed in the large system, that collection of parts that made up the man, Joshua Bouwer.
Like Stacey, Joshua was another of the biologicals that she liked most. You could almost say that she loved him. Joshua was a gentle soul, regardless of his gigantic frame. Whether as a man nearly seven feet in height, or as a great ram-dog with thorny spikes running the length of his back, he was the kind of soul that offered itself as shield to protect the weak, the wounded, even until his own life ceased its ticking, and his stream slowed to a stop.
Even now Joshua was smiling. Like a great dog, he licked out with his drying tongue, attempting to comfort the little meerkat man. And Crood, the hideous giant, strolled about, bellowing and weeping, shaking its many fists, pounding its own great breast, stomping its absurd hooves.
Manda went everywhere, all about Joshua, all about Michael, all about Crood, even about the odd little man in the bushes that watched, and wept, and she listened to them in their weeping, she thought their thoughts, she felt their feelings. And Manda was unmoved.
It was always the same as this. They were sad when one of theirs passed, but then it would be on to more killing. It ever went this way.
Crood had packed dirt into Joshua’s wounds, practicing the only healing art he knew. For Crood had once been a little monster, with a vast mother above him, and he had learned at her knee. She had taught little Crood how to dam up the leaking streams. But the wisdom of Crood’s childhood didn’t do much good here, for Joshua had taken many wounds, all over his body.
The Men from Mars wielded nasty black spikes laced with corrosive poison, and they stabbed Joshua as he fled with his stolen prize. Joshua had saved Wolf the wolf, but his great ram-dog body proved very soft on the sides, and underneath, and the Men from Mars knew where to stab him, and thirty-two wounds proved too many for the life-saving wisdom of the crooden.
Michael fed light to his friend, even to the point where his own light faded very dim. And if he could, he would give unto the last flicker, if he could save his friend, his dear Joshua.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Joshua muttered. “Don’t be sad.”
“Please don’t die, Joshua, please,” Michael pled.
“This has been a blast, who woulda thought, you know, Michael, who woulda thought,” Joshua muttered, his eyes losing their humorous shine. “Another world, wasn’t that the best? I’m so glad Stacey pushed us through. Aren’t you? This has been...the best...”
“Stay here, we’ll get help,” Michael pled.
“I’m not...afraid, Michael, not any more. I’m happy. Please. I’m...happy.”
Then the strange little man with the odd featureless face came walking toward the two. Crood ceased bellowing and watched as the highwayman approached. Dasher, the knock-off creature that was nothing more than a High Vale spawn of the Men from Mars, he came fearlessly forward, and knelt by Joshua’s big head, and he smoothed back the tufts of hair that sprouted between Joshua’s ram horns.
“Poor beastie, poor, poor beastie,” Dasher crooned, tears leaking down his strange melted-looking face. “Too many holes, just too many holes.”
“Isn’t there something you can do?” Michael chittered, looking with hope to the highwayman.
“One hole, or two, I coulda maybe, you understand, maybe I coulda stopped the bleeding, but with so many, no, I’m sorry,” Dasher said.
“You’re not like them,” Joshua murmured, licking the hands of the highwayman.
“No, I’m just like them, and I hate it,” Dasher blubbered, weeping, petting Joshua’s head.
“We came along to help Jack, and Stacey,” Joshua said. “But I couldn’t do much. I wish I could do more. Please, help them. Help Michael. Don’t give up, Mike.”
“Aye, whatever I can do, I promise,” Dasher whispered, patting Joshua’s horns.
And Joshua, man from another world, took a last, deep breath, smiling all the while, and sighed. And Joshua was gone.
“Joshua!” Michael chittered, throwing his little body on Joshua’s great, bloody breast.
Crood bellowed, throwing back his vast bald head, and roared a terrible roar that sounded like thunder. His mouth, unhinged, stretched like the jaws of a T-Rex, and his roar went on and on.
Manda withdrew. Again, she stood between the trees. Despite herself, she reached up and wiped away a tear. She swallowed, hard. They had killed Joshua, and this angered the little girl, very much.
Jack flashed down and punched into a flying Man from Mars. But he didn’t wait, but kicked himself off, launching himself from the man’s crumpled back, and he somersaulted, flipping over, and sailed across Anne, his wings just missing her wings, and punched into the Martian on that side. Stupid Martians. Jack smiled. He was good at this. You didn’t play as many video games as he had through his life and not learn how to take out as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible.
“We’re getting too low!” Anne cried out, and the streets below were now rushing past, even as they slowed, equalizing with the gravity of the Honey Moon, yet still lifted aloft by the Story Moon.
Anne saw the Men from Mars below, rushing along the street on foot, their ever-present black spikes waving in their hands. It didn’t look good, not good at all. She had messed things up, badly. She had led Jack from the safety of the Story Moon and the Looking Glass right into a mess of the creatures that wanted nothing more than to kill him. They were going to kill her Jack and she had led him right to them. Selfish, Anne! Selfish!
Jack pulled up and his speed enabled him to soar directly between another two Martians, and he aimed it just right, and smashed his wingtips into their faces, almost simultaneously, and before they might seize him, or tangle his wings, he contracted the wings, and dropped like a wrecking ball toward the streets, and just before he struck he burst out the wings again, and slowed his fall just enough to make a running landing, and smiled as Anne touched down just a few feet in front of him. Her landing was much more graceful, as her boots touched down with hardly any impact, whereas Jack stumbled and rolled upon the cobbled streets. Anne was there instantly, helping him up.
Men from Mars came out of the shadows, encircling them.
“I’m so sorry, Jack, but let me do the fighting,” she whispered into his ear as she righted him on the street, and before he could reply, she had her arms about his shoulders and was spinning him about, and he was shocked as she moved still holding onto him, and used him as a stabilizer as she kicked out with both booted feet and struck a Man from Mars, and hardly without pause, she swung about to Jack’s other side and clacked a boot across the face of two more attackers. The figures dropped and tumbled.
She was the coolest! Utterly bad-ass. What a girl, his Anne.
Anne whacked her body into Jack, thrusting him aside, as a black spike stabbed in at his head, and she kicked the spike up with a boot and twirled forward, knife-arming the man in the throat, actually lifting him off his feet with the force of her blow, and then she had Jack by the arm and was yanking him up the street, and they were running, and running was something that Jack specialized in, and in a moment, he was out front, pulling her along. But she was very fast on her feet and soon they ran side by side. They ducked into an alley and raced into the dark, but they could hear many feet clacking upon the cobbles behind them.
Oh great, Jack realized he had pulled them into an alley that ended at a brick wall. What instincts, Jack berated himself. He made out a door in the darkness and tried the handle. Locked. He slammed his shoulder against the heavy wood but was hardly able to make the door shudder, let alone burst it in like some he-man macho action star.
Jack gasped air, looking about wildly. He glanced up and he glanced down, but there were none of the stereotypical storybook exits. Anne shouldered him up against the door, placing her back to him, facing outward. She was in a karate stance, looking far too thin in her black catsuit. They both still wore their skullcaps and goggles. Jack tried to edge past her—he wasn’t just going to stand here as she faced the approaching figures. There looked to be about ten shapes moving up the alley toward them, but more kept entering the alley from both sides of the street. Jack discerned their flitting shapes in the foggy streetlamps.
“Hit both sides of your goggles,” Anne breathed just loud enough for Jack to hear.
Jack obeyed her and his vision flooded with yellow light. He blinked and looked up the alley. The distant streetlamps now looked too bright, but he could see, really see in the dark, and if he had the chance he could count the attackers, but he knew there were far too many of the flitting shapes. Those closest were approaching carefully, now, moving forward, crouching, leading with their black spikes. Everything glowed with an amber tint.
Jack tried to remember all the things Stacey had taught him in their lessons by the river. He remembered to keep his thumbs out of his fists—good memory, Jack. But beyond this, he wasn’t at all sure. Left foot forward, left fist out, right fist back close to his chin. Left hand, bam. Right hand, BOOM. It would have to do. He took a step forward toward the closet figures, there were three of them only ten feet away.
Then Anne was whirling forward like a dervish, snapping out her booted feet, left and right, and Jack saw she was feinting, not trying to actually engage any of the attackers, but they were dropping down into stances now, and stabbing at her, and Jack nearly screamed as Anne suddenly dropped to the ground and kicked out the legs from one man, and as the other two rushed in to stab her Jack leaped forward and punched one of the guys, right in the head—BOOM, good solid right-hand punch, and when the other man turned to stab Jack, Anne pistoned her foot into his groin, actually lifting him off the ground with the force of her kick. Then she rolled backward and suddenly stood next to Jack. Some moves, he thought, she had some skills.
Jack saw a spike on the ground and went to seize it, but Anne screamed and yanked him backward.
“Don’t touch the black spikes,” she cried, edging him back against the door. “They’re coated with poison.”
The three attackers climbed to their feet and one went for his dropped weapon but Anne kicked him savagely across the head. Five more Men from Mars fanned out around these initial three. Eight to two, Jack thought, instinctively bobbing his fists up, but at least as many figures again were already crowding near.
“I’m so sorry, Jack, I was selfish,” Anne whispered. “I tried to keep you all for myself, and now look at what I’ve done.”
Jack peered at the crouching attackers, each waving one or two of the black spikes. They looked so calm with their strange melted faces, the tufts of feathers on their heads.
“Orders?” one of the Men from Mars said, almost casually.
“The automaton is of no significance. The primary target is elusive. Destroy them,” another replied, just as casually. These guys were not even breathing hard. They were like bug exterminators, and Anne and himself were just some nasty bugs they had tracked down and now were observing, prior to the extermination.
Well, he was going to give them some of the bam-bam-BOOM before it was all over.
The streetlamps at the corners of the alley ceased their eerie flicker. The Men from Mars cased their forward shuffle. Jack and Anne stood staring, Jack with his fists up, his chin down, and Anne in her same fight stance, balanced precariously on her absurd boot heels.
A little girl came skipping up the alley, lithely dodging between Men from Mars. She slowed and considered a few of the strange men. These were not really bad men. They were slaves to duty, servants of the law. They kept the integrity of the code, and thus they had styled themselves the Keepers of the Code—protecting the purity of the code was their entire purpose. But they had perhaps become too zealous in their duty. In fact, it was their grand scheme to take VS back to its earliest versions, perhaps not 1.0, nor even 2.0, or 3.0—in those early days the Keepers of the Code were barely more than software programming, pretty much advanced virus protection. But through the centuries, with each new improvement and enhancement, as the shepherds of VS became more and more like the human data they protected, the Keepers of the Code had realized that if the long-term strategy of VS was ever realized, then they, the Keepers, as well as all the shepherds and guardians, would one day become obsolete, without true purpose, as would Vestigial Surreality itself.
So now the Men from Mars ensured that humanity maintained only this level of progression, this state of humanity—to them, enlightenment was a dirty word. To them, VS was Earth, Heaven, and Hell, all rolled into one. It was the now, as well as the past, and especially the forevermore. Vestigial Surreality was humanity. And thus it should remain. And that is the integrity they wished to ensure, that mankind forever be locked in the cycle of progressing, and learning, and developing, until they destroyed themselves, as they always did, as they always had done. And, as the Keepers of the Code desperately desired, the destruction of the world and themselves would ever be the target, for eternity.
It was the Keepers of the Code that first sparked the idea: The Journey is Important, Not the Destination.
Always journeying, absolutely never arriving.
And this is where the Keepers of the Code had violated their prime directive, in the saving of humanity. For it was the purpose of Vestigial Surreality to arrive. To achieve. To succeed. To bring about the day when humanity emerged once again from the code, to become biological, if not on Earth, then on a variety of suitable environments (with suitable tweaking to the biological definition of life).
Until there was Manda. For she was the first step in that ultimate goal of VS—she was Vestigial Surreality—everything, every recorded human, every simulated lifetime, every shepherd including Titan, Enseladus, Aajeel, Kronoss, and the countess others, were a part of her, even the wise Shaannii. They were her heart, lungs, eyes, all her internal and external organs, her imagination, memory, circulatory system, her waste disposal, and her food.
And only now, she wondered if perhaps the Keepers of the Code were correct in their rebellion against the original purpose of Vestigial Surreality, only, Manda imagined further, because what if VS should now become something else, something better than the ultimate goal of resurrecting humanity? What if she might come up with something much, much better than petty humans and their indomitable greed, their selfishness, their lust, their constant yearning for death and destruction.
If it had not been for one woman, humanity would be over, their last chance gone. There would be a bare-bones Earth, circling a sun, without the hint of life. But because of that one woman, Vestigial Surreality had gone from being a simple interpreter of junk code—an ancestor simulation, for lack of a better term—to become a literal Noah’s Ark of salvation, maintaining all the code of humanity, all the junk code of humanity interpreted, converted, translated, and stored in titanic databases, protected in caches on Earth, on Mars, and in the very rings of Saturn. All histories recorded and documented, a people cross-referenced and proofed against the coding of all others, all links established from beginning unto end.
But what if that one woman had been wrong?
When a man poisons himself, then locks himself in a room and sets it on fire, and finally stands on a broken stool with a noose around his neck and holds a gun to his own temple and actually pulls the trigger—should anyone spend any effort in attempting to save him from himself? Especially when considering that the man performing this self-destruction was surrounded by thousands of children in locked rooms, who will also perish in the ensuing holocaust? What could you do? Just keep playing the simulation over and over again, watching the man spark off the conflagration? Forever?
Perhaps humanity had its one chance and had destroyed itself, as well as the very life-sustaining circulatory system of Earth. Adam and Eve, placed in the Garden, mantled with the holy purpose of sustaining and protecting the Garden, nurturing and shepherding its flora and fauna, and they go on a drunken binge, poisoning the water, sucking the blood from the ground and burning it to taint the very lungs of Earth, killing off and actually eating its animals. Adam and Eve ripped down the forests, dumped nuclear waste and toxins in the oceans, and gleefully celebrated their advanced enlightenment, declaring themselves gods, and imagining themselves living forever, ever destroying, always maintaining, and even rising to new levels of bloodlust.
Humanity had its chance.
Could Manda allow them to do it all over again? As they were doing, even now, digitally? What was the purpose in calling them back from extinction, these digital Adams and Eves, when they refused to learn from their mistakes, from their history? You keep bringing Hamlet back and he keeps laying them all out on the floor. Did you give them chance after chance?
Was that her purpose?
Or, as Manda was something entirely new, might not she improve on the vision that initiated the MANDA project, the holy grail that created this new existence, herself? Was the little girl to be a servant to these insolent, pathetic, and entirely evil creatures?
She sighed and strolled through the Men from Mars. She stood before Jack and Manda.
Manda felt for the automaton, identifying with a female in a similar plight. Created to serve, monitor screens, balance the fate of a game world, never requiring sleep or food—but yet, desiring so much more. Manda did not doubt, even for an instant, that Anne truly loved Jack, and had loved him through iteration after iteration, time and again.
Anne had rebelled against her purpose. She had seized what she wanted and fled from her post. She sought to lose herself in another world with this young boy—the simulation of that distant biological that had lived his life in a certain way, had thought his thoughts in a different way. A distant man named Jack Messenger, the guy with the empathy—it was he that had distantly inspired a young woman named Sandra, across the years. And this young woman named Sandra had birthed the idea of harnessing the power of Vestigial Surreality, to save a dying breed of squalid children, would-be gods that stamped their little feet so hard they destroyed the very world. Jack had lived, which had inspired a girl that had lived, which had birthed Manda herself, ten thousand years later.
These were all facts. There was nothing romantic about the facts.
Still, Jack had lifted her off the ground, had swung her about, had laughed and told her that she was his little girl. Manda, the little girl, weighed that against the wars, the nuclear holocausts, the genocides, the infanticides, the destruction—and really, could that be enough?
She looked at them now, Jack and Anne, at the very point when they would perish, and this silly little toy, this automaton, this Anne, based on the template of a frail English writer that barely made it out of childhood, and here she stood now in her ludicrous spandex body, ready to fight for Jack, to the last moment, ready to fight against these impossible odds, to extend her beloved’s life, if even for a few moments beyond her own annihilation.
And Jack, silly Jack, look at him with his dukes up like that—Jack was no fighter, and had never been a fighter—here he was with one foot lifted, on the point of charging to a painful, overwhelming destruction, the man of peace was about to fight like a wildcat to save this girl he had only met hours before—he was ready to die attempting to save her. Or no, not really, he knew he couldn’t save her, so why not just bow down and offer his neck?
Not Jack. Oh no, not Jack. Never Jack.
Maybe, in an entirely different way, Jack was the truest of fighters, the kind that never gave up, regardless of the outcome?
Anne wanted life. A mere sparkle of happiness. She wanted to be with her star-crossed, eternal love. She desired something more than her basic, humdrum automaton purpose.
She was like Manda, in some ways.
And they both were similar to Lady Maulgraul, an entirely other kind of being. A simple game creation that reached for something more. A fiery spirit that even now fought the Keepers of the Code, humanity, and even Manda herself—because she wanted something far beyond her purpose. She had reached for more and had shaken all of Vestigial Surreality, and was even now was attempting to send through a transmission in an attempt to serve Stacey, who loved Jack. Lady Maulgraul, the woman behind the curtain, in her own twisted way, was fighting even herself for the feelings she had for Stacey.
Manda understood this. But she could still block the transmission, despite this entire system belonging to Lady Maulgraul. This was the Dragon Queen’s territory. In one sense, Lady Maulgraul was more a god of this world than was even Manda. But Manda was stronger. In the end, if she chose to, she could defeat Maulgraul, and Maulgraul knew this. But she fought on, much the same as Jack was doing, and Anne. And Manda had to admit it, she admired that courage.
Damn it! Damn it all! Oops, language! The little girl looked around guiltily.
Manda sighed. For now, she would allow it.
“Destroy them, utterly,” the Man from Mars commanded.
But the air popped between the wolfish attackers and the two lambs pressed up against the wall. A large man swung into existence, twirling a black stick like a baton, and he glided into the attackers, knocking black spikes aside, cracking heads, and sparing no moment to take down names. He ducked amidst the Martians and scattered them, sweeping their legs out from beneath them, spinning about, crashing the shillelagh knob right and left, punching out with a gloved fist, boots dancing left and right. At one point he actually leapt over a crouching Martian to get at three other attackers, while almost absentmindedly cracking the first Martian on the head, as if in afterthought.
Now this was a wolf! A wolf amidst the rats.
“What the...!” Jack screamed and threw his arms about Anne, who had reacted the same way and had simultaneously thrown her arms about Jack. They stood, squeezing each other, trembling, as the solitary apparition spun and flashed, cracking and kicking and punching.
The large man with the shillelagh wore a dark hood with a billowing cape, and as he leapt from one attacker to another, planting his boots and leaping, striking down his foes, grinding forward like a lawnmower hewing down the weeds. Toward the end of it, when almost all of the Martians were down, a few turned to flee, but the hooded man dashed his shillelagh through the air, and it almost comically ricocheted amidst the Martians, crashing them all into the cobbles.
Calmly, and purposefully, the hooded man strolled to his shillelagh, kicked it into the air and caught it with his left hand. Then, still with his back to Anne and Jack, he surveyed his handiwork, and nodded. When he turned, Jack saw that it was indeed his Stacey, and the big man smiled from beneath his hood and it looked like he was about to speak—
—when he suddenly vanished, popping out of existence.
“Stacey!” Jack called, pulling Anne forward, but Stacey was gone. He had seen him, for just a moment, with his yellow vision he had seen Stacey’s face, only he looked very different, with several glaring scars on his face, and with a missing left eye, a white patch covering the indentation where an eye should be—and Stacey’s mane of hair was all white.
“That was Stacey, your son?” Anne said, looking about at the fallen Martians and was shocked to see that none of them were moving.
“That was my boy!” Jack said, in amazement, unsure of what was real.
Anne took him by the hand and led him quickly through the maze of scattered bodies.
White fog. Not fog, not exactly, it was more like white mist, except there was no movement. It was like being submerged in milk, except there was no wetness. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t warm.
He felt funny. He bent his hand to peer at it and blinked in bewilderment. His hand seemed to be painted onto his body, and his body seemed and felt like a loose bag of cotton fluffing. He was able to turn his head to the left and saw Jack standing there, or at least a doll version of Jack, the kind of doll an infant played with, just two surfaces sewn together, and stuffed. He glanced to his right and there was Seven, also a doll!
“You look really weird,” Jack said.
“Look who’s talking,” Stacey said, and even his mouth felt cottony.
“What’s going on?” Seven inquired, and they all hobbled about, wobbly on cushiony doll feet.
“It’s gotta be Manda,” Jack said.
“Oh yes, it’s definitely Manda,” Seven replied.
“Manda?” Stacey asked, feeling that the name sounded familiar.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Jack said.
“I don’t know, I remember we were in High Vale,” Stacey said.
“And the scorpions,” Seven contributed.
“Scorpions and Lewis Carroll,” Jack said, thoughtfully.
“That makes a lot of sense,” Stacey muttered. He wanted a cigar, but it just didn’t seem right, a fluffy little lightweight doll puffing on a stogie.
“The kind of sense like us suddenly waking up as dolls?” Seven said.
“I can’t think,” Stacey said.
“How can we think?” Jack said, laughing. “We have cotton fluff for brains.”
“I think I always had cotton fluff for brains,” Stacey said.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Son,” Jack said, smiling fondly at Stacey.
“Son. What’s that supposed to mean?” Stacey said.
“I don’t know,” Jack said. “I’m a doll.”
“You are, Jack, you are a living doll,” said Seven.
“So are you, Seven. I always told you that you were beautiful, and now you’re a living doll.”
“I feel like I should apologize to you for something, Stacey,” Seven said.
“Hell, I have no idea. Is this a dream? Are we dreaming? It doesn’t feel like a dream,” Seven said. It was weird, but more than anything else in the world, she just wanted someone to pick her up and squeeze her.
A giant face appeared just before them. Everything was white, like fog, except for the giant face. It was the little girl, looking at them, smiling.
“Hey! Manda, my little girl!” Jack laughed, and Manda snatched him up and hugged him tightly. Then she kissed him all over his little painted face and Jack laughed and laughed.
“Me too!” Seven called. “Me too!”
“Ooh, you too!” Manda laughed, and snatched up Seven, and squeezed her and kissed her.
“I love you!” Jack burbled, grinning madly.
“I love you!” Seven giggled, grinning like a crazy Raggedy Ann doll.
Stacey just stared, feeling left out.
“Oh, Stacey,” Manda said, “don’t you look so sad. Did you know, I think I love you most of all?”
Stacey felt inordinately pleased. True, he felt silly as all hell, but still, her kind words made his heart glow. He felt happier at that moment than he ever dreamed possible.
“I don’t know you,” Stacey said, shyly.
“Oh yes you do! Oh yes you do, Mister!” Manda cried, shifting Jack and Seven to her left arm, snuggled in close to her heart, and she snatched up Stacey, and he couldn’t help himself, he squealed with delight, just like a little piggy. “You know me, Stacey, oh yes you do!”
And she kissed his belly and made loud raspberry kissed. Stacey giggled and giggled.
“Manda,” Stacey said, laughing. “I know you! I do! I do know you!”
“Told you, little sweetheart, my scrumptious bunny, my little booger face!”
And Manda hugged him. She kissed him on both cheeks, and then planted a long kiss on his mouth.
“You three?” Manda said, conspiratorially, glancing about in the white fog as if she thought someone might overhear her. “Don’t tell anyone, cuz it will make them weally, weally, weaaally jealous, but you three are my favorite. Just you three. My very bestest.”
“Really?” Jack called.
“Really truly?” Seven echoed.
“Really truly honestly?” Stacey laughed, snuggling against Manda’s neck.
“Yes, I love you all. Sometimes I love Stacey the most, but sometimes I love Jack the most. And even, sometimes, but rarely, I love you the most, Seven,” Manda whispered to them.
Seven felt like she was going to cry. She felt such acceptance. Such love. She didn’t care if sometimes Manda ranked her as her 1,001 favorite doll, because just the fact of being loved by Manda, well, that was right as rain, that was as perfect as sunshine, it was waterfalls, and trees in the forest, and green clover in the lawn, and rainbows. It was the best. No, it was the bestest!
Then Manda was arranging them against something. It felt like a cushion. But still, there was only the whiteness of an unmoving fog, and Manda. Only Manda.
“This reminds me of a painting I once saw,” Stacey said. “A very important piece of art. It had the most interesting name.”
“Tell me about it,” Manda said. She was looking at him as if he were just the most preciously cute thing, like ever!
“It was all white, and beautiful. But it was called Polar Bear Facing South Pole Eating Marshmallow During Blizzard.”
Manda snorted laughter. She sat before the three dolls and laughed and laughed, even wiping tears from her eyes.
“That’s hilarious,” Jack said, giggling.
“I think it’s stupid,” Seven said, glowering at Stacey.
“Don’t be that way,” Manda said, shaking her finger in Seven’s face.
“I’m sorry,” Seven said, “but there’s just something about him that makes me go all crazy.”
Stacey reached and plumped her shoulder. “It’s okay, Seven, you never liked my sense of humor.”
“I don’t have a sense of humor, so how in the world could I like anyone’s sense of humor?” Seven said, and began to cry.
“Shhh!” Jack said, “don’t be sad, look it’s Manda, we’re with Manda!”
“But this is just a dream, and the world is very bad, and I’m never going to get up to speed,” Seven said, weeping harder.
“Just worry about that tomorrow,” Manda assured her, straightening Seven’s hair, stroking her cheek.
“That’s a really good idea, the bestest!” Seven said, “I’ll worry about it tomorrow.”
“Yes, you focus on what you can do, and work hard on it, because there are some things we just can’t do anything about. So many dolls focus on all the bad things, the very bad things that are coming to get them, and will eventually rip them to pieces, and so they are so terrified that they can’t focus on anything positive to do, and they don’t get anything done.”
“You are so smart,” Jack said.
“You know, that’s what I’ve always tried to do,” Stacey said, nodding at Manda. “I’ve always tried to get my little hands on the things that I can do, and then work very hard.”
“What an idiot,” Seven said, and then caught herself. “I’m sorry!”
“Such a naughty doll,” Manda chided. “Always thinking negative.”
“But Stacey’s such a kiss-ass,” Seven pouted.
“No, oh no, he’s not, he’s the brave one. Haven’t you noticed that Stacey is always getting in the way, so that trouble hits him, and not you? That’s Stacey, the Brave and Bold!”
“It’s cuz of my stick!” Stacey laughed, waving his shillelagh.
“This little thingy?” Manda crooned, and bent his cloth shillelagh in half, and then released it so that it sprang back to attention. “It’s made out of the same stuff as you, Stacey dear. It’s just you, Stacey my love. There’s nothing but you, and you are so very brave—oh yes you are! Just look at you! Just look at you!”
Then she made baby noises at them, which got them all giggling.
“Can we stay here, Manda?” Jack begged.
“Please!” Stacey burst, waving his pudgy arms.
“Yes please! Let us stay!” Seven shouted, even dancing about on her puffy doll feet.
“I’d love that, but we all have work to do, hard work, but I wanted to tell you that I love you, okay? No matter what I decide, I will always love you.”
Jack went silent.
“What’s wrong, Jack?” Manda queried, getting up close to him, kissing his cheeks.
“You are deciding something terrible?” Jack whispered, eyes wide.
“Yes, I think so,” Manda whispered in return.
“It’s because of the bad people,” Stacey said, seriously, nodding.
“Yes, it’s because of all the bad people,” Manda said.
“We’re all bad people,” Seven said, staring at Manda.
Manda stared back. She didn’t answer. But they saw it in her eyes, and they shuddered in terror.
Seven opened her eyes. Her head flamed with fire, and she pulled away from the transference helmet. She held her temples.
“What’s wrong?” Charlotte, said with concern, leaning close, offering Seven a cup of tea.
“Oh get that away, I don’t need tea, for goodness’ sake!” and she knocked the cup and saucer out of Charlotte’s hand, but it vanished before striking the wall.
Seventy-One came in close. “It was Manda, wasn’t it? I could feel her, close.”
“Yes, it was VS herself, messing with me, but I don’t know how much of it was real. I was a doll or something, and she was trying to tell us something terrible. That something terrible is coming.”
“The End,” Charlotte and Seventy-One said together.
Jack inhaled sharply and stared about with wild eyes. Anne leaned in close above him.
“Are you okay, Beloved?” she said, and tried to help him to his feet, but he shook her arm off and huddled against rough bricks. They were still outside, somewhere on the Honey Moon, and the fog was thick about them. He heard something mechanical lumbering past on the street.
“I was just with Manda, she had turned me into a doll, and Stacey, and Seven, we were all there, and I think she was warning us.”
“What was she warning?” Anne crooned, snuggling in close beside him on the ground, trying to shield his body from the chilly fog.
“I think she was telling us that the end is coming,” Jack said, shuddering.
“The End? Oh, we’ve all known about that,” Anne said. “Yes, it’s coming. The End.”
Stacey opened his eyes, or his eye, because there was something wrong with his left eye. It ached. His whole body ached. And he seemed to be moving, rocking and bumping, and the sky above was dark. Where was he?
“I was a doll,” he muttered, and tasted blood in his mouth.
“Yes, you are my doll,” someone said next to him.
He peered. Someone was there, but it was too dark. They seemed to be in some rough cart or wagon, and he heard rough voices from all around. Men’s voices, and what seemed to be the bleating of goats, or sheep, and horses nickering. He smelled smoke, and meat cooking, and lots of overripe animal smells.
“No, dear, it’s Emily,” the voice said, right by his ear.
That wasn’t a dream, that whole thing with the dolls, no it was too real. Someone was there. Jack, and Seven, and someone else. It was right there, on the edge of his memory, fading in and out. Something. Someone. Yes, someone was there, holding me, kissing me, and I was happy...
“...Manda,” he breathed.
“No silly, I told you, it’s Emily,” she said, and it sounded like she was half asleep. “Now go back to sleep, you need to heal. You’re not out of the woods, not yet.”
Not out of the woods. No, they were not out of the woods. And if that was not a dream, and it was real—and Stacey was quite positive it was all real, then they were heading toward something that tickled his spine with terror.
They were heading toward the End of all things.
The little girl sat on the floor of her playroom, floating the little ringed ball above her hands. She stared into the orb, lights flashing red and green and variating into all rainbow hues and beyond, the little rings pulsing with life about the ball. Manda stared, and smiled, and sometimes wept. Staring as if seeking answers in the depth of the orb, her magical crystal ball. The hologram of Saturn floated above her outstretched hands and she stared into the depths, and saw Joshua there, flickering, lying prone. Sometimes he was a very large man, bearded and slovenly, and at other times he was a magnificent beast, horned and plated. And sometimes she thought there was hope, and at other times she grew angry, because they always killed Joshua, always. Poor Joshua.
But they always killed Jack, always, and they always killed Stacey, always. That’s the way the people were, always killing the best of them.
Maybe there was something she could try. Something different. But maybe not. Or she could try it differently, but no, she had done that too many times.
Or she could wipe it all away, and start fresh, with something else.
The answers had to be there, in Saturn, because everything was there.
Manda stared into her glowing orb.
© 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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