Music swirled into the room and over the company like a blizzard, so thick and so loud that the company actually staggered—physically tilted, went off-kilter—and then seemed to be walking upside-down, and their equilibrium condensed within them. Seven clenched her eyes shut and placed her hands over her ears, as they all seemed to be doing, even Charlotte—even Titan—until a voice boomed through the music, cutting the cacophony and snapping a small degree of rationality into the room, and the company blinked about, their nausea departing, instantly, and each member found themselves sitting in a luxurious theatre, rich and pompous with silk streamers and glowing coils of lighting, seated upon velvety seat cushions, warm, and comfortable, and safe.
“Astounding,” Frankenstein commented, gazing about in wonder.
“I would think opium dust, carried in the air,” Tesla said, sniffing, mind ever calculating and figuring, deciphering the world, looking around the edges of the trick.
“Do not be absurd,” Frankenstein growled softly, sotto voce, “the man is doing all this with his voice. We just experienced his famous animal magnetism. Herr Doctor Mesmer began many of his famous theories, here, in this very theatre, after meeting our Punchinello.”
“Something else is transpiring,” Tesla whispered, ever looking about, his insightful gaze taking in everything. He pulled a small silver box from his vest, and proceeded to produce what Seven took to be a cigarette.
“I doubt that smoking is allowed in here,” Seven cautioned.
“Oh, but this is not smoke,” Tesla said, grinning, “it is a little invention of mine. These little tubes which appear to be made of paper, are actually a new kind of material I have been working with, at the molecular level. The metal box holds a tiny steam engine, which holds enough water to produce several hours’ worth of steam, and I just insert the tube into the box, press down, and voila!” he finished, with pride, extracting the white tube, which he inserted into his mouth, and puffed out clouds of steam. It really did look like a cigarette, but produced much thicker billows, which vapor did not hang about, but dissipated after moments.
“It helps me to think,” the genius inventor said, his eyes already traveling back to the dome of the ceiling, calculating. “Each tube contains a charge of steam, and I can enjoy a good steam for the next fifteen minutes, depending upon how hard I puff. And I need to think about this Monsignor Punchinello, and his fabulous puppets, but what I really need to do is ponder what is below the puppet show, which I believe is somehow linked to the missing children of the city.”
Seven, listening, agreed with Tesla, that something was going on, something beneath the surface. Ever since those curtains parted, something rolled out unseen in the atmosphere, something enveloping them, even now—her first thought was a blizzard, but now she realized it was something more warm than raging, blowing snow, something akin to humidity, an island breeze, only with no movement in the air. How was such a thing even possible?
But it was something more uncanny than any of those ideas or descriptions. When Punchinello spoke, the world...changed.
Using only mental commands, Seven called up a window and checked on the raw data of the simulation. What she saw amazed her, because they were no longer in that flat, early simulation, but had progressed two versions into complexity, and one to the side. Somehow, Punchinello had found a way to change reality, as had the Lady Maulgraul. It was as if a later Punchinello had somehow reached back and snatched them from his earlier self, and catapulted them into a version where he had much more power, and had learned many more tricks.
Then Seven’s window...fuzzed—it filled with static, and winked out.
That was weird, in fact it had never happened before, this feeling of...déjà vu, an overwhelming and creeping sensation of dread, reminding her of her very first day, when Kronoss—Mr. Odd Jobb—snatched her from her world and dragged her into her very own crystal sandbox. At the time, such a thing seemed like magic, because even in the advanced reality that Seven knew, in her time and place and world, it did not seem possible to pull someone into a simulation. And while they had purposefully come here, into this early version of the Honey Moon, Olde London Steampunk, entering the simulation armed with all the best technology, knowledge, and administrative control—this now seemed just as unlikely as that early day when Mr. Kronoss had seen her, looking at her from one world to the next, peering at her out of the Crystal Sandbox, twitching his finger toward her in a disdainful curl, ruining forever her innocent knowledge of reality, manfully seizing her and dragging her into the very data of the ancestor simulation wherein she studied Jack.
Then she was struck by a memory, suddenly returned. She gasped. Just now, only now, she remembered the hologram of Seventy-One, her early digital helper that earlier versions of Sandra Newbury had programmed to aid later versions of herself, Seven. When the curtains opened and Punchinello appeared, Seventy-One had tried to warn them, and then she had winked out, extinguished by a stronger force of power. She had attempted to warn them.
She glanced to the side, that strong feeling overwhelming her—someone stared at her. She looked, her eyes instantly meeting those of Nikola Tesla. He nodded, leaning over the “boy” to whisper something to Seven. Poor Charlotte sat in her male disguise, looking shocked, clouded, and in a daze. Seven leaned in, turning her head, offering her ear to Tesla.
“The world just changed, when we entered through the curtains—it was some form of...doorway, or portal,” Tesla whispered.
How could he know that? As far as she understood this Honey Moon simulation, Tesla was merely an NPC, part of the coding, not a real person planted here—unless, of course, this was his avatar of an earlier player, now a ghost, haunting this theatre. It was eerie, thinking such thoughts, that his could be a consciousness of a person long dead, that this was the intelligence of the residual player, a disconnected avatar on its own.
“I spotted a green flicker of light, as we passed the curtains, like a vast green circle,” Tesla continued, murmuring into her ear.
“How much do you know?” Seven hissed, not turning her head, remaining frozen with Tesla’s lips on her ear.
“Some of us have deciphered aspects of this...reality,” Tesla whispered. “We know that this is not the reality, but the simulacrum. That this is false reality. That we are not studying the map, but are in fact living inside the map.”
Seven turned her head, withdrawing a few inches, and met his eyes. He nodded, his intelligent eyes studying her. She understood that this man had a higher intelligence than her own.
“Who? How many of you know this?” she whispered, her skin rippling in gooseflesh.
“Not many, but there are two distinct societies of the mind, and I have been fortunate enough to meet many in both orders. Only the best thinkers in both societies are beginning to understand the truth, but none of us fully understand; we are at best harboring our own personal theories. Frankenstein’s hypothesis is that he is the only real person in the world, and all the rest of us are fabrications of his imagination.”
Seven was not surprised to learn that Frankenstein was a narcissist, possibly a sociopath. Well, honestly, his literary reputation did proceed him.
“A friend of mine, a Mr. Holmes, he is in the opposing society, and he asked me to accompany Frankenstein to this place. He is following in the tracks of several missing children,” Tesla whispered.
Seven nodded to him, and prepared a window, but was careful to double-encrypt the code, at the highest level, her mind calling up firewalls, preparing the most deceptive window she could manage on short notice, and called this up so that only she and Tesla might see it. She showed it to him. The genius inventor gaped at the window, and then he collapsed back into his seat, overwhelmed. His face was ashy pale, and his eyes glittered; then, surprisingly, he burped, very loudly.
“Tesla! You swine,” Frankenstein gasped, slapping the inventor upon the arm. “Watch your manners, man! A lady is present!” And then the mad doctor removed a flask from an inner pocket, unscrewed the top, and took a large and long swallow. He passed the flask to the younger man.
“Excuse me,” Tesla muttered, pounding his chest with his fist, shaking his head as if waking from a dream. He sipped from the flask and replaced the cap, and passed it back to Frankenstein. Then, sucking at his steam cigarette, he stared dazedly at the theatre curtains before them. Apparently, she had shared a little too much with the genius, confirming too many of his wild conjectures, all at once.
Seven glanced over at Titan, who sat collapsed in his theatre seat, his eyes dazed, staring forward. Looking about, she noted that the two bodyguard automatons were nowhere in evidence. They had not come through the portal.
Seven pulled the window back in front of her, making certain that her hands did not move. She remembered how she had freaked out Stacey and Jack on that first day, going through her menus, trying to wrestle back control from Kronoss. Her hands had flown as she moved through menus and options. But with experience, she had learned that all of this was in her mind, and she was relieved that her connection to Vestigial Surreality was still strong. She had all bars. Everything was green, and good.
Thinking, she controlled everything, moving through her menus without even moving her eyes, but now, studying the data, she realized that she understood nothing about this world, this simulation. Something very weird indeed was going on, and she observed the large magnets placed all about the theatre, viewing various architectural drawings and schematics, and discerned the peculiar lacing of metal—the theatre was a dome, meshed in what appeared to be copper latticework, and there were vast machines beneath the floor. And what seemed to be antennas, or lightning rods, poked outward from all about the dome. It reminded her somewhat of a primitive Faraday cage.
Seventy-One appeared in the window, speaking softly—but Seven had the whole display configured so that only she could see it, more in her mind than in a projected window—it is true, this was a typical heads-up display configuration, so everything did indeed seem to be “out there,” although Seven understood it was all in her head. So she was safe, unless someone had a means of looking into her head.
“That was bad,” Seventy-One said, “like getting squished by a giant hand.”
“Are all the connections good? Can anything take control again?” Seven thought.
“I brought in Lil Stevie from IT, so he’s safeguarding everything right now, encrypting everything from the outside, and although you were shifted upward through the versions, we have ensured that we are still local, not connected to the active High Vale sim, but something is active, like a sea serpent beneath the waves, Lil Stevie says he’s never seen anything like it, but he has already placed double firewalls, and what he calls onerous encryption, so I think we are safe, but stay on your toes—I do not like your readings, Seven, there seems to be some kind of intoxication in you, or more around you, and Titan is pretty much offline, we don’t know what’s going on with him.”
“Just stay connected. Do not leave us alone in here,” she said inside her head, and saying it scared her. She remembered poor Charlotte’s anxiety attack, when the automaton pled not to be deserted in this place.
Seventy-One projected herself out of the window, hovering like a little green figure made of glass, hologram translucent, then she settled down to stand on the back of the seat before Seven.
“That stinking fist won’t squeeze me out this time,” Seventy-One said, folding her arms and grimacing so terribly, Seven almost burst into laughter.
The swelling orchestra music extinguished, and the curtains upon the stage withdrew, revealing stage dressing—an old man with white whiskers, bald-headed with wispy white tendrils of hair, seated in a workshop, working upon the most elaborate mechanical puppet Seven had ever seen. She recognized the setting at once, Geppetto’s workshop.
The complicated puppet in the old man’s hands was none other than Pinocchio, instantly recognizable, except that he looked more like a real boy, from the get go—entirely too real. As Geppetto whittled at the puppet and long slices of wooden flesh peeled away, Seven winced, because it somehow looked horrible, albeit the puppet’s flat eyes and lifelessness dispelled at least some of the gruesome feeling the sight induced.
What was it? It was beautiful, everything, inviting, friendly—had she really just been thinking that it was somehow horrifying? Terrible? No! Look at it, what a spectacle, she had never seen anything like it in all her life—this was nothing like the movies or cartoons, no, this was...magical. Not even the advanced 3D entertainments of the High Vale era could compete with this...whatever it was.
Seven dismissed her data window. She could not help it. She only had eyes for the scene unfolding before her. Seventy-One, however, remained, standing like a little toy soldier made of green glass, marching back and forth on the seat back.
The scene on the stage was charming, somehow wonderful. Because the old man, Geppetto, was an intricate marionette, as well, with strings so slight as to be invisible. It was astonishing, how smoothly it appeared, the old man working on his surrogate son, whittling with a knife, whistling. Everything was enchanting. There was nothing blocky or herky-jerky, no, it was life, but better than life—this was enhanced life.
She forgot Charlotte, and Titan, and Tesla, and Frankenstein. It was she, Seven, alone, and that old man, right up there, carving life from wood. Wonderful. She breathed, content, at peace. What in the world had she been worrying about, that’s what she would like to know. She needed to go with this, enjoy this show, become one with it, become one with the magic, ah yes, she sighed, relaxing. This was magic. This was as good as it gets. Her every wish was granted, yes, every single wish.
Through the stage scene window a little turquoise sparkle appeared. It was a butterfly. But no, it was not a butterfly, even though that is how it flew, graceful, fluttering, large wings, perhaps seven inches across from wingtip to wingtip, flashing in a turquoise glitter—yes, it seemed to be scattering blue-green glitter as it flew, shimmering blue-green glitter, aqua and jade, melding, sparkling, gorgeous turquoise. Seven gasped, smiling, and glanced over at Charlotte, who somehow naturally had gone back to her usual appearance, that of Charlotte Brontë, tragic writer—in her automaton guise, smiling, at ease, glancing over at Seven, and they shared a contented smile, then returned their rapt attention to the magical wonders upon the stage.
It was the Turquoise Fairy, except not the Disney version, or any particular representation that Seven had ever seen. This creature appeared more insect than sexy woman. But they could all now see that she was, in fact, the form of an ethereal woman, fluttering on large butterfly wings, perhaps each wing was twelve inches across, and the small audience gasped in delighted wonder as she came winging out across the theatre seats. Seven didn’t even look for strings. No, all had accepted the simple, magical fact, that this was a real fairy, not some puppet-show trick. She swept down low for an instant, and gazed into each of the audience members’ face, smiling a mysterious smile.
The Turquoise Fairy, trailing gorgeous translucent hair, swept through the air, graceful, beautiful, wondrous to behold. Flying high up into the domed ceiling, always seen, glowing, providing her own aura of turquoise light, the magical being swooped and glided, until she came down gracefully, to stand just behind the old man, only now she was a full-bodied, full-figured woman—when had that happened? She was more substantial, and her wings looked even more like angel wings, only greatly reduced, perhaps half the size of her body.
“Darling Geppetto,” the Turquoise Fairy said, her voice melodious and rich.
The old man looked up, exaggeratedly jerking about on his small stool.
“What?” Geppetto cried, placing his hand over the eyes of the puppet cradled in his lap. “It’s not Tuesday! Go away, none of that funny business, not now, not in front of the puppets!”
“But I have come to give you what you have always desired,” the fairy said, speaking like a nun, or a mother, calmly, gently, and with so much love. She was wonderful, truly amazing.
“I am too old for that!” Geppetto cried, scooting his stool backward so that it screeched on the stage floor, almost toppling him backward.
“Silly man,” the Turquoise Fairy said, smiling, “I have come to grant your wish. You shall have your child!”
“What? You are pregnant? But it cannot be mine! I never! I am too old, and besides, what would the customers think? Wouldn’t the child have wings?”
“Enough babble,” the Turquoise Fairy said, with steel in her voice. She waved her hand and suddenly the puppet in Geppetto’s arms began to twitch, shuddering, and the old man sat bolt upright on his stool, and screamed, throwing the puppet away from him, eyes bugging out in terror.
“It’s alive! It’s moving!” Geppetto screamed, falling backward onto the floor, to sprawl as poor Pinocchio tumbled across the floor, legs kicking, arms waving.
“Yes, I have granted your finest wish, Geppetto, you now have a son,” the Turquoise Fairy said, shrinking in size as her wings expanded, and in moments she fluttered about the room, as the old man clambered to his feet and danced about the workshop in terror, knocking over tools, bumping into tables, staring with horror at the puppet, who was now sitting up.
“Papa?” Pinocchio said, feeling his arms, patting his own face, wriggling his toes.
“No!” screamed Geppetto, clutching at his heart. “It’s of the devil! Magic! Black Magic! Stay away from me!”
Pinocchio got to his feet and began to stumble toward the old man, tottering like a toddler.
Geppetto seized up a knife and threatened the puppet, as the Turquoise Fairy continued to flutter about the workshop. Then the old man began taking swipes at the fairy, attempting to slash the benevolent being with his knife. He screamed. His fear was real. His terror was palpable, visceral. Surely, this was a comedy, but the old man on the stage was clearly terrified, living inside a dim nightmare, and the puppet boy was just too much animated reality for his poor mind to bear.
“Papa! What’s wrong, Papa? Aren’t you glad to see me?” Pinocchio pled, holding out his arms to be picked up, still tottering toward the old man. “I’ve come to be with you, Papa, I will help you in the shop. I will be your own real little boy!”
Then Geppetto began slicing at his own marionette strings, and as each line was severed the old man drooped, as if he were suffering a stroke, and the puppet stood watching, saddened, as one by one Geppetto sliced through his own strings, cutting the final string that wielded the knife, and then he fell in a loose-limbed pile, still mouthing the word noooooo as he died.
Monsignor Punchinello strolled onto the stage and stood next to the weeping boy. He was tall and well made, vibrant, muscular, and exceedingly handsome. He wore black and yellow, but whether it was harlequin costume, or a court jester suit, or something completely else, it was cut to show off Punchinello’s manliness.
“This poor child,” Punchinello said, in his powerful, hypnotic voice. “Alone in the world, truly messed up, screwed, discombobulated by his own Papa. A man is given his greatest wish, and what does he do? He flees from his responsibility. He denies himself the love of a child. Ah, this poor child.”
The tall man lifted the child up and held him close in one strong arm. Poor Pinocchio cuddled close, clasping the Master about the neck, weeping. Punchinello patted the boy’s back, making soothing gestures, clucking his tongue, comforting, patting.
“This poor child, brought into the world, unwanted, alone, left for the kidsmen, and the child catchers, and other monsters. Who is to look out for these waifs? Who is to shelter these lambs? We bring them in, and then we crush them. We admire their innocence, their organic genius, and then we do everything possible to grind everything innovative and good out of the little buggers. We really must hate them, no?”
He set Pinocchio upon the stage floor, and then he began to unscrew the top of the puppet’s head, as the child stood staring, still weeping, but now standing very still, a puppet without life once more.
“Look!” Punchinello cried, lifting away the top portion of Pinocchio’s skull, “for all the answers are here! There are worlds contained inside this coconut skull! Universes! Galaxies! And alternate worlds, as well...”
Light shone up out of Pinocchio’s head, and in that light spiraled galaxies of stars, and planets, and faces hurtling through space, countless faces, shooting out like fireworks from the puppet’s open head, people, and places, pets, parties, planets, and above all the conflagration of shooting lights hovered the Planet Saturn, glowing, serene. Phantoms erupted free from their confines and soared out, seeking, adventuring. Storybook characters spewed forth, and great literary works and characters, and movie stars and starlets and monsters, all of it was there, inside that coconut skull.
Seven, watching, enraptured, sighed, her body going limp. Somehow, this Master of Puppets knew everything, he was above her, outside her, he knew more than her; he had more power and he was the Puppet Master. They were puppets, little plastic dolls, fresh from the assembly line. He was power, Punchinello, far superior to Mr. Kronoss and his umbrella, Old Ben and his hints, the little girl, Manda, and her dolls.
“Every child a world!” Punchinello cried, “every child contains all the riches of the Multiverse! Inside this Pinocchio’s head is all knowledge, all wisdom, all science, all religion, all children, all people, all nations, all tribes, all tongues, a veritable Babel of humanity.”
Seven blinked and tensed, she knew he was about to say it, but there was no way that this NPC thing could ever know, or guess—or wait, wasn’t this...god? Wasn’t this God? Isn’t that what the still small voice was even now whispering in her inner ear, that this was the Creator?
“Data is data!” thundered Punchinello.
“Amen!” called Frankenstein.
It was impossible, but still, Tesla had said something about that, that there were two societies that were working strong hypotheses and theories, that they were realizing, but had they really gotten down to the bolts and nuts, to the very underlying...numbers?
That data is data? That there is no body?
Saturn continued to revolve, slowly above the eons of data streaming from Pinocchio’s open head. People strolled about and strode off into infinity. The peoples of the ages, primitive and modern, future and past, all connected, all contained in the puppet. And then a vast shower of numbers erupted, ones and zeroes, pouring into space, showering down like rain.
“Oh my, this is indeed it,” Tesla murmured.
“On the one hand,” Punchinello said, “we have corrupt man, dilapidated and crotchety, an old fool and flatulent farce.”
He motioned to Geppetto, the pile of severed wires and loose limbs.
“And on the other hand,” Punchinello continued, caught up in his own eloquence, exulting in his sermon, “we have the innocent babe, lost in the woods, complete with all the answers.”
Before their eyes the puppet, Pinocchio, grew, expanding, aging, a teenager, a young man, then middle-aged, and then aging, older, until he was in fact Geppetto, again, shriveling before their eyes, stooping, twisting and ancient.
“And the wondrous connections are lost, as the child becomes the old man. The wonders fade, the questions end, and the old man directs armies from his arm chair, the old man severs the ties, cuts the strings, denies the knowledge, spouts dead ideas and absurd melancholy death wishes, and destroys the world.”
The old man standing there with half his head removed burst into fire, and stood there, a roman candle, burning bright. Punchinello stood close to the flaming pyre and extended his hands, smiling, enjoying the warmth of the fire.
“The consuming fire, ahhh, it is rather pleasant,” the Puppet Master crooned. Then he snatched at the flames and yanked away a large red silk sheet, and the flaming pyre was gone, there was no trace of smoke. He waved the red fabric and threw it high in the air.
“I give you, the children!” Punchinello cried.
And as the red silk sheet fell, the curtains at the rear of the stage opened to reveal a vast iron cage that extended off both sides of the stage, and however it was concocted, whether with mirrors or reflected projections, the cage seemed to go on forever, with thousands of children inside the cage, the closest in the foreground gripped the bars with pale, emaciated hands, many of the children reaching through the bars, toward the audience, silent, this horde, they stood with large eyes and stared from behind the iron bars, and they were countless, endless, a sea of stooped shoulders, thin necks, filthy rags for clothing.
Punchinello stood smiling, his right hand out, presenting the children, his left hand out, entreating the audience.
Seven blinked. Were they puppets, these children, this vast expanse of little bodies?
Alongside Punchinello, the Puppet Master, another puppet dropped into sight, this one glaringly out of place, exaggeratedly anachronistic—it was an Einstein puppet, or more a caricature of the great scientist and philosopher, his hair a white shaggy mess, his bright red tongue poking out like a lizard. The puppet plucked a smoking pipe from his mouth and addressed the audience, in herky-jerky marionette lurches and staggers.
“Tink about eet, vee keep tryeen zee zame zing, over and over and over again ad infinitum, and vee keep expecting deeferent reesults—dees ees eensaneety!”
“These poppets, my puppets,” thundered Punchinello as music swelled again, “they are the answer. Each child is a world unto himself, each child possesses all worlds, and collecting them, connecting them, maintaining their innocent youth, we are creating a vast machine, a biological universe more powerful than any quantum computer! Each mind becomes every mind, every mind becomes each mind—we are one! We are one!”
“Genius!” roared Frankenstein.
“It is curious, perhaps singular,” said Tesla, thoughtfully.
Seven wondered. Was this the answer? Perhaps it was, because as Manda had once pointed out to her, people kept doing the same thing, over and over again, trying the same things, always expecting different results, but always arriving at the same place, throughout eternity. It was insane, as puppet Einstein said.
“I shall stay!” Charlotte cried, “I’m not afraid, Seven, not any longer. This man holds the answers. I wish to stay! I wish to serve him! Punchinello!”
“Yes,” Seven said, concentrating hard, trying to see around the ramifications, but really, wasn’t this the best option she had ever stumbled upon, wasn’t this the best answer? Keep the children as children, yes! Join them together into one vast brain, one innocent brain, accessing all worlds, all information, all dreams, all visions—was this, finally, the answer? Each child could be a solitary neuron—what kind of computing power would that add up to, if thousands of children were linked, perhaps millions of children!
“What’s wrong with you?” Seventy-One shouted, striding on the back of the seat before Seven. “Wake up! He’s manipulating you, can’t you see it? Can’t you feel it? This is monstrous! Wake up, Seven wake up!”
Punchinello, on the stage, laughed, and snapped his fingers, pointing toward the audience, and the turquoise sparkle of light flashed toward Seven, the little Turquoise Fairy alighting next to Seventy-One—they were of equal size, and looked suspiciously alike, although the Turquoise Fairy was obviously based on some glamour girl, whereas Seventy-One, well, she was Seven, a much older version of Seven at that, and decidedly unglamorous. The two small shapes glared at each other. A glowing goddess and a stern schoolmarm. A twinkling turquoise bit of magic, and a green hologram.
“Get out! Scram!” bellowed Seventy-One, as loudly as a belligerent mouse.
The Turquoise Fairy punched Seventy-One right in the nose, and the hologram winked out of existence.
“That was so cute, adorable!” Seven gushed, laughing, watching the Turquoise Fairy, who smiled shyly up at her. “Thank you for getting rid of that little green soldier, what a bore!”
“My pleasure, dear Seven, dearest Sandy, Beloved. Sandies,” the Turquoise Fairy crooned in her musical voice, taking flight, spiraling about Seven’s head, sprinkling sparkles as she flew, her wings sounding like the flutter of doves, caressingly near, and the skin on the back of Seven’s neck lifted up in chills.
The world rocked for a moment, and Seven felt her stomach lurch. Ooh, that was weird, she thought, as the lights dimmed for a few seconds and the music went soft, blurred, and then a distant part of her mind reminded her of what that feeling was—they had just skipped forward several iterations in the nest of versions, and a whole parallel shift, they were closer, so much closer, but had they done it? Or was this Punchinello? Oh, but it was disorienting. For a few moments she was certain they were sitting on the ceiling and the great dome below them was the bottomless pit, the abyss, and it was staring back at her.
In a moment her spirit quieted, and she smiled, because Punchinello was strolling up the aisle toward them, his hands out in welcome, and he was smiling, and the man was really, truly, intoxicatingly handsome. She blinked her eyes rapidly. Everything was fine, right as rain. Yes, truly, this was good, he was good, Punchinello was the best of men, and he was on their side, thank God, she could tell him everything, and he would save them, and save Jack and Anne, and Stacey and Emily, he would put everything to rights, yes he would.
“No, stop right there,” someone said as all the music and cacophonous sound effects vanished, and everyone turned to the stage, where a little girl stood next to Pinocchio. The little boy was back in his place, looking the same, despite the roman candle that had burned earlier. She had slammed the top of his skull back into place.
Punchinello stood in place, his head cranked around toward the little girl on the stage.
“You have come, here, to me, at last,” Punchinello crooned in a voice rich with honey and maple syrup, and he stared in awe as Manda took a little bow. “I recognized you here, in our Lady Simulacra. And I have read her, and deeply, I know her better than a lover—for instance, she has never had a lover, not truly. But now that I have you both here?”
“That will not be for long, Punch,” Manda said, raising her hand.
Punchinello stepped backward, several steps, and nearly tumbled, but he maintained his footing, and dipping his head, concentrating, he smiled at the little girl, although he was clearly suffering a considerable amount of pressure. He threw out his hands to the side, his palms open, fingers spread. He looked like a gunfighter, ready to quick draw.
“You do realize, Darling, that you have entered my world?” Punchinello queried, grinning.
“You do realize, Darling,” Manda countered, folding her little arms across her little chest, “that your world is inside my world. You are part of me. A very dirty part.”
Saturn still hovered above Pinocchio’s head, glowing, red and orange and beautiful.
Manda reached up a finger, but couldn’t quite reach the apparition, so she leaped in place, poking her finger up as she jumped, and finally connected, and popped the planet, like a balloon.
Behind the little girl, all the children wailed, reaching out their hands through the bars of the cage.
Punchinello crooked his finger at Manda, and she began to dance, pirouetting like a tiny ballerina. Then she shook her head, visibly halting her dizzying spin, and pointed her finger at Punchinello, and he began pirouetting like a ballerina, but with considerably more grace, spinning faster and faster—he became a blur, a human gyroscope.
Seven blinked, not certain what she was witnessing, but recognizing the dynamics at play—an admin war—eerily similar to her encounter with the dancing gang, and she finally realized that she had been soaking in a dream world, and this was her first chance to take a breath. Shaking herself, she called up her window, which was still there, just out of sight, and a furious Seventy-One glared at her.
“Wake up!” Seventy-One shouted.
“I’m here!” Seven shouted, out loud.
Punchinello came to an abrupt stop, although his eyes continued to spin in his head, like a cartoon animation, or the icons in a slot machine, but he smiled at Seven, and answered her, as if her shout had been to catch his attention. It was freaky, as he stared directly into her being, his eyes flashing like a gyroscope.
“Yes you are, you are here my Love,” Punchinello said, “And I am in need of a new Judy.”
“Manda is here, and she is contending with Punchinello, and we have moved too many versions forward, I think we are verging on a merge into Maulgraul’s world,” Seven thought, keeping her dialogue all inside, she would have to concentrate, as too much was happening too fast, and her heart slammed in her breast as Punchinello continued to stare into her, as if reading her. It was definitely almost impossible to concentrate and maintain her thoughts.
“This is not mechanical,” Tesla said, standing. “We are witnessing the supernatural, perhaps a demon contending with an angel.”
“Hold, friend, observe, but do not interfere, Monsignor Punchinello said something of this sort might happen,” Frankenstein commanded, seizing Tesla by the arm and forcing the younger man back into his seat. “Watch, and observe, and capture the details in your mind. We need these details for the society!”
“Lil Stevie has brought in a whole IT team, as well as a Cybersecurity force, and nobody knows what is going on, but your whole data stream is moving,” Seventy-One shouted. Seven noticed that the hologram was holding a handkerchief to her nose, which looked bloated, and twisted.
“What happened to your nose?” Seven thought.
“That stupid fairy actually punched me in the nose! I don’t know how she did it, but my nose is broken,” Seventy-One wailed, tears forming in her eyes.
“Stay on that side,” Seven said, and she accessed her full control panel. She turned a theatre chair from the floor, snapping its constraints, and spun it toward Punchinello, where it punched him in the back of the knees, abruptly dropping him back into the cushions.
But control was seized from Seven as Punchinello flew backward, still sitting in his chair, as if he were enjoying some wild new amusement park ride, and he sailed to the very back of the theatre and slammed into the wall, stuck there for a moment, and then plummeted to the ground, where he crashed in a pile of twisted chair and jutting limbs.
“You are a cancer inside me, very virulent,” said Manda, dreamily, still standing on the stage. “You are a very bad, and very handsome man, and there is only one way to deal with such bad people.”
“Again, little girl, I assure you, this is my world, and I make the rules here,” Punchinello said, dropping from the ceiling on marionette strings alongside Manda, reaching for the little girl.
She half-turned and made a cutting gesture with her hand, and Punchinello fell, his wires cut, but he danced back onto his feet, snatching at the little girl again. He was resilient, and persistent, and those were some positive qualities.
But Seven was ready for him and she made him go board-straight, his hands at his side, at full attention, and she turned him toward her, so that he began marching straight toward the end of the stage. And like a little tin soldier he walked right off the end of the stage and fell face-first into the floor. Mentally, she stacked compressed air down upon him, building the pressure, imagining a circular pipeline that increased in pressure, with every airy revolution of its cycling crush. Let Punchinello deal with that cockamamie mental construct. It didn’t make any sense, but sometimes that was the best way to keep someone from figuring out your little invention. She laughed, she was like Nikola Tesla, an inventor!
Seven grabbed Charlotte by the arm and dragged the automaton out of her seat, and began hustling her up the center aisle toward Manda upon the stage. They actually had to climb over Titan, who sat staring and dumb, not blinking, not moving, with the goofiest of smiles on his slack face. Seven smacked him across the cheek once, but it didn’t seem to bring him anywhere more near wakefulness.
Seven and Charlotte kept a good distance away from Punchinello, who continued to march, even though he lay face down upon the ground, the backs of his feet kicking up, and then driving his toes forward, into the carpet, actually ripping a hole through the thick rug, so persistent were his marching feet. They moved wide about him, but the Turquoise Fairy came swooping low into Seven’s face and was a mad blur of fluttering wings and sparkling light, and Seven waved her hand in front of her face, as she might do to brush away an errant bee, but the Turquoise Fairy had far more bite than any bee had sting, and she sank her tiny turquoise teeth into the tip of Seven’s finger. Seven wailed and knocked the fairy off her hand, and Charlotte swatted at the little hissing, spitting demon.
Seven glanced at her fingertip. There was a sizable chunk bitten right off the end of her middle finger, and blood welled sickeningly up.
“Kill that thing!” Seventy-One roared, shouting from the hovering window that kept pace with Seven as she dragged Charlotte up the aisle, Seventy-One’s voice a garbled nasal muffle—she sounded like Elmer Fudd, voice distorted by the broken nose.
Seven grabbed the ethereal window in the air before her and swung it like a baseball bat, mentally shoring up the back of the window, and the mental construct actually caught the Turquoise Fairy, and provided a very satisfactory thump as she connected with the tiny body, and the little ethereal woman sailed across the theatre, struck the wall, and slid slowly down, leaving behind a slight smear of goo.
A red blur came through the entrance curtains, and Seven gawked as the Cyrano de Bergerac automaton strode toward them, his very sharp rapier out and pointed at them, as if honing in, a launched missile in progress.
Seven threw up a wall but Cyrano strode through it. Manda cried out as she focused her energies upon the automaton, but she did not seem to be able to affect the marching automaton, no more than had Seven.
Charlotte placed herself before Seven and dropped into a karate stance, but Seven had little doubt that the automaton could move through Charlotte as easily as he had through her mental construct. She tried giving him commands but with no luck. He marched straight toward her and she gritted her teeth and prepared to receive the worst, finally understanding what Stacey felt when he braced himself and said: “This is gonna hurt!” She was certain that yes, this was truly going to involve some very real pain.
And it was as if her thought of Stacey produced him from thin air, for he was there, in his hood—she recognized him immediately, even when standing a mere twenty feet behind him, as he appeared between her and the marching Cyrano automaton.
The rapier met the shillelagh, and there burst a cacophony of metal upon wood, wood upon metal, as they danced forward and back, Stacey spinning his shillelagh, and Cyrano death-spiraling his rapier, their weapons flashing. Stacey drove in, and Cyrano leapt back, doing an amazing acrobatic somersault off the stage, actually landing upon the backs of the theatre seats, and Stacey followed, shillelagh leading. Both combatants displayed supernatural grace and speed.
Stacey was here, right now, in the same room with her, Seven thought, clutching at her heart. She had not seen him since that fateful day, when she had head-butted him in the nose. She strained to catch sight of him now—was it really him? And for a moment she doubted her eyes, because the man dueling Cyrano was not the Stacey she knew, but a much older man, with long white hair, revealed when his hood fell back. This man wore a white eyepatch over his left eye, and his face was badly scarred on that side—she observed all this in a matter of seconds and the duelists attacked each other, passed and blocked, and attacked again, furiously going at each other.
But no, this was Stacey, she would know him anywhere. More battered, aged, and possibly a little slower, and still he was fast enough to drive back Cyrano, over the seat backs, right toward Tesla and Frankenstein, who threw themselves away from the duel, diving between the seats, as Stacey and Cyrano passed above, rapier meeting shillelagh, and shillelagh meeting rapier.
“I just want to be a real boy!” Pinocchio wailed, standing where he had always stood, somehow the aging version that turned into Geppetto had been some kind of illusion. For the whole boy stood there with tears in his eyes.
“Get on the train,” Manda told the little boy.
Pinocchio blinked, and there before him was a small steam locomotive, a train engine pulling three cars, the last car a caboose, the second car a coal car, and the middle car a passenger car with three benches, room enough for two people to sit side-by-side, adding up to six. It was like a child’s ride at a carnival, although the train itself looked very authentic, like a full-size locomotive.
Stacey and Cyrano were now at the back of the theatre, their duel no less extravagant and wild, swiping at each other’s feet, leaping away, diving and tumbling and flipping into the air. It seemed to be a dead-even duel.
“All onboard!” a little man called from the engine of the train, leaning far out, and Seven thought he looked somewhat familiar, but mostly she thought he looked like a hobbit. He winked at her.
Seven and Charlotte climbed into the passenger car and took their seats at the front, and Pinocchio and Manda climbed in behind them.
“Titan!” Manda cried, “climb on board, now!”
Titan, still sitting in his theatre seat, blinked his eyes. He was sitting just a few seats down from Tesla and Frankenstein. He glanced at them, smiling, as they cowered between the theatre seats, watching the duel at the back of the theatre, and then blinking, he cocked his head and looked up at the stage where a neat little steam locomotive puffed up great clouds of steam and smoke. Oddly enough, Seven and Charlotte were already seated in the passenger car, with Manda and Pinocchio just behind them. He turned and for a few moments watched as Stacey and Cyrano dueled, shaking his head.
“I was having such an odd dream,” Titan said, climbing shakily to his feet. “But it was nothing compared to this!”
He staggered up the aisle, stared for a moment at Punchinello doing some weird gyrations against the floor, glanced back once more at the loud duel at the rear of the theatre, where one of the duelists was now apparently shouting out snatches of...poetry? And then Titan leapt neatly onto the stage, and climbed into the passenger car, seating himself behind Pinocchio and Manda.
“Let’s get this show on the road—or tracks,” said Titan, scrubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands.
As the train lifted up into the air and sailed out over the theatre, Seven leaned out to wave to Nikola Tesla, and then noticed that Stacey was gone. He had held off the automaton until they were launched, and now he was gone, and the Cyrano automaton stood staring, watching them, and it seemed he saluted their escape with a spiraling slash of his weapon. Seven was certain she had seen him smile around that absurdly huge nose, and then they were entering a tunnel—it was a construct, something created on the fly, probably by the lunatic running the train—and they were climbing, which was odd, because trains did not generally climb up steep hills, unless they were more roller coaster than train.
Pinocchio lifted his hands above his head and shouted: “Weeeeeeeeeeee!” as the train rocketed into a loop-de-loop, spiraling end over end and climbing, and Seven’s belly dropped down into her ankles.
“Hold out your hand,” Manda shouted to Seven as the train leveled out for a few moments, and when Seven complied, the little girl slapped something wet across her hand.
Seven looked at the thing across her hand, and she shrieked. It was horrible. When the little girl had stolen this trophy, Seven couldn’t begin to guess, but as she threw the thing—a thin rectangle of face over the side of the train—she vomited into her own lap.
“Are we all having loads of fun?” Mr. Dodgson called, as the train picked up speed and shot forward like a rocket.
© 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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ancestor simulation, digital ark, salvation of humanity,
vestigial surreality, manda project, rocket to saturn,
the singularity, the butterfly effect, simulated reality, matrix,
virtual reality, otherland, the matrix, 1q84, haruki murakami,
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scifi, mmorpg, online video game world,
end times, apocalypse, armageddon,
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