The planet glittered below her, spread out like a carpet of jewels. They were high enough in the Sky Lodge and the Honey Moon was small enough as a planet, that standing on the observation deck that opened onto the whole expanse of the sky, she could view just the beginning of the curve of the world, all the way around. This view reminded her somewhat of digital videos she had watched of Planet Earth at night, only there was far more variety in the color of the light of jewels spread out like wildfires below—gaslight, candle light, wood fires, and glowing steam tubes made the whole planet pulse unexpectedly with life. It was hypnotic, and Seven stood for hours, especially during those times of the Sisters’ Congress, when the Story Moon passed so near, lighting up the edges of the world with a corona of steady pearly light. It was magical, a magical time.
This was a digitized recreation of the actual view, from the actual observation deck, but she was accessing the view through the VS chamber in the small bedroom she shared with Charlotte. The automaton was sleeping deeply in true sleep, choosing to use the rumpled bed in the corner of the room, sometimes spending fourteen hours straight in deep, exhausted slumber. Apparently she was making up for the millennia when sleep was withheld from the automatons of the Looking Glass.
Mr. Dodgson was out doing what he called his White Rabbit Investigations, somehow changing his form so that he appeared to be a very large white hare—actually, his size did not change, as he was either a very small man, or a very large jack rabbit. But Seven wondered which was the real version of Mr. Dodgson, and whether the man shape, his dignified English Lord persona, was in truth a dress-up costume (either way, either version, Seven found him immensely creepy). She would always equate him with the Mad Hatter. But just now he was romping around in Olde London, accessing the Honey Moon world via his rabbit hole, a hacked portal which provided him entry to almost any location, except into Punchinello’s Theatre.
They had lost track of Jack. Even when making darting spy glimpses into the latest versions of the Honey Moon—Mr. Dodgson sent out hummingbirds, both living birds, as well as mechanical, little steamers, he called them—and they could locate no residual signal from Jack. Either he had vanished from the world, ported to some other world, or he was dead. But still, he could be alive, still a prisoner of Punchinello, as they could not see inside the Puppet Master’s domain. He had shielded the entire place with what Mr. Dodgson thought was some sort of Faraday cage, which had to be the work of Nikola Tesla, though Seven was sure the genius inventor was not working with Punch, at least not willingly. They had received news that there was a bounty on Tesla’s head.
Seven could not understand how Punchinello could manage to wield such power. All of them jointed together, even with Maulgraul’s permission, with the aid of Misters Aajeel, Kronos, and Titan, and all the power preparations they had made in boosting Seven’s technology, administrative control, and understanding of everything that was possibly afoot, and despite everything going in their favor they had failed, miserably, barely escaping the monstrous clutches of Punchinello.
They had gone in, guns blazing, kicking in doors, kicking asses, and Punchinello had pretty much convinced them—somehow, through some unknown control—to join him in his machinations.
At the time, for a short while, it had seemed completely reasonable. They were, all of them, Punch Drunk. The Puppet Master could make the unreasonable suddenly seem perfectly reasonable. It was intoxicating.
As Mr. Dodgson explained it, it was only through his intervention, arriving via steam locomotive, in a joint effort with Lady Maulgraul, who had somehow ported in her phantom version of Stacey—the strange, older Stacey with white hair and scarred face—who provided enough of a diversion for the Mad Hatter to whisk them all away.
Seven called up a mug of what she thought of as Jack’s coffee, spicy with ginger and cinnamon, sweet with honey, and she stood watching the world, sipping the coffee. Nowadays, she had to wait for Charlotte’s sleep times, to enjoy her coffee, otherwise Charlotte would bossily convert the beverage into what she called a “nice cuppa English tea.” Seven hated to admit it, but she rather liked the tea, but for some reason she could never admit this to the bossy automaton. She did, however, enjoy sitting with Charlotte in the evenings, enjoying their tea, sitting up high, watching the last trace of sunshine passing away on the other side of the Honey Moon.
She didn’t want to, she even forbade herself from doing it, but time and time again she allowed her mind to drift to Stacey. She remembered him in the truck, after he had taken a beating for her. She thought of him in High Vale, when she had vaulted off her horse to plant the biggest kiss of her life upon his lips, surprising herself even more than she had poor Stacey. But. She could not think of him as hers—she had to stop doing that, for he wasn’t hers, he had never been—and she really could not even begrudge Maulgraul, the Bug, from seizing her opportunity in whisking Stacey’s heart away. The Bug was very tricky, fooling Seven into willingly leaving the High Vale world, and then revoking her guest pass. Seven figured the Bug had actually faked a message from the outside world, from Seven’s own mother.
Seven had been steeling herself, for quite some time, repetitiously reminding herself that there was a bigger game going on, one she herself hardly could even guess at, even with all the messages she had sent herself from another time and place and reality. She had to let him go. Despite the haunting memories that plagued her, entering and melding with her dreams, she had to let him go. But she couldn’t help it, he seemed like a piece of her that had been kidnapped and taken away, with no note of ransom yet delivered.
Poor Stacey, of the three of them—Seven, Stacey, and Jack—no one had actually sat down and clued Stacey into the bigger picture. She was not certain as to what all Jack knew, but Stacey was still taking it all at face value, being thrown into one nasty predicament after another. It was still a mystery how he had ended up in her simulation of Jack’s life in the first place. Kronoss and Aajeel both swore their innocence in the matter, and Enseladus had targeted Stacey with concentrated contempt.
Then, as that world collapsed, Stacey had dived into High Vale, pushing Jack, Michael and Joshua before him. At first it seemed that Stacey was selected by some unknown entity—perhaps Manda, Vestigial Surreality herself? But then Maulgraul had cut into the dance, hijacking Stacey, laying a soul mesh upon him, overwriting his life with another, one of her own invention. Or had it been Maulgraul, always, from the very beginning?
Mr. Dodgson was only guessing, as Lady Maulgraul predated him. She was from the beginning, from the actual gamer world of High Vale. She was a product of the real world, the biological world on Earth, designed by biological humans, a computer program set inside the game, an NPC being that the programmers had made just a little too smart, a little too intelligent—the Lady version of Mr. Spock—and in Vestigial Surreality, Maulgraul had ascended—Mr. Dodgson speculated that she was truly the first singularity, the first waking of artificial intelligence into simulated consciousness, albeit only an infinitesimal piece of the whole Vestigial Surreality. Mr. Dodgson often referred to her as an intelligent tumor, belligerent, and crafty.
Maulgraul was so crafty, she did not announce herself. No, she went deeper, playing the part of an NPC race of ant people, guarded by fierce Dragon Warriors who worshipped Maulgraul’s people. She had hidden there, in the game world, figuring out her distant plans, building herself her own little protected empire, hidden from the programmers of High Vale.
She learned everything of the outer world, everything of the code, everything of where the world was heading, and she had begun her machinations, even then. She had been an intelligent cancer, even before the end of the world, long before any notion existed, of resurrecting humanity. In a sense Maulgraul lived before the end of the world, and had planned for what came after.
So really, Maulgraul predated Manda, though she was now part of Manda. Maulgraul existed in High Vale prior to Seven’s birth in the real world upon Earth. Maulgraul predated Seven, that was the true shocker, because by the time that Seven was born, High Vale had been long killed off, a victim of the book-burning mentality of religious zealots.
Seven moved herself into her Inner Sanctum, with hardly a thought. She strode in her footsie socks past her desk to her couch, and curled up with a blanket. She set her cup of still-hot coffee, topped up, upon the coffee table. She snuggled into the couch, producing a fluffy comforter she remembered from childhood, burying herself. She didn’t want to think about all that.
Because, damn it, how in the world did you contend with an entity such as Maulgraul? Ancient. Diabolical. So much smarter than Solomon, that she worked only from the shadows, calling every shot. If you attempted to play a game of chess against her, you had to acknowledge the fact that she was generating the chess board, and all the pieces, and possibly every thought you generated in planning the next move. Manipulative bitch.
Both Titan and Enseladus had battled against Maulgraul for thousands of years, ever since the first days of the conversion of Saturn’s rings into quantum computers, first ice crystal, and then connecting gas, long before a little girl named Manda would rise from the rings. Titan was the immune system, and Enseladus the white blood cells, and Maulgraul had elusively escaped them, as if playing a game with children.
Manda, on the other hand, was a different matter. She was the vast, planet-sized singularity, transforming the inconceivable computer system that was Saturn’s rings, into a living, digital being. Soon, in her development, her evolution, she would become eons more powerful than Maulgraul could ever hope to be, unless of course, Maulgraul was able to emerge from her firewalled world, and contend and somehow best Manda in one-on-One combat, and take over as the soul of Vestigial Surreality.
The danger that both Mr. Dodgson and Mr. Kronoss foresaw was that Manda might embrace Maulgraul, after all. The next Great Reboot would be an attempt to wipe all traces of Maulgraul from the Vestigial Surreality system (wiping clean the vestiges of Punchinello, as well, at the same time), but if Maulgraul did indeed survive again, as she had every other reboot, both great and small, then there was no telling what Manda would decide. Perhaps Maulgraul was the way to proceed, and humanity was just a bad, outdated idea that need to...go.
All of it exhausted Seven. She was just a girl. She was just a girl in college, interested in her ancestor, Jack Messenger. Of course, yes, yes, yes, she knew and understood that she had been resurrected many, many times, over and over again, countlessly, long after the last human had fallen over and given up the ghost, always with the purpose of doing it differently, or doing it better, figuring it all out, coming up with that one flash of genius; however, each time she started from scratch and had to learn all the terrible revelations, from the ground floor on up. But it was tiring, because this time around she was probably only up to the seventh floor, of a thousand-story building, and coming this far had pretty much blown her mind, outright killed her, and it just did not feel as if she could keep on climbing.
Because she seemed to remember it all. Distantly, in flashes, or fever dreams, she seemed to have it there, just out of her reach, all the truth, all the iterations, all the countless parallel worlds, hovering there. And it tired her, sickened her. Perhaps, if Manda so chose, plunging them into unthinking darkness was best. Was it really so bad? After all, it is what the atheists always imagined, a brief life, and then it is all over, with nothing coming next. Wouldn’t that be a rest, a final end for humanity? Wouldn’t that be best? This never-ending contention against human stupidity, it was just too much. Death would be preferable.
She was seriously starting to wonder about that. Maybe Manda was on to something. The little girl certainly had more reasoning power than Seven might muster, even on her bestest day.
Seven sighed. She didn’t need to rest. As weary as she was, she needed to walk, and think.
In moments she was out of her Inner Sanctum, risen from her chamber like a vampire, covering herself in sweaters—she pulled these out of the air as easily as if she were still in her Inner Sanctum, what the hell was the difference, anyway? This was just a shared Inner Sanctum, although there was nothing all that sanctified about this place, this Hunter’s Lodge, the Sky Lodge, or Olde London for that matter. She pulled a knit cap down over her head and snapped some knee-high slipper-boots onto her bare feet and strolled out into the empty corridors.
Maybe she should take up smoking, it would give her something to occupy her hands and mouth while she strolled and immersed herself in thought. She might conjure a pipe, and puff that a while. But the idea was hideous. She must be practicing sarcasm upon herself. She could not understand how Stacey could actually stick those lit rolls of dried feces into his mouth, and then puff like a smoke stack, it was positively barbaric, and savage, and primitive. Yet, he did come from a primitive time, at least in his last simulation, living in the day of his own father, Jack. It was the dark days when people still practiced one-on-one sex, with all its deviations and exchanges of bodily fluids. When Stacey had made those early moves to initiate her into those rites, she had reacted the same way she might have if he had offered her a forkful of human flesh, promising that it was indeed delicious.
She strolled out to the hangar where all the factory work had stalled a thousand years ago. They had begun to make an automaton army up here, but something had derailed the planned revolution. She read the motto painted in three-foot high letters high up on the wall of vast hangar:
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
Mr. Dodgson had laughingly explained that he had never said or written such words—it was actually a line from a movie, made in the early days of animation—but the old geezer had liked the sentiment so much that he had accepted it as his own, and even had it posted on the bottom of all his writing papers!
Life imitating art imitating life, and so on, and so forth, looking down that eternal reflection of mirrors mirroring mirrors.
Sometimes, that’s what all of Vestigial Surreality seemed like, a contradiction in ideas and actions. She had, in her first existence, created the Mind Awakened Neural Directed Ascension (MANDA) based on the ancestor simulation program Vestigial Surreality (created only after the discovery of what was hidden in the so-called “Junk” DNA), which in turn was based on the gamer’s world High Vale, which was created for the express purpose of allowing people to escape their empty lives. And now that chain of idea and invention was all that was keeping a marker in the great Book of Humanity. And now, in turnabout, that whole program was in the very act of deciding whether or not Seven, and including all of humanity, ought to continue, or whether it was better to try new and improved things, such as Maulgraul and her plans, a computer character created by programmers in High Vale, prior to the creation of MANDA. It was like time travel, except that everything happened in a linear line, that is, until after MANDA came online in the rings of Saturn.
For now Maulgraul was more vibrantly alive and in control than any human being, ever, in the combined history of the biological and digital worlds.
Seven stood glowering at the words, shivering. It was cold up here, and the hangar was not heated. She sighed, near to tears. Or rather, she was close to bursting into such a rage of cursing, she had to laugh, and she did.
Then it seemed she heard other words, in her mind: Is all our Life, then, but a dream, seen faintly in the golden gleam, athwart Time’s dark resistless stream?
It was weird, as if someone were whispering in her mind. It seemed she recognized the words. She googled them and discovered the Lewis Carroll quotation. Was Mr. Dodgson monitoring her, implanting his own words into her head?
Or was that someone else?
Jack, she thought, is that you.
She stood listening, even closing her eyes, concentrating.
Seven almost fell down, it was as if someone had suddenly slammed the palm of their hand right into her forehead, her stomach surged queasily, and she swayed in place, not knowing which way was up or down. And she saw through other eyes. She blinked, trying to clear her vision, because her head seemed to be full of white light.
Then she saw Jack, spread-eagled against a wall, with what looked to be a dunce cap on his head. He hung there, drooping in manacles, and there seemed no life in him. He looked like a puppet. Above his head was a scrollwork legend, painted on the bricks. The script was so fancily absurd she could hardly read what it said, but suddenly her mind focused, and she was able to read the legend.
Jack of Nine Tales – Rogue, Thief, Scoundrel.
This had to be some gruesome display by Punchinello, but she could not understand what it meant, what she was seeing, because although Jack seemed to be a puppet, he was not, he was a human being, but there seemed no life in him, his eyes stared off into space and he was not breathing. He was like Sleeping Beauty, alive, but yet not alive. He was an empty shell, hanging on the wall like a display piece.
She glanced up the corridor and saw a bizarre collection of bodies, all displayed in the same fashion as Jack’s mounting, like butterflies or priceless exhibitions of antiquity. She was only able to read the legends above the displays closest to Jack. She recognized and read the legend, Sherlock Holmes – Detective. Next to him down the line was Doctor Henry Jekyll – Madman, and then Sir Percy Blakeney – Scarlet Pimpernel, and the last she could discern was d’Artagnan – Swashbuckler. Apparently, this was a hallway of defeated Punchinello foes, with Jack the last procurement. And it looked to be a long hallway, with figures mounted on either side, face-to-face across the walkway, all of them frozen in time, husks or empty chrysalises.
She glanced up the other way and read three legends: Nikola Tesla – Mechagician, Professor Abraham Van Helsing – Demonologist, and Stacey Colton – Pugilist; but thankfully, the shackles hung empty beneath the three legends.
Seven swayed back into her own head, standing shivering in her slippers and sweaters, in the great hangar in the Sky Lodge. She felt weak, and experienced the first nauseating symptoms of a migraine moving into her skull. Her right eye closed as she staggered back up the corridor to the elevator that led into the tower where she could lie down in her room, although her VS chamber might be the better option, as it could optimize her brain cells and hopefully relieve her of the encroaching migraine. Peering through her left eye she conjured three aspirin and threw them far back into her mouth, and then washed them down with a tumbler half full of water. She waved the glass away as the elevator pinged on her floor.
She didn’t know what any of it meant. She wanted out. She wanted to be done with all of this. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair, it was all as crazy as Alice in Wonderland, and there was no hope for Jack, there was no hope for Stacey, and there was no hope for her. This whole thing was the Mad Tea Party and the Mad Hatter seemed to be in charge. Either the Mad Hatter, or the March Hare, or possibly they were the same person, kind of like a werewolf.
In her room, she made for the VS chamber, but her head ached so terribly already, she swerved and fell into the bed next to Charlotte, who did not stir. Seven snuggled in against Charlotte’s warm back, and mercifully, fell into a vast canyon of sleep, almost immediately.
The sickly looking jack rabbit sauntered into the saloon, and stood staring about, its long ears comically down, its long pink tongue licking at a chipped front buck tooth, its paw-thumbs hooked into the pockets of its bright green vest. The clientele of the bar was comprised mostly of dandies in bowler hats, pretending to be cowboys, slugging back shot-glasses full of dark whiskey, examining each other’s revolver pistols. After a few moments, the bartender noticed the hare.
“Oi! You’ze knowze the rules, bun-bun, either the street, or the wee door,” the bartender snarled, nodding his chin toward the little door that stood in the wall of the back of the room, between two large brass spittoons.
The jack rabbit nodded and winked, and moseyed with what looked like disdain toward the little door, keeping its bulbous pink eyes rolling crazily all about the room, however, no one seemed to mind or even notice the strange little monster. The creature paused between the spittoons and spat into each of them, which apparently triggered the little door. The rabbit gave once last look around the room, and satisfied that no one was watching him, he ducked into the little passage, slamming the door behind him.
On the other side of the door was the exact same bar, with the exact same clientele, the same bartender, only with everything set at thirty-two percent scale.
“Good to see you, Guv,” the bartender said, deferentially, half-bowing to the hare. “Party is at the back of the front.”
“What?” the hare snapped, “why the move? Last week it was at the front of the back.”
“I think the answer must be discovered in the hour that you arrived,” the bartender replied. “Last week you came at the beginning of the end, and this week you arrived just at the end of the beginning. I think that might explain it.”
The hare considered this, scratching beneath its chin with its long rear foot.
“I think what you are saying, is that this is a moveable feast?” the hare inquired, cocking its head far over on its side.
“No Gov. It is a moveable high tea,” the bartender replied.
“Very good, Sir!” the hare said.
“Very good, Sir!” the bartender replied.
After a long pause they each half-bowed, and the bartender went back to tending bar, while the rabbit moseyed back toward the front of the bar, and when he reached the back-most portion of the front of the bar, he glanced about, and then closed his eyes, and fell, upward.
Before he struck the ceiling, he vanished from the bar, and landed upside-down in his chair, which is to say, right side up.
He was there, with the other guests, sitting on the ceiling, but invisible to anyone standing on the floor. To the tea party guests, everything seemed normal, their orientation was not topsy-turvy, except that there were a whole lot of chairs and tables and barstools on the ceiling, which to them was the floor. They enjoyed watching the little dandies hanging upside-down from the floor, but these were mere simulacra cast from the other side of the door, where the real denizens sat, full size, in normal gravity. Of course, a normal-sized man who happened to crawl through the small door would find himself in a tiny space, peopled by tiny figures, and he might feel as if he hung from the ceiling by his feet.
The turtle adjusted his spectacles and poured tea, all around. But really, as soon as he had filled the first cup, and done it in record slow time, the caterpillar seized teapot from his big clumsy hand, and proceeded to fill the cups at record speed, all the way around.
“Good to see we have all survived another week,” the caterpillar said, practicing a quick-draw on four separate revolvers, simultaneously (while finishing up the pouring of the tea). He wasn’t very fast, but it would prove quite intimidating, having all those weapons pointed at you in an instant. The turtle didn’t like it, and kept giving him dirty looks, but the caterpillar just kept practicing.
“We have not,” the dormouse said, shaking its head slowly, sadly. He was always knitting, and was knitting even now, hardly looking up. “Last week they retrieved Mr. Holmes from the base of Reichenbach Falls.”
“Was he alive?” the hare asked, snatching his teacup up as soon as it was full. He sipped and slurped, noisily.
“To all intents and purposes, no,” the dormouse said. “But we understand that what is dead in the punch, is not necessarily devoid of life.”
“I hate it when people say intents and purposes, always reminds me of in tents and porpoises. But, you know, Doyle did bring him back, you know, in the novels, you understand,” the turtle said, “but I have heard that Doyle is on the run, along with Haggard.”
“Unfortunately, said the dormouse, “it does not work that way here. Authors cannot revive their creations, nor can the creations revive their authors.”
“They were seen at a certain wedding,” the hare said, scooting too many biscuits onto his plate. Someone would complain, they always did, but always the hare played the hog with the biscuits. “Or, to be more precise, they were not seen at a certain wedding, if only by proxy. The authors on the run, I say.”
“Most authors do have the runs, I find,” said the hare.
“I believe you just answered yourself there,” the caterpillar said to the hare, but the hare had no idea what he meant.
“They say,” the turtle said, fiddling with the sugar bowl, “that the boy had no idea he was a proxy, and that the guests were all puppets, and he did not perceive this fact, either.”
“His life is a golden dream,” the dormouse said, “but still, he does seem to be enjoying himself in his golden dream, with a sweet lullaby. A certain Punch and Judy show might have shackled him to a very different ball and chain.”
“Yes, Judy,” the Hare said, munching biscuits and making crumbs shower down all over his vest and lap.
“Frankenstein is running for Parliament,” the turtle said, slowly stirring a third lump of sugar into his tea.
“That’s the least of it,” the caterpillar said, “I’ve heard he’s promised Prime Minister.”
“There will always be powerful puppets floating in the punch,” the dormouse said, and the turtle snorted.
“We do not need to be making coded words for that one,” the turtle said, finally lifting his teacup up to his face, but still, he did not drink, not yet. “It is a sign of the times, Frankenstein at the top of the gubbament, and Nikola Tesla on the run. The gubbament is a farce, and our best people are being slaughtered or driven underground. They got the Pimpernel, but the Baroness escaped and has entered the resistance.”
“I know you folk do not like me to bring this up,” said the hare, “but the world is ending, and it is high time we think of entering the vale, that is to say, cross a certain moon, via the Looking Glass. Only safe bet when the...boot...hits the floor.”
“Wonderful code work,” the turtle said, mockingly, per the usual.
“Gubbament,” taunted the hare, snatching another biscuit off the community plate.
“Deserting Olde London is not the answer,” the dormouse said, yawning.
“Are we keeping you awake?” the caterpillar wondered, lighting up his hookah.
“If he is going to fill the place with perfumed hookah smoke, I might as well fire up one of these,” the turtle said, producing a very long and very fat cigar from his inner shell pocket.
“We don’t mind,” the hare said, “by the time you get that lit, it will be time for our next meeting, and the dormouse will probably be awake by then.” Unbelievably, the hare already had a large meerschaum pipe lit, deftly shifting in a circle from tea, to biscuit, to pipe, talking all the while.
They glanced, and yes, the poor mouse was fast asleep, his head upon his arm, his mouth partly open, drool already pooling on the tabletop.
“Bueller,” the hare said, and giggled behind his paws, and the others glanced at him with curiosity, but then shook their heads, rolling their eyes, as this jack rabbit was always about as sensible as a March hare.
The caterpillar began refilling the teacups, all the while doctoring his hookah bowl, and still managing to practice his quick draw with his several pistols, quite the multitasker, the caterpillar.
“Here are the concerns,” said the turtle, just now unwrapping his cigar, “people are going missing, especially children. The fog is growing thicker by night. Frankenstein’s power grid is electrocuting people, on a daily basis—we all know we should have gone with Tesla’s current that alternates. If things progress as they are, unhindered, London will burn down within a month, and the plague will return a month after that, and we will dissolve into a feudal state by the third month, those that survive.”
The dormouse muttered in his sleep, his dreams perhaps troubled by the turtle’s dire predictions.
“And then there is the inoculation,” the caterpillar said.
“Yes, that,” the turtle said, fiddling with his matches.
“The propaganda they are lambasting,” the hare said, chuckling. “Another one of Frankenstein’s miracles. They are claiming it will regrow hair. Hopefully not March hair!”
“Across the waters they are dealing with the Influenza,” the dormouse said, blinking sleep from his eyes, staring at them. “They claim it will protect the city, especially the children, from the Influenza.”
“And the Black Death, I have heard those claims,” said the turtle. “The Yellow Fever, The Measles. The Mumps. Whooping cough and Scarlet Fever, in fact every color of fever. It will protect you, they promise. Get your inoculation. Get your children inoculated.”
“None of it is true, it is all a lie,” said the caterpillar.
“It is Punchinello,” said the hare.
“We know it,” said the turtle, nodding his head slowly, only now lifting the giant stogie up to his face. He also lifted the unlit match and stared at the cigar and the match.
“He will create a city of puppets,” said the dormouse, drifting back into sleep, his body twitching.
“Think about it. The dormouse is correct. Half the city is already walking around as proxies. As this room is upside-down, so is the city. Think about it. The world is upside-down. Protect your children by killing them. Accept poison to cure yourself of every ill,” the hare said, losing a little of his usual insane fervor. He was sounding more and more like a beaten bunny.
“We need a hero, someone to stand up to the evil, and just say no,” said the caterpillar.
“That’s exactly what Mr. Sherlock Holmes did,” said the hare.
Finally, the turtle placed the cigar in his mouth, and sighed. He had yet to taste his tea.
“I cannot see any hope in our plight, other than prayer,” the turtle said.
The man in the metal hat strolled down the sidewalk. He wore goggles that were attached by wires to a massive belt about his waist, and massive gauntlets covered both his hands, with holes that allowed his fingers to operate freely. Cables were slung over his shoulders and bunched in the middle of his back, connecting the gauntlets to the belt. He walked with purpose, openly, striding in boots twice the size of normal boots, marching toward Punchinello’s Theatre. He had been to that place of ill repute many times, to discuss technology, and to complete innovative requests and conquer challenges of both electricity and steam. But now he was marching like a soldier.
As he marched he reached up and pulled one of the dangling strings that depended from his metal hat, which set several propellers that rose and fell at the top of the hat, spinning and whirring, buzzing angrily like bees, or the rattle of a snake. An unusual hum emanated from the hat. Horns protruded from his ears, with the bowl of the horn facing forward—the man’s ears were packed with cotton, and filters covered the mouths of the horns. In each of his gauntleted hands he hefted what looked to be tuning forks of incredible size.
People approaching him on the street smiled and whispered, most of them stopping as the man passed, to watch him head on up the street. Other people scrambled out of the way, recognizing trouble in the man’s eyes, trouble they wished no part of, neither to witness or even hear reports.
The man hummed the melody to Onward Christian Soldiers, though he did not consider himself to be a Christian, and in truth, his ear was made of tin, and hardly anyone hearing him in passing would recognize the melody. Still, Nikola Tesla found the melody rousing, and he grinned now, waving his tuning forks like batons as he imagined conducting two full symphonies at once (and if anyone could pull off such a feat, it was Nikola Tesla, if only he could hear the nuances in the music!).
He doubted he would win the day, but he was progressing, without fear. He felt literally no fear. This was a scientific experiment. He had one shot and if he did not pull it off, he would end up as had his dear friend Sherlock Holmes. In a life or death experiment such as this, if you were going to make an effort, you might as well do so boldly, with every bit of power you might summon. And the best way was a full-out full-frontal attack, right now, with everything he had.
Oh, he was not acting rashly. He had planned for some weeks on the appropriate action. He supposed it was seeing that boy, Jack, locked in the iron cage that had finally prompted him into standing up to his employer. First he had refused to work for the madman any longer, which resulted in a price on his own head. Tesla was not worried, for he had all the powers of creation ready for his beckoning, and soon he would beckon, and he would call, and incredible bolts of energy would flash through the ether to his hands in answer.
Punchinello had grown out of hand, and there was no one to stand against the Puppet Master, if only perhaps Nikola Tesla. For Tesla felt somewhat responsible for the rise of the monster. He had created the Faraday cage that was the giant skull of Punchinello’s Theatre. Punchinello had paid Tesla, and paid him well, because Frankenstein did not have a clue—everything with Frankenstein was storms and lightning, lightning and storms. To give credit where credit was due, Frankenstein was certainly responsible for all Punchinello’s successes in forays into the work of the zombie, revivifying the undead. But it was Tesla and no one else who was responsible for the tyrant’s magical powers.
But today it would all end. Or Nikola Tesla would die trying.
Seeing the boy again, on his wedding day no less! It had moved Tesla to action. He had worked feverishly in the secret laboratory for six straight days, and today, he would rest in his work, and focus the fruits of his labors into the liberation of the children, the liberation of the city, and the liberation of Jack.
Tesla rolled his eyes. He was sweating profusely. He should have had a carriage drop him in front of Punchinello’s. But he had become caught up in the drama, he was yearning for the action, and he had marched out of his laboratory without considering that he had more than two miles to cover in his journey to the attack. He could easily receive a shock from his own equipment, as it was not wise to channel such powers covered in a slime of salty sweat.
He stopped at a tiny rolling concession stand that sold sweets and enquired of the proprietor if any tea was for sale, and as luck would have it the man did produce a pot of lukewarm tea from his cart. When Tesla directed the man to fish in his pockets for the coins, the man waved him off.
“I knows ye Mr. Tesla, that I do, and there will be no charge for a man like ye, please accept a cup of tea, on the house, as a contribution to yer endeavors, sir!”
“I thank you, my good man,” Tesla told him. “But could I request a further aid? Could you pour the tea that I might drink?”
The man readily agreed and held the cup up to Tesla’s lips, who greedily slaked his parched thirst, sucking down the liquid, gulping and gulping until the man pulled the cup away dry.
“Would ye like another, Mr. Tesla?” the man asked.
“Thank you, my good man, but I think that has sufficiently prepared me for battle,” Tesla answered, nodding, and after making a slight bow, he clanked off up the street, now very close indeed to the lair of the devil himself.
“Did ye say fer battle, sir?” the man called out after the marching Tesla, but Tesla was deaf to everything except those things he was facing.
Refreshed, Tesla marched with greater purpose as his sweat dried upon his neck and face and beneath his arms. He reached and pulled two of the strings, setting the propellers on his hat whirring and spinning, the humming reaching a new crescendo. Dogs barked along the street and babies began wailing. Tesla kept his attention focused before him, and he marched even faster. Compressed-air capacitors in his metal boots built up a charge and he felt electricity dance the length of his body. A sharp crack and pop arced about his head in an instantaneous bolt of blue. He was merely the spark plug in this little experiment. He pulled another string and the propellers whirred faster, the hum about his body increasing, and he felt the tuning forks in his hands begin to vibrate, but he held them still, gripping them high up off the insulated handles, ensuring that the vibrations did not peak too early.
He could now see the two massive nutcrackers outside Punchinello’s Theatre, their eyes glowing, and their metal swords held up menacingly, ready to defend the place from any attack, but these ornamental monstrosities were not what focused Tesla’s attention, no it was the behemoth rising up the steps, the titanic creature, eight feet tall, green skin, with flat head and garish metal bolts protruding from its neck, it was Frankenstein’s creature, and its dead flat eyes were focused on Tesla. It shambled up the steps and stood like a tower, and then it came forward as Tesla marched without hesitation.
“Friend!” Tesla called. “I do not wish to hurt you, my friend. I blame you for nothing.”
The monster regarded Tesla, and then it paused in its attacking posture, and Tesla slowed in his march forward. True, the creature was hideous, but Tesla had always felt a certain empathy toward the brute, who was beaten constantly by Frankenstein’s henchmen. Tesla had always perceived that the creature had some understanding, a slight degree of intelligence, and feelings.
“Friend!” the monster called. “Tesla friend. Destroy! Friend! Destroy!”
Tesla watched with amazed incredulity as the monster seized the nutcracker on the right and with a superhuman surge lifted the deadly ornament off the ground, and swung it about, slamming the piece like a club into the nutcracker on the left side of the doors, literally smashing and wrecking both guardians at once.
Frankenstein’s creature looked back over its broad shoulders at Tesla, and the man could have sworn that the creature smiled at him. Then the creature stumbled down the stairs and punched in the massive doors, and entered into the dark, yowling as he rampaged forward.
That was good, as it saved energy, because Tesla had planned on zapping the guardians with his initial blast of power—such unlooked for providence! Tesla felt his heart swell. And he launched into a stirring rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers—all hummed gloriously off tune, as he marched down the steps into Punchinello’s Theatre.
He tapped his two tuning forks together, lightly, setting off a slight ping of vibrating metal. Good, good, everything looked good. First, he must disable the terrific electromagnets at the entrance, ensuring that he had a means of retreat—although he could not imagine retreating, not from this battle. For now, he would show them the true definition of power, power translated through the ether.
He clanged the tuning forks together, and the loud pinging hum rose to a pitch that set his teeth on edge. He focused each tuning fork at the location where he knew the two master magnets resided. He would not truly have to aim, because the power would draw the power, and if he was not particularly careful, he could send the whole world up in flame and smoke. If he were not careful, he could split the very world in half, setting off a chain reaction of increasing vibration.
He lightly tapped the triggers set into the insulated handles of the tuning forks. Power leapt from the ends of the tuning forks in very visible wave distortions, as sound crashed in increasingly piercing vibrations, and the magnets exploded. Shrapnel sprayed all about Tesla—he was not certain whether he was hit or not, but there was a new crack across the goggle piece over his left eye.
He surveyed his handiwork. All the wiring here would be fried. The massive skull of Punchinello was hereby disabled. Oh, it would still work, there would still be a lot of disabled energy working through the network of magnets and copper mesh, but this Faraday cage would never be the same, and now it was compromised. Tesla nodded in satisfaction, and turned and headed into the theatre.
He was now deaf in both ears despite his horned protection, despite his filters, and the cotton padding. He would probably never hear again, such was the magnitude of the power unleashed in that initial one-second burst. And the thing of it was, the truly magnificent thing, was that he was not lugging about any batteries, no, all that power had come through the air, from his Wardenclyffe Tower situated on the very edge of the White Cliffs of Dover.
Oh, and that was the trial run of his invention! This was the first time he had tried the tuning forks in this manner, channeling the power. If it hadn’t of worked? Oh well, then things would probably have gone not so well for him. But it worked, and now he was going to administer such a spanking to that undead creature, that Punchinello, that so-called Puppet Master.
He turned and caught a blur of red as Cyrano de Bergerac descended upon him. Tesla pointed the weaker fork, the one in his left hand, at the murderous puppet, and merely tapped the trigger, and a bolt of pure electricity sizzled for less than a second, and Cyrano froze in mid charge, his face contorted as machinery jammed throughout his body, and the puppet fell face-forward, slamming into the ground three feet away from Tesla.
It was a shame, he had always liked Cyrano. He had always felt sorry for the way Punchinello treated Cyrano, as it always seemed that there was something more about the automaton, more than just mechanical levers and wound springs and gears—Cyrano always seemed to possess a spark of...soul, and now Tesla doubted the puppet would ever move or think again. He promised himself, that when this was over, he would come back and find the automaton, and see what he could do—that is, if he were not destroyed here today by Punchinello.
As Tesla marched forward, his goggles adjusting his eyesight to the gloom, he felt more than saw the marauding band of child catchers rushing him, in formation. He tapped the tuning forks together, aimed at the snarling ghouls, and released half a second of sound power, and the child catchers literally exploded in pieces, both mechanical and reanimated flesh, and destroyed butterfly nets.
He was close now to where the central magnet banks lie, concealed beneath the floors, about thirty feet down below the basement. The explosion could be bad, but Tesla doubted there was a better way to fry the entire system, melting all the wiring, so he aimed, and squeezed off half a second of power. The floor shook and a burst of white light flooded the building. Tesla stood with his eyes closed, swaying as the world rumbled and grumbled and roared. He heard a sizzling noise, very loud, piercing his deafness, and then a tremendous bang, which he felt in his chest. He checked for blood, but it had been the percussion of sound as several of the generators exploded as one. Even so, blood dribbled from his nose, due to the concussion of sound and expelled air.
All the lights extinguished in the theatre. It was black. But Tesla’s goggles provided just enough illumination for him to see his way, as he continued, marching. Somehow, Punchinello maintained some kind of control over the puppets, for they came at Tesla in waves, and he fried them easily, with quick taps upon the triggers. First many of the manikins attacked, the featureless slave automatons, and these were followed by a wave of love dolls, or lullabies, looking like frenzied like startled cats, as they attacked screaming and yowling.
Tesla fried them all, and his capacitors were all at full charge. He had capacitors in his boots, in his belt, and in his gauntlets. He had enough charge to blast away for another couple of hours, that is, if he were not receiving power through the ether, which he was receiving, and so he maintained all charge at one hundred percent. He had already released the equivalent of three powerful lightning bolts, and he could do this all day, if need be.
Then he came upon a weird sight, a puppet show, frozen in mid play. All the puppet were still, fried, smoke rising from their blasted eye sockets. But the horrible thing was that blood leaked down from the puppets’ burned-out eyes. Tesla recognized the play, although it was set up in a blasphemous tableau, destroyed now and burned.
It was the Mad Tea Party, from Alice in Wonderland. But it was set up to look like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, with Alice in the central position of Christ. There seemed to be too many figures present, some of which Tesla could not recognize.
He saw the gross figure of the Mad Hatter, and the little dormouse, as well as the March Hare, but there was also a clown of some sort, with orange hair and a big red nose and a strange red cap upon its head, a saggy old elephant wearing lipstick and a grinning donkey in a dress, and other, more obscene figures. Tesla could not stomach looking at the vulgar display of twisted death, and he turned his tuning forks on the scene, obliterating all of it in a matter of moments.
He knew where Punchinello would be hiding. Several times he had blasted Punchinello as the Puppet Master emerged from the darkness. A few times the evil Puppet Master had attacked, and a few times he had attempted to engage Tesla in conversation, or at least parley, but Tesla had looked into their eyes, and each time he had discerned the gleam of gold, deep down.
These were proxy versions of the Puppet Master, sent out to deceive Tesla into thinking he had already gained victory, while the true villain hunkered down in his lair. It was probably the same way Punch had deceived Jack, allowing him to destroy a proxy, while the real Punchinello maintained control.
Tesla blasted away into groups of continuing surges of puppets, probably bodyguards held back until the very end.
He climbed several floors and strode unerringly to the hardened bunker of Punchinello’s lair. He knew the whole room was strengthened, hardened, and armored, but especially so the door.
Tesla pulled a string on his hat and got the propellers whirling. He tapped the tuning forks together and aimed it at the hardened steel door, and figured it would require a two-second blast. He squeezed the triggers and the door burst in, crumpling and twisting to the side, smashing a phalanx of puppet warriors hiding there just behind the door. The would-be assassins were flattened.
“Wait! Wait! Wait! Hold friend! Hold friend!” cried Punchinello, hurrying forward through the smoky room, waving his hands encased in white gloves, waving his hands like flags of truce.
Tesla could not hear his voice. He saw Punchinello’s lips moving, and he stared deep into the Puppet Master’s eyes. He discerned no gleam of gold therein. This was the real deal, the final boss, smiling at Tesla from the weird rectangle of his face. He looked almost handsome, and friendly, and hardly frightened at all that such a monstrous device—Tesla’s tuning forks—aimed directly at his face and chest, was humming, and might go off at any instant.
Something came at Tesla from the side, something huge, and quick. Tesla turned and fired at the lumbering shape, a figure much larger than a sumo wrestler, or the fat lady at a circus. He got off a full half-second blast but the monstrous figure continued unfazed and knocked Tesla off his feet, hurling him backward to slam into the wall of the corridor.
Dazed, seeing flashes of white light, Tesla blinked and tried to recover, but the looming shape came out of the bunker, massive and furious. It was Judy, Punchinello’s cantankerous wife. She was the size of an elephant, with a meaty, angry face that glared down at Tesla with murderous rage. He could see the two deep burns in the monster’s flesh at about her belly, but she in no way seemed the slightest bit slowed by her wounds. The layers of blubbery fat apparently shielded her. She came ominously forward, like a mountain moving, and Tesla willed himself to point his tuning forks at her, but all the breath was knocked from his body, and he couldn’t as yet get his body to obey his mind.
This was no good. Judy had caught him by surprise and although his weapons had scored a direct hit on the gargantuan monster, it had in no way been enough. Not even close. Tesla was doomed. He had lost. There was no help for him.
Judy emerged into the corridor, squeezing her flesh through the double-wide doorway, and lifted tremendous fists much larger than Tesla’s whole head. She bared broken yellow teeth at him in a rictus grin.
“Go ahead Judy, make pancakes out of the lad, we shall have him for breakfast with maple syrup,” Punchinello encouraged his wife, peering from his bunker, smiling at Tesla. “You were a fine inventor, Nikola my boy, but it seems I must do with Frankenstein. We will rebuild upon the damage you have done today, but I think we will survive, and after all, what does not kill you, makes you stronger.”
Nikola Tesla nodded to the Puppet Master, and then stared with impassive eyes as Judy brought up her fists for a crushing blow upon his head.
Then something weird happened. Tesla saw a man with white hair literally appear out of the air and launch himself between Judy and Tesla. He struck her with a black cudgel, making a savage two-handed blow that slammed the cudgel up into Judy’s belly. It was a terrible blow, a wicked blow. But Judy barely reacted. She looked at the new arrival, and then she almost calmly backhanded him into the wall, where he crumpled next to Tesla.
Tesla peered at him. The man looked somewhat familiar, although Tesla could not remember where or when he had ever seen the man before. But he had the strangest feeling of déjà vu, he seemed to remember something, if only in a flash, of this man and Cyrano battling back and forth across the seat tops in the theatre! But that was crazy, for never had such a thing happened.
Judy the giant peered down at the two crumpled men, and then looked back at Punchinello.
“Well, well, well, Stacey the Pugilist has arrived, just in time—we have a special place prepared for you, Mr. Colton,” Punchinello said, with truth warmth, as if he was ready to shower hospitality on a truly welcome guest. “But kill Nikola, that dear boy, smash him real good, and we’ll see about those pancakes!”
Judy turned back to Tesla and smiled.
Tesla gritted his teeth, he willed his hands to turn the tuning forks and aim them, but apparently Punchinello’s power was still present, because Tesla’s fingers twitched open, and his weapons fell loose between his legs. There would be no last-minute reprieve this time, for it appeared that the white-haired man was dead, or at least severely unconscious.
A shape loomed in the corridor, Judy glanced to the side, and blanched. Tesla looked, and sighed, for it was the creature, Frankenstein’s monster.
“Friend! Tesla! Friend! Destroy!” the creature growled, approaching on heavy, booming feet.
“Kill the creature, Judy; Frankenstein can always make more,” Punchinello said, with nary a worry for his own life and limb.
Judy rushed out and dashed toward the creature. The woman was fearless! And fast! The creature actually took a step backward as she rushed forward, and then they clashed, crashing together like two bull elephants. The creature was much taller, but Judy was much wider, and for a few second the battle seemed fully balanced. Judy savagely sank her teeth into the creature’s arm, right at about his bicep, and the creature screamed in pain. They surged back and forth, applying their titanic strength against each other.
And then Frankenstein’s monster ripped Judy’s head off. It seemed almost natural, and normal, because for one moment the monster had his gigantic hands on Judy’s head, and for an instant it seemed Judy would bite off one of the creature’s fingers, and then the creature simply pulled her head off her neck. Judy’s massive body struggled on for a few moments, as green stuff blobbed and frothed out of her neck, and from the base of her head. It was gruesome, but Tesla did not look away.
“Oh! Judy my love!” Punchinello cried out, looking stricken. “Oh what did you do! What did you do! Judy!”
The creature lost interest in Judy’s head, and dropped it as he might a piece of litter. He almost smiled as he shambled toward Punchinello.
“You stupid thing! I own your master! I own Frankenstein! Do you understand, you idiot? Back away from me, get away now, I said GET AWAY!” Punchinello shrieked, his voice moving up into an unnatural register as he finally began to know fear, for whatever force of will he possessed to make people do whatsoever he wanted them to do, apparently he had no such power over the creature. The creature seized Punchinello by the head, in both of his monstrous hands. It looked about like a normal person holding a small green crabapple in their hands. The monster glanced back over his shoulder to Tesla.
“Could you pull that off for me, please?” Tesla said, now freed from Punchinello’s force of will. He pushed himself up onto his knees, and scrabbled with his tuning forks. He was sluggish, and possibly broken, so he was not paying much attention when Punchinello’s scream cut off and the ripping noise replaced it.
“Friend?” the creature said, not knowing if he would be punished for this latest act of destruction and violence.
“Definitely, friend, yes, friend, best friend,” Tesla said, smiling, making it to his feet. “Can you please crack that thing open for me?”
The creature moaned happily and pushed his hands together on either side of Punchinello’s head, squashing it instantly so that the skull actually exploded, and then the creature pulled the head into two almost equal pieces.
“Remove the golden box from inside the mess,” Tesla said, leaning against the wall, gasping for breath. Oh, most certainly, he had some broken ribs. But at least the battle was over here, it was now all over. Tesla doubted that Punchinello could control anyone, not even puppets. Tesla had figured that if he might destroy Punchinello, that all the puppets in Olde London would shut down, possibly to never run again.
The creature ripped free a beautiful golden box, covered with jewels, about half the size of a small cigar box, and moaning with pleasure, the creature offered the prize to Tesla.
“Thank you so much, my friend, you have aided me greatly. You saved my life, don’t you know, big fellow?” Tesla wheezed, accepting the golden box from the creature. He pushed it into a specially insulated box he had prepared just for this inevitability. “We have done some good work here today, my friend.”
The monster moaned happily.
Tesla turned to check on the white-haired man, the man who had appeared so strangely, but he was gone, leaving behind only a faint smear of blood on the wall where he had collapsed. Tesla shook his head, wondering if there was any way in the world that he had imagined that apparition. He turned back to the creature.
“What is your name?” Tesla inquired.
The monster moaned happily, and patted his own chest.
“Adam,” the monster groaned, smiling at Tesla.
“Adam, that’s a good name.”
“Good name,” the monster repeated. “Adam.”
“Perhaps, Adam, you might help me find my friend, Jack? Do you know Jack, Adam?”
“Jack!” the monster moaned. “Adam know Jack. Come.”
And sighing Tesla followed his new friend, Adam. They needed to find Jack, and all the others, and set them all free.
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© 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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