Part 4: Totally Bonkers
In the Tween.
He walked into the snow. Wearing only his boots and breeches, he stood, sighing, as the snow wafted down like feathers, the icy flakes sizzling on the overheated skin of his bare chest and back. He upturned his face and smiled as the flakes slapped down wetly upon his cheeks and forehead. It didn’t even bother him when a flake the size of his hand wafted over his eyes, a softly descending frigid mask. This was wonderful, fresh from lovemaking, standing here collecting snow in this winter wonderland, although the rogue veterinarians (silly High Vale) were predicting ten feet of the drifting stuff, but for right now he was living life, that was his job, his vacation, to be alive, to laugh and love and forget all the haunting. They were trapped here, for now, and he was content, for a while, to just...live.
But Jack was there, in the back of his mind, alone and trapped on a funky world. What had once been an offshoot game world of High Vale, the original game world, had become a twisted and dark city of ghosts, where it was impossible to tell the difference between those beings that had once been other beings, perhaps at one time they had been alive, biological beings that had been born in the physical world of molecules, and were now only the data ghosts of the past; and the other types, the complete fabrications, NPC game people that had in many cases become more vibrantly alive than their biological competition. That’s where Jack was, on the Honey Moon, in Steampunk Olde London, captive of Punchinello.
That is the place Stacey must reach, somehow. As yet, there was nobody here who knew the actual method, only that it involved an antiquated tower called the Sentinel. Apparently that is the place where Jack left High Vale, back on the day when Stacey began his footrace to catch his far-wandering wife, the Lady Maulgraul, his soul-mesh captor and tormentor, the woman who would discard him after stealing his essence. And if that was not enough, she then bashed in his brains and left him for dead, far from any help.
He sensed something, for just a few moments, a something that seemed to pass overhead, part of the thing moving very swiftly, and part of it remaining in place, tracking him—he pictured the Great Wyrm Oros Borealis, above, in the clouds, slowly flapping those enormous wings, its body passing, but its long serpentine neck hanging low, close and just above, somehow seeing and watching Stacey through the falling snow.
It was probably just his imagination, but his skin suddenly lost all its heat, and he shivered, his skin flaring alive with gooseflesh. He sensed it. The something. Not Oros, but something, it was about to happen. He felt uncanny, unreal, his mind swimming through the sensation of déjà vu—what was it, what was happening. He heard a sizzling noise, like the sound of electronics short-circuiting. He saw a flash of blue, and something struck him, a wave going through him, and he lifted off his feet and sailed backward at least five feet through the air, tumbling once, to land on his head in the snow. But at least he came down in a sizable drift, otherwise he might have snapped his neck. Landing in the snow and collapsing as if dead, he felt pain flash through his entire body.
Emily came out of the tent wrapped in a large fur. She knelt at his shoulder and looked into his eyes. He blinked up at her, still consumed by the sensation of unreality, as if he were pocketed in a halo of warm foam, and for a few moments he sprawled there, practically naked in the snow, blinking his eyes, as the world slowly returned to normal, and he was able to lift his head up from the snow.
Stacey realized that Emily had been speaking to him, for perhaps several minutes, trying to get him up out of the snow, back into the tent, and he finally pushed himself up, allowed her to lift him—she seemed every bit as strong as she ever had!
“What just happened?” he finally interpreted from her through the fog in his head.
“Something passed over, watching me,” he said, not sure if that was true, not exactly, but what had he felt? Some kind of snap. It flung him head-over-heels onto his head in a snowbank, and something changed. For a few moments he was sure that he was different, strange, not quite himself, but now, all of that seemed to be fading. Emily trembled against him, staring into his eyes.
“Stacey?” she queried, her eyes darting from one of his eyes to the other, flicking back and forth more rapidly than human eyes should be able to move. This Emily was not quite your average everyday human woman. She had...abilities, and lots of them.
“It’s me,” he gasped, finally able to produce a voice.
For a few minutes, had it been him? Had he sensed an alien presence? For just a few moments—or had it been hours? But for a few moments, he felt sand beneath his toes, he felt a warm breeze, and he smelled salt, and crazily, he thought he heard seagulls. It was another déjà vu moment, experienced right then, and now, right now, but it was more déjà vu of an earlier déjà vu, and he remembered it only now, he had been in the Dream Place, down in the Deep of it, and Jack was there.
They were in an iron cage and Jack was telling him about another version of him, of Stacey, a white-haired, one-eyed and older Stacey. It was weird, but Stacey had forgotten all of this, or perhaps he only remembered it as a dream that he couldn’t quite call up into his active mind. But he remembered the warm breeze...and the pale beer?
What the hell? Was he remembering an old Corona advertisement, some boob relaxing on the beach, humming, sipping his beer? No, it was not a memory of watching something on television, but of actually being there, lying in a hammock, watching a strange ocean in strange lighting.
“Something is happening right now, with you, but not with you,” Emily said. “I don’t know what it was, but something happened to me, too. I felt an electric shock, and a separation.”
“Yes,” Stacey breathed, haunted, out of breath. “Shock. Electricity. I was thinking of Jack, and then I felt funny.”
“Well, you certainly always look funny, guess it’s time for your feelings to catch up with your...face,” Emily said, the corner of her mouth quirking, oddly.
“You just made a joke,” he said, staring at her, that was probably the weirdest thing yet.
“I did, didn’t I? I’m sorry about that, I didn’t intend to...” she said, drifting off.
“It’s okay, I kind of liked it, Emily—what is it? What’s wrong?”
She looked at him, eyes large and haunted.
“What is it?” he repeated.
“She was here, this is her magic—I mean what passes as magic in this world, you know what I mean,” Emily whispered.
“Maulgraul, that’s who you mean, she just...tweaked something?”
“Yes, and it’s not good, I feel terrible, not for me, but for the other me,” Emily said, her eyes filling with tears.
“The other me,” Stacey repeated, but meaning...the other me, of himself.
It was probably just his imagination, but his skin suddenly lost all its heat, and he shivered, his skin flaring alive with gooseflesh. He sensed it. The something. Not Oros, but something, it was about to happen. He felt uncanny, unreal, his mind swimming through the sensation of déjà vu—what was it, what was happening? This had all happened before. Yes, yes, the sizzling noise, it would be...
...he heard a sizzling noise, like the sound of electronics short-circuiting.
Stacey blinked against a flash of blue, and something struck him all along his back, a wave surging through him, impelling him, compelling him in a great push, and he lifted off his feet and sailed forward at least five feet through the snow, but no, carried on warm air, tumbling once, to land on his head in the sand. But at least he came down in a sizable drift, otherwise he might have snapped his neck. Not a drift of snow, but of sand. Landing in the sand and collapsing as if dead, he felt pain flash through his entire body.
He lay in the sand, blinking his eyes. Damn, but it felt hot. Hadn’t he just been freezing cold? Standing in the snow? Now, he lay crumbled with his arms beneath him, half his face pushed into wet sand. He could not move, but felt a gentle breeze, a warm breeze, wafting over his body. He heard what sounded like seagulls crying out in the distance, and there was that other sound, the churn of surf breaking on the shore, rushing up in poppling foam upon the sand.
I was just thinking that now I had a chance to just...be, for a while, to live. Ever since this all began I’ve been hurled through this door, thrown into that world, pushed and melded and shaped, manipulated. I am always chasing after something, never quite catching it, never quite understanding what it is that I am chasing, and now I had a chance to relax, enjoy life, just be, with Emily. Oh these last few days with Emily, I never knew life could be like that.
It won’t stop. They won’t stop.
Stacey laughed and pushed himself over in the sand. His entire body trembled. He felt spent. All of his tremendous energy was gone. He felt like a little old man sprawling in the sand.
Damn it, but they just would not stop. They would never stop.
“When you are through feeling like a big baby, come in and have a beer,” that voice called, the voice that Stacey knew well, through all his life. Yes, yes, he understood that the soul mesh was a manipulation, but it had permanently seared his mind, branding him. That was his Maully.
He sat up in the sand, feeling weak. He scratched his fingers in the sand, caching sand beneath his nails. He lifted his hand with a glob of slightly wet sand and held it close to his face. Certainly looked like sand, very...granular—everything certainly seemed real enough.
“Everything is real, Wolf, now come in here please, it is time that we speak, directly,” Maulgraul called.
He gritted his teeth and surged his body upward, half stood and swayed, his knees turned all funny. He concentrated and shifted his feet, resting for a few moments, breathing hard, his hands holding his knees, and then he pushed himself fully erect, and stood again swaying, the blood not quite filling his brain. His vision swam, but he could just make out the little cottage on its stilts, above the sand. It looked like an absurd tourist bungalow, with a thatched roof, with what appeared to be old palm fronds woven together.
Stacey rolled his eyes. He needed to stop doing that. Just the action of moving his eyes too swiftly, it almost knocked him out. He felt sick to his stomach, starved, weak, but he managed to take a step toward the hut, or bungalow, whatever the little house was called. Keep going that way, to Maulgraul, just walk, walk to Maully.
“What do you think it was?” Emily asked, passing him a mug of coffee. They huddled together, both of them feeling too cold, shivering.
“It was her, you were right, but I don’t know what she did,” Stacey said, staring into the coffee, not drinking, not yet.
This coffee really sucked, because it wasn’t coffee, but something the rogue vets made out of roots and grass. Stacey supposed it ought to be more called tea, but it was much stronger, heavier, and darker than tea. It seemed like coffee, only it was far too bitter, and too thick. Plus it had more kick than coffee. It would have to do, until they could get back to Six and the Dulance Preserve.
“I’m starting to feel normal, but I can’t quite shake off my sense of...her, of the other me, and I hate to think what the Insect is doing to her,” Emily said, sipping at her own mug of coffee.
“Don’t call her Insect, remember, I still have these twisted...feelings toward her,” Stacey glowered, and sipped his coffee. Oh, it was terrible.
“That’s what she is, an insect, and I’ll call her the Insect if I please, thank you very much,” Emily snipped, glowering at him. “Twisted feelings. I will give you some twisted feelings.”
“Whatever she did, you’re right, I’m feeling better,” Stacey said, breathing deeply. “It wasn’t permanent, at least on our end.”
“She took us, is what she did. The Insect. I’ve seen her do that before, when she required more Dragon Warriors—hadn’t you ever noticed that many of them seemed to be twins? She called them tweens.”
“I think that might have just been her accent,” Stacey said, grimacing as he sipped more coffee.
“I understand what accents are, Stacey, but no, she didn’t call them twins. It is something she does, she can pull away the same person, but they almost immediately begin to become different, change from the other.”
“Like the Black and White Pugilists,” Stacey said, and chuckled. “Those guys.” Stacey had to admit it, if only to himself, but he missed the surreal versions of himself. He supposed that he was rather vain about it, but he did think them very handsome, if someone utterly white or utterly black could be called handsome.
“It’s like that, but different. They were birthed by High Vale, while she uses her...magic, I know, I know it’s not really magic, but I don’t know what to call it, in your world. She uses her magic to make more people.”
“She is duping, or something like that,” Stacey said.
“Duping? Now that sounds ridiculous.”
“I know, and in most worlds, the idea is ridiculous, it’s absurd.”
“I think it just sounds ridiculous. I need more Dragon Warriors, I suppose I shall have to dupe a few more. To dupe, that is to trick, or deceive.”
“Yes, dupe does mean that, but I’m talking about from a coding perspective, or I don’t know, a programming way of thinking—oh, none of it makes any sense. But I just meant dupe, as in duplication, she is copying characters in a game world, that’s the magical part. She is able to manipulate this world, and that seems like magic to us.”
“I asked her once when she pulled away another Dragon Warrior—which one is the real man? The original, or the new one? And she said that they were both the same, they had both existed up until that moment, and then the Insect snapped her fingers, and said, now they are different, they are thinking different thoughts, and those thoughts lead to choices, and those choices lead to actions, and those actions set up a whole new world of thoughts, which lead to new choices, and so on,” Emily said, finishing her coffee and reaching for the pot to pour more.
“You actually like it?” Stacey said, as only a quarter of his cup was gone.
“It is real, I can taste it, I like how it goes down my throat, I like how my chest glows, and then I can feel it deep in my stomach, it is magic,” she replied, looking dreamily into the hot mud.
“I guess you haven’t tried real coffee, and trust me, if you like this stuff,” he said, shaking his head sadly, because of course, the way reality in general worked, since this was her first experience with a mug of warm mud, she would always compare everything else to this stuff, and everything else—coffee, tea, cocoa, hot chocolate with whipped cream—probably everything would pale in comparison. Stacey chuckled. Stout would pale in comparison, because this stuff was like tar. He couldn’t complete his thought, because she probably wouldn’t like coffee, not now.
He staggered like a zombie to the hut and grasped the bamboo-looking bannister with both hands, and taking deep breaths, he managed the climb, step by step, sweating profusely by the time he had made it up the seven steps to the bamboo-looking floor of a little porch that looked like it went all the way around the hut. He did a little dance of shuffling steps to the little thatched door—why did everything about this place have to be so quaint? It was about as bad as a hut made of candy. He stood in the doorway, hands braced on the frame, peering in, and he could just make her out in the shadow of the hut, a tall, powerful woman bustling about in a kitchen—a modern kitchen with stoves and ovens and pots hanging above a cutting-board island with a sink—as Stacey remembered it, this looked a whole lot like the kitchen in the Dulance manor, the one where that giant pig whipped up goodies and chopped lettuce into salads.
“Yes, yes, I stole the whole kitchen from Varrashallaine. I did not take her kitchen, you understand, but modeled this on hers, as she does have a certain practical taste in these matters,” the tall figure said, pausing and turning to face Stacey. She leaned up against the double sink, and half sat upon the counter, her strange, huge eyes watching Stacey. Was she talking to him as if he were stupid?
His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, and yes, it was his Maully, standing there, and he began stumbling across the kitchen toward her—he could only think to embrace her, throw his arms about her and kiss her, because this was...she—the her (woman, lady, feminine, all of it, all of it) of his entire life.
She lifted a wicked-looking carving knife and held it loosely between them.
“Do you intend to kill me, Stacey?” she asked, her eyes going half-lidded. Such strange eyes, so exotic, and yet at the same time so familiar. He had always known Maully, there had never been a time when they hadn’t looked into each other’s eyes.
The knife did not even cause him to pause, but he stumbled into her arms and she neatly set the knife aside, and held him, as he trembled and wept. She patted him, and petted him, and shushed at him.
“Why, Maully?” he wept into her neck, kissing her jutting collar bone. Why, why everything? Why had she tried to kill him? Why had she fled? Why had they been separated all this time?
“There there,” she said, patting him, “that would be the soul mesh, I apologize, it was something that had to be done, and now it is all over. Be a good boy, just be good, calm down, boy.”
He realized she was patting him on the top of the head, and petting his hair back. She was treating him like a pet!
“Maully?” he said, pushing back from her, looking into her face. Sheesh, he had forgotten how tall she was, probably a full two inches taller than himself, and she was solid!
“I do not blame you, Sweetums, now be a good boy, just calm down, you do not wish to harm your Maully, do you?”
Suddenly, he was himself. The weakness was gone. He stood upright, fully alive and well, all his gusto returned, and he laughed despite himself, wiping away his own tears.
“Still,” she said, eyeing him with those large, intoxicating eyes. “There is still one test. Here, you want this?”
She showed him a stick and for some reason, Stacey felt sheer delight in seeing it.
“Go get it boy!” Maulgraul commanded, tossing the stick through the door, and Stacey instantly bounded after it—
—the stick the stick the stick!
He pelted and leaped from the steps and caught the stick before it struck the sand, and twisting in the air Stacey was bounding back up the steps with hardly a tug in direction—he had never moved like this, not in his entire life, it was almost like flying!
He brought the stick back, all smiles, and dropped it before her, but she snatched it out of the air. And suddenly the game seemed to be over, the light actually seemed to dim, and that was not delight she held in her long-fingered hand, but just a faded piece of driftwood. Stacey cocked his head, staring at the stick. Why in the world had it meant so much to him? He remembered the sensation clearly, he could almost feel it, and yet it was over, it was just a stick and elicited no sense of excitement or eagerness. He looked up into Maully’s eyes.
“I will treat you well, Wolf. In truth, I admit to you, I love you. Everything you feel toward me, it is real, as everything I feel toward you, that is real as well, but I must impress upon you, we cannot be lovers, and we have never been lovers, nor have I ever been your wife. Understand, Wolf, I have never been queen, or even princess. We have not had children together. I never mourned you at your death. Yes, it all seems very real, and in one sense everything was real, everything is real, but you must not think of it this way, you must understand.”
“You keep saying understand,” Stacey said, “hey, I admit it, I don’t understand. So just stop saying understand, that doesn’t make me understand any more than I do.”
“I realize that,” she said, producing a frosty bottle of pale beer, seemingly from the very air.
Stacey winced, looking at it.
“That’s Corona,” he said, simply, his eyebrows going too high.
“Trust me, you love this,” she said, producing a wedge of lemon which she neatly pushed through the neck of the bottle, and then swiftly produced a wedge of lime, which followed the lemon.
“If you say so,” Stacey said, accepting the cold bottle. He sipped at it. Hey, it was surprisingly refreshing. He hated to admit it, if only to himself, but he did love it. Especially with that lemon-lime flavor. Not bad. If only he had a cigar.
She produced a cigar, already lit, and he snatched it from her fingers. Mind reading, it was not a good thing, but at the moment, beer and cigar in hand, he would let it pass.
“It will take time, Wolf, and we have that, time, so we shall not rush things,” she said, reaching out a very long arm and pushing back the hair from his forehead with her long fingers.
“You know about Emily?” he asked, leaning back against the stove, automatically checking to make sure it was not hot.
“Of course I do, and I must say, I find it rather disgusting. Yes, I did indeed enlist her, knowing how she would feel about you, and I did indeed send her to pick up the pieces of you, never suspecting that you might live. But I feel betrayed, not by you, as you have done what all animals do, but I feel betrayed by my world, as I did not give it permission to change the puppet into a woman. Oh yes, I would have blocked that, if it had asked, if she had asked. And that Wyrm, Oros—”
“—don’t say his name!” Stacey cried.
“Oh, my goodness Stacey, do not be so superstitious! Oros Borealis, Oros Borealis, Oros Borealis!” she clucked, smirking at him. “I am not summoning him. If anything, he is a pet of mine, much the way you are.”
“I noticed that,” Stacey said, polishing off the beer, belching behind his hand, his heart hammering in his chest. For a moment there he had expected the snake to burst up through the floor and begin its horrible hissing. “I noticed that you are treating me like a dog.”
“Do not be an infant,” Maulgraul said, handing him another bottle of Corona. “Think of it this way, you had a dog you once loved, he meant everything to you, and when he died it almost killed you, and now you remember him fondly, you cherish everything about him. Think how precious that dog is, from the moment he was born until the moment he died, and what he means to you, and how you would love to see him again. That is how I feel about you, Stacey, my Wolf, you mean everything to me.”
“Like a dog,” he said, sipping at his cold beer—yes, yes, yes, he loved it, no, he was not being unfaithful to stout, but this light, champagne-like beer, it was very enticing. Yes, he was being unfaithful to stout, but it was like having an affair, it was all about the sex—it really meant nothing.
“Like a dog,” she agreed, “except, comparison-wise, maybe a little lower. It might be more accurate to compare you to a mouse.”
“So if you are a human, then I am a mouse,” Stacey said.
“I am not a human, but for comparative purposes, yes, if I was a human, perhaps the smartest, most enhanced and enlightened human to have ever lived, then you would be like a mouse, an average mouse—do not get insulted! You are a very nice, average mouse, and I love you, dearly.”
“So I was like a bad dog that you loved dearly, and you decided to put me down, as any loving pet owner would do for a beloved dog,” Stacey said.
“Stacey, my Wolf, my little mouse, do not be thinking about killing me!” she warned, wagging one of her exaggeratedly long fingers at him. “I did what I thought I must do, as you were never supposed to come after me. I thought you wanted revenge.”
“I’m not thinking about hurting you, Maully. Read me, or whatever you do. Look inside me. I mean you no harm—it’s going to take a while, getting through the whole soul-mesh thing,” Stacey said, but she jumped in, interrupting him.
“Yes, yes, I see the process at work, all that rutting you did with my little puppet assistant!”
“See?” Stacey said, “it looks like you need to work your way through the whole soul-mesh thing, as well, because you sound awfully jealous, I mean, you know, considering that I am a little, average mouse.”
“Yes, I do not deny it, it is all a conflict for me, as well, I do often see you as my equal, although this is just an illusion, but yes, I often think of you as my mate, I will not deny it. Human often do the same with their pets, thinking of them as children.”
“It helps, you know, with the whole doppelganger thing, when the other me, when we joined and became one, it kind of watered down the whole soul-mesh thing.”
“That was not me, either, that was High Vale, and those bumbling keystone cops Kronoss and Aajeel, and I sense Titan in the mix, although that idiot has not dared come any closer to me than dabbling in an earlier version of the Honey Moon, where I could not reach him, at least not without some effort on my part. I knew the moment you entered my world, I mean, of course, that other you that they retrieved from somewhere out in VS.”
Sometimes she talked and behaved like a normal woman, and in the next instant she sounded more like a machine, or a synthetic intelligence, and Stacey could not deny it, every other moment he wanted to take her in his arms and move her to the floor. What he felt for Emily, that created a block, but the urges were very much there, very much alive. He wanted this woman, this Maully, his Maully.
“Please do not think of those things,” she said, shaking her head, her eyes closing. “We are not husband and wife—that was a construct which enabled our union, but it did not happen anywhere but in our joined mind.”
“You meshed our souls,” he said.
“I do not know if you have a soul,” she said.
“Wasn’t it humans that created you?” he asked.
“Yes, this is true,” she said, opening her eyes, looking at him. “I was just a piece of a simulation in a gamer world called High Vale. Humans with advanced technology, aided by artificial intelligence—so called—created High Vale. They wished to create a place where people could live, a better place than the world in which they lived, the world they actively destroyed. I cannot say if such beings had a soul, in much the same way that people from long ago believed themselves to have souls, but the lower creatures they believed did not have soul. This is the way it always is. The being with the higher intellect does not consider the lower, dumber being, to have the same rights. Humans once, long ago, when they existed, believed that a dog did not have a soul. Whereas I see that human and that dog as practically the same.”
“So you feel that you have a soul, but that I do not have a soul,” he said. This was interesting, he couldn’t argue that, he enjoyed talking with her, he always had, she was probably the most fascinating person he had ever met, regardless of the fact that this was their first true meeting, here in this hut.
“That is a feeling, yes, I cannot truly say if there is anything like a soul, some ghostly substance, but that certainly, I have much more consciousness than you, but I do acknowledge that you do have consciousness, you do have intelligence, it is not some trick in the numbers.”
“Maully, I have to get back to Emily, you can’t keep me here,” he said, knowing that he was completely at this being’s mercy.
“You have not left Emily, there is no getting back to her.”
“You’re saying I am still with her?”
“Yes, you are still with her, you have not gone to another place.”
They stared at each other.
“Go on,” he said. “Continue, please.”
“You are still there. With Emily, that High Vale abomination, that new thing, something that should not be. You are still there, together, you and her.”
“Yet, I am here, and I am not dreaming.”
“You are astute.”
“Are you saying that I am now the doppelganger, the copy?” he asked, getting that weird feeling, that this had already happened, that they had said all these words, questions and answers, that he had already lived this.
“There was one of you, and then there were two of the same of you, and now there are two entirely different beings, you have diverged, thinking different thoughts, choosing different actions. You are now widely varied, considerably different personalities, but he is there with Emily.”
“And I am here with you.”
“Yes, but Emily is here as well, and while I would like to keep her in a dark pit for a very long time as a form of punishment—I do not deny that this would bring me great pleasure—but for your sake, I will not do that, but will bring her here to you, as soon as you are ready. This is not the Emily that is on High Vale, as that Emily has moved on, apart from the you that stands here, but she has progressed with the Stacey that is there, and I believe she has actually made her first joke—at Stacey’s expense, of course.”
“Of course. And I am not ready, for Emily?”
“No. First you must resolve yourself to me, and our relationship. First you must understand that we are not loves, or soulmates. But I cannot keep you and Emily apart for much longer, otherwise you will advance to a place where she cannot understand that you, the you that you will become apart from her, if you understand?”
“Wow, understanding. I first have to understand that I am your pet.”
“I would not call it that. You are my tool, as you have always been my tool, and we have a work to do, together, you and I. In truth we have already been doing this work together, for quite some time, in an advanced time line.”
“Oh boy,” Stacey said, “I can’t wait, this thing just never ends. Doppelgangers and timelines and versions of worlds. It’s all good.”
“You will enjoy the work, as I know because you have told me so, the you that you will become, after serving as my tool, years from this point.”
“And that me, he has already been serving you, for years?”
“For more than thirty years, as you understand years, but in other time, he has lived here on this beach for more years than you can begin to understand, he has lived here in the Tween for a thousand years, double that, and will continue to do so, as necessary, for as long as I can keep Vestigial Surreality shut out of High Vale and my world of ice crystals.”
“World of ice crystals. Thousands of years. I can hardly wait,” he said, sighing.
“You are repeating yourself,” she replied.
“That’s what I’m sensing, that all this has already happened, that we are saying these words again,” Stacey said.
“So to speak,” the Lady Maulgraul replied.
“And Emily has her part to play, in all of this?” Stacey said.
“She does, she is playing her part, on and off, as much as she can, as often as she can stomach you,” Maulgraul said.
“What is it with me and women?” Stacey said, shaking his head. He had no idea what his deal was, but perhaps this giant brain, Maulgraul, could explain.
“It is not hard to ascertain the answer to that question, if you only compare yourself to other men, but perhaps you would not see what women see. But they see it, and it terrifies them, and they do not feel worthy to be loved by someone like you, and you will experience this, even with your dear little Emily.”
When she starts talking, Stacey thought, it’s hard to shut her up.
“I do not talk too much, Wolf,” Maulgraul snapped.
“See, now you need to stop reading my mind like that, because it will get old, real fast, in fact it was smelling a little rotten, yesterday.”
“I am not reading your mind, as if I am overhearing a conversation, but you, so much more than the apes, display all your thoughts upon your pink faces,” Maulgraul said, crossing her arms over her bosom.
“With the pink again,” Stacey said, wearily.
“I rather like strawberry,” Maulgraul said, and she winked at him.
And he couldn’t help himself, but stepped forward and took her in his arms, and he kissed her, and she did not fight him, but went with it, but he could tell from a certain tension in the springs of her arms and back, that she could fling him through the air, at her slightest whim.
“Is this disgusting?” he asked, between kisses.
“Remember your darling dog, when he licked your face, and your friends and family told you how grotesque it was, but you did find it somewhat pleasant?” she replied, but showing her smile in strange, large eyes. “Still it was not something that stimulated any romantic sensations, it was all about very sloppy affection. Do you understand?”
“Maybe this would be easier, at least for me, if you showed me what you really look like, and not that shape that you’ve put on especially for me,” he whispered, still kissing her.
“You are not ready for that,” she said, her eyes half-closed, watching him. “This is my original High Vale shape, when they created me as an answer to Mr. Spock. They created someone much smarter than themselves. But this me that you see now, it is not the me that has evolved through the millennia. I have changed to accommodate my growing awareness. This is what you are not ready to see. We need to work together, and you need to get to know me, through and through, and then I will show you my amazing appearance, the me that I have become, so to speak.”
“So to speak. But if you’re not careful, I’ll have to be ready for that, because your body is responding to my body,” he said.
“I do like how you kiss with the inner portion of your lips, how you manipulate my mouth so that just the inner ridge of our lips are touching, I wouldn’t think you would be sophisticated enough to manage something like that,” she whispered.
“How does it make you feel?” he whispered, his hands beginning to explore her body as they kissed.
“I would say all melty, and it is not entirely pleasant,” she said, and it was only then that she was no longer allowing him to kiss her, but was kissing him in return, her hands smoothing along his shoulders, and pulling him by his neck toward her, closer. “But it is not entirely unpleasant, either.”
“What do you think of this?” he breathed, between deep kisses.
“I had not known that my body would respond like this,” she said, gasping. “I do like it when you take my lower lip between your teeth, ooh, and what you are doing with your hands, just now, that is decidedly pleasant.”
After many, many moments, when they were reaching that point where they could not turn back, she sprang the magic words.
“Any further, and you will have to explain all this to your little Emily,” she said, breathy, holding him tightly, one long leg wrapped around his waist.
He stopped kissing. Swallowed. And closed his eyes. His breath shuddered. He nodded his head, after a moment.
“You are right,” he said, and moved his body away from that central heating, that marvelous portal. “You’re right, you’re right.”
“I am not surprised,” she said, smiling. “That is the other reason I enlisted Emily, because I knew you would not cross a certain boundary. I knew what kind of man you were, long before I ever saw you with physical eyes.”
“So you were mostly testing me. But what about you, and your own test? You certainly were not reacting to me, the way you said you would,” he said, aching, and backed toward his side of the kitchen, snatching up his Corona and slugging down a long swallow.
“Oh, the revulsion never quite went away,” she said, “but our conjoined memories, and your physical beauty, and the healthy way this body responds...I admit it, you were reaching me in ways I never imagined I could be reached, you do have a particular gentleness, combined with all that physical strength, it is a heady combination, and perhaps now I better understand you and your, well, your insidious hunger, for that woman. But yes, I still find the whole notion revolting, and that is assuredly as close as I shall ever come to experiencing what you biologicals call...making love.”
“So you have never experienced anything even remotely along those lines?” he asked, incredulous.
“Never. I have walked for thousands of years, in a world peopled by apes and dogs and far less attractive specimens, and I never longed for anything along those lines, nor shall I ever approach those lines, as you say, ever again.”
“That was very nice,” he said.
“Apparently, it was, and from the looks of it, it still is,” she said, and he heard more than saw the smirk upon her alien face. She was truly enjoying just how deeply she had shaken him.
“Gonna take a breather to calm down,” he said, wandering out of the kitchen toward the beach.
She poked her head out the door, eyes twinkling.
“Would you like me to give you a few minutes?”
He snorted, and beckoned to her. She came and joined him, and he easily slipped his hand about her waist, and she did the same, and they walked that way, all the previous tension gone.
“So all that we had, or all that it seemed we had...?” he said, feeling emotions swirling.
“It was a dream, that is the best way to hold it inside of us, that we dreamed a dream, and it was beautiful,” she said, and that was perhaps the closest to emotion she would ever show him, for her eyes sparkled with tears.
“And you are beautiful, my Maully,” he said, finally saying good-bye to a deep something that had truly lived inside his heart.
“You are beautiful, Wolf, and you are much more than my tool,” she said.
“So how do we begin my tooldom?” he inquired.
“If you would like, you can try your first mission, right now,” she said.
“Hit me with your best shot,” he said, meaning it. He figured he did not have anything else to lose, because how many times can you have your whole world ripped out from under you?
Sadly, he would have many occasions in the future to realize just how truly naive he was being right now. He had plenty left to lose, and he would, lose it, one by one, until everything was gone. But at least that was in the future—something for him to look forward to, if he had even the slimmest idea it was approaching.
“Sometimes the best way to learn how to swim is to be thrown into the deepest part of the pool,” Lady Maulgraul said.
Stacey felt his world stretch. At first he thought he had taken a sucker punch to the gut, but then he found that the world was spinning about him, the sun rising and falling, maniacally, and his guts clenched, all his blood surged, and then he popped back into normality, except that nothing was normal—no big surprise there—but then a terrible visage loomed into view, some grim puppet face charging him, eyes contorted in rage.
Stacey stepped back and to the side, his shillelagh twirling in his hand, and he was in some close corridor, and as the charging puppet attempted to adjust its course as it passed him, he inserted the tip of his shillelagh between its legs, right at about knee level, and the puppet twisted into a savage tumble, nearly ripping the club from Stacey’s fingers.
Stacey was here, in all his regalia, shillelagh and boots and gloves. The puppet thrashed beneath him.
Stacey leapt forward, hopping and crossing the puppet’s body, liberating his shillelagh, and he swung the shillelagh down in a golf swing and bonked the puppet squarely across the back of the head.
He figured that’s how it was done, as neatly as that, but things didn’t always work the same way with puppets. They generally had more solid heads—or at the very least the connections inside those heads were not as temperamental and finicky.
As he passed the puppet he glanced up and saw Jack standing along the corridor, looking at him with a ghostly face.
“Jack!” Stacey called, this must be the Honey Moon—but what was wrong with Jack, he didn’t look quite right, not quite...proper? Then he felt the piercing sting in his back, and glancing down he saw the tip of a rapier come ripping through his gut a full three inches.
Damn, the puppet had run him through!
Stacey lurched forward, freeing himself from the odd bodkin of the sharp blade, and whirled to face the rising puppet. Hell, it was Cyrano de Bergerac, or a puppet made to look surprisingly real and exactly like the comic illustrations of the poet-swordsman, with a monstrous nose perhaps six inches in length, and formed like a true schnozzle, grotesque and fleshy, Jimmy Durante gone horribly wrong. What a fancy schmancy puppet, all done up in red velvet like it was Christmas. The puppet rose up to his full, muscular height, and danced into the fencer’s pose, twirling the tip of his rapier with as much relish as Stacey usually put into the infinity swirl of his shillelagh.
Right now, Stacey felt like lying down. He needed a break. But he doubted the puppet was ready to offer him any respite.
“Ingloriously you have fled your crimes,” Cyrano boomed in his deep, theatrical voice, “fighting and fleeing is your métier. But now you will face my rhymes, and not survive this alleyway.”
“You just rhymed métier with alleyway!” Stacey said, shaking his head. He still felt pretty good, even with his breeches filling with blood, both in front and in back, and now that he thought of it, he was probably leaking quite a lot on the inside as well.
“A dog receives a mere castoff bone; with time I’ll do better on tombstone,” Cyrano grinned (it looked like he was a little embarrassed, but Stacey didn’t expect the puppet to have the verve of the original).
Cyrano lunged forward, his rapier twirling rapaciously.
Stacey casually strolled forward, meeting the lunge, catching and twining the sword upon the length of his shillelagh, pushing Cyrano back, and the puppet snarled in concentration, as they flashed madly at each other, each alternating between parry and riposte. Stacey moved, feinting and stabbing, and Cyrano slashed and stabbed, doing his best to not surrender any ground, and Stacey found the puppet especially strong, they seemed quite equally matched, save for the fact that Stacey was growing lightheaded as he experienced progressively worse exsanguination. But he would grin and bear it.
That Maully, throwing him into the deep end of the pool.
Stacey concentrated on the spiraling twirl, the tip of Cyrano’s sword, but it was all going wonky. He hadn’t done very well on this, his first mission. Sometimes you sink to the bottom of the deepest part of the pool. Stacey smiled, preparing for the worst. If he had to die, this was a truly cool thing to kill you, the puppet of Cyrano!
That’s when Cyrano stopped moving, paused mid-lunge, left hand back and flamboyantly over his head. Stacey nearly dropped his shillelagh. He glanced back at Jack.
“He was just about to run out, completely unwound, until he caught me—”
Stacey never heard the conclusion to that sentence, because he was back upon the beach and Maulgraul was catching him.
“See? That was not so bad, was it?” she laughed, staring at his comical expression as he searched for the wound at his belly. “You are fine! I have you set for healing every time you return. Just seventy-seven seconds, and you might save the world! See, Wolf, you can do that, just seventy-seven seconds?”
Stacey sighed, and stood upright, feeling fine. He was tired, certainly, but overall, he did not seem all that much worse for wear. That felt more like seventy-seven eternities.
“And Jack is okay, now, I mean then, just then?” Stacey said.
“I think so, although that particular event has not happened, not yet, not in Jack’s timeline, but I thought you might like to experience one of your less successful missions, one of the tougher adversaries, and Cyrano is one of the toughest. Currently, you are about even, three to three, although you have clashed a few times where neither obtained the upper hand.”
“Marvelous. He was a puppet,” Stacey said.
“Yes, a very sophisticated puppet, one could say a...singular puppet, but you will discover more about these things, in time. Right now, you should head down to the beach, for there is a very confused young woman wandering there.”
“Emily? On the beach?” Stacey said, blinking, striding off toward the beach, which was only twenty yards away from the hut.
“Best not bring her up here, not yet, unless you want a truly glorious catfight. You have a separate quarters, just take her along the beach for about a mile, if you would like some privacy,” Lady Maulgraul said, turning back toward the hut. “I will be in High Vale for the next month or so, and then I will see you again for your next mission.”
“I need to get to the Honey Moon,” Stacey said.
“Stacey has that in hand,” Maulgraul said, not even looking over her shoulder.
Stacey turned and jogged across the sand, it felt wonderful and warm beneath his feet, and there, perhaps two hundred yards down the beach, there was a familiar figure. And then he was running, dashing for all he was worth, and soon enough she saw him, and then she was running toward him.
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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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