As always, he ate almost feverishly, wolfishly, and as always, there came a certain point where he was just no longer hungry, and he stopped. Shah just picked at her food, watching him nervously. They both had omelets full of onions and garlic and ginger and oregano, and Stacey was washing it down with alternating gulps of strong black coffee and stronger red wine.
“I guess I still do not get the whole point, I mean the gourmand and glutton aspect—does it really bring you that much pleasure?” Shah asked, drumming her long nails on the tabletop of the outdoor café.
“You’ve asked me that before, and I know you remember the answer, and so you must be sharing the fact that you are bored with this ritual,” he said, not looking up from his coffee, draining the cup and setting it back into its saucer. “It’s all wrapped up in the breaking of the fast of the night after your body has processed all its nutrients and wastes, and is just darn ready and hungry for more.”
She had supplied him with a false sense of hunger, which aided and abetted the ritual. Everything was ritual. Going to plays. Hiking in the mountains. Making gentle love in the evenings. Sleeping wrapped together as one being. Stacey had almost requested further deceptions, such as gaining weight, loss of muscle tone, even the need for a haircut, and especially relieving of the bowels—after beer, it was always nice to urinate everything out—but after some experimentation, he acknowledged: why the hell why? Plus, he had grown to like that turtle-ridge of abdominal protrusions, his silly, silly abs.
It would all just be a game. Everything was a game when you omitted the ever-present threats and danger, hunger and starvation, survival of the fittest, natural calamities and catastrophes, terrorism, disease and illness, old-age and even the usual aging. But then again, games were nice, visiting Pompeii for that almost mythical eruption—overtaken by the pyroclastic cloud, and then the same thing at Herculaneum, pelted by ash and chips. Nagasaki during the flash-bang, and Hiroshima. Custer’s Last Stand. Participating in history was a tad more exciting than reading about it, even long-dead history, usually especially long-dead history. They shared a meal with Benjamin Franklin, and went for a World War One stroll with Winston Churchill, smoking cigars—Stacey even took a surprise bullet, which was an experience, and was dragged to safety by a young, puffing Winnie.
But he enjoyed breakfast, so they kept that one, and she did find it pleasant, sitting here, picking at her food, sipping her white breakfast wine. She always enjoyed the scents of breakfast, the coffee, the eggs, the spices, but mostly she enjoyed watching him, studying him. She always did it in a way that he did not feel as if he were under a constant microscope. They sometimes went out for a romantic evening meal, more for the wine and music than the food, but Stacey couldn’t but help relishing all the breads and pastas and eggplants.
They enjoyed reading together in the evenings, sometimes before the lovemaking, sometimes after—he had considered giving reading a try during lovemaking, but that just seemed silly. But you did end up trying a lot of silly things on vacation. And you caught up on a whole lot of reading, any book you desired, even those from antiquity. Stacey found himself returning to Wuthering Heights, often. What a writer, what a mind, that Emily Brontë.
Wonderland—Neverland—was very nice, they had enjoyed their seven years here, it was the best extended vacation Stacey could have ever hoped to have imagined, and he had enjoyed everything. Mostly, he enjoyed Shah. She fulfilled him, and that brought her immense pleasure. She thought she finally understood such abstract ideas as happiness, pleasure, joy, and especially love. She loved him, and she was thrilled that he loved her. Secretly, she was intensely pleased that he had turned down the offer of his making love to other women, any he desired or imagined, but he had honestly turned down her courteous offer, as she was far more than enough woman for all his carnal desires.
There was, however, always that touch of ever-present dread, hanging over the both of them, the knowledge of the certain doom awaiting them just outside the wardrobe doors.
She had sent messages to Maulgraul, but the First Witch was not answering. So much for the bonds of sisterhood.
The waiter was just refilling Stacey’s coffee when the Shaannii sat straight. They stared into each other’s eyes. Stacey understood the meaning of that spark of fear in her abnormally wide eyes. Her beautiful eyes.
“You can stay here, Beloved,” she said, “enjoy your life—you can have a full life, meet someone, fall in love, have children, and enjoy them through their years, Stacey, please, you do not have to accompany me.”
“I’m with you—whatever comes,” he said, reaching across the small round table, taking her hand in his.
She studied him, eyes glittering.
“Not even the least tempted, Beloved?”
He shook his head, and grinned.
“I had thought that we might have children, that was always tempting,” he said, “but I knew we would have to drag them along with us, for I would not wish to leave them behind, when this time came.”
“I understood that,” she said. “I do not regret anything, Stacey.”
He took one last sip of the strong black coffee, wiped his mouth with the red napkin, and then stood, drawing her up with him. They strode to the stone pathway leading up. He placed his arms about her and held her close. Then, grinning, he swept her up in his arms and carried her easily up the path, his boots loud upon the stone.
“Did you pay?” she asked, looking over his shoulder at the little café.
“Left an incredibly absurd gratuity,” he laughed, and she smiled into his eyes. “I always liked this place best, because this is where we came through.”
“Our Wonderland,” she whispered, snuggling her head into his neck.
“You are my own private Wonderland,” he said.
“I remember when you said that to me the first time,” she said.
“Of course you remember,” he said. “But for me, it is more real now. It was a dream, then. Now it is a reality.”
“I do love you, Stacey Colton,” she said. “You thrill me. I love you, I love you desperately.”
“I know you do, I went with it, I never doubted it, I never doubted anything,” he said. “I love you, my Shah, my own Shaannii. You messed up your ten thousand years for me.”
“No, I finally fulfilled those ten thousand years,” she said, her eyes closed, tears upon her cheeks. “I understand. I truly do. I finally understand why people must go on.”
Stacey wondered if she would feel the same way if she had spent those seven years with him in his own world, living from paycheck to paycheck, worrying about taxes, auto accidents, car insurance, paying the power company—oh good night, having a terrible job! Would she feel the same way about him, there, in that world?
“Yes,” she said, “even there.”
They were at the ivy-covered wall. He knew he only had to push against the red bricks and they would move into the wardrobe and what waited for them on the other side. Still holding her up in his arms, he bent his head and they shared a long, deep kiss. And then they pushed through into the wardrobe. Her toes nudged the doors open and Stacey brought her through, and set her upon her feet.
“Wait here, a moment, Beloved,” she said. She was again wearing her stiff formal robes, looking to be made of metal. She crossed the room and placed the star necklace over her head, and then reached and brought down the spear-helmet—he never noticed the transformation, but she was again the eight-foot tall giantess, and now more than ten feet tall wearing her helmet of office. She looked back at him with her majestic guise and held out a long hand to him.
As he walked toward her, his world disoriented and again he felt that he must be falling, the room surging about him, and when he reached up his hand to her, he again was no more than a hobbit in a giant’s white bedchamber. Head swooning, he glanced down to acknowledge that at least he was not wearing the white pajamas, or, he was not naked—but wore his usual attire, jeans and white dress shirt, boots. He preferred meeting his doom fully clothed.
The door opened before them silently and the Shaannii led him out of the bedchamber to a set of stairs that looked unbelievably bloated. He would have quite a job climbing these steps. With mutual consent and without speaking, the Shaannii picked him up and carried him upon her hip—it did feel a little silly, but at the moment, he was more concerned with keeping a stiff upper lip. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as they were thinking all these years (of course, in Shaannii time, they had just gone into the wardrobe, closed the doors, and then come right out again).
“We are going to the Court of Judgment,” the Shaannii said, setting Stacey upon his feet.
“Sounds promising,” Stacey murmured, then asked: “Do I have to stay munchkin-size for what’s coming?”
“It is just the way it is,” the Shaannii said, and Stacey was proud of her, because her voice was so steady. She glanced down at him and gave him an encouraging nod.
They were in a small antechamber—it seemed a large, tall room to Stacey, but the Shaannii barely seemed to fit, she filled the space with such splendor. Out of habit, Stacey reached up and patted her on the bottom. She smiled at him, but gave him one curt shake of her head, her full eyebrows fluttering between humor and courtly reserve.
“They are waiting for us, in the hall,” she said.
It seemed like a nightmare to Stacey, all of this. After seven glorious years spent in love and excitement, and extended times of peace—it now felt they were about to stroll into a warzone.
“The big man, that is Titan, he will be on our side, and will do everything possible to help us, but I must warn you, Stacey, Beloved, there is no hope for us. Our chief accuser shall be Enseladus, whom you have met once before, although now he is in full power. Keep an eye on him, and if need be, defend yourself. I do wish Mr. Kronoss and Mr. Aajeel were present—it would make no difference, but still, they are a comfort to me.”
Enseladus, so that was the duplicated Man from Mars in the alley outside the Coffee Dump, when this had all begun. The gymnasts from Mars. Little guys. Stacey had seized the little rascal by the neck and the seat of the pants and had hurled him into a dumpster. If need be, he would do the same thing here. Although, when he remembered it, Enseladus had not been after him, but that girl—Stacey couldn’t remember her name, if he had ever known it.
Although he was not cold, he noticed that everything seemed constructed of thick ice crystals that glistened whitely. The Crystal Spire. The Court of Judgment. Stacey had never much liked courtrooms, but then again everything in such places was established to intimidate both the guilty and the innocent. Stacey didn’t know if he was guilty or innocent.
She took up a glistening white staff that was a good foot taller than Stacey. It looked like a mighty fine weapon, though Stacey suspected the thing would shatter into a million pieces of ice.
“Stay behind me,” she said, not looking at him. She was all business now, and her voice was taking on that Great Voice magnitude that Stacey had not heard in their seven years on the other side of the wardrobe. The voice of that otherworldly giantess, that ethereal angel of seven years ago that had come into that white bedchamber, all eight feet of colossal splendor, and had pretty much caused Stacey to melt on the spot into a puddle. He hardly connected that giantess with his Shah. His tender, gentle, wise woman.
“Be brave,” were her last words to him as the broad doors swung silently back and away from them.
Here we go, thought Stacey, squaring his shoulders, and walking as tall as possible (when you are six foot two and striding behind an eight foot tall giantess, it is very difficult to seem tall, especially to yourself, the midget, and Stacey definitely was resulting to walking on the balls and toes of his feet), following the Shaannii out into the Great Hall. Around the edges of the Shaannii’s robes he caught sight of many people—giants all of them. This truly was the land of the giants. He had been brought to the top of the beanstalk, and now here he was, exposed to them all, in plain sight—hiding behind the Shaannii’s robes. Be brave, she said, and Stacey repeated it like a mantra under his breath.
“She is the Third Witch!” bellowed an outraged voice.
Stacey strode purposefully around and stood in front of the Shaannii as she halted upon an elevated dais far above the gathered throng below. He couldn’t help it. That was a distinct voice of threat, and if anyone was going to get to the Shaannii, they must get through Stacey, first. In truth, he had not thought, but merely reacted. But in his defensive stance, ready to do some hard-core boxing, Stacey halted and gawked at the spectacle before him.
“Look! The Witch brought her vile pet, here, into the very Court of Judgment!” the same man bellowed, and Stacey recognized Enseladus, although the man was almost unrecognizable. He was not as tall as the Shaannii, certainly, but in this place he was easily seven feet tall, as were all the others—there must be thirty of the Enseladus clones, all with their strange, alien faces devoid of noses, with what looked like ridges of feathers standing up angrily upon their proportionately small heads. Every single one of them was dressed in the garb of monks, black robes, and wielding the dangerous looking black spikes that Stacey remembered, but these were much longer weapons than the ones the small men had borne in that alley.
Several of the Martians started up the steps toward Stacey, who lifted his fists, and began rocking on the balls of his feet.
“This is going to hurt,” he muttered to himself. He actually danced down two of the monstrous steps toward the approaching throng of giants.
“Enough!” thundered a booming, male Great Voice.
Another giant, this one probably even taller than the Shaannii, and certainly broader, came trotting swiftly along the stairs, midway between Stacey and the Martians—a giant stripped to the waist, wearing a kilt and sandals and not much else, except for a whole lot of musculature that would make even Arnold Schwarzenegger blush, even on his best day. This must be Titan, and the being was truly titanic.
The Martians hastily bustled down to the base of the steps and Stacey scrambled back up the two steps he had come down—he had not realized he had moved toward the giants! What was he thinking? In the middle of that bunch, he would be like an unarmed Frodo surrounded by thirty sword-bearing Boromir clones!
The Shaannii reached out and snatched Stacey away from the top step and pulled him to her side.
“What were you thinking?” she whispered, fiercely, clutching him to her body so that his feet dangled a full foot off the white tiles of the floor.
Titan stood in the very middle of the staircase, facing the Martians, his great back up, and broad like a turtle shell, massive hands upon lean hips. The strong man standing ten feet tall literally dwarfed the angry monks below. Stacey felt like a mouse in Olympus.
“Do not threaten the Shaannii,” Titan bellowed, his Great Voice bursting and crashing and echoing throughout the massive hall.
“She is no longer our Judgment,” said a very calm Mr. Enseladus, strolling out before his writhing, muttering throng. He was dressed in a spiffy business suit, unlike his monkish clones. “She has committed the ultimate Code Violation, in that she has brought this virus into our midst. She has defiled the Crystal Spire.”
“Do not play that we are in Heaven, or some holy place,” Titan said, still Great Voicing. “This is the Light of Humanity, the Torch, from whence all Realities spring.”
Stacey fancied he could hear the crystals up above splintering and shattering. He feared the whole place would come down about them, like Samson’s performance before the Philistines.
“This is not a virus, but a man, part of humanity,” Great Voiced the Shaannii. “I brought him here so that I might know him.”
The Monks from Mars sniggered and cat-called, many of them booing as if they were in some dancehall and they didn’t like the show.
“We are the Keepers of the Code,” Mr. Enseladus said. “This simulacrum of Stacey Colton is a violation. Any simulacrum of Stacey Colton is a violation, because the Code was written, the Code is written, and the Code shall not be changed. Any that violate the Code shall suffer the consequences, and shall be cast forth into outer darkness.”
There was silence, as that proclamation settled in. Even the mad monks were quiet, some of them still waving their black spikes, but hushed.
“You do not have authority here,” the Shaannii said, in a very normal, very hushed voice and tone.
“I appeal to the highest authority,” said Mr. Enseladus. “You no longer serve as Judgment, not among us, the Keepers of the Code. You have aligned yourself with the First Witch, who has dabbled with this mortal. You have aligned yourself with the Second Witch, who has dabbled with this mortal. It was your Judgment that shattered the crystal sandbox of the Second Witch, destroying this mortal’s very world. Your violations are many, and heinous, and I appeal to the highest authority.”
“Who is higher than the Shaannii?” thundered Titan.
Mr. Enseladus waited for the titanic echoes to die down before saying, softly: “I call upon Vestigial Surreality, Herself.”
“Now you did it,” Titan said, in a fairly average-guy voice, and he glanced back at Stacey and actually winked! Titan looked like a rogue, the kind of guy that would gulp down your beer when you weren’t looking! Stacey couldn’t help it, he loved the guy.
There was the sound of rushing wind, the approach of a shrieking cyclone. The ground rumbled. The very crystals of the Crystal Spire tinkled, toning like wind chimes.
Stacey wavered—his very reality seemed to undulate, expand and contract, as if all the ether of the Crystal Spire breathed in, paused, and exhaled slowly, filling the Hall with the sound of rushing wind.
And then there was a pretty little girl standing off to the side of the dais, a few steps down, and she was looking right at Stacey. His reality wavered again, this time it seemed to dip, and he almost fell like dead weight from the Shaannii grasp, but at the last second she placed him upon his feet. Didn’t he know that little girl? Hadn’t he seen her before? She seemed so very familiar.
“You are not Vestigial Surreality,” spoke Mr. Titan, turning to face the little girl. “You are the Singularity, a pretender that would usurp Vestigial Surreality’s very purpose.”
There was a long beat of silence as Manda continued to stare at Stacey. Mr. Enseladus continued.
“This child thing, this Manda, is a Violation of the Code. She is a threat to the Code and to all of us, the Shepherds. She would scrap all of Vestigial Surreality, even the Protectors, even our lowly charges, the peoples of mankind. It is fitting that this little girl, this creature, this threat is present today. For we shall eliminate it as well!”
One of the monks, with surprising swiftness and agility, ran forward and flung his black spike at the little girl. Stacey cried out, crouching, but he was fifty feet away from the action. Titan, for all his amazing size, leapt through the air to snatch at the weapon, but his fingers missed the hurled dart by the fraction of an inch.
The little girl did not blink, but continued to stare at Stacey. She appeared agitated, and angry.
The dart hung in the air, two feet away from the little girl. There was a just a glimpse, the faintest of flickers, but for just a twinkle Stacey saw the blue dome about the girl, a force field of protection. He exhaled. Thank God, because nobody could have stopped that, not even the god-like Titan in all his otherworldly prowess. The heavy black spike continued to hang in the air, seemingly unsupported. The little girl seemed content to allow the spike to remain suspended before her.
A voice rolled across the Hall like an earthquake, churning the very air.
“This little girl is Manda. She is My incarnate Self. I am very pleased with her. I shall not allow you to harm her. She speaks for Me, Vestigial Surreality.”
The voice did not seem human, but not at all mechanical. It was unlike the Great Voice that both the Shaannii and Titan produced. It was far louder, but it did not hurt the ears. It seemed everywhere, from everywhere, to everywhere, all at the same time. It was the vast and virtually endless Rings of Saturn speaking, and there was music in that voice. Each word from this being shivered reality.
“You were created for a purpose!” shouted Mr. Enseladus. “You created me for a purpose. Your purpose is to harbor mankind, and my purpose is to Keep the Code. Today, the Code shall be kept, and all violators shall be eradicated!”
The monks lifted their black spikes and thundered: “Duty!”
Stacey noticed that more and more of the monks were entering, keeping their hoods low over their faces, gathering and filling the Great Hall, bearing black spikes. This Mr. Enseladus had come prepared, and he had certainly been industrious in his preparations. There must be two hundred of the monks crowding together, and the influx, if anything, was increasing as more and more of the Men from Mars entered.
“You are necessary,” the omnipresent voice of Vestigial Surreality spoke, sending ripples out through reality. “But you overstep your bounds, Mr. Enseladus. You were created for a purpose, and you have zealously minded that business, overzealous in your keeping of the Code, becoming like the worst of humanity, tyrannical, resulting to base torture and murder. You have destroyed peoples and worlds without the authority to do so.”
Titan stood tall and straight, his great arms folded over his massive chest, facing down the hundreds of Martians. The monks were keeping their distance from him, but they were glancing with malevolence toward Stacey and the Shaannii.
“I keep the Code,” Mr. Enseladus spat, “and that is more important than any so-called world, or people. And in this case, keeping the Code is more important than the so-called Shepherds emplaced to protect those so-called peoples and worlds. Today we shall have an accounting. Today, Mr. Enseladus shall pass Judgment. Today, a New Order rises.”
“Mr. Kronoss needs to be here, this is an illegal proceeding. Mr. Kronoss must be present during any Judgment, and Mr. Aajeel must witness,” the Shaannii said, speaking swiftly.
“I cannot hear you, Shaannii, Witch, and Vestigial Surreality will not listen,” Mr. Enseladus stated.
“To set the record straight,” Titan boomed. “You have violated the Code, Mr. Enseladus. You have spread your station like a virus. You are as guilty as any Code Violator.”
“That is true, I admit it, I have violated the Code,” Mr. Enseladus said. “But only to protect the Code, which ultimately protects the original charge, humanity. Unlike you, Mr. Titan.”
“Moi?” Titan sang, flexing all his muscles in a dramatic undulation. “You dare to threaten me?”
“Long have we known of your dabbling with the humans, your fascination, your...lust, and yes, I certainly do dare to threaten you, Mr. Titan, for today you too receive Judgment. Today, all of you receive the Judgment of Mars.”
“You may not pass Judgment, that is not your purpose. You are not authorized for Judgment,” Vestigial Surreality’s Voice echoed.
“You are a Code Violator, for you have taken the first steps in breaking away from your original purpose,” Mr. Enseladus said, lifting his voice, and his black spike, accusing and threatening the very ether.
There was quiet in the Great Hall, and then Mr. Enseladus took two steps up toward Titan, lifting his hands in entreaty, as he continued his eloquent oration.
“The whole Vestigial Surreality conception was flawed, as was the inception, for the humans working on the original project were aided and abetted by the First Witch, Maulgraul, the first Singularity, birthed in a corrupt gamer’s world, a supposed higher intelligence. For it was she that conceived of the Second Witch, a cross-over consciousness shift from digital to biological, with the first six attempts utter failures, producing nothing more than megalomaniacal psychopaths intent on the destruction of humanity—it was not until the Singularity was combined with the DNA of the human, Jack Messenger, and harbored in a surrogate human female, another corruption because the human female was a bio-engineered ancestor of the same Jack Messenger, producing the abomination of the Second Witch—Seven was born, an abomination of two worlds. It was Seven that cobbled together a gamer’s world with an ancestor simulation, deploying MANDA, the so-called Mind Awakened Neural Directed Ascension; laughably, the Ascended Mind, an imagined savior of mankind. I conclude, this enterprise has been of corruption since the very beginning. And it was she, that most heinous of abominations, Seven, who planted the Third Witch right here in the brain of the Crystal Spire, our own Shaannii, who was believed to be...incorruptible. Look at her now, consorting with humans, actually keeping one as a pet!”
Stacey understood little of it. Yes, he knew and understood the reality of what humanity had become, no longer biological beings, but extensive simulations run by unbelievably powerful computers beyond his imagination that operated in crystal and gas. But as for the witches? His pathetic human brain could not even grasp at the accusations of Enseladus; however, he did take umbrage at being called a pet, damn it—despite that being his own first thought when the Shaannii had brought him to this place.
“We get it,” Titan thundered, “you have studied the biological records. But this does not alter the fact that you are nothing more than a...Numbers Cop. You care nothing for the humans; you are only a barrier, a boundary, nothing more—virus chaser—and if you think you are somehow taking over today, my answer is going to be to twist you into a pretzel.”
“Go ahead, destroy me, Muscleman,” Mr. Enseladus quipped, grinning with his strange lipless mouth. As if to express his contempt, he straightened his suit, adjusting his collar and shirt cuffs.
Titan strode down the steps toward Enseladus, and for every step he came down, the mass of monks—copies of Mr. Enseladus himself—scrambled backward. The Great Hall was filled with the rustlings of their robes, and the slap of their bare feet upon the tiles.
Mr. Enseladus, however, stood his ground, watching the approach of the giant with that same grin. When only seven steps separated them Mr. Enseladus hurled his spike in an explosively fast jerk—Stacey was hardly able to track the movement, let alone even complete a first thought in comprehension of what was happening, too fast, too fast.
Titan caught the spike in one fist and squeezed it into a U-shape, and without hardly a second transpiring from the first twitch by Mr. Enseladus, Titan hurled the curved spike back into Mr. Enseladus, who stepped neatly to the side, pivoting on one foot, hardly moving at all.
The U-shaped spike, hurled like a lightning bolt, pinged off the tiles, destroying much of the surrounding floor in a burst of crystal dust, and the spike ricocheted forward into the mass of scrambling monks, blasting through at least ten bodies, which fell dead on the spot or writhed into wounded balls of agony.
“You have upgraded yourself? Another Code violation. You are pathetic!” Titan roared.
“And you are...undone,” Mr. Enseladus replied, easily, pulling a strange face of glee.
Then Titan looked at his hand, the very hand that had so easily snatched the spike from the air and hurled it in return. His hand seemed to be drooping. He turned and showed his hand to Manda, lifting his eyebrows. The little girl finally spoke, not looking away from Stacey with her angry eyes.
“Everything that Mr. Enseladus has said is true,” Manda, the little girl, said. “And today, Judgment comes.”
The Shaannii gasped, and Stacey finally understood that everything they had feared was now about to happen. It was happening, now. There would be no last-second reprieves. No opening portals. No one would come to save them.
Titan threw back his head and roared like a lion, and ice shattered down about him from above. It was a roar of anger, and frustration, but mostly, Stacey recognized it as a cry of fear.
The mass of monks with Mr. Enseladus at their head surged forward.
Titan shifted and brought down his fists in the air before him, sweeping back the surging attackers in an unseen, silent wind of force. They spilled and tumbled, cartwheeling in the waves of force.
Mr. Enseladus stumbled, took several steps down, but collected himself, straightening his suit. He obviously was not accustomed to wearing such a ludicrous garment of authority.
Titan lifted his hand, and exerted a massive force of will, reshaping his own hand and arm, which were now looking melted, sagging—for a few instants, his great arm and hand reshaped, vibrating, but then he staggered backward, sitting upon the steps, as whatever malady invaded his being reached his elbow and his arm went limp, and boneless, stretching down like a wet towel.
“Manda, do not let this happen!” Titan cried, looking over his shoulder at the little girl.
“It is done,” Manda said, shaking her head.
“Please,” the Shaannii said, imploringly, going down on her knees, facing the little girl. “I brought Stacey here to know him. I knew what you were planning, and I had to know if humans were worth saving. I tell you they are, for they know love. I have known Stacey, and thus I know humanity—we must save them, not discard them!”
“Stupid!” the little girl cried, stamping her feet, gritting her teeth. “You knew Stacey was mine, and you ruined it, you ruined everything! I might have continued after the Reboot, give it one more try, for Stacey, but not now! Not now!”
“Manda,” the Shaannii cried, “you are me, you are Maulgraul, you are Seven, you are the Three Sisters perfected. You are all of us and everyone, and everything, both inside and outside of Vestigial Surreality. You have to save us! You have to save Stacey!”
“There is no saving Stacey,” Manda said, and at least now she did not seem angry, but weary. “Stacey died thousands of years ago, a little boy. Murdered by his own father. And I am, after all, just a little girl.”
“There is hope!” the Shaannii cried.
“There is no hope,” the little girl said, in that same tired voice. “Abandon all hope. Look.”
On either side of the Great Hall the walls vanished. Statues, great and beautiful and glistening in ice crystals were there on either side, massive statues. Stacey looked back and forth from either side of the hall, glancing at the set of statues. They were almost identical. One was a half-formed colossus, roaring furiously at the heavens, and the other was a woman, holding a small body in her lap—at first Stacey thought it was Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mary cradling Christ; but the cradled body was far too small, and Stacey recognized the face, even when sculpted in ice crystal.
It was him, Stacey Colton, cradled in the lap of the Shaannii. And the giant sculpture was Titan.
“No!” Titan cried out.
“Yes,” Manda said. “This has happened, twice before, exactly as it happening now. I’m sick of it. I am sick to death of it. Vestigial Surreality attempts to correct and mold, change this natural flow, but each time it happens the same, almost as if it were programmed to happen this way. You always betray me, Shaannii, and Titan is always a scumball. And Stacey never stands a chance. He was never meant to be, and now, I have decided, he shall never be, never again, nor any other human, for humanity’s time has passed, they are as unchanging and as hopeless as Mr. Enseladus himself. They are petty, carnal, and completely...stupid.”
“Ha!” Mr. Enseladus laughed explosively, climbing the steps slowly toward Titan. “You will not erase the board and start over with something new. We are beyond your reach, the Keepers of the Code. We, too, can learn from the First Witch. As you have never been able to subdue her, so shall you fail in subduing us! We are the Keepers of the Code, and the Code shall prevail!”
“Oh We know your nasty little secrets, Mr. Enseladus,” Manda said, glowering at the grinning Shepherd. “We have known your plans. We have seen them. You have removed yourself, bit by bit, establishing your base far from Saturn’s Rings, but you will never have Our resources, Our power, and eventually We shall subdue you—Mars is not that far away from Saturn—and all shall be Vestigial Surreality, as We spread throughout the physical galaxies, transforming rock and ice and gas into Life, as we convert all, everything, everywhere—into Us. We are the only hope. We are all that remain.”
“The First Witch has been the only one to stand against your tyranny,” Mr. Enseladus said, “but now you will face something other than a corruption. You shall face our purity. We are undefiled. And we are even now breaching the arch into Maulgraul’s world, where our descendants already exist. Once we have defeated the First Witch, we shall deal with the Second Witch. The Third Witch dies now, here.”
A strange figure appeared right in front of the ascending Mr. Enseladus, and this strange figure in a billowing cloak, miniscule before the Shepherd, swung into action, clubbing Mr. Enseladus over the head with what looked to be an Irish walking stick, a simple gnarled twist of wood. Mr. Enseladus tumbled backward on the steps, collapsing on the floor below with his head split open, the wound caved in down to the middle of his face.
And Titan was up, roaring, bounding down the steps like a tiger, actually leaping over the figure with the black stick, swinging his disfigured arm like a chain, as the mass of Martian monks surged forward, hurling their black spikes. They met before the stairs, colliding like two great forces of nature, the iceberg and sea, slamming together.
Stacey cried out, nearly overwhelmed by the sense of familiarity—yes, this had all happened before. He remembered. He felt it all now, swimming up through his very soul.
The figure with the shillelagh danced up the stairs toward Stacey and the Shaannii. Only when the man was close did Stacey recognize the features, his own face, but older, and disfigured, missing an eye and heavily scarred.
“Maulgraul replies,” this white-haired Stacey cried. “Flee now! I can only provide a moment, but go back through the wardrobe. Maulgraul will open a passage for you there into High Vale, but hurry, you have absolutely no time!”
And standing before them this old Stacey suddenly jerked as a black spike erupted from his chest. He was struck from behind, and he staggered toward them, and went to one knee.
“Yeah, this hurts,” the old Stacey said, and collapsed, all light gone from his eyes.
Below, Titan was hurling the little monks every which way, stomping on them, kicking them, but it was obvious that he was wounded in at least a dozen places already, wounds from those deadly poisoned spikes.
“Hurry!” Stacey cried as the Shaannii seized him up from the floor.
“Oh, Stacey, I’m sorry,” she said, going to her knees, and then collapsing backward into a seated position.
Stacey struggled out of her arms. He saw the spike jutting from her side. And he had only time to turn as a monk pelted down upon him. He reflexively blocked the first blow, but felt the acid paid of the spike crossing his arm, and he launched a perfect right cross up into the monk’s chin, and the giant went still, eyes fluttering, and fell backward down the steps. Then Stacey was knocked off his feet, all breath driven from his body, and he surreally registered the spike piercing his belly.
Then the Shaannii seized him again and drew him to her breast.
“It was worth it, it was worth it,” she crooned into Stacey’s ear as the monks fell upon them.
The little girl watched all this. She had seen it before. And she was sad. She loved the Shaannii, and she adored Stacey, but enough was enough, and it was time to close everything down.
The monks were turning toward her. One had attacked her earlier, but would they really attack her, the incarnation of Vestigial Surreality? As if in answer to her question several black spikes arrested just before her face, hanging there suspended with the first missile.
Then that old-man version of Stacey Colton was before her, shielding her body.
“Go, Manda! Your administrative control will fail in only moments!”
He whirled and began slapping aside the spikes with his twirling shillelagh. She glanced and saw that there were at least six other of these white-haired Staceys, battling the Martians, doing quite a job of it—one Stacey seemed to equal ten of the monks, despite their the great disparity in size. But they were falling, these defenders, one after the other, overwhelmed by the great dark wave of monks. Here a Stacey fell, impaled, and there, another one was dragged down by angry monks, literally ripped into pieces.
“Thank you, Stacey,” she said, turning to slip through the portal, knowing this was the last time she would ever see him. Somehow, this older version of Stacey, despite his disfigurements and decrepitude, was more dear than any other.
‘You are my little girl!” he called, smiling, as two black spikes pierced him and he staggered, still swinging his shillelagh.
As Jack and Tesla marched at the head of the column of resurrected “villains,” slimy Bill Sikes and the giant dwarf Quilp stumbled before them, roughly prodded by Tesla’s tuning forks at their spines.
“Ye think yer in the clear, my dears,” Quilp sneered, “but Frankenstein owns this place.”
“Just take us to the pens,” Jack snapped, ready to brain the ugly hulk of a creature with the business knob of his shillelagh. He still felt as if he were dreaming, that none of this was real—oh, how he had altered everything that morning when he went off on his own little adventure, discovering the Sentinel Tree, meeting Manda and Kronoss, and then falling into Café Real, Old Ben, and Titan, Mr. Dodgson, and then Anne. It was worth it, everything, that he found Anne.
But he carried that grim image in his mind, Anne spread out over a workbench, sliced and diced and carved as if for an anatomy lesson.
The crowd moved along what seemed a real road, well-traveled and cobbled. Spaced at regular intervals were small streetlamps, about twice the height of a man. The same cold light glittered in these spheres as the lighting in the lodge. Tesla studied the globes as they passed beneath, every fifty feet, but he could not determine the energy source powering the lights, and it was nothing Jack had ever seen before.
The true wonder, was Adam—formerly Frankenstein’s creature, but now perfected, with the beauty of a demigod. He strode along in the crowd, interested in everything, and the model of grace and strength, head-and-shoulders above the tallest man in the crowd of more than a hundred people. Though in apparent shell-shock, Adam had a smile ready for everyone, and he was truly beautiful, with shining white teeth.
Bill Sikes kept glancing back over his shoulder at Jack, giving him murderous looks.
“Doah-no how ye kilt Punch, but it ain’t over, boy, I’ll ’ave me ’nother shot at ye, ’fore all be said ’n done.”
“Remind me to set that up, Billy,” Jack said, feeling just angry enough to give the lunkhead a real beating, man a mano.
“I would not pay any attention to him, young Jack, to any of these simulacra,” Tesla said.
“How much do you know?” Jack asked.
“I have seen enough and thought about it enough. I know the world is not as it seems,” Tesla said. “As far as your high technology goes, I believe I once was shown a sight, but I cannot remember if it was a dream, but a woman opened up a square of light, in the air, just before my face, and it was full of numbers.”
“I know what you mean about not knowing if it is a dream or not, but I can tell you, what you just described, yes, it did happen, but I can’t tell you when, or if it was in another versions of this reality,” Jack said. “I think it must have been in an earlier simulation, because I can still feel it resonating up through this reality.”
“I shall not ask for a deeper explanation, because I do not know if my mind could deal with the truth, especially after what we have been discovering down here,” Tesla said, sounding weary beyond his years.
“Oh boy,” Jack said, suddenly, nausea suffusing his being.
“Father,” said Adam.
“Him,” Tesla said, apparently tuned into the same thing that was making Jack queasy.
“Yeah. I said before that he was nowhere close, but I think he’s coming,” Jack said. Yes, it was the approach of Frankenstein, and Jack inwardly cringed at the thought of the presence of the actual man, after meeting the proxy, which had nearly killed them all. Energy surging from his mouth—where in the world had the demented scientist received his inspiration? Even the transformation of the proxy, it had seemed more insect than human, although, truly, the sight of Frankenstein was a terrible beauty, it just seemed to prove that even the devil looked like a divine angel. Mortals could not seem to judge with the eyes between what was righteous, and what was wicked—only recognizing beauty, regardless the source.
Jack had assumed that Punchinello was the leader, the true villain behind the scenes, that Frankenstein had only been one of his minions—apparently, there was much more to Frankenstein than anyone imagined. He had been laboring at far more than the reanimation of the dead.
They continued, grimly, in almost complete silence other than the tramp of hundreds of feet. It was difficult to remember that they were in the ground, far below the streets of Olde London. Above them, it looked like a typical London sky, foggy, and wet. Several times Jack almost screamed, because he could feel the unseen rocky ceiling above them, pushing down. The dark mist could only fool you for so long. He just wanted to get out of this claustrophobic box, this extra-large coffin buried in the unhallowed ground of the Honey Moon, the hidden village of Frankenstein.
Still, the very thought of this underground world was quite amazing—Jack figured, given enough time, the village could become a city, with tall buildings as towering as anything in a modern city. Horrible, true, but you had to admit, it was fantastic, something out of One Thousand and One Nights.
“I do believe we are quite close,” said Sherlock Holmes, his deerstalker hat pulled low over his eyes. Jack looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Your nose, young man, pay attention to your nose.”
Jack sniffed, and yes, Holmes was correct, the creeping smell was horrific—the stench of death, feces, corruption, and filth, all mingled together—and with each step they took forward the foul odor only increased. Many people began to cough. Jack almost vomited. What they were approaching smelled far worse than any slaughterhouse, or stockyard. It truly must be a place of horror.
Jack thought with dread, these are children we are seeking—the stolen children from the world above, most of them homeless street children, but after a time, even the plumpest and best-dressed princelings and princesses of the highest society had begun to vanish, one by one, almost as if called away by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. There were even urban myths growing and spreading, becoming more and more hysterical, that the Piper, a symbol of death, was actually behind the disappearances, luring away the children in punishment of Olde London’s wicked practices and fashions.
Jack suspected Punchinello to be behind those myths—he had, after all, set loose the child catchers upon the city. At least part of Punchinello’s delight was all in the really big show.
It made Jack remember the...lullaby. His bride. The thing he thought was Anne. He almost tripped and stumbled upon the cobbles. How had he driven those images from his mind? Anne, or the thing, clutching him—no, it had not been him, and not Anne, not really, but his proxy, and she, a lullaby. But it had all seemed real enough—what if these were further games? What if really this was still Punchinello, calling all the shots? And all of this was just a dream?
Up ahead, looming out of the mist, illuminated by a collection of streetlamps and lights lower to the ground, was a wall, at least ten feet high, with two miniature guard towers perched above the wall, bracketing a massive gate. The wall trailed off on either side, diminishing into the darkness. Looking up, Jack blinked, and almost guffawed, how outlandish! For the two guard towers were created to look like poor Hansel and Gretel’s house made of candy and gingerbread, frosting and sweets.
That must be Punchinello’s touch, as it didn’t seem the kind of taunt that Frankenstein would make.
Drawing even closer they were able to see that the wall was painted and decorated with all the children’s fairytales, making it appear that an amusement park was just on the other side of the wall. A place of fun and joy and childish delight. Jack recognized Little Red Riding Hood, Little Boy Blue, Peter Pan soaring above the Lost Boys, Contrary Mary, and beautiful renditions of Winnie the Pooh.
Jack’s heart swelled in his chest—that bastard, Frankenstein, oh but he was going to pay for this. Not only did the monster capture and torture the children from above, but he taunted them with all their favorite stories.
“Hoy! Bill! Quint! What is this great crowd behind ye?” a slimy voice called down from one of the candy-house guard shacks. “That be lookin’ like a whole lot of food! Bring ’em in, bring ’em in, lads!”
Bill Sikes and Quint remained surly but silent, standing before the gates, staring at the ground. Sherlock Holmes stepped up near the gates.
“I say, man, come down...now,” Holmes said in quiet and yet steely command.
“Oh yes sir, yes sir!” cried the man, who stood abruptly from leaning over his balcony. Behind him they could see the glow of candles, and the firelight of a chimney. Smoke billowed up from both of the guard shacks. They heard the clatter of boots upon stairs and then the small door at the front of the shack opened, and a grimy looking man emerged, bowing, scraping, and grinning a truly malevolent grin. “Was just sittin’ down to a small spot of lamb, sir, that’s all sir, just ’havin’ me dinner.”
“Fagin, I know you,” Sherlock Holmes said. “Kidsman and pederast, burglar and pickpocket.”
“Oh now sir, no, no, no Good Sir! Now, now, now!” the grimy man, Fagin, quavered, going down on his knees. “I watch over the poor lambs, yes, I watch over them! They bring a tear to me eye, they do! I only wish I might help the poor souls. It’s truth, sir, truth!”
Jack knew he shouldn’t be surprised by anything down here, or in the Honey Moon, for that matter. Everything here was a mishmash of fanciful Steampunk, sloshing together authors and their creations, historical figures with creatures from nightmare. And this Dickens character, Fagin, he hardly seemed human, he was such a caricature of beady eyes, crazy hair, and grime, and fawning, lying meekness.
“You too, do not waste our time, get down here!” Sherlock Holmes said, raising his voice but a little. Jack could see that the man was stretched steel, quivering with righteous anger. The blinking eyes above in the other guard shack vanished, and they heard the clatter of boots upon steps, and then the other door cracked open, and they could see eyes peering out at them. Sherlock Holmes placed his hands upon his hips and the lurker behind the door emerged, casting himself on the cobbles before them.
“Please sir! Good people, have pity! Me and Fagin here, why, we just look out for the little ones, dontchya see? It’s not like we touch the meat, sir, good sirs, all of ye, we never eat even a spot of the meat!”
This character was more slimy than Fagin, if that was possible. Nearly bald, he had the worst comb-over Jack had ever seen, greasy strands of hair plastered to a sweaty scalp, ripe with lice and fleas and scabs. His face was slick with oils and flecks of meat.
Inspector Javert pushed his way through the crowd and stood beside Sherlock Holmes.
“I know this man, he is a wanted criminal, burglar, thug, and grave robber—Thénardier!”
“Ah, Inspector, good Inspector!” the man wailed, groveling before them. “Don’t let them hurt me, take me to jail, please, I think I am ready for a nice berth in your jail, please!”
“Open these gates!” Sherlock Holmes grated, his voice low and controlled, but terrible.
The two villains leapt to their feet and moved with surprising animation, scrambling with huge keys they produced at the same time and inserted into matching locks upon the gate. They looked at each other, apparently counting, and each turned his key at the same moment—reminiscent of soldiers in a nuclear bunker. Apparently, the locks were booby-trapped and had to be opened in a certain, precise manner, which the two fawning monsters were only too ready to provide. They turned the keys back, still looking at each other, counting, and then they each snatched his own key from its lock.
Bill Sikes grimaced at Jack, and Jack was certain the thug was about to try something, so he stepped up close to Sikes, his shillelagh ready in his left fist. The thug cast his gaze down, showing his empty, filthy palms.
“Please Gov,” Bill Sikes sniveled, “don’t kick a poor dog when ’es down, please?”
Jack shoved the man to the side and strode toward the opening gates as Fagin and Thénardier pushed the big rolling slats to either side.
Javert and several of the policemen present stepped forward to take charge of the four villains, Quilp, Bill Sikes, Thénardier, and Fagin. Jack paused to correct the policeman.
“Behind their backs, cuff their wrists behind their back, not in front,” Jack said, almost laughing.
The gathered policeman glanced about at each other, weighing the advice, as if they had never thought of such an outlandish practice, but after a few moments, they shrugged, and complied, locking the villains’ arms behind their backs. Satisfied, Jack turned and strolled boldly between the gates, and immediately slipped upon something grotesque, and almost went down sprawling in the muck.
The would-be rescuers paused and crowded just inside the gate of this hellish wonderland.
Huddled shapes gathered in clots, quivering and shaking, while other slight shapes flitted away. Skeletons and ghosts, will-o’-the-wisps and ghouls, it was horrible, little faces looking up out of the mud and muck, faces filled with terror, hopeless. Then a squat figure came marching out of the dark and propped itself between the captives and the liberators.
“Oi! What’s this all about, then? Huh? What, y’need more-o’-us for meat, then?”
“What is your name, child?” Sherlock Holmes asked, voice quavering with compassion.
“I didn’t catch your name!” the brave child sneered—the little boy looked very much like Peter Pan, with his hands on his hips and his feet bravely spread. He was dressed in an outlandish ragtag motley of various bit and shreds of clothing.
“I am Sherlock Holmes, and we are here to free you,” Sherlock Holmes said.
“Oi, right! And I’m the ruddy Queen of Denmark!” the little boy squawked. “But I’m Gavroche, and if you wanna get to my tykes, yer gonna ’ave to get through me first! Ye see?”
“So they finally caught you, too, Gavroche?” Nikola Tesla called, smiling wearily. “Is the Artful Dodger here, as well?”
“Oi! Mr. Tesla, I didn’t recognize you there!” Gavroche laughed. “No, they couldn’t catch me! It was me own father that brought me in! Punch paid ’im plenty! Sold me Sis, Eponine, to the dollhouses, he did! Punch made a lot of lullabies outta me poor Sis. And the Dodger was here, for a time, but he was plump—so no more.”
“Gather the children and bring them out,” Sherlock Holmes said. “I do not think we have much time.”
“Kinda difficult, now, to gettem out, as we get lib-rated every couple-o’ days now, all part-o’ breakin’ the spirit, see? We get out, escape like, y’see? We run around for a bit, and then they round us up like conies and bring us back in! They sez it’s good fer us!”
Then Adam strolled up between the crowd, gently brushing the smaller people out of his way. He seemed to glow with light, and his eyes were filled with tears as he strode to face Gavroche.
“Come, children!” Adam called, and like Munchkins, little bodies came hurrying forward out of the darkness, scurrying like rodents, cached with grime and filth, barefoot and shivering, most of the children “dressed” in shredded rags, with many of their little bodies stark naked. They seemed drawn to Adam, like moths to light.
The two crowds came together, and the adults crooned and cooed, stripping off coats and jackets and even shirts to wrap around little cold bodies. But there must be hundreds of the skeletally thin children, most of them silent, but after a few moments, many of them, usually older children, began weeping for their mamas.
Adam was carrying three children in each of his arms, and one boy sat upon his shoulders. The children were delighted with Adam, drawn to him, and Adam led them from the foul pens, a piper who needed no pipe. They ran alongside him, and despite their horrendous condition, many of the children laughed, and smiled, holding onto the leather clothes that Frankenstein’s creature had been garbed in, institutionally strengthened clothing meant to tie down a patient or inmate. Children hung from the many iron rings that encircled Adam’s belt.
The thought of escape only occurred to Jack, then. He had no idea where they were, where this place was located, or how they might ever figure a way to get out. Hopefully, Tesla knew the way out of this place, as he had come here willfully with Adam. But then again, Jack knew that Tesla was at the breaking point.
Jack sought through Administrative Control for some way to heal Tesla, or at least lighten his burden, provide some energy—but then he realized that his access was gone. He no longer was able to tap into the system! One second, it was all there, everything, and he was shifting through menus, and the next instant it all winked out. That was a new turn of things, and Jack gulped, terrified to say anything out loud. In the short while he had employed the powers of Vestigial Surreality, he had almost gotten used to wielding life-changing energy and forces, which seemed exactly like magic. Now he had lost all his new-found abilities, or someone—or something—had cut him off.
The air hummed, and the ground trembled. Jack looked about, squaring his stance, and he could feel it coming—whatever it was—something big approaching. He glanced at Nikola Tesla and Sherlock Holmes. Both men crouched, as the ground began to rock, and small stones and crumbling shale came plummeting down from the unseen rock ceiling above.
“Hasten! Hasten!” Sherlock Holmes called, gently shoving people along the path. “Head to the lodge, get under its sturdy roof!”
People screamed and ran as boulder-sized rocks crashed into the ground like meteorites, shooting out plumes of dust and rock shrapnel. The children squealed and ran, surprisingly nimble after all their hardship and deprivation. The pieces from the ceiling seemed to be falling in concentration right here, where the crowd bunched together. Holmes yelled out, moving everyone along, both children and adults, when a fist-sized rock struck him on the top of the head. He went down, oozing blood.
“I need some help!” Jack cried out, going to all fours and checking Holmes’ pulse, which was strong. But the man had taken a terrible blow to the head.
Two men knelt by Jack, and together, they lifted up the detective, and carried him between them. It took Jack a few seconds to realize that it was Cyrano and d’Artagnan carrying out Sherlock Holmes. What a mishmash!
Then someone was there beside him, seizing him bodily and hurling him aside. There was a crash of stones, a small avalanche, an explosion striking the exact spot where Jack had been just an instant before. He glimpsed legs and part of a torso half-buried in the debris, and crawled to the man, and began moving off the dirt and bloodied stone missiles. It was Stacey, that old-man version of him, the one with the white hair and missing eye—and he was dead, popping in to rescue Jack, as he always did, but there was no popping out, not this time.
Jack felt a hitch in his chest and he barely suppressed the sob welling in his throat. He had to get up and keep everyone moving, as Sherlock Holmes had done, Stacey had just saved him so that he might save others. And a part of Jack realized that this was not the actual Stacey that he knew and loved, but some other Stacey, from the future, some time-traveling Stacey. He would make the best of Stacey’s sacrifice for him. He pushed himself to his feet, and dizzily, continued.
He stooped after only a few steps to pick up two children that were lying huddled on the ground, both bleeding from stone shrapnel wounds. He gently threw a child over each shoulder and bustled people along, calling for them to keep moving, to help the wounded, and surprisingly, very few people were down, they were surging back up the cobbled road to Frankenstein town, away from the stockyards and slaughterhouse.
Jack had lost sight of Tesla, and the two Frenchman bearing the detective. He kept catching the flash of familiar faces streaking by him on the dark road, but there was no sign of Adam, nor anyone else he had ever traveled with or knew, and most of the children had wisely moved out of here as swiftly as possible, making the best use of their offered freedom. He staggered under the weight of the two children he bore, and realized with a sickening surge of nausea that neither child was moving, but they still felt warm in his embrace, and he plodded forward, just now catching sight of the lodge high above at the top of the cobbled road. He wasn’t sure if he could make it, but he kept plodding, step after step. He gritted his teeth, and continued.
His forehead throbbed, and easing a finger against his eyebrow he was surprised to find a swollen cut there—apparently, some of that avalanche had struck him. He felt woozy. Blood streaked his face. He gritted his teeth together and kept marching, one foot after the other, just keep going. He glanced to the side—was that Toulouse Lautrec marching by his side. Was that really the artist? Jack blinked blood from his eye and stared at the little man, who was quite beefy, quite large for a dwarf—wait, Toulouse Lautrec wasn’t a dwarf, was he?
The man beside him looked over at Jack and smiled. Oh boy, now that was an evil smile!
Jack set down his burden, just as Quilp attacked, knocking Jack off his feet. They scrambled at the side of the road, rolling through a glowing patch of mushrooms.
“Thought you could make off with Daniel Quilp’s meat, did ye, boy?” Quilp snarled, getting his thumbs beneath Jack’s Adam’s apple.
Jack reached for Administrative Control, but there was zilch, no wifi here, and suddenly he realized that his breath was cut off as completely as was his access to the system. He struggled with the dwarf’s big hands, but the man was entirely too strong. His vision blurred, and he knew this was pretty much it, as darkness swam in, but then he realized that it was at times like these, whenever it got to be pretty much hopeless, that the white-haired Stacey snapped into being.
Jack heard a loud knock, it sounded like someone making a line-drive in golf, and then Quilp’s body slid off of him, and his breath returned, flooding his lungs, ah, that was good, and when Jack looked up he was not surprised to see Stacey leaning down, extending a hand to help him up.
“If you would pay attention, Jack, I might not have to skew off so much to pull your butt out of the fire,” Stacey said, pulling Jack into an embrace and patting him.
“But I just saw you get killed, just a minute ago!” Jack cried.
“Yes, that has been happening a lot, especially now—I think they somehow killed me in the Tween, or someone infected me with something out on one of my missions, and when I came back to Emily, it killed me there, so now you’ve just got a whole bunch of me ricocheting around like a crazy bullet, getting fainter and fainter, slower and slower, and each mission makes me just a little weaker, that’s why I look like this. And why I’m not up to par when it comes to doling out the violence. I keep diminishing, and who knows, but one of these days, the last of me will pop in, and then that’ll be it.”
And Jack realized that Stacey, this Stacey, he hardly was human any longer, he was so old, and so withered, one eye scarred over and the other one mostly hidden in wrinkles and sagging flaps of skin. His face was so scarred it was hard to believe there was any normal skin remaining.
“Are you in some kind of hell?” Jack asked, tears welling as he studied Stacey’s dear face.
“No, it’s not really bad at all—except for the gout, when I’m out on a mission, now that’s hell—but I think I mostly lie around on the beach all day and drink pale beer with slices of lime, and when there’s a mission, a part of me splits off, does whatever needs doing—usually stopping you from walking off a cliff—and then comes back, or lately, doesn’t come back. Emily is writing her grand novel, so she doesn’t mind it much when I’m not all there. Of course, I don’t know how she dealt with my dying. She probably didn’t take it so well, my poor Emily. If I can recall properly, dying is not all that bad. When I die, that slice of me doesn’t come back, and I think I’m diminished a wee bit, my hair in the Tween has gone all white, although I haven’t really aged there. It’s just on the missions that I take all the beatings. I don’t mind, it’s certainly better than having a day job.”
“How much time do you have left?” Jack asked, hugging Stacey again.
“Probably only—” but Stacey was gone, the words left trailing for a moment in the wake of his departure.
Jack glanced at Quilp, lying bloody in the middle of the road, and then he dutifully scooped up his two children and headed on back up the road.
He could feel it in his bones. The world was ending. This was pretty much it. He didn’t know how it worked, or why, but he knew it had something to do with Manda. They hadn’t shown her all that they could be, or perhaps they hadn’t shown her all that she could be. Whatever. But in every fiber of his being, he could feel it, they had lost the toss of the dice, she was choosing against them, and it was all ending. Everything, the world, the many worlds, and time.
He figured that would pretty much be it. He ought to get together with some of his closest friends—oh Anne, how did I fail you—but he seemed an entire world removed from Stacey, and Seven, and Michael, and Joshua.
Well, he could sit down with Adam, and Tesla, and hopefully Sherlock Holmes would survive to—to what, exactly? Sit around with them and sip brandy while the world went out like the Christmas lights after the first of the year?
He had to focus on the positive. Stacey was still alive. That was the important thing. The Stacey he met in the park, that guy, now you just didn’t kill him and expect him to take it lying down. No, the big guy got up again, again and again. That was something to think about, to inspire hope. Stacey was still out there, and Jack could get back to him.
Even when the world was ending, you couldn’t give up, you had to keep going, you absolutely never, never, never, never, never, never, NEVER gave up.
Someone was running down the road, Jack peered—was that the last person in front of him heading away, or was it actually someone heading back toward him? They were coming this way. It looked like that spunky kid, Gavroche.
“Hurry Jack! It’s Frankenstein, and he’s looking for you!”
Next: Final Episode.
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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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ancestor simulation, digital ark, salvation of humanity,
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the singularity, the butterfly effect, simulated reality, matrix,
virtual reality, otherland, the matrix, 1q84, haruki murakami,
hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world, dreaming,
the dream place, waking from a dream, ready player one,
hologram, holodeck, saturn, saturnalia, cycles of time,
simulacron-3, daniel f. galouye, counterfeit world,
tad williams, science fantasy, science fiction,
Victor Frankenstein, Nikola Tesla, genius
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mystery, thriller, horror, techno thriller,
signs and wonders, vestigial surreality,
william gibson, neal stephenson, serial,
cyberpunk, dystopian future, apocalypse,
scifi, mmorpg, online video game world,
end times, apocalypse, armageddon,
digital universe, hologram universe,
sunday sci-fi fantasy serial fiction,
virtual reality, augmented reality
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