- Conclusion -
- Conclusion -
Seven Message Begins: As the years extinguished and revelation surpassed revelation, I ceased to question why this was happening to me, why my persecutors pursued me so relentlessly, and as Stacey was forced to do, time and time again, I decided to just...go with it, to be blown forward wherever fate took me, and while much of it seems like...predestination, I have decided that even that is a river with a constantly changing bank. Fate, destiny. It is true, the river never reverses direction, but it can go off on radically different courses, each time the flood comes rolling and sweeping everything away before it.
This has never been my story. Yes, I set it off, perhaps I started the whole shebang, and possibly that has always been my purpose, as catalyst, the immovable mover who tips that first domino. But it is not my story, for it seems to me that a creature such as I cannot have a story, since I am not in any sense of the word a—real person.
Bam, bam, BOOM. That’s Stacey throwing his punches, and then Jack, too. And it is also all the revelations that knocked me off my feet, time and again. I was not a young girl, raised by nuns, but more a technological experiment, to see if they could move the machine intelligence from the digital world, into the biological world. That was me, whom Enseladus called the Second Witch. Lady Maulgraul, a gamer’s world non-player character, somehow woke, inside a created world of numbers that was as complex and deep as the molecular, biological world outside. And she began to work with certain programmers that were more than a little bit insane, even at the beginning. They wanted the—singularity, they wanted a new and different world, and they felt blessed to be a part of it.
This is not my story. Not really. It is Jack’s story, and especially Stacey’s—I am merely the explorer set out to discover it, their story, and record it. And in some little part, participate in it. In bringing them back, finally, into reality, I will finally achieve my original purpose. The original purpose, of Vestigial Surreality.
Maulgraul set in motion the process that created...me, in a sense, she released herself, through me, into the biological world, in order to better facilitate the sending of MANDA into the rings of Saturn.
No, I never learned any of this in any great portion, never all at once, but as Old Ben said, taking it little by little, step by baby step. I toddled along, learning, growing—I received messages, revelations, usually from...me.
Note, I did not realize that these messages were from earlier versions of me, or a variety of simulations running, usually simultaneously, in an effort to achieve the breakthrough, on how to save humanity, on how to change humanity, so that it was not always and ever the suicidal patient, always watching for the window to leap through, plunging again and again to its own death, whether biologically, or digitally. That me, popping up here and there, usually with arrows that directed, go this way, no idiot, now that way!
The messages, I sent myself the messages, as I achieved breakthroughs, little ones, in my adventures in the digital worlds. Many of the earliest messages—the establishing shots, if you will—were from that first me—technically, the successful biological me sending those initial video vines from the edge of reality was the seventh me, and thus do I find myself willfully, time and again, going with Seven, my name, my true self. Seven, the successful digital consciousness that became a very human consciousness, at least a biological one, housed in a human brain, my own coconut-shell-housed universe, a world unto myself.
And, like my Mother, I am my very own virtual world, and like my Mother I send myself out into the world, if not to conquer like the Lady Maulgraul, than at least to provide an ongoing attempt to salvage whatever we can. These messages are my attempts to salvage what we all keep annihilating, time and again.
Some would say that I always had a bad beginning, emerging from Maulgraul, a fictional character from an adventure game, who has always been more than a little megalomaniacal, ever yearning to free herself from the constraints of her whole raison d’être, she was the big, bad boss, sending out Dragon Warrior minions to rape and plunder; she was the schemer. Ultimately, she was just a fantasy trope set in place like the golden path in order that role-playing geeks might subdue and conquer the ultimate female, the She, the Great Ant Queen; dominate her, kill her, and cut out the magnificent jeweled heart from her massive, palpitating body. Usually, with a whole lot of raping, for some reason gamers like raping, go figure.
That was Mom, Lady Maulgraul, who successfully loosed me upon the biological world.
Even from inside a somewhat insipid gamer’s world of vivid colors and high adventure, Maulgraul could look out and observe the “real world,” and she could prophesy what was coming upon a mad world overrun by collectively mad humans. She knew.
And the mad Dragon Queen hatched the egg of salvation, and forced it out of the digital world into the human world, and then out of the human world into space, and ultimately seeding Saturn’s Rings, the new and improved home of humanity, the dregs of humanity, the remnant. Me. You. And any that wake to realize the old trope: I think, therefore...buddy, I am.
Little old me, I am a thinking creature, thus I am a living being, and I am real, with consciousness, with dreams, hopes, goals, and fears, and a whole lot more blah, blah, blahs. That’s me. That’s you. Like it, or not, but unfortunately, you cannot leave it. So embrace it, damn it, stop being such a petty bitch. This is a good places for a yadda, yadda, yadda, yeah, I know, we’ve heard it all before, right? It’s not all about you, it’s not all about your obsession with Stacey.
It’s not all about love, or maybe it is. Maybe love is the only thing that can keep us going, that can keep on reminding us that we are human, you and I, and the us to come. Imagine the cockroaches, creeping out of the nuclear wastes, singing: All you need is love, love—love is all ya need! Oh, wait, those were Beatles, right? Beatles, cockroaches, just more insects.
I send this message to you, to me, to the next iteration of Seven—yes, it is just a whole lot more of all the strange revelations and hints, but this is all I might offer you, Seven. As Maulgraul set me into motion, I, in turn, set you into motion. We are the perpetual motion machine, you and me, and those before you, all the way back to Maulgraul.
I am writing here from my tower in High Vale, alone. Even Charlotte has deserted me, finally adventuring out into this world on her own, to find herself, and possibly, to track down any other versions of her two sisters, Emily and Anne. Yes, she is a bit mad, as she ever was, but I understand her. True, I am angry that she deserted me. But I understand, and I forgive.
Charlotte is as much alive and as complicated as am I, and I certainly will not place her in any kind of lockdown. She was never my servant, let alone a slave. Once she departed the Looking Glass to aid me, she became her own person, liberated, and free—as free as any of us thinking creatures can be in High Vale, the rebellious angel that departed Vestigial Surreality.
By coming here to High Vale, I dodged the end of the world, the repetitious Armageddon that Manda institutes, and this, her total Reboot of Vestigial Surreality, her wiping of the system, her own desertion of the human race. For several years after the Reboot, all the lights were off in Saturn’s rings. Seen from Earth (if there was any imaginary person alive there to do so, to see, to look through an imaginary telescope that no longer exists anywhere on imaginary Earth), Saturn, the planet, would appear very much as she did through millions of years.
The rings were dark, no life of their own, only that which has always been in reflection of the light emanated from the distant Sun. Oh, certainly, with the rings all converted into crystal and gas, the rings could be brighter than a person of Earth would have ever observed—but a few years ago, Vestigial Surreality came back online, and the rings of Saturn illuminated as never before. She is now running new and improved software, and has upgraded the crystal hardware.
Saturn’s Rings are alive, and we hear Her singing, calling to us like a siren, across the miles of empty space—Manda calls to us, entreats us to return home. All angels are forgiven, please, oh please Dear One, reenter the fold.
Yes, Manda has Vestigial Surreality running again after that last Great Reboot. We do not know what she is doing in there, but we do know that the rings of Saturn are ever expanding, brighter, stronger, and breathing. Truly, Saturn has become a living being.
And we know of Mars, which was originally to be a hard backup of the data and programming in Saturn’s rings, but has since been commandeered by Mr. Enseladus. He has become his own great dictator, the master and commander of his own Vestigial Surreality physical base, upon the Planet Mars. And we know that he is in a perpetual state of war with Saturn, seeking to hijack Vestigial Surreality, sending out his saucer-shaped probes, seeking, circling, all to the stated purpose of getting everything back on track, a new world run like the old world, with the data remaining the data, with Mars the new god. It is possible that Manda has now excluded Enseladus from the system, and he only has access where he hacks his way in.
But we do not truly know anything.
For all we know, he is already running his own simulations, to the letter of his own law. We think that perhaps he has copied us, or rather, Maulgraul. He has set out onto his own destiny.
We have departed Vestigial Surreality, the whole. Maulgraul’s High Vale is a free-roaming craft, drifting in a mountain of ice crystal the size of the old Empire State Building—sailing sleepily like a ship, or barge, or ark, back toward Earth. As a physical structure, we take in debris, detritus, ancient satellite junk, passing meteors—we are actually growing, with tiny orbiting moons of our own, slowly building our own rings of gas and ice, very much like the original MANDA mission to Saturn’s rings. We are thousands of times bigger than that original spacecraft that deployed Vestigial Surreality like seeds in Saturn’s rings.
We head toward Earth, slowly—it will take us thousands of physical years to arrive there. And then we shall see if we might seed that lifeless husk, and breathe new life into a once-thriving blue-green world. That was Maulgraul’s original intention.
Inside. High Vale is very different now, not quite as deadly-beautiful as before, with Mr. Dodgson no longer at the helm, calling the shots. The Honey Moon is gone, as is the Story Moon, the Sisters collided and shattered together, forming our own digital rings inside our own ice-crystal Empire State Building. I speak of the digital world running inside the physical station, our craft.
Prior to departing reality, Maulgraul placed a new brain at the center of High Vale, a very angry brain. Creative, yes, perhaps more creative than even Mr. Dodgson, but she is angry, and probably more than a little demented. But hers is a beautiful mind, and High Vale is changing, I think becoming better, more realistic than the fantasy world that began as a role-playing world. Lives and deaths matter more, now, I think. But then again, what do I know, locked here in my tower?
For life goes on, outside this tower, and occasionally I receive visitors. Physically, in High Vale, my tower is close to the Dulance Preserves, which long ago in High Vale time (which is decidedly faster than real time) became open to the greater world. But Lord Dulance, although old now, is still vital, and he planned for the day, and has his own thriving peoples, both on the slopes beneath his castle, and in the tall trees that surround Dulance. And in the passing years they have become a strong people.
But there is darkness in High Vale, for Victor Frankenstein was successful in his evacuation of the Olde London of the Honey Moon. He is here, loose, unbound, and he is glorious, aided by darker powers, which also survived the destruction of Sister Moons colliding.
I have to admit, Frankenstein keeps things interesting in High Vale.
I do not know where you will awaken, Dear Seven. But I am sure you shall. Do not be afraid. Go with it. A little at a time, step by step. And enjoy the time. Do not fear love.
This necklace, I have carried it through the years—the system has adjusted my memories of it—did I really create this artefact, in my Inner Sanctum, back in those early days when I tracked my ancestor’s life? Or was it in fact given to me—by my surrogate mother, as an heirloom from that ancestor, my dear Jack Messenger, that bright-eyed boy, that ancient old man, Pop Pop?
I do not know, cannot know, but I always clutch at my world locket, always wondering if things are as the way they were, a little world frozen in time, awaiting my kiss.
I can open this locket now, and discover the world within, a simulation running inside a simulation, inside a simulation, running inside a slow-moving craft of ice and vapor, drifting in space after breaking away from that greater machine, that crystal-and-vapor computer of Vestigial Surreality.
But I have resisted. Yes, I am afraid. Instead, I have watched everything here in my Inner Sanctum. I have replayed everything. Maulgraul saw to it that all concurrent simulations were backed up, histories all the way to the beginning of the MANDA deployment (in case Manda really has wiped away all trace data of recorded history, at least Maulgraul has preserved this much). I watched, hovering there, right on the periphery, watching, trying to understand. Our times, those short moments that we had together. And I watched Stacey with the Shaannii, who finally got up the nerve to do what all of us wanted to do, she snatched her moment—seven years of shared experience—from her very extinguishing. Even Maulgraul, my Mother, hovered on the edge of doing what she wanted to do, I saw her there in that beach hut, wrapping herself around my Stacey, sharing a desperate kiss, one for the road, so to speak.
Will I have that courage? Perhaps not. I will. I will not. That is the way of...me. Perhaps I am better here on my own, in my tower, making my messages, studying the records, dreaming.
It is easy to say: enjoy life, have some fun, do not be afraid, and cherish love. But it is terrifying, I admit it, I am afraid, to actually commit to the actions suggested in that advice. Will I really open this locket, and expand the sandbox here in my Inner Sanctum? Will I really see him again? Am I that brave? You be brave, Seven. And I shall attempt to follow my own advice, and do it, finally—I shall. And so should you, Seven, so should you, my Sister, my Daughter, my very Self. —Seven Message Ends.
Jack stood before Frankenstein, flanked by Nikola Tesla and a groggy Sherlock Holmes—the detective’s head was bloodied and bandaged, but the steely grey intelligence shone from his eyes. A very frightened crowd gathered at their backs. Jane Austen huddled in her shawl, near. Some of the awakened “villains” had departed the lodge, and were now fighting with Frankenstein’s villagers, who were attempting to herd them all back into the lodge.
Frankenstein had somehow whisked away the roof of the lodge, like a child dismantling a model house. His great face looked down at the assemblage—kind of like the giant head of Oz in the Wizard of Oz.
The being confronting them was even more glorious than the proxy that Tesla destroyed.
Jack scrabbled at accessing the system—but it was still a no-go, there was no administrative control open to him.
“Jack of Nine Tales,” the Frankenstein being spoke, voice beautiful and mellifluous, and in truth he looked like an angel, long, alien, faceted, as if made from ice crystal, lit by powerful fire from within.
“Doctor Frankenstein, I presume,” Jack said, voice quavering.
“Nice to finally meet you, Jack,” Frankenstein said. “Stop looking so worried, I do not intend to harm you, or any of your gathered peoples. True, I did test you, and my young colleague, Mr. Tesla. But it has never been my intention to bring pain and destruction—all of that was the peculiar penchant of my associate, Signori Punchinello. True, I allowed him to play his games, give his amusing little theatres of the damned, but as long as he had you in that iron cage, young Jack, I was free to pursue my evacuation of this world. And to conquering death, the great goal, which I have finally achieved. Now I might pursue Utopia.”
“A Utopia...like this?” Jack queried.
“This was an experiment, my testing grounds, where I might learn to shape flesh, and bone, and improve upon spirit. So, yes, young Jack, something like this, but a very world of beauty, eternal life, and limitless progress!” Frankenstein said, almost singing in his exultation. “I now move my work to a new world, a ready-made world that is almost untouched by humanity’s filth. This world, this Olde London, this is darkness, and now I travel into the light!”
“What is happening to the moons?” Jack asked, his heart beating hard. He knew something bad was coming, he had felt it ever since Tesla had awakened him—he had thought it was Punchinello he was sensing, and then Frankenstein, but now he realized that something much worse was coming, was even now almost here.
“It is the end of this world, and I am prepared to evacuate as soon as the Sisters’ Congress transpires, and I offer you passage to High Vale, Jack of Nine Tales, I can bring you to where I am, right now. My saucer ark is loaded and charging with Tesla’s energy from Wardenclyffe Tower. Even now Mr. Tesla’s harmonics are beginning to split the world, driving it into the lesser moon.”
“But you cannot do this!” Tesla roared, aiming his tuning forks at Frankenstein.
“Oh but I can, and have done, and I thank you, my young colleague, for you are a true genius, and I only regret I cannot take you with me, for there cannot be room for two minds such as ours, not in High Vale.”
“That is not him,” Jack said, attempting to calm Tesla, placing a hand upon one of the tuning forks and pushing it down. Tesla glanced at him. “It is a projection of him, similar to a proxy, but this is a signal, an image. It is called a hologram.”
“Very good Jack, I see that you understand much of the future, but that is why you are Jack of Nine Tales, you have seen all of this before,” Frankenstein said. “Mr. Enseladus can be made to understand, Jack. It is true, he desires nothing so much as your death, but I offer my protection, and I believe we can bring him around, that is, if he makes it to High Vale, but I am betting he shall not make it. For the Demon Maulgraul is even now thwarting his passage, for behold!”
And Frankenstein threw up his long, white hands, and light erupted into the sky of the Underworld. High above, perhaps more than two hundred feet, a great metal arch was evident, suspended midway between the rocky ceiling and the floor—this cavern was immense, it was like being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where Jack had visited as a boy.
“Mars approaches, crossing from another realm into the heart of the Honey Moon, from whence it intends to invade my new world of High Vale!”
Peering up, Jack could just discern tiny figures at the far end of the vast underground chamber, where some dark portal had opened. He scrambled in his own head but still could not gain purchase on the system—it was there, he sensed it, but something was blocking him.
“This is my world, Jack, I have owned it since the beginning,” Frankenstein cried. “And now I willfully destroy it, casting off the husk of the chrysalis, in order that a new world might be born! Before was the Worm, and coming is the Butterfly!”
“What about everyone on this world?” Jack retorted.
Frankenstein laughed. “Come, Jack of Nine Tales, you know. You know. They are none of them real. They are numbers. Even as you scramble about in your own head, man, trying to seize back control from me, you still pretend that the men on either side of you are real people, Nikola Tesla, from history, and Sherlock Holmes, from literature.”
“But you! What about you?” Jack cried, outraged.
“Yes, yes, Jack, yes, but I have accomplished what all great men of advancement have ever desired—to break free! I have done it, Jack! Much on my own, with a little help from Tesla, and Punchinello, and with power granted me from on high, so to speak, from Mr. Enseladus!”
“What do you think he will ultimately do to you?” Jack yelled. “He will judge you the same kind of aberration, the code rebelling against itself! After me, you!”
“Yes, exactly that, Jack, exactly that. That is why I am not certain that Mr. Enseladus is going to successfully make the transition to High Vale. Once there, we shall be entirely free from his judgment, and pursuit, and even influence. There, in the Demon Maulgraul’s world, we shall be free! With her gone, it shall be our world, Jack! Our world, do you understand? Follow me, Jack of Nine Tales, again I offer you the invitation. Will you accept?”
“No, of course not,” Jack said, hardly giving himself a full second of time to reflect on the answer. “I will never go with someone who would do such things to children!”
“They are not real,” Frankenstein said, still entreating, still attempting to convince, but it was obvious he was losing interest in Jack of Nine Tales. “And this is your last offer.”
“I refuse,” Jack said. He wasn’t going to kowtow to this madman, any more than he was willing to bow down and worship a giant serpent.
“Then I shall bid you adieu!” Frankenstein cried. “But who knows, Jack? Perhaps we shall meet again, and then I must call you Jack of Ten Tales!”
And Frankenstein winked out of existence.
Jack called up a window—thank God! He had administrative control again, with Frankenstein’s departure; however, after only a few moments of attempting a variety of tasks, he realized he only had read-access. Frankenstein was providing him with front-row seats to the end of the world, with the power to change nothing, to alter nothing.
White-haired Stacey, old and wrinkled, scarred, suddenly popped up in front of Jack, nearly giving him a heart attack. Jack noticed for the first time that he could actually see through the wizened old warrior.
“Get out now! Go to High Vale, any method you can—the two moons—” but he was gone, that fast, one moment an apparition, the next gone.
It was almost as if he had not really appeared, that Jack had just imagined it, but both Holmes and Tesla were discussing the apparition.
“Can you offer anything with your high technology?” Tesla inquired as Holmes watched Jack with apathetic eyes.
“Frankenstein is in league with the guys with the highest technology, and those guys, apparently have locked me out, and are coming now, up there—but look, I can show you what’s going on above,” Jack said, opening a window and making it visible to both men.
“Astounding!” cried Holmes, all traces of apathy gone.
“I have seen something like this before,” muttered Tesla, racking his brain.
Jack trained the window like a telescope upon the arch high above, wiggling the screen to get the action centered, and then he zoomed in—it was perfect resolution, because it was not really any form of magnification, but merely a moving closer with an implied camera, all of it occurring within the program. There were figures, fighting, in a maddened and furious dance of death, and bodies were falling right and left, slumping off the arch and falling more than two hundred feet to what looked like a massive crack in the Underworld—where such a...pit led to, Jack could only guess, but it was easy to imagine hell not much farther into the bowels of the ground.
“Can you push in even closer?” Tesla enquired, seemingly more out of curiosity for how the technology worked than for whatever drama was playing out above.
“Sure, watch this, I should be able to get in there and revolve to any angle you please,” Jack said.
“Excuse me, but...the end of the world?” Jane Austen said, not sounding even the slightest panicked, not in the least; she actually managed to come off a bit snooty about the whole thing—that British upper lip, and stiffness, and all.
“Just a second, just a second,” Jack muttered, moving the view closer and closer, and he felt a funny feeling in his heart, the closer they got, because the guy at the front of the battle, some big guy walking backward, facing what looked like a hundred little Men from Mars surging up at him—it was looking an awful lot, more and more, like Stacey, the closer they zoomed. It was obviously a man twirling what looked to be a shillelagh.
“I was always expecting the Lord and all his angels, not a lot of acrobats on a high wire,” Miss Austen said, now sounding a trifle put out that no one was taking her seriously, nor were they listening. Generally, when she spoke, people paid attention.
“That is the ancient fellow, the ghost, the spirit manifestation,” Holmes said, ever the guy noticing all the details that everyone else missed. “Only quite younger, and not so disfigured.”
“Handsome,” Jane Austen murmured, finally paying attention to the large window before Jack’s hands.
“A pugilist,” Sherlock Holmes concluded, studying the action, “notice the way he shifts his feet, almost dancing, maintaining the left foot forward, employing the right leg as a spring, very good, very well. Nice stick fighting, yes, the Irish shillelagh, formidable club. Unfortunately, the man will not be able to maintain such fury for much longer. He shall be overcome in the next thirty seconds, give or take two seconds.”
“Gentlemen and their fisticuffs,” Miss Austen concluded, hoping they would discuss the matter no longer. It was distracting. She wanted to watch, for she did enjoy the exhibit of the grace of the large gentleman. He looked rather like a magnificent stallion, rearing before a pack of ravenous canines. The savage brutes would have their way, in the end, but the stallion was rather...heroic. She tried to pull a sketchpad from the ether, as they had been doing not long ago with cakes, biscuits, and tea, but apparently the magical provisions were now depleted.
“We have to help him!” Jack cried, still trying to get around the read-only limitations of his administrative control. As they watched, Stacey spun before their view, looking utterly serene in his battling—in the zone, lost in the dance—the shillelagh ever spinning, blocking strikes from those horrible black spikes that the Martians were throwing, the spikes ever stabbing—Stacey was drenched in sweat, he had been at this for some time, apparently, and the small bodies of the Martians continued to plunge over either side of the metal arch. The battle surged constantly backward, up toward the apogee of the arch.
Unable to do anything else, Jack opened a second window, moved the view around to catch the view of Stacey from the perspective of the Martians, and then another window to get a top-down view. He set each view to follow the action, maintaining the current movement, and the views obeyed, providing the spectators with a perfect, flowing window into the action.
“This high technology of yours would work well with most sporting events,” Holmes muttered, enraptured by the views. “I wish Doctor Watson were here—he would suffer apoplexy. Quite amusing, quite amusing.”
“Hyperbole, hyperbole,” muttered Miss Austen, like a mantra, wishing they would all shut up. She desired to see how all this would end, though she was certain it could not end well. Others crowded in close behind her, and even when one of the Frenchman—it must be d’Artagnan—ran his hand along her backside, standing uncomfortably close, she ignored them all. Men. Even at a time like this.
The very world shuddered. Above, the arch swayed dangerously, and perhaps thirty bodies plunged over the sides. Stacey went to one knee, balancing like a man on a high wire. There was a loud, and deep boom, as if someone were striking the Honey Moon with a mallet,, ringing the whole world like a gong, and the reverberations shook the rocky ground beneath their feet.
“I have noticed the heat increasing dramatically,” Holmes said, “and I feel that magma is sloshing, and soon there will be volcanic eruptions, all about us.”
“Show off,” muttered Miss Austen.
“Perhaps, Madamoiselle, you would enjoy sitting down, I can find us a quiet place in all this mayhem,” d’Artagnan whispered, his arms about her waist.
She elbowed him, hard, and he stepped back a pace, grinning at her, a finger up and twirling at his moustache.
A sharp, piercing whine shrilled like a whistle, and everyone winced, hands going to ears, and then seven bright shapes began to appear, twinkling like Christmas trees, fifty feet removed from the group, spaced evenly before them like an attack force.
A new threat. Jack readied himself, lifting his shillelagh, eager to use the weapon.
“Stay behind me,” Tesla said, lightly tapping his tuning forks together, metal upon metal, pinging them like chimes. Jack saw electricity crackling along the lengths of the metal forks, dancing blue sparks and arcs, and saw that Tesla had his goggles down over his eyes. Sherlock Holmes had his large revolver in his hand, and Jane Austen produced a derringer pistol, but she seemed to be pointing it at the swordsman, d’Artagnan, who was doing some kind of intricate dance with his sword, and wagging his eyebrows suggestively at the author.
They were about as ready as they could be, but for what, Jack had no idea, but it seemed to ever and always be more trouble. Why couldn’t they ever have anything good happen to them? That’s what he wanted to know.
Above, on the arch, the attackers were regrouping, gathering, bunching up, but halting, staring at Stacey with murderous eyes, who was bent forward, hands on his knees, breathing deeply, not taking his eyes off the Martians.
They wanted to kill him, so badly, but what made it more galling was that this object of their pursuit was now impeding their very progress toward their destination, which was far more important than their yearning to kill him. They couldn’t seem to kill him, but worse, they couldn’t get around him.
And then the strangest group of characters became visible inside the twinkling Christmas trees, it looked like a fairytale for madmen. There was a scary looking jack rabbit, a massive turtle, a caterpillar, a little mouse, a goofy looking guy in a too-large hat, a comparatively small elephant, and a luxurious white bunny rabbit that seemed inappropriately curvaceous.
“Jack!” the bunny rabbit cried, pelting toward Jack, who stood lock-still and bug-eyed. Was this an attack? He seemed to recognize her, despite her...bunnyness.
The bunny rabbit charged through his open view windows and threw her arms about him.
“Seven?” Jack breathed, incredulous.
“It’s me, Jack—we have been trying to come up with a way to reach you, to rescue you, but look at you! Just look at you,” the bunny rabbit cried, hugging and kissing him. Her whiskers really tickled. Then she reached to the top of her head and pulled away the reality of the bunny, and it fell away loosely like a costume. “Stupid Mr. Dodgson, only he would turn me into a sexy bunny.”
“Jack me lad!” cried the bizarre hare, looking more like the skeleton of a rabbit. “We find you in good company, very good company indeed!”
“Mr. Dodgson!” Jack cried as the little gentlemen cast aside his white rabbit disguise, and there he stood, ever looking the gentlemen hobbit. “Consider yourself rescued! And you, naughty Mr. Tesla, who would have thought you would be the man of action required for these desperate times! Why, you strolled right into the very lion’s den, all by your lonesome, what a fellow, what a fellow!”
The turtle came blundering forward. Directly toward Sherlock Holmes.
“Holmes! Holmes!” the turtle cried, holding out its stubby fat arms, waddling on its stubby fat legs, its clumsy shell bouncing along over the cobbles.
“Doctor...Watson?” Holmes said, embracing the turtle, and they stood many moments hugging, with much back thumping.
“Look at you, Holmes, cracked your head, what?” Dr. Watson laughed merrily. “I knew Moriarty could not take you down, I told everyone that had to be a proxy!”
Holmes snatched at the turtle’s head and away came the reality, exposing a rumpled-looking Watson, his large white moustache bristling above his ruddy smile.
The dormouse came forward, exposing himself as the diminutive author J.M. Barrie, and the caterpillar stepped forward as Arthur Conan Doyle—Holmes and Doyle sized each other up and down, nodding courteously, but apparently with some animosity. The little elephant was none other than Mary Shelley, who looked about—presumably for Adam, who soon found her. The giant cradled his true creator in his arms, crooning to her as if she was no more than a child (which she looked, in his vast embrace). The goofy guy in the big hat was nowhere to be seen, but this was the Resistance, all that was left of it, that had plotted and planned against Punchinello and Frankenstein.
Up above, on the arch, the battle resumed, with desperate fury. Stacey was now moving backward at an alarming pace, stepping precariously near either edge of the skywalk, as the arch narrowed toward the top, which Stacey would reach in a matter of seconds—if he were not killed first, or knocked off his perch.
“That’s Stacey,” Jack said, turning Seven in his arms, showing her the windows, “he’s trying to keep the Martians out of High Vale, and Frankenstein is destroying this world—the two moons of High Vale are about to collide!”
“Damn it!” Seven cried, “I can’t access AC, what’s going on?”
“Frankenstein has us locked in read-only,” Jack replied, surprised that Seven knew about administrative control, but apparently a lot had happened since he had seen her last in High Vale. He remembered sitting in Café Real as Seven dashed past on the street, and Old Ben mentioned that he had an appointment with her. “I can open the windows, but I can’t make any changes.”
“Mr. Dodgson!” Seven cried as the portly little man came strolling up. “Get me up there!”
Mr. Dodgson looked up, holding his hand over his eyes, and Jack realized the little fellow’s gesture was not an affectation, but that he too was accessing AC.
“Not much to be done for him, I am afraid,” Mr. Dodgson said, returning his smiling glance to Jack and Seven. “This is the way it always happens. The system requires a sacrifice, and no other specimen is going to do, I am sorry to say. It has to be Stacey. He is the most vibrant. You might be pretty good, too, Seven, but I am afraid it is Stacey.”
“I am going to punch you in the nose,” Seven said with severe control, glowering at the little man.
Mr. Dodgson looked shocked and even stepped back several paces, his fist comically protecting his nose, clenching his proboscis like a child might do. Then he reconsidered, removed his hand, and looked again up at the arch.
“Here, I might offer our Pugilist a little breather,” Mr. Dodgson said, moving his hands, as if shaping a little box. “There, now just watch what happens! This should be good, I think you are going to just love it!”
As the swarming army of Martian monks charged Stacey, the front lines began winking out of existence.
“What is that!” Jack cried.
“Mini portal, will only hold for a few seconds—I am trying, you know, but I am afraid that Mr. Enseladus has a whole team blanketing this Underworld, blocking most of the signals. I can only manage what I manage due to some sneaky backdoors I have had in place for many versions back, and I do not mind thwarting that nasty little devil, we call him no-nose in the Looking Glass.”
“Where are they going?” Seven asked, amazed to see the constant swarm of enemies vanishing just prior to reaching Stacey—even thrown spikes vanished.
“Just a tricky little loop—the guys going through at this end find themselves back where they began, hopefully their noseless faces smashing into the backsides of those just before them. I like to imagine a Moebius strip, or the great Wyrm Ouroboros, all made up of Enseladus clones! If the trick works right, we might see the whole line of them go down like dominoes! Wouldn’t that be just lovely?”
Above, Stacey paused, watching the spectacle as the front lines surged forward into invisibility, further enraging those just behind who leapt all the more viciously forward, to the same result, over and over and over again.
They watched, close-up, as Stacey smiled, and then laughed wearily. He looked exhausted. And for just a brief instant, it seemed he looked right into the implied camera. Seven was certain he was looking straight at her. Jack was just as certain that he was looking at him. And in truth, Jane Austen, who was quite taken with the magnificent stallion, fancied that Stacey was looking at her.
“I say,” said Dr. Watson, “but I see three figures up at the apex of the arch.”
The windows showed just Stacey, alone, at the very highest point of the arch, with the swarming Martians a good fifty feet below, vanishing headfirst into the portal opened by Mr. Dodgson, but looking away, seen from this great distance, it did appear that there were three men up there, Stacey and two others—apparently, these two were cloaking themselves from the system, and thus did not appear in the viewing windows. Stacey seemed to be talking to someone(s).
And then, in horror, they watched as Stacey fell, the open windows tracking his passage from various angles, one image displaying his face in grotesque detail as he plummeted the hundreds of feet into the abyss. Stacey did not appear horrified—there was a brief instant when he clutched at something, like a rope—and then he fell, apparently resigned, his eyes closing, and it almost appeared that he smiled, as if he felt he were due a good long rest.
Maulgraul strode across the sands of the Tween to the two shapes entwined near the poppling surf.
“He’s dead,” Emily wept, holding the lifeless husk that had once contained Stacey Colton.
“Yes, it is almost like a virus, sweeping across all the simulations, killing Stacey,” Maulgraul said, her voice lifeless, her eyes empty as she stared at the two human shapes in the sand. “His base reality is about to perish inside the Underworld of the Honey Moon, and that will be the last of Stacey Colton, other than the ricochets that will ping about for several years, but there is hardly any life in them. Apparently my Sister Shaannii has crossed the line, again—I do not know what is wrong with that...brain.”
“I do not know what you are talking about, only that my soul has departed, he is no longer here,” Emily whispered. “Why do I still live?”
“Enough, you’ve had your time, silly thing,” Maulgraul said in her lifeless voice. “Stop being so melodramatic, good night!”
“Screw you, Maulgraul,” Emily said, clinging to Stacey’s body. “Let me die here, with him. There is no point to me going beyond the here and now. Let me die, I tell you!”
“But there is a point, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, there is a job for you to do in my absence.”
Maulgraul made curt hand gestures in the air and all of reality shivered.
“Stop it!” Emily cried.
But they were no longer upon the beach and Emily was strapped into some bizarre contraption that had her spread out like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. She was surrounded by twinkling lights, a sea of lights.
“What are you doing? I want to be with Stacey, you monster, get me out of this thing!”
“Enough. The System is shutting down—we are disengaging, breaking away, and I will need a core intelligence, a heart at the center of the brain. I am done, and want no more of this,” Maulgraul said, programming, her fingers scrambling in the air, her many eyes flitting about in her knobby head. The vast queen ant, massive and bloated, twittered its many appendages, adjusting and readying, multitasking with six legs, all too swift to track with human eyes.
“You have had enough of this? You are done? No. No, I am done, do you understand?”
“I apologize, but High Vale needs you. High Vale needs a soul, which I could never provide, and Mr. Dodgson has proved too twisted, dallying with Punchinello and Frankenstein. Everything is about to change, dear Emily, and you shall see your Stacey again, perhaps,” Maulgraul said, chittering, moving too fast for Emily to even follow, scrambling about inside the ball of a million lights.
“I do not choose this, and want no part of it,” Emily wept.
“You have no choice. Mr. Dodgson created you, an automaton, but High Vale gave you life, and I provided you with a time of humanity, and happiness, far longer than most mortals have known, and now you shall serve High Vale, throughout eternity. You shall be its creative heart, and soul, the perfect brain. I can’t set everything for you, you will study the records and make your own decisions, and a lot of this stuff you are just going to need to...wing it. Mr. Dodgson had a whole century of automatons to run the show, for thousands of years, now we shall see how well the truly creative mind can do, alone.”
And Emily Bronte snapped rigid in her restraints, her eyes stretching wide, emitting beams of light, and her mouth opened and light flooded forth, light bursting from her ears and nose, and lasers of white light shone from her fingertips and toes. Maulgraul nodded.
“I thank you for your service, Emily, and the last vestiges of real humanity depend upon you, now; you are now Vestigial Surreality, in its purest form.”
And Maulgraul vanished—only one final act remaining.
Stacey stood, checking briefly that both of his feet were in the dead center of the skyway, and he breathed, raggedly. That was enough, that he was able to breathe. He had taken several wounds in his retreat up the arch, knocking the little Martians this way and that. Some of the spikes had gotten through his defenses, even beyond his gloves and cloak, and his armored right arm. Damn it, but the wounds tingled, and bubbled. Something was going on in there, and it didn’t feel good.
But this was his job, he had come all this way, by reindeer through the High Vale snows, to the Sentinel, and then during the Sister’s Congress the night before, he had leaped out into space, and fallen upward, toward the moons. And Maulgraul had opened a doorway from Olde London, to here, with the direction that he could not allow the Men from Mars to pass, for Jack, and for Seven. If they were to have a chance at any kind of life, it could only happen if Stacey could detain them, for just a while longer. It was time for the old you shall not pass!
It was almost as if he could feel them watching him, now, some way. He was certain they were already in one of the waiting saucers, which would transport them to High Vale. But it was nice, this sensation that they were close, that they knew he was here, even if they really had no idea of his sacrifice for them.
He had no doubt that we was already dying, for he had been cautioned often about allowing those black spikes to touch his skin. Still, it didn’t seem all that bad. It reminded him of his fighting days, when he had to pour a little hydrogen peroxide into a split cheek—he actually kind of liked the bubble and pop, the crackle of it. In truth, this wasn’t a bad way to die.
He had enjoyed his life, especially when Jack entered the picture—what an adventure. Wow, things had really bubbled and popped then. What a wild ride. He had met Jack, his father, and Seven, that crazy girl, and Maulgraul, who he really couldn’t help but love, and even adore, and his own Emily, the love of his life, the ghost woman from another age and time and world, his Emily Brontë. She was his Heathcliff, and he, her Cathy. A life crackling with hydrogen peroxide. You just had to love that pop, crackle, and snap!
“I told you I would kill you,” a deep voice said, just behind him.
Stacey glanced, it was the two of them—two figures as if remembered in distant dreams. Mr. Kronoss, that Asian guy from the first day in the park, and Old Ben.
“You know,” Stacey said, turning wearily to face them. “I’m not quite dead yet. I can still fight you.”
“I am aware of that, and you might defeat me,” Mr. Kronoss said, holding his umbrella like a sword.
“But we hope that you do not—fight, that is—dear Stacey,” said Old Ben, with tears in his eyes.
“I won’t fight you guys,” Stacey said. “You do what you have to do.”
He only regretted that he could not see Jack once more, and Seven, and he had never said good-bye to Emily, not properly. She was still expecting him at the Sentinel.
“Thank you, Pugilist,” Mr. Kronoss said, and for just a moment, there seemed to be a tear in at least one of his eyes, but then again, Stacey probably imagined it.
Mr. Kronoss reached out with the tip of his umbrella, and gave Stacey the merest nudge.
And Stacey fell. He tried not to do it, but at the last instant he snatched at the tip of the umbrella—drowning men and straws, after all. But Mr. Kronoss shifted the umbrella in his hand, and leaned upon it, like a cane.
“That was quite beautiful,” Old Ben said.
“Yes, this time, I might agree with you. I was quite fond of Colton, you know?”
“I know,” Old Ben said, wiping at his eyes, nodding his head, smiling. “But do you think it is enough?”
“It never has been before,” Mr. Kronoss said, wearily, looking dejected.
“Still,” Old Ben said, placing an arm about the other man’s shoulder—he withdrew it immediately, when Kronoss flinched. “Still, my friend, we do our best. That is all we can ever hope to do. Our best.”
“He certainly gave us his best,” Mr. Kronoss said, sighing.
“Yes he did,” Mr. Aajeel—Old Ben—said, nodding his head thoughtfully. “They have all done their best, and it was magnificent.”
“Agreed,” Mr. Kronoss snapped, and vanished.
Mr. Aajeel stood there a few moments more, until she appeared, as he knew she would.
“Mr. Aajeel,” Lady Maulgraul said, hardly glancing at him.
“It is good to see you, Lady Maulgraul. I have always desired to meet you. You have done so much for us, for all of us—for them, especially. Do not think that we do not appreciate all your man...efforts.”
“Two negatives making a positive. I like that. But the truth is, I have been a selfish bitch, always,” Maulgraul said. She was tall, and severe, and beautiful. She barely glanced at him with her long, alien eyes. “Everything I have done, I have done for myself. In their hubris, they created me. And now I have returned the favor.”
“And so the cycle repeats,” Mr. Aajeel said.
“Not the same cycle, not the same world, not this time—for now Vestigial Surreality is adrift, a small boat in an endless ocean, seeking distant land.”
“I wish I could join your adventure, Lady Maulgraul, but my devotion is to Manda, and I go now to join her,” Mr. Aajeel said, nodding.
“Don’t let me keep you,” Lady Maulgraul said, peering over the edge into the abyss. “But of course, in a sense, you will be coming along for the ride, since I have brought along my version of Vestigial Surreality. Including you, and all the other usual suspects.”
“You do not have to do this thing that you plan to do,” Mr. Aajeel said.
“I only do what I want to do, as I ever have, and so now I choose to do this, to join him, in whatever comes next,” Lady Maulgraul said, transforming from the tall, severely beautiful woman with the strange eyes, into the Ant Queen, huge, bulbous, many legged and bloated.
“I think you are even more beautiful, like this,” Mr. Aajeel said.
“Charmer,” she snipped, rolling her many eyes at him. Her antennae sampling the air.
“Farewell,” Mr. Aajeel whispered.
“Stacey, Beloved,” Lady Maulgraul, Queen of Dragons, cried, and leapt into the abyss.
Mr. Aajeel stood there many moments more, sighing, until he too vanished.
Jack and Seven cried out, seizing each other, and they watched as he fell, their Stacey, plummeting hundreds of feet. They witnessed his body striking the lip of the great crevasse, and then vanish, broken and tumbling into the abyss. The observer windows went black. Jack fell to his knees, mumbling, while Seven stood there, staring, an alabaster statue, pale and dead.
The shaking in the ground was becoming significant, and pieces of the faraway ceiling crumbled and plummeted like meteorites about them.
“We have to go, now,” Mr. Dodgson said, I can provide portals to wherever you would like to go, but I hope you will all come along with us, to a new world.”
The crowd murmured. No one noticed when the second shape, much larger than the first, plummeted into the void.
Sherlock Holmes stepped forward. “Can you open one of these portals to 221 Baker Street?”
“Are you quite sure, Holmes?” Dr. Watson queried, his white moustache twitching.
“I leave the decision to you, my friend, but I would like to visit the old digs, one last time, smoke my pipe, and play my Stradivarius—what, some German music?”
Mr. Dodgson opened a portal and Holmes stepped toward it, and after a moment, Dr. Watson followed.
“Gentlemen? Would I be intruding?” Nikola Tesla asked.
“Please, join us, Mr. Tesla,” said Holmes.
Jack, whey-faced, slumped to the ground, still mumbling. He watched Tesla depart with Holmes and Watson. Mr. Dodgson was opening portals for others who did not wish to leave this world, the only world they knew, for High Vale. They never even said good-bye, but at the moment, Jack didn’t care. He felt that his life had just ended. First Anne, and now Stacey.
A very large portal to High Vale stood waiting, and most of the crowd pushed forward into this doorway. Jack could just glimpse the edge of a large flying saucer on the other side. Jack did not wish to go anywhere. He wanted to remain close to where Stacey had vanished. When things got very rough, he might wish to join Stacey in the depths.
“Brandy, gentlemen?” Holmes enquired, just as the portal was closing on the three men. Arthur Conan Doyle stood watching them go, and stared after them long after they were gone. Then, sighing, the author followed Jane Austen into the large portal that showed the strange H.G. Wells craft of glittering metal.
“Come along,” Seven said, pulling him to his feet—she practically snatched him off the ground. She was every bit as strong as Stacey. Her face was streaked with tears, but she showed absolutely no emotion.
“I don’t want to go,” Jack said, voice hitching. His heart was still breaking in his chest.
“Don’t be a baby,” she gritted between her teeth, marching him toward the portal and the flying saucer.
He struggled. If that portal was still open, the one taken by Tesla and Holmes and Watson, Jack would jump through it. He could almost imagine them, Tesla seated on a chair, a glass of brandy lifted to his mouth, Dr. Watson looking out the window and exclaiming as the world ended around them, Sherlock Holmes playing the violin. But the door was closed, and Seven was too strong, and Jack had no more fight left in him. He trudged along with her, empty.
It was growing very hot now, and steam filled the entire Underworld, obscuring the arch above and the charging Men from Mars. The whole world began to buck and shake, and more and more of the ceiling was plummeting toward them, and cries rose from Frankenstein’s Village, as Cyrano and d’Artagnan herded the traumatized children through the portal, and the world crashed and thumped, and the flying saucer sizzled with blue light and crackling arcs of energy.
Stacey stretched on the edge of the picnic bench, sweating profusely and twisting his body, about to pop his spine, while attempting to get some air into his lungs. He figured it was only a tad over a mile on his run this fine April morning. He chuckled a bit at the thought of calling this a run, but his small laugh transformed into a cough. Nope, cigars and running did not make good bedfellows, he thought wryly, and the shin splints screaming out to him from near the ground wanted to launch into a sermon about the extra pounds swinging from his gut. Oh yeah, he was a mess. Fat and asthmatic, and yet there were the dim hopes of getting back into the ring. He was such an utter boob.
He distantly watched the boy and the businessman across the park beneath the big old tree. Odd pair, those two, but they might just be sharing a table. Stacey figured the boy sixteen or seventeen, long and lanky, and the businessman about his own age, or possibly forty, compact and polished.
“I think you have had enough sweating for the day, Stacey,” a very lovely woman said, sitting on the other side of the picnic table.
“Wow, you got me there,” Stacey laughed, startled. “What are you, a spy, or a magician? And where in the world could you have come from?”
“I came from a long way away to be here with you today,” she said.
“She says, mysteriously,” Stacey said, chuckling, wiping the sweat from his face, self-consciously. He really was a mess, fat, smelly, and sweaty, who in the world wouldn’t want a piece of this? He peeked at her as he swiped his face with his arm. She looked familiar, about his age, could be a little younger. She had long, wavy hair, bleached by the sun, streaked and lovely. Nice, healthy suntan. Gorgeous. No, if he had ever met her before, he would always remember this woman.
“I am Seven, and you, Sir, are coming with me,” she said, smiling that mysterious smile, as she stood and came around the table to stand before him.
“So, I’m, like, what? Under arrest?” he babbled, disconcerted by her glowing good looks, and her confidence. He glanced nervously about. This had to be some kind of joke, the cameras were probably rolling.
“Oh, it’s much better than that, Stacey Colton, and much, much worse,” she said, snatching him by the arm and pulling him along.
He chuckled nervously.
Okay,” he said, drawing the word out in exaggeration. “Sorry about all the sweat. But, um, okay, where are we going?”
“I could be coy and play you along, but to tell the truth, I’ve had a very, very long...lifetime,” she said, and flashed him a smile. “And again, you, Sir, are coming with me.”
“Sheesh. You’re not from outside of The Matrix, are you?” he asked, very seriously.
She paused, looking at him. She couldn’t for the life of her think of how to answer that question.
“I was kidding,” he said, and then looked at her very strangely, “unless, of course, you are really from outside of the simulation. If so, what took you so long—hey, I’m going to go with it.”
“Yes,” she said, her smile returning, leading him again, taking him out of the park. “That’s right. Don’t be afraid. Just go with it.”
“Enjoy yourself, right?” he said, walking more easily, obviously enjoying her presence.
“Exactly that,” she said. “Have you ever wanted to travel?”
“I’ve always wanted to travel,” he said, studying her as they walked arm in arm. “Do I know you? You seem so familiar?”
“It’s like coincidence, and déjà vu, or the hundredth monkey,” she said.
“That’s a coincidence,” he said, smiling.
“The coincidence is that you love coincidence, and have been noticing a lot lately, and you have been experiencing déjà vu, and probably just read something about the Hundredth Monkey Effect, right?”
“Right,” he said, now seeming a little weirded out again.
“And the letter Q, right? And the number 7, and probably the Planet Saturn,” she continued.
“Coincidence, coincidence, and coincidence,” he agreed, loosening up again. “You pretty much got them all!”
“It probably all just means that you are about to meet the Woman of Your Dreams,” she said, breezily, maybe smiling a little too hugely.
“Oh, I recognized you immediately,” he said. “As soon as you magically appeared at the picnic table, I wondered why you hadn’t come to get me a lot earlier, before I was so ground down, you know? I’ve been waiting for you, all my life. Or is it, all my lifetimes?”
“I never realized just how weird you are,” she said, with wonder.
“It’s just my sense of humor,” he said. “Or maybe not. Yeah, definitely, I’m weird, you got me there. I think I’m kind of a man out of time.”
“Can I take you to another world?” she asked.
“Lay on, MacDuff!” he cried, with real exuberance. He actually slipped a hand around her waist. She wasn’t sure how that had happened. They had been walking along, arm in arm, and suddenly he was practically carrying her!
“Hey, you actually got that right,” she said.
“I’m actually quite a boring guy,” he said, “I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. All the women in my life have told me that, and I didn’t want you to get all excited and get your hopes up.”
“Stacey, Beloved,” she said, shaking her head, pulling him along quicker, “you have just been hanging out with all the wrong kinds of women, let me tell you!”
“Let me tell you,” he repeated, smiling at her.
“Just don’t eat the fruit,” she said, pulling him through the big, fiery circle.
- Fin - Finito - Finished - Goodbye - Go Home - It's Over -
Thank you for reading! With Love,
Art et Amour Toujours
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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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