Latest Update: 10 November 2017
This is a collection of vignettes — ranging in size from single lines to several paragraphs — suggesting other places Doug has been besides the main Steps.
This page is not static, nor is it limited to stuff by me — you can post your own contributions to it on the current brainstorming thread in my forums. If I like them, sooner or later they'll end up here. Of course, there will be proper attribution, as you can see below. If there's no attribution, the piece was written by me.
I should note that this evolved into a bit of a game, where the setting was hidden in the forum's spoiler tagging, so that people could guess what it was. I've retained that here — click the show/hide button below each nanoStep to reveal what work or setting it's placed in.
That said, we start with a vignette to explain why we're seeing vignettes. Enjoy.
"You're sure he's a good guy?" I asked Eimi.
"Well, this entity cares about the best interests of every lifeform native to this galaxy, so compared to the alternative the answer to that is 'yes'. Besides, he's too powerful a telepath for you to be able to block."
I wasn't sure I liked that answer, but it was probably the best I was going to get. I turned back to the entity. "All right, 'Mentor of Arisia' — look through my memories."
"They're the Cure," the man in grey said, gesturing to Honoka and Nagisa. "But me?" He grinned nastily, and Gekidrago felt an unaccustomed chill go down his spine. "Me?" he repeated. "I'm Prevention." He snapped his hands out to his sides, and knife blades sprouted between his fingers. "And there's a whole hell of a lot more than an ounce of me."
Yomiko snapped up her hand, and a half-dozen small sheets of paper materialized in her grip, stiff as steel and razor-sharp. Back-to-back with her, Doug made almost the same gesture; spikes of a milky, translucent material popped out between the fingers of his right hand. He glanced over at Yomiko and shared a sly grin with her, then looked back at the foe.
"You got a choice, buddy," he said in a low, dangerous tone. "You want paper..." He gestured at Yomiko, then brandished the sharp slivers in his own hand. "...Or plastic?"
Yomiko spared a portion of her concentration to roll her eyes at him.
"It's very simple, Rose. Your friend with the ears and the smirk goes forward and backward in time. I go sideways."
"Colonel Sangnoir, Poirot notices things. And the things that he notices about you are most strange. Poirot has let the little gray cells do their work, and they are telling him that you are far too knowledgeable, far too aware, to be just an American soldier."
I looked down at the little Belgian, who was peering up at me from behind those outrageously waxed moustaches. "Monseiur Poirot," I said, "you have no idea."
"Au contraire, Colonel," replied Poirot. "I have many ideas ... but very little proof. However, I believe that such proof as I need will be forthcoming. Ne c'est pas?"
"Hey, Dresden, did you know you've got a spirit living in your skull?"
I gave the guy in grey leather a Look. He gave me one back.
"I meant the one on the shelf."
"What are you doing?" Kaylee asked as she stared with frank fascination at my circle.
"Well," I said without looking up, "one of the key things you need to know about the universe is that how you see it and how it works are dependent on the... um..." I thought for a moment. "On the metaphor you use. Or maybe 'filter' would be a better word. Each metaphor has its strengths and weaknesses — the scientific metaphor took humanity to the stars, for instance, because it handles physical processes so well. Hold on."
Kaylee waited patiently as I frowned, my tongue slightly stuck out at the corner of my mouth, while I tried to shape the next symbol correctly. After a moment, I scribed it.
"No." River was at my side, having crept there without my noticing somehow.
I turned to her. "No?"
"No." She took the chalk from my hand, rubbed out the glyph, and scribed a slightly different one with sure, swift strokes. It was, I realized, what I had actually wanted there.
I lifted my eyes to stare at her. "How...?"
She shrugged nonchalantly. "Once you see the pattern in the language, it's obvious." She handed the chalk back to me, and sat back on her heels, her arms wrapped around her knees.
For a few seconds I stared into her huge eyes. "Riiiight," I finally said. Maybe Simon's boasts about her early genius weren't just the fond exaggerations of an affectionate older brother.
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," I declared, watching the women.
"Hey, that's not fair," Louie muttered. "They're not complaining about anything right now."
I raised an eyebrow. "Who said anything about complaints? I'm just cataloguing what I see."
Three feminine growls drifted across the campsite.
"Sorry, Louie. I'm with the girls on this one. That was just fucking stupid." I paused for an infinitesimal moment. "Not that I wouldn't have done exactly the same thing if it were me in that situation, mind you. But it's still fucking stupid."
"Prue, Piper, do either of you have dibs on the unconscious hunky guy on our stairs?"
"The one strapped to the motorcycle embedded in the wall? Not me."
"Are you kidding? I've got Leo."
Phoebe Halliwell grinned and clapped her hands. "Goody! He's mine!"
"Feebs," her elder sister Prue objected, "we do not get possessive over strange unconscious men who have motor vehicle accidents in our house."
"Not right away, at least," amended middle sister Piper.
"Especially when it looks like they came out of the attic," Prue continued, gazing around the wreck in question to look up the second flight of stairs.
"Besides, you've got Cole," Piper finished.
Just what was it about Sakaki-san, anyway? The curiosity might kill me, but I suppose there was only one way to find out for sure. I'd already used I'll Play for You to limit the effect to myself, so... "System, load song Everybody Wants To Be A Cat. Play song."
Recognizing the uniforms before me, I snapped to attention and fired off a quick salute. Well, technically they should have saluted me, but I doubted the two Captains before me would recognize my rank of Colonel as anything more serious than the courtesy rank bestowed on fried-chicken restaurateurs.
My glib opening remark was cut off as they looked at my motorcycle, looked at each other, and then the Air Force captain turned towards the back of the house.
Harpsichord music filled the air in the well-kept Victorian home as its owner sat reading a newspaper in the parlor. Obviously a successful businessman, he was immaculately groomed and dressed in an expensive pinstripe suit. He smiled in satisfaction at the business section. All of his stocks were on the rise.
He looked up when he heard a door open and saw his wife enter from the garden. She set down her gardening shears and dusted some dirt from her dress. Even besmirched as she was, her elegance shone through. They greeted each other in their usual manner, showing the love that still burned strong even after two children.
"Dear," she said in her cultured tones, "I just met our new neighbor. He's renting the old Crabtree place."
"That old eyesore?" he asked. "Well, maybe he can make some improvements while he's there." He grinned at the thought. Some architectural styles shouldn't be inflicted on good neighborhoods. "So, what's our new neighbor's name?"
"His name is Douglas Sangnoir," she replied, using the proper pronunciation.
The businessman's eyes lit up. "Tish!" he said, his passion evident. "You spoke French!" He caught his wife by the waist with one hand and drew her right arm out with the other. Starting at the wrist, he placed numerous light kisses up her arm and shoulder. He looked into her eyes, savoring the love there. "Cara mia."
Lurch slowed his playing and groaned. Mr. and Mrs. Addams were at it again. He'd never get any composing done now.
"Get out of my way, Doug."
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, Kirika. I can't let you do this."
"Don't make me escalate this," she said softly. "I know your limitations."
I let a little smile creep out. "That's as may be. But you don't know all my strengths."
When the song faded, so did the golden light around Aldonza, evaporating in tiny motes that streaked meteorlike into the night sky. She just stood there, stunned, looking at herself as best she could without a mirror.
As I had promised, she was dressed in fine silks and satins, bejewelled and bangled as befit the lady of quality that my lord Quixote saw within her. She was bathed and clean for possibly the first time in her adult life, and her long raven hair had been repaired and styled, its gleaming waves now piled upon her head in a grand cascade held in place by a fleet of combs linked with small golden chains.
To my surprise, she looked far more like her movie counterpart Sophia Loren than I had earlier thought possible, though she was by no means her identical twin. I nodded in satisfaction at my results, and then, as her eyes lifted from her hands to look at me, I made a leg and bowed deeply to her. "My lady," I murmured with complete sincerity.
"Who are you?" she whispered, her shock evident in her voice.
I straightened up. "I am Douglas Quincy Sangnoir, soldier of fortune and humble user of magic, sworn to the service of Heaven and my Lord Don Quixote de la Mancha." I bowed again. "And by extension, to my Lady Dulcinea as well. I am your obedient servant, senora."
The mood in the inn was getting downright grim, but I stood my ground as I placed myself between the crowd and the girl they'd been about to try to lynch. Without some pretty fair evidence that she'd committed more crimes than just 'being a meta', I wasn't about to let them drag her out for god-knows-what sort of punishment they had in mind, and the language they were using to describe her made it pretty clear that it was going to be downright ugly.
That's when the Big Guy came in. "And just what might be going on here?" he demanded as he looked over the situation. He stood head and shoulders above everyone there, including me — I'd peg him as nearly eight feet tall, easily — built like a bruiser. The sort who could pick up the whole inn and toss it at someone, if he had a mind to. What really got my attention were the big fox-like ears poking up from his head, a match for those on the girl I'd been protecting. After listening to the various stories the crowd was feeding him, he came over to me, hitched his hands in his belt, and waited. Fortunately, the crowd seemed inclined to let him handle the situation.
I drew myself up to my tallest, looked him in the eyes, and smiled, warm and friendly. "I'm not too terribly fond of lynch mobs," I said, and he smiled back and nodded.
"Neither am I," he said in return. "So, you're the one Himself is after havin' me keep an eye on, hm? I'm beginning to be thinking this won't be too terribly much of a chore after all."
"I doubt this comes as a surprise," I said from below the desk, "but the telephone is hard-wired into the wall. There's no jack for you to plug into."
"That's all right, Doug," Eimi replied, in that somewhat-distracted way she speaks when large file transfers have her attention. "I'm using the wi-fi connection in the apartment next door. It's okay — I have permission."
Wait a minute ... A wi-fi connection? In 1969? The local technology didn't look that different from the same time back home.
"And the neighbors say they want to meet us ... but not right now. Beta-5 said something about that damned ship being back."
The guy had to be a Meta of some kind. Unnaturally tall, fast, strong... All were signs pointing in that direction. And he'd even managed to surprise me, which was no mean feat.
But he'd be the first I'd seen in this place.
He turned towards me, his eyes still closed, his expression unreadable.
"Good day, mister. My name is... Konishi. I am... Pleased to meet you."
I could help those girls. At the least, I could fix their cybernetics so they don't kill the girls.
I might even have a song in my collection to bring back their old memories.
But then I'd be condemning them to live, with the knowledge of having done what they've been brainwashed into doing.
And damn me, for whichever choice I make...
I was flying just outside Barstow, if the geography here was still the same, right at the beginning of the desert. The road was long, straight and isolated, perfect for a landing to get my bearings. A single red Chevrolet convertible was snaking drunkenly down the road, pulling well over a hundred and sixty kph. Maybe they were having trouble?
I swung low to get a better look, angling in for a landing just ahead of the speeding Chevy.
Passenger and driver were in the throes of a panic, swatting at the air. As I peeled away to avoid causing an accident, I swore I heard one of them screaming something about bats.
Date Unknown, Time Unknown...
Previous experience has taught me that as long as I sense no immediate danger then it's safe to take my time with this part. I've never been all that much of a morning person, after all, especially after a bad landing. However, nothing felt out of place — no soreness, no nothing. In fact, this place even felt... oddly familiar.
I opened my eyes and took note of my surroundings. The room was typically Japanese, but that meant little. What truly drew my attention were the people in the room.
There were the girls. A platinum blonde with gray eyes wearing what looked like an officer's duty-khakis; a girl in a tiger-stripe bikini and matching knee-high boots, green hair and little yellow horns; a girl with short brown hair, green eyes behind large, wire-rim glasses, and with two kodachi in her belt that clashed with her normal street clothes; another girl skin darker than the boy's wearing jean shorty-shorts and a strapless twist-top; a girl in black that exuded an absolutely poisonous atmosphere; another platinum blonde with a somewhat blank stare and odd devices covering her ears; .... and most shockingly, someone else I knew: a girl in a dark-colored sailor-uniform with long black hair.
"Rei? Is that you? Who are all these people?"
"Well, that settles it then. He's gotta be a slider if he knows your name." I looked to the new voice. It belonged to a boy it unruly black hair and the most unusual black marks under his eyes. "I apologize if your being here wasn't planned. Raven has a nasty tendency to throw me curve balls to deal with."
As soon as I heard about this lab, I knew I wanted to visit it. Their research just might help me get a better handle on the gateways I open to move between worlds, so of course I wanted to at least take a look at what they were doing. They didn't need to promise me cake.
That's the trouble with worlds that need magic just to exist — they're like living in the middle of a node. And this one was a big one. I had to do something to get my runaway magic back under control before I could start looking for a song to open the next gateway on my way home.
At least the locals recognized the importance of learning. From the size of this school's library, they had an impressive amount of magical knowledge contained in their walls.
Once I was inside, I looked around. Then I motioned to one of the locals, who stopped and said, "If you need some help, ask the librarian. I'm busy."
"That's the problem," I replied. "I was told by some students that the librarian was a monkey, but I only see an orangutan behind the desk."
"Sangnoir's ALIVE!? Dive, my Hawkmen!"
For a cop, the guy was polite, friendly, and understanding. In my experience, that was unusual, but certainly welcome, for the moment. He'd even accepted my explanation that I'd been disoriented by traveling between dimensions, and torn up the ticket he was about to give me for having my bike in a section of park that was off-limits to motor vehicles.
Then again, the fact that he'd then called me in explicitly as a "dimensionally displaced person" told me that this particular part of the multiverse was a bit more experienced — and hopefully mature — about such things than some places I'd visited. Of course, that meant there was paperwork involved, but you can't have everything.
"Thanks, Sergeant Schweickert, I really appreciate this," I said, as I rolled the bike up onto the towing hitch he'd hooked to the back of his patrol car.
"Don't worry, son, we get this kinda thing all the time."
"We have an Incoming Wormhole! Closing the Iris, sir!"
"General, it's a Nine chevron address!"
"I do not think the iris will be effective, General," came the observation that dragged all eyes up and through the glass into the gate room proper, where the shimmering disk of an event horizon had formed in front of the gate and its protective iris. The troops in the room proper snugged their weapons in tighter as the disk started to deform, then spat out its contents, a man on a very human looking motorcycle, save that it hovered a few inches off the floor. He wore a grey helmet covering his head and gray cycling leathers, but from the way he was slumped forward certainly appeared to be unconscious. The cycle drifted slowly and uncontrolled down the ramp, and behind it the wormhole even horizon vanished with an uncharacteristically audible 'Pop' as soon as the rear tire had materialized.
"Well," Col. Jack O'Neil opined as the vehicle bumped up against the wall of the gate room and stopped. "Shall we see what sort of trouble has come to dinner?"
"Sora. Listen to me. Before May got here, did you ever ice-skate before?"
"And how long did it take you to train up to her level?"
"Um... a couple weeks? But it was really hard training, and I almost..."
"And that trapeze routine you had to learn to prove to Laylah Hamilton that you even deserved to be part of the cast. What was it called?"
"The Phoenix maneuver. But..."
"That's something she's world-famous for. No other performer has ever pulled it off, right?"
"Yes, and I..."
"Did you have any trapeze experience when she made that challenge?"
"And how long did it take you to master it?"
"A week, but I didn't master it, I missed the last grab. So I..."
"Sora! Listen to me! You went from rank novice to a worthy challenger for a world-class expert in one week. One freaking week!"
"Sora, in case you haven't noticed, no normal human being can do that. Hell, I'm literally superhuman, and I couldn't do that." Doug grinned. "I'd need at least two weeks." Then he grew serious again. "Face it, child. You are a metahuman, or at least have the potential to be one." He frowned for a moment and added, "As is Miss Hamilton, I suspect."
He grinned again. "Let me explain something to you, dear child: most people can't train themselves to fly, and that's exactly what the two of you did in that 'legendary grand maneuver' of yours. There's something special about the both of you. That's why I joined the Kaleidostage," he added. "To seek you out and train the two of you well beyond the point to which you've trained yourselves already."
When I woke up, the first things I saw were flowers — a riot of color in improbable sizes outside of an Amazon rain forest. They were framed, even more improbably, by a casement window that looked to be vintage 1890, flung open wide and with several broken panes. Beyond the flowers was a cloudless sky the exact shade of blue that skies never are outside of a movie shot entirely on a soundstage — I know, because I know its precise Pantone number.
My bike appeared to have come to a halt in someone's living room — someone stuck at the turn of the century. Someone who liked their floors ... sloping at 10 or 20 degrees?
As I hung there from the straps of my cycle, blinking kind of stupidly at a real sky that was an unreal color, I heard a familiar tremulous soprano voice ask, "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?"
"Ah geeze, Aunt Billie," I grunted absently as I started undoing straps, "not the goddamned 'little Judy flubs her lines' story again." Then I froze, my fingers on the last buckle, as I realized what I'd said and everything fell into place. Oh hell no. Bell wouldn't do that to me, would she? Probably not, I realized a split-second later, but Marller probably would.
Outside the window, a young girl's voice answered. "What? I'm not any kind of witch at all!"
"Crap!" I grunted, and yanked on the last buckle. It obediently released, spilling me onto the floor. I tucked into a ball, let my momentum and the slope carry me across the smooth wooden surface, and kicked off at just the right moment to propel me, still tumbling, through that open window, over the goofy flowers, and down onto the grass beyond them, where I made a perfect three-point landing — crouched, with one hand splayed wide to stabilize my position.
I looked up and around. My sudden entrance had stopped the interview cold, giving me a moment to study the two participants, between whom I had landed.
On my right: Little girl in brunette pigtails and blue gingham, confused as hell but not backing down. She looked like a 10-year-old fusion of Judy Garland and Fairuza Balk, though she had a sturdy build that spoke more of "future farmer's wife" than "movie actress". I wasn't surprised to spot the scots terrier-mutt that hid behind her ankles, faintly growling.
On my left: 158 centimeters' worth of dippy blonde sorceress in more taffeta and silk than any three prom queens ought to wear, combined. She had what looked like a satin-covered wastebasket on her head, and an honest-to-Merlin star-tipped wand in one hand. Nah, not Aunt Billie, no matter how much she'd sounded like her for a moment. I speared her with my eyes.
"The child," I tried to say as diplomatically as I could while I stood up straight, "is named Dorothy Gale. She is not a witch. She is the victim of an accident. As is another." I spared a quick, pitying glance at the pair of feet which stuck out from under the foundation of the wildly-canted house before turning a defiant gaze back at her. "And she is under my protection."
"Don't listen to what anyone else says, Atsuko. One of my talents is that I can see the souls of living beings. And you have a soul that burns as brightly and as true as any human or god I have ever met."
I was surrounded by groans as the lightning stopped, my field deflecting most of it away from us. Not enough to stop us from nearly being thrown from the edge, but enough for us to get up faster than we would have.
"Have an electric personality don't you?" I muttered.
"Ray." Winston ground out, "When someone asks if you're a god, you say yes!"
"Ray did the right thing." I told him as the rest of the Ghostbusters lined up beside me. "Most gods I know of would take offence at that."
"So, what's the plan?" Venkman asked.
"Defeat Gozer, close the Gate, rescue the possessed, and paint the town with our victory celebration." I said. "Plan 17B, in other words."
"I like that plan."
"What?" The genuine surprise in the leader's voice was almost refreshing. At least that meant that the aliens weren't actually trying to invade.
"We goofed! We erred! We misinterpreted the data at hand!" The tallest alien moved in front of his leader, stepped with each term, emphasizing his statements.
"I told you so!" the pilot shouted from his control station.
"Let me explain the whole situation in a nutshell: There are five of us, and four billion of them!"
"Four billion and one," I found myself saying out loud. Again, much like before, the aliens all freaked out. This time, the pilot joined in. I stood up, keeping the little girl behind me. The tallest one had produced a weapon and had it trained on me. So far, that was the most competent thing I'd seen any of them do. "Give me that," I snarked, yanking the gun away from him. "You'll hurt yourself, but not me. Look, I can see that you're just trying to leave, so, you let the girl and the old man go, and I'll do what I can to help."
By this point, I'd had it.
"Okay, look. I've been to some weird places, all right? But this takes the cake, the pie and the whole fudge creamsicle. The entire town is surrounded by one of the strongest wards I've ever seen, nobody seems to care that some of the townsfolk are animals that can talk and wear clothes, I'm being stalked by a creepy guy with a ridiculous hat who keeps leering at me, and you and way-too-young-to-wear-that-dress just had a ballet fight. So tell me: what's the freakin' story here?!"
My question asked, I folded my arms and waited for an answer.
A moment later I got one.
I slapped my face and dragged my hand down it before replying.
"Right. Let's get you some water. And some clothes."
I cautiously approached the book that the red-speedo-and-bandolier clad man dropped. I couldn't imagine what it had been that freaked him out so thoroughly. It was an old book, sure. But, it looked like the world had ended here a century or so ago, so the fact that the book was still in one piece was, frankly, amazing.
I reached the book and could see the man and his cronies were off a ways away. He was talking with them, rather emphatically. I picked the book up and wiped the new dirt from its cover.
The Wizard of Oz.
I didn't think anything would surprise me after crossing the police checkpoint blended in with a group of punk kids. Hell, I didn't think that would work, but it did. The three of us made it to Tower Bridge without a second glance from the police.
The hawk-faced man from before was in his chamber and only mildly surprised to see James and I walk in. But, the pilot guy caused his jaw to drop and his eyes to well up with tears. The raven he was tending twisted and moved toward the three of us.
James didn't have time to introduce us before, and, honestly, I didn't care who the pilot guy was. In the ten minutes I had known him he was a quick-thinker and good on his feet. But, the hawk-faced man knew him. It was obvious, almost like he hadn't seen him in years. There were several awkward moments of silence before the hawk-faced man said the pilot's nick name: "Biggles!"
Now it was my turn. My jaw hit the floor. "You're shittin' me! He's Biggles?"
It's a lovely city, don't get me wrong. But once you've seen all the sights, it's boring. Except during Carnivale, apparently, but I'd missed that.
So I'd taken to spending an afternoon each week taking a guided tour just to pass the time, when I wasn't using my bike on antigrav mode to work as a delivery man. (It's a living.) One of the guys at work recommended a small tour company that I hadn't heard of before — while I wasn't getting my hopes up, I wondered whether the Aria Company would show me any new sights.
"Not so fast, gentlemen," I quipped glancing down the hall.
The demon-sorcerer was holding a fairly wicked-looking needle in his hand. The big guy was holding Miao Yin. The trio looked at me, somewhat surprised by my announcement.
"Is it too much to ask, Thunder?" The demon-sorcerer pointed the needle in my direction. "Kill him! For me!"
He took Miao Yin away from Thunder and stepped back, down the hall. Thunder turned and flared his cape dramatically. He strode to meet me at the entrance to the hall.
"Let's think about that 'Dave.'" I sauntered past the Buddha statues to meet Thunder head on. "Too many people around here been droppin' like flies already. And where's that gettin' us? Huh? Nowhere. Fast. Ah, you know what ol' Doug Sangnoir says at a time like this?"
The big guy didn't look very impressed. "Who?"
"Doug Sangnoir! Me!"
At first, I thought I was looping back on myself. I mean, I'd seen this place before.
"Hey, Misato, great to see you again."
But then I started to notice the subtle little differences.
"That pendant new?"
And the not-so-subtle ones.
Misato held up the strangely twisted star that hung from a silver chain around her neck and looked at it. "No, this is the same one I always wear. Just who are you, anyway?"
The two guys looked like they'd been fighting for quite a while. As I stood at the end of the alley, watching, I couldn't figure out what they were on about. When the white guy grabbed a two-by-four and swung it at the black guy I started down the alley. A brawl I could deal with, but this just jumped to assault.
I got to the parking area they were fighting in when the white guy smashed out the back glass of a maroon car. The black guy had an unbroken bottle in his hand. The smashing of the window seemed to snap the white guy out of what he was doing and he threw the board away, laughing. This just enraged the black man who smashed his bottle a little too well. He threw it down and tackled the white guy and they continued brawling.
Finally, the white guy got an arm lock on the black guy and pulled him away from the cars. "Put the glasses on! Put 'em on!" He shouted dragging the guy away.
"No!" Was all the black guy would shout.
"Children, stop!" I shouted and jumped the twenty feet between us to break them up. "Back down and tell me what the hell is going on!"
The white guy pulled on a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses and looked me up and down. He picked up another pair of sunglasses and offered them to me. "Put these on, and you'll understand."
"That's what this is about?" I asked, taking the glasses from the guy. "A pair of sunglasses?" That's me, Douglas Quincy Sangnoir, shooting my mouth off. I put the glasses on and noticed that the world didn't get any darker . . . it did however go into black and white. "Not cool," I growled and looked around. At the end of the alley were a pair of zombie-looking people watching the fracas.
"Brother," the white guy stated. "Life's a bitch, and she's back in heat."
I glowered at the ship's commander. "Explain to me exactly why you think it's a good idea for eight-year-old children to be on the front lines of a combat."
"Their ability -"
"Doesn't matter! They're children! A civilized society does not send children out to do its fighting! In fact, it's illegal on this world!"
"It's okay, Sangnoir-san," I heard from the monitor. "We volunteered for this."
"It's not okay. You can't possibly have any idea what you're doing to yourself. If you did, you wouldn't be using up so much of your magical potential when you're still so young."
"I've tried telling her that, but she won't listen," remarked the captain.
"Then that's a second reason to keep her off the front lines, until she will listen. Think of her future! Think of both their futures!"
"Their futures depend on us surviving the present."
I didn't have a good comeback to that one. "Still, there must be some other way that they can help. What happens if one of them ends up dead? What will you tell their mothers?"
"Colonel Sangnoir, I am Fate's mother."
"Hey! I just washed that! Get your hands off my bike, you damned dirty apes!"
The Loon is having a very very very bad day.
This isn't a good place to be if you're an out-of-towner. It's not even good for the -natives-, but if they knew Doug's true nature... well, they'd probably misinterpret it, but even if not he'd be in horrible danger.
Then again, he's in horrible danger NOW.
With extremely careful use of Lightning's Hand, he's managed to forge a local identity — not high enough social status to draw attention, but not low enough to be casually killed. He hopes. Further use of LH is not a good idea — with the (literally) insane tech level, it'd get noticed. It may have BEEN noticed.
It can't last. Sooner or later, someone will catch on and THEY will be after him. Who's THEY? Who isn't?
And it's such a damned hideous world, too. Danger is everywhere, everyone is afraid of everyone else, and disregard for human life isn't just standard — it's practically mandatory. Many things are mandatory around here, but that one sticks out.
And the worst part — the absolute ultimate WORST part —
— Doug's pretty sure that if he saw this world from Outside, as a movie or a game or something, he'd be laughing his ass off. But from down here in the corridors, it isn't funny at all.
Someone's probably laughing at him right now...
He's got to find a gate song fast, before this place gets under his skin and never -ever- leaves.
Because Citizen Loon-Y-TNS-6 is developing a classic case of... PARANOIA.
Dorothy narrowed her optics in the expression that her interaction subroutine suggested for annoyance. "You are a nutbar, Douglas Sangnoir."
Doug shook his head as the disorientation of gate travel started to fade. Then he looked at the object his bike had crashed into. It was large, blocky, and metallic, and shaped rather vaguely like a ... foot?
He paused, looked up, and then looked up... taking in the vaguely vulture-like hunched shape of the thing, the heavy cannon resting over its shoulder, and the massive club-like arms that looked to end in yet more bits and bobs of heavy artillery. One of which seemed to be pointing in his direction, and boy didn't that barrel look big from way down here...
I was baffled. In all my time jumping from world to world, I'd seen a lot of things, met a lot of people, and ended up hipdeep in a lot of weirdness. But this ... this didn't make any sense.
"Kermit," I said to the emcee, "I don't like to admit it, but I'm totally kerfuzzled on this. By all theories of physics, he shouldn't be able to do that. It shouldn't be possible. But there he is, doing it."
The frog nodded. "It's his act. Believe it or not, he's got something of a following. It's like two or three people, just as weird as he is, but they show up every week, just to see him do it. Even the Grumps think it's pretty amazing," he motioned with one webbed hand up to the balcony where the resident hecklers camped out at every show. "They still heckle, but you can tell."
"But how does he do it?!"
Kermit shrugged. "I dunno. Lew?"
The little man in the ruffled collar and the cheesy moustache turned toward us at the unspoken question. He had just pulled another one from the cooler he used to transport his tools. A speckled trout, it looked like. With an effort clearly born of long practice, he spun the trout out over the theater. It flew out across the empty space and then, impossibly, spun back towards the stage where Lew stood and smacked into his outstretched hand. Lew Zealand looked at us again and grinned. "'S all in the wrist."
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir, Colonel, United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha. My serial number is... 12."
"Twelve?" The nervous young man in OD Green mouthed, behind the moustachioed man currently holding a stethoscope to various portions of my upper anatomy.
"Well, Mr. Twelve, you happen to be in one of the finest O.R.s in Korea, and while we can't technically require you to give more than name, rank, and serial number, we are kinda curious."
"Ahhh, curious about what?" I said, stalling for time while my brain spooled up from unconsciousness.
"Well, where you came from, and what you were running from, and Rizzo kinda wants to know why there's 'some unholy crossbreed of a jet engine and a hamster wheel' in your motorcycle."
I closed my eyes, considering the difference between the questions asked and the compassionate tone.
"But right now, I'm just concerned about how you're feeling. I'm B.J. Hunnicut. Who are you when you're not at home?"
"What do I want, Mr. Morden? I want to go home, back to the universe where I was born, free of any claims on my soul by gods other than my Commanding Officer. Can you do that? No? Go bother someone else, then."
"Jeeze, Harry, it's not your magic that's screwing up your life. I mean, you hang with someone named Murphy, and she's a representative of the Law! Apply some basic Symbology here!"
"Colonel Sangnoir... we're needed."
"Coming, Mrs. Peel."
"Just because I carry a katana doesn't mean I'm immortal, damn it!"
In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war — war and the Loon. The two things in the grim darkness of the far future are war, the Loon, and ruthless efficiency. The three things in the grim darkness of the far future are war, the Loon, ruthless efficiency, and a more-than-fanatical devotion to the Emperor...
West: "You work for the United Who?"
Doug: "The United Nations."
Gordon: "There's no such thing."
Doug: "And you guys are supposed to only be chasing down counterfeiters. What's your point?"
The guy wore leather, and a lot of it. The kind that you wear because you remember that in ancient times they used to boil the stuff and use it as armor, not the kind that goes with whips and bedrooms.
Okay, fair enough, even in Key West.
He was riding a motorcycle — poolside, yet.
Weird, weird enough to be one of ours, but not too far beyond the pale.
Being presumably of the safety conscious type, he still had his helmet on.
And it was a doozy, like a flowerpot to fit your head, with a hole cut in one side. It didn't have a visor, though, just a pair of heavy duty goggles, and on the sides a couple of lumps like hemispherical eggtimers.
Well, that I'd never seen before.
The motorcycle, now that it was bringing itself to a complete stop, had a jet engine.
I say, bringing itself because the guy on top seemed to be making friends with Morpheus, or at least in a state of drunk at which even so much a contemplating driving is no longer an option — that is to say, down for the count.
But none of those were the weirdest thing.
"Hey, Jake," says Fast Eddie.
"'Dis guy just popped outta da wall, right?"
"Looked like it."
And with that exchange finished, I came out from behind the bar to look him over.
I juked to the side, and paused to catch my breath as Frank Zappa's cover of "You've Gotta Be a Football Hero" finished playing. The Warriors football jersey emblazoned with "6 7/8" faded from existence. The enemy mech leveled its Vulcan cannon at me.
An angry voice blared from its external speakers, *Unless you want to be a serving of chunky salsa, I suggest you hand over the micro-Lambda driver.*
I gave the old Bronx Cheer and prepared to load another song when I realized something. I'd heard the cannons running dry as I'd made like Joe Montana and Deion Sanders.
I stood firm and crossed my arms across my chest. "You may fire when ready, Gridley!"
The Vulcans began rotating, and the mech put its arm forward to fire.
*What? I'm out of bullets?*
I raised an eyebrow and made a show of being surprised. "No more buwwets? Hey, Laughing Boy," I turned to where Sagara crouched behind a wrecked car and pointed slyly at the mech, "No. More. Buwwets."
The kid took the hint and yanked the civilian girl he was supposed to be watching out of the combat zone.
"May I humbly ask your name, divine one."
"Uh-what? I'm Loony Toons... why'd you call me 'divine one'?"
"Forgive me! I did not mean offense!"
"I forgive you! I forgive you! Now stop kissing my boots okay?! I was just asking why you called me that."
"But you are a god!"
"Though I am not familiar with your name, your Aspect is most puissant and we are all honored that you would exert your Attribute on our humble behalf."
"..." What the FUCK!?
"You don't scare me, you old crank! My CO's a goddess and she's ten times scarier than you!"
Wayne just stared.
"Okay. Maybe you scare me a little."
"You don't want to see what's inside my head, Judge Anderson."
"I had the spirit of Judge Death in my head for a year, Sangnoir. Spare me the hubris."
"Are you the ghost in the machine?"
"No. I'm the ghost using the machine."
I hopped off of my bike and set the kickstand before trotting over to the kid I'd hit. Tanned skin, dressed in leathers, vaguely Hispanic looking, he lay on the New York City asphalt with a dazed expression on his face. His eyes were looking far-away and nowhere at all, which probably meant that his brain was still rebooting after the sudden rendezvous with the pavement. I hoped I hadn't smacked him too hard.
"Christ, kid, sorry about that. I wasn't paying attention and you just jumped out of nowhere straight in front of me. You all right?"
Blinking, his eyes focused on me before he sat up, groaning. I met him halfway up with my hand and he grabbed it, hauling himself back to vertical and dusting himself off.
"Yeah man, I'm fine," he said with a trace of a Latino accent. "I wasn't looking where I was going. Probably deserve that for walkin' into traffic without looking. I, uh, got a lot on my mind. My brother John is missing."
I gave him another look over. He looked fine, so I guess he hadn't hit the ground too hard after being hit by my bike. Still...
"Well listen. I'm awfully sorry about that, so if there's anything I can do for you to make it up, tell me."
The kid seemed taken aback by my generosity.
"That's real nice of you, mister. Most city people wouldn't go that far. I don't need anythin' right now, but..."
He stuck his tongue in the corner in of his mouth for a moment, considering, before blurting out, "If you see my brother John, can you let him know I'm looking for him?" He rushed on, "He looks a lot like me, about an inch taller with the same color eyes and longer hair, wearing a jacket like mine. I realize that's not much to go on, but..."
No kidding it wasn't much to go on. But I offered my help, and I don't go back on things like that.
I nodded. "Sure thing, kid. If I see him, I'll let him know. Who should I say is asking?"
The kid replied, "Rael. My name is Rael."
It had been five against one. All I'd done was even up the odds a little. She managed to get one before they took her down. I got the other four before they could make sure she stayed down.
She stepped back away from me, glancing quickly around, scanning for an escape. One hand was poised to go for a gun, the rest of her body would've been running away if she wasn't so keen on protecting that old bike of hers. Pale pink blood was running from a gash in her forehead. She wasn't human?
Her eyes darted to my face, down to my jacket, and to my motorcycle parked at the other end of the alleyway.
"Who are you?" she demanded in an odd Japanese accent. It was a dialect I'd heard a long time ago, and couldn't quite place. It was one I was certain I'd heard before.
I stepped back, making it clear I meant her no harm. "Douglas Sangnoir, at your service."
She winced. "I was afraid you'd say that."
"And as the sun sets on Frostbite Falls, three questions remain to be asked: Who is this strange man spying on our heroes? Where did he get that motorcycle? And why is his animation budget so much higher than the rest of this show? Be with us next time for 'Loon Over Miami,' or 'Ragnarok and Roll!'"
"Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"
"With that name, it seems like a perfectly good place to fight to me, Mister President."
"I swear to crap, if Doctor Rumack comes into this cockpit to wish us good luck one more time, I'm going to force feed him the fish dinner."
The big man grinned down at me, his violent expression fading as quickly as it had risen in the face of the attacking thieves. "You look like a clown, talk like a fool, and that music sounds like someone killing cats," he pronounced. "But you fight better than any Aquilonian." He slapped me across the shoulders, and I felt the polykev stiffen under the blow. "Come! We will see if you can drink like a Cimmerian."
SOS. SOS. This is an SOS call from the Jupiter mining ship Red Dwarf. Just in case you haven't understood that we are in Distress. The crew have been killed by a radiation leak 3 million years ago. The only survivors: Dave Lister, the last human being alive, Arnold Rimmer, a hologram of his dead bunkmate, a creature that evolved from the ship's Cat, Kryten, a neurotic mechanoid who's a few bits short of a full byte and Doug Sangnoir, a visitor from alternate dimension. We have been cast adrift in a Godless, uninhabited, hostile and utterly meaningless universe and worst of all, we have just run out of fresh clean underwear. Message repeats. SOS. SOS. This is an SOS call from.... oh sod it nobody's alive to listen to me anyway.
"The poor girl's only crime — if you can even call it a crime — was to spurn the advances of the local monseigneur. That's hardly worth the death penalty, let alone sending her entire family to the gallows on false charges."
"I do agree with you there, Douglas. I was asking why you put yourself in the position of rescuing her and her family from certain death mere moments before they were to be killed."
"Well, it could be that I didn't have any other option to save them all, or that it was the last thing that the guards were expecting. But if anybody asks, Sir Percy, tell then it was for the sport of it."
"'For the sport of it.' I must remember that phrase."
"Report, Number 2... Number 2? What the hell is wrong with you?"
"...I haven't slept in a week... Nothing's gone right since he... OH GOD PLEASE HELP ME! WE CAN'T GET HIM TO LEAVE!"
"I'm begging you, Colonel Sangnoir! Please, please don't tell the Chief..."
It was remarkably difficult to resist two sets of puppy dog eyes at once, especially considering one set belonged to an actual canine-type.
"How am I supposed to just let this go?! Look, you may be the second most competent ten-year-old girl I've ever met, but you're still ten! This should not be your life! Or your dog's."
"You don't understand! If Interpol knew the truth, Uncle's reputation would be ruined... losing his job would destroy him... and we couldn't operate undercover anymore, and no one else is as good at this as we are! I know we've backed ourselves into a horrible corner... but the only way out of it is to break their organization, and if that's what it takes to save Uncle and the world, then we're going to keep fighting them until the end!"
Well, damn. That kind of resolve coupled with their undeniable skills... I had no way of stopping them that wouldn't make matters worse.
"Okay. If that's your last word... then here's how it's going to be.
"You fill me in on everything you know about their operations, their bases, leadership, all of it... and then we take them down, for good. We'll even work out a way to give your uncle all the credit. And then he can retire, the two of you get to have lives, and I can move on and get out of your hair. Sound good?"
"...That sounds wonderful, Colonel! If you really think we can do it...
She stared out the window for a moment, then whispered: "We'll get you next time, Doctor Claw. Next time..."
He could taste it, a sooty hot taste that came from everywhere, as if God had just held a cook-out and all of civilization had been the barbecue. New York was burning. Flames leapt and sprang from tower to tower. Thick smoke billowed inland, thin speckles of ash raining out from the black clouds above. Cars had been abandoned on the highway, forever locked in what had been the largest traffic jam he'd ever seen. He peered in through the window, and instantly wished he hadn't.
It was a woman. It had been a woman. In the summer heat, she'd begun to melt, her skin staining a sick mix purple, yellow and red all at once. The remains of a paper mask were still strapped to her face. Some cars were empty. Some were coffins. They died fast. The newspapers spoke of a flu. It took 19 days to kill 99% of the United States' population.
He wished he'd kept his helmet on. But it'd been three days since he left the city, and he wasn't sick yet.
19 miles to the next town. The car's tanks were empty. They'd idled dry. If he was lucky, he'd come across a gas station soon. Posthuman worlds had always been the worst. And this was the worst of the worst. This world had just dissolved. It had to be deliberate. At first, he'd wanted to find those responsible, to hunt them down and bring them to whatever remained of justice. It passed. 99-to-1 says whoever created it, died by it. It seemed somehow fair.
A body wore a sandwich-board. It'd once advertised Nozz-a-la Cola. Hastily scrawled on it where the words "The Drunkard I..." It trailed off in one long black smear leading to a sharpie still clutched in pruned fingers.
It chilled his blood. He pushed on, weaving through the eternal jam.
The good thing about posthuman worlds; food was easy to find. He raided what was left of the gas-station store for every non-perishable he could find. There wasn't much, but he figured that people'd died too fast to take it all. There was still gasoline down in the tanks.
Pumping it up was a job in itself, but it'd make the journey down to Colorado a whole lot easier. He had to see her, her in his dreams.
He felt a shadow flow over him, chased by a chill wind. Someone had taken a dimmer-switch and turned down the sun. It was black, it was evil, it was a malignant cancer that almost made him sick. It was a darkness that clouded over his mage-sight and forced him to look up. A crow squawked and thumped into the air, disappearing around the back of a billboard advertising Takuro Spirit automobiles for $19,099. Drive away today!
A warning — it felt like a warning — had been slathered across it in crimson paint.
"Watch for the Walkin' dude."
As I walked through the gate, I was glad to be finally done with this place. It wasn't bad, per se, but it was evident that history was in the making, and I didn't feel like it was right for me to interfere. And it wasn't like one side was good and the other evil... Like most wars, everything was gray.
Luckily, outside of a single meeting with a rogue dragon (and the fact that Hammerfall's "The Dragon Lies Bleeding" worked as well as it has done in the past), I'd kept pretty much out of trouble. A good month of work had my hands on the gatesong, and I was on my way.
I'd remember one thing if nothing else from this place:
Never let Napoleon get his hands on dragons. It only makes things worse.
There were empty worlds and there was this place, I thought first. Now I regretted that idea.
I'd gotten used to living in such places: Find shelter, find food, find gatesong. Food wasn't an issue, as the number of wild pigs, sheep, cows and chickens attested (that was probably due to the low population of wolves, which seemed to be their only predators).
I'd built myself a cozy little place in an out-of-the-way cave, made sure I had enough wood for the night, and went to sleep.
Being a soldier I woke up instantly at the sound, and that and my field were the only things that saved me when this green thing I barely glimpsed exploded.
I rolled with the force of the explosion and came back up to see another two of the things coming towards me in the fading light of the fire.
It seemed that the night was gonna be long.
I had lucked out with that job. This world wasn't as technologically advanced as my own, but this game they were building and managing was probably the closest to my world's tech level outside some rare government labs.
Robotics, mind-machine interfaces, nanomaterials, hell even solid holographic displays. The boss of this place was a genius. Crazy as a loon, if you pardon the pun, but a genius. And the crush he had on the main tester was a laughter to watch.
Now, where was that Misaki girl I was supposed to watch out for?
"Good day, Sangnoir-san," said the woman in front of me. She was Asian, dark-haired, with a peculiar fashion sense. She had two large hearts in pink glued to her jacket at breast level. "The rumour is that you're a man from another dimension. And rumors, it seems, are always true."
"So you say..."
"Uh... Marona-san... Why are there a dozen ghosts on this island?"
"Good day, Douglas Sangnoir. This place luckily doesn't need your specific brand of chaos at the moment. Your gate song is 'Take me back to Tokyo' by Mega NRG Man."
Surprised, I tried the song, and found the black disc of an exit gate appearing the very next second. I turned towards the man with the cane that was talking to me.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Dominic Deegan, Oracle for hire. At your service." He answered with a smirk.
I regained consciousness in an alley, my bike's AI having managed to find a place to park for once. Untying myself, I found I was in a modern city, at least by my standard. The streets were clean and the people seemed happy, so I tentatively labeled this place as peaceful.
Then I looked up and found a giant turtle, with horns on its head and spikes on his shell, rampaging through the city while breathing fire all around.
A quick look around showed that nothing was coming to oppose the monster, and that it had already done a dozen miles of destruction starting from a river. Then I saw a nuclear power plant a little farther on the path of the beast and jumped into action.
A metahuman's job is never done, it seems.
"A godly painting dog... Now I've seen anything."
Looking at the history of this place, I found something similar to my own world. The politicos had tried something similar in the late fifties-early sixties, trying to push the metahumans back into hiding by piling law after law against them. Unlike this world, the trials lasted for a week before the next supervillain tried a big scheme, and the government found itself having to repeal laws and write down new ones before the metahuman community took care of the trouble.
In this place, however, the villains had somehow known, and gone into hiding at the time.
They were biding their time, I was sure.
"You, Petresun," I growled, "are a fool."
The ancient man glared back at me. His sunken eyes glistened with a life his withered body could barely contain. From his pool of life-giving nutrients he raised his arm and pointed.
"But, still I live." His raspy, sandpaper voice ground into my ears. "The Great Foe has yet to claim me."
"You don't live," I shouted. "You exist! You don't want to be immortal, trust me. You sent your own sons to fight each other and you didn't tell them why. You're not just a fool — you're a monster. You're no better than Prometheus."
"Do not mention its name in my presence!" The decrepit emperor shook a frail fist at me.
"Yeah, whatever," I turned on my heel. "You can sit here and play at being immortal as long as your body holds out. We real immortals have a job to do. I have an evil AI to destroy. I'm needed on Pluto. System: play Pioneer."
I have had some hair-raising first days in a new town, but never because of something so mundane.
"Tha-thank you very much sir..."
That had been so close, I'm sweating cold. No time for a song, nor even to think. Just to rush madly with all my speed, tackle and roll, without an inch to spare. I think only my field saved my feet from ending up under those wheels.
"You're welcome, kid. Just promise me that in the future, you will look carefully before crossing the street. There won't always be a passerby to save you from speeding trucks."
I'd been wandering around the magically-active part of town for nearly an hour. It wasn't a nice place. It was designed to look Asian, but came off looking sinister. Many of the buildings had interestingly powerful wards preventing scrying and eavesdropping. I'm sure a lot of what was going on here was illegal in this world, but, until I knew better, I didn't want to get involved in anything that wasn't blatant.
That's when I saw the scream.
Oh, I wasn't supposed to hear the scream, but my magesight showed the reaction in one of the wards stopping a powerful, emotional sound. It was from a building I was approaching. Looked like it was supposed to be a deli of some sort. I hoped that wasn't a metaphor.
I was inside the building in the next heartbeat. I was staring at the back of some Giger-esque, multi-limbed glossy-black creature with multiple, barbed tails. There was another one in the next room. They were both approaching a terrified young woman, cowering on the ground. There was a black-skinned man in the room putting down a glass of water.
"There is one thing that you people always fail to remember," he explained to the terrified girl. "Just because you enforce the law doesn't mean you are the law."
Yep. That was good enough for me.
"Can anybody play this game?" I quipped, putting my hands on my hips. "Or do you have to be some horrifying monstrosity?"
"Who are you?" The man demanded, as he began to shapeshift into another monster.
"Me? I'm just the guy who's going to kick your asses. System: Load Another One Bites the Dust. Play."
"Well, Colonel, your credentials check out," said the older man in the uniform sitting behind the desk. "Sergeant, you can uncuff him."
The Dobermann in the cybernetic harness leaned over and uncuffed me. "Thank you, Captain Traynor," I said, rubbing my wrists. "I'm still pretty amazed that you held me with just handcuffs."
"Well, as you can see," Captain Traynor replied, gesturing about the room at his officers, "we're not your average police force."
I followed his gesture. The dog, Sergeant Kemlo, was giving me what I expected was a friendly nod. The tall skinny Texan next to him had holstered those awkward-looking twelve-shooters and smiling in agreement. The gangly fellow with the weird art deco radio headset looked bored, but he seemed at ease with the situation too. The only one that wasn't relaxed was the big blue guy in the white cape. He towered over me — my eyes level with the weird white handprint that seemed burned into his sternum — and glowered at me as if he expected the force of his gaze to incinerate me. The skinny blonde next to him balanced the box she kept her automata in on one hip and placed a hand on his arm; I could see they were partners.
I gave Big Blue my sunniest grin, and said, "You keep that up, Frowny Smurf, and your face is gonna stick that way." Before he could snarl back, I spun back to the Captain, and said, "Well, I'm happy I won't be spending my stay in your fine facility, Captain, but what do I do with myself in the meantime?"
"Ever try playing in traffic...," came a muttered growl from behind me.
"Officer Smax," scolded Captain Traynor gently, in a tone that let me know exactly how much of a problem with his temper the big, blue "Officer Smax" had. Then he turned his attention back to me, and said, "Regarding that, Colonel ... well, they don't allow vigilantes in Neopolis, but most vigilantes don't have your experience."
"What are you saying?"
The older man smiled. "What would you say to being deputized?"
As Umi and Fuu settled in uncertainly on the saddle behind me, I turned my attention to the overly-excited passenger between me and the instrument panel. Just in time, I caught the pigtail before it slapped me across the goggles again, and sighed at the thought of having to be an old fuddy-duddy and dump cold water on her obvious enthusiasm. "Hikaru," I said as calmly as I could, "while I am second to none in my appreciation of the teenage female derrière, and while yours is a truly extraordinary example of the species, would you please keep your butt out of my face while I drive?"
The air here was acrid and sooty. I'd awoken to a gang of thugs ransacking my bike, and after trouncing them had decided that I wasn't going to leave it alone any time soon. Despite its obvious technological superiority to everything else I had seen, passersby were not giving it or me very much attention — I got a second glance here and there, but more often an "I've seen weirder things than that" indifference. Judging from the variety of the inhabitants, it was probably justified, too.
I turned to face the speaker, and I'm not sure what I noticed first: the scar tissue that covered his gray skin so thoroughly that it looked like he'd lost a fight with a threshing machine, or the belt across his bare chest that was studded with menacing spikes of bone and terminated at a multiply-oversized belt buckle made of uncarved bones. His ragged, irregularly-beaded black dreadlocks only added to the effect. "Have you seen a skull recently?"
"Why do you ask? Looking to complete your outfit?" I replied.
"How's he doing, Zippy?" I asked as I brushed the dust off my robes before stepping out of the hot sun and into the tent.
"Douglas!" my sister snapped at me as she looked up. "How many times have I said not to call me that?" She turned her attention back to the pallet in front of her. "Pay no attention to my stupid brother," she said in gentler tones to the sun-burnt, emaciated fellow who lay there. "My name is Tzipporah. Aharon here has a strange sense of humor to go with his strange accent."
"A-a-a-ah-ron?" the refugee I'd found earlier in the day whispered hoarsely, with a clear stammer in his ordeal-roughened voice. "Y-y-y-you c-c-called h-him 'D-d-d-douglas'." I frowned for a moment as he stumbled over the extremely foreign word. He had an accent of his own, one that sounded almost... Egyptian.
She nodded briskly as she bathed his weatherbeaten, bearded face with a cool, damp cloth — one of my old shirts, from the look of it, unless Bronze Age nomads had easy access to "Megadeth" concert Ts. "That is the name he was born with, or so the fool claims" (and here she shot me the snarkiest smirk I'd seen in quite a while) "but we call him 'Aharon' both because he's needed a lot of teaching, and because of his hair."
Zippy shot me another glance, and with an amused snort I pulled off my keffiyeh to reveal my blond mane, which after the years I'd spent here was both sun-bleached and not quite a close-cropped as I usually kept it. The tribe's new guest inhaled suddenly in the usual surprise and shock at what to him must have been an impossible, maybe even unnatural, hair color.
"It's a sort of pun," I added unnecessarily. When his eyes just got wider, I continued. "I'm a traveler, not from around here; the tribe adopted me a few years back as one of their own when I saved Zippy's..."
"...Zippy's life." I peered at him as Zippy muttered darkly about stupid adopted brothers and the scorpions they would find in their beds, just you wait and see. Interesting features under all the chap and sunburn and hair. Definite Egyptian influence, but... something else, too. "And what's your name, stranger?"
"S-s-s-setmose," he managed to get out.
Oh yeah, definitely Egyptian. And with that name, probably aristocracy of some sort. Which begged the question, what the hell was he doing by himself all the way out this far in the Sinai?
"I do believe, madam," I said to the extraordinarily ugly woman in the antique black dress, "that this is your bailiwick, as the lessons that I teach are of quite a different kind." And I bowed slightly to her.
She inclined her head to me with a slight, snaggle-toothed smile. "Indeed." Then she slammed her walking stick into the ground with a thunderous crack.
I looked at it with some trepidation.
Now, the others were handy, boosting the appropriate song's powers when I held them and played the music at the same time. At least the two I was willing to try out gave those boosts.
But what would this card — "The Song" — do?
I really wanted to find whoever had scattered these around and give him a piece of my mind...
I let the polykev intercept the pressure strikes made by the pigtailed girl in rose-and-pink silks and dropped her with a knockout blow to the head. At the same time, my left arm swept down automatically, snagging the spray of throwing knives flung at me by the bored-looking girl. As she broke character to gape at me, I flung them back.
I didn't get to see how many hit, though, because at that point my danger sense shouted "move!" and I twisted left just in time to avoid a blast of something that looked like a cross between a gas jet and a lightning bolt. It came from the imperious-looking one with the flame-shaped hair ornament.
"Upping the stakes, are we now, kiddo?" I muttered as she dropped back into a combat stance with a snarl. "In that case... System! Lightning's Hand! Play!"
We weren't making any headway in this crazy hall of mirrors, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out a song that would help us see our way through. They weren't illusions, they were mirrors...
Then Lee wound up and punched the glass in front of us.
Yeah, that'd work.
I studied the teen with his cloud of brown curls before smiling. "So, then, Mr. Martelli, do we have a deal? I will find and retrieve everything of yours which was stolen from your basement studio. In return, you will write me a song to these specifications..." I tapped the sheet of paper on the table between us. "...And you and Ms. Hernandez here..." (at which point I nodded at the slender Puerto Rican girl next to him) "...will record it for me. On this." I held up the memory crystal and the pair's eyes widened. "Agreed?"
"Rise and shine, Mister... Sangnoir. Rise and... shine. Not that I wish to imply that you have been sleeping on... the job. No one is more deserving of a rest than you. And all the effort in the world would have gone to waste until.... Well let's just say your hour has come again. The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference... in the world. So... wake up Mr. Sangnoir; wake up and... smell the ashes."
It wasn't human. At some point it had been, and physically, it almost looked like one still, assuming you saw it in bad light. But in magesight, what it was was incredibly clear.
A walking corpse, its only animation came to it from an outside source, its existence sustained to serve as a parasite, feeding on behalf of its master in darkened back alleys like this one. And I could see by the slow spread of black in its latest victim, that it was spreading. It was a horribly elegant means of spreading the apparent necromancer's power. One was killed and infected others, who spread it to others, all the power flowing back through them to the central source, like a twisted pyramid scheme of sorcery. But at the present situation, the news had suggested the killings and disappearances had been fairly isolated, so it must not have had much time to spread yet.
Not for the first time, I wondered if just once, whatever seemed to guide my path home could see fit to deposit me early enough into a problem to nip it in the bud rather than just late enough that the bad guy had some kind of momentum going. Dramatic or not, it was very annoying.
Still, best to destroy this one quickly. I began to roll through my list of potential songs I could resort to in order to keep the necromancer from noticing his thralls being destroyed too early when something jumped into the alleyway with a speed that made me blink. Now, note that, given my previous occupation and some of my teammates, it takes a lot to impress me in terms of speed. This thing was that fast. And about a half a second later, the thrall that I'd been preparing to target was rendered into two quickly disintegrating halves, ripped in half bodily by this thing's bare hands. Which was when I got my first real look at it. Physically, it looked more human than the thralls had, short blonde hair and fairly mundane dress not being something that'd stand out any more than I did in this particular incarnation of Japan, which wasn't exactly the melting pot of foreigners that Megatokyo had been.
Magically, however, was something else entirely. This wasn't a god or demon like I'd seen before, but it was something....something that definitely would make a couple of the ones I'd met take more than a second thought as to just casually tangling with it. As it hunched down, power practically bleeding off of it like the moonlight did off its white clothing, I began to slowly back up. What I'd intended to do was obviously about to be taken care of quite easily without me doing anything, and treading into something that powerful's territory without at least trying to look up polite ways to say "please don't murder me horribly for just being in your way" suggests that one is either brave, stupid, or some measure in between. While I was the former, in all modesty, I liked to think I wasn't the latter, and thus continued to slowly retreat....before freezing as the creature turned, a single crimson eye locking with mine.
But a tingling danger sense told me that what I needed to worry about was behind me. A second thrall lurched out of the shadows, having apparently managed to evade my cursory threat scan earlier by simply being...well, dead. I slid to the side, preparing to respond when this thrall also found itself in two pieces....but this time along a single clean line, the body similarly crumbling to dust. What stood in its wake was a perfectly normal young man, wearing a school uniform that I believe belonged to a nearby establishment. But as he turned, I broke into a cold sweat. While the earlier creature had been a towering pinnacle of power, there was something in this young man's gaze that chilled me to the bone as I saw it in magesight. I flicked out of it to avoid freezing up entirely, as the young man slid a pair of glasses onto his utterly unexceptional looking face.
"You should be more careful, sir. The back alleys are dangerous these days."
I found myself down the Marina with some time to kill before moving on. A breadboard advertised a small boat running three-hour tours of the nearby islands.
What could be the harm?
I was relieved to learn that I hadn't gone deaf, and that the reason that I couldn't hear anything was that there simply weren't any sounds to hear. The signs were an effective method of communicating around that restriction, though not an efficient one.
On the other hand, I would clearly need to deal with this "Soundkeeper" myself. I didn't trust a young boy to be able to handle a sorceress who could accomplish a feat of that magnitude.
I don't know what had been pulling me here: a suburban community just south-east of Denver. But, after several hours of driving around, I finally saw something with magesight. A strange energy was, just barely, leaking from a house. Having seen nothing on mage sight all day, this was slightly encouraging. I parked the bike a bit off, so I could walk over.
An obese Asian guy, with a mustache and beard came out of the house after a moment. He didn't even notice me. I quickly looked at him in magesight and got the same thing I'd been getting all day: nothing. He crossed the street and looked to be heading out to the mail boxes a block away. I hurried up to the door and tried it. Unlocked. I went in and blinked.
It was dark, but over the TV was a collection of statues ... and I recognized some of the people. A lot of them were of Asuka, in varying outfits. I didn't look for long as I shifted back into magesight. The glow was coming from down the short hall, behind a closed door. I was about to knock when I heard:
"All righty, I need to get Skuld's clothes off her to get a better look at her."
The door didn't stand much chance against me. The fat guy in sweatpants and glasses didn't even struggle. I had him out of his computer chair and pinned against the wall to his side in an instant. He was staring down at me with wide eyes.
"Oh, crap," he muttered. "I'm about to get my ass kicked by Doug Sangnoir. Figures."
"You know who I am?" I probably didn't have to put the growl in my voice, but it just came out.
"Yes, Colonel. Put me down, please. We've got a lot to go cover."
Great, just great. Tom's drunk and Ransom's about to step outside. I wish I could ask Eimi whether this was the night, but there wasn't time to go back to the hotel. It was up to me to make sure Ransom didn't end up dead. Maybe.
"I promise you, Cooper: we will find out who killed Laura Palmer."
Narrator's voice: "Very few people know that Racer X is, in reality, Douglas Q. Sangnoir, Speed Racer's second cousin twice removed."
I really didn't want to have to belt the girl, but she just wouldn't give up. She kept trying to get to her rifle and I didn't want to have to deal with that. I gave her a nice, solid whack to separate her from her consciousness for a couple of hours while I figured this post-apocalyptic world out.
My reprieve was short-lived when the door to the warehouse slid open and a dozen more women stood there. Some were armed with conventional weapons: an uzi there, an AK-47 over there. Others, less so. At least one girl (almost dressed as a pirate) was carrying a pair of flintlocks while another carried a Flammenwerfer 35. Some of them, however, were armed with weapons that I couldn't figure out how they got. One girl was carrying what looked to be one of Egon's proton packs. Another was carrying a man-pack gatling gun.
Most of them were only partially clothed and damn if they weren't all gorgeous. They all had me covered and I let out a long sigh. I turned to face them and prepared to combat hype.
"Oh," the one with the proton pack exclaimed, almost disgustedly. "It's just a man."
My eyes went wide. "What do you mean, 'just a man!?'"
And it was indeed a cafe that occupied the side of the house, complete with a cute sign that read "Cafe Alpha — Open". It was compact but well equipped and, currently, completely deserted. The windows were flung open, letting in a lot of sunlight and good ocean air.
"Nice place," I said. "You must make some pretty good business."
"Thank you!" Alpha said as she began brewing a pot on the burner behind the counter. "Though you're my first customer today!"
"Really?" I asked as I sat down at one of the tables.
Alpha tilted in her head in a now-that-I-think-of-it angle and continued, "Actually, you're my first customer in... two? No, three days!"
"..." I said.
"So, it's a magic helmet," the man who had been identified as "Garibaldi" said, his look like he was sizing me up for a straightjacket. "And where do you keep your spear, then?"
Even for me, it not every day that you encounter a werewolf in gold armor and a pack of grey humanoids trying to break in to a museum.
"Let me guess. That," I gestured to off in the distance where a giant sword-wielding robot was battling an equally giant monster, "is a distraction to let you steal whatever it is you're after."
"Pathetic human, who are you to think you can stop us?"
"Well, for the moment, just call me the Loon Ranger."
"You know, that's the second time-traveling phone booth I've seen. The other one was considerably roomier though."
"Oh, you're such a comedian." Dan looked at me with disgust. Laurie started crying. Puzzled, I asked, "Was it something I said?"
It was the first time in several days I had seen any activity that wasn't from those annoying robot walkers. Don't get me wrong, they were fun to fight, and they weren't expecting me. But, it was getting a little monotonous. There were two kids — mid-to-late teen boys — by the looks of them, scavenging through the buildings. They were both packing submachine guns, so I was approaching cautiously.
"She's pretty cute and all, but she's really not all that." The bigger of the two boys stated, moving some debris. "Lousy lay, and now she wants to talk about 'our relationship' all the time. Fuck her!"
"Fuck that noise!" The second kid balled up a fist and punched the first one in the face. He fell, but only out of surprise.
"What the hell, man!" The first kid seemed, genuinely, surprised.
"Don't talk about her like that!" The smaller kid was seriously beating on him, tears streaming down his face. "You don't get to talk about her like that!"
The bigger kid was showing a lot of restraint. "Jesus, dude, get a handle on yourself." He wasn't hitting back, more trying to wrestle the smaller kid out of the fight. I knew my cue and jumped in.
"All right, you two," I barked, in my authority figure voice. "Stop fighting."
The smaller kid winced and spun around, the bigger kid just stared at me, like he'd seen a ghost. "How are you up and around, dude?" he asked, dumbfounded. "You're old."
I think my heart broke, a little bit, right then.
As worlds go, this wasn't the oddest one I had found. Or so I thought. It was clearly Earth, but quite different from any Earth I had been to previously. Or so I thought. And then the demons came to party in the middle of a trade district. So there I was, helping out when I could, when a blonde in a barely-there leather outfit rushed past me, fighting what looked like a salamander with a whip made of golden hearts.
I lost her in the chaos, however, but a quick scan of the area afforded me a glimpse of twin streamers of blonde hair exiting into alleyway that someone promptly blocked off with a rather expensive car. Setting my jaw as I made my way in that direction, my suspicions were confirmed at the sight of a blonde woman squaring off with another blonde, one that I knew quite well. And kneeling before her, raven hair shrouding her face, was unmistakably Sailor Mars.
Just what had I found my way into now?
My benefactor stared at me impassively from across the fire, idly stirring a pot of baked beans that hung above it.
"I find it difficult to believe," he said in Russian-accented English, "that you would end up here and not know anything about where you are."
I shrugged. "I just found myself in this place by happenstance; I guess I wasn't looking where I was going."
His expression told me that he didn't believe me for a second. Which is funny since it was the absolute truth.
"Well," he continued, "that you don't know Russian won't be of great detriment; most folks 'round here know at least some English. Most folks aren't as friendly as me, though, so watch yourself.
"Since you appear to be an ignoramus, let me clue you in. Don't move about alone; even the experienced ones try not to go solo from town to town. Avoid traveling at night or in dark places. Anything weird may be valuable, or it might kill you. Or both. Watch out for mutants. If a blowout occurs, and you'll know one when you see one, find cover as quickly as possible."
With a quick sniff he stopped stirring the beans and grabbed two bowls from his pack.
"And whatever you do, avoid getting closer to the reactor. Nobody returns. Or if they do, they are... changed."
He handed me a full bowl and a spoon and looked me straight in the eyes.
"Welcome to the Zone, Mister Sangnoir. Try not to get killed."
For obvious reasons, none of them had ever heard of a "Song-Song Fruit" before, but they seemed more willing to believe that I had discovered it than that my metatalent came from something else entirely. I let them believe what they wanted; if the government ever found themselves relying on that weird rock to subdue me, they'd be in for a nasty surprise.
Of all the places to find myself after a gate transition, aboard a train was far from the weirdest. Still, there was definitely something odd in the air. I could feel it, almost twisting, as I tried to extricate the bike from what seemed to be some rather choice furniture that it'd gotten jammed up in. After a minute or so, though, the feel had gone from noticeable to fingernails-on-chalkboard annoying, and I peered out between the slats of the car walls to see what I could see.
The town around the tracks looked normal, at first. I'd estimate the tech level as 1890's to 1920's at highest. Nothing seemed particularly out of place until I saw it. The portal, was the only word I could think of for it, arcing hugely above the buildings, and the tracks lead directly into its maw. Well, that decided that. I redoubled my efforts to get the bike out from where it was stuck.
Too late. The train sped up as it approached the portal, and I could feel the energy of the thing rolling over me as we approached it... and then passed through. The transition left me on the floor, emptying my guts into the furniture, hoping that I could finagle a way out of this before whoever it was intended for found out what had happened to it.
I'd just finally managed to extricate the bike from its prison when the door at the side of the car blew in. Perched on the edge, amidst the remains, were two women, twins, each with wild and spiky blonde hair. One was dressed in a rather nice duster and jeans, the other looked like a refugee from 'Barbie does Bondage', but both were sporting paired daisho and pistols. All in all, it made for an impressive sight.
The sensibly-dressed one reached out a hand to me. "Come with us if you want to live."
"But, sir, there's a dragon on that island."
That was enough to catch my interest — it wasn't very often that I heard about a dragon in the Caribbean, especially in a world with technology that approached my home's from back around when I was born. "I'd like to see a real dragon. Would you take me to it, please?"
He looked even more afraid when I made that request. "That's a bad idea, mister..."
"Sangnoir. Doug Sangnoir."
The kid gave me lazy, irritated look. "May I ask why you tried to kill my head butler?"
"He's a demon."
Shock flickered across the kid's face for a split second before being replaced by a cold, calculating expression. "Sebastian, bring Mr. Sangnoir to my study. I would like to have a word with him."
"Mister Sangnoir, can you tell me where you were last at the time of the murder?"
"Well gee, Detective Phelps, I'd love to, but you wouldn't believe a word that came out of this Loon's mouth."
"Waaaah, you can see me?!" the utterly adorable little girl asked, practically tumbling over herself. If you'd told me a few universes back before I met Skuld that this little thing was a goddess, I'd have probably laughed in your face.
And verified afterwards. Deities are crafty like that.
Nonetheless, she seemed harmless by divine standards, which was to say that the clumsiness and general well-meaning towards humans seemed to be genuine rather than an act. If not for the small horns, one chipped on the tip, and the occasional moments when I caught her not paying attention to me and could see the age gap between her appearance and the ancient being that lurked under it, I'd almost have considered myself paranoid for keeping an "ear" open around her. In fact, as I watched, she glanced back at me, her face falling slightly.
"You're afraid of me, aren't you?" she murmured. "And you don't even know the legend yet. Why?"
I blinked, having not thought I'd been that obvious. "Well...it's not fear, exactly. More like...caution. I've run into others like you who aren't so nice, and it's a hard habit to break."
She tilted her head to one side, before tapping her forefingers together. "You don't have anything to be afraid of from me, really. I'm really just a powerless god, this is so."
The single strangest thing about this place — room? world? — wasn't the featureless gray-white sky and floor that stretched to the horizon as far as I could see. It wasn't the lack of a visible light source or even of a shadow underneath me.
No, the strangest thing was the fact that for some reason, I seemed to have been plugged into a telepathic feed of my own observations. Including the observation of the feed itself. It was like my own finished account of this universe had gotten transported back in time to the present and was being read to me.
For want of anything better to do, I headed for the only object I could see apart from what I'd brought. It turned out to be an irregularly-shaped patch of land — and as though things weren't bizarre enough, it was less than four meters long, about twice my own height. Not to mention the small humanoid figures clustered together on it, having a heated discussion.
"...said 'about twice my own height'!" I heard one of them — what looked like a living doll made from grass, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand — say as I drew near, its back facing me. "It has to be a human! What's a human doing here? There hasn't been one since Barnacle-"
"Uh, Zadok?" interrupted what looked like, of all things, an eyeball with fangs. "Have you stopped listening to the narration?"
The eyeball wasn't looking at the grass doll. It was looking at me — as, I realized, were most of the other figures.
The grass doll turned and looked up at me. "Uh," it said. "Hi."
So they could hear the telepathic signal, too. That settled it.
Dammit. Unwalled worlds could be a pain.
The street was a wreck. From the heat and the blowing sand, combined with the architecture, I figured it was somewhere in the American Southwest, somewhere around the Civil War period, but a closer look at some of the shell casings and discarded pistols lying around meant that if it was, there was an odd bump in the technology curve. (Given what was in the sky when I got a better look at it later and what I learned after being able to ask some questions, this turned out to be even more wrong than I thought.) Given how bullet-riddled the street was, it was no surprise that the locals had all fled, though by the time I'd shaken off the usual post-portal blackout and lingering disorientation the gunfire had pretty much died down.
A tallish bald guy in goggles was lying dead in the street, still clutching a pair of very blocky machine guns, despite so many bullet wounds that he was less corpse than sponge. I'd initially thought the younger guy at the other end of battleground was dead too, until he moaned and rolled onto his belly, then started crawling away.
Well, crap. I was already giving my helmet the command as I hurried over, "System, load 'I'm Alive.' Play!"
Doug looked over at the masked man with a raised eyebrow. "Silver bullets? I hope you're a good shot, otherwise that would be really expensive."
"Some say, that his true love has never actually seen his face... and that he can change his bath water into wine given enough time soaking in it. All we know is, he is not The Stig... but The Stig's superheroic cousin."
It was England.
1950s or thereabouts at a guess, the sense of optimism following World War II being tempered by the continuing austerity. The roads were worn and empty, while the hedgerows were in a full summer bloom. It wasn't easy finding somewhere inconspicuous to hide the motorcycle in the village, but my curiosity had been piqued.
I went inside the pub, not expecting it to be much if anything like what I remembered. Three locals were having a conversation in a dark corner beside an unlit fire.
"That's a fairy story, Jones. I don't believe it for a moment. Pigs? Taking over a farm? I've never heard the like of it."
"You've had too much of that stuff, mate, I think."
"I swear on my Mother's grave it's true! The animals have taken over Manor Farm."
Less than ten seconds after stepping inside, and I was certain I wouldn't be disappointed.
"Mike, I don't know what to do here. Credible witnesses say this guy came out of a hole in the air that sounds suspiciously like a pocket-sized Ring of Fire. His helmet's got a computer in it that's smaller and more advanced than anything I ever saw uptime. He's carrying an electronic ID dated 1998 that projects holograms of both him and his qualifications — and before you ask, it says he's Colonel Douglas Quincy Sangnoir of the United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha. His motorcycle is powered by a turbine made of some kind of ceramic, and it was floating about a foot off the ground when it came to a stop. Its cargo carriers are bigger on the freaking inside than they are on the outside — we've pulled a couple cubic yards of crap out of them so far and we haven't hit bottom yet. And his laptop computer is apparently the home of a very pissed off Japanese schoolgirl who wants to know what the hell we're doing with him, her, and all his stuff. I'm half-afraid to tell her he took a downtime musket ball through the chest as he arrived."
Mike Stearns stared disbelievingly at the radio. "...Japanese schoolgirl?"
There was a crackle of static, then: "Don't quote me on this, but I think she's an AI — she can see us, learned our names, recognizes each of us on sight, and always has a few choice words for us, including a lot of what I think is Japanese profanity. If she's just a fancy Eliza program, I'll eat my hat." A pause. "So what should I do?"
Stearns glanced at his wife Rebecca, who looked as stunned as he felt. "Why not just apologize to her, bury the body, and ship her and everything else here to Magdeburg?"
Even despite the staticky signal, the sigh from the other end was audible. "That's the other thing — I don't know how, but Sangnoir survived. His chest has a hole the size of a baseball in it, but he's still alive and holding on. Sharon's taking care of him, but she's talking about waiting until he heals up and then cutting him open to find out why he won't die." There was another pause. "I think she's joking."
As near as I could tell from Dr. Arroway, the aliens that she claimed to have contacted had discovered proof of the existence of God in some strings of digits embedded in irrational numbers. Not the gods that I had met, but a full-blown omnipotent Creator.
I didn't have the heart to tell her that some very intelligent mathematicians think those irrational numbers are normal, with every possible finite string of digits included in them somewhere. If that's the case, and this was what those aliens took for proof of a Creator... well, they were just as human as us, at least in that way.
I have got to stop coming out of these jumps in the middle of a fight. Especially one I have no chance of even affecting, much less winning. In this particular case I was on some sort of spacecraft bridge, judging by the look of all the computer displays and control panels. The tactical display showed what looked like an entire solar system, so I figured 'spaceship' was as good an answer as any.
A couple of the locals' security goons were already closing on me when the pretty brunette at what looked an awful lot like a weapons console touched a control, and a couple of the blips on the tac display started flashing red and yellow... then faded out into empty red circles.
From what I would learn later, I have to say I fully agree with the rather me-like tone of her voice as she put on that Looney-Tunes smile and said, "Oops."
The mech's body was a face. Big, fat dark and ugly with a leering grin, an over-sized crocodile's skull as big as a London bus, riding stumpy legs, with a stubby pair of arms where its ears should have been. It was.... hilarious. The face-bot was incredulous, raising one of it's stumpy legs with a bellow of fury.
"A mere human, laughing in the face of the Spiral King's finest. Die!"
It brought its foot stomping down, an earthquake strike that shook the planet itself.
I grinned, rolling out of the dust. "I am no mere human,"
I'd failed to notice the cracks spreading across the ground beneath me....
"Give it up, Gru!" I shouted as I struggled to get free of the restrictive goop which encased me from feet to neck. "You'll not escape justice today!"
"It is to make me laugh," Gru responded sardonically, his vaguely Eastern European accent adding a sinister air to his words. "You seem to not be noticing it is I who have captured you, Douglas. I will be taking you back to my lair, because this is night I need babysitter for the girls, as I mentioned last week." He leaned forward, a crease of worry forming on his brow. "Unless your plans have changed and you are no longer free?"
I managed to work one arm loose and shook my fist at him with a friendly grin. "I'm free tonight, Gru, but you won't be when I turn you over to the authorities."
"Eh," he grunted with a shrug. "As long as the girls don't eat too many sweets or stay up past their bedtime, your threats mean nothing to me! I will not be thwarted by the likes of you, not tonight!"
I nodded. "Tomorrow, then? My schedule's open all morning."
He tilted his head and considered this, then nodded back. "Yes, I think I can do that."
"Excellent, it's a date." As I struggled to free my other arm, I looked down at the Technicolor glob holding me tight. "Can I get a little help here, then?"
"Eh? Oh, sure, sure." Gru clapped his hands. "Larry, Steve, Dave, on the double," he called, and a trio of those weird little yellow guys who worked for him appeared out of nowhere. "Good, good. I want you to carry the babysit... er, the prisoner back to the house." The three walking cold capsules made a storm of affirmative noises. Then, burbling continuously in that almost-English of theirs, they hoisted me on their shoulders and started to carry me off.
"Have a good evening, Gru," I called out with a friendly wave of my one free limb.
"I plan to," he said with a smirk, "but you will not. I believe that Margo has developed a crush on you, Douglas. And I shall be leaving you to her tender mercies."
Oh, joy. If I didn't get out of this blob before we got to the house, I was going to end the night with a face covered in lip gloss. Damn, Gru was a sadistic bastard when he wanted to be.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect. All of the yes-men and sycophants you'd expect to hang around the President of the United States buzzed around me like flies. I couldn't wait until the stupid press event was over. All I could hear, over and over, were the toadies croaking about this guy's accomplishments:
"President Obooma balanced the budget in his first year."
"President Obooma got affordable healthcare for everyone."
"President Obooma worked out a Middle-East peace plan, and they're sticking to it."
Honestly, it was getting tedious. But, ever the good soldier boy, I stood tall and kept my head up. It was a few more minutes before the band struck up "Hail to the Chief." I let out a sigh and knew it would be over soon. I looked to the side and saw the first members of the secret service enter the room.
Then I saw the President. I knew it wasn't appropriate, but, I couldn't help it.
"HE'S A CHICKEN! HE'S A GIANT CHICKEN!"
Everyone looked at me in surprise. But, in plain view was a six-foot tall, Leghorn rooster — complete with wattles and a comb. He was wearing a blue blazer, but that was it. How everyone in this room thought he was a human was beyond me. As everyone stared, he even bent down and pecked at the ground for a moment.
"Please tell me this is some sort of sick joke?"
Eimi loves it here. I'm getting a saccharine overload. Neither of us really fit in.
For one thing, I'm a human and Eimi's a PC. The natives are horses. Not that horses aren't people — Sylvath is more of a real person than Quincy ever was — but the entire town's designed for them, not for us.
For another, the pink one threw us a welcome party... which is still going, three days after we got here. I'm not good with parties. There are too many ways my "finite improbability field" (as Eimi calls it) can wreak havoc in a crowd. Especially when everybody else in the crowd is bulkier than I am.
And this looks like it's one of those universes where nothing exciting ever happens.
I just know I'm going to be bored here.
There was a sign carved into the pillar:Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
Hexe always says I'm already mad, and I'm professional enough to not invite trouble. So I left it alone.
The rules at Tristein Academy are clear — every mage needs a familiar. And there aren't any take-backs.
But there's no way I was going to let anyone end up in the same situation that Louise and Saito are in if I could help it.
So we faked it.
Now to convince everyone else that Eimi's a familiar instead of just a friend...
Doug shook his head slightly as he looked over to where Mrs. Van Luit's maid was petting the hood of a old style, white Volkswagen Beetle. Oddly, the car's engine seemed to be purring in response.
"While I do thank you for your assistance with those ruffians Colonel Sangnoir, but I really don't think that your ... modifications to the vehicle are appropriate for my household. I suppose I'll have to return it to Mr. Thorndyke's showroom."
"I'm sorry about that. I didn't think the local mana field was strong enough to do this."
I almost got there too late — it had taken far longer to backtrack the video transmission than I had expected, even (or maybe especially) from the inside. And reassembling my body into its proper form after spending what seemed like a subjective lifetime as a living stream of electrons within the Tapestry wasted more precious seconds.
"Fuck!" I hissed softly to myself. "I am never doing that again, ever." How the hell do electromorphs do that on a regular basis?
Once my vision cleared, I realized just how late I was. The teenager in the green outfit and the exquisitely deadly little girl with purple hair were kneeling by a horrifically burned person — the man in the black outfit I'd seen on the webcast. She was crying, and the kid in green just looked lost. "Shit. System, 'I'm Alive'. Play!"
None of them had paid any attention to my arrival, but they immediately noticed when the man in black started healing. The kid in green — "Kick-Ass", or so he called himself — looked up and spotted me as I started circulating through the makeshift "studio" and taking care of the mooks who hadn't been killed outright and who were healing up as well.
"Hey!" he shouted, getting the others' attention.
"Calm down, kid," I said as I snapped the neck of a guy who was tattooed to beat a Yakuza soldier. "I'm on your side." I nodded at their little group. "I'm the one healing your boss, there." I stepped past another couple of bodies to stomp the hand of a live goon reaching for a dropped pistol, before taking him out as well. "So... who was the considerate soul who threw you guys this party?"
"D'Amico," the guy in black rasped. "Frank... D'Amico."
"The local crime boss," I said, and got a nod back.
"That's... him. He ... set a trap and we... walked right into it." The older guy's speech was oddly stilted in a strangely familiar way. It wasn't a result of his injuries, as the feedback down the channels of magic told me he was back to full health and he still talked that way.
I smiled inside my helmet as I shut down the song. "What do you say we go pay him a visit, and show him what happens when you try to kill heroes, eh?"
The little girl grinned nastily as she wiped the tears from her face, knocking her obvious wig partly askew in the process. "Let's kill the fucker back!"
Once again, I was in a Japan that was nothing like the one back home.
Once again, I was making a living as an English teacher — this time, in a junior high school.
Once again, Eimi was helping me by keeping track of the students' grades. Which meant she knew the names of all my students.
This time, she recognized some of the students' names, and asked me not to get involved in the personal life of the maid that one of them had hired, no matter how much I might be tempted to help out. (Or, in her words, "meddle in something that's much bigger than either of us.")
But, with the abandoned hospital just up the hill turning into a war zone, I couldn't not get involved. Somebody might get hurt from all the flying debris...
Time unknown. Date unknown. Location unknown.
I woke up in an alleyway. As alleyways went, this one wasn't too bad — it was clean, and there didn't seem to be any surveillance cameras in the area. Which might just mean I couldn't see them, of course.
Then my bike started shaking. It took me a moment to realize that it was the back pannier that was shaking. I opened it... and Eimi climbed out. Not the laptop computer, but a jumpsuit-clad teenaged girl who looked just like Eimi would if she was human. Well, except for the blue skin. "This is new," she said while looking at her hands.
Then she looked over my shoulder and gasped. I turned around to see an unusual building dominating the skyline — it looked like a cross between an office tower and a hooded cobra ready to strike.
Eimi pulled me down behind the bike. "Doug, we've got to get you some face paint, quickly." Then she added to herself, "This is bad. Very bad."
The space station was falling apart around us as we raced to get aboard the girls' ship. There were no fatalities — thank the gods — but with the loss of the only station in this system, the planet's economy was about to go into a depression.
It's a tragedy. It's an outrage. But... I have to agree with both of my companions. It's not our fault!
I couldn't believe it.
I had been beaten...
...by a tiny little DINOSAUR of all things!
As I whispered to my helmet to start playing I'm Alive to help fix up the massive bruise in my stomach the mighty mite had left me after he HEAD-BUTTED me of all things, I then blinked as the little allosaurus came up to me...
...with a mouth full of freshly-caught fish!
As I gazed at him, he dropped the fish on the ground beside me, and then gazed at me.
I blink-blinked several times before nodding. "Thanks..."
Once I healed up, I'd have to get a fire going...
"It's a Light Grenade. Pull the pin and set it on the ground, and when the enemy picks it up, FWOOSH. Grenade remains, person... vanishes."
Dick and Douglas looked at each other with identical I-can't-believe-I'm-hearing-this expressions.
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"Who'd be dumb enough to pick it up?"
"Look upon the back."
"'Pick Me Up.'"
"Oh my god. They picked it up, one by one! Those idiots."
"How have they not managed to stupid themselves to extinction already?"
"Perhaps we're better off not knowing, Doug."
The statue, cast out of bronze as black as the darkest night, loomed like a monster out of some imaginary gloom. The effect was thrilling. Whoever this guy was, he knew the value of symbolism. He had a handle on the vigilante gig that wasn't easy to come by in any world. Especially in ones as otherwise ordinary as this.
"So, who was he?" I ask.
Gordon looks at me with a sad smile on his face.
"He was the Batman."
I opened my eyes to find myself in a grassy field.
Before I could figure out where I was, I blinked on seeing a curved scimitar-like blade hovering over me.
Said blade was projecting out of a helm shaped like the head of an Oriental dragon, that forming the end of a very thick polearm.
As a forgotten lesson in Chinese history came back to me, I realised this was a guandao or yanyuèdao, the naginata-like weapon that had once been welded by one of the most famous warriors in history, Guan Yu.
I then looked up at the person holding said blade.
I was expecting a man my age with a long flowing beard, dressed in rather plain clothing for rural China in the early Third Century C.E.
I certainly did not expect to see a teenage girl of all things with black hair tied in a long, stringy ponytail over the left ear.
And I certainly did not expect this person to be dressed in something that looked like a perverted mix of Chinese robes and Japanese girl's high school uniform.
Complete with thigh-high nylons and mary janes!
I could even see her panties, for Heaven's sakes!
What — the — HECK...?!
"Mas-...?" I stopped myself just in time before asking, "Mistress Guan?"
She perked at that, and then she smiled. Clearly, she was relieved about something. As to what, I figured I was going to find out pretty soon.
She didn't disappoint me.
"You obviously must be the Messenger from Heaven that has been prophecised to bring peace to the land," she said as she withdrew her weapon away from me, then offered her hand to help me to my feet. Well, I wasn't going to refuse that, so I allowed her to pull me up, which allowed me to learn quick that despite her being a teenage girl, she was quite strong.
"Thank you," I said, bowing to her.
She returned my bow. "My name is Guan. My style name is Yúncháng." She then blushed. "My given name is Àisha. I give my name to you, Master."
Blinking, I nodded my head.
Well, when in Rome...!
"My name is Sangnoir. My style name is Looney Toons, though I also accept Loon. My given name is Doug. And I give my name to you, Àisha."
And I would swear to my dying day that Àisha's cheeks became as red as cherries on her hearing me tell her that.
This was going to be one of those stops...
"Are you sure this is the right thing to do, Doug-san?"
I sighed. "Yuki-chan, much that I understand the urgency of the situation, I can't ignore the fact that you violated a war grave — one bearing the remains of over two thousand people who died for their Emperor and country — to create this 'last best hope of humanity,'" I explained to the pretty radar operator. "You've already got too many things going against you. Given the beliefs of your ancestors..."
"I've already given him clearance to do this, Mori."
I turned to nod my thanks to the elderly space captain standing in front of his command chair, then I keyed my helmet's system. "«System. Saint Peter's Gate. Play song.»"
«I was lost in the dark... and the fear was in my heart.
All around me, the forest and the rain.
Then with the flash of a light, I saw it in the night.
I must be getting near... Saint Peter's Gate.»
"Attention on deck!" I heard Sanada Shiro's number two and the ship's engineering intelligence officer, Niimi Kaoru, bark out.
Everyone on the Number One bridge all snapped to attention as many ghostly images in mid-1940s Imperial Japanese Navy service dress appeared. I immediately focused my eyes on the gentleman in the uniform of a captain from that era, saluting him. "Aruga-taisa."
He returned my salute. You need not have done this, Sangnoir-taisa, he said in the haunting voice one would associate with someone who had been dead for 254 years. He then turned to gaze on Captain Okita for a moment before nodding, and then he and his comrades who had given up their lives in Operation: Ten-go all snapped to attention.
A salute was given. We stand relieved, Okita-taisa, Aruga Kosaku solemnly declared.
A salute was returned. "We relieve you, Aruga-taisa," Okita Juzo solemnly replied.
And with that, the song ended and the ghosts faded.
"Let's go," Okita then ordered.
I was trying to sleep.
Operative word: Trying.
Unfortunately, my bedroom window's shattering inward made that impossible.
As I slowly opened my eyes, I heard a moan from the floor near my bed. "Man...that was a good punch...!" someone male then said before I heard the shuffling sounds of said someone getting back up to his feet.
Oh, no! Not again...!
I turned to gaze on the FIFTEENTH — Yep! Count 'em, folks! FIFTEENTH! — metahuman this WEEK to be bashed or blasted into my temporary apartment here on this world that would have given metahuman control activists back on MY Earth nightmares for the rest of their lives.
"'Wok-Man?'" I asked.
He, at least, had the courtesy to look sheepish.
"Sorry about that, Mister Loon," he said as he gave me a shrug. "I'll fix it later, okay?"
I sighed. "Don't bother. I got it," I told him. "Go have fun."
He blinked, and then grinned. "Thanks!"
And with a whoosh!, he was flying out the window to rejoin whatever fight scene he was involved in.
Shaking my head, I reached over to tap the controls of my helmet to have it play "We Built This City" so my powers could repair the damage to my apartment.
Hopefully, I'd be able to get some more sleep before the next clown came to visit...
...and I hoped to God it wouldn't be Nasty Girl.
What the hell was it with the females on this planet and their wanting to date me anyway...?!
It was the middle of the night in the Louisiana bayous.
And sure enough, there were vampires.
Loads of them, all mixed with a brigade of crack Confederate troops.
Even though I had been in this dimension and time for some months now, I still couldn't believe it.
In the middle of the 1860s, influencing the rebellion of the southern states against the Union.
As I heard the massed screams of a whole brigade of Union troops charge the Confederate works protecting the rebel vamps' home base, I steeled myself as I prepared to unleash my meta-gift via "Here Comes the Sun" on the blood-suckers I could SMELL were in the crowd of greycoats ahead of me.
I grinned on hearing that flat Maine accent, and then turned. "Colonel Chamberlain!"
The former commanding officer of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment came up to me, silver sword drawn, at the head of his special brigade of troops that had been assigned to this operation. "Can you use that magic of yours, Doug?!" Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain then asked as he indicated the enemy ahead of us, who were being lanced into and bayoneted by the first wave of bluecoats.
"You read my mind, Lawrence!" I called back, which made the former professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College grin, and then I called out, "System! 'Here Comes The...'!"
Lawrence growled. "Damn it, Tom! How many times do I...?!"
Tom Chamberlain shook his head, pointing. "LOOK!"
Our jaws were no doubt around our knees.
And we just STOOD there like idiots.
As were a whole bunch of Lawrence's soldiers.
Then again, I couldn't blame them.
"Oh, my God...!" Lawrence finally gasped.
I almost echoed him...
...for in all my years of experience fighting paranormal and metahuman threats, I had NEVER seen the likes of what was now tearing the hell out of a flock of vampires at the centre of the Confederate lines.
And he was doing it with just a silver-coated AXE!
"Is that...?!" Buster Kilrain, Lawrence's brigade sergeant-major, gasped.
"President Lincoln?!" Tom exclaimed.
I focused my mage-sight on the man in funeral black for a moment.
"It's him," I declared.
My friends from Maine all gaped at me, and then looked back. "Damn...!" Tom breathed out.
"Do we help him?" Buster asked.
We looked at Lawrence, who had a smile on his face. "He's your Commander-in-Chief, Lawrence," I reminded him, though I simply couldn't tear my eyes away from the ghastly yet beautiful ballet of death that was playing out before us at about four hundred metres' distance.
"Look at him, Doug!" Lawrence said. "Do you want to stop him?!"
I looked again as the man in black literally SPUN in mid-air to decapitate two vampires with his axe.
Realising what my friend was implying, I had to nod.
Who on Earth — even MY Earth — would ever believe that the Great Emancipator was also THIS?
"Let's at least keep the heat off him so he can do his work," I proposed.
Lawrence nodded. "Sound plan," he said before bellowing out, "BAYONETS!"
And we charged...
I was flatly convinced.
Yes, sir. There was no persuading me otherwise.
He HAD a metagift!
A minor one...but it was still there!
Case in point...
As the jukebox literally stopped, I breathed out in relief.
"Heeeeeeeeeey," the man sitting beside me in one of the booths at Arnold's trilled out with a nod. "No problem, Doug." He then smiled at the girls nearby.
Watching him flirt with the ladies, I just had to shake my head.
Marines trolling for dates at a bar had NOTHING on Arthur Fonzarelli...!
No matter how hard I tried, I still found it hard to believe that this silver-haired lunatic was Sylia Stingray....
I'd been in Kyoto for a little over a week, although it was called "Koto" in this world. I'd found a place to live, and was taking the commuter train to a job interview to save money on gas for my bike. That's the only reason I was there when the train's brakes failed.
While I was cursing the fact that I'd left my helmet at home, somebody flew past the window, landed in front of the train, and brought it to a stop — after it overshot the station, but before it entered the intersection.
What do you know; this world had metahumans. Well, it had at least one metahuman.
After the adrenaline rush wore off, I thought about what had happened. I wasn't going to complain about her saving everyone's lives — that would be wrong — but she did need at least some advice on how to use her abilities more delicately, and for some reason I thought I was the right person to give her that advice. Now how was I supposed to find this "Nana Ranger"?
I was pretty sure I had a good idea how this Kruger fellow thought. Now I hoped I had enough willpower to beat him at his own game. The song was ready to go, so all I had to do was concentrate and say the words, "Play Song."
Sure enough, the surroundings started to reflect my desires. They were somewhat more grim than I was used to, but that's the nature of the song.
"What is this?" Freddy asked when he discovered he couldn't change the dreamscape, or stop Alice Cooper's voice from filling the area.
I grinned. "Welcome to My Nightmare."
"No, thank you, Landlady-san." I'd more-or-less adopted Tina's term for Aoi, I'm not sure why, but translated into English just to be, well, me. It seemed like a tradition in this household, anyway, that everyone had a somewhat different name for Aoi, and for Kaoru as well.
I rose from the table and bowed to her. Aoi comes closer to Belldandy's level than most other cooks I've met, and with a few dishes she's, not necessarily better, but just as good in a different style. If they could somehow exchange recipes ... no, bad idea; the universes might be shattered by that much culinary excellence all in one place.
I had too much to do this evening, though, to sit quietly and give the meal the reverent attention it deserved. Between hints I got out of him without his realizing it, and things Aoi and Miyabi had mentioned, I'd finally put together the whole ugly story behind those scars all over Kaoru's back. It was time and past time for Grandfather Hanabishi to learn that wasn't behavior he could get away with any longer, no matter how much of Japan he owned....
I had real sympathy for the guy in front of me. Here was a Mundane thrown into a situation similar to mine, only I had Metahuman talent to help me along. He only had the clothes on his back, and what he could physically carry (which included the occasional passenger, judging by Luna being nearby, with Sailor Moon nowhere near us).
I really wanted to know who his supplier was, because according to his description of his home universe's tech level, the anti-matter shotgun shells he was toting were impossible...
This particular jump had been a slight surprise: I was at Hogwarts again.
No, apparently, not the same Hogwarts. Dumbledore didn't remember me, neither did anyone else there. And judging from the dates on the newspapers and the chatter in Diagon Alley, I was actually earlier than my previous visit.
It made me worry, a bit, if I might be getting myself into paradox-level trouble. For a week I'd kept pouring through every time-related song I knew in search of something to make sure I didn't screw things up. I shouldn't have worried. I really, really shouldn't have worried. I realized what was happening at the Sorting. She was younger than I remembered. But that shock of long blonde hair with the big red bow and those big blue eyes were instantly recognizable. As 'Abbot, Hannah' was disposed to Hufflepuff, I braced myself. "Aino, Minako," called McGonagall's stern voice. I could've told you what came next faster than the hat. It was clearly obvious she belonged in —
"So, you drink?" "A bit, Mr. Vega. Only in moderation, though." "Fair enough. Hey, something's been bothering me." "Shoot." "You could have left this universe behind at any time. You admitted you've known which song would let you leave since the Collectors were blown up..." "So why stay?" The Systems Alliance Lieutenant nodded. "Because I can't rest easy knowing I left you guys to fight, and probably die, without me." "I hear that. The guilt would eat away at you, and then where would you be?"
"Are your memories more important than your job?"
"Are your memories more important than your colleagues' lives?"
She didn't answer.
Before Rena could continue, I stood up. "We can't go on with you acting this way, Maia. Shizuka was shot because you ignored your part of the operation. It's only because I was right there that I was able to heal her before she bled to death; she might not be that lucky next time."
"No buts! You want your memories back that badly? Fine. You're getting them back. Right now." As I reached for my helmet, I added, "But once you've got them, there's no getting rid of them again."
I stuck out my hand to fellow in the tuxedo. "Sangnoir. Doug Sangnoir."
With a wry little half-smile, he took it and we shook. "Bond. James Bond."
I inclined my head toward the gunmen coming up the mountainside at us. "Shall we?"
The little half-smile turned into a full grin. "Yes. Let's."
This had to be the weirdest situation I had ever been in... and coming from yours truly, that was saying much.
I had Gated my way onto an aircraft carrier shaped somewhat like an Imperial Japanese Navy Shokaku-class vessel from World War Two... though said vessel was on the verge of at least several kilometres long!
Even stranger, the flight deck of this ship was actually laid out as if it had been cut straight out of any suburban district in Japan from the late Twentieth Century.
But the weirdest part of this whole situation was what was considered the most popular martial art for girls in this universe.
Sensha-do. Literally, this means "Way of Fighting Vehicles"... or as it was more popularly translated into English in this dimension, Tankery!
Imagine your normal sample cross-section of high school girls attending an all-girls private school:
There's Miho, the quiet kid who just wanted to enjoy a normal life.
There's Saori, the boy-chaser.
There's Hana, the demure classically-raised girl who was very good at flower arrangement.
There's Yukari, the local tomboy.
And there's Mako, the very smart girl with narcolepsy and hypotension issues.
All five girls act as — I swear to every deity I know, this is true! — the crew on a Panzer IV tank straight out of World War Two of all things!
Even more so, they actually go out with their tank to duel their classmates and other schools in THEIR tanks!
I just had to shake my head at that.
This was going to be one of those stops!
He looked at me carefully. "Would you repeat that, please?"
"I surrender. To you, not to anyone else."
"You're obviously American. Our nations are at war. I'm currently unarmed. Why are you surrendering to me?"
I pushed the button on my key fob, and I'm Alive started playing (which started healing the bullet wound in his shoulder.) "Because, Commander Kadomatsu, the AI that lives in my laptop computer tells me we have far more in common with you than either of us have with anyone else in this time, on either side of the Great Pacific War."
His eyes went wide, but there was also a look of relief on his face.
"Really, Your Majesty, I don't get it," I said to the monarch standing next to me on the beach. "You're dynamite in a fight, you have an artifact-level magical weapon in that trident, you have easy access to regions of this world that most of your peers have to actively work at achieving — and even when they do, you still have more intimate knowledge of it, you have a truly unique subset of telepathy, and you're the ruler of a nation-state that controls roughly three-quarters of the planet." I looked down the beach, where a beautiful redheaded woman in green was playing fetch with a Golden Retriever. "And as an added gravy, your lady is pretty terrific. If you don't mind me saying."
"So what is it that makes people give you such a hard time? Is it the orange sweater?"
The monarch smiled and clapped me on the shoulder. "It's scale mail, Doug. And call me Arthur."
"Hello, what's this?"
Madoka was startled out of her conversation when Sangnoir-sensei reached down and grabbed Kyuubey off of her head.
"No pets allowed in the building. Kaname, Miki, you're both staying after class."
I never felt such rage before.
This place that I've come to is literally Hell on Earth.
Of course, on the surface, it doesn't look too bad. A military dictatorship that started up when Japan — out of pure luck — won the Second World War. Said dictatorship making the people work had to make their society the technological kingpins... and actually doing a damned good job of it.
But then there comes this...
I was in Kobe being an English teacher yet again... and the announcement came over DHK-1 concerning what was about to fall on the heads of forty-two innocent Grade 9 students come early tomorrow morning.
Shiroiwa Junior High School. Class 3-B.
I scowled at the television screen with its "talking head" reporter.
The Program was about to get interrupted... Loon style.
I came to sooner than usual this time, my bike was just settling to the ground as I regained consciousness.
Looking around, I seemed to be in the courtyard of a well-kept castle, tall walls on three sides and the main keep on the fourth. Judging by the way the light was illuminating the side of the towers, it was either shortly after dawn or almost sunset.
A beep from the console let me know that the GPS system had acquired a signal and was determining my location. Probably somewhere in Euro-, wait, Manhattan? And according to the altimeter, I'm pretty high up too.
Spotting a set of stairs leading to the top of the wall near the main structure, I decided to get a better look around. Once I reached the top I could see that I was indeed in Manhattan, with the sun rapidly setting behind the many towers of New York. Apparently, some rich eccentric had either built or transplanted a castle on top of a skyscraper. Several large and lifelike statues were perched at various points around the walls and towers; I was currently standing between a pair of them.
A sound drew my attention, turning I saw a woman coming through a doorway not too far away. She was fairly attractive, dark skin, long dark hair, wearing a red jacket over a black shirt and jeans.
She was also quite surprised to see me.
"Who are you and how did you get up here?" she demanded, her hand darting into her jacket, probably resting on the butt of a pistol, but at least she didn't draw yet. Maybe she's part of the tower's security force? It would explain the look of mingled surprise and concern on her face.
Raising my hands, I was about to answer when there was a sudden cracking sound from either side of me, followed by roars as the stone statues shattered to reveal living flesh. For a moment I wondered if my improbability field had gone into overdrive, but then I registered the same thing happening elsewhere around the castle and the look of resignation on the guardwoman's face. She wasn't surprised by this.
With the three near me being rapidly reinforced as more of the creatures flew over to my position, there was only one thing that I could think to say.
"I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!"
"Walker..." they chanted, staring at me in awe....
Children. Tens of them. Dressed in the bare minimum necessary to consider clothes. They were the most bedraggled bunch I'd come across in my travels, but not by far. I wondered where the adults might've been, and how long they'd been left alone, with trinkets of civilisation as toys. One seemed to be carrying a record player, hooked up to a pilot's headset. They were extras from Lord of the Flies, in an oasis paradise deep in a sandstone canyon.
"I fear," I began, trying to put a gentle smile on while inwardly seething at the sort of society that would abandon children to themselves like this. "...you have mistaken me for someone else."
They stared, wide-eyed, questioning my existence. Hushed whispers raced around the crowd, some of the toddlers being hushed down by the teenagers who may have been their parents...
"So, where're all your parents then?"
The last of the punks drops his blade, sheepishly raising his hands....
"You're not one of the drokking judges....are you?"
I smirk. "I am the Loon."
"Oh thank God."
And so, ten minutes after arriving, I already knew Megacity One was going to be one of those stops.
"I've sometimes wondered what 'a voice like a horny angel' would actually sound like. I never thought it would be as foul-mouthed as yours, Ms. Anarchy."
When I first woke up in the new world, I was lying in a pleasantly warm grassy field, surrounded by an old stone wall. There was a large tree in the center of the field and a big pile of junk near a farmhouse. An old blue tractor sat near the utility wires, from which I guessed that it must be some time in the late twentieth century in this world.
I turned around, and saw a sheep standing on two legs with a puff of wool over his face, bleating a warning about me to a yellow sheepdog wearing a blue knit cap. The dog peeked over his magazine and finally noticed my arrival, and began barking at my intrusion in order to protect his flock of sheep.
I had a bad feeling that this world was going to turn out as strange as that trip to Manor Farm. I reflexively pulled God's Toothpick out of its holster, just in case, though in hindsight I doubt the dog could have bit through my armor.
It was just as well, though — the dog's demeanor instantly changed, as he sat down and panted happily while staring at the hunk of wood. "Oh, you want the stick?" He nodded emphatically. Not wanting to grant divine power to a canine — intelligent or not — I picked up a small broken tree branch off the ground, and threw that instead. As the sheepdog fetched, the sheep that had warned the dog rolled his eyes and covered his face with a hoof.
I ended up having a pretty good time with the farm animals, once they calmed down. Which is not to say it was dull. The most massive of the sheep — the one that looked like it had evaded the shears for over a decade straight — tried to eat my helmet whole.
It always surprises me when I find a use for the most obscure songs. When the little lamb got ahold of a cup of coffee and blitzed across the farm, I had just the thing to make his mother (a sheep in hair curlers, of all things) a happy ovine.
"System: Load song Holderkin Sheep Song. Play song." Thanks to my metagift, the silly little sheep drifted right off to sleep.
"Introduce a little anarchy," said Joker as he made sure Harvey's aim was firmly on himself. "Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Urk."
Harvey blinked. His good eye flickered closed and open, at least; the eyelid on the other had been burned completely away. The man in the smeared clown make-up and the nurse's uniform had suddenly toppled over and landed on the floor with a meaty thud, revealing a figure in grey leather and a grey motorcycle helmet. A shield-shaped patch with the letters "LT" sat on the left side of his chest.
Harvey dropped the gun as the grey figure lowered his outstretched (and glowing?) hand. "Sorry, Bozo," a mellow tenor voice echoed from inside the helmet, "but according to reliable sources I'm an Avatar of Chaos, and I'm pretty damned sure you're not on the payroll."
The figure turned his black-goggled gaze toward Harvey. "Sorry about that, Mr. Dent. Ooooh, that's a nasty burn you've got there. Let's take care of that, why don't we? System, 'I'm Alive'. Play."
As far as I could tell, she had my Lightning's Hand song-power hardwired into her body. Only without the flashy pyrotechnics.-I know you're following me.
And she hacked my helmet speakers.
"Remember, use short, controlled bursts."
"Eight meters." Private Hudson checked the motion sensor again. "Seven. Six."
"Can't be, that's inside the room," Ripley responded.
"It's readin' right, man!"
"Then you're not reading it right!"
"Five meters. Four. What the hell?" It was around then that our eyes drifted towards the ceiling. The drop ceiling.
"Oh, shit. System, load song Die Another Day. Play!" The song's effects managed to kick in as the Xenomorphs burst into the room.
The oni outside the trap wasn't finished gloating. "That room has Spirit Reflect cast on it. Any spell you try to use to escape will just bounce back and hit you."
I turned to Kuugen. "I'm willing to take the risk, tenko-sama."
He turned to me. "I'm not. You're a pretty strong mage for a normal human, but you're nowhere near as powerful as I am. And the oni aren't stupid enough to use a cut-rate Spirit Reflect."
"Why, thank you!" The oni outside actually sounded pleased. "Yes, we only order the best spells from the Internet."
Kuugen ignored her. "And Toru would be sad if I hurt his English teacher. So I won't risk it."
He motioned to me to be quiet.
So I didn't reply.
Until five minutes had gone by. "So, what's the plan?"
Kuugen waited a moment, listening for... something. When he didn't hear it, he answered, "We get out of this room, find Noboru, and get him away from the oni."
"But you said the Spirit Reflect was too strong for us to break through it."
He smiled. "We'll just get the god in charge of this area to command the door to open. A god's kotodama trumps all magic." He pulled out a cellphone.
"You have the local god's phone number?"
"Of course! But Mubyou's just a substitute god."
"Oh, well, it's perfectly reasonable for you to have a substitute god's phone number."
"Do you want to stand here and mock me some more, or do you want to get out of this closet now?"
"... Call the god."
Kazuki and both Mitsukis stared as the twins in grey biker leathers put their heads together and muttered rapidly back and forth, just too softly to be understood. "What do you think they're..." Kazuki began when suddenly the two men nodded at each other, clapped, barked something in English together, and then stood upright and turned their attention back to their small band.
"We've figured it out," the one on the left said.
"We're actually both the same person," the one on the right continued.
"But we got forked into two parallel processes when we entered this microskein of universes," the left-hand one explained.
"Or perhaps divided into two parallel wave functions is a better way of putting it."
"Either way, once you collapse the probability function of your two universes..."
"...we'll collapse back into a single individual..."
"...and everything will be fine!" they concluded in unison, then looked at each other and grinned.
"That was fun!" one said.
"Now I understand why the Weasley twins did that," the other said with a smirk.
Mitsuki Sanada leaned toward her dimensional counterpart Mitsuki Rara. "If we ever start talking like that, Rara, I'm shooting you first, and then myself, got it?"
Rara nodded soberly.
"There's just one thing I want to know," I said conversationally, holding the flat steady as Jim nailed it in place.
"Mm?" he said around the nails he held in his teeth. Putting down the hammer, he opened his mouth to let them fall into his hand, then looked up at me. "What's that?" He stood, and a pair of stagehands rushed in to dress and decorate this part of the red, white and blue set. Slipping the nails into a pocket and the hammer into his belt, he took out his pipe and lit it as I tried to compose a response that didn't include the kind of profanity that just wasn't used in polite company during this era.
I nodded in the general direction of the two men sitting on the porch of the former farmhouse which housed the Inn's facilities. They were chatting animatedly between themselves as the preparations for the next day's show swirled around them. "Why do you put up with those two? Danny's show business scum of the lowest order. I'm all too familiar with the type — I grew up around them. And you know Ted's trying to steal Linda from you, just like he stole Lila." Getting Jim and Linda to formalize their engagement was the accomplishment I was most proud of during this stopover, and I'd be damned if I let a balding horse-faced beanpole of a dancer ruin that because he couldn't find a girl of his own. Again. With or without the help of his slimy agent buddy.
"Well, now," Jim said thoughtfully as he puffed on his pipe. "There's one thing you need to know about Ted and me, Doug. We go back a long way together. And honestly I owe my success in show business to him. I'd've been just another two-bit crooner looking for work if we hadn't teamed up all those years ago." He puffed some more, and I waited. "I guess what I'm saying is that now that Linda's wearing my ring, I'm willing to cut him a little more slack, for friendship's sake." He gestured with the pipe, pointing at me with the stem. "Not a lot, mind you, I did learn my lesson with Lila. But if it makes him happy to try to take Linda from me, who am I to deny him?" He gave me a lopsided grin. "Long as it's me she's standing next to at the altar in six months, that is."
I shook my head. "You're a far more forgiving man than I am, Jim. If it were my fiancée he was sniffing around, I'd break both his kneecaps and dump him in an alley in the Bowery." I looked around at the Connecticut countryside that surrounded us. "I'd make the trip special, just for him," I added as Jim raised an eyebrow.
He laughed, replaced his pipe, and slapped me on the back. "I guess I should be glad Linda and I have you as a guardian angel, then. Ted's not going to get anywhere, but it's good to know that if he goes over the line we've got you there."
"You'd better believe it," I muttered, then added, "C'mon, we've got to finish rigging the stage for Ted and Linda's fireworks dance."
It was about half an hour into the ride when Betty felt someone drop into the seat next to her. Even after two stops, the afternoon train from Pine Tree into New York City was still all but empty, and she had been the sole occupant of this car until now. Betty suppressed a groan at having to deal — not for the first time — with unwanted male attention.
Without opening her eyes, she said, "I am not in the mood for company, thank you. Please find another seat or I shall complain to the conductor."
"Complain all you want. I'm not moving until you talk."
Betty's eyes snapped open at the familiar voice, and she twisted in her seat to find herself facing Doug. He was still in the red-and-white striped jacket and white slacks he wore for his portion of the show, but resting in his lap was a strangely-shaped grey helmet. "You? But how...? I know you were in the middle of a rehearsal when I left the Inn. And I'd've seen you at the station if you'd followed me."
He just smirked at her, his eyes half-lidded in amusement. "I have my ways, Miss Haynes. Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no impossible tales you won't believe." He settled into the seat and twisted slightly so that he was facing her more directly. "As I'm sure you expected, your letter to Judy left the entire Inn in an uproar. So I decided to come after you and ask you one small question." He fixed her with an intent, burning gaze terribly unlike his usual clowning manner. "Just what the hell is your problem?"
Betty refused to be intimidated. "My problem is Bob Wallace."
An eyebrow raised. "Oh?" was all he said, but the tone was a demand to elaborate. More than a demand — an order, with no less force behind it than the General could deliver. For a moment, Betty wondered what had happened to the pratfall comedian she thought she knew, then she dismissed the thought.
"Bob Wallace," she snarled, "is a hypocrite and a parasite. What he's planning to do to the General is disgusting!"
"What he's planning..." Doug scowled in confusion. "Just what are you talking about, Betty?"
"You mean you aren't part of his plan to humiliate the General on television?" she demanded.
Doug closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Please explain to me just how arranging a reunion of his division at the Inn is 'humiliating' the General?"
"Arranging a..." Betty trailed off, her mouth open in surprise. Suddenly all the righteous anger she'd felt at Bob's betrayal drained away. "But Emma said she overheard Bob planning to put the General on display on the Ed Harrison show!"
"Emma said..." Doug switched from rubbing the bridge of his nose to rubbing his temples. "Betty, I don't care what Emma thought she heard, she's about as wrong as she can be. Bob's going on the Ed Harrison show to ask everyone from the General's old division to come to the Inn on Christmas Eve. And there won't be any TV cameras there. I know, I'm helping out with the logistics."
"Oh, no," Betty breathed, as the impact of it all struck her. "Oh, no. I've got to go back."
Doug smiled for the first time since he'd found her. "Yes, yes, you do." He stood, taking his helmet in his left hand while holding out his right to her.
Betty stared at it, uncomprehending. "What are you...?"
"You want to get back to the Inn right now, don't you?" Doug asked. "I can arrange that."
Without thinking she took his hand and let him help her to her feet. "How?"
He smiled again, the warm smile Betty had come to associate with him. "Trust me."
"But my bags..." she objected.
The smile turned into a genuine grin. "Give me your claim check and I'll get them back to you before bedtime." Gently but undeniably Doug began to draw her down the aisle and toward the back of the train. "Trust me," he repeated.
"All right," Betty murmured. Although her tone was dubious she somehow found herself believing him.
As he opened the door at end of the car, Doug turned back to her and asked, "You don't have a problem with heights, do you, Betty?"
Doug leaned on his motorbike.
"Another day, another world."
He looked at the nearby city, which appeared to be a normal American port city — that had been hit by several bombs and a tidal wave.
He looked at the nearby sign. "Welcome to Brockton Bay."
"Time to hit a library." he muttered as he casually brushed a fly from his neck.
-"I'm telling you, Nelson, it's hopeless! I can't find anything wrong with it, it just does not work!"
-"And yet it has to be the real deal, Roxie, it is too old to be anything else! Maybe the problem is the number..."
-"We tried 4376 , we tried 7433 , what else is there to try?"
-"Dunno, Roxie... Let me try some things..."
Sighing, Roxie went back to her work, hoping her partner would soon tire of that wild goose chase. Until with a blast of light a portal opened in the wall of the basement, letting in a motorbike that barely managed to brake in a screech of burning rubber, avoiding by mere inches a crash into the opposite wall.
-"NELSON!!! What the hell did you DO!"
-"I was just trying some combinations... I dialed 9687.. and HE appeared...", said Nelson, pointing to the unconscious figure in gray, strapped to the bike.
-"9687!? What is that supposed to mean!?"
-"XOVR. I guess this one is a Crossover-Dial."
I shook my head in puzzlement and muttered, "We've been together for years, but sometimes I don't understand her."
Either I didn't mutter quietly enough, or she has better than average hearing. "Understand who, Mr. Sangnoir?"
"My assistant, Eimi. As soon as she learned I was going to be working with you, Ms. Croft, she started calling me 'Toon Raider'..."
It was a normal day at Castle Baron. Lieutenant Young had lightly trolled some of the pantsless Witches who made up the majority of the 501st JFW's fighting prowess, and was making small talk with his girlfriend, Wing Commander Minna Wilcke.
This changed when a glowing portal opened not ten feet away from them and deposited an awesome-looking motorcycle with an unconscious man riding it. Looking down at his mug of coffee, Young came to a decision and tossed it behind him.
"Well, I've hit my weirdness limit for the day. Wanna go make out in a closet?"
Minna shrugged. "Sure, why not. Sakomoto can handle this."
Mack and the boys had been sitting on the rusted pipes in the vacant lot that was across from Western Biological Laboratory and between Dora's Bear Flag Restaurant on the right and Lee Chong's grocery on the left, sharing a quart of Old Tennis Shoe, when the man in grey first arrived, riding a motorcycle that looked more like a fighter plane than a motorcycle. He'd pulled right up to Western Biological, the motorcycle making a quiet rushing noise instead of the expected gas-engine rumble, and parked, silencing the strange engine before dismounting and then doing something that made the entire cycle spark like a broken power line for a moment. He pulled off the odd helmet on his head, almost but not quite the same grey as the leather clothing he wore, smiled a friendly smile and nodded a greeting to Mack and the boys, then proceeded up the stairs and into the Laboratory.
An hour later, as the sun was starting to drop behind the Hovden cannery's roof line, sending the "Portola Sardines" sign painted on its side into shadow, Doc and the man in grey appeared at the lab's door, laughing and smiling at each other and shaking hands. Doc gestured up the hill into Monterey proper, away from the Row, and the man in grey nodded. Mack and the boys had finished off the quart of Old Tennis Shoe, and had been considering returning to the Palace Flophouse and Grill, when the Doc turned to them and called out, "Say, Mack!"
Mack shared a look with the boys, then unlimbered himself and strolled across the street. "Afternoon, Doc," he drawled. "And friend," he added.
"Mack," Doc said, "this here is Doug Sangnoir" — and he pronounced it Frenchy, "sang-nwarr". "Doug's going to be working for me, and he needs a place to stay. Could you or one of your fine men guide him to one of the boardinghouses up on Lighthouse?"
"I'd be very grateful for a little show-around," the man in grey, Doug, said, smiling an open smile that both set Mack at ease and immediately made him wary. Mack felt a man should have no right feeling like an old friend when they didn't have five minutes' history between them, but he did, and that confused and concerned Mack.
But Mack smiled, and nodded, and said he'd be happy to. And the next evening as Mack and the boys watched, Doug left the Laboratory, crossed the street to Lee Chong's grocery, and came back out a few minutes' later with two bottles of Old Tennis Shoe. He entered the vacant lot, and all conversation ceased as he stepped up to Mack and handed him the bottles. "For your trouble last night," he said. "Drink it in good health." Then he nodded to Mack, and nodded to the boys, added a "good night" and turned to climb up the hill to Lighthouse Avenue.
Mack thought about it for a moment. This wasn't William the pimp, trying to be part of something that wouldn't have him. This was a friend of Doc's, and he seemed a good sort. He looked around at the boys, and they nodded or grinned or smirked, and Mack nodded right back at them. "Say, Doug," Mack then called out, and as Doug turned back to them, he held up the bottles of old Tennis Shoe. "Care to join us?"
Doug seemed to think about it for only a moment, and then he said, "I'm not much of a drinking man, but I'd be happy to share a sip or two with you fine gentlemen." And he came back down into the lot, and hopped up onto one of the rusted pipes, and took his turn with the bottle when it came around, wiping the neck on the tail of his shirt like the others did then taking as he promised no more than a sip of the whiskey before passing it to the next in line. And the conversation started back up, and it was like Doug had always been part of Mack and the boys instead of a stranger just a day in town. A little later, Doc stepped out of Western Biological and laughed at the sight, Mack and the boys and Doug deep in discussion, with great sweeping gesticulations and nods of understanding all about, and hearing enough to know the subject was of a depth and complexity that Mack and the boys would never have brought it up themselves, but were nonetheless understanding and contributing and enjoying, Doc knew he had found a kindred soul in Doug Sangnoir and for a moment regretted the day he would inevitably move on.
And after that evening, Doug was a common sight on Cannery Row, running inscrutable errands for Doc, shopping at Lee Chong's, but never visiting Dora's — and upon hearing the story of his far-distant wife, the beautiful Maggie, Mack and the boys never thought less of him for not doing so. And once or twice a week, Doug would join Mack and the boys in the vacant lot, and he didn't even have to buy the Old Tennis Shoe if he didn't happen to have the pocket cash that evening. But he never joined them more than twice a week, and the boys both respected and appreciated that he knew he was welcome, but not so welcome as to join them every night. Still, Mack and the boys found themselves liking Doug as much as they liked anyone in Cannery Row, which is to say as much as they liked Doc, and like many others on the row they would frequently say amongst themselves, "That Doug is a fine fellow. We ought to do something for him."
I'd been aboard for a week, and I could already tell that, whichever ship was featured on the recruiting posters, it was somewhere else in the fleet.
The doctor was a drunkard.
The marines were unprofessional and uncontrollable.
Two of the pilots were raw rookies, still learning how to fly their fighters. The other one wasn't comfortable enough around them to train them properly.
The comms officer was skilled, but more interested in her appearance than her job.
The tactical officer ... okay, the tactical officer and the helmsman were damned good at their jobs.
The XO was a stickler for regulations, which on this ship meant he was a laughingstock.
The captain was a goofball.
But one look at the ship's battle record told me that he was the same kind of goofball I was.
Despite everything, I think I could learn to like being aboard the Soyokaze...
"So the first thirty pages are the bill, and the next five hundred are the assorted pork barrel projects?"
Tony Stark looked as though he smelled something rancid. "Essentially correct. This the main reason I asked you to come to Stark Tower today. I'm trying to brainstorm ways to either mitigate the effects of the bill, or swing the terms into our favor. You did say your group back home had a system that's similar in intent, if not the details, to what that bill represents."
Looking through it, I had to squash the urge to scream in frustration. "I can see the first problem right off the bat. Back home, we were funded by the UN. That means international support. Members couldn't serve in national militaries — my own rank is for accounting purposes — and the UN footed the bill for infrastructure repairs. This bill, on the other hand, suffers a classic problem with politicians."
"What problem might that be?" Peter was already smirking. I like him, he has a good sense of humor.
"'We have to do something! This is something, so we must do it!'"
Tony looked amused. "Hmm. Informing the committee that the bill is infringing on UN territory should pretty much kill the support for it. Thank you, Doug. With your testimony, we should be able to kill the Superhuman Registration Act on a national level."
Nancy had barely reached the stairs up to London Bridge when her legs gave out on her. She stumbled, and only a desperate grab for the iron railing embedded in the dark, wet stone saved her from falling forward into the narrow stairwell. Within her chest her heart pounded a rapid tattoo, driven both by exertion and fear, and her breath came in ragged gasps, sending gouts of vapour into the chill air with each one.
"Which way?" she murmured to herself, glancing from the stairwell to the arch leading under the bridge, to the street which ran through it. Only the road along which she had run did not get consideration, for that way lay danger — danger which revealed itself when the hulking form of Bill Sikes materialized out of the fog. As he stepped into the faint yellow cone cast by the guttering gas lamp that protruded from the far side of the arch, she caught sight of his unshaven, brutish face, still writ with a fury aimed fully at her. In his hand he held the large clasp-knife he habitually kept in his pocket, open and ready to use.
"Please, Bill, please..." she moaned. "Spare my life for the love of Heaven, as I spared yours. Just tell me what I have done that you come at me like this."
"You know, you she-devil!" he growled, the fog stealing the edge from his voice even as it rumbled across to her. "You were watched tonight; every word you said was heard. I'll not be betrayed, Nancy, not by you."
"Betrayed? Bill, dear Bill, I could never betray you!" Nancy gasped. She tried to rise to her feet again, only to find her exhaustion was still too great. "I only sought to find us a home to spend our days together, away from this dreadful place."
Beneath his beetling brow, Bill scowled at her. He said nothing, shifting his grip on the clasp-knife and raising it from his side.
Nancy shivered at the sight. "Please, you cannot have the heart to kill me. Bill, Bill, for dear God's sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!"
Bill took one step toward her, lifting the clasp-knife further, then halted in surprise when a voice drifted out of the tunnel to the side.
"Take one more step toward her, Sikes, and I promise you that you'll regret it."
As Nancy struggled to identify the familiar-seeming voice, soft footsteps echoed from the darkness, and a lean figure in grey seemed to swirl into existence out of the fog to stand with its back to her. "I'll give you one chance to walk away from this, Bill Sikes," it said, "but if you don't take it, I'll see to it you won't be able to walk away from anything."
Nancy's eyes widened in surprise when she recognized the voice and its American accent. It was Doug Sangnoir, the quiet and inoffensive-seeming fellow who came into the tavern every day for lunch. Despite the French name he was an American through-and-through (though she'd not met enough Americans to really know what that meant). He was a gentleman, to boot. He always had a kind word and a friendly smile for her, and his tips were always generous. And unlike so many of the tavern's other regulars, he never acted as though his custom gave him the right to be lewd to her.
Not once had he ever given her the impression that he could or would stand up to Bill, who could be more beast than man. But there he stood, firm and unwavering, between them.
"This is none o' your concern, Sang-narr," Bill slurred in his anger. "You go an' step aside an' leave me and Nancy to our business now." He brandished the clasp-knife as though it were a visible punctuation to that demand.
Doug sounded truly and deeply regretful. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Bill, for you're going to harm that girl, and I can't have that on my conscience. Not when I could stop it."
"Then I guess I'll be having to take care o' both of you!" Bill growled, and then with a roar threw himself at Doug, clasp-knife raised above his head to strike. Nancy shrieked and, turning her head, shut her eyes, sure that Bill would kill the smaller man with a single blow, and finish the job with her a moment later. But rather than sharp, moist sound of metal blade meeting flesh followed by the soft sighing of a dying man, she heard instead one, two, three hard, fast thuds, followed by two horrifying cracks.
When the hand touched her shoulder a moment later she almost cried out in terror before she heard Doug ask, "Are you all right, Nancy?"
Slowly she opened her eyes to see him standing over her, honest concern in his gentle blue-grey eyes and not a mark on him. She peered around him and gasped at the sight of Bill unconscious and fetched up against the base of the bridge. There was something wrong with the way his legs bent, and Nancy gasped as she remembered the threat Doug had offered.
The clasp-knife was nowhere to be seen.
"How...?" she began, then stopped, not sure if she were asking how he'd beaten Bill, or how he'd done it so quickly, or how it was possible at all.
Doug seemed to understand, and smiled. "I can be a very dangerous person to those who deserve it, Nancy." He held out his hand to her, and unhesitatingly she took it. Without a single sign of exertion he drew her to her feet. "Now, if you're feeling better, you might want to come with me. Young Oliver's going to be needing all his friends at his side."
"So why don't we just ride some of these eagles and drop the ring into the volcano from above?"
"Douglas, one does not simply flock into Mordor."
That was a tough fight. A damn tough fight. But the Warrior was dead. Now we just needed to clean up the scum left behind.
"No, this can't be happening. I won't be defeated by mere BANDITS!" I sighed at hearing that.
"Ugly Jack, it's vaguely cute that you think you're the hero of this story, but you're not. You caused most of the pointless suffering on this planet for the past few years, after all."
"SHUT UP! I'M A HERO!" I covered the distance between me and the Hyperion CEO within a second, maybe two. Lifting him up, I began screaming in his face.
"YOU WERE EVIL THE WHOLE TIME! Only the bad guys are convinced that they're the good guys. So shut up and die quietly."
"Damn straight. Hey, Doug, mind putting him down so I can put a bullet through his skull?" I did so, and Axton executed Handsome Jack.
"Hey, did you just a Hyperion gun to kill the Hyperion CEO?" Axton checked, then chuckled.
"Guess I did. Irony, eh?"
"Um, Sanguoir-sensei?" I looked up.
"Ah, Nagasumi-kun. Come in." My eyebrows raised as Sun followed him in. With expressions suggesting exasperation, they sat down at the two chairs I kept in my office for visitors.
Oh, hell. They only ever visited my office together when one of the other adults in their lives did something stupid, and as the only reliable adult in their lives, they needed my aid.
Looking at the engaged couple before me, I sighed as I clasped my hands on the desk.
"All right, you two. What fresh hell has landed in your laps this time, and who's fault is it?"
I resisted the urge to facepalm. "You two have snarled up this timeline so thoroughly that I can't get out of it. So here's the deal. I will help you fix and maintain that car of yours. You will undo as many of your screw-ups as are necessary to let me open an interdimensional gate." I fixed the two of them — white-haired scientist and teenager both — with the sternest glare I could. "Or, gods help me, I will spend the next eighty or so years of my practically-immortal lifespan making the rest of your lives as close to a living hell as I possibly can."
"And this, Frederick," I shouted at the tuxedoed doctor as I leapt into the crowd after his frenzied monster, "is why we do dress rehearsals before doing a Fred Astaire dance number with our creation!"
"Ah, another day of defending humanity from horrors from the stars."
"Doug, STRIKE-1 is preparing to sortie. Now head over to the hangar and do that voodoo of yours."
"Yes sir. System load song, Die Another Day."
As the last of the bandits de-rezzed, Kirito paused, then sheathed his sword. Before he could turn to face the site of the battle again, though, his impromptu partner in the fight said, "So. I suppose you're the famous Black Swordsman, then."
Sighing, Kirito wondered for a moment if he had just finished one fight only to find himself launched into another. Still, it hadn't sounded like a potential challenger. More like mild surprise. "Yeah," he said as he turned around, and then froze.
Although Kirito gave little thought to his reputation, he knew of it, and used it to his advantage. To do so, he had to listen to the news and rumors that spread through the surviving players trapped in the game. And there was one figure who threatened just as much to become legend as Kirito himself. In the medieval setting of SAO, where the limits on technology had been hard-coded into the game world, there was one man who somehow possessed a motorcycle. A man whom hundreds swore could use magic in a game which did not have a magic system. A man whom rumor said had reached the 100th level of the world accompanied only by an unarmed sidekick and then returned to help other players break free of the game.
Kirito had never believed that he existed.
But he was looking at him right now.
"And you, you're the Grey Rider," he managed to say after a moment's shock.
"Oh, for gods' sake," the tall man in grey motorcycle leathers groaned as he swept off his grey helmet. "I'm Doug Sangnoir, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht." He held out a hand.
Kirito blinked. "What?"
"You broke him, Doug," said the girl sitting on the motorcycle some distance away. Kirito flicked his eyes to her, and realized two things about her — one, she was the first PC he'd seen since the "opening ceremony" who wore glasses, and two, she looked more like one of the game's original idealized avatars than the more realistic scan-based images which had been imposed on the players. He looked back at "Doug", and realized that the man in grey was the exact opposite — although the image projected into Kirito's brain by the NerveGear helmet was theoretically perfect, this man somehow looked more real than real, like a high-def image overlaid on a standard-definition background. He had a status display like every other PC, but instead of green fill on his HP bar, there was a red "OVERFLOW" error message, and his level read "DIV/0".
"What are you?" Kirito breathed.
"Trapped, just like you," Doug replied. Walking over to the motorcycle, he added, "I just entered the game differently, in a way which makes me ineligible for the 'win condition'." He opened one of the cargo boxes on its back end and dropped the helmet into it.
"Can you say 'Mainframe all over again', boys and girls?" the girl snarked. "Nice try."
"Minchin better hope she never meets me in a dark alley," I growled softly as I ducked back down below the ridgeline.
"Be at peace, my friend," Ram Dass whispered, laying a hand on my arm. "Justice will come to her in its time," the lascar continued. "Karma will not be denied."
I turned over and laid back against the slate shingles that made up the roof. "I'm not a patient man, Ram, and I like to see justice served somewhat faster than in the next life. How a woman like that could be allowed to run a school..." I shook my head disbelievingly.
The two of us had crawled up onto the roof of our employer's home, bringing along with us a wide variety of items in an attempt to surprise and delight a sad little girl who worked as a drudge in the boarding school next door. The plan had been to wait until after she'd fallen asleep, then enter her attic room via the large window that looked out onto the spot where we now sat. Once in, we would quickly and quietly redecorate her dark garret around her then vanish back out into the night. The idea, as Ram had proposed to our boss, would be to make it seem as though a magician had bespelled her room and turned it into a wonderland.
Thomas Carrisford would have been just another member of the Victorian British aristocracy had he not been consumed by guilt over the death of his friend and partner Ralph Crewe in India. Worse, Crewe had had a preteen daughter who'd been attending a boarding school somewhere in Europe at the time, and whose name and location Carrisford had never learned. Still weak from the disease which had briefly put him in a coma and had killed his partner, Mr. Carrisford seemed to cling to life solely so that he could find the girl and hand over her half of a vast fortune that he and her father had acquired together.
He was spending a good chunk from his half of that fortune searching for Miss Crewe, who would be in her early teens now, and each failure seemed to eat away at him a little bit. The idea of bringing a little joy and magic into the life of the nameless scullery maid next door had animated him like nothing else had in the months I'd worked for him, and he'd eagerly bankrolled the entire crazy idea.
Which had led to Ram Dass and me sitting in the dark with our remodeling supplies as Miss Minchin, the school's headmistress, burst into the little scullion's room and viciously destroyed a get-together she was having with the school's other little drudge and some of the students who had befriended them. As the other girls scattered, I could only hear the most strident of Minchin's imprecations, but what I did hear was ... nasty. No adult should ever treat a child like that.
I hazarded another glimpse over the top of the roof to see the girl burrowed under her threadbare covers. "There's no excuse for Minchin's behavior, Ram," I continued. "But even if I reported her to the police, the class differences alone..."
"Indeed," he rumbled. Oh, yeah, Ram had heard his fill of my disgust at the less-pleasant aspects of Victorian England.
Laughing at myself under my breath, I nodded to him. "Right. Anyway, I think our little beneficiary has finally nodded off. You ready?"
He nodded. "I am. Let us do this." And a moment later he was opening the latch on the window with a slender blade inserted between the sashes. As I made ready to hand him the first bundle of furnishings, I checked to make sure my personal additions to the project were still there. The idea was to make her think a magician had refitted her room. What better way than to leave her a couple gifts of genuine magic?
"Not possible, Crabtree. Too much infighting in Ottawa."
George Crabtree — whom I had to admit was as passionate a fan for the fastest game on Earth in this time period — looked at the dispatch officer. A man I would swear on my life was a distant ancestor to a future Canadian head of government. "Armstrong, you clearly don't know the first thing about hockey! Sometimes I wonder why I even..."
I blinked on hearing George's voice trail off in shock, then I turned.
Were the gods having a private joke?
"I'm here to speak to Detective Murdoch," the dapper-dressed man in the top hat said.
"And you would be?" Armstrong asked.
George gaped before hissing out, "For the love of Pete, Armstrong, it's the Prime Minister!"
I had to shake my head while a part of me wondered what Sir Wilfred Lauier was doing in Toronto seeking William Murdoch.
"Armstrong, does the concept of a newspaper mean anything to you?" I asked.
The PM gave me a curious look as George snorted.
After making sure Eimi wasn't visible from the hall, I opened the door to my room and stepped out — where the person I wanted to talk with was also leaving his room, a flashlight in his hand.
I was just in time.
"May I speak with you for a moment, Mr. Carpenter?"
"I'm somewhat busy at the moment, Mr. Sangnoir. Can this wait until tomorrow?"
I shook my head. "Unfortunately, I need to talk with you before you take your walk. But I suspect you'd be interested in talking with a friend of mine, who would be extremely inconvenienced if the power was to stop for a half-hour and who knows how to travel 250,190,190 miles in less than a day." That caught his interest. "Give me a moment, and the three of us can talk while you're walking to —" Then I remembered who was listening. (It had been a while since I last watched the movie.) "— your appointment this evening."
"Yeah, we got those kids out of that runaway school bus, but that was a couple of days ago and nothing's happened since then. That might have been be the last time I'll ever get to drive with him."
I shook my head. "Lisa, you've got a job as long as you want it. So does Soichi, ..." I turned to the other person in the conversation. "... and so do you, Lorna." (Why did this teenager remind me so much of Belldandy? Anyway.) "Traffic control for an entire city is what we call an 'emergent system' back home. There will always be unexpected behavior somewhere in the system, so there will always be runaway cars. Sure, complex systems can be made safer, but they can't be made completely safe."
"So there'll always be a need for us! We can keep driving!" Lisa grinned — finally.
I grinned back. "Let's stay in practice, then. You up for a few laps around the track?"
"You've got it! I'll beat that bike of yours this time, Doug!"
"Gamagoori, Nonon. Everything go okay out there?" Nonon saluted.
"Sangoir-san. All COVERS involved in the attack have been neutralized. Ryuuko-chan is having a fit, though. Keeps calling herself a Life Fiber monster." I sighed. That girl needed a lesson on just how weird some of my compatriots in Warriors International had been, much less the people I've met over more than a century of multiversal travel. Telling them they can't call themselves people was usually a quick way to earn a trip to the hospital. Like hell was I going to stand for one teenage girl giving herself that treatment.
"Well, guess I need to go slap the stupid out of her. Other than that, well done. One thing, though. If you want to head on over to room 28C, I've got a guest that I think you'll want to see again."
Gamagoori blinked. "Again?"
I laughed. "Oh, why let me spoil the surprise? Off with you two!" I made shooing motions with my hands. Had I no survival instinct, I would have loved to have seen the look on Kiryuin Ragyo's face when she went down to that torture cage and found not her eldest daughter, but a card reading "Yoink!" Inumuta was still laughing about it, when he wasn't openly fanboying over Eimi.
I love using "Secret Agent Man" to pull these kinds of hostage and asset recoveries. Rescuing a girl? Easy. Stealing back her empowered garment? Somewhat harder. Making off with the other half of the Scissor Blade on top of all that? I nearly got caught, but it was worth it.
Getting to see that smug bitch's face when she was faced with both of her daughters in their super modes while wielding weapons capable of killing her? Priceless.
Brooding, Ezio crouched on a pier of worked stone that jutted from the very top of the Coliseum. The latest clue to the Vault had proven no less confusing that all its predecessors — if only he could find a...
"Wow. That's a beautiful view."
Only years of rigid self-control prevented Ezio from starting in surprise and plummeting from his perch to the ground below.
"Rome's gorgeous this time of year."
Ezio stood and turned with a suddenness that should have surprised anyone but another assassin, but the man behind him didn't even flinch. He wasn't even looking at Ezio, who took in his profile as the stranger stared out over the panoply of the city below. Whoever he was, he wasn't Roman, not with that blond hair. Maybe Milan or Trento, but not Rome. He was dressed all in grey leather, the jacket and the trousers of a strange cut, and shod in heavy leather boots in the same grey.
How in the name of Hassan i-Sabbah did he get up here without me hearing a thing? Within arm's reach, yet? Ezio wondered. Even I make some sound when climbing.
"Parkour," the man said, then finally glanced his way, revealing blue-grey eyes and a grin that Ezio thought was equal parts taunting and good-natured. "You were wondering how I got up here where you were. Parkour," he repeated, not waiting for Ezio to answer. "'Course you wouldn't be familiar with the word, but you get the idea, right? Good exercise, great fun. But you know that already — I've been watching you running through, around, and on top of buildings all week." His grin grew a bit larger. "Figured I'd give it a try."
In an odd gesture he raised two fingers to his brow and then pointed them at Ezio. "See you 'round," he said, then threw himself off the Coliseum. Ezio blinked, then looked down from his perch to see the blond man roll laughing out of a wagon full of hay, look up, and wave to him.
Numbly, Ezio waved back.
I opened my eyes to the light of the morning sun filtered through a maple tree. I lifted my head off the soft bed of pine needles, and got a good look at my surroundings. I was near the edge of a forest of mixed pine and deciduous trees, without it feeling truly like a wilderness. There are certainly worse places to wake up from a interdimensional travel than a secluded grove, and I've probably been to most of them.
I retrieved my motorcycle, propped against a tree, and headed out to get a better idea of where I was. Amidst the rolling hills of farmland, I spotted a walled town nearby. Its round lookout tower loomed over a settlement of colorful buildings with steep red roofs. The burg looked like a fairytale Bavarian castle that would have been at home in the 17th or 18th century in my own world.
And that's exactly where I'd have pegged the local technology level — until I saw a familiar ribbon of striped asphalt conveying a Volkswagen Beetle towards the town. Some designs are truly universal.
I rode my bike past the castle gates and up into the town. Life looked pretty much normal from the village square, with people cheerfully hawking their goods around the fountain. A little food stand was busily serving waffles to the tourists, while the local schoolchildren walked by on their way to school.
Well, most of them were walking towards the school. There was one girl with giant buttons in her brown hair, who kept stopping, as if distracted by something. She finally got close enough for me to hear her talk towards the empty space beside her, "I'm going now! Geez, I'm going to be late for school again!"
Well, that was suspicious enough to make me wonder, so I looked out with magesight. And right where the schoolgirl had left, there hovered a small white glowing mass, the magical energy intricately arranged almost like a snowflake. Once I knew where to look, I could see what had once been invisible to my normal sight. In the place of that magical glow was one pink-haired fairy, wings and all.
Intrigued, I approached the six-inch tall fairy, who looked like a she was just a young girl. A pouting young girl. "What seems to be the problem, Miss Fairy?"
She looked at me, stunned for a second, and then ascended in a excited spiral. The blur of pink and white finally settled down around to my eye level and shouted, "Wow! You can see me too! Just like Saga!" She added her cheer, "Waffo!"
I guess she wasn't trying to hide from people after all. "Yes, I can see you."
"Hey! If you can see me, can you help me out?" she entreated in her squeaky little voice.
"Sure. What seems to be the problem, little lady?" Had I known then the wild goose chase I was getting myself into, I wouldn't have been so eager to help. But I've always been a sucker for those in need, and it's hard to say no to a face like hers.
"Mister," she said, "do you know where to find a twinkle?"
I stared. I couldn't help it. My eyes were drawn away from Eddie to the figure leaning against the studio wall. Short and grey, he was favoring his co-star with an insouciant expression as he munched on what could only be a carrot (which, judging from the increasingly animated gestures, was infuriating the other). Eddie stopped talking and looked over his shoulder at what I was looking at. "What's the problem, Doug?"
"Is that...?" I trailed off, and looked at Eddie. "It is, isn't it?"
Eddie nodded. "He and the duck are shooting a short today."
"Excuse me for second, Eddie." I made my way across the lot, dodging a high-speed chaparral cock (Accelerati incredibus) and the scavenger (Carnivorus vulgaris) following it. Time seemed to slow for a moment, and then I was standing in front of him, unsure what to say.
It took a moment for the two to notice me; the duck was in mid-rant. Then, they turned their gaze to me, curiosity replacing their respective expressions of indifference and apoplexy. "He's a tall drink of sarthsparilla, ain't he?" said the duck to his co-star.
The other nodded slightly, acknowledging the comment, then turned back towards me. "Eh, what's up, Doc?"
I don't care how much I need the money.
I don't care how often I've taught in the past.
I don't care that nobody I know will ever find out.
I don't care that it's written in Japanese.
It's the principle of the thing. I refuse to be associated with something called "Marysue University"!
Smith, Wainwright, Beck, Dastun — did everyone in this city get their names off of album covers, or something?
"Thank you, Colonel Sangnoir."
"My pleasure," I replied as I exchanged bows with Serizawa Ichiro before I turned back to gaze on the giant being that had mopped the streets of San Francisco with two MUTOs. He had been hurt in that fight, but with some help from yours truly, was quick to recover.
Of course, the city got nicely trashed along the way and there had been a lot of casualties, but given what those MUTOs were capable of doing, it could have been a lot worse.
"So why don't someone kill this ass-big th-.?!"
I turned to gaze on a disheveled businessman, who was now facing a scowling Ford Brody. Standing right beside him were his wife Elle — a nurse at a local hospital — and their son Sam. While both Ford — an EOD officer in the U.S. Navy — and his wife were glaring death at the loud-mouthed idiot who had swore in front of their son, Sam himself was gazing in awe at the thirty-five story walking apocalypse that Serizawa had called "Gojira."
"Is Godzilla going to be okay now, mister?" he then asked me.
I gave him a thumbs-up just as Gojira bellowed out that roar of his.
"You're aware of the pseudonym she uses for you in her diary?" I asked.
"'Miss Girdle Fitz-Snugglie'? Clark told me one time when he was annoyed with her, thinking it would upset me." She smiled fondly. "Actually, I found it terribly sweet that Poddy's so concerned about my reputation when I'm considered little more than a scarlet woman in most circles these days. That I only got what I deserved when..." She trailed off thoughtfully.
I nodded knowingly. "This era's embrace of values practically out of the 1950s can't help. I'd note that these things go in cycles, but the pendulum probably won't swing fast enough to be of any use to you. At least in the short term."
"True enough," she sighed. "Still, that sweet child ignored all the talk and befriended me at the lowest point in my life. I will never forget that."
"Things are getting better for you now?"
"Oh, certainly! Venusberg has been a wonderful opportunity for a fresh start." Then she giggled. "My astounding resemblance to the glamorous Miss Fitz-Snugglie has served me in good stead. While my salary as a blackjack dealer by itself is barely enough to live on, the tips I've gotten for being a friendly 'celebrity look-alike' are already nearly one-quarter of what I need to buy my first share of Venus Corp stock."
I whistled appreciatively. "Not bad. Doesn't hurt that you've made the acquaintance of Dexter Cunha at Poddy's bedside, either."
She giggled again. "I think he and his father were both impressed with how protective I am of Poddy and her virtue. Dexter commented how nothing in my public image suggested I had so much 'Momma Bear' in me." She made a lazy clawing gesture in my direction and, smiling, added, "Grrrr!"
I threw my head back and laughed. "You are a woman of far greater depth and complexity than anyone knows, Miss Fitz-Snugglie."
"Oh, please," she said with a mock-haughty air. "You may call me 'Girdie'."
"Even in public?" I asked puckishly. "Imagine the talk that would cause."
Trying to act nonchalant in the very alien uniform, Berger strolled back into Claude's barracks and plopped himself on the bunk in front of which he'd found Claude just a few minutes before. He very carefully ignored the surprised and suspicious looks from the other guys in the unit, and concentrated on just filling the Claude-shaped hole he'd created for as long as it took. No more than an afternoon, he was sure. Then Claude would return to the Army and the Tribe would get on the road back to New York. Or maybe L.A. — Sheila'd been talking about visiting Hollywood.
Either way, no problem.
At least, it was no problem until a khaki-clad form appeared at the door to the barracks and the men around him leapt to sudden attention. As Berger scrambled to his feet in clumsy imitation of the others he felt a sense of profound deja vu, which only grew stronger as the obvious officer-type strode scowling down the center of the building, studying each soldier he passed. If Berger hadn't been worried about getting Claude busted, he would have been laughing his ass off — this guy was doing exactly the same thing that Berger had only twenty minutes earlier to get Claude out of the base.
Including, he realized with a sudden chill of dread, stopping right in front of Claude's bunk.
The officer, whose boyish good looks were twisted by the scowl he wore, leaned forward until he was nose-to-nose with Berger and stared him in the eyes. Not knowing what else to do, Berger maintained his half-assed imitation of an "attention" stance until the officer snarled, "You. You're with me, soldier!" and turned on his heel.
Well, shit, Berger thought as he took off after the man. They caught me. Gotta convince'em it was all me, that I kidnapped Claude.
The officer headed out into open at a double-time pace that forced Berger to half-run to keep up with him. "Sir? Um, sir?" The other man ignored him, keeping up the pace and leading him around to a sheltered area between several of the barracks buildings, where a number of covered wooden bins held god-knows-what. Then he turned around and fixed Berger with a stern glare.
"Are you an asshole, son?" he growled.
Berger, still catching up, almost stumbled at that. The fuck? I asked Claude that same question right before I... Suspicion dawned in his mind. "Sir, no sir!" he replied just as Claude had.
"Good," said the officer, who had begun digging around in a pocket, in much milder tones. "That makes two of us, then." As Berger blinked at him, he pulled out something that looked like a wallet, only thinner, and then flipped it open. To his amazement, a three-dimensional image of the officer appeared, floating in the air and slowly spinning. A wall of text similarly hung in the air below and in front of it. "Mr. Berger," he went on, "My name is Colonel Douglas Q. Sangnoir. In about fifteen minutes, Private Bukowski's platoon will be deployed to Vietnam. We need to get you out of here and him back in before then, or there will be ten kinds of hell to pay."
Berger narrowed his eyes. "You're not Army, man."
A corner of Sangnoir's mouth quirked suddenly, an almost-smile that was gone as quickly as it had come. "Correct, and you're lucky I'm not. You could've ended up shot." He turned around, opened one of the bins, and rummaged around in it, coming up with of all things a futuristic-looking motorcycle helmet. "Which is never fun," he added, pulling it on and reaching under the chin to fasten something.
"So how're we going to get me out and him in so fast, man?" Berger demanded. "It's fifteen minutes just to the gate from here."
Behind the black goggles that seemed to be part of the helmet, Sangnoir smirked at him. "This is the Age of Aquarius, soldier. All things are possible to the enlightened." He grabbed hold of Berger's shoulder. "Hold on."
I stood awestruck at the foot, wondering what sort of people could build such a thing or why?
A fifty meter tall, solid wall — as tall as the St. Francis Dam — curving away towards the horizon. A quick back-of-the-envelope estimate told me that it must be at least 500 kilometres around — if it was fully circular. The engineer in me wondered how, offering respect towards anyone who could construct something even remotely like it. Even if, somehow, I didn't think they were fans of Roger Waters.
It was only then the I remembered. Walls are either built to keep something in, or something out.
And it didn't take me much longer to realise that I was on the wrong side.
Drago Bloodfist clung to the back of the fleeing Leviathan with his one hand and cursed the island village of Berk, its dragons, and most of all the so-called "dragonmaster" with the ridiculous name. How dare they humiliate him! How dare that puny, immature Night Fury challenge his alpha! How dare it win! "I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE ON YOU ALL!" he howled into wind and surf. "I WILL REBUILD MY DRAGON ARMY, AND I WILL DESTROY BERK AND EVERYTHING THAT LIVES ON THAT GODSFORSAKEN ROCK!"
"No. No, you won't." The calm voice that seemed to come from all around him was almost as much a shock as his defeat had been. Drago twisted himself around as far as he could without losing his grip on the Leviathan's scales, sending his soaked braids flailing about and spraying water — more water — into his face.
"WHO DARES?" he bellowed.
"I dare," the voice replied, and something appeared in Drago's peripheral vision — a helmeted man in grey, riding on some kind of device that skimmed along well above the water, easily keeping pace with the racing Leviathan. The sight was so unexpected that Drago for once was at a loss for words.
"Hiccup is a good man, a forgiving man," the figure in grey said, impossibly audible over the roar of rushing wind and water. "But I am not. I know that if you can possibly avoid it, you never leave an enemy alive to come back and threaten you a second time. And you are the greatest enemy Hiccup and Berk have ever faced." The man in grey raised the hand closest to Drago, and to his shock a blue-white glow formed around it.
"What witchcraft..." Drago murmured, but the man in grey ignored him.
"Good-bye, Drago Bloodfist," he said. And then Drago's world turned white.
This wasn't one of the more cheerful worlds I'd visited.
It wasn't one of the worst, either — life went on, the world's population hadn't taken a sudden plunge, music wasn't outlawed or anything absurd like that — but being locked away from the world's oceans seemed to have taken something vital from the people here.
I was in Japan, of course, which didn't help. A nation of islands didn't deal well when it was nearly impossible to safely move between them. You could safely call the local economy 'suicidal'.
And here I was, sitting on a cliff at the end of a cape, looking out at one of the reasons why.
Warships of mysterious origin and incredible power, that had just appeared out of an unnatural fog and proceeded to annihilate everything that dared put to sea. There was a bit of data on their capabilities — weapon yields, response times, observed speeds, the fact that they were apparently made out of universal nanomachines... But what they wanted?
Nobody knew, any more than they knew why they'd been built to look like Second World War warships, or where the equally-mysterious girls that seemed to command them these days had come from.
"System, Load Song. Kansas — Lightning's Hand."
So, as Mister Owl said, Let's find out!
I'd seen some dense dataweaves in my time, but this one was a doozy, twisting around in torrents of information that I couldn't piece together from the outside.
I reached out and touched one, and before you could say 'another square state full of corn,' I was sitting, in full combat gear, at a wrought iron table under a gazebo in some kind of garden.
There was a girl — late teens, early twenties at most — sitting in the chair opposite me. I wondered if one of the criteria for these people's recruitment standards was being a model; she had the face for it, and the great tracts of land, and the crazy fashion-plate outfit.
Today's theme seemed to be 'librarian', from the glasses and jacket and the way she had her hair up.
"Ennnnh, what's up, Doc?" I Rabbited.
"How did you access this place?" she asked me, just like I hadn't said a thing. Okaaaayyy...
"Where's here?" I asked, though I could take a guess. Some kind of chat room between the nodes of that titanic weave I'd seen on my way in — between these mystery ships.
"This is the Tactical Network. You're a human, you shouldn't be able to perceive it, let alone gain access." Aside from the slight frown, her face and voice were completely expressionless. "How did you access this place?"
It was like talking to an AI, and not one of the clever ones.
"I command the lightning's hand," I quoted back at her.
"Kansas, nineteen seventy-seven," she answered instantly, then the frown deepened. "Electrical control. But parahuman powers are supposed to be fictional."
Okay, strike the 'not clever' bit. Maybe a very young one? That obviously didn't interact with people much. "A magician has to keep some secrets."
Her air of puzzlement faded, in favor of an equally subdued amusement. "I'll have to remain curious, then."
Years of honed instinct shouted at me, and I dropped the connection immediately.
"The north wind rises, old man's eyes wondering deeply as he locks his door," Steve Walsh sang as I snapped back into the real world. Out at sea, the battleship had surged into motion, green light dancing along its flanks as it turned broadside on to me.
I could see the main turrets swinging towards me, barrels coming apart into emitter arrays as the ship — the same AI I'd just been talking to — prepared to wipe me from the face of the universe.
"Well believe me, Mike, Doug, I calculated the odds of this succeeding versus the odds I was doing something incredibly stupid ... and I went ahead anyway."
I held the sheet of calculations up so he could see them. "Crow, you knew this was a bad idea. See here? 'Breach Hull — All Die.'"
"Oh, yeah. Even had it underlined."
I hated being night shift security.
I really hated being night shift security at a family-friendly pizza place where the animatronics moved at night.
Oh, and they were trying to kill me due to buggy software that the management was too cheap to fix.
Good thing I wasn't really here for the frankly pathetic paycheck. The video and audio recordings of my time here that Eimi was helping me make would be just what the police needed to shut this place down for good. Immediately. I picked up the security feed again, currently hooked into the camera covering Pirate Cove.
Wait, where's Foxy?
With a speed borne of my metahuman-level reflexes, I hit the switch, slamming the door in the sprinting robot's face. As the banging subsided, I was grateful that 6 am was only a couple minutes away.
We was thirty miles outside of Tulsa Town and eighty-five trucks strong when I first saw the motorcycle. It come roarin' down the other side of I-44 like a westbound cruise missile — a serious crotch rocket, long and low and sleek, all shiny black and painted flames. It looked like no motorcycle I ever seen before but fer sure, it couldn't be nothing else. Not with some damn fool in grey ridin' on top of it.
Soon as it passed, I put it outta my mind. I had the front door an' I was worried 'bout what was waiting for us in Tulsa. We'd been bothered by bears the last fifty miles, and fer sure they weren't gonna let us just roll 'right onto 244 an' through the city.
I'd just gotten done discussin' our options with Pig-Pen when the radio crackled. "Ah, breaker one-nine, this here's Looney Toons for the Rubber Duck."
I picked up the handset and keyed it. "Ah, breaker, Looney Toons, this here's the Duck. What can I do y'for?" I let go'a the button, then keyed it again. "Can't say I've heard your handle yet today, Looney Toons, what you drivin', come on?"
"Well, Duck, I got some info for you. And I'm the biker coming up on your right."
I glanced over at the rearview an' fer sure, it was that crotch rocket again. "Mercy sakes, Looney Toons, that's a helluva ride you got there. And what you got for me?" By the time I let go of the handset key, that black bike had passed me and pulled in front of me there in the hammer lane, close enough that I could see it had Oklahoma tags.
"Thank you, Rubber Duck, I'm pretty proud of it," he came back. "And what I've got, well, I think your little high-speed parade's upset someone somewhere. I just came from Tulsa, and twenty minutes ago I saw what seemed to be every cop in the state converging on the I-44/I-244 interchange. I'm guessing they're setting up a cheery little welcoming party for you and your friends."
I growled and keyed the handset. "Well, sheeeeooot, I was 'fraid of something like that."
There was a bit o' dead air, then the radio crackled again. "Duck, you and your friends got a good reason for what you're doing? I mean, better than beating a speed record or getting a bonus?"
The channel 'sploded with everyone tryin' to get his two cents' in about our beefs. I finally hadta shout'em all down before I could answer. "If that don't tell you, well, yeah, Looney, we do."
There was another bit o' dead air, then... "Well, that's good enough for me. Tell you what, Rubber Duck, I'm going to head back in to Tulsa and give those cops something bigger to chase than you guys."
"Say again, Looney Toons?" But even as I was sayin' it, that black bike in front of me turned solid grey and the Okie plate over his back wheel just went blank, like somethin' outta a spy movie.
"After all," he added, "who's gonna be worried about a bunch of trucks with a two-wheeled UFO heading towards Tulsa at half the speed of sound? This here's Looney Toons on the side, we gone. Bye-bye and good luck, guys."
And then damn if a jet o' blue fire didn't come out the back o' that bike, just before he took off like a bat outta hell.
Sometimes, I just love the strange coincidences that surround me. I had just stopped at a hot dog stand near a Little League field while my helmet clicked over to the next orchestral track.
"Ooh!" Eimi cooed. "The Overture to Bizet's Carmen!"
I chuckled to myself. The AI's quirky origins made her rather fond of the strangest things. Oddly enough, I could tell as the kids began practicing... they stunk. Badly. And yet...
"Are you seeing this too, Eimi?" I asked after finishing my most recent bite on the best hot dog in three worldlines. Ben might not have been the most polished lawyer I'd ever encountered, but dang if he didn't get results...
"What, the kids' actions synched to the music?"
"Yeah. It would be more inspiring if they were any better. Right now, most folks would think they're bad news..."