Alex Reynard's Online Books
Dream III: Long Dark Road
They say the greatest coward can hurt the most ferociously
-Eurythmics, "Miracle Of Love"
They began walking.
The base of Ectopia Cordis is wide enough that any attempt to circumnavigate it on foot will likely take the better part of a day. Thankfully, they had George. Even better, soon after heading off, they came across another parking attendant who was a tremendous help. He not only gave them directions to RB&WB's garage (on the opposite side of the citybase, unfortunately), but also rented them a four-seat wagon that George could pull.
Considering there might still be Ectopians around with vendettas against them, the quintet camouflaged themselves as best they could. Toby suggested George could grow a coat of flesh. George was not keen on the idea, and neither were the others once they saw the results. He looked like a walking catalog of skin diseases. Still, he no longer resembled a bonecuddy. The others shaded themselves beneath the biggest beach umbrella they could buy. Then they set off through the crowd, attracting no more attention than any of the other hundreds of pedestrians.
Toby had forgotten how expansive the parking lot was. It was a grey desert stretching out to the horizon. From this close to the city, he literally couldn't see the edge of it. As George walked on and he gradually let the tension leave his shoulders, Toby realized this was just what he needed. He'd said in the lounge how he was wishing for some cooldown time. This was it. He sat beside Junella while Piffle leaned contentedly on Zinc. None of them talked much. It would have been hard to anyway, over the omnipresent murmur of the crowd. The five friends recognized that this was an opportunity. A last calm moment before heading out on the road again.
Toby was content to just people-watch and let his mind wander. He saw families with kids. His heart nagged him some more. 'It's not too late. You could go back now, find that adoption center. Go back to a life of safe, consistent, boring normalcy!'
He rested his head in his hands and drew his tail around himself. The thought was agonizingly seductive. Worse, it was followed by his inner voice asking, 'What does it matter? If you reach Anasarca, you'd just be headed back to your old life anyway. You could save so much time and effort...'
He couldn't say why he needed to keep going. Not logically, anyway. Maybe he just felt swept along by the current. Events had been set in motion and now he had to ride them out. But what he'd said earlier was true too. He didn't want to leave his friends. Even if the rest of the trip threw constant misery and horror at him, could it be worse than the slow death of loneliness?
He thought back to his days in the cave. Nothing had actually attacked him there. Aside from jumping at shadows and thunder, not much of anything had happened, really. He had been safe. And it had been a living hell. There were parts of this trip he never wanted to relive, but each time he'd mulled them over, he found that the first example his memory supplied was always the cave.
For all the stress and chaos he'd been through on his journey, there was something inexpressibly enriching about it. Just having someone nearby to talk to, to touch, was wonderful in a way his earlier self had wholly forgotten. And there was the sheer exhilaration of uncertainty too. To not know what tomorrow would be. To taste foods his tongue had never known. To sleep in different beds. To dazzle his eyes with sights beyond his imagination.
He loved his books, but there was a limit to the pleasures he could experience through them. There was something unique about being there.
He dwelt on that pleasant thought for a moment.
But then thought of a qualifier. 'Not just that,' he realized, 'being there together.'
He took a moment just to look at each of his friends' faces.
Then he looked off to the horizon. The tip of Aldridge's mountain was just barely visible beyond the clouds.
They could tell it was coming before it came into view, just from the crowd's rising volume.
Up ahead, the milieu was different than the usual background chatter. Buzzing voices from walkie-talkies. The gush of firehoses. Sounds of heavy machinery carving into mortar and metal. And an undulating chorus of weeping.
None of them wanted to see this, but it seemed they were fated to.
Soon enough, as George kept on, Gyre 2 came into view.
Toby had forgotten its scale. The sheer enormity. Every spoke on that wheel had once held twelve apartments, and Gyre 2 had forty spokes. He tried to do the math in his head. How many tenants did that add up to? He couldn't handle the number.
Now the wheel was nothing but a smoldering bent corpse. EC work crews swarmed the site like ants. Spinning orange lights formed a perimeter. Rubble was strewn for miles. Hundreds of people were here. Some were gawking or taking photos, some were waiting for loved ones to be rescued. Workers were jackhammering away to free those still trapped inside. Sometimes they'd pull a battered, blood-soaked furson out and walk them shakily down to the ground. Toby saw a few reunions. But it would take time to carve all the way down to those in the lowest apartments. And how many people had been sitting here in the parking lot when the sky fell down upon them?
There was a desk with a long line of people behind it and a sign above: 'CAR CLAIM'. Toby thought about the Fearsleigher, how much work Zinc and Junella had put into it. Everyone in that line had likely built their own vehicles from scratch, or worked hard to fill a willwell to pay for one. How many cars had been destroyed when the wheel was dropped? Toby looked down the line, seeing people's rage, frustration, and helplessness.
At first he tried not to let guilt stab too deeply into his heart. He reminded himself of what he and his friends had said at the trial. All this loss was squarely on the shoulders of... whatever-his-name-was. Cleanup Crew. The muskrat had set events in motion. He chose to involve Toby and his friends, not the other way around. And their solution to stopping Gyre 2 might not have been the best, but it was the best they could have accomplished in what little time they had.
Still, their choice had been to involve themselves. There were people trapped beneath that wheel right now, and it had been his little groups' actions that put them there.
'My choice, really. Junella wanted us to just leave.'
So Toby took a long, deep breath and let the guilt come. For a while at least. It wanted in anyway. Why hold it back? All the rational counterarguments in the world couldn't shoo it off anyway. The emotion was insistent. It wanted into his heart so it could gnaw and tear. 'Just feel it, and let it pass,' Toby told himself.
All five of them were silent. They kept their eyes on the Gyre as George walked them past it. They had done a good thing, they had received praise, and now witnessing the aftermath was the accompanying penance.
'That's something else they don't show in superhero stories,' Toby thought. 'The good guys and bad guys fight, tear up half the city, and they usually don't show the day after. The rescue workers and construction crews. They'll show the really cool part with the parked cars exploding, but they don't show the furson who owned one, and how now they can't get to work.'
Toby's mouth tasted bitter.
And then, near the edge of the crowd, someone shouted, "Is that them?"
Toby sprang to alertness. Were they going to get chased again!?
He looked around and saw who'd spoken. Someone was pointing, then three furs got up from the car hood they'd been sitting on and ran over. It was a couple of male mice (from their body language it was clear that 'couple' was the right word) and a lady reindeer. The mice both had extensive facial piercings, and each one's placement mirrored the other's. The reindeer had bright green plastic suspenders. All three furs were streaked with soot and sweat, and looked tired.
"You're them, aren't you? We saw you on TV," one of the mice called out as he got close.
"Your horse looks different. That a disguise?" the other asked.
Toby and the others looked at each other warily, not sure if they should admit anything or not. This trio didn't seem angry, but it was clear from their appearance that Gyre 2 had affected them.
The mice and doe looked expectantly at the fivesome.
Junella elected to speak, "If you're asking if we're the ones responsible for that-" she pointed to the wheel, "-there's no use denying it."
The trio smiled in relief. One mouse, a piebald, took his partner's hand and made introductions. "This is Turo, I'm Lock. That's our roommate, Gingerale."
"Hi," the reindeer said. She looked too dazed to add much else.
"We were in Gyre 2 when it fell," Lock continued.
Toby and his friends all flinched.
Piffle was the first to respond. "We're so sorry!"
"Don't be," Turo said immediately. "Tumbling around in there, smashing into our furniture, dying endlessly... I can't remember anything worse we've ever been through."
Lock patted his partner's cheek and finished the thought. "...But we would've been in there longer if it hadn't been for you. Thank you."
"Thank you," Gingerale repeated.
Turo actually bowed.
The quintet were all a bit stunned.
Lock went on. "We got out a few hours ago, but we've been here in the parking lot since. Just... wandering and watching. I guess we're shellshocked." The other two nodded. "We're trying to help however we can. There's not much we can do, but, speaking for myself, I'm not ready to go back up and see how bad everything's messed up. Seeing our building like this is already too much to process."
Piffle kneaded her paws. "I understand."
Gingerale chewed her lip. "So... did you come by to see the wreckage?"
"No, uh... Actually we were skippin' town," Zinc admitted, ears drooping.
"That's probably smart," Lock reassured. "We've heard other people talking. Not everyone feels like us. Some of them would happily skin you for trophies right now."
"You guys go on. We just wanted to say thanks."
"And, like, is there anything we could do to show some gratitude?" Turo offered.
Zinc's eyebrows went so far up they nearly fell off. "Geez, kid! You don't owe us anything! Hell, you lost your home. Thanks a million, but it's allright."
Lock chuckled. "Thought so. And don't worry about us. We made it to Fifty-Two in the first place, right? Finding a new place isn't gonna be difficult. We'll imaginite up all our old stuff. Probly donate a good chunk to fix up the neighborhood nice again too."
"Good luck then, all of you," Piffle said warmly. She reached out her arms for a hug, and Gingerale happily accepted.
The mice came forward too and handshakes were exchanged all around. Gingerale even bumped hooves with George.
The moment had felt unreal to Toby until then, but he was powerfully moved at feeling warm paws holding his own. Looking into their eyes. These were real people. People who were thanking him for what he and his friends had done.
"You guys get going," Lock urged. "Before someone else sees you and starts throwing bricks."
"Good suggestion." Junella said. She patted George's neck. "Come on."
Lock, Turo, and Gingerale waved goodbye as the five travelers departed.
Toby looked back and forth between them and the Gyre, and felt some of his inner conflict unclench.
They continued on in silence. Gyre 2 was behind them. The city's background noise faded into a hypnotic hum. Piffle managed to fall asleep back-to-back with Zinc.
Then he jolted her awake as he suddenly sproinged up. His wrenchhands gripped the sides of the cart in anticipation. His tail began to wag.
He had seen the word 'garage' up ahead.
Piffle rubbed her eyes and antennae. "...Whuzzit?"
"I know we had kind of a solemn moment back there," Zinc said to everyone, "so I hope I'm not painting myself as an insensitive clod to point out that..." He became too verklempt to say anything more than, "...TH' CAR!!!"
Junella looked over and chuckled. "No one's gonna bitch about you getting excited, partner. Look at you. You're like a puppy waiting on his kibble."
The mutt bounced up and down in his seat. "Sounds about right. I can't wait for you guys to see it! I told the mechanic he could put some of his own flair on it and surprise me." He bit his lip. "My baby's gonna be all grown up now!!"
Piffle giggled and turned herself around to squeeze him. "Thanks for being a good pillow."
"Pleasure's all mine, toots." He was a bit too excited about the car to notice, but something in her gaze had changed since the day before.
The outside wall of Ectopia Cordis is set up very much like a strip mall. Wherever there aren't entrances, there are stores. Food carts, souvenir stands, phone booths, armories, imaginite-to-luxybux exchange stations, arcades, even pet shops. To accommodate as many as possible, most of these establishments are tiny, all crammed in beside each other like cereal boxes. But standing apart from the rest was the towering marble columns and gold-plated ivy of Rippingbean & Woofingbutter's Autoparadise. A vast, open showroom where curvy hot rods and bristling safari trucks rotated on raised platforms like gladiators before battle.
Zinc whined with lustful desire when he caught his first glimpse of the new and improved Fearsleigher. He vaulted out of the cart, elbowing a few customers by accident, and ran over to start drooling.
The canine stood, panting hard, enraptured to the point of paralysis.
"Oh, baby. They treated you good..."
Another parking attendant was on hand to take the cart. George unhitched himself and joined the others beside Zinc. Toby stopped dead in his tracks when he finally saw their new beast. 'Holy heck! Maybe I'm actually gonna be safe on this trip after all!'
When he'd left the Fearsleigher three days ago, it had been mostly-silver and mostly-rumpled. Now it looked like a towering fusion of style and threat. The hood had been extended several feet by welding on the front end from a mid-fifties cruiser. The headlights looked like gleaming, sightless frog's eyes. The grille was an endless expanse of chrome fangs. Below it hung two overpowered-looking machine guns, the kind with the polka-dot perforated barrels. And below them were two bayonets as big as elephant tusks. This new face had been seamlessly integrated into the original military-transport shell. Two killer fins jutted out from the back as well, with taillights like red lipstick tips.
All over it was black. Flowing, shimmering obsidian. With guest appearances by mouthwatering chrome, milky white pinstriping, and halloween-orange flames airbrushed so vividly they almost seemed to radiate heat. And the name on the side was spelled correctly!
The armaments were upgraded as well. The spikes along the sides were bigger, and curved in various directions. At the heart of each was an impaled plushie. Toby remembered Junella saying how their love energy warded off nightmares. But for uglies that didn't get the message, there were the aforementioned twin ratatats and pig-stickers, plus a painful-looking nail-studded snowplow which currently adorned the roof, creating a V-shaped shield for the other new addition: that gorgeous brass gatling gun. To make room for it up top, the harpoon turret was now mounted on a triangular platform jutting out from the back bumper. Toby noticed the brass gun had been further customized with the addition of about four extra handles. He couldn't fathom why.
The giant-size ice skates were attached differently as well. No longer was the chassis welded directly onto them. The body of the car now sat on a rotating mount with the skates emerging from a separate section below. The advantage in steering seemed immediately obvious.
Zinc finally snapped out of his trance and ran over to throw his arms around the right skate, smearing sloppy kisses all over the metal. "She's BEAUTIFUL! She's STUPENDOUS! Somebody stop my heart from goin' Nagasaki!" Just as abruptly, he spun away and piledrived Piffle in an equally passionate embrace. "Oh THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU for bankrollin' her!!"
The hamsterfly cooed happily and kissed his cheek. "Making you this happy was worth every nickel!"
"Oh I am, babycakes! I am! You can't even believe!" He swept his arms towards the car (nearly knocking over Toby) "This is my best Christmas morning ever!"
Because the temptation was impossible to resist, Zinc started babbling about all the modifications. "We got all-new, all-hog leather interior. Stuff'll damn near stop a bullet. We got new shocks, new windows, new cup holders. We got state-of-the-art Himmelman 500 headlamps on this bad mama. So-named because that's the degrees Fahrenheit they can output on anything stupid enough to stand in our way. I talked with Andy a long time about maybe slappin' an engine up inside to take the workload off George." The stallion looked noticeably crestfallen at the idea. "We shot the shit back and forth over whether we oughtta go with internal combustion or a Cyrus Tear, and we did 'ventually use a small Tear for something else, but it was Junella who had the idea on how to keep our beast running on good ol' American horsepower."
"I don't believe I qualify as American," George pointed out.
"Don't spoil his rhythm," Junella whispered. "There's nothing little pups love more than showing off their toys."
This was true. "Now up top you'll see that sexy, deadly, honey-colored six-shooter we bought..."
Zinc went on like this for quite a while. Until something peeked out from the backseat window. Something small and brown.
Junella drew her cutlass. "Zinc, there's a varmint in the car!"
But Piffle knew exactly what it was. She spread her wings and zoomed up to the door.
A little burlap head popped up.
Piffle flung open the door and divebombed in. "Oh, DOLL! It is you!!" She hugged and squoze the little plastic toy until they both nearly burst. "I'm so sorry we left you in here all this time! And look at you! Look how smart you are! Let's go show everyone your new trick!"
The overjoyed hamsterfly jumped out from the backseat and held up what looked like a baggy brown ghost. "Looky, guys! Doll figgered out how to move!"
An arm-shaped lump waved to them.
Junella remembered the parameters of Doll's curse: motionless while being observed. But now that she'd found a bulky bag to slip into, no part of her anatomy was visible. "I gotta admit, that's clever. And I think she might actually be less creepy this way. She jus' looks like a wobbly potato."
Toby had a moment of confusion, until it was swallowed by overwhelming embarrassment as he realized he'd forgotten all about their plastic companion. She'd been waiting in the car this whole time! It'd been days!! The poor girl! And he was supposed to be responsible for taking care of her! Toby's cheeks burned. He felt like a heel.
Zinc had a spark of recognition when he saw the burlap. "Oh, hey! I dunno how it ended up in the Fearsleigher, but remember it, Juney? That's the sack we kept Sulilong's big stupid head in!"
"Oh, right!!" She cackled. "I got a kick out of listenin' to him in the back of the Killcanoe, rolling around and swearing the whole fuckin' time!"
Toby gave them a quizzical look.
"Old bounty of ours."
Piffle hopped down daintily, bringing Doll over to Toby. They cuddled her between them. "I'm really sorry we made you wait on us so long," Toby said. "At least we can tell you a good story about why."
Piffle nodded. "Yup! We got nicked by the pigs for disturbin' the peace! But it was all for a good cause though, don't you worry!"
Doll's head turned back and forth as she listened, still silent as ever. But then from under the sack came a scribbling sound.
"Oh right, you gave her a notepad," Toby remembered.
They were patient as Doll wrote. In the background, Toby could see another of those cat guys: the miniature clones that had been running the automotive department upstairs. There were plenty of him running around the garage too. This one seemed to be the original, since he was twice as tall as the rest. His nametag marked him as Andy. He and Zinc started talking about the car, with the canine making lots of exuberant gestures to express his satisfaction. Several customers had to duck out of the way of his wrenches, lest they get uppercutted into next week.
Finally, a slip of paper appeared from the bottom of Doll's bag. Piffle plucked it and read aloud. The handwriting wasn't the best (as Doll had been writing in the dark), but it was legible.
"I hAD A GooD rest. I hoPe no1 MInDs Me usInG the BAG. I Cant see WeLL but I Can MoVe soMe noW. GooD 2 Be toGether."
"And it's wonderful to see you too," Piffle said.
Toby patted Doll's head. "We won't leave you alone again."
She reached out, indicating she wanted to hug them both. They held her between them.
Doll had been polite and casual about her isolation, but Toby thought he felt her true feelings emerge in that hug. Enormous relief.
The new seats of the Fearsleigher took some getting used to. The leather had come from the hog-like nightmares that patrolled the city's garbage, so it was stiff and thick. Almost like sitting on steak.
The car was still in park. Toby sat sideways in the front passenger seat with the door open, legs dangling off the side. Junella and Piffle were side-by-side, lounging on the hood, waiting for Zinc and Andy to finish talking shop. Doll was currently cuddled up in Piffle's cozy lap. And Junella must have been in a good mood since she hadn't said a word so far about Doll's proximity.
Zinc shook Andy's hand (carefully). "I can't thank you enough. She's so souped up, we might reach the mountain by tomorrow."
The mechanic chuckled. "I should be thanking you for letting me work on her! These scratchbuilt jobs're usually a pain in the tail, but you put her together simple and solid. Cooperative as can be. I hate to say it, but I almost hope you get banged up on the way back so you'll have reason to bring her here again!"
The canine and feline laughed. "You have my word," Zinc assured. "Though if my aim is true, I won't let her get so much as a ding."
"Awww," Andy mock-pouted. Toby had noticed that whenever the cat talked, all the other miniatures nearby would move their lips in unison with him. It was kind of spooky.
The cat and mutt parted ways and Zinc clapped his wrenches together. "Allright, go-cats! Deal's done and we're almost ready to vamoose. I didn't forget about grabbing us a last hot lunch. How 'bout that taco place we passed? The one with the guy in the jalapeno costume?"
Junella wrinkled her nose. "I remember saying 'not too spicy'."
"Chill, Lucille. I'll bring back somethin' nice for ya."
"I don't know what I want," Toby spoke up.
"I'll just get a bit of this'n'that." Zinc held up the roll of Luxybux. "Gonna be a long time before we have another opportunity to spend these."
After he exited, Junella bunched up her scarf behind her head and leaned back against the windshield, savoring these last few moments of calm before they'd head out into the suck.
"What's our plan once we get the ol' jalopy rollin'?" Piffle asked.
Junella cocked an eyebrow. "Weren't you paying attention when I showed Toby the map? No, wait. You weren't there. Forgot." She grumbled a bit, but rolled over on her side so she could gesture with her finger along an imaginary route. "Just don't laugh at me if I can't pronounce half these damn complicated names."
"I'd never," Piffle assured.
George leaned in to listen, wanting to make sure he correctly recalled everything she'd said back in Scrofula. Toby listened too, since he'd forgotten every word of it.
"We're here," Junella started, pointing at the wiper fluid nozzle. "The quickest shot to the mountain's not exactly the safest, so we'll be going long for Toby's sake. And honestly, mine too. After all the bullshit we waded through here, the more road stress I can avoid, the better.
"Directly from the parking lot we'll be on the main highway. The whole thing's one giant nightmare. Alive, but barely mobile."
"Like a coral reef?" Toby asked.
"That's just about dead on," she said, nodding to the mouse. He felt pleased. "Doesn't mean it's harmless though. It doesn't like people driving on it, so it reacts like anyone else when they feel a bug on their skin. It'll send out bucketloads of minor constructs to swat us. But the car'll handle 'em. The highway's a breeze if you keep up your defenses and keep moving. Should almost be fun, if you like roller coasters."
Toby winced. "What if I don't?"
"Then try not to ralph on the seats," she said with a blithe smile.
Toby made a note to keep several baggies on hand.
"What next?" Piffle asked. She'd gotten herself rotated so she was lying on her tummy with her legs kicking back and forth. Doll was seated between her wings.
"From the highway, we end up at the river bridge. It's the simplest part of the journey: stay in the car and wait. The bridge'll take us to Lumbago. It's a hole. Literally. Big damn canyon with rope bridges all across. The vertigo'd be bad enough without all the biteranodons."
"I ate some of those!" Piffle remembered.
"And now they'll wanna eat you," Junella replied, pointing a finger. Then she motioned with it along the hood: the car traveling an invisible route. "Assuming we get across, we've gotta zip through a blast furnace called Fistula. After, if we're lucky, we'll run across Gilla-Gilla somewhere in the flesh forest."
"What happens if we're not lucky?" Piffle asked.
"Then we get to sleep outside and be woken up every five seconds by constructs," she replied matter-of-factly. "Gilla's an old colleague and he's got his own place. Plus he's got paranoia down to an art. His shack's the safest place in the world next to Coryza.
"We'll mooch some rest and breakfast off him, then it's on to..." She stuttered a bit, having to piece together syllables to make a word that was definitely nowhere in her lyrics, "...Drapetomania. The humidity there's bad enough to make you wish for death. Also, cacti that grow like tentacles. And they'll lunge at you. Though when you crack 'em open they make a damn fine soup."
Piffle licked her lips.
"Oh and don't forget the huge invisible bees! Bet you can't guess how fun they are! Next up..." Another difficult word. "...Borborygmus. More desert, but drier. Almost smooth sailing if it wasn't for the Okononos."
"Six-foot-tall, pink-as-hell bunnyrabbits."
Piffle grinned at the thought. "That doesn't sound so bad!"
Junella sneered in revulsion. "They're the biggest bunch of disgusting rapists imaginable. You do NOT want to get caught by them."
Piffle looked quite startled. Then she blushed. "I'm sure that would be just terrible," she said unconvincingly.
Junella narrowed her eyes. "Suit yourself. You are dressed for bait after all. If we can toss you to 'em like meat to wild dogs, and it gets 'em to stay as far the fuck as possible away from me, I'm good with that."
"Then we agree!" Piffle said with a sunny smile.
Junella needed a moment to not say all the things it occurred to her to say then.
"So after the valley of the naughty rabbits, what then?"
Junella tried to remember that far out. It'd been a while. "Then there's a vomit swamp. We'll want the windows rolled up tight. Might run into cops, might not. That leads to Rhinolith, where we might be able to snag a bedtime before the maze." She sighed, all humor leaving her face. "I'm sure with George we'll sail right through, but it's one of the places easiest to get lost in. The walls are covered in writing, and if you read one word, you'll have to read another. And another. Forever."
Piffle shuddered. She certainly didn't mind new experiences, but her zeal for them was within reason.
Junella gestured with her hand, indicating a great big empty area. "Then... Dysphoria. Ain't nothing I can say will prepare you for it. It's not a place you ever want to go back to. It gets in your head. You can't trust your perceptions. It's..." She threw up her hands. "It's every nightmare you've ever had. All at once. No better way to put it than that."
Piffle tried to stay hopeful. "But after that's the mountain, right?"
Junella nodded. "Yeah. Supposedly it's an easy climb. They say."
Piffle rolled over onto her back, scooping Doll into her arms as she did so. She needed something to hug. "And then we'll meet Aldridge and Toby can go home," she said resolutely.
Toby sighed. "It still kinda weighs on my conscience that you guys are doing all this for me."
"Well it ain't 'cause of my naturally altruistic demeanor," Junella reminded him. She reached out to pat George's muzzle. "You promised me a hell of a payment."
He whinnied, proud of his value.
"Plus..." She debated for a moment telling them this. "...supposedly, if Aldridge is in a good mood, he's been known to hand out favors."
Piffle sat up. "Could he fix Doll?" she asked immediately.
"Maybe," the skunk acknowledged. Piffle started to bounce with glee and Junella restrained her shoulder. "Calm down, Little Miss Lollipop. I don't wanna get your hopes up. There is not a lot of recent intel on the man. We're going off what we know from events that happened before any of us were born. Fairy tales. For all anyone knows he could be dead up there. Or maybe he went back to his home."
Toby felt his heart drop through his stomach. "So it's possible that we could do all that work, go through all that awfulness... for nothing?"
She leaned over on her elbow, making direct eye contact. "Yes. It's possible," she said in her most sincere, 'no bullshit' tone.
He looked out across empty space. "I hadn't realized that. I thought Aldridge was a certainty."
"He probably is," Junella replied. "We're not talkin' 50/50 here. This was a guy with the powers of God, who stuck around through all the worst eras this world ever saw. I can't think of anything that'd kill him or make him give up. But nothing's ever certain, mouse. Swallow that pill now and get it over with."
Piffle tossed a smile his way. "If nuttin' else, if we get to the top and see a 'gone fishing' sign, I'm sure the view from up there'll be spectacular!"
The mouse couldn't help but smile. "Piffle, you are just optimism incarnate."
She was quite pleased at that.
Junella had a thought. "I know one thing I'm gonna ask him for."
"Whazzat?" Piffle asked.
"If he can flick his magic wand and teleport our asses back to my sweet Jennie-Mae. I am NOT looking forward to repeating this whole odyssey in reverse~"
Piffle nodded agreement. "Especially without Toby."
"Aww," he said.
"Well of course I'll miss you when you're gone, you silly goose!"
A sombrero sailed through the air like a UFO and landed on Junella's head.
"Bullseye!" Zinc shouted.
She turned slowly towards her partner, grumpy as a fat cat. "Te voy a apuñalar repetidamente."
"And I love you too, Junebug." He tossed two bulging sacks up onto the hood which rapidly filled the air with amazing smells. Piffle and Toby were drawn in like magnets.
Zinc ascended George's back to join them. "I basically pointed to the menu and said 'All of it'. They whipped it up quick. Service was friendly. But holy shit, someone did a crime in that bathroom!" He pinched his nose. "Call the FBI!"
"We did not need to know that particular information, Zinc," Junella informed him.
He took no notice. "How 'bout we take our seats, get buckled in, and we'll eat once we get movin'?"
Toby cocked his head. "Isn't eating while driving dangerous?"
Zinc blinked, and then he grinned. He looked at Junella and grinned harder. He looked at George and grinned even harder. "Shall we show him our little idea?"
"I would be quite pleased to!" the horse enthused.
"Ditto for me." Junella gave Toby a look like she had a delicious secret, then took hold of the windshield frame and gracefully swung herself into the driver's seat. She disposed of her sombrero onto a passing Andy.
Piffle handed the chow sacks to Toby, then flitted to the back seat. He climbed past the shift lever to join her.
Zinc poked his head through Junella's window. "Uh-uh. I get to drive first."
She fixed him with a look. "You stuck me with the car while you went out callin' on Miz Millie. I know it ain't strictly your fault, but that action set into motion the whole carnival-ass rigmarole we been through the last two days."
"You're gonna blame me for that? Really!?" he huffed. "I just went and bought you dinner!"
Junella's scowl intensified.
Zinc clacked his wrenchtips menacingly.
She rolled her eyes. "Look at it this way: you get first dibs to hop up on the roof and use the gun."
This changed his mood immediately. He leaned in and kissed her nose. "Peachy-keen, babe."
Toby asked out his window, "So what's the surprise?"
Zinc paused and thought. "Actually, you're gonna want to see this firsthand. My mistake. Hop back out."
Toby grumbled. He'd just figured out where the seatbelt was.
Everyone piled out of the car and stood in front of it. Zinc slid down from George's back and gave his ribs a pat. "You ready for this?"
"Without hesitation, Sir Zinc! The mechanic named Andy, by which I mean the instance of him capable of speech, allowed me to practice several times. It is actually quite invigorating."
Toby listened to this, quite puzzled.
Junella chuckled at him. "Remember that thing I did with the parrot potion?"
From beneath the Fearsleigher, in between the skate blades, Zinc unfolded a harness rig that snapped tidily into place. George backed up into it. A snug fit. He allowed his fatty outer shell to dissolve back into his bones as the canine dashed around him, getting all the straps secured.
Toby noticed that the harness had several glass spheres attached. He thought at first they were lightbulbs.
"All tucked in cozy?" Zinc asked George once he'd double-checked the buckles.
"Then the stage is yours, my friend. You're on."
"I believe I need someone to break a bottle first."
"Oh, right," Zinc turned to Junella. "Wanna do the honors?"
"Sure." In one smooth motion, she dumbfounded her revolver into her hand, aimed, and shot through one of the glass balls.
The gunshot drew the attention of the garage's other customers, and what they saw next dropped their jaws.
Transformation potion spilled from the shattered glass all over George's flank. His bones stiffened as he felt the liquid seep in. He calmed his mind, giving no resistance, even visualizing his new shape to help it take him over.
George's rainbow lights changed hue. Small flickers of violet lightning traveled up and down his body like veins. They sizzled along the harness as well, up into the Fearsleigher, until both horse and cart were pulsing with a purple glow.
Instead of changing shape, George was slowly pulled into the underside of the car.
The Fearsleigher seemed to suck him in and gobble him up. Toby had noticed earlier there was a hole above the front grille. He now knew what it was for, as George's skull emerged. A hood ornament. But the transformation wasn't over.
Purple lightning cracked and popped like firecrackers. The potion began to swell George's legs. They bulged into oval shapes. George groaned low in his throat at the unnatural stretching sensation. Then, with a snap like a falling tree branch, each one of them split down the middle into a hoop shape.
Toby understood now. The car was turning George into a set of wheels!
The spectral stallion crowed with pleasure. The transformation felt like a good, deep back massage. The potion's energy tugged and molded his legs, stretching them into circles as tall as the ice skate blades. It thickened them into dense bone tires, all while lowering his hips and shoulders into axles.
Now it was time for the car to transform as well. As soon as the Fearsleigher's weight was off the skates, the skates themselves began to raise. Customers on either side backed out of the way. The massive metal blades rose until they were perfectly horizontal. Then, with a 'KERCHUK', they retracted in to lock in place: from frictionless runners to deadly-sharp defensive weapons.
On the roof, the nail-studded snowplow began to lower on hydraulic armatures. It passed George's face, the bayonets retracted momentarily to give it some room, and with a 'KHUNK' it settled into place below. The car now had a face. Headlights for eyes, a skull for a nose, two steel elephant tusks, and a bristly beard.
George let out a bellow of raw triumph, sending jets of flame from his nostrils and exhausts. He was now the car. The car was now him. Chariot and horse had fused into an unstoppable juggernaut of bone, fire, and steel. George could feel every part of the car like his own marrow. The spikes and guns were now his flesh. It felt powerful.
"I ENJOY THIS IMMENSELY!!!" he roared at the top of his lungs. The walls and floor shook, displays trembled, and screaming customers scattered like rats.
Zinc giggled in total joy.
George popped his four doors open. "Come, my friends! Step inside me! We have many miles to travel, and I cannot wait to start! Oh, I cannot convey to you the sheer dynamic exhilaration of this new form! I feel ten times my normal strength! Swift as the wind! More mighty than God himself!!!"
Junella's eyes got wide. "Might wanna ease back a bit there, George."
He looked around and noticed he'd scared away everyone else in the store. Even Piffle and Toby were clinging warily to each other. "Oh. Oh my! I'm terribly sorry about that, dear companions! I assure you, I'm fine now."
Toby hesitated just a moment before stepping forward. "You sure? You seemed to be going a bit 'mad scientist' there."
"Indeed, Sire," he said with a nod. "It would have been hard not to. This configuration does things to me. But I assure you, I am one hundred per cent in control of myself now. And considerably embarrassed!"
Zinc chortled. "No need to be! I envy you! I wouldn't mind merging with this hot piece o' steel myself." He leapt up into the driver's seat and slammed the door.
"HEY!" Junella ran over and pounded it. "I thought we agreed I was driving!?"
Zinc leaned over the side, smiling like the world champion of smug bastards. "Yes, partner, but you forgot that I'm an asshole."
And Zinc had forgotten that Junella was still holding a revolver. She shot him in the neck and kicked his body over to the passenger side.
Piffle and Toby both shrieked.
"Quitcher bitchin'! Like you've never seen a little bit of blood before!"
Zinc recovered quickly as usual, and if anything, had an even bigger smirk on at having teased his partner to the point of homicide. He popped the glove compartment and a swarm of gold ladybugs emerged to clean up his previous remains. Thanks to Piffle, they'd finally been able to afford the kind that returned to their box once they were done (and not eat the seats).
Junella was pleased with the Fearsleigher's new layout. She finally had a steering wheel in her hands, which just felt natural. No more shouting out the window for course corrections. And if she still needed to, with George's head on the hood they could hear each other more clearly.
Many pedestrians hollered, gawked, or took photos as the first-of-its-kind car/construct fusion rolled out of Rippingbean & Woofingbutter's. The crowd, for the most part, was good about getting out of the way to let George pass. Though the stallion's heart yearned for speed, he adopted a turtle's pace, as there were gobs of people and kiosks he had to avoid trampling.
The Taco Shack sacks were opened and the food divvied up. Junella gave Zinc a genuine smile at having brought her an amazing-looking avocado salad. The rest was a smorgasbord of quesadillas, tacos, empanadas, burritos, carnitas, dip, chips and cervezas. Zinc had even considered that Toby and Piffle might not want to get shitfaced and passed them some horchata. Toby drank a bottle halfway in one gulp and licked his lips. If this stuff had come from imaginite, then the chef had a really good imagination! Piffle decided to be bold and try a beer, while Junella went straight for the tequila. Piffle again expressed how sorry she was that Doll couldn't share in their feast, but a note from under the burlap assured her that she was more than happy to luxuriate in the smells. The hamsterfly called out to ask if George wanted any vittles. He said that all he hungered for at the moment was speed.
Soon enough he'd nudged his way past the ring of warm bodies encircling the city into the parking lot proper. There were fewer things to dodge in the lanes, but also the occasional loose pig-thing to consider. He asked Junella which direction the highway was, and for a second she was stumped.
Zinc remembered the trick though. "Look way up until you can spot Luxyland. One of the rides juts out, like a finger pointing the way." It was one of the few static patches of EC, and its placement on the beam was for the specific reason of directing traffic.
She smiled at him. "You're bein' all kinds of helpful today, partner. I'm almost sorry I shot you."
"No you're not," he needled. They shared a grin and he went back to trying to hold nachos in his wrenches without snapping them.
As has been mentioned before, Ectopia Cordis' parking lot is a wonder to behold. Fifteen hundred square miles of grey pavement stretched out to the horizon. It is said that you can only see the edge from Bigwheel Fifty-Two. This gave George lots and lots of practice room. As enthusiastic as he was about his new form, he had to admit that enthusiasm is not the same as experience. He was so used to hooves! Having his tires in constant contact with the road was an entirely different sensation. And while driving was far easier than galloping, that also meant it would be equally easy to slip up and skid out. So once he was past the majority of pedestrians, he played a bit, taking a winding route through the parked cars, occasionally seeing how tight of a turn he could make. He hoped instinct would help him hold the road when he got fully up to speed later. And the question burned brightly in his mind: just how fast could he go now?
The food had seemed endless at first, but then dwindled so quickly that they all blinked in bafflement when it ran out, as if a magician had whisked it away. Bits of lettuce and chopped tomatoes sprinkled the seats. Everyone's bellies bulged pleasantly, their fingers dripped with oil and cheese, and their tongues dozed peacefully in heaven. Junella had blazed through the tequila like a champion and swallowed the worm without even realizing it. There were quite a few empties below Zinc's seat as well. This was yet another George-advantage: he made a perfect designated driver.
Toby wiped himself clean with five or so wet-naps, then balled all the wrappers and containers into a tidy lump. He wasn't sure what to do with it though.
"Over here," Zinc indicated. He flipped a switch on the dash and a hatch opened in the ceiling. The trash was stuffed inside while the canine explained that this was another purchase: a dandy solution to the problem of the many, many bullet casings the brass gun was gonna spit out. Any kind of waste could go in the collection hatch and get compressed into caltrops. Whenever they needed to take out some tires, they could just reach up into the ceiling for a handful. "Works with anything! Casings, garbage, I could even stuff you in there!" he kidded.
"I don't think I'd make very good caltrops," Toby replied. "Someone'd step on me and they'd just hear muffled whining."
Zinc cracked up.
Toby was happy with himself for that bit of self-deprecating humor. It had come naturally. Maybe he was finally loosening up a little.
He looked out the window to notice they were about halfway through the lot. Long-term parking. Getting close to permanent-term. Plenty of the cars out here looked broken into. Some were up on blocks. Toby imagined thieves working the acres of cars like a coal mine, moving inward as each layer was stripped down to nothing but chassis.
Behind him the city was still bright as ever. A colossal heaven-reaching tube of sprockets and shine. Toby didn't quite know how to feel about the place. Or did he feel everything at once? Relief that he was being allowed to leave instead of sentenced to The Pipe. Regret at not having been able to see some of the sights Zinc had mentioned, like Luxyland. Unease at how different the city's principles had been from his own. Lingering dizziness from the sheer visual overload. He thought about the masked kid whose jaw he'd broken. About the pink hotel room. The spatula elevators. The loud restaurant. Mr. Roosman. Millie. Kay and Kaye. The muskrat with the screwy eyes. The fox with the messed-up face and his invisible gorilla partner. And looming over all of it, that raccoon with the smile like a mouthful of blades.
Toby felt a rumbling in his gut that he first ascribed to being overemotional. Nope: overfull. The payload of spicy food in his guts began to fire off, resulting in some world-class burps.
Zinc guffawed from the front seat. "Ten points!"
Piffle hid her giggle and patted the mouse's arm. "Dinner not agreeing with ya?"
"I've probably never had a meal that heavy before. I guess even here, I can't suspend disbelief enough to think my stomach would be okay with it." He urped again. "Worth it though."
Zinc got an idea, inspired by the trio they'd met beside Gyre 2. He dug out the cornucopia he'd bought and produced a bottle of ginger ale for himself. "Want one? This stuff's always good for settling stomachs and preventing chowder showers."
Toby grimaced at that colorful term, but he knew from years of experience that ginger ale was good stuff for an upset tummy. "Sure."
Zinc held it up. "Just reach in and take one."
Toby squinted at the thing. It looked exactly like the big wicker cones you'd sometimes see as Thanksgiving decorations. He reached into the open end and suddenly felt cold glass fill his palm. A bottle of his favorite brand was there when he took his hand out. He narrowed his eyes. "Wait, how's this work? Is there super-concentrated imaginite in there or something?"
Zinc was impressed he'd think of that. "Nah. Totally different principle. Take a sip."
Toby was wary of the canine's grin, but unscrewed the top from his bottle and was about to drink.
Zinc suddenly brought his wrenches together with a 'CLANGG'.
"Yaaah!" Toby jumped at the noise. Then he fumbled his hands around, trying to catch the bottle before it fell and spilled and... Wait, where was it?
Piffle could not resist a giggle at the pure bafflement on her mouse friend's face.
Zinc guffawed too. "Cornucopias only make illusions," he explained. "Imaginite's got substance to it. It'll fill you up. This won't. But it's great if you wanna just snack on something or get a bad taste out of your mouth."
"Pretty neat," Toby said. He reached in for another bottle, then a small box of saltines. He was mindful to keep his attention on them this time.
Piffle reached past and pulled out a dish of buttermints. Junella managed to arch her arm all the way back to steal a few. She was just about to pop them in her mouth when she found herself airborne.
The Fearsleigher landed with a hard thump on the pavement. George had been getting so confident in his new driving skills that, upon seeing a few station wagons heaped together in a ramp-like configuration, he'd decided to jump them.
Everyone's food had vanished. Junella sighed in mild irk. "Are you having fun, George?"
He was chortling with glee until he heard her voice. "To be perfectly honest, yes. I apologize, but I found myself in high spirits."
How could she stay mad at that naughty schoolboy tone? It reminded her of Zinc. "Fine, fine. But save the stuntwork till after our snack. Better still, save it for the highway."
"Absolutely!" he pledged. "I cannot wait to get there!"
Junella found a line from a sea shanty on her flank. "Steady as she goes, then. Forward to the storm."
Zinc passed around the cornucopia again.