Here’s episode three! I had to deal with the issue of how to refer to the individual heads of a three-headed character. Hopefully I picked a clear method.
Philo Middleton’s memory was still very hazy. He couldn’t remember anything specific that had happened to him prior to waking up in a high-tech capsule. Regardless, he was fairly certain this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him. He was standing barefoot on the surface of a hollow ball of miscellaneous science, floating in an endless white void, wearing a sock puppet on one hand and staring down a three-headed purple sea serpent who was recoiling in horror after watching him remove the other sock puppet.
For a long few seconds both man and serpent were frozen in shock. Not knowing what else to do, Philo dropped the removed sock puppet. All three of his visitor’s heads watched the face-bearing tube of fabric fall. When it struck the capsule with a quiet flap, the serpent produced a chorus of squealing screams. In a blur of motion it unwrapped itself from around the capsule, spinning it like a top and throwing Philo from his feet. The creature wrapped coil after coil of itself over its heads, raveling itself up until it looked like a massive pink tangle of yarn. The frilly spines running along its back stood straight up giving it an intimidating, spiky look. When it was fully wadded up, the creature dropped to the surface of the capsule and settled into the dip created by the open hatch.
Philo climbed unsteadily to his feet and eyed up the huge lavender ball of coils. It was visibly trembling, causing the whole capsule to vibrate under his feet. He could hear terrified gibbering from the heads, muffled in the center of the ball. As he tried to work out what to do next, he realized that he could actually understand some of the sounds that were filtering out to him.
“That thing is crazy! … Pulled its face right off! … Hold still or it’ll get us!” the voices yammered in hysterics. The pitch was decidedly female, and though each voice was similar, they were not identical.
“Um… I’m sorry?” Philo offered.
At the sound of his voice the balled up serpent clenched tighter. “It hears us! … Go take a look. … Why don’t you do it? … Fine, fine, I’ll do it.”
The coils shifted and pulled aside, allowing a head to worm its way to the surface. It peeked up until it spotted him, then cringed and pulled back inside.
“Put your face back! Put it back!” it howled.
He scrambled to find the discarded sock, then slipped it back on.
“It’s okay. It’s on,” he said.
The head poked up again, squinting reluctantly at him. Satisfied, it ducked back into the tangle of coils and whispered to the other heads. The knots began to slide and loosen, organizing into a neat pile of loops centered around the hatch. When it had finished getting itself sorted out, the creature sat with its heads about five feet over him, each looking down disapprovingly.
“That was not very nice,” said the head in the middle.
“I’m sorry. You’re the first… ‘whatever you are’ I’ve ever met… as far as I know. I don’t know the protocol.”
“Is there ever a situation where it is okay to pull off a face without warning someone? Are you from a place full of face-puller-offers?” asked the head on the right.
“No, I’m not from a place of full of face-puller-offers, I’m from a place called Earth,” he said.
“He’s another one of those two-leggers,” the head on the left muttered to the others. “Why are there always so many two-leggers?”
“Can you tell me where I am?”
“Wait, first you answer my questions, then I answer yours,” said the middle head. “That’s the way it goes.”
“I guess that’s fair.”
“How did you get here?” the right head asked.
“Inside this capsule,” he said, stamping his foot.
“Is it magic or science,” the left head asked impatiently.
“Science, I guess.”
The heads looked to each other in disappointment. “Too bad,” they said in unison.
“Why is that too bad?” Philo asked.
“Do you know any magic at all?” the middle head asked.
“I don’t think so. Maybe a card trick or two.”
“Card trick?” asked the right head, tipping to the side.
“It was a joke,” he said.
“No joking. This is not a joking time. This is a serious time,” the left head barked.
“Oh, sorry.” He was beginning to dislike the left head.
The heads slithered down from the heap of coils and circled around him, inspecting him thoroughly from all sides at once. Having something so large and alien look him over should have been frightening, but mostly he felt self-conscious, as though he should have taken the time to fix his hair and straighten his jumpsuit. The heads finished their inspection, then looped around him to the front, brushing a coil lightly against his heels. The right head came nose to toe with the sock puppet on his right hand, eying it doubtfully.
“This face isn’t a real face,” it said.
“No, it isn’t,” he said.
“Why are you wearing false faces?” asked the middle head.
“I was lonely and bored. I’ve been here a while,” he said.
“He’s a strange one. I think we should leave him here,” the left head said.
“I like him. He’s dressed up to be like us. No one else does that. They all dress like one another,” said the right head.
“It doesn’t matter if we like him or not. We’re supposed to bring him back. That’s our job,” the middle head said.
“Fine,” said the left head sulkily.
The right head drifted over to the side of his head and closed one eye, looking in his ear. It then flicked a thin, serpent-like tongue inside, causing Philo and the other two heads to twitch.
“Pleh. He tastes terrible,” the right head said.
“Why do you always taste them?” asked the middle head. “We aren’t allowed to eat them.”
“Because she’s the stupid one,” the left head jabbed.
“You’re the stupid one!” the right head retorted, darting up face to face and baring a set of sharp, triangular teeth.
The two began to bicker and butt against one another. The middle head carefully looped beneath them to look Philo in the eye.
“Don’t mind them. You had questions?”
“Yes. Loads of them,” Philo said. “For one, what’s this about eating me?”
“She always likes to check if newcomers are good to eat, but the boss has rules about eating people. We’re not allowed to do it unless he tells us to.”
“I see. That’s a good policy.”
“Any other questions? You may as well ask. They’ll be a while and it is hard to travel while they’re fighting.”
“Well, I guess I should learn your names.”
“I’m called Rill.”
“Pleased to meet you, Rill. What are their names?”
Rill twisted and looked to the arguing duo, then back to him. “We’re Rill.”
“You all have the same name?”
“We are all the same person.”
“Isn’t that a little confusing?”
“It never confuses me.”
“I see. Well, I’m Philo. Where are we right now?”
“Around your metal thing, where you showed up.”
“Well, I know that, but I mean what is this place?”
“Oh, the whole place? Different people call it different things. Most people just call it Between.”
“Between here and there. Between now and then. Between everything and everything else.”
“What sort of place is this?”
“Home, for now. And since you don’t know magic, home forever.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. All I know is lots of people get here with science, but no one leaves with science because science doesn’t really work so good here except when it does. Magic works great always, though.”
“Ah… Okay, so what are you exactly?”
“I’m a human.”
“… Are you sure about that? Because I’m pretty sure I’m a human, and you don’t look very much like me.”
“Oh, oh,” Rill said, shaking her head. “I forgot. You’re really new. See, I’m not really talking to you right now. Not with the words you’re hearing, anyway. This place sort of pokes around in your head and finds the words that mean the same thing to you. It’s really useful, because everyone can understand everyone else, but it gets tricky because sometimes words get mixed up. I said the word that means ‘the type of creature I am.'”
“And in my head, ‘the type of creature I am’ is human.”
“Right. Let me see. I’m… I’m a… water dragon? Does that make sense?”
“Sounds about right.”
“How about hydra?” Right!Rill said, growing tired of her little tiff with her sinister sister and twisting back to face him.
“That certainly evokes the whole multi-headed thing,” Philo agreed.
“Let’s stop wasting time and get this over with,” Left!Rill snapped.
The triple tail jutted out from the bottom of the mound of coils. For the first time, he noticed that each tail had three little claws on the end, like toes on a paw. He saw them only briefly before one of the tendrils wrapped around his ankle and yanked him upside down.
“Whoa, hey! Take it easy!” Philo objected.
“Well… Technically we don’t have to take it easy,” Right!Rill explained apologetically.
“The spotter only pays us to make sure we get the newcomers back to Shard alive,” Rill added.
“And it is really hard to kill things here,” Left!Rill said. “Watch!”
With a flick, the incredibly strong tail gripping his ankle whipped him up and made ready to smash him against the capsule. He didn’t have time to object, only managing to release a startled yelp. An instant before he would have struck, a second one of the tails wrapped around his hand and yanked in the other direction, pulling him taut like a guitar string.
“Wait! I think we should be nice to him,” Right!Rill said.
“I agree with her!” Philo said desperately.
“Why should we?” Left!Rill asked. As she spoke, the tail around his leg tugged.
The wrist tail tugged back. “Because he didn’t try to kill us. Most of the science-types do,” said Right!Rill.
The ankle tail tugged again. “He pulled his face off right in front of us.”
The wrist tail tugged again. “But he put it back when we asked.”
“Please stop pulling,” Philo said.
The ankle tail tugged. “That’s probably just because he’s afraid of us.”
“Please stop pulling,” Philo groaned.
The wrist tail tugged. “He would have run away if he was afraid of us!”
“PLEASE STOP PULLING!” Philo cried.
The ankle tail tugged. “Where would he run to?”
“Enough,” Rill said. The third tail wove up to his neck, where the three claw-like fingers clicked open and gripped the collar. “We should be nice.”
Left!Rill sneered and the ankle tail loosened. Right!Rill stuck her tongue out at Left!Rill and released her tail. The remaining tail lowered Philo to the surface of the capsule again.
“Why?” Left!Rill said.
“Because no one likes us back at Shard. Maybe if we’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to us.” Rill said.
“I totally will be nice to you,” Philo said. “We’ll be best friends.”
“Yay!” Right!Rill said.
“And what good will that do? He’s a science-type. He’s worthless!” Left!Rill countered.
“No, no. I can do this,” Philo said, adopting the Bosco voice and working the puppet’s mouth. “‘ello! I’m Bosco.”
Right!Rill looked utterly delighted. “It talks! It is a real face!”
All three heads looked to the other sock puppet expectantly. “What about you?” they asked in unison.
“Er… Hello?” ‘Deirdre’ said.
“You said you didn’t know magic,” Left!Rill said, awe in her expression.
“Well, you know. I know some stuff,” he said.
“Well okay, we’ll treat you nice. But don’t forget we did,” Left!Rill said, darting her head to his and angling it down to look him as closely in the eyes as possible.
This close, he noticed that unlike her “sisters,” Left!Rill’s head frills were a bit tattered and frayed, and the otherwise immaculate lavender hide was marred by a faint pink scar on the left side of her head. He swallowed hard and nodded.
“We should take his metal thing, too. The boss likes metal things,” Right!Rill said.
“The boss likes anything new,” Rill agreed.
“Fine, fine. Let’s go then,” Left!Rill said.
Rill uncoiled like a spring, launching herself upward and shoving the capsule downward. The deceiving speed of the motion was enough to literally yank the ground out from beneath Philo, leaving him floundering in the above the capsule, slowly drifting toward it. Rill circled around, Right!Rill nipping him by the collar and dragging him along while each of the three tails coiled around a separate rung of the ladder he’d climbed to escape.
The serpent came to a near stop when her body ran out of slack, and she began to twist and undulate madly, trying to get the massive capsule up to speed.
“Are you sure you’re going to be able to move it?” Philo asked.
“We’re… Unf… Very strong,” Rill assured him, grunting lightly with the effort.
Right!Rill nodded vigorously, shaking Philo as she did. She handed him off to Rill and added, “We really are! This isn’t even the biggest thing we’ve fetched. There was a big boat once.”
“Full of two-leggers like you. With cannons…” Left!Rill growled, looking scornfully at Philo as though he’d been the one lighting the fuses.
“It took forever to get that moving,” Right!Rill said.
“It took longer to clear it out…” Left!Rill said darkly.
“But once something is moving it’s easy to get it where we need it,” Right!Rill continued.
“Now, when you say ‘clear it out’…” Philo said.
Right!Rill ignored him. She seemed beside herself, in the figurative sense in addition to the literal one, that she had someone to tell her stories to. “I think that boat was from Earth too. You said you were from earth right? We fetch a lot of boats from earth. And other things. It has something to do with a triangle.”
“A triangle… Wait, you mean the Bermuda Triangle?” Philo said.
Rill, still holding Philo’s collar in her teeth, nodded in agreement, shaking him up and down.
“Do you know it?” Right!Rill asked. “Is it nice? What does it look like?”
“It’s just a big chunk of ocean between some islands. What did you mean by ‘clear it out’ again?” Philo pressed.
All three heads closed their eyes and hummed happily for a moment. “The ocean.” they said, causing Philo to slip free. Right!Rill quickly snagged him as Rill took her turn speaking.
“I remember the ocean. Not your ocean. Our ocean,” she said, her eyes distant. “So much more color there. So many more humans.” She caught herself. “Sorry, water dragons.”
“Err Hrrrdrrrrs,” Right!Rill mumbled through clenched teeth.
“Yes, or hydras.”
“Are there not many hydras here?” Philo asked.
“We’re the only one,” Rill said. “Fortunately, a hydra can’t get lonely. There’s always two people to talk to.”
“It would be nice to have someone who didn’t run away every time we showed up though,” Left!Rill said.
“I guess most people think you’re a pretty scary monster,” Philo said.
“That’s not the problem,” Rill said. “There’s all sorts of scary monsters in Shard. People just don’t like us because of our job.”
“Everybody hates Fetchers,” Left!Rill said.
“Does it have anything to do with that ‘clear it out’ thing? Because I’m very curious about that,” Philo said.
“Look. Sometimes the boss wants the boat and not the people on it,” Left!Rill said.
“And what do you do exactly?”
Left!Rill twisted to face him, glaring hard and subtly flashing her teeth. “How bad do you want to know?”
“My curiosity on the matter has vanished,” Philo said, his expression held carefully still. “But what exactly is a fetcher?”
Right!Rill abruptly handed him off to Rill. “I’ll tell him! See, people pop into and out of Between all the time. No one ever shows up anywhere near Shard, or any of the places here that are actual places, and most of them pop out right away. When they don’t pop out, then it usually means they don’t know how, which means they’ll be here for good. When that happens we know about it, because there are a few people who can sense it. Those are called spotters. Once the spotters spot someone, they tell the boss and the boss sends a fetcher like us to go get them and bring them back before someone else does. It’s a very important job.”
“Why would people hate you for that?”
“Because people don’t have any choice about coming with us, and sometimes our job is to bring them back after they escape,” Left!Rill said.
“Escape? Is this Shard place the sort of place you’d want to escape?”
“It depends,” Right!Rill said.
“On whether you’re useful like us or useless like you,” Left!Rill said.
“‘ey, ‘ey. Let’s not forget about me!” said ‘Bosco.’
Right!Rill giggled gleefully, her head bobbing and her teeth showing in a much less threatening way. “What about the other one?”
“Yes, yes! I’m here too,” he had Deirdre add.
“It’s so strange that two heads sound like boys and one sounds like a girl. That almost never happens,” Right!Rill observed.
“It’s magic, remember? They might not all be his heads. Maybe none of them are,” Left!Rill countered. “We should test…”
“No, no!” Philo said hastily. He didn’t trust Left!Rill to choose a test that wouldn’t draw blood. “I assure you, the middle head, the one with hair, is mine. The other two are puppets.”
Right!Rill squinted her eyes and half turned. “And you can take them off?”
“Yes.” He eyed Left!Rill. “But the middle one doesn’t come off.”
“Could you…” Right!Rill began, hesitating briefly. “Could you take them off? Now that I’m ready for it, I’d like to see you do it.”
“Yes, take them off. They don’t match. It’s ugly,” Left!Rill said.
“Wwwwttttt!” Rill mumbled.
She flicked her head up, tossing Philo forward, then quickly reeled her body down toward the capsule they were towing, which was now moving at a reasonable speed. Loop by loop she coiled herself into a neat pile, each successive layer forming a tighter circle. Just as Rill finished comfortably situating herself, the capsule caught up with the hurled human. He plopped down on the pile, which slacked around him until he slid down a few layers, then snugged up again around his waist. The whole of the transaction had seemed like something a baton twirler might have performed on stage, if he had been a three-headed serpent and used a flailing human instead of a baton.
Philo’s eye twitched. “What was that all about?”
“We all want to see,” Rill said.
The heads were arrayed around him, each staring with rapt interest.
“Go on!” Right!Rill said.
He pinched Bosco’s head with Deirdre’s mouth and slowly tugged. As the sock slid free, the three heads squinted and squirmed as though they were watching him saw through his own arm. When the sock slipped off to reveal his hand, they reacted in unison.
“Ew-w-w-w!” they said.
“Now do the other one,” Left!Rill prompted.
Philo made more of a show of it this time, stuffing the first sock into a pocket of the jumpsuit, flourishing his hand, and extending the sock removal into a seconds-long process that held all three heads in disgusted fascination. When it too flopped free, he felt a quiver move like a shockwave along her coiled body.
“Well, there you have it. The sock puppet trick,” he said, pocketing the other sock. “You can let me go now and we can get back on our way.”
He placed his hands on the coil wrapped around his middle and tried to push himself free. Despite the oily sheen her hide had, Rill was warm and dry to the touch. Her skin was perfectly smooth, and it had a cushiony softness to it that gave way to a steely musculature not far beneath the surface. Despite pushing hard, he couldn’t budge himself. In fact, she snugged herself just a bit tighter at his struggles.
“No. Not yet I don’t think,” Rill said.
“It took us a while to get to you,” Right!Rill said.
“And we’re a bit tired,” Left!Rill continued.
“Tired? But I’ve been here for days and days and I haven’t been the least bit sleepy.”
“Oh, sure, you can stay awake forever and you’ll never need to eat, but only if you don’t do any of the hard stuff. Traveling takes a lot out of you. The boss will explain it when you meet him,” Rill said. “For now, we’re going to sleep.”
“Well can’t you let me go while you rest?”
“No, no, no. We can’t do that. You know magic. You might get away!” Right!Rill said.
“And the boss doesn’t like it when we let them get away,” Left!Rill said.
“Don’t worry, you won’t get bored though. We only sleep two at a time. We couldn’t keep moving toward Shard otherwise,” Rill said.
“You need to be awake to actually move,” Right!Rill clarified. “As long as one of us stays up, then the big metal thing should carry us at least part of the way. It’s my turn to stay up.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Philo said.
“Why is that a relief?” Left!Rill snapped.
“No reason,” he said, eyes wide.
She glared at him for a moment while Rill laid her head down and tucked it under a coil. After making him uncomfortable for a second or two more, Left!Rill tucked her own head away. Philo looked to Right!Rill. The corners of her mouth drew up in a genuine smile, the frills on her head fluttering and flexing once.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Philo said. He pulled the headset free. It had never stopped recording. He pointed it to his face, trying to get Right!Rill in the shot. “Well there you have it. First contact with an extra-dimensional creature. I’d say this expedition is off to a good start, wouldn’t you?”
“Who are you talking to?” Right!Rill asked, leaning close and eying the headset curiously.
“Oh, I’m recording something for Darva.” He pointed the camera directly at her. “Say ‘Hello, Darva!'”
“Hello, Darva!” Right!Rill said brightly.
He pointed to himself. “Philo out.”
And that’s it for this week. I’m not as far along with the next installment as I have been with the others, but I think we’ll be getting a peek at this “Shard” place, and maybe we’ll even meet the boss.