Between: 4

I almost didn’t make it, but here it is, the fourth episode. I’m going to have to remember to do at least one more post each week so these things don’t dominate the front page.

“No, no. It isn’t really magic,” Philo explained.

“But how does its mouth move?” Right!Rill asked.

The previous few hours had been surprisingly enjoyable for Philo. He hadn’t recovered much of his memory, but he had a feeling that spending an afternoon chatting with one of the three heads of a purple sea serpent while lightly constricted in its coils wasn’t a typical pastime for him. Nonetheless, it had been fascinating for both of them. Right!Rill–and presumably Rill in general–was endlessly interested in other creatures, but she seldom had occasion to chat with anyone else. Through conversation, Philo had found her to be polite, curious, but not particularly swift when it came to understanding new concepts.

“Look, it is like this,” he said, holding up his hand in ‘sock puppet position’, but without putting the sock on. “I just move my fingers when I do the voice. Watch. ‘I’m Bosco.’ See?”

Right!Rill looked at Philo’s hand, clearly hard at work unraveling this mystery. The coils beneath them shifted somewhat and one of the creature’s three tails snaked up. It was the closest look he’d gotten at the peculiar appendage. It mostly resembled a serpent’s tail, except for the lighter purple frill that tapered to nothing along its length. The other difference was a trio of even smaller tails that looked like a cross between fingers and claws flaring from the end.

With intense concentration, Right!Rill worked the ‘fingers’ open and closed as he had.

“Hel-lo. I’m Bos-co,” she said, doing her best to imitate his voice.

“Nice! You want to try it with the sock?” Philo asked.

“Could I?!” she squealed.

“Sure.”

“Oh, oh! Make it Dierdre!”

Philo fetched a sock from inside his jumpsuit and slid it over the tail, adjusting it until it was properly situated.

“Let’s see it,” he said.

“I’m a ma-gic tal-king face named Deir-dre,” she said with supreme effort. When she was through she practically radiated pride.

Philo applauded. “Well done! You know what? You can keep that puppet.”

Really? But how will you do your trick?”

“I’m sure I can get by with just Bosco.”

“… No one’s ever given me anything before,” Right!Rill uttered, looking over the sock reverently. She seemed on the verge of tears.

“Well hey, it’s no big deal,” Philo said.

The tail suddenly lashed out, hooking around his neck and pulling his head toward hers. She pressed her cheek to his. “We made the right choice treating you nice.”

“I agree,” he said after recovering from the startling motion of a sock puppet-clad tail. He waited a few seconds, then gently pushed her away. “I need my head back now.”

She let him go and he cleared his throat and straightened his jumpsuit. “So how does that work, anyway? Do you each get a tail?”

“What? Oh, yes,” she said, wiggling the sock puppet around. “We control our head and neck, and we control our tail. Everything else is shared. Sensations and stuff, too. Except for eyesight and hearing. If I taste something, they taste it. We even have the same memories, eventually.”

“Really? But you said you control the head.”

“Well, yea, but that’s not where most of the thinky pieces are,” she jabbed the sock at the base of her neck, where it combined with the other necks. “That’s mostly in here. When we go to sleep our personal thoughts kind of slip down into the common memory area. We can even lose a head and it’ll grow back eventually, looking and acting the same as the one that was chopped off.”

“Interesting.”

“Is it?” she asked. “That’s just the way we work.”

“Are you getting something from them right now?”

“Sure. They’re dreaming. Two different dreams. One is about that ship we were talking about.” She shivered. “It’s a nightmare. The other one is about back home.”

“Which is having which?”

She pointed with her tail to the necks of the two other heads. “She’s having the nightmare, and she’s having the nice dream.”

“But which is which. How do you tell them apart?”

“She’s the one on the right and she’s the one on the left.”

“See, from my point of view you’re the one on the right. She’s the one on the left and she’s the one in the middle.”

“… You’re confusing me.” She glanced to the sky. “Oh, look, we’re nearly there!”

Philo swept his eyes across the endless field of white until, more or less directly in their path, he saw a tiny speck of darkness.

“Wow. Look at that. How do you even navigate in this place? There are no points of reference.”

“Well, if you know where you’re going, it doesn’t really matter which way you go.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain. There’s a trick to getting around in Between. You have to sort of hold it in your mind that you’re heading toward someplace, then eventually you’ll get there. Unless someone is hiding it from you. Then you have to be a stronger thinker than that person. Or something like that. There’s no map or anything, because nothing is really in any specific place. It doesn’t really matter how it works, so long as it works.”

“How do you find a place you’ve never been to?”

“It’s very slippery. If someone else knows how to get there and tells you about it, then you can sort of hold this abstract destination in your head and go toward it. Sometimes it takes a long time to get there, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. But it only ever works if you’re absolutely sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

“If things aren’t a set distance away, then why does it take longer to get some places than others.”

“Things are… sort of… here, or not here. And some things are very not here. The more not here something is, the longer it takes to get to it and the tireder you are when you get there.” She grinned as she saw him trying to grasp her explanation. “This is fun! I never get to teach people things. I wish I knew better so I could do a better job. We’re close enough that pretty soon we’ll have to slow this metal ball down though, so I’m going to have to wake them up.”

Without any outward indication that she’d said or done anything, the other heads began to stir. Left!Rill was the first to blink groggily awake. It was clear she was the one having the nightmare, as she first seemed startled, then relieved. She turned to Philo and looked him up and down, then glanced to Right!Rill.

“Did he behave?” Left!Rill asked.

“He was great! Look!” Right!Rill said, darting her tail up. “Hi, Rill! Re-mem-ber me?”

Left!Rill’s eyes widened. “He taught you magic?”

“It isn’t really magic. But he did teach me. And he said I can keep it! Maybe if we can get two more and you two learn how, we can each wear one and it’ll be like there’s a whole ‘nother hydra to play with.”

“That would be interesting,” Rill said, rubbing her eye with her tail.

“Oh! Settle something. I’m the middle head, right? And you’re on the right and you’re on the left,” Right!Rill said.

You in the middle? No! I’m in the middle,” Left!Rill said. “You’re on the right and she’s on the left.”

“I’m sorry, but I think it is quite clear that I’m the one in the middle,” Rill corrected.

The three began to bicker with increasing agitation. Philo glanced down to where their necks met and realized, based on the fact that the frill ran down the backs of their heads and continued along the outside of their body, the three of them were effectively like three snakes that had been sewn together belly to belly. The heads were less three points in a row and more three points on a circle. When that was combined with the sharing of all of their thoughts and memories each night, not only was it obvious that they would all assume they were in the middle, they were all equally correct.

“Guys…” he said.

“So you think you’ve been in the middle for all of this time? That’s crazy! You’re the stupid one!” Left!Rill growled.

“Stop calling me that!” Right!Rill said.

“Guys, you’re all in the middle. It’s fine. I didn’t–”

“Stay out of this!” they snapped in unison, squeezing him just a bit more than was comfortable.

“Right, yes, will do,” he said quickly.

He tried to keep his head down while they worked out their disagreement, and spent his time staring at the spot in the sky that represented their destination. It was certainly growing closer. Though it was difficult to judge what speed they were traveling, Philo couldn’t shake the feeling that the distance was closing too quickly. Something in his head told him that the speck in the sky was moving toward them just as they were moving toward it.

After a few minutes the dot grew into an irregular shape in the sky. It was round, or at least rounder than it was anything else. About two-thirds of the surface was smooth and roughly spherical in shape. The remaining third was lumpy and curled in on itself. The overall impression was of a scoop of ice cream. As they drew nearer he was able to make out a few more details and refined his mental analogy to a scoop of mint chip ice cream, since large swaths of the surface were green with darker patches and bumps. As he stared, wondering how far away he actually was, a second shape slipped out from behind the other. This one was a splinter-shaped javelin, dark in color and orbiting the larger shape. Its length was about half the diameter of the scoop shaped-mass, and it was exceedingly narrow and jagged. This, he presumed, was the place they had spoken of. Shard. The name was certainly evocative of the shape… unless it actually had a different name and his brain had played the ol’ switcheroo again to pick a word that he knew. Philo still wasn’t quite sure how language worked here. Or physics, for that matter, since the orbit of Shard seemed far too low to make Newton happy.

Philo smiled. Though his memory was still little more than a haze, he vaguely remembered struggling to pass physics in school. Something about having found his way to a place where that knowledge was useless was oddly vindicating.

He squinted and noticed what looked like a small, dark cloud working its way toward Planet Scoop. With a bit of staring he was able to determine that the cloud was actually a swarm of small forms, moving more or less directly toward the surface. As best as he could judge, they would reach the mass ahead just a minute or two before he and Rill did.

“Hey, what’s that?” Philo asked.

“What’s what?” Left!Rill snapped, looking first to Philo, then in the direction he was pointing.

She opened her eyes wide.

“Heart Core Fetchers!” Left!Rill cried, urgency in her voice.

Rill’s other heads ceased their bickering and turned to face the distant swarm.

“What’s a Hardcore Fetcher?” Philo asked.

“Heart Core,” Left!Rill said.

“No time to explain,” Right!Rill added.

“We’ll be back,” Left!Rill said.

“This happens all the time,” Right!Rill said.

“Stay here,” Rill concluded.

“Where else am I going to– Whoa!” Philo yelped.

Rill uncoiled herself from around him and sprang into the air, hurling herself toward the shapes ahead. The motion was so swift it tossed Philo upward slightly. This gave him just enough hang time to realize that she’d centered her neatly piled body around the open door, which was now directly below him. He flailed for a heartbeat, then fell through the door. His poorly planned trip managed to guide his head first into the door jam, then the arm of the chair inside the capsule, and finally to the corner of one of the scattered cases.

He took the time to yell a few colorful words, then stumbled to his feet and poked his head out the capsule door. Rill was darting through the air toward the swarm, a look of determination on all three of her faces. Though he was getting closer all the time, the scattering of shapes that got the serpent so worked up was still too far away to see. A thought came to mind and he ducked into the capsule, poking back out with a paper manual in his hand. He flipped through the pages.

“Ah ha! This thing has a zoom on it!” he said, powering up the video headset and fiddling with the controls.

It took a bit of digging through menus before he found the proper settings, but once he did, he was treated to a highly magnified preview video in the device’s display. The swarm was like something out of a nightmare, or maybe a hallucination. There were a dozen creatures, all able to swim or fly in some way or another, and no two of them looking the same. Two were dragon-esque: one a blue-scaled western dragon and one a red and yellow eastern dragon. Between them flew a lantern-jawed, scrawny gargoyle with massive bat wings. Something that looked like a cross between a pterodactyl and a sapphire blue peacock was trailing behind, joined by an emerald-tailed mermaid wearing a suit of armor on her human half and a chainmail skirt on her lower one. Three miscellaneous winged creatures followed, none of which seemed particularly concerned with the traditional “two-wings per creature” rule of thumb. The smallest of them had a single wing and twirled through the air like a dark red seedling plummeting from a tree, while the largest looked like a centipede with wings for legs. The third looked like someone had disassembled two bats and used the parts to make one big one. What might have been the loch ness monster’s skinnier cousin was next, then a vehicle that looked like a cross between a blimp and a wingless bi-plane being piloted by two heavily armored humanoids. The side of the blimp was painted with a white heart against a red background. Bringing up the rear was a pair of winged horses, one with a unicorn horn and one without.

Rill rocketed toward them, moving faster than Philo had ever seen her move. The western dragon peeled off to clash with her, but the serpent was too fast, butting it in the side with all three heads before coiling around it a few times and giving it a squeeze. The eastern dragon swept in to help its draconian brother in arms, but Rill burst forward, spinning the western dragon and literally tangling with the eastern one. Half of the horde of flying creatures swarmed around Rill and a chaotic battle ensued.

What sounded like the distant sound of a bugle caught Philo’s attention. He pointed his head toward Shard–now much closer than he remembered–and backed off the zoom. Something that looked like a charcoal gray vulture with the wingspan of a hang glider was slicing through the sky toward the fray, carrying on its back an energetic humanoid creature dressed in an outfit composed primarily of buckles, holters, and a large pair of aviation goggles. This “pilot” was tooting the bugle and brandishing what looked to be an earnest attempt at making a fully automatic crossbow. The weapon was a mass of levers, springs, and gears. It looked ready to explode at any moment.

For a minute Philo simply watched as some sort of supernatural rumble played out in the distance. Then something dawned on him.

“What am I doing!? I should be recording this!” he tapped the record button and began to narrate. “Okay, Darva. What we have here is my new friend Rill having a no-holds-barred brawl with… sort of… a fleet of assorted monsters and aliens. Please note there is both a pegasus and a pegasus with a horn, which from now on will be known as a ‘Philo-horse’ since I discovered it. Over here there’s a vulture-riding goblin thing, which I’m pretty sure is on Rill’s side. It’s certainly doing a lot of shooting, and it’s mostly hit various members of the fleet. None have them have gone down, though.”

Even at this distance Philo could hear gleefully psychotic laugh from the vulture-goblin as it sent a spray of crossbow darts into the crowd of attacking creatures.

“Rill looks like she’s got three different creatures in headlocks now… and two different creatures have got her in headlocks. But the spare head is clamped down on a wing. I’ll bet that’s the left one. She’s ornery. I’d like to point out once again that if you had your way, Darva, I’d have taken a suicide pill and I’d be missing the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. No. Make that the greatest thing anyone has ever seen. And… okay, this might be a problem…”

The gargoyle creature, after pulling itself free from Rill and yanking out a few bolts from the goblin, had noticed Philo and the capsule and was heading toward him. Rill had her own problems to deal with, and the goblin didn’t seem to have any interest in anything but giggling and firing.

“You leave him alone! We fetched him, fair and square!” Right!Rill yelled, struggling against the centi-wing creature.

As the gargoyle got closer, Philo decided that strategic withdrawal was called for. He ducked back inside the capsule and cranked it shut. Inside it was pitch black, but luckily the flashlight was still in his pocket. He turned it on and shined it around, rummaging through the mound of disorganized boxes.

“Gun. Gun, gun, gun. Why didn’t I keep track of the gun?” he muttered. “I wonder how close that thing is. Here’s a hint for version two of this thing, Darva. Include a window or two.”

The capsule shook violently as the gargoyle made contact.

“You!” growled the beast. “You are new! You must come with me!

Its voice was gruff and deep, though even in his terrified state Philo couldn’t help but wonder if it actually sounded like that or if that was simply how his brain decided it should sound. The tone confused him, too. It didn’t sound like it was threatening him or issuing an ultimatum. If he didn’t know any better, Philo would sworn it was warning him. It was at that point that Philo realized that he didn’t know any better.

“Why? Why must I come with you?” he called through the capsule wall.

“You don’t know what these people want from you,” it said. “You won’t be safe here.”

“I don’t know what you want from me either. And Rill’s nice!”

“She works for a–”

“You get off! I told you he’s mine!” Left!Rill’s voice cried.

An instant later the capsule jolted to the side again. There was a vicious roar, a series of grunts, and a crackle followed by a yowl of pain.

“Serves you right! You Heart Core Fetchers are always after the new blood!” Right!Rill said. “Philo, you okay!?”

He opened the door and was greeted by all three heads of his friend.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“Good! Listen, hold Deirdre. I almost lost her.”

The tail poked inside and dropped the sock on the ground. “Also, I’m a little busy fending off these other Fetchers. You think you’ll be okay landing on your own?”

“What!? I’m not flying, I’m falling!”

“Right! So it should be easy to land. You’ll be fine. Remember, it’s really hard to die here.”

Before he could offer any more objections, the heads withdrew and Rill streaked off. He rushed to the door and looked around. In the time he’d been distracted by the battle, the capsule had dragged him quite a bit closer to the two landmasses. He was near enough now to see houses and streets on each of them. The scoop-shaped clump of land looked to have about the same amount of land as a large city, with a peculiar lake filling in a portion of the concave section. If he’d had more time, he would have marveled at what he saw. The place was a patchwork of different settings and technologies. Some buildings were made from gleaming metal, others little more than thatched cottages. There were rusted-out boat hulls repurposed as shelters sitting between the dislocated towers of medieval castles and what might have been UFOs.

Shard was the size of a colossal skyscraper that had been yanked from the ground. It was considerably more organized and orderly. A single spiral rode wrapped around it from top to bottom, and on either side of the road were black structures made from the same dark stone as the mass itself. At the blunter of Shard’s two ends sat a multi-story castle of some sort.

His capsule’s path shifted as the “gravity” of Shard began to drag him along. For better or worse, it didn’t capture him and pull him to the surface. Instead it slingshotted him around and sent him hurtling toward the scoop at a much shallower angle. He turned his eyes to the much larger mass ahead of him and tried to work out his trajectory. If his judgment was right–which admittedly would be rather surprising–then he was going to be hitting the ground in less than a minute.

He picked up Dierdre, stuffed her in his pocket, and desperately scrambled into the seat of the capsule. The near miss with Shard had set the capsule rotating. Philo braced himself against the chair, his head turned to the open and flapping door. Every few moments the scoop or Shard would sweep into and out of view, the former a bit closer and the latter a bit further away. Each successive flash of the ground showed him a touch more detail: a lush orchard growing some kind of red fruit, a menagerie of creatures fleeing, the lake of the concave portion.

Finally he struck the ground. The impact sent the capsule bouncing high into the air and turned the lazy spin into a veritable centrifuge. Sitting as he was at the center of the capsule, he was treated to the bizarre sight of the various packages and papers being thrown to the walls and pinned there as he twirled through the sky. His splayed out legs and arms were having a disagreement about whether or not they wanted to remain connected and he felt like all of the blood from his brain was draining into his feet. The capsule finished its arc and bashed down again, rolling across the ground.

Suddenly he felt like he’d been thrown into a rock tumbler. Cases and boxes were tenderizing him as his capsule barreled along. Distantly he could hear screaming voices and crunching wood, but he had enough problems of his own at the moment to wonder what exactly he was flattening along the way. Gradually the capsule’s cargo, or at least the portion of it that hadn’t been thrown out the open door, settled to one side and began to slow the roll. Three revolutions and three punishing equipment bombardments later, the capsule rocked to a stop. It took a bit longer for Philo’s head to stop spinning enough for him to be able to think clearly again. It was dark, and as far as he could tell the capsule had settled with the door facing the ground.

“Okay… Okay…” he said. “Status check. Still alive. That goes in the Good Column. Badly, badly bruised. Bad Column. Can’t see anything. Also Bad Column. Lost the flashlight, Bad Column. … I better find some good stuff soon. This is getting lopsided.”

He fumbled at the belts until he remembered that the release button was on the armrest, then fumbled at the armrest until he realized that bashing into the ground at high speed might have had a deleterious effect on the delicate mechanisms within.

“Okay… Stuck… Another one for the Bad Column.”

Philo thought for a moment, but he found doing so difficult. An intense anxiety was building in his chest, seemingly regardless of the fact that he didn’t appear to be in any real danger at the moment.

“Why am I so… Oh… Great. Well, Good Column: I’ve just remembered something new about myself,” he narrated for the camera. “Bad Column: I’m pretty sure I’m claustrophobic. That’s one I wish would have stayed forgotten.” His breathing began to speed up, keeping pace with his heart. “Okay, Philo. Don’t panic. Someone will come and get you. Your buddy Rill for instance. Don’t panic. Don’t… Screw it, I’m panicking!”

He began to violently fight with the straps, rocking and rattling the capsule in the process. At first he thought he was making progress, but slowly it became clear that what he thought was the straps loosening was in actuality the capsule rolling backward and sliding him back into his seat. The door began to tip up, revealing the faces of assorted townsfolk staring with curiosity and anger at the destructive newcomer. They were a varied bunch. A few humans, some in handmade clothes, others sporting period attire from what seemed to be the colonial era. There were things which looked like elves–both the statuesque tolkien variety and the Santa’s workshop variety–and assorted ogrish and gobliny things too. Mixed among them were a few quadrupeds, octopods, and assorted other -peds and -pods that Philo lacked the terminology to define.

“Uh… little help?” Philo offered weakly.

None of the onlookers seemed terribly interested in lending a hand, or a paw or tentacle for that matter. Perhaps it was because they were still upset about his crash landing. More likely it was because they had noticed a few things that he hadn’t, like the fact that the capsule was still slowly rolling. Philo watched as more of the sky became visible, then as the opposite horizon showed up. Ahead was the churning water of the lake, and below was the steep sandy slope of its shore. Apparently he’d come to a stop perched right at the top of the hill, and his struggles had dislodged him.

“Little help!!!” He yelped.

The capsule began to pick up speed, rolling toward the water. It splashed down, mercifully with the door facing up, and began to drift lazily across the surface. The sound of trickling water indicated that his landing had rendered the capsule less than seaworthy. The thought of sinking to the bottom of the lake and drowning briefly crossed Philo’s mind. It was swiftly chased away by the sight of three of the swarming attackers heading his way. He gave a halfhearted tug at the straps one last time, then sighed.

“I’m starting to wonder why I even have a Good Column.”