Okay, folks. I’ve got some bad news. I’m afraid I’m having too much trouble keeping up with all of the various settings and series I’ve been writing. I know some of you really love the sci-fi, and others really like the fantasy, and there are even some die hard superhero fans. But if I’m going to be successful as an author, I’m going to have to focus on a single setting.
What you see is the first official story in my last surviving setting. Hopefully you will all think of this as the beginning of something great, rather than the end of something you loved.
“All things being equal, the more exposed wiring I see, the less comfortable I am about testing an apparatus,” Lex said, gazing around at Karter’s latest contraption.
Whatever the device was, it certainly didn’t give one the impression of something that had reached any appreciable level of completion. There were bundles of cable held together with, in the best of cases, plastic tie-wraps. In most other cases the cables were held together with hasty loops of black electrical tape and in at least one notable instance a few strips of blue painter’s tape. The cables had been affixed to a bent rebar scaffold of sorts that traced out the rough wireframe of a sphere. It was just off center in a large stainless steel laboratory. Joining him in the room was Karter, the device’s creator, and Solby, his genetically engineered pet. Solby was, as usual, riding across Karter’s shoulders and looking on with manic enthusiasm.
“Hey, I’m paying you top credits for this testing gig, so you don’t get to complain,” Karter said, tapping some commands into an old fashioned mechanical keyboard that had been attached to the side of a more modern control panel by way of duct tape.
“Just because you’re paying me doesn’t mean I don’t get to voice my concerns.”
“Ma! Did he sign the release?” he shouted vaguely at the ceiling.
“Good!” He looked back to Lex. “You’re right. You get to voice your concerns, but I don’t have to pay attention to them.”
“Why is there so much old fashion technology involved in this one, Karter?”
“BECAUSE OF SCIENCE!” he growled. “Now shut up and listen to the briefing. Ma! Do the honors.”
A piecemeal female voice spoke through the speakers in the far corners of the room. “Karter’s modifications to the confiscated transportation device should facilitate a greatly extended maximum range and the removal of previously required target locator beacon. The modifications come at the cost of a small degree of positional accuracy and a greater amount of pre-transportation calibration. This calibration includes microgram-precision measurements of mass within the active field of the transportation chamber. Improper mass calibrations can cause fluctuations in the quantum alignment of the spacetime bridging phase.”
“Okay, what does that mean?”
“It means if the mass measurement isn’t just right, you’ll end up someplace else,” Karter clarified.
“The hell if I know.”
“So… we’re sure this is safe, right?”
“If we were sure it was safe, we wouldn’t be testing it right now, would we?”
Again Ma spoke. “The device affixed to your wrist is a failsafe return beacon. In the event of teleportation destination mis-targeting it will attempt to restore quantum alignment with periodic synchronization pulses. These will slide you progressively closer to ideal quantum alignment.”
“And that means?” Lex said.
“It means ‘Quit your bellyaching because it’s time to earn your keep.’” Karter explained.
“I have initiated the capacitive loading. From this point forward my sensors in the room will be inoperative,” Ma said.
“Now let’s get started.” Karter pulled a pair of goggles from a pocket of his jumpsuit and slid them on. “Initiating mass scan. You’re gonna want to take a deep breath and hold it.”
“Wait! Do I need goggles too?”
“Probably. Mass scan commencing.”
Lex pulled in a deep breath. A laser line began to sweep swiftly around him.
“Keep holding. Don’t exhale until after the flash,” Karter said. “Test begins in five…”
He flipped a switch and the air was suddenly alive with humming and buzzing with energy. Lex could feel the hair on his neck stand up.
The humming turned onto a sizzle. Lex’s tongue began to tingle, like he was licking a battery.
At this point, something began to happen that Lex saw but Karter did not. Solby, who had been getting incrementally more spastic with each passing moment since the activation, was beginning to waggle his little hindquarters, a sure sign of an impending leap.
Lex’s eyes opened wide and he prepared to yell for the countdown to stop, but for a split second he hesitated, worrying what sort of consequences he’d incur if he stopped holding his breath long enough to blurt a warning. The hesitation was just long enough for Solby to leap.
Lex shut his eyes and cringed. An instant later there was a burst of light so powerful he could see the arcing shape of it even through his eyelids. Then something warm, fuzzy, and vibrating with excitement struck his face and tumbled to the ground with the soft crunch of fresh snow.
That was the first indication that something had gone wrong. Lex didn’t have the best eye for detail, but he was reasonably certain there hadn’t been any snow in the lab when he’d closed his eyes. The next indication of mishap was the suddenly frigid air that whisked away the warmth of the lab. In seconds he was shivering. Hesitantly, he opened his eyes.
He was standing—or rather, sinking—in snow that reached about his mid-calf by the time he’d settled down into it. Solby blasted up out of the snow and onto his shoulders, then bounded off again and sprang through the snow like a lunatic.
“Oh Jeez… this is… this is bad,” he said, hugging his arms together to preserve some warmth. “I mean… It could have been worse. At least there’s a breathable atmosphere. Hopefully he just zapped me to the top of a mountain on Big Sigma or something.” He started to look around. “Though the air seems a bit fresh… for…”
Lex trailed off as he realized that to his left was a crushed stone road that led off toward what might have at one time been a quaint—albeit medieval—village. Now it seemed to have fallen upon hard times, though an assortment of workers seemed to be doing their best to rebuild at least the parts nearest to the wall.
“Oh, hello there!” said a bright, friendly voice on the other side.
He turned to the source and promptly released a startled yelp that he hoped didn’t sound nearly as girly as it did in his head.
Standing before him, smiling pleasantly, was something that was wholly and entirely not a human being. It was white and furry, sporting pointed ears, a long canine muzzle, and a pair of pink eyes blinking with curiosity. She, and the gender was a guess based on the overall shape of her body, was dressed in neat and warm layers of thick clothing. The general impression was of a particularly well-dressed werewolf with a pigmentation problem. It was standing a few meters away on a cobbled road.
Having already been assaulted by a flash of some sort of (hopefully mild) radiation and then subjected to arctic temperatures, Lex would have had a hard time scraping together the wits necessary to have a normal conversation with Michella, let alone this… thing. He took a step back, patting his jumpsuit’s pockets to see if he had something with which to defend himself, just in case the man-sized carnivore decided to do what most man-sized carnivores would do.
“Where did you come from?” she said, tipping her head to the side. “And why aren’t you dressed properly? You’ll freeze out here like that. You should probably get inside.”
Lex’s response to the hospitable offer was to utter three or four variations of the word “Guh.” Solby, for better or worse, decided to take on the ambassadorial duties personally. He bounced through the snow until he tumbled out into the road, then sniffed eagerly around her legs. She raised a foot cautiously at first, but then crouched down to inspect Solby more closely.
“Well you’re a friendly one!” she said.
Solby responded by rolling to his back and offering his tummy for a rub, which she eagerly obliged. As she giggled and cooed at the bundle of fluff, the bits and pieces of Lex’s sanity slowly slid back into place.
“Um… Where exactly am GAH!” he blurted.
His attempt at communication was cut short when a few additional figures stepped out from behind the city walls. Two of them, an attractive redheaded woman and a young man, were fairly normal if perhaps a bit more “renaissance faire” than you might expect to see under usual circumstances. The other, which must have been just barely hidden behind the wall this entire time, was instantly recognizable as something which Lex knew did not and could not exist. It was a red and yellow dragon. A very large red and yellow dragon. Those were all of the details he was able to absorb because, let’s face it, what more did he need to know?
“Ivy, where did he come from?” said the woman.
“I don’t know. He’s not very talkative,” said the white-furred creature. Ivy, it would seem.
“There aren’t any footprints leading to where he’d been standing…” observed the man.
The dragon stepped forward and lowered its massive head to sniff at Solby, who responded with a playful lick to its snout. There wasn’t anything particularly aggressive about the way the dragon was moving, but a multi-ton reptile moving at all was a bit more aggressive than Lex was willing to tolerate. His body wisely took the initiative and he took off at a sprint.
He burst onto the road, scooped up Solby, and fled as though he were on fire. Behind him, he could just barely hear a worrying statement by the woman.
“Myn, fetch him. Gently. In light of recent events, I’d rather not let the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed man pass without determining his intentions.”
What came next was the earthshaking thunder of a galloping dragon quickly closing the distance between them.
“I knew Karter would eventually get me killed,” he huffed desperately as an imposing shadow began to close in above him. “But eaten by a dragon? I didn’t see that one coming.”
The pounding steps stopped briefly, and for a moment Lex hoped the dragon had lost interest. The next instant the ground practically jumped out from beneath him. A rush of snow blinded him, and a moment later he crashed into a wall and fell back. When the kicked up snow had cleared, he discovered that the wall he’d struck was actually the dragon. It had managed to leap over him and pivot in midair, blocking his path. As he blinked up at the towering head that stared down with an almost endearing look of pride, he couldn’t help but wish he’d been someone watching that maneuver. Not only would it mean he wouldn’t be the one getting eaten, it would certainly have looked really cool.
Solby, who had been tucked under his arm and had been spared the brunt of the collision, wriggled free and stood on Lex’s chest. He stood stiffly and planted his feet, growling at the dragon.
Before the little funk could unleash its fury on the unsuspecting beast, the device on Lex’s wrist released a buzzing whine.
“Oh thank God!” Lex said, when a familiar sensation made his hair stand on end again.
The potent flash returned and the feeling of icy ground on his back dropped away. This brought a millisecond of relief, followed by a flood of fresh panic. Nothing had replaced the icy ground. He’d gone from lying on the ground beneath a monstrous dragon to plummeting with nothing but sky above him.
Safety-wise it was at best a lateral move.
He screamed helplessly for the longest two seconds of his life before his back stuck something with a hollow, echoing thump. Whatever had caught him was mercifully giving, which sent him rebounding back upward. At the apex of his rebound the furry form of Solby struck him firmly in the stomach. He grabbed Solby tight and wrapped around him, plummeting back down onto the rough, taut surface below.
When he landed the second time, the surface below him had a steeper slope that sent him sliding. Reflexively he threw his hand out to the side and groped for something to hold onto. Just as his slide began to accelerate he found a rough, slightly sticky rope set into the surface.
His backhanded grip just barely brought him to a stop. After some awkward shuffling of Solby, he was able to quickly reverse his grip, get his feet under him, and haul himself back up to the flatter portion of his landing platform.
Without the imminent threat of a plummeting demise to distract him, Lex took a moment to assess his latest predicament. He was now on the top of what was almost certainly a vehicle. The springy surface that had saved his life was a red, very weathered cloth. It looked almost like canvas, except there was a very faint golden metallic sheen to it. The ropes were old-style hemp, coated in tar. The “vehicle” assessment was based on the cluster of brass turbines that were affixed to a wide metallic band at the center of what he supposed must have been the balloon of a blimp. They were high enough that nothing even resembling ground was visible. Above was cool blue sky, and below was an unbroken blanket of clouds.
The rushing wind and whirring blades, coupled with the complete lack of solid ground, seemed to have finally exceeded Solby’s comfort level. He snuggled close to Lex and trembled lightly with anxiety.
“You and me both, buddy,” Lex said, hooking his leg around a place where the anchor ropes of the blimp looped upward. “Don’t worry, though. The safety return doodad seems like it works. Or at least it seems like it does something. So I guess we just have to wait and it’ll eventually flick us from the frying pan into the fire a few more times before we get home. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope nothing ridiculous happens before the next flash.”
It took nearly forty seconds before those hopes were thoroughly dashed, as a scratching sound behind Lex drew his attention to a creature which, to his mild relief, seemed to at least have been based on something earthly. It might have been a lemur, though its flappy nose gave it a distinctly bat-like inflection, and the color seemed off.
The thing jumped back, looking almost reproachful, as though his appearance was a cruel and uncalled for prank. It drummed the surface of the blimp with one of its long, mildly grotesque fingers before scampering back down the side. Lex sighed as voices below became just barely audible.
“We’re probably about to have company, Solby. How much you want to be whoever it is will try to kill us?” Lex said.
The general vibration of the balloon was quickly joined by a rougher, rhythmic thump. A scruffy-looking young man with goggles and otherwise vaguely wild west inspired attire poked up into view. A rifle was strapped to his back.
“Told you,” Lex said, twisting to face the man.
“Well dang it, the little bugger was right,” the man called down to someone below. He peered up and around, then scratched his head. “Just where did you come from, fella?”
“Uh… based on the general level of technology, I’m guessing ‘the future’ is about as close as I can get to a useful answer.”
“The future? I reckon that’s not so much a where as a when, ‘less I miss your meaning.”
“Sometimes it’s both.”
Lex shrugged. “Science.”
“Oh. I don’t go in for that fancy book learning much,” he said, seemingly satisfied with the highly unsatisfactory answer. “You know it ain’t good manners to just drop down onto the envelope of a ship without asking the folks in charge.”
“Sorry about that. I won’t be here long,” Lex said.
“Coop, what did you find?” called a gruff voice from below.
“There’s a fella up here, Cap’n! Says he’s from the future,” Coop called down.
“That’s a when, not a where,” the captain replied.
“That’s what I said, but he said it was on account of science.”
“Is he on the ship?”
“More or less.”
“And did he get our permission?”
“Then what does that make him?”
“Then you know what to do.”
“Aye, Cap’n!” He climbed the rest of the way with remarkable ease, hooked his feet under two separate lines, and raised his rifle. “Sorry, fella. We ain’t got the coal or the grub to be hauling around extra passengers.”
“Whoa! Hey! You don’t have to shoot me.”
“No, I reckon I don’t. I do have to get you off this here envelope, and most folk won’t do it without a little coaxing. Long as you get off, it don’t make much difference to me if you do it with or without extra holes in you.”
“Then can we just wait here for like two minutes?”
“I can’t imagine that’d make much of a difference.”
“Trust me, I’ll be out of your hair in no time.”
Coop mulled it over, then flipped the rifle back onto his back. He spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone. “It’s this or scraping out the pots and pans, so I’d just as soon take it slow.”
Both men waited quietly for a moment.
“So… what’s that critter you got there,” Coop asked.
“It’s called a funk.”
“That anything like a skunk?”
“Yeah. A little different though. This one’s got some fox mixed in.”
“… That must have been a laugh, watching a skunk and a fox gettin’ together like that.”
“That’s not how we mixed the fox in.”
“Ah,” Coop said, nodding knowingly. “Useful stuff, that science…”
Lex’s device began to buzz.
“Ah. That’s about it for me. Thanks for being reasonable,” Lex said.
“It weren’t nothing. Good luck with the science.”
“That doesn’t seem very likely…”
The flash of light came and went, and suddenly Lex found himself… sitting on a reasonably well manicured lawn. There was no wind, the temperature was warm—even a little muggy—and there was a distinct lack of whirring brass turbines.
“Okay… So far so good,” Lex said, cautiously looking around.
Nothing overtly unusual presented itself. At least not immediately. There were a few cabin-style buildings. Off in the distance was some sort of obstacle course, and a short fence ringed the entire complex. It had the look of something between a summer camp and minimum security prison, which he supposed meant it probably landed in the military spectrum.
“Oh no way!” came a voice from behind him.
Lex spun around and immediately deflated a bit.
“Fantastic,” he muttered. “Didn’t dodge the weirdo bullet this time either.”
Running up to him was a short young Asian woman in a shiny, rubbery suit and red goggles. She was wearing a pair of boots that looked a few sizes too big, a pair of gloves that he would have associated with an MMA tournament, and had what he believed was a set of nunchaku hanging on her belt. Her face was plastered with a look of combined excitement and irritation as she stomped up to him.
“You got transportation powers? You are so frickin’ lucky!” said the woman.
A similarly enthusiastic fellow of some sort of Latin or Spanish extraction ran up and practically jumped up and down. He was wearing a green shirt with a white G on it. “You can transport! Do it again!”
“Uh. In a minute,” Lex said.
“That is a total class C power,” said the man. “You need a sidekick?”
“A sidekick?” Lex said.
“He’s obviously already got one,” the woman said, looking at Solby. “Though I don’t think the ‘wonder-pooch’ angle is going to fly these days. The animal cruelty people will be all over you. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Lex,” he said.
“Pfff. Lex. I don’t care about your phony made up secret identity name. What’s your codename?” she asked, crossing her arms squeakily.
“… T-Lex?” he offered.
“And I guess the T stands for transport? Good luck hiding from your arch nemesis with a codename that includes your real name.”
“Johnny on the Spot’s got his name in his name,” the man said.
“Yeah, and he’s an idiot. Plus with his luck, people will assume he made it up anyway,” she said, before turning to Lex again. “And what’s the pooch’s name?”
She nodded. “That’ll probably catch on. But you need something better than T-Lex. I mean, you’re dealing with Nonsensica—“
“And Gracias!” said the man.
“Yeah. You’ve got to step up your game if you want to do the hero gig at our level. Except you can’t. Because the recruitment round is over. So you may as well pop yourself out of here and come back next year.”
The buzzing returned. “Oh… well, it looks like I’m about to.”
“Oh, and work on the costume. Jumpsuits are totally passé. Unless you’re going for one of those zeerust pulpy retro-future deals.”
“Noted,” Lex said before muttering under his breath. “This was a strange one.”
The flash came and went. Replacing the military base was now a pine forest. He slowly spun around.
“Okay… Still not Big Sigma. But what don’t we have? No dragons, that’s good. I’m on solid ground twice in a row now. I’m liking the trend. No one in wacky costumes. Looks like this one might be…”
He stopped turning when he realized, a few steps behind where he’d originally appeared, there was a chubby little boy in a slightly askew baseball cap.
“Hiya!” said the boy with a cheerful wave. “My name’s Lewis! What’s your name?”
“You mean, like, my codename? Or my real name?” Lex asked.
The little boy’s eyes shot open with excitement. “You have a codename?! Neat! HEY RAY!”
“How many times do I have to tell you, my name is Raymond,” moaned an unseen voice.
A skinnier child of about the same age crunched out from behind some trees. Unlike the chubbier of the two, this one didn’t seem excited at all by Lex’s sudden and unexplained appearance. If anything he seemed annoyed.
Ray crossed his arms and looked Lex up and down critically. “So… what’s your deal?”
“He’s got a codename! And this weird puppy thing,” Lewis said.
Solby tried to wriggle free.
“Oh no. You’re not going anywhere, Solby,” Lex said. “I don’t want to end up leaving you behind.”
“What’s your codename?” Lewis asked, bouncing up and down.
“T-Lex,” he said.
Lewis made a bizarre squealing sound of utter excitement. “That’s the coolest name I ever heard.”
“See, Nonsensica didn’t like it,” Lex said.
The chubby boy’s mouth dropped open. “That’s even cooler.”
“Well, it’s not that cool…” Lex said.
“This is kind of a tame one, as these things go,” Ray said. “You’re basically just a person.”
“A person who just appeared out of nowhere!” Lex said. He was feeling oddly defensive about the strangeness of his current situation. It didn’t seem fair that these kids would be taking it in stride.
“They all just appear out of nowhere,” Ray said.
“What ‘all just appear out of nowhere’?” Lex asked.
“The Weird Nothing Things,” Lewis said.
Lex stared at him. “Was that supposed to be a sentence, or just a bunch of random words?”
“Ignore him,” Ray said. “All you need to know is that you popped up, and then in a minute you’ll probably pop away.”
“I know that. But how do you know that,” Lex said.
“It happens all the time with us. So what are you, anyway? And what’s the puppy? It looks like a Pokémon,” Lewis said.
“You look kind of like a janitor,” Ray said. “What’s with the fancy overalls?”
“It’s a flight suit. I’m a freelancer.”
“Freelance what?” Ray asked.
“So you’re a delivery boy?” Ray said.
“Yeah, but in space.”
Ray tipped his head back and forth. “That’s pretty cool, I guess.”
“Are you a spaceman?” Lewis asked.
“Lewis, he’s clearly from Earth,” Ray said.
“No, see, I’m not from Earth. I’m from Golana. My family is a few generations removed from Earth.”
“So you’re an alien?!” Lewis said. “I always thought those were fake!”
“No, I’m not an alien. I’m a human of extra-terrestrial origin.”
“… You’re not making sense anymore, T-Lex,” Lewis said.
Ray turned to Lewis. “It’s not that hard to understand. If your parents moved from Morningvale Hills to, I don’t know, France—“
“That would never happen, because Col. Grampa says people from France are all ‘ungrateful for us pulling their butts out of the snail-pot during the Big War.’ …”
As the boys continued to argue, the buzzing noise returned and shortly after brought with it the flash. When Lex opened his eyes this time he saw… nothing.
It wasn’t the blackness of night. And it wasn’t an endless deserted field. It was nothing. A white void in all directions. No ground, no sky. No sun, no moon. Nothing. He didn’t even feel like he was falling. He was just hanging there.
“Okay…” Lex said. “I’m not sure how to feel about this…”
For the moment, he was willing to accept that, at the very least, being surrounded by nothingness meant there also wasn’t anything bad, so he decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
About six hours later his opinion had changed markedly. It was only about six hours because the slidepad in his pocket, which would normally tell him the time, had entirely stopped working. And even if the time wasn’t exact it had certainly been more than a few minutes, and thus far longer than it had ever taken for his faithful wrist device to zap him to someplace new.
Solby, predictably, was entirely unconcerned by this turn of events, and had spent his time happily gnawing and nibbling at whatever bit of Lex’s body he’d not remembered to defend.
“I’m really thinking this might be it for us, Solby. And here I was thinking the weirdest way to go would have been that dragon. Wasting away in utter oblivion is one I never would have even though of,” he said, more than a little bit of stress weighing upon his words.
If he’d not been an avid space traveler, he probably would have lost his composure quite some time ago. As it was, the very real possibility of being left adrift in the void of deep space for days or even weeks at a time meant that anyone applying for a solo pilot’s license had to do a five session “sensory deprivation” class to test one’s mental fortitude for such things. He’d scored rather high.
Solby gave him a lick on the nose, then glanced over his shoulder and began to yip and yap.
“Is something coming!? Don’t screw with me on this one, Solby. I can’t turn around. I don’t think I could handle false hope at this point.”
The funk continued to bark, a decidedly happy and excited bark rather than the warning bark he gave from time to time, so Lex was at least confident that something was really on the way. Solby’s excitement at its approach didn’t do much to ease his mind that it wouldn’t be a threat, since the creature had been perfectly happy to cuddle with a werewolf and a dragon so far. But at this point anything would be an improvement to more nothing.
He reluctantly stood by that assessment even after the unseen savior finally circled into view. It was what could probably be called a sea serpent, though he would have imagined one to be green rather than the lavender color this one turned out to be. It also had three heads and three tails, but if he’d already accepted the concept of a purple sea serpent, he certainly wasn’t going to spit hairs on the topic of head count. He was more confused how it seemed to be swimming through the air as though it was water, but it wasn’t something he felt inclined to investigate at this point.
“More giant reptiles,” Lex said, sighing shakily. “This chaotic journey of madness is beginning to repeat itself.”
“Water dragon, actually,” said the center head.
“Or hydra,” the one on the right added.
“Goodie. You talk. That’s a new twist,” Lex said.
“Do we have to be nice to this one, too?” asked the head on the left, poutily.
“Well, he’s acting a lot like Philo,” said the center head.
“He’s dressed like Philo too. Is that a uniform for humans or something?” the left head asked.
“And he’s got the messenger with him,” the right head said.
“Oh, yes! What are you doing out here, Messenger?” the center head asked, addressing Solby.
The funk gave the center serpent a lick in reply.
“Come on then, let’s get you back home,” the center serpent said.
“Wait! Where’s ‘home’ exactly? This doesn’t involve feeding me to little baby snakes, does it?”
“No,” said the center head before snatching him up by the collar of his suit. Her tone suggested it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable question.
“Why do people always think we’re going to eat them?” the left head asked.
“Sometimes we do eat them,” the right head said.
“Only when they’re small and they can’t talk… or when they’re annoying and useless. Or when they…”
Lex tried as hard as he could to ignore the steadily expanding list of acceptable meals from his “rescuer.”
Sometime later—and Lex was slowly becoming accustomed to the concept that “some” was about as accurate as time was going to be for a while—they came to a place which should have been a mindboggling sight. It was a huge spike of stone, orbiting around a miniature planet far too small to have enough gravity to hold it in place at such a speed. When one’s mind has been getting progressively more boggled for the last few hours, however, something like this had little effect.
The serpent swept him toward the pointier tip of the orbiting black rock spike, where an assortment of disparate structures stood. There was also an assortment of additional bizarre creatures milling about, but Lex was trying to ignore them. All of this “trying to comprehend the impossible” was psychologically exhausting. Instead he focused on the one thing in view that was undeniably normal. It was a human man, about his age or maybe a few years older. He was dressed in a white and blue jumpsuit, and was staring up at the serpent, waving happily.
“Welcome back Rill!” he called.
“Look what we fetched!” the right head said. “Another science-type in a funny outfit!”
“Iv hih yrrr brvvvrrr?” slurred the center head, his collar still immobilizing her mouth.
“No, I don’t have a brother,” the man said as she thumped down beside him. He held out his hand. “How’s it going?”
“Been better,” Lex said wearily shaking hands.
“I can imagine. People don’t usually enter Between under the best circumstances.”
“You must be Philo,” Lex said. “The snake was talking about you. I guess she’s named Rill?”
“Yeah, that’s Rill. Normally I’d have been with her when she went to get you, but they told me to sit and wait for the Messenger. He didn’t… Oh, he’s right here.” Philo said, looking at Solby.
“Yeah,” said Rill’s right head. “And there’s one coming over there, too.”
All eyes turned to where that head was indicating.
“Oh, what the hell,” Lex groaned.
There comes a point, when someone has been relentlessly assaulted by the increasingly impossible, that the only thing that could possibly surprise someone is a familiar face. So naturally, that’s what he saw. Trotting happily toward him, excited and eager as always, was Solby. The fact that Solby was also tucked under his arm didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.
At the sight of himself, the other Solby—which Lex decided he may as well think of as “Messenger,” since that’s what everyone else called him—sprinted up and leaped up and down. Solby finally escaped Lex’s grip and dropped to the ground.
“Solby, what are you doing here?” Lex asked.
“Solby?” asked Philo and the Rills simultaneously.
“Solby!” said… the funks simultaneously, each in an identical raspy little voice, each seeming to be referring to the other.
Lex slapped his forehead. “And now they’re talking…”
“Well of course they talk,” the center Rill said. “How else would he be able to tell people who he was delivering messages to?”
“The real question here is why there are two of them now,” Philo said.
“Yeah… that’s the real question,” Lex said. “Not any of the rest of this crap. The thing that throws you off is the presence of a clone, which is the only part I actually understand!”
“I think you should probably start at the beginning,” Philo said.
“… and then this thing on my wrist decided it wasn’t going to bring me back. A couple hours later Rill picked me up, and that brings me to right now,” Lex finished.
“Yes, well, unfortunately technological means to return don’t work here. You don’t happen to know how that thing works, do you?”
“Science,” Lex said.
“No, that’s how it doesn’t work,” the Rill on the right corrected.
“Do you remember anything about what this Karter fellow said when he explained it?” Philo asked, twisting the gadget on Lex’s wrist side to side.
“It was Ma that explained it. She said… hang on… It was… quantum alignment… and then something to do with synch-“
“Synchronization pulses,” Philo said with a happy nod. “The Cwimbic that brought me here works on the same principles! This thing probably…”
As Philo excitedly explained his theory on the device’s functionality, it started to buzz again.
“Whoa! Hey! It’s working!” Lex said. “Solby, get over here!”
Not one but two balls of fluff burst up and tried to muscle their way onto his shoulders. Lex pulled the messenger down. “No, no. I’m leaving with the one I came in with.”
“Bye Solby!” said Solby.
“Bye Solby!” said the Messenger.
Again the flash came, and when it subsided, Lex found himself standing in the center of a rebar sphere, listening to Karter rant.
“-cking told Solby a thousand times, don’t jump around when I’m working on the… Oh, he’s back,” Karter said.
“Lex,” said Ma’s voice. “It is a profound relief to find that you’ve returned safely. We were under the mistaken belief that Solby had learned to stop jumping into the device while it was in operation.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, we’re all so happy he’s back,” Karter said, walking up to Lex to take Solby from him.
He handed a clipboard and a pen to Lex. On the clipboard was an old fashioned paper questionnaire.
“I want you to write down everything you experienced before returning to this laboratory,” Karter said.
Lex glanced up at Karter, then down to the page, and finally to the pen, which was stuck to his hand by a lingering layer of tar. “… I think I’m going to need a few extra pages.”
Thanks for reading.