Thank you for all the doubts, and for all the questioning, For all the loneliness, and for all the suffering. For all the emptiness, and the scars it left inside. It inspired in me, an impetus to fight. For all who stood with me, when we stood as one, Thank you for guiding me, for bringing me home. And if it seems that I'm obliged to say these words, I write this in gratitude, the least that you deserve. -VNV Nation, "Gratitude"
Many changes happened.
Aided by the Vermillion, the stories spread faster than Scaphis. The Bargeld were eager to trumpet their victory. Tales of, 'I was there!' and 'I fought alongside Suchandsuch!' abounded. The influx of eager Phobiopolans, wanting to come view the scarred countryside and battered city walls, might've replenished Rhinolith's imaginite all by itself. Still, Aldridge had promised Toby. He flew to the city holding a mountainous sphere of the precious iridescent mineral, and a flick of his will exploded it into rain. The Bargeld danced in the streets. (There was not much lingering ill will towards Toby. When the citizens learned that their wealth had been burgled to create the most gargantuan explosion in the history of the world, most of them had to admit, that was pretty fucking metal.)
Aldridge could have also flown the five travelers all the way to Phlogiston. But Toby had a better idea. He thought they deserved a rest first, and he knew the best place in the world for one.
Zinc opted not to overhaul the Fearsleigher. Aside from a new driver's side door, he said she'd earned her scars. When kids on the cliff shouted down that a strange nightmare-driven vehicle was approaching, Scarlatina quickly cobbled together a defense force. Men with bone spears stood at the city limits in apprehension. Then a familiar white mouse emerged from the backseat, still wearing his yellow ribbon. A certain furless kitten burst through the front line, hollering in joy, and leapt to hug his brother with tears in his eyes.
They spent the following week in paradise. Toby was overjoyed to introduce his friends to his family. Kat and Tak's cave was a bit small for everyone to squeeze into, so Toby stayed with Skeeto while the others took beds at the city's lone hotel. The five friends had not shared a more relaxing time since their long-ago afternoon in Coryza. The days were full of boating, swiff games, souvenir shopping, and hang-gliding (Zinc learned the hard way that pride should not keep one from swapping out metal arms with lighter ones). The nights were full of beach parties, dancing, local cuisine, and stargazing. No more thoughts of Scaphis, except for retelling their story to Coral's enthralled classmates. George was asked relentlessly for rides. After a few days, Junella told Toby that chilling out was never really something she was good at. She kept fidgeting, needing something to do. Toby introduced her to the Summer Vacation. Body-looting turned out to be something she had a great knack for, after Skeeto showed her the ropes. The skunk was glad Piffle had trained her to be patient with overly-cheerful chatterboxes. And needless to say, the hamsterfly and furless kitten had lots to gab about together.
Toby also got his hand back to normal. After being told by George about the first experiment, Zinc pitched a rum bottle at his head. Voila.
During the vacation, Toby shared correspondence with both Aldridge and Luxy. The mayor-king wanted to hear every detail about the mouse's journey, to make sure they'd be recorded properly for historical preservation. Toby at first declined, saying he was fine with everyone else taking credit. Luxy wouldn't have it. "Facts demand to be known, Squeak. Kiss your humbleness goodbye and welcome to celebrity. It's the best catastrophe you'll ever enjoy." Toby winced, but figured it couldn't be any worse than fighting a tyrant queen. He and the others all provided their memories. George proved invaluable for this, staying up all night while the others slept, relating endless accurate details to equally-tireless Vermillion. Concurrently, Aldridge let Toby know that his hermit act was over. The wizard-angel could no longer deny that his capacity to do good demanded he make use of it. Based on a suggestion from Zinc, his first mission was the painstaking rescue of the victims of Dysphoria, via wings and harpoon. Rebecca set up a hospital on the underside of the mountain and became a full-time nurse. Some of her patients even woke up. One debatably-lucky fellow did so instantly once he was in Aldridge's arms, having somehow survived for years burning all his memory to fuel sheer denial.
When it was time for the travelers to move on, all of Scarlatina came out to wish them well. There was cheering and singing. A multitude of hugs. George was buried alive in flower garlands. It was much easier for Tak, Kat and Skeeto to say goodbye to Toby this time. For one, he wasn't leaving under the dark cloud of a suicidal quest. And they knew he'd always have a home waiting for him here. As Coral hugged them close, he told them he thought it was inevitable he'd come back someday permanently. But for now, Toby still had things to do.
His friends were surprised when he asked that their long drive home start with Dysania. "I thought you never wanted to smell that place again," Piffle said. But Toby had a hunch. They also had a bulging trunkful of imaginite, so a new air conditioning system kept the soap stench out. And before the first day in the desert was through, George spotted a speck on the horizon. With a cart.
They met one another in silence. An apology was made. Actually, L'roon fell to his many knees and outright groveled. The merchant babbled out reasons and regrets to a mouse who remained completely silent. When L'roon dared look up, he saw it was because Toby was stifling giggles. "'I'm sorry' was plenty," Toby said. The merchant stood up straight, brushed the powder from his shirt, and pretended to be outraged at having wasted so much breath. Bygones were made bygones. Knickknacks were purchased.
They continued on to Lalochezia. The first change Toby noticed was the complete absence of refugees. With Papilloma freed, they all had homes to return to. Secondly, the market town was recovering splendidly. There were twice the customers of Toby's first visit. And a hell of a lot of them wanted autographs. The quintet spent the whole day browsing, people-watching, and being watched by people. Junella bought a new welding backpack. Piffle had her caricature drawn. Zinc walked around carrying a fried biteranodon drumstick as big as a stop sign. Toby had planned to introduce his friends to Poubelle & After's diner, but that was not to be. Instead he found an empty lot and a large placard with a RB&WB logo: Come Visit Our New Location In Ectopia Cordis! Mention This Sign For A Free Slice Of Pie! Toby was more than okay with having to wait a while longer to see them again. He was also happy to re-encounter Chorizo. The young 'roo guided them around, showing off his favorite vendors and hangouts, plus introducing his whole gang (As it turned out, they were all named after Mexican foodstuffs). Madame Tif Tif had moved back to her previous location, and had been making a killing selling mementos of the famous Tent Town Bonecuddy Battle. Photographs, weaponry, clay impressions of hoofprints, and actual shards of burnt bone. She made George pose for photos for two solid hours.
After a mediocre night's sleep in a crowded hostel, the quintet headed for the tub stations. There followed an enjoyable romp through Marasmus, killing the living daylights out of constructs. The travelers had planned to spend another sleepover with Gilla-Gilla, but upon arrival, his house was empty again. But the traps were definitely active this time, as a luckless test hot dog's hair-trigger carbonizing attested to. There was a note on the screen door in his typical terse style: "Luxy's hired me for a project. Serious bank. Leave the stuff on the table. We'll catch up sometime, fam. GG."
"Then let's head to EC," Toby said (after leaving the stuff on the table).
The rest of the drive was a blast. They'd all survived the worst the world had to offer, so Phobiopolis' mundane horrors were now a breeze to deal with. The travelers took turns pedaling the gatling gun, lobbing grenades, pumping shotguns, and hammering skulls, laughing all the way. They took their sweet time, detouring often to get out and have fun. They went ice skating and dodged frozen piranhas. They roasted meat and marshmallows over starlit campfires. They marveled at the sheer amount of things Piffle got herself killed and transformed by. They applauded Junella when she managed to perfectly bisect a pouncing cattacuda, nose to tail. They shaved the Cold Coven for snowcones. They enlarged themselves en masses to climb the columns in Lumbago and terrorize the local pigeons. They cheered on George as he crossed the freeway at mach speed, simply outrunning its various beasties. They grew to love one another as a genuine family, and an unstoppable team.
Ectopia Cordis was a whirlwind. Not only was the clash at Rhinolith the talk of the town, but Aldridge had passed on Toby's theories about the nature of the world and its constructs, which set the scientific community ablaze. While scholars debated, entrepreneurs pounced. A thriving industry sprang up overnight: tamed-to-order personal parasomnic pets. Bounty hunters were dispatched to all corners of Phobiopolis, capturing constructs and bringing them to EC for rehabilitation by burial. The demand was high, with everyone wanting one before their neighbors. Researchers were scrambling to discover faster methods of conferring sentience. Luxy himself spearheaded the effort, commissioning Gilla-Gilla for a bonded pair of convorines. "I want them to still be a bit vicious, for a challenge," he said in an interview. "I want to stand astride both of them, reins in hand, galloping across the plains. And teach them to call me Daddy."
Toby and his friends were themselves interviewed quite frequently (Jamais had much nicer things to say about him this time.) When they weren't being hounded for photos or duels, they explored as much of the cylindrical city as it had to offer. Food, drinks, violence, nightlife, dancing, and danger. Junella and Zinc stopped by the former home of Julius Ounce to inform his family that, better late than never, he had been recovered from Dysphoria. They handed over photos Rebecca had taken of him sleeping. There were many happy tears. All rewards were refused.
On their second day, the five were summoned to Bigwheel Forty-Eight where Rippingbean & Woofingbutter welcomed them warmly. They begged the travelers for an endorsement contract. The group all agreed they couldn't stay in town indefinitely, but a days' photoshoot was fine. Kay and Kaye had them modeling all sorts of outfits and gear, and told Toby they'd been selling oodles of blue vests lately. Plus white scarves, sleeveless jackets, and pink safari outfits.
In payment for the promotional materials, Junella and Zinc asked for three days' unlimited use of the downstairs garage. RB&WB agreed immediately, only requesting that, whatever they worked on, could tickets be sold for customers to watch? "Sure, we'll give 'em a show," Junella promised. After an absolutely lovely breakfast (and free pie) at the new nearby diner, the skunk, the mutt, and the stallion got to work on a new vehicle. Luxy had commissioned another project, you see. Arrangements had been made en route. The raccoon had been inspired by something he'd seen at Aldridge's house, and wondered if Toby & Pals would help him forge it into reality. All expenses paid, of course.
After a tearful goodbye, the Fearsleigher was given a permanent home at Ectopia Cordis' foremost historical museum, The Agglomeration. Hundreds of kids and visitors would get to gawk at her battle scars, read her story, and sit in her seats. Toy models (with pop-out George) were already the hottest selling item in the gift shop. Toby didn't know how to feel about seeing himself as an action figure.
Junella, Zinc, and George spent most of the following days bending metal and imaginite to their will. They collaborated with Andy on design, abused the limits of the garage's inventory, and tossed grins to fellow gearheads in the roped-off audience. With those three fully occupied, this left Toby and Piffle free to go full-on tourist and geek out at all the typical out-of-towner attractions. They finally got to spend a day at Luxyland ("Where All Our Rides Have A 20% Chance Of Death!").
By now, Toby had noticed a shift in the zeitgeist. It was present in Lalochezia, but it wasn't until now that he was able to put words to it. The stories spread by Luxy and the Bargeld had been having an effect. They were stunned to hear of accomplishments that had been previously thought impossible. People wanted to see these places where a ragtag army had pushed back against the terror of the Plastic Storm. And though it was nothing concrete Toby could point to, he felt like, in a way, Phobiopolans were experiencing something similar to the epiphany he'd had in Poubelle & After's. A shift in how they viewed the familiar. A thought that, maybe their world had been grinding through a century-long stagnation, and now it had been jump-started again. The old wars had been terrible, but they had also been a time of exploration and discovery. Ever since, Phobiopolis had become a place to run to shelter and lock the doors; to huddle close and hope to survive the night. But maybe it didn't have to be. Maybe there were sights and places and people out there worth the risk of stepping out the door. Maybe the wilderness was conquerable. Maybe life was more than a misery to be endured. Toby acknowledged that he might have just been seeing what he hoped was true. He was still too modest to believe he could be such an inspiration to an entire world. But one time, he'd passed a neighborhood where little kids were play-fighting a friend in a Scaphis mask, wielding toy hammers and swords.
Junella, Zinc, and George didn't even need three days to finish their work. With much fanfare, they rolled out a truly intimidating beast of a drill tank. Trapezoidal treads as tall as monster truck tires. A bit that looked like Hell's largest pinecone. NASA booster rockets on the back. And a new home up top for the brass gatling gun (the museum used a mockup for the Fearsleigher). Another Cyrus Tear powered the drill, but George was the main power plant. He wouldn't have had it any other way. Toby christened it the Groundgouger. Screaming fans pushed each other out of the way for the bragging rights of being the first to get run over by it.
They left EC with a heroes' fanfare, lighter in imaginite but laden with souvenirs and road food. Their new transportation was a much smoother ride: the interior as cushy and spacious as an RV, the exterior armored like a mobile fortress. Ordinary constructs were no longer a problem. Though it was still fun to pew-pew at them from the gatling turret, and George enjoyed setting the treads on fire for extra lethality. When they encountered the Hell's Bozos again, the air was pierced by a terrified honking and the crush of motorcycles. Junella even took the time to revisit an old "friend".
Coryza thought at first a siege was underway when the Groundgouger approached. Zinc sent a message: cut out the cannonballs before they fucked up the paintjob. Thus began yet another vacation on top of all their others, revisiting old locations and discovering new ones. Their stay at the Tatterdemalion was free of charge, with both Xenoikos rushing out to enfold the travelers in happy hugs (though the parking lot otter had a devil of a time squeezing in the tank). They all sat together in a booth at the bar till midnight, getting sloshed, telling stories, and having their hearts eaten. Toby tried his first alcoholic beverage and was promptly unconscious. Piffle surprised everyone by drinking Junella under the table.
After a lengthy sleep, they went to visit Dorster and Alfonzo. The two avians were just as glad to see them too, saying that, thanks to word of mouth about the travelers' exploits, they literally could not make sheath pills fast enough. "One guy came in and bought about twenty. Turned himself into a walking armory-slash-swiss-cheese-impersonator," the blacksmith said with a rumbling laugh. Toby ended up with a sore hand from autographing them. He and Piffle told tales of hammer and fork while Alfonzo furiously scribbled notes, occasionally muttering, "I never thought they could do THAT..." Meanwhile, Zinc took Dorster to the back junkyard and showed off the doorknockers' new tricks. There was much manly roaring, spilling of beer, and highing of fives.
More sightseeing, more enjoyment, till finally they were on their way to Phlogiston. Junella and Zinc both shed happy tears as the prow of their sweet Jennie-Mae came into view, still untorched by Tinder Fingers under its eternal raincloud. One snort from George was all it took for the combustible construct to run and hide while the others unloaded the Groundgouger. Junella hugged the hull and rubbed her cheek on it, singing a lover's ode to her cherished boat. Zinc plopped down on the old battered couch and sighed blissfully. "Yep. Place's got the same old stink." Toby thought it was going to be a bit of an adjustment living in a place this cluttered and dusty. 'Though maybe that'll be good for me. Like, for balance.' Piffle decided to make a treehouse room for herself out of the crow's nest. George said he'd be more than happy to use the attached parts yard in Scrofula for his residence (after being assured that it only drove mortal souls into homicidal psychosis; nightmares no more so than normal.)
There followed several satisfying days of kicking up their feet and doing a lot of pleasant puttering about. Piffle flitted to and fro in Jennie's labyrinth of shelves, finding all sorts of trinkets to tinker with. Junella was initially fidgety to watch someone else messing around with her stuff, but the hamsterfly's nimble skill was undeniable. Soon they were spending whole afternoons shoulder to shoulder, with Piffle wrist-deep in clockwork, Junella grandly spinning the stories behind her treasures. Toby rearranged one of the larger closets into a cozy bedroom. Just enough space for a hammock and some books. George developed a taste for soulsucking serpent-ghosts. Zinc found a map in their mailbox with the location of Aldridge's promised imaginite horde. He rode a chopper out one afternoon to confirm its richness, then began doodling up blueprints. He babbled endlessly to the others about his ideas. A hot pink vampire with six Bobcat wheels. A grille full of syringes. A bloodpowered engine. It'd run by running over nightmares, drinking them to death. He was thinking of calling her Yvonne.
Soon they would begin on Luxy's grand experiment. And afterwards, maybe a return to guide work and bounty hunting. Toby was thinking of calling their group the Sur5ivors, but wasn't sure. First though, there were a couple more local matters to take care of.
While J, Z, & G remained behind to get the ship shipshape, Toby and Piffle took the tank to Stoma. She had been sending postcards to Billawhi all throughout their journey. When they arrived, the hamsterfly barely recognized her foster mom. Most of her fungal infection was gone, and she was holding hands with an equally old-and-cranky-looking gentleman. After a long reunion luncheon where they revealed themselves with much greater honesty than ever before, Billawhi explained to Piffle that her new friend was Stoma's doctor. In between her treatments, they had discovered a mutual love of complaining. "Plus, his favorite side dish is deep-fried mushrooms," she said with a wink. While those two reminisced, Toby excused himself to visit the local diner.
Porthole windows and red tailfins, waiting like a pitcher plant. Toby stepped inside and offered no resistance as the waiterthing led him to his fine dining fate. When Toby arrived again in the underground realm of grinding machinery and weeping slaves, he slid his hammer into his hand. After destroying a quarter of everything, he cornered Dacryphilia in his office. "Look," Toby said in a calm, reasonable voice to the legless, cowering, splintered construct, "you can keep your operation. Piffle said you're actually onto something here. But from now on, if someone tries to escape, you let them. You will have a waiterthing show them the exit and wave them goodbye. Because if I come back again and that's not the case, I'm leaving nothing standing." The Doctor said that sounded like a jolly fine idea and he'd get on it right away, oh yes-siree.
Toby and Piffle's final stop before heading back to Phlogiston was the unkempt woodlands of the Blackdamp. Toby stepped out onto the grass and felt an overwhelming rush of emotion. It had been less than three months since he'd first arrived here, running from a rustbeast. It felt like a lifetime. It felt like only a day. This place seemed almost harmless now.
Toby walked towards a cluster of trees and another mouse stepped out. He was startled, until he remembered that this was the literal beginning of the world. It made sense that the same doubling effect from Aldridge's lawn would be present here too. Toby regarded his reflection. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but during his return he'd regained a healthy weight. Sure, his torso was still considerably concave, and just as bruise-purple as ever. But the rest of him was back to being wiry and athletic, not emaciated. His face wasn't a skull anymore. He looked pretty much allright. Maybe Tía Lopez' magic bean deserved the credit, or maybe it was just that he didn't have worry gnawing at his bones anymore. He'd been setting aside a little time each day to practice with his calming gem. Sometimes Junella joined him.
Piffle flounced over and noticed the mouse was in one of his introspective moments. She said hi to her duplicate, kissed her to merge, then gave Toby's shoulder a tap to let him know they weren't just here to sightsee.
The mouse and hamsterfly unloaded wide boards they'd brought all the way from Anasarca. Aldridge had long since considered the idea of signs to help new souls understand where they were and what the rules were. But with Phobiopolis' instant-onset dyslexia, he'd never been able to establish a universally-understood message. He put the idea to Toby. Having knowledge of the age of emojis, the mouse thought he could probably hammer something out.
And so, with Piffle scouting locations and Toby pounding signposts, they did what they could to hopefully make future souls' emergence a little less nightmarish. Their signs looked like this:
They hung around awhile, wondering if maybe they'd get to welcome someone new. But it was a slow day. Toby mused that maybe Phobiopolis might start sucking up cryogenic patients eventually. Piffle asked what that word meant. He told her all about it on the drive back to their friends.
The weight of the Groundgouger made the parking lot sag. Green chemical slime came bubbling up the edges from Dengue's repulsive surrounding quagmire. Junella popped open the driver's side door and slid down her new cobalt goggles against the sun's glare. "Allright! Let's be quick about this. If we sink the joint, Sander's gonna be pissed at us."
"Aye-aye, cap'n!" Piffle sang with a salute. She buzzed out into the deodorized air, glad to spread her wings. She circled the tank a few times, then alighted on the left tread. "Where ya wanna put the hole?" she asked Zinc.
The canine cricked his back. "Anywhere oughtta be good, really. Throw a dart. Maybe we'll get lucky and the whole friggin' swamp'll ooze out like pullin' a bathtub plug." He poked his head back inside. "Yo, George! Where's our next stop after this? I gotta know how much junk food to buy!"
The stallion was busy disentangling himself from the treadmill-floored cradle of plugs and sockets that connected him to their vehicle's driveshaft. "Unless Madam Brox has changed her mind, it was decided we would attempt Teratoma."
Zinc winced. "That'll be fun," he deadpanned. 'Toma easily put Marasmus in second place for density of constructs. Luxy had suggested the spots, so the canine's best guess was that this was related to the new nightmare rehabilitation initiative. He hopped down to the concrete and heard a whistle. He managed not to fumble the softball-sized rock of imaginite Junella tossed to him.
"Get me some booze, hound. Top shelf only. I feel like bein' fancy."
He nodded back. "Aye-aye."
Trachea's Trading Post looked a little slow today, Toby observed. He descended the ladder rungs on the right tread and hoped this would be an easy site to drill. At least the most numerous constructs here were the trashbag bats, and the rockets' exhaust would take care of them. Plus, he'd get to see Sander again. 'And not embarrass myself in front of him this time.' He crossed the parking lot and the front doors opened automatically with a pleasant chime. Toby followed Zinc to the snack food aisle.
Their project was simple in execution, but mind-boggling in theory. The kind of idea only a lunatic would propose. Or a Luxy. He'd known about the mirrored shape of the world before, but always considered it a quirky bit of useless trivia. It wasn't until he finally had a chance to shoot the shit with Aldridge again that the possibilities became clear to him. Traveling across Phobiopolis was a pain in the ass. This was understood by everyone. But what if it could be skipped entirely? What if getting from place to place could be as simple as riding the subway?
He'd had a similar idea long ago: packing people into giant bullets and firing them from a cannon on top of Fifty-Two. No one survived the impact, though that wasn't a problem. However, all their luggage getting smashed in the process was. Plus the fact that Phobiopolis' chaotic air currents sent anything airborne off-course. PLUS the fact that the cannon also had limited range. Getting halfway to Coryza, then ending up on foot in Bozo territory, was no one's idea of practical.
But what if the idea could be modified? Keep the cannon. Keep the bullets. But don't aim them across, aim down. After all, if Toby could do it with Dysphoria...
The underside of the world had long since been explored, then written off as uninteresting. They hadn't even bothered to name it. It was just "the underside". (Toby's suggestion of Avulsion was officially adopted without much controversy.) No nightmare constructs were to be found there, but neither was anything else. The first expedition observed a barren moonscape of useless silt, deafening silence, and an admittedly-lovely view of the galaxy. The second tried to set up a base, and came to the unpleasant discovery that it was like building on water. They nearly ended up floating forever when their base worked loose and they had to leap to safety.
But Avulsion didn't have any problems with unstable air currents. And for as weak as the turf was, it retained consistency of perspective. Meaning that the second team down didn't find a wholly different landscape than the first, as was common topside.
If each half of Phobiopolis was a perfect mirror image of the other, down to the most microscopic detail, then why not just dig some holes in the ground, aim at the opposite side, and zoom to your destination across the middle? Kapow. Simple.
Lots of naysayers tried to talk Luxy out of the idea. Toby wasn't one of them. When they discussed it in one of their letter exchanges, he understood the principle immediately. And he knew it would work. He couldn't think of a single reason why it wouldn't, except for people being squeamish about trading places with their doppelganger. Luxy admitted that was a likely concern. "But they'll get over it. Convenience has a way of winning people over. And if it gives you the wibblies too much, there's still driving the long way."
EC and Coryza were the obvious choices for the first test locations. The two largest populations in Phobiopolis, and with enough math-lovers in both cities to coordinate the trajectories. The Groundgouger was given coordinates. All they had to do was drive there and drill.
Its core was actually a detachable shuttle. When the 'Gouger reached the right spot, powerful hydraulics would angle the center section horizontally. The bit would spin, the core would separate, and the treads would await their return. Digging through to the other side didn't take very long. Phobiopolis was little more than two giant identical pizza crusts. When the shuttle popped through into zero gravity, they used the rockets to turn around and shoot back home. Then the treads would automatically reposition to accept the incoming core.
For the first test, hundreds gathered just outside the twin cities. Even Luxy felt unnerved to stand at the edge of a giant hole and see the dark of the cosmos at the bottom. He clicked on his walkie-talkie, held up a heavy duty flashlight, and told Red Velvet he was ready. A city away, the gunsmith steadied his hand and aimed for the one visible star that was waving back and forth. He fired.
Twenty minutes later, the top of Luxy Bleeder's skull blew off.
Ectopia cheered as one. The raccoon resurrected and laughed in triumph so hard he choked and died again.
An hour later, the first passenger bullets were ready in both versions of Coryza. The trajectories were gauged. The cannons were loaded. Two bullets emerged, traveling in a giant simultaneous X. The team of astronauts later reported seeing themselves flying directly at themselves, merging for a tingling instant, then continuing on course. This had been the biggest worry: that the capsules would become singular, stop, and be stranded. Thankfully, their momentum propelled them easily past the joining point. Each capsule emerged in the opposite reality's Ectopia Cordis. This time everyone in both halves of the world joined in the joyous screaming. Champagne was sprayed freakin' everywhere.
The Groundgouger had since made a web of paths between EC, Coryza, Lalochezia, and Rhinolith. Dengue was today's target. Cachexy, Papilloma, Marasmus, Borborygmus, Quinsy, Hypoxia, Chordoma, Crepitus, Phlogiston, and Stoma were also on the list. Eventually, when all the holes were finished, Toby had been assigned a diplomatic mission to Scarlatina to see if they wanted in too, or if they preferred for their community to remain largely unknown and unspoiled. Toby had no idea how they'd vote, and no idea which outcome he hoped for.
As expected, it took a while for most people to get over the 'existential creepiness' factor. Sideswapping was something the public applauded, but would rather someone else try first. Though all the early adopters reported that the two halves of the world really were identical. No backwards-writing on the signs. No evil twins with beards. In fact, a shift in perspective came from an interview with one of these travelers. "People think it's like you've got a clone of yourself running around. Nah, nah. It's just like broadcasting yourself on TV. An image, yeah? That ain't scary." That was a lot more palatable to many. And whether the project overall caught on or fizzled, Toby was just happy to be a part of it.
At the moment, he was also happy that he could read the candy labels without difficulty. Luxy had paid them more money than they knew what to do with, so he splurged and got five Uncanny! bars. Key lime cheesecake flavor sounded good.
Then, up near the register, someone fired a painlauncher into the ceiling.
Obviously, it did not hurt the ceiling. But it did startle everyone.
Toby and Zinc were among the few who did not duck behind shelves or run away shrieking. Past the aisles, the mouse could see a rather jittery warthog aiming his weapon at the stoic bear who ran the shop.
The robber's voice was nails on a chalkboard. "I want it all, pops!! The cash register! The junk on the wall! You got a safe? Empty it! You got fillings in your teeth? Pry 'em out!!"
Sander Trachea, still looking like an imposing, haunted taxidermy, did not blink. "YOU ARE MAKING A BAD DECISION TODAY."
The robber waved the painlauncher in crazy arcs. Its red tip left trails like a sparkler. "Oh yeah!? Oh YEAH!? Well you'll make a worse one if you don't do what I'm sayin', ya old fart! Start grabbin' handfuls or I'll see how far I can stick this mother up your poop chute!!"
Down in the candy aisle, Zinc clanked his wrenches together. "Looks like overtime."
Toby tapped his shoulder. "Keep on shopping, I think I can handle this myself."
The canine raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"
Toby nodded, mostly confident. "You can circle around and be my backup if you want. But, yeah. I got this." He tugged on his vest like in a cop film.
Zinc grinned. "Sic 'im, kemosabe!"
Sander had now opened the register and was removing nuggets of imaginite one by one.
The robber tugged at his hair. "Ggggnaggghh!! Hurry it up!! Quit movin' so slow, old man! My trigger finger's got a hardon!"
Sander's glassy, pupilless eyes fixed on the robber. "I CANNOT HELP THAT I AM SLOW. YOUR WEAPON WILL NOT CHANGE THAT."
The painlauncher quivered an inch from the shopkeep's skinless muzzle. "It'll change your day from happy to sad if you don't put your foot on the gas!"
The warthog whirled around, frothing at the tusks. The many colorful pins on his leather pants jangled. He pointed the painlauncher directly in the skinny mouse's face. "This ain't the time to ask for the restroom key, kiddo! Beat it!!"
Toby held his hands up. "Hey, listen, Sander's a friend of mine. Sort of. I was only in here once before. But still, I'd appreciate it if you'd turn that thing off and walk away."
The warthog blinked. "OooooooOOOOHHH!! So polite!" He guffawed, then blared, "HOW ABOUT NO!?!"
Toby's expression subtly shifted. "It'd be smarter to walk away. Trust me."
"I could say the same to you, pal!" He jammed the painlauncher's tip right up in the mouse's abdominal gape. "You got about three seconds to back the fuck up and let me rob this place in peace, okay!? One..."
Toby stood statue-still and simply looked at the brute. No fear in his eyes. Just a sincere request that things not go this way.
"Two..." The robber's arm twitched like a seismograph needle. The little rodent's Buddha act was bugging him out.
Toby held his hands open: 'I'm waiting...'
The warthog hesitated, not really wanting to do this, but there was no way Trachea would cough up the rocks if he didn't follow through on his threat. "THREE! FRY, FARTFACE!!" He pulled the trigger.
Barely a muscle twitched as Toby's entire torso lit up scarlet from the bolts of agonizing energy surging through it.
The robber's eyes popped.
Toby shrugged and gave him the sweetest, most peaceful smile. "It's only pain," he said.
Shaking, the robber backed up a step. "Jesus, kid!! You got cement in your veins or what!?"
The warthog had declined the chance to leave peacefully and had demonstrated a willingness to use violence upon an innocent furson. Toby didn't feel at all bad about what he did next.
He dropped his arm, then sliced it back upwards in a lightning-quick arc. A silver flash appeared in his palm, vanishing again just as quickly. It encountered as much resistance as cutting through air.
The robber dropped his gun.
The pain had not reached his addled brain yet. He stood trembling with fragments of himself trickling onto the trading post floor. He was cleaved from crotch to sternum. A blood-red furrow of flesh had turned to crystal, like a living geode. With every twitch, more cubes plinked out.
Toby lowered his arm. "You can leave now," he said, like a doctor dismissing a patient.
The robber tried to make words exit his mouth. They would not. He managed a few small noises like a gagging chicken as he walked off, stiff-legged, straight to the nearest door.
Sander nodded and began putting nuggets back in his cash register.
Toby walked over and leaned against the counter. "Phew. That went allright."
He felt the bear's bass voice reverberate through the wood. "THANK YOU."
Behind them the remaining customers sensed 'all clear' and began to peek their heads out. Zinc threw Toby a double thumbs-up.
"ARE YOU STILL GOING TO DRILL THE BIG HOLE?" Sander asked.
"Sure. Can't see why we wouldn't. We're gonna get some supplies first though. Zinc'll be up with a bunch of stuff pretty soon. Do you need any breath while we're waiting?"
Business was concluded amiably. Zinc's basket was indeed overflowing with food, drink, and specialty ammo, plus a pair of forearm blades he thought Junebug might like. Piffle bought a crossword book. Toby hung around a while to shoot the breeze with Sander. Having his air eaten wasn't all that bad. Strange, but not painful.
Toby waved as he left the shop. The big bear waved back, almost as slowly as Red. Toby smiled as he crossed the parking lot towards his friends. And then his chest exploded with so much pain it made the robber's weapon feel like a joy buzzer.
"I didn't want to call the police on her. She's a good neighbor. Always quiet. But that smell! It started a week ago and I can't stand it anymore! Something is very, very wrong in that house!"
Detective Sable thanked her for her cooperation and assured her that making the call was the right thing to do. The officers hadn't taken one step inside before they knew this was one for the hazmat team. The cloud of cleaning chemicals inside 1225 Lindsay was like being punched in the throat. Stevens and Miccelli had lurched away, gagging. Rickard, thinking it couldn't possibly be that bad, called the others wimps and strode through the front door with confidence. A moment later he was puking on the sidewalk.
1225 was in the database. There were other calls years ago about a fight overheard by someone walking their dog, and suspicions from a teacher that a child inside might be suffering maltreatment. Nothing came of either report though. Now this. Every cop knew that gut-clenching moment of realization: because a minor call had not been followed up on, it had metastasized into a major fucking call. Once the pine-scented miasma had aired out a bit, anyone who wasn't breathing through their sleeve had that same sinking feeling. You can put a lot of stuff on top of it, but there's not much that can hide the stench of death.
Toby dropped to the ground. He clutched at his chest before remembering he didn't really have one. His breathing was rapid. The pain was like a balloon on the razor edge of bursting. His veins filled with fire all the way down his arm.
The mouse was a walking first aid manual. Of course he knew the signs of a heart attack.
"You are NOT gonna believe what's upstairs!!"
The guys in the pachyderm suits had shown up and went tromping inside like a squad of exterminators. They drew back the curtains so the others could see in. The ground floor was a shambles. Wallpaper scrubbed to shreds. Furniture smashed. TV dinner trays piled halfway to the ceiling in the kitchen. Uncountable empty cardboard boxes, spray bottles, aerosol cans, used wipes, and rubber gloves. Early speculation had it that this was one of those hoarder houses, and they'd be carrying out trash bags of dead nonevs by the end of the day. But there was only one body. They found her at the foot of the stairs. Broken neck; apparently an accident. She was withered like rotten fruit. Her age made her seem like a mummy, but the corpse hadn't been there for more than ten days, tops. Hard to tell at first though. The sheer amount of antibacterial products in the house had kept the usual decomposition bugs at bay.
And now here came Pete from the hazmat crew, bringing the stink downstairs with him, telling Sable about the upstairs bedroom. A little kid's room. Plastic everything. A galaxy of empty pill bottles beside the bed. And in it... Well, it definitely wasn't a kid. "I've never seen malnutrition like this. I don't know how he's still alive, honestly. The only way we could even tell is he's hooked up to a heart monitor. Fed by an IV drip. He could be anywhere from his mid-thirties to late forties. Guy's a skeleton."
Toby's shaking hand fumbled in his pocket for the calming gem. His fingertips were going numb. He got the little jewel out, but it went skidding across the parking lot. Inside his ribcage, a coked-up drummer was beating an arrhythmic solo on his heart. Which he didn't have. But apparently he was going into cardiac arrest anyway. Funny. Ha ha.
He saw feet. His vision was being slowly invaded by black spots and sparkles, but he could make out the fuzzy silhouettes of his friends. "H-help m-m-m-m..."
They didn't. They gathered around him in a circle, looking down with grim expressions. Junella picked up the gem for him. Then she exchanged knowing glances with the others. They joined hands.
"We can't fix what's going on with you, Toby," she said.
Zinc was pale. "Sorry, amigo, yeah. You just... hold on for a bit."
Piffle bit her lip and couldn't think of anything to say that would make this any more bearable.
George looked confused and outraged that they were doing nothing to aid Sire Toby. "He is in distress! Why are you standing idle!?"
Zinc gave the stallion a troubled look. "This is something you never went through, George. Just trust us. Wait. It's all we can do."
Lying with his cheek to the pavement, Toby twitched and spasmed as pulses of pain kicked the absolute shit out of him. Big, heavy boots stomped on his nervous system with every failing heartbeat. Everything growing worse by the second. Like watching a semi truck careening towards him, and knowing there were no brakes.
Heavy, panicked footsteps came stumbling down the staircase. Miccelli ran out of the house and ripped his mask off. "I swear I didn't touch him!! I swear, I SWEAR!!"
Sable came over and roughly grabbed his shoulder. "What the fuck did you do!?"
Miccelli replied between gasps, "Nothing, I swear! I was just watching them photograph him! I wanted to see it myself. Trainwreck fascination, y'know? I leaned over. Maybe I breathed on him too hard. But the monitor flatlined-" he snapped his fingers, "-just like that! I swear to fucking Mary I didn't touch him!!"
Sable pushed the quaking officer aside and ran into 1225. All the doors and windows had been opened, but the smell still stung his eyes like mace. He breathed through his shirt collar.
In the room at the top of the steps, Sable saw something he knew his brain would never let him forget. Such a cheerful bedroom. Such tidy bookshelves. So many pill bottles. So many stains. And a thing in a homemade oxygen tent built from clear duct-taped garbage bags. A sunken, furless, catheterized thing in a bed that was crawling with death and by everything that was holy should've been put out of its misery decades ago.
The EMTs were arguing about whether or not CPR would crush its ribs like rice paper.
Toby's vision had gone entirely black. His hearing was was reduced to the amplified thunder of his fragmented heart. The pain was erasing his consciousness. Eating his soul. It was ripping out his nerves and chewing on them. Every other death he'd been through, he now recognized for the illusions they were. No matter the pain, this was different. This was REAL. Like the Allfilth was real. Like the Neculaunis and the amulet were simply more there than everything else in Phobiopolis. This was the death of the dead. His heartbeat wasn't there anymore. His brain was rocketing into full-blown panic: a prisoner rattling the bars of his cell as the jailhouse floods with lava.
"It's... No. There's no hope of resuscitating him."
"Obviously! Jesus, just look at him! You can't call it a miracle he survived this long. What's the opposite of a miracle!?"
And then it was over. Toby's senses all turned back on again at full volume. He sucked in a whooping breath, then shuddered and jolted up from the concrete.
His friends were around him. Wrenches lifted him up. Furred and vinyl paws patted him consolingly. A sooty skull nuzzled him in concern.
"What... What the heck just..." Everything was spinning.
Zinc smiled bittersweetly. "Congrats, compadre. You died."
Toby tried to get his feet underneath him, but they'd gone all noodly. He was glad Zinc was holding him up. "I thought that already happened?"
Piffle shook her head. "Nope. Just the big sleep, remember? Your body finally gave up the ghost just now. Kicked the bucket. I remember when it happened to me. Pow! Outta nowhere! I know it musta been horrible, Toby, but there wasn't really anything we coulda done to make it easier on you."
He waved his hand. "That's allright. I'm sure if there was, you would've."
She gave him a kiss for being so understanding.
"Can you stand yet?" Zinc asked.
"Lemme try." The wrenches released and he didn't immediately collapse. Toby had to brace himself against George and Junella, but he stayed upright. "Okay."
The skunk reached up to hold the hand touching her shoulder. "Welcome to the club, mouse."
He blinked dazedly at her. "Club?"
She nodded towards a nearby picnic table. "Let's sit down first."
Toby needed their support to walk the first few steps, but he got the hang of it eventually. He indicated he'd try on his own lowering himself to the wooden seat. They remained ready to catch him, but he made it. The others sat close by. George dumbfounded a can of Anisocoria Rain, as he knew his master was fond of them.
"Thanks." Toby popped the top and killed half the can in one long swallow. Lovely. A lot of the shock and fog melted away. He felt halfway to allright. His heartbeat was back to normal, which was downright bizarre the more he thought about it. "So... I died. What's that mean? Are you gonna throw me a deathday party?"
"Some people have 'em," Zinc replied.
"What it really means, Toby," Junella said carefully, "is that there's no road home anymore. Like, even if Aldridge found a way and really wanted to, it couldn't work now."
"Oh." Toby took a deep breath. "I guess that's not so bad, right? I was pretty much resigned to that already."
Piffle gave his leg a pat. "Mm-hmm."
Junella added, "Once in a blue moon someone'll disappear outta here. We're pretty sure it's them returning to the real world. But it's rare as steak. I never mentioned it before because I thought it might fix you on a false hope."
He nodded; she'd made the right decision. "This doesn't really change anything, does it?"
She shrugged. "Some people feel like it does. But really, there's no more side effects than what you'd stir up yourself from worrying about it."
Toby squeezed her paw and Piffle's, then looked around to everyone. It had been a deeply frightening and excruciating experience, but it was over now. The afterechoes were almost gone. If he was truly stuck here for all eternity, then that wasn't so bad. What better companions could he ask for to spend his afterlife with?
He smiled. "I guess we can get back to making holes then."
Junella was surprised and not surprised that he was bouncing back so quickly. "Hold on. I wanna make sure you're sure first. Like, I don't wanna be burrowing into outer space and have you suddenly go apeshit on me."
Toby chuckled. "I promise, I won't. You can shove me in the airlock if I do. Though..." Something else had just occurred to him. He got abruptly quiet and nibbled on his finger.
"What?" the skunk pried.
Toby shook his head. "It's not important right now. Just, something that's been wandering around in the back of my mind for the past few weeks. An idea. A rough sketch. I guess it popped up again because, if there's really no chance of me ever going back to Earth, this is my home now."
"That's about the long and short of it." Zinc said.
Toby looked down at the grass past his sandals. "And if it's my home, I have an obligation to it. To make sure it's a good place to live."
"A laudable sentiment," George concurred.
"So that means..." Toby swallowed. He kneaded his hands together. "That means keeping it clean. Of dirt and infections."
Piffle squinted. "I spose? Sounds like you're beating around the bush, Toby."
"I am." He sighed and looked up at the sky. Sunny and bright, with batwinged monsters swooping in broad, lazy circles overhead. His world. And he was about to burden them all with another impossible idea.
But then again... He looked back at the faces of his friends, all leaned in around him and curious. A skunk with a blade. A mutt with metal arms. A sweetly silly hamsterfly. And an ascended nightmare stallion.
'Of course they can handle this. Of course we can.'
"Guys... Has anyone ever tried to get rid of Logdorbhok?"
THE END for now...
Alex Reynard's ~~P~H~O~B~I~O~P~O~L~I~S~~
Featuring, our cast:
Toby deLeon: a coward – Aaron Taylor-Johnson Junella Brox: a freelancer – Cree Summer Zinc: a bruiser – Christian Slater Piffle McPerricone: an eccentric – Stevie Vallance George Charles Atkinson: a manservant – Markiplier Doll: a ward - ...
Luxy Bleeder: a tyrant – Ryan Reynolds L'roon: a peddler – Stephen Fry Gilla Gilla: a survivalist – John Boyega Albion Aldridge: a sorcerer – Derren Brown Rebecca Polidori: a housewife – Lili Taylor
Billawhi: a harbinger – Cloris Leachman the arachnopus: a creature – Kimberly Brooks Dr. Dacryphilia: a svengali – Patton Oswalt Sander Trachea: a trader – Reginald D. Hunter Spiretto Bronze: a rescuee – Danny Sexbang Lady Mia Xenoiko: an innkeeper – Youki Kudoh Dorster: a blacksmith – Tony "Man At Arms" Swatton Alfonzo: an innovator – John Mulaney Calvin Rither: a bushwhacker – John Leguizamo Sergeant Canker: a hardass – ProZD the terrier: a thug – Christopher Mintz-Plasse Pancake Food: a fool – Harley "Sauce Boss" Morenstein Ambient: a waitress – Karen Straughn Mr. Roosman: a hotelier – Daniel Manus Pinkwater Mr. Rippingbean: a retailer – Simon Pegg Mr. Woofingbutter: a retailer – Nick Frost Kay Burdock: a tailor – Daniel "Nerd³" Hardcastle Kaye Burdock: a tailor – Emma Blackery Jamais Dreamsicle: a reporter – Jane Kaczmarek Loud Kevin: a hypeman - "Pistol" Pete Midtgard Gibraltar F. Powell: a guardsman – Channing Tatum Millie Maybach: a courtesan – Bette Midler the doorman: a doorman – Dizzee Rascal Pandevar Skyks: a defendant – Bo Burnham Cameron: a cameraman – Adam Savage Zhiral: an attendant – Arleen Sorkin Red: a colossus – Frank Welker Skeeto Nacker: a son – Jimmy Bennet Tak Nacker: a father – Tory Belleci Kat Nacker: a mother - Jewel Staite Poubelle: a chef - Hannah Hart After: a chef – Andrew Huang Madam Tif Tif: a shopkeeper – Björk Chorizo: an urchin – Teo Halm Jazeizal: a potionmaster – Pink Guy Vienna Tusk: a sniper – Zoë Bell Ignatious Xenoiko: a coot – Will Forte Ike Fanshaw: a banshee – Hopsin Janie Jing: a telekinetic – Tabitha St. Germain Waxacada: a sage – Christopher Lloyd Driuwej: a guru – Chow Yun Fat Tía Lopez: a curandera – Sônia Braga King: a greaser – Rick Gomez Arvid Gundersson: a dreamer – Anthony Zerbe Speech Synthesis Program v3.0: a voice – Sigourney Weaver "Lantern Eyes" Lulu: a slavedriver – Carolyn Lawrence Maxo Mattic: a swashbuckler – Cam Clarke Mini Maul: a henchdroid – Scarlett Johansson The Robber: a robber – Bobcat Goldthwait
*Dream I Skrillex – Fire Away [Prologue] (Toby's theme) Skrillex – The Reason [Rust & Hiding] Icona Pop feat. The Knocks & St. Lucia – Sun Goes Down [The Cave] Ecklectic Mick – I Like To Do Things For You [After Spider] (Piffle's Theme) Caravan Palace – Sydney [To Stoma] Pete Townshend – Let My Love Open The Door [Dacryphilia's Domain] SCNDL- 40 Thieves [Escape Run] Ennio Morricone – My Fault [Glowing Ground] (George's Theme) Skrillex – Doompy Poomp [Morning Walk] Gramatik – Swucca Chust [Jennie Mae] Savant – Sledge Hammer [Tinder Fingers] The Baseballs – Crazy In Love [Car Work] Proleter – April Showers [Sander's Shop] Gramatik – Lonely & Cold [Backseat Sulk] Bill Withers – Ain't No Sunshine (Lido Remix) [Waterfallout] Mitsunori Ikeda feat Aimee B. - Fallen Angel [Trapforest Path] (Doll's theme) Lights – Quiet [Campfire]
*Dream II Basement Jaxx – Good Luck [Ice Massacre] (Junella's Theme) Pogo – Living Island [Coryza Arrival] Hugo – 99 Problems (JPOD Remix) [The Tatterdemalion] Twistin' Tarantulas – Takin' You Down Tonight [Dorster's Invention] (Zinc's Theme) George & Jonathan – Jamn [Coryza Afternoon] Dyro – Black Smoke [Amaurosis Fugax] Skrillex – Rock 'N' Roll (Will Take You To The Mountain) [Red Noses] Karl Jenkins – Palladio (Luke Da Duke Remix) [Audio Weapon] Shawn Wasabi – Pizza Rolls [Bigwheel One] Nine Inch Nails – Head Like A Hole [The Gastroworks] Tanuki – Baby Baby Dream [Rippingbean & Woofingbutter's] Future Fox – Love Trip [K&K] Nero – Departure [Penthouse Suite] Protohype & Kezwik – Hold Your Breath [Gyre 2] FantomenK & Meganeko – Crystal Tokyo [To 46!] Gramatik – Red Baron Of WWIII [Mall Assault] Saliva – Ladies And Gentlemen [Lux Aeterna] Queens Of The Stone Age – Smooth Sailing [The Trial] (Luxy's theme)
*Dream III Gotye – Seven Hours With A Backseat Driver [Circling EC] Twistin' Tarantulas – Ace Of Spades [Hyper Highway] Noisia – Groundhog [Cat Ball] The Chemical Brothers – Come With Us [Airplane!] Skrillex – Try It Out [Bridge Birds] Tut Tut Child – Broadside Bordello [She's Big] Proleter – The Misfit Song [Hitchhiking] Teminite – Beastmode [Convorines] Tha Trickaz – Cut Like A Guillotine [Enter Gilla] Winne – W.I.N.N.E. [Gilla's Pad] Skrillex – Ragga Bomb [Morning Practice] Zapp – Radio People [L'roon] The Beat Tornados – Living In The Shadows [Swamp Things] Quincy Jones – Summer In The City [Maze & Prep] Caravan Palace – Queens [Entering Dysphoria] Gorge Catanda – SNFLD [Sanity Drop] Nero's Day At Disneyland – No Money Down Low Monthly Payments [Bedrooms & Bedrooms] Yasunori Mitsuda – The Girl Who Stole The Stars [A Loss] Stevie Wonder – Ecclesiastes [Escalator Mood] Brian Eno – Deep Blue Sea [Wizard House] Gramatik – Day Of The So Called Glory [Hello]
*Dream IV Hiroyuki Namba – Silent War [Lying Awake] Cat Stevens – Rubylove [Scarlatina Sighted] Shawn Wasabi – Marble Soda [Dry Days] Disclosure ft. Eliza Doolittle – You & Me (Flume Remix) [Sudden Recall] _yi – irasshai_bye_bye [Doubts & Leaving] Beats Antique – Junktion [Lalochezia Afternoon] Haywyre – Insight [Hopeful Realization] ProleteR – Inna [Tif Tif] Specimen A – Tomahawk [Market Battle] Beats Antique – Oriental Uno [Disguised Return] Brian Eno – Under Stars [Living Constellations] Ennio Morricone – Man With A Harmonica (Mad Maxx Remix) [Day's Travel] Logan Kendell – The Grid (On Homemade Gas Can Guitar) [The Herd] Skrillex feat. Ellie Goulding – Summit [Slow Work] Gramatik feat. Eskobars – Brave Men [Vienna Tusk] traditional – La Cucaracha [They're Here!] Miike Snow – Genghis Khan [Pep Talk] Falk – Endless Possibility (Rockestrate My World Arrangement) [Toby's Warpath]
*Dream V & VI Link Wray – Rumble [Remember 1] Ruth Etting – Laughing At Life [Remember 2] Gramatik – In This Whole World [Remember 3] Gramatik – We Used To Dream [Spiral Staircase] Frou Frou – Must Be Dreaming [The Plan] Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know [Crawling Back] Kenji Kawai – Floating Museum [Emerald & White] Starcadian – Pompey Pirate [Flashback/Boom] Torro Torro – Make A Move (Skrillex Remix) [Opening Arguments] Shurk – Haunted [Burning Eyes] Skrillex – Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites (Dirtyphonics Remix) [Battle Royale] Yoshihisa Hirano – The Puppeteer ["I have..."] Panic! At The Disco – Don't Threaten Me With A Good Time [Expeditioners, Charge!] Monsta – Holdin' On (Skrillex & Nero Remix) [Toby Returns] Son Lux – Lost It To Trying [Toby Loses] Grissini Project – No Time For Caution [The Word] Isao Tomita – Claire de Lune [Aftercare] VNV Nation – Gratitude [Many Changes] Caravan Palace – Aftermath [Shop/Arrhythmia] Mystery Skulls – Forever [Final Line] Skrillex – Recess [End Credits]
SINCERE GRATITUDE TO MY PATRONS OF UNFATHOMABLE PATIENCE Robert Darling Chris Pseudos Muhthotohsin Vanyel Stargazer Angelwuff Sen Grisane Shadow Panther Relee Squirrel Trashycoon D Kenmason
Thanks also to the following, for encouragement: PagliacciGrim, wombatwobble, dragoon134, mkyner, GuW69
OMEGA-LEVEL, PANTS-SHITTING, WORLD-IS-NOT-ENOUGH THANKS TO MY PROOFREADING TEAM
Alfador Fox: Master of typos Kanada: Master of art Relee Squirrel: Master of continuity Robby Rourke: Master of voice Zephon Fox: Master of theming
And lastly, very special thanks are due to
Lewis Carroll, for Wonderland L. Frank Baum, for Oz Michael Ende, for Fantastica Norton Juster, for the lands beyond the tollbooth Lee Minoff & Heinz Edelmann, for Pepperland Harry Nilsson, for the Pointless Forest Daniel M. Pinkwater, for Diamond Hard Stephen King & Peter Straub, for the Territories Sidney Lumet, for Oz Hayao Miyazaki, for the Periphery Don Bluth, for the rose bush John Korty, for the Murkworks and sunny Frivoli Wolfgang Petersen, for Fantasia Walter Murch, for Oz Jim Henson, for the Labyrinth Ralph Bakshi, for Tattertown Yukito Kushiro, for the Scrapyard Jim Woodring, for the Unifactor Mark Crilley, for Smoo Ken Levine, for Columbia Toby Fox, for Mount Ebott and Alan Aldridge, for the cover of Elton John's Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, the first time I ever saw an epic story unfold in a single image.
'Cause the world might do me in It's alright, 'cause I'm with friends -Mystery Skulls, "Ghost"
Luxy Bleeder sat on a thin platform jutting out from the blinking red antennae at the very tip-top of Bigwheel Fifty-Two. On Earth, such structures existed to prevent planes from crashing into tall buildings. There were no planes in Phobiopolis ('Except for that one fucking place...'), but it was traditional, so he'd stuck one on. It looked cool. Which was always reason enough for anything.
The bulb turned him cranberry red every two seconds. He was singing to himself between puffs of his cigarette.
"I live for the, way that you cheer and scream for me. The applause, applause, applause..."
Right on time, he noticed a heavenly wingspan descending through the clouds.
He stood up and walked to the edge of the platform, toes dangling off. The winds up here were fierce, so he had to sway a bit to keep his balance lest he plummet through the faux blue sky and die horrifically, impaled on some nice lady's garden sculpture. Fun. He snubbed out his cig on the back of his hand. Not polite to exhale carcinogens into the face of the divine.
He waved. "Well, well, well. If it isn't my favorite foe!"
"Mine as well," Aldridge replied with a friendly nod as he drew nearer. He folded his wings and stood comfortably on nothing.
The raccoon spied the brown paper parcel underneath the angel's arm. "You actually brought it. I'm flabbergasted."
"And why is that? Didn't you think I'd keep my word?"
"Nothing like that!" Luxy was quick to reassure. "I just thought, naturally enough, that you might've had second thoughts about, well... me."
The wizard laughed, warmly and genuinely. "Luxy, I failed my half of the bargain. You didn't. No one deserves to be entrusted with this more than you."
The mayor grinned with all his teeth. "That is entirely true. Can't disagree."
They laughed together.
Luxy sighed. He looked down at his shoes, the lights of his home, and the ground a mile away. "I actually..." He rubbed the back of his neck. "At the party, I didn't get a chance to say that, ah, I'm glad we're talking to each other again. For realsies. It was exciting being your foil, but it could've been more. Y'know?"
Aldridge nodded. "I think we were what we needed to be for each other at the time. And now as well."
A smirk. "You. Always with the wisdom drippin' out of you like jelly from a doughnut. The embodiment of all the good in the world."
The wizard shook his head. "Not hardly. If I were the embodiment of good and you were my opposite, that would mean you'd be evil, which you aren't."
Luxy pointed at the cube-shaped package. "I think we both know who fits that slot a little better."
"Actually..." Aldridge tapped his finger to his lips. "To extend your idea a little, the star being is Good. The Allfilth is Evil. Scaphis is Madness. And I, I'd like to hope, am Balance."
"What am I then?" Luxy asked.
"Truth," Aldridge said simply.
Luxy blinked. That was actually one of the nicest compliments he had ever received. "Geez... Thank you." His grin became bashful "I guess then Toby is the pebble. The one that makes ripples in still water."
"Who's the one flopping their wisdom out now?" Aldridge teased.
Aldridge handed over the package. "Into more capable hands I could not hope to place this."
"I won't let you down," the raccoon said, then performed a beautiful fake drop, catching it on the end of his shoe. "Ha."
"Maybe you're actually the Jester."
"Por que no los dos?" Luxy transferred the cube to his hands. Cripes, he could actually feel the rage radiating off it.
He looked back to Aldridge. There was a moment's uncomfortable silence.
"Say, uh... I've got court in half an hour or something. You wanna come down, sit in the audience? After that we can, I dunno, dick around awhile? Hit some bars? Rob a bank?"
Aldridge was about to decline by default, then stopped himself. "You know what? That sounds absolutely brilliant. I haven't just walked around like a normal furson in ages." With a snap he changed his robes to a dapper blue suit. "I'll be there."
"Aces, jack! You look like a diamond. Let's go clubbing. I've got money in spades and a heart-on to spend it."
Aldridge groaned and slapped his forehead. "Oh god. You've been waiting to spring that one on someone, haven't you?"
"Nope! Just popped into my head right now, in fact!"
The raccoon had several secret offices, but this one was the secretest secret of all.
Strolling down a plain white fluorescent -lit hallway, he could easily hear the rumbling bass thumpbeat of his audience enjoying a pre-trial mosh pit. At a specific point he stopped, knocked two times on the thirteenth tile from the ceiling, four times on the second from the floor, then whistled a C sharp. The section of wall ceased to exist. He entered, and it returned behind him.
It was a cozy room. Blissfully soundproofed. A mattress on the floor with rumpled sheets. Walls full of posters. Old toys, old albums. Trinkets that made him get misty eyed whenever he looked at them.
He ripped off the brown paper and tossed her casually on the bed. He plopped down too, putting his arm around her. "Ah, Scrappy... Brings back memories, doesn't it? Remember how you used to let me fuck you in the ass on this bed? Back when you were interesting?"
A shockwave of pure, crazy hatred emanated from the single drop of blood at the center of the cube.
He noogied it. "Oh, don't be like that! I probably understand you better than anyone else in the world. Did then, still do. And that's why I'm about to offer you a secret proposition. Just between you and me."
The blood quieted.
He grinned. That'd caught her attention. "I been thinking lately. Maybe this job's too much for one furson. Maybe I'm getting old. Or maybe I just need to share it. So..." He tapped irritatingly on the glass. "That's where you come in. Banish all thought of me ever trusting you enough to let you out. Ain't happening. No way, blue jay. You made your legacy and you can fester in it. However, if you feel up to it, I'd be down for bringing you a little mental stimulation once in a while. Problems I'm stuck on. Gain another viewpoint. Whadja say?"
The blood hesitated.
"You're gonna get awfully bored in here if you don't say yes. Your only alternative is, I keep you on my desk as a paperweight and dust you off with my cum sock every four or five weeks."
A soundless scream of virulent loathing.
Luxy tittered. "That's my Scaphis!" He patted the cube and stood up. He glanced at his watch. "I've got shit to do now. I'll give you a gift in the meantime. Think about my offer. As I said, we share twin souls, you and I. So I'm offering you a chance to do something with yourself. But I am neither your teacher or healer. I'm just tossing you a rope. Climb it if you want. That's the extent of the responsibility I feel towards you."
He turned away. Just before leaving, directly across from her line of sight, he unrolled and pinned up a poster showing the symbols for communicating in Morse code.
Loud Kevin was walking back and forth down the hallway, hissing his boss' name through his teeth.
The prairie dog leapt a foot off the ground. "God of FUCKS, Lux!! Are you ever gonna stop doing that to me!?"
"Not till the seas turn to dust. You're the Gordon to my Batman. When're we on?"
"Five minutes ago, asshole."
The raccoon blinked. He looked at his watch again. "Welp, I'm not drunk yet so I must be an idiot." He glanced at the wall to make sure it had reappeared. Nothing but white paint and boringness again. He nodded, then took off at a brisk pace.
Loud Kevin waddled to keep up. He took off his sunglasses, wiped down his forehead, then slotted the blades back into his eyes. "I know your mind's made up, but are you SURE about this?" he asked again.
"You mean about Scaphis? Absolutely." Kevin was the only other soul in Phobiopolis who knew about his plan. "Think of her as a reverse moral compass."
"Yeah, but..." A lightbulb suddenly went off. "You're not going to give her the real deal, are you?"
"On the contrary." A Cheshire smile. "I'm going to be one hundred percent accurate in what I tell her. I'll just withhold the fact that, whatever she decides, that will be the one action I'll know I must not take."
Kevin sighed in immense relief. "Goddammit, man! You had me thinking your brain turned to pigeonshit. Bringing her in on big decisions. Of course you're keeping a step ahead."
Luxy bonked him on the snout with his fingertip. "Remind me to have you drawn and quartered later for insufficient faith in the smartest man alive. She lives for spite. She'll be diligent in thinking about my brainteasers. She'll pick answers that sound very reasonable, even compassionate. All carefully designed to bite me in the ass down the road. Ergo, she'll be useful for eliminating problems I can't see coming."
The prairie dog guffawed.
"Plus, it's a fake room. Molecularly-duplicated down to the smell of my stale armpits. Like I'd ever let her get close to my Cool Stuff again."
"Too much, man! You are straight-up fuckin' hexi-dazmic!"
"Ain't I though?" Luxy sighed happily. "The most inescapable cage is the one with a seemingly open door," he quoted from somewhere. With a spring in his step, he picked up his pace. "C'mon, let's go fuck up some evildoers!"