1. an escape or flight for freedom.
2. a location to which one escapes for relaxation, vacation.
The light blinded, but not in a painful way. It was simply so bright and beautiful that all other things were obscured by its presence... washed out, pushed away from view. She didn't feel particularly alarmed, not anymore, not like she was just moments ago. That light said everything was going to be just fine, and she was inclined to believe it...
metal reaching out
A metal tube, her fingers around it. She had the feeling she was supposed to push on it, so she did.
The turnstile let out a little mechanical tumbling sound, as tickers registered a new visitor, and soon the blinding light was replaced by soft colors everywhere...
Una staggered through the gate, taking a good five steps forward in an awkward fashion before her balance reasserted itself -- because as her arms waved out, trying to grasp onto something, her hand found another hand and grasped it tightly...
The fog on her eyes cleared immediately, when they fell on a familiar form.
"Nel...?" Una asked. "What's...? Where are...?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Nel admitted, as she tried to get a lock on her surroundings. "There was this light--"
"You saw it too?"
"--yeah! And... now there's these colors, and... ...um, I'm sorry, is that a giant walking plushie doll of Legolas over there or have I gone quite strange in the head?"
The very concept was weird enough to snap Una back to her senses.
It was, in fact, a giant walking plush form of Legolas. But rather than a doll, it was clearly a man in a costume... all felt and fuzz and sponge, with a giant sculpted head mask. The pointy ears were a nice touch; made of a comfortable plush fabric, so that an errant turn of the head wouldn't poke anyone's eyes out. The bow strapped to his back seemed to be made of the same thing, which was for the best, considering the small cloud of children laughing and hopping up and down around him.
There was only one place where men in big-headed costumes could wander around entertaining children. An amusement park. Which fortunately was exactly where they were, because anything else would've just been crazy.
Behind her, the gates stood, a dozen metal turnstiles interspersed with ticket booths. Despite the sound of music and laughter in the air, clearly showing that the park was filled with happy tourists, nobody was in line behind Una. She'd walked through with Nel, and nobody followed.
And before she entered the park...
"...where were we before?" Una wondered.
"Before now. Before we got here. What were we doing? I can't seem to recall..."
"Well... we were... ah! The Forsaken Shores," Nel recalled. "We were on a mission from Emily, to investigate each of the cities. And... now we're in... OH! Oh! Wait, wait, I know what this must be!"
"That is reassuring, as I haven't an inkling of a thought of a clue..."
Nel laughed out loud, delighted at the idea she'd stumbled across. She skipped across the perfectly cobblestoned courtyard, taking in the sights and sounds and smells... all reaffirming what she knew.
"We're at the Temples of the Mouse!" Nel declared. "You know, the abandoned amusement parks of Orlando? In Florida?"
"Errr... you mean Di--"
"Ah, Una, it's considered bad luck to use the original name. The Mouse was said to have cruel and unforgiving lawyers, and violating his edicts concerning use of graven images would result in steep debt to the Temples, from which there is no escaping. ...they say those in the animal suits were put there as a punishment for affronts to the Mouse."
"The... Temples, right. But, no, wait. I heard about this," Una said, trying to pull up the memory through her fog. "The Florida elves were still restoring them, right? It was a large scale program, to try and bring the parks back to life..."
"I suppose they've finished, then," Nel suggested. "I mean, what else could this be? It's clearly an amusement park. It looks like the images we've seen from archives on the Internet, and like the parks in Virginia and the Island of Coney and such. Sure, they've made some changes, but that's for the best considering the wrath of the Mouse, right?"
"Right. So... we're in an amusement park," Una repeated, trying to get her head around the idea.
"So it seems!"
"And how did we GET here?"
That gave Nel pause. "Well... I suppose Esrever could've given us a ride. Or we could just go by car, the roads from New Orleans to Florida are fairly clear..."
"No no, I don't mean our manner of conveyance. I mean... we were in Vancouver, right? ...or was it Anchorage? That's a considerable distance away from Orlando!" Una reminded... before an idea started leaking into her head. "And that means... it means we... finished the mission...?"
"Oh! Yes, that makes sense to me, good thinking. We must have finished our task. And, well..." Nel spoke... a blush rising to her cheeks, even as a smile emerged alongside it. "We had talked of taking a vacation, that night after Seattle, right...? Some time to make up for lost time. Well! It seems this is the vacation we spoke of!"
The fog lifted, as if it was attached to a rope and pulley system, hoisted away by unseen stage hands. It made absolute sense to Una, now. She wouldn't abandon the mission in progress just to run off and have fun, after all. That meant they had to have completed their mission. Which meant...
Her smile mirrored Nel's, as she rejoined her newfound lover, hand in hand.
"I suppose a bit of downtime would be welcome," Una decided. "We should take it while we can, especially given Emily may have something new for us to do any day now. Very well! Let us explore this... what is this park called, if it's no longer Di... no longer named after the Mouse?"
Their eyes glanced around... before joining, to study the banner hoisted high above the courtyard.
WELCOME TO HAPPINESS.
the forsaken shores
by stefan gagne
Sliding from moment to moment, Una contemplated the name.
Happiness. It was appropriate. Everything here felt like... relief. Like a reward, even, for all the troubles and turmoils she'd gone through investigating the Forsaken Shores. To reach even further back, this was her reward for years of sitting in boring meetings, and being seduced by that deceiver named Brell. A reward for pain in Baltimore. A reward for... well, all the bleak spots in her life.
And wasn't that simply wondrous? It was proof of Optimism, that in the long term, all will be well. Hardship was simply the challenges you faced on the road to a better tomorrow. Granted, Una didn't expect a better tomorrow to consist of cotton candy, postcards, and getting your picture taken with a giant talking dog. But... she didn't expect a better tomorrow to include Nel in the way it now did. So, expectations were jettisoned, and she simply accepted what was before her.
They'd picked up a map at the courtyard, studying the layout. Everything they were expecting to find was there -- rides, stage shows, restaurants, gift shops. Nel, being Una's personal assistant for two years running, put her logistics skills to the test to plot out all the things they could do in Happiness. That was for the best; left to her own devices, Una would likely run from one shiny thing to the next, without rhyme or reason.
Nel traced a stubby little pencil from point to point on the map, as the pair sat on a cozy little bench made for two, studying the joys yet to come.
"I think if we loop around from Excitementland to Delightland, we can cover the most ground in a day," Nel suggested. "I've never gone on an authentic mechanical thrill ride! I mean, I've seen pictures, but... working at Morgana's mansion didn't exactly give me any vacation days..."
"All of that is behind us, now," Una reminded. "And what's ahead of us is quite spectacular, it seems! Delightland... here, read this. 'Experience sensory pleasures beyond compare, with our amazing stage performances, tailored to your dreams and wishes.' It's a bit flowery and silly, and I highly doubt they can deliver to those assertions, but I remain curious!"
"If the elves were behind this restoration... they could very well deliver," Nel said. "This isn't a purely mechanical park. I think there's magic at play, as well. Did you see the cotton candy booth? They were spinning it in thin air! It just... formed. Amazing! ...although I haven't actually seen any Fae since we got here..."
"That is odd, isn't it...?" Una said... trying to glance around at the crowds, to reaffirm. Except the crowds had dwindled away, only a few stragglers, usually young couples walking arm in arm. After all, the sun had set by that point.
...the sun had set? How long had they been fiddling about with a map? Una rose to her feet, glancing up and down the lines of shops and displays, their lights already on and glowing brilliantly
red lights, like eyes, five of them, two by two with a central
"I can't believe we lost the entire afternoon," Una said, half in disappointment, half in confusion. "I suppose the Earth saying is truthful, that temporal progression is transitioned to an airborne state when you are experiencing enjoyable activities! ...although Jesse would point out that again, I am overexplaining things. --where's Jesse?"
Nel got to her feet as well, rolling up the map to tuck under an arm. "You honestly think Jesse would be caught dead in such a silly place?" she asked. "Ah... not to disparage her, but... when I try to imagine what sort of vacation Jesse might enjoy, I picture her training on a mountaintop with some wizened old master, not taking tea in Wonderland. Or maybe she finally caved in to Gilbert's puppy dog eyes."
"Nel! Are you accusing Gilbert of animal cruelty!?
"...it's an expression," Nel explained, agape. "Puppy dog eyes. All big and yearning and hopeful. I mean, you couldn't tell? He's been doting on her ever since they met. I think he fancies her!"
"That's a humorous jape, yes?" Una said, incredulous. "I mean, he's gentlemanly and kind, but... Jesse? Seriously? How could I not notice... not notice that..."
But she hadn't noticed for two years. Hadn't seen the same look in Nel's eyes, despite time and time again when her "faithful friend" dropped clues, either intentionally or otherwise. Una was unobservant then. Why wouldn't she be unobservant now, in another matter of love?
I'm not seeing things how they should be, a stray thought spoke up from the back of her mind.
"I don't know if they have a future, mind you," Nel continued, herself unobservant of Una's moment of concern. "He may be gentlemanly and kind, but Jesse seems so harsh and uncaring. ...not like you and I. We have such a future ahead of us, Una... one the likes of which I've only dreamed of! ...what?"
"What's wrong? You've got a strange expression..." Nel finally noticed. "You're worried about something. --you can't be, no, wait, we talked about that the night after we... I mean, I don't blame you! Not one bit for the two years apart. We both made mistakes, and none of them matter, not now that--"
"I'm not seeing things how they should be," Una repeated, bringing the thought to the forefront.
Nel nibbled at her lip. "It's dark... and we're tired. I mean, the day just slipped by! I'm sure you'll feel better in the morning. Ah, if I remember correctly, there are hotels and such at the Temples of... at Happiness. There's a hotel here. We should likely have room reservations. Let me see if I can find it on the map..."
"It's just down this street."
"Thank you," Nel replied to the passerby, before tightly grasping Una's hand. "Come on, let's go! Think of it, Una! A real hotel, a suite just for us! Likely with fine baths, and refreshments, and a soft bed... we'll live like a guest at the House of the Rising Sun. What wonderful irony that will be!"
The young Orbital was pulled away so fast, that she only had a moment to glance backward at the bystander who had directed them onward. Just a flash of long blonde hair, a simple white dress, and then nothing. Either she moved very quickly, or she'd simply vanished...
Fine baths. A soft bed. The Clockwork Mermaid was no slouch on luxury, but it was still cramped by virtue of being embedded in a ship. A night spent in a large bed, one she could really stretch out in... alongside the one she had slept beside before, albeit in different context... that sounded like sweet relief.
Her worries could wait until morning. Or perhaps longer than that. Something in Nel's delighted smile made Una want to smile as well... to stay with her, at that level, despite any nagging doubts. To simply be happy, and nothing more.
Had either of them seen a surviving print of a certain movie populated almost entirely by fuzzy puppets, they could've made a joke about staying at the Happiness Hotel. Had either of them realized or accepted that something was off, they also would've noted how strange it was that the place would be called the "Happiness Hotel," as it was a very silly brand name and definitely not something the elves would've selected when restoring Orlando to its former glory. Una and Nel were unaware of the cultural reference and had already begun accepting what was around them, so neither raised any objection.
Not that there was much ominous about the hotel. On the contrary, every inch of it looked... comfortable. The lobby chairs looked like you could sink into them all afternoon without complaint. The potted plants were vividly green, with flowering buds representing every color of the rainbow. Even the costumed mascots persisted in here, to entertain families, to hand out coupons and flyers for other attractions in Happiness, or just to lend the hotel an aura that extended the park deep into every pore of the building.
For their part, the residents of the Happiness Hotel had no reason to complain, either. Una watched them, as they waited in line to see the desk clerk... a line that they didn't mind waiting in, on feet that couldn't get tired. All around her were moms, dads, kids, grandparents, lovers of every age... all enjoying what they were doing to the fullest. Even a solitary guy loitering near the snack machines munching from a bag of orange puffy things looked absolutely pleased with his lonely munching.
They were all human, however. That was strange, given this park was restored by the elves. True, humans snuck through the border back during the Fae/Human cold war, and were returning to Florida in larger numbers since peace was declared... but the only pointy ears she'd seen so far belonged to Nel. That didn't make much sense... but the smiles on their faces, smiles that mirrored Una's own, those paved over any doubts. This truly was the happiest place on earth!
"Your people really outdid themselves with this restoration," Una said, turning back to chat with Nel. "There's glamour in use here, right? I mean... it's all so... ideal. Flawless. Almost like an Orbital Arcology! ...well, I mean, #A076 is getting a bit run down since we parked, but in general..."
Nel didn't look up from the brochure she was flipping through. "If this is glamour, I'm certainly not going to dispell it," she said. "We deserve an ideal vacation, honestly. --look at this! Because we're... well, not newlyweds, but apparently 'recently in love' counts... we qualify for the Honeymoon Suite! It's even got a heart shaped bed! How silly and wonderful is that? Plus room service three meals a day. As tempting as it'd be to stay in all day, I'd love to go out to the restaurants and clubs, too..."
"Ah... right, getting out of the room now and then would be... good," Una agreed, her memories flickering back to the night (and following day) after both of them finally learned the truth about each other.
That was an... interesting day, for her. Absolutely amazing, and rich with new experiences -- but in the end the harsh reality of it led both of them to seek out showers to bathe in and water to drink. Una was no stranger to prolonged activity, being subject to Brell's "calls of the booty" for two years previous, but this time was far more... right. Something she didn't realize she needed until she found it. And draining, because of the equivalent of overeating at a buffet.
Of course, mother always told her "There's a time and place for making wonderful blunders, and it's called youth." From a Pragmatic point of view, in your youth, you had more stamina and better potential for healing from minor mishaps, as well as a mind more open to new experiences before social patterns set you firmly into place. Sometimes that meant foul blunders... like Una's attempts to "woo" Scout, ages ago, which by this point were horribly embarrassing to even think of. And sometimes it meant amusingly fun blunders, like not noticing you just spent more than a few hours exploring a new relationship.
...although, while looking at the glossy brochure and the over-the-top frilly pink heart-shaped bed... it looked quite inviting, in a spend-more-than-a-few-hours-here sort of way. Like the chairs in the lobby, just LOOKING at it was enough to convince you that if you wanted to, you could flop down into that delicate softness, never climb out again, and still be content. And if you flopped down with someone, well, all the better. No worries there. Ever. Forever...
No elves was odd. Night falling fast was odd. Not quite recalling how they got here was odd. Odd wasn't enough to pry your mind away from an object this shiny, unfortunately.
A crash and commotion at the front doors of the hotel -- that would surpass Odd and enter Alarming territory.
The front doors were not designed to be kicked in. They were designed to open gently, parting aside to welcome you into your home away from home. The banging noise they made as they smashed against the walls was... not correct. It was louder, for starters, and out of sync, as if the doors had to remember what the noise was supposed to be before they could make it properly.
As for the figure that stormed in, shouting and calling for attention...
Una couldn't focus on her. The yelling from this woman's throat was incoherent, words that she couldn't make herself parse. The intruder wasn't blurry or indistinct, it was just difficult to actually pay attention, even when that's what you most wanted to do. Her eyes slid away, to other details, other things. To a potted plant. To the strange metallic battle dress she wore, which seemed unusually familiar.
To the costumed animals and fictional characters that immediately moved in a swarming pattern, blocking her view.
There was briefly a swirl of colorful foam, a feeling like air rushing in to fill a vacuum... and when the costumed mascots stepped away, the woman was gone. Only a swarm of colorful balloons remained -- which were gleefully chased after by the children in the lobby, who hadn't paid the least bit of attention during the rest of the altercation. Nobody had. Nobody except Una.
Nobody except Una...
She looked back to Nel, who hadn't looked up from the brochure, not once. As far as he elven companion was concerned, nothing unusual had gone on, was going on, or would ever go on. She was utterly transfixed on the glossy photos, with a distant, dreamy expression.
"This is going to be so much fun, isn't it?" Nel mused aloud. "I've always dreamed about something like this... time away from our work, our troubles. Time together. And now, we finally have it. Isn't it just perfect...?"
Una forced herself to look back to the doors, to the space where the intruder once occupied. There was someone there, she was certain. Someone who didn't fit into Happiness. And now, she was gone...
Fear wasn't an emotion that belonged here, but nevertheless, she felt fear.
"What happened...?" Una asked, in a voice like a whisper, the loudest she could manage.
"Some people can't be happy here. So, they go away."
Just a bystander. Some woman with a simple white dress, like housekeeping staff might wear. Long blonde hair.
"You can be happy here, can't you?" the woman asked. "Your Nelliwyn is happy here. You can be happy with her. You deserve this, Una. Just once, you deserve some time for yourself. Not for the Orbitals, not for Emily. Certainly not for Brell. You need this more than you realize."
She turned instinctively towards the sound of Nel's voice. The woman in the white dress was out of sight, out of mind, quite literally. She hadn't said a single thing, but what she hadn't said was perfectly true. A truth Una couldn't get away from...
Nel's was a smile few could resist. Certainly not her longtime friend and lover. Una tried to shrink away from it, to look at anything else... but simply could not. Anything to make Nel happy.
"It's going to be just perfect," Una agreed, mirroring the expression. "Absolutely perfect."
The first thing she heard was the crackling of lightning. No thunder, no sharp blasts... just the strange pitched noise of electricity, arcing through the air from source to target. After that there was the yelling, the screaming, the shouting of orders...
She was face down in the mud. No, wait, it wasn't mud; it was dirt. She was soaking wet. Slimy. That's what made the dirt into mud. Briefly she felt a deep sense of insult that someone had sullied her so, especially when she'd taken care that morning to polish up her battle dress for today's encounter. What would her enemies think of her if they saw her like this? "Such an intimidating and graceful woman!" was not likely to cross their minds...
These thoughts kept her from reacting as arms scooped her up from the ground, dragging her away from the noise. Eventually her feet stopped trailing uselessly and began to move of their own accord, helping her rescuers get their work done. Soon she was running on her own, without them, towards the moving human figures ahead of her. Metal crates and boxes, rising and falling forms. Duck and cover. Pop and shoot.
Jesse Runeblade did a sharp turn, once past the cover line, to throw herself back against a sturdy looking crate. Even if she wasn't one hundred percent, she decided she had enough wits about her not to stab herself with her own sword -- so, out it came, ready to fight.
Except this was not a melee battle. The dirty figures wearing little more than rags were carrying strange metal devices, which called forth the lightning. Where had Jesse seen those
metal reaching out
Briefly, she dared to peek over the crates, in order to make sense of her world. And what she saw made just as much sense now as it did when she was initially stolen away.
Having spent enough time in the company of a machinist and with several science fiction movies under her belt from earlier years, she knew giant robots when she saw them. Two of the techno-beasts were defending a strange building, a tower that reached up and out of sight -- defending it with weapons that fired lightning. The same make and model as the salvaged ones these humans were using. The metal contraptions
red lights, like eyes, five of them, two by two with a central
glared down at them, eyes aglow, even as their bodies were wracked with arcing electricity, sparks flying from computer components deep within. The humans kept up the suppressive fire... until finally, the enemy collapsed, their backlit quintet of eyes going dark.
"Move out before they reboot!" the leader of this rag-tag army ordered. Presumably he was the leader, given his tone of command.
For lack of a better option, given a sword (even enriched with magical power) would do little against a two story pile of organized shrapnel, Jesse beat feet with the rest of the attacking force.
Of course, a witch never backs down from a challenge. But a witch can, under the right circumstances, make a cunning feint that resembles retreat -- luring the enemy into fatal overconfidence. That stood to reason.
The armchair philosophy theory going around the Clockwork Mermaid, during what little downtime they had, was that the world crafted by the Pandora Event seemed to be a pastiche of different fictional cliches due to the design of some some grand and unknowable force.
Of course, it wasn't that grand or unknowable of a design -- the insider knowledge was that a rogue faction within the Orbitals had caused the Pandora Event specifically so the world would kill itself and be ripe for stripmining. (Which, in itself, was a fictional trope known as "Aesopinium," according to the Internet.) But the specificity of it, the way this Earth had dozens of pre-echoes of what was to come hidden within its literature... that was impossible for the Orbitals to have engineered. If someone had in fact engineered it, perhaps as a warning mechanism, then that person was far beyond mortal comprehension.
And if that was the case, Jesse truly wanted to find that all-seeing demiurgic entity and smack them over the head for what she was being subjected to today. Squatting around a mud-covered refugee camp hiding from the killer robots who had enslaved Vancouver's brains within a virtual pleasure world was not her idea of a good time.
Furthering her disappointment with the situation was the leader of the rebels, who didn't even have the decency to be vaguely mysterious and inspirational and sunglasses-wearing. This was not a faction of free-thinking idealists, struggling nobly against an unfeeling mechanical enemy, with a mysterious and charismatic messiah-figure at the helm.
Instead, their champion was sort of a dick.
He was busy pacing up and down the line of 'new recruits', people pulled fresh from the tower they had extracted Jesse from. The other two they'd retrieved were sorry examples of humanity... pale and weak, hairless, and trembling at the sight of this filthy and overly muscular pile of authority. They cowered, as he explained how their new lives would play out.
"You'll get a share of the food when you prove you can pull your weight," he declared, as he set down the rules. "We do biweekly raids on the walking trash cans for supplies; if you survive, and if you bring back something good, maybe we'll let you stay on with our gang instead of kicking you to the wild. Believe me, our gang is the best one around... you don't want to take your chances out there. We'll protect you and keep you fed, provided you don't screw with us. As for you, missy... your toy sword and your clothes, we'll be taking them. In fact... may as well take 'em off. Right now."
Jesse ignored him, as she searched around a table full of robotic scrap and salvage, palming a handful of bolts. Her spell-monocle didn't make much of a jeweler's eyepiece, but she wasn't exactly selecting an engagement ring. She wanted mass.
"No," she spoke, without glancing over.
The rest of the lean and dangerous looking men shared a nasty chuckle. Apparently this scenario had played out before, and they knew exactly what was to come.
"...I don't think you get your position here," the leader spoke, trying to loom over the one who was totally ignoring him. "Lady, you're fresh from the towers, so you belong to my gang. This isn't happy fun land; this is reality, and reality is harsh. Mud Town only works because I make it work. Now, I don't know why the trash cans gave you a funny costume and a prop sword, but they're mine just as much as you are. Am I making myself clear, or do I need to... demonstrate?"
"You're making yourself clear, unfortunately," Jesse said, lightly tossing the bolts in her hand up in the air, catching them on the way down. This time... she looked him in the eye, meeting that glare head on. "So. Am I to understand that this utterly banal postapocalyptic wasteland based 'gang' follows your standard hierarchy where the loudest, most annoying, and most dangerous bastard among you is the leader?"
"Dangerous bastard... heh. I like that," the Leader said, with a smug grin. "Yeah, that's how it works. So, are you gonna play nice, girlie, or--"
A handful of metal bolts were tossed lightly underhand by the witch. Instead of bouncing harmlessly off the leader's chest, the effect was more like he stuck a fork in an electrical socket. Perhaps even two forks, in two different sockets.
Before his scream could finish echoing through the refugee camp, before the wisps of fried hair and the smell of cooked bacon could clear... he found a 'prop' sword pressed against his neck and one arm twisted behind his back, with the tank-fresh newbie ready to lay his throat open and a moment's notice.
"My name is Jesse Runeblade, not 'girlie,'" Jesse calmly explained... for the benefit of both the Leader and his now terrified gang members. "I am now the loudest, most annoying, and most dangerous bastard you know. Lucky you. Honestly, I want nothing to do with you or your treefort of pathetic little rabble rousers, but sadly you have the answers I need in order to locate my companions..."
The leader squirmed, which did not help his close-shave scenario. Tiny beads of red gathered at the edge of Jesse's sword. "D-Don't just stand there! Zap her!" he pleaded to his fellow gangmembers...
"Yes, use your fantastic lightning guns and zap me, if you'd like to fry his brains as well," Jesse suggested. "So. Mister Leader, Sir. Given how that standard hierarchy I was talking about typically operates... if you fail to cooperate with me, if you try to push me around again, your gang becomes my gang and you go in the ground. Whatever it takes to get what I want in the most efficient manner possible. Am I making myself clear, or do I need to... demonstrate?"
Not that the refugee camp was particularly hygienic, but the spot directly beneath the former Leader became considerably less hygienic all the same. Jesse made a mental note to retrieve fresh shoes the instant she located the Clockwork Mermaid.
With their likely-former top dog dealt with, she shoved him aside, to address the rest of the brigands.
"Now, then. With that unpleasantness behind us... I would very much like to know exactly happened to Vancouver two hundred years ago," she politely spoke.
They'd relocated to the gang's meeting tent. It wasn't much of an improvement over the courtyard, but at least there was some privacy, and things smelled a bit less like decay. Being indoors, even for tenuous definitions of "indoors" was not a tactically advantageous position if things went sour... but so far, the gang had been very cooperative. One had even referred to her as ma'am, in an pleasant development.
The story they told matched most of Jesse's assumptions.
During the Pandora Event, the towers appeared in the middle of the city... vast steel buildings, cylindrical in shape, coated in square-shaped panels. From these panels emerged the robots. The oldest stories in their oral traditions spoke of how the robots carried away everybody in the city, bringing them into the towers... and plugging them into a shared dreamworld known only as Happiness.
"And I assume everybody sees this 'Happiness' differently?" Jesse asked. "No doubt tapping into one's subconscious desires, to evolve into a sort of personalized form of heaven?"
"Uh... no, actually, it's an amusement park for everyone," the meek Leader explained. "It tunes itself to try and keep you placated, but it's still an amusement park. I think. We've never seen a real one, if there ever was a real one. ...you're saying there's a world outside the black dome?"
"Mhmm. One which, if you're VERY nice to me and I decide the world would be better off with you in it, you may get to see," Jesse almost-promised. "And there are other amusement parks, although they don't double as mental prisons. ...you know, this explains why Happiness didn't work for me. I hate carnivals. They always felt so cheesy and forced to me, as if they were pandering, trying to baby people..."
"That's Happiness for you," the Leader grumbled. "Even as a kid, I was just playing along because everybody else seemed to be happy. I wasn't happy. One day I suppose the system decided I was being too disruptive, so it booted me out, and the gang found me. I clawed my way to the top easily!"
"And a little slip of a girl like me clawed her way over you, let's not forget," Jesse spoke, in warning tones. "But I suppose we have that in common... we both knew something was wrong with Happiness. After the robots grounded our airship and snatched up my group, after they plugged me in and blocked my memories, I still knew something was askew. I ran around trying to find my companions, and when I finally spotted two of them in a hotel... the system booted me out just as it booted you."
"That makes us the smartest people in the mudlands, then," the Leader said, tentatively smiling, trying to find some way to show his gang he was on the same level as Jesse. "Some of the first people plugged into Happiness rejected it, too. They struggled and salvaged and survived off pickings stolen from the upright toaster ovens. It still happens, now and then, even with the tank-grown humans it's been using for centuries. We scoop up the rejects of Happiness, take them in -- sometimes we even do a raid to get people out of the tower by force. I mean... they should be free, right? We're freedom fighters!"
"Apparently you and I have conflicting definitions of 'free,' given that you basically enslave anyone you pull out of Happiness," Jesse commented... eyes straying to the two pathetic specimens of humanity in the tent with them, who Jesse had demanded be given proper clothing. Neither of them were happy to be here, too busy trembling and staring with vacant eyes to say a word.
"Hey, look, this is a rough life, okay?" the Leader protested. "We have to fight to survive! You think it's easy swiping nutrient paste and water from the enemy's stocks? That's why the gangs formed; it's easier to take it from your fellow man than from the source. If we don't band together against the other bastards, if we coddle every new recruit, we'd never survive!"
"Coddle?! What about basic human dignities and... no, wait. I don't have time to get into some moral crusade against your merry misfits," Jesse recognized. "I need to find my companions, I need to find my ship, I need to get OUT of here."
"And take us with you, right?" he asked, hopeful. "To the world beyond the dome?"
"My ship is hardly large enough for that, even if I wanted to. What I can do is have assistance sent your way, to help you defeat the robots and return Vancouver's populace to the world. I can't do that until I'm out of the dome, however. You'll just have to trust me to return with help."
"...and what reason do we have to trust you?" he asked. "You push us around as much as we pushed you around, and all we get out of it is an I.O.U.? That smells, missy-- uh, Miss Jesse."
"Frankly, you lack other options. Oh, you could refuse to help me, in which case I simply leave and no rescue comes for you. Or you could try -- and I emphasize 'try', remember earlier? -- to kill me, in which case no rescue comes for you. And on some fanciful world where pigs fly, you could somehow recover my ship from the robots yourself, and attempt to leave. And fail, because without my companions, you'll never get it working, and no rescue comes for you. AND, for the sake of argument, you help me, I get my ship back, then you try to force us to take you aboard... well, we die fighting or you die fighting, nobody's left who can operate the ship, and again--"
"No rescue comes, yes, I get the point," the Leader hissed. "Fine. Whatever. You want some people extracted from the towers? We can do that. We can be real friendly and cooperative. Just remember your promise, got it?"
Jesse rose, sliding her sword back into its sheath. It had served its purpose acting as a visual example of her power in this scenario; from this point onward, there would have to be cooperation and trust. At least, the minimum amount of it required.
"I've promised nothing," she reminded him, however. "But if you hold up your end, if you prove to me you're more than a bunch of thugs and blackguards, I'll see no reason to leave you here. The promise is yours to hold. So. Where exactly within those towers has the enemy jailed my companions?"
Two lost within their own dreams. One lost in a shining example of the worst of humanity's offerings.
One taking apart a roller coaster, piece by piece, and loving every minute of it.
Gilbert sat crosslegged on the floor of the control room, an array of stolen tools around him, as well as numerous circuit boards and transistors. As he held the flashlight up to each printed circuit board, turning it this way and that, he could only imagine the many wonders held within those black chips... pathways printed like highways across a landscape of silicon, baked away in layers, wired up with sotter. Capacitors! Processors! Heat sinks!
Oh, the heat sinks, such a strange concept they were... despite being based on superheated and compressed steam, the technology of jolly old England typically ran quite cool. To think that electricity coursing along tiny metal lines would generate so much heat, so much that you needed to find smaller and tighter ways to dissipate the heat...! It was completely and utterly fascinating.
He rooted through the repair kit he'd lifted when nobody was looking, hoping for some sort of jeweler's eyepiece. How else were electricians expected to repair these components? They were so very, very small. Not physical pieces, nice and big and obvious, joined together in clockwork harmony. You'd need different tools, miniature tools perhaps, to manipulate this strange and lovely apparatus...
"You really shouldn't be doing that."
"It's not hurting anything," Gilbert replied to the voice from nowhere, as he tried to study a processor chip within his flashlight beam. "I've pulled component after component out of these racks, and I still hear the roller coaster going on its merry way. Nobody here gets hurt, right? So you wouldn't let my tinkering disrupt the fun."
"...you know who I am, don't you?"
"I can take an educated guess. Sadly, I'm quite good at educated guesses," he spoke, setting the chip down carefully, with the respect it deserved. He got back to his feet, dusting off his pants... and aimed the flashlight across the room.
The woman wore a white dress, and had long blonde hair. Those were the only two noteworthy aspects to her character. It was almost like she defied further description... nondescript, such a simple word, but taken to its ultimate extreme. Unremarkable. Designed not to be remarked upon.
"Once, I nearly calculated my way out of a plane of massively interconnected reflections," he explained. "I'm afraid this is child's play in comparison. Oh, I can feel you trying to nudge my mind around... that's why I felt myself drawn here, to something I'd enjoy taking apart and studying. It's not my fault that you aren't used to providing that sort of fun to your charges."
"What are you?" she asked, confused. "You seem human, but... modified. There's something else in you, some echo. You aren't tank-grown. You are... from the outside?"
"Guilty as charged," Gilbert said, shining the flashlight under his chin for spooky emphasis. "I'm a dark and mysterious stranger from beyond."
The woman was three inches away. A moment before, six feet. Then, three inches. Gilbert took it in stride, as he tended to do, well, everything unsettling in his life.
"I should eject you from the system. You are dangerous," she spoke. "But... you aren't unhappy. Not like the fourth outsider, the one with so much bitterness and anger within her psychological makeup..."
"She does take some getting used to," Gilbert acknowledged. "You sent her outside, then?"
"Yes. But not your other friends. They've experienced so much pain... they need Happiness, and on some level, they crave it. They accept this. You... seem to accept this, but not all of it. You enjoyed studying these machines. You want to enjoy things. ...why can't you just enjoy things? Why do you have to talk about them, question them?"
"Ah, but that IS how I enjoy things. I live for the question," he explained. "I love to explore a problem, to gain understanding. It's partly because I was trained from an early age to do it, but I also adore the chase on a personal level. Why, you're cheering me up just by being here! You're telling me so much, through what you say -- and what you don't say."
Now... the woman took a step back, caution rising. "I should not speak to you. I'm not supposed to reveal the inner workings of Happiness..."
"And yet, here you are, doing just that. You want to make me happy. And answers make me happy. That means you HAVE to speak to me, if you want to fulfill your purpose," he pointed out. "So very logical and machinelike. Yes... a machine intelligence! Entirely different from Jeeves, of course. This explains so much! I do believe I'm close to cracking the..."
His mouth stopped moving. When did he get tired? How late had he been in this little equipment shack, taking things apart? --minutes. He'd only been here minutes, not the hours he felt. That was a trick. ...but his body, assuming it existed in a conventional sense, that had a mind of its own. It was exhausted...
"You should rest," Happiness spoke, a vague vision of white before him. "You've traveled so far, Gilbert Gearhaus, so far just to meet your end in a faraway land. Such a sad, sad story... but does the ending need to come so soon? Time is different here. You can enjoy as many days as you want; your expiration date can be pushed off indefinitely."
When did he decide to lie down? He was laying down, now, surrounded by his tools and the mysterious microprocessors of America. Of this place. Where was this place? --Happiness. A floor in... a bed. He was so comfortable, on a bed, in his hotel room.
It HAD been a wearying day, hadn't it... hadn't it? So many questions. But questions could wait, yes? A fine cup of tea in the morning, a good breakfast. Just the thing to get your gears turning again. Good sleep, good sleep to wipe away the troubles...
"Don't be afraid," a kind whisper flowed into his ear. "I'll find something you'll enjoy. I want you to be happy... and one way or another, I will make you so happy you never want to leave."
Continental breakfast. French toast.
The words were meaningless. Una had never been to France, and had only heard of the place third-hand from people who saw old media about it. (Would Emily want them to go there, someday? Hopefully not soon. Not when they were enjoying their vacation...) Continental breakfast likewise was strange; how could breakfast span an entire continent? Still, free food was free food. Except all the food they'd had so far was free. Everything was free, in Happiness, and they'd deliver it right to your room if you asked them to.
Una and Nel had several meals delivered right to their room by that point. It was getting difficult to get out of bed, lately. The trays were always cleared away afterwards, somehow, when they weren't looking. Despite the door never opening, thanks to the 'Privacy, Please!' heart-shaped door tag they'd hung on the knob.
The two lay back, heads on the same pillow, snuggled in close as they looked up at the ceiling. Sometimes it was mirrored, like now, so they could look up / down on themselves. Looking absolutely perfect, and daisy fresh.
"When did I last take a shower?" Una wondered, aloud.
"Oooh? You want to go take a shower together?" Nel asked, smiling naughtily.
"No, no, I mean... I should need one, yes? You remember the night you confessed to me?" Una asked. "We, ah... kind of overdosed that night. Smelled terrible the next day..."
"I know. I feel responsible for that. It's childish, but... I guess I was making up for lost time," Nel pondered.
"Yes. If you think about it, all my life has been lost time. Just... sitting around, trying to avoid trouble, while waiting for something good to happen. Dad selling me as a child to Morgana. Years as a house elf, keeping to myself, staying unseen. Even the crushes I had on the other girls in the house that went nowhere, because I was too scared to poke my head up and be noticed. And Morgana, the way... she... I can't quite recall, but I think it was terrible... and all the time, just waiting for my life to actually start. Then you came along..."
"And I made you wait another two years," Una spoke, glumly. (Not really. It was difficult to feel glum. But she gave it a sincere effort, for some reason.)
"It's not like they weren't BAD years. Happiest in my life to date, definitely!"
"Worst of mine, in contrast. Brell... I thought I was happy with him. He found me attractive, and intelligent! He wanted to show me all the things I'd only seen media about! But, in hindsight, it was a bit... empty. Like watching a romance movie, not like being in a romance movie. This is different. You're right... things feel correct, now."
Nel smiled, absently. "It feels like I'm actually in motion, now. It's all actually happening!"
"Is this actually happening?" Una asked, propping up on one elbow. It was a bit uncomfortable to do so, at least compared to the absolute comfort of lying back and relaxing, but... "Nel... we're doing it again. Just staying in our room, nothing really in motion. But unlike that night, we are not forwarding the agreed upon stipend to the wandering flutist."
"Um. Paying the piper, you mean?"
"Why does everybody insist on restating the things I say?" Una wondered -- before pushing it aside. "Nel, what I'm saying is... I'm saying... yes, this is wonderful. It's blissful, even, but... should it be? I should need a shower, at least. ...what happened to going out to clubs, or enjoying the rides, or any of the exciting things? There's so much out there we can share together! Why is it so much easier just to stay in here?"
"I don't see any reason we can't get dressed and go enjoy the park," Nel said.
Neither of them moved to do just that.
"I can't get up," Una realized.
"Don't be silly, of course you can. Up, up," Nel encouraged.
"I can't get up because you have my arm pinned down."
"No I don't."
"Yes, you do," Una said -- reaching up with her free arm to, at great effort, pull aside the sheets. And reveal the white-knuckle grip Nel had on her upper arm, to hold her back.
The two stared at that grip, neither of them believing their eyes.
"...I should really just let go," Nel spoke. "It's silly. I mean. I just have to let go."
"So, let go. --Nel, that's the opposite of letting go -- oww, hey, you're cutting off my circulation...!"
"I'm trying! I'm really trying!" she protested, while her arm trembled. "It's... that shouldn't be happening. Something's wrong..."
"That's what I've been saying!" Una spoke -- trying to rush her words out, to say them before she could be distracted, or silenced. "This whole place feels wrong! We've got to get out. --not just out of the room. I don't think this is the Temples of the Mouse. I don't think this place even exists, it's not making any sense, and why don't you want to let go?"
"Because I don't want to lose you again!!"
Time snapped back into focus for Una, at the shock of that strange statement. There was sunlight coming in through the window. The digital clock at the bedside read 12:01pm. And Nel was doing everything she could to hold onto Una, to keep her even getting out of bed.
Her fingers tightened as much as they could around Una's arm... even if she couldn't meet Una's confused look. "Two years ago... I was 'delayed' in Florida, and I almost lost my chance at the life I wanted," Nel explained. "I never told you how I was delayed, did I...?"
"You said it was family business," Una spoke, pulling the memory by force from her mind. "But... no, nothing beyond that..."
"The Braid of Dawn. My mom's traditionalist Fae movement... when they learned that they'd indirectly helped Emily take the throne, by letting you fly away on the shuttle... she tried to hold me captive," Nel spoke, quietly. "They were terrified of Emily, and worried they'd initiated the doom of Faerie by letting us go. So, even knowing that Morgana had enslaved me, even hating my late father for selling me into that captivity... she decided I needed to be kept away from New Orleans. In captivity, for my own good. She didn't want to lose me to the decadence of outside cultures, thinking you were no better than Morgana. ...I had to invent entirely new illusion magic techniques to escape from there. And by the time I got back to New Orleans... you were dating Brell."
Now, Nel could dare to look up at Una. Hoping she wouldn't see either pity or anger in those eyes... and fortunately, finding neither. Just sympathy.
"I know this is stupid. I know this is childish," Nel admitted. "But... part of me is afraid that I'll lose you again. This place feels like Florida felt, when you'd rescued me and we spent happy days together. ...before my life got interrupted again. I mean, this place, it... it feels good. I feel so content, lying here with you. Is it so bad to want that, Una? To just... stay here?"
A light sensation... one simple kiss, on her forehead. Enough to set Nel's eyes blinking, looking over to Una in confusion.
"Nel... I don't want to stay here with you," Una said, in the nicest way possible. "I want to live my life with you. To live my life. You said it yourself, the last two years haven't been all that bad... sharing good times together. Even just reading books in the same room, I was happy. We don't need to be in some heavenly state of constant delight. Even the danger and risk could be wonderful, if we face it together! ...we're interrupted, right here, right now. We need to get back to our lives. Okay? You don't have to let go of me. But we both need to get moving."
Slowly... the terror-grip on her arm slid downward, until Nel's fingers were simply intertwined with Una's. Squeezing lightly.
"Okay," Nel agreed. "You're right. I didn't want to face it, but... you're right. It'll be okay, even out there. ...where are we, anyway? If this isn't the Temples of the Mouse, where is it?"
"I think it's Vancouver," Una said. "And that means--"
A pounding on the door. The sign said not to disturb, but it was too late for that now.
"You've won a contest!" a muffled voice on the other side called out. "You're going to enjoy a private couples cruise around Happiness Bay! Please come out and collect your tickets! Your boat leaves immediately! Come on, there's a lot of fun waiting for you! Come out and join the fun!!"
Lethargy didn't hold them back, this time.
Una was across the room in an instant, to roll an empty breakfast cart up against the door, wedging it underneath the rattling knob. She braced her hip against it, trying to keep it in place, despite the efforts by what felt like a half dozen people outside to burst into the room. A sound like felt on felt, costumes mascots simply dying to get in...
She pressed hard against the cart, bracing both feet against the plush carpet. "Nel, quickly, we need to--"
"Already on it," Nel replied, busy twisting up the bedsheets into a makeshift escape rope. "I've been held captive by Morgana and even my own mother. I am NOT going through that a third time, no matter how nice the cage is."
They were the only structures left standing. Vancouver had been reduced to rubble, and then the rubble itself reduced to scrap, and then the scrap carted off by refugees from Happiness to repurpose as shelter. Whatever the city looked like before the Pandora Event, not an echo of it remained after two hundred years of conflict... only the towers.
Even with sunlight magically passing through the black dome enclosing the city, there was enough gloom and dust particles in the air to make it impossible to see the tops of the towers. (Which explained why they had nearly crashed into one on arrival, and were easy pickings for the robotic guardians of Happiness.) All they looked like was infinitely tall and wide cylinders, coated with modular metal panels, each the size of a barn door. Now and then, a door would open, revealing... well, nothing within, but a robot would emerge, to join the others patrolling the grounds or to replace one that had been damaged in an earlier battle.
Battle was something Jesse craved at this point, despite knowing it would be foolhardly. These massive, lumbering steel beasts had bested her and her crew once already, and forced her into a strategic withdrawal. Sometime soon, there would have to be a reckoning. But not here. Not now.
This was, as the Leader (who had no other name, apparently) put it, a 'talent scouting' mission. They crept along a metal conduit, inches deep in human refuse and sludge, towards what he promised was a compromised computer terminal that could be used to locate her friends. If he was lying, she would make him hand-wash her battle dress. In fact, she'd probably make him do that anyway, on principle.
"It's not really that hard to break into their systems," he was explaining, not bothering to whisper, as he insisted the robots couldn't hear them within the pipeline. "They don't change, they don't upgrade. They're the same as they were when the city was taken. We've got oral histories of how to bust into their computers, how to track where they store the nutrient pastes, how to tell when they're about to eject someone from the system, everything. I've got a wireless alarm in my tent that signals when someone's booted. We swoop in, scoop them up, shelter them. Like we did with you."
"After all, you wouldn't want the other gangs getting there first, would you?" Jesse pointed out.
"Exactly!" the Leader replied, not sensing the mild disgust in the witch's words. "We've actually had shootouts with the other gangs as often as we fight the robots. But Mudtown's the strongest camp out there. We always get our new recruits."
"So these people you... 'scoop up.' They were unhappy?"
"Pretty much. Happiness abhors our kind, the free thinkers, the ones who dare to be angry or depressed. Kicks 'em out. We take them in. Show them how to fight, how to survive. And every now and then, we'll raid and yank a few people out by force, but... well, anyway, it's for the best."
"But it's for the best. Mankind wants to be free, right?" the Leader asked, testing his footing in the ankle-deep slime. "Watch it, tricky step ahead, over a sluice grate--"
"How do you know they want to be free?"
The Leader paused, looking back to Jesse.
"How can you possibly say that? Of course they want to be free. I mean, what are you, some kinda trash can sympathizer?" he asked.
"You and I, we certainly wanted out of that horrible place, yes," Jesse amended. "And no doubt the ones the system boots normally do as well. ...how do the ones you pull out by force fare? You paused there, and I'd like to know why. --no, I think I know why. The two you brought back to camp with me... they were removed, not ejected as I was, yes?"
"And they were utterly traumatized by it, yes? Tell me, O Leader, how well do your conscripts typically fare?" she asked. "What's the suicide rate at your camp?"
At this, he took insult, halting their progress to turn and face her directly. "Hey, I'm not to blame if someone's too weak to get along in this world," he protested. "Mankind needs to be free of mechanical tyranny. I mean... they HAVE to be. That's just obvious. And if a few spineless jellyfish can't cut it, that's not my problem. In the end, the right ones persevere. Strong ones, like me. Hell, like you!"
"The humans in those tanks are nothing like me," Jesse declared. "It stands to logic. You said they've been tank-grown, yes? The people in Happiness were bred for Happiness by the machines. They know no life other than Happiness. If it has the effect on them that clearly it wanted to have on me... no doubt pulling them away from suckling at that teat is like throwing a man in the sea and telling him to learn to breathe water."
"So, what? You want me to just leave them in there? You can't be serious! They're slaves of the machines!"
Jesse scratched at her chin, pondering. "I won't say that one race enslaved by another is a good thing. Servitude is not uncommon in the Faerie Court, despite Emily's leanings, but even that has a measure of agreement to it. ...I don't claim to have an answer, Mister Leader. But I strongly suspect you lack one as well."
The Leader swung his makeshift lantern around, to try and glare the light in Jesse's direction. "Bottom line, missy. Do you want your friends out, or not? Because if you're out here and they're still in there... use your 'logic.' They may WANT to stay. And that means you'll have to pull them out by force, despite how 'traumatic' it may be. You ready to do that, or do we turn around and go back?"
She considered protesting that, stating that her allies would never succumb to such a thing.
Then she recalled who her allies were.
True, they had bonded during this brief but perilous adventure. She'd gained respect for them, and earned respect in turn. But the fact that she was here, and they were there... and knowing how much the three of them sought out happiness in their lives, an idealistic, somewhat foolhardy happiness...
...well. In the end, it didn't matter.
"They're coming with me, and we are leaving," Jesse declared. "One way or another. And if the crown prince of fools is lost in his own little fantasy land, I'll simply have to slap him about until he comes to his senses."
Flesh on flesh. As far as the eye could see. Moving, writhing, sweating, moaning...
"I'm sorry, but is this supposed to be doing something for me?" Gilbert asked, reclined on silken pillows, poised like some sort of sultan, overseeing the garden of earthly delights before him. "Because honestly, if all I wanted was crude indulgences, I could've had it anytime I wanted, back home. And note that I did not. Well. Once or twice, at best. It just felt so empty and pointless to me..."
The woman in the white dress was not part of the stage show, standing to the side, in observation. "This does not entice you?" she asked. "It's a common fantasy with males. It brings certain others within Happiness much joy..."
"Yes, well, I am an Honored Calculator," Gilbert pointed out. "The nobles like to keep us from paying attention to our gilded cages with things like this. Oh, they do it indirectly, steering a few comely lasses our way at fancy galas, to laugh at our jokes and bat their eyelashes and make suggestions. But it means about as much as this does."
Then, a woman who looked exactly like Jesse. Nude, but nevertheless.
"You got the chin wrong," he pointed out.
Undaunted, the figure stretched out her arms to him, offering the warmest, most welcoming smile Gilbert had ever seen. "Dearest, won't you please come with me? There's a wonderful world out there, waiting for us to share..."
"Okay, I take it back. You got EVERYTHING wrong," he spoke. "And while I'm not a spiteful fellow, I would appreciate it if you didn't attempt that again. Next, please."
Smoked hams. Fine wines. Grapes so pure and ripe they had to have been picked fresh off the vine. Wonders to satisfy every square centimeter of the taste buds, chewy fats and lean meats, sculpted into being by culinary masters...
"Well, I am a bit peckish, but honestly all I want right now is a good cup of tea," Gilbert noted, setting aside the giant turkey leg that had appeared in his hand.
A flawless and perfect cup of tea was presented, from which he sipped with vigor.
"Ahhh. Okay, I'll admit, that is very good," he noted, before setting the delicate white china teacup down. "But on the whole, I'm afraid I'm still not passionately and mindlessly blissful. Sorry. I do applaud your efforts; you're trying very hard, and I feel I must apologize for not being a proper guest."
"There has to be something that will make you happy," Happiness insisted. "I can sense it within you. You have very little hate, very little bile. Despite everything that was done to you, despite the untenable position your benefactors put you in... you remain amicable to the world. Surely there's some way I can please you..."
"You could let me and my companions leave?" he suggested. "Honestly, do you really need us that badly? You've plenty of folks here who are perfectly content. Why keep a few malefactors around?"
"I am tasked to satisfy all those who can be satisfied," Happiness spoke. "You can be satisfied. I simply need to determine how. ...I am reading your thoughts, your memories, to find... ahh. That."
"That? What would that be, exac..."
Gilbert's eyes refocused. He was standing in front of something, something very green and flat. A wall? No. A chalkboard. Which would also explain why he was holding a crisp, fresh piece of white chalk. It was his preferred method, honestly; some Honored Calculators worked in pencils, some of the bolder ones using ink outright, but chalk could be shuffled and redesigned at will. It was flexible. Just the thing when working on a particularly beastly...
A sprawling array of digits and lines had been assembled in front of him. Gloriously stacked fractions and multipliers, dot matrices, harmonious balanced sides of equations. And in the end, at the very bottom, on the very righthand side of the board... a single, boldly stroked question mark. An unknown.
"...oh, you are good," Gilbert spoke, tightening his grip on the chalk, as his steam-tainted mind began to spin.
"This makes you happy, does it not?" Happiness asked, from her perch sitting on a nearby work desk covered in research texts. "It's a pleasant and quiet activity. A challenge without aggression, a fight without violence. Just you, and the numbers. This is how I can satisfy you, Gilbert Gearhaus."
"Satisfying? Absolutely! Who can turn down a particularly tangled web of formulae?" Gilbert asked... eyes racing from figure to figure, beginning to parse the numbers, finding the structures within them. "However, you've overlooked a critical issue."
"I can't be happy if I'm dead," he said, as he pressed chalk to board. "The aetheric steam treatments stopped long ago, yes, but each astounding mental feat moves the clock forward. I accelerated my demise quite a bit to develop the harmonies that would get me to America. I pushed it again to find my way out of a mirror world. The other day, I went completely around the bend and decoded thousands of years of magical topography. And from the scope of this problem you've given me... it may very well be enough to finish me off..."
White lines, sketching out across the green surface. Flaying fractions, dicing divisions. An eraser in his other hand, to make adjustments as he went, resorting the mess in front of him. Chaos into order, even as his mind began to warm up, and then burn away...
In a panic, Happiness made the chalkboard go away. It even pulled the chalk and eraser from his hands... but it was too late. Now, the numbers were in his mind. The white dust that flew and sprayed across the surface of his intellect would be more than enough to continue the work.
A bed. He was lying in bed, now. Happiness watching over him... a genuine look of fear on those nondescript features. A very descriptive facial expression, from someone who tried to stay in the background, to stay unnoticed...
"If you don't mind terribly..." Gilbert whispered. "Apologize to Jesse for me. I had hoped I could hold on long enough for her to enjoy running me through with her sword."
The magical mystery tour of Vancouver's sewer system did not leave Jesse in a fine mood. She was positively surly when they finally emerged, into the semi-open-air of what seemed like a cavernous warehouse... which contained four of the walking tanks that had drove them off before. That sharpened her mood to a fine point, forcing her to put her displeasure aside, in favor of the defensive and very, very quiet stance of, say, a Winterhound on the prowl.
The Leader didn't seem the least bit concerned, as he silently waved for her to follow, crouch-walking behind a series of crates. It was unclear what lie inside them... every crate in the warehouse, sprawled in a pattern that may or may not have been a pattern, was identical. But their destination was obvious.
A metal panel had been wrenched away from the wall, exposing the electronic guts of the inner tower. It was shielded from view by several crates... all of which had a thick layer of dust on them. They'd been stacked up here and left for what seemed like year after year.
"...we've got access," he whispered, as he keyed in a familiar pattern of buttons on the exposed console. "Don't worry. As long as we don't draw attention or try to bust into the crates, we'll be fine. They've never shown signs of detecting our hacks before."
"I take it the nutrient paste you fellows eat are stored in these?" she asked.
"Huh? No, those are in tanks on the other side of the tower," he said. "They keep the fluid in these things."
"What are your friend's names?" he asked, pulling up a blinking green search box. "The system indexes by database reference number, but I can cross check that to their names..."
"Ah... Una zero point one, Nelliwyn Myfanwy, and Gilbert Gearhaus," Jesse listed. "And I suppose Jeeves, although I don't know if they could've plugged him in. He's probably being kept hostage with the Flyer, wherever they've stowed that away..."
"Weird names. ...but they're in here," he said. "Egh. This isn't good... Gilbert's around here, but the others, they're being kept in two different towers on the other side of the city. We may need to execute a few raids in sequence. Could take weeks... you've got to wait for their guard to be at its lowest before you make an extraction run. They don't pay as much attention to ejectees, but extractees, those they fight for tooth and nail-- dammit! Down!"
She knew better then to snap off an angry protest when the Leader tackled her, pulling her away from peeking over the edge of the crate. Because they were no longer alone amidst the robotic enemy.
The scattering sound of feet could be heard. Human feet, pounding against the metal floor panels. Then, a strange sawing sound, like metal grinding against metal...
Jesse dared to peek between two crates, to see what was going on. Apparently, they weren't the only gang raiding this facility... but this one was after something else.
They were even more ragged and pale looking than the Mudtown residents. Desperately they tried hacking at one of the metal crates, pulling at it, in some disorganized attempt to break in... eventually shearing away the panel at the front of the crate, yanking and tossing it aside.
Within the crate were two thick cylinders, full of a milky white fluid.
And then the lightning struck. The robots, which were passively patrolling, had unloaded in full on the interlopers. It was far worse than the attack that Jesse had strategically withdrew from earlier -- as if they were only playing around then, compared to this. Within seconds, there was a smell like burnt hair in the air, and the raiders were simply... gone.
"...morons," the Leader grumbled, under his breath. "Raid for paste, raid for water, even raid for humans... but you don't mess with the fluid. Never."
"What... what is that?" Jesse asked, trying to swallow the sight of five men being atomized, to push it aside. "What is the fluid, exactly?"
"We don't know for certain. It's a kind of drug, from what I've been told. The robots just... accumulate it, stack it up, and then do nothing with it. They have to build a new warehouse now and then for the stuff. Supposedly, if you shoot it up, or drink it, or something... you feel like you're back in Happiness."
The Leader buttoned up the exposed panel, leaving a portion of it open to the air, so it could be accessed again later. He motioned for Jesse to turn and head back.
"You know the spineless ones, the ones I say can't hack it? They don't always get eaten up by the world," he explained, as they approached the sewer entrance. "Sometimes they try to get at the fluid. They're desperate to feel like they're in Happiness again. It's pathetic, honestly--"
One inch, lifted in the air. That was just from the sheer impact of it.
The sewer entrance was now blocked. Specifically, by the gargantuan, crushing foot of the robot. It had stepped right over the crates, and now stood literally in their way. And it did so with enough force to nearly knock Jesse over. Five eyes, two by two, one in the middle, shining red, glaring down on her...
The Leader was already cursing and drawing his salvaged lightning cannon -- when the robot lanced out with a beam of energy, blasting him back ten paces. It wasn't the same intensity as the earlier defensive blast, this time tuned to stun, not kill. Either way... it meant Jesse now was standing toe to toe with the enemy. Alone.
She drew her blade, speaking the spell that would ignite it with arcane flame. Designed to affect living beings, yes, but perhaps it would do something against the monster. Perhaps not. Perhaps she would become so much dust and atoms. But she would not back down from these repulsive things a second time. They would answer for abducting her, and for everything else that...
A metallic voice sounded from behind the great beast's shoulder.
"Armistice?" it suggested, in calming tones.
...slowly, Jesse lowered her sword, and the robot lowered its outstretched cannon. The brass figure pulled itself up, to sit on the towering machine's shoulder.
Nodding in recognition.
"Of course," Jesse said. "If Gilbert's here, so are you. You wouldn't leave his side for one minute, and I doubt these creatures could've stopped you, either..."
"Obligation," the J-33 Valet and Equerry System spoke, nodding in agreement.
"Am I to understand you're working with the enemy, then?" Jesse asked, gesturing with her blade towards the metal behemoth.
"Misunderstandings," Jeeves insisted.
"I see. And what exactly do you want with me? ...where is Gilbert? Is there something wrong?"
At this, the automaton dipped his bowler hat low, obscuring his monocular eye.
Her blade was quickly returned to its sheath, as the giant robot slowly lowered its arm, mechanical palm facing upward. Jesse stepped without hesitation onto the offered hand.
"Take me to him," she ordered.
If you'd asked her if one day she might be chased through a fanciful amusement park by terrifying costumed mascots with big fuzzy smiles and inhuman speed and strength, Una would've wondered if you had been indulging in inappropriate and unrecommended medical treatments. Now, it was her reality, and that did not make the situation any less surreal.
Happiness had turned against them. This was quite a terrifying concept; the entire park sought them now, hunting for them, chasing them through its streets. That meant the streets themselves kept reconfiguring themselves, leading to plenty of dead ends, locked doors, unclimbable fences. It was a miracle they'd stayed one step ahead of the hunters thus far, owing mostly to Nel's illusion magic... which, despite this place quite possibly not being the least bit connected to reality, was working astoundingly well.
Had they not been too busy running for their lives, Nel would've had time to sit down and ponder how mind-over-matter influenced this world, how the practiced innate talent she had for illusions translated very well to a purely mental landscape. It would've been a fascinating philosophical concept to toy with. If, again, they weren't running for their lives.
Not that they had any idea where to go. They tried returning to the ticket windows and turnstiles, they ones they entered through, but that part of the park no longer existed. Instead, it was a carousel. No maps they'd stolen from gift shops even indicated that an entrance existed in the first place, and certainly not an exit. It was all Happiness, pure and simple and wonderful and horrible.
So on they ran, still wearing the bathrobes they'd hastily put on, without any weapons or tools at their disposal. Una's hypertech was officially out of power, having burned out every mass capacitor she had with her to free Nel from Seattle. Now, Nel was repaying the favor, using her unique talents to save them both... but clearly, it was a drain. Every time she threw up a false wall or disguised themselves as different park tourists, it took a little more of her mental focus, draining it away...
"I... I can't keep this up," Nel warned, after the sixth narrow escape, leaning hard against the wall of an ice cream shop. "We need a plan. We need to get out of here..."
"I'm trying, but I can't make any sense of this map..." Una said, turning the ragged paper back and forth in her hands.
"The maps are fighting us. EVERYTHING is fighting us. ...I don't know if we can win this, Una. I'm so tired. I just want... I want to go back to our room. I want to rest. It feels so, so right to me to just go back and sleep..."
"If we sleep, we might never wake up. I mean... not WAKE up, like we have. We just need to keep moving--"
A loveable plush duck in front of her.
An adorable pig wearing a sailor hat to the left.
A huggable bear to the right.
Una pressed hard against the wall -- which itself was now sticky, like taffy, as someone had parked their gum there. Enough gum to keep her pinned, no matter how hard she pulled.
Briefly, the illusion of a brick wall started to from around them... before it collapsed, bricks falling away, through each other, and through the ground. Nel was too tired to focus. The chase was over.
The mascots closed in around them.
"I need your help," the woman in the white dress spoke. "Please. Help me. He's dying."
From outside, the towers were featureless, a geometrically ordinary structure covered in access hatches. Jesse had expected it to be coated in fancy tubes, each holding a human wired into the virtual world, but on second thought that would've been incredibly stupid. If they were that precious to Happiness, they would be kept inside, nicely sheltered and protected... except for the occasional incident where rejects were flushed out, as she was.
Within the tower, away from the ordinary and universal concept of a 'storage room,' architecture started taking a turn for the bizarrely functional. Connecting tunnels would vary between cramped (by giant robot standards) to amazingly vast, covered in strange tubes and pipes and devices jutting out from every conceivable angle. On the distant walls, she could see robots being maneuvered around on mechanical lifts and magnetic winches... relocated to wherever they needed to be, performing tasks she couldn't fathom.
How could such a thing be developed on a parallel Earth? True, the Fae were the dominant species on their world, and according to Una there was at least one world out there where dinosaurs took over... but robots? Someone had to build them in the first place. Did the machines overthrow their human masters? What caused a thing like this to exist... and why did it continue to exist for the sole purpose of making people happy?
Assuming that was the sole purpose. The fluid nagged at the back of her mind, as well... but was pushed way by greater concerns.
Her armored guardian led the way. This wasn't a structure designed for human access, meaning Jesse had to walk carefully along catwalks just wide enough for one footfall of the bipedal robots... metal bridges with no railings. Fortunately, fencing taught you to be light and cautious on your feet, like a violent form of ballet. Despite a lack of OSHA compliance, they held no real risk for her.
For his part, Jeeves had no issues, either. He was used to carrying tea trays loaded down with toast and fruit and beverages up and down spiral staircases; despite his bulky, ungainly looking form, he navigated with ease.
Despite her casual stroll, inwardly, she wished the giant enemy automaton that Jeeves had apparently befriended could pick up the pace. Gilbert was dying. He was dying! It seemed concerned about this -- no doubt Happiness showing preprogrammed concern for its charges -- but the thing was too bulky to move any faster than it was. She shouldn't have time for a conversation from point A to point B... but it was all she had, for lack of a better option to take her mind off the problem.
"I can guess what happened," she spoke, trying to think of other things. At least, tangential things. "Happiness wanted to make him happy. And being the unflappable loon he is, he suggested sitting down to do some math homework. Or the system suggested it for him. Doesn't matter. ...how long do we have?"
"Hours?" Jeeves suggested. He wasn't sure; this was either beyond his computing power, or simply unknowable in the case of Honored Calculators.
"If I ever get my hands on the ones in Britain who did this to him, I will give them a stern talking to and running through," Jesse declared. "They're no better than Lilith. Giving gifts that have steep price tags, without offering much choice in the matter. ...tell me, robot. Emily healed my brain damage, and gave me a new lease on life. If the taint from Gilbert's cerebral steam cleaning could be removed... would it extend his lifespan?"
Memory pins clicked and clacked deep inside the autobutler's shell. "...perhaps," Jeeves offered. It was the best he could offer, and even that was about as certain as his previous statement.
"Suppose it doesn't matter. I've no means of doing it, and we can hardly rush him back to Emily's white-tower superscience witch doctors. ...not that there is anything wrong with being a witch and a doctor. I mean... oh, bother. I'm babbling now. Musn't do that, even in front of the toasters. --YOU! Giant lump of iron! Faster, damn you!"
The marching warhulk didn't even turn back to look at her. It continued along, in its plodding manner.
"If he dies before we get there, I'll kill him," Jesse declared, biting back her anger. Although frankly, anger was better than the other thing she was feeling... worry. Worry, and some strange nervous feeling in her chest. Anger was a far easier concept to deal with by comparison.
While Jeeves and Jesse made their way through the physical world that breathed life into Happiness... Una and Nel had already arrived at their destination within that impossible dreamspace.
They didn't have much choice in the matter. Nel was exhausted, they'd run out of places to run... and if Happiness was telling the truth, they couldn't refuse the request to lend assistance. If this was a trick, if Happiness was simply going to retake them... it was one they had to fall for, since the alternative was to turn away a friend in need.
Returning to the Happiness Hotel worried Una, but when the costumed mascots (red eyes, glowing) marched them into the cargo elevator, which was less shiny and sparkly than the rest of the building, it actually put her at ease. This was not a particularly lovely part of the dreamworld. The only reason to pass through this space would be if the fiction had to be brushed aside in favor of more important matters.
Room 101 existed on a floor by itself, one between floors. The hallway stretched forever in either direction... but directly across from the elevator was the hotel room door. And within was a room far unlike Una and Nel's.
They hadn't bothered with walls, for starters. The effect was unnervingly like the White Room, a dimensional trickspace the Orbitals used to secure those who transgressed against societal law. In the middle of the room... lay a hospital bed, lovingly made with comfortable fresh linen sheets, shiny steel bedrails pulled up, head tilted up so Gilbert could rest easily.
On a nearby endtable, someone had placed a basket of colorful flowers, and a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons reading "Get Well Soon!".
The least charming image here was Gilbert himself. Even Happiness, a place where image could be twisted around with ease, looked horrible. His skin was pale, sweat pouring down his face. He twisted in the sheets, as if in the throes of some unpleasant dream... the heat almost palpable from his body fever.
By his side was a woman a white dress, and a tiny nurse's hat atop her blonde hair.
"I don't know what to do for him," she explained. "I've cooled the gel in his support tank. I've administered fever reducing medicines. He's not regaining lucidity, and his fever keeps getting worse..."
Una moved quickly to the bedside... although after doing so, immediately felt useless. She wasn't a biologist; she'd interned as a biologist's assistant, but workaday Orbital medicine usually involved "Here, take this panacea" or "Well, we'll just clone you off and call it a day." There was very little practical medical skill involved. Una had absolutely nothing she could offer.
But she could ask questions.
"What did you do to him?" she asked, trying not to become angry or accusatory and failing.
"I just wanted to help him be happy!" Happiness protested. "I couldn't find anything he truly enjoyed... until I checked his memory, and realized he felt a spike in endorphins whenever he solved math problems. So I pulled the most complicated problem I could find from my legacy databases, and... this happened. He fell into this state..."
"We need to get him to a real doctor," Una suggested. "Eject him from Happiness. And us. We need to leave this place. Listen... whoever you are. We mean you no harm. We were just visiting; we won't interfere further in your affairs. But if we don't get him out of here, he could die. For all we know, the connection to Happiness is what's killing him!"
"I tried that," the nurse spoke. "I disconnected him, and he still would not wake, even when given stimulants. He's in a state beyond the physical world, beyond Happiness... it's some sort of autistic loop. I reconnected him so I could at least keep track of his vital signs... I didn't want this to happen. I don't want to hurt anyone. I am tasked to help them find happiness by whatever means necessary, not to kill them!"
Nel spoke up, next. "If you let us leave Happiness, and bring us to him, maybe we can do something," she suggested. "If we find Jesse, our companion, she has healing magic. She could help--"
"She is already trying that."
A window opened, a view into the real world, hovering at an angle above Gilbert's bed. Through a rudimentary video link... Jesse could be seen, trying to apply Mending spell after Mending spell to his physical body. Jeeves stayed at his gentleman's side, unable to do anything but watch... just like Una and Nel.
We can't do a thing, Una realized, at least. Even if we were out there. All my batteries drained, my science useless... all I can do is hold onto Optimism, and trust in our friend.
This brought her little comfort, however.
Mending was never Jesse's strong suit. Her past spellwork had traditionally focused on combat... things like Destruction, Annihilation, even Inferno. Spells she was not given in her slim spell-display monocle. Spells that would've been beyond useless in this situation, regardless.
She gave up after the seventh application of Mending, stepping back, trying to assess the battle.
"...I am a witch. A witch is a problem solver. This is my problem and I WILL solve it," she mumbled to herself, as she closed her eyes, and looked inward. "Last time the idiot got lost in his numbers, I cooled him down, and waited. He's already cooled and I'm already waiting, but if I wait too long, it may be too late. He's too busy with the problem. He's focused on it. I'm focused on my problem. ...I am trying very hard to ignore the panic and weird little feeling of fear I'm having about losing this fool. ...I'm distracted. I should be exclusively focused, just like he is. ...wait. Is he...?"
Two lifetimes ago, when she was a smaller and meeker creature, she was busy trying to color between the lines and make a pretty pony a shiny brown color with her crayons. She was doing a very good job, focusing very well, making sure no little scribble of wax got outside the lines...
...and then Emily had burst in the room, tearing the place apart, because she was in the middle of a game of hide and seek with the village boys. And the noise had caused her to skew a line straight out, giving the horse a weird extra leg.
Jesse stepped up to the side of the open tub of cooled biogel, reached in, and pulled Gilbert out.
"This had damn well better distract you from your silliness, or I will take personal offense at being ignored," she declared to him.
Doing her best not to pull him away from any of the cables and wires that connected him to the life support systems, she planted the firmest and most distracting kiss imaginable right on his lips.
Five moments later, and he was kissing back.
She promptly dropped him back into the gel with an audible splorch.
"How improper of you, Gilbert Gearhaus," she accused. "I am not that sort of lady."
The boy beamed a smug grin at her. "A thousand pardons, dear," he spoke. "I shan't do it again. ...hmmm. Was I working on something, just now? I can't seem to recall--"
"No, you were not," Jesse informed him, in a tone that suggested she would be Extremely Cross if he disagreed with this statement. The matter settled... she turned to face the video camera that had been zooming in for a better shot. "You. In there. Unplug him. And plug me in. I am going to have a word with you."
Gilbert Gearhaus vanished from Happiness in a burst of balloons.
One minute later, Jesse Runeblade stepped through a steel turnstile, which had appeared within the white room along with her.
Even the metaphorical figurehead for a massive virtual wonderland would wither under that gaze, as Jesse marched up to the nurse.
"You're a complete failure at your purpose," Jesse accused. "You kidnapped us from our own ship. You nearly murdered Gilbert. You certainly didn't make me happy, dumping me with a bunch of thugs, slavers, and thieves. You claim you wish to make people happy, that this is why you exist? Prove it. Explain yourself. NOW."
"I... the... there is... please specify which point of contention you require further information on?" Happiness spoke, trying to keep up with the slander.
"We'll start with the ones outside, then," the witch spoke. "Una? Nel? Beyond this world are clumps of humanity, surviving off scraps, fighting the robots. They're generally horrible and repulsive and terrible, but are living in a hellscape of this creature's making--"
"Of their own making," Happiness corrected. "It is what they wanted most."
"--I'm sorry? They WANTED to be refugees in an apocalyptic ruin?"
"Yes. They wanted to feel like they were fighting against me. Their hate is what made them happy, united them together. So I let them form renegade tribes," Happiness explained. "I placed food and medicine and weapons in easily raidable locales, and offered token resistance, doing little more than stunning with electrical blasts as they 'fought' for their supplies. The play-fight brought them satisfaction. I brought others who wanted to escape to them, to join them. Like you. ...the 'freedom fighters' are unfortunately became very good at extracting people who did not want to leave, but I could do little to stop that."
Jesse remained defiant. "I wouldn't call vaporizing a bunch of them trying to get at the stocks of your precious 'fluid' a token amount of resistance! I SAW your robots murder them!"
"--emergency security protocols," Happiness insisted. "Unavoidable. Regrettable. The endorphin compound must be kept secure until pickup by authorized distributors."
"Of course! That's it!"
Una interjected herself now, stepping over to intercede between the angry witch and the cowering artificial intelligence.
"I was a Biologist's intern for awhile, and I studied a lot of data files that... well, I eventually never had any use for, about human biological processes," Una explained. "Endorphins! They're produced by stimulation... excitement, pleasure, um, other pleasure, and even spicy foods. Happiness is making everybody happy so they generate endorphins!"
"The endorphin compounds must be kept secure until pickup by authorized distributors," Happiness insisted. "I exist to ensure the humans produce the biological component, and are kept happy. It was decided to be the most humane method of generating the compound..."
"Humane!?" Jesse scowled. "You have a fairly twisted definition of humane...! --regardless. These 'authorized distributors?' They're gone. They're never coming back, don't you understand? You were pulled here by an outside force. You know that much, don't you?"
Happiness bit her lip. Which she did not in fact do, since she had no lips, and it was simply a pile of simulated human reactions... but in some sense of manipulated data, she was expressing difficulty parsing and maintaining this conversation. "Yes, the... core drug production facility was relocated from storage. Relocation caused activation of the inactive unit. No human units were loaded. Drug production had to begin immediately, to ensure timely delivery. Harvesting local human units and growing new ones from the initial generation was the only way to achieve this purpose..."
"Well, good for you. You've been uselessly generating this drug of yours for two hundred years. Haven't you noticed nobody's popped by to sign for delivery?"
"And what does that tell you?" Jesse asked. "Your purpose is purposeless. Nobody that meets your authorization standards is ever going to come. You claim you don't seek to harm your 'human units'? By perpetuating this futility, you do them harm. Fulfill your standards for humane treatment and put an end to this madness. ...the ones that want to stay, let them live out the remainder of their lives in Happiness. Pulling them away would only do harm. But grow no more human units. Let this be the last generation. And then, go inactive again. You're done here."
"But my purpose--"
"Comply," Jesse demanded. "Your continued existence has no logic to it. Guard your current drug supply all you like if you must, but Happiness itself has no reason to persist. Comply. Or we will find a way to make you comply."
The artificial lifeform withered and finally collapsed underneath the weight of her words.
"Authorized distributor voicematch accepted," Happiness decided. "Final generation protocols initiated. Shutdown to commence once final human unit's lifespan is completed. Logging you out now, ma'am."
She had to blink away the tank slime, before her eyes could focus on the boy leaning over her.
"Oh, thank goodness," Gilbert said, with a smile. "Here I was worried I'd have to wake you with a kiss and risk impalement. So. Are we leaving, then?"
Exhaustion slammed into her like a wrecking ball. She'd been coasting on rage and adrenaline for so long, that a crash was inevitable. Briefly, her body entertained the notion of sinking back into the tub, and going to sleep... before the horror of what that represented gave enough of a jolt to sit upright.
"Let's get the hell out of here," she said, albeit weaker than she wanted to.
In the end, Jeeves had to help both of them walk out. But neither protested, eager to be done with Happiness.
The Clockwork Mermaid was hand-carried to them, by a squadron of robots. Aside from some minor damage during their initial kidnapping, it was no worse for wear.
Una made an impassioned speech to the refugees of Mudtown, asking them to pass word to the other gangs that rescue would be coming for any who sought to leave the dome -- and would be willing to re-enter civilized society. Despite her bold and vivid words, painted with bright hope for the future, they had to leave in a hurry to prevent anyone from bumrushing the Mermaid in an effort to leave with them.
The sunlight streaming above the black dome as they departed was enough to close the book on this chapter of their lives.
Jesse decided to work out her frustrations by sparring with Gilbert's fencing trainer automaton. He worked out his lingering weakness from a brush with death by enjoying tea and watching Jesse's exercises.
"Funny how nicely it reacted to you in the end," he commented. "I suspect the ones who built that monstrosity were just as formidable as you are..."
"Formidability is overrated!" Jesse called out, in between parries and ripostes... before finally planting a firm and piercing blow to the trainer's shutdown switch. She slid her sword back in its sheath, business concluded, as the robot's many-pronged arms fell aside. "...for all my formidability, the best I could do to save you was humiliate myself and then yell at a robot. Here I have a vast array of magic at my fingertips, and prowess in combat, and none of it mattered..."
"Oh, tosh. You had your wits about you, and that was all you needed."
"Hrm. Yes. I'm starting to see why Emily is such a fan of wits," Jesse spoke... flexing the fingers on her sword-hand a bit, working out the kinks. "Lilith taught me to reach for power. More power, and power upon power. Strength. ...which means absolutely nothing if you can't apply it. I must learn to apply myself with more skill."
"Yes, well... let me personally thank you for applying yourself in my situation," Gilbert said, putting his teacup aside -- the cup and saucer promptly scooped up by Jeeves, who refilled it from his internal tea-tank. "Humiliating though you say the solution may be... thank you. That would have been my grand finale, otherwise."
"...how much longer do you have?"
"Life. You've spent a lot of yourself during this journey," Jesse said, turning to face him. "That was the brink, wasn't it. One more nudge..."
"And I won't annoy you any further, yes."
"I've grown accustomed to your flavor of annoyance," she spoke, casually. "If you wish to satisfy me, do not throw your life away on a sparkly equation again. I would be cross. Is that understood, boy?"
"It's tucked away behind the secondary instrument panel in the engine room."
"The resonator," he spoke... serious now, without any of his usual musical whimsy. "It generates a supersonic frequency according to a ridiculously complicated formula, mostly of my own design. The device acts as a sort of 'friend or foe' beacon... which makes the Kraken ignore the Clockwork Mermaid, cloaking it as one of their own. They won't pluck it out of the sky because it doesn't offend their territoriality. That device let me cross the Atlantic unscathed."
Jesse's confusion at that pile of technobabble faded swiftly. "You're telling me this because--"
"I don't want to die without fulfilling my pact with Queen Emily," he explained. "She wanted the technology that would let her journey outward, making peace with the world. I didn't trust her, of course, but by this point... if you're the sort of person she trusts... I can trust her. When I pass on, I bequeath the Clockwork Mermaid to her, through you. Make good use of it. I highly suggest avoiding Europe, but otherwise, make good--"
"Jesse, love, I'm being serious. This is my serious expression."
"And I will not let you die, so you may hand over the toy to Emily yourself, when the time comes," she informed. "I will not let your supposed fate come to pass. I am a witch. A witch takes care of her own, and you are mine, whether you like it or not, Gilbert Gearhaus."
"Hah. As you like it, my lady. ...funny. The Mister told me you'd stab me in the back. Your very sword, right in the heart."
"Yes, well. Father of lies, and all that," Jesse reminded him. "Hrmph. I bore of this talk of doom and science. Where are the young lovebirds, anyway? I haven't seen them all day..."
"Oh. They're playing, as a matter of fact," he said, accepting the tea refill from the patiently waiting Jeeves.
"Ugh. Again? Surely that must grow dull in time..."
"Well... that's not quite what I meant, love..."
Tension. Sweat. Twined together, in intense focus, with trembling fingers...
"Ohhh... oohh, it's almost... I'm almost there..."
"Gentle, gentle! Right there, you've got it, you've got it...!"
"Darn it!" Nel sort-of cursed, pulling her hand away. "I almost had it that time! ...how did you get the wishbone out before? It's all crooked-like, and I keep touching the little tweezers to the side every time..."
"You have to go in at a bit of an angle," Una suggested, leaning in low to peer at the tiny slot on the game board. "It's like the 'Charley Horse'. The hole's funny shaped so you can't be too direct. Okay! My turn. Let's see, the card says... remove water on the knee for five hundred dollars! ...'Water on the Knee?' I don't get it. Is that some sort of pun? --where did Gilbert get this silly game, anyway?"
"He said some friend of his named Benny smuggled it to him, so he could study the electronic bits," Nel said, sorting out the bank of multicolored money. "It's a bit silly, but quite fun! We'll have to thank him. ...and then play teams against him and Jesse, totally beating them after we've practiced all day."
"That is a very entertaining prospectus!" Una agreed. "Hee hee. ...hey. Nel?"
"I think this is the happiest I've been in years."
The sound of buzzers and laughter echoed through the cabins of the Clockwork Mermaid for hours.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne