Zebra Island

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Wildering Haven
Beware of the unreliable narrator. The main character can not remember certain key things, such as his own name. Nobody has ever made it through the whole story.

Submitted: December 30, 2019

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Submitted: December 30, 2019

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THE LAST DAYS OF A PROFESSIONAL ZOMBIE HUNTER 

It was a full moon. 

I was waiting in the hallway. The two idiotic “telegram delivery boys” were making a mess of my careful plans. The subject was holed up tight, I had him. I HAD him! Then these goof boys showed up, pounding on the door and generally making a ridiculous racket. 

What could I do? I waited in the darkness of the hall. Fuming.

Somehow after battering the door with their bodies they succeeded in entering the room where the subject was. They performed their duty, and ran out of there so fast, I had to jump out of their way or be trampled. Now he was mine. I HAD HIM! But then came the blast. 

By the time I got through the jammed door and into the room, it was empty. Weeping searchlights clawing the darkness, again and again, revealing a shocking void. A naked void. A voidy void. Nothing but a huge hole in the floor. I saw that he had probably been vaporized by the explosion. But there was something wrong. 

Everything was wrong. 

Suddenly there was a crashing noise and tramping feet. 

The Safeco Deathrunner Commando Squad burst in through the doors and windows just as I was examining the empty room. They pointed their weapons at me. I was holding onto my socks when the head man recognized me. 

“Oh, hold on team. Don't you see who this is? Its Gitmo.” 

“Gitmo! The Zombie Slayer!” They all know me! I love my job. 

“Evenin' boys... ahem, evenin' team: Tom, Hank, Lil’ Hank, Dick, Harry, Melvina. How’s Bud?” 

“He's back at home tonight, Gitmo, it’s his turn with the pups. He’s sure gonna be mindblown when I tell him I saw you up here and on the job.” 

“Send him my heart.” 

“Sure, will do. Did you get your zombie, Gitmo? Where is it?” 

“Got away, boys... Errr, Rangers.” 

“Next time, Gitmo. You’ll git him next time.” They all showed me that they agreed on this. 

“Yep. Next time, for sure. Say, what was that last blast? If I had been a little quicker I would have caught that one full frontal.” 

“It wasn't one of ours, Gitmo. We thought it was one of yours.” 

“I wish it was. I Had him! I did.” 

I headed down the stairs, accompanied by only the sound of their exuberant but good natured peals of laughter as it was their turn to work the room. It’s good to have friends on the force. On all the forces, these days. Cover all the bases. That's how to win. Know people. Spread the lettuce. Harvest the victory. 

The remaining commando teams had the front door, so I headed to the backlot looking for clues. Sure enough, there was a trail of wet footprints leading to a laundry facility. He’s probably freezing his butt off. 

There I found some abandoned wet clothing. He's naked. In San Francisco that does not help me find him, there are lots of naked people in that city. Ride the BART after dark and you'll see a whole lot more than you ever wanted to. That's what I always heard back home in Bakersfield. 

Further up the street there was a very angry man, Sam Ting. He had just been robbed of his bicycle and he had all his laundry to deliver, in little boxes with chopsticks and little plastic pouches of various wet things. The description he gave me matched the Zombie, except the perp he described wasn't naked, so it might not have been the same one. Sam said that he had on a hippie shirt with a picture of a weird-beard guy wearing a hat, and black pants. 

I hear some tires shriek in the distance, further up the hill, towards Coit Tower, and so I gave Sam my card and then jogged on over there. There was nothing to see but the night version of the famous beautiful hill, and a construction site next to the road where some kids were making a movie or something. 

I almost headed home for some hot tea with scones and chocolate hazelnut spread, but something told me I should talk to the young amateur film crew. When something tells me something, I try to listen. 

It was Alan Schwartz and his brother Billy. They were making a low-budget Superman-type movie when the Zombie all of the sudden leaped down from the street above, knocked over their heavily weighted costume prop just when Billy had released the catapult, and the Zombie took the place of Superman, up, up and away. Being much lighter than the mannequin, he went much further up in the air. He hit the side of a low flying airplane and made a wet smacking noise. Instead of falling off he sort of clung to the fuselage and got away. Got away this time, but I am on his tail. Trail. On his trail. 

They had a clear picture of him, he fell right into the frame while they were shooting, they got just a quick crisp picture of his face exactly when the catapult went off and sent him flying. Up, up and away! The facial expression was remarkable. 

He got away. Or so it appeared. But you know me. 

The airport has a record of every flight; the one that I like says it was headed to the South Pole. Antarctica. So that is where I am headed. Right now. 

I always get my Zombie. 

By the time I got to the airport in Antarctica, it had been almost two days since the suspicious aircraft had landed. Lucky for me I did manage to find the exact same airplane that the zombie had flown in on, but with no sign of the zombie. He was not on the flight manifest or the passenger log, but I did find little scratch marks where he had clung to the smooth side of the aircraft, some fingernail and tooth marks. No sign as to where or when he let go. End of the trail again? No way! For some this would be the end of the trail, but not for me. 

Plus I got a call. 

There was a mysterious stranger found by some fishermen recently, and they have someone that meets the description of My Zombie. I am on my way to Auckland, New Zealand. To the charity hospital. To see the head nurse of the intensive care and no-hope unit. They call it The Garden. Its where the vegetables are kept. 

Got you this time, Zombie scum! He is Mine. He ain’t a-goin’ nowhere. 

Sure enough, I talk to the head nurse, a Mrs. Bradshaw, and there he is. He is definitely not going anywhere. 

They won’t let me kill him or take him, unless I want to assume the full costs of all the tests and treatment that they have so far performed, but, like I said, he is not going anywhere. I virtually own him right where he lies, he is not capable of going anywhere, and that is good enough for me just now. They can feed him until my benefactor decides what to do with his semi-mortal remains. 

They all talk funny here, a little like the Beatles but different. While I was there I by chance happened to meet the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, she said her name was Miss Piggywiggy. Wilhelmina. To me she is Sweet Cheeks Willy, in our brief time together she shared her secret name with me. She is a librarian, and I have a thing for smart women wearing glasses. She has a thing for Zombie Slayers. All women do. We chatted for only a few moments, but I know one when I see one, this is one, and I am not letting this one go, no sir. Two major prizes at once, the Beauty and the Beast. She agreed to my subterfuge, if anything happens to my Zombie Beast, she will call me, so now she has my number. 

Gitmo, Zombie Slayer. Number one. Outstanding in my field. I hope she calls anyway, but she didn’t. She never did. 

Things happen slowly and then quickly in my business. There are long periods of nothing, zilch, nada, bubkis, nix, not-a-thing. Then suddenly, badda bing all hell breaks loose and we just have to do the best we can as the bricks come off the ship house. 

Time goes by. Next thing I hear there has been a break-out. The Zombie just suddenly sat up and skittered on out the door. Well, it was actually the window. It was not Ms. Piggywiggy who called me, but my other contact, the head nurse, the Mrs. Bradshaw. It turns out Bradshaw hates the librarian. She has a lot of dirt on Piggywiggy that she wants to give to me, but I am focused only on my Zombie. It’s amazing what a little lettuce can do to promote loyalty and candor and daring doo. By the time I got there, the trail was almost ALMOST cold again, but only hours cool, and you know about me and my trail. It’s never completely cold for Gitmo the Zombie Slayer, no sir. 

The tracks headed out to the edge of the swamp; there was a dead gigantic lizard, a real man-eater for sure, with a razor pointed bullet-type thingy, right in the brainpan. Zapped. But by whom? Not another zombie, they have no sense and would not plan ahead. Perhaps a zombie abettor. An assistant to the walking dead. Those are the worst kind of people. Traitors to the living. Scum of the bums. I keep the razor tipped bullet. It’s mine now. I'll show it to you later. 

Sweet Cheeks was gone. She originally told me that she had been there for years, and yet that same night she just disappeared. Bradshaw thinks she may be exaggerating about how long she had been there at the New Zealand Charity Hospital Library. She might have only been there a few days. It’s the library, located on the top floor, and nobody pays attention to them, nobody knows for sure how long she was there. They live in a separate world, with a different paymaster. Lucky for me I have my network. I trace her to someone named Pickenwiggens. Is it a coincidence that the name is similar? I shall have to ask her. I will ask her. 

My inside man, a wheezy fellow named DC, invited me to come to the tropical island he was visiting. Not now. But it sounds good. I wonder what DC's name really is? 

In my business, we do not ask and we do not tell. We listen. We listen Hard. But things happen, and sooner or later I always find out. Everything, even things I do not want to know. It’s just part of the crazy job I have. I love my job, most days. 

Next I am on a small boat for a few days, “The Doolittle,” on its scientific long-term mission, to count and track as many of the thousands of small islands in the Indian Ocean as they can, as the sea rises and the islands vanish. It could be like a vacation, but not for me, I am always at work, always focused, always looking for My Zombie. I stay on “The Doolittle” for but a few days, maybe a week. We find lots of those islands. There is one that stands out; it’s got a black and white striped beach with a water-tight hut where an old man is living. Talk about a retirement haven! I hope I can go that way when it’s my time. I was only there for a few hours. He had the strangest little assistants. I plan on going back to see Old Man Nemo someday. But not now, not while there is a Zombie loose. My Zombie. 

About three months or maybe a year or two later, time is strange to me, I am in Norway. There was another call about another sighting that could be my monster. There had been some kind of disturbance in the arctic sea, and that name “Pickenwiggens” turned up again. Coincidence? 

Of course. No big deal. This big old world is full of random nonsensical coincidences. 

No point in getting lost chasing all the wild turkeys that appear and then disappear all around you. Got to stay focused, that is how you catch a Zombie and slay it. It’s my ancient craft. I Am the Zombie Slayer. My job transcends the grave. My assignments are Big. This one is a really big one. 

They never let me see her, but they had their prisoner, the one named Pickenwiggens, in a cell. She had been on some kind of passenger ship that had capsized, their story was muddled and still doesn’t make any sense to me. She was the only survivor found floating and unconscious in the dark and nearly-frozen arctic sea, and that trail included contact with My Zombie. Back on the tail again! Never give up. I am here to tell you, you too should never give up, whatever you are doing. It was my man DC again who led me to this one. Someday I hope to meet him, maybe take him up on his offer to have me for supper. I always love a good hot meal. He sounds like quite the chef. 

But I digress, the story goes on. They had My Zombie in a cell for one day. One day! 

Well, fifty-six hours, but time is different up there that far north. It was him, the pictures do not lie. It was him. They found him attempting to communicate with their private prisoner Pickenwiggens, the one I never saw, and they questioned my Zombie very thoroughly. I got to read the transcripts. Clever Zombie, he spewed his filthy patch of lies and half-truths. Then he was gone. Just like that. Cursed Zombie. This is one more time that my well placed lettuce did not pay off. I heard about it after all this was done, and the Zombie's cell was cold and empty. Evil Damned Zombie. That Zombie Must Die. 

Okay, it’s time to press the “wayback” button and tell you a bit more about my job. I am a Zombie Slayer for Hire. I was employed by a mysterious wealthy man, a scientist, to find this sleeper Zombie man. My employer's name was Harley Earl, and the assignment transcended his death. I know this sounds like the beginning of a steaming crock of wild swamp lizard pee, but hold on. Here is the real story. Here is the low-down skinny on this wild time adventure drama from beyond the pail of crazy dreams. The bucket of bedlam. 

Are you ready? 

Harley Earl was partners with Pickenwiggens, the father of the mysterious prisoner, but I did not know it at the time. That could have been an important part of the puzzle to have had as the chase unfolded. The prison has since been closed, all that has been scattered to the raging Norwegian winds, everything is different now. They sold out to tourism. Anyway, Harley wanted me to find this Zombie, who was under the control of old man Pickenwiggens, they called old man Pickenwiggens “The Captain.” I guess he was in the army. His wife Bess had died on a sailboat called "Tropic of Cancer," and he moved to a creepy old four story fancy mansion in Shakeytown. That Pretty City by the Bay. You know where I mean, with the “ding! ding!” streetcars. You haven't guessed, so I am going to have to tell you. I am talking about San Francisco. It’s gone now in that long predicted final quake. But my assignment continues. My assignments transcend death. 

There was some kind of paternity and inheritance question, ancillary to my assignment, which was always hush-hush to me. Some kind of bones about ownership of some valuable scientific patents that were in limbo, not my problem. This Zombie was dangerous because he had some kind of crazy doomsday programming installed in his nameless insane Zombie head, which he, supposedly even he, the Zombie, did not know about it, and I was to stop him using any method I deemed necessary in my professional capacity. I love this kind of assignment. I was told that he is going to struggle to save himself and that he would say anything, he would probably even lie to me, but I am to immediately kill him any way I could, before he gets a chance to do his evil work against the Entirety of All Humanity And the Future of The Planet Earth, and the Known Universe to boot. I told you this was a big assignment, didn’t I. Yep, I did. 

Check page eight. Or is it seven? Whatever. Check it.

After Mr. Earl passed away I was operating under the terms of his will under the direction of his estate for my generous pay. I now had a series of representative agents from a secret Board of Directors to answer to, that I only knew as a code word, which I am not going to reveal to you. Not just yet. One word. Can you keep this secret? Not just yet. One word. Carbuncle. 

It’s sort of a Manchurian Candidate scenario, and only I can save the world. 

It is up to me. 

I love my job. License to kill, and lots of time to kill too. I think I will take a nap. Now we are talking, Miss Moneypenny. I love Shakespeare and balconies. And I shake martinis, I would never stir them. And I love my job. Slaying Zombies. And living the good life. Generous pay for interesting work. It’s just my good fortune. I was born under a good sign. That’s another story, Chuck-o. Let’s stay on course here. 

My instructions now are to be available for the next move, so I am to keep my cell phone on at all times and stay sharp. Other than that, I am free to roam anywhere that there is a handy airport. 

I just received a report of some kind of activity at sea, I am now waiting for a chartered helicopter to get me out there and get me to where the action is. 

The pilot's name is Mr. D. Clark, he's a toothy fat one. The crew are these really odd looking little fellahs, no spreaky ingrish, they stay up in the cockpit while I stay back in the passenger air lounge. I have been given a bright green frogman suit that I am supposed to change into and an array of newly invented weapons to strap on. Mr. Clark talks to me through the special comm system, and the representative agent from the Earl estate has been in contact too. There are many rewards for a job well done, but there is only death for failure. My job is to board the unusual submarine and neutralize the Zombie. 

Checkmate is at hand. 

When we get there, after all that journey, we have to wait, as the submarine is under siege. Under the rolling sea. 

This changes things. Who is shooting at whom? Nobody is talking. This is not what I signed up for. I operate in the dark, but I do not go naked into battle for money. Never. 

What, do they think that I am going to dive down there and sneak in the submarine's back door while shots are being fired? I am negotiating with the Big Clark and the familiar voice of the Earl estate's current agent. I am now provided with a warm fruit beverage, which is delicious. Now I am being paid to take off the frog suit, relax and rub some fine smelling lotion on me. It has sort of a spicy smell, almost like a barbecue scent, but more savory. See what I mean? I love this job. Every day is different. Some days are busy, some are not. Today is a fine day. Yes, a fine day. Tasty. 

*** 

(This is the last anyone ever heard of Gitmo, The Zombie Slayer.)

But this story, Zebra Island, continues. 

 

WHO IS COURAGE JOINER?

The door was still pounding. I looked down at my hands. "What time is it?" Slow motion. My arm rises up to show me the watch.

I kept holding the door shut. The seconds went by so dangerously. The taste was cold. I would wipe my forehead but I needed to hold the door shut, it took all my strength just to hold on. My watch glows in the dark, but it was hard to see in the inky blackness. 

Something from years ago, or perhaps not so far. What was it? Unfamiliar yet familiar sounds and sights, and even taste. Violence. And I remember people running. An explosion? Or just gunfire? There was smoke, I know that. Why can't I remember? I can see a face, blurry, but a man's face. Teacher? Master. 

A mentor? There are things I know that I need now. But I can't remember! 

Don't think! Just do. The pounding door had become a rhythm, like two scrawny teenagers trying to get that VW microbus out of a slimy rut. Push and let it roll back. 

Push. Then let it roll back. Now push really hard. Three-and two-and one -- I yanked the door open and a blur of the shoulders and hair careen into the darkened room, stumbling and falling almost comically on one another in a heap. They aren't even together enough to look up before I am out the door, but as surely as Poseidon's “P” is silent I'll be seeing those boys again, I think to myself as I run and wave my arms testing the blackness, think: Away. Now. Hurry. Escape. Release. 

An obnoxious young nasal voice. “Mr. Joyner? Is that you? It is you, isn’t it! Telegram! We have to deliver it before we can go home. Mr. Joyner? Mr. Courage Joyner? It’s a telegram! Take it! It’s for you! You have to sign for it.” 

I stop and turn and look back once again. I point towards the table, a hard darker surface in the gray of the distant emergency hall lights. I stand there, what do I do? I manage to stand there and search with my eyes for an answer. One of the boys is talking, and there is nobody else here, so he must be talking to me. 

He says, “Look, pal. I don't even care anymore. I just want to get out of here. Here is your damn-a-gram. Have a nice day.” The sound of four fast teenage boots recede downwards, now running off and pounding down into the blackness where I somehow sense the old stairs always have been. I am now more confused in the inky darkness, alone again, now suddenly quiet. Standing. I know I must run, but which way? 

As I wad the envelope into my pocket, the windows come apart in a fiery explosion from across the other side of my once dark room. There is an abrupt searchlight probing the dusty chaos where the windows once were, bright light hurts my eyes, terror shadows reach for me and my door is jammed shut again, holding me here rather than protecting me from something out there. Good strong door. Time to go again, I think to myself as the glass and splintered wood continue showering down on me, I turn my face to the stuck door, trying to protect my eyes. Telegram? Wha? 

There is a new hole in the floor from the explosion, and it’s big enough to jump into, get out of here. Look first, then leap. I manage to hold myself back. I stretch my eyes down into the smoking new opening in the old house. I hear water somewhere down there. 

Geronimo is the name of a famous warrior chief. "Slim" was the name of his Gary Cooper-like sidekick in the half season run of 1961 sitcom “Howdy and How,” and Mudd was the name of the doctor who patched up John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln. 

Right now I figured my chances at Slim to Mudd, but, what the hey! Geronimo! 

I dropped at 32 per and expected to hit pay dirt in about 10 feet, no 20, ...Yuff! The water I thought was a few feet below squirting out a broken bathtub elbow was coming up fast now, and the pressure from the main valve made a horizontal cannon. The old “one-two,” first bending me over with an undercut right in my crotch and then straightening me out with a blast square in the chest, rocketing me backward as my hands and legs did ragdoll semaphore signals in the direction of the first floor main pipe. “Goodbye old building and loan and all the ships at sea,” and I'm outside with just a moment to see my Victorian was the only one dark, except for the lights from a well-equipped squad repelling from the roof into what, I can only assume, was the space left by my old window. Did they have to trash the whole building? Just how important am I, er, was I? 

About halfway across the street the pressure lessens and my heels start to drag with the result I do a Charlie Chaplin back roll, stand on my head for just a second, and splat, “Look ma! It's the hypothermia poster child!" Well, I can’t stay here! I am a film running backwards as I checked the street both ways before backing into the laundromat, and start throwing off wet clothes in favor of something from dryer number two. “I heart my cat’s head”... Hello Kitty? No, too small anyway, try again! But hurry. Here we go, I grab out a black Che Guevara T-shirt (with him in the revolutionary hat), and a spinning pair of black chinos. 

Hide in plain sight. Does anybody have a tam? The telegram! Snagged it and out the back like lightning. 

Dank alley behind the steamy laundry interior. I wheel around startled at the sound, “Cha-ching!" The bicycle bell says as we almost collide. “Look out!” screams the careening dry-cleaning delivery boy coming back for another box of white starched shirts going uptown. “Sorry,” I tell him, “I need this!” I grab the handlebars and wrestle the only sorry vehicle I can muster, but I don’t have the time or the heart to tell him this may not be the worst thing that happens tonight. 

Feet pumping, faster than he can chase, and another clue. Down the last part of this hill and flat for the side street, train tracks? No. Cable cars! I crest and can see over, remembering Bullet and how Steve McQueen always had to do his own stunts. Now it's my turn. One right after another, two vehicles skid sideways behind and above me as they turn, engines roar, panning their lights across over my head and then, as they crest the hill, honing straight down onto my path. 

Things went black for a while. Then I woke up in a strange place.

Er... Lou Zealand? I remember looking at that ceiling fan for hundreds of millions of years. Then I remember hearing the head nurse telling the new girl about the different patients on the ward. The fan was endlessly going around and around, and I kept watching it, but I never said anything to anyone. They just kept doing their jobs and took no notice of my awakening. Now they were standing in front of my bed, looking at my charts. 

“This is our Mr. Joyner. He's been with us here for almost five years now. Such a sad case. He used to keep saying one word, over and over again, but now, well... it’s such a sad case. Some fishermen brought him in. It’s really the most incredible story. They said that he must have been floating for days. We only recently found out where he came from. We had no idea for all these past few years, but just yesterday they pieced together much more of his story.” 

I was all ears. They had sort of English accents. I love English accents, maybe I am in heaven. Their badges said New Zealand Mercy Hospital. 

“Those fishermen said that they found him on a raft. After a luxury yacht struck something in the darkness, the passengers were forced to abandon ship. They must have been on that raft for a long time, by this time there were only four of them left alive. They claimed that they saw an object fall off of the side of some kind of airplane and they paddled over to investigate, and there he was. Barely alive but still he was hanging on. I think they were going to eat him but luckily the fishermen showed up. Nobody knew anything more about all this until Miss Pickenwiggens, Willie, you'll meet her... Willie is short for Wilhelmina, over in the library. Anyway she followed up some clues from a bit of paper that was in his pocket, and she found a news article from old San Francisco, imagine that. From back before that final big earthquake. I think that she has lots of time on her hands over there in the hospital library, so sometimes she finds the strangest things. She's one of a kind. You'll see. Definitely one of ours.” 

The head nurse explained the dosages and nutritional routine to the new girl. Since I've been in an apparent coma for so long they had given up on any hope for my recovery, and that’s why I am in The Garden which is what they called the ward for the most unfortunate patients that linger on in a persistent vegetative state. 

“Please get back to the story, just where did this Mr. Joyner come from?” 

“Well, this is where the story itself is rather hard to believe, but there were two witnesses at the time, it was quite a sensation. Of course they were all lost in that earthquake, so nobody can really be sure. You see how his eyes are open? It’s so strange, it’s like he is looking at us now. We have tried everything, the lights look like they are on, but believe you me, nobody is home. They ran hundreds of tests. Nothing.” 

“Yes, his eyes seem to follow us even now. Yoo hoo! Bright eyes! It’s like he can hear us, gives me a chill. Please go on!” 

“Well, in some old newspaper there was a story about some kind of explosion and a man was seen running from the area that night. It was a gas explosion, probably an accident, but, well, you know, mysterious. Anyway, those two witnesses were at a construction site there and he leapt or fell into that. The witnesses swear it happened just that way. But now there is this old YouTube video from back then, on the Internet. It won some kind of award. That’s what Willie found just yesterday.” 

“Well, if it’s on the Internet...” 

“No, really. Willie said there were two kids making some kind of crazy film at that construction site. Mr. Joyner can be seen quite clearly for just a fraction of a second, a close up of his face as he falls onto the catapult that they were using for their movie, you know, to pop things into the air, to appear to be flying.” 

“Oh really?” 

“On my honor! The camera was rolling and he falls directly on the catapult, just when they set it off and bidew! There he went, neat as pie. Willie said that you can see his face perfectly, but just for a second. She said she has made us a picture we can go see, she says it’s really him, I don't know. Then he is shot way way way up in the air and hits the passing transporter, POW! He was stuck up there, because he didn't fall off. I can’t imagine...” 

“No!” 

“Yes! But you know, if it wasn't for that old soggy telegram we found in his pocket we would have no idea of what his name is. All we could make out was the name Courage Joyner, so we think it’s his name, nobody knows, really. And there was an address; it was in San Francisco, California, up there in the States. Now thanks to Willie we have figured out that the address on the telegram was the very same building where the explosion and fire was. That was the biggest link that proves the whole story. Her finding the video was really quite... well! I never! Let’s go have a look at that picture for ourselves, she said she would have it today. Coffee time.” 

I waited, puzzling over what I had just learned. It wasn't that night, but it was soon after, that I sat up and found some clothes and slipped out of the hospital window. 

Pieces. All just pieces. Remembering, and forgetting, and remembering again... but not enough. It almost feels unduly self-righteous to ask for a life back when I am able to possess only part of a staccato shadow play, and that would be on a good day. And today was not shaping up that way. 

Galumphing along in these old work boots may not have been the best move, but I am out of there and on my way. Likewise the jumpsuit, though convenient to slip into and not bright orange like some, I now notice from the building lights, has reflective tape that must make me look like freestanding hyphenation as I run headlong for the cattails at the end of the expansive back lawn. It was a mistake to look down to try and rip the wrinkled and weather-beaten tape off my wrists, as in the darkness my new old boot finds something under the moss that is slippery. My heel slides forward too wide, and then stops short, whipping me to knee, to chest and, stopping the side of my face from hitting the ground with my best jazz hands, I find myself staring down the gullet of about the biggest reptile this side of the Komodo. He belly crawls way too fast at my face just three feet away, and the guttural air escaping makes a ripping reptilian roar for just a second before the diamond-shaped, razor sharp metal projectile comes straight down out of the night’s blackness. The harpoon tip passes between the bulging periscope eyes and into that prehistoric brainpan with the whisper of instant death. I look up for the source of my salvation. 

“Shh! It’s Me! Willie. Don't you remember? During the CAT scan I could swear you were in there somewhere. Don't you know that camera in your room is on 24/7?” 

I look up, but in the darkness all I can make out is a short, but lithe, presence, with a handgun of some kind, apparently responsible for the demise of “Ol’ Tick Tock,” the reptile that eats lost boys. 

We turned towards shouts coming from the main building and the flashlights jumping down the long wide steps towards the road on the east, or bouncing along straight for the much more clever escape route of woods to the west. No fool would run towards the swamp! 

This short gnarly girl with her hair in a bun spun around and made a grab for the handle on the edge of that mossy metal I had slipped on, and quickly flipped the cover open, shoving me headfirst down the open manhole. She followed, deftly catching the edge of the lid with her heel on the way in, and we both lay in a pleasant little heap on a foam mat, apparently placed directly under the opening for just such an emergency. She rolled, and was crouching on both feet again in a second, bringing the heavy metal hatch up flush with the mossy camouflaged lid before securing the vacuum seal. 

As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the LED panels, I realized we were in some sort of tube with an emphasis on the economic use of space and only casual concern to creature comfort. The front narrowed down to a point in front of a hanging harness that must be some kind of a driver's seat, as the steering wheel of any vehicle remains unmistakable. As she flipped on the front lights I could see the external nose was long like a swordfish, no, more of a corkscrew or... a drill. This woman, herself the epitome of form following function, throws herself down into the driver's seat without stopping for punctuation. She rotated what must have been the ignition key, and immediately there began a low vibration pulse. 

“What did you say your name is?” 

“I didn't.” 

“Who is Courage Joyner?” 

“I do not know.” 

“Why is that name on a piece of paper in your pocket?” 

“I don't know.” 

“We have been doing some investigating and there are a lot of interesting things about that name, which we have reason to believe is your name.” 

“It is not my name. What do you know?” 

“'Courage Joyner' became a code for 'Kurdish joiner' according to one prominent theory going around at the top of the organization. That would make you a very troublesome and dangerous man in some places.” 

Swinging around to check the ceiling air monitor of our vessel, her turned up face was beautiful for those few seconds when she remembered, what she now calls, her "former" life. But she shook off the reminisce as the demands of getting “Tadpole” mobile again stole her attention. 

Going was slow at first, and when she told me to ‘be quiet,’ I realized she was purposefully laboring in service to stealth as I began to feel the power this little baby was holding back. Getting through the muck and eventually into swamp water made going easier, and she clearly was no longer worried about noise when "Tadpole" throbbed through several feet of shale into an underground tributary and eventually squirting into the Pacific. Either this thing was unbelievably fast, or we were closer to the beach than I thought. Wilma set her on automatic, bumped the throttle down to a high but sustainable cruising speed, and swung her captain's chair around as two mysteries faced one another in the half-light. Then I noticed the gun. 

She pointed it at me. "I need some answers. Now! You were there!" 

I stammered, realizing this was no time to be noticing both the razor sharp points of the trim harpoon handgun, and the fine hand stitching of her, you should pardon the expression, flat black leather one piece. 

I finally found words, I knew I had to say something. 

She can really talk, can't she? I am in love. What I like most is her attribution of intent to my panicky blundering. Yeah, babe, I meant to do all that. Sure. I know that if I slip with a tiny ghost of a smile she will fillet me. I was making it up as I fell. 

We were out on the open sea now, and she reached over and cut the ignition key, as if to demand an explanation or death. Or to make out. Our bodies lurched forward and we coasted going nowhere fast while she quickly put the chain around her neck and poked the key down her cleavage in the smooth black leather jumpsuit to further emphasize the point. 

She tossed the black velvet sack tied to her belt in my direction, and as she did the chain yanked the ignition key out of her bodice and I got a good look. I had the distinct impression that filigree inlaid key should be in my hand and not chained around her neck, and that she had more that she wanted me to know about in there where that key just was, and while I simply could not dismiss that intruding image. 

The "crazy sunglasses" Wilma described were regular wire rimmed glasses, but designed to be foldable down to a compact size limited only by their lenses, with a clip on style sunglass attachment, also foldable. I put them on, and immediately realized they were not for wearing, as they gave a fun house appearance to the already macabre blinking lights on the black interior of our "Tadpole." Is there something over there watching us? It looks like a tiny blue Hindu God Vishnu. That's crazy, I will ignore it. 

Now she is engaged with a comm screen, she is startled and I feel some sort of change in her. Now she seems twitterpated. 

“DC!” 

“What the heck is DC?” I could tell by her look that she thought I was faking it and that she was going to slap me. Really hard. I know about these things. I tried another approach. “So, what the heck is this boat thing we are in, some sort of magical drill from the 13th dimension?” 

“Not sure how I can explain it to you, Grasshopper.” The pulsing ensued and we were fast at cruising speed as she patiently geared her explanation to the mentality of a third-grader. What makes it go is a molecular flip-flopping of the internal structure of the atoms so that it basically puts the atoms that were in front of us, behind us, and that makes the shimmy sensation when going through rock formations. 

“Fundamental fourth foundation stuff. It looks sort of like a drill, so that is a fair enough assumption, Einstein. Mr. Kurdish Joiner. Whoever you are. The new one is much different.” 

The ship turned upside down, Wilma had a surprised look on her face. She sort of twinkled and then she was gone. Just gone. 

The ship righted itself and I was alone in the ocean in a mysterious molecular speedboat, zooming along. 

“Wilma? You get back here right now, dammit! WILL...MAAAAAA! ...WILMA? Stop this crazy thing...” 

No results. She had twinkled away, and upon reflection it did not look like she had planned it that way. 

Here I am on a scientifically advanced molecular powered vessel moving at a high speed somewhere in the ocean. 

Try not to bump anything. 

Who or what the hell is this DC? The highway to hell? Direct Current? District of Columbia? Dave Clark? Domino C? Dad's Chevy. Dick Clark. No, probably not Dick Clark. Cheney maybe? Of course, that has got to be it. Click! I knew it. Of course. Dick Cheney. Now it all fits. Why didn’t I see it before? 

After several hours the ship slowed to dock at some kind of underground hideout, if you think in terms of James Bond movies. It popped up in a bottomless swimming pool and the door slid open. Darkness mostly. 

I stood there blinking. Nobody in sight. Just the hardware purring. I crept closer to the door. I looked carefully all around; the chamber glowed in a bluish light. No way am I going to just hop out, I have had all the training. What the hell is happening now? I stood there watching for what seemed like an hour. Or two hours. One thing I can not do well is wait; it’s something I have had much practice with. I am never really good at it. 

The LEDs showed that some kind of recharge had started. It had been five minutes according to my watch, the one that glows in the dark. Is there a problem with the batteries of my watch? 

It was maybe about another hour later (seven minutes on my watch) that I tried putting on the crazy glasses, and suddenly I could see them. There were seven or eight small blue I-don't-know whats, sort of techie-janitor creatures, about ten inches tall. Some were absorbed in adjusting equipment; some were intently focused on cleaning or doing something, so silently. I could have stepped on one with these big boots and never have known it. It looked like they did not notice me either, so busy. They had six arms but with a sort of human torso, two legs, they walked upright, like little blue Vishnu deities. They had a human-shaped head with wise large eyes, maybe they are wearing fuzzy helmets, hard to tell. Bugmen? Guillermo Del Toro Diaspora. 

“What have you done with Willie?" a large voice surprised me. 

There he was. A huge fat man with pointy teeth, reclining on a sort of shimmering waterbed, surrounded by hundreds or thousands of the little blue dudes. They were all facing me, glaring, arms folded or angry at their sides, little hot eyes burning me with intense suspicion. The light made everything appear blue, but the tension was red-hot. 

They were angry. Very angry. They were ALL very angry. At me. They had me right where I did not want to be, and I was going to have to sure enough give them something. 

But what? Howdy and How, oh, help me now! 

Fact: the huge fat man will not be jumping up and chasing me. He is built for comfort, not for speed. Not sure what to make of the fairies or brownies or leprechauns, or whatever they are. They would probably give a chase. But then what? Step on them? 

Maybe they bite. The big fat man probably bites, so let’s keep our distance from Mr. Walrus. The Egg Man. But I best refrain from making any assumptions about his locomotive abilities. It’s always too easy to make cruel assumptions about overweight people. I must rise above cruelty.

Lately when I run it’s more about going away from something rather than going to somewhere, but in this case the somewhere options looked pretty bleak. Sure, I love swimming as much as the next diving duck does, but the black bottomless pool looked like a dismally poor choice for an exit strategy. The sparkling blue darkness surrounding that fat man and the billion angry buggites appear somewhat confining too. 

Time to take the bull by the tail and pucker up, at least until the nextest escape plan is refined a bit more. 

Think, think, thinkity-think. 

“Wilma.. uh, Wilhelmina.. Miss Pickenwiggens is safe.” I lied. Well, how should I know? That is not technically a lie except that I just made it up. I want it to be true. 

Maybe she is safe and maybe she isn't, like me this guy (or creature) does not know either way. He assumes that I have the answers and he does not. He thinks I’ve got her. Maybe I can use that. Who is this guy, friend or foe? I considered all my lingua-jujitsu options and came up with the cleverest one I could think of under those cramped circumstances. 

“...Who is youze?” 

He smacked his lips. “I am DC. And whom are Youm?” 

Now there is another question for which I have absolutely no handy answer. What if I took my fancy glasses off? I did, and ZING I was alone in the silent pool room. I walked to the edge of the boat. I slipped the glasses back on. 

It was pandemonium by the pool, they were frantic, looking everywhere. “THERE!” the thundering fat man was pointing directly at me, and the critters were squirming about trying to see me. What just happened? Do I have the cloak of invisibility here? I popped the glasses off. Alone again, naturally. All gone. What does this mean? Glasses on: there are the fat man and the little boys. Glasses off: I am in an empty room with the magic Tadpole vessel. What do the critters see of me? The same thing I see, evidently. What dim light there had been flickered and was gone. I put the glasses back on. 

"Okay DC. I'm sorry, let's talk some more." The flat black finish of Tadpole was not even wet. "Forget that stuff I said before about Willie... I, ah, well. She was right there but now she's gone. She abruptly just disappeared and I don’t know what the heck happened." From what I remember of her expression it appeared that she had no idea what, or, in this case, who (no, let's make that what) DC was, so that was a dead end. Again I am at the mercy of a foreign mechanic. 

"What? Something's wrong with it, I can tell, what?" 

"Be patient. It happens sometimes. The field the ship creates; it dipped inside for a second and flipped her." 

The frozen picture of Wilma with that ‘catapulted’ look on her face continued to grow and was now freestanding. 

I wanted Wilma back now more than ever, even though it seems she was a precious gift to hundreds of thousands before me. Something happened, a look of anxious hope. There was a ripple of excitement amongst the buggins. A window was brought out of the Tadpole by several of the pint sized engineers and a team of elite wee wize guys were gesturing and repeating their mantra: “vvVillie vVVVilly vvvvvVili...” 

Then the big guy intoned a hopeful howl of some importance. Then it was quiet. After that he barked once. 

At which point the creatures grabbed the window on every side and began to wobble it like that huge piece of tin backstage used for sound effects thunder, only louder. Wilma began to emerge, first front then back, then front again, one last back and, pushhh! And out she careened, stumbling on to the chiseled rock ledge serving as a boat dock, and into my arms. A light steam came off her svelte black jumpsuit, although she was shivering, as she held me just a little too tight and a little too long to qualify for getting her bearings. 

She slowly raised her face and eyes and looked up into mine, and we were having a moment. I know we were. I could feel that she felt it too. I know it. Her lips parted and I was in slow motion. The moment passed slowly and I felt a warm rush in my chest. 

"This is so good. I mean it's good you're back. Do you know where you were...? When you were... ah, where you were? Oh, never mind. First of all, Wilma, you are okay, and as long as I have anything to say about it, we are both going to stay that way.” She smiled and gently but purposefully laid her hand on my chest, and I got a little embarrassed again, glad that these little voyeurs could not see how undone I was becoming simply from what could have been her careless caress. 

The ship had indeed been programmed to come here for repairs, a self-diagnostic routine initiated this maneuver after detecting itinerant warp fields which had inadvertently ‘flipped’ the pilot. 

The blue dignitary they call Calibration almost immediately began pointing to the maps and graphs within the little ship, with an urgency that suggested this might just be ‘go’ time. 

The thought of a protracted journey was tugging on more than my heartstrings. Cal had Wilma’s ear, and she appeared suddenly spring loaded, and commanding, “You all know what to do.” 

“All aboard!” I chimed in, the only natural choice for a first mate. Oh, wait a bittle, I suddenly felt sentimental and full, in need of relief. It’s down the hall and to the left. I’ll be right back. 

I returned and decided to also take the opportunity to bid my new friend DC a warm adieu. His hands were oddly shaped and strangely warm and dry, soft and hard. Difficult to explain. If he ever was human, he isn't one now. He licked his lips and returned my sincerity, I felt blessed to have met this one. At first he was frightening to me, but now he is one of my tribe. My extended... family. Sometime I would get to know him better, sit and chew the fatted calf together, perhaps. For now I was making plans to be with Wilma, and I was sensing that she was ready to be making plans to be with me, too. I love my life. I love her life. Something tells me she is the best thing to ever happen to me. 

Do I deserve this warm glow, this lovely new life plan? Well, yes. Yes, I do. But more importantly, I can see that she glows too, a wonder to behold. Destiny commands me. 

Wilma was full of the moment; this was no ordinary time for her. She was getting into the ceremonial departure, I could tell. Relax and listen. Be agreeable; learn something new by letting it happen. Feel the glow.

She had this triumphant look on her face as she spoke to all who were assembled. “I don't know what just happened to me, it's hard to explain, I, well... No, I just can't find the words, but I am back now. (pause, deep breath.) I have just had a profound life-changing experience, and through some miracle I have returned from death's door. My previous life means nothing to me now, this is my life's meaning, here. This is what matters most to me now. This is most important. This is what we have all been working on for all of my life. This is the most decisive trip we will ever make. Both of my parents, their friend Mr. Earl and my godfather, Nemo, planned it all years and years ago. My father spent all of the last years of his life getting ready, thinking through all of the contingencies, assembling the supplies, plotting the course. We are all sad that Papa did not live to see this, but now it’s really REALLY time. This is it. No more waiting or preparing; now it’s time. Onward to THE FUTURE! I am so excited, but I do not know what to say, I have no more words. Let's just go.” 

Okay, so she is not the best speech maker, but I was ready to go anywhere with Wilma, and to see what the Tadpole really can do. In my time there on board I sort of looked all around, but in the interest of self-preservation I did not touch or test anything. Now I would be able to see it in motion and ask questions, get some answers and generally be amazed. This was going to be a BIG day. I smiled. She smiled. We smiled as one. I am not a good speech maker either, so again, in all ways we are a perfect match. Mmmmglow. Twinkle. 

On board: Wilma, Calibration, maybe a hundred or so brave little volunteers, and now to join them will be I who have no name, just as soon as I hop back on board. My new heart leaped as I approached the portal preparing to make that one giant step forward. Wilma spoke. I listened. 

“Okay, here we go. Well. Best of luck to you, ah, Kurd or whatever you wish to be called.” She reached out and took my hand and squeezed it affectionately. She looked me in the eye, but almost as an afterthought, so obviously distracted with the excitement and ominous importance of her mission. She gave me a quick peck on the right cheek, and stepped back. She is gone. She already left. Was she really here? I am desolated. 

“Wish me luck! If you are still here when we get back, we will see you then. Until then, we wish you well.” 

She was waving good-bye to me. 

“Wait, what? Can't I go with you?” 

“Oh no, sorry. There just is no room. Time to go.” She continued backing up, into the vessel. The door started slowly closing. The back of her head so quickly fading into the dark doorway. 

DC wheezed sentimentally “Best of luck, Delicious Sweet Willie! Bon-Bon Voyage! Peace on the Trailmix! Eat well.” I thought about what eating well must mean to him, which was an odd thing to think about, with my heart just lying there on the floor, quivering. Tears on my cheek? No. It’s just rain in my eyes. It’s just a little drip from above. It’s just a little spray from the pool. This can't be happening! I thought. Not when I've got everything figured out, or at least the girl part. This would be the typical fickle dark twinkle of my destiny. 

The doors whispered shut and the Tadpole swam swiftly down into the inky blackness below and from there out to the wide wide Oceania Maximus. 

So now it’s just DC and I and the remaining pixies, thousands of them, chanting breathing singing “vvVillle! vvVilllee!” softly. They all watched the final fading bubbles pubbling up in the pool with their heavy hearts. Their hearts were beating sadly too; I could feel it with mine. 

Then they all surprised me by abruptly returning to their ordered busy lives, scurrying about, doing whatever they are supposed to be doing. Nothing had happened. She's got everything she needs, she's an artist... it seemed she was the escaping kind. Wait, mister. Be nice. This is bigger than both of us and all that. Anyway, she is an artist and she don't look back. She has everything she needs.

I flash on all that philosophy crap about how we make choices, no matter how limited, and I think, why does this kind of shit always happen to me?! Here I am in a wet cave with a dry heat (it's actually very comfortable, I don't need a coat or anything), nothing but hard bedrock (it's actually very soft and form fitting, and I can mash my hand down into it like that special pillow on TV), and somebody has turned up the disco ball to entertain me, or maybe it is just more noticeable with all other illumination in the cave doused. 

Just as I'm about to say "Beer me," I realize that full empty feeling I had from the Hospital’s V-8 protein enhanced saline drip has long since worn off and a wooden bowl of what looked like perfect little bite sized multicolored melon balls is in my lap. How did it get there? It sure looks delicious and refreshing. 

DC then generously offered me some kind of warm fruit beverage while he focused on his sphere of many colors. I noticed he was not having any of the beverage. He said that it was not suitable for his constitution, but that he knew I would like it. His confidence was somewhat unsettling, but not threatening or in the least bit suspicious. It’s just his way, I thought. He's a weird dude. I let myself relax, going with the moment. What could possibly go wrong? 

I accepted a glass. It was indeed delightfully refreshing. I drank it slowly, cautiously, and joined him in watching all the different things on his amazing disco video ball. He showed me how to focus in on one screen and make it appear huge to me, or how to view just a few screens at a time, or how to skip along viewing multiple screens at once, which was too much for me to take in. DC loved his own jokes, and commented that he knows I could soon be as skilled as he “...if, for it, you have the...,” he chortled and pointed to the wooden bowl in my lap, “...the balls! Ha, ha, ha.” 

I had a sense the reflected window bits have a show about to start, and that it is just for me. I exhale deeply as if to prepare for a deeper sigh on the other end, and when I inhale it is the "what, where, when, why," and when I exhale it is just "here." I sit back and I wait for the planetarium recording to say in that omnipresent loudspeaker voice, "It was the dawn of time itself..." when I notice the lights are starting to leave tracer tails. 

Kewl! (No more words starting here, no more words, just speechless fast thoughts.) 

I take a dayglow green “honeydew” into my mouth and, suddenly, illumination. 

I am the massive forest fire making way for the seedling that would otherwise be unable to germinate and grow. I am that seedling, now free to commune with the sky. I am the sky. Yeah. Goo goo g’joob. I’m crying, but I am not sad. 

A warm secure feeling was embracing me as I sat there, enjoying every moment. 

Tingling happily. Radiant. I feel like I could float, I can feel my body rejuvenating, although my mind said I should be ready for sleep any now time. 

“Go ahead, relax. I am watching the Tigers, Diatomic cooking, Sailing the Seychelles, Robot Dancing, Music of the Inuit, History of Orchids, Folk Remedies of Tuva, History of Submersibles, and I am keeping track of the tournaments. All of them.” 

“Right. Sure. Of course.” I was amused, time flew by, time melted away, time marched on. My heart was settling down, I was getting on with life once again; there will be no more sadness tonight. I watched a huge variety of things, some familiar, some not, all in perfect focus, tiny and huge depending on how or what or how many I wanted to watch. It feels real but without all that personal investment that usually tires me out so much. 

No agenda I have to pursue. I am Ebenezer Scrooge, only more objective in my observations and allowed to be at peace with all of the chain rattling of my former associates. See how they snied. 

I made chit chat with DC while my life flashed before my eyes. “So... Is this your home?” 

“Oh heavens no, no. We came here maybe four weeks ago, always looking for Willie.” I wondered if my glowing watch had even been made when they became, what? Terrestrial tourists? I found myself conjecturing wildly, but I was getting used to it. He continued on, “It was really hard to find this place. 

“This is a small island, it’s a floating island, and it can submerge if necessary. We got here and have been waiting for our Sweet Willie.” I thought about telling him that Wilhelmina preferred to be called Wilma, but I decided not to. To him she was his young innocent Willie, a child, and I have my Wilma, a strong shapely young woman with a mission and a vision. To the loyal arthropods she is the goddess vvVillie. We are all here waiting for her. 

And while I am waiting I pop another of those luscious little guava balls and wash down the pulpy past with more ambrosia. DC reached to inspect my beverage. “Let me fill your glass again.” 

“Oh no. No, no no no, I couldn't, no no, really, no. Well, okay, sure. Sure. Thanks.” 

We all bought into it, the handpicked few, save the world in one easy step. Follow orders, follow the rules. I was to go in first. I have that face you can trust. Gain his cooperation, his affection if you can. 

Otherwise do like that old evil joke, “If you can’t live with ‘em, kill ‘em.” But there I was, watching myself breaking the rules in her house. Was it that picture of him with that little girl by the dilapidated sailboat, placed so lovingly on the mantle? I am why I am. 

Two more generous refills of DC’s elixir of the gods after that, and I was fading fast. No, no, no. Well, if you’ll drive. Chit chat. This channel was experiencing technical difficulties. My mind kept drifting back to that experiential labyrinth he called the disco ball, as I tried to fill in memories and weave the whole dusty spider’s web back together. 

“Are there udder people here?” I asked him, trying to keep my head in the game, juss starting to slurb a bittle. No disrespect, my brother. 

“Well, yes there were others here,” said DC. “Now it’s just us. We will be moving along soon, after Willie and Cal get back. I have no idea when. I miss my home.” I remember composing one more question, and not struggling as the beverage gathered me in and wrapped me warm and snug in its..., um, whatever. 

“So.... What does your name mean, DC?” 

“My initials.” 

Willma checked her reflection in the smooth metallic surface of the air purification “scrubber,” thinking of Will Smith's line from Men in Black as she noted the fashion statement made by her father's glasses. Cal made a high-pitched gremlin giggle laugh when she absentmindedly spoke, saying, "Yeah, but on me these look good!" 

Tadpole proved itself to be a genuine labor saving device, and Wilma felt like that first dog the Russians launched into space. The pre-programmed coordinates flashed on the screen while she was not quite just going along for the ride as she bumped the throttle... Forward. 

“Ah. Sssssso..... (I almost did not make it to the question) What is your real name, your full name?” I was falling down down down into darkness as I heard him say... 

“Dick Clark.” 

I had just swallowed that last kiwi sized lime green ball, and that one long weekend at the Captain's San Francisco Victorian slid up to the surface while my own consciousness rather took a dive, but slowly, like a pearl dropped in Prell shampoo; luxurious and slow. 

The last puzzle pieces from right before the earthquake, I had to hold on a few moments longer. 

The Captain was explaining how all the land and ocean masses have deeper overlapping tectonic plates far below, and how tension builds up and, unless it is gently released, disasters like earthquakes are the result. He, and his longtime assistant, had made plans to address this problem all over the world. They had worked for years, and built first a prototype terra submersible that, given enough time, would be capable of focusing enough energy to make the appropriate adjustments before increasing tensions resulted in massive devastation on the surface. 

Even the window of my experience enfolded in that supposedly ultimate illumination provided by the balls of melon and mirrors would not let me see the Captain providing the rest of my instructions. But I have a conscious mind, too. I have no idea what the two triggers might have been, but it all fits. I dreamed about swimming in warm water, and there were heavenly smells, savory meat cooking, some strange perfume, unknown new spices, ocean smells. A jungle, underwater, with swimming creatures. I could spin and twirl upside down. I laughed. 

How can there be smells underwater? It was a dream, it does not require logic. I was where I belonged and it felt perfect. 

When I woke up DC was munching on something. Licking his odd shaped fingers. Enjoying it very much. 

“You have got to try some of this barbecue. There is not much left. I will save you some. Unless...” He looked from me back down to it, lovingly, and smacked his massive lips. Then back to whatever he was viewing. 

“Oh, no thanks, it sounds delicious, but it smells far too spicy for my breakfast. I’m not so hungry now anyway. Later, I’ll try some, for sure.” I felt an itching on my left ankle and reached out to scratch it. 

The itching on my leg was annoying, but not half as much as my next realization as I sat there with my gluttonous host. I tried to itch my leg, and terror filled my soul as I discovered my left arm was missing. I felt around with my right arm, the area where my left arm used to be showed no mark, it was smooth. There was no discomfort. There was now just a nub at the end of my shoulder. The arm was... 

I started breathing hard and the lump in my throat signaled panic as I screamed. “DC! MY ARM IS GONE!” 

He slowly leaned over, glancing quickly and then returning to the little round world before him. “Mmmm. Yes. So it is. Look, I'm trying to watch this right now. Calm yourself down. We'll take good care of you. No worries.” 

“But IT’S MY ARM! AND IT’S GONE! HELLO! GONE!” 

It was like he did not want to listen or he would argue no matter what I said. I kept protesting while he made logical counter argument, “(Tsk) Does it hurt? It doesn't hurt, does it? You have another. It was your left arm. You hardly used it. Don't be silly.” He was not going to allow me to distract from what he is doing. 

“Look, try to see this my way. Let me finish watching this. You are making way too much out of this. I will be giving you my full attention momentarily.” 

All of a sudden the talking picture book in front of me became infused with my heightened emotions of the moment. Things as they happened I was seeing on an instant replay, and my panic was magnified like being in one of those bathrooms with mirrors on both sides. I stood looking at myself stripped naked of my arm in endless repetition off into infinity. I could hear DC minimizing my concerns, far off in the background of my very valid panic, seemingly for an eternity. And then that bathroom mirror phenomenon again, and another eternity. “Well," he said as if reading my mind, "You know what they say: An eternity here, and an eternity there, but sooner or later it starts to add up. Ha, Ha!! 

“Quiet down and have some fruit juice old boy, relax, you are making too much of it... Let me rub some of this marinade, er I mean lotion, yummy lotion, onto a’nudder tasty looking limb. Don't you worry ‘bout a ting. No barbecue for you? It's really good, this is the last of it. Mmmmm. (burp) Ahhh. (He strikes an apologetic pose.) Sorry! now there is nothing left for you! Unless...” 

“WHAT HAPPENED TO MY ARM?” 

“I'll tell you what. We can get the Bzyklwitch to make you another one, a better one. You'll see, it will be even better than that old left arm.” 

I had no quick or slow answers. No answers. Here I am with Mega Lord Poppin’ Fresh and his endless appetite. With us are the million and one little entomological sorcerer’s apprentices. We are watching a magic watermelon and waiting for the triumphant return of the princess and the spiders. What could possibly go wrong? 

I puzzled over what DC said last night. He has been here for a short time, maybe four weeks, there were others here when he got here and now they are gone. He was eating something, and MY ARM IS FREAKING MISSING. Dick Clark? No way. I visualized a black and white picture of a trim man dancing the twist and grinning, with perfect hair. What is he smiling about? 

Time for a new plan. Options. My arm is gone. No pain, it’s just gone. Wait. Is there anything ELSE MISSING? Two eyes, two ears, two cheeks, two legs, one hand, one neck stuck out... 

 

Select: 

• Stand up and run. 

• Try to extract more from Dick Clark. 

• Wait until Wilma returns. 

• Play ball. 

• Quietly do nothing and secretly make a new plan. 

• Think of something else. 

Pick one. I remembered the seal trainer I had seen on TV. She always had a handful of little smelt, and tossed one just under the catlike whiskers every time the seal did what he was supposed to do. I could use the reward system, tossing him pieces of my remaining arm to get answers out of the big guy, but I don't have enough appendages left now even for no more than two small questions. Bad idea, cancel that. 

The closing theme music for “Gilligan’s Isle” filled the air as DC turned to me and continued on in a patronizing voice, “Okay, let's plan your new arm. Will that make you feel better? Sure it will.” Again, I pushed the panic down enough to ask for some clarification, because all the words...familiar...but not when stacked... just that way. DC used the sphere to illustrate his presentation. “We can make it bend in more directions than the old one. It will be stronger, you'll like that. They can make it look just like the old one, or not, as you prefer. It will be able to sense in new ways. For example, we can put eyes on your fingertips, you can have six or maybe ten fingers on your new hand, we can make special attachments. Did you used to play the piano? You will be able to play many musical instruments, and in new ways, operate equipment, use new tools. Make new tools. 

“What did you ever do with your old arm? Not so much really. Park your chin on it; perhaps it was useful for tying knots. For making scratchy on the family jewels. Hunting boogers. Now you can think of whole new things to do without that lazy ol’ left arm. With your new arm you will be able to reach further, five, ten, twenty feet or more. Tolerate extreme temperatures; we have various kinds of sensory adapters and extenders, things you have never even thought of. You will be able to feel softness or even taste things with your fingers, think of it; also of course you can block unpleasant textures or tastes just as easily.” 

Again he emphasized, “Just...think...of it. From something that was too lazy to even salute.” 

I was speechless. 

But it seemed he never was, “The Bzyklwitch are quite clever...” he went on, and I once more lost track of time, and when I turned to look again, there it was. 

The new synthetic arm was a perfect fit, but there was no explanation about what to do with it. An owner’s manual, is that too much to ask for? I figured out that there was a mode where my new arm looked like a normal arm, incognito, and there was an extended and accessorized version. I wondered if this was how the Swiss Army would eventually evolve. One thing I enjoyed doing was to send my finger up about thirty feet and then open up the eye, I could see in a complete circle. There might be virtually no end to what I could get the prosthetic marvel to accomplish, once I figure it out. I would have liked the real arm better, but this one was starting to grow on me, pun intended. Let's just say that appendage was making friends all around the Zebra Island neighborhood, up and downtown. 

I started spending all my time out on the beach and exploring the wooded areas. I wondered more about the little creature's manufacturing capability, had they made the white and black sand? There was the beach with its perfect zebra striped sand, and a remote hut on one of the keys that I made plans to visit one day. 

There was a jungle, big enough to get lost in, at least for a few minutes or maybe an hour. In the center, there was an exotic waterfall and place to swim. No native girls? Once Wilhelmina gets back we can do some splishing and splashing. She remained more than mortal in my memory. I wonder if she ever went by the name Mina? I wonder what we should name our firstborn? 

Settle down. 

At night there was always a fire on the beach and all ate the freshly caught seafood I had speared with a trident that appeared on my elongated pinky finger. The little people had limitless skills, including the epicurean arts. I could get used to this, really easily. They would sing their unique blend of modern and traditional folk songs, and relax, it was their off-time. Right now they are engaged in a rousing version of "Wimoweh" also known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” I am expecting them to dance in a frenzy around the fire, but so far I have not seen any of that. 

Dick Clark was not an outdoorsy type, he seemed to flourish indoors. We know why, it’s all about comfort and not about speed. One day I purposefully went to see him, perhaps to see if he is up to anything interesting, but really to make amends for my dramatic behavior. Whether or not my excitement over my lost limb was totally justified, it seemed appropriate to keep the peace. Also it’s good to keep an eye on the wildcards in the community. 

“Dick!” 

“Call me DC, if you please.” 

“Okay then. DC, if you please! I never would have chosen this mechanical arm thing, but now that it is here, perhaps I should probably express some kind of gratitude.” 

DC took a quick furtive look at my legs. “Would you like to join me for um, some more fruit juice and melon balls?” 

“Well I...” 

“I have a new kind, it’s even better than that sleepy stuff, this will put a zip in your step, a lift in your lap.” 

He produced the melon bowl; it was brimming with pastel morsels. He was ready. 

“I can imagine. Sure, why not. Oh, but first, I need to visit the uh.. you know, the little room.” 

“I do not understand.” 

“The little room.” 

“The what?” 

“The room with no windows.” 

“The what?” 

“Where we wash our hands.” 

“Oh, yes, yes, of course. Make some more room in there.” He likes his Randy Man jokes, and I know it’s good to laugh with him at his own jokes. It makes him relaxed. 

“I'll be right back.” The lavoratory is to the left, I went straight ahead. Now was a fine time to do some more exploring. Bionic legs might be the only fashionable match for my new superarm, but not tonight. I headed down a hall I had not been down before. It was dark. I found a door, it was locked. Further I found a wider spot, it had a bottomless pool in it too. I took off the glasses. And there it was. 

Floating in the pool was a white vehicle, it looked sort of like a 1960 Cadillac, with big white fins. I spent some time looking at it, about 12 feet long, no windows or openings visible, sort of oblong, with the two white fins. I ran my right hand over it, smooth and cold, wet and hard. I mumbled to myself, “Useless, but fascinating.” This is the Jitterbug. Says so right on the plaque. 

I extended my left hand, the mechanical one. They seemed to respond to each other, hand and Jitterbug. “Chnkkk” a door opened up. Inside, the LED array started to awaken, little dancing lights doing their self diagnosis routines. A chair for perfect eternity. Leather comfort quality satisfaction. It was irresistible, like a big car, just like a 1960 white Cadillac. Front seat, back seat, control panel. No steering wheel. Smooth leather seats. Soft. Oh my friend. From outside the vehicle appears to be opaque, inside, it’s the widest view imaginable; the inside is bigger than the outside. How do they do that? Slide on in, mmmmm yeah. "Zooooooom zoom... Bpbpbpbpbbmmmpppppppppp..." I am meant to be here, right now. I could just go. I wonder how to turn the engine on? 

The more I thought about the hungry fellow waiting for me, the more I had ideas for a new plan. This would be the perfect time to just slip on out of this crazy bait shop, just leave this tropical snack bar before Fatso and the Crawlers have all or part of me for their dim-sum again. 

No steering wheel. No glove compartment, no owner’s manual. No key. There was clearly some kind of relationship between this vehicle and my new hand. I gave it a try. I held my hand out and thought CLOSE DOOR and it closed. Then SUBMERSE. Away I went, down and then out into the deep dark sea. I extended my new left arm and hand, now able to make that “Vulcan V” of Mr. Spock’s. How about this: FIND VVILMA. 

Tadpole's first mission was now complete, and the Netherlands, for a time, were safe. She called out the coordinates to her three gifted navigators, but this time the coordinates kept slightly changing and Wilma explained it was time to bring some stragglers back into the herd. They headed north and to the top of the water, and quickly had an iceberg about half the size of Israel on their prow. Pushing it back up to the Arctic mass was faster than anticipated, because ice is just molecules stacked in crystalline formation, Tadpole was ideally suited to reseal the seam, before setting back out to sea and locating the next in a list of several large dunkers. They spent the better part of that day and into the night helping to refreeze that which must stay frozen, and then it was campout time. They proceeded to gather driftwood for a big fire like the Bzyklwitch are used to at their distant home. 

Wilma didn't think it would do any harm; one beach fire would not cause enough melting to matter. Everybody deserves a s’more once in a while. 

Just when Wilma was leading them in a second high-pitched chorus of "This Land Is Your Land," a far off vibration was heard, and all was hushed. A loud crack found a fissure opening up and swallowing the campfire as if it was of no consequence. 

Unfortunately, eight of the Bzyklwitch became freeze-dried and flash frozen as they plummeted into the chasm. Chaos reigned as the remaining Bzyklwitch, Larry and Moe, still grieving Curly Joe, and many others tried to cram through the portal of the terra submersible, all at once. The ship lurched, and another huge slab of ice slid down and out of sight as Wilma lost her footing, and made a snatch grab for the corkscrew proboscis, watching three more of her comrades rolled under the twisting Tadpole as its pod legs could not adjust to the rapidly changing terrain. The Tadpole was hot to the touch, something was wrong. It’s usually cold. The vibration became almost deafening, and clearly getting closer, as she made her way to the hatch, and unceremoniously pushed the rear ends of several of her crew in order to dislodge them from the entry portal. As happens only with practice, she then threw herself in and twisted the vacuum seal crank, before turning to see how many familiar faces would not be at choir practice tonight. The entire ship then upended as everyone fell into the nose cone, and looked out and down towards their fallen colleagues and former campfire. In a whisper, Wilma carefully enunciated a most important order, "Don't.....move.” 

Something happened. I decided to rescue her.

 

BIG (RED) ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN 

Mars is not dusty, it’s sort of moist. The first settlers grabbed up all the good stuff, the sources of what passes for water, which is thicker than it is on earth, but it smells better. It’s also a fantastic lubricant, which is good for machines. For human earthlings it’s not so good for drinking in its raw form, but it can be processed and it is delicious. It’s intoxicating too. The whole planet could be like a big Rock Candy Mountain. But it isn’t. 

Out here on Mars there are the land owners, not many of them, and the settlers, lots of them. Once the immigration program was worked out a steady stream of them kept arriving from earth every day. 

There are two distinct settler working class communities, the miners and the ranchers. The agricultural possibilities are as yet abandoned; sooner or later someone will figure that one out, as there is considerable demand for “fresh” fruits and vegetables. A fortune is waiting for the clever agriculturalist. Farming is not a very popular concept with the powerful land-grabbing ranching cartel. They don't want fences, under starry skies above. Perhaps the answer will be underground greenhouses, once some kind of source for subterranean illumination is figured out. Now, that is a fortune awaiting a clever and lucky farmer and inventor. 

I sort of woke up here; it started in the transporter, something must have happened which cleaned my clock. It was a rough landing, well, not exactly. It was a horrible crash, bippity bippity zoom and thud-tinkle-sizzle, with a lam bam boom. When we came to a stop the airlock was jammed shut, but there was a huge hole torn in the floor. After leisurely considering my options for almost one endless second, and simultaneously pounding frantically on the airlock door, while the air supply rapidly turned nasty, I decided to just shout GERONIMO and jump into the hole. That might have been a mistake. I probably should have tested it a bit and lowered myself gradually. I wonder what happened. I have no idea. 

The infirmary has these ceiling fans. I woke up slowly. I came to realize that I had been watching those fans for the past million years or so. No, maybe longer. I have no idea how long I have been here now. I think I may have been born here. Maybe I will die here. Let's find out, but what’s the sport in rushing? No hurries. 

I hear the nurses talking. Now they are standing in front of my bed and looking at me, pointing at me, consulting their charts, and making notes. They look at me an all nod in perfect agreement. “This one is hopeless. Dumb as an empty box of hammer-rocks. We bloody well can't afford to keep the likes of him around any longer, eating and breathing, he's going to the “euthy camp” tomorrow. This other one next to him, he seems to be making some progress.” That fellow is out cold but he has some kind of strange attachment or prosthesis instead of his left arm. He is wearing a poorly fitting black Che Guevara shirt and ill-fitting black chinos, odd for space travel. Except for being unconscious, he appears to be in good shape for any of the most difficult frontier work. 

The nurses wander on down the row, assessing each of the unconscious human potted plants. It’s mostly very quiet in here, except for the yammering nurses. The machines hum and beep. It’s the nurses who are the disturbing elements here. Euthy? Euthanasia. 

Bummer. 

That very night, after it felt like it was the time for what I knew that had to do.... 

I took advantage of my somewhat untested abilities to move, and slipped out of the airlock. The ground below was further down than I expected. Luckily, when I hit, I landed on my face, but now I am more or less walking again, and it’s getting better with every hour as I put one painful foot in front of the other. I found some obviously abandoned boots that sort of fit me, and a jumpsuit. The orange ones were not my color, so I took the only light green one. Upon reflection, an orange one would have blended in with the Martian landscape a bit better, which could have worked to my advantage, as I was seeking to avoid the “euthy camp” sing-along memorial society. Upon a bit more reflection, orange could have been a problem, I would have been both lost and hidden and my story would have a different outcome at this point. It seems to have worked out for the best, as you will eventually see. 

The area around the infirmary is forbidding. I attempt to propel myself forward like the devil is after me. 

Later I decided that the devil was actually waiting out ahead for me, so running only decreased my distance from his influences. Now it seems that nobody was chasing me. Now, with the wisdom of hind-sight, I think that they were probably all watching me on their little security monitors and wagering on how long I will last on my own in the Martian wilderness. “C’mon, baby needs a new pair of shoes...” 

It was a mistake to look down to try and rip the wrinkled and weather-beaten tape off my wrists, as in the gathering darkness my new old boot finds something under the Martian moss that is slippery. My heel slides forward too wide, and then stops short, whipping me to knee, to chest and, stopping directly on the side of my face as it once again hits the impressionable ground in spite of my best jazz hands. I find myself staring down the gullet of about the biggest hungry predatory creature this side of the Milky Way. 

He has a natural pattern of bars on his torso and an “N” burned on his back. He belly crawls way too fast at my face until he is just three feet away. He and I both know that he will soon take my head off, and the guttural air escaping rises into a victorious reptilian roar for just a second before the diamond-shaped, razor sharp metal projectile comes straight down out of the night’s blackness. The harpoon tip passes between the bulging periscope eyes and into that Martian critter's brainpan with the whisper of instant death. I cautiously and gratefully look up, searching for the source of my salvation. But what if they had actually missed their intended target? 

I am a stranger in a stranger land, wearing a crazy colored jump-suit decorated with duct tape. In the dim light I see a silhouette of a tall amazingly muscular female human holding a weapon. Thank God for the Section Five funding of high school girl’s athletic training programs, which allowed young ladies to learn to shoot. My Amazon champion has blond hair pulled back into a practical weave and she would own the basketball court if there was a handy basketball court, but there is none out here. 

She owns me now. 

She quickly retrieves the harpoon tip from the creature's cooling corpse and restores it to her utility belt. 

“Hopefully nobody saw us shoot that thing; I do NOT want to have to pay for it. With our luck, some dang rancher is going to miss it.”

Us? Our luck? 

She does not have to convince me that this is a bad place for “us” to be as I see a multitude of the snap-jawed “N” creatures swarming in to assist and/or dine upon their sibling. My new heroine has a dirty old tunneling vehicle about 20 feet in length and I jump in first. We scoot across the surface of Mars. 

She says her name is Mina, and is short for Wilhelmina. She tells me that she hates that name. Her father ran a bed-and-breakfast in Northern Norway. She hated it there and signed up as soon as she possibly could to come to Mars. Now she hates it here. But it’s not as dull as Northern Norway. 

Her mother, Helga, died when she was young and so she has no memories of her. Her father is a big grumpy man with blond hair and huge hands. His name is really Fritz, but everyone calls him Willy. She has two sisters, they were a perfect post-petite pod of triplets. Myna came to Mars first and has a career somewhere deep in the mineral extraction profession; and Mimi remains at the family business with their papa Willy in Norway. 

She sets the miner's carriage, called a Carbuncle, to automatic pilot and continues telling me all about herself, but she thinks of it as telling me how things work around here. She lives in a bivouac on the flats; there is an extra room or two that she rents to new arrivals, noobs, which would be my status. I seem to be her recruit for the mines. She runs the bivouac as a boarding house and assists with the immigrant’s transition from new guy to productive resident in the mining community nearby. This keeps her out of the mines. 

She chatters away, and then abruptly says “Hold on a sec, I’ll be right back.” I think she is going topside of the rolling Carbuncle to smoke a cigarette, but that couldn't be. Nobody smokes cigarettes any more, do they? In the movies they do. A few minutes later I heard what sounded like a soft gasp and then nothing. I was fading into a nap. I should have investigated, but it was pleasant where I was, so I continued warmly fading while the Carbuncle was swaying. 

That was the last I saw of her that night. The carriage seemed to know what to do. The Carbuncle found its way home through the darkness while I dozed off. We arrived and sat there for a while before I awoke and figured out that I was “home.” 

In the living quarters there was a tall buff bipedal creature with a huge toothy mouth. He greets me with a smile that goes all the way around his head. His name is Dmitri Caspar, he says that sometimes he prefers going by "DC" and he asks me what my name is. 

I have no idea. 

He has an answer. “Oh yeah, it’s transporter amnesia. Humans are not meant for space travel, this happens all the time. Let’s call you... Kurt. Kurt Ishjoynar.” 

Call me Ishjoynar. 

He asks me where Mina is, he has been waiting for her, he planned to surprise her, and she does not know he is here. He was expecting her to be on the Carbuncle with me. I know nothing. He is not concerned, he's an easy-going Martian, or whatever. 

“Well, since we’re both waiting for Mina, we might as well see what’s on the tele.” 

There is only one channel, and it’s instructional, all about mining and new equipment, surface weather, seismographic activities, safety bulletins and endless chatter, but the hostess of the show is one good-looking something-or-other. Sort of silver-copper mixed blond hair and a balcony fit for Shakespeare, if you know what I mean. Dmitri Caspar is quite happily absorbed in her splendor. I take advantage of his distraction to look around the room. 

On the table is a pair of really strange looking old wire rim glasses, I can't help myself, and I put them on. 

Suddenly Dmitri Caspar appears to be a flaming demon who I can plainly see wants to eat me, his eyes burn me as his tongue, long and blue, travels the entire circumference of his surprisingly wide toothy hunger hole. It beckons to me. All around us there are these twelve-inch tall silver chipmunk-like creatures that walk upright, they are carrying tools and all busy doing things, they can plainly see me but take no special notice, they all are extremely busy. I take the glasses off and quietly put them back where I found them. 

“Did you say something, Ishjoynar?” says the harmless looking thin man with too many teeth. I am keeping my distance from him and looking around the room for the chipmunks. Cautious steps, careful footing; I would not want to step on one. 

“Uh, no, I bumped my knee a little while ago, still hurts.” I rub my knee for effect. 

“Do you require medical attention?” He licks his lips and has a hungry look on his face as his eyes travel up and down my legs. 

“Oh I'm fine, thanks.” What are you going to do, kiss it? This is not going well. 

“Your legs are extraordinary, Kurt.” He licks his lips again. His gaze is revolting to me, having seen what I saw. What did I just see? Chipmunks? A hungry demon? Maybe it’s more complicated than that. Or not. Maybe I am just tired. Or not. 

“Um. Thanks.” Awkward moment. He is a hungry demon for sure. 

“Have a beer.” That is a great idea, every time. Dmitri is alright. Yes, indeed. 

“Thanks, I sure can use one.” I notice Dmitri is not having any. He comments that means more for me. I agree. I have several. Then I have several more. This pleases him. This pleases me too. At this point it’s working out pretty well for me. As the beer flows and the evening unfolds, Dimmy is for sure my very bestest buddy ever now, yeppir. I really mean it, man. Or whatever he is. Dude. Dude-thing. Is that a word? 

I wake up on the couch. The rosy red fingers of the Martian dawn have long since passed from the sky; it must be mid-morning, or early mid-morning. Dmitri is munching on some kind of sticky snack, it’s all over his mouth and cheeks. He seems startled when he sees that I am awake. He seems to be guilty of something as he offers me some of his smeary chunks. I say “Thanks but no thanks, Dimmy.” He happily continues munching and watching the tele. The new hostess for the morning miner's news show has strawberry mint hair. She also is easy on the eyes, if you know what I mean. 

My leg itches. I reach for it, but my legs are... (can’t you guess?) Both FREAKIN' GONE. All both of them. Words cannot describe my feelings at this moment. This moment goes on longer than any other moment in my life, except maybe for the moment last night when the snap-jawed lizard-thing nearly got my head. I am not hungry anymore just now. I am having difficulty breathing. I am making squeaking noises as I probe my stumps and look under the couch, I would check the Carbuncle but it’s too far. 

I am now a living stub, sitting on the couch, next to Dmitri. He actually notices my distress and comments between wet smacking gobbles. This saves me from having to make an announcement as my words are hard to come by just now. 

“No legs. Oh yeah. That is a problem, Kurty. (Burp.) No worries. We can requisition you some new ones. Chop-chop!” He continues his messy meal, never having looked away from the strawberry mint dream girl. 

My brain has shorted out, I am not able to form words just now, my jaws do not work, and my eyes are overflowing dilated limpid pools of subterranean darkness. I have never been a human doorstop before. 

Lie on the floor and call me Matt. Take me swimming, call me Bob. Take me water skiing, call me Skip. Hang me on the wall, call me Art. All of these things involve the initiative of others. I am a potted plant now. 

Mina shows up, it turns out she fell off of the carriage. She had to walk the seventeen miles back to the bivouac. She is oddly composed for having walked seventeen miles in the Martian darkness and dawn with those snapper-things out there roaming free. She knows a few things. This is more or less just another normal day for her in this wild frontier place. Am I going to love it here, or what? 

She is cordially surprised but polite when she spots Dmitri. It’s not like it’s a warm reunion. Now I have to wonder about their dynamics. Watch and learn. She doesn't like my new name “Kurt” either, but she is sympathetic towards my leg-free condition. They were my second and third favorite appendages. Mining and ranching are both very dangerous professions and it’s not unusual to find workers that have artificial limbs. Actually, for some jobs, prosthetics are preferred or even required, because the new technology allows for the wearer to perform in new and more useful ways. Will I be able to play the drums, doctor? 

I guess once I get the new legs I will be able to run really fast. That could be handy, with those snappers out there, and whatever else might be waiting for me. I wonder if I will be able to jump really high? I meant it as a joke, but Mina said I should be careful. Some of the first users of the power-legs jumped straight up several hundred feet and when they came back down they died from the impact. Such jumping is evidently handy for crossing chasms or leaping atop tall buildings in a single bound. I can't wait. Really, I can't. 

Show me the way to go home. 

She tells me more about the ropes while Dimmy stays in the realm of strawberry-mint fields forever. It’s a good place for him just now. Here is what Mina told me about mining on Mars. It’s very repetitive work. Most miners wind up in some kind of glazed condition, they do not live long, most die, ahem, retire before they turn 40. After just a few months in the mines they tend to turn gray, developing huge facial running sores and a conspicuous preference for darkness. They do not talk much, well, they sort of groan, and they lumber about in a surprisingly productive fog for many years until they slow down and eventually they just stop moving. Then somebody has to bury them. There is some research going on towards the possibilities for refurbishment. 

Reuse. Recycle. Reanimate. Replace. Repeat. 

The life, well, it’s not really a life. The existence of a miner not painful, she says, and it pays the surviving family members very well, so it’s a popular profession for recruits from polluted and broken old overpopulated worlds with no hope. So, you got your Martian pit-men and your Martian wranglers with absolutely no half-way point in betwixt. 

The immigrants who come for the mining opportunities are not a bit like the ranching types. Mina hates the fast-talking rude and arrogant land-grabbing surface types. Ranchers are a different breed, much more adventuresome and they tend to avoid the miners altogether. Those “cowboy” guys tend to lose limbs the hard way, getting nipped by the “cows” which is what they call the dim witted snap-jawed creatures. The cows are ferocious, but the bulls are twice the size and much more dangerous. Luckily they are extremely rare. The males are kept for breeding only. Those nipper-creatures are prized for their tasty meat. They tend to graze on the specially bred smaller creatures that do not move quickly enough, and they grow fat. 

The smaller creatures do not taste good to humans. The cows will eat pretty much anything. They love fresh miners best of all. I am more sure I don't like it here. 

Mina puts in a requisition for a set of new legs which arrive in a few minutes, and then she locks herself in her private chambers. So now it’s just me and Dmitri with his messy mug and the tele babes. He is looking at my arms, but he does not say that I have extraordinary arms. Still, this unspoken possibility does not comfort me. 

I strap on the legs and go for a test walk around the room. It’s easy. In various places there are special ports for all sorts of accessories, but there is no user’s manual. It’s supposed to be all on the tele,. The first-time wearers have plenty of time, as they are not going anywhere, so if they wait long enough they will sufficiently learn enough about the basics of prosthetic operations to get going again. If you can't figure it out quickly, you get to go feed the cows one last time. 

From the corner of my eye I can see that Dmitri is secretly looking at my arms again, but he is not very good with secrets. He looks perpetually hungry. This is not a good place to relax. 

Past the restroom is a locked door, and down the hall further I find a shaft with a ladder leading to new places for me to explore as I adjust to my new locomotivity. The first two levels below are unremarkable, so I continue climbing down, where I come to a dark chamber and find some kind of bay with a pool in it. When I enter, the lights automatically come on, fading up slowly. 

Floating in the pool of thick fluid was a white vehicle; it looked sort of like a 1960 Cadillac, with big white fins. I spent some time looking at it, about 12 feet long, no windows or openings visible, sort of oblong, with the two white fins. I ran my hand over it, smooth and cold, wet and hard. It appears to be quite useless, but fascinating. This is the Watusi, it says so right on the plaque. There is no door but it has sort of a saddle with some odd attachments. I did not think to look at my new legs to see if any matched. I eventually head back up the ladder, this Watusi thing is fascinating to me, but it’s time for me to eat. A man has to obey his natural priorities. 

No one is in the kitchen with Mina when I get there. I remark that she has an unusual banjo hanging on the wall. Happily there is no sign of Dmitri Caspar. The pantry has thousands of cans labeled “Happy Meals for Hungry Humans” but no ingredients are listed. It’s all the same, and it’s not so bad, so I dig right in. There are no forks or knives in a Martian miner's kitchen, just spoons and can openers. I ask her about the eye-glasses that I found, and she looks panicked, where are they now? They are all she has left from her mother's things. No sign of them on the table where I left them, or on the floor behind the table. I ask her about the silver chipmunks, she laughs and suggests that I am still adjusting to my arrival on the Red Planet. She decides to change the subject and continues with my introductory lessons. 

Its a twist. I don't mention the Watusi. I am standing still. 

Mina explains to me that the landowners resent the miners because it limits the range where the “cows” can roam, they tend to fall into the holes, and of course there is the water situation, well, it’s not really water, like water on earth, it’s something indigenous, it’s necessary for both mining and herding, and it’s in short supply. So there are constant struggles over the natural resources. Nature is all about struggles, everywhere you roam. 

She quietly confides to me that Dmitri is a spy from the mining cartel who is here to keep an eye on her activities. She does not trust him, but she is not about to signal her concern, a good report from him means more supplies. I suggest that he might have stolen the glasses; she frowns and changes the subject again. This really bugs her. She has a lot of work to do, so she suggests that I head outside to get better acquainted with my new legs. 

It’s still morning, the sun is approaching the meridian and I am putting my new legs through their paces. It’s windy outside, in the sunshine. Yes, I can run really fast, and it’s a gas! I am not ready to try jumping quite yet, except I notice something over in the periphery of my vision. It’s a huge shadow coming right at me. I startle and leap just in time to avoid a huge disaster; it appears to be an avalanche of sticks and branches, which goes noisily bouncing past me in the wind. 

The tumbleweeds on Mars are over 50 feet tall, some get to be 200 feet or more in height. They roam across the Martian plains and must be respected. I have cheated death one more time by sidestepping the monstrous free-roaming brush. There is a mining settlement nearby, but off in the distance I see what appears to be an isolated building of some kind, which I feel compelled to investigate. I cover the distance at a moderate jog in about thirty minutes and find myself outside of the Big N Ranch. 

The first wrangler I meet is Shorty. He is a black man, seven feet tall in his fancy cowboy boots and he has an easy smile. He tells me that they are looking for hands, and I should talk to the big bossman, Nemo. Mr. Nemo? (nope, just Nemo) Nemo is out just now, tending the back 40,000,000 acres, but he will be returning before sundown. I should take a look around and make myself presentable, if that is what I want to do. It’s not an easy life, being a ranch hand, but what good is easy anyway? 

Shorty tells me that Nemo is a bit hard to get used to; he tends to run a tight ship, keeps the boys in line with his famous nasty temper. He likes to think of himself as a cruel boss man, but a fair one. If I can get along with Nemo, my future on the surface is secure, “podner.” If not, they will eventually feed me to the  cows. Simple. 

Shorty has seen lots of Western movies, he loves the old films. He mimics their speech, with lots of colorful gunslinger slang terms and sometimes he sports a fake drawl. I never was so big on old movies about men on horses with guns and boots that jingle jangle jingle, and ten-gallon hats, but I know enough to comprehend what Shorty is saying, for the most part. 

Right now the cows are all feeding, over the hill somewhere over there, I mean yonder, further away from the mining camp. Shorty says that I should stay away from the cows until I've had some basic instructions. 

There's a video pod in the ranch-house, and Shorty sets me up with the various training programs. Unlike the miner’s mono-channel, there are 1200 or so streaming broadcast choices for cowpokes to view on, but I am assigned the safety basics, which should keep me busy until Nemo shows. Shorty excuses himself; he has been assigned to help Cooky with the evening grub. He welcomes me again, with a hearty slap on the back which nearly knocks me off my new legs, but he is already gone, chuckling to the mess hall. 

The cows are not indigenous; they were bred on the planet by some of the earliest settlers. They had a huge number of experimental breeds, but only the dangerous snap jawed types thrived, or even survived. 

Some got away from the poorly designed primitive pens a long time ago, now they roam in great packs across the Redlands. Most of them are branded and tend to return each evening to their night territory. They are extremely dangerous, but very tasty, grilled over a campfire at night, or prepared in a thousand different ways that the ranch-folk pride themselves in preparing. 

Miners tend to stay away from all that, they eat from cans and have their own ways of doing things. They are regarded as inferior beings by the cowboys, who would just as soon feed them to their cows as look at them. The miner families tend to steadily accumulate wealth, while the cowboys are loners, depending on their home ranch for everything. I think I would rather be a cowboy than a miner. It’s really up to Nemo now. 

Nemo, it turns out, has been feuding with another landowner, also a rancher, name of Picketwicket. Seems that somebody has just recently (it was just last night) shot one of Nemo's prize cows, which is a survival drama everyone understands and would be excused if it was kill or be killed, but what turns it sour is that they just left the body there to rot, which is a crime in these parts. They should of et it. This kerfuffle could set off another range war. It had been shot in the head with some kind of arrow-razor device, and the killing point had been pulled, obviously in an effort to cover the trail. Somebody is going to pay for this waste of good meat. Prime heifer. The best, from the N Ranch, wasted and left to gather trouble. This is bad. Why didn’t the other cows eat it? 

But wait, the story is much more complicated than just a simple land feud between big fat old ranchers. There is some history to this bloody situation. Years ago, Picketwicket and Nemo had been partners, hence the adjacent spreads. There was a very private and darkly hidden rumor that Nemo had fathered a child by Mrs. Picketwicket, but the situation was further complicated by the first business partner of Picketwicket, name of Early Harl, who has long since vanished from the scene. Harl had eventually hired a gunslinger to settle things after Nemo came on the scene. After old man Picketwicket passed away, old Nemo rigged up some deal to snatch up all that land, so now Nemo has the entire combined spread to himself. It’s prime Martian Redlands that stretch further than you can see in one day, either by motorcycle, or by Carbuncle; but you could by running on my automaton legs. 

There is an old legend that folks tell around here, as to the truth behind it, nobody will ever know for sure. There was a young man who had won the heart of the Picketwicket daughter (the one rumored to be secretly fathered by Nemo), which is probably why Early Harl hired the gunslinger. One day both of the young men were suddenly gone and the pregnant daughter had abruptly gone back to Earth to try her hand at working the family business there and to raise the offspring. The fate of the two young men is an old legend, they are said to have been eaten by the cows of course, but their spirits were still stalking each other, taking potshots in the Martian nights. To these times, nobody will go up into certain hills, day or night. 

 

BETTE NOIR 

The tires stopped squealing when the car went off the cliff. It spun and bounced down the rocky walls and came to rest, right side up, but facing the wrong way, on the boulders lining the shore of the Willamette River. 

I have not used my robotic arm in, well, years, but when it came time to use it, I was able to pop open the jammed car door and leap out. I saw the tree and rolled hard; the car door hit the trunk and was smashed shut again just as the car went off the cliff. I got some involuntary shut-eye under that tree, but we found that my thumb-camera came on and captured what transpired after that. 

Be careful of what you ask for. At the wheel was the hitch-hiker. A few minutes earlier I had decided to reach out to someone in need and give them a lift, and that helpless person decided to reach out to me, and take everything I had. He was at the wheel, and he was not such a good driver, holding his gun on me and steering with the other hand and looking at me and the rest of the world while he made his new plans. We heard the sound of a cell phone ringing once, it sounded like it was under the car, there was a click and the brakes went out. Of course, we were on a mountain road coming to the cliff. What that hitch-hiker did for me, unwittingly, is something I could never pay back, but somehow I feel very little sense of guilt or loss. 

Should I? I was on assignment; Stanley and Willie have hired me as a gumshoe. We were working on old business. It was bad business that would not leave us alone. The name is one word, which you are about to learn. 

The thumb-camera took over while I rested up under that tree. A black Lexus pulled up, three prickly bearded men with brown hair got out, and they were looking down at the car below. The short one pulled out his Smartphone and said in perfect Russian: “Tell Nemo it’s my payday! Yes, I can see him down there; he is trying to open the bulletproof windshield using his face!” The taller one said, in an English accent, in English, “That’s using his head!” and charfled, “har har har!!” The other two in synchronization, as if they had done it a million times before said “Shut up Henry,” which made Henry charfle even harder “HAR HAR HAR HAR!” Now there was black smoke coming from below. Then the short guy on the Smartphone held it up to show the view, “There he is! Wait! What’s this?” The sound of a roaring fire as the gasoline explodes, first on the outside, which animates the trapped man, and then the inside of the car roars, a fireball pops out all the windows. “Bad news, it looks like he has decided to take a nap.” 

Suddenly a naked teenage boy jumps up on a nearby moss covered redwood tree trunk lying nearby, he points at the fire engulfed car below and says “Whoa, dude!” 

Immediately three red dots appear, one between his eyes, two on his chest, he looks at the three men, there are three snapping clicks and he is blown backwards, falling behind the log and down the cliff. 

The middle guy says to the short guy “You got the headshot, your point.” The short guy is back on his phone, in Russian, “Five-Oh is probably on the way.” Henry says “Nemo doesn’t want any more dead cops from us.” It’s not clear who says “Let’s Roll!” but the three of them jump into the Lexus, the license plate rotates from “1USA USA1” to “1WAYRYDE” and the car sprays gravel. 

I woke up under the tree with Sweet Willie and Cal standing over me, placing me into a sled. Willie says “Don’t move,” and I said “Helga!” and she looked puzzled. Cal said “You moved.” Then he released some kind of sedative into my neck. Next I woke up in the MRI of the University of Oregon in Eugene. The man in green, wearing a mask, said “If Guinness had some kind of prize for the number of concussions a human being can sustain, you should win.” I was not otherwise hurt, some scratches and scrapes, nothing serious. I walked out on my own power. 

They took me down in the hospital’s basement; the Tadpole was waiting unseen below the lowest floor of the garage. We got to Charlotte in eleven hours; the hold-up was in Denver, where we picked up a mysterious box for Chris. 

The “Salmon Rose” has a photo collage design created by Orchid Ting, the sister of the head chef, Chris Ting. It’s a salmon, leaping up a waterfall, with a perfect red rose clenched in its jaws. Upstairs, which is the ground floor, is a lunch room where soup, pasta, bread and salad are served every day, and down below are several especially themed dining rooms. Sam and Rose are in Blackbeard’s Cave, finishing their Mort Aux Chocolate. Wilhelmina and I arrive, after delivering the mysterious box to the main kitchen. Rose gives me a warm greeting. “We heard that you’ve been knocked around a bit.” 

“I heard that too, that’s what they tell me.” My bad memory precedes me. 

Rose asks “Bopped on his beezer again, huh?” 

Wilhelmina replies “I think this is his seventh concussion. Maybe eight.” 

“No wonder he can’t remember his name.” The next word stops the whole party cold. 

“Nemo.” 

 

INSIDE SOLID ROCK

From the Tadpole Wilma became aware of an array of quickly approaching surface vessels. Friends or Foes? Then she thought, with so many shades of gray, what’s the difference?

I am in the stolen vehicle having just escaped from DC's next barbecue. Not everything works on "my" vessel. Finally the Jitterbug’s screens come on line, absent that annoying static, and I am back surrounded by my new friendly hosts. The invisible magic-hand throttle is on full and my rapt attention locked on the little image of Wilma. Not Wilma personally, but I had the Tadpole dead in my sights. I could see that something was terribly wrong, because the Tadpole was lifeless in the water, several hundred feet down under the broken icy water of the surface, tipped vertically and wobbling perilously on a pointed rock formation. It was starting to come about and right itself, albeit much too slowly to satisfy the average prudent person. In concert with that notion, there was an array of alarms going off on my instrument panel, though I have no idea of what they do. Whooop Whoop Whoooooop! 

Lots of noise, adds to the excitement. Faster now, Faster! Help is on the way. Jus’ hang on Missy Willie-One! I have come! Rescue is eminent. You are sooooo welcome!

"Can you contact that idiot on the Jitterbug, Three-DC?” and the immediate reply, "How about if I patch you in, Willie-One, remember, he does not want to talk to me just now. I would wager that he would loooove to talk to you." (Chortle chortle, *click*) "Go ahead now."

"Okay. HEY BONEHEAD! WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU DOING??!"

I can show them I know my new communications moniker. "Bonehead to Wilma, I mean, Willie-One, I see you, ahhh, that is, I have a visual on the Tadpole, and I am closing in fast!

Prepare yourself for rescue!” I was one big grin from tooth to tail.

This was my glorious moment and I loved every shivering bit of it. I was standing hard and tall and proud. “Here I come, sweet cheeks, ready or not!"

"FIRST OF ALL, KNOCK IT OFF WITH THE SWEET CHEEKS!!!"

"Willie-One, hold it please. Try to speak more calmly, I can't hear you when you shout."

"Fine, Mr. Kurdish Bonehead. I can do that. First. The Jitterbug was an abandoned prototype. Not ready for sea travel. Did you notice that there is no steering wheel? There are no brakes either. You are riding on a missile that you have no way to control or even just slow down. But your next problem is the old unstable power supply. It’s been nice knowing you, Mr. Bonehead. Make peace with your maker, and you better do it right now. Goodnight, Joiner, or Courage Joyner, or Kurdish Jaynar, or whoever you are. Or were."

There was a brief video image of my face on her comm screen. Try to imagine the expression on my face. Sort of a flickering transition from a gleeful BABY HERE I COME! to a warm puddle-making OH SHHHHIPPPP…

For a man who cannot even remember my own name, I have a lot of perspectives. There were more than a couple view screens inside the Jitterbug that caught my attention while I watched the drama reflecting my own (in hindsight not so) ultimate demise. I had an odd feeling, almost of pleasure, as Wilma averted her burning gaze in horror at the moment of impact, while the unflappable DC placidly looked on, munching on something crunchy.

Wilma struggled to watch, incredulously, as the Jitterbug flashed past her in a magnificent arc, white fins holding steady, a thing of beauty to behold. There was the rock wall. There was the Jitterbug. A little silver pod of some sort popped out just before it came to the wall… Impact in 3. 2. FLASH!

Then: 

Nothing. Not a thing. No sound. Not even a bubble. The rock wall appeared to be untouched, no sign of any impact. The Jitterbug had created its own passage and then closed itself in as it went. Then the battery died. The solid rock wall appeared as if nothing had ever happened. Such a wonderful vehicle, now merged with infinity. What was he thinking? Why such a hurry? 

Wilma ponders aloud, "Is this another tragic case of testosterone poisoning?"

"Okay, on to the real problem. Can you get the Tadpole to move?"

"Negative, DC-Three."

"Oh. Well, sorry dear one, dear sweet Willie-One. I have not seen you in umpteen years, and then you are suddenly back in my life (there was a murmur of Bzyklwitch protest from the peanut gallery), errrmm, OUR lives, and now, this, another goodbye. You know the old rules. If any of those trackers get a hold of this technology they are going to use it for a whole new type of military nightmare. That Can Not Happen. You must execute the final plan, Willie-One."

There were frogmen surrounding the Tadpole.

Wilma remembers gathering the remaining little group of bravely weeping beloved Bzyklwitch close to her and pushing the black button. She shouts “UP YOURS!” and the end comes to the world’s first working terra-submersible.

BLOOP!!! A shock-wave emanated from the Tadpole, its last statement to all pursuers. 

The ship broke into pieces and the icy water came in eagerly to welcome everyone to inky freezing blackness.

All they found was Wilma's limp body when it floated to the surface.

They hauled her up still alive out of the arctic gray slush and wrapped her frozen body in a fluorescent orange microfleece blanket. 

They prepared to ask her lots of questions.

###

Approximately a week or so later, deep in a dark cave, a tiny grinding noise could be heard. Eventually a metal probe pushed a big rock aside and at its tip an infrared eyeball scanned the area. Lots of dark nothingness, but it was not rock, it was air. There was space in the rock. It was a cave. Slowly, slowly more finger probes eased into the cave, and slowly, slowly something larger was brought out of the solid rock and up onto the cave floor. 

That would be me crawling out of the Jitterbug. Heck yes, it was quite painful.

Wilma had tried to remain silent to her captors, then she started blathering whatever deceptive lies she could imagine. They remained calm and cool, asking and re-asking questions, flocks of questions. Endless beaches, endless grains of sand that were questions. She prayed for them to give up on her, pleading that because she is insane now, a mind folded back in on itself, they should stop wasting the effort. A body fetal and safe back in the ancient mother’s womb. Mercy, oh my sweet shrieking mercy. But she lives, glory be.

There was no functioning equipment left to explain, only her presence in the arctic sea. That was as good or as bad of a starting place as any. Question after question, endless questions. This is too important to them to give it up to her convenient madness. She is the one minuscule but solid piece of the puzzle that they ever had. Something solid at last. Someone who would talk, eventually. They could wait. They have waited a long time already. 

###

A tiny grinding noise came from low in the wall in the cell where they kept the living remains of Wilma, now plausibly insane.

A spot on the cell wall was vibrating. Oh no, not again.

It’s another trick they are perpetrating on me, it’s another trick. This is MY cell, says Wilma to Wilma. She agreed bitterly and then argued, ready to strike back somehow. She tensed for the battle.

A metallic proboscis started to emerge from the wall. This was not expected.

Wilma started screaming and Wilma watched. The guards gathered at their monitors. A team moved in to cautiously investigate. The vibrating stopped. A few minutes later it started again. 

"Wilma! Hey Wilma! It’s me!"

"You!? BONEHEAD!" It’s another interrogation trick! "JUST LEAVE ME ALONE."

"Would you rather stay here?"

"I VANT TO BE ALONE."

I backed off. Now is a bad time. I'll try again later. Rescue for the unwilling is more difficult than just a simple warm intervention and sneaky skeedaddle.

I was sleeping when they burst in on me. My mistake was lingering nearby. They must have used some kind of sonar or motion detection system to locate me. In their rock walled prison on that first day I got a hot bath, that was good, and they gave me something familiar to eat; this is getting better all the time.

But then the questions for me began. How did I get there where did I come from what was my name what was I doing who did I work for who is the girl then back to the start. 

How did I get there, all that, over and over again. That was one very long day with no sunshine. I kept my arm in stealth mode and, sure enough, they never suspected what I had. That night I exercised my secret powers and used my bionic arm to wiggle on out of my cell, quite easily done actually. After the impossible escape act of leaving the Jitterbug in the solid rock and using my hand as pneumatic drill, and jack, and wedge, finally getting enough of an opening to percolate the rest of the cells in my body into the cavern, this release was a breeze. It’s time to get far away and then figure out what next.

Nothing will ever be the same after this. I can just tell.

 

PRIVATE EYES 

 

Gunshots bite the silent night; tire squeals rip apart the dark air. 

The telephone rings. 

Stan Ting, Private Eye, reaches to see who is calling. It’s trouble again? Wrong number. 

Stan and Wilma have started a detective agency. Wilma has other responsibilities coming up soon, once the Bullfrog is fixed (in two weeks, three days and forty nine, forty eight minutes), but she has stars in her eyes, as does Stan, and the two of them make a pretty good team. Maybe Stan can help out on the Bullfrog. 

Wilma is teaching him to speak the language of the Bzyklwitch. I mean, The Brothers of Creation. Ronni and Angea’s new shop, “ChaChing Bikes and Shoes,” is doing very well. It helps that there are two beautiful young women running the place, and the younger staff members divide their time between Sam’s shop, frolicking in the playground location, and caring for the smallest of our precious human treasures, Than and Lilac. Autumn and school are quickly coming up! We have the youngsters all signed in and ready to go. 

Rose and I are pretty much an item now, or so I would like to imagine. It’s hard to tell what she thinks, most of the time. She has been helping me with proofreading my various literary adventures, when she is not otherwise busy with the team and the babies. She can do anything. I already said that, didn’t I? I will probably say it again and again. 

We are all happy to all be here in Charleston, a promising Southern city with lots of history. 

The South is going to rise again! And we are here to help. We have bicycles. 

Tess tells us about the colorful population of ghosts in Charleston, which is a popular tourist draw. Let me summarize the highlights from Tess’s report. 

At the Battery Carriage House Inn, a handsome young man lies down with female guests, and when they scream he escapes by walking through the wall. There is a place called Haunted Poogan's Porch Restaurant. Poogan is the ghost of a little terrier who brushes up against your legs, so you better watch your step. 

There is the fearsome ghost of Blackbeard The Pirate, who they say sometimes lived on Folly Island. That same man, who had the legal name of Mr. Edward Teach, most notoriously had lots of troublesome issues during his colorful life, and now, unexplainable lights at sea are often referred to as "Teach's light." Some claim that the notorious pirate now roams the afterlife searching for his detached head, for fear that the Devil, and maybe his friends, will not recognize him in his current headless form. 

The ghosts of many Civil War soldiers are reported often on Folly Island, which was also a staging area for pirate and “Rebellion-era” raiding parties. Dock Street Theatre has two ghosts, one is the father of John Wilkes Booth, and the other is a nameless angry prostitute. Tess saved the best Historic Charleston ghost story for the last. The White Point Gardens are where the spirits of the pirates that were hung there have been seen walking all through the park in search of their executioners. 

Maybe we can work all that into our White Point Garden’s “ChaChing Bikes and Shoes” shop somehow. Tess tells us that Charleston’s Battery is known now as White Point Gardens, which still sits on the edge of the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Long before the area became a prominent and pretty peaceful park, both Fort Broughton and Fort Wilkins occupied what was then known as White or Oyster Point, named for the eerie skeletal white piles of bleached oyster shells covering the peninsula’s point. The Battery has been a place of conflict since its colonial beginnings. We are sitting on a goldmine of tourist-attracting local superstitions. We intend to try to make it work for us, for regular tourists and ghost hunters too. There are an increasing number of tourists who call themselves ghost hunters these days, we might as well provide them with the services they need. 

Chris has been looking at property for her restaurant; she is ready to start something small, just to see how it goes. She wants to focus on international fusion menus, a little bit of this and that from here and there, things that work together. She plans on having no menus, serving one main meal which changes every week. With that main meal there will be an array of soups and side dishes, so a steady customer would have every reason to come frequently. In addition to the lunch routine, she has big ideas. She is very theatrical and wants to make the place unlike anything else anyone has ever seen, the kind of place where you make reservations for a special night months in advance and negotiate the menu for your special events. Right now she is figuring out a name for her restaurant, something as striking as her concept. 

 

HIGH RED PLAINS DRIFTERS 

You never hear the laser pistol shot that kills you, but the ones that miss make a ferocious snapping sound, the whole area smells burnt, and whatever it does hit is damaged or obliterated. We had been receiving shots for almost five minutes now. Myna was hit, all that is left of her are those remarkable long legs, a little bit of the top of her head, and her arms. 

Nemo’s men caught us unarmed in the abandoned mine where we have been working on our secret project. We have no reason to be armed, and we have no idea why they are gunning for us. They are shooting first, while we are trying to ask questions too late. 

The soil on Mars is pretty much worthless, it’s just red, and sort of creamy in texture. Of course, I knew that when I started experimenting. I was able to procure some rare mineral mine tailings that are higher in carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen, and at first I thought I would try growing mushrooms in one of the abandoned mines, just to see what would happen. Nothing happened. I tried this, I tried that. Nothing worked, until I tried mixing in a bit of phosphorus-rich cow pie, and when I rigged up a “grow light,” things took right off. I am using the native water, but not much. 

A little goes a long way. 

They look like mushrooms, but they are juicier and we are getting good results from the experiments with genetically introducing various flavors. There are mushrooms that are sweet and look like bright red strawberries, tangy deep red raspberries and pale cream flavored mushrooms. We have to think of a new name for these new types of produce. 

Just the mention of the possibility of new types of food is enough to drive the local folks to rapture. This is going to be big, once we get it figured out. Right now it’s best kept a secret, and being in an abandoned mine, that’s not hard to do. So what the hell are these crazy cowboys doing here, why are they shooting at us? They refuse to talk. We refuse to die. It’s a difficult situation. 

For our business plan, next we still intend to try genetically introducing vegetable flavors, and different textures. 

There were four of us working at this. Mina knows where all the abandoned mines are and Dimmy works miracles with the land title purchases, lucky for him he is somewhere else right now. Myna, Mina’s now deceased sister, played a key role in our work. 

Although she had been unfairly reduced to a sub-human condition by her accumulated time in the mines, she was also very valuable with the basic labor, gathering the right minerals from the mine tailings, setting up tables and lights, secretly gathering the cow pies, carrying the thick Martian water, and basics like that. 

She introduced us to her friend Gobo, who luckily is also not here right now; he helps out doing what Myna was doing. He is further along with the miner’s condition; he is capable of no words, just persistent labor. He is a good guy. Unlike Dmitri, we know where Gobo is. He is gathering minerals using the Carbuncle.

Myna never said much to me, Mina showed us some pictures of her before she came to Mars, WOW! She was a tall, tanned and beautiful blond, but the person I knew was tall and sturdy, but grey, bald and had the characteristic running sores all over her like the more experienced miners do. She sort of moaned and never spoke in sentences, had vacant glazed eyes, preferred the darkness, and walked slowly, but she was otherwise more intelligent than she appeared and she was eager to work towards the goal of our new business rather than dig ore for the nameless and faceless old rich guys who think they run the whole show here. We have just had success with some new flavors and textures: pumpkin (savory soft), carrot (crispy), garlic (hard), onion (layered), honeydew (sweetsoft) and lychee (moist interior with a hard shell). We need some other food formats. If only we could emulate leaves, bulbs, stems, and seed pods. I think we can figure it out with time. 

Even though it’s far better than a diet from cans, only eating mushrooms all the time is going to get boring, in my opinion, no matter how they taste and feel. I suppose we could grind them up and press them into forms. They have a short shelf life. 

My first and only meeting with Nemo back a ways ago did not go so well. He might have had a bad day before he got home that night, but once he met me things went south, and fast, as they say in the cowboy movies. I am lucky he did not send me out with a bucket of warm meat to feed the cows, which of course would have been the end of me. The bucket would be empty but still in fine shape and the cows would be happy and fed. But there would be nothing left of me. Maybe the mechanical legs would be left, I shudder to think about that. Maybe they would get up and walk home themselves, like a Carbuncle. Where would be their home? Their place of manufacture of course.

The loss of his one “prize” heifer under mysterious circumstances had really set him off. Shorty said that he was making his plans for revenge for weeks after that. He never did figure out who killed his cow and why they left her body to just lie there, stinkin’ on the red range. That one cow was evidently extremely valuable to him, although there are plenty more where she came from. Some guys just seem to thrive on holding grudges. 

Needless to say, I did not get the cowboy job that day, hence my attempts to make my own business from dirt, out here on the high crimson plains. 

We could all see what was brewing, even Myna saw it coming. We need cow pies and Nemo needs to control the action. So far, so good, but when we go into full scale production we are going to need to make arrangements with the powers that be. That would be he. The Big N. And now his men have us holed up. 

Maybe there is a backdoor to this mine, we never did follow it all the way back. Myna knew, but it’s a little too late for asking her now. 

They are not telling us why they are shooting at us. Could be about that dead cow, could be our secretive nature, could be the perceived threat to their land ownership, and could be something that they are just plain mistaken about. I suppose it’s possible they got wind of our plans before we had a chance to make our formal business presentation, which would have to include them, of course, which is how things work here. We planned on that. They might have planned otherwise because they felt left out. Hot heads. 

One thing is for sure, they are willing to kill for it. Mina is completely devastated, if she lives she will get her revenge, and I would hate to be in those cowboy boots when she catches up with them. 

 

THE BROTHERHOOD OF CREATION MYTHOS 

I went to check the mail; there is a package with a disc enclosed. A silver CD but it’s not music or a DVD, it’s just some kind of cryptic text. It’s not labeled; the package has a dozen or so stamps from Tasmania, New Zealand, Norway, Malta, The Netherlands, Bombay, and a whole bunch of far-away places with strange sounding names that I cannot make out. There is so much to wade through. I’ll just have to take it home and look at it later, after I go to the bank. 

Two weeks go by, nothing from Sam. Things look bleak for my writing career but the bike business is gliding right along. Even though I am just treading water I am making a profit, but there is no time for me to write, which is a big problem. I have managed to open the disc, its chock full of odd manuscripts, I will take a peek at the one on top. 

Here is how the first text appears, after the mysterious codes and odd symbols: 

From the Royal Scribe Enkido, a history of the immortal brotherhood. 

Know my words! Oh My Brothers! This is Our Story. We are the Brothers of Creation! 

This is All Our Stories and this is One Story. 

This is Who We Are. This is Who We Have Been. 

This is the story of the Grand Mystery and was told by The Royal Scribe Enkido. 

Listen and Read. Learn and Know. 

We are the Brothers of Creation. Behold! 

There are a Multitude of Tales, this one is ours, from Zebra Island, in the Great Ocean. 

For Many Years We Have Served the grand Leviathan, he would always provide. 

We ate and rejoiced and continued with our assistance to his many secret machines. 

(Here it goes on and on about the machines, all the details of how those gizmo's work. Evidently they invent and then constantly fix them using their advanced ju-ju. Blah blah blah. Let me skip ahead.) 

We cared for the Old Man on the Beach, Omen be his name, some call him Nemo. 

Call him Omen. 

We built his home and ensured his nourishment in his human twilight years. 

Until the Leviathan came. 

The Leviathan served Nemo well, it was Nemo’s destiny, Nemo’s feast day. 

Blessed be Nemo! 

May he live forever on the Zebra beaches of Southern Valhalla. 

May his feast go on forever. 

(Blah blah blah, let me skip ahead again, so much repetition. These guys are so gol-danged full of themselves.) 

We were on the Jitterbug Machine when the New-Arm-Man Lost his Faith. 

He had our newest navigational system contained in his new arm, but he knew not what it was. 

He knew not what we had given him. Nobody else knew either. 

They think they know, but they have no Faith. 

Now the Jitterbug Machine waits, deep in the Northland sea stone wall. 

We Have a Recovery Plan for The Jitterbug Machine. We have a team pursuing this goal... 

(Let us skip ahead a little bit more, I get bored easily with all this flourishing verbiage mixed with techno-jumbolese.) 

We jettisoned from the Jitterbug Machine seconds before impact,

The New-Arm-Man’s senseless needless impact. 

Our silver seed pod gave us shelter from the certain death of the black ice water. 

We gathered up our brothers in the wild and dark arctic sea, no brother's bodies remained. 

We Are Forever Very Careful. 

Such is our way, our survival, and our sustenance. 

We found them all and brought them back from death. 

They are all back with us Now! 

We never leave our lost behind. There are no lost dead brothers. 

We have gathered their knowledge to the Grand Pool of Wisdom. 

Such is our way, our survival, and our sustenance. 

We are the Brothers of Creation! 

(Oh brother! Ahead we go, just a bit. Here.) 

The Pagan frog-men did steal our Goddess Vilma. 

The Goddess Vilma was lost to the pagan frog-men. 

It was a time of great loss and sorrow. 

The pagan frog-men only got one thing, but it was Our Vilma. 

It was a dark day. A dark time. 

The Tadpole Machine was lost to the frog-men. 

The Jitterbug was caught deep in sea stone. 

The Goddess Vilma was taken but not Lost. 

The pagan frog-men withdrew without the Tadpole Machine and without the Jitterbug Machine, and that was our only victory that dark and dismal day. 

We returned to our holy Zebra Island to once again serve the Leviathan in exchange for his guidance, his will, and his providing. 

We continue our traditions. 

We served. The Leviathan provided. We did abide. 

(Pop pop pop, skip ahead, it gets better. Please bear with me.) 

The Leviathan spent his time searching with the Videosphere Machine. 

He would search for the stolen goddess Vilma, for the New-Arm-Man and for the lost dark lord Omen, the one they call Nemo. 

The Leviathan made his many plans. The Leviathan withheld his true intentions. 

Many things happened, much time went by, but this is how our story now continues. 

Hear our Truest Story, Oh My Brothers. These are the words of Enkido. 

We are the Brothers of Creation! 

(They are the pumped-up brothers of repetition and navel infatuation. Onanistic little dickins.) 

The Leviathan took the New-Arm-Man to the 

Long-Day Northlands to gather the stolen goddess Vilma. 

We were there. 

We continued our assistance to the preservation and increase of the machines of The Leviathan in Exchange for his Guidance, his will and his providing. 

Until the Leviathan FELL. 

(I love this part.) 

Then came the missteps, the Leviathan’s outrages. 

We could not abide The Leviathan any longer. We did not pause. 

We do not hesitate. 

We cut fast and sharp. 

We did what was necessary to preserve The Grand Objective. 

We serve and enhance. 

We are the Brothers of Creation. We serve no Fallen Gods. We abide no Liars. 

We vanquished the failed traitor Leviathan when he broke his word and made ready to eat our New-Arm-Man. 

The Leviathan has fallen. The Leviathan was not pushed, the Leviathan JUMPED. 

The Leviathan Saw Us Coming. 

The Goddess Vilma Now Guides Us! 

The Goddess Vilma is our Everything and our New Eternity. 

(What the heck do you suppose this means? Darned if I know.) 

The Grand-Man, the Leviathan, changed himself from our leader and fell from the supreme top down and down and down. 

The Leviathan has become into a cursed parasite. 

The Liar! The Leviathan has lost his way, the Leviathan is now cursed. 

Henceforth, let none of the brothers fear his name. 

Henceforth, forever. 

Listen to Enkido, Scribe of the Brothers. 

Hear my Words! Know my Message! Think these thoughts! Build upon this Knowledge. 

Walk in These Sacred Shoes. Use These Holy Tools! 

We are the Brothers of Creation. 

(Oh please.) 

The Brothers have dealt with the cursed Leviathan. He is gone forever. 

Do not look for the Leviathan as he has gone away forever. We fixed him good. 

(Note to self: do not piss these guys off.) 

The New-Arm-Man returned our Goddess Vilma to us, Jubilation! 

Sing the Old High Songs! Ring the deep bells! Bring forth the feasting! 

Dance the secret hidden ancient dances! 

We shall Forever Serve the Goddess Vilma! 

Her Name Most Holy! 

Now the blessed work of Our Goddess Vilma resumes. 

All praises and honor to Our Goddess Vilma. 

The Blessed and Virtuous Vilma. Blessed Be! 

Our Vilma is with Child! 

 

THE RESCUE OPERATION 

As I settle down for yet another leisurely short bird-watching break during my Appalachian Trail walking, I noticed that the ground was starting to tremble. There is nobody around just now, which is unusual on the trail at this time of year. I am not sure of where to run to, so I'll just sit there and watch, and possibly die. 

Wish me luck. 

Ten feet in front of me the earth vibrates so quickly that it appears to be a blur. Then a silver pole emerges, which smoothly opens up and turns into a comm screen. The face I have been seeking all these years appears, in full color, maybe even a bit bigger than he is in real life, and he is looking right at me. 

"Come on. Let’s go.” 

“DC! What the ffffff- Farquhar?!” 

“Kurd boy! A merry Farquhar to you too. Time is short. We've located Willie and we need your help to affect the rescue. Get in.” 

I know this guy, he always has hidden agendas and they usually have to do with him eating.

“Is this also a secret invitation to one of your famous barbecues?” 

“You should be so lucky. Actually, that's a great idea. Mmmmmm. Bahrrr-bee-que... But first I, we, need you, your, help.” 

“Go on. What do we need me for?” I see where he is looking now, hungry devil. He has had that one taste of me, and look, now he is back for more. Naughty-naughty DC. 

“Well, you are the only one we know that is worthy enough to place our reliable trust and considered esteem in. And you are the only one still alive that we know that can easily pass for a human. Our method for locating her is rather general, and for the final part we will need some help, eyes on boots. But first I have some rules. One rule actually. You are not allowed anywhere near the navigational controls. Do you hear me? Keep your hands off the wheel. We have seen how you operate, you drive like a raving lunatic, and in no way are you to be allowed anywhere near the helm. Not now, not then, no way, not ever, no-no, no go. Do I make myself clear?” 

“Well, DC, so far you haven't sold me on anything yet, you might find this hard to believe, but I do have a life going on here, and I am not about to just drop it and head off to... You say you found Wilma?” 

“Near where you lost her. We have a positive reading, she has a locator chip in her, um, muscle, that has missed a few battery changes, but we were at long last able to find her. 

We need your help. Then you can get back to your, ah, whatever it is that you have going on there. Let's go.” 

He had me at the first mention of Wilma, and he knew it. But I was too proud; I could not just hop into his amphibious mobile kitchen there and probably more than possibly populate his pepper-pot. 

“I have a few rules of my own. Well, one rule. You can't eat me or any more of my body parts.” 

“What? You think I would.. what? WHAT? WHATWHATWHAT??!! Kurd boy! Now NOW you have truly offended me. You have gone too far. The very idea that you think I would...” He sputtered on and on like that, red faced and indignant. 

I break in. “Time is running out, DC. I will stay away from the helm, if you do not eat me or any of my body parts. Deal?” 

“Done. Hop in.” The soft earth around the pole yielded a glass semi-sphere which opened, and there was a circular platform. I stood on it and was brought into THE BULLFROG! Cue the theme music, Thus Spake Zara-frog-stra. It’s freakin’ awesome. I wish you could see it now. It’s.... awesome. Words are inadequate to describe her. 

The journey to the wilderness north of Norway was rapid. The Bullfrog is much larger and faster than the Tadpole, but the propulsion is the same, she moves through ocean and rock with equal ease, only the Bullfrog is bigger and even more, well, awesome. True to our agreement, I did not get a chance to see even the helm (at this time), and DC did not offer me any of his flavoring lotion to rub on me (at that time). 

There were probably about two dozen Bzyklwitch on the Bullfrog, but it’s impossible to count them, they all look alike for the most part. (There were 218 on board at that time.) 

Amongst them were several unique familiar faces, including my old friend Calibration. I grilled him to find out about what had happened in the past few years. Those little guys seem to have very little long term memory. He evidently knows everything about what to do for repairs and basic operating protocol, and he seems to know what happened as far back as a few months ago. He seemed to know my face, but clearly he did not know my name. But then, nobody knows my name. He did not respond to grilling very well, but he was in good humor. Not exactly a loquacious being. The other Bzyklwitch stood off cautiously and watched me anxiously. Something about the smell of the grill drives them wild; I can see it in their hungry eyes. They were otherwise anxious and focused. 

Villee? Villliie? vvVillie! Vilieee? vVillieee! 

We arrived at the rescue location shortly after sunset. Northern Norway is a cold and rocky place, somewhat desolate, but there is a peaceful charm, if you can a-Fjord it. It’s a magical land of granite cliffs, witches, rocks, trolls, stones, twisted old trees, more rocks and stones, and goblins. It’s all rocky cliffs by the cold and windy sea, with a few really old looking scraggly bushes. The Northern Lights were just kicking in for the extended evening show. Did I mention that evenings that far north last for months in the winter, and the sun never sets in the summer? So it was twilight the whole time. Endless twilight. Three AM looks the same as 3 PM, midnight and noon, it’s all twilight at this time of year. 

My job was to go in there and see what I could find out. I was to leave an inconspicuous floral gift with a secret camera in it, and then brief the others about how to best proceed to grab the gal and make with the hippity-hoppity. 

I knocked on the door. A large brutally muscular blond man answered. From the sound of his utterance he wanted to know the nature of my inquiry. He did not speak my language, nor did I speak his. He looked at the flowers suspiciously. I looked at his elaborate demonic tattoos in quiet horror. 

A familiar face peeked out from behind him, it was Wilma! She looked curious, but it was nothing at all like “old home week” on her side of our equation. There were three young ones, triplets, extremely large for such young faces, they appeared to be perhaps four years of age, and she was obviously ripe with another load. I'd say about two or three months to go. 

“Wilma! (Pause. Nothing.) Wilhelmina! (Pause. Nothing.) Willie! (Pause. Nothing.) Miss Pickenwiggens?” 

“He is Willy. I am Helga. Who are you? Who is Pickenwiggens?” 

“Oh. You look just like someone I know.” 

The large blond man looked increasingly annoyed. 

She said something to him; he made a sour face and then stood aside, indicating his reluctant acceptance of my passage. His balled fists were each the size of my head. It was good to get out of the cold. 

I blurted out my carefully crafted cover story to Helga or Wilhelmina. She accepted the flowers and gave them to one of the huge girls. They obviously take after their father in many ways. The trio of young daughters took the flowers into another room and then cautiously returned to watch me from a safe distance. Herr Fritz, hvordan du sier mister Big Willy, just stood there glaring. 

Abruptly my precious old friend startled, and tilted her head. “Pickenwiggens?” I could see the wheels turning, her eyes sort of lit up behind a veil of confusion, and that is when Big Willy spoke to her in whatever language they spoke. She grimly agreed with him and turned to me. “Your story is interesting. I'll tell you briefly that this used to be a prison; it was sold to my husband and me several years ago. He used to be a guard here and I was a guest, but before that it’s always been somewhat hazy to me. We're developing the property as a tourist destination, Famous Dungeons of Norway. But here is the short version of what I must tell you. You need to leave now before he tears your arms off and beats you with them. He does that. It was nice to meet you, what did you say your name was?” 

“Enjoy the flowers. Nice to meet you, Mr. William, I wish you and your lovely wife Helga and all your wonderful little children all the best. I must go now.” I bowed and skipped the usual handshake convention for this occasion. I'm keeping my arms, dammit. 

When I got back to the Bullfrog, DC was strangely happy, but I was depressed. He knew everything, as usual, because he had been watching on his upgraded famous disco-ball electric watermelon viewer. 

“We'll have a celebration! It’s the end of your sorrows! You're not going to be sad ever again, Kurd boy! Never! We have already gotten started on the preparations. Why don't you start with a nice warm herbal bath, we have a special hot tub for you to relax in. 

“Don't you worry bout a ting! We have everything taken care of and under control, Good Sir. And to start, I have a special treat for you! Remember the fruit juice that you love?” 

Same drill as last time. The hot tub was to the left; I grabbed my muck-lucks and jacket and went straight ahead. It’s too cold to be a swamp, but it was wilderness and the local critters were probably as hungry here as they were in that swamp in old New Zealand. I pressed on, over the freezing old windblown rocks and into the relative comfort of the thick underbrush as quickly as I could manage. The Aurora Borealis is my only friend now, but I am accepting applications. 

My watch glows in the dark. All of the first twelve hours I could look back and see the fire in the distance. 

I used the beacon as a reverse guide to steer my exit. I went away from the light and into the dark tundra, trying to avoid the huge cliffs, as well as the smaller ones. The medium sized ones too. Running is a bad idea, so I sort of hustled cautiously. It would appear that a hunting party is not on my heels, but I might as well stay scared. Being scared keeps me focused and, so far, alive. 

For the second twelve hours I did not look back so much, I just headed South, expecting to eventually find some kind of road that I could take that would lead me further and further away from my dreaded special dinner engagement and closer and closer towards warm and wonderful South Carolina and Sam Ting and “ChaChing Bicycle Rentals.” 

Nothing could be finah... 

I found a road. There was a babushka walking slowly ahead of me. I decided as I approached the ragged old crone that I should be as pleasant as I could. I was hoping she would speak English. I also hoped she might have some food that I might persuade her to share with me. Maybe she would feed me in exchange for a piggy-back ride. I have little else to bargain with just now. She hears my approaching footsteps and turns with obvious apprehension. She is younger than I thought she would be, and very pregnant. Hold on to your hat. 

It was Helga/Wilma! She had a shiner. It was a real doozy. She was happy to see me. She has a big long wonderful warm hug for me and tells me her story. She does have some bread and dried salmon. We light a fire. It was the best fire of my life. 

Like a light bulb hesitantly turning on, she had remembered more of her past, which lead to a horrible fight with Willy, her gigantic pet husband, who subsequently cast her out. 

He had a hard time fitting the life she had been living with all that she had abruptly been remembering, and he wanted nothing of any of the old new Helga or the new old Willie. 

He is the official one and only house Willy, and they do not have room for any more Willies. Or Wilmas. Or Wilhelminas. And certainly no Pickenwiggens. Once that memory-door of hers opened a tiny crack, when I said “Pickenwiggens,” it all came tumbling back into her recollection, and her world convulsed throughout her mind as she awakened to her past. It’s nice to see you too, old shoe, how have you been? 

He'll take good care of the huge little blond bunnies. She has an understandable great maternal sorrow, but she intellectually adapts and recognizes the larger picture of her new old life. Plus he is one big mean dude and that will never change. One shiner is enough, thanks. 

We decided to go back to try to find DC. 

Well, if you must know the truth, it was her idea. The last person I wanted to see was Dick Clark, the gi-normous galloping gourmet. I was just happy to see her. And it’s really her, it’s really Wilma and she knows she is Wilma. She has come back. Wherever she is, that is my home now. And I am going to be a father! We need to talk about that. 

Nobody knows my name, which is how I have come to like it these days. I am at peace with the mystery. I am afraid that if my door opens a bit, the memories will not be so pleasant either. My favorite comfortable delusion is my friend to the end. 

It took us several days, but we actually found the way back to the Bullfrog, which appeared to be nearly abandoned. There was Calibration and probably no more than two dozen Bzyklwitch on watch. (One hundred fifty-seven.) They were so jubilant when they saw vvvVilma. vvVillee? Villliie? vvVillie! Vilieee? Vvillieee! The reunion festivities were quite remarkable. She was all teary-eyed and they were all huggy. It’s time for s'mores! The fire was already set. We had a delicious spicy vegetarian soup that night. 

No sign of DC, and the unusually silent Calibration was evidently not expecting to see him either. “Ve vas vaiting for vvvvVilma,” he jokes in a fake exaggerated accent. Now she is here. The team is rested, ready and raring to go. There are ample supplies of a variety of normal provisions. By eating seafood and whatever can be found along the way, the crew can be sustained pretty much forever. Well, until the s'mores run out, which is now. 

Wilma knows exactly what to do. There is a large grocery store about fifty-five kilometers back that way on down the big road, then around to the left another seventeen kilometers. There they have the grahams and marshmallows and chocolate. She likes to add a little peanut butter. I like bananas, and the Bzyklwitch like sardines. Everyone gets plenty of what they need, and the Bullfrog provides shelter. 

Our Lady Wilma-Sweet-Willie-One is proud and happy at the helm, and she kindly allows me to watch her operate the big wheel, as she heads out to deepsea to continue her amazing work on the tectonic plates. I have lots of questions, and now she has the answers. Well, mostly. 

We do not know that happened to DC, and the Bzyklwitch just smiled grimly. 

 

THE LAST CHAPTER 

Fluorescent orange. Wilma started feeling her arms and her head. She was covered in an orange blanket. She cautiously cracked open one eye. Then she felt the bite of the steel handcuffs. 

"Zhere now!" A friendly smiling woman wearing a uniform, holding out an offering. A steaming cup of tea. She stood directly before Wilma. "Kiptan! Kiptan, sheaz comink around now! Yew may nao begin zee interrogation." 

Wilma eased her eye shut and slumped. This is not happening. 

"Oop, zere she goes a-gain, sorrah Kiptan...." 

Sweet darkness returns. 

Okay, what has happened. She remembers bits and pieces, flotsam and jetsam, some kind of chunky whirlpool, pieces bumping up against each other in a jagged pattern that starts to emerge and then is again overcome by chaos and ice. DC's face on her communication screen. A view from inside the Jitterbug. 

Watching the impact on the rock wall, a flash, and.... Nothing! Not a trace. The Jitterbug went right into the rock wall and the hole sealed up behind it. 

Nothing is in order, but recall coalesces and a little bit more of the situation emerges. She was hanging by her fingernails as the Tadpole tipped. It slowly, slowly started to tip back into a horizontal position. She kept everyone from making any sudden moves. The damaged Tadpole was fluttering at the edge, it could tumble from a whisker. 

Wilma began flipping back and forth through her mental Rolodex. There was unexpected contact from DC, who evidently was watching the whole thing on his omniscient viewball system. There was a small squad of Bzyklwitch that had been onboard the old Jitterbug, an engineering crew caught by surprise in the aft section of the seamless craft. 

What were they doing there? It was not an assigned task. 

It was the Bzyklwitch who had first contacted DC. They knew the situation was doomed on the Jitterbug and were preparing to evacuate. DC says something to Wilma about the young Kurdish man (that would be me, I assume) stealing the Jitterbug from the bay and heading out for deepsea, probably to find her. DC says that her problems are bigger than that. Vessels on the surface have been tracking her, several submarines are closing in, and from the air there are five, now seven, counting twelve... “Let's just say that there is an ever growing population of intercepts upstairs.” 

Looks bad, I think to myself. Time for evasive action. Why can’t they hear me? DC picks a bit of last night’s supper off his tusk, and nonchalantly comments over the static, “Willie-One, Do you read?” 

They can obviously see the Jitterbug, and I apparently now have a new moniker, as Wilma shouts, “What is that idiot doing? Three-DC, why don't you break into his comm screen?" 

Just when I am about to scream, “I’m right here! I am the rescuer! Me Tarzan. You Jane! Prepare for my arrival...” Right then my view-screen starts to static-out and I cannot get Wilma back for several seconds. But I can distinctly hear DC saying "Well, he is likely in a skittish frame of mind right now, thief on the run and that sort of thing. My face would most likely fluster him and not bring about good results. We need good results, Willie-One." 

"Copy that, Three-DC." says Wilma. "I know what to do. Old Nemo is right there on Zebra Island where you are, living in his retirement hut. Get him to a comm screen and see if he has any ideas about what to do to recover the Jitterbug. He is the only one that knows that thing, he and Harley Earl built it years ago. Nemo is our last living hope. Our only hope, Three-DC... Oh!" One of the Bzyklwitch fell into her lap and startled her. 

"Say again, Willie-One, Did you say that Nemo is here? On the island? This island? Zebra Island?" It was not often I had seen DC appear surprised or caught off guard. 

"Well, yes!” said Wilma, “I understand he has been living in a special geriatric hut that his personal team of Bzyklwitch built for him on the beach. The Bzyklwitch are quite clever, though I do not always understand their colloquialisms. They say they built him the perfect retirement home, sun and sand, and the endless sky and long deep swims in the ocean...,” She paused while hastily getting details, and puzzled, she turned to her onboard first mate, “Cal, what do you mean ‘We made him completely water-tight’?” 

"Nemo is HERE?” said DC, sounding like the would-be fiancée who finds out her engagement ring was placed in the chocolate mousse, again inquiring with what seemed a somewhat contrite tone, “That was Nemo?" 

“Three-DC, what do you mean ‘was’? Just get Nemo, get him to a comm screen and let’s get some ideas about how to deal with the Jitterbug." 

On board the silent Jitterbug I had been feeling excited about getting away from the friendly but hungry cannibals. I guess they are not cannibals if they are not my own species. Humanitarians. But they are hungry and I am, whoa-boy, not ready for dinner just yet. Mostly I was excited about finding Wilma. To the rescue! Onward, to Find Wilma! 

So, what could possibly go wrong? 

YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT COULD GO WRONG? I thought, as I struggled to bring them back into view. 

“Get Nemo!" Demanded Wilma. 

"Nemo is... not available." 

Wilma sounded impatient, "Three-DC, What do you mean, not available? Please clarify." 

"Err, well, Willie-One, let’s get back to your real problems. Our sensors show that you are positively tracked by a growing array of vessels, you are about to be taken prisoner unless you can, well, do what you do, go hide inside the rocks or whatever. Of course, from here it looks like the Tadpole is malfunctioning in a big way." 

"Roger on that, big fellah. Cut the crap. Where is Nemo?" 

"Enough about Nemo, already. Nemo Is Fine, okay! Nemo has no problems. Truthfully. – he was last seen heading into the kitchen not long before you and the Kurd boy joined us. Just forget about Nemo and let us focus back on your situation there. And who is Roger?" 

Wilma became aware of a quickly approaching submersible vessel. Friend or Foe? Then she thought, with so many shades of gray, what’s the difference? Finally the Jitterbug’s screens come on line absent that annoying static and I am back surrounded by my new friends. The invisible magic-hand throttle on full and my rapt attention locked on the little image of Wilma. Not Wilma personally, but I had the Tadpole dead in my sights. I could see that something was terribly wrong, because the Tadpole was dead in the water, several hundred feet down under the broken icy water of the surface, tipped vertically and wobbling perilously on a pointed rock formation. It was starting to come about and right itself, albeit much too slowly to satisfy the average prudent person. In concert with that notion, there was an array of alarms going off on my instrument panel, though I have no idea of what they do. Whooop Whoop Whoooooop! 

Lots of noise, adds to the excitement. Faster now, Faster! Help is on the way. Jus’ hang on Missy Willie-One!

"Can you contact that idiot on the Jitterbug, Three-DC?” and the immediate reply, "How about if I patch you in, Willie-One, remember, he does not want to talk to me just now. I would wager that he would love to talk to you." (Chortle chortle, *click*) "Go ahead now." 

"Okay. HEY BONEHEAD! WHAT ARE YOU DOING??!" 

"Bonehead-Thirteen to Wilma, I mean, Willie-One, I see you, ahhh, that is, I have a visual on the Tadpole, and I am closing in fast! Prepare yourself for rescue!” I was one big grin from tooth to tail. This was my glorious moment and I loved every shivering bit of it. I was standing hard and tall and proud. “Here I come, sweet cheeks, ready or not!" 

 

"FIRST OF ALL, KNOCK OFF THE SWEE..."

 


© Copyright 2020 Robin James. All rights reserved.

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