Alex Reynard's Online Books
The weight of the Groundgouger made the parking lot sag. Green chemical slime came bubbling up the edges from Dengue's repulsive surrounding quagmire. Junella popped open the driver's side door and slid down her new cobalt goggles against the sun's glare. "Allright! Let's be quick about this. If we sink the joint, Sander's gonna be pissed at us."
"Aye-aye, cap'n!" Piffle sang with a salute. She buzzed out into the deodorized air, glad to spread her wings. She circled the tank a few times, then alighted on the left tread. "Where ya wanna put the hole?" she asked Zinc.
The canine cricked his back. "Anywhere oughtta be good, really. Throw a dart. Maybe we'll get lucky and the whole friggin' swamp'll ooze out like pullin' a bathtub plug." He poked his head back inside. "Yo, George! Where's our next stop after this? I gotta know how much junk food to buy!"
The stallion was busy disentangling himself from the treadmill-floored cradle of plugs and sockets that connected him to their vehicle's driveshaft. "Unless Madam Brox has changed her mind, it was decided we would attempt Teratoma."
Zinc winced. "That'll be fun," he deadpanned. 'Toma easily put Marasmus in second place for density of constructs. Luxy had suggested the spots, so the canine's best guess was that this was related to the new nightmare rehabilitation initiative. He hopped down to the concrete and heard a whistle. He managed not to fumble the softball-sized rock of imaginite Junella tossed to him.
"Get me some booze, hound. Top shelf only. I feel like bein' fancy."
He nodded back. "Aye-aye."
Trachea's Trading Post looked a little slow today, Toby observed. He descended the ladder rungs on the right tread and hoped this would be an easy site to drill. At least the most numerous constructs here were the trashbag bats, and the rockets' exhaust would take care of them. Plus, he'd get to see Sander again. 'And not embarrass myself in front of him this time.' He crossed the parking lot and the front doors opened automatically with a pleasant chime. Toby followed Zinc to the snack food aisle.
Their project was simple in execution, but mind-boggling in theory. The kind of idea only a lunatic would propose. Or a Luxy. He'd known about the mirrored shape of the world before, but always considered it a quirky bit of useless trivia. It wasn't until he finally had a chance to shoot the shit with Aldridge again that the possibilities became clear to him. Traveling across Phobiopolis was a pain in the ass. This was understood by everyone. But what if it could be skipped entirely? What if getting from place to place could be as simple as riding the subway?
He'd had a similar idea long ago: packing people into giant bullets and firing them from a cannon on top of Fifty-Two. No one survived the impact, though that wasn't a problem. However, all their luggage getting smashed in the process was. Plus the fact that Phobiopolis' chaotic air currents sent anything airborne off-course. PLUS the fact that the cannon also had limited range. Getting halfway to Coryza, then ending up on foot in Bozo territory, was no one's idea of practical.
But what if the idea could be modified? Keep the cannon. Keep the bullets. But don't aim them across, aim down. After all, if Toby could do it with Dysphoria...
The underside of the world had long since been explored, then written off as uninteresting. They hadn't even bothered to name it. It was just "the underside". (Toby's suggestion of Avulsion was officially adopted without much controversy.) No nightmare constructs were to be found there, but neither was anything else. The first expedition observed a barren moonscape of useless silt, deafening silence, and an admittedly-lovely view of the galaxy. The second tried to set up a base, and came to the unpleasant discovery that it was like building on water. They nearly ended up floating forever when their base worked loose and they had to leap to safety.
But Avulsion didn't have any problems with unstable air currents. And for as weak as the turf was, it retained consistency of perspective. Meaning that the second team down didn't find a wholly different landscape than the first, as was common topside.
If each half of Phobiopolis was a perfect mirror image of the other, down to the most microscopic detail, then why not just dig some holes in the ground, aim at the opposite side, and zoom to your destination across the middle? Kapow. Simple.
Lots of naysayers tried to talk Luxy out of the idea. Toby wasn't one of them. When they discussed it in one of their letter exchanges, he understood the principle immediately. And he knew it would work. He couldn't think of a single reason why it wouldn't, except for people being squeamish about trading places with their doppelganger. Luxy admitted that was a likely concern. "But they'll get over it. Convenience has a way of winning people over. And if it gives you the wibblies too much, there's still driving the long way."
EC and Coryza were the obvious choices for the first test locations. The two largest populations in Phobiopolis, and with enough math-lovers in both cities to coordinate the trajectories. The Groundgouger was given coordinates. All they had to do was drive there and drill.
Its core was actually a detachable shuttle. When the 'Gouger reached the right spot, powerful hydraulics would angle the center section horizontally. The bit would spin, the core would separate, and the treads would await their return. Digging through to the other side didn't take very long. Phobiopolis was little more than two giant identical pizza crusts. When the shuttle popped through into zero gravity, they used the rockets to turn around and shoot back home. Then the treads would automatically reposition to accept the incoming core.
For the first test, hundreds gathered just outside the twin cities. Even Luxy felt unnerved to stand at the edge of a giant hole and see the dark of the cosmos at the bottom. He clicked on his walkie-talkie, held up a heavy duty flashlight, and told Red Velvet he was ready. A city away, the gunsmith steadied his hand and aimed for the one visible star that was waving back and forth. He fired.
Twenty minutes later, the top of Luxy Bleeder's skull blew off.
Ectopia cheered as one. The raccoon resurrected and laughed in triumph so hard he choked and died again.
An hour later, the first passenger bullets were ready in both versions of Coryza. The trajectories were gauged. The cannons were loaded. Two bullets emerged, traveling in a giant simultaneous X. The team of astronauts later reported seeing themselves flying directly at themselves, merging for a tingling instant, then continuing on course. This had been the biggest worry: that the capsules would become singular, stop, and be stranded. Thankfully, their momentum propelled them easily past the joining point. Each capsule emerged in the opposite reality's Ectopia Cordis. This time everyone in both halves of the world joined in the joyous screaming. Champagne was sprayed freakin' everywhere.
The Groundgouger had since made a web of paths between EC, Coryza, Lalochezia, and Rhinolith. Dengue was today's target. Cachexy, Papilloma, Marasmus, Borborygmus, Quinsy, Hypoxia, Chordoma, Crepitus, Phlogiston, and Stoma were also on the list. Eventually, when all the holes were finished, Toby had been assigned a diplomatic mission to Scarlatina to see if they wanted in too, or if they preferred for their community to remain largely unknown and unspoiled. Toby had no idea how they'd vote, and no idea which outcome he hoped for.
As expected, it took a while for most people to get over the 'existential creepiness' factor. Sideswapping was something the public applauded, but would rather someone else try first. Though all the early adopters reported that the two halves of the world really were identical. No backwards-writing on the signs. No evil twins with beards. In fact, a shift in perspective came from an interview with one of these travelers. "People think it's like you've got a clone of yourself running around. Nah, nah. It's just like broadcasting yourself on TV. An image, yeah? That ain't scary." That was a lot more palatable to many. And whether the project overall caught on or fizzled, Toby was just happy to be a part of it.
At the moment, he was also happy that he could read the candy labels without difficulty. Luxy had paid them more money than they knew what to do with, so he splurged and got five Uncanny! bars. Key lime cheesecake flavor sounded good.
Then, up near the register, someone fired a painlauncher into the ceiling.
Obviously, it did not hurt the ceiling. But it did startle everyone.
Toby and Zinc were among the few who did not duck behind shelves or run away shrieking. Past the aisles, the mouse could see a rather jittery warthog aiming his weapon at the stoic bear who ran the shop.
The robber's voice was nails on a chalkboard. "I want it all, pops!! The cash register! The junk on the wall! You got a safe? Empty it! You got fillings in your teeth? Pry 'em out!!"
Sander Trachea, still looking like an imposing, haunted taxidermy, did not blink. "YOU ARE MAKING A BAD DECISION TODAY."
The robber waved the painlauncher in crazy arcs. Its red tip left trails like a sparkler. "Oh yeah!? Oh YEAH!? Well you'll make a worse one if you don't do what I'm sayin', ya old fart! Start grabbin' handfuls or I'll see how far I can stick this mother up your poop chute!!"
Down in the candy aisle, Zinc clanked his wrenches together. "Looks like overtime."
Toby tapped his shoulder. "Keep on shopping, I think I can handle this myself."
The canine raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"
Toby nodded, mostly confident. "You can circle around and be my backup if you want. But, yeah. I got this." He tugged on his vest like in a cop film.
Zinc grinned. "Sic 'im, kemosabe!"
Sander had now opened the register and was removing nuggets of imaginite one by one.
The robber tugged at his hair. "Ggggnaggghh!! Hurry it up!! Quit movin' so slow, old man! My trigger finger's got a hardon!"
Sander's glassy, pupilless eyes fixed on the robber. "I CANNOT HELP THAT I AM SLOW. YOUR WEAPON WILL NOT CHANGE THAT."
The painlauncher quivered an inch from the shopkeep's skinless muzzle. "It'll change your day from happy to sad if you don't put your foot on the gas!"
The warthog whirled around, frothing at the tusks. The many colorful pins on his leather pants jangled. He pointed the painlauncher directly in the skinny mouse's face. "This ain't the time to ask for the restroom key, kiddo! Beat it!!"
Toby held his hands up. "Hey, listen, Sander's a friend of mine. Sort of. I was only in here once before. But still, I'd appreciate it if you'd turn that thing off and walk away."
The warthog blinked. "OooooooOOOOHHH!! So polite!" He guffawed, then blared, "HOW ABOUT NO!?!"
Toby's expression subtly shifted. "It'd be smarter to walk away. Trust me."
"I could say the same to you, pal!" He jammed the painlauncher's tip right up in the mouse's abdominal gape. "You got about three seconds to back the fuck up and let me rob this place in peace, okay!? One..."
Toby stood statue-still and simply looked at the brute. No fear in his eyes. Just a sincere request that things not go this way.
"Two..." The robber's arm twitched like a seismograph needle. The little rodent's Buddha act was bugging him out.
Toby held his hands open: 'I'm waiting...'
The warthog hesitated, not really wanting to do this, but there was no way Trachea would cough up the rocks if he didn't follow through on his threat. "THREE! FRY, FARTFACE!!" He pulled the trigger.
Barely a muscle twitched as Toby's entire torso lit up scarlet from the bolts of agonizing energy surging through it.
The robber's eyes popped.
Toby shrugged and gave him the sweetest, most peaceful smile. "It's only pain," he said.
Shaking, the robber backed up a step. "Jesus, kid!! You got cement in your veins or what!?"
The warthog had declined the chance to leave peacefully and had demonstrated a willingness to use violence upon an innocent furson. Toby didn't feel at all bad about what he did next.
He dropped his arm, then sliced it back upwards in a lightning-quick arc. A silver flash appeared in his palm, vanishing again just as quickly. It encountered as much resistance as cutting through air.
The robber dropped his gun.
The pain had not reached his addled brain yet. He stood trembling with fragments of himself trickling onto the trading post floor. He was cleaved from crotch to sternum. A blood-red furrow of flesh had turned to crystal, like a living geode. With every twitch, more cubes plinked out.
Toby lowered his arm. "You can leave now," he said, like a doctor dismissing a patient.
The robber tried to make words exit his mouth. They would not. He managed a few small noises like a gagging chicken as he walked off, stiff-legged, straight to the nearest door.
Sander nodded and began putting nuggets back in his cash register.
Toby walked over and leaned against the counter. "Phew. That went allright."
He felt the bear's bass voice reverberate through the wood. "THANK YOU."
Behind them the remaining customers sensed 'all clear' and began to peek their heads out. Zinc threw Toby a double thumbs-up.
"ARE YOU STILL GOING TO DRILL THE BIG HOLE?" Sander asked.
"Sure. Can't see why we wouldn't. We're gonna get some supplies first though. Zinc'll be up with a bunch of stuff pretty soon. Do you need any breath while we're waiting?"
Business was concluded amiably. Zinc's basket was indeed overflowing with food, drink, and specialty ammo, plus a pair of forearm blades he thought Junebug might like. Piffle bought a crossword book. Toby hung around a while to shoot the breeze with Sander. Having his air eaten wasn't all that bad. Strange, but not painful.
Toby waved as he left the shop. The big bear waved back, almost as slowly as Red. Toby smiled as he crossed the parking lot towards his friends. And then his chest exploded with so much pain it made the robber's weapon feel like a joy buzzer.
"I didn't want to call the police on her. She's a good neighbor. Always quiet. But that smell! It started a week ago and I can't stand it anymore! Something is very, very wrong in that house!"
Detective Sable thanked her for her cooperation and assured her that making the call was the right thing to do. The officers hadn't taken one step inside before they knew this was one for the hazmat team. The cloud of cleaning chemicals inside 1225 Lindsay was like being punched in the throat. Stevens and Miccelli had lurched away, gagging. Rickard, thinking it couldn't possibly be that bad, called the others wimps and strode through the front door with confidence. A moment later he was puking on the sidewalk.
1225 was in the database. There were other calls years ago about a fight overheard by someone walking their dog, and suspicions from a teacher that a child inside might be suffering maltreatment. Nothing came of either report though. Now this. Every cop knew that gut-clenching moment of realization: because a minor call had not been followed up on, it had metastasized into a major fucking call. Once the pine-scented miasma had aired out a bit, anyone who wasn't breathing through their sleeve had that same sinking feeling. You can put a lot of stuff on top of it, but there's not much that can hide the stench of death.
Toby dropped to the ground. He clutched at his chest before remembering he didn't really have one. His breathing was rapid. The pain was like a balloon on the razor edge of bursting. His veins filled with fire all the way down his arm.
The mouse was a walking first aid manual. Of course he knew the signs of a heart attack.
"You are NOT gonna believe what's upstairs!!"
The guys in the pachyderm suits had shown up and went tromping inside like a squad of exterminators. They drew back the curtains so the others could see in. The ground floor was a shambles. Wallpaper scrubbed to shreds. Furniture smashed. TV dinner trays piled halfway to the ceiling in the kitchen. Uncountable empty cardboard boxes, spray bottles, aerosol cans, used wipes, and rubber gloves. Early speculation had it that this was one of those hoarder houses, and they'd be carrying out trash bags of dead nonevs by the end of the day. But there was only one body. They found her at the foot of the stairs. Broken neck; apparently an accident. She was withered like rotten fruit. Her age made her seem like a mummy, but the corpse hadn't been there for more than ten days, tops. Hard to tell at first though. The sheer amount of antibacterial products in the house had kept the usual decomposition bugs at bay.
And now here came Pete from the hazmat crew, bringing the stink downstairs with him, telling Sable about the upstairs bedroom. A little kid's room. Plastic everything. A galaxy of empty pill bottles beside the bed. And in it... Well, it definitely wasn't a kid. "I've never seen malnutrition like this. I don't know how he's still alive, honestly. The only way we could even tell is he's hooked up to a heart monitor. Fed by an IV drip. He could be anywhere from his mid-thirties to late forties. Guy's a skeleton."
Toby's shaking hand fumbled in his pocket for the calming gem. His fingertips were going numb. He got the little jewel out, but it went skidding across the parking lot. Inside his ribcage, a coked-up drummer was beating an arrhythmic solo on his heart. Which he didn't have. But apparently he was going into cardiac arrest anyway. Funny. Ha ha.
He saw feet. His vision was being slowly invaded by black spots and sparkles, but he could make out the fuzzy silhouettes of his friends. "H-help m-m-m-m..."
They didn't. They gathered around him in a circle, looking down with grim expressions. Junella picked up the gem for him. Then she exchanged knowing glances with the others. They joined hands.
"We can't fix what's going on with you, Toby," she said.
Zinc was pale. "Sorry, amigo, yeah. You just... hold on for a bit."
Piffle bit her lip and couldn't think of anything to say that would make this any more bearable.
George looked confused and outraged that they were doing nothing to aid Sire Toby. "He is in distress! Why are you standing idle!?"
Zinc gave the stallion a troubled look. "This is something you never went through, George. Just trust us. Wait. It's all we can do."
Lying with his cheek to the pavement, Toby twitched and spasmed as pulses of pain kicked the absolute shit out of him. Big, heavy boots stomped on his nervous system with every failing heartbeat. Everything growing worse by the second. Like watching a semi truck careening towards him, and knowing there were no brakes.
Heavy, panicked footsteps came stumbling down the staircase. Miccelli ran out of the house and ripped his mask off. "I swear I didn't touch him!! I swear, I SWEAR!!"
Sable came over and roughly grabbed his shoulder. "What the fuck did you do!?"
Miccelli replied between gasps, "Nothing, I swear! I was just watching them photograph him! I wanted to see it myself. Trainwreck fascination, y'know? I leaned over. Maybe I breathed on him too hard. But the monitor flatlined-" he snapped his fingers, "-just like that! I swear to fucking Mary I didn't touch him!!"
Sable pushed the quaking officer aside and ran into 1225. All the doors and windows had been opened, but the smell still stung his eyes like mace. He breathed through his shirt collar.
In the room at the top of the steps, Sable saw something he knew his brain would never let him forget. Such a cheerful bedroom. Such tidy bookshelves. So many pill bottles. So many stains. And a thing in a homemade oxygen tent built from clear duct-taped garbage bags. A sunken, furless, catheterized thing in a bed that was crawling with death and by everything that was holy should've been put out of its misery decades ago.
The EMTs were arguing about whether or not CPR would crush its ribs like rice paper.
Toby's vision had gone entirely black. His hearing was was reduced to the amplified thunder of his fragmented heart. The pain was erasing his consciousness. Eating his soul. It was ripping out his nerves and chewing on them. Every other death he'd been through, he now recognized for the illusions they were. No matter the pain, this was different. This was REAL. Like the Allfilth was real. Like the Neculaunis and the amulet were simply more there than everything else in Phobiopolis. This was the death of the dead. His heartbeat wasn't there anymore. His brain was rocketing into full-blown panic: a prisoner rattling the bars of his cell as the jailhouse floods with lava.
"It's... No. There's no hope of resuscitating him."
"Obviously! Jesus, just look at him! You can't call it a miracle he survived this long. What's the opposite of a miracle!?"
And then it was over. Toby's senses all turned back on again at full volume. He sucked in a whooping breath, then shuddered and jolted up from the concrete.
His friends were around him. Wrenches lifted him up. Furred and vinyl paws patted him consolingly. A sooty skull nuzzled him in concern.
"What... What the heck just..." Everything was spinning.
Zinc smiled bittersweetly. "Congrats, compadre. You died."
Toby tried to get his feet underneath him, but they'd gone all noodly. He was glad Zinc was holding him up. "I thought that already happened?"
Piffle shook her head. "Nope. Just the big sleep, remember? Your body finally gave up the ghost just now. Kicked the bucket. I remember when it happened to me. Pow! Outta nowhere! I know it musta been horrible, Toby, but there wasn't really anything we coulda done to make it easier on you."
He waved his hand. "That's allright. I'm sure if there was, you would've."
She gave him a kiss for being so understanding.
"Can you stand yet?" Zinc asked.
"Lemme try." The wrenches released and he didn't immediately collapse. Toby had to brace himself against George and Junella, but he stayed upright. "Okay."
The skunk reached up to hold the hand touching her shoulder. "Welcome to the club, mouse."
He blinked dazedly at her. "Club?"
She nodded towards a nearby picnic table. "Let's sit down first."
Toby needed their support to walk the first few steps, but he got the hang of it eventually. He indicated he'd try on his own lowering himself to the wooden seat. They remained ready to catch him, but he made it. The others sat close by. George dumbfounded a can of Anisocoria Rain, as he knew his master was fond of them.
"Thanks." Toby popped the top and killed half the can in one long swallow. Lovely. A lot of the shock and fog melted away. He felt halfway to allright. His heartbeat was back to normal, which was downright bizarre the more he thought about it. "So... I died. What's that mean? Are you gonna throw me a deathday party?"
"Some people have 'em," Zinc replied.
"What it really means, Toby," Junella said carefully, "is that there's no road home anymore. Like, even if Aldridge found a way and really wanted to, it couldn't work now."
"Oh." Toby took a deep breath. "I guess that's not so bad, right? I was pretty much resigned to that already."
Piffle gave his leg a pat. "Mm-hmm."
Junella added, "Once in a blue moon someone'll disappear outta here. We're pretty sure it's them returning to the real world. But it's rare as steak. I never mentioned it before because I thought it might fix you on a false hope."
He nodded; she'd made the right decision. "This doesn't really change anything, does it?"
She shrugged. "Some people feel like it does. But really, there's no more side effects than what you'd stir up yourself from worrying about it."
Toby squeezed her paw and Piffle's, then looked around to everyone. It had been a deeply frightening and excruciating experience, but it was over now. The afterechoes were almost gone. If he was truly stuck here for all eternity, then that wasn't so bad. What better companions could he ask for to spend his afterlife with?
He smiled. "I guess we can get back to making holes then."
Junella was surprised and not surprised that he was bouncing back so quickly. "Hold on. I wanna make sure you're sure first. Like, I don't wanna be burrowing into outer space and have you suddenly go apeshit on me."
Toby chuckled. "I promise, I won't. You can shove me in the airlock if I do. Though..." Something else had just occurred to him. He got abruptly quiet and nibbled on his finger.
"What?" the skunk pried.
Toby shook his head. "It's not important right now. Just, something that's been wandering around in the back of my mind for the past few weeks. An idea. A rough sketch. I guess it popped up again because, if there's really no chance of me ever going back to Earth, this is my home now."
"That's about the long and short of it." Zinc said.
Toby looked down at the grass past his sandals. "And if it's my home, I have an obligation to it. To make sure it's a good place to live."
"A laudable sentiment," George concurred.
"So that means..." Toby swallowed. He kneaded his hands together. "That means keeping it clean. Of dirt and infections."
Piffle squinted. "I spose? Sounds like you're beating around the bush, Toby."
"I am." He sighed and looked up at the sky. Sunny and bright, with batwinged monsters swooping in broad, lazy circles overhead. His world. And he was about to burden them all with another impossible idea.
But then again... He looked back at the faces of his friends, all leaned in around him and curious. A skunk with a blade. A mutt with metal arms. A sweetly silly hamsterfly. And an ascended nightmare stallion.
'Of course they can handle this. Of course we can.'
"Guys... Has anyone ever tried to get rid of Logdorbhok?"