Alex Reynard

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The offramp.

Picture a whale's tail rising up out of the ocean after a dive.

Hypovolemia's freeway did not end with a sensible exit onto solid ground. Instead it curved upwards. Not into a new loop, but into a multi-headed ski jump. The ten lanes split like a bouquet in ten different directions. Beyond the ramps was nothing but sky above and endless shattered glass below.

Somehow, this didn't surprise Toby. He was starting to get the picture by now that Phobiopolis had its own version of Murphy's Law. Anything that could be made as terrifying as possible, would be.

Concrete shook and crumbled. The freeway was throwing a hissy fit at realizing the pain-insects on its skin were about to escape scot-free. There were less than two miles between the carload of irritants and open air. The freeway surged flesh out from within its cement skin to grasp and clutch and squeeze.

"Now that's what I've been waitin' for!" Zinc cheered.


A low, agonized groan came from beneath them. The road had sent out its bloody tentacles to capture the insects, and now their metal-spitting scorpion tail was chewing through them like a lead lawnmower.

Zinc watched blood fly like confetti as he razed the tentacles on every side of the car. "GIVE UP YET!?" he hollered.

Junella could not wait to be off this road, even if all she had to look forward to was the acrophobia of Lumbago. There were no more 'good' places left on the path; just trading one rotten situation for another. Looking ahead, she nudged George into the right lane and goosed him for more speed.

"Hey, Toby!" she called out. "George too! This is important! Once we go off that ramp, you gotta close your eyes and keep 'em closed."

"That probably won't be hard," said Toby, rather relieved at being given permission to cower.

A note of worry was in George's voice. "Madam Brox, I have neither eyes nor eyelids. I'm not sure I would be capable of 'closing my eyes'."

She gritted her teeth. This could be a deadly problem. "You'd better think of a way real quick. Because each lane on that ramp points towards a different place. You only get there if you don't see the crossover. If even one of us peeks, the magic doesn't happen and we plunge straight down. It's like how Santy Claus won't come down the chimney 'till you're asleep."

"Oh dear heavens," said George. He envisioned himself and his friends smashing to bits in the shattered ocean, no choice but to crawl the agonizing miles back to Ectopia Cordis on bloody hands and knees. And all because his species couldn't blink! He felt a thunderbolt of rage and frustration rip through him at the unfairness of it all. Then suddenly a perfectly simple solution kicked him in the head. "This should work!"

Junella saw through the windshield as George pulled his skull back through the hole in the hood like a turtle.

"It should!" she agreed. And that reminded her, "Doll? Burlap time."

Toby leaned over to grab the bag and scoop Doll inside. No time to waste looking away and letting her do it on her own. Safely covered, she gave him a thumbs-up.

Meanwhile, Zinc was still trying to educate the freeway. His lessons consisted entirely of bullets. Tentacles were shooting up like weeds now. They'd become a forest if he didn't keep sweeping the gun back and forth to prune them. The tentacles speared towards them, seeking. They quivered and burst into frothy dreck as the bullets ripped through. The Fearsleigher was splashed with so much red it looked like it'd rear-ended a tomato truck.

Zinc happened to glance up ahead. There was only one thing that could have made him leave his perch on the gun. He saw it.

"Piff, take over for me!" he yelped as he clambered off the pedals.

"What!?" she squeaked. She'd been catching her breath since firing the spear and thought her part in all this was over. But the hamsterfly was loyal above all else, and in the blink of an eye she was fluttering roofward.

Zinc was poised at the edge, ready to jump down to the skate blade. He could see the tentacles rising up as soon as the bullets stopped. "Just point, pedal, and squeeze! Nothin's easier!" They were half a mile from where the offramp began to curve towards the sky. "I gotta go chat with Junebug right this second."

Piffle hefted her plump rump onto the gun. "Ooof!" She started pedaling as soon as her feet were in place, just as she was told.

"Thanks loads, kitten!" Zinc leapt and landed on the skate blade with an impact that sent them swerving. "Oh, and as soon as we're off the ramp, shut yer eyes and keep 'em shut if you like your ass uncontaminated by glass!"

Piffle rolled her eyes at him. "Obviously!" As if she'd never been on a perception-bent road before. "Waddaya think I am, a tourist?"

That got a grin out of him. Which grew even bigger when Piffle practically strangled the handgrips and sent a firehose spray of hot lead into the creeping batch of tentacles reaching out for them. 'My gun's in good hands,' Zinc thought to himself as he darted for the passenger door.

Junella was less than happy to see him. "What the fuck you doin' not on the roof!?"

He held up his wrenchhands. "Chillsville! Piffle's got it covered. I just came down because you're in the wrong lane."

The road was starting to tilt upwards again. In less than a minute they'd be flying.

Junella made a face like sucking lemons. "I am not."

Zinc reached for the wheel. "Hate to break it to ya. Fifth lane from the left is where we wanna be!"

She gnashed her teeth and slapped away his wrenches. "Fifth from the right! I remember from last time!"

"That's what you said last time!!"

Toby had one hand over his eyes and the other holding onto Doll. The argument from the front seat was sending his confidence plunging.

"Which lane should I be in!?" George wailed, starting to panic.

"Keep it steady!" Junella commanded.

"Not if you don't want us ending up in the middle of nowhere! Or worse!" Zinc shouted.

Junella snarled, clutching the wheel like a mother lion protecting her cub. "I know this road! I've driven on it since before we even met!"

Piffle was whizzing around like a helicopter blade and the tentacles still kept coming!

Zinc's heart was a jackhammer. "Juney, I love you, but you're misremembering. We've only got seconds left to change course!"

Toby stared in horror out the window, at the thumping, curling, dripping red arms converging all around them.

"I REMEMBER JUST FINE!!" Junella screamed.

Zinc reached across to the dashboard. "Really? Because you forgot to turn the headlights on."

Piffle gushed a sigh of relief as the freeway shrieked in agony. The Himmelman 500 headlights blazed to life, burning through the tentacles in front of them like twin scalpels of fire.

Clearing away the creepers had also cleared the way to see how much of the ramp was left.

About twenty feet.

Zinc's eyes widened and his ears flattened. "Well this argument just became academic."

Seconds later, George's wheels left the road and they shot towards the clouds like a bladed cannonball.

Toby's brain could not resist the morbid impulse to swivel his head towards the back window and watch solid ground recede away. He saw the blood tentacles writhing petulantly, cheated of their prey. But phasing through them fast came something else. Something that made his already-overworked heart thud faster.

A shimmering ghost of the Fearsleigher. Following them.

He shut his eyes, for several reasons.


Nothing below them but acres of air and an ocean of deadly, lacerating shards.

Toby heard the wind whistling outside the car. Felt the emptiness beneath their feet. Felt the cold chill of knowing that, in any world that actually paid attention to physics, the only place they were headed was straight down into glass. He had to trust faith that they'd end up somewhere less immediately fatal. Though, depending on whether Zinc or Junella was right about the lanes, that could be anywhere.

"EYES SHUT!!!" Junella screamed.

Everyone obeyed. Even Doll, inside her burlap, put her hands over her face.

Suddenly there came a loud thump at the side. Toby thought at first they were being attacked in mid-air. A last grasp of the freeway tentacles? Instead, the wind howled when the door popped open and Piffle tumbled through. Toby could not stop himself from a split-second peek: one arm was over her eyes while she fumbled with the other to get the door re-latched.

"Did you actually just get back here from the roof, blindfolded!?"

"Sure did!" she said, panting a bit. She wiggled her antennae at him. "Having an extra sense helps a bunch!" The hamsterfly skootched in beside him, Doll between, and took Toby's paw in hers. "One hand for my eyes, one hand for you. So we won't be scared."

There was no way a single touch was going to erase the tonnage of terror weighing down on his heart. But it did help a little. There was always the comfort of knowing he wouldn't die alone.

Something that also helped was the realization that they hadn't yet started to fall. Ever since they'd left the ramp, they'd been arcing up, up, and away. In fact, not only could Toby tell that they were still rising, their speed was increasing. As if they'd passed close enough to a comet to hitch a ride in its orbit.

Zinc was not calm. He had no idea where they were heading, and to avoid the compulsion to look ahead and find out, he popped his eyes out and dropped them in his jacket pocket. His leg jittered, fidgeting. "Christ, Juney, I hope I'm wrong and not you. I sure as shit don't want us ploppin' down in some place like Teratoma or Polydactyl."

"We will be fine," she replied. Her tone was fierce, but there was a quaver in it. Her fingers had trembled over her grooves.

"Sounds t'me like you're not fully confident on that point."

She was glad he couldn't see, because she'd reflexively raised her hand to give him a needle-filled slap. But she stopped herself, singing, "You'll see. Any moment now we'll end up on the river bridge. Smooth as silk. Just like normal."

"For what it's worth," came George's muffled voice from inside the hood, "if I was at fault in any way, I hereby apologize."

"No, no," Junella reassured. "You were solid, slick, and superfine." She realized he'd been trying to take the heat off her and felt cruddy about that.

Piffle spoke up. "How much longer are we gonna be in the air?"

Junella bit her lip, feeling even worse now about acting like a brat to Zinc when they had an audience in the back. "Shouldn't be long."

"Does it..." Toby started, not sure if it was worth mentioning or not, "Does it mean anything that I saw, like, another us just after we went off the ramp?"

"YOU WHAT!?" Zinc and Junella sputtered simultaneously.

Toby immediately regretted opening his mouth. Even with his eyes covered he could sense their incredulous looks. "Maybe it was nothing! Maybe I was just hallucinating!"

"Let's say you weren't. What exactly did you see?" Junella demanded.

Toby could feel the car continue to accelerate towards wherever or whatever was pulling them in. "It was like a mirage. The car, with us inside. Shimmery like a ghost."

Zinc sighed in relief. "Allright. I thought for a sec the bastard ambulance that got a taste of us figured out how to copy the car."

"Same here," Junella sang.

"So then what was it?" Toby asked.

Piffle squeezed his hand a little harder as a sudden memory poked her. "Oh cripes, I might have an idea..."

Junella did not like the worried shiver in the hamsterfly's voice. "If you can contribute to this discussion, then please-"



Everyone's bones rattled. Their guts jumped. Their teeth clacked. Doll smacked into the ceiling and everyone's seatbelts nearly sliced them in half.

For a few moments they were all disoriented from the sudden resurgence of gravity. They had landed, but it hadn't felt like they'd smashed into the ground. More like something enormous had spontaneously appeared beneath them.

"Oh my tires! Oh my skull!" George moaned.

"Is it safe to open my eyes now?" Toby whimpered.

"Should be," Piffle said warily.

Everyone checked themselves out, searching for broken bones or, in George's case, busted shocks. Everyone ached, but didn't seem to be grievously damaged.

Toby risked a peek out the window.

Well, this was a pleasant change. Outside was the most refreshingly normal setting he'd seen in Phobiopolis so far.

They were in a wide field of healthy green grass, punctuated by perfectly average-looking trees, all spaced evenly apart. 'Must be an orchard,' he thought. The sky above was blue and bright, not abnormally overcast like everywhere else. About the only odd thing to note in this pastoral place; there sure were a whole lot of airplanes up there. Flying so high among the clouds they looked like specks. Like dust among cotton.

The air was quiet. Not even the sound of wind.

Toby felt his relief sour.

No, no, he couldn't be this lucky. This was just a mask, waiting to rip away and reveal this place's true, nasty nature. Just like everywhere else in this nightmare world.

George's skull cautiously emerged from the hood. His perceptions were keener than Toby's and he noticed right away there was something decidedly unusual going on here. The leaves of grass were all exactly the same shade. Not just mostly: exactly. They all pointed in the same direction too. And there were really only two trees, one a bit shorter than the other. Both were copied over and over again endlessly, laid out in a grid stretching to the horizon. There was something wrong with the horizon as well.

Junella leaned forward, scanning the sky. "See, Zinc? I told you I knew what lane we were in. I dunno how, but we must've skipped over the bridge and gone straight to Lumbago."

Zinc reinserted his eyeballs, took a look around, and cringed. "You think this is Lumbago?"

"Sure, sure." Her song was not confident. She sounded like she was trying to convince mostly herself. "It's a part we haven't been to before, that's all. See? Look up. Sky's full of biteranodons, just like always."

Piffle had been so busy tending to Doll, making sure her plastic companion hadn't gotten squashed on re-entry, that she hadn't looked outside yet. At the mention of biteranodons, she did. Her expression curdled into outright terror. "I was right!!"

Zinc turned around in his seat. "Yeah, you were gonna say something 'bout that. Just before the ground interrupted us." His jocular smile died out in an instant as he saw Piffle's face.

She grabbed at his shoulder. "This is a really bad place! We hafta get out of here right now!!"

Junella looked skeptical. "Doesn't seem all that bad."

Piffle didn't even glance at her. She poked her head out the side window, staring up at the sky at the slowly swimming shapes in the clouds. "Trust me. I found this place by accident one afternoon when I was trying to see how far up I could fly."

The wind arose, running its airy fingers through her hair.

Piffle pointed skyward. "LOOK!!"

They all craned their necks. For a moment, none of them had any idea what had gotten Piffle into such a commotion. There was nothing alarming above them except the endless blue and the clusters of airplanes.

Though, wait... Were the airplanes turning?


All of them?

ALL of them!?

In an instant everyone understood Piffle's panic, as an uncountable number of nosecones turned to point towards the Fearsleigher. Zeroing in like a platoon of hunting dogs.

And then they began to descend.

A trapdoor opened under Toby's heart, plunging it down into cold blackness. Time slowed to a stop. He was frozen. Eyes wide, mouth gaping open. All those silent shapes up in the sky. Hundreds. Like a flock of birds communicating soundlessly mid-flight. They had all received some secret signal. Down below was their target. Hundreds of noses dipped. Hundreds of dark, birdlike shapes began to grow larger. They were no longer flying. There was no sound of engines. They were falling. Like leaves. Like javelins. They only seemed slow because of how far they had to fall.

"GEORGE, DRIVE!!" Piffle screamed.

He did not waste a second hesitating. Tires growled on grass and flung dirt behind them as he dug in and peeled out.

Toby and Piffle nearly lost their heads as their necks slammed into the window frames.

Piffle yanked her mouse friend back inside."Are you okay?"

The mouse's vision swirled, but he managed to squeeze a sound out. ""

Piffle nodded. "Yup. They've smelled us. It didn't take long, did it?"

Toby looked again, hoping his eyes had lied the first time. No such luck. The sky was starting to dim with the presence of even more flying in from all corners of the sky.

George shouted, "Madam McPerricone! Please let me know exactly where it is I'm trying to get to!"

"Just drive straight!" she yelled back. "See how curved the horizon is? It's like a tiny little planet! The only way out is to circle all the way 'round and look for a shiny spot where we first showed up!"

"Can't we just turn back now and try to find it?" Junella protested.

Piffle shook her head. "No dice. I tried that the first time. It's all-the-way or nothin'."

The vinyl skunk looked up through the windshield, seeing the swooping flock of white vultures getting closer by the heartbeat. Her face melted into utter regret and self-hatred. This was 100% her fault. Her stupid stubbornness. "George," she sang softly, "would you like to see just how fast you can pull this car? Because I think we'd all really appreciate that right about now."

The stallion had been feeling despair himself, but the request ignited a spark in him. On the freeway, he'd spent most of his time regulating his speed. Going fast, but not too fast. It had been a torturous denial of his real desire: to go all out and really see what this new body could do.

"Madam Brox, I believe I would enjoy that very much."

"Brace yourselves!" Zinc shouted.

George whinnied, blasted fire from his nostrils, and prepared to chase his limits.

When he took off, the five passengers were all punched back in their seats so hard they saw stars.

Past the Fearsleigher's windows, the trees became blurs. Brown and green smears. George's tires shredded the immaculate grass in his attempt to put as much distance between himself and the falling nightmares as possible. He knew from the curve of the horizon he could not circumnavigate this place quickly enough to evade the crashes entirely. They would come. At best he could get a head start.

Above, the planes fell without a sound. They were shaped like passenger jets, but their windows were merely spots on their hides and their turbines never spun. They were nightmare constructs in the skin of airliners. They would never carry customers or cargo. They did not even have mouths to devour their prey. Their single instinct was to spot a living soul and smash into it. Their minds were simple, even by nightmare standards: Seek. Drop. Embrace in fire.

Toby stared at the rain of aircraft. It brought him back to memories of sitting at his bedroom window, seeing helicopters and passenger planes skimming by through the clouds. Watching a faraway, toylike flying machine and having that awful thought of, 'What if it suddenly... fell?' To have that fear magnified a hundredfold right in front of his eyes was almost too surreal to deal with. From this distance, he had no sense of scale. But he knew how big an airplane was. He'd seen them on TV. A direct hit would obliterate the Fearsleigher and all its contents. There would be fire, smoke, and then a million bits of wreckage no bigger than a tinfoil ball.

Junella stared straight ahead, hands at her sides, face slack. One hand weakly scratched her leg, "You can go ahead and say it, partner. 'I told you so'."

Zinc looked away from the approaching hellstorm, almost offended. "You think I'm gonna gloat at a time like this? People make fuckin' mistakes, Juney. Boo hoo! George'll pull us through, we'll get back on the road, and that'll be the end of it."

George spoke up from the hood, "I am glad to hear you have such confidence in me, Sir Zinc."

Zinc tickled the glove compartment handle. "Shouldn't I?"

That got a throaty chuckle from George. He appreciated Zinc's words, but couldn't spare any more attention on a reply. His focus was on the grid of trees. There was ample space between them for three Fearsleighers to pass side-by-side. But he knew this would not be a simple straight shot. There were ever more aircraft crawling in from every corner of the sky. All falling. He knew he would need to dodge impacts eventually. So he timed the trees. He would have to be very, very precise to thread himself through them. A crash at this speed would turn his passengers into paste.

Toby was terrified, as always, but showed no outward sign except for his stricken posture. His fate was entirely out of his hands. He was stuck in a metal box traveling at 200 miles per hour, targeted by a swarm of kamikaze nightmares, and he wasn't screaming. He felt like he couldn't scream. Maybe he'd already reached the limit of what his mind could stand in Hypovolemia. Maybe he was just numb. 'Or maybe you're adapting,' a part of him whispered.

He did not see the first crash, but he felt it. A second later he heard it.

A violent vibration shook the car, followed by a faraway boom.

Then came a second. And three more, one right after another.

Then more, and more. They were getting louder. They were getting closer.

Toby and Piffle could see, in the tiny reflection of the front seat's rear view mirror, that the trees behind them were turning into blossoms of flame.

George readied his shocks for a pounding.


The next plane hit closer than any of them were prepared for. Toby felt the Fearsleigher's back wheels lift off the ground. A shockwave grabbed him by the shoulders and shook. The window filled with searing orange. The sound nearly burst his eardrums.

In slow motion, in excruciating detail, Toby watched a turbine engine the size of a refrigerator sail past his window like a car in the passing lane. He could see the inner blades, the shredded skin, the mechanical guts, the tendrils of trailing smoke. Almost beautiful, like a painting.

George fought weightlessness, slamming his back end down on the ground where it belonged. He pumped more power into his all-wheel drive and kept on, steady as an arrow.

And now the air rippled with the painful pulses of aircraft crashes all around them. Like a giant's footsteps. An apocalyptic drunkard wobbling around, stomping the forest flat with every burning footstep. Chunks of wing sliced across the sky. The colors of fire were everywhere.

Antennae clutched in her fists, Piffle blocked her ears and tried to hide her eyes under her hat, shivering in her seat as one of her worst memories replayed itself.

Toby eventually noticed she wasn't holding his hand anymore. He was able to rip his eyes away from the ragnarok outside to see her curled up beside him, shellshocked. He wrapped himself around her in a hug.

Junella had not said so earlier, but she could empathize deeply with Toby's frustration at the lack of control in a bad situation. She could only stare at the steering wheel in front of her. George was fully in the driver's seat here. She knew the highway, but she wouldn't have dared to try navigating through the trees like he was doing. Whenever debris landed in front of them like a blazing meteor, George would adjust course quicker than she could blink, zipping through the forest like a champion slalom skier. It was breathtaking. And his moves were not jerky either. She didn't go ricocheting around in her seat with every sharp correction. George wasn't just driving, he was flowing.

The nightmare stallion's skull was empty. There was no room for thought. All energy was directed to pure automatic instinct. George was as mindless as his days before his burial. Only now, his purpose was to protect instead of pursue. All around him, explosions shoved at his sides and white-hot metal stung his skin. But he felt no pain. Pain was for later. Right now, all that existed was his vision and his wheels. He diverted course before he was consciously aware of doing so. His perceptions were a hundred feet ahead, trying to predict the debris before it fell. Playing chess with it. He had never felt more at one with the car. It was as if he'd been born in this body. Like his calcium had always been merged with steel.

Junella and Zinc both jumped in their seats when the headlights came on by themselves and blasted a clump of fallen branches into charred twigs.

The mutt and skunk looked at each other. George was a quick learner.

Zinc looked towards the roof. "I wonder if he can... No way, it's not-"


The canine's jaw dropped as he watched a falling chunk of fuselage get swatted out of their way. Shoved by a pummeling blast of bullets from the gatling gun.

Zinc stared, gobsmacked. "I've been replaced by automation."

Meanwhile, small burlap-covered hands were massaging Piffle's shoulders. The hamsterfly reached up to pat Doll's head, then thanked her with a kiss, though her gaze seemed glued to the floor. "I was trapped here for hours. Felt like days. Months," she said in a husk of a whisper.

"We'll make it out," Toby assured her.

W-E-W-I-L-L, Doll concurred.

"I know," she said, a tear falling from her ruby eye. "I know we will now. We've got George. But back then it was just me by myself. The planes were falling all around me. I was so scared. I died so many times. It burned. Hellfire. I couldn't find my way out."

Toby squeezed tighter. He'd never seen Piffle this way. Even when Amaurosis Fugax had fucked with all their heads and hearts, this was different. 'There must be a limit to everyone,' he thought.

The hamsterfly stared hollowly at the car's floor for a long time, trying to block out the flashes and bangs from outside. But then out of the blue, a small smile broke through her clouds. "Actually... I'm glad."

Toby was taken aback. "How!? About what?"

Piffle sat up a little straighter. "I'm glad I got snagged here before. I'm glad. Because, even though it was so awful and frightening, it taught me. I told George to drive. I gave us a head start." Sunlight broke over her face as she spoke, and she visibly returned to her normal self. "Because of the first time, I knew how to get us out this time!"

Toby was somewhat awed. Piffle's power to see the best in all things had been tested, and emerged victorious yet again. "That's right," was all he could say.

"I dunno if everything happens for a reason," she said, "but maybe there's always a way to take some good outta the bad if you can find it."

"Piffle, you are amazing." Toby leaned on her shoulder and held her tighter. Doll did too.

A burning hot rivet crashed through the window like a bullet.

Piffle shrieked, then realized she was unharmed. The rivet sizzled on the carpet and glass littered their backs, but it hadn't hurt anyone. She chuckled. "Gee whiz, that was close!"

'And there she is, back 100%,' Toby marveled.

Meanwhile, the driving was getting a bit more difficult for George. The crashes were coming closer, and quicker. He was having to dodge bigger and bigger chunks of wreckage. A swift diagonal turn kept a wing from clipping the gun turret off. Landing gear, seats, and other smaller detritus were knocked away by the nailplow. He was, at least, having success blowing up larger bits with the heated headlights and gatling gun, but it was a lot to juggle. Without fully realizing it, he'd been seeing 360 degrees by unconsciously appropriating the side mirrors as a second pair of eyes.

When it rains, it pours. More and more planes fell from the sky. Arrows of steel and glass and fuel, turning the ground to craters and the sky to smoke. George’s only advantage was that, once the planes picked their target and started to fall, they couldn't change course. They kept hitting where the Fearsleigher had already been. It was child's play to predict where they'd hit. The problem was their sheer damned numbers.

Every window was shattered by now. Piffle, Doll and Toby were huddled densely on the floor while Junella and Zinc tried to shield themselves behind the dashboard. Occasionally they'd risk a peek outside. Every glance showed a worse hell than the last. George was doing the impossible, guiding them through an unfathomable inferno.

Shattered shards littered their backs with tiny cuts. Flaming hot debris hit the floor faster than they could chuck it back out. The forest fires' heat was making blobs of black vinyl drip down Junella's legs to pool on the floor mat. Zinc hissed in pain when an icicle of bent aluminum sailed through the empty window and into his shoulder.

Junella reached out a comforting hand to him. Her voice was slurred due to melting. "How 'bout I buy dinner next time to make up for this?"

Through his pain, he managed to grin. "Sounds fair, babe. But this time I'm gettin' steak."

The endless green of this unknown planetoid had turned into volcanic reds. The trees were torches. More and more airliners seemed to spawn in the skies, relentlessly hammering down all around them.

George was running out of room to maneuver. The more crashes that came, the fewer options he had to avoid them. A scythe of fuselage tore a gash along his hood. Letting it wound him was safer than getting too close to the impact blasts on the opposite side. Pain was easy to ignore. He could be repaired. His priority was his passengers. And though he knew they could resurrect, there was a principle involved.

What drove him more than necessity was guilt. His memories replayed at the back of his thoughts: the long nights when he and his old herd would stalk, trample and devour unwary souls. How he relished the sensation of a mighty hoof crushing a spinal column. But he was something new now. To banish his old self, he had to drown it in fire. Every slash and dent in this beloved metal form was penance. As if he were reaching back into the past to take the suffering from his long-ago victims and place it upon himself where it belonged.

His pinprick eyes blazed brighter and hotter than the headlights. His body was illuminated with purpose. Trees and wreckage scattered away from the force of his bullets and plow. His wheels were like water. Shifting fluidly, drifting, skating frictionlessly between the trees. He had attained the same state of perfect purpose as Zinc slipped into when he'd been chopping down the mall.

And then something ahead grabbed his attention. "Madam McPerricone!!" he bellowed.

Piffle's head popped up. A smoldering piece of wood grazed her pith helmet. "Need some help, George?"

"You said you saw a shimmer where the exit was?"

Hope rose in her heart. "Yes! Like a wobbly place in the air! Like a funhouse mirror! I could see back home through it!"

Far ahead, hundreds of feet away, something glimmered like a ripple in a pond. George corrected course and made a beeline for it."It lies ahead!!" he shouted triumphantly.

"YES!!" Piffle exploded.

Zinc and Junella dared to look. They could see it too, the shimmer.

"Go for it, George!" Zinc cheered. "You're faster than the Daytona 500! Faster than a space rocket! Faster than the motherfuckin' speed of light!!"

George had a straight shot. Plenty of splintered tree trunks and twisted, flaming airliner corpses along the way, but nothing he couldn't handle. He aimed for the shimmer and focused his attention in all directions around it, making sure the path was clear.

"Damnation," he snarled.

One last jet. Maybe smarter than the rest, maybe just lucky. But it was on target to impact the ground mere feet in front of the shimmer. It would hit before they could get through. George saw the wind tearing chunks away from its aluminum hide as it plummeted. Saw its expressionless black windows. It would eviscerate them.

"My companions," George spoke, "any spare willpower you could lend me right now..."

He didn't even need to finish his sentence. Junella gripped the steering wheel in her melting hands, pushing her soul into it as hard as she could.

The others saw and followed. Zinc clamped his wrenches on the dash and doorframe. Toby wasn't sure where or how to help, but he scooped up Doll in the crook of his arm and they both touched the side door.

Piffle laid hands upon the front seat headrests. She had her eyes closed, ignoring the battlefield outside and the shaking of the car. All her thoughts were on George.

Did he feel more power surge into his wheels? Did he just imagine it? Did their confidence and support help him find hidden reserves?

George did not know. He only knew that somehow, his wheels seemed to glide easier. The air resistance lessened. His speed crept past what he thought had been his maximum.

He became a bullet.

Reality seemed to warp around him. The trees were not just blurs, but swirls. All sound vanished. George's sense of touch melted away. Nothing mattered except racing that plane to be first through the shimmer. He was literally trying to outrun gravity.

Gravity was a hard opponent. The feral airplane began to slowly spin, then pick up speed, turning itself into a gigantic drill bit.

Through the shimmer, George could see vague images of concrete and white stripes.

Zinc's wrenches dented the doorframe.

Piffle kept her eyes shut even when her hat caught fire.

Toby looked out through watery eyes. They were flying through a furnace.

The shimmer was a hole through reality. A wobbly-edged funnel through which light and matter melted and curled inward.

Two hundred feet away... one-seventy... one-thirty... eighty...

The airliner was close enough for George to see the seams in its metal nose. Its hollow black eyes seemed to grin at him. It was a shark. They were its minnows.

George felt the limits of physics holding him back by the shoulders. He snorted fire in defiance and shook them away.

The shimmer was so close he could smell it.

The airliner loomed.

Just before he shot through, George could swear he felt something scrape across his roof.

Then he was surrounded by some uncanny ether, like reality made liquid. He and his passengers stared in astonishment as time slowed to a stagger.

Behind them, the airliner dove nose-first into the dirt, its seams splitting, its panels shearing away, vomiting fire from its metal intestines. The sound was slowed and muffled. Impotent. The shockwave of the crash did little more than nudge them.

Their attention was elsewhere anyway. They saw, through the flickering, flowing walls of the shimmer, themselves. Up ahead on the offramp. About to go flying off into the sky to land on an unknown sphere where airplanes fell.

"Is that what you saw, Toby!?" Zinc breathed.

The mouse was pretty sure his heart had stopped, but tried not to let it bother him. He could see through the shimmer, across the concrete, through the back window of the Fearsleigher, into his own wide eyes. "Sort of," he croaked out.

The slo-mo ended just as suddenly as it began. They were shooting up the offramp at several hundred MPH. George's tires caught fire from the friction of the concrete.

No time to celebrate. Junella and Zinc both broke free of their awestruck paralysis to slam their hands down on the steering wheel and shove the car into the correct lane. No disagreement this time.

The blood tentacles were so flabbergasted they didn't even try to stop them.

For the second time that day, the Fearsleigher zoomed off the edge of the offramp like a shuttle to the moon.

They were all too dumbstruck by their escape to do much more than stare out the broken windshields as they sailed weightless through the air.

Doll suddenly covered her face with her hands.

"Oh crap, that's right!" Toby shouted, nearly dropping her in his haste to get a paw over his eyes.

That reminded everyone, and in an eyeblink Junella had ducked her head under the dash, George retreated into the hood, Piffle hid behind the front seats, and Zinc threw his eyeballs into the glove compartment.

Toby could still envision the expression on his face, staring out from the back seat at himself staring back at himself. "So... time travel. Does that happen often in Phobiopolis?"

"Two words," Junella replied, "FUCK and NO! Whatever the hell that was, Zinc and I've never seen it before, and that's saying something!"

A voice from under the hood: "To be perfectly honest, Sire Toby, neither have I."

Toby didn't know how to feel about the fact that there were things in this land that went beyond the knowledge of even his fearless companions.


There was a minor jolt, no worse than a speed bump, and suddenly they were perfectly stationary. Before he opened his eyes, Toby could smell salt and feel moisture in the air.

He raised his head. Outside was a shimmering blue blanket that stretched as far as the eye could see.

"The river bridge," Zinc introduced.


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