Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


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Part Fifty-Three

Toby guessed that "the river bridge" was a name chosen out of ironic inappropriateness, or simply because it sounded good. It was certainly a lot better than, "the bridge hanging out by itself smack dab in a kazillion miles of open water".

It was conspicuous in its normalcy. Six lanes, surrounded by crisscrossing diagonal support beams and gleaming white guardrails. Many structures in Phobiopolis appeared ancient or timeless, but the river bridge looked like someone had reached down to Earth, picked up a modern-day highway bridge by its trapezoidal handle, then plopped it down in a giant bathtub.

On all sides was a proper ocean. Water, not glass. The surface was a rich, intense blue, like lapis lazuli. The water rolled and sloshed. Its waves were content and lethargic. The air was invigorating, full of salty smells and soothing sounds. Toby knew in his gut that there were probably all sorts of untold horrors lurking just below the surface in the unseen deep, but for now, the water was calm and pretty, and that was just what his nerves needed.

Piffle pulled her arms away from her face like a self-unwrapping Christmas present. She poked her head up, periscoping around. "We made it!!" she shouted joyfully. "We're all still here!" She swept Doll into her arms for an extra-big hug, then pounced on Toby and peppered his cheek with kisses.

Junella flicked a short smile in the direction of the rear view mirror.

George took in a deep sniff of sea air and sighed deeply. He was banged up, pockmarked, overheated, and his wheels ached like hell, but he was happy. He'd fulfilled his mission. He'd raced against impossibility and won. He'd pulled off a genuine miracle. No need to brag about it to the others, but he did cheerfully dwell on the pleasant feeling for a while. "I hope everyone inside me is relatively unscathed?" he asked.

"Near 'nuff," Zinc said, pulling out the shard of fuselage. "You did a fuckuva job back there, George. You beat the devil."

The car rocked side to side a bit as the praise made him wiggle in happiness.

Piffle's smile was gargantuan as ever, but Toby could feel her muscles fluttering. She'd really been shaken by the experience, and her relief eclipsed even his. He gave her another big squeeze, then reached for the door handle.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Junella barked.

Toby looked up, a little shocked. "What did I do? I was just gonna go thank George."

"Nothin' wrong," she reassured. "And I think that's something we all ought to do. Just not yet. Wait for the spinning to stop."

Well that was a nice little chunk of dread to fling at him. "What spinning?"

Zinc checked his seatbelt again, just to be sure. "Oh, you'll see in a moment."

George snorted. "Botheration. More perils?"

"Naw. This is the easiest part of the trip. Just keep still. You'll know exactly when it's safe to move around," Junella replied.

"All bridges take you somewhere. This one just does it more literally," Zinc quipped.

The bridge was not free-floating. It did not shift with the waves. It was anchored to something deep below. Soon they felt a shudder come from beneath. Some great mechanism struggling to life. The water began to bubble at the sides of the bridge.

The juddering increased until everyone in the Fearsleigher was holding onto their seats and trying not to bite their tongues. Then some unfathomably huge cog below them managed to finally overcome inertia and engage. Waves crashed and water splashed up onto the road surface. As if attached to some gargantuan drive shaft, the bridge began to rotate. Slowly at first, like a ferry pulling out of the harbor, but then it began to gain speed.

Toby held Doll tight in his lap, ashamed that he'd let her go bumping around the interior before. He could feel the rotation of the bridge starting to churn his stomach acid. He had a feeling that if he ever went to a carnival, he would not enjoy the rides.

George could feel increasing G-forces tugging at him. "I'll slide right off!"

"No you won't!" Zinc reassured. "Just keep cool and ride it out!"

Faster and faster they spun. The water turned to sprays of white foam all around. The bridge's unseen mechanism made deep, rumbling roars beneath the water. Sounds that vibrated through the asphalt and up their spines. Everyone in the car was leaning hard to the side as the velocity of the spin kept rising and rising.

Rising and rising... literally!

Toby felt the difference when the harsh shaking of colossal machinery smoothed away into a stable spin. He could see the horizon drop outside and feel the change in weight beneath his feet. The bridge was flying! The machine below had spun it up to speed like a gyroscopic top, and now they were whirring in place, hovering above the surface of the water!

The river bridge continued to ascend. Floating on thin air, held aloft by momentum alone, it climbed to twenty feet above the water, then began to slide sideways. Without any landmarks around, their direction was unknown. But the bridge seemed to have one in mind.

Just when the spinning was starting to become unbearable and Toby was worrying he'd need to whip off Doll's bag to be sick in, he felt it start to ease.

"R-r-right on t-time," Zinc stuttered.

As slowly as the spin had begun, it reversed. But only for the car and its passengers. The bridge itself was still impersonating a berserk merry-go-round. Yet through some inexplicable means, the Fearsleigher's rotation steadily decreased until it finally eased down to a perfectly smooth stop, leaving all of them frazzled but unharmed.

It didn't help Toby to look out the window and see the bridge still buzzing in circles around them like they were its axis. Had a section detached to stop them spinning? He hadn't felt anything like that. It seemed like they were gliding in place on a cushion of frictionlessness.

"This is more like it," Zinc said. He popped his door open. "Now we can get out and stretch our legs."

Toby was about to cry out, worried the centrifugal force would fling Zinc away like a tornado.

Instead, the canine calmly stepped out onto the skate blade. He gave it a stomp. "Rock solid. Anyone wanna join me out here? Great weather for a beach party."

Junella slid out to join him. She stood up and cricked her back. "Uhhhgh. Fuckin' seat..."

Piffle perked up. "Let's go give George a hug!" She opened her door and, with a mischievous grin, grabbed Toby by the shoulders to yank him and Doll out with her. A short squeaking flight later, they were plopping down on the hood. Piffle crawled on all fours over to the stallion's skull and threw her arms around it, bombarding George with love. "You're the tops, Georgie! I love ya to the moon and back! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

The construct was delighted. "Goodness, Madam McPerricone! You will make me blush!"

"Then we'll both be pink," she said with a giggle.

Toby looked over the hood to see the white lines on the asphalt whizzing around underneath them. They really were keeping still in one spot while the entire bridge rotated around them. "How...?" he muttered to himself.

"C'mon, Toby! Get over here and hug this horsie hero too!"

He chuckled. "Just a moment, Piffle." He was still holding Doll and tried to keep her safe while scooting himself in tiny, careful steps across the hood.

I-C-A-N-D-O-I-T, Doll spelled out.

"Well... okay." He didn't want her to go skidding off and get flung across the ocean, but he also didn't want to overprotect her. He set her down on her little plastic feet and, without an ounce of fear, she toddled over to join Piffle's hug. 'I have literally less courage than a baby doll,' Toby thought, feeling his cheeks flush. He awkwardly shuffled over to give the skull a pat as well. "You're really something special, George."

"Thank you very much for saying so, Sire Toby. I was just as surprised as you at how far I was able to exceed my own capabilities. I am glad we all made it through safely."

At that, Toby looked down to the gash in the metal his hand was resting upon. He sat up, finally taking in the damage the airline nightmares had wreaked.

It was bad, but not as bad as he'd imagined. Every single window was completely gone. The paintjob was scratched all to hell. Uncountable divots, shrapnel holes and slashes. But the Fearsleigher, and George, remained structurally intact. They'd lost every one of the nightmare-repelling plushies though. (Toby thought that must have happened a lot earlier, considering how up close and chummy the ambulances were acting back on the highway. Or maybe they were just too mean to be affected.)

Zinc balancing himself with his wrenches at the far edge of the skate blade, leaning far back to survey the aftermath. He whistled. "Luck? Skill? I dunno what you've got George, but I'm impressed as hell by it!"

"That goes double for me," Junella sang sincerely. "Thank you for pulling us out of my stupid mistake."

Any remaining pain from his battle scars faded to null. George was awestruck at this outpouring of gratitude. He didn't think his species could cry, but he wouldn't have minded if he did. This was such a new feeling from anything in his old life. He felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and deeply appreciative. "You are all welcome. I did my best for you, and am glad it was enough. We are all together, safe and sound. I could not be more pleased."

Zinc nodded. "Now, while we've got time, let's see if we can't get a few repairs in before land ho."

Piffle kissed George's temple. "Absotivey posilutely! We'll give you the royal spa treatment!"

"That would be simply stupendous, Madam McPerricone."

Zinc popped into the back seat to root around for supplies. Amazingly, the cornucopia had survived. Splintered and stepped on, but still intact. "Eyyy! Anyone else for a snack? Stress makes me ravenous." He reached inside and the first thing that touched his hand was a pack of Red Apple cigarettes. He looked surprised, but not too surprised. He stared at the pack for a moment with wistful nostalgia, then turned and chucked them far into the ocean. He went back to the cornucopia and this time found a wrenchful of red licorice. "That's more like it."

The dented cornucopia was passed around. Toby calmed his nerves with a can of cool rainwater.

George turned his head. "I do not require food or drink, Sire Toby, but I think I would find it rather refreshing to have some of that poured on top of me."

"No problem."

Toby upended the rest of the can over George's skull and the bonecuddy sighed blissfully. "Mmmm. More please?" he gently requested. Toby and Piffle both pulled out cans and started giving their nightmare friend an invigorating shower.

Soon Zinc whistled for them. "Time to punch the clock, comrades."

Piffle jumped off the hood and flitted right over, eager as could be. "Whaddaya need me to do?" Zinc said her wings would be perfect for the job and presented her with what looked like a toothpaste tube. She knew just what it was for and buzzed on over to the back window frame, starting to squeeze out liquid glass. Junella selected a soldering torch from the mat, grabbed Toby's seatbelt, secured herself, and hopped off the blade to dangle below.

Zinc noticed Toby was standing on the edge of the hood and staring down, trying to build up the courage to jump to the skate blade. "Lemme assure you that your worst fears are completely founded."

His head jerked up. The whirling pavement was mesmerizing. "Um, don't you mean 'unfounded'?"

That grin again. "Nope!"

"I thought not."

"Our first time through here, I got some real bad stupid in me and thought I'd hop outta the Killcanoe and check out the scenery." He made a gesture with his wrenches like flicking a marble: "P'chooo! Straight off the side! I managed to grab onto a chain and was dangling at the end of it for dear life! The spinning nearly knocked my whole face off!"

Toby's eyes were wide. "Geez, how'd you get back on?"

"I didn't! I fell off and died," he said nonchalantly.

From below came Junella's voice. "You cannot believe the pain in my ass trying to rescue him. I had to drive the car off the bridge, splash down, hunt around with the metal detector, throw out some rope, then wait for his dumb dead ass to reanimate so he could clamp hold of it."

Zinc busted a gut laughing. "Neither of us can swim worth shit! I sink like a rock and Juney's too buoyant. All she can do is float like a rubber duck. I hadda lock my wrenches on the rope and get towed to shore, drowning to death every coupla minutes!"

Junella could not help a snigger.

Toby was once again discombobulated that they could be so jolly about something that would have been a psyche-destroying nightmare for him.

"By the way," Zinc added, "you don't have to jump here from the hood. Try sliding down through the busted windshield."

Toby looked to his right and, indeed, there was a perfect pathway there. 'Great, now I feel cowardly AND unobservant!' The little cubes of spilled safety glass made him nervous, but he'd rather deal with them than jumping.

"In fact..." Zinc had an idea. He dug into the storage space and brought out a shopping bag. "Here ya go, boss. You and Doll can fill this up with all the glass bits and other crap. That way you can help out without having to watch the bridge do the twist."

Toby took the bag. "That's very considerate of you."

Zinc punched the mouse's shoulder. He smiled, and this time it was completely genuine. Like how a big brother might smile. "I tease ya, but it does take some time buildin' up an immunity to this place. The constant horrorshow. You're coming along a lot better than you probly realize, Toby. You're a different mouse already from when we first met."

Toby felt warm. Part of him wouldn't believe Zinc's kind words, but the rest of him was simply grateful. "...Thank you."

The canine grinned. "Besides, this leaves all the fun jobs for me!" He lightly tugged on the mouse's tail, then snatched up an imaginite welding cannon and gave it a few loud revs.

Toby chuckled and went to work.


Unsurprisingly, Doll was very good at hunting down all the little bits of debris that were hidden beneath the seats. Toby did his best as well. If he couldn't be brave or skilled, he could at least be meticulous. No cube of glass or scrap of metal escaped his sight.

They all chatted as they worked. Though Junella not so much, as she tended to have her hands full most of the time. They could all hear her climbing around below the blades, her torch going 'fwoosh' and sending bits of slag dripping down. George cooed and squirmed the whole time. The heat eased his tension marvelously.

In between zaps from his cannon, Zinc gobbled more illusory snacks and rambled on about whatever topic came to mind. He talked about some of the nightmare beasts they might face ahead, about his favorite music, about past jobs, and about how he could see up Piffle's skirt whenever she flew by. She made sure to wiggle her fanny at him a few times. She also helped Toby by flicking loose bits of the old windows into his bag as she filled in new ones.

"It gets off to a rough start, but man does this bridge save time," Zinc said. "I'll take a short whirly flight over hours of boating any day. No clue why this's here or how it works though. Some say all of Phobiopolis was a blank sheet until people started exploring it. That whatever they expected to find out here was what they found, and it stays like that because everyone else who comes by expects it to too. I can't cogitate on eggheady stuff like that for very long. Like, if we'd all concentrated real hard on landing on a giant rib roast instead of a bridge when we left the offramp, would it change?"

Toby chuckled at the image. "Don't ask me. I'm just vacationing here."

Thinking about geography reminded Zinc of something else. "Say, that place with all the airplanes... That's not on any map I ever seen."

"I bumped into it near Stoma. Maybe it moves around," Piffle said.

"Like a moon," Zinc considered.

That was a bizarre idea, Toby thought. A moon that orbited within the atmosphere. But it certainly wasn't too impossible a concept compared to everything else in the realm. "Do you think we're the first to discover it?"

"By the law of probability, nah," Zinc said. "Although..." A lightbulb went off above his head. "...we might be the first to claim credit! Hot damn! We could get our names in the hist'ry books!"

"That'd be swell!" Piffle said.

He bowed to her. "And you're the one who found it first, so the honor of naming it would go to you."

"Me?" Piffle fidgeted bashfully. "Golly, I wouldn't be able to decide on a name for a whole big moon. Toby? How 'bout you?"

He set down his bag (which had gotten pretty full, he was proud to say). "Me?"

"Sure! You told me about how you used to get the sniffles all the time. I'm sure you'd know lots more medical words than I would."

"Yeah," Zinc added, "you could uphold the Phobiopolan naming tradition better'n any of us."

Both the canine and hamsterfly were surprised when this suggestion sent Toby rigid with shock. The mouse froze with a rictus stare, like he'd just had cold water splashed over him.

Piffle fluttered down to touch his shoulder. "Toby? Did I bring up bad memories or somethin'?"

He was still staring off into space. "No, no... It's not your fault, it's just..." The mouse seemed to be coming awake after a sudden, intense hallucination. "It's just that I'd been noticing it all along. The names. Everywhere we've been to, it's all been old, obscure names for diseases and injuries and things like that. Even the words I'd never heard of, I could guess they followed the same pattern. I'd actually been keeping my mouth shut about it this whole time."

Piffle cocked her head. "Why?"

Toby looked embarrassed, uncomfortable, and strangely guilty. "I thought... It's crazy, I know, but I thought that it was just too perfect a coincidence. Someone like me, who's had every illness under the sun, somehow ends up in a place where everything's named after illnesses? I thought maybe it was a sign this was all a dream. Maybe this was all here for me. Like, I'm in a coma somewhere and making it all up as I go along." He shook his head. "I don't know why it seemed to make sense, but on some level I was convinced that, so long as no one ever brought it up, I could keep holding onto it as 'proof' none of this was real."

Piffle's antennae drooped. "Sorry to pop your bubble." She leaned in for a hug.

He patted her back. "No, it's okay. I kinda already knew I was lying to myself. No dream I've ever had has lasted this long or felt so real. And honestly, I'm glad in a way. I'm glad you're all real."

Zinc and Piffle smiled at him. George craned his neck to do the same. Doll lightly touched Toby's arm. And beneath the car, Junella chuckled silently.

Toby went on. "I'll even admit, there's some parts of Phobiopolis that aren't so bad. Like all the food I've never tried before, and all the amazing things to see in Coryza and EC. But... can you blame me for holding out hope that maybe I'd just wake up one day? That I wouldn't have to keep on trudging to Anasarca, chased by monsters and ambulances and airplanes and things?"

"Yeah, I copy," Zinc said softly. For just a moment, he looked out past the clouds. "Though I dunno how it got in your head that us not talking about the names proved you were havin' naptime."

Toby sighed. "Dream logic, I guess? It was like I knew a secret everyone else didn't, and they should have been, and that didn't fit, so..." The theory seemed to make less sense the more he tried to explain it. "...So it really is just a coincidence."

"They happen," Zinc said with a shrug.

Something else occurred to him. "Actually, now that I think of it, the only place I've been to that I know breaks the pattern is Phlogiston. I saw that in a book. It's a nonexistent substance people used to think made things catch fire."

Zinc suddenly looked sheepish. "Yeah... heh heh. Juney and I chose that when we moved in. We were kinda cocky and wanted to claim the place for the queen of Spain, get me? But we, ah, misremembered what the word meant and by then it was too late. We'd already painted the sign."

"And misspelled it," Toby remembered. "'Baware' of Tinder Fingers?"

"Hey, I was still teaching myself to write with these things!" Zinc clanked his wrenches. "I was paying more attention to penmanship than spelling. Heck, for how clumsy I was back then, that sign's a flippin' masterpiece."

Piffle giggled behind her paws.

Shifting the focus, Zinc pointed out, "You never did give us an answer, Toby. Naming rights to a moon. Anything that strikes your fancy. What'll it be?"

"Uh..." The mouse sputtered for a second. He put his trash bag aside and cleared his mind, trying to remember a lifetime's worth of doctor's appointments. All the long, complicated names of conditions he'd once had. He'd neglected to mention what was truly the best about Phobiopolis. He was healthy here. He'd been symptom-free for so many days now, he was beginning to forget what sickness had felt like.

"Kartagener," he said absently. It came to him without thought as he rustled through his big box of diseases. "From my Kartagener's Syndrome. It sounds as much like a place as anywhere else, I guess."

"I think it's a very nice name," Piffle said. "Prolly too nice for a place like that to deserve," she added.

"Kartagener it is then." Zinc leaned over to pluck an ice cream cone for Toby from the cornucopia. "Mazel tov."

Toby took a lick and Piffle darted in to steal one too. They both giggled.

Then they were interrupted by George clearing his throat. "Excuse me, but I have been waiting for a natural break in the conversation to point out that I believe I can see our destination."

Everyone craned their necks.

"And congratulations, Sire Toby. It is a fine name."

Toby gave the window frame a 'thank you' pat.

Phobiopolis was back to doing its unseen scene transitions. Toby wondered if the scenery waited for everyone to be distracted before it changed, or if there was a fuzzy place in the middle where one place blurred into another. Either way, the bridge had carried them very high up into the sky amongst endless foamy clouds of fog. Many yards ahead, just barely visible, was a dull orange rock formation. A lone pillar amongst cotton candy.

"Looks like we got just enough time to pack up the tools 'fore we dock," Zinc said.

"I'm almost done with the windows!" Piffle said, dashing back to work.

Below, they could hear Junella's torch roar its raspy hiss. "Just a few more spots, Georgie-sugar. I'll get you all patched up 'n shipshape."

"I appreciate everyone's attention very, very much," he told her.

"Least we can do for my favorite tank," she replied.

Toby handed his bulging trashbag to Zinc. "Here. I think Doll and I got everything."

"Good job, both a ya." He gave Toby his equivalent of a thumbs-up (extending the screw on his wrench), then patted Doll on the head.

She seemed a bit stunned at the friendly touch.

Once Zinc had clambered up onto the roof to feed the garbage into the casing chute, Toby bent down and whispered to her, "I think you're starting to fit in."

She looked up to him. It was hard to read her expression from the tiny eyeholes in the bag, so she bent over and scribbled on her pad for a moment. She handed Toby the paper:

"I'm HAppy. ALL I've wANTed THIs wHoLe TIme Is To NoT maKe peopLe scareD."

Toby gave her a warm smile.

She put her writing pad away and opened her arms.

Toby picked her up and sat her on his shoulder so she could see across the rolling white mists. "We'll get you all fixed up when we reach Anasarca. I'm sure Aldridge will be able to help."

Doll nodded. B-O-T-H-O-F-U-S, she spelled.

"You can be who you used to be, or choose a whole new look. But you'll have a face again. And a voice. I don't know if I can promise it, but I'll do everything I can for you to make it come true."

A tiny finger wrote on his shoulder, T-H-A-N-K-Y-O-U-T-H-A-N-K-Y-O-U-T-H-A...


Piffle, Doll, and Toby were all buckled in for docking. They could see the rock plateau much clearer now. It was the color of pumpkin pie and, though there was no telling how tall the pillar was, the space on top was roughly equal to a parking lot. (Though not EC's.) Junella and Zinc weren't in their seats. They stood on either side of the front doors, gazing ahead through the fog and hoping to spot any danger signs before they became actual danger.

George was feeling rather well, all things considered. A nice clean interior, new windows, and most of his scars sealed over. He was slightly embarrassed to be seen in public with a ruined paint job and flecks of silver sealant along his hide, but he reasoned to himself that performance was more important than looks.

The river bridge's spinning slowed steadily. It eased up to the rock plateau and finally bumped against it with barely a jolt. Like it'd done this a thousand times before.

Junella thumped the roof. "Roll out, George! Before it decides we want to head back for a swim!"

"Straight away!" Though when he rolled forward he winced, as his tires were still a bit sore from the rough ride Kartagener had given him. Thankfully the flat, sandy rock was not too coarse beneath his tender treads.

Once they were off, the river bridge waited around a few moments more, as if checking whether anything else wanted to debark from it. Then it gave a shrug as if to say, 'Not my problem', and began again to rotate. The six travelers watched it spin back up to its previous velocity and vanish away into the clouds. Piffle waved out the window and thanked it.

Junella hopped down from the skate to scout around, making sure everything was as she remembered it from last time. No more unexpected unpleasantries. She drew in a deep breath through her nose, then coughed. "Yep. Same stink."

That left Zinc to resume his role as tour guide. "Welcome, welcome, welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the charming vacation paradise of Lumbago! ...And yes, it actually is Lumbago this time."

"I heard that!" Junella barked.

Zinc 'tee-hee'ed. "Scenic land of ten-thousand birdshit-splattered rocks, with creaky rope bridges as far as the eye can see. If you're afraid of heights, well then, tough titty said the kitty."

Toby made a face. "I think I'll be staying in the car."

"Y'sure? This next part's kinda fun." Zinc got a manic gleam in his eye. "Watch this!" He jumped down from the blade with a dusty thump and ran off across the plateau.

Toby leaned out the window and held Doll where she could see too. Outside, a half-acre of rock was the only visible land. There could have been innumerable pillars like this all around, but if so, the mist was hiding them like a miser. Toby wanted to believe it was just a whole lot of ground fog, but from the harshness of the wind he felt sure they were literally walking among the clouds.

A thought struck him out of the blue: how were they going to get the Fearsleigher down from here? Unless another bridge was due to show up soon, they'd been marooned on a towering stone finger hundreds of miles in the air. Maybe Zinc had an idea. And maybe-


Was Zinc running straight towards the edge of the plateau!?

Zinc's tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth, flapping in the breeze. His feet pounded rhythmically against rock. He kept his gaze locked ahead, not paying attention to the fact that there was nothing visible ahead but clouds.

He ran at full speed onto nothingness.

"Zinc!!" Piffle shouted.

Toby clutched the windshield.

Zinc kept running.

"He's doing that thing again," Junella commented with mild irritation.

The ground left him behind. The wind whipped through his cheekfur. It made his ears and jacket flutter. His heart was beating hammerstrikes against his ribs. Zinc blocked out everything else but momentum. He kept straight for a few yards, then dared to curve his path a little, back towards the rock. It'd been a while since he'd done this.

Toby's jaw was hanging open. The world had turned into a cartoon on him. Zinc was acting out the scene where a villain would run off a cliff, then remain in the air for as long as they didn't look down.

Though looking closer, that wasn't the case. Toby could see blurs of motion below his canine compadre. As Zinc made a looping turn back towards the car, thin pillars would shoot up to meet every footstep. Like he was running across a path of stepping stones, but they only existed for the exact split-second they were needed.

Piffle cheered wildly as Zinc zoomed in for a landing. He was panting hard, gaze frenzied. The moment he was back on terra firma, he slid to a stop and bent double, wrench-hands on his knees, sucking in huge lungfuls of oxygen.

"Holy... moley... macaroni!" he moaned, "I forgot... how fuckin' THIN... the AIR is... up here!"

He looked for a moment like he might pass out, then he gulped down one more gasp and stood up in a 'tada!' pose, a goofy grin on his muzzle.

Piffle clapped her paws pink. "Woo hoo! That's stupendous! How in the world didja do it?"

"No trick, really," he rasped as he started dragging his tired pelt back to the car. "The rocks pop up automatic-like. All you gotta do is keep running. But that's also the tricky part, 'cause you don't dare stop. One hesitation and down you go."

Toby was speechless for a moment at Zinc's stunt. Then an absolutely awful thought occurred to him. "Waitaminnit! We're not all gonna have to run across to get where we're going, are we!?"

Zinc chuckled at how the mouse's panic had made his voice rise an octave. "Naw, naw." He was starting to get his breath back to a normal rate. "Vehicles work fine. You can stay in the car."

All of a sudden, Toby felt sheepish about that. "I mean... maybe I could do it. If I really tried."

Zinc waved away his worry. "I have a policy against wasting my time on false bravado. I suggest you adopt the same. Fact is, what I just did is as difficult as it is stupid. I'm a professional moron, remember? Try it sometime: do one thing, continuous-like, without the slightest skip. It's hard. And it's harder the more you try and concentrate on it."

"I can imagine," Toby said. "Like dumbfounding."

George nodded towards the group. "I should think I will be able to accomplish such a task with relative ease," he said. Then quickly added, "Not to brag! I am merely acknowledging that nightmare constructs are naturally skilled at being... single-minded."

"Good to hear," Zinc said. He ducked under the car, then popped up on Junella's side, hoisting himself up on his elbows. "You were always good at it too, partner. Whattaya think? A race? Me and you?"

"Across the canyon!?" she sputtered. She flicked her scarf over her shoulder in annoyance. "Zinc, after all that hardship on the highway, I don't want to do anything but sit. Take it easy for a while."

He shrugged. "Perfectly reasonable, perfectly reasonable. I understand if you're too weakened from all the excitement..."

"Now you wait just a minute!"

Zinc tried to keep a straight face. "No, no, Juney! It's all copacetic! You have yourself a little relax. After all, fursons your age do need to rest more frequently."

Junella very nearly blew flames out of her ears.


It was breathtaking to watch them run.

Toby was spectating out the side window while George powered across the canyon. Junella and Zinc were bounding ahead of them at a steady pace. The carrot-colored pillars sprang up perfectly beneath their feet, fast as bullets. Toby had no idea how they worked or why. He wondered who had discovered them, and was able to guess how that first encounter had gone. Piffle was zipping along behind the racing pair, humming an energetic melody to spur them on.

Zinc's strategy seemed to center on distraction while Junella was pure focus. The canine joked with Piffle along the way, laughing, singing; whatever he could to keep his mind too busy to think about what he was doing. He wanted his feet on autopilot and his brain engaged elsewhere. Whereas Junella kept her movements robot-rigid and her gaze locked on-target. Her eyes looked like painted marbles. While Zinc was trying to win through a separation of mind and body, Junella's mind was a taskmaster with a whip, forcing her vinyl to perform to perfection.

Toby found himself wondering what was happening beneath the Fearsleigher. When one is thousands of miles high, one takes an interest in what is holding themselves up. He leaned out of his seat as far as he dared, but the skate blade was blocking his view. Finally, he asked George what he could see up front.

"Nerve-wracking, Sire Toby!" the stallion replied. "Two lanes of stone appear beneath my tires and vanish the instant I'm off them. They blur, but I believe the pillars are laid out very closely together in a hexagonal pattern. For efficiency, no doubt. I much prefer driving on a surface that I am certain exists before I set hoof upon it."

Toby gazed ahead. With the wind whipping at his nose, it was more noticeable how much the air up here really did stink. Like a spice rack overrun with rot. Maybe the clouds were made of something other than water vapor. 'There's a thought that'll do nothing but give me stress.'

Meanwhile, Zinc could feel his lungs starting to burn. He was drinking down air in open-mouthed chugs, but his lungs were still hungry. He looked ahead through the clouds. He thought he could see a darker place, but whether it was land or an illusion was unknown.

"Hey Juney, how you holdin' up?" he asked. He tried to sound casual, but there was a wheeze to his voice.

She did not waste momentum on speaking. She merely turned her head and gave him a small, sharp nod. Her movements were still those of a tireless machine. Inside her mind though, she felt like she was barely holding herself together by strings and rubber bands. This race was a dumbass idea. It was not the breezy blow-off activity she'd expected when they'd started. Her only strength right now was that she had a better poker face than Zinc. She told her legs that they'd damn well better keep going unless they wanted to be ferried to shore by Piffle, who'd be singing the entire time. That thought coaxed a bit more cooperation out of them.

Zinc had been sure it was just his mind giving him false hope, but no. That dark patch ahead wasn't disappearing. Hard rock at last! He cautioned himself about getting too happy. It wouldn't matter how close the finish line was if he got overeager and missed a step.

But then he saw movement within the dark patch.

He blinked, trying to make it be a trick of the eye.

No. Something was definitely walking back and forth in there. Something tall and stoop-shouldered.

"Junella..." He was too winded for more than a hoarse whisper.

This new development complicated things. Although really, there was only one thing to do. Zinc knew his partner would call him a cheater for this, but oh well.

Junella noticed Zinc swinging his wrenches back and forth now. Big, apelike lunges to hurl his weight forward faster. 'Trying that trick on me? Oh you mutt...'

Zinc could see the shape in growing clarity as he drew closer. Junella hadn't noticed it, her focus was still on winning. Zinc shoved his strength into his arms. Back... and FORTH, back... and FORTH. When he thought his rhythm was dead-on, he kicked forward in a long jump and swung his wrenches in a circle, pounding himself forward through the air.

Piffle gasped and zoomed after him.

For just a moment, Zinc was flying. He looked below, saw nothing to catch him, and found the strength to cycle his wrenches around one more time. It was just enough of a kick. His feet skidded onto sand at an awkward, painful angle, but his toeclaws held.

The shape's head jerked towards the sound.

Zinc rolled with his momentum. As soon as his stance was solid, he held his wrenches out to the sides, signaling danger to everyone behind him.

A second later, Piffle bumped into his steel barrier. "What's..."

"Shhhhh," Zinc said immediately.

The clouds stopped right at the edge of the rock like a misty wall. Breaking through, the thing that had caused the urgency in Zinc's voice was now revealed. Once Piffle saw it, she had no problem obeying his order.

Pissed as a polecat could be, Junella arrived in second place. She was just about to start cussin', but her anger was immediately jettisoned by the sight of the creature before her. 'Twelve hopping fucks,' she thought. Her hand sought her cutlass reflexively.

Zinc shook his head at her, expression saying, 'Not yet.'

The situation had suddenly turned very bad for George. He could see three of his passengers standing still just ahead, and he was barreling towards them, nailplow-first. Something very messy was about to happen unless he took drastic action.

"Hold tight!" he called to his passengers, and took a big risk.

Hoping the pillars would remain in place beneath him, he hurled his entire weight sideways. His wheels slid like ice, but retained momentum, and whatever force guided the rock pillars seemed to count this as fair. So instead of falling, he drifted. And instead of crashing into ZP&J with a wedge of spiky death, he skidded in flank-first. The skate-blade swooped inches above the trio's heads and swatted off Piffle's hat.

George could barely believe he'd done that. Two of his tires were on solid ground. The others jutted halfway past the cliff's sheer edge, dirt trickling out from beneath. And no one had died! He allowed himself a moment of pride.

Toby went from amazed to terror-stricken in exactly as long as it took for his eyes to travel from the skate blade to the unspeakably ugly beast standing mere feet away from it.

It seemed stunned, confused. That was very good because it bought Zinc precious time. Normally these things pounced at the first sound of footsteps. But there had been three sets, and it was not sure which to devour first, and then a very loud thing happened that scrambled its primitive mind completely.

It was a biteranodon. Their first encounter with one had been as an entree on Piffle's plate. Now they were seeing one in the flesh.

Six feet tall at the shoulder. Eight, if you counted the head. It covered itself in a trenchcoat of its own folded wings. Battered, matted, flaking things that looked like shedding leather dipped in crude oil. Its feet were enormous Xs, covered in hard scales and curled talons. Its head was the crescendo of its horror, for its name was a descriptive double pun.

Picture the distinctly elongated, triangular head of a prehistoric pterosaur: the scissor-like beak with its tiny, hooked teeth. Now imagine a mirror placed across this image horizontally, creating a center jaw with teeth above and below. Three pieces in total. Like the bowl, seat, and lid of a toilet. Two tongues, two throats, uncountable teeth.

Such a configuration left no room for anything but mouth. The thing had no eyes, just two round dents in its bald, buzzardish head where they might have been on a saner creature. It swung its head back and forth on its desk-lamp neck, listening at the place where it had moments ago heard prey.

It stank. This was where the smell was coming from. Toby had smelt this hideous bird from all the way over on the plateau. Like hot garbage left at the curb for a week. Like a dumpsterload of expired meat. Toby did not need to be told to keep still, or recognize the way the blind beast searched for them with its ears. Its stench alone was enough to gag him silent.

Junella, Zinc and Piffle had all gotten the wind knocked out of them by George, but had suffered nothing worse than bruises and dirt smears. They watched the nightmare bird. It shuffled from foot to foot, its mouths opening and closing, exhaling hot gas so vile it was visible.

The biteranodon made a series of 'cuk cuk cuk' sounds, like radar pings.

Barely a whisper, Zinc said to Piffle, "In hindsight, I probly shoulda warned you about the local wildlife."

Gaze fixed ahead, she nodded. And then the hamsterfly remembered the clothes she was wearing. What her role in this expedition was. Moving as silently as she could, she stood up.

Zinc reached out to stop her, but she was already padding towards the thing. Nothing he could do now but follow her lead.

Junella mouthed the words, 'What the fuck is she doing? Trying to make it her pet!?'

Keeping her eyes on the beast, Piffle picked up her left foot with utmost care, placed it without a sound, then picked up the other one. Her breathing sounded as loud as an accordion to her, with her heart an accompanying tympani.

"Hey there, Mr. Parakeet," she said shakily.

Its double-jaws snapped at the sound. It took a step forward. It swiveled its skull back and forth, waiting for her to speak again so it could triangulate her.

Sweat was swimming down Piffle's forehead. The biteranodon loomed, much taller than her. She could only imagine what it concealed beneath those wings. She wondered which mouth would start eating her first if she messed this up.

She looked in all directions, thanking luck for her multifaceted eyes.

When the others were ready, she spoke again. "I'm right here."

Her first sound had sent the creature into high alert. Its nerves were taut as violin strings. At this second sound, it lunged forward like a cobra, both mouths open.

Piffle saw three silver flashes in her peripheral vision. Then blood was pouring down onto the rock at her feet.

Zinc and Junella had positioned themselves just behind Piffle's shoulders. When the biteranodon's head shot forward to clamp down on its prey, Zinc had swung both of his wrenches in a double arc to pulp its skull between them. In almost the same instant, Junella's cutlass had opened its throat, just to be sure. Congealed blood, thick with tumorous chunks, spilled out like a toxic faucet.

Piffle backed up, Zinc let go, and the dead thing fell forwards to smack wetly against the rock.

Zinc took in a very long, deep breath. "That... was not a parakeet."

"You said it, brother!" Piffle agreed, trembling. She wiped her feet on the dirt, backing away from the blood.

Junella watched the creature for a moment more. It spasmed once, but that was just a death twitch. When she was sure it was fully dealt with, she turned around towards the Fearsleigher, beckoning everyone closer.

George was more than happy to scoot away from the precipice's edge. He opened his door for Toby to emerge.

The mouse hopped down carrying Doll. His eyes were still glued to the dead dinosaur-thing. He was stunned by the speed Zinc and Junella had shown, and ashamed he'd done nothing to help. Though, was there anything he could have done besides keep quiet?

Junella waited for their attention. "Biteranodon," she sang in a teacher's voice. "Smelly. Ugly. Hungry. If you look up you will see lots of them. They're blind as baseball bats and just as stupid, but as you can guess, they hunt by sound. They don't usually enter the clouds because it's like acid on their skin. From here until we get to Fistula, we will stay in the car, and we will keep our voices down. We had to kill this one quick because even a single squawk will bring the rest of them down in the nastiest family reunion picnic you've ever seen. Comprendo, muchachos?"

Toby nodded forcefully.

"Not to scare you too much," she added as she sheathed her sword. "They're easier to kill than pickin' dandelions. But there's a lot of them. I don't exactly relish the thought of having their stink on me all afternoon."

Just to keep the dead one from regenerating, Zinc scooped his wrenches underneath and bulldozed it over the edge of the rock pillar. They heard it clunk against the side a few times as it fell, but the dull sound was no louder than Junella's song.

Toby looked up at the sky. He understood Junella mistaking Kartagener for this place. As thick as the sky had been with airliners there, here there were just as many biteranodons. They made lazy circles in the cloudless air, ears pointed towards the ground, listening.

Zinc gave Piffle a boost onto the skate blade. She pulled him up afterwards. "You make great bait, Kate," he whispered.

"And you're pretty quick on the draw... I-Can't-Think-Of-A-Rhyme-For-That." She giggled and gave him a peck on the cheek.

He paused. For the first time he began to realize that maybe this had gone beyond play-flirting.

'Would I mind that?'

Junella jumped up and collapsed in the driver's seat. She could feel her calves pulsing angrily. First the race had drained her, then that bird had put her on nerve's edge. She felt like an empty gas can.

Zinc leaned in through the window. "Y'know, I did win the race."

"By cheating," she pointed out.

"That's a matter of opinion. But even though the bet's off, could we possibly say that winners get to drive for the next little while?" he pleaded sweetly.

Her stare could have been packaged as pesticide.

"C'mon, Junebug! I knocked over a mall for us!"

She stonewalled a moment, then considered that a passenger seat was a place she could relax. "Awright."

'Tee-hee'-ing, Zinc took her place. He tried to conceal how tired he was too.

"You're gonna bring up that mall thing in every argument we have now for the rest of our lives, aren't you?"

"You betcher fur."

Once all his doors were shut and he could feel his passengers safely accounted for, George whispered, "Do we have a direction from here?"

"Pick one," the canine replied. "No matter where you go it's like a funnel. It all ends up in one place..." He grimaced just thinking about it. "We've got a nickname for it: Hell's Arse."

"Oh, it ain't that bad," Junella groused. "Least it's quick."

"My arms melt every time we go in there!!"

"So do I, but you don't hear me bellyachin'!"

"You're not made of metal! Stuff is painful!"

"And wax ain't!?"

Toby got the impression he might want to put on some sunscreen before they arrived.


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