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"Yuk!" had been Grendellal's first impression as she woke up
and her opinion had not changed since then. It was all too neat
and sanitised to be real. She had been walking for hours across
a flat grassy plain. The grass was lush but short, as if freshly
mowed. The few trees looked pruned, all cut to the same size,
carefully grouped together. There was not even a bump or a stone
in the ground.
"This isn't nature; it's set design," Grendella thought to
herself, as she scratched the "Slime Girls" tattoo on her arm,
belching and farting softly. It was just no place for a fun-loving
Dwarfen, hot-to-trot and loaded for bear. "This place is Bally's idea
of a good time."
The thought of the others kept her moving. They at least would
cheer the place up a bit. Maybe she could share the few beers she
had thoughtfully stashed in her shoulder-bag, start a party and get
the Prince kid to lighten up a bit. After a while, she saw the
settlement, it was not calculated to thrill.
It was as if suburban planning had gone mad. Not even COMS had
been this rigorous in its uniformity, The town was made up of rows
and rows of small bungalows, all laid out in a strict block pattern,
there was none of the relieving individual flourishes, none of the
tastelessness that had typified the suburbs in the old days on Earth.
There was no stonecladding, extra garages, bay-windows or
'Dunroamings' here. Each bungalow was the exactly the same size,
exactly the same colour, built in exactly the same way. Even the
front lawns, outside the dwellings, had exactly the same flowers
planted in exactly the same places. All over town, bungalows
repeated themselves, precise replicas of each other. The "square"
had definitely inherited this "Earth."
Grendella soon reached what she presumed was the outskirts of
town; it was difficult to tell, as from a distance the centre of town
looked exactly like the block she was standing in. She looked closely
at the nearest bungalow, noticing that, even by her petite standards,
it looked small. Not that it mattered, she did not plan to stay
here. She turned, about to leave. Behind her a bungalow front door
opened and two of the locals stepped out. Grendella spun back,
shaking her head, somehow she had known that they would look like
They were humanoid figures. Just over two-foot-tall, dressed
exactly alike, in bright dungarees, and long-sleeved stripy jerseys,
they looked curiously doll-like. From the slight variations in
physique Grendella presumed that one was male and one was female. It
was hard to be sure; their hair was cut the same, even their faces
were totally alike: with little button noses, small tight thin-lipped
mouths, and narrowed suspicious eyes. Their skin was multi-coloured,
covering their rotund little bodies in a patchwork pattern, but even
this complex pattern seemed to be repeated exactly on each of them.
They approached her, keeping precisely in step with each over.
'Hi, Shortstuffs. Which one is Tweedledum, and which is
They said nothing. Instead, as if synchronised, they both
produced a small notebook and pencil and started to write rapidly,
all the while looking extremely disapproving.
'So tell me Munchkins, what does a happening guy and girl such
as yourselves do for entertainment 'round here?'
'Obviously a knowledge-base non-possessor.' They both spoke
together in dull, dead sounding voices.
Grendella bristled: 'Are you saying I'm thick?'
'That's good, coming from a couple of runts like you.'
'This is fascinating,' the colourful beings agreed. 'The use of
language to offend is obviously cerebrally challenged.'
'Talk sense, you little creeps.'
'Perhaps the contaminant is sobriety-deprived.'
'I haven't touched a drop for hours!' Grendella was getting
'Who ARE you?'
'We are the Ritons,' the curious figures answered politely.
'That figures. How do I get to somewhere sensible?'
The Ritons shook their heads sadly.
'Listen half-pints. I can't say that rapping with Tom Thumb's
uptight cousins has been fun, because it hasn't. But joke's over.
It's time to get out of this toy-store town, just tell me who made
you little wind-up dollies and I'll go there for some fun.'
'I am afraid you cannot leave,' the first Riton said.
'You are a contaminant, you see.' added Riton number two.
'You must be stopped.'
'Put on trial.'
'TRIAL!' Grendella blurted incredulously. 'What for?'
'For crimes against the state.'
'Crimes against the language.'
'Crimes against a fair and balanced world.' They waved their
notebooks. 'We have the evidence you see. We are afraid that it will
mean the terminal penalty.'
'What's that? Polite conversation with you two funsters.'
'You must be stopped. Neutralised.'
Grendella had had enough of their surreal little delusion. She
leaned forward, smiling dangerously.
'You've got to catch me first.'
The Ritons looked soberly at each other, they nodded and opened
their mouths wide. Overcome by gas, the Dwarfen fell over.
'I should have known,' she managed to mumble dully as she
passed out, 'Talking horse-manure all the time - bound to have bad
The Ritons gazed at each other impassively, shaking their
'A chronic under-achiever, we must be careful to avoid
inappropriate physical abuse.'
Then they started to drag the Dwarfen away; carefully.
"Please God. Let me see something nice this time," Will
thought to himself as he opened his eyes.
The face that looked back was weathered and grinning, deeply
tanned and lined by its owner's amusement at the cosmos. The eyes
were large, softly brown with a merry twinkle, and under the large
gnomic nose, the wide lips contained a brimming gob, full of gleaming
teeth. Add to this the large hoop earring that adorned the thick
left ear and the great tumbling cascades of shiny curly black hair
and you had Will's vision of what a buccaneer should look like.
His clothes too seemed suitably flamboyant. The long flowing,
gypsy-style white silk shirt, the large musketeer boots, the
colourful poncho carelessly thrown on, the long black gloves, and
that hat: a hat of brocade and feathers and finery, a hat that seemed
to go on forever, of unlikely dimensions, somehow defying gravity and
not flopping all over the place. This being was something to see,
and you could tell he knew it too, from the slightly posed
carelessness with which he sat on the stool, the rugged jauntiness
of the fist resting on the hip. He was certainly impressive,
considering he was only eleven inches high.
'Greetings, Will Prince,' the being said in a deep voice
dripping with gregarious good-fellowship, 'Welcome to the quest.'
Will said nothing, he could say nothing. He was just too
'Would you like something to eat? Something to drink?'
The being casually clicked his fingers, a substantial table
appeared, covered with fine linen, china, silverware and more
importantly, more mouth-watering delicacies than Will had ever seen.
It was all too much. Will fainted, ears resounding with the
creature's fruity laughter.
Ashton, Iowa : Early 21st Century, October.
"Cyanide Sal", the limpdicks had called her in Big-City
Homicide, behind her back, of course. In the department, Sally
Munday had had a reputation for being so hard-boiled, she needed
dynamite to crack a smile. She did not suffer fools gladly, had not
put up with the "boys" on the force's constant sexist jibes, had
taken charge of her own destiny and set up as a private detective.
The same kindergarten mentality adopted by her ex-colleagues
still occasionally prompted some jerk to think that he was really
clever, calling her a "private dick" in a sniggering, patronising,
voice. Sally, treated such cretins with the contempt, and the sharp
right hook to the jaw, that they deserved.
However, Sally was no stereotype from some old movie, no cool
blonde with a smoking gun in her hand, hatred for all men and a
frigidaire in her heart. She did not even own a fedora, much to her
customers' disappointment. Sally Munday, was a together, large boned
early thirties red-head, with a no-nonsense attitude, casual taste in
clothes, a ten-year-old son to support and a flair for her job. She
did not need to make slickly impressive wise-cracks about being good
at what she did; she just was.
Right now, that job was finding Mrs Titwilleger, although
having met Casper, she felt that Blossom was probably better off on
her own. It had been surprisingly easy so far. Some fellow bus
passengers had seen her walk away. It had just been a matter of
following the route in her battered Sedan, asking questions. People
answered Sally; she was a rarity in an impatient time, for she asked
questions like she really wanted to hear the answer, and then she
'Sure,' The spotty teenager said. 'I thought it was strange,
she seemed so normal.'
'And she climbed into a van with some old guys.'
'Old! They were dinosaurs, like outta the movies my gran'daddy
watches. Woodstock n' Monteray n' stuff.
'Was there anything distinctive about the van?'
The kid looked uncertain, confused. 'Distinctive, what's
'Anything special or noticeable. Anything that stood out.'
'Shi-i-i-t-t-t mam! Distinctive ain't the word. That thing
was so old, it was a wonder it was still moving, AND the paintwork.
You've never see the like! Unicorns, stars and all types of weird
stuff, all over the damn thing. It looked horrible.'
'Were there any words painted, with the pictures.'
'Yeah but they were real strange, "PEACE" n' "LOVE" n' "END THE
WAR NOW". What damn war's that? I thought."
'Yeah, "HELL NO! WE WON'T GO", "LAY DON'T SLAY", and somethin'
else. Some kinda' name. It stuck in my mind...'
Sally nodded eagerly, spurring the kid on.
'The Misbegotten Sons of Hernandez, or Houston or some damn
'When it drove off, did you see which way it went?'
'Well, it was far off when it turned, but I think.'
'I think it turned off towards Ashton.'
Sally rewarded the youth with a smile and some effusive words
'No sweat M'am,' he said, 'Can I have the fifty bucks now?'
He was a killer, although he was not bothered by the fact. It
was just a job. Even his collection of passports, each with a
different alias, were reasonably upfront about it. Occupation, they
said: "Exterminator". And it had to be said that he was lethally
efficient. Better than most poisons, a hundred per cent effective
against tiresome pests.
Now he had arrived in Ashton, just another place full of
secrets, hidden lusts, hatreds and despairs. None of it mattered to
this rather nondescript looking man with the sober taste in suits. He
had not arrived as a tourist, like the many others camped outside the
Titwilleger home. All he wanted to do was get things over with, do
the business and get back home and work on his golf handicap. He was
a man of few needs and most of those needs were focused now on
rapidly finding Blossom Titwilleger and terminating her existence.
'Ah, you're awake. Good.'
The swashbuckling figure had moved his stool to the dinner
'Am I?' was all Will could mutter weakly, he had been
unconscious so many times recently, he had no certain idea of which
state he was in anymore.
'I don't think I'd bother to talk to you if you wasn't.'
Will did not even listen to the creature's answer. He was
distracted by the smell, the delicious, wonderful odour, of lots and
lots, of food and drink. He had been thoughtfully placed at the
table, within easy reach of everything. For a while he drank it all
in, then he looked at the little man, the longing virtually dripping
down his face. The flamboyant personage politely motioned.
'Please, feel free.'
That was all the encouragement Will needed. Like a manic,
raging beast descending upon his prey, Will attacked the contents of
the table. For a long time there was just the sound of happy
swilling, munching, and the little man's encouraging mirth. For
Will, it was a wonderful experience, almost orgasmic in intensity.
After all the years of difficult COMS GRUB machines, after all the
privations of the past few days, it was a dream made flesh, and such
flesh; sweet, tender and gorgeous. For a while after he had finished
there was silence, a quiet formed from perfect contentment and rose-
tinted memory. The meal had been marvellous. Then Will called his
pleasured senses to order.
'Who are you?' he asked the creature in the unlikely hat.
'The name's Gilhoolie, I'm a fantastation.'
'A fantas...A what?'
'A guide. Your guide to Spoggle. You summoned me when you hit
the MADID button.'
'That's nice. You can start by telling me where my friends
'That would be telling.'
'You just said you're a guide.'
'I'm more generalised than that, I don't want to spoil the
fun.' Gilhoolie chuckled.
'Fun, what fun?'
'The fun of you finding your friends. The fun of you rescuing
them. The fun of proving that you're worthy to go after the MADID.'
Will tried a little conceited name-dropping.
'THE Queen Sharon, Queen of the Illuminated Way, no less,
thought I was worthy.'
The Fantastation looked distinctly underwhelmed.
'We know. But believe me, she isn't as important as she thinks
she is. The opinions, or the powers, of your purple, or orange
friends, don't matter here.'
"That's telling me", Will thought. No wonder she said she
'So, if you can't tell me where my friends are, what can you
'There is a very old natural law in effect in the universe.
That for every piece of well thought out, logical action, there must
be a equal piece of total jammy blind luck...'
'That about sums up my life.'
'When this place was created - don't ask me anything about the
creators because I won't tell you - it was decided that the last
thing anyone needed was luck mucking about with everyone's careful
plans. So, the creators did what they do best; creating. They
created the MADID and they created the quest for the MADID and they
created me to oversee that quest. That way, all the blind-luck
element of life's equation is used up in seeking the MADID and all
the planned stuff can go on without disturbance.'
'So, I'm here as some sort of lightning conductor for luck.'
'You seem to be fairly lucky. You're here, you've survived so
'So, what's next?'
Gilhoolie smiled his most trustworthy smile.
'The fun bit, you'll enjoy this....'
'Wanna bet!' Will mumbled to himself resentfully.
'Somewhere out there, on this BIG, BIG world, are your friends.
All you have to do is find them, and rescue them.'
'Yes. They're all in some danger. A little precaution we take,
just to make things interesting.'
Will absolutely loathed every minute of being a hero. It was
nothing but grief, he decided.
'That's nice. What if I do all this, if I rescue them.'
'Well then, I take out my scorecard, tot up how you've done and
see if you go onto the next bit. That's the really hard part.'
'You're treating it like it's all a game, scorecards and
'It is a sort of game really. Anything that's got so much luck
involved is a game. Life's a game if you look at it that way.'
Will could feel the beneficial effects of the meal ebbing away
in direct proportion to his growing realisation of the tasks ahead.
'What if I fail?'
'Cheer up Will, you won't.'
'What if I do?'
'I don't write the rules...'
'It's nothing to do with me.'
Will nodded, growing impatient. For a moment the Fantastation's
eyes lost their sparkle, his mouth it's mirth.'
'If you don't succeed...' Gilhoolie hesitated.
'You all die horribly,' came the subdued reply. 'The Estapoppi
won't release you a second time.'
Will suddenly felt very cold.
'What happens if I say - we quit, we don't want to go on, let
'You can't. You're committed. Give up and you give up
everything. It's death or glory now.'
'You're a bundle of laughs, d'you know that.'
'Sorry!' The Fantastation looked genuinely apologetic.
It was all a bit much for Will. In an instant, a man who had
only been responsible for collecting a DOLE payment suddenly found
that the lives of everyone he had involved in his adolescent heroic
fantasies depended on him. It was what Hollywood movie makers used
to call "a moment of courage" and much to his continued amazement,
Will rose to the occasion admirably. After all, he told himself,
"You have no choice."
'Come on then, how do I start?'
Gilhoolie brightened, bounding onto the dull ground. He
clicked his fingers and the wall with the button, along with the
table and chairs, vanished.
'What! No doggy-bag?' Will protested pathetically.
Another nonchalant click of those nimble-gloved fingers and a
new row of signs appeared, stretching off into the distance,
apparently for Infinity: TO GRENDELLA, they said.
'I'm supposed to walk, am I?'
'No. We provide transport.'
Another movement of those magical fingers and the
transportation arrived. Will looked at the gleaming new blue bicycle
sceptically, taking in every detail, including the basket containing
the small chaise-lounge at the front.
'You travel in style, I see.'
'I'm here to observe and to give advice. I'm not supposed to
'Where's the engine?'
The Fantastation had recovered its good spirits, but was
starting to find this human tiresome. It could tell that he was
going to be a difficult one.
'There's no engine. We want no pollution here. You PEDAL it.'
'Will was horrified, it was bad enough being under sentence of
death without having to play around with some dismal old contraption.
'I CAN'T RIDE THAT THING!'
Will made his way to the bike with sullen ill-grace, pulling
insulting faces and hissing bad-tempered retorts under his breath.
As he climbed onto the bike, the human's features cleared; a thought
'Have other people tried it?'
'We have had representative heroes from most races and
cultures. I have adopted many shapes over the years.'
'How did they get on?'
'In what way?'
'Well, did they get to this next level for instance?'
'No, I must admit, they all died horribly. But don't worry
Will, it's like cycling; there's always a first time.'
Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, October.
For all his dark talk of taking action, it had taken a weary
threat of divorce from the normally placid Primrose to motivate Cecil
Bland. Once more, the uptight Englishman had crossed the Atlantic,
braving a journey that had become hated, keen to restore what he saw
as: Traditional Moral Values. Cecil had always been careful with
money, but for once his normal parsimonious restrictions had been
lifted. There were more important things at stake than a few extra
pounds high interest on his account. This was to be another kind of
For someone with money to spend, purchasing an over-priced
rifle had been fairly easy, although the strutting rednecks in the
survivalist camp had not quite known how to deal with their puny
foreign visitor, the steely glint in his eye, or his sense of
purpose. It was all going to plan. He had the gun, he had taken the
lessons and knew how to shoot. He had arrived in Ashton, the most
loathsome place in his personal universe. Now all he had to do was
locate and kill Blossom Titwilliger, the woman everyone said was a
Satanist, and thus the main cause of his troubles.
As he walked the streets of the Town, on his way to the hotel,
his mind was filled with one thought. He did not notice the
curiously-painted van, with the fading stars and unicorns, as it
drove past him, just inches from his face. He did not see the
celebrated figure sitting in the passenger seat, trying to look
inconspicuous. Cecil Bland was too busy thinking, "where is she?"
The Arbor were an odd lifeform. About the size and shape of
raisins, floating in a nasty green soup of an atmosphere. They did
not need to drink, eat, make love, sleep or perform any other
physical function. Long before mankind had started as a single cell
organism, the Arbor had outstripped the transitory pleasures of the
flesh, becoming for all their apparent disadvantages a very content
culture. On one level, the raisin level, the Arbor did not exist,
and on another, they had amazingly rich lives. Once they had
possessed limbs and hearts and ambitions. Then the green mist had
come, a college chemistry project that had gone wrong. After that,
everything that the Arbor imagined came true, mental images of
stunning reality shaped by some special quality of the mist. In a
very short time, the Arbor had all laid down, giving themselves up to
their imaginary pleasures, minds and bodies completely hood-winked by
thought, believing that they ate well, took care of their physiques;
that they had in fact developed into a race of super-fulfilled super-
beings. After the first few millennia, all that was left of the
Arbor were small wizened round lumps.
The Stratacharger Warspite, its guidance system addled by its
journey across infinity, landed heavily on Arboria. Not for the
Star-Corps Major the choking veil of Emerald Mist. Here was a planet
of breathtaking white skyscrapers, of wide gleaming white
thoroughfares, plentiful parks and lakes and incredible beings. On
this planet where thought became substance, Buck Chandler had become
It had taken lots of time and effort, not to mention painful
falling over, before Will mastered the art of cycling. The initial
thrill of pumping the pedals had soon lost its magic and after a
couple of days, Will had began to heartily detest every agonising
second of the experience.
'How much further?', he whined for only the fifth time in an
The Fantastation lay reclined on the small chaise-lounge,
relaxed, and at peace with the world, a racy pulp novel in one hand
and a miniaturised vodka martini in the other.
'How much further?'
'Could you please stop asking, "how much further?, how much
further?" ' The voice from under the great brim of the hat mimicked
Will's plaintive quality to perfection.
'I want to know.'
'We get there when we get there. Save your breath for your
Will reluctantly took Gilhollie's advice, concentrating on the
recent developments in the surrounding landscape. For the first
couple of days, there had been nothing but the greyness and the
signs, but then they had reached the columns. Great rounded
structures, about the size of a small city in width, their surfaces
shimmered with a strange energy as they thrust themselves out of
sight into the atmosphere above his head. Despite their drab
colourings they were an awesome sight grouped on the unending plain.
'Grey floor, grey sky, grey towers. These creators of yours
were sure creative with colour', Will had commented with heavy
dollops of irony.
The towers, for all their lack of brightness, were even more
colossal, even more magnificent as he cycled amongst them, impressed
and fearful of their sheer size.
'What are they doing? Holding up the sky?'
'You'll soon find out.' Gilhoolie had said.
The chance came quicker then Will had expected. Absorbed
in thoughts of the towers and of revolt against the pampered
Fantastation, Will had not been paying attention to the signs. Now
he looked ahead and realised that there were no more signs. He had
just passed the last one. Panicking slightly, Will braked heavily,
noticing with disappointment that Gilhoolie was completely unruffled
by the abrupt halt.
'We're here,' it said, languidly scratching an earlobe.
Will looked around with total disbelief. All that cycling, all
that effort for nothing. "Here" was nowhere. They were positioned
at the closest point between two of the towers, usually there was a
gap of at least a couple of miles between the massive structures, but
these were different, closer, only a couple of hundred yards
'In one of those.' Gilhoolie indicated the two nearest towers.
'She's in a five-mile wide solid column. How am I suppose to
rescue her? With a pick-axe?'
'Appearances can be deceptive.'
'I know. I THOUGHT you were on my side.'
The Fantastation paid no attention to Will's anger.
'The question you have to answer, is...'
'Why am I here?'
'Is: Which one is she in?'
'How can I tell? They're both the same.' Will struggled
valiantly to keep his voice even.
'I didn't say it would be easy.'
'I know what the answer to this is going to be, but just to
make things clear, what happens if I pick the wrong one?'
'You die horribly.' The Fantastation delivered the sentence
with casual ease. It was in danger of becoming a catchphase. Will
sighed to himself, nodding his head.
'I thought you'd say that.'
Gilhoolie was matter of fact about it.
'You have a fifty-fifty chance.'
'That doesn't cheer me up.'
'You can take as long as you like to choose.'
'Really!' Will brightened slightly.
'I could do lunch.'
'But, if you take too long, I can't guarantee that your friend
will still be alive, and then you fail and then...'
'We all die horribly. I know.' Will stretched, climbing from
He smiled slightly spitefully at the little shriek as he let
go of the handles, enjoying the moment, as bicycle and piratical
passenger fell heavily to the ground.
'Decisions, decisions.' For a long time he stood musing, paying
no attention to the disparaging comments Gilhoolie heaped on his
genealogy, his head moving from side-to-side like that of a spectator
watching an extremely impressive tennis rally. On one side
Grendella; on the other: death.
'Oh well, better get it over with. I wasn't enjoying life much
anyway.' He started to walk, fairly resolutely, towards the tower on
the right. Sulphur was always telling him he never got anything
"Right". This was his chance to prove the scaly upstart wrong,
wherever he was. At the final moment, he paused turned back,
'What do I do now?'
The Fantastation replied from the relative comfort of its
'WHAT! Into the wall?'
For a while, Will stood, like a novice parachutist, preparing
to jump, summoning up all his courage. Then he turned back.
'Aren't you coming?'
'Not this trip...' Gilhoolie waved his hand from side to side
in an exaggerated gesture. 'Goodbye!'
Will pouted irritably.
'That's supposed to cheer me up is it? Goodbye?' He turned
back, facing the solid wall and closed his eyes. 'You could at least
have said Au revoir.'
He stepped forward and vanished.
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