Story no. 52. Friends, we have survived the holidays and the shortest day of the year! Let us bounce forward, hopefully not into a brick wall!
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Aunt Thompson climbed out of the hole first. As low as the ceiling had gotten, it was still no easy task for the human to lever itself after her. Gremlins, as I believe I have already conveyed, are not entirely affected by the laws of physics in the way a non-Lathustran might expect them to be, so I had already swarmed up the wall and flung myself through the opening by the time the human’s rather substantial nose poked over the edge.
“Care for a hand?” I asked.
The human grunted and rolled an eyeball filled with malice in my direction as it jerked an elbow over the edge. Apparently its powers did not include levitation (at least not while its small book remained in Aunt Thompson’s possession).
It had just gotten its other elbow planted when Aunt Thompson grew tired of waiting and hooked a hoof into the collar of its robes and hauled it up to stand with us.
We were standing in a sort of library of towering shelves receding in all directions in tight rows. Instead of books the shelves held a variety of ceramic objects—teacups, teapots, round cats with bobbing paws, and little yapping dogs frozen just at the moment before they catch their tails. Light suffused the space, yellow light, red light, cold white light, coming from any number of directions, in spite of there being no windows in evidence.
I caught sight of a massive blue teapot and shuddered. It looked an awful lot like the one that had sat on Aunt Thompson’s kitchen table for thirteen years, the last four of which I had been stuck to the bottom by a particularly vicious bit of treacle.
The space was obviously not a real one, not in the strictest sense, anyway. The light changed from one shelf to the next, and many of the cups weren’t exactly solid. One felt an enormous pressure not to look up, which I took as a hint that whoever had made this library hadn’t quite gotten around to finishing the sky (or even a convincing ceiling).
The human tripped on a massive jardiniere shaped like a cow that hadn’t been there a second ago. It already looked a little green from all the shifting perspectives vanishing away from us in all directions.
“Lady’s sake,” Aunt Thompson said, her voice laced with irritation.
A moment later the source of her annoyance hove into view: Mr. Jenkins, sitting on a pouf and drinking tea with one of his many mouths. He held a ceramic book in the crook of one wing, and to all appearances was reading the floral pattern inscribed on the cover over a pair of half-moon glasses.
He floated a little closer to us (or rather, the room contracted a bit more, giving him the appearance of moving). One of his huge wings bumped into the human, who jumped backwards, wild-eyed. Mr. Jenkins glared through the glasses, and the lenses flashed red. The ceramic book had turned into a ceramic pig with a malevolent expression. “Aunt,” he said.
“The Ladies have laid out a clear injunction against further colonization of pocket worlds from Lathustra,” Aunt Thompson said, her voice very near a bugle. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
“I could ask you the same,” Mr. Jenkins asked, his voice high and cold. “I, for one, find it somewhat suspicious when my established pocket-in-a-pocket-worlds are no longer where they are supposed to be, and I end up in a nonsense place like this.” He thrust out a clawed hand angrily. “Look! I opened the mirror over my dresser this morning, expecting to be in a railway station, and just look!”
“It looks like you,” Aunt Thompson muttered.
“It does at that,” I agreed.
“Well, it’s not,” Mr. Jenkins snapped. “I’d never forget to put on a sky!”
“Why is this—uh—whatever this is—why is it hooked onto my world?” the human asked. It sounded very uneasy. “That shouldn’t be possible—if there was a world-gate down here I would have known about it—they have a very distinct power signature—”
“Not everyone needs a gate,” Aunt Thompson said.
“Only idiots need a gate,” Mr. Jenkins said disagreeably.
“Only people who are made of real flesh who would be turned into mush by passing through the gray stuff between worlds need gates,” I said, thinking of a deeply disagreeable scene I’d witnessed in San Francisco. A young man, some sort of technical executive based on the number of gadgets attached to his person, had kicked out at a cat that had twined about his feet at an inopportune moment. The cat, a not-very-well-disguised gremlin, had lost its temper in a moment, transformed back into its regular shape, and pushed the unlucky computer guru into a nearby trash can, well known among fairyish sorts to be a backdoor out of the Blue Earth. I don’t know if the gremlin knew about the particular physical properties of humans or not, but when the police noticed a pair of legs sticking out of the trash later that evening and pulled the young idiot out, his upper bit was hardly recognizable as meat. You wouldn’t put that sort of thing in a sausage.
“Duly noted,” the human muttered. “But—”
“Jenkins,” Aunt Thompson interrupted sternly. “Have you knowingly aided or abetted a sand goblin in the stealing of a Lathustran world-jewel and or the subsequent usage of that object to feed a colony of parasitic ghost-dreams in a pocket world we ought not have anything to do with and or the following utilization of the aforementioned stone by said criminals to set up a number of unstable and highly untasteful pocket-in-a-pocket worlds for purposes as yet unknown?”
“Parasitic ghost-dreams? Is that what they are? I never knew,” the human interjected.
“They’ve got a proper classification,” Mr. Jenkins said. “I haven’t got the guidebook on me just now.”
“Answer the question,” Aunt Thompson thundered.
Mr. Jenkins considered this, withdrawing a biscuit from one of the many pockets in his waistcoat and delivering into one of his less objectionable mouths. He crunched, then munched, then swallowed. “I’ve only aided a bit,” he said, “and abetted not at all. And only because it would rankle you, understand,” he added. “I’ve no actual interest in whatever that fool gobber said, making a world to rule ourselves and shape in our own image, or whatever. I’ve just got the clocks in the railway station the way I like them. It’s a terrible trouble finding a serif font for the numbers that doesn’t look prissy. I can’t be bothered with worrying over other people’s business when I haven’t even gotten the jelly in the donuts right yet.”
The human’s eyes widened, and it took in a deep breath. “In our own holy image,” it whispered.
“That doesn’t sound like sand goblins at all,” I argued. “They’re not at all self-righteous. They’ve invaded several non-aggressor nations, it’s true, but they never pretended it wasn’t about money. A sand goblin might aspire to a solid gold toilet, maybe, but they don’t have notions.”
Mr. Jenkins examined something he’d just pulled from his pocket and ate it, though it had rather more legs than a biscuit normally would be expected to have. “Now that you mention it, the gobber fellow was all exclusive trade deal this, industry monopoly that. It was the human they had with them that was on about all the remaking-the-world-with-man-as-righteous-god nonsense.”
The human groaned, and we all looked at it. “Look—what sort of human was it?”
“It had two legs,” Mr. Jenkins said. “And only one mouth, if you’d believe it.”
“Yes. All right. I mean.” The human scrubbed both hands over its head, clearly aggravated. “What I’m saying is—did the human look sort of—did it seem kind of—did it have—” It blew out a huge sigh. “Did it look like me? Big nose, big chin, red hair, sort of bulgey eyes?”
“Now that you mention it,” Mr. Jenkins said, “I’ve no recollection at all.”
The human’s eyes darted about the library of ceramics, as though hunting for inspiration. The number of clay pigs had multiplied enormously over the course of the conversation, and now there was a small heap of them all around Mr. Jenkins’ clawed hind feet. They fixed the three of us facing him with a collectively malevolent porcine stare.
“I don’t know if it’s possible that you’d notice—but—well—this world is a bit inbred, as you’ve probably noticed—so it could be possible—but did the human smell like me?” the human asked, pointedly looking away from the pigs, its voice increasingly agitated.
“Oh, certainly,” he returned. “Quite like. Your uncle or something like that, I should expect.”
“Cousin,” the human said sourly. “His father would never spout such trite religious drivel. Though I should expect my uncle’s helping him. Dries doesn’t have the brains that the Most Holy gave a pumpkin.”
Aunt Thompson would have narrowed her eyes if she’d had a human face, but instead she just blinked suspiciously. “So your uncle might know the whereabouts of these sand goblins?”
“If his son is involved, Hendrik is involved,” the human said. “And it sounds like both of them have got some answering to do for mucking about in the root without telling anyone.”
“Then perhaps we ought to pay a visit to your uncle,” Aunt Thompson said.
“That’s all very nice,” I interjected. “Good plan, solid deductions, well done. But how do you propose we get out of here?”