It was midday at Polestar Preschool. The black and white cat lay curled up on the roof, snoozing in the sun. Mittens the School Mascot was quite an old cat by now and extremely fat, as the children fed it anything and everything – cakes, biscuits, ice cream, Ness had famously even turned up with a dead Rowdy Mouse for it once. Most of the children were having a lunch break or a nap, or washing paint off themselves, or at least trying to wash paint off themselves.

Tom Garrickson was waiting for his sister.

He had spent a fun day learning how to count and climbing the school tree and playing baseball. Mostly playing baseball. Annoyingly, he was better at basketball. When he grew up, he wanted to be just like Johannes Schumitzer, the star player of the Fourside Venus Fly Traps, a major league team that had won the championship three years in a row. Johannes could hit a ball so hard that it flew right out of Fourside Stadium to the other side of the desert. Tom even had a genuine bat signed by him, which he had bought from one of the other children in exchange for 20 dollars and a bottle of milk. His sister told him it was a fake, but she also thought that Johannes wasn't really Ness, the saviour of the Universe, and that Mrs. Anna, his favourite teacher, wasn't really Paula, his companion who had personally slain the Universal Cosmic Destroyer. Even though she was kind and beautiful and really, really scary when she was angry or cooking fried eggs, just like the hero from the legends his sister told him. Sometimes his sister was weird – she knew all about the legends and told him everything in great detail, but she ordered him not to tell anyone else about it. He kicked his legs under the table and hummed tunelessly something that sounded roughly like 'Bein' Friends'.

Three harsh raps at the door caused him to turn to look. Mrs. Anna pushed the door halfway open and looked round it.

“Hello?” she asked. Then a worried expression crossed her face. She turned back towards him, “Children, why don't you go into the quiet room for a nap? I need to talk to this gentleman in private!”

Whispering confused words to each other, the children filed out of the room. Some of them did go to have a nap but most of them either got lost on the way, went to find somewhere normally forbidden like the stationery cupboard to sneak into while Mrs. Anna wasn't looking or, like Tom, put their ear to the door to eavesdrop on their teacher's conversation.

“What are you here for? Are you an enemy? There's nothing here for you! I'll protect these children with my life! I've fought worse than you single-handedly. If I call him – and I can call him in a second – he'll be here before you can even…” she stopped again, then said “What? You want to speak to one of our children? How do you even know one of my… Okay, you can see him if its that important, but I'll be watching you!”

Tom darted away from the door as it pushed open and the children all fled down the corridor in different directions, disappearing into adjacent rooms.

“Its okay, I know you're all eavesdropping, you're really, really obvious. Clara, get out of the boy's toilets.” she sighed, “Tom, come here for a second. This man says he wants to talk to you. Do you know him?”

“Hi, I'm Tom Garrickson!” he said enthusiastically. He loved introducing himself. It was his favouritest thing in the world, even more so than baseball. The main reason why he loved it was because he wasn't allowed to do it – his sister hated him walking up to new people and saying his name. She said it was dangerous to talk to complete strangers and let them know his identity. But she wasn't here – why was she late, anyway? She was never late. And this was a completely new person who almost certainly didn't know his name. He was definitely new because he was tall and thin with spindly, almost tentacle-like arms and exaggerated huge feet and he was wearing a one-piece jump suit of some shining, silvery material that covered his face completely, a dull visor covering his eyes. Tom had never seen anyone who looked even slightly like him before. He didn't know many people, though. This was the first time he had even been allowed to go to school. That was why he was in preschool, even though he was four years too old for preschool. He had been worried that the other children would laugh at him and tease him, but they were mostly too young to have thought of bullying anyway, and he wasn't the only older child in the school – so many children had refused to leave because they loved Mrs. Anna so much, they had opened up an unofficial regular school. He sort of knew everything he needed to know anyway from talking to older children in Twoson and the children who had been in Youngtown back when he used to live there. Miss Anna told him that something called The Paperwork had been completely messed up in Twoson because of this, and all the civil servants had been fired. Tom wondered if this creature was a Civil Servant.

“Are you the Garrickson Baby?” it said in a weird voice, like a TV not quite tuned in.

He shook his head, “I'm not a baby, am I? You're thinking of my little brother. I'm Tom Garrickson.” he added.

“Where is he?”

“I have no idea. I haven't seen him since we… ah, I'm not allowed to talk about that.”

“I see.”

“Maybe when my sister comes back, you could talk to her?”

“No time.”

The strange person turned and walked out again. Tom ran to the window and saw him sprint through the gates and down the street. Then he turned a corner and was gone.

Martha ran through the streets. She was already late. She had never been late before. It was vital not to be late. She wasn't sure exactly why – she had never been late before, so she had never had the opportunity to find out. It wasn't the sort of thing she wanted to risk. Whatever the reason was that she shouldn't be late, the absolute certainty of the urgency was real.

The pram was slowing her down. It wasn't so manoeuvrable these days. It was still in no danger of breaking down, but sometimes the wheels didn't go in the right direction. The fact that she had to use the narrow back streets didn't help. They were poorly maintained and full of garbage, which made it even more difficult to steer. Nothing attacked her – she didn't go out at night and besides, there was always something that seemed to shield her from anything that wanted to harm her – but she didn't like having to avoid the main streets all the time. All the good shops were on the main streets. Even though Twoson was a little too big for her and she felt unsafe, she wanted to at least try the new brand of pizza advertised at Mach Pizza. How did 'trout yogurt and strawberry tofu' even work as toppings? Wouldn't the base get soggy?

Someone had left the garbage can in the middle of the street again. That would make it even more difficult to navigate past. She sighed and wrenched the pram to one side, praying that the contents didn't get spilled. She wasn't sure exactly what that was inside the pram, but she knew it would be terrible if it fell out. One of the wheels tried to go the other way but she managed to pull it the other way again. The pram spun towards the bins…

Then the ducks came.

They were more like geese than ducks, far larger than the average duck, with white plumage and yellow bills. Waddling out from behind the bins, the fat poultry quacked at her, their heads darting this way and that, pecking at the ground. One found a fish head poking out from the bin and snapped it up in its beak, losing interest in her. The others continued to advance towards her, quacking in a rhythm that sounded like a gathering of cultists chanting to their profane idol. A sudden wave of fear passed through her, a chill that ran down her spine. She looked around for an exit. There were ducks behind her as well. She was surrounded. She brandished her umbrella. It had an iron spike on the end, so it made a good weapon, especially against ducks, whom she supposed not to be particularly good at battle. She loosened her grip on the pram and walked forward, feigning the confidence she didn't feel.

“Shoo!” she said, waving her umbrella around. It had always worked for geese back home.

“Quack.” replied the nearest duck firmly. Then the nearest garbage can started shaking violently, then rose into the air inch by inch, then launched itself across the street towards her. She dove under the pram and covered her head with her hands. It was supposed to work for nuclear Armageddon, although she doubted it did really. It might work for duck-related incidents, which she guessed were a lot less difficult to deal with than nuclear Armageddon. Something else flew past the pram. The quacks rose to a deafening crescendo. Now the garbage cans and lids and loose pieces of garbage, many of them smelly, spun around and around wildly, making her feel slightly nauseous. She closed her eyes and started singing 'Pollyanna'. For some reason, it always seemed to help in crisis situations.

There was a loud metallic clang as a garbage can crashed right into the pram. Her eyes snapped open and she saw one of the wheels drop off. She grabbed the side of the pram and pulled it back down with all her strength. Her muscles ached, but she managed to stop the pram tipping over.

She heard a menacing series of quacks from all directions. While she had let down her guard, the ducks had crawled under the pram. They were closing in on her fast. Their eyes were turned back in their heads in complete insanity. How could such madness be controlled enough to show such purpose?

There was nothing else she could do. Both hands still securing the pram in place, she closed her eyes and began praying.

Please take me out of here…

Whatever happens, above all else, please don't make me be late…


It was like she was falling through the wall. She felt the pressure of the wall, the uncomfortable feeling that she was doing something wrong, and there was a static white crackle on the edges of the darkness, but she didn't feel any pain. She knew that what she would find on the other side would not be whatever was on the other side of the wall – at least, not in this reality. It had happened to her before. She could not feel the pram beneath her grip. She fumbled in the darkness for its rail as she fell.

A face was peering at her out of the blackness. A ghostly white figure, in contrast to the absolute darkness of the void. Its eyes blinked once. She couldn't read its expression. Those slit eyes in that skeletal feline face with its ears that pointed straight upwards were totally alien to her. Inexplicable. Its long spindly arms and legs gangled about it and its long leathery tail wagged from side to side with a hunter's curiousity. They faced each other for a few seconds, acknowledging each others' presence, then…

Something slammed into her with the force of a bus and grabbed her by the collar, pulling her along behind it. She screamed at the top of her voice but it didn't stop whatever had grabbed her. It hurtled at an insane speed in whatever direction it was going in until, three seconds later, it ground to a halt. Light invaded her senses again. She blinked and opened her eyes.

She was lying in front of the school. The children were beginning to pile out of the building, including Tom, who was dejectedly knocking a ball against a wall with a bat. At the front door, Miss. Anna was talking to a man in an Escargo Express uniform. He was pushing the pram. It was still intact!

Noticing that she was staring at him, the delivery man walked over, smiled at her and offered her a hand.

“Are you okay, miss? I'm sorry you had such a rough journey. It was an express delivery and I was in a rush.”

“The pram…” she said in a dazed voice.

“Your pram's fine, miss. It was part of the delivery so I couldn't let it come to harm!”

“It didn't take any damage?”

“It was a bit battered already, miss, but…”

“It didn't fall over? Nothing fell out?”

“It did tip over, but I picked up what fell out of it…”

“WHERE IS IT? WHAT DID YOU DO WITH IT?” she screamed, grabbing him by the collar of his red and white uniform. He started sweating and backed away.

“I p… put it back inside. I don't think it's damaged, miss. Look, I'll get it out for you so you can see.”

“DON'T!” she screamed. But he had already reached inside the antique silk covers and pulled something out.

It was a pink sea shell the size of his fist. On the side of the shell were two X-shaped inscriptions.

A memory flashed through her head. A giant stone… a figure standing on it… the inexplicable alien, his head raised towards the heavens… her voice… what had she been saying? She didn't understand, as it was not entirely her voice. A voice of great power, booming from the heavens… words she wouldn't have understood even if she had heard them, concepts that could barely be expressed in a mortal language… but something deep inside her, a part of her that had always been there but she had never fully been aware of, that part of her knew…

The song in her head, the timeless song of all the wisdom in the world, never ending, always as clear as the night sky…

“I'm sorry, did I do something wrong?” he moved to replace the shell, his eyes even wider. She looked at him blankly, not recognising herself either. Bemused, she reached out her hand for it…

“Oh? Sis? Yay, you're here at last!” yelled Tom, running towards her, “I was bored waiting for you! Did you know that a weird guy came into the school today and asked me strange questions? At least, I think it was a guy. It was a weirdo. Paula didn't like him. And I kept up a rally of ten in a row against the wall…”

“They asked you the questions? You in person? Not just everyone?” she asked. Her brother nodded, “What is it they asked? No, don't tell me out loud. Whisper it to me.”

He leant closer to her and whispered in her ear. Her face darkened. He looked worried at her obvious disapproval. Then he saw the delivery man and his own face lit up.

“Hi, I'm Tom Garricksen! Are you the Escargo Express guy? I've never met you in person! Thank you for bringing back my sister!”

“Tom, did you tell him to bring me here by express delivery?” she asked him in a stern voice. He was definitely going to be told off for something, he mused.

He shook his head, “That was the teacher. Miss Anna said that if you really, really want something in an emergency, you should always ask Escargo Express to deliver it for you.”

“I see. And how much do I owe her?”

“The bill's 50 dollars. I'm sorry its a little expensive but I don't normally have to transport human livestock at top speed. The insurance costs…”

“Make it 150 for the return trip for me and my brother. To as far away as possible. We've been compromised. We have to leave. Now.”

chapter_5.txt · Last modified: 2009/12/11 18:16 by doan
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