Smells Like Team Spirit > Doubts & Disturbances > Moving Along

Eloise looked around her in alarm as her friends and new acquaintances changed not only their clothing, but also their forms.

She was even more disturbed when some of them seemed to be enjoying the changes.

Sickening memories of last year, when Sweetheart turned into a dragon and forgot who she really was—nearly forgot who Eloise was—swam up before her mind’s eye. It was all happening again—only this time, it was much worse.

“Wha— What’s happening?” she asked, her voice rising to an alarming and unpleasant pitch. She tried to calm herself down, but her heart continued to beat double time in her chest, and she felt that sickening cold feeling erupt in the pit of her stomach again.

“It’s a game,” Daibhid informed her. “Dungeons and Dragons, to be precise. We’re all becoming characters to fit. You’re a gnome, now, by the way.”

“No, I’m no— wai—” she looked down at her hands.

They were smaller now, and her skin was white (or at least, a good deal more white than the healthy green it usually was), and when she reached up to feel her nose, it was gone or it might as well have been, it was so much shorter).

“EEEeeeepp!!” she exclaimed, so loudly that the ten people closest to her jumped two feet sideways, in surprise.

Her brain seemed to explode into a hundred voices, all buzzing in her ears like mosquitos, and all repeating, as though in mantra: “no-no-no-no-no-no-PLEASE-no!” Her own voice sounded weak and distant, she barely recognized herself saying: “Fl–Florestan, why? I thought we each see the world based on our own perceptions, our own expectations—th–that’s what you said, right?”

Florestan nodded. He was dressed as a wizard, she supposed (though the robes were close enough to the Gallifreyan robes she had first seen him in, so this didn’t bother her as some of the other changes around her).

“But that doesn’t make sense!” she said, feeling as helpless as a toddler, and feeling on the verge of a toddler’s tantrum. “I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons! And neither have you!”

Florestan did something, then, that he hadn’t done since the first night of his return (when he’d been trying to convince Eloise he wanted her to stay) — he crouched down to her level. And he whispered in her ear. “No,” he said, “But when you’re feeling scared and confused, you trust in the judgement of your friends to guide you. That’s what you’re doing now.”

Eloise sniffled, and took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re right,” she said. “But I don’t like it—I don’t know why, but it feels wrong this time.” She paused, and a sudden, painful thought pierced through her. “Does that mean I shouldn’t trust my friends, anymore?”

“Of course not,” Florestan said. “Just don’t forget to trust in yourself, as well. And keep your wits about you,” he repeated.

He looked as if he was about to say more, but three of the Doctors: Fourth, Eighth, and Nth, (with all of their attendant companions), seemed to have decided that the very spot he was occupying was the perfect starting point for their portion of the Quest.

“Ahem,” he said quickly, eyeing Fourth a little uneasily, “I think this team already has its quorum of timelords. You stay here, Eloise. I’ll go find a place to be useful elsewhere.”

“But—” Eloise protested, to his already disappearing back.

Gordon and Igor were shuffling along uncertainly behind the Nth Doctor, holding what looked to be an earnest conversation with Silence.

“I’m with this team!” Alryssa announced in her bouncy way, sidling up embarrassingly close to the Eighth Doctor’s elbow.

Eloise facepalmed.

A blue-grey fish dipped and swam around her head, tickling the back of her neck with one pectoral fin. Eloise jumped, almost stepping on Delirium’s toes.

“There’s a coral reef of iron, beneath the grass sea,” Delirium announced, matter-of-factly, “and the ribbon sharks are swimming.”

Eloise, though some half forgotten habit, responded to this information by looking at the world through the corners of both eyes, simultaneously.

She nodded. “I see what you mean,” she said.

Florestan strode quickly across the field, weaving in and out of the clusters of people as they decided whom they wanted to have as partners. For a split second an image flashed through his mind of himself, as he might appear to someone else, and he realized that his long wizard’s robes and natural tallness gave him an air of confidence. A wry smile crept to his lips (probably adding to that air), for nothing could be further from the truth.

He had spent most of his previous regenerations on a quest—one that was far more dangerous than this would be—but he had always been utterly alone. The idea of embarking on a quest with well over a hundred ‘assistants’ in tow made him as nervous as his first oral examination at the University on Gallifrey.

And this one who insisted on calling himself “The Doctor”—! He seemed intelligent (even if he never seemed to take his intelligence seriously), and he seemed ever-ready to question a prevailing assumption—two qualities Florestan admired very much.

But the way he argued with his selves made it clear that he had a habit of crossing his own path regularly, and not just for special occasions like parties such as this one. And that struck Florestan as a sign that the Doctor’s sense of self-admiration was more than a little bit too strong for his own good.

Still, he had to admit it had been surprisingly productive to have nine of them to work with in decoding that message—something about having one mind able to look at things from different perspectives at the same time, perhaps.

He had never gotten to know his previous selves like that. For one thing, there was always this notion in the back of his mind that it was bad luck to meet with an earlier regeneration of yourself, though whether that was something someone told him, or he came up with on his own, he couldn’t remember (but, he admitted, if the Doctor did it as often as he seemed to, either way, that notion was probably a silly superstition). For another thing, he had seen the quest he was on as so important that he couldn’t afford to cross his own path. And he couldn’t go back and do so now—not the way things had turned out—even if he wanted to, for fear of doing serious damage to the fabric of space-time.

Florestan snapped himself out of that moment of self-pity, and looked about him. He supposed he’d have to join a team too… Of all of them, the First Doctor struck him as being the most cool-headed and deliberate (most people grow more sensible and mature as they age, he thought to himself, wryly), and he was probably the one least likely to get on his nerves. And so Florestan found himself drifting toward the team First seemed to be leading.

The land stretched out before them in a pattern of softly glowing grid-lines like a crappy CGI effect from some bad ’80s sci-fi movie like Tron, except that it required less suspension of disbelief. Flat as an anorexic supermodel’s chest it was, and featureless as something really bland and featureless, like Oklahoma, but worse. It was so plain that even the author’s brain balked at trying to describe it, and he knows the dull ache of endless expanses of tedium. He’s watched back-to-back episodes of My Three Sons.

“I’m so glad we came all this way to see this,” Excel spat. “Excel has seen more interesting things than this on the insides of her eyelids.”

“I don’t understand…” Sister was muttering, sounding just a tiny bit worried. “My sensors can’t detect anything. Not the ground, not the air, nothing.”

“Do you have any guesses about where we are, Ha-chan?”

Hyatt shrugged prettily. “I have no unearthly idea, senior.”

Excel just rubbed at her head. “That’s right, you don’t like to think much about weird things, do you? But what sort of place could this be being, and whyfor is it as empty as a Spice Girl’s head?”

Somewhere far away, the author swore at Excel for coming up with a better line than he could.

“Maybe you babes should just let me answer that question.”

All three looked up as a figure robed in a cassock of a million scintillating colors descended from the endless non-sky. It touched down lightly just in front of them, prompting a boggle from Excel, a smile of cheerful incomprehension from Hyatt, and more mutterings of “I can’t detect anything” from Sister.

“That voice!” exclaimed Excel. “I know that voice, so husky and manly, yet almost annoyingly smug! Could you be…?”

“Sort of,” the figure replied. It reached up with two glowing hands and pulled its hood back, allowing an afro of truly epic—nay, legendary!—size and fluffiness burst forth to bask in the radiance that shone from its robe.

“Nabeshin!” the two ACROSS agents blurted together. Excel went on, “What an almost predictably wacky plot development, to have our own pointlessly intrusive director burst onto the scene! Who could have seen that coming, aside from anybody who’s ever watched even five minutes of our program?! Recycling is good and saves the Earth and all that tree-hugging crap, but must we continuously recycle our gags, too? Shall we make That Man the main villain again? Or have the Hermaphrodite in the Iron Mask from episode 3 come out to make cryptic plot-advancing comments again? Why not just recycle that whole episode where we went to the pool and none of the male characters except Pedro got any screen time? Or are we being all ironic and post-modern by having an anime that prides itself on being ‘experimental’ become formulaic and self-derivative? Inquiring minds want to know, damn you!”

“That would be a very good question, Excel, except that I’m not Nabeshin.” The afroed one’s smug, cheeky grin somehow contrived to look smugger and cheekier. “This is simply a form I have chosen to communicate with you. I have put on a face which is familiar and somewhat trusted by most of you, in order to expedite our interaction.”

Sister stepped forward, frowning. “So, if you aren’t this Nabeshin person Excel is talking about, then who are you really?”

“My name is Legion; for we are many,” said the faux Nabeshin with a slight bow. “I am the will of that which was left behind in this place, the will of that which others come seeking. The will of that which you must seek, for I now so charge you.”

“Eh, what?” said Excel, finger firmly ensconced in nostril.

“I think he is giving us a quest, senior,” Hyatt meekly offered.

The finger was removed, wiped, and thrust boldly out. “Now look here, Nabeshin—” she started.

“I’m not Nabeshin.”

“You look like Nabeshin, so you’re Nabeshin to me. Now look here. Excel is already on a mission for the mondo fab and groovy Lord Ilpalazzo, and has additionally taken on the task of getting Sister back where she belongs. So, the last thing I have time for is yet another sub-plot! So, unless it’s something really worthwhile, like saving the Macrocosm or finding a really good Thai restaurant or hot monkey love with Lord Ilpalazzo and/or Agent Key and/or the cast of Knight Rider, you can just shove the whole deal straight up your afro!”

“But there is a rich reward for the three of you, should you aid me in this,” the not-Nabeshin smarmed.

“Reward-shmeward! Excel ain’t listening to none of your sweet-and-sour talk with fried rice, chopsticks available upon request!”

“What sort of reward?” Sister demanded, skepticism written all over her face.

Hyatt handed her a moist towelette to wipe it off.

The afro-apparition looked her right in the eyes. “Why, nothing less than your hearts’ desires. When you find that which I bid you seek, your deepest wishes will be granted…”

“It’ll grant our deepest desires?” Excel repeated, the belief in her tone conspicuous by its total absence. “Bull patties! Bull butter! A complete set of bull-related condiments, not excluding black angus mustard with chives!”

“How do you even know what our desires are, Mr. Not-Nabeshin?” Hyatt asked.

The strange apparition that looked like everyone’s favorite afroed action hero but wasn’t merely smiled a knowing and eminently punchable little smile and snapped his fingers. Three small glowing orbs immediately appeared between him and the three girls, a scene silently playing out in each one.

The first orb showed a great city in ruins, with white flags flying from every staff as troops of citizens marched down the main street, every man and woman tattered, defeated, and shackled together in pairs. They marched past a huge pavilion atop which sat a pair of gilded thrones. Lord Ilpalazzo sat in one, looking handsome and cool and with no tasselled rope anywhere near to hand. Excel sat in the other, her hand in Ilpalazzo’s, as Hyatt and a fluffy little white dog stood guard behind them. The image-Excel looked up and gave the real-world Excel a grin and a thumbs-up.

The second orb showed Sister rushing up to Maid TARDIS and embracing her. The two held each other tightly for a moment, then began to slowly meld together, until only a single figure remained.

The third orb’s image was… rather complicated. Hyatt was in the middle of what looked like a gigantic strawberry daquiri, wearing only some strategically-positioned grape clusters. A number of other people seemed to be in there with her, including Mr. Watanabe from next door, Agent Matsuya of the F City Municipal Defense Force, a couple of Type-One Ropponmatsu androids, and at least one Puchuu alien, although with the way everyone was writhing and twisting, it was hard to tell exactly what appendage was attached to whom.

“Seven seconds,” Excel said as she looked at the third orb.

“What?” asked Sister a bit distantly. There was no earthly reason why anyone should program a medical subroutine hologram interface to blush, but someone evidently had.

“Seven seconds. That’s how long Ha-chan’s heart would hold up if she actually tried something that strenuous.” She pointed at a half-visible patch of golden-blonde hair amongst the heaving daquiri and heaving bodies. “And, Ha-chan, that had better be Agent Key I see there, because otherwise I’ll have some real issues with you.”

Hyatt just smiled mysteriously in reply and said, “Episode 26.”

“That didn’t count,” Excel muttered. She turned her gaze back to the man who said he wasn’t Nabeshin. “Okay, then. So you do know what we most want. The question, then, is why do you want us to go find this McMuffin of yours?”

“That’s ‘mcguffin’, senior.”

“Naw, ain’t no McDonald’s around here, Ha-chan. Which, I might add, makes it possibly unique in all the Macrocosm. Well, afro-freak?”

“What I ask you to seek is myself—ourself, if you will. And I ask this for our own survival. Others already come seeking us, and should they find us, it will mean our end.” He snapped his fingers again and the three orbs popped like soap bubbles, to be replaced by a single, larger one. In it, a vast crowd of people, perhaps a hundred or more, marched off in parties through a brooding wilderness. Many bore weapons of one sort or another, swords and axes predominating, and almost all were dressed in pseudo-medieval costume.

“Hey!” Excel pointed at some of the tiny figures. “I recognize some of these people! They were at that Quadrangle-thingie! There’s the chick who wanted to steal Excel’s innocence—!”

Hyatt’s cough at those words might have been tubercular, or it might not.

“—And there’s that guy who I didn’t recognize! And there’s that girl that was with him that I also didn’t recognize! And there’s that tricky Captain guy who acts like he sat on a popsicle!”

Sister was frowning deeply at the image, slowly shaking her head. “Can’t remember…” she mumbled. “It’s like I ought to know, but there’s nothing there. Insufficient data archived…”

“We dare not let them be the ones to find us,” the afroed man insisted. “All will be lost. We cannot trust them. There is too much divergence of purpose, too much wavering in their souls. They are changeable creatures, with a weakness of will. They reek of doubt, and thus we cannot trust their motives. But you three have a purity of will, a fixedness, an absoluteness to your desires. Your motives are known, and, as such, predictable. You we might trust, but you must find us first.”

Excel was shaking her own head, rather more vigorously. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all very metaphysipsychological and stuff, but it still don’t address Excel’s main point, which is why we should deviate from our orders to do what you want. Yeah, there’s heart’s desires and stuff, but Excel will fulfill Sister’s very soon, just as soon as we find our way out of here, and Excel will fulfill her own one step at a time by faithfully adhering to Lord Ilpalazzo’s grand ideals, and Ha-chan… Well, Excel would really rather not know any more about what Ha-chan wants or how she’s gonna go about getting it.”

The Nabeshin-related apparition grimaced a little. “Well, there is another reason for you to help us…”

“And that would be…?” Excel prodded.

There was a soft thud behind them as the TARDIS doors swung shut. “That would be because if you don’t, I’ll leave you all stranded here among the nothingness for all eternity.”

“Been there, done that,” Sister muttered.

“That’s blackmail!” Hyatt gasped.

“Yes. Effective, isn’t it? It’s your choice, girls. Undertake a little quest and win your heart’s desire, or stay in here and rot in this place that’s so lonely and desolate, you’d have to eat your own abstract concepts to survive.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Nabeshin,” Excel spat. “We’d best put it to a vote. All in favor of changing our plans and getting the heck out of this place that’s more boring than Al Gore on quaaludes?”

Four hands (Hyatt’s, Sister’s, and both of Excel’s) went up.

“All opposed?”

“Puchuu!” A tiny little yellow alien that looked like a teddy bear in a diaper raised its hand. Excel snarled a curse and punted the adorable abomination into the middle distance, the alien’s cuddly face twisting into something that looked like newsman Sam Donaldson’s, but uglier, as it crashed to the not-ground, dead or unconscious or otherwise out of the story, which should set the record for shortest lifespan of a character in this tale (three sentences, although one was a run-on).

“Damn Puchuus,” Excel hissed. “They get into everything.” She turned back to the not-really Nabeshin. “All right, afro-boy,” she sighed, “looks like you’ve got yourself a party of questors.”

“Capital!” The fluffy-headed being clapped its hands in delight. “We have only to get you properly kitted-out for the milieu, and you’ll be on your way…”

As the First and Seventh’s Questing Party set out Bob the Muse trailed behind. He was worried.

He had noticed Eloise’s reaction to the change in scene. It wasn’t what worried him; in fact, it struck him as an eminently sensible response. The fact no-one else seemed to share it wasn’t what worried him either; very few of the Quadrillers would make his list of the Hundred Most Sensible People He’d Ever Met.

What worried him was that, while folk like Imran, the Doctors and, after the initial shock, Eloise, were coping with this thanks to mental resiliency and a strong sense of self, he could not believe that Daibhid was capable of this. It was far more likely that the nervy young man’s sense of self was so weak, he hadn’t even noticed it get shaken.

This was worrying. In a world threatened by diverging perceptions, someone as suggestible as Daibhid might be a bit of a liabillty, especially if he’d already enthusiastically taken on another role. That was why Bob had stuck with him rather than split up. Someone was going to have to keep reminding the lad he wasn’t really the mighty evoker Daiyebhiyedd mac Chienneiennedelgh.

Bob gave a short laugh. Typical, really. He would be the one muse to be saddled with the responsibility of keeping his writer grounded in reality…



Several people in the Third and Second Doctors’ team, which was just setting off in the opposite direction down a small river valley, jumped and looked around nervously.


Splinters flew as a stoutly-muscled Dwarf warrior (or, to be more truthful, a distinctly stout Dwarf warrior) swung her axe petulantly into a convenient tree-stump. She pulled it out and took another swing, one-handed.


Jonah said something extremely rude under her breath, and kicked the stump, which had split in half, looking as if most of the lumberjacks in British Columbia had been at it. Carrie winced.

“You do know that you shouldn’t be doing that with a battle-axe anyway, don’t you?” Imran remarked without a great deal of expectation. “It won’t help the edge much…”

He held out placatory hands as Jonah, swinging round, gave the unfortunate stump another kick in parting. “Hey, just mentioning it.”

“Yeah.” The Dwarf scowled. “Sure. So if we’re meant to be going, why can’t we just get on with it?”

She fixed everyone else in the party with a hard stare, as if to make sure none of them were about to tell her not to do anything, picked up the blade of her axe from its resting-place uncomfortably near the hem of Imran’s long, draggled-looking robes, turned on her heel, and marched off without looking to see if anyone was following her. For want of anything better to do, most of them did.

It was unfortunate for the troll that crouched behind the nearby boulder in ambush that Jonah happened to be leading the party at that point. You could, of course, add that it was unfortunate that she happened to be in a bad mood, but some people might consider that the latter went without saying…

At all events, the first blow of its mighty, moss-ridden club sailed over the top of the Dwarf’s head. There was no second blow. Jonah went for its ankles like a terrier on steroids. When it sagged, she went for its groin.

“Eeurggh,” went several spectators in anticipatory unison.

But the envisioned spray of body parts never ensued. There was a clicking as of distant many-sided dice, and the troll deflated and folded up neatly, with Jonah perched on its chest in proud great-white-elephant-hunter mode. The axe blade bore a few smears of what might have been Humbrol paint.

Fourth and Eighth’s party, who hadn’t set off yet, came running. GlitchBob’s eyes were sparkling in a decidedly professional way. “Critical hit,” he was mumbling under his breath. “Natural eighteen, and the troll failed his saving throw against vorpal strike…”

Eloise, beside him, who had been staring unhappily at the felled giant, turned. “That’s a troll?”

Even the Warrior Trolls, who raised her, she thought glumly to herself, were not like this. It is true that they lived for battles and flamewars, and that all their glory and honor rested upon how brutally they could defeat their kin—but they still considered themselves warriors… Even they would curl their lips with disdain at any being who would ambush another party first like that (instead, they would set a trap to lure the other into attacking first—a microscopic distinction, perhaps, but a distinction all the same).

Then, she reminded herself that this was not a real troll, but merely a perception made tangible. And a voice, wooden and flat, echoed through her mind: “…This is what humans think of trolls. This is what your neighbors think a troll is…”

“No doubt about it, I’d say. Of course, it’s not from the Extended Edition—”

Glitch-Bob trailed off mid-sentence, seeing Eloise’s expression. His own turned immediately to that of someone who realises they’ve just stuck their foot in their mouth.

“Oh… I’m sorry…” he mumbled, “I didn’t mean—” A frown, then: “Are you OK?”

Concern edged into his tone. Eloise suddenly felt keenly aware of everyone’s gaze suddenly upon her.

“Disappointed,” she managed after a few moments, fixedly staring at the fallen troll.

Alryssa clamped a hand to her mouth. “Oh, gods. You know, I was thinking more of Orcs than trolls, myself…”

“I think we’re all partly to blame,” Eighth said. “Eloise, it is not your fault. You’re entitled to be offended.”

Bob facefaulted, but then brightened. “Well… we can change it,” he said. “I mean, we see what we project. We’re not subject to the User’s whims here. And I really don’t think that whoever wants to find whatever we’re looking for wants us to be harmed, not if we’re trying to help… we just thought we would encounter enemies, and so we did.”

Eloise looked a little encouraged by this. “So perhaps if we project challenges that are fun, and not deadly, we can have some excitement without worrying about people getting hurt?”

Eighth grinned. “I think that would work most wonderfully.”

Alryssa flexed her bowstring, and appeared somewhat deflated. “No maiming?” She looked pointedly at Bob, who glanced at her oddly.

“Uh… only if we have to.”

Eighth shook his head at her as she pouted.

Eloise took heart in this news, and concentrated on her idea of fun, exhilarating, non-life-threatening challenges. The landscape did not change, but everyone seemed to feel different, lighter, like a heavy grey cloud being removed from the sky.

And then, she saw Jonah’s face. The look of triumph was slipping, like a putty mask melting in the sun, showing the rage behind it. Florestan was right—they had to keep their wits about them, and they had to trust in themselves. Feelings of rage and helplessness always fed upon themselves, and got in the way of both.

If Jonah were to be any help on this quest—if she were even to get out of here—and back home ever again, she’d have to break through, somehow.

Eloise knew that Jonah would not accept her help willingly, since she had revealed herself to be a grown-up, but she also knew that she’d have to try.

First, she looked out the sides of her eyes again, just to be more certain that the technique really worked, and wasn’t just a fluke of her imagination, earlier. Sure enough, the rust-brown city—the same landscape they had seen when they first stepped out of Sweetheart’s doors—was still there, in all its acrid twilight. But when she turned her head—even slightly—toward what lay in her peripheral vision, the overly bright quest-game landscape snapped back into place, like a slide in a projector: one image replacing another.

They couldn’t go through the whole quest like that, of course—never looking straight ahead—but at least it gave them a small measure of control. And control was what Jonah needed right now.

Eloise approached, and tapped the dwarf-girl on the shoulder, leaping back just in time to avoid getting hit by the butt of the axe handle as Jonah turned, angrily.

“I’ve got a secret for you,” she said, in a sotto voce conspiratorial tone. “Look out of the corner of your eye—but don’t turn your head.”

Jonah scowled, and almost gave that “no grown-up’s going to tell me what to do” look, but then curiosity got the better of her, and she complied. “Hey…”

Jonah’s eyes focussed forward again, and then, to the other side. “Hey!”

Eloise nodded. Then she tried the experiment while looking at her own hands. They were the same green they had always been, and they were as large.

She smiled. It seemed she had found one way through, and she couldn’t help wonder what other ways there were.

Still, that quiet cautious voice in the back of her head reminded her, we cannot let ourselves get lazy. There is real danger here.

Glitch-Bob was a living being, and therefore understood death. But he was not a biological being, like she was, and therefore understood death differently than she did…

There was a solid reality behind their perceptions. This had once been a thriving civilization, complex and advanced enough to send ‘a message in a bottle’ across the barrier between the outer and inner dimensions, and to create a technology to communicate whole worlds telepathically.

And now, it was gone. Something had to have happened—something real. And if they were not careful, it could be something really dangerous to them, too.

But, the enthusiastic, hopeful voice in the back of her head answered back, there is always danger—simply being alive is dangerous. We can’t control that, but we can control how we perceive it—in this world or our own. We can see it as a brutal deadly battle, or as a creative endeavor to share with our friends.

Eloise knew which option she wanted to choose.

She suddenly felt something in her hand. Looking down, she saw that she now grasped a tied scroll, sealed with a red wax emblem.

“I think we just got our portion of the quest,” Eighth said.

”Interesting…” Third observed. “I wonder if the rest of us have to do anything similar… Schroedy, could you communicate with Daibhid, tell him what’s just happened?”

Schroedy nodded.

“…I suspect I know how this goes,” Nth said. “Eloise focused on emphasising fun, exhilarating challenges, so our team recieves the part of the quest likely to be most related to that. If the other teams focus on emphasising another aspect—within the context Eloise established—they’ll receive the other parts of the quest. Since Daibhid’s already got one map, I think his team’s already begun their part.”

~So what else do we need to emphasise, then?~ Silence signed.

“There are at least four different areas we need to look into,” Nth said. “Who or what was responsible for this, how it was done, why it was done—even if it was an accident or natural phenomenon—and how we go about putting it right.”

~Whodunnit, howdunnit, whydunnit and the solution,~ Silence signed.

“Pretty much,” Nth said.

“So… what part’s the ‘fun, exhilarating challenge’ then?” Alryssa asked.

“Well,” said Eloise, “I sincerely hope we’re not the only ones with ‘fun and exhilarating challenges,’ but let’s see…” She slipped her finger under the seal, and opened the scroll.

“It’s another map!” she said finally.

Judging from the stylistic art around the edges—stalagmites and stalactites—it was clearly a map of a cave system. There was also writing in one corner, near the legend, the letters nearly faded away. Oddly, whatever translation technology was at work here seemed to have reached the limits of its capabilities, for it was an alphabet she had never seen before. Then, an idea came to her, and she looked at the writing out of the corner of her eye. Sure enough, the words shifted into something she recognized as English:

“Across… the…,” she read, slowly, trying make out the letters without looking directly at them.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to read it,” Alryssa asked, “if you actually looked at it?”

And Eloise explained about the trick with looking out of the corner of her eyes.

Then there were a few moments, where everybody tried this, with attendant, quiet rhubarb.

Eloise cleared her throat. When she got their attention again, she continued. “Across the… ocean of… time, our… small… bar— barque… sails,” she finished.

“Once upon a time…” Eighth said, with a smile.

“In more than so many words,” Eloise said, nodding. “Looks like it will be our job to figure out how all this started.” (And it was in response to what she was focussing on, since she’d been wondering about the people who came before… though there was no way Nth could have known that).

[Varne had been surveying the castle walls.]
Lord, can you read this inscription?
I have trouble believing this, the language is Akkadian using Linear A script, somebody has been playing games.
Pardon, Lord?
Being able to claim we were told what we need to know without actually making it readable, not that it makes much sense anyway.
But what does it say?
Find eight in one, or one in eight
Do not delay, lest you be late.
Just doggerel.
Is that not what most cryptic clues are?
What does it mean?
I have no idea, unfortunately. I do not even know if the fact that everything we have come across, apart from the Nine and Ninety, is from Earth, is significant.
What about Nin-Adad and his merry band of helpers?
Forget them, they lost their chance to interfere when the Snark Detector was destroyed. I really must thank Eloise, she spotted something I totally missed. I should have seen that and told Florestan to get rid of it.

Nuku-Nuku had noticed Eloise and Jonah talking.

She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could see what they were doing—focusing and unfocusing their eyes.

Nuku-Nuku didn’t know why they were doing this, but it looked like fun.

So she tried it.

Blinked at what she saw.

And lost it.

She tried it again.

The rundown cityscape they’d first landed in flickered into existence.

Almost immediately, her sensors went back online—no, that wasn’t it.

It was as if she’d just turned her attention away from what her sensors were telling her, until she’d started paying attention to them again.

Which was… weird, to say the least.

And from what her sensors were telling her, the cityscape was real.

Which was also weird, because as far as her human senses could tell, the fantasy world was real.

Could both of them be real at the same time?

She blinked again, and focused on the fantasy world.

“Um… Amber-san?”

“Yes, Nuku?” Amber said.

“When Nuku-Nuku looks out the corner of her eye, she sees that weird city we saw when we landed. And she sees it like it is when Nuku-Nuku’s an android.

“But Nuku-Nuku also sees this world, and it looks as real as that one.”

“Hm…” Amber unfocused her eyes, and frowned.

“Could both of them be real?” Nuku-Nuku wondered

Amber focused again, and nodded. “…Yes. Yes. Both of them are equally real; they’re both the same place, both perceptual constructs, both shaped by what we expect—and don’t expect—to see. And which one we see depends on how we look at it.”

“…How?” Nuku-Nuku said.

“I think it’s because the reality underlying this all would be incomprehensible to someone from our world,” Amber said. “So we translate it into something we can understand.

“I think the city’s the default setting, how someone from our world would normally see this place, while the fantasy world is Bob’s interpretation of what’s going on.

“But the thing is… to all intents and purposes, both of them are real. And the same goes for us.”

“It does?” Nuku-Nuku said, frowning.

Amber nodded. “They’re both real, but they exist in the same place—which means that we’re in both worlds, too. And that means we’re both what we are in this world, and what we are in the city, at the same time.”

“…Nuku-Nuku’s brain hurts,” Nuku-Nuku said.

Amber’s mouth quirked. “Sorry, Nuku. What I mean is, as far as the fantasy world’s concerned, you’re a human, and as far as the city’s concerned, you’re an android. So you’re both an android and a human simultaneously.”

“Oh…” Nuku-Nuku said, her eyebrows knitting as she tried to absorb this.

“And that means…” Amber frowned. “If something hurts you in this world while you’re looking at the city, you’re hurt as if you’re in this world. But if something hurts you in the city while you’re looking at it, you’re hurt as if you’re in the city.”

“Nuku-Nuku’s brain still hurts,” Nuku-Nuku said.

“Be careful,” Amber translated.

“Nuku-Nuku can do that, Amber-san! Nuku-Nuku is always careful!” Nuku-Nuku declared.

She rested a finger against her lip in puzzlement. “Um… But Nuku-Nuku still wants to know something, even if it does make her brain hurt.”

“Okay,” Amber said.

“Could you see what this place is really like?”

Amber frowned. “…Yes. If I wanted to. But I don’t think I’d be able to tell anyone but another Power what I saw in any way they could understand.” Her mouth quirked again. “I have enough trouble telling them about my baseline form…”

“Ah,” Nuku-Nuku said in understanding. “Okay, Amber-san!”

“You’re welcome,” Amber said.

“Well, my boy,” First said. “I believe you are familiar with this, ah, game, hmm? What do you suggest we should do?”

“Well,” said Steven the Ranger, uncertainly. “I wasn’t as into it as some of my crewmates, it was just something to do on long missions. But I think we need to start by getting supplies.”

“There’s all the stuff in the Luggage-Rucksack-thing,” pointed out Susan the Cleric.

“Yes, but I think we need potions and stuff, just to be on the safe side.”

“That’s right!” interjected Chris the Paladin. “From a mysterious magical shop, if possible.” Beside him, Roz the Neutral Good Fallen Paladin rolled her eyes.

“Like that one?” asked ALF the Rogue, pointing to a previously unnoticed shopfront perched incongrously in the glade. It was a simple wooden shack, with a thatched roof and a sign reading “Skillet, Wang, Yrxle!yt, Bunglestiff, Cwmlad and Patel. Estblshd Various. PURVEYORS.”

Bob the Muse the Bard (okay, I’ll stop) glared at it. “You wouldn’t happen to know why it’s taken the shape of a Discworld in-joke, would you, Daibhid?”

“Who, me? No! It’s GlitchBob who’s shaping this place. Isn’t it?”

They entered. Behind the counter was a sallow-skinned man with thin, grey hair. He had a desperate expression on his face, which increased when he saw them.

“Adventurers! You are adventurers, right? You’re here to buy supplies. Please say you’re here to buy something… How about these healing potions? C’mon, buy a healing potion from old Gil. Gil needs those gold pieces.”

Bob turned to Daibhid and opened his mouth.

“Before you start,” said Daibhid quietly, without even turning, “I don’t know anything about this, either.”

Having aquired their supplies, including the healing potions, a waterproof tent1 and a collection of alchemical substances that Ace had requested very specifically, and the others had decided not to think about, they set off towards the castle. A short while later, Daibhid stopped.

“What is it?” asked Barbara, who’d been arguing history with Benny.

“Message from Schro. Um, as far as I can make out Eighth and Fourth’s party have completed the first part of their quest, by deciding to stay focussed on fun, and got a map.” Cue much cheering.

“Eighth and Fourth?” repeated Sandra. “But I thought Schroedy went with…”

“Second and Third. He did. But apparently the two groups are still quite close to each other. Anyway, Third reckons each team should find one part of the solution: who, where, how and why.” He hesitated. “Oh, and were are all affecting this reality. So the Discworld and Simpsons refs probably were my fault. Sorry. Apparently you can see the ruined city with the nightclub if you look out the corner of your eye.”

“Interesting,” said Bob the Muse. “But I’m not sure it gets us anywhere.”

“Possibly, possibly not,” replied Seventh. “It’s certainly given me something to think about though.”

Florestan frowned slightly, his brow furrowing in thought. “The city was the first thing we saw,” he said, “when stepped through Beloved’s doors, before we knew what to expect… before we had time to form any concrete perceptions.”

“We were hoping for Wonderland, though,” Vicki said. “Why didn’t we see it right off?” she asked.

“Maybe the telepathic communicator didn’t have time to influence us until we were there a while,” Ian suggested.

“Could be, m’boy,” First said. “Or maybe we just needed some confirmation of our hopes, before we could hang our perceptions on them.”

Florestan nodded. “That could very well be,” he said. “After all, the first Wonderland character didn’t appear until until after Magnus insisted we were still in Wonderland. In any case, it would seem that the world we see out of the corner of our eyes is the ‘baseline’ reality—the one thing that remains constant while our other perceptions shift.”

“There’s always a baseline reality,” Bob the Muse said, looking pointedly at Dabhid.

“What?!” Dabhid said, looking down at himself as though checking for spilled soup on his shirtfront.

“Right,” Florestan said quickly, before Bob the Muse could dope-slap his writer. “What we see out of the corner of our eyes can be our ‘safety line’ as it were—if we keep checking it, it might help keep us from wandering into separate universes, ourselves.”

“We can’t always look out the corner of our eyes, though,” Seventh said. “The solution to this riddle lies somehere ahead.

He pointed towards the castle with his umbrella2 and called “Onward!”

And onward they jolly well went.

1 This had caused some problems. Eventually Bob had convinced Daibhid that the cured, oiled skins didn’t actually come from real animals, being part of the game.

2 No, I’ve no idea why he still had his umbrella.

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Story copyright © 2003 the original authors; this compilation copyright © 2003–2005 Igenlode Wordsmith and Paul Andinach; HTML modified by Imran Inayat.