Chip found the sudden darkness disorienting and had a fearful moment, but a reassuring squeeze by Gadget on the paw she was holding gave him a reference, something to focus on besides the impenetrable blackness. There was no light, sound, or anything else at first, although Chip had a sensation of movement, or perhaps a notion of movement would be more accurate. Chip looked over and could see Gadget, and Monterey Jack on the other side of her, but could see no sign of the old rat, or anything else except a single distant star ahead of them.
Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning thought Gadget.
Precisely. The voice was new, sonorous and full of quiet assurance.
‘Ere now, who said that? Monterey looked around.
Golly, we can hear each other’s thoughts!
Has anyone seen the Muse?
Now that you mention it, no.
Don’t worry, I am here. It was the new voice.
Where are you?
I am just ahead, leading the way.
Since Chip didn’t see anything ahead except for the star, he looked left, then right, then finally up, and instead of the old rat, he saw a white luminous . . . something. It wasn’t exactly a man, nor was it a bird, although it had a broad pair of translucent wings that gracefully swept up and down. It had no recognizable features except for a pair of ice-blue eyes. It was beautiful and formidably otherworldly, but it radiated reassurance.
Crikey, I never seen anything like that in all me years!
Golly, are you an angel?
No, I am merely a guardian. What you see is only a manifestation of my will.
A guardian of what?
Of those who dream.
I don’t understand, where are the dreamers?
Normally, this void would be filled with their dreams, but now they are trapped in the nexus.
What’s this nexus then?
Is that where we’re going?
Yes, just ahead.
Chip, Gadget and Monterrey strained their eyes, and could pick out what looked like two stars ahead, but soon they could see that one was a planetary body of some sort, circling the star. Details grew quickly, finally giving them a sense of the tremendous speed at which they had to be traveling, and as they grew it became apparent that the shape of the planet didn’t seem right. As they drew closer, the planet took on the shape of a gigantic tortoise with a pearlescent blue shell making its leisurely way around its sun. But as they drew closer still, they realized that the shell was in fact half of an entire world, carried around the sun on the tortoise’s back, and suddenly gigantic seemed like a painfully inadequate word to describe the tortoise.
Golly. Words failed Chip and Monterey.
They slowed. The tortoise was so ancient it seemed made of stone. They were close enough now to pick out continents and oceans on the world on the tortoise’s back. There was even a polar ice cap at the very peak of the tortoise’s shell. There were rivers, lakes, forests, canyons and mountain ranges to be seen, and on the dark side, the side away from the sun, faint lights were visible, apparently indicating habitation. Clouds swirled and drifted in the atmosphere.
It’s just . . . incredible.
One of the clouds didn’t seem right, just where they day side met the night side. At first, it looked as though a typhoon was included in the weather, but typhoons normally occurred over water, not over land. Typhoons were also not normally green.
That’s like the storm in my dream, only it’s much larger than I remember it.
I was afraid of this. The Nightmare King has detected us. Now he will try to stop us.
The maelstrom seemed to reach for them. They maneuvered, but the maelstrom followed, in fact it seemed to be chasing them. They felt the wind tugging at them eagerly, hungrily . . .
What do we do?
We cannot escape it, it seems. We may have to ride it out.
They could hear the wind now, shrieking and howling as the maelstrom reached for them. A bolt of lightning briefly illuminated the dark funnel of clouds from within. The crash of its passage followed soon after, making them want to cover their ears, but they held on to one another.
How do we ride that out?
Don’t let go of each other, but if you become separated, remember, find the Belfry.
What do we have to do?
Find the Belfry. When you do, I will be able to explain. Hang on!
The maelstrom leapt upon them and swallowed them up. Nothing, not all their wildest adventures, not even the roller coasters that Dale had occasionally convinced them to go on with him, prepared them for the violence of the shrieking winds that seemed to want to pull them apart not only from one another, but even from themselves. Whiplash changes of direction, stomach turning climbs and heart-stopping freefalls all followed one another in quick succession. At first, the Muse encircled them with his wings, trying to protect them, but another bolt of lightning split the ferocious churning clouds, passing directly through him. In apparent agony, the Muse crumpled and dropped away, and was soon engulfed by the tumultuous clouds. The wind tore at them, unprotected now, and seemed to scream at them in rage. Lightning flashed nearby, the thunderous report of its passing making them flinch, but also making them more determined than ever not to be blown apart. Yet the howling winds still t ore at them as they plunged deeper and deeper into the maelstrom. There seemed no end to the wind, and so it was finally fatigue that wore them down. Monterrey’s paw slipped, and in an instant the winds pounced and claimed their prize, whipping him out of sight before they could do anything about it. Gadget grabbed onto Chip’s free paw with her now free paw.
Don’t let go of me Chip!
Not if I can help it!
Chip, I’m scared!
Gadget had never before confessed fear to anyone as far as Chip could remember. It caught him by surprise.
Lightning flashed several times in quick succession, the thunder of bolt each louder than the last. The winds increased in intensity. They were deep into the heart of the maelstrom now, and the clouds around them shone with an eerie green luminescence. Chip and Gadget clung to each other, but it was no use. Howling in victory, the winds finally broke their grip, flinging them instantly out of sight of one another, spinning and tumbling end over end. The wind laughed at their helplessness.
The Muse lay in a crumpled heap on the cold slate floor. Gradually he pulled himself to his feet, folded his wings, and waited. “I know you’re here. Face me,” he said defiantly. For a moment, only silence answered his challenge. Then came the sepulchral, sibilant voice he knew would come.
“If you can’t play nicely with your toys, I’m going to take them away from you.” As the voice spoke, the speaker appeared facing the Muse; a tall, gaunt figure robed entirely in black. The robe’s sleeves and cowl revealed nothing but a pair of burning red eyes.
“You dare to treat this as though it were a game?”
“If you insist,” the Nightmare King replied. The slate floor took on the appearance of a chessboard. “I assure you I am quite serious, but since you introduced the analogy, I will extend it. You may think you got what you wanted. All the pieces are now on the board, except you don’t even know where your pieces are.”
“Neither do you.”
“That will shortly be remedied. My strategy is impenetrable, while yours is scattered and disorganized. Check, I should think.” The Nightmare King advanced silently on the Muse, who found he was unable to move. “I will admit that I am intrigued however. I know that I closed every gateway to the waking world. Tell me how you managed to go there and draw your cards.”
“I suggest you study your mythology more carefully.”
The Nightmare King seemed undisturbed by the Muse’s cryptic answer. “It doesn’t matter. I have been too generous with your accommodations, perhaps. I shall simply have to make it harder for you to get into mischief.” With that, the Muse suddenly found himself enclosed in a large gilded Victorian birdcage. It was incongruously furnished with a red velvet Chesterfield sofa and a low table bearing a silver tea service, nestled upon an intricately patterned Persian rug. “As long as I need you, I will continue to see to your needs of course, but be warned, you are wearing out your welcome.”
“It is you who have intruded here, not I. Why not drop this charade and show your true self?”
“Ah,” said the Nightmare King, as though lecturing a wayward pupil, “but this is my true self. I am your polar opposite, am I not? The eternal struggle of good versus evil is repeated here, between us. The outcome will be decided by our little game, and I am already winning.” The Nightmare King turned as if to leave.
“You’re a dualist,” the Muse countered.
The Nightmare King paused. “What do mean by that?” he asked suspiciously.
“You should study your philosophy more carefully as well.”
“Childish prattle,” the Nightmare King snorted with contempt, and vanished, leaving the Muse in his cage on the chessboard floor, surrounded by numerous childish toys and stuffed animals.
Chip awoke in his own bed, the lower bunk of a double-decker arrangement. Dale, of course, insisted on the upper bunk. Something seemed wrong to Chip as he awoke, and it took him a moment to realize what it was. He didn’t hear Dale snoring. It was unusual for Dale to rise before Chip did, but Chip foggily surmised that he’d been out all night with Foxglove. It was still dark out. Chip stretched and rolled out onto the cool linoleum floor, stood up, and looked at Dale’s bunk. He wasn’t in it, and predictably he hadn’t made it either. Chip sighed with irritation, clicked on the light, and made up both bunks before going to dress, but he discovered that he seemed to have worn his coat to bed. With a shrug, he retrieved his hat from the rack and settled it on his head. A chill wind invaded the room through a large uneven hole in the wall, and Chip decided that he would have to get that repaired today. Going to the round hole in the floor, he slid down the polished brass pole to the fi rst floor of the abandoned fire station they lived in and went to the ready room. It was empty but for an old Formica kitchen table, a few vinyl chairs with chrome trim, and a shabby green couch. The broken television was burning fitfully, and there was another huge hole in the wall . . .
Wait a minute, thought Chip, since when do we live in an old firehouse? More to the point, Chip realized, this was all human stuff. But it was just his size. Where did they get this stuff? The fog lifted from his brain and he realized that something was really wrong, or at least seriously out of place. “Gadget? Monterey?” He went back into the bay of the firehouse, where presumably the Ranger Plane should have been, but there was nothing there except for a pile of debris, a dusty diesel generator of indeterminate age, a few old tires, and one of the large wooden doors from the front of the firehouse, that seemed to have fallen off its hinges. He remembered a storm, and that he had become separated from his companions. Suddenly anxious, Chip ran to the open door and looked out, stopping in shock at what he saw.
The city looked as though it had been carpet-bombed. Multiple small fires were still burning in the dark mists, and most of the structures were in similar, if not worse condition than the one Chip now stood in. The streets were closed off with sawhorse barricades topped with flashing yellow strobes, and the only vehicles in evidence were rusted-out hulks, stripped of everything that could be removed. Great ugly craters dotted the streets, and the sky was overcast and devoid of stars.
“What happened?” he asked aloud. “What’s going on here? Where is everyone?”
“Shut up,” a strange voice just outside the door said.
“Who --?” Chip began, turning to the voice. He found himself face to face with an outsized spider, suspended in a large web between the firehouse and the building next door.
“Me,” the spider answered him. Chip jumped back in alarm.
“Oh, don’t overreact,” the spider admonished him, “I’m just the welcome wagon. My name is Will. Not Bill, Will. Don’t ever call me Bill.”
“Welcome wagon?” Chip asked in confusion. “Where am I?”
“Neverland, the Kingdom of Micomicon, the Land of Oz, the World On The Other Side Of The Looking Glass, call it what you will. At least, that’s what Barrie, Cervantes, Baum and Carroll called it, respectively. It actually has no name, but most people are comfortable calling it simply the dream world,” the Spider explained helpfully.
“Dream world?” Chip asked.
“Dream world, as in the land of dreams, as in anything can happen here.” As the spider finished saying this, a small shrew wearing a safety vest and a hard hat approached Chip and produced a measuring tape, with which he measured Chip’s horizontal and vertical dimensions. Chip watched, perplexed, as the shrew, nodding to himself, produced a small pad and wrote on it. Putting the pad away, the shrew next drew a pair of semaphore flags from under his vest and made a series of signals to someone Chip couldn’t see. His message apparently completed, the shrew put the flags away and next produced a small whiskbroom, with which he solicitously gave Chip a cursory dusting off in spite of the chipmunk’s protests. The shrew put the whiskbroom away and pulled out the pad again and made a few more marks on it, then finally tore off a receipt, handed it to Chip, tipped his hat, and scurried away.
Chip, if anything, was now more confused than ever when he heard the sound of a propeller driven aircraft approaching overhead. Remembering the condition of the city, he looked apprehensively skyward for the source of the noise, but could not see it. Next there was a whistling sound as if a bomb were dropping, a falling whistle like in the old cartoons Dale loved to watch, and it is of course more or less at this point that Chip was struck in the face by a large banana custard pie topped with whipped cream and toasted coconut flakes.
“Case in point,” said Will the spider, as though that explained everything.
Chip angrily wiped the piecrust and filling off his face. “Who runs this place,” he muttered indignantly, “the Three Stooges?”
“Nobody runs it, it runs you,” said Will the spider. “You don’t get it do you? Your reality check has bounced. Your cheese hasn’t slipped off its cracker; the mice ate it. And you ain’t in Kansas no more neither.”
Chip suddenly remembered something. “Do you know where the Belfry is?”
Will looked off into the distance at nothing in particular. “Never heard of it,” he answered nonchalantly.
“Fine,” Chip said, brushing whipped cream and coconut flakes off his hat and putting it back on his head. “I can find it without your help.”
“Fine,” Will replied, “but without my help you’ll be in deep trouble within half an hour.”
Chip left the firehouse, ignoring the spider’s last remark. Notwithstanding its condition, this was the same city, and Chip decided he could find his way to the park, and at least get his bearings. As he walked down the street dodging craters and burning cars, he began to wonder where everyone was. After all, even at this hour there was something going on in the city. But then, he couldn’t really tell what hour it was, only that it was night time. The clock on City Hall was missing along with most of the roof. The Police Station and Courthouse were missing altogether; they appeared to have been bombed flat.
The other thing, the one that really made him fret, was the nagging question of why everything seemed to be his size. If not for the fact that they were burned-out wrecks, he could have gotten into one of the cars and driven it away, if he had a license.
Chip had cooled off and was beginning to feel uneasy again when he finally got to the park. The huge oak in the center of the park seemed a lot smaller, but Chip realized that it, like the rest of the city, seemed to have been scaled down to his level. He climbed up a short distance.
There was no sign of Rescue Ranger Headquarters in the tree at all. Perplexed, Chip dropped down from the tree, and looked around the park, finally catching sight of the old bandstand in the park’s center, but it didn’t look right either. Instead of the familiar old wooden gazebo was an open atrium of weathered marble and granite that resembled the Jefferson Memorial in miniature, except that it looked like a tortoise, with its high, domed shell made of stained glass, and elevated by elegant fluted columns. Something about it looked strangely familiar, but his train of thought was abruptly derailed by a gruff voice.
“Who are you?” Chip turned to find himself confronted by two fearsome-looking rats. Each was easily twice his size, and wore medieval-looking steel helmets and studded leather jerkins and gauntlets that seemed very out-of place in the city. Of more immediate concern, each was also armed with a very long weapon that looked like a cross between a spear and a saber, and carried various other unpleasant looking implements on wide leather belts. Chip was at a loss to answer the question, but they didn’t wait, and asked him another one. “What are you doing out here?”
“I was looking for my friends,” Chip said
“You won’t find them out here. No one’s supposed to be out after curfew.”
Chip realized he was in deep trouble. “I didn’t know, I just got here--”
The rats exchanged a look. “A newcomer, eh? Come with us, all newcomers must be registered. If you don’t give us any trouble, the matter of the curfew violation may be overlooked.” Both rats leveled their weapons at Chip in a way that suggested they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
As the rats led Chip away, the only witness to the glum procession was Will, the spider, who consulted a large pocket watch and announced to himself, “Twenty-eight minutes and thirteen seconds.” He tossed the pocket watch away with a muffled crash and puffed thoughtfully on an elaborately curved Meerschaum pipe. “Of course with my help, the whole sordid affair would have been concluded in five or ten minutes.”
The Galleria Metropolitan was just a fancy name for a large shopping center that someone had built, partly above ground and partly under, where it connected with the subway system and its own parking garage. It was intended to be the state-of-the-art shopping center and transportation hub, the heart of the city. Due to the high rent it was partly empty, and widely regarded as a huge white elephant. The above ground entrances to the mall had been designed, in a fit of architectural extravagance, to look like Mayan pyramids. The architectural extravagance was outdone only by the artistic extravagance with which the designer had attempted to give the whole affair an otherworldly, sci-fi appearance. There was a lot of neon tubes, video screens and stainless steel. This extravagant monument to consumerism appeared to be their destination.
Chip was thinking the whole way from the park, since the guards, or soldiers, or whatever they were, seemed disinclined to talk to him, other than to offer rough directions about which way he ought to go. It seemed to him that the easiest way through this mess would be to simply go through the registration process, whatever that was, and keep a low profile thereafter.
The only problem, as far as Chip could see, was how was he supposed to find Gadget and Monterey Jack and make his way to the Belfry, whatever that was, while keeping a low profile? And for that matter, how long would this registration process take, and who was in charge around here? The more he thought about it, the more he got a bad feeling about it.
Chip’s captors marched him in through one of the mall entrances. The resemblance to a Mayan pyramid failed to end at the door, as the architect had cunningly designed the entryways to resemble ruins that artfully concealed ATMs, telephone kiosks, and storage lockers. Sandstone textures, earth tone colors and the inevitable neon tubes pervaded the interior. After going down the escalator, the guards led Chip to the central court, which had a huge skylight over it that also resembled a pyramid, and from above ground masqueraded as a public fountain. The central court was dominated by a riot of plant life that attempted to give the impression that the builders had lifted out a piece of South American rainforest and dropped it into the middle of their creation. Sprinklers concealed in the frame that supported the skylight kept the plants watered.
And it was all built to Chip’s scale, more or less. It was as though he had mysteriously grown or the world had mysteriously shrunk. The distorted sense of scale made Chip feel as though he was stuck in a funhouse mirror.
All of the stores were empty, which is to say that the shelves, displays, racks and other things one might expect to find in a retail establishment had been removed. Instead, the stores contained people. The mall seemed to have been converted to a jail, which made sense in a way, considering the condition that the Police Station was in. The people solemnly watched with mute fear and resignation as the guards led Chip past their makeshift cells.
But they weren’t exactly people. Not in the traditional sense anyhow.
Chip had to sneak a couple more looks at the downcast faces watching him from behind the security bars to be sure, but even so the realization hit him like a falling grand piano. They were all various species of small animals. Mice, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, gerbils, hamsters, bats and birds regarded him with mute appeal to be let out. Chip’s mind raced in confusion. There were no answers in this strange world, only more questions. One of the guards prodded him with his pike, as a reminder to keep moving along.
The guards took him down one more level to the food court, and led him towards the back, where the mall offices were. More guards lounged in the security station. Finally they escorted him through a set of double doors into the reception area, where they stopped. One of the guards stayed with Chip while the other went and knocked on one of the office doors. “Newcomer for registration.”
“Just a minute,” a sleepy voice answered. The guard waited respectfully until the door opened. Chip received yet another in a long series of shocks when he saw who emerged from the office.
Likewise, Mole reacted in surprise at the sight of Chip, and a happy grin spread across his chubby face. The boss would be pleased. “Well, well, well, looky who we have here!” he said.
“Mole? What are you doing here?” Chip asked weakly.
“I’m in charge,” Mole answered with evident satisfaction, “and you’re a wanted criminal.” With those words, the guards roughly took hold of Chip’s arms. “Gee, it feels good to be on the winning side,” said Mole reflectively.
“Whatever you’re up to, you’ll never get away with it,” Chip promised.
“I’m not up to anything,” Mole said, grinning. “I’m the law around here, and you’re going to jail. Fat Cat will be real happy when he sees what we’ve got. Put him in a cell.”
“Fat Cat?” Chip asked as the guards began to drag him away.
“Yup,” Mole answered. “He runs things here. See you in the morning,” Mole yawned and went back to his office, shutting the door behind him.
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