Author’s Note: This story is the culmination of our interactive activities over on our Twitch livestream. Characters and their fates were partly decided based on audience participation. Check out the earlier sessions if you wish to learn where these characters came from.
Though the fog was absolutely shredded by forces beyond their understanding, it was still largely impassable. There was however a dark slit that formed recently, right where the fog met the ground of the Trap. The refugees chose the widest part of that slit, and its nearby stable ground, as the location for their laboratory.
Now this laboratory didn’t exist, per se. It was just one of the better ideas thrown around in their many discussions, yelled thanks to the backdrop of bored singing prisoners. They had learned much of their temporary home in the short time they’d studied it. The Trap was simply part of a larger world, with its morality built around staying out of incarceration within its most dangerous continent. As to why an entire continent would act as a jail, well that was a question for the minds above.
The refugees now knew that they were merely pawns of giant board games, played with on a different set of metaphysical rules. That was why all the worlds they’d traveled had particular quirks. The Minefield, which now acted as conveyor belt between worlds, was from a game they all called ‘Minetracker’. The most recent batch of refugees came from a world whose history was plagued by violent sentient boulder-spheres. Through much meditation and cross-referencing, they’d learned they could call that world ‘ravenous ravenous rhinos’.
Minetracker was already destroyed by a fit of rage. Over what was only a game to the minds above. The rogue pieces had enough of being treated like particles of dust. Thus they banded together, studying the games and their pieces in search of a way to stabilize their lives. Those in charge wanted a laboratory both to study the pieces in controlled environments and drown out the moaning prisoners. They weren’t mistreated, they were practically hotel guests, but they whined all the same. It was just an unfortunate fact of that world’s reality: for every soul in the Trap two had to be imprisoned.
There was a wide variety of beings who could help, but none who could construct a building that quickly. One did come forward with the possibility of getting the job done right away. She was a young lady named Pam who presented the ruling refugees with a large bag of black building blocks. They all watched, nearly a hundred around her, and two hundred more in the towering cages all about them, as she laid out the pile and began constructing.
What she made didn’t look much like a building; it was more like dog, sitting obediently. They requested something more traditional, but Pam told them that wasn’t how it worked. Whatever she built was inspiration. It was just whatever came to her. That inspiration moved about in time, greatly increasing the chance you would find whatever building she’d constructed.
So they all went to the slit under the fog to see. Luckily enough, their new laboratory was there. It was a magnificent black building in the same rough shape of a sitting canine. The entrance was a door on the left haunch. There was really only one thing to call it. On the most active day of their research program there were only ten individuals working inside the Black Lab.
The day’s project was overseen by Barton. Nobody wanted him to oversee it, the man lacked charisma the way the moon lacked air, but he had the best connection to the materials from beyond the game world. When he entered the Trap he brought an unusual substance with him: a golden fluid settled into a sharp shard of plastic. Their best guess was that it was a beverage from the minds above, a piece of a soda cup perhaps.
Consuming small parts granted him insight, turning his eyes gold for a moment, and giving them ideas about their research pathways. Exposing it to the void of the slit also made it grow, perhaps because the space outside the game boards was more like the world they’d come from. Thus there was a special chamber in the head of the Black Lab, now full of the inspiring fluid, turning its window-eyes golden and shimmering.
He walked back and forth as the volunteers for the latest experiment prepared. They were all safely sealed away from the jeering prisoners, with the entrance managed and guarded by a few gifted in the social arts: Macawl the parrot woman, Cassandra the cheerleader, and Maddy the park ranger. They made sure nobody disturbed the volunteers, lest they lose their nerve.
A stack of pips, large black discs, stood in the corner of the room under the incandescent lights. Until recently they had been attached to the six faces of one of the day’s volunteers: Mr. 32. He was a robot, but it was his square shape that proved most useful. The pips were energy conductors that could control likelihoods, and when attached to Mr. 32 it created a die that could be rolled to make great but unpredictable changes.
It was Barton who, while under the influence of the soda, figured out how to remove the pips. The process involved one of the other refugees, one of a more animal mind. It was a beard grown by a man named Byron, but that had taken on a magical life of its own. Barton found that they could shove some of the beard’s hairs under the edge of the pips and wait several hours from them to grow. This caused a slow separation, and when the seal was broken the pips popped right off. Now they were free to use them in ways that were perhaps more under their control.
“Tell me again how this is supposed to work?” Trish asked as she did a series of lunges and stretches. She was preparing for stillness rather than exercise, but it was all she could think to do. She wore a sleeveless shirt, but one arm was covered by the torn sleeve from a sweater that was nowhere to be found. She rubbed the arm like it was cold, despite its thick red blanket.
“Something up with your arm?” Cybil asked, mimicking the older woman’s stretches. The teenager didn’t need to stretch. All her strength was locked away in her were-bastard form, and he came out whenever he felt like it.
“It’s fine,” she answered. “I’ve had chunky-cheeks over there living on my bicep for a month. Now that his fat coating is gone, the damn thing’s always cold.” She stretched and turned it into a point toward the chunky-cheeks in question. It was an odd little creature napping on the counter by the name of Blurry. He was a very fat cat, but he existed only as artwork. At the moment he was a sketch, but when resting upon Trish he had appeared as a tattoo that wasn’t quite trashy enough to fit her persona. The cat was forced to separate because he would make an excellent addition to the test subjects on his own.
Barton had been careful in selecting a wide variety of subjects, just to see how their various forms interacted with the pips and the slit. He had another but determined woman in the form of Trish. A sex-swapping shape-shifter in the form of Cybil, living art with Blurry, a robot with Mr. 32, and an ordinary animal in the form of Grayjay the bird. The bird had the least idea what it was doing there, but it was very eager to get on one of the pips and use it as a base for a fine new nest.
“Penny, if you’d assist me please,” Barton asked. In walked the quiet woman with her long coat. Normally she had hidden blades in its stitching, but they’d all been asked to give up their weapons inside the Black Lab, for the safety of the subjects. Her only belonging now was her pet, the reins of which she pulled behind her. The silly bird ducked its head under the doorway and walked in, talons clacking against the tile.
“Each of you gets one pip,” she explained as she pulled the top disk from the pile, walking over to the corner of the counter where Grayjay pecked at a few loose papers. She set it down on the floor with a grunt. The bird leaned her head over the edge of the desk and then hopped down, quickly nestling into the pip’s center. She trilled to warn all the others away from her pristine new home. “The pips will be your bases. We’re going to attach your feet to them before dropping you in the slit.”
“Ingenious,” Mr. 32 said. He had little concern for his appearance, so everyone saw the rust marks outlining the places where the pips had been on each of his faces. “This should increase our resemblance to the extra-world materials.” Penny put down the second pip; he rolled up onto it with some difficulty.
“Wait, what?” Cybil asked. “Now I’m more confused. What are extra-world materials? I thought we were just pretending to be game pieces, like the little silver figures from Meritocracy. I was always the frog in the monocle.” She stepped onto her pip without hesitation, despite her question not having an answer yet.
“Extra-world materials are the things that aren’t from the Trap, the Minefield, Minetracker, or Ravenous Ravenous Rhinos,” Barton explained. “So far we have the soda and the pips. We already know they are they keys to manipulating the world outside of ours.” Penny set down a pip for Blurry, but the cat was fast asleep. Trish smacked the butterball, rolling him off the counter and onto his pip. He did not awaken.
“We would just be objects to those assholes up there,” Trish explained. “So we if want to go out there and kick their celestial asses, we need to look the part. We need to be game pieces. Right?” She rubbed her cold arm.
“That is the theory,” Mr. 32 confirmed. “Now it’s time to test it. What adhesive will we be using?”
“This stuff,” Penny said, pulling a jar full of orange fluid from her bird’s saddlebag. “It was formulated by Codagula and made from magical candy extracts provided by Treackle. Thickened with a little Pudda saliva.” She pulled a spatula sized feather off her steed, causing it to squawk in protest. She shot it a steely look, calming it down instantly. She then dipped the feather into the tall glass jar and used it as a brush on each pip.
“The main components are candy and saliva because of the nature of board games,” Barton explained. “Any of you remember pouring out all your old toys and games and finding pieces stuck together with a random peppermint or old wad of gum?” All the humans nodded. “Well there you go. With these bases, you might be enough like actual game pieces to travel outside our world without instantly dying.”
“That’s still just an idea though, right?” Trish asked. Barton nodded. “Great. Let’s get stuck to these things and go fall off a cliff.” The two humans stepped onto the adhesive and moved their shoes back and forth until they were firmly stuck to their pips. Penny lifted Blurry’s fat flank and painted under him before dropping him into it. She pushed Grayjay away and slathered her pip; the bird returned to the spot immediately, but didn’t seem concerned when she couldn’t walk away. Mr. 32 rolled over his adhesive.
“Now what? Cybil asked, flapping her arms uselessly.
“Now we wait for it to dry,” Penny said. “And while we’re waiting, we’ll test you.” She moved over to Mr. 32 and whistled. Her giant bird, called the truth chicken by most of them, came over and tapped the robot’s top several times with its beak. It had the innate ability to sense falsehoods and often crowed when people lied out loud. They had used it in determining the ruling refugees to make sure everyone’s motives were pure.
“Wait, what are you testing?” Trish asked. Penny nodded to Barton and then moved on to Blurry. The chicken pecked the cat’s flank; he didn’t respond. Penny nodded again.
“Don’t worry,” Barton told her. “It’s just a last minute test to make sure you guys weren’t turned into traitors by an extraworld entity like Murdurlur or somebody. We know he’s still skulking about.” The truth chicken pecked Grayjay. This time the bird protested loudly; she would never tolerate another beak in her nest. She flapped her wings and took off, taking her pip with her. Apparently the adhesive had set already. The bird’s mad fluttering around the ceiling did little to calm the other subjects’ irritation.
“I haven’t had that thing touch me yet,” Trish said. “If you remember I didn’t apply to be a ruling refugee. I don’t want that cockerel touching me or my word. My word is solid. Okay? You either trust me or you don’t.”
“Then I don’t,” Barton said with a shrug. His darted to Penny, telling her to go ahead with the test anyway. It wasn’t like Trish could run glued to her pip base. The chicken leaned in. Trish grabbed it by the neck and squeezed. The animal panicked, trying to squawk, but the force of her grip choked the sound back. Its legs wobbled and gave out, its claws scratching madly across the floor. Blurry was kicked under a desk. Moments later he reemerged, hissing and jumping in all directions, the pip lolling on the loose skin between his shoulders.
“Lies and fighting? This isn’t my scene,” Cybil said with a pout. “This is his scene!” She dropped her head, but already her body swelled. Out came the alternate form of the werebastard, with arms as hairy as skunks in puberty. “What’s this?” the bastard growled, trying to lift his feet. “All you trying to beat me? Nobody beats me, and I don’t need feet to prove it!” The bastard lunged at Barton, but the man was already taking his leave up an emergency ladder that led to the chamber under the soda tank.
That left Penny and the chicken alone with the experimental pieces. She wasn’t too concerned with their fates either; they had volunteered after all. She struck Trish in the neck with the flat side of her hand; it was a poor replacement for her blades, but it was enough to get the woman to relinquish her grip. Penny then mounted the wheezing chicken and rushed out the door. She would return if everything calmed down.
“All of you, listen to me!” Barton’s voice crackled over the intercom. He had already locked himself in a safe little box with a microphone. “I think you’re under the influence of the pips!”
“Shut him up!” Mr. 32 barked, his voice crackling in anger for the first time in his life. “He’s not even playing! He doesn’t know the dangers we face! Error! Do not pass Kzkzkzkkzkkkkkhhhh… Do not collect two hundred dollars! Error! All of you straight to jail! My jail!” Mr. 32’s lid flew open with a plume of cryogenic fog and sparkling ice crystals. He hopped forward on his pip, trying to swallow up the other pieces.
“I’ll go to hell before I ever get back in there!” Trish boomed. She tried to hop, but she didn’t have as much weight to put into it, so she leaned until the pip went up on its edge, then rolled away from the angry freezer. Grayjay and Blurry, still panicking, escaped into the hallway and went separate ways. She watched the cat make one jump and swipe at the bird, which was extremely strange. Blurry was far too lazy to hunt anything.
“You’re game pieces now!” Barton’s voice continued. “It makes you naturally competitive! That has to be where all this aggression is coming from… We need you to calm…” Grayjay smashed into one of the speakers, destroying it and disrupting the connection. Now it was just static. Their choice in test subjects had backfired somewhat. They hadn’t accounted for the fact that game pieces always competed with each other and would find it blasphemous to cooperate.
Two of them were animals unable to overcome their instincts. One was a robot just as rigid in his programming. The others were human, but among the angriest of all the refugees. They were likely to kill each other before they even left the Black Lab and found the slit they were supposed to dive into.
Trish and the werebastard clashed on a set of stairs, wrestling and rolling down them. Trish kicked out with both feet, smashing her base into the bastard’s jaw and knocking out three teeth that tinkled down the stairs ahead of them. The teeth were the first bad signs spotted by those guarding the front doors. At the sight of them they locked the lab to make sure nothing dangerous could escape.
Macawl, Cassandra, and Maddy threw their bodies across the doors and locked arms. Down tumbled Trish and the bastard, only wobbling back to their feet with much effort. They paid no attention to the three women barring the way out; they weren’t players. The size of the arena didn’t matter either, just as long as all the other pieces toppled.
There came a horrible racket, the kind of sound usually reserved for the foolish moving families who tried to walk long couches up curving sets of stairs. Mr. 32 crashed and rolled down the last of the opposite set of stairs, screeching. He hopped until he was added to the fight with the other two.
“What are you doing?” Cassandra yelled at them, refusing to break the barrier over the doors.
“Playing!” the bastard roared, but there was nothing playful about his voice. He punched several dents into the side of Mr. 32. The robot swallowed up his head and froze his eyebrows with an icy blast.
“Maybe we should let them play outside,” the elderly Macawl suggested. Her colorful feather collar was already quite ruffled by the disturbance. The others looked at her like she was mad; why would she want to subject the rest of the refugees to this experimental destructive rage? “Well, if they’re playing, there’s only one way to win.”
The fight came to a sudden halt. The bastard was half-eaten by Mr. 32. Trish was chewing on one of the robot’s tires. Grayjay and Blurry flew in from a third hallway, the cat hanging by its claws from the bird’s pips.
“There’s a way to win?” the bastard asked. His eyes were wide and nearly yellow with anticipation. At his reaction the two animals ceased their combat, Blurry dropping onto the tile like a dollop of pudding. His cat pupils expanded as wide as his pencil-sketch eyelids would allow. Grayjay landed gently and stared as well.
“I think there’s a way to win,” Macawl said, disturbed by the number of eyes on her. “You game pieces were created to go into the slit.” The pieces leaned in. “So, if you’re trying to beat each other…” They leaned further; the robotic freezer fell on his face. “Well only one of you is going to get there first. Whoever does, wins!”
They all realized, in the same instant, that she was absolutely right. This wasn’t a fighting game. It was a racing game. The slit was the finish line. They could win. They could be the best piece, held lovingly by a hand they couldn’t comprehend. The pile struggled back to life, the pieces separating and clawing their way toward the front doors.
“You’re not getting through here,” Maddy barked at them. She was in the middle, and pulled the other two closer with her muscular arms. “All the innocent people are out front. You can go out through the mouth; it’s right over the slit. Go on now, get!” The pieces didn’t have time to argue, especially since Grayjay took off on the wing, back up the stairs. Surely that lousy cheating bird would get there before they could fight their way through the door-holders.
Trish hopped up the stairs five at a time. The bastard chose to crawl instead, the edge of his pip clacking against each stair. Blurry scurried up the railings, fat wobbling back and forth, more nimble than he’d ever been. Mr. 32 had the greatest difficulty until he realized he could use his internal radio to call the lab’s utility elevator. He hopped into it and bashed his face against the top button.
The mouth of the Black Lab hung open, a stone tongue lolling out, rolling, and holding a lounging gargoyle. The throat had a window of bulletproof glass allowing them to examine the shredded fog without worrying about any projectiles from the Minefield. They had never anticipated projectiles from inside the laboratory.
All five game pieces tumbled into the observation room from various entrances. They saw the fog and knew the slit was directly below.
“I’m the best!” Trish screamed, foaming at the mouth. She hopped to the window and elbowed it, but it barely cracked. Mr. 32 had devolved into a series of fire alarm-like bleeping shrieks, so he couldn’t argue with her. He just tumbled end over end until he was pressed against the window as well.
“Death before second place!” the bastard declared. He added his weight to the glass. Blurry headbutted the window as hard as he could, but that just turned him into a colorful blown glass pattern across it. He meowed furiously at his misfortune. Grayjay might have killed herself from a head-on impact, but the edge of her pip struck first, so she just hammered away with it.
With their combined efforts the window gave out. Shards of glass, one of them containing Blurry, rolled down the Black Lab’s tongue and fell into the abyss below. They wouldn’t let the cat take the trophy, there had to be a trophy, and huge cash winnings too, so they dove after him, sliding down the tongue.
The pieces fell to the ground and then beneath it. The blackness between worlds ate them up, accepted them as game pieces. Now it was all up to them to find something useful and find their way back. Barton and Penny emerged from their safe compartments and examined the scene at the window. Barton’s eyes were golden, as he was fresh from a sip of the extraworld soda.
“Do you think they’re still alive?” Penny asked. She stroked the truth chicken’s soft neck.
“There’s a bigger question,” Barton said. He pointed out to the fog. Penny looked and saw something staring at the Black Lab’s face. It was another dog, but much smaller, winged, and hovering. Its big round eyes focused in on them. The owl-dachshund. Drawn through the fog by the sounds of struggle and the smell of its old world. It growled. The sound shook the foundations, sent the soda bubbling, and made the curious refugees surrounding the lab panic and flee. “Will we be alive five minutes from now?”
If the beast had charged them, Barton and Penny would’ve been killed immediately, but luck was on their side for the moment. The owl dachshund, still confused by its transition from one piece of a world to another, immediately set its sights on the stone gargoyle lounging at the end of the Black Lab’s extended tongue.
It swooped down and broke the statue off, tumbling with it to the grassy ground below. With one bite and a sound like an ice pick, the dachshund broke the gargoyle’s head off and sent it rolling away. Barton and Penny used those seconds wisely, triggering the Black Lab’s lock-down procedures. The tongue rolled back up and the mouth closed.
On the ground floor, where the front doors were built into the left haunch, those guarding the entrance were shocked when extra security doors of thick steel closed over the old ones, catching one of Macawl’s long sleeves and ripping it.
“What’s going on?” she squawked, holding her arms close to her chest. “Cassandra?”
“I don’t know,” the cheerleader admitted, biting her lip. She still wore the uniform from her old world, but it was covered by a light jacket with numerous pockets. She pulled a set of paper instructions from one and glanced over them. “Barton didn’t say anything about this. The game pieces were supposed to leave, right?”
“Yeah,” Maddy answered, scratching her head. It was then that they heard a terrible scraping sound dragging across the exterior wall. It was followed by a piercing bark.
“They left, and something else showed up!” Macawl guessed. “What if it’s that thing everyone’s been talking about? The hawk-terrier!”
“Owl-dachshund,” Cassandra corrected, “and it’s hard to imagine what else it could be. We should find Barton and Penny. Come on.” The three of them moved to the elevator, but found it was inoperable in lock-down. It would have to be the stairs.
“Does anyone know we’re trapped in here?” Macawl huffed, only halfway up the building. They were likely somewhere in the chest cavity now.
“I’m sure they worked that out,” Cassandra assured. “Our job was keeping the riffraff out, but I’m sure the ruling refugees put something in place in case of emergency. We’ll just find Barton and wait it out.” The scratching came again, but this time it flew across the building with incredible speed. The dachshund was airborne once more, smelling them through their shell, looking for a way in.
They found Barton and Penny back in the experiment chamber directly beneath the soda containment. Cassandra guessed it was the back of the Black Lab’s throat. If they had any barks to generate, anything to scare the beast off, it would be from there.
“What happened?” she demanded of Barton. His expression was blank, but there was a slight tremor in his hands. Penny’s truth chicken was huddled in a corner, clucking frantically.
“It’s the owl-dachshund,” Penny answered. “As soon as the pieces went down the slit it showed up from out of the fog. We put the lab into lock-down, but if he wants in here we can’t stop him.”
“Help is on the way,” Barton added. “We’ve already sent the signal.”
A mile outside, but closing in fast, were the reinforcements. Something looking like a small red zeppelin shot through the sky, powered by two discs of quivering fluid and glowing energy. It was the flying configuration of Codagula, the blood-bodied artificial intelligence that helped arrange many of the experiments. Usually he existed as a cloud of static electricity and vaporized blood, but he could power the swift aircraft form with the three pints donated by the brawny man Glitterhook back at the refugee camps. The deaf fellow bled from the ears constantly, and it was all Codagula could do to not sip at their edge like a robin at a birdbath.
Held in his clutches, locked in place by a band of coagulated leather around her waist, was Techtet. She stared straight ahead, at the silhouette of the Black Lab in the distance. She was eager to finally get some sanctioned use out of her one remaining shoe. Plenty of refugees had offered replacements, but she wouldn’t let anything else touch her pale foot. It had been bare ever since Trish cruelly destroyed the other half of her power. She didn’t even like walking with it anymore.
It would be a shame if what she was about to do helped Trish in anyway, but the fun she could have with that building was more important. Treackle the candy-thieving pixie buzzed by, keeping pace. She was all smiles, really just there to watch. The only other true reinforcement was charging across the ground below them; it was Pudda the beast of burden, shaking the tiny tree on her forehead and bellowing. She had no idea of the details, just that some of her friends were in danger.
The ballerina’s foot twitched. Dust and gravel fell from the eaves of the Black Lab. The strap around her waist tightened, Codagula warning her not to start until they actually arrived. It was lucky that Pudda tagged along, because the owl dachshund, with its incredible eyes that could see through the very game-worlds, saw them coming long before they saw it.
It stopped pestering the Black Lab like a mosquito and flew toward Pudda. The creatures butted heads with an astonishing amount of force, nearly knocking Codagula out of the air. Under normal circumstances, despite her fortitude, Pudda would’ve stood no chance against an extra-world creature like the dachshund, but she was encased in a shell of magical thought cast by the tree upon her forehead. For the moment she battled the much smaller animal to a standstill.
Codagula settled over the space between the Black Lab’s ears and released Techtet. She fell and landed on the tip of a single toe, without a sound thanks to the power of her technomancy shoe. Those trapped inside didn’t even notice until her routine began.
Techtet’s bare foot curled up toward her back. She held it there, not allowing it to participate. It would all have to be done singlefootedly. She had no music, so she hummed her own. Codagula picked up the resonance in the air and amplified the sound through the rippling of his bloody gasbag. Filtered through him, the sound was a ghastly ballad of disease-carrying rain.
The ballerina hopped and twirled, bending in disturbing ways, the result of obsessive practice ever since she’d arrived in the Trap. She’d spent many nights leaping around, trying to crush scurrying rats underfoot without the crunch of their bones negatively impacting the dance. It paid off, as she was able to keep balance when the Black Lab’s ears creaked to life.
They perked up like satellite dishes, but they weren’t the only things to move. The whole building moved back and forth, mostly just the tail at first. It ripped out of the ground, severing the wires to its external power supply. Inside its throat, the others were now cast in the dim pulse of emergency lighting.
The lab’s shoulders tensed. The legs lifted off the ground and pitched its weight forward, grazing its nose on the fog. Techtet danced to the left, spinning the building around by its head. The Black Lab was full of machinery, and it was not exempt from technomancy. The building’s hound shape was now fully in use, moving across the grass one leg at a time, as commanded by each striking step from Techtet. She would march the building into an arena more suitable for them, somewhere where the other refugees could contribute to the fight against the waddling terror of the Minefield.
The lab wasn’t as fast as it might have been, for it walked with a limp. It was the unavoidable side effect of having only one shoe to work with. Still, the scale of the dog made progress quick. In less than a minute they passed over Pudda and the dachshund. It was the shadow that brought the dachshund’s attention back. It knocked Pudda over, bouncing over her magical shield, and glided back into the air, yipping and nipping at the lab’s flank, leaving great gouges in it each time.
Techtet saw exactly where to go, as the boundaries were forming before her eyes. Magmis the volcano, the shortest, swiftest, and smartest such structure to ever exist, sped along the the edges of the cage towers, building a moat of magma designed to keep the most vulnerable separate from the fight. The lab reached the first red hot line and turned deeper into rat territory, where some remains of the Trap’s original denizens were still holed up.
The limping of the lab knocked a few cages over, but they were mostly empty. Within minutes they were deep among the towers and running out of room to maneuver, but if those trapped in the lab could be transferred to a cage, they would be safe. Prisoners of the Trap didn’t die while caged, at least not without permission from the warden.
The owl dachshund had no difficulty navigating the canopy of iron bars. It spiraled straight through some cages in its pursuit of the lab. Its barking grew more agitated, the very stuff of reality quivering in front of its mouth. The animal sought its return to the world outside the games, sought the touch of the hands and eyes above. Its incredible nose smelled something in the lab’s head, something from its world as well. Perhaps it was they key to leaving this thin foul place behind. It grabbed the edge of one metal ear, and pulled. The lab was forced to skid to a stop, toppling a great tower, and pull against the tug.
It only took a moment for the dachshund to rip the entire thing away, shredding metal and snapping wires. It tossed the ear across the air where it lodged between the bars of another cage. Techtet gritted her teeth, snarled, and danced even more fiercely. She made use of the black lab’s mouth, snapping at the owl dachshund as it swooped by. She whipped its tail around, still trailing sparking wires, successfully landing a scalding blow on her adversary.
Deep inside the lab’s throat, the others were thrown about in the struggle. Barton managed to grab the counter and pull himself to his feet. The others then latched on one by one until they were all as stable as they could be, with the exception of the poor truth chicken unable to find purchase on the tile. It was splayed out like its comedic rubber cousin, making and scratching as it slid.
“They’re fighting it!” Cassandra said.
“They can’t win,” Barton insisted. “We’ve got to do something. I need another sip of soda…”
“We can’t get to it on emergency power,” Penny reminded, throwing herself from the stack of people over to her chicken to help it stay still. “We’ve only got our own heads. Let’s use them.” They went silent for a few moments, trying to sync up the rocking of their thoughts and the flailing of the lab.
“Macawl!” Cassandra blurted. The older woman looked to her, terrified she was about to be blamed for something. Her nails, usually so perfectly manicured and colored, were chipped and jagged. Her purple lipstick was smeared. “You’re part bird right? Like, literally? You’ve got a little bit of a parrot brain attached to yours?”
“Well yes,” she answered. “I couldn’t let my beautiful pet go, but what does that have to do with…”
“Try talking to it!” the cheerleader exploded, throwing out one hand aggressively and nearly losing her grip on the counter. “One half-bird thing to another! Calm it down! Coo at it for all I care! Tell it we mean no harm and have pockets full of treats! Just something!”
“I don’t think I can…”
“I’ll get you the intercom,” Barton interrupted. “You’ll be in no danger.” He flung himself across the room just the lab fell over on its side. A filing cabinet flew open and spilled its contents. Barton dove for the pile of papers and appliances, snatching a microphone. The room turned again, sliding him right by the switch he needed to flick. The lab’s mouth crackled. The speakers were live. He shoved the microphone into Macawl’s hands. Everyone else grabbed the sides of her dress to keep her steady.
“Braaaaauuuuu,” Macawl started,clearing her throat of human intent. She closed her eyes, let the soaring spirit that always circled the space between her skull and brain come to the forefront. She encouraged it to sing. “Braugh! Kakau! Ka-ka-ka-ka Krau! Brauuiiiiiiik!” In her mind, and in the piece of her oldest and greatest friend, she begged the owl dachshund to stop. She told it she wanted to be friends and that she understood an fear it might be feeling. She told it to stop plucking at feathers, its own or anything else’s.
The black lab righted itself and stilled. They had no window to see, but Barton snatched a tablet computer form another drawer and pulled up a feed for a security camera in one of the whisker holes. They couldn’t believe their eyes. The owl-dachshund was sitting on the ground tail wagging, as if its celestial owner had ordered it to do so. Its round pupils were wide, taking up most of the eyes. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth as it panted, recovering from the battle.
“You did it!” Cassandra congratulated Macawl, grabbing her by the shoulders and squeezing.
“I actually did,” she squawked. “It’s a kindred spirit. The poor thing is just lost and confused. I must get down there.” She moved to the door, but Barton pulled her back. Something was happening. The Black Lab lifted one of its feet and held it over the dachshund. Techtet. Even though the battle had ended, she still intended to slay the beast.
She was up there, sweating and panting, certain that no move would be an adequate finale for the routine, aside from closing the owl-dachshund’s curtains. She curled her knee, prepared to leap, to put the building’s entire weight on her foe. The others scrambled to contact her, to yell for her to stop, but there was no time. The metal paw started to drop.
The roof bulged under Techtet’s foot. She was too lost in the furious pace of the routine to notice. The extra-world soda was stored directly beneath her in a skull-shaped chamber. Normally the pressure was regulated, but the loss of external power had shut down those systems. Techtet had spent ten minutes forcing the Black Lab to run and bounce back and forth. The pressure was unsustainable, like shaking a soda can and throwing it at the driveway.
The bulge under her ruptured. A geyser of hissing extraworld material struck Techtet in the gut, throwing her up into the sky. It wasn’t just the sky. She went further than that. Further than the stars and sun. It would’ve been a sight her eyes had difficulty comprehending if the initial impact of the soda hadn’t killed her instantly. A single shoe fell back down. It was claimed before the ground by an intervening Treackle. The pixie brought it to the survivors of the lab as they exited the mouth and moved to the ripped roof.
Macawl used her bird-words to keep the dachshund calm. Cassandra took the shoe, gently put it on her own foot, and started the Black Lab limping back to its grounds near the slit. Barton’s first concern was reclaiming the soda, but that proved impossible. They were betrayed. Codagula appeared from around a tower, his ballooned form swelling, overtaking the clouds of soda. The A.I. claimed it for himself and made a beeline for the slit. The limping lab could not beat him there.
They were still hundreds of feet away when something appeared out of the slit. It was a skeletal hand, covered in shredded ribbons of flesh that turned to dripping blood and back to flesh. It was a hand that could crush them between two fingers. It held up an iron cup decorated with thousand s of screaming faces, like murder victims struggling to breath against plastic bags. Codagula dumped himself, and the soda, into the goblet of his master: the blood god Murdurlur. The hand was gone a moment later, back to the extraworld space, just as the Black Lab reached it.
They weren’t left there for long. Something else rose out of the slit, ripping it wider. This new structure was ten times the size of the lab, rectangular in shape, and nearly featureless. They heard flapping, but couldn’t tell what winged creature held it up. Cassandra was forced to direct the lab out of its shadow so it wouldn’t crush them.
The brown papery box set down in the Trap. Its presence seemed to excite the owl-dachshund, as it ran for the wall and then clawed at its edge, whimpering. The survivors descended the Black Lab and walked to the edge of the monolithic box. There was one word written across it, not in ink. Hundreds of giant scratches. They seemed to bleed heat, like a chicken coop full of recently rent hens. Was it even a word? None of them knew it.
“Everyone is fine,” the disembodied hovering mouth told the refugees as they exited the Black Lab. The mouth belonged to Petra, the selectively invisible woman, and she had taken it upon herself to run all the way out there and tell them that their fight with the owl-dachshund had not led to any casualties. She was brave enough to come, but not brave enough to show anything other than her lips. A moment later they were gone, leaving the seven refugees and the owl-dachshund at the towering cardboard-like wall of Danderlid.
“So, what is this?” Cassandra asked; her question was aimed at Barton. The whole plan had been his up to this point. The man rarely looked concerned, he still didn’t, but there was an emptiness in his stare as if the wall was made of pure lead and could never be penetrated.
“I have no idea,” he answered. “All of my clarity came from sipping that soda. Codagula took every last drop. There isn’t even any condensation in the lab’s split skull. I was only ever just… a guy. Now I’m just a thirsty guy. Anybody else have any ideas?”
They all shook their heads, unsure of what to do from there. The awkward silence might’ve lasted hours, until the giant box was surrounded by a crowd of curious refugees, but someone who very much had a plan arrived with a strike force of his own.
From over the nearest hill came an army of well-equipped rats, a few men and women, and two humanoid entities about two and a half times that size. The rats were the original denizens of the Trap, meant to forever be vermin and prisoners, but their designs had conflicted with the refugees before. In fact, the leader of this approaching horde was the source of that initial conflict.
“Oh!” Macawl squawked. “I think it’s that Ratcatcher Catcher fellow. I thought he was supposed to be gone. That’s what the others said, wasn’t it?” They took a few steps back, into the safety under the Black Lab’s chin, and watched their approach. Ratcatcher Catcher was an ordinary rodent, but kept safe inside an android which was itself kept safe inside a larger android with rat-like ears and tail. He led the charge with a female of similar design, putting his ear to the cardboard of Danderlid the moment he reached it.
His forces went quiet as he held out a clawed finger. A few moments later he gave a nod and they went to work. Rats attacked the wall, breaking off it like water, immediately gnawing into it. They paid no attention to the giant black dog or those hiding under it. Ratcatcher Catcher didn’t even notice them for several minutes. When he did he smiled and waved, approaching casually. He flinched when he spotted the owl-dachshund, but upon seeing its lolling tongue and calm demeanor he regained his composure.
“Oh, “ he said, smile growing around his buck teeth. “You’ve already got one. And here I thought I had the jump on you. Not that we’re competing.” He held out his hands to pacify any swelling resentment. “We won’t be in your way at all. We’re just taking our fair share.” Danderlid has set down in our native lands, after all.”
“Fair share of what?” Penny asked, stroking the neck of her truth chicken. The animal seemed less nervous than usual, even with all the rats around. It was busy leaning over and examining the equally calm owl-dachshund. “What’s in there?”
“You don’t know?” the android sneered, tugging on one whisker. “See for yourself.” He pointed to his underlings as they clustered around their gnawing hole. A chunk large enough for the two biggest android shells was peeled away and tossed aside. The gnawers made way for a single-file line of the smaller androids. They were inside for only a moment, emerging with some sort of treasure cradled in their arms.
To the refugees they looked like very large hairs, something between a pale cucumber and a porcupine quill. They came in two varieties, the other looking much more feathery. Ratcatcher Catcher started walking back, but his path was momentarily blocked by Pudda, who seemed agitated by the sight of the hairs. She bellowed at them; the rats responded immediately.
Many of them wore tiny vests with a raised antenna. These devices bristled with electricity at Pudda’s roar and aimed in her direction. The larger tails of the androids split at the end, opening like a starfish, and revealing another sort of crackling energy weapon. They held their fire when Ratcatcher Catcher squeaked at them.
“What are those things?” Barton asked again.
“They’re how the piece becomes the player,” Catcher said cryptically. He squeaked again, his task apparently finished. His entire force turned around and left over the same hill. Ratcatcher Catcher was the last to disappear, bounding on all fours, his tail sliding out of view like god sucking a noodle off the edge of the world.
Rather than discuss his comment, the refugees ran to the hole the rats had left behind and looked within. There was a vast expanse, far bigger than the exterior suggested, of fuzzy ground. It was absolutely littered by thousands of the objects the rats had claimed. A haze hung in its air, like the exhaust from a factor that did nothing but burn skin all day. The smell made Macawl choke.
“I’m going in,” Penny said. The others looked at her like she was mad. She had armed herself with a few knife-shaped pieces of shrapnel from the Black Lab’s blown top, but she couldn’t use those to fight a toxic atmosphere. “I think our pieces are in there somewhere. This Danderlid came out of the exact spot where we dropped them. Maybe they succeeded in bring us something useful. The rats sure seemed eager to take some.”
“That’s a good point,” Cassandra agreed, rubbing the back of her head. “Doesn’t mean I want to go in there.”
“Nobody else has to,” Penny said, leaning under the gnawed arch and taking her first step on the ground. It bent under her weight, but only slightly. Nothing happened. She continued, convincing her truth chicken to join her. She didn’t leave the others a lot of time to decide whether or not they were joining her on her dusty expedition.
In the end she was followed by Barton, Cassandra, Macawl, and the owl-dachshund. Maddy, Treackle, and Pudda stayed to guard the Black Lab in case they would need it to fight anything else. None of them had the mastery of Techtet’s shoe that the later ballerina did, but Treackle, in her flight, could use it as sort of air canoe and mimic the results better than anyone else.
Penny and the others made it a few hundred feet in before they heard the lab move. Turning around, they noticed for the first time that Danderlid had no actual roof. The building was able to rise on its haunches, grab the edge of the wall with its paws, and hold its head over, allowing them to observe the progress from the eye windows. Treackle made the building offer an encouraging bark.
The sound was louder than they expected. It seemed to disturb the light objects littered about. They twitched and rattled, calming a moment later. They did their best to avoid stepping on them, but that meant every move had to be a shuffle gently casting them aside.
They started to see through the haze. Danderlid wasn’t completely flat after all. The cardboard was torn here and there, with some pieces rising as high as small mountains. Occasionally, some of the feathery objects fell from these heights, swinging back and forth in the air lazily. At first they invited comparisons to autumn leaves, but that fell apart immediately. There was something solid and dangerous to them. The refugees imagined letting one fall on their shoulders and suddenly being weighed down by an anvil.
They did their best to avoid them, but they became too numerous as they passed under the largest ripped peak yet. One of the feathers came out of nowhere, rubbing itself just under Cassandra’s nose. She yelped and jumped back, putting her hand to her lip, expecting it to come away covered in blood. She was fine for a moment, but then came the sneeze.
“Bleh-kuhh!” It echoed across Danderlid. The ground twitched and wriggled. The feather that tickled her nose stopped in mid-air. Two other giant hairs rose and hovered there, vertical, like a magic wand fed up with its owner, controlling itself. The rest of them settled back into their slumber, but not those three. They twitched. They cracked. Illusions appeared around and over them like a cloak of colorful fog.
The owl-dachshund took to to the air, yipping excitedly. The refugees realized why a moment later, when that colorful fog turned into something more like a hologram. The objects followed their new pet, looking very similar. Joining in the owl-dachshund’s play was a woodpecker-corgi, a warbler-pug, and a cockatiel-chihuahua.
The others froze even as the dachshund had the time of its life. Three more of them. A single one had killed hundreds back in the Minefield. It was more than capable of disemboweling the Black Lab and eating the morsels out of its shredded stomach. Their fears were justified, because as soon as the translucent beasts noticed them, they growled and tweeted angrily.
They dove at the refugees, fanged beaks bared, black talons outstretched. They all had to dive away, putting their weight on some of the other hairs and feathers strewn about. Penny stared at the tip of one like it was a dagger, crossing her eyes to do so. It twitched. A growling face much like the others appeared and faded in the span of a moment.
That was when she formulated her theory, almost instinctively. It was her mind forcing a revelation so she could at least have that while she was being pecked to death. She had been Barton’s assistant in most of the experiments, and with his soda-fueled clarity gone, she had the best understanding of the Minefield, the Trap, and the extraworld materials beyond. It all snapped into place, like the two halves of the beak that nearly took her nose off.
Everything that came from above was exaggerated upon contact with any of the game worlds. They had much more power in places like this, much more agency, as they were among the things that were inanimate when compared to those above. The pips were engines of chaos. The soda was a fountain of wisdom. The owl-dachshund was just a tiny piece of it as well.
She remembered her family’s closet from her own adolescence. It too had a stack of board games. There was one lid from a game they never played anymore; too many pieces had gotten lost, chewed on, or broken. The lid had been cast aside, open side up. It wasn’t the sort of surface you ever thought to dust. If the family pet claimed it as a bed, nobody objected.
That… was Danderlid. The beings above had pets, something like a bird and something like a dog. Their dander, their fallen hairs and feathers, had rested in a discarded game lid for an age. Each and every one cast aside had a raging beast within, a beast that could only be accessed in places like the Trap. The owl-dachshund was one brought fully to life, but these others were only partly disturbed. Their translucent forms were like great monsters just rolling over and yawning in their slumber.
Ratcatcher Catcher had not just claimed animal dandruff; he had claimed a small army of fearsome beasts that he no doubt intended to unleash on his enemies. She had no idea how, but the refugees would have to do the same. First they had to survive Danderlid.
The three attacking them, not fully awakened, eventually dissipated and fell back to the ground as hair and feather. Barton had a nasty scratch on one arm, but they were otherwise fine. They had to continue on, at least to the center, to see if they could find their brave pieces.
Along the way, in whispers, Penny shared her theory with the others. Danderlid was their weapon. The beasts within could span all worlds and maybe even do their bidding, if they took to taming. The dachshund with them now certainly seemed willing to cooperate.
“Don’t say that,” Macawl whimpered. “That means it’s all on me. I’ll have to sing lullabies to every last piece of fluff in here to keep everybody from getting killed.”
“We’ll all help,” Cassandra said firmly, touching the older woman’s shoulder. “This will all turn out fine as long as we stick together. We’ll flip the board on them this time.”
“My chicken is silent,” Penny said, once again drawing the stares of the others. She rolled her eyes. “The bird detects lies, remember? When you said we would flip the board on them this time, that was the truth. We’re going to do it. I know it.”
“And they’re going to do it too!” Cassandra said, pointing enthusiastically. There, ahead of them, at the center of something like a giant cardboard flower, stood five game piece statues, all posed dramatically. There was Trish, flexing her arms atop her pip. There was Grayjay, wings spread wide. Blurry, tail curled into a question mark. Mr. 32, lid ajar, icy fog frozen as it spilled over the edge. Cybil in werebastard form, cracking knuckles.
“We found you!” Macawl whispered, still fully aware of the deadly dander surrounding them. She stroked Blurry’s back, but the cat didn’t respond. None of them did. They were stiff as stone, without so much as a sparkle in their eye.
“They spent too much time out there,” Penny theorized, “and they’re still in Danderlid. We need to get them back into the Trap so they can recover. I can only imagine what they went through trying to get this thing here.” They tried to drag Mr. 32, but he was far too heavy. Moving him ripped the cardboard and made several hairs twitch. The others, even the tiny bird, were no lighter.
“We need to signal the Black lab and…” Barton started to say, but he trailed off. They all took a step back. They didn’t need to look up, because they heard it approaching. Not falling. Not plummeting. Shooting down, like lightning or a meteor from a divine sling. It struck the cardboard, cleaving a feather in two, killing whatever might have lived inside.
Penny knew the tall structure immediately, even thought she’d never seen such an amount of that substance. Her understanding of the extraworld materials told her it was a hardened spear of eye gunk. Most beings only ever saw the tiny dots they pulled out of the corners after a good night’s sleep. This hardened and sharpened piece stood twenty feet tall, hideous and glistening.
In it appeared a face that they could barely gaze upon. Its every movement was like a snotty cake falling apart, crumbs of yellow-green hardened slime bouncing off the cardboard and sticking to the dander, spreading over it like mold. The face was harsh, mean, and crusty. Tiny pockets of discolored steam vented like volcanic fissures.
“Vermin of the Trap,” the face spoke, its voice thick through phlegm and hate. “Go back to your molds. Touch not Danderlid. You will die when we tell you to, playing what game we choose.”
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” Barton asked. “One of the ones above. This… thing… is just a little piece of you. Why can’t you leave us be? Just put our games in a corner and forget about us.” The others shouted agreement.
“You are property,” the face said, green bubbles popping out of its mouth every other word. “Your words are literally meaningless. I am the unstoppable… Jeremy. It was I destroyed Minetracker. It was a stupid game, and my loss unwarranted. I do not accept loss. The others won’t allow me near the games now, but you still belong to me. Down will go Rat Trap. Down will go Ravenous Ravenous Rhinos. Any game where my rule-breaking is not the height of daring.”
“You’re a cheater,” Cassandra whispered. “You destroyed a whole world because you got caught cheating?”
“Not a world. Not even a game if I cannot win. Goodbye. Huuaarrrahhhfffllllhhuuaaa!” The sound deep in its crusty shaft grew louder and wetter. The refugees covered their ears, but the dander could not. It immediately became a tumult of dust, howling, and screeching. Every piece around them came to life and took to the sky. They swarmed, and they saw in the refugees things more alive than the column of eye gunk.
There was little they could do against such chaotic power. The huddled together, trying to protect each other from teeth and talons. Barton was plucked out of their ball, vanished in their swarm, and ripped apart. Penny reached out for him, but lost her arm to a parakeet-Pomeranian. They took the rest of her a moment later. Macawl and Cassandra were doomed, but Jeremy wasn’t done mocking them yet.
“You are nothing. Everything is victory and I am everything. Jeremy is the best at board games! Not Rose! Jeremy!”
“Squuuarrrawk!” the truth chicken boomed. It was so loud that it cracked the column of gunk. The dander beasts slowed and circled far above the two survivors. What was the truth chicken saying? “Squuuuuuuuuuuuawk!” They understood, from one bird to many. It was their language, the same one Macawl had used to calm the owl-dachshund. The truth chicken told them that Jeremy was a liar.
He was no god. He was not the best at manipulating their worlds, as he claimed. As such, he deserved all the ire they had. The swarm collapsed again, but this time onto the nasty column. They shredded Jeremy’s face, caring not for putrid taste of his unhygienic avatar’s flesh.
It mattered not to the disgusting fiend. He felt none of it; he was as far away as anything could be. The dander beasts left nothing but a crusty stump behind. When they were done they rested upon the cardboard, happily digesting fellow waste from their home world. All the instinctive rage was gone out of them, calmed by the cooing of the truth chicken and the desperate pleas of Macawl.
Penny and Barton were already gone, but no more refugees would fall to Danderlid. Macawl would see to it. She had tried to yell in the swarm, but she didn’t have the volume to calm them all. If it wasn’t for Jeremy’s hubris, his lies, the truth chicken wouldn’t have spoken up at all.
Cassandra and Macawl cried for their friends, but they had to keep moving. They were so close now. They had Danderlid. They had their game pieces. They knew the name of their foe: Jeremy. They choked back their sadness and waved their arms, trying to signal the Black Lab through the dust of their encounter.
They must have succeeded, because two beasts of burden showed up an hour later. Pudda and Wollid, the sweater-wearing komodo dragon, emerged. They were harnesses. Cassandra and Macawl tied them up to the game pieces so they could all be dragged back.
Their progress was slow, but they were followed by a thousand curious dander beasts. They’d had a taste of the enemy, and they wanted more. Danderlid wouldn’t be sitting in the corner of the closet for long. Its beasts would fill the air and do the bidding of the tired and worn pieces.
The Minefield just needed to be a bridge one more time.