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Wizard of Aaargh!



Sometimes he hated this moon.

Frank Bernetti gritted his teeth as he hiked up his slit-sided skirt (Guido hastily averted his eyes) in order to snap his pressure suit around his legs. Vacuum protection gear was simply not designed with 1940s fashions in mind.

"Guido, quite gawking at the ceiling and open the damn airlock."

Guido came, quick enough to avoid a reprimand (Bernetti-style reprimands were swift, and not always reversible), but with a certain delay in his step that might have seemed insubordinate in someone a little less ... well, subordinate.

The lock hissed and the two of them stepped out into sub-zero twilight. The moon Rinolo was tidelocked, always presenting one face to its motherworld, and so a "day" lasted as through an entire orbital revolution. It was currently dusk. Soft planetshine touched the sharp peaks of Rinolo's volcanic mountains.

"Pretty out here, boss," Guido said softly. "Nice scenery."

"Screw the scenery." Frank glanced at the digital displays on his wrist, which indicated, among other things, that it was a balmy -230 degrees. "Let's kill that little squealer and get out of here."

They picked their way among jagged edges of basalt towards the small spacecraft parked on the sloping side of the mountain. "You said this part of the moon is geologically stable?" Frank said, glancing at Guido.

"Solid as a rock, boss." The bodyguard demonstrated by stomping on one of the basalt chunks. It shifted under his foot and he stepped back hastily as a flurry of talus skittered down the slope.

"That's very comforting, Guido," Frank muttered between his teeth, unholstering his SabreSide.

He'd opted for a laser this time, rather than his usual pistol, because of the extremely low surface pressure and the possibility of accidental explosive decompression. Small lasers were lousy field weapons and prone to problems ranging from misaligned mirrors to discharged batteries, but it beat the hazard of carrying around an explosive in a near-vacuum.

The ship's running lights glowed cheerily. "Looks like he's home, boss."

"Good for him."

This was a simple cleanup operation, and it annoyed Frank to be used as a common errand boy. Why did all the lousy assignments fall to him these days? He was definitely going to file a complaint with the management.

No one shot at them as they approached the ship. Frank flipped up the cover over the keypad by the ship's airlock and entered the code that he'd memorized. The airlock cycled open. He and Guido stepped inside, and it closed behind them.

This was the tricky part, where they could find anything waiting for them on the other side: explosives, six guys with sawed-off Rhys-Madsens, a pack of attack-trained snargs. Frank and Guido flattened themselves on either side of the door as it opened.

No one shot at them, but they heard low voices. Frank peered around the corner into the ship's cabin. A porn vid was playing on the holo projector, and the lights were turned low. He could just make out a figure sprawled on the bodyform in front of it, a collection of bottles near one outflung hand.

"Guido, check around."

The bodyguard made a quick sweep of the cabin and the small bathroom. When he nodded, Frank walked across to the snitch passed out in front of the writhing holograms and shut them off.

"Well, this is anticlimactic," he said, prodding at the prone figure with one foot.

The figure groaned and stirred. Frank shot him. As he did, the ship shuddered underfoot.

"Guido? What was that?"

"Dunno, Boss."

The shaking had become more pronounced. "It's an effing moonquake, that's what it is," Frank snapped. "Geologically inactive, my stars and garters!"

He swiveled around, pointing the gun at Guido's head. Guido took it stoically. Frank's gun ended up pointing at one or the other of his bodyguards at an average rate of six times per hour. He'd never once pulled the trigger.

"Maybe we should consider taking this up later, Boss," he said, trying to keep his footing on the shuddering deck, and pointing out the viewport behind Frank.

Frank turned. "Shit!"

Rocks were bouncing past the ship, dislodged by the shaking, bouncing off the hull with sharp shocks. There was no chance they could make it back to the tunnel to Kismet, and the entire slope looked unstable enough to go at any time.

Of course ... they were on a ship ...

Frank scrambled for the control station under the viewport. The controls weren't security-coded. "Take off! Take off!" he yelled at it, and eventually managed to figure out how to do that, just as the mountainside started to slide down on them.

The ship rose in a deluge of rocks. They were thrown from one side of the cabin to the other by the impacts on the hull. Reeling drunkenly, the small vessel started to plummet into the valley.

"Pull up! Pull up!" Frank shouted at the computer, pushing buttons randomly.

"Boss, I can fly this," Guido said, trying to gently maneuver his superior out of the way.

"Guido, get out of my way! Idiot! Always underfoot--"

At that moment the ship skimmed off a basalt ridge with a horrible screech of tortured metal. Frank was thrown headfirst into the wall, to Guido's immense but well-concealed relief. He crumpled to the floor in a pile of black satin, as the cabin swam into darkness around him.

"Guido, I'll get you for this," he heard himself say, distantly.

There was another impact, a crunch that sprawled him across the floor, and then everything was still. Frank blew some hair out of his mouth and raised his aching head, looking around.

The cabin was a dreadful mess. The lights had all gone off, and the viewscreen as well, but emergency power illuminated everything dimly. There was no sign of Guido.

"Guido?"

No answer.

Frank picked himself up painfully. "Stupid no-account bodyguard--"

He limped towards the ship's airlock, still dizzy and dazed, lugging his gun which seemed to have become oddly heavier and more bulky. The floor was more or less level, which was one small blessing: at least they'd landed right side up. Frank stepped into the airlock a bit nervously, but it seemed that this was considered one of the "vital systems" operated by the emergency batteries. He waited while it automatically equalized the pressure.

As the outside door began to open, Frank became aware of something odd. He could feel the breezes of the pressure change across his legs. That was weird.

He looked down. His shins were bare. He wasn't wearing the pressure suit. He also had a basket across his arm instead of the gun, but he barely registered this in his rush of horror at the realization that he was about to be standing in a near-vacuum without any protection. He tried to hold his breath, even knowing that it wouldn't help. The awareness rushed over him that he was about to die horribly.

The door opened. Rather than nearly-instant death, a warm breeze washed across him.

Frank forgot to let out the breath he was holding. He just stared.

Instead of Kismet's barren desert, the scene that confronted him was a lush sweep of trees and small, colorful houses. A tiled courtyard appeared to surround the ship. The sky overhead was a rich, deep blue.

"Guido!" Frank squeaked, stumbling backwards. He was hallucinating. He'd hit his head so he was hallucinating. But in that case, why wasn't he writhing and suffocating on the ground? "Guido, help!"

"Here, boss."

The voice came from behind him. Frank swung around, and froze. There was no one there.

"Guido, are you trying to be funny?"

"Boss," said Guido's voice, "what happened to you?"

"What do you mean, what happened to me? What happened to you?"

"You grew," Guido said, sounding scared.

Frank wasn't sure if he'd ever heard that particular tone in Guido's voice before, and he didn't like it. Eventually, the thought occurred to him to look down. There was a black dog sitting at his feet, staring up at him with soulful dog eyes. It looked like some kind of terrier, or maybe a Doberman or something. Frank didn't know much about dogs.

The dog had a shock of red hair on top of its head.

"Hey there, mutt," Frank said. At the moment, talking to a dog was far less odd than some of the other things that had happened in the last thirty seconds. "You seen a two-meter guy in a three-piece suit around here?"

"Who you talkin' to, Boss?" the dog said.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Frank screamed.

What he screamed was: "Possessed dog!"

He brought up his gun, or thought he did, but all he succeeding in doing was holding the wicker basket out in front of himself. He went immediately into his backup plan, reaching for the small gun that he concealed under his skirt. His hand slapped some sort of rough-woven cloth. Cloth? He looked down and realized for the first time that he was wearing a short, white-and-blue-checked skirt.

Of all the indignities--As if it wasn't bad enough to be dead and hallucinating, he had to be dressed in something that looked like a Hadean schoolgirl's uniform.

The basket was heavy, and it clunked. Frank reached into it and his fumbling hand found solid, heavy steel. He drew out the gun with a sigh of relief and pointed it at the dog.

"Boss?" the dog said. "Whadya doin', Boss?"

"Killing you, freak of nature."

"Boss. It's me. Guido."

"No, it's not."

"Boss. I don't wish to argue with youse, but I know who I am."

Come to think of it, that voice ... there was something familiar about that voice ...

"Guido," Frank said, "if that is indeed who you are, look down."

The dog immediately pointed its snout at the floor.

"No. I mean look at yourself, nitwit." Frank lowered the gun a bit. It certainly acted like Guido ...

The dog shrieked. Yet another note that Frank had never heard in Guido's voice.

He lowered the gun all the way.

The dog turned an accusing, liquid-eyed stare on him, as only dogs can do. "What did you do, Boss?"

A third new tone. This was a red-letter day for Guido, as if turning into a dog didn't automatically make it a red-letter day. This time, he sounded vaguely disrespectful.

Frank kicked the dog. It yelped.

"Sorry, Boss."

"As well you should be." Frank turned around, back to the door and that weird, brightly colored world.

It was still there. And to make matters worse, while he'd had his back turned, the courtyard had filled up with three-foot-high Penroses.

Frank stared.

Penrose clones. No mistaking them. Except ... every Penrose clone he'd ever seen was almost as big as his bodyguards, strapping blond-haired farm boys, wearing grease-stained mech's coveralls. These Penroses were about as high as Frank's waist, and every one of them was wearing something fluffy and candy-colored that looked like it would go nicely on top of a cake.

Also, there had to be two hundred of them out there. Frank, like everyone else in Kismet, had no idea how many Penrose clones there actually were, but there couldn't possibly be that many.

Then the situation got immeasurably worse. They all broke into song.

"Ding dong, the Wicked Witch is dead!
Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
Ding dong, the Wicked Witch is--"


They didn't get any farther. Frank shrieked, in horror rather than fear this time, and swept his laser through the crowd, mowing down ten or twenty of the little freaks. Their high-pitched song turned into screams of pain and terror, and they tumbled over each other in their efforts to flee. In moments, the courtyard was empty except for the bodies.

"Well, that takes care of that." Frank stepped down to the courtyard, and tapped it experimentally with one toe. It seemed solid. He noticed that he was wearing nauseatingly cute little buckled shoes.

He raised his head and looked around at the bright sky, the courtyard, the technicolor backdrop of the houses.

"Guido," Frank said thoughtfully, "I think we're not in Kismet anymore."

Guido hopped down after him and immediately got his four legs tangled and went down on his snout. He whined.

Frank, ignoring his bodyguard's distress, walked cautiously around the ship. It had been nearly destroyed on impact; it looked as if it had dropped out of the sky. It was a miracle they were still alive.

He looked around himself and had a sudden, disturbing thought: what if they were actually dead? What if the afterlife was like a Gilbert and Sullivan musical? And since you were already dead, you probably couldn't even kill yourself to get away from it.

Frank shuddered. That way lay madness. He simply had to assume that this was an actual place, and there was some way out of it. The alternative was too horrible to bear thinking about.

He did find something halfway interesting on his circuit of the ship: a pair of feet sticking out from under it.

"Hey, Guido, come look at this."

The bodyguard trotted up. He seemed to be getting the hang of walking on all fours, though he still stumbled occasionally.

"Looks like a corpse, Boss."

"I know what it is, Guido. I think the ship fell on her. Or him."

All he could see of the corpse were a pair of thin legs encased in tasteless striped stockings, and a set of glittering red slippers. The shoes intrigued Frank; unlike anything else that he'd seen so far in this weird place, they actually had some semblance of style. He kicked off his little buckled pumps and tugged the red slippers off the dead woman's feet.

Immediately the legs rolled up like a pair of party noisemakers and disappeared under the ship.

Frank took a step backwards. He looked at Guido, who whined worriedly.

"There's something vaguely familiar about all of this," Frank muttered, donning the slippers. "We're getting out of here."

"Boss, I wonder if putting those on is really such a good idea considering what just--"

"Shut up, Guido."

Guido shut up, then pricked up his ears and raised his head, his moist snout quivering as he sniffed the air.

Frank raised the gun and looked where Guido was looking. A small point of light, like a softly glowing soap bubble, was drifting their way.

Frank shot it. The laser beam passed through, and it continued drifting their way, undamaged.

Guido whined and hid behind Frank's ankles, tail tucked between his legs.

Frank kept the gun trained on the soap bubble as it floated to a point level with his gaze, a few meters away. Then it burst, and a shower of light rained down around the figure standing where the soap bubble had been.

Frank raised an eyebrow at the sight of Fleetwood's gun-runner buddy Jackie Lobo, who he was pretty sure didn't even own a dress, wearing what looked like a frothy white wedding-cake ornament.

"That's a good look for you."

Jackie glared at him and waved her wand through the air, trailing pixie dust or something similar. "Look who's talking," she retorted, with a pointed look at Frank's gingham dress and slippers.

"Normally, I assure you, I am far more stylish than this," Frank snapped. "Someone appears to have stolen my clothes."

"Why would someone steal your clothes?"

"Why would someone kidnap me and drop me on another planet?" Frank retorted. He had decided that that's what must have happened, in spite of the fact that it made no logical sense. There were no other explanations. "Where am I, anyway? And keep that wand where I can see it, sister."

"I'm not an evil Witch. I am a good Witch."

"I don't care if you're a bad witch, a good witch, or a stupid bitch. I want to know where I am and how I got here."

"Oh, but surely you know how you got here! It really was no miracle." Jackie burst into song. "What happened was just this: the wind began to switch. Your ship began to pitch. And suddenly the landing gear started to unhitch. Just then, the Witch--to satisfy an itch--"

A laser blast to the face put a quick stop to that.

"Now that," Frank said, "was rich." He frowned. "Guido, why did I say that? There's something so familiar about all of this. I keep getting the weirdest sense of deja vu."

Guido attempted to shrug, but it didn't work very well on his dog body. He sat down on his haunches and vigorously scratched one ear.

"Great," Frank sighed. "Now I have a bodyguard with fleas." He looked around. "Well, I know one way to find out. All we have to do is find a Munchkin and torture the answer out of him--"

He paused.

"Munchkins! Guido, I know why all this seems so familiar. It's a holovid. Called, uh ... the something of something, or something like that."

Guido made a querulous whine.

"Yeah, I know it doesn't make much sense, but everything that's happened so far ... it's all in the vid." He looked down at his shoes. "And there's something about these shoes ... something important ... I wish I could remember what it was."

"Based on what we've seen so far, Boss," Guido said, "maybe they make your legs shrivel up like a couple of Twizzlers on a hot stove."

"Don't make me stomp on your head, Guido. I keep you around because you're useful, but at the moment you're about as useful as a screen door on a horse."

While Guido tried to puzzle out the meaning of his boss's metaphor, Frank strode across the courtyard.

"There's something we have to do here, Guido. I do remember that. Something to do with ... with bricks ... Yellow bricks!" He ran to the center of the courtyard (skipped, actually, but Guido was not about to point that out) and kicked a dead Munchkin out of the way. Sure enough, a yellow brick spiral wound its way outward.

Guido trotted up behind Frank. "We follow that, Boss?"

"Yes, Guido, we do. It's the way out. I think it's the way out, anyhow. I keep thinking there's something important I'm forgetting--"

"Who killed my sister?" a voice cried, behind Frank. "Was it you, little girl? Answer me!"

"Look, you damn Munchkin--" Frank snapped, whirling around.

But it wasn't a Munchkin. It was his ex-wife, Meg, in a long, ragged black dress and a pointed hat. At least this costume change was, in Frank's opinion, fairly appropriate.

Meg pointed a slim finger at him. "Did you kill her, my little pretty?"

"What did you call me?"

Guido growled, his hackles bristling.

Meg's eyes widened. "The slippers!" She took a step forward. Frank made a warning gesture with the muzzle of the gun, and she stopped.

"So there is something special about these things. Talk."

Meg glared at him. "I'll fix you, honey! I'll get my slippers back."

"You and what army?" Frank sneered.

"Foolish little girl! I am a Witch, one of the most --" She glanced at Jackie's corpse, and amended: "The most powerful Witch in the entire world."

Frank laughed. "Like that'll be any use against a fully charged SabreSide 220. Not to mention I have a bodyg--"

He looked down at Guido, who looked back up with his large, moist terrier eyes, and whined.

"Like I was saying," Frank finished, "I'm armed."

Meg shook her head and laughed harshly. "I can't attend to you here; I have no power in this place. But I'll get you, my pretty -- and your little bodyguard too!"

She vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Yeah, bring it on, bitch!" Frank yelled after her.

He sighed and tossed the basket, which he'd forgotten he was still holding, onto the nearest dead Munchkin. "Come on, Guido. We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of -- crap. Now I'm singing too." He shot one of the dead Munchkins to relieve his frustration. It didn't help much.

Off they went down the yellow brick road. Frank found, to his horror, that his hair was combed back into two long dark plaits, and unbraided it so that it fell loosely about his shoulders as usual. He kept having to stop himself from skipping. Guido padded along behind him, occasionally running off into the brush to investigate an interesting smell or lift his leg against a tree.

Before too long, they came to a fork in the road between two cornfields. Frank's bad mood was getting worse, as he was discovering that ruby slippers are lousy for long-distance walking, not to mention the fact that the shoes were about two sizes too small for his feet. He felt a world-class case of blisters coming on.

"Which way, Guido?" he asked the bodyguard.

"That way is a very nice way," said a voice from one of the cornfields. It wasn't Guido's voice, but it was extremely familiar nonetheless.

"Of course, it's pleasant down that way too," said the scarecrow hanging from a pole in the middle of the cornfield, pointing back the way they had come.

"I wondered when you'd show up, Fleetwood," Frank sighed.

Guido growled.

"You wouldn't mind lifting me down, would you?" Fleetwood asked. "After all, it's very tedious being stuck up here all day long with a pole up my ass."

"Up your--That does it. Come on, Guido."

"No, wait! Wait, dammit! Let me down! Have a heart! No, wait, that's the other guy ... Come on, I'm bored out of my skull up here!"

They marched on down one of the branches in the road, ignoring him.

"You're going the wrong way!" the scarecrow hollered after them.

Frank stopped. "You're lying."

"Maybe I am, maybe I'm not." The scarecrow smiled smugly. "You won't know until you let me down, will you?"

"Maybe I should just shoot you."

"Hah! Then you'll never find the Emerald City. You'll just wander in circles until you're forced to eat that little dog to stay alive."

Guido snarled.

Frank snapped his fingers. "Emerald City! That's what the damn place is called. You really know where it is?"

"Sure I do."

Frank fired in his general direction, but at the pole, not the scarecrow. Fleetwood toppled into the cornfield with a yell.

"Ow," came his voice from somewhere under the corn.

"You're down, aren't you?"

"Don't expect me to thank you for it," Fleetwood muttered. After some rustling, he emerged from the cornfield with straw sticking off his body at odd angles.

"If you start singing," Frank said, "I'll shoot you."

"No singing. Got it."

"So which way do we go?"

"The way you were going," Fleetwood said.

"Screw you."

"Can't. I'm stuffed with straw, not--"

"Shut up or I'll shoot you."

The road wound through the cornfields and into a forest. Frank, still remembering bits and pieces of the story, kept his eyes open for a gleam of metal. Eventually he spotted it, off to one side, among the trees.

"Uh ... road's this way," Fleetwood said as Frank veered off into the forest.

"Shut up. There's something interesting back here, but I forget what."

What they came across was certainly unusual: Linton 95, silver and shiny, standing frozen.

"Oh," Frank said. "My mistake. I thought it was something interesting."

"Oil ... can ..."

"You hear something?" Fleetwood said.

"Oil ... can ..."

"Yeah. It's him." Frank tapped his finger against Linton's metal torso. It rang hollowly.

"Stop ... that ..."

"Go tell it to someone who cares. Come on, Guido. You too, Fleetwood, I suppose."

"Oil ... can ...!"

"Leave him there?" Fleetwood said.

"What are we supposed to do with him? Carry him?"

"Oil ... can ..."

"Sounded like he said oil can."

"Oil can what? He's obviously delirious. I don't care what oil can or can't do. I have an Emerald City to find and a witch's ass to kick. Come on or stay here."

Fleetwood followed him, a bit reluctantly.

The forest grew denser and darker as they continued down the road. Frank had developed a distinct limp from the blisters on his heels.

"Creepy place," Fleetwood said, tossing a rock off the road into the gloom under the trees. "Wonder what lives in here?"

"Lions," Frank said, casting his mind back to the holovid he'd seen and remembering something about a lion.

"Lions?" Fleetwood said.

"And tigers?" Guido spoke up.

"And bears."

"Oh my," Guido said.

"Shut up or I'll put you both out of my mis--"

They all three jumped when a dark shape sprang out of the shadows onto the road in front of them, snarling and lashing its furry tail.

"All right, what the hell are you supposed to be?" Frank said wearily.

"I'm a lion. Grrrrrrr!"

"You look like a lion," Frank admitted, "but you don't sound like a lion. In fact, you sound like--" He looked around for the dog. "Guido! Here, boy! Go check him out!"

Guido scampered forward, tail wagging. "Seymour!"

"Guido?" the lion said. "Hey, bro! How long have you been a dog?"

"Ain't sure. Can't quite remember. I keep gettin' distracted--ooh, there's a rock I ain't pissed on yet." He scampered off.

"At least you're halfway sane," Frank said to the lion. "Wanna go see a wizard?"

"The Wonderful Wizard of--"

"Yes, yes, that's the one. Sing and I shoot you."

"You're testy today, Dorothy," Fleetwood said.

"Shut up or I shoot you, too."

"No singing?"

"No singing."

Eventually the forest thinned out and they were walking through a vast field of red flowers. The road wound through them like a golden ribbon under the great blue bowl of the sky. Frank, who had lived all his life on an airless moon, felt a twinge of agoraphobia. He felt as if the sky was about to suck him right out of his ruby slippers--as if he could fall right into it if he didn't find something to hold onto ...

He dragged his eyes down from the inverted blue dome overhead, and saw green spires on the horizon.

"There it is!" Fleetwood said. "The Emerald City."

"Peachy," Frank muttered. "The sooner we get there, the better."

"Pretty flowers," Seymour said, looking around.

"Stay away from them," Frank snapped. "There's something bad about them. I don't remember what, exactly, but they're evil."

Fleetwood stared off at the distant towers of the city. "Look at how the road loops around. We could make much better time if we just take a straight line through the middle of the field."

He started to step off the path.

"Didn't you hear a word I just said?" Frank snapped. "Do any of you people ever listen to me? Flowers? Evil? Ring any bells?"

"Come on, Frank. It's a poppy. What's it going to do, crawl up my leg and strangle me?"

"We would all be so lucky. And don't expect any help from me when it does."

Guido yawned and stretched his small body. "Boss, I could really use a rest right about now."

"Did you hear me give you permission to rest? Get your furry ass--" Frank interrupted himself with a jaw-cracking yawn.

"Wait a minute," he said, sitting down in the road with the gun in his lap. "I remember what these flowers do now. Shit!"

With that, he lay down and pillowed his head on his arm. The dog had curled up next to him, and the lion was sprawled across the road.

"What's wrong with you three?" Fleetwood asked.

"Flowers," Frank mumbled, yawning. "Makes you sleepy."

"I'm not sleepy."

"That's because ... doesn't affect you ... not human ... head ... full of straw ..."

"Well, no need to get personal," Fleetwood retorted.

Frank's only answer was a soft snoring.

Fleetwood sighed, and looked at them, then at the city on the horizon.

"Well, at least I can take you," he said, picking up the sleeping terrier. He started walking, straight through the flowers as he had started to do earlier.

The poppy belt was about a mile wide, and eventually the red flowers began to give way to grass. When he had left the poppies behind, Fleetwood laid the dog down on the grass.

Guido stretched and yawned. "Boss?"

"He's back there in the poppy field," Fleetwood said.

"Boss!" Guido started to scamper forward. Fleetwood grabbed him by the collar.

"Go any closer and it's naptime for you, furball. Remember?"

Guido struggled and snapped at him. "Well, go get the Boss!"

"A scarecrow's work is never done," Fleetwood sighed.

He returned, some time later, lugging the unconscious Frank. "Damned if I'm going back for the lion, though. You people can get your own damn lion."

He dumped Frank on the grass. Guido ran to him and started licking his face.

Frank stirred and opened his eyes.

"Ewwwwwwwww!"

He backhanded the dog hard enough to send it rolling across the grass. Guido tumbled until he managed to get his paws under himself.

"Guido," Frank said, sitting up and scrubbing at his face with both hands. "I never, never, not in a million years, would have thought that I'd ever have to make this clear, but obviously I should assume nothing where it involves the two of you. Never, under any circumstances, lick any part of my body ever again."

"Right, Boss." Guido was trying to clean his tongue with a paw.

"Where's my gun?" Frank demanded.

"What, it isn't enough that I drag you across two kilometers of poppies? You want your damned gun too?"

Frank fixed him with a piercing stare. "Yes."

Fleetwood stalked off into the poppy field, muttering obscenities under his breath.

When he returned, Frank was stretched out in the grass, his hair spread in a dark cloud around his head, enjoying the fact that he wasn't walking any more. Fleetwood threw the gun at him; it rebounded off his stomach.

"Ugh! Bastard."

"Payback for the cornfield." Fleetwood pointed at the city. "We going?"

They went.

Distances turned out to be rather deceptive in the thicker atmosphere, compared to Kismet's clear vistas. The city was much closer than it looked, and soon they were standing in front of the towering green gates.

Frank rapped on the gates with the butt of his gun. After a moment, a small hatch in the gate slid back. "Who is it?"

"Open this gate or I'll kill you," Frank said.

The hatch slammed shut.

"You're not a people person, are you?" Fleetwood said.

"Look, Pollyanna. I'm tired, I'm hungry, my feet hurt, and I'm stuck in a world full of singing Munchkins. If this is a dream, I prefer the ones where I'm being chased by a mob of angry stool pigeons."

Fleetwood knocked on the gates. After a moment, the hatch slid back, very reluctantly.

"Go away," said the voice from within.

"We're here to see the Wizard," Fleetwood said.

"The Wizard doesn't see anyone."

"I think he'll want to see us." Fleetwood nodded to Frank. "Show him your feet."

Frank gave him a look of disbelief. "What kind of pervert do you think I am, Fleetwood?"

"Show him the slippers, you dolt."

Frank gave him a look that promised infinite pain later, and raised his foot. The ruby slipper flashed in the sun.

"The ruby slippers? Why didn't you say so?" the doorman cried, opening the gates for them. As they stepped inside, Frank noticed--without much surprise, anymore--that the doorman was Jude Hawkins, gesturing them inside with his mechnical hand.

They stepped into a bustling city street. Something was not quite right about it, and after a moment Frank figured out what was wrong: there were no electrical vehicles anywhere. Everyone was either walking, or riding in horse-drawn carriages.

"Give you folks a ride?" a woman's voice inquired. Frank turned to see Colette Novak waving at them cheerily, perched on the driver's seat of a small carriage drawn by a single horse.

"Yeah," said Frank, swinging the gun into position. "Take us to see the Wizard or I'll--"

Fleetwood kicked him in the shin. "We're here to see the Wizard. Can you take us there?"

"I can take you to his palace. I can't promise that he'll see you, though."

"Well, you'd better promise--"

"Shut up, Frank. Just take us there, Colette, and we'll deal with the rest."

She smiled. "Hop in, then."

Frank made his way nervously by the horse. He'd never been this close to one of the beasts before. As he edged past its haunches, the horse's pale green color faded into a washed-out mauve.

"Interesting horse," Fleetwood said as they climbed into the back of the carriage. Frank lifted Guido onto the seat.

Colette laughed. "Why, that's the Horse of a Different Color, strangers! Surely you've heard of it."

"Nope," Frank said shortly.

She laughed again:

"Ha, ha, ha,
Ho, ho, ho,
And a couple of tra-la-las.
That's how we laugh the day away
In the Merry Old Land of--"


Colette broke off her singing when she became aware of the struggle in the backseat, involving Frank, Fleetwood and the gun. Guido yapped with excitement.

"Is everything all right back there, strangers?"

"Oh, fine, fine," Fleetwood gritted through clenched teeth, holding down Frank. "Just don't sing, please."

"Your friend isn't a music lover?"

"You could say that, yes. Oof! Stop struggling, bastard."

Colette let them out in front of the palace, refusing Fleetwood's offer of payment. She snapped the reins over the horse's back--it was now powder blue--and drove off into the crowd.

"Well, well," Fleetwood said cheerfully, mounting the steps. "Hi, Taz. Silang."

"Hi yourself," the taller of the two gate guards greeted him.

Frank pushed his way past his unwanted traveling companion. "Here to see the Wizard. Move or die."

"I'm sorry, stranger; that isn't--"

ZAP.

As Taz keeled over with a small, smoking laser hole in her forehead, Frank cleared his throat. "I believe we've mentioned we're here to see the Wizard?"

Silang emitted a tiny squeak of terror and opened the door to the palace before fleeing. Fleetwood kicked Frank in the shin again.

"Ow! Now what?"

"Way to make a kid cry, you ass."

"Look, I've wasted a few dozen Munchkins already, and at this point I'll happily kill every last tra-la-la-ing Sondheim wannabe in this town in order to find the way out. You coming?"

After hunting around the palace for a while, and threatening a couple of servants, they located the Wizard's audience chamber. Frank led the way into a stone room, large and long, with a throne at one end and a curtain hanging beside it. Smoke and fire billowed up from the throne, and a voice boomed through the chamber:

"Behold, for I am the great and powerful Wizard of AAARGGHHH!"

Frank had shot through the curtain.

"Wizard of Aargh?" Fleetwood said.

"I may have slept through most of the holovid, but I do remember this part," Frank snapped. He nudged aside the curtain, stifling a small qualm: considering the way the rest of this dream or whatever it was had been going, he was a bit nervous at who this might turn out to be.

To his relief, it was only the snitch that he'd shot earlier that same day--if this was indeed still the same day.

"Full circle," Frank muttered. Then he whacked himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. "Shit! That's what I forgot. The damn slippers."

"Uh, hate to break into whatever arcane thoughts are going through your pointy little head," Fleetwood said, "but we'd better get out of here before they show up and discover that you just killed their king."

"Oh, I'm leaving all right," Frank said. "I don't care what you two do."

Guido left off sniffing at the corpse to ask, "Where are you goin', Boss?"

"Home, if there is a God." He took a deep breath. "All right, you two. Look away or I'll blow your heads off."

Fleetwood grinned. "I have no idea what you're going to do, but it definitely sounds like something I'll want to watch."

"I said look away." Frank raised the gun and aimed it between his eyes.

"What if I don't?"

Frank felt a brief pang of regret, reminded himself that it was only a dream, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

He looked at the charge indicator and discovered that the weapon was fully discharged. The shot that had killed the Wizard was probably the last shot the batteries had had in them.

Frank tossed the gun over his shoulder; it clattered on the paving stones. "Oh, forget it. Laugh your head off."

He stood on his tiptoes, so that he could swing the heels of the shoes, and tapped them together three times with the careful precision of a beginning ballet student practicing a new move. Then he closed his eyes and muttered, "There's no place like home. No place like home. No place like home ..."

He heard Fleetwood dissolve into peals of laughter, and Guido said, "Boss?"

Frank opened his eyes.

"Boss!"

Guido moved back. Frank stared up at the ceiling overhead, then tilted his head, provoking a wave of dizziness. He caught a glimpse of rocky moon and star-spangled sky from the ship's viewport.

"Boss! You okay?"

"Where are we?" Frank asked, a bit dazed, as Guido helped him sit up.

"We're right outside Kismet, Boss. I set down the ship once we got past the slide area. You've only been out for a few minutes. You musta been dreamin' ... you were mumbling."

Frank looked at him sharply. "What was I mumbling?"

Guido looked away. "Oh ... nothin' much ..."

"Whatever you heard me say, Guido, you know what'll happen to you if you ever mention it to anyone."

"Right, boss."

Frank made his way to the viewport and stared out at the austere moonscape. The lights of Kismet twinkled softly in the dusk. He drew a deep breath and let it out. No more singing Munchkins. No more blue sky and bright-colored little houses. No more watching Guido lick his privates in public -- scratch them, maybe, but that was about it.

Very softly, under his breath, Frank Bernetti muttered: "No place like home."



Author's Notes: This story was originally written with a number of different people in the dream roles, and was updated in 2007 with the newer cast. The original dream cast:

Good Witch: Anoris (a character who no longer exists) - now Jackie
Bad Witch: Shar Mustafa (ditto) - now Meg
Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Lion are all the same.
Doorman: Dusty Winters - now Jude
Carriage driver: Elaine Jaeger - now Colette. Even though Dusty and Elaine *are* still Kismet characters, they haven't really appeared in the comics yet, so I decided to use some who'd been in "Hunter's Moon" instead.
Palace guards: Dexter and Sinister Herald - now Taz and Silang. Ditto on the "still in Kismet, haven't been used yet". Sinister owns the Kismet paper; his brother's a coroner.




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