10100: Al

So, when I said that Azeroth wanted us gone, I meant, like, then and there; right the heck NOW. There was just every kind of natural and magical disaster that you could imagine, pushing us northward off of the map, basically. Out of Panderia and smack into 'Here be Dragons'.

Or anyways, underneath all of that, out of Fort Smith and into Fayetteville, which had a whole different creepy scenario going on. It wasn't a smooth transition, though. World of Warcraft sort of faded and shredded away on us, leaving John and me sometimes at the edges of Azeroth, and sometimes (me alone) back in the quiet, still, normal- verse.

When John flickered and disappeared, that first time, and when Harley went back to being just a regular motorcycle… I was a little, y'know… kind of surprised. But I got over it pretty quickly. I mean, NPCs… giant riding hogs… they come and go, right? No hard feelings, just because I thought we bonded over battle and pig snacks, or something.

So, right; there I was, back on the road again, riding a big, rumbling bike north along Highway 71. The sun was rising off to my right, which meant that we must have spent a whole night in Azeroth…and didn't get killed. Not bad, I was thinking.

Of course, I still had to figure out where to go next, and what to do with the Root- Blade when I got there, but hey; time for a Twizzler and a pat on the back, I was thinking. Go, me.

Only thing that bugged me was how my mom and dad and Lin- C were doing, and what the phone stalkers were going to do when they found out that I'd taken the weapon, but wouldn't play ball. Someone, Gamelord, I think, had said that this VR overlay wasn't supposed to last more than a day. Like, it was the free trial subscription that gets you hooked, but then you have to spend money if you want to unlock new quests and get better gear, and stuff. Except that the same weirdos who were leaning on me using Lin- C and my folks for bait, had screwed things up, big time. They rigged the VR overlays to last 'indefinitely', which is pretty close to forever, in my book.

Okay, I like video games, but even I could see how that would be dangerous. I mean, no one was going to get anything done. The world would just shut down and stop functioning while everybody was sunk into Azeroth or Hyrule, playing for their lives. And what about the kids? Who was taking care of the babies and pets while all this was going on? Not cool.

So, next thing the villains had done was to make a waay OP death sword (the Root- Blade) hand it over and then point me at the net gods, like: Go get 'em! We're behind you all the way, Dude! Only the gods knew all about it, so they made contact, explained what was going on, and sent me a pretty cool NPC to hang out and do battle with. Which, yeah… I mean… what now?

Head to the nearest city, I figured. They needed good internet coverage if they wanted to talk to me, so my job was to find some. I stopped a couple of times on my way north, once at a gas station, and once at McDonalds. Both times, the place was real quiet, with the few people left behind just slumped on the floor, staring at their flickering devices. They looked like zombies, only they couldn't care less about brains. Which, y'know… Great.

I paid for gas (had to leave my money on the counter) and then pumped Harley's tank full of the good stuff; premium unleaded. Her engine had a different sound, after that, and she actually turned herself on, after I saddled up. Maybe we were getting close enough to Fayetteville to get free wireless, or something? I dunno, but it felt good to not be completely alone anymore.

McDonalds was another whole thing. Obviously, nobody was taking any orders, and if I wanted a double quarter pounder with cheese meal, I was going to have to go back there and make it, myself. Yeah. I would like to report great success in the kitchen, but really I just ended up with some buns, a couple of stale cheese slices, ketchup and a handful of slightly wilted, shredded lettuce. Not my most shining moment in the kitchen, for reals. Almost made me miss that stringy wolf meat. At least, there was still Coke, and special sauce…

So Harley and me, we set off again. Funny thing about crossing back into 'Oz', though, it's just like the movies. All at once, everything goes all colorful, sound- tracked, and realer than real, if you know what I mean. You can feel yourself pass from the regular world, where it's all chaotic, and anything could happen, to the VR universe, where there's levels, objectives and rules. I mean, you can see the attraction, right? You always know what's up, in a video game, or if things get really bad, you can always look up an online play- through.

It was getting dark already, 'cause I drive kind of slow. Dude, it's all about the journey, not the destination. You gotta relax and enjoy life, plus not get killed on the freeway. Somebody ancient said that, once, and it's my new mantra. Anyway, with darkness falling, and Fayetteville just visible on the northern hilltops, the world went 'Whump', again, and I was back in Toon Town, so to speak.

Not a medieval setting, this time around. More like a dark, grungy city with shady characters sliding through the alleys, and beautiful, sad ladies wearing lots of makeup hanging around the street corners. One of them wanted to go on a date with me, but I was kind of busy at the time, plus saving my money, so… nuh-uh.

Harley had changed, again. She wasn't a razorback hog, though; just a really old- fashioned motor bike with a dopey- looking sidecar attached. And me? I was wearing some kind of tan duster over a nice, dark grey suit. I mean, too good for Church, even. And I never wear suits!

Someone was waiting for me on the next street corner. Not another worn- out lady offering negotiable comfort and lulz, either. It was John, again, wearing some kind of tan uniform. He was still skinny and blond, but not an elf, anymore. I pulled over to the curb, probably grinning like an idiot.

"Hey," he said, lifting a hand.

"S'up, man?" I responded, sort of putting my own hand out to high five, all casual. We did that quick, hand- slap, finger hook thing, and let go. "Where you been?"

"Exploring," he told me, climbing into the no- longer- so- stupid side car. Harley bounced a little. She must have been glad to see him, or something, because, dude… John don't weigh that much.

"What'd you find out?" I asked, as we pulled away from the street corner. Lights were coming on all over the city, but they didn't do much to brighten things up. Just made all those shadows seem deeper, somehow.

"It's Gotham," he said. Which, duh… I should have picked up on, myself. From all those gargoyles and crap on the buildings, if nothing else. And the sirens, the distant screams, the gunfire…

"Well, at least we know who's in charge," I said, trying to sound on top of things.

"Maybe not," said John, pulling a folded newspaper out of his olive- drab duffle bag. Turning the paper, he showed me a ginormous headline.

BATMAN RETIRES!

….it howled. Oh. Great. Didn't sound like the criminals were taking a day off. Was he even allowed to do that?

You know how they say, "don't text and drive"? Yeah. Let me just add that reading the paper while riding a motor bike isn't one of life's better choices, either. We jumped the curb, scattered some businesswomen and knocked over a garbage can, but hey, no harm done. Mostly.

After apologizing and tipping the ladies, I found us a diner called 'Pop's Good Eats'. Seriously…? Who writes this stuff, and what is he smoking?

The place was mostly empty, except for a couple of off- duty cops nursing coffee and cigarettes. The guy behind the counter was a little overweight, like they always seem to be, in Gotham City. He was also polishing a glass, almost the entire time. Like, no kidding, this one stupid glass. Funny how that crap doesn't bother you in the middle of a video game, but it sure is irritating when you're living it out.

I ordered a coke and a BLT because, bacon. Need I say more? John got the ham and cheese sandwich, with a beer.

"Sure thing, Lieutenant," said the counterman. "Nothing's too good for one of our boys." Then, smiling warmly at me, "Having fun with your big brother, while he's on leave, kiddo?"

Yeah. He said that. What made it worse was John leaned over and actually mussed up my hair. Jacktard. Now I remember why he gets on my nerves…

"He sure is. Gotham's his first big city. We're from Arkansas."

Then they got into this big conversation about overseas and how the war effort was going, and crap like that. Even the cops joined in, reminiscing about, like, the Trojan War, or something. I hate it when people talk over my head, like I'm not there! Dude! I don't look that young, do I?

So I growled something insulting (very quietly), and then took my sandwich, coke and the newspaper over to an empty booth so I could read in dignified peace.

"So nice to see modern youth taking an interest in current events. Why, in my day, blah, blah, blah…" was the last thing I heard for a while. On the other hand, the paper was seriously unnerving. Don't know what John was picking up, but here's what I read:

BATMAN RETIRES!

Gotham City, evening edition: All the news that's fit to print.

Ladies and gentlemen of fair Gotham, it has come to this reporter's attention that Batman, the storied, nay, legendary defender of our stately polis, has declared his intention to cease all vigilante activity on behalf of the city, state and borough of Gotham.

How is this possible, you may exclaim (as, indeed, did I). Who will defend us from such crazed criminal fiends as the Joker, Two Face, the Riddler, Scarecrow and Catwoman? (See below.)

Truly a rogue's gallery. Some dead, or incarcerated, others still very much on the loose, and considered extremely dangerous. If seen, do not attempt to confront.

Yet, what other choice have we? To whom may we turn, as villains proliferate with impunity and heroes take their ease, while crime goes unchecked in the heart of America's greatest city? Where, oh where, is the Caped Crusader? According to Commissioner James Gordon, of the Gotham City Municipal Police Department…

…And so on. Okay, the guy's writing style was a little old- fashioned, but he had a point; you can't just run around inspiring the formation of weird, sicko super- villains, and then up and quit. Bro, it's your job. Suck it up, Sunshine, as my dad likes to say.

I had just finished my BLT (so much better than stale cheese dunked in ketchup and special sauce), when something small and shiny crashed through Pop's plate glass window and hit the floor, rolling under a booth. We all started up from our seats, looking like, "huh?!" And then that shiny brass can- looking thing started jetting out clouds of green gas.

One of the cops grabbed counterman, and threw him out the back door, while the other hit his radio, shouting for backup. I opened my mouth to yell, but the gas was getting pretty thick in there, and it was really hard to breathe, much less see. My eyes and throat were burning like crazy.

Somebody grabbed hold of my arm and started hauling me toward the back of the diner. John, I thought. Anyways, I got stuffed under one of the booth tables, out of sight. That's when I saw this shadowy silhouette kick in the rest of the plate glass street window. Looked like he was holding some kind of tommy gun, but again, my vision was worse shot than the torn- up diner.

None of this should have been funny, y'know? Only, all of a sudden, I got all relaxed and wanted to giggle my butt off. Two more shadowy gunmen appeared behind the first one, spraying the diner with bullets that stitched long rows of holes in the floor and the walls. They were wearing clown masks, I noticed, before everything went totally nuts. There was yelling and smoke, shattering glass and wild ricochets, the squawking crackle of an abandoned police radio, and over it all this long, insane, cackling laugh.

"Wah- ha- haaaa, HEE! Heh- heh- hah! Eh- eh- eh- eh- eh- eh- HEEEEEE!"

Then, in this scary weird sing- song tone, a man's voice called out,

"AAAaaaaAAllll! Oh, Al….! Where are you? A little, hooded bird told me you'd be headed this way, Aaaaallll! Where are you with that great, big nasty poin-ty thing?"

I was trying hard not to bust out laughing and give myself away, but the dang gas was making it all feel so easy and fun. All I wanted to do was roll around, giggling along with the funny voice. Don't know how I managed, (maybe because John had a chokehold on my throat, or something) but I never made a sound.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are….!" Said the funny guy, who fired his weapon for a long time after that. Must've used up the whole clip, or something. I got a pretty good look at the guy, then, seeing green hair, red lips, a chalk- white face and crazy eyes. The Joker.

"You can't hide forever, you know. I'll fiiiiiiind you!"

He did something to a button on his jacket, and this big flower on his lapel started whirling like a fan. Looked hilarious, and started to clear all up the gas and dust.

"All of the other Jokers in all of the other worlds are part of me, now. Isn't that nice? It's just one, big happy family, in here!" His voice dropped for a moment, then, as the Joker added, "Did you know, Al, that if you teach the voices in your head to sing, you'll never need an iPod? It's true! Of course…" He paused a second, pivoting to glare at one of his henchmen, who was noisily poking around behind the counter. "Of course, there's always one IDIOT who can't carry a TUNE!" And, just like that, he shot the guy; ten million times, it seemed like. I bit my lip, hard, just to keep quiet. Like, the blood started running down my chin. When the dust and gun smoke cleared, he started chatting, again.

"I'm sorry about that, Al. Truly, I am. Of course, I'm opposed to violence, on the grounds that dead men neh-VER, eh-VER… LAUGH!"

And then he leapt like a skinny, tall puppet with jangling strings, landing just across from our booth, facing the other way. John had gotten an arm free and was inching a hand toward his duffle bag. Probably had some kind of weapon in there, which was when I remembered the Root- Blade. Not even the Joker could stand up to that… Right?

"Knock- knock," crooned the weird, crazy clown, as I reached inside my suit jacket. There were straps and buckles and bulges in there that I only felt since being thrown to the floor and half- strangled. A shoulder holster. It had to be.

"Uh… who's there?" piped up the Joker's last remaining thug.

"Not YOU, you MORON!" Screamed the clown, swinging his tommy gun around to face the shuddering henchman. That guy didn't go down so easy. He ducked, hit the ground and came up shooting, actually scoring a hit on the Joker's right sleeve. Blood blossomed like a crazy flower, but the Joker kept right on smiling. Also, shooting.

While all of this was going on, I found the, um… Root- Pistol, and yanked it out of my leather shoulder holster.

The Joker must have sensed it, because he shot the last thug and then, slowly, turned to face me and John. Don't know if all NPCs are as cold- blooded as mine, but John aimed and fired three times, point blank. Hit the Joker dead on, too. Only the guy didn't fall. Instead, covered with blood, he started laughing, again.

"AAAAaaaahhhh- ha- ha- haaaaah- ha! Mwa- hah- heeee! You didn't wait for my punchline, dear boy! Now, try AGAIN!"

With some kind of crazy strength, the Joker reached over and ripped the bolted- down table out of our booth, hurling it all the way across Pop's diner, where it bounced, crashed and then settled. John shot him again and again, not stopping till he'd emptied the clip of his gun.

"Knock- knock!" Said the Joker, leaning down close.

"Who's there?" I grunted, twisting my shoulder to come between John and the psycho. I had the Root- Pistol. He had a paper- weight.

The Joker's face was so close that his bulging veins and big yellow teeth seemed to take up the whole world.

"Uncle!" He crowed, enjoying himself.

"Um… Uncle who?"

"Unnn- killable, thanks to all my new selves! Get it? Get it?
I guess the Joker thought it was hilarious, because he bent all the way over and slapped both his thighs, laughing so hard. A couple of things happened, then. John tried to tackle the world's evilest, least funny clown. Harley, parked outside, began revving her engine and beeping like mad. And then those non- stop Gotham sirens started closing in on the diner from every direction at once.

"Oh, CRAP!" I yelled, as the Joker seized John by the throat and lifted him off of his feet. Got to give the guy credit, though; he managed to score a pretty hard crotch kick. Anybody else would have dropped him. Guess all those extra selves were absorbing that damage, too.

The Joker just 'tsk'ed' like a disappointed uncle, and gave him a shake.

"Now, now, Mr. Tracy! I know someone who's very interested in meeting you. I did promise… and I do, really, try to keep my promises. Mostly. Sometimes. When I feel like it." And then, he started to squeeze.

I jumped up out of the booth with the Root- Pistol held steady, cupped in both hands, like the police do, on TV.

"Drop him!" I yelled, trying not to sound like Al, the really scared kid.

The Joker turned to look at me and cocked his head. Then he flipped John around, super- fast, so that the half- conscious NPC was facing me.

"Or what?" Said the Joker, giving my friend another, almost playful, little shake. "You'll risk destroying him forever, by firing that wonderfully awful little toy, right at us both? I've heard better plans, Al. And frankly, my dear…" he leaned in real close, again; close enough to hit me with spit. "I don't think you've got what it takes."

"Whu… what about Batman?" I demanded, just to keep him talking. The police were coming, right? Someone was coming… they had to be. That's how these things worked!

"What about him? He's retired, haven't you heard, Sonny? He's left me, poof! Just like that!"

"Bet that's driving you crazy," (Well… crazy- er.) "I mean, no Batman? Seriously? What's it all about, then? Why even bother?"

The Joker's shoulders started to shake, as that venomous, fun- house laugh of his began boiling over, again.

"Are… are you t- trying… psychology?! Beh- heh- heh- heee! You? You, sonny boy?"

"No, Joker," said a cold and quiet new voice. "He's killing time. It's called a stall tactic."

The killer clown jerked around suddenly, almost lowering John enough for me to risk a shot. There wasn't enough room between them, though. I didn't quite dare to try it.

Hoping that Batman had signed up for one of those 'Human Growth Hormone Youth Miracles' and that he was here to kick some scrawny clown butt, I turned to see who was talking.

Rising fluidly from a low, feral crouch, the Watcher in the Night got to his feet. He was tall, cloaked and masked, and he radiated fear like a dense graveyard fog. Batman.

"Turn yourself in, Joker. I'll take you back to Arkham. You're the last detail. Once you're put away, I'm through. It's over."

The clown's savage grin widened, and his crazy eyes looked like they were about to pop from his head.

"Batty!" He called, tossing John aside like a used dish towel. "You made it! Sorry about the mess, but you know how henchmen are… no respect for the plight of the working man's lunch counter!" Leaning forward, he added, sotto voce, "I go through three or four dozen a week, you know. Young people these days! No work ethic. Not like that Robin, of yours… what was his name, now? Jaaasonnnn… that's right. Cute little fellow, trying so hard to escape with dear mummy from my big old bomb. He was a real trooper, right to the end. Yep, Batty, ol friend… that's Jason Todd… all over!" And then, having set up that sick, awful joke, the clown started laughing again. At the same time, he pulled another gun; a pistol, this time.

"It's no use, Joker," said Batman, stalking forward like a cat; low and mean. "I'm not going to kill you. I'm going to take you back to your cell again, where you can get the help you need."

"Like poor, dear Jaaaasonnn? Did he get help, Bats? Did he?! Or were you too busy getting a kitten down out of a tree to bother with us? Maybe playing footsie with Superman? I know how you like men in tight shorts!" He fired point blank at Batman, but missed, because, quite suddenly, his old enemy just wasn't there.

I could see and hear a whole swarm of squad cars racing our way, lights flashing, sirens screaming. Trouble is, what could they do? What could anyone do? Even I didn't dare to use the Root- Pistol, and risk erasing a lurking, half- seen Batman.

Desperate for ideas, I looked wildly around. Somehow, John had gotten up again, and now he was signaling at me. After a second, I got what the NPC was saying, and I signaled back: Yeah. Let's do this.

Joker, meanwhile, was still trying to worm his way under Batman's skin.

"Here's one for you, Batty: What color were Jason Todd's eyes? Blue! Get it? One blew this way, one blew that way! HAAAAA- hah- ha- HAH!"

Batman leapt from the darkness, and busted that psycho right in the face. And, dang! Even from a distance, that felt good! Didn't shut the Joker up, though. Instead, he kept on laughing, spraying blood and teeth all over the place. Until he healed up again, anyway… In the meantime, John crouched down and slid something to me across the floor, literally between Joker's feet. After a second, I skated something back over. Neither Batman nor Joker seemed to notice. Instead, the clown stalked around Pop's diner, stabbing at darkness and vengeance.

"Then there's poor, dear Barbara Gordon… a real high roller these days, isn't she, Bats? Where were you, that time, hmmm? Off having fun with the Super Friends? Tell me the truth, Batty," he hissed at the shadows, breathing fast and grinning like a shark, "Have you dramatically failed to rescue anyone else, lately, or are you too busy ignoring the city's crime problem?"

Batman reappeared and lashed out again, sweeping the Joker's legs out from under him with an acrobatic circle kick. He was getting old, though, and just half a hair slower than multiverse Joker. The clown hit the floor, then sprang upright again, like one of those weighted toy punching bags.

He'd ditched his gun by now and pulled a knife; a big, ugly switch blade, streaked with old stains. Only rust, I hoped.

"Come closer, Bats. I'd like to see your eyes while we finish this. That's what it's always been about, hasn't it? You… and me? It'll never… NEVER be over!"

Batman lunged at him, ducked under a knife thrust, and surged upward with a thundering punch to the gut. Joker's breath whooshed out and he went flying across the room, striking the lunch counter so hard that his neck broke. CRACK ! Actually snapped. Only he still didn't go down. Instead, the Joker seized his own head with two hands, and wrenched it back into place with this God- awful popcorn noise. And he kept on laughing.

"Nice try, Batty… but I'm the whole multiverse, now. I've got a million of 'em!"

They closed again; punching, stabbing, kicking and clubbing each other with debris. Only problem was, Batman was getting the worst of it. As far as I could tell, there was only one of him, in there, and that one old dude was getting his butt kicked. Messily. Down on one knee, he was gasping hoarsely and looked like being finished, soon.

"This is it, Bats…!" Joker told him, repeatedly flipping the switchblade. "The moment we've all been waiting for. Now, smile for the nice people!"

That's when we used the plan.

"Hey, Joker!" I shouted, aiming a gun at the laughing clown. He barely noticed; just gave me a quick wave.

"Later, Sonny. Adults are talking."

So I tried something different, something that was sure to get his attention.

"Knock- knock!" I said, in a loud, bouncy voice.

The Joker stopped advancing on his prey and turned very slowly to look at me, face lighting up with this unearthly grin.

"Whooooo's theeeeeEEEeeeRe?" he whispered.

"Bullet," replied John, standing up to fire the Root Pistol, straight at the Joker's head. He was holding the deadly weapon with one of the slaughtered thug's bloodied jackets, and his face was totally, absolutely calm.

The Joker's eyes shot wide open. Almost, he looked betrayed… like nobody else but Batman was allowed to finish him off. Then the Joker began to collapse in on himself, glowing and riffling like a deck of burning cards being shuffled by the gods. The worst part was, he didn't scream. He whispered, one last time: "It's been a real blast, Bats!" and then just laughed and laughed like a bitter multitude, slowly peeling down to one cracked voice, and then sputtering silence and nothingness. Just, gone. All across the multiverse, gone. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

It was a pretty horrible thing to watch, to tell the truth. But, you know… to quote my Uncle Clark, who's a great philosopher: That guy needed some killin'. Unfortunately, Batman didn't seem to agree.

"No!" He shouted furiously, hurling himself at John. "I don't ever kill!"

John had already dropped the Root Pistol like it was radioactive, fanged and had head lice. He didn't try to dodge or defend himself, either, trusting, I guess, that Batman wouldn't go too ape- crap nutso.

Batman grabbed John by the uniform shirt like he meant to beat him senseless. I guess doing nothing was exactly the right response, though, because after a second the furious hero got hold of himself and let go. Reaching up, he pulled the cowl off of his head and let it drop to the ground, revealing an old, tired, battle scarred man; one who'd just lost his main driving force.

"This isn't the way I wanted it to be over," he whispered hoarsely, as the cops started cautiously poking their heads through the shattered glass window. "This isn't how it was supposed to be. He could have gotten help. He could have been cured."

"Um… no. Not really," I told him, shaking my head and wiping the blood off of my bitten lip with a dirty shirt sleeve. "Having played all these games and watched all the videos, Sir… there's just no way to cure the Joker. But he got his wish…"

"For him," John summed up, "it's finally over."

Tangentially far away, in a small, pocket universe:

Leaning quite close to the dramatic scene in her 'code window', the tall fairy smiled indulgently, stroking a dark- feathered bird that was perched on her shoulder.

"They're doing well, Odin, aren't they? One down, and just three more to go. And, should one of my remaining 'allies' actually finish the dear boys… well, then. We'll be right there to pick up the pieces, and the sword, with a sweet little hero of our own…"

Smiling at her own cleverness, Maleficent turned gracefully away from the window. Just behind her, in a deep, rocky alcove, was what looked very much like a giant green ice crystal. Inside, seemingly trapped in the act of leaping forward, were a wolf- like dog and fierce young girl.

"Do not despair, my pet," purred the tall fairy, gliding nearer. Though frozen between breath and scream, leap and strike, possibly forever, the eyes of the two in the crystal were alive with pain and anger. "You shall meet your handsome young Al, soon enough. And then, my dear… Why, then… you shall destroy him."

A thought which made the dark fairy laugh long and softly, for there was nothing she enjoyed as much as a well- laid plan. Only, what she didn't detect was a faint, rebellious white glow flickering within the girl's sleeve, deep in that seemingly rock- solid crystal.

Sapporo, Japan, after a truly frantic evening:

How could she have allowed Kita wa Hoshi to take complete control like that, Kara wondered? How? Was she not in charge of this fictional character?

Too upset to finish her dinner, Takashi Kiko begged off sick, bowed to her exasperated anime parents, and then headed once more upstairs.

Very desperately, Kara needed to transform and rejoin her Zodiac Guards, who were out there cleaning up the latest space monster mess. Only, her parents were still suspicious, and would doubtless check her room often, this night. How to escape without being detected?

"Allow me," said Ryoushi, appearing like a bad dream after tainted food. Bowing in the air above her bedroom floor, the Hunter waved his black- gloved hand and conjured an image of Kiki, comfortably curled up in bed. The fresh- scrubbed school girl had braided blue hair and wore soft flannel bunny pajamas. Her chest rose and fell with the even, deep drafts of sleep. In fact the illusion seemed perfect. Embarrassingly so, actually.

Kara lifted her head. Steadfastly, she refused to consider how Ryoushi knew what her pajamas looked like, or how he'd found his way into her bedroom so easily. She did have a few other questions, though.

"What if they call my name, or try to wake me up?" she asked him.

"That's the best part," laughed Orion the Hunter. "What you see is an unborn spirit, not just a simulacra. For the chance to enjoy human shape for a night, it will gladly hide your absence."

"Um. Thank you, Ryoushi… I think. Just stay away from Shishi for a while, please! He needs time to get over what happened."

The Hunter smiled broadly. Perhaps, annoying trickster that he was, he even intended to listen.

"Not a word or a hint of me, Fair Princess. In fact, you won't even know I'm along."

Kara sighed. What to do about Ryoushi? Three selves struggled for mastery inside the young girl, who tried to form a coherent response to this smiling intruder. There was Kita wa Hoshi Hime, Princess North Star, who found him annoying and arrogant, and… yes, more than a little attractive. There was Takashi Kiko (Kiki), the bubble- headed school girl, who was openly thrilled by all the attention and compliments. And, there was Kara Carter, thirty- eight years old, married to Jordan and mother to Al. For her, the Hunter was something of an embarrassment, as if one of her son's deeply smitten school friends had suddenly declared his passion while Jordan was away at a game conference.

There could be no true consensus between these three. Besides which… she absolutely needed his help. So,

"Thank you, Ryoushi," said the princess, turning rather stiff and prim. "Sometimes, you can be a good friend… when you aren't behaving as a disreputable rascal, that is."

Ryoushi chuckled and began to rise in the air, again.

"Ah, but Kita," he said, bowing and making a heart sign with both hands. "That's when you like me best!"

Then he faded away to a tiny collection of brilliant motes which swirled in the air and then settled, forming (from one angle, at least) the constellation Orion. But, you had to be looking just right. Otherwise, the shining red and gold and blue- white motes would seem to be part of Kita's Star Power aura. He was present, but out of the way. Progress of sorts, she supposed.

Before heading out, Kara took another swift look around the room, then opened her flimsy sliding door and listened closely. The TV was on downstairs, and she could hear water running for dishes. All clear.

Cautiously, she eased out into the hallway, careful not to tread on the hall's two 'singing boards'. But…

"KIKO!" thundered her father, who was listening for such things, downstairs, and perhaps had even placed cameras.

"Otearai!" the girl chirped hastily, taking a few exaggerated steps toward the small upstairs bathroom. Then she slipped into the alcove of her parent's room where Aiko slept in a crib. The little angel was curled up in a duck- printed orange onesie, deeply asleep, a thumb tucked loosely in her rosebud mouth.

Reassured, Kara leaned over and gave her adopted baby sister a gentle kiss, breathing deeply of that sweet scent that babies alone possess. Blinking back tears, Kara straightened up again and turned to go.

Little Naoki and Toshi were already asleep and tossing with dreams in the small room that they shared at the end of the hall. It was cold in there, naturally, as the Takashi household, like most in Hokkaido, was poorly insulated. The twin boys were shivering in their footed pajamas, huddled together under a fuzzy blue blanket.

Soon, they'd wake up from cold, wander down to Kiko's room, and climb into bed with their always warm older sister. Smiling at the thought, Kara used just the tiniest bit of Star Power… hardly noticeable, and easily replaced. Blowing it like a kiss or a bubble, she warmed the little blue house on Fortunate Cherry Street.

'I wonder,' Kara mused, after ostentatiously flushing the toilet, washing up, and returning to her room, 'if Jordan would like more children?'

After all, 'Chibi' was seventeen, now and he didn't need her so much, anymore. Then, becoming suddenly fierce, with a touch of the exiled Princess about her, Kara decided,

'It doesn't matter what he thinks. Jordan will learn to be happy with a big, bountiful household!'

Meanwhile, the transformed spirit was still 'asleep' in her bed, enjoying its temporary home.

"Thank you," Kara said to it. "Watch well for me, please, blessed spirit. Keep them all safe."

…and she got a very small nod, with tightly- scrunched eyes, in return. Then, moving away, Kara very gently slid open her window and flew off into the icy, smoky, searchlight- torn sky.

Elsewhere, NeterNos calculated, and he considered. As a vast quantum entity, he was aware of all that was happening, all that had not taken place, and every future possibility which branched away from the present worlds like a horribly tangled and sparking great tree.

But tremendous knowledge did not force mighty actions. Rather, it inhibited such. Entities ranging from gods such as Gamelord and MElia, down to the quarks in a single neutron, must be permitted to select their own paths. Any quantum being who attempted to control their choices… or even consciously observed outcomes… would warp a pattern greater and more complex than any equation could possibly express.

He knew all, and could do all… and was absolutely, essentially bound by the sheer scope of that power. NeterNos was like a huge battle ship in a very small harbor of rowboats, flotation rings and poor swimmers. Any move at all on his part would cause waves that some would surf and enjoy, and others would drown in, while the rest got pushed around, spinning helplessly off into fortune or danger.

The subsequent corruption of his initial attempt to take control of the worlds and bring order simply proved that the wisest choice of a high god was near stasis. The brief, snowflake lives of the meatlings, NPCs and mechanicals within his power had become terribly important to NeterNos; yet, he could not scoop one out of danger without dooming countless others, all across infinite worlds. All he could safely do was lightly tune in and sometimes… just a little… very swiftly… lean matters one way or another; adding a variable here, dropping a zero there, or switching the field strength on a series of tensors. Anything more than that had to come from the beings, themselves, and the lower internet pantheon. Everything depended upon initial conditions, and how well NeterNos had chosen his game pieces. All he could do in the meantime was hold himself back and wait for the outcome.

Aperture Laboratories Science Enrichment Center

Jordan fell down through one portal, and was shot horizontally from its partner, having to hop and flail a bit to recapture his balance. Once he'd managed to stand square, again, Jordan looked around. He found himself on a high ledge beside a flickering, arch- shaped door, well above the rapidly vanishing floor. The blue walking man symbol beside the doorway indicated that he was meant to go on through, but…

'Why am I doing what she wants?' He asked himself, hefting the portal gun and lightly bouncing it against the palm of his other hand. 'Let's test this thing… find out if there are any other places around here she can't see me.'

Besides, his artistic friend had been here, as well. He'd scrawled a crude image of birthday cake with an 'X' slashing through it. Underneath were the words: There is no three… too hard to think… the cake is a lie!

There was also, on the rust- streaked wall beside the graffiti, an extremely strange drawing of a dark- haired woman, asleep. She was wearing an orange jumpsuit like his, and beneath her, someone had written: not fat.

Touching the drawing, Jordan Carter voted himself an honorary member of the Fellowship of Rebellious Lab Rats. Someone else had been here. They'd gotten this far. And he was just about dead certain that they hadn't used the d—n door!

'Watch your back, Fem- bot,' Jordan thought savagely. 'Lab rat 3 is leaving your maze.'

Then, he raised the portal gun and fired a blue- edged hole through the wall, careful not to harm any drawings. Peering on through, he could see rusted metal gantries, stairs and industrial piping; sort of a cross between an alley and the underground area of… of… that place… with the mouse… and a castle… very expensive for three… And then, just for a second, he recalled the image of a laughing little boy wearing mouse ears, clasped in the arms of a gut- punch beautiful woman.

Yeah, the image faded after a bit, but what mattered was, they hadn't gotten it all. They hadn't erased everything. Somewhere, he had people, and he was going to get back to them. Starting right now.

Choosing a wall above the strongest- seeming gantry, Jordan fired another portal, and stepped away from the testing chamber to reappear 'backstage'. It was noisy, in there, with air that felt much less chilly and filtered. Smelt funny, too; a little like old food and dorm rooms. Something (maybe water or cubes) was being transported through overhead tangles of big, thumping pipes.

"Where have you gone?" asked that mechanized, taunting voice. "There's actually no place to run, you know. You're underground, drinking recycled water… breathing mechanically refreshed air… forever. Even the food is recirculated, from harvested organic molecules. So, you'll be eating, drinking and breathing the same product, over and over, for the rest of your life. I think that's interesting, don't you?"

It made him want to be sick, truthfully, but he had to stay focused; and he'd juice purge the crap out himself, later. For now, it was time to explore. There was a blue arrow painted on the next walkway over, pointing downward. Blue? Like the walking man? No, Jordan decided. Blue, as in: Blue, Red, 36, 2nd door… the first message he'd ever gotten from his unknown friend.

Feeling somewhat reassured, Jordan worked his way over to the marked walkway, careful to test each rusted, flaking panel and step, before committing his full weight and balance. Long fall bracers, or no, there was just no sense being stupid.

"I'm installing thermal sensors, you know," she announced. "Very soon, there will be no place left to hide. Not for you, and not for the other vermin. I can adapt. After every test and experience, I learn something new. About you… about myself… about what I'm truly capable of. There are so many more exciting surprises in store, and then… there will be cake." This particular 'motivational' PSA was followed by the faint sounds of thumping music and party noisemakers.

'Yeah. Right,' he huffed silently, trying not to visualize moist, dense, velvety chocolate cake, with frosting piled so thick, you could wade through it. Jordan's stomach rumbled, so he tightened his abs, thinking 'Shut up, in there. I don't like this any better than you do.'

The climb seemed to last forever. Heading continually downward, he was still surrounded by constant jibes and venom- sweet singing. After a while, it just became part of the background. Almost, he could tune it out. Almost.

Following more of those hand- drawn blue arrows, Jordan studied the lab's rusting infrastructure. Graffiti was scattered here and there, in shadowy, hard- to- see corners. Some of these images were disturbing; burning companion cubes, men in white lab coats, sleeping women, piled corpses and broken, empty medicine vials. Many of the images contained warnings, and most featured cake. What he couldn't tell was how long ago they'd been drawn. Was the author still here?

At one point, descending a particularly tight corner with twisted, unsafe looking stairs, Jordan found something new. The sight made him tense to fight or escape, for there was an open food tin set on the angle between two railings. The can's generic white label read: Beans, Red. Its lid had been pried clumsily upward, and a metalized plastic spork was thrust deep within. There was more. Resting on the walkway, at the railing's base, was a short, clear plastic bottle of water labeled (not surprisingly): Water, Potable.

A trap? If that had been all there was, Jordan might have left the proffered food stuff alone. 'If it looks too good to be true…', and all that. But the can's label had been scrawled upon with two or three bright sharpie markers. Bringing life to that stark white label, two green stick figures were shaking hands over a big, brown birthday cake. On the water bottle was a crooked blue smile face. A gift (claimed those pictures) from someone who knew how hungry he'd gotten on this endless industrial hike.

So… decision time. Take a chance and eat the beans, or keep moving? Jordan's stomach decided for him, once again singing its lonely song of abandonment and deprivation. Very cautiously, darting many glances overhead and directly below, (in case this was some sort of 'dangling turkey leg' trap) Jordan picked up the can of beans, and then the bottle of water.

Moments later, he'd sat himself down in a concrete alcove sheltered by giant, insulated pipes. Then he began to eat, wolfing the beans, draining the juice, and then scraping every last bit from the inside and can lid. For a time, all was spooning and gulping, with a background of rattling, dripping, factory hum. After that, he drank every bit of the water, letting that, too, calm his rampaging stomach.

A nap would have been nice, Jordan thought wistfully. Obviously, someone else felt the same way, because a little farther inside there was a bed, of sorts, made from flattened cardboard boxes. Beside it, a crate had been pressed into service as a table or desk. More bean cans were stacked against the concrete back wall, below an entire mural of eerie drawings and poems. Jordan's heart seemed to freeze in his chest, as he looked. Somebody lived here. Question was, how sane was the guy, and when was he coming back?

Maybe he would have found out, but all at once, a firestorm of red beams came questing into his alcove. Vaulting to his feet, Jordan heard a blaring party horn, and cheering, electronic crowds, then came the sound of a hundred skittering mechanical legs, and shrill, chirpy voices calling: "Subject thermal scan located. Target acquired. Welcome back, subject 5103."

Above that, sharp and clear as the blade of a knife, came the mechanized voice of his tester, calling:

"Surprise!"

At a lower node, filled with aggressive, cancerous evil, and spreading fast:

The world she had shaped reflected her will and her dark, twisted power. Vast in extent, it nevertheless consisted of a great sea containing one rocky and inhospitable island against which giant waves crashed, shaking it clear down to the bedrock.

Tattered clouds scudded across the dark, starless sky, occasionally parting enough to reveal a giant, crumbling moon, much too close for safety. Had it moved at all, its tides would have been deadly, but instead all it did was hang there and slowly disintegrate, bleeding chunks of stone that burned as they fell, crashing into the already violent sea.

On the craggy island stood the ruins of a dark, mighty castle. Not medieval; or, not simply so. Its spare lines and barely- glimpsed force shield gave evidence of an owner who'd traveled extensively amid the worlds, gaining power and knowledge to back up her sheer, vital malice. As stated before, the castle had been reduced (mostly) to artistic ruins. A single tower rose above all of that fallen masonry, old bones and rusting weaponry. From certain angles, properly framed, it would appear to form a dragon's slit- pupiled eye against the giant, dying gold moon. Deliberately so. Its creator was terribly vain, as well as arrogant; craving nothing but solitude, power and control… and news.

Above the tower, constantly circling, were a series of gates, opening into a shifting array of other worlds. Using these, she could observe, act and travel. Accidentally using these, a few hapless visitors had reached her shores, to their sorrow and grief.

Not having learned from their brief, sad example, an unwary observer might dare to move closer. The tower boasted but a single window, high up and bathed in sickly green light. From time to time, a tall, slender shadow obscured its sputtering light. At other whens, a flock of croaking birds could be seen to swoop in and out; her favorite spies, bearing stolen secrets and bits of dark code.

A few bestial guards patrolled the tower's base, more for the look of the thing than because she feared any actual threat. Who would be foolish enough to attack? Which army of magical beings could they hope to produce that could stand up before such malevolent power?

Nothing external, surely. But inside, and somehow beneath the attention of the tower's fell mistress, something was happening. Events in the worlds outside had become extremely distracting, you see. Other than that, she had no excuse for missing the change, except for that one little flaw in every great monster that seeks its own ruin. True villains hate even themselves…

Inside with us, then, sheltered by narrative grace, and thus not fearing detection. The black tower's topmost chamber was a workroom. Once, it had contained mostly potions and skulls, captured weapons and scrolls for which she'd traded the souls of a thousand previous victims. Now, there were also great swarms of glittering malware and viruses. Never let it be said that she couldn't evolve.

…Or feel satisfaction. The Root- Blade had worked precisely as she'd intended. In its first real test, against the Joker, it had transformed itself to match the VR genre of Gotham City, and had then succeeded in utterly destroying him. Had she boosted its power just a tiny bit more, it would have un- written the entire locus and everything in it. But that threat could wait. She had other allies, and eventually gods, to bring down. For, is not the Queen the chessboard's mightiest (and often only surviving) piece?

Maleficent meant to be that queen, and to stand alone amidst ruins. There was room in her world for nothing and no one else… with the possible exception of her shape- changing familiar, and… possibly an apprentice?

"Odin," she said, turning away from her cluttered workbench.

"Mistress?" replied a rangy, dark- haired young man, stepping gracefully forth from the shadows. There was that in his abrupt movements and bright, dark eyes which hinted at something more avian than human.

"I have adjusted the Root- Blade's power level, and require another… trial. You will fly to Lordran and… hmmm…" Maleficent paused, musing on how best to phrase the next bit. Lord Gwyn was not the easiest being to manipulate. "You will invite Lord Gwyn to reclaim our 'stolen and misused weapon'." This last, felicitous bit brought a brief smile to that starkly beautiful face. "After all, the weapon was his suggestion in the first place. He will doubtless wish to see it safely back in our hands."

Odin's head cocked, in the swift, questing manner of a very bright corvid.

"Ah. You are thinking: And if Lord Gwyn succeeds, and then turns the weapon against us? Are you not, my pet?"

After a moment's consideration, Odin shifted his feet, shook out non- existent dark feathers, and nodded

"Yes, Mistress. That is my thought."

Almost playfully, the sorceress reached out with her tall black staff and tapped Odin's forehead.

"A doubting Thomas! What I get, I suppose, for permitting you to think, in the first place… Be assured, my pet, that I am well able to control the Root- Blade's power level. Gwyn is a mighty lord. It shall be most interesting and instructive to see how our dear 'Al' performs against him. If the boy destroys him, so much the better; we shall have reduced the field, yet again. If not… should Lord Gwyn emerge triumphant, I shall simply… what is the phrase? 'Dial back' the sword's power level. Fortune favors the ruthless and well- prepared. Remember that, Odin."

He ducked his head respectfully, then, saying,

"Yes, Mistress."

"Splendid. Now, prepare yourself for Lordran. Under the circumstances, your raven form may be a bit underpowered. Perhaps, for this occasion…"

She gestured toward her waiting messenger as though throwing him an invisible marble, saying,

"Wyvern!"

With a brilliant, actinic flash that left a dark after- image upon the workroom's far wall, Odin vanished. In his place stood a screeching, feathered and scaled nightmare of leathery bat- wings and curving long neck. It's head somewhat resembled that of a dragon, only beaked, as well as extremely toothy. It stood a bit awkwardly upon just two legs, however, having sacrificed stability for speed. Flapping its sharp- clawed wings like a rooster greeting the dawn, the wyvern screamed loudly enough to crack stone… or ice… and lanced forth a jet of green flame. Maleficent dabbled her fingers in the dragonet's bright fire as someone else would dip her hands in a forest pool, scattering sparks and eddies of flame with one idle flick of her hand.

"Yes, Odin. The look becomes you. Now… off with you, my pet. To Lordran, with my message for Gwyn. Fly."

Another gesture widened the tower's lone window, and one of the spinning gates, overhead. Odin screeched again, relieved to be back in a form capable of flight. Bounding to the window sill, he launched himself into the air; twisting, spinning and jetting bright flame as he shot for the gate to Lordran. Maleficent watched him go, smiling at the plans which were still forming in her mind.

And that is undoubtedly why she failed to notice the actions of Locus 273, who was slowly thawing the enchanted green ice crystal which bound Lindsay and the wolf.

At least… she seemed not to notice… but one can never tell, with a truly powerful villain.

10101: Al

It would have been cool to hang out in Gotham for a while, but subtle cues pointed to: get the heck out. Little things, like heavy rains, earthquakes and ALL of the headlines. No kidding. One of them (which I kept) screamed:

AL LEAVES CITY! Takes MURDEROUS NPC along with him!

Nice. Made Azeroth look all cuddly and welcoming, and crap. We couldn't just head off without a plan, though; not if we wanted to advance according to the rules of this butt- backward sentient 'game'. Had to do a little research, you know what I'm saying?

That's where Uncle Clark's old road atlas came in. See, I needed to find a detailed map of Arkansas, and figure out where the next nearest big city was. (Which… by the way… looking for major metropolitan areas in Arkansas is like expecting a silver and crystal fine dining experience at Kwik-E-Burg-R.)

Not Little Rock, either. Too far. The next, next, biggest. Well, big enough to cast a hefty internet shadow, anyways. The less time I spent alone and out of touch, the better, considering what had just happened.

Turns out, the Joker's attack wasn't an accident. Just like that Hood guy, he was working with the sickos who stole my folks and Lin- C; the same outfit that was trying to set me up to face the gods. By now, they must have figured out that I wasn't going to go all 'Clash of the Titans' postal on Gamelord and his buddies. Sooo… So I guess they were trying to kill me, now, and the Joker was their first "messenger". Dude. Stuff like that could make you paranoid, for reals.

We decided on Bentonville, which isn't the Paris of the South, or anything, but at least had a great big coverage shadow. (And maybe they hadn't heard of us yet, over there.) Only thing the atlas didn't show, was what kind of VR setting to expect. I mean, we'd already experienced World of Warcraft and Batman Returns, but that was two down and ten million possibilities to go. Legend of Zelda? Pokémon? Portal? Super Smash Bros? Minecraft? Kingdom Hearts? Could be anything, plus murder on the side, but we wouldn't find out till we got there.

Getting food and gear for the trip was kind of hard, because most of the stores closed up tight when they saw us coming. Guess they figured we were bad luck, after what happened at Pop's. Suppose I can't blame them, really. Reports of the Joker's death have been greatly exaggerated, before.

Anyways, Commissioner Gordon was making noises like planning to prosecute John, so we cleared out first thing the next morning, heading north on County Road 49. Most of the trip went pretty smoothly, 'cause it was VR all the way. There just wasn't any dominant game world, out there in the hinterlands, so all kinds of stuff showed up, including (once) a squadron of Nazi zombies. Fortunately, they were terrible shots. The Creepers, on the other hand, were a serious pain in the butt. That bomb- fuse sizzle of theirs just isn't loud enough to do any good. By the time you notice it, you're smack in the crosshairs.

Harley stayed in double- bike mode until we reached the outskirts of Bentonville. At that point, everything wavered like some kind of desert mirage. Then it actually was a desert, with high- walled canyons, blistering heat, and an ocean of swirling gold sand.

"Recognize anything?!" I shouted, over a sudden wild sandstorm.

"Not yet," John called back, pulling the cloth of a new robe up to cover his face. "Can't see."

What he could do was hop out of the sidecar and summon up something to ride. Just like that, a sleek roan horse turned up out of nowhere, saddled and ready to go. Like, how? Steed central ?

Maybe I could have done the same thing, but I was kind of committed to Harley, now. I wasn't about to forget how she'd tried to help out, back in Gotham. Bad breath and attitude or not, Harley was my ride, y'know?

Right. So, she floundered in the sand for a minute, almost laying over, then got her footing again. Literally, because she'd just turned into a tall black camel with silver tassels and bells on her bridle. Making a noise like a volcanically loud, weapons- grade toilet, she turned her head to look at me.

"North!" I told her, shielding my eyes as best as I could. "Keep heading north! It can't be much farther!"

To be continued…

*1 (All of those un-answered emails, those never-made right-clicks, did happen elsewhere, and the universe branched like a forest of lightning.)

*2 (More of a trick than you might think, given H. Sapiens often near suicidal behavior.)

*3 (Who became the computer- education goddess's pet and avatar, by the way. Just goes to show that sometimes, annoying persistence yields unexpected rewards.)

*4 (Captured on cell phone vids and Instagram-ed like mad, naturally.)

*5 (Your Majesty)