8
The Phantom Plane

Nowhere in the multiverse lives a race of people as abominably dishonest as the Forsoothians. Crab-legged, blue-snouted, thirty-fingered beings, the Forsoothians' most infamous trait is their inability to speak anything but the exact truth. This gives them such a fearsome reputation as conmen, business sharks, attorneys, and (unjustly) liars, that the country of Forsooth has no government, though it is startlingly wealthy. This is because 100% of goods and money exchanged are exchanged on the black market. Since black markets legally do not exist and therefore cannot be taxed, governments cannot thrive without tax money, and nothing can be legally declared to exist without a government, Forsooth does not exist.

When asked where they are from, therefore, Forsoothians can truthfully say "nowhere"; when asked whether they are from Forsooth, they reply "no"—for no such place exists. After all, what is truth but that which is accepted as true? What is truth but that which is in accordance to fact and reality? Perhaps if reality were less utterly malleable or less blatantly open to interpretation, even tens of hundreds of generations of Forsoothians could not have sunk into their bog of deception, but I doubt it.

Unlike the Forsoothians, the Clockmaker preferred to be not only truthful but also honest—which is why, when he was working so diligently on Master Nindi's Phantom Plane Transporter, he did not ask Raskolnikov what he was up to, and he averted his eyes whenever he feared he might see too much. For though if asked, under the truth light, whether Raskolnikov had any mechanical skill, he could truthfully say that the hamster had invariably maintained he hadn't, this answer would have been dishonest, and so he'd rather avoid it if he could.

Master Nindi left them alone as they worked. And, as Master Nindi must have guessed would happen, the Clockmaker timed his completion of the teleportation device to the daylight hours, when Nindi was asleep. There was absolutely nothing to stop the Clockmaker from scooping Raskolnikov onto his shoulder, picking up the thousand-piece puzzle—the teleportation controller—that was all that remained of their friend, and activating the device.

Light flashed, compressed, encompassed . . . and they arrived.

Though he had not expressed it in such words, even to himself, the Clockmaker's imagination had been working on what the Phantom Plane must look like. It must first, he thought, be brightly lit—maybe not solid light, but with flashes as searingly bright as the magnesium light. Amorphous forms would be floating about, tinged slightly coral; these would be the souls. He would be able to hear them as through many layers of cloth, speaking to him. Puzzle Girl's voice would call to him amidst the throng, clearer than the rest, and lead him—

Here, his imagination had splintered into many paths, each fading away into the fogs of possibility and awaiting solid information.

What he actually found was . . . not as expected. There was light, but it glowed thick and orange-red through a nearly opaque sky. The sky looked closer than usual too, but the Clockmaker didn't trust his distance perception enough to be sure.

Then there was the ground or floor or—standing surface. Rather squashy yellowish white, and simultaneously sticky and slick. The Clockmaker was reminded faintly of the dough he'd manipulated in Creation's bakery, in Imaginarium. Certainly, there was something foodish about it. His feet imprinted ankle deep in its surface, which slowly oozed upward.

"Free," Raskolnikov murmured. "After so long."

Not for the first time, the Clockmaker wondered how many years Raskolnikov had been trapped in the dome. "I am afraid Master Nindi must have guessed what we would do and planned for it," he said apologetically. "As soon as he is awake, he will harvest Gasp's soul and follow us."

"Oh," breathed Raskolnikov, "I'm counting on it."

The Clockmaker smiled slightly. "You altered the device. I thought you had, though you said you did not know anything about mechanics."

"I don't know anything about mechanics," Raskolnikov rejoined. "Explosives, now . . ." He trailed off into happy thoughts.

The Clockmaker soon had other things on his mind. Small cracks were forming outward from him, and he recognized the stress pattern from a stepped-on clock face he'd once replaced. "I believe," the Clockmaker said, "that my weight is excessive for the surface tension of this ground."

Raskolnikov sent him an amused glance. "You really have no sense of smell," he said. "No one else could fail to recognize Stinking Limffort."

"Stinking Limffort!" exclaimed the Clockmaker. "Stinking Limffort as in,

"tangy
molded
raw emotion cooked
cooked cheese raw
taste explosion"

"and,

"All that's stinky is not cheese;
Often have I been displeased.
Many a Brie has been a tease—
But Limffort always is my wheeze.

"—That Stinking Limffort?"

"The very same," Raskolnikov confirmed.

"Then all of Master Nindi's theories were wrong," the Clockmaker concluded, shaking his head in amazement. "Reality-changing light comes not from souls but from cheese. Poor Puzzle Girl! If only we had known."

For some reason, this made Raskolnikov laugh and keep laughing and nearly fall off the Clockmaker's shoulder in hysterics.

The Clockmaker waited patiently for the paroxysm to die down and Raskolnikov to elucidate. It took some time, and Raskolnikov still squeaked and jittered as he cried, "We're not in the Phantom Plane! While I was rigging your transporter, I changed the location."

"But—why?" the Clockmaker asked, slightly hurt to have his invention altered without his knowing.

"Because I don't want to go there—and neither should you. How would we survive? There might not be air—or gravity—or food! And how would we get back?"

The Clockmaker gazed at him, halfway between admiration at his inference and annoyance at his interference. "Then where are we?"

"How should I know?" Raskolnikov asked. "I've never been here before. A giant cheese on a giant's dinner plate, maybe. I vote we leave as quickly as possible."

~0~0~

8'
Not the Phantom Plane After All, Apparently

The Clockmaker was free. The Clockmaker had friends with him. The Clockmaker had purpose. "I will build Puzzle Girl a new body," he proclaimed to Raskolnikov as they tromped across the surface of the cheese—or, rather, as the Clockmaker tromped and Raskolnikov clung on to the ridges of his shoulder. The shoulder had not been built to be clung on to, as Raskolnikov pointed out more than once. The Clockmaker had offered to carry him in his hands, but Raskolnikov had replied more acerbically than strictly necessary that he would not be so degraded. "I will build a body for her soul to live in," the Clockmaker clarified, "and she will be a living work of art."

"You'll make the body in your own image, I suppose," Raskolnikov said.

The Clockmaker's wheels clicked softly as he thought. "I have found," he said slowly, "my own body most satisfactorily made. I conclude, however, that you would disapprove of giving Puzzle Girl such a body—and I have a feeling that you would be right to disapprove, although I am not sure why."

"Then I've done some good," Raskolnikov said. "Don't worry; I'll stick around to make sure you don't bungle it. I owe Puzzle Girl that."

The Clockmaker circumnavigated a rather gooey spot, the cheese sucking on his metal feet. The further they went, the less set the cheese became. The Clockmaker finally stopped and turned around, only to find that the cheese had sprung back over his footprints and that every direction looked the same. His memory could, of course, have taken him back blindfolded, but he did not trust the cheese not to have shifted in his absence.

"Don't go wandering," Raskolnikov advised. "Keep in a straight line, and we'll hit something eventually. So once you make this body for Puzzle Girl, how do you plan to get her soul into it?"

The Clockmaker held up the transporter's control. Mindful of the uncertainty of their journey, he had secured the puzzle inside a sheath of waterproof plastic. "I will incorporate the pieces throughout her body."

"And that will work, will it?"

"You disagree."

Raskolnikov shrugged. "What do I know about magic?"

"I am not sure," the Clockmaker said. "You seem to know a great deal about a great number of things."

~0~0~

The melted pots of cheese spread further across the ground, hissing and spitting acidically. The Clockmaker found his way ever harder; he often had to stretch his legs to their full stride to step from one patch of safety to another. He made again to turn back, more seriously this time, only to find that his footsteps had not sprung back; they had turned into sizzling wells. There was also a feeling in the air, one so familiar he found himself aching for his home, for the little shop in Perpetua he had not seen in decades.

"Someone," he said, "is manipulating time."

"What are you talking about?"

"Can you not feel it? Time is more solid here, more pliable. Yet this has not the feel of Perpetua; someone has injected time into the cheese, or perhaps the cheese itself produces it. That is what is causing such rapid changes; they are not rapid but time-distorted."

"Lazy," Raskolnikov ground out, "not letting the cheese ripen in its own time."

His tone struck the Clockmaker as odd. The hamster's eyes bulged, rimmed white. "Allow me to carry you in my hands," the Clockmaker said. "Then I can move more quickly without dislodging you."

"Fine," Raskolnikov said, and the Clockmaker knew that he was frightened indeed.

The Clockmaker tucked the puzzle securely under one arm and cupped the hamster inside both hands, with only slight slivering gaps through which Raskolnikov could peek and breathe. Then he blurred into action, whipping his feet out of the sucking cheese and toward the distant waxy edge.

The lips of a lake gasped open before them, and the Clockmaker had to spin and slide away to avoid pitching in. The puzzle went flying from under his arm—and into the lake of cheese. It landed flat on the surface, which burped and lifted. Not quickly, but unstoppably, the puzzle angled, tipped, and oozed seamlessly beneath the surface.

"What is it?" Raskolnikov cried, scrabbling to press his eyes against a gap. "What's happened?"

"The puzzle!" The Clockmaker stared after it, frozen in horror and despair. "Puzzle Girl!" If he tried to edge around—

"Leave it," Raskolnikov ordered. "It's lost. Clockmaker, leave it, or we'll be lost too!"

"It was an accident! I could not catch it!"

"You're right: you couldn't. And you can't save her, but you can save us. We need to get moving!"

"Yes," whispered the Clockmaker. "Yes, I—yes."

There was a silence, punctuated by the crackle and pop of bubbles. The Clockmaker did not move.

"Clockmaker!" Raskolnikov shouted.

With terrible calm, the Clockmaker replied, "I appear to be stuck."

"What?"

Raskolnikov struggled until the Clockmaker got the hint and parted his hands enough for the hamster to pop his head out and look down. Hot air sliced through his fur, and the taste of sharp cheese filled his mouth.

Spikes of cyan and ming mold jolted upright out of their cheese bed, only to either settle languidly back down or thrust yet further up, blowing gusts of gas out their gaskets. Bubbles coagulated and melted, formed and bloated, belched and burst their grenade payload of fleshy fragments. Cheese pots swirled and stirred, their skirling surfaces twining yellow with white until mold tendrils wrapped through them and they solidified once more. Cheesy gas billowed thick under the red wax sky, through the tinted air, exulting in the tumult around it, the slaughter beneath it.

For here was no ordinary Stinking Limffort. Here was the Mother of All Cheeses.

~0~0~

8''
The Mother of All Cheeses,
Which Is Definitely Not in the Phantom Plane

CHEESE: Unlike milk-based products such as butter and yogurt, cheese (caseus) is a genus of the mold family. When first discovered, approximately 10544(π)2 fortnights ago, cheese was the blue-green color of its closest mold relative, penicillin. Since then, cheese has increasingly evolved into the shapes, sizes, and colors most appetizing to sentient life forms.

For centuries, cheeseotonists could find no explanation for this mutation. However, in recent decades, most prestigious cheeseotonists have come to agree with Dr. I. O. Gram's explanation:

Hosts with superior intelligence are essential for cheese protection and reproduction. Once ingested, cheese forms colonies in the sentient brain. From there, it can prompt the brain to both a) protect the cheese using rodent- and waterproof containers and b) eat more cheeses of various varieties, thus increasing the genetic diversity of the cheese breeding pool.

In this way, cheeseotonists around the world have demonstrated the practice of extremely intelligent people being extremely thick—for, of course, all cheeses are a single organism whose disparate parts form a hive mind. The queen and originator of all cheeses is that great time-manipulating matriarch, the Mother of All Cheeses.

"I cannot free myself," the Clockmaker said, "but you are not trapped. Yonder is an island that looks solid; I could toss you there."

"Sure you could," said Raskolnikov. "And then what? Either it turns into mush under my feet and I drown or it doesn't and I die of thirst. No thank you."

This struck the Clockmaker as excellent logic. He tried again. "I may not be able to move my legs," he said, "but I am very strong. I could throw you a long way—perhaps beyond this time zone. Or perhaps to the ceiling. You could cling there until things are settled."

"I could break every bone in my body, you mean. Try your legs again. It's only cheese; you should be able to get free."

"Yes, but I cannot bend my knees," the Clockmaker said apologetically. The molten cheese slurped around his thighs. "I do not understand it either; I suspect the cheese is holding me here on purpose."

"So that's it then," Raskolnikov concluded. "This is it. We are going to die. And just after escaping! Or I will die and you will live in cheese until it liquefies enough for you to escape or someone eats around you, if that ever happens."

"I do not think I will be able to escape," the Clockmaker reflected. "For if it immobilizes me, I shall not be able to wind myself up."

"Then we're both doomed," Raskolnikov sighed. "I should have known it would come to this."

Cheese plooped and slooped and gooped, slurping the Clockmaker in until it sucked at his hips.

The Clockmaker looked at it, looked at the hamster, and came to a decision. He opened his mouth and cried, "Help! Help!"

"What in the stinky cheese do you think you're doing?" Raskolnikov demanded.

"Calling for help. Help! Help!"

"Yes, I can hear that. But there's no one around to help us!"

"Maybe not," the Clockmaker admitted. "And if it comes to that, I will throw you to safety with the last movement of my arm. But there is always a chance. Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!"

"Ridiculous," Raskolnikov grumbled.

"Help! Help!"

The clugging, slugging cheese clugged and slugged and chugged and shrugged over the Clockmaker's belly, across his chest, and up to his chin. "HELP!" he shouted one last time, then shut his mouth firmly as the cheese crept over it.

Throughout, he held Raskolnikov in one hand, arm fully extended upward. The hamster alternately shrank and bristled at the molten cheese, shivering hard despite the heat. The Clockmaker's eyes, barely above the cheesy surface, turned to meet his. A few more inches, and Raskolnikov knew he'd be thrown, and he shivered harder to know it.

"This is stupid," Raskolnikov told the Clockmaker. "Oh, for pity's—fine! I'll do it. HELP! SOMEBODY HELP US!"

The Clockmaker's eyes disappeared and then his brow. He cranked his arm back at the elbow.

"HELP!" Raskolnikov screamed, but the Clockmaker could no longer hear him; cheese blotted his ears as it did his eyes. He could feel nothing except cheese and Raskolnikov hunkered on his palm. He was relying on his memory for which way to throw the hamster; he had thought one direction looked slightly more promising than the others. He stiffened his wrist in preparation—and found himself frozen in that pose as an invisible force drew him up out of the goopy cheese and into the air. Some cheese glops glopped down, but many more clung desperately to him.

"Good grief," said a voice, familiar even through the cheese coating. "A cybernetic cheeseman. What will people think of next?"

"Are you blind?" Raskolnikov scathed, too frightened to moderate his tone. "He's only covered in cheese. Clean him off, and you'll see."

"A novel approach to curing blindness, but I'll try it."

In an instant, the cheese coating the Clockmaker slid off as if he had been suddenly coated in castor oil. He found himself face-to-face with none other than Vamazz the Vamazing.

Though his sapphire hair remained as bouffant and beautiful as ever, the rest of Vamazz looked distinctly battered: his bulky armor was charred and, in places, burned through; a cut that had only just stopped bleeding bisected one arched brow; the chains dangling from his pauldrons had been torn short and dangled loose from his waist. His magnificent, triangular hat had disappeared entirely, and the small flames that had clung to it and to the chains instead encircled his wrists. Unidentifiable stains marred his robes, and a guarded hint of pain lurked behind his brilliant eyes and in the lines that had not before wrinkled the smooth skin of his face.

"You know," said Vamazz, "I think he's the one whose blindness has been cured; Stinking Limffort is no friend to the oculars. Have an ironing board"—he spun one out of midair to match the one upon which he sat: floral and lavender—"and tell me how you ended up on the Mother of All Cheeses during time breeding. You would have been in real trouble, if I hadn't randomly happened by. Say, have we met before?"

"Yes," said the Clockmaker, "on two previous—"

"Not you," Vamazz interrupted gently; "your friend. Raskolnikov, isn't it?"

~0~0~

A few months' interlude had done nothing to diminish Vamazz's listening proficiency. He oohed and ahhed in amazement at descriptions of the dome, chuckled in admiration at the advance in light knowledge, and clucked his tongue disapprovingly at Master Nindi's reprehensible wickedness.

"I would have liked to see it for myself," he said. "I've been searching for a teleportation path to the dome while you talked, as I assumed you wished to return. Unfortunately, it seems the dome no longer exists. I hope you're not too disappointed."

Raskolnikov snorted, and the Clockmaker assured him they were not disappointed before detailing the arrival of Gasp and subsequent death of Sharpig. Vamazz shed a tear at this. He clutched his hands at their daring escape and exclaimed in horror when the Clockmaker pointed out the place where the puzzle had slid beneath the surface.

"Surely, sir," the Clockmaker said hopefully, "you can use your wizardry to find and rescue the puzzle—even as you rescued us."

Vamazz shook his head sadly. "If only I could. Perhaps if I had arrived sooner—but the puzzle is no longer there."

"What do you mean?" Raskolnikov demanded.

Vamazz regarded him with mild astonishment. "I should think you would know. My dear Raskolnikov, you lost the puzzle. It has therefore gone where all lost things go."

Raskolnikov groaned. "To the Land of the Purple Ring."

"Naturally."

The Clockmaker didn't understand why his friend looked so broken. Surely, Vamazz the Vamazing could send them to the Land of the Purple Ring as easily as—

"Hold on right there," Vamazz told him, though the Clockmaker had not said anything. "I can NOT send you to the Land of the Purple Ring; I never lose anything. But . . ." His brows creased pensively. "Perhaps . . . yes. That might work." He intertwined his fingers, wriggled his nose, and proclaimed: "Pylut! Fwingit! Blongy! Vamazz!"

~0~0~0~0~0~

A/N: If you're enjoying this book, please review! I read all reviews and really appreciate them. :)