Mountie Hell rang with dueling player pianos. They floated above the maze of railroad tracks pounding tense, old-timey tunes. Every few minutes a stray cackle would pierce the cacophony before melting away. Thick knots of rope dug into my arms and legs. The hot iron of the railroad track rattled against my helmet.
You’re just astrally projecting, I reminded myself. It’s only spiritually real. Why wasn’t that more reassuring? There wasn’t any sign of the others in sight. I was tied up on my side facing the oncoming train. Scraps and bubbles of the real world were still disappearing from my sight as my projection completed. The train barrelled forth.
A voice called out behind me. “Torchbearer!” Dad’s voice. The other dad, the girl-dad. And Torchbearer was supposed to be me, which would take more than a little getting used to. “You gotta untie the knots!”
I strained to get my fingers around the ropes on my wrist. They were all crammed and smashed together, and the rope didn’t reach nearly far enough. The train kept bearing down. “But I can’t untie the knots!”
“Young lady! You MUST untie the knots!” Her voice was closer that time. With it came the threat of disappointment. I couldn’t let Dad down. I remembered back to all our times tying knots together- girlscouts, yacht club- yacht club? Where the hell did Dad get that kind of money? But it was all in vain- the ropes were still too far away.
“But I can’t untie the knots!” I screamed.
“I’LL untie the knots!” A voice in the distance. A galloping horse. Blonde tresses, square teeth and a scarlet uniform came into view. My hero!
The mountie leapt from his horse and knelt down to attend my bindings. Dad cheered. Breath caught in my chest. Then, a snag.
The mountie began to sob. “No…” he muttered. He held his hands up to his face. His fingers were a mess of rubber spaghetti, knotted together in a tesseract of bows. “I c-c-can’t untie the knots…” he sniffled.
That was one option out, not to mention precious moments wasted. Air rushed to escape the coming crash. Dad landed at my side, shoving the forlorn mountie away. She started undoing my wrists. There was no time! The mountie’s hair and scarlet uniform began to fade to black. A curling mustache crept from beneath his nose. “I m-m-must untie the knots…” he snickered. We needed a new approach.
“Get down!” I yelled.
“Shut up, I’m trying-!” Dad replied, the last few words swallowed by the train’s whistle. The Mountie’s fingers began to untie themselves as his features grew long and wicked.
“Well, stop!” I replied. I snapped my fingers and the Torch swung off my belt and into my hand. Then Dad jumped back.
I angled my wrist back as far as I could, glaring at the oncoming train. The mountie had transformed completely. His square, generic smile was gone. In its place was the crooked leer of Snidely Whiplash. The train was so close I couldn’t see anything behind it. I threw the Torch.
The power rocking through the tracks was more than enough to bruise the left side of my body as the Torch ploughed through the train with railgun force. Molten iron and torso-sized pieces of shrapnel splattered to the sides as the Torch sliced through each individual car. The sound was like a lance. It started shrill, deepening and broadening as it moved farther away. Everything else was drowned out.
I threw up. The dust began to settle. The ruins of the train were just a few feet away. The Snidely screamed in pain as molten iron drenched his face and villainous black peacoat. After a quick flight over the wreckage the Torch landed gingerly in my palm.
I could hear Dad laughing as the tinnitus faded away. She began to undo the knots tying me up. “Good arm, sport!” she slapped me on the back. “Remind me to take you for ice cream after.”
My arms and legs were still sore from the bindings but it felt good to be out. “Any sign of the others?” I asked. She pointed overhead. Timmy was flying a few hundred yards in the distance.
Tim’s left hand was surrounded by the green ghost of an atomic bomb. He launched it to the ground below. What followed was so bright that for a second I could only see white. When my vision returned, Timmy was doing his victory dance in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.
I was suddenly grateful we were upwind. “That’s him accounted for. Any sign of Hans or Truman?” I asked. Gail shook her head. I scanned our surroundings. Everything looked the same in every direction: rows upon rows of railroad tracks, knotted-up damsels and Dudleys Doright going bad.
I pointed the Torch at Gail. “Point in a direction and say, ‘Aaron Truman’s astral projection is over there.’” She nodded. I activated the Torch.
Gail pointed. “Aaron Truman’s astral projection is over there.” Several unhelpful whispers overlaid her voice, one disputing the application of material space to the Other-petals, another asking what our definition of ‘is’ was. More saliently, a shrill voice cried out “NOT” right in the middle of her sentence.
“Let’s follow that one.” We repeated the procedure a few times until we triangulated a direction where the obnoxious voice didn’t interfere. As we ran that way, we passed by Hans and Timmy. Hans was covered with ash, badly sunburnt and visibly irate.
“You may have given me brain cancer!” Hans screamed.
“Pft. Soul cancer at worst,” Timmy replied. He nodded at us as we approached. “We’re doing a sweep of the area. You’ll have to follow us.”
I shook my head. “We’ve got a lead on Aaron, there’s no time for a sweep.” I kept running ahead with Gail.
“Are you sure you know how to use that thing?” Timmy asked. When I didn’t reply, he followed. He floated along for a few seconds, before saying, “Torchbearer, I authorize you to pursue this lead.”
“Uh, thanks.” After a few minutes of running we found him, tied up with the train just two hundred feet away from his body. I grabbed for the Torch.
“Handled,” Timmy declared, leaping into the sky and nuking the train from above. The explosion was tremendous. It was also immediately nauseating. Even if we were just souls projected into an Other-petal, our souls were very used to residing in bodies and didn’t appreciate being irradiated. Gail, Hans and I all staggered to our feet before retreating behind a nearby hill.
“Fuuuuuck,” Gail moaned.
“I know, right?” Hans replied before puking blood onto a nearby patch of grass. Timmy landed moments later, holding Aaron in his arms.
“You know that radiation is dangerous, right?” I asked him.
“Pft.” Timmy rolled his eyes. I couldn’t see it behind the mask but believe me, I knew. “We’re astral right now. It’s fine.”
“It doesn’t feel fine!” Gail yelled.
“Your soul gets just as much radiation eating a cursed banana.”
“That’s not a thing that I do!”
“Well, now you can start.” He crossed his arms while we staggered to our feet. “If you’re all done feeling sorry for yourselves we can head to the return rig, now. Mission’s basically done.”
“We still need to find the return rig,” I replied, wiping blood from my mouth. “And collect the ‘living mustache’ of a Snidely, whatever that means.”
“Probably means the Snidely needs to be alive,” Hans said. That might be easier said than done- so far both of the Snidelys Whiplash we’d seen had met firy ends. “Most of the Other-petals work a bit on fairy tale logic. Or cartoon logic, if you prefer. Think, WWBBD. What Would Buggs Bunny Do?”
Dad smacked her forehead. “Why didn’t you say so?” She pulled a straight razor from her pocket. “You kids ever seen Rabbit of Seville?”
“Where did you get that?” Truman asked.
“Part of my powers. Can’t have a schtick without props, Hypno-bro.”
“It’s… Slumberjack,” he said, first defiant, then defeated.
“So, Red Snow,” Timmy pointed at himself, “Dad, Slumberjack, Torchbearer. What do we call you, Kaplan?”
“Wunderkind.” God, I hated that guy’s smile.
“Right, Timmy declared. “I’ll scout a nearby Snidely from the air. Dad will do the Rabbit of Seville routine.”
“I guess I can help if we need the Snidely to unwind a little,” Aaron muttered.
“That’s actually not a bad idea,” I replied. “Get his guard down.” I didn’t like where that led us next but this was no time to let personal feelings get in the way. “If Red Snow can coordinate from the air, Wunderkind and I can figure out the location of the rig the same way Dad and I found Slumberjack.”
“I’m so glad you didn’t dead-name me,” Kaplan said, batting his eyelashes. I fantasized, briefly, about ripping them out.
“I’ll fire my laser once to signal a team has completed their objective, twice if we need to gather together, three times if there’s immediate danger,” Tim concluded.
We deployed. Well, the others deployed. Hans and I stayed put while we dutifully ran through the same method I used with Gail to find Truman. Except this time the voices from the Torch screamed “NOT” no matter which direction we searched in.
“Are you sure you know how to use that thing?” Hans asked as I clicked it off in frustration.
“I explicitly am not,” I grumbled. “Why, starting to think you should have shown your face at the trial after all?”
He snorted. “No way. I’m holding out til I can get beta class or better. You can keep your Torch.”
“Of course I can. Okay wiseguy, enough about me. What’s your brilliant plan for finding the return rig?”
“Oh, well, first we probably need to put it back together.” He pulled what looked like a crooked black funnel from the inside of his coat. “Nabbed this on my way up with Timmy. He was so busy basking in the glow of that fireball he didn’t even see it. We just gotta trek back to the other part, slap this back on and feed it a little human blood.”
He dangled the funnel expectantly, waiting for a reply. I gave him one. “What do you get out of being like this?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure myself.” He waved the funnel up to Timmy, who nodded and signaled our success to the others. We began to head their way. “Really though Atlas, you should be on my side. The two of us are the only folks here who actually earned our meal ticket.”
“Sure. Truman’s just Popper’s favorite, and the other two were born into this. Hell, near as I can tell, Timmy’s here as a demotion. But you won the Torch’s little trial or whatever, and I got recruited on the basis of my senior thesis.”
Dad and Truman came into view not too far away. Dad and a Snidely both had their faces covered with shaving cream, and Gail was demonstrating proper shaving technique under the Snidely’s adoring gaze.
“When I grow up, I wanna be just like you!” the Snidely hissed to his teen girl father.
I dropped my voice just slightly as we got closer. “You’re a smart guy, Kaplan. Smart enough you know that nobody wants to rely on an asshole.”
“Counterpoint, people rely on their assholes every time they-”
“You know what I mean.” I gestured at the funnel in his hand. “If you want to work together, you need to show that you’re actually able to work together, you get me? And maybe tone down the whole neo-Nazi schtick.”
“I’m a st8boi, thank you.” He shook his head. “I see you’ll have to grow a sense of humor before this will work out. Shame!” He jogged ahead of me to meet the others.
Dad gentle coaxed the Snidely’s mustache off his upper lip with her straight-razor. He took a moment to admire his newly smooth face in the mirror before Truman waved his ‘Slumber Axe’, coaxing the Snidely to sleep. Dad smiled as she wiped the shaving cream off of the mustache, which wiggled around her finger like a worm. “Sure looks alive to me,” she said.
“Alright, team!” Hans snickered just slightly as Timmy’s voice cracked. Timmy cleared his throat. “What’s the status on the return rig?”
“Just over that hill,” Hans said, pointing. Then he gave me a weird look out of the corner of his eye and added, “Roxanne found it.”