The Executive Board of Dr. Wondertainment, Incorporated, sat around a circular table, in a square room on the top floor of a boxy grey building far removed from the toy factory and the Workshops of Wonder. The building contained a great many square rooms, which were divided into further square spaces, and each of these square spaces held an Accountant, or a Manager, or an Assistant to a Manager, or a Regional Representative, or a Department Head, or a Department Bottom, or a Supervisor, or a Supervisor to the Supervisor, or a Team Diversity Manager, or a Diversity Enforcer, or a Human Resources Manager, or an Executive Manager, or an Executionitive Manager, or one of many other fun-filled positions.
All of these many and varied individuals stood in their squares and stamped pieces of paper. The pieces of paper had words on them, but the people in the squares did not read the words. Their job was to stamp paper and move it to another square, not read them.
Above all, the fluorescent lights hummed.
The Executive Board had brought the stampers with them when they arrived: it was not proper for an Executive Board to be without their court. It was also not proper for the Executive Board to interact with their court in any way, so they stayed in their board room and never left.
As was appropriate for an Executive Board, the members had no eyes, so that they could not be misled by irrelevant information. They had no tongues, so as not to speak irrelevant words: instead, ticker-tape rolls of fluctuating stock prices and focus group data spilled out from their thin lips into the shredders that sat between their withered knees.
The Doctor has taken initiative… the voice was little more than a whisper, a hiss of air escaping the mouth. It has removed its sphere of influence from the Structure…
Will the assistant be of use…
It will do whatever is instructed of it…
With the Doctor away, it falls to us to maintain order…
The bright purple convertible Wondermobile, all spoilers and chrome, raced down the ancient raised road. Basalt paving tiles stretched out to an indistinct horizon that never seemed to come closer, a sharp line of black against the harsh red of the dry, flat land that baked under three suns. Lining the road were crumbling chunks of ancient masonry, and tangled rows of twisted old trees, their branches heavy with browning fruit.
Dr. Isabel Wondertainment sat with one hand casually on the wheel, the other flipping through radio stations, and a massive pair of rhinestone-encrusted pink plastic sunglasses taking up the majority of her face. The radio flicked through station after station, jumping from random clicks and number strings to K-pop jellybean ballads, to solar flare rap battles in booming Russian, to the “Tom Kenny (All Praise Unto the Immortal Dog-Emperor of Nine Realms) Musical Extravaganza”. Isabel eventually settled on the Galactic Plumbers’ Union Orchestra.
Emma sat in the passenger seat, reading a fluttering map. Jeremy sat between them, looking very happy with the trip. The back seat was filled with all manner of whimsical-looking plastic items: the Wondertainment Bubble Fun Gun Playset™, the Wondertainment Grabby-Claw-Thing™, the Wondertainment Big Foam Noodle™, a jug of Happy Hiker Grrrranola Trail Mix™ ice cream, the Wondertainment Super Secret Surprise Box™, and a great deal of other goodies: They had cleaned out the laboratory of anything that seemed to be of use.
“You know, you are the best assistant I’ve ever had, Emma,” Isabel said.
“I’ve only been working with you for a few hours, ma’am.” Emma kept her eyes on the map.
“Really? It feels like a lot longer than that.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe I am the only assistant you’ve ever had, ma’am.”
“Right. I mean right as in you’re right, not right as in I understand that I should correct you if you aren’t right, which I don’t have to do because you’re right…though, I did have Mr. Butler when I was really little, but he was really just my dad’s assistant. He was a friend of one of my dad’s friends from way back, and dad took him in when he lost his old job.”
“Where is he now?”
“I…don’t actually know. He just sorta stopped showing up.”
There was another one of the long pauses that characterized their conversations, though it had in the space of a few hours become far less uncomfortable. The relationship had naturalized quickly, like the introduction of chocolate to marshmallow1: as soon as the connection had been made, it became impossible to think of one without the other, and unbelievable that a time of separation had ever existed.
“So, uh, how goes the mapping?”
“It goes well.”
“Anything I should be worried about up ahead?”
“Nope. It should be a straight shot for a while longer.”
Isabel glanced over at the white sheet of paper. Its surface was a shifting spaghetti mass of tesseractic lines in red, black, and blue, twisting and curling and consuming each other, driving barbs to the brain through the eyes.2
She very quickly looked back at the perfectly straight road.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“The Factory won’t give us any trouble while we’re in transit. It won’t know we’re coming until we’ve passed the corporation limit,” Emma said.
“That’s when the fun begins.”
“I trust you’re going to play it by ear.”
“I move where inspiration takes me.”
“I’ll start on the backup plan, then.”
“I thought you already had a backup plan.”
“I did, but I don’t think it will be enough.”
“We make the best team ever.”
A roar echoed from up the road, off to the right, loud enough that it could be heard over the radio and wind. Isabel turned the dial down, straining her ears to see if she could hear it again.
“Did you hear that?”
“I believe I did, ma’am.”
“It didn’t sound good.”
The roar did not repeat itself for some time, and had been written off as a circumstance of no portent when several things happened in short succession.
A massive grey bulk launched itself up onto the road, tearing up trees and rubble. Isabel screamed and slammed her foot down on brake. The Wondermobile spun around, tires screeching, rubber burning. The creature slammed down onto the road, debris showering down around it. The Wondermobile ground to a stop, rocking back and forth on ruined suspension. The creature didn’t move. Neither did the Wondermobile and its occupants.
Isabel opened her eyes. Her sunglasses had flown off in the chaos.
“Are you guys okay?”
“Yes,” Emma said.
Jeremy barked the affirmative.
She looked beside her to see that Emma was still in her seat. Jeremy had rolled onto the floor. True to their word, neither of them were hurt.3
Isabel sighed in relief, and stepped out of the Wondermobile. Emma and Jeremy followed.
The creature that had crashed in front of them was massive. More of a smooth, grey hill, big enough that its head and upper torso stretched across the whole of the road, with the back legs and tail draping down the slope. It rested on its side, rising up at least twice Isabel’s height and exposing its white underbelly. A broad, wedge-shaped head, encrusted with barnacles. Gigantic serrated claws. The stench of salt.
It didn’t move. Isabel tiptoed up to it, straining to hear or see some sign of breath. There was none.
“I think it’s dead, ma’am.”
Isabel nodded, and said nothing. The words got bunched up in her throat. She was aware of death, as a concept: sometimes people and animals stopped moving and looked like they were sleeping, but they weren’t actually asleep, and they weren’t going to wake up. But this was so sudden it had been alive when it jumped onto the road, and now it…wasn’t. Things weren’t supposed to die like that. Its eyes weren’t closed. Its eyes should have been closed, but Isabel could just see the creature’s pale yellow eye, staring blankly out at nothing.
A sickly acid-green feeling welled up inside Isabel’s stomach. She didn’t know its name, but she knew its flavor. Impressions of memories, dredged up from subconscious seafloors. Old impressions of presence, of something that once was, and the empty space that now took its place. Buried wrongs and hidden loss.
Isabel found herself shaken by this, and the feeling remained. She tried shrugging it off, and it did not budge. The creature was dead. It had died here on the road. The road was dangerous, then, and the Factory even more so.
Isabel turned to Emma.
“We should keep going.”
“That’s going to be difficult.”
“We can get around it. Let’s just go…”
A great gurgling noise erupted from behind them. From the creature’s body. Emma ran over, grabbed Isabel, and hoisted her above her head.
“I’ve got you, ma’am,” Emma said as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Isabel said something that sounded like “eeeep”.
The creature’s belly split open. A thick wave of putrid brown fluid gushed out, flecked with crusting black foam and chunks of unidentifiable semisolid sludge. Isabel, being held above Emma’s head, was kept safe from the tide of sludge. Emma, standing underneath Isabel, was not.
The air was ripe with methane and fermenting sewage. Steam billowed out from the burst innards. The flow slowed, and stopped.
Wordlessly, Emma walked over to a bare spot of road and set Isabel down. Behind her, Jeremy pulled himself out of the sludge and began shaking the gore off of him.
“I am here to help.” Everything south of her collarbone was an unpleasant shade of brownish blackish reddish puke. Flecks spattered her glasses. She looked completely unflustered, as if she was standing in line at the grocery store or some similar task.
“Are you doing all right, ma’am?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Just a bit…”
“Do you need a hug, ma’am?”
Isabel looked at her gore-stained assistant for a moment. Emma was not predisposed to smiling, but there was nonetheless a sort of reassurance to be found in her face. Stability and support.
Yes, a hug would be nice, Isabel decided.
It was a very awkward hug, given the difference in height between the two, but awkward hugs were okay sometimes, when a hug was really needed.
“It’s what I’m here for.”
Isabel righted herself, her sweater now thoroughly filthy. Jeremy wandered over, with a very plain “Hugs? I love hugs!” expression.
“Okay, Jeremy, hug for you too.” Isabel grabbed her still-dirty corgi and hugged him. “We’re going to need to get you a bath. And get me a bath.”
“There should be soap in the back of the Wondermobi…oh no."
Something was emerging from the carcass on the road. Something like a man, with rotten brown skin and stringy hair, and wide flaps of loose skin that hung almost like tattered clothing. It stumbled out, basalt cracking audibly under its feet. It moaned, shielding its eyes from the suns.
“Ma’am…I am going to have to ask you to run,” Emma said.
“What is that thing?”
“Ma’am, you need to run. Now. Pick a direction and don’t stop. Don’t let them touch you.”
“What? Emma, I’m not just…”
Two sunken sockets, now adjusted to the light, came to rest on the two women and one dog.
“Isabel. You need to go. Now.” The force of her delivery softened back into her normal, neutral tone. “You’ll be okay. I’ll catch up with you.”
Isabel swallowed nervously, and nodded. She couldn't really think of anything to say. With Jeremy in her arms, she ran. Ran off the road, down the hill, through the trees, and away.
Emma, running at the Rotting Man in nothing more than a casual jog, jumped up and landed a kick directly on its neck. The Rotting Man dropped to the ground. Emma did not. She planted herself on its back, swooped her arms under its withered limbs, joined her hands behind its neck, and with the full skill of the Viscount Nelson impeccably executed, cleanly severed its skull from its vertebrae, with the sound of a spoiled grapefruit trod under foot.
Emma stood up and removed the map from her pocket, its spaghetti strands still writhing. She tore it up, and tossed the scraps into the air.
The sky pulsed in shades out of space-time, and the desert was flooded with silence, and the ground crumbled into dust. The Way began to curl in upon itself like burnt paper, folding in like origami. Blurring at the edges like glasses in the rain.
More Rotting Ones pulled themselves up to the surface of the road. Men, women, children, lured by the smell of their decaying prey.
Emma stood there, and watched them approach, as the Way collapsed around her.