The Orb is buried underneath the old tree, in the shadow of Charlotte’s Moon. That was the only clue Mr. Stamper had to the location of the Orb of the Whangdoodle, given him by a maddeningly non-specific gas cloud. It wasn’t much. The galaxy these days was thick with inhabited moons. So he did what anyone would do if they wanted to find the location of a small moon: he went to the library.
The Library of Verin Prime was the most brightly lit building on the entire planet. The designers had given due consideration to concerns like books, reading desks, and computer terminals, but their main idea had been to light the thing up like a Christmas tree. Everyone had heard stories about invisible monsters that lived in the shadows of libraries like air piranhas, and the librarians of Verin Prime were having none of that. There was not a single dark corner in the building. There were lamp-posts, glow-bulbs, skylights, roaring fireplaces: anything and everything that could possibly produce illumination had been provided. Sometimes you had difficulty doing any actual reading, with lights blazing everywhere, but at least you knew you wouldn’t be eaten by monsters hiding in the dark.
Blinking against the glare, Mr. Stamper approached the circulation desk. An alien that looked like a green elephant trumpeted a noise like “fithp” at him. “Charlotte’s Moon,” Mr. Stamper said.
“I need to know its location. I don’t have coordinates. Could you look it up, please? It’s quite important.”
“Fithp,” grumbled the alien elephant librarian as it fumbled at its computer terminal. It fired off a second syllable at him.
“I apologize, I don’t know the name of the primary planet. All I have is the name “Charlotte’s Moon.”
“Fithpifith!” exclaimed the librarian. It left its terminal and trundled off unhappily into the stacks. Some time passed, while Mr. Stamper waited at the circulation desk. He might have gone to look for it himself, but he didn’t think that was proper, now that the librarian was engaged in the search. Presently it returned with a plastic data chip. “Fithp,” it said, with pardonable satisfaction.
“Thanks,” said Mr. Stamper, and he left the library.
Moments later, a shadow fell across the circulation desk. “Fithp?” inquired the librarian, without looking up. When no response came, it did look up. “Fiithp!” it squeaked in terror.
“Charlotte’s Moon,” said a grim voice. “Now.”
The librarian scurried back to the stacks, resolving on the way that this job was really getting much too stressful. It returned with a second data chip, which it had copied. As it started to hand the chip over to the patron, a flash, brighter even than the shining library itself, lit the sky outside. The moon of Verin Prime had just exploded. The librarian dived for cover under its desk. When it emerged, the mysterious patron had gone. So had the chip. The librarian decided that it was definitely time to retire.
For previous stories in this arc, go here.
This is what it’s like to be Gaseous Girl, right now.
You’re a flying brick. You can also breath fire.
That should be impressive.
You survived a car thrown at your head. It was a tiny little green smartcar but it still counts. You walked away. The car? Scrap.
That should be impressive.
You can fly, so traffic jams mean nothing for you. You can wave at planes from the outside. You’re Peter Pan in a cape.
That should be impressive.
No one takes you seriously.
Everyone’s a comedian, and everyone’s riffing off the same thing. Gas jokes. Always.
The Walking Whoopie Cushion, they call you. Super Stinker. She Who Dealt It.
You explain that your power isn’t just limited to gastric emissions, that it means you could, if you wanted, manipulate one of the four fundamental states of matter. You’re a walking chemical weapon, you could explain.
They never get it.
What really harrows your soul is that the villains don’t respect you.
Not Thunderdomestic. Not the Malevolent Med-Student. Not Titanium Walrus. Not even Crudmuffin, and that hurts. The man makes exploding baked goods, but he doesn’t respect you. That. Hurts.
So you’ve got something to prove. You will make them take you seriously.
You take risks you shouldn’t, push yourself too far, because even too far isn’t quite enough yet.
And so, when you could go to a quiet cemetery to track down an elderly ghost who may know about the missing person case you’re on…you put that off.
Instead, you respond to an emergency call to attack the Shrieking Tree Demon.
It’s taken down better heroes then you. You’re a flying brick, but you’re not invulnerable. Some things still hurt.
Natalie is invulnerable, and she’s on the way. You could wait for her.
But really, you can’t.
Because Natalie gets respect. Gaseous Girl doesn’t.
So you throw yourself at the Shrieking Tree Demon, breathing fire. It smacks you away into the stratosphere like a Ping-Pong ball.
Still, you think, finally, as ice forms over your boots, as you pass out from lack of air, maybe they’ll respect you.
Sarah May Raxenpaxerflirk was deeply distressed. She had dealt with the occasional irate customer at the Lady Amber, and she had a vague idea that she might have to deal with upset people in her chosen career in medicine. But she had never anticipated robots with laser cannons. Her tentacles were still shaking.
“There, there,” Constance said absently, looking over the scorched metal remains of the robot. “You’ll be fine. Have some tea.”
“Fine?” Sarah May said. “FINE? I nearly got killed by a robot! In my living room!” She said this as if it would’ve been less distressing to be killed by a robot outside of her living room.
“First time, is it? You’ll live.”
“First… time….” Sarah May contemplated, horror-stricken, the prospect that this might happen again. “I think,” she said weakly, “I need to lie down.”
“Good idea,” Constance said briskly. She whisked into movement, bundling Sarah May off to her sleeping pod, and then whipping up some tea in the kitchen with angelic speed. Soon the squidling waitress had drifted off into happy unconsciousness, and Constance could think.
She had to give the robot points; it looked like a legitimate lunar constable. From its badge to the regulation color-coded marks on its metal arms, she could well understand why Sarah May had been deceived. But Constance knew it was wrong. The robot policemen, on this moon anyway, had never been issued with plasma arm cannons. Furthermore, each one had been installed with an Ethicator Circuit that prevented it from doing things like using excessive force, or violating warrant procedures. Constance checked quickly, behind the robot’s left optical sensor. The Ethicator Circuit wasn’t there. She couldn’t tell whether it had been removed, or never installed at all. “So…” she summarized to herself, “someone out there wants the Orb of the Whangdoodle so much that they sent a fake robot policeman after a random waitress, just because she overheard someone else talking about it. That’s not good.”
She didn’t realize what she had done. Constance didn’t give a fig for rules such as not saying the names of things evil or otherwise. She had gleefully named all sorts of unspeakable horrors, and then knocked them clean into last Wednesday with her exploding halo. So she didn’t think this would be any different. “Right,” she said, and her eyes lit with happiness. “There’s only one thing to do. Someone’s trying to find the Orb of the Whangdoodle? Okay. I’ve got to find it first!”
At that moment something kra-KOOMED in the distance. A siren howled a frantic warning. “Huh,” Constance said. “There must be an air raid. Funny, I didn’t think this moon was in a battle zone-“
A sheet of white flashed past the window, The floor shook violently beneath Constance’s boots. “Okay, closing time, last call!” She seized Sarah May by the tentacle, startling her awake, and then spread her wings. They escaped, but only just. As Constance soared skyward, Sarah May’s little moon disintegrated below.
Madeleine’s boots scuffed noisily on the carpet of the dusty auditorium. Her hand brushed against a metal railing, and she felt a slight spark. Static electricity. Wasn’t that fun. Madeleine would’ve preferred to meet her source in a bright coffee shop, with lots of people milling about with their lattes, but her source was a ghost. He was, therefore, contractually obligated to meet her in creepy places like abandoned theaters or crumbling mansions. The place couldn’t even be brightly lit; apparently ghosts weren’t keen on shiny lights. So, the theater was so dark that she could barely make out the pale outline of her source floating eerily about the stage. “Whyyyyy…” it intoned, “have you disturbed my spirit from its eternal slumber?”
“Oh, stuff it,” Madeleine said. “It’s me, remember? I’m not a Halloween tourist. I know who you are. You’re a two-bit burglar from 1856 who tried to break in some ancient tomb, completely ignored the warnings that said “hey, don’t rob this thing,” and got cursed by a mummy to roam the Earth forever, blah blah blah. Should’ve paid attention. Reap what you sow, and all that. My heart bleeds.”
“Youuuuu….” howled the Baleful Burglar, “take all the fun out of things.”
“Story of my life. So .Here’s the deal. You know people on the other side. Anyone you know who’s been ripped out of the time space continuum lately?”
He considered. “There was a Miss Pamela…”
“Percy, yeah. She’s my client. She’s a ghost now too. Thing is, no one remembers her being alive. No one. You see my problem. You can’t have a ghost when the living person didn’t exist, and I hate when people suddenly go non-existent without reason. So. You’ve been around. You know anyone else who had the same thing happen?”
The Baleful Burglar sat down grumpily in a chair. “I do not see why I should divulge the eternal secrets of the great beyond.”
Madeline glared. She hated using her powers for such skeezy things as interrogation, but she didn’t see how she could get him to talk otherwise. You couldn’t threaten a ghost physically. You couldn’t offer to go easy on him later, put in a good word with the police. He was already dead. The worst had pretty well happened. But there were a few things you could do. “You want to keep haunting this theater, yeah? Nice place, perfectly creepy, just the thing? Suppose this theater caught fire.”
“You would not dare,” said the ghost, alarmed.
“Wanna bet? I’m Gaseous Girl. I have a biological hazard in my throat, and I’m not afraid to use it. One burp, and this place goes.” She swiveled towards a nearby curtain. “Ten seconds.”
“You would not dare.”
“Five seconds.” She grabbed a soda can from her belt, popped the tab, and took a quick drink as a primer. She felt the bubbles fizzing all the way down. “Better talk, or your haunt’s getting torched.”
“You would be committing an arson!” the Baleful Burglar protested. “That is a crime!”
“Public service. This place is condemned anyway. No one would care. Three.”
“I would haunt your dreams forever in retribution for this outrage!”
Madeline rolled her eyes. “From ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us. One. That’s it.” She prepared to blast fire at the curtain.
“Stop!” cried the Baleful Burglar. “I will tell you. I knew of one other person who suffered the same fate as Miss Percy. His name was Edward Brook-Wilkins, and he haunts the cemetery on Seventh Street.”
“”I tried to forgive them,” Constance said piously, “But you see, that was before I became an angel. So naturally I had to struggle with that. I mean, come on, it’s a freakin’ dinosaur dig in South Dakota. I expected the dinosaurs to be, y’know, dead. No one told me one of ‘em might come alive. I mean, yeah, I’d had a drink or two or six, but-“
“Ahem,” rumbled Bernard, Constance’s supervisor, just as several of the littler angels were getting interested. “Perhaps, Constance, you could return to the fundamentals of being a guardian?”
“Sure,” said Constance, going back to her flannelgraph. She’d been at it for some time now, so much that she was now teaching classes, but she still couldn’t help digressing into stories about her human life. With a sigh, she resumed.
“Buses. Your planets with teleporters, now, don’t have this issue, but a lot of places still do, so listen up. Sooner or later, your charge is gonna try to get run over.” She stuck a small cutout of a yellow bus on her flannelgraph. “You, obviously, can’t let that happen. If you see a bus heading towards your person, pull ‘em back. By force if you have to, though that’s kinda last resort material. Go subtle if you can. Stall, divert, make ‘em think their long lost lover is coming the other way, whatever. I had someone hit by a bus once. It’s not fun.”
“But,” asked a timid angel, “didn’t they get resurrected later?” She had heard Constance tell that particular story several times.
Constance rounded on her. “Yeah, but you can’t count on that! Resurrections don’t come easy, you know. Especially not with humans. They can’t regenerate, and they die easy. If you see that bus coming for your person, you have to think it’s playing for keeps. Got it?”
The angel nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. No resurrections from buses. But what about taxi cabs?”
Constance looked thoughtful. “Taxi cabs. Now there’s an interesting story….”
What the story would’ve been, her class never found out. Constance’s halo, which she had hung up on a spike of cloud to be out of the way, suddenly began flashing bright red. “Class dismissed!” Constance yelled, snatching for the halo and springing into the air. Red alerts, she had told her students a hundred times, were serious. It was an all-wings-on-deck situation. It meant your charge was in extreme peril.
Sarah May Raxenpaxerflirk lived in a dingy grey room in a dingier greyer house on the outskirts of the small moon. She longed for a nicer place, especially on nights coming home after a long shift at the Lady Amber. She felt so tired on these nights. Her every tentacle ached as she made her way upstairs. She crept into her small room and threw herself on her sleeping pod with a gurgling sigh. Sometimes she wondered whether medical school was worth it.
Then she heard a beep from her door. “Who is it?” she called, a little nervously. She only had a few friends, and most of them were back on her home planet. She hadn’t had a social call yet.
“Lunar Constable Jenkins, ma’am,” came a metallic voice. “Need to ask you a question about one of your customers.”
Sarah May looked through her peephole. Sure enough, she saw the glint of the robot policeman’s badge. Robots were the mainstay of the Lunar Constabulary. With a sigh, she typed in a code, and the door slid open. “Which one?” she said blearily
“Space otter. Talking to a cloud of gas.”
“Oh!” Sarah May exclaimed, because she actually did remember him. “Yes, he was very nice, tipped well, no trouble at all.”
“Did you hear any of their conversation?”
“Well, no, not really…” Sarah May said, furrowing her brow. “I had other tables. The otter did say something about a Norb, but I didn’t really catch it.”
“You mean,” said the robot, “An Orb.”
Sarah May’s eyes widened as she understood. “Not the Orb of the Wha-”
The robot’s arm cannon rose, crackling with plasma, and aimed in her direction. “Sorry, ma’am. Wrong place, wrong time.”
Sarah May Raxenpaxerflirk started to scream. Then there was a golden flash, and a shower of sparks. A halo seemed suddenly to be growing out of the robot’s chest. It fell over in a heap of wrecked metal.
“Robots,” Constance said, brushing off her wing. “I’ll have to add robots to the lecture.”
It is not an easy thing to investigate someone’s disappearance, but it’s exceptionally difficult when they never existed to begin with. Madeleine’s day had started with a call to a room where a woman, Pamela Percy, had stepped out a window and vanished into thin air. Pamela had been a famous television star. Only by the afternoon, no one remembered her show or her face. By that evening, all records of her existence had blipped out of the universe. Madeleine had gone back to the room. It was now occupied by an elderly retiree who’d sworn he hadn’t left it in five years. Madeleine checked with the building super to confirm. She had spoken with him that very morning, along with the police. Now he had no memory of her or her law enforcement associates.
Madeleine pondered the case on her drive home. She could’ve flown, but at that hour the sun would’ve been in her eyes, and she hated that. She also hated time things, and this was definitely a time thing. Someone had tinkered with the blasted continuum, and wiped poor Pamela from existence. But why? Who had she ticked off? Madeleine started to wonder how, if Pamela had never existed, she could have upset someone enough to cause her non-existence, but then she decided emphatically that she was not going down that route. That was exactly why she hated time things. So, as the empty countryside flew by past her window, she pushed the case from her mind and turned on some music.
An old wooden sign came up in the beams of her headlights. She didn’t bother reading it; she had seen that sign every night for the past three years working Edison City. It hadn’t changed. It advertised that the suburb ahead of her had was home of the state basketball champion of ’63. The suburb was many years past its glory days, and the basketball team had never made it back to the heights, but the sign hung on. Madeleine barely glanced at it as she went by. Then she slammed on her brakes and skidded to the side of the road. Pamela Percy was standing right next to that sign.
Madeleine leaped from her car and dashed up to her missing person. “Where’ve you been?” she demanded. “And what happened-” Then she noticed that Pamela was transparent.
“Ooooooo,” Pamela wailed enthusiastically at her. “I am the spirit of Pamela Percy, come from beyond the grave to-“
“Knock it off,” Madeleine said. She didn’t have much patience with ghosts. They were far too melodramatic for her taste. “Right. How’d you die, and how come no one remembers you?”
The ghost looked wounded. “No one? At all? But.. my ratings… my show…. I worked so hard.”
“Sorry. But you don’t exist anymore. You’ve just gone from the time stream. At least I thought you had. Guess something stuck around.”
Pamela sighed ghostily. “Great. I get erased from time, I’m dead, and for a haunt I’m stuck with a little patch of road way out in the boonies. And no one even remembers my show! It’s so not fair!”
“Life’s not fair, Pamela,” Madeleine said. “Look at me. I get superpowers, right? The usual thing. Squished a radioactive bug, genes went wrong, chemical accident, whatever. But do I get the cool powers? No. I get your basic flying brick combo. And I can burp fire.”
Pamela snickered. “You’re Gaseous Girl? Armpits of Armageddon? That was, like, hilarious.”
“Laugh it up, ghostie. At least I exist.”
The poor spirit’s laughter dissolved into tears. Madeleine felt a tad guilty. “Look,” she said, not unkindly, “I’ll figure out who erased you, and try to get you back. No promises. Best I can do. Okay?”
“Okay,” Pamela sniffled, wiping her transparent eyes with an ethereal tissue.
Just once, Madeleine wished she could take a normal client. A plain old murder. A missing cat. Anything. Just once.
This story was written for the inaugural writing challenge by Suzanne of Apopletic Apostrophes, posted at her new writing site. I figured I would join the party. Also, since I’m inordinately fond of story arcs, this one relates back to Disappearance. I did try to make it reasonably self-contained, though.
In the span of a breath, everything changed. Oswald Stamper had intended to drop in at his usual watering hole, a crowded spaceport tavern known as the Dingy Duckling. He had an old friend there, a salty sea dog of a captain named Marian, and he had meant to ask her what she knew about the whereabouts of the Orb of the Whangdoodle. But when he rounded the corner and saw Marian being dragged into a police cruiser (all the while squawking about her rights and loudly insisting that she’d never teleported under the influence), Oswald decided that he should try more respectable sources of information. So he turned right back again, went home, and pulled out his old Corps uniform. He hated the thing, and its memories, but one didn’t simply walk into the Lady Amber Club without proper dress.
At seven that evening, Mr. Stamper presented himself at the doors of the Lady Amber, his green uniform in tip top shape, glistening in medals. The head waiter bowed politely, confirmed his reservation, and ushered him to a seat in a small alcove, where he and his guest would not be visible to the majority of the restaurant’s guests. A second member of the wait staff appeared, and gurgled respectably at him while producing a wine list. By coincidence, her name was Sarah May Raxenpaxerflirk, older sister to Melinda, and she had taken the job at the Lady Amber as a way to put herself through medical school. Mr. Stamper made his selection (Centauri ’47, a very good year), and Sarah May withdrew.
Moments later, the being he had been waiting for drifted into the seat opposite him. It was a highly evolved and intelligent cloud of gas, which had developed the ability to project thought outward so it could communicate with others. Greetings, it projected politely. Have you been waiting long?
“Not really,” said Mr. Stamper. He could observe social rules when circumstances required, and so he made agreeable small talk about the weather, the dinner, and the cloud’s health. Meanwhile, Sarah May had arrived with the ordered bottle. She uncorked it carefully with her tentacle, and poured Mr. Stamper’s drink. Then she hesitated. How did one pour a drink for a sentient cloud of gas? Did it even drink? Should she ignore it, or would that be unforgivably rude? Sarah May reminded herself of medical school, gathered her courage, and poured an appropriate amount into its glass. The gas cloud flickered warmly red at her; she hoped that meant it was gratified. She then retreated decorously, as the conversation continued.
As the gas cloud condensed slowly over its drink, Mr. Stamper decided the time for small talk had ended. “I need your help,” he began. “I’m looking for the Orb.”
Which one? There are, you know, quite a few.
“The Orb of the Wha-“
You should not say that! interrupted the gas cloud, aghast. No one may speak the name of the Orb That Should Not Be Named!
“I got that,” said Mr. Stamper. “Fine. So where is it?”
The gas cloud looked a little piqued. It had expected to be asked about clues, and be given dark assurances that the Orb must not fall into the wrong hands. It liked the mystery of these things. Mr. Stamper always tried to take the fun out of things. The Orb is buried underneath the old tree, in the shadow of Charlotte’s Moon.
“Good enough. Thanks,” the space otter said. Then he paused. “Which moon?”
“Yes, you said that, but which moon is Charlotte’s Moon?”
Hers is, obviously.
Mr. Stamper sighed. The cloud just had to be cryptic. “You wouldn’t happen to have star coordinates, maybe the location of a nearby hyperspace lane, that sort of thing?”
That, projected the gas cloud smugly, is all I know. The old tree in the shadow of Charlotte’s Moon. There you will find the Orb.
The space otter knew he would get nothing else useful. He motioned at Sarah May and requested the bill. Mr. Stamper left a reasonably generous tip, which delighted Sarah May. As he and the gas cloud left, Sarah May gurgled her cheeriest, “Thank you for your visit, and do see us again!” Little did she know that she never would.