The red-eye from somewhere or other had landed and a stream of people would soon be flowing through our part of the terminal. I realized that if I didn't finish closing up fast, I'd probably get stuck dealing with them.
Wuju waited for me to slide the glass doors closed and collect any stray glasses off the tables for washing.
"Where was I?" he asked, once I was back behind the bar, although I suspected he knew damn well where he'd left off.
"Somebody hit you," I supplied.
"Yes, that would've been Agent Cheshire," said Wuju thoughtfully.
"I've gotten ahead of myself."
"Did you say Cheshire? As in Cheshire Cat?"
Wuju glanced down at his glass, which was empty again. I refilled it. I had lost count of how many he'd had, but -- his wild story aside -- he still seemed completely sober. I'd been watering them down a little bit, but not that much. I myself had switched to coffee.
"Yes," said Wuju, in answer to my question. "Like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. Now I won't go so far as to say Through the Looking Glass was a work of non-fiction, but Mr. Carroll definitely did know some stuff that the rest of us didn't when he wrote it. So did Robert Heinlein when he wrote The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. Kind of makes you wonder." He took a swallow of his drink. "Anyway...."
When I came to, I wasn't really sure whether or not I'd come to because I couldn't see and I couldn't move which really isn't that great an improvement over being unconscious. In fact, considering the fact that I had a huge throbbing lump on the back of my head and I felt like tossing my cookies, I would probably have to say that it was not at all an improvement. But at least now, I could hear voices.
A woman's voice with a slight British accent: "You hit him pretty hard."
A throaty purring voice: "Sympathy? I hadn't expected that."
The woman laughed harshly: "Hardly. But he's not much use to us dead."
A nasal voice: "Are you kidding? Think of the morale boost!"
A slow groggy-sounding voice: "It would be even better if we put him on trial for his crimes and then execute him."
The woman's voice: "Yes, yes. That's all very beamish, but I'm concerned about potential repercussions. This is the head of the Secret Police we have here. It could get hot for us."
Slow Groggy-Sounding Voice: "Well, as my Aunt Gamera used to always say, If you can't stand the heat, don't play with the afterburner."
Throaty Purring Voice: "There's something in that for all of us."
While this conversation was going on, I gradually pieced my situation together. I was tied to a chair, gagged and blindfolded. My shirt was gone and there was blood drying on the back of my neck -- at least, it felt like blood. I felt sick. I had a faint hope that the people around me were talking about someone else, but it seemed likely that they had mistaken me for someone they really, really disliked. Very probably my very charming double.
"Perhaps I should have just killed him on the spot," suggested Throaty Purring Voice.
"It's better that you didn't," said the woman. "As I was saying, this is the head of the Secret Police. The Bird won't let us kill him off without some sort of bloody retaliation."
"She'd have to find us first," said Throaty Purring Voice. "She may have the eyes of an eagle, but She hasn't caught us yet."
"You think like a cat," commented the woman. "All you see is predator and prey. What's more likely is She'll have Her thugs start a wave of terrorism and put our name on every single act. By time She's done, our name'll be mud and everyone'll be after us."
There was an uncomfortable silence.
"Overgrown chicken'd do it too," said Nasal Voice.
"Then we get as much information out of him as we can and kill him, making it look like an accident," suggested Throaty Purring Voice.
"Probably won't get that much out of him," said the woman's voice. "Head of the Secret Police is pretty much a figurehead position. They just give the job to the meanest, scariest, most sadistic bastard they can find. The people who really run the Secret Police don't have names or faces."
The phrase meanest, scariest, most sadistic bastard ambled around in my head for a few seconds. They were talking about my double; the monster who had the woman I loved. That thought alone was enough to cause me to struggle heroically against my bonds. I managed to tip the chair over and knock myself out again.
When next I regained consciousness, I was still tied to a chair and blindfolded, but this time the gag was gone and somebody was shaking me. That turned out to be a mistake, because this time I did throw up.
"Arrgh! Did you see that?!" cried Nasal Voice. "I'll kill him!"
"If you kill him," advised the woman's voice, "we won't get anything out of him."
|"'No, no!' said the Queen.|
|'Sentence first -- verdict
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
"I've already gotten plenty out of him!" shouted Nasal Voice. "Let me at him! Let me at him!"
"Interrogate first, execute later," advised Throaty Purring Voice. "It's always worked best that way."
"Just look at my pants," grumbled Nasal Voice.
"Go get yourself cleaned up, Jack," suggested the woman.
That set Nasal Voice off again. "You used my name!" he screamed. "You used my name! You're not supposed to do that!"
It sounded like somebody slapped him.
"Used my name in front of the enemy," he muttered sulkily. "Some underground freedom force this is." I heard him stomp off, presumably to change his pants.
A new voice spoke up. This one was an electronic voice that sounded like it was being played just a little bit too fast. "If we're all quite finished being silly, perhaps we can get some information out of our prisoner."
"Point taken," said the woman's voice. "Go ahead."
I heard Throaty Purring Voice next: "In the past three hours, I have observed massive troop movements in and around The Jubjub Bird's Aerie. Why is that, Woo-Julanski?"
Before I could formulate some sort of reply other than a groan, the electronic voice spoke up: "My monitoring of restricted military computer transactions confirms this. Ninety percent of The Bird's ground assault troops are currently engaged in maneuvers using live ammunition. All aerial fighters have been ordered to stand armed and ready for a first strike against an unknown target. All war-related industries have been ordered to increase production by seventy-five percent over the next forty-eight hours, while all other industries have been ordered to cut production by a like amount. All prisoners guilty or suspected of A, B, C, D and E-class offenses have been ordered executed by twelve hundred hours today. What do you know about this, Woo-Julanski? Input, please."
I managed a moan.
"Answer the questions, Woo-Julanski!" hissed the woman's voice.
"Who are you? Where am I?" I managed. My head was pounding, my brain was trying to rotate inside my skull, and my tongue felt about three sizes too big for my mouth and tasted awful.
"You're not here to ask questions, scum!" snapped the woman. "You will answer them!"
"Why is The Bird readying for war?" asked Throaty Purring Voice.
"I dunno," I tried. "I don't...."
The woman's voice oozed venom. "Understand this, Chief of Secret Police Martin Woo-Julanski, you are going to die and there is not a soul in the Realm who will shed a single tear for you. Whether you die well or you die messily is entirely dependent on how cooperative you are. Is that clear?"
"You've got the wrong Woo-Julanski," I said. "I'm not from here, I'm from the other side of the mirror."
"Yeah, right." Nasal Voice was back.
"Really," I said. "You want my reflection, not me."
"Have you any idea how mad that sounds?" inquired Throaty Purring Voice.
Given what I'd been through in the past few hours, actually, I didn't. "It's the truth," I insisted. "I'm not the chief of anybody's secret police, I'm a college student. I make donuts part-time. I'm just someone who managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong face."
"You got that last part right, Woo-Julanski," said the woman coldly. Boy, did she hate my counterpart. I wondered what he'd done to earn it.
"Please believe me," I said. "It's my double you're after, not me."
Electronic Voice spoke up again: "You are Woo-Julanski, Martin Miles. Your physical description, fingerprints and retina scans all confirm this. You were born November 25 of the Twenty-Fifth Year of the Reign of The Bird. When you were fifteen, you turned your older brother and sister in to the Secret Police on a trumped-up E-class felony for which they are currently serving nine consecutive life terms apiece in the mustard mines of Mome-Rath. The next year, you had the rest of your family and half your graduating class incarcerated on similar charges. Upon graduation from high school, you were selected to serve in The Jubjub Bird's Secret Police. Through treachery and no fewer than seventeen suspected assassinations of your superiors, you achieved the rank of Chief of The Bird's Secret Police at the age of twenty, making you the youngest person ever to hold that position. You have been in office for the past two years, seven months and fourteen days. This term surpasses the record set by your late predecessor, Secret Police Chief R. Jefferson Stoles III, by six months and six days. Do you need to hear more, Woo-Julanski? Input, please."
"I don't even know who this Bird is," I said.
There was a collective stunned gasp.
Nasal Voice was the one to break the ensuing silence. "He's lying! Kill him! Kill him!"
"No," said the woman's voice. "What he just said is, by The Bird's own law, blasphemy; a B-class felony. Woo-Julanski's done a lot of things, but blaspheme against The Bird? He hasn't got the spheres for it."
"You know as well as I do that the sleetharn'll do anything to save his hide," argued Nasal Voice. "That's how his kind are."
"There is no one Woo-Julanski would not betray to The Bird," commented Throaty Purring Voice. "The question is, would he betray The Bird Herself?"
"It's a trick!" insisted Nasal Voice.
"Look," I tried, sensing an opening.
"Are you or are you not Martin Woo-Julanski?" demanded Nasal Voice.
"Yes," I answered, "but...."
"Then you are Woo-Julanski, head of The Bird's Secret Police?"
"Then you deny being Woo-Julanski?"
"Then you admit denying that you are not Martin Woo-Julanski of the Secret Police!"
"Do you or do you not deny admitting that you are not who you say you are?" demanded Nasal Voice.
"Jack," said the woman tiredly, "shut up."
"You used my name again!" exploded Jack. "You're not supposed to use our names in front of the enemy! How would you like it if I used your name? Huh? How 'bout it, Big Al?! There, now I said your name, Big Al! Hah!"
"Jack," said the woman calmly.
"You do know my name isn't really Big Al. It's a code name," she told him.
"A code name?"
There was a pause. "What about you?" demanded Jack.
"Code name," affirmed Throaty Purring Voice.
"Ditto,"answered Electronic Voice.
"Is everyone here using a code name except me?! When did we start doing that? Why don't people tell me these things!?" This was punctuated by an incoherent scream and the sound of footsteps racing several laps around the room in futile rage.
"Where were we?" asked Throaty Purring Voice.
"I was saying there's a chance our prisoner may be telling the truth," said Big Al. "That bit about being from the other side of the mirror suddenly rang true to me."
"How so?" asked Throaty Purring Voice.
"According to my grandmother, my great-grandmother was originally from the other side of the mirror," said Big Al.
"Really?" asked Throaty Purring Voice.
"I don't know," said Big Al. "It's a very old legend about worlds that can be reached by passing through a mirror. Not many people know it, what with The Bird having outlawed all history predating Her Reign."
She addressed me: "All right, Woo-Julanski or whoever you are. If you're not who we think you are, then explain to us who you really are and what you're doing in the Realm of The Bird. Start from the beginning and make it good, very good."
"Okay, like I said, I come from the other side of the looking glass," I said. "I have a friend over there who knows some magic and we were trying to bring a woman named Janet Blake from this side of the mirror over to my side. The trick worked, but right after she materialized, my reflection -- the Woo-Julanski you're after -- grabbed her and brought her back here. I came to rescue her before the spell fails and the backlash destroys this city and its counterpart on the other side of the looking glass."
"Describe this Janet Blake," said Big Al apparently unimpressed by my story of impending doom.
"About my age, blonde, five-foot-six or so, blue eyes," I offered.
"Check into it," she told someone else in the room.
There was a mechanical hum broken by the occasional buzz of a disk drive, and then Electronic Voice spoke: "I've accessed this year's census. There is a Blake, Janet fitting the given description living at 215 Potiphar Drive, Apartment 101. She is an artist by profession and has no criminal record."
That was an interesting bit of information, considering that the Janet I knew freely admitted to having no artistic talent whatsoever. Considering the differences between me and my Mirrorverse counterpart, I was more than a little concerned about any personality quirks that his world's Janet might be waiting to surprise me with.
"Go scout out her apartment," ordered Big Al.
"On my way," replied Throaty Purring Voice.
"Check the police blotter," said Big Al. "If she has been picked up, there'll be a record."
There was more humming and buzzing. "According to recent police records, Blake, Janet was picked up by the SOBs at five hundred twenty-seven hours today. No charges filed."
"Look," I said, "I'm on a tight schedule. If I don't get her back within eighteen hours, it could be too late." Then a thought occurred to me. "My God, it might already be too late! What time is it? How long was I unconscious?"
"You were out for an hour or so," answered Big Al. "It's half-past seven right now."
I sighed. I was relieved to hear that there was still plenty of time to complete my mission. The fact that Big Al had answered my question instead of saying we'll ask the questions or some such also made me optimistic.
"I don't suppose you could untie me?" I couldn't feel my hands anymore.
"We're just being careful," said Big Al. "If you are who you claim to be, then surely you can understand that. A little wait while we check on your credentials won't kill you."
"Unless it turns out that you've denied being who you admitted you aren't!" shouted Jack from some corner of the room.
"Credentials!" I said. "That's it! Check my wallet. You'll find a California driver's license and my student I.D. And there's a small mirror that's my link to the other side!" My wallet, watch and other belongings had been taken from me while I was unconscious; hopefully, my captors had them.
"Won't hurt to look," admitted the woman. "Can you bring that stuff over here?"
There was the sound of footsteps, then I heard Jack: "Hey!" he exclaimed. "Look at this!"
"What have you got there?" asked Big Al.
"I think it's money, but there are pictures of humans on it. The Bird's not even on most of 'em," said Jack. "And the letters and numbers on everything in his wallet is backwards! Even on his wristwatch!"
"What about the mirror?" asked Big Al.
"It's metal," said Jack. "Doesn't seem...."
The smell of jet fuel wafted into the room and I heard Slow Groggy Voice speak for the first time since I'd been ungagged: "I have the high altitude survey report. It's not good."
"I didn't expect it to be," said Big Al. "But hold off on it for a minute. We've got an interesting new development with our prisoner."
"Let him go." Throaty Purring Voice had returned. "I checked out Janet Blake's apartment and her studio and there was no sign or scent of SOB presence, however, I did detect the distinct odor of magickal residue, possibly from the conjuration our prisoner described." He paused. "Woo-Julanski, the one we wanted, is downtown preparing to preside over the executions."
"Good enough for me," said Big Al. "Untie him, Jack."
"I still don't like it," he grumbled as I felt his clammy hands fumbling with my bonds.
As my blindfold came off, I finally saw my captors' faces. Big Al, the woman who seemed to have been in charge throughout the whole fiasco, looked like a life-long hardcase. She was tall and blonde, and sported an eye patch and a sneer. She was wearing a flak jacket over a torn black tee-shirt that had a red A for anarchy across the front. She also had on a pair of dirty army pants, biker boots, and a dangerous-looking spiked leather belt was slung loosely around her waist.
Standing next to her was a seven-foot bipedal turtle. His leathery skin was pea soup-green in color and his gray-green shell was scarred and pitted from past battles. Gleaming chrome pipes jutted from his sides and pointed towards the floor. I could make out some of the slogans stenciled on his shell despite the backwards lettering: DEATH FROM ABOVE BEEP-BEEP YOUR ASS I FEEL THE NEED: THE NEED FOR SPEED! He looked at me with a sloe-eyed reptilian gaze.
Next to the turtle stood a silent man in a hockey mask and a trenchcoat. He had a power drill in one hand and a belt heavy with tools hung from his waist.
Just behind them lurked a figure who immediately made me think of Puss-in-Boots. He was dressed like a French musketeer, complete with high boots and cape. His wide-brimmed hat hid his face in shadow except for a pair of luminous yellow cat's eyes.
The last person in the room stood about four-foot-six and was dressed in military olive drabs. His pinched face was eggshell white with a black club tattooed on his left cheek and a backwards capital J on his right cheek.
"Well, it seems you're no longer the enemy, so let me introduce you to the Knave of Hearts Underground Revolutionary Front," offered the woman. "I'm called Big Al." She patted the little man on the head with one hand... "This is my aide-de-camp, the Jack of Clubs." ...and rapped on the turtle's shell with the other. "The Mach Turtle, that's M-A-C-H, not M-O-C-K. The gentleman in the toolbelt and hockey mask is the Carpenter." The Carpenter touched his drill to his mask in a silent salute.
"That's Agent Cheshire lurking in the shadows," continued Big Al. A slightly frightening white-toothed grin appeared in the darkness beneath Agent Cheshire's glowing yellow eyes as he was introduced.
"And over there on the table is the DOSmouse," finished Big Al gesturing at a wooden table. On the table was a coffeemaker, a personal computer and a laser printer. A gray mouse -- not a furry rodent, but a mechanical device for moving a cursor around a computer screen -- rolled out to the edge of the table.
"Pleased to meet you,"said the mouse.
"I wish I could say the same," I groaned touching the lump on the back of my head and wincing.
"I apologize for your mistreatment," said Big Al, "but it was a mistake anyone could have made. We can make it up to you."
"We can help you rescue your Janet Blake," said Big Al, "and you can help us overthrow The Bird!"
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