(Warning: Contains Snowflake)
I can’t think of a more undignified place for a hyper-evolved panda to die than a portable toilet. But there I was, overheating in a box filled with the smell of shit and that sickly sweet fruit-scented crap they put in there. My only hope lay in the cell phone clutched in my furry hand. "Pick up!"
"What do you want, Snowflake?" Kara Sparx said when she finally picked up the phone.
"Kara, where have you been?" I screamed. "We have an emergency here!"
"Snowflake, calm down. What’s the emergency?"
"You know the hologram projector you made for me? The one that makes me look human? Someone stole it!"
She sighed. "You mean the one-of-a-kind prototype?"
That statement caused my gut to twist up and a deeper element of panic seeped in. I squeaked, "Yes."
"Okay, chill. It’s not a big deal. I can probably make you another one in about a week."
"A week? What am I supposed to do for a week? I’m trapped in a portable toilet, dying of heat stroke or something!" On cue, someone tugged at the locked door. "Occupied, asshole! Look, Kara, pandas don’t sweat. This is really life threatening. I was not genetically engineered to hide in an incubator filled with shit."
"Look, I’m sorry. My home has been invaded by a pint-sized force of chaos. I can’t really spend time in my lab."
I pounded my fist on the plastic wall in frustration. "Then get Doctor Shadow to purge the chaos and come to the carnival to help me find it. I can’t go outside like this. The world isn’t ready for this much fuzzy."
"The chaos is actually my niece, and I’m trying to keep her and my sister away from the cape and cowl set if I can avoid it. What the hell are you doing at the carnival? Did you not get the memo about the carnival? It’s a bad place!"
I rested my head against the door in defeat. "Yeah, I got the memo."
"Then why are you there?"
"They have these polish sausages on a stick I couldn’t resist. They smother them in this thick barbeque sauce, and it’s just… wonderful."
"Oh, for the love of… I need to get back to work. You need to panda up and just figure out your own solution—"
"Hey, pandas are shy and gentle animals. Like me."
"Fine, then man up. You’re in the middle of a carnival. People will just think you’re in a costume. Then just walk out and bum a ride off of someone from the Protectorate. I hear Huntsman is working on getting his learner’s permit."
And then she hung up on me.
I pounded my head against the wall a few times. I had to stop when I realized that it was rocking the whole Port-a-Poo box. The last thing I needed was to have the whole thing tip over and cover me in other people’s waste.
After a failed attempt at deep cleansing breaths to calm my nerves, followed by a few moments fighting back the gag reflex, I opened the door and stumbled out into the summer sunlight. A few people glanced my way, but only children paid me much attention. My mission to rescue my disguise was thwarted by a swarm of tiny children hugging my legs and nearly head-butting my junk.
Have I mentioned I hate kids?
It took me an hour to escape the rugrats. Every damn brat wanted to have their picture taken with me. Even after I left the scene I still got stopped every ten feet by some snot-nosed runt who wanted a photo op. Finally I broke down and bought some weird carnival mask with a big hooked nose and covered in red and black squares. I don’t think it went with my Hawaiian shirt, but it freaked out the kids enough that they didn’t come near me. And then I went hunting for my hologram projector.
I hadn’t seen who had nabbed it, so I wandered through the carnival and stared hard at every person that looked remotely weird. Unfortunately for me, there were a lot of weird looking people at this place. Some of them even worked for the carnival.
Luck proved to be on my side, though, when I caught a glimpse of my illusionary human form. I knew that face almost as well as I knew my own, and it was sitting on a bench and seemed to be people watching. It was weird to look at the hologram from the outside.
I felt underwhelmed by the lack of villainy. This guy stole my most valuable personal possession, and all he used it for was people watching?
He didn’t act as though he saw me, so I angled my path to pass behind him on the bench. When I came up behind him I laid my hand on his shoulder and said, "I think you have something of mine."
I realized as my hand passed through the hologram that I wasn’t touching a flesh and blood shoulder. Instead it felt cold and wooden. And it moved freely when I touched it. I grabbed hold of it and pulled it toward me to find that I held some sort of weird Russian nesting doll. The babushka on it looked cute and grandmotherly until it split along the seam to reveal several rows of teeth.
Leave it to me to make enemies with evil tchotchkes.
The little bastard bit me. I screamed in pain and dropped the thing as I ran backward away from it. On the ground it split open and disgorged its nested contents, which all came at me with toothy maws. As I freaked out and fled from the bitey Russian dolls, it set off a chain reaction of panic around me.
Not wanting to lose my target, I looked back toward the bench in time to see the hologram dissolve and reveal a capuchin monkey surrounded by small piles of cheap toys. Some of them looked pretty old. The monkey held a fluid-filled jar with something pale floating in it. Clinging onto the monkey’s back was what looked like a mummified two-headed baby. With the illusion gone, the toys all scattered and fled into the crowd.
The monkey clambered up to the top of one of the tents, still carrying the mummy baby and the weird jar. Hanging around the monkey’s neck was my hologram projector. I moved to chase after it, but fell after a stinging pain in my ankles. The sight of my hologram projector had caused me to forget about the stupid Russian dolls, which were now swarming over my legs and biting me.
I crawled forward, while trying to kick and bat away the biting things. People ran in confusion in all directions, occasionally trampling over me. Ahead, I spotted my salvation: a "Test Your Strength" booth. Fueled by a surge of hope, I pulled myself up and staggered toward the booth.
I grabbed the hammer from where the booth operator had left it propped against the Hi-Striker, shook loose one of the dolls gnawing on my leg, and then backed up to swing my hammer down at it. It shattered with a cloud of orange smoke and the smell of sulfur. I crowed with laughter and began knocking other ones off of me to smash. Soon, I was free of the buggers.
With my legs covered in stinging bite marks, I limped off through the carnival in search of that damn dirty ape. Or monkey. Whatever.
After twenty minutes of wandering around looking for that stupid critter, I caught a glimpse of him scampering through a window into the "Museum of the Strange." On one side of the door was a suit of medieval armor that had too many arms. On the other, a statue of the Buddha holding a bundle of cigars.
I stared in confusion for a moment at the Buddha until something clicked. "Right. Cigar store Indian. Someone’s going to have to die for that."
Flipping off the Buddha as I went inside, I handed my ticket to the pizza-faced kid at the door and moved into the exhibit. The smell of formaldehyde and dust nearly overwhelmed me when I entered. Tall glass-fronted shelves filled the area, the narrow walkway forming a maze around me. Hushed conversation and laughter came from other parts of the building.
Each shelf was filled with gewgaws, artifacts from the far corners of the world and weird dead things in jars. Every item had a note card with a hand-written description in cramped letters. One shelf had a feral Kewpie doll in a cage, pacing back and forth. Another said it was the flaming sword of Manjushri. I couldn’t figure out how they kept it burning in the case. A third held a jar with a dead baby unicorn floating in the brine.
At a wide spot in the exhibit, a dark frame hung in front of an upright arcade machine. A sign next to it read, "Gaze into the Mirror of Shadows! See your darkest self! Only 25 cents!"
I’d heard the Protectorate talk about the Mirror of Shadows. They never told me what it did, but I was pretty certain it was secure in some place that wasn’t the Creepy Carnival. Overcome by curiosity, I set my mallet next to the machine, put my two bits into the slot and waited while lights played across the surface of the mirror.
After a moment the mirror showed me an image of something that looked more like a mix of panda bear and grizzly. It stood hunched over, with thick cords of muscle visible through its dense, spiky fur. The creature’s brow was furrowed, as though it was perpetually scowling, and its teeth looked more carnivore-oriented than mine.
All in all, I looked pretty badass. I wondered if I could get some genetic upgrades like that. I flexed my biceps in different directions and saw my doppelganger match my motion.
A bell chimed and a card dropped out of a slot in the bottom half of the machine. I picked it up and saw that it said, "You have now been tainted by the Mirror of Shadows. Redeem this card for a free small ice cream in the Treat Pavilion." Today was picking up.
As I pocketed the card, a frail male voice said next to me, "Can I help you?"
I jolted in alarm, but refrained from screaming. Mostly. I turned to see a thin old man in a dark suit, hunched over as though he was too thin to support his weight. Sharp chin, sharp nose, and a thin fringe of hair around his otherwise bald head left me feeling like I’d seen him in a cartoon somewhere.
On the man’s shoulder sat the monkey, the hologram projector still hanging from its neck. I screamed, staggered backward, and fumbled for my mallet, knocking it over in the process. I knelt and patted around me to find the handle of my weapon, not willing to take my eyes off the old man and his little thief.
"Yeah, you can help me by giving me back the bracelet that little fleabag has stolen."
"I believe you’re mistaken." The old man patted the monkey affectionately. "Not only does little Miko not have any fleas, but his bracelet was a gift given to him by an Egyptian princess."
"Wait a second! Kara isn’t either Egyptian or a princess. At least, not that I know of." Still no sign of the mallet. I fought hard not to look down.
He looked around the room, then shook his head. "I do not know who this Kara is, but that is not where we received this bracelet."
My fingers found the handle of my mallet, and I slowly picked it up. "Fine, but Egypt doesn’t have any princesses."
"Actually, they do. But this was not the currently living one. Our Egyptian princess has been living a state of undeath for some time."
"Then ask this undead princess where she got the bracelet," I growled.
"I’m afraid the mummification process has quite destroyed her ability to speak. But I find I do not care where the bracelet originated. It allows Miko and his little friends a degree of freedom to travel through the Carnival, and I do not have the heart to let a panda in a carnival mask take that freedom away from them."
"Then I’ll just have to take it back, Mr. Spooky-Pants," I said as I raised my mallet and charged at him.
My mallet hit the ground on the far side, after passing through him harmlessly. The momentum pulled me through the intangible form of the coot, which left me feeling cold and filled my mouth with the taste of ashes. This must be what it’s like to French kiss Mister Grey.
While I spat to get the taste out of my mouth, the monkey jumped onto my back. Soon my head was a mass of pain from the thing clawing and biting me. I ran uncontrollably, scrambling to get a grip on the little bastard. Glass shattered as I broke some of the display cases open with my flailing.
I may have also screamed. Just a little.
After an eternity of biting and clawing, I pulled the curtain climber off and threw him to the ground. The monkey scampered back to its master and up onto the creepster’s back. A noise from behind me drew my attention and I saw a handful of people staring at me. I guess the noise had attracted the other museum patrons.
"Now look what you’ve done," the old man said. He shook his head wearily. "All this mess. All these witnesses. Your disappearances are going to cause quite the stir, and the head of the Carnival will have to chide me. But what can be done?"
I tried to ask what he was talking about, but my mouth no longer wanted to form words. The room grew dark around me, and soon I felt the impact of my face on the floor as darkness completely descended.
When I woke up again, I found myself upright but unable to move. I looked down to see that some sort of thick spider web pinned me to a wall. All around me were the other people I had seen before blacking out, similarly pinned down. Some freckle-faced kid, maybe ten years old, was hanging on the wall opposite, staring at me.
While I struggled with the web the kid asked, "Are you really a panda?"
I paused, breathless from my brief struggle, and said, "Yes."
"I hear pandas don’t know how to have sex. Is that true?"
I glared at the runt. "That’s not what your mom said last night."
The kid looked over at the woman next to him in confusion. She, in turn, worked her jaw in alarm. "Mom?"
"Billy," she said, once she found her ability to speak again. "Don’t listen to anything that filthy animal says to you."
I focused my attention back on my bonds. I’ve played enough video games to know that webs are flammable. I looked around at the other captives and called out, "Does anyone here smoke?"
Everyone shook their heads except one little old lady who harrumphed and said, "I don’t think is the time to be worrying about cigarettes."
"No, I want to try and burn the web. If there’s someone who smokes here, they might be able to burn it and then free the rest of us."
"Ah, well let me see what I can do. I keep it in my brassiere, but I might be able to reach it. I used to be quite flexible in my day."
"Great!" I shouted, trying to contain my grimace.
After a few minutes, the web disappeared with a whoomp and the old broad fell to the ground face-first. Then she didn’t move.
"Oh my god," someone said. "You killed her!"
Shouts of alarm filled the room. If they hadn’t all been pinned to the walls, I might have been murdered right there. Luckily for all of us, she soon roused and slowly stood up while dusting off her floral print dress.
"Woo-wee," she said. "Knocked the wind right out of me. Who wants out next?"
Everyone, including me, began to shout, "Me! Me! Me!" The old woman shrugged at the cacophony and began melting the webbing off of the people nearest her. I was the third one to get free, and I gave the old dame a huge hug.
"Thank you so much. I’ll be sure my bosses at the Protectorate get you a reward of some kind." Everyone ooooh-ed when they heard I worked for the Protectorate. I paused a moment to let them stare at me with rightful awe before saying to the old woman, "What’s your name?"
"Ethel," she said. "Ethel Schneider. You?"
"Snowflake," I said.
"Snowflake’s a gay name," said Billy from the wall.
"Billy!" his mother yelled.
"Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay," he added sullenly.
"Can we let him down last?" I asked.
Once we were all free, with Billy sobbing as he realized I meant it when I asked for him to be let go last, I led the group through the back rooms of the museum. More web-covered bodies were trapped back here, some smaller than others. We tried freeing them, but found that the people that were trapped in them had become vegetables. I mean that metaphorically, mostly. Well, some of them looked a little like veggies when we opened the spider silk wrapping.
See, other cocoons held similar trinkets and gewgaws as I had seen flee the hologram earlier. Plus there were the occasional heads of broccoli or whatever. The objects twitched feebly when freed from their confinement, but then stopped moving. I wondered how many of those tchotchkes had once been captured carnival patrons like we had.
The museum seemed much larger than its outside appearance might have suggested, but soon we found a door back into the museum proper and made it outside. Night had long since fallen and the carnival was silent around us. We hurried toward the exit, but my departure was slowed by the sight of a small form running along the top of one of the ramshackle buildings.
I split off from the rest of the group and ran toward the monkey. I managed to catch up with it near the Ferris wheel.
"Miko," I growled.
Miko shrieked back at me.
I moved to climb up the side of the building he was on, but he threw the hologram bracelet over my head and ran off in the other direction. I tried to jump to catch it, felt it brush my extended fingertip, and then disappear into the night. It hit the ground with a sickening crack and fizzle sound. If I was worried about finding it in the dark, I didn’t need to be. My disguise as a middle-aged Caucasian was clearly visible, though it was doing some sort of cha-cha dance rather than responding to any biometric cues.
With a heavy heart, I picked up the bracelet and walked back toward the exit. The hologram shorted out halfway there, so I wasn’t followed by the dancing human anymore. Ethel waited in the parking lot. Only my car and what I assumed to be hers still remained.
"Wow, you waited for me?" I asked. It was nice to know that after all this crap, someone still cared about me.
"I wasn’t going to let a reward from the Protectorate slip through my fingers," she said. My faith in humanity dropped a notch. "Think I could meet any of them? My favorite is Stardust. He has a cute tush when he’s not wearing that armor."