When you spend weeks sleeping in a gross forest or a tiny, cramped Munchkin bed or whatever, waking up in an unexpected place eventually loses its shock value. There are only so many times you can do the whole “holy balls, it wasn’t a dream” schtick before you just kind of groan, accept that your life is shit now, and get on with your day. So even though I had hoped to see a mall interior when I regained consciousness, I was prepared to accept the red desert and two giant moons in the late afternoon sky at face value.
Giant green monsters, however, still packed a bit of a punch. So I screamed (shut up—you would have, too).
When I say “giant,” I’m not messing around, either. The thing must have been fifteen feet tall. And I need you to understand how big fifteen feet is. A regulation basketball hoop is ten feet. The very biggest elephant is maybe thirteen feet. I’m five-foot-four in my sneakers, so if you had one Arabella standing up straight, then put another Arabella on her shoulders, and a third Arabella on her shoulders, this fucking thing would still be a foot taller than all of us combined. And have almost as may arms. And probably more teeth.
Okay, I was too busy freaking the hell out to count its teeth, but it seemed like it had a lot, two of which were massive, razor-sharp tusks. It was hunched over snarling, with one bug-eye fixed on me and the other rotating to scan the horizon. Its nose slits were flared, and its antennae-ear things were… well, just kind of there, but definitely adding to the whole terrifying effect. When it poked at me with a ginormous spear, I jumped about nine feet into the air.
That part is not hyperbole. In my instinctual, desperate attempt to get on my feet, I found myself sailing into the air, and landed unceremoniously on my ass a short distance away. What the actual fuck? Apparently it wasn’t the kind of thing people normally did around these parts, because Greenzo Four Arms looked every bit as surprised as I was. I experimented with another hop, and bounded even farther away, this time managing to keep my balance as I landed. So I just kept on leaping, like some sort of really stupid superhero. I wound up sprawled on my face or back maybe one out of every four jumps, but nevertheless made good time, and soon the monster disappeared over the horizon behind me.
Once I got the hang of landing it might have been kind of fun, if I wasn’t so completely and utterly pissed. I had finished the damned book! I was supposed to be safe in my own bed at this very moment, surrounded by loved ones gaslighting me with their assurances that I had dreamed the entire thing.
But instead I was… shit, where was I, anyway? The whole place was so much more barren and half-assed than Oz had been. Had I slipped into some kind of holding area in between voyages where they kept the leftover giant nightmare monsters? Something about the red sand, the two moons, and that bug-eyed creature screamed alien landscape to me, though. I’m not sure how, but I knew in my gut, as sure as I’d ever been about anything in my life, that I was on the planet fucking Mars.
This must be some shitty, hundred-year-old science fiction novel. Did they even have science fiction a hundred years ago? Did they even have science?
Oh, crap. Suddenly I realized that, assuming I had been dumped into a whole new story, there was no movie version of this one. I had constantly second guessed myself in Oz, but at least I had some beloved-ass childhood memories of Judy Garland to clue me in on the book’s general plot. Now I didn’t even know what the book was. And if I was supposed to escape this Martian hellscape by completing the story, I’d have no way to be sure if I was right on track or going wildly off script. For all I knew, at that very moment I was supposed to be back over the horizon fighting that alien behemoth. Or making friends with it. Or baking it goddamned fudge brownies or whatever.
Most of that would probably depend on what kind of book this was. With any luck, it would be another children’s story, because despite all the messed-up shit that happened in Oz, the bulk of it wound up being weirdly civilized, which had worked out nicely for me. But I remembered seeing Sense and Sensibility and all sorts of crap like that on the list back in the mall store, so this one could be just about anything. Did they even make any old-ass, beloved children’s books that were science fiction?
The Little Prince maybe—that kid flew around on asteroids and shit, right? Man, if I had to learn French for this stupid thing, I was going to be livid.
I landed on a patch of yellow moss, stared up at the sky, and screamed at the top of my lungs. FUCK THIS PLACE. And fuck the land of Oz, and fuck that stupid fucking mall store and that sexy librarian woman with her stupid fucking glasses and her stupid fucking lies. Fuck the fact that I played by the rules and still got shit on over and over again. And fuck the fact that I couldn’t even STOP playing by the rules, because now I didn’t even know WHAT THE RULES FUCKING WERE. I’d be better off leaping right back into the desert and letting that alien eat me, or run me through with his twenty-foot spear.
Just the thought of it gave me a chill. In Oz, I had found myself in genuine peril more than once, which got me wondering what would happen if I died in the book. If it was all some sort of hallucination, I might just wake up at the mall or a creepy laboratory somewhere back in the real world. That was a pretty big if, though. And I couldn’t do it. No matter how sucky things got, I couldn’t bring myself to take that risk.
Sigh. Okay, buck the fuck up, Arabella. I rose slowly to my feet and took stock of my surroundings. I had left the red sands behind, and was now on a plain of moss-covered hills, peppered with rocky outcroppings that sparkled in the late afternoon sun. There was no foliage to be seen, which meant the easy pickings of Oz’s fruit trees were off the table. And no water that I could see, either. Off in the distance, however, I spotted a low, walled structure. So I took a step toward it—and launched two feet into the air, completed a three-quarter somersault and landed flat on my back. Jesus Christ. As if to rub my face in the fact that I was starting from scratch, this book was going to make me LITERALLY LEARN HOW TO WALK AGAIN.
Ugh. Fine. I practiced taking tiny, careful steps, and by the time I reached the structure, I was beginning to get the hang of it. For those keeping score at home, Stupid Mars Book was officially the worst.
I didn’t spot any openings in the smooth, stone wall, but it was only about four feet tall so I peeked over it. Inside the enclosure was a round building with a glass roof that covered hundreds of smooth, white eggs that were bigger around than I was. A few of them had already hatched, and the goo-covered creatures clawing their way out of their shells were equal parts disgusting and ADORABLE.
They looked like infant versions of the creature I had encountered earlier, with scrawny bodies and big, giant bobble heads. They were blinking their googly eyes in the sunlight, and crawling around on all six limbs like gross alien baby lambs. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Now there was something I could imagine showing up in an out-of-copyright kid’s book. Of course, if this was some sort of sci-fi Goldilocks scenario, that would probably mean their mother was—
I heard a soft rattling behind me and turned around to discover TWENTY GIANT GREEN ALIENS MOUNTED ON EVEN LARGER ALIEN STEEDS.
Seriously, you would not think that was the kind of thing that could motherfucking sneak up on you. Their mounts each had eight massive legs—because, sure, why not throw even more limbs on there—smooth, gray skin, and padded feet that evidently made them quiet as hell. The rider in front was thrusting his spear right at me.
So I did pretty much the only thing I could do, which was to leap up to the top of the incubator building. Since I was still getting the hang of the gravity, though, I wound up clearing the entire structure and landing a hundred feet away on the opposite side. All of which seemed to impress the aliens. A handful of them rushed forward to make sure I hadn’t been messing with their offspring, and the others kind of just pointed at me and whispered to one another.
I guess it made sense that my mad jumping skills would impress them—if they grew up on Mars they would have Mars-muscles that were designed to walk normally in this screwed-up gravity, and not do Superman jumps like me. I considered trying to leap right the hell out of there, but took a closer look at my attackers and decided against it. For one thing, I had no way of knowing how fast their mounts could travel. But even if they couldn’t actually catch me, the Martians were armed with more than just spears. They also had extremely fancy rifle things. They were like ten feet long and had scopes, which made it look like their effective range was about a hundred fucking miles.
Looking at those rifles, my heart sank. They were intricately carved and lovingly, like, molded and shit. I don’t know, however you make a rifle. I could spend a whole paragraph just describing them, which made me realize that the original author of this book probably did. The spears, too, had all sorts of fancy bronze crap all over them—whoever wrote this thing cared a lot about weapons. Which meant there was probably either going to be a whole bunch of fighting, or a whole bunch of me getting shot in the head at range.
As if to underscore the point, the Martians rode a couple of hundred yards out into the hills, leaving just one of their number—their leader, I guess—alone at the incubator. He dismounted, tossed his spear, rifle, and about a dozen smaller weapons I hadn’t even noticed yet to the ground at his feet. Then he walked slowly around the building, stopped about thirty feet away from me, and spoke.
“GROOOOOOOONK!” At least, I think he was speaking. The Martian unclasped an enormous metal armlet from one limb and held it out toward me. It was just about all he was wearing, other than a harness thing to carry his weapons, and a whole loincloth situation that covered his junk, so I guess if he was going to offer me a piece of his clothing, that’s the one I’d pick.
I slowly raised both my hands up to the height of my head, palms forward, but decided that felt more like “I surrender” than “we come in peace.” So I put one of them over my heart instead. And bowed, because bowing was a thing, right?
“Um, are we cool here?” He just stared at me. “Overtures of peace, and all that? You know, groooooonk, or whatever?” He was still holding out the armlet, so I stepped forward slowly in my half-hopping, baby deer gait, took it gingerly from his enormous hand, and hung it around my neck. Then I gave him an extremely awkward smile, and waited.
After the most uncomfortable silence of my life, he stretched out his wide, ghoulish mouth to smile back. Then he reached out with one of his lower arms, took my hand, and walked me back to his horse thing. His followers started galloping back toward us, but he signaled them to chill out, and they slowed to a walk. I guess he was trying not to spook me.
I had no idea if I should be reassured by this, or extra terrified.
He exchanged a few words with his men, including a variety of noises that sounded much more like actual language in addition to the gronks. Then he gestured toward one of them, who lifted me up with an indeterminate number of arms and plopped me down on his shiny, hairless monster horse behind him. I grabbed the Martian by the straps of his harness—because, you know, what else was I going to grab—and we turned and galloped off with the rest of the cavalcade, into the mossy hills.