By Sean Michael Nelson | Cover Art by Rhys Edwards
When we last left our daring hero, Dash Fantastico, he was venturing deep into the headquarters of the dreaded Scarlet Syndicate to prevent the firing of the evil Chairman Grop’Th’Tul Chang’s Neutron Death Ray at the intergalactic capital of Von Braun City on Earth’s artificial moon Nova Luna.
Who knows what dangers await Dash as he courageously makes his way through the maze-like corridors of Chang’s bureaucratic barracks…
…“It sure is dark in here!” Dash exclaimed, entering what an information kiosk had told him was Chairman Chang’s command centre. “One can only imagine what nefariousness could be afoot when committed unseen in these profane depths. I’ll put an end to Chang’s evil scheme or my name isn’t Dash D. Fantastico!”
*FLASH* – the lights in the room went up, and the gates went down. Dash now realized he was on the ashen field of a large stone coliseum. Above him, seated around the arena, were the party members of the Scarlet Syndicate.
“Curses!” Dash muttered. “Misled by the misinformation from a malcontent ambassadorial machine!”
“So, you’ve finally arrived, ‘fellow traveller’!” The grating accent and the sickly purple flesh it came from meant the voice could only belong to Chairman Chang. He rose from his seat. “I take it you found our Visitor Information Desk most informative, ha ha ha!”
“You won’t get away with this!” Dash said, “We’ll find a way to dismantle your Death Ray before you fire it! The Federation will never stand for this!”
“Oh Dash, you feeble-minded fool, there is no Death Ray. That was just a silly ruse to lure you here. The Scarlet Syndicate has long since relinquished the cause of intergalactic domination, having been foiled by you on so many occasions. Our sole aim since episode 12 has simply been eliminating you. Haven’t you wondered why we’ve been concocting these increasingly complex schemes which place you, and frequently a defenceless woman, in inexplicable danger?”
“I never waste time wondering, Chang. After all, danger’s my middle name!”
Chang furrowed his brow in puzzlement and stood quietly a moment. “Anyways,” Chang said, coming back to himself, “suffice it to say that our R&D division has been focusing all its efforts on anti-Dash technology. It was this unrelenting commitment to your immanent destruction which led us to discover the 8th dimension!”
“The 8th dimension!?”
“Indeed. Our research into the 8th dimension revealed that our ‘story’ was long-since borne out. Our schemes were doomed time and again to failure due to your interference as predicated on eighth-dimensional meta-structure. The only way to change the outcome was to ensnare you within your own ongoing and episodic narrative in the meta-verse.”
“Like the schemes of a madman could ever defeat the Guardian of the Federation.”
“Indeed, our initial efforts were admittedly unsuccessful, but we have now perfected the technology with which to trap you in an impregnable feedback loop, and we have just the means of doing it! Dash Fantastico, meet the Field-Neutralizing Anti-Region Generator, ¡FNARG!”
A large grate opposite Dash on the coliseum floor opened. Like the devil’s own womb birthing some fearsome abomination, out of this dark pit appeared several enormous bestial arms, ending in protrusions that were more tentacle than talon. These arms lifted the rest of the loathsome monster onto the arena floor. Supporting its massive torso of horned, chitinous armour were two muscular hind legs covered in coarse, stiff fur, and ending in claw-like hooves. Upon this gargantuan frame rested an oblong, wart-crusted dome, covered in an amphibian grey skin, with splotchy darker patches erratically scattered across it. Where the eyes should have been was a large, bulbous brow, glistening under the coliseum’s lights. Underneath this fearful dome arose two large tusks from what could have been the creature’s mouth. Between the tusks were a host of tentacles, longer than those on the thing’s hands, which secreted a noxious black slime that accumulated on the floor.
The throng of malcontents above Dash cheered at the prospect of the forthcoming violence. As the ¡FNARG! let loose a thunderous, guttural cry, Dash began to wonder (for perhaps the first time in his life) if the very gates of hell had opened up below him. He knew of only one way to deal with demons. He unholstered the trusty laspistol at his side, aimed it at the devil, and fired. When the lasbolt fizzled against the fiend’s rough chest armour, Dash lobbed a hand grenade at it. The coliseum was rocked by a micro-nuclear explosion and filled with acrid smoke. Dash squeezed off several more rounds through the haze in the general direction of the ¡FNARG!. As the smoke cleared, Dash was able to make out the beast still standing before him, seemingly untouched. It appeared that conventional arms had no effect on the behemoth.
Chang recomposed himself after the blast and spoke with great confidence. “Your three-dimensional weaponry cannot penetrate the hide of an eighth dimensional being — I think it’s time you returned from whence you came…”
Chang’s voice dissolved into maniacal laughter as black ooze seeped from the creature’s tentacle-talons. The foul-smelling matter had a greenish sheen that distorted the air around it. The ooze crackled and bubbled as it swiftly spread across the floor. Before Dash could say “gee-willickers,” he was in up to his boots. He tried to move but his legs were paralyzed. Dash shot several more times at the beast without effect before turning the laspistol on Chang. The last shot dissipated against a phase shield between Dash and the seated Syndicate members. The ooze crawled up Dash’s chest, and then his arms and neck, until he became immobile. As it surrounded his face, Dash felt as if the FNARG! was touching his mind across the distance between them. Incomprehensible images flashed through his consciousness. Then, as the ooze covered his eyes and entered his mouth, all became blackness.
When Dash awoke it was no longer quite as black around him. A burnt-orange hue coloured the seemingly infinite expanse in which Dash now found himself. Though he appeared to be floating, his feet felt as though they were standing on a surface of some kind. Feeling that one direction through the abyss was as good as any, Dash attempted to walk forward. He found that although he was making a forward walking motion, he was unsure if he was actually making any forward progress, or what bearing he was headed. The effect was endlessly frustrating. It felt as though he could have been as easily walking in a vertical loop-de-loop or horizontal zigzag as straight ahead. He had no conception of up or down within this space. Everything was terribly disorienting. Several times Dash felt waves of nausea wash over him.
Dash checked his chronometer and noticed that it was still reading 4279.81 Starleaps, the point of his entrance into the coliseum. No matter how long he wandered for it always read the same time and date. There was no way of following the passage of time. He stopped his trek to rest awhile and realized that he had no idea of how much time had passed since he awoke. Nevertheless, he stood up again and marched onward.
Dash now had all the time in the world to wonder. He pondered if this quest to find something, anything, within the void was pointless. A sense of weariness pervaded him. There was something at the back of his mind, something Grop’Th’Tul Chang had said. This place was somehow where Dash had come from. It didn’t make any sense. He knew he came from Sector 127: Armstrong, in the Northwestern hemisphere of Earth, the near-centre of the Intergalactic Federation. What could Chang have possibly meant? As Dash pondered this question something began to appear in the distance, a tiny speck discordant against the pervading visual tone of the void. Dash was unable to estimate how far this object was, but he walked towards it with renewed purpose.
An immeasurable amount of time passed. It could have been aeons or a few moments. But, after all this wandering, the speck had only grown slightly larger in the distance.
From whence you came. Chang’s voice continued to echo in Dash’s head. He was getting closer to whatever it was that lay ahead and, whatever it was, it seemed to be both familiar and foreign. There appeared to be rows of objects, on some sort of near-perpendicular surface. It had form. But geometry of the place was all wrong – it ran upward and to the side off into the distance yet seemed to lead nowhere and everywhere at once. Dash could now make out the floor, or what would have been one had it not also contradictorily been the roof and walls: a tiled affair straight out of a federation medical dispensary.
As Dash arrived at the place he saw that the rows were of cheap particle-board shelves covered in a sterile laminate. These shelves, too, possessed no comprehensible form. The objects that lined the shelving seemed to go on forever, up, down, backwards and forwards and fold back in on themselves.
Dash looked closer. The objects came into a steady focus as he realized they were actually magazines. On each the title was the same: ASTOUNDING ADVENTURE STORIES. Every cover was different, but there was an uncanny uniformity to them. It struck Dash as to what it was: each issue featured a rather flattering illustration of a ruggedly handsome man on the cover, with a woman in revealingly-torn clothing in one arm and a lasgun in the other. The gun was always pointed at a fearsome-looking alien or machination, onto which the man’s steely gaze was locked, along with his chiseled jawline. Overlooking the scene on the magazine covers was a decidedly menacing villain, his elaborate mustache and lurid pink skin starkly painted against the rest of the image. Above all this the title “ASTOUNDING ADVENTURE STORIES” was always placed in uniform lettering.
After wandering the confusing hallways for an imperceptible amount of time, Dash stopped. There seemed to be no escape from this endless magazine rack. He felt overwhelmed and defeated. There was nothing more to be done. He instinctively reached out in front of him at the periodicals, picking one at random.
Dash was astounded to discover that the magazine’s cover depicted an encounter remarkably similar to what he had just experienced with the ¡FNARG!, albeit with one of the conventionally attractive women in tow. He wondered where she appeared from in the story therein, and bemoaned the absence of such a companion during his own ill-omened fandango with the Eighth-dimensional being. Dash opened the magazine to the thirty-second page: “When last we left our intrepid adventurer, Ace Richter, he was travelling into the subterranean lair of the nefarious Crimson Commune to halt the launch of the evil Overlord Akh’Bar’Zang’s Deuterium Annihilation Bomb…”
The plot sounded rather dull, but Dash read on, hoping that in reading the story he would discover where the girl on the magazine’s cover came in. “Maybe that was what I was missing all along?” Dash wondered.
The story was proving a weak substitute for Dash’s desires – his trigger finger burned for action while his arms longed for the honeyed curves of a buxom lass. Perhaps he would find both in the Byzantine corridors of THE INFERNAL LIBRARY….