[Continuity Note: this story takes place shortly before the final scenes of Dvandom Force #87.]
Shane found it odd that he would ever get homesick. After all, he came from an oppressive dictatorship in the future and had spent his entire life trying to not become just one of the herd. Maybe he was just used to it, the sort of comfort you get out of an old shoe that's on the verge of falling apart. Whatever the reason, sometimes he felt acutely out of place in what should have been a utopia for him...a world full of squabbling individuals and iconoclasts. He actually missed the milling crowds of drones, single-mindedly going about their tasks in gleaming corridors and climate-controlled urban arcologies [as seen in Dvandom Force #46 - Ed.].
Thus, he found malls to be oddly soothing.
Oh, there'd been a few tense moments early on in his new life, when he'd almost assaulted a mall security guard or two, his old habits kicking in. But where most of his teammates found comfort in the open spaces of the Dvandom Force HQ, Shane needed to hit the mall to recharge his spiritual batteries.
Mind you, keeping an eye on VAXX while Anna did some gift shopping was turning the whole thing into a zero-sum game.
"VAXX, stop lifting up the benches," Shane sighed.
"But there's a little man under them," the hulking child-man explained. "Hurr...he must have moved."
"Fine, VAXX, but there's a medium-sized woman *on* the bench."
"Urr, sorry ma'am," the VAXX apologized, gently setting down the upholstered block and its too-"shopped-out"-to-be-scared occupant.
Shane cast a careful eye around the area. VAXX tended to see things no one else could, and sometimes those things were even really there. Not too often, but just frequently enough that if VAXX was looking for a little man under the benches, there might indeed be a little man under the benches.
"Come here, VAXX," came a bright voice from a few meters away. "Sorry to leave you with him so long, Shane, the lines are insane this time of year," Anna apologized, hurrying up to the VAXX and taking one of his huge hands in both of hers.
"No problem," Shane shrugged, hoping he wasn't blushing. Even if he hadn't liked malls, he would have taken any excuse to tag along with her. Oh, he'd seen *prettier* women, but as far as he was concerned, none who were more beautiful. "You need to do any shopping still?" she asked.
"Er, yeah," he replied. What he really wanted to do was spend more time with her, but he was afraid that he was already too close to "stammering idiot" mode for the afternoon, and needed a little time to clear his head.
"Okay, I'll take VAXX to get some soda. Meet you in the food court?"
"Sure," Shane replied, and as quickly as that, she and her mentor/pet were gone [In the dreamlands, the VAXX is nearly omniscient. In the waking world, that omniscience shuts down most of his intelligence. - Expository Ed.].
Shane wandered down the corridor, dodging harried shoppers by using instincts honed during years of living in crowded urban environments. He wasn't too bad in the "fish out of water" department anymore, it'd been a year or so since his arrival in this era, but some things weren't just culture shock.
Specifically, women. There hadn't been much time or opportunity for romance among the rebels, their safety lay in dispersal and concealment. But the sheep...the regular folks of his time...held little interest for him. Besides, while breeding wasn't completely state-controlled, there were enough social pressures against casual romance that sleeping around with the sheep would have marked him as a wolf almost instantly. So he kept to himself.
He took some consolation in the fact that even natives of the era had little idea what the opposite sex really wanted, but that just put him in good company for his bad situation.
Shane paused in front of one of the five jewelry stores in this particular mall (plus four jewelry counters inside of the anchor stores and one earring stall in the middle of the mallway...old rebel habits of casing an area kicking in on their own). Anna didn't really wear jewelry most of the time, but maybe....
"HEY, MCQUARY!" came a raucous voice over the general din. Shane remembered something about that name being important, from talking to the other Dvandom Forcers, and looked around.
"YO! Mc*QUARY*!" the voice shouted again, but while Shane thought he could tell about where it was coming from, he couldn't see anyone.
Suddenly a short man...maybe a meter tall...in a blue three-piece suit, yellow tie and fedora, came bursting through the rushing din.
"There you are, McQuary," the little man said, pointing a wagging finger at Shane. Without letting Shane get a word in edgewise, the little man grabbed him by the hand and said, "C'mon, McQuary, you're late for the gig!"
"Huh?" was the best response Shane could come up with as the man pulled him towards a store called "Plumb Good."
Lynk smiled, then frowned as a slight feeling of queasiness passed over her. "Something's wrong."
"The little man who wasn't there," agreed the VAXX.
"Feels like something's wrong with the dreamlands, but I'm not sure what. Sigh. Times like this, I wish the job came with an instruction manual."
"What'm I, chopped stereo instructions?" the VAXX asked as he finished his soda and crumpled the cup into a pea-sized ball with the density of iron.
Lynk grinned and patted him on the head. "I think I need an instruction manual to understand *you* sometimes. Let's go find Shane, let him know there might be trouble. If there's a physical manifestation, it might require hitting."
"Hitting is good," the VAXX agreed as he followed Anna out of the food court.
Anna fished the cellphone out of her beltbag and hit the speed-dial for Shane's phone.
"Come on, answer the phone..." Anna muttered. "This could be bad. VAXX, do you know where Shane's at?"
VAXX nodded his head like a puppy, and started bounding off down the mallway, leaving Lynk to follow as best she could. In a couple of minutes, VAXX was pointing at the entrance to a store.
"In here? Why would he be in a plumbing fixtures store?" Anna wondered aloud, following the VAXX inside.
Then she saw Shane. Shane was armored up, his metallic skin gleaming in the fluorescent lighting as he sat upon a chrome toilet, his chin resting on one fist in a contemplative position. A sign had been hung next to him, proclaiming him to be "Rodin's _The Stinker_."
"Shane? Shane!" Anna snapped her fingers in front of his face, but got no response.
"Hiya, toots," came a voice from about waist level. Anna looked down. "He c'n hear ya, but he can't move. As far as he's concerned, this is a really embarrassing dream."
"If it's a dream, then I'll get him out!" Anna snapped, preparing to open a window to the dreamlands.
"Ah, ah, ah!" the little man waggled his finger. "Not so fast. It's a waking dream, since I'm in the waking world. You have to get rid of me before he can snap out of it."
"VAXX, flush this guy," Anna smirked, and the hulking VAXX lurched to grab the little man, only to have his hands pass through empty air.
"That's not gonna do it either, toots," the little man said from the VAXX's back. "Ya gotta play the game by my rules."
Anna sighed. "Fine, who are you and what are your rules?"
The man drew himself up to his full height (which wasn't saying much, although standing on the VAXX's head helped some) and proclaimed, "I am Mr. Zklmcgyx, Emir of Embarrassing Dreams, Lesser Nightmare and Patron of Freudian Dream Analysts. And it's pronounced Zikkilm-kiggix, just so ya's know. Have a demo!"
Suddenly, Anna was standing there in her underwear.
"Yer not embarrassed by this? Being in public in yer skivvies is, like, my number one most popular schtick!"
Anna ticked off points on her fingers. "One, I'm a net.hero. You should see the sort of clothes which are standard for the job...compared to, say, Warbabe, this is downright modest. Two, I spent years working in Vegas nightclubs. This doesn't even faze me."
"Fine, have 'em back," Mr. Zklmcgyx snapped his fingers and Anna was dressed again.
"So, you're part of the Dream Court I've heard whispers of?"
"Well, when I'm not exiled for the crime of trying to liven up that stiff bunch, yeah. Anyway, my rules are simple: I'll go away if you can get me to say my name in Rot-13!"
Anna did a quick conversion, having learned to think in Rot-13 cipher back when she still used that style of magic. "You want me to get you to say Mxyz..."
A circular steel plate suddenly slammed over Anna's mouth, emblazoned with a "D" and a "C" at a slight tilt, and some stars around the outside.
"Did I forget to mention that the Rot-13 of my name is owned by a company which jealously protects their trademarks?" Mr. Zklmcgyx added oh-so-innocently. [The name being, of course, Mxyz( WHANG!) - Mmphl.]
Anna peeled the plate off and tossed it into one of the nearby toilets. "I...see. Could you say your name again, I'm not sure of the spelling." Anna quickly wove a small spell she'd learned when training in the Rot-13 cypher magic, one which had helped her learn how to speak in that magical tongue.
"Sure, it's Mxyz(WHANG!) Gah, clever, toots, making me speak in Rot-13 for a moment there. But the lawyer's faster than the eye, as you can see," Mr. Zklmcgyx replied, tossing another steel plate in the toilet.
"If that's the case, how can I get you to say it at all?"
"That's the beauty of it! In this Looniverse, it's impossible to get me to say zl anzr in...what the hootie?"
"Zl anzr. 'My name' in Rot-13. Letter of the law, I gotcha."
"Why, you, razzumfrazzum..." Mr. Zklmcgyx's voice faded out as he vanished from view, ending with his yellow fedora floating in mid-air. The hat then disappeared with an audible "pop!"
"Wha...?" Shane said, looking around at his surroundings. "GAH!"
"Why, Shane...I didn't know metal could blush."
In the background, a duck grinned in as sinister a manner as it could manage, satisfied with the way events had unfolded....
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