The Mask of the Sleestak
Written by by Denise, a.k.a. Fleur de lis
 

"Holly, come on. Hurry up!" Will Marshall looked back to see what his little sister was doing.

He glimpsed her bright blonde hair amidst the dark leafy jungle plants. Holly twisted and tugged at a blueberry the size of a playground's rubber ball, but she was not strong enough to get it off the giant vine. The enormous branches bowed and swayed.

"Will, help."

"We have enough already," Will scolded. "Come on, we're going to be late getting home to Uncle Jack."

"But blueberries are so good," Holly insisted, and gave one last tug.

The berry popped loose, squirting blue dye on the front of her red checkered shirt.

Holly emerged from the jungle foliage with an odd expression on her face, both triumphant and on the verge of crying. "My only shirt."

"We'll wash it, somehow," Will told her hurriedly, glancing up at the darkening afternoon sky. "Let's just get home before the Sleestaks come out!"

Holly came around the wheel of their makeshift wagon. She was about to put the giant blueberry on the pile with the other treasures they gathered when she froze in place.

Will looked in the direction that his sister's big blue eyes darted. Three years of surviving in this alien world, on a day-to-day basis, had taught him not to make foolish movements or ask aloud, "What is it?"

He heard it too, now, a clumsy crashing of footsteps through the underbrush. Too small to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Too staccato to be the shuffling gait of their verbose apish friend, Cha-Ka. Too swift to be Sleestak.

Will grabbed his sister around the waist and together they scooted under the shelter of their vegetable wagon. The wheels had no spokes, being solid disks of crudely hewn wood, and so made the perfect cover for their cautious faces.

A trio of pint-sized dinosaurs sprang into the clearing and stopped. Each of them no taller than an ostrich, they resembled geckos standing upright and built for bi-pedal speed. In their pointy clawed hands, they grasped the largest green marbled eggs that Will had ever seen.

Holly nudged him. In the sand, she quickly wrote the words, Sleestak eggs.

Will thought, Man, are those little scavengers going to be in trouble if the Sleestaks find them.

The dinosaurs' sharp beady eyes glanced around, sure of their safety, and then settled down to crack the eggs and slurp up the contents. In a few moments, the eggshells were licked clean.

Still hungry, the dinosaurs squawked at each other with voices sounding like hoarse seagulls, and they darted off into the bushes as swiftly as they had arrived.

Will scrambled out from under the wagon. "Come on, Holly, let's hurry home to Uncle Jack."

"Right," she said, and got up to help him push.

 

##

Jack Marshall, meanwhile, scoured the jungle for firewood around the abandoned ancient Temple the Marshalls called home. Not an easy task, as most of the fallen branches were fairly fresh and green and would make too much smoke if they burned. Every day, he had to increase the diameter of his circle, looking for the scraps of twigs and fronds torn loose by the great herbivores and trampled under their gigantic feet.

The task of gathering firewood became less appealing when he had nothing to look forward to cooking. Sure, he liked carrots and radishes and strawberries as well as the next person. But every once in a while, he got to dreaming about a really good porterhouse steak, lamb chops and onions, or a grilled salmon. Gnawing on the Tyrannosaurus Rex's leftovers -- stringy, chewy, dead dinosaur meat -- just wasn't the same.

Just ahead, he spotted a pile of branches as if stacked there for a beach party bonfire. It looked like some huge herbivore had started munching and then moved on, leaving its mess behind.

"Right on," he said to himself.

A few steps and he was there. Whistling the theme song of a television program he'd watched in his youth, Jack gathered as many of the dry twigs as he could hold.

One more ought to do it....

Jack shifted his foot to the left.

Solid ground gave way. Dust, dry leaves and stones flushed into the ground, dragging Jack down with it. He clutched for anything solid to hang onto and found nothing but sand trickling through his fingers. All he could do was close his eyes, hold his breath, and wait to hit bottom.

He landed on his feet and crumpled into a crouch to shield his head with his arms. Duck and cover. Dry dirt and branches cascaded down around him, as he prayed not to be buried alive.

Then, silence.

Jack Marshall climbed up out of the knee-deep detritus of the jungle floor. He coughed and blinked, looking around to get his bearings.

Though far from the Lost City where the Sleestak dwelled in their shadowy catacombs, he stood in a stone-walled chamber that appeared too uniform to be natural. As the dust settled, Jack felt surer that the tools of the ancient extinct civilization also sculpted this pit.

He waded through the sand and branches, reaching for the walls. He touched the cold slate, frowning that it was too smooth to gain a finger hold much less climb up.

Overhead, the mouth of the pit framed the jungle canopy and part of the alien world's strangely colored sky. Soon, it would be dark, and Will and Holly would be worried about him.

"Man, do I need help," Jack muttered, his hand still on the wall.

He felt his way around the circumference of the chamber. When he had gone halfway around, the texture of the wall changed from a smooth sheet of rock. Soft, white orbs were inlaid like the bricks of a fireplace, as round as children's plastic bouncing balls. No good for finger holds.

Jack bent closer to the orbs, curious. They didn't feel like any of the rocks he'd ever seen, on this world or back on Earth. Slightly grainy, they more resembled...

"Eggs," he whispered in awe.

Sleestak eggs. Holly had told him about her time in the pit with the Sleestak God.

Jack scrambled back to the center of the pit, directly beneath the opening. He cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered up to the sky, "Will, Holly! Help!"

 

##

Will and Holly returned with their wagonload of treasures to their Temple home. Uncle Jack wasn't there.

"Maybe he's out collecting firewood," Holly said.

"Yeah," Will agreed, looking worriedly at the darkening sky. "But he wouldn't be out this late, so close to dark. You stay here, I think I'll go look for him."

"Why do I always have to put away the groceries?" Holly whined.

"Because you're the girl," Will quipped with a grin, as he scooted off into the jungle.

He spiraled outwards from their home base, twice, in an ever-widening circle. "Uncle Jack, Uncle Jack," he called into the green foliage on the third time around. By now, he started to get really concerned. It wasn't like Jack to be so far out this late in the day.

The cry of a nocturnal pterodactyl ripped through the air.

Will considered doubling back to their home base, to check on Holly, when he heard it.

"Help! Help!"

Uncle Jack's voice was faint and hoarse; he'd been calling out for some time, it sounded like.

Will rushed over but skidded to a stop at the edge of the leafy pit. "Are you down there?"

"Yeah, Will. Be careful. The ground isn't very stable."

"Hang on, I'll get you out in a jiffy."

Will yanked a vine free and lowered its tip into the dark pit. "Here, grab this."

"Lower. I can't quite reach it."

"I'm trying... It's not long enough. Can you jump for it?"

From below came a few crashing, snapping sounds. "Can't," Uncle Jack panted. "I'm like eighteen, twenty feet down."

"Okay. I'll, uh..." Will looked around for anything longer but saw nothing other than half-chewed vines and the leftover scraps of an herbivore's lunch. "I'll run back and get one of the nylon ropes."

"No, Will, it's too...."

"Just stay put!" he cried.

A man's voice spoke from behind, "Perhaps I can be of service, señor, con tu permiso."

"What?" Will let a taller man approach the pit.

Dressed all in black, with a cape and a flat round hat, the stranger carried a huge coil of white rope. He dropped one end into the pit, and turned his back on Will to walk a few steps to the rear -- to his horse.

A grand, black stallion stood ready. The stranger tied the other end of the rope onto the horn of the most ridiculously decorated saddle that Will had ever seen. That saddle had more silver studs than leather showing.

Yet, strangely, there was something familiar about this mysterious man.

"Back, back, Toronado," said the man dressed in black to his horse.

The horse backed up.

Uncle Jack emerged from the pit, clutching the rope.

Will took hold of his uncle's elbow and helped him to his feet. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, thanks to..."

The Marshalls turned to their rescuer and gawked without shame.

The masked man saluted politely, two gloved fingers to the brim of his sombrero. "People call me, El Zorro."

"Zorro," Jack Marshall repeated in an awed whisper. "Now I have seen everything."

 

##

Uncle Jack, being the rescued one, got to ride the horse. Zorro insisted. Will walked alongside the masked man, leading the way back to the home base. Both Marshalls being too stunned, still, it was Zorro who asked all the questions and they who responded as best they could.

"This place, señores, is perhaps an undiscovered island beyond Santa Catalina or the Baja peninsula?"

"Way beyond, yeah."

"Inhabited by monsters, no doubt?"

"Plenty," Will said.

Zorro took an old-fashioned pirate pistol from his belt, and checked it -- Will assumed -- to be sure it was loaded. He also had a fancy swashbuckler sword and a coiled whip, making his belt look as heavy as a carpenter's tool belt.

"Am I to assume you are marooned here?"

Jack answered, "Will's been here for three years. I just dropped in myself last year. We've tried, but there's no way out."

"Ah, si, that is most unfortunate. Perhaps, in the morning, I can be of some help. Toronado and I can cover more ground."

"Uh-huh," Will responded. "Holly is not going to believe this."

"Who is 'Olly?" Zorro asked, his Spanish accent dropping the hard H.

"My little sister."

"Pardon, señor, but I have never known any pioneering Americanos to bring women on their expeditions to California, much less their 'little sisters'."

Will just shrugged and kept walking.

 

##

"Holly, come on out!" Will called as they approached the Temple. "You've got to see this."

Holly pivoted the massive stone door on the balanced hinge Uncle Jack had jerry-rigged. Her mouth fell open almost as wide.

"Careful," Will teased. "You'll catch a dinosaur fly."

Jack dismounted Zorro's fabulous stallion. "You know, this may sound odd, but I think we should bring your horse inside. There are things out here in the night that could swallow Toronado in one gulp."

"Si, señor, I understand. For tonight, I will forego the customs of a caballero, and do as the unbaptized natives would do. You see, they sleep with their horses."

All of them went inside, where Holly had a small fire started, some broth boiling dinosaur bones, and a piece of fruit cut up.

"Where did you come from?" she blurted before the masked man could even take a seat on a rock.

"Ah," Zorro grinned a bright white smile beneath a pencil-thin Spanish moustache. "The señorita is direct as well as beautiful."

Will slipped a protective arm around his sister's shoulders. Even if he was Zorro, he had no business smiling at Holly like that. After all, she was only fourteen.

Holly smiled and blushed.

"You see, I had just finished foiling another one of the alcalde's wicked schemes. Something to do with forging a land grant from the King of Spain and swindling honest neophytes out of the property promised to them by the mission padres. Perhaps later, I will tell you more of that adventure."

Jack nodded, eager to accept the promise.

"I was being pursued by Sergeant Garcia and a dozen of his soldiers, galloping by the light of the moon over the hills around the pueblo de Los Angeles."

"Out of the night, when the full moon is bright...." Uncle Jack murmured.

Will glanced at him sideways; that sounded vaguely familiar.

"Toronado startled at a rattlesnake and jumped aside. We fell together into a gully full of fog, and found ourselves.... here."

"You arrived just minutes before you came to help me?" Jack asked.

"Si. It is most fortunate we could help each other, is it not, señor?"

"Uh, yeah."

Zorro took off his black leather gloves to eat, daintily, like the gentleman they all knew he was.

The Marshalls all ate in silence, their eyes darting back and forth, silently challenging each other to ask.

Holly finally said it, "Why don't you take off your mask, Zorro? Uh, Mister Zorro, sir? I mean, we're all friends here."

"That's right," Will chimed in. "You're not in Mexico anymore."

Zorro took a handkerchief from his embroidered black vest, and he dabbed at the corners of his moustache. "Correction, señor. I am a Californio, not a Mexican."

Jack nudged his nephew. "California is still a Spanish colony to him, Will. Jeez, what you're missing not being in school."

"Whatever," Holly said. "Will you take the mask off?"

Jack tensed, waiting for it and yet dreading it at the same time. If he looks just like Guy Williams, I am going to freak out.

Zorro touched the hem of his mask, hesitated, then returned his hand to his lap. "I believe it would be wise to conceal my identity, señorita. True, Sergeant Garcia is far away from here, but as you yourselves have perhaps learned, the future is most unpredictable. The less you know about me, the safer you will be."

"But we--" Will started.

Uncle Jack put a hand on his nephew's knee and stared him into silence. "Let the man have his privacy, kids. We don't need him to take the mask off, all right?"

"Gracias, señor."

"Yeah. Don't mention it. Look, it's been a long day. Why don't we all get some sleep?"

They shifted around in their nylon sleeping bags to bed down for the night. Zorro borrowed the extra one that had belonged to Will and Holly's father. Borrowing only, Will emphasized in his mind, until they found Dad again.

Uncle Jack watched the horse standing to sleep, as he himself drifted into unconsciousness. One of his last thoughts, before entering a dream, was, That is the tidiest horse I have ever seen. Hasn't dropped a crap yet.

 

##

Jack Marshall dreamed in black and white of galloping over gray grassy hills. A chorus of male cowboys sang, "This bold renegade carves a Z with his blade, a Z that stands for Zorro..."

He awoke feeling thirteen years old again, back in that magical summer just before he discovered girls; when the most exciting things on his mind were baseball cards, Bazooka bubble gum, and watching Zorro on television.

Jack sat up and looked around their cold, stone Temple home.

The black stallion was gone.

Zorro was gone.

His brother Rick Marshall's sleeping bag was neatly rolled up as if it had never been used.

Perhaps he had dreamed it all, he started to think. A crazy hallucination. Maybe he'd banged his head when he fell in that pit of Sleestak eggs.

Not even a pile of horse crap proved that anyone but the three Marshalls had ever been there.

Jack started making breakfast.

Then, Will sat up in his sleeping bag. "Hey, where is he?"

"Who?"

"Zorro."

It was real. "I don't know. Gone."

Will said, "This place just gets more far out every day, doesn't it? I mean, first it's Medusa. The Flying Dutchman. Civil War soldiers and American Indians, and now this."

"Yeah. It's like fiction and fact, fantasy and reality, they've got no meaning here. We're seeing characters from our own literature and mythology that seem as real as the dinosaurs or the Sleestak."

"Hey," Will said, scooting closer. "I remember a time when the Sleestak tricked me and Holly. Somehow, one of them took on the appearance of our Dad. He seemed as real as you are now, but he wasn't Dad at all."

"What happened?"

"He led us into the Lost City, to the pit of the Sleestak God, where they tried to sacrifice us."

Jack sighed. "I suppose there might be a connection, Will. But these other characters haven't tried to hurt us."

"Except Medusa. Or that caveman warlord, Malak."

"Okay, yeah. Still, I can't imagine Zorro is a Sleestak."

"Maybe that's what he wants us to think," Will insisted. "If we trust him.... If he looks like a hero figure, we'll follow him anywhere."

Jack reluctantly nodded. "I guess it can't hurt to be careful."

From outside called a male voice the opposite of Zorro's unassuming, gentlemanly tone. He commanded, "Marshalls, come out. I must speak to you!"

"Enik," Will grumbled. "What does he want so early in the morning?"

Uncle Jack stood up and opened the door.

The amphibious-faced Altrusian stomped inside, his arms stiff at his sides, appearing even more uptight than usual. "When are you going to learn not to tamper with sophisticated technologies that are beyond your puny human comprehension?"

"Good morning to you, too," Jack answered.

"What are you talking about?" Will asked.

"The security system."

Holly groaned awake and rubbed her eyes. She looked around, grasped the scene, and stayed silent to watch.

"What security system?" Jack asked.

"The one which protects the breeding areas, especially the clutches of eggs, of course. It has failed in several places, and now the wild predators are feasting themselves on the next generation."

Holly said, "Great, like we need more of those things hatching."

"No matter what they are to you, Holly Marshall, they are still all that remains of my people."

Uncle Jack agreed, "He's right. We don't have the right to pass judgment on a species just because they're inconvenient for us. The grizzly bear, the coyote, the timber wolf are nearly extinct because people find them threatening but they have their place in their habitat. Remember, Enik's people built this world, and we're just guests here."

Will said, "But how is that our fault? We didn't touch anything."

"You must have tampered with something. Are you not constantly tinkering with the pylons and the crystals in the hopes of finding a way back to your world?"

"Not lately."

"He's telling the truth, Enik," Jack insisted.

"I know he is. I can see the truth in his thoughts, Jack Marshall. Yet, what you perceive as the truth, and what you have inadvertently destroyed by your bumbling, are two different things."

"Okay, so what can we do to help?" Jack asked.

"Come with me to my chamber in the Lost City. I will attempt to isolate the source of the malfunction by re-creating your actions in detail for the last two days."

"Aw, do we have to?" Will cried out. "Can't you just believe us? We didn't go near any pylons, and we didn't screw up any crystals, okay?"

"The nest's security system can be accessed in other ways. Have you not learned by now that this so-called Land of the Lost is a closed universe, and each seemingly innocuous segment constitutes part of a greater whole?"

Will sighed. "Fine. We'll go."

 

##

In Enik's chamber, the Marshalls stood united watching the claw-fingered Altrusian manipulate the tray of glowing colored crystals on a square stone table. How easily he seemed to read signs in the constant shifting of colors; touching each one as surely as a typist transcribed dictation.

"I read several occasions when the security system was breached. The dates are given, of course, in the ancient calendar. They will mean nothing to you."

Jack opened his hands. "We want to help, Enik, but you got to cut us a little slack, here."

"The system managed to re-set itself each time before the nest was invaded by predators. However, the most recent incident was -- in your terms -- yesterday."

"When yesterday?" Will asked.

"At four jewels past zenith. In other words, midway between noon and the fall of dark."

Holly said, "Will and I were out gathering vegetables and fruits. We didn't touch anything else."

Jack said, "I was cleaning up and gathering firewood. Likewise, I didn't mess with anything out of the ordinary."

Enik accused, "Which implies you ordinarily 'mess with things', Jack Marshall?"

"No, I didn't say that."

"Then, tell me what you did. Every detail."

"I fell into a hole, all right? If your nest has such great security, then how did the roof cave in?"

Enik nodded, touching a few crystals at the corner. "Clutch number four hundred ninety seven, yes, I see it now."

"Four hundred," Holly breathed, and shuddered. "That's a lot of eggs."

"But this is not the source of the malfunction," Enik said. "The security was already breached before that point."

"How do you know?" Jack asked.

"I am reading a discharge of material that is a vital component of the security system. In terms you can understand, I will refer to it as 'blue wax.'"

The Marshalls traded looks of shared annoyance, but said nothing to the pompous Altrusian.

Jack continued, "What does this 'blue wax do?"

"Observe." Enik touched a few crystals, then pointed to the blank wall.

A section of the stone oozed blue goo that glittered like liquid plastic. The blob gradually took on anthropoid form -- two legs and two arms and a head -- as if sculpted by a small child in plasticene clay.

"What is it?" Will asked.

"We have a few of those," Enik said. "One per hundred eggs, or so. A simple construct of liquid crystal, it is capable of learning a few functional tasks."

"Like a robot?" asked Uncle Jack.

Enik looked at him oddly. "What is that?"

"I'm curious. It has no joints but it appears solid..." Holly moved forward and touched it.

"Be aware," Enik warned. "The construct has a function to..."

As Holly touched it, the blue fluid crystal shimmered and generated a veneer of human flesh. It became a perfect twin of Holly herself, matching strand for strand her golden pigtails, her maroon corduroy slacks and her red checkered shirt. Holly let go.

Enik fondled his crystal pendant, flashed a light at the construct, and it returned to being a fluid walking crystal puppet.

"What just happened?" Holly gasped.

"A necessary function of these caretakers. The hatchlings require feeding at frequent intervals during the initial phase of their life, while their skin is still soft before the exoskeleton forms and they are ready to leave the nest. It is a period of perhaps, in your terms, three months. Our infants, as you may call them, go through a process of imprinting."

Uncle Jack snapped his fingers. "I've heard about birds doing that. Some scientist hatched a bunch of ducks and got them to follow him around and eat out of his mouth, as if he the man were their mother. They didn't recognize a duck mother and didn't think of themselves as ducks at all."

Enik paused, as if disturbed by this. "Yes. We long ago recognized the importance of our infants bonding to adult figures at the moment of hatching, and they need to fed and tended to by something that appears to be an Altrusian adult so that when they leave the nest they will be prepared to join society."

"I see," Holly said.

"The crystal constructs have the function of projecting appearance. The advanced models can actually generate a temporary exoskeleton."

Will asked, "They can appear to be anything or anybody?"

"Yes."

Holly clapped her hands. "That happened to us too! A Sleestak disguised itself as my Dad and lured me and Will into the Lost City to try and kill us."

"I must question the plausibility of your story. A constructed caretaker would not behave in such a predatory manner."

Will argued, "You just said their job is to feed the hatchlings, right? Then a construct would be in the business of procuring food, right?"

"Only during the breeding season."

"Of course," Will said. "The Sleestaks only did it once and I wondered why they never tried that ploy again. It worked so well."

"That is not logical. How many hatchlings can two human children feed? Given the unlikely premise, it makes more sense to prey on larger animals."

"Like dinosaurs," Uncle Jack whispered. Then more loudly, "What do the constructs do in their off hours? You know, when they're not caring for eggs in the breeding season?"

"They go into a dormant state where they remain until they are called for. Which is what you must have done, Jack Marshall."

"But I didn't...."

"How can you explain, then, that a quantity of 'blue wax' sufficient for the construction of one caretaker is missing from the inventory? Admit it, Jack Marshall." Enik pointed his clawed hand accusingly. "You have reconfigured a crystal construct for your own purposes. You are using it, not to protect the eggs for which it was designed but to attack and infiltrate its creators."

"No!" Jack insisted.

Enik's telepathy radiated from his big, bug-like eyes. His thoughts penetrated the Marshalls' minds, pressing them into place, turning back their memories from the present and rewinding to every minor detail of the past few days.

If you are too ignorant to realize the damage you have done, then I am forced to seek the truth myself.

Uncle Jack, sweat pouring off his fair-haired brow, strained to speak. "You have no right to go probing around in our minds."

"I have every right to protect the innocent hatchlings yet to be born!"

There burst a new voice into the scene, "Perhaps, señor, I can give you a lesson in what is right!"

Zorro leaped into the midst of the chamber. Sword drawn, he slashed a "Z" on the front of Enik's glittery tunic.

Enik exhaled a long gasp of shock, almost sounding like the hiss of a Sleestak himself.

Zorro laughed aloud, "Ha ha," and skipped backward to cover the Marshalls' escape.

"Come on, Holly, let's run for it!" Will grabbed his sister, and fled with Uncle Jack into the sunshine.

 

##

The Marshalls ran, with Zorro behind them, until their lungs were glass and their legs could move no more.

Exhausted, they dropped to rest near a stream of running water. The three Marshalls bent over to scoop handfuls to their parched mouths.

Zorro stood guard. "I think we foiled them, eh?"

"Aren't you thirsty?" Jack asked.

Zorro shook his head as he casually sheathed his beautiful sword. "I am well accustomed to going thirsty for long periods in the deserts around the pueblo de Los Angeles."

"Where's your horse?" Will asked.

Zorro put two fingers to his lips, whistled, and the stallion galloped out from the bushes.

"Stay here," Zorro said. "I will lead them away...."

"No. They're not after you."

"Señor Jack, they are always after me."

"Not this time. You see, they're after us because we...." Jack hesitated, glancing to the children. "I created you."

"Pardon, señor?"

"You're not real, Zorro. I created you, somehow, from that 'blue stuff' because I needed a hero. You're just a walking, talking sculpture fabricated from my memories and dreams."

Zorro grinned. "How do you expect me to believe this?"

"I used to watch you on television back when I was Will's age. Your real name is Don Diego de la Vega, and you masquerade as Zorro because you're afraid of speaking out against injustice and losing your lands, your home and your family."

Zorro stopped smiling. "How...?"

"You have one servant who knows the truth. He's a mute named, uh..." Jack snapped his fingers to jog his memory. "Bernardo."

Holly put a tender hand on Zorro's wrist. He was actually shaking. "I'm sorry."

"I know what you look like," Jack said.

"Do you?" Zorro pinched the hem of his mask and yanked it down to under his chin.

The face of Guy Williams frowned straight back at them all.

"Hey," Will said softly to his uncle. "It's that guy from 'Lost in Space.'"

"Second job. He was Zorro first."

"Look at me!" Zorro shouted. "I sweat. I bleed. I cry. How can you say I am not as real a man as you are? I remember everything of my life. My father...."

Jack insisted, "You're nothing but what I remember Zorro to be. Your life is a well-constructed, popular fiction."

Zorro shook his head.

"You have to go back to whatever pylon or rock or cave you came out of. Set this thing right."

"No."

"Believe me, I hate to do this to you, man. But you need to accept the truth of what you are."

"No!"

"Listen. You don't even speak Spanish."

"Absurd," Zorro scoffed. "Of course I do."

"Then, say something."

The Marshalls waited, expectant, all three of them half hoping that he would launch into a fluent monologue.

"Mi amigos, uh...."

The face of Guy Williams as Zorro gritted his teeth with the anguish of being unable to go on.

"You can't," Jack said, sadly. "Because I can't."

Zorro whirled about, his black cape going full circle in mid-air. He leapt onto his grand black stallion, yelled, "Ha!" and galloped away.

"Great," Will said. "Now, what?"

##

The Marshalls walked back towards their Temple home, talking about the experience the whole way.

"The horse too?" Holly asked.

"Yes," said Uncle Jack. "The horse too. I don't suppose you noticed it didn't drop any, uh, manure when we brought it inside. Not that I'm an expert on horses, but it struck me at the time as a little unusual. It makes sense, now."

"Yeah," Will agreed. "T.V. horses never..."

Jack cut in, "I have to wonder if some of the amazing visitors and creatures we have seen lately are these crystal clay constructs. That must be why it isn't any more crowded, despite the variety of strangers that pop up. We seem to see them briefly."

"And never again," Holly agreed.

"With no evidence of how they come and go so easily."

"When we're stuck here," Will finished.

The three of them nodded and kept walking.

Uncle Jack stopped suddenly and pointed. "Here. We're near the path I was on when I fell into that clutch of eggs."

"Look around," Will urged. "Is there anything out of the ordinary? Anything you could have touched?"

Holly bent over too, and searched the ground for unusual stones their uncle may have stepped on, crystals half-buried in the dust, a pylon hidden by an overgrowth of vines.

"I don't know," Jack said. "I was picking up sticks for firewood all over this place. I could've touched anything within a mile all around here."

Enik's voice cut through to them: "Not simply anything, Jack Marshall. This!"

His over-sized reptilian feet scratched at the soil, and the talons of his thick toes revealed a black marble tile about three feet square. As soon as he had exposed the stone, Enik stepped aside.

"You followed us," Will accused.

"Yes. Perhaps not as efficient as my first technique for ascertaining the truth, but in the end the result is the same." Enik pointed at the black tile buried in the dust. "This, Jack Marshall, is a touch point. An 'on-off' switch, if you will, to put it in the most crude terms that you can understand."

"I didn't know it was there."

"Of course not," Enik said, haughtily. "You trample through the jungle as carelessly as the dinosaurs. The one difference being, you are marginally sentient."

"So," Jack began. "If we touch one of these switches, whatever we're thinking of at that moment becomes real?"

"Essentially, yes. The liquid crystal construct will take on whatever form is required by the individual who called it into being."

Jack nodded. "I guess I'm sorry, Enik. I'll turn him off, if you tell me how."

A hiss of Sleestak hunters interrupted.

The Marshalls shrieked and ducked into the bushes. Crude crossbow arrows wobbled through the air, in their general direction.

Enik stood his ground, waving his stumpy amphibious arms and crying out, "Don't shoot them. I have a use for the humans today."

Twilight descended as rapidly as someone turning the dimmer switch on a living room lamp, and the bright colors of the jungle faded to various shades of dark gray. The Sleestak continued hissing in their bloody-thirsty rage, louder and louder as more of them emerged to surround the Marshalls.

"Do something," Holly shrieked. "Enik, help us!"

"I will find the Sleestak Leader and urge him to talk some sense into this out-of-control mob. Stay here. I will return."

The Marshalls gawked at the Altrusian calmly strolling away from them, and their spirits sank as the hiss of predatory Sleestak closed in around them from all sides.

Uncle Jack put his arms around both of his brother's children and hugged them close. "Maybe if we surprise them, we can break a hole in their line and run for it."

"But...." Holly sputtered.

"It's our only chance."

She nodded bravely.

"Okay, on three. One. Two...."

A whip cracked in the air. Steel chimed in accompaniment to the smashing of jungle foliage.

The Marshalls all three grinned at each other.

"Ha ha!" Zorro cried. The bright point of his sword knocked their crossbows from their clawed paws. He slashed at their scaly green arms so that they bled bluish-gray. They tried to grab him, but he spun free.

He whirled down the row of Sleestak warriors like a shadowy Tasmanian devil.

The Sleestak grouped up to chase him. Zorro kicked the one in the front of the line, and falling took five others down in a stack.

Uncle Jack looked to the black tile beneath the dust, noticing that faint streaks of blue appeared on it like colored chalk on a blackboard. Weird alphabet symbols were unreadable, to him, but he hesitated to go nearer or touch them.

If this was an on-off switch, the last thing he wanted to do at this moment was turn Zorro "off."

The masked man kicked one Sleestak from behind the stumpy pointed tail and sent him careening into the bushes. His sword twinkled and danced in the air, left and right, as he scratched a "Z" in the scaly armor of another's abdomen.

Finally, the Sleestak warriors gathered their crude weapons and galumphed away, running with their monstrous feet into the jungle night.

Zorro slouched, panting hard from the exertion.

Jack Marshall and the two kids burst from their hiding place to be at his side.

"You were great!" Will exclaimed.

"Yeah, we really owe you," Holly said.

Uncle Jack touched Zorro's arm, and felt a thick handful of liquid trickle over his wrist. "You're bleeding."

Zorro looked down at it. "I feel no pain. Perhaps it is a splash from the monsters."

Uncle Jack peeled open the rip in the black satin blouse.

Blue light shined up at his chin.

Inside Zorro's arm, beneath the veneer of human flesh, crystalline fiber optic filaments glimmered of their own luminescence. Leaning in for a close look, as one would look into a microscope, Jack Marshall saw deeply into the viscous transparent center of the man's arm. No bones. No muscles.

Hands shaking, Jack let go.

Zorro put his black-gloved hand atop the wound and covered up the blue light.

"Sorry, man," Jack said. "There's your proof."

"It matters not, señor, the color of my blood. I am still Don Diego de la Vega, a caballero of California. I am El Zorro."

"You sure are," Will said with emotion glistening in his pearly blue eyes.

"That's real enough for me," Holly added.

Zorro began to breathe with difficulty. His skin lost its healthy brown flesh tone and began to fade to a bluish gray. More and more, he looked like the image on a black-and-white television.

"You have to go back," Uncle Jack told him.

"Si."

Holly started crying as she said, "We'll miss you."

Zorro kissed her hand like a gentleman from the old movies, and he said to them all, "Whenever you need me, I will always be here."

Staggering, he shuffled hunchbacked onto the black tile. He went down onto one knee and flashed them a quick triumphant grin.

A moment later, his body outline sparkled blue. The brightness filled in the black of his cape and his caballero clothes until his entire form had turned to crystal wax. It melted down the middle, sank like a bad soufflé, and blended into the black tile.

One twinkle, and it all went dark.

"I can't believe he's gone," Holly sniffled.

Uncle Jack put an arm around her shoulders. "One thing I know for sure, Zorro never goes away."

Will picked up a rock and went to a large boulder nearby. He leaned in make a deep horizontal scratch, next a downward diagonal, then a third line to finish the "Z."

The End

© 2001

 

FROM THE AUTHOR

When I was five years old, my older brother convinced me he had the magic power to walk through trees. He showed me, and proved it with footprints in the snow. (A Will Marshall kind of big brother this guy was not.) My parents scolded him for teasing his little sister and playing with her mind, and assured me that he just tricked me by stepping around the roots in the back. I kept insisting, "I saw it, I was there! Why don't you believe me?" Thus began by disconnect from reality.

I have been reading fantasy and science fiction since I could read. You name it: Tolkein, Burroughs, Bradbury, King. I watched way too much t.v. and I was a Star Trek and Star Wars fan from the ancient days. Now I am (supposedly) all grown up. In the daytime I am a regular mommy who volunteers at the elementary school. I have two daughters, so I have to tape X-Files and watch it after they've gone to sleep.

I call myself Queen of the Zines because my work has appeared in Doctor Who and Star Trek fan publications on a regular basis. It's very encouraging because zines don't give me the high degree of Rejection that I've run into when submitting original fiction to professional magazines and the Big Guys (the book publishers.) I have a fantasy novel I'm trying to sell that's part of a trilogy, or heck maybe a series at this point. Every slush reader on the list has chucked it back at me. Boo-hoo-hoo. So writing this LOTL story was a lot of fun.

Denise Tanaka

 
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