My shoulders sagged as I watched my paperwork increase exponentially. The townsfolk ran around in panic and horses bolted as the A-7 gunmen fired pointlessly at the ship's armored hull. Within a few moments, the interstellar battle cruiser had disgorged a small army of foot soldiers carrying the very latest Zharkian weaponry. I groaned. It was not unusual for the Emperor to go overboard at moments like this. Undisputed villain of the eight Emperor Zhark books, the most feared tyrannical god-emperor of the known galaxy just didn't seem to comprehend the meaning of restraint.
In a few minutes, it was all over. The A-7s had either been killed or escaped to their own books, and the Zharkian Marine Corps had been dispatched to find the Minotaur. I could have saved them the trouble. He would be long gone. The A-7s and McNeil would have to be sourced and replaced, the whole book rejigged to remove the twenty-sixth-century battle cruiser that had arrived uninvited into 1875 Nebraska. It was a flagrant breach of the Anti-Cross-Genre Code that we attempted to uphold within fiction. I wouldn't have minded so much if this was an isolated incident, but Zhark did this too often to be ignored. I could hardly control myself as the Emperor descended from his starship with an odd entourage of aliens and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, who also worked for Jurisfiction.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at?!?"
"Oh!" said the Emperor, taken aback at my annoyance. "I thought you'd be pleased to see us!"
"The situation was bad, but not irredeemable," I told him, sweeping my arm in the direction of the town. "Now look what you've done!"
He looked around. The confused townsfolk had started to emerge from the remains of the buildings. Nothing so odd as this had happened in a western since an alien brainsucker had escaped from SF and been caught inside Wild Horse Mesa.
"You do this to me every time! Have you no conception of stealth and subtlety?"
"Not really," said the Emperor, looking at his hands nervously. "Sorry."
His alien entourage, not wanting to hang around in case they also got an earful, walked, slimed or hovered back into Zhark's ship.
"You sent a TextMarker"
"So what if we did? Can't you enter a book without destroying everything in sight?"
"Steady on, Thursday," said Bradshaw, laying a calming hand on my arm. "We did ask for assistance, and if old Zharky here was the closest, you can't blame him for wanting to help. After all, when you consider that he usually lays waste to entire galaxies, torching just the town of ProVIDence and not the whole of Nebraska was actually quite an achievement ..." His voice trailed off before he added, "... for him."
"AHHH!" I yelled in frustration, holding my head. "Sometimes I think I'm"
I stopped. I lost my temper now and again, but rarely with my colleagues, and when that happens, things are getting bad. When I started this job, it was great fun, as it still was to Bradshaw. But just lately the enjoyment had waned. It was no good. I'd had enough. I needed to go home.
"Thursday?" asked Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, concerned by my sudden silence. "Are you okay?"
She came too close and spined me with one of her quills. I yelped and rubbed my arm while she jumped back and hid a blush. Six-foot-high hedgehogs have their own brand of etiquette.
"I'm fine," I replied, dusting myself down. "It's just that things have a way of...well, spiraling out of control."
"What do you mean?"
"What do I mean? What do I mean? Well, this morning I was tracking a mythological beast using a trail of custard-pie incidents across the Old West, and this afternoon a battle cruiser from the twenty-sixth century lands in ProVIDence, Nebraska. Doesn't that sound sort of crazy?"
Excerpted from Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Copyright Jasper Fforde 2004. All rights reserved
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