They drilled for five hours. Five hours of a constant, deep rumble mixed with the high pitched whine of steel drilling through steel. It was giving Perma Dettingurnt a migraine, which is especially painful when one’s entire body is essentially a head supported by four legs.
You see, while many of the Minitoa are mostly humanoid, they are in fact a people made up of species from all across the multiverse who share but a single commonality: they are, in comparison to most observable intelligent life, considered quite small. Among them you could find everything from green, gelatinous humanoids, to an entire species that, despite not being cloned, bear one-hundred-percent genetic similarity to Abraham Lincoln (not the one you’re thinking of). The original Minitoa – from whom Captain Ernad VI was descended – opened portals to travel throughout all reality to bring all the tiny peoples together so that they could stand a better chance in the Forever Wars which are prophesized to one day reduce all of creation to madness and suffering.
That’s what they were doing when they were unexpectedly stranded on Skymoore, forcing them to collect plant life in order to escape. Some of their people were not biologically prepared to leave Homeworld’s atmosphere for more than twelve hours, and so time was really of the essence to prevent mass suffocation and starvation. It was really ruining Perma’s day.
“This is so stupid,” she whined once her headache overloaded her capacity for common sense. Her fellow Minitoa gasped.
An auburn-haired, bipedal young man in shiny steel armor cut his way through the gathered crowd. “What?” Captain Ernad VI demanded angrily.
“This is so stupid!” she said again. There were whispers all throughout the crowd; some in agreement, most in surprise.
“What is stupid?” He made himself look taller, more imposing. Perma didn’t care.
“We’ve spent five hours drilling through this one wall. By now we could’ve collected enough nonmagical plant life to get home, but you won’t let anyone leave because you want to show off your uncle’s stupid drill. Okay, we get it, it’s cool, but it got old about four hours and fifty minutes ago.”
Captain Ernad VI rubbed his chin pensively even as his eyes burned with anger. “You will pay for your insolence once we return to Homeworld,” he finally said. “But I must admit your statement holds some logic. I hate to let a quarry escape, but this small plant man will live another day. Everyone, you have new orders. Join up with your scout captains and scour the city for plant life. Magical is preferred, but we will take anything. Time is of the essence!”
When Mayor Gendry Dew finally felt he was safe, Nestor escorted him to the Department of Subpublic Affairs. It was an unlabeled wooden shack shoved between a bakery and a barber a few blocks from the mayor’s house. Through boarded-up windows, three glowing purple eyes watched the passersby suspiciously.
“You should honestly be in prison right now,” the mayor was saying as Nestor approached the rotting wooden door which had “KEEP OUT. MUCUS-EATING VIRUS WITHIN” carved into it. “You’re not legally allowed to know this building’s true purpose, but I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”
“And you’re sure it’s safe?”
“Oh yeah, it’s totally secure, I’ll be fine!”
“Great,” Nestor said. “But I was talking about the city.”
“Oh. Oh yeah. Totally. Sure. Absolutely. Uh huh. Affirmative, buckaroo. The Department of Subpublic Affairs – if they exist, which I cannot legally confirm nor deny – will handle it, no problem.” Nestor handed the mayor over to an orange tentacle which slithered through a hole in the dilapidated door. “Thank you so much for your valor today, Mr. Pinkly. I will never forget it. Now get yourself to work and let’s forget this ever happened.”
After checking up on Dovetail (she’d need repairs, but would be fine in the morning), Nestor did one of those things.
“Good luck bouncing back from that,” Karessa Plunderton, the halfling clerk of Odd & Ends, was saying from within as the gnome finished his nonstop sprint to work.
“From what?” Nestor asked, trying to mask his breathlessness. “Is Donovan wearing the spring shoes? Oh, phew. As they are now he’d never have come back down.” Nestor was about to joke that they should market them to astronomers, but Donovan Allman did not look at all amused. “Oh yes, I can explain that!”
Donovan held up a hand. “Save it. Karessa and I are losing our minds in here. We’re going to get some fresh air. You man the shop. Just see to it that you warn me next time you’re going to be several hours late.”
“But! Wait, Mr. Allman!”
“Goodbye, Nestor. Let us know if you sell anything.”
“Mr. Allman, wait!”
Nestor pulled himself up onto the stool behind the register, and collapsed against the counter. That had been a lot of running for such a small gnome, and he would gladly have taken a nap right about then. But the shop needed him, so he remained vigilant.
Fortunately so, because a few minutes into his shift, Odd & Ends received its first customer of the day. He was a dark-skinned elf, clad in humble beige robes but wearing a strikingly beautiful citrine about his neck. Nestor didn’t recognize him, which was enough to make the man a rarity, but he was made all the more curious by his unnaturally white hair and yellow pupils.
“Blessings of Sol be upon you on this delightful afternoon,” the elf said warmly as he entered the store.
“Welcome to Odd & Ends!” Nestor said. “We’re positively delighted to have you here.”
“I’m delighted to be here,” he said. “My name is Keel Dal Everwind. Whose acquaintance do I have the pleasure of making?”
“Nestor Pinkly.” Keel visibly took a moment to commit this to memory. “Is there anything in particular I could help you with today?”
“Why, yes. My garden is very precious to me. I view it as an opportunity to add to the magnificence of Sol’s creation. And while I am quite confident in my botany, I thought you might be able to provide me with some other sort of decor.”
“Oh yes, of course! Right this way!”
As Nestor brought Keel to the gardening section, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Outside the shop’s open door hung some lovely potted chrysanthemums. Standing on the rim of the pot, glaring directly at Nestor, was Captain Ernad VI of the Minitoa.
“Uh…uh…” The gnome cleared his throat. “Yes, well, here we have a fountain that will always look as though it’s in direct sunlight, no matter the weather. That way your garden always has that special sunshine sparkle!”
“That’s in defiance of Sol’s will, isn’t it,” Keel said sharply. But his smile returned quickly. “I will pass.”
“Well…we have other fountains. I’m terribly sorry, could you excuse me a moment? Got to take care of something.”
Captain Ernad VI was now using his tiny, ineffective blade to saw away at the thin ropes from which the potted flowers hung. “That’s never going to work you know,” Nestor said quietly.
“Quiet, foolish giant!” Ernad VI said. “My compass says these flowers have even more power than that talking plant. With these, we will be home in no time!”
“I think your compass is actually pointing to my shop. It’s full of magical trinkets and –”
“I’m tired of your trickery! I’m taking this magic plant and there’s nothing you can do to – wait, stop! Put me down you insufferable…!”
Nestor didn’t find out what exactly he was, because when he set Ernad VI down on the ground, the gnome could no longer hear him. He took the chrysanthemums inside and returned to his customer.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “Just remembered that the boss wanted these inside today. He says he can talk to plants and these ones like being inside this time of day. Couldn’t tell you why; this is my third favorite time for a stroll.”
Keel just smiled and nodded.
“No fountains caught your eye? Alright then, let’s take a look over here.” Nestor took Keel to a shelf containing a number of garden gnomes (a name which Nestor was not fond of, as they hardly bore a similarity to his people). “How about one of these garden…statues? They talk!”
“Oh, they could greet my neighbors as they walk? That sounds delightful. Can they talk now?”
“Oh yes! Let’s try this one. Omed!”
A small, porcelain man with a green cap and blue overalls whirred to life on the shelf, his eyes opening, his brow narrowing, and his mouth forming a scowl. “HEY! KNIFE-EARS! YEAH I’M TALKING TO YOU! BACK. YOUR. ASS. UP! YOU ELVES ALL THINK YOU’RE SO HIGH AND MIGHTY JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE SO DAMN BEAUTIFUL? WELL YOU WON’T BE PRETTY WHEN I’M DONE WITH YOU NO SIR! SO GET OUT OF MY FACE BEFORE I SHOVE MY BOOT-”
“Omed!” Nestor said. “Oh dear, Mr. Everwind, I am terribly sorry! This appears to be one of our sentry gnomes. My mistake. I could show you another one or…”
“No,” Keel said. “Actually, I think I’ll be on my way.”
“Wait wait wait wait wait! How about a pinwheel? Every garden could use one of those swirly delights! We have a great selection on this wall over here.”
Keel hesitated. “That actually could be nice,” he admitted. “I know just the place for one. Alright, lead the way, Mr. Pinkly.”
As they made their way to the trinket wall, Nestor kept an eye out for any Minitoa lurking in the shop. He was pleased not to see any, but he kept the flowers where he could see them, just in case.
Keel browsed through the pinwheels, which were set into a cardboard display made to look like a patch of flowers. “How much is this one?” he asked, referring to a green-and-yellow pinwheel with sharp edges and silver stars painted onto it.
“One rodom,” Nestor declared. Keel’s eyes bulged a bit. “When that one spins fast enough it opens a tear in the fabric of reality and, in theory at least, allows you to enter another universe. Are you familiar with multiverse theory? It’s pretty simple, you see, it posits that-”
Keel put up a hand. “That’s quite alright. How about this red one?”
“Four scales. It sings a song for you as it spins! Any song you’d like!”
“That’s still far out of my pinwheel budget. This one?”
“Spins forever! Three feathers!”
Keel was beginning to look a little exasperated. “Are there any for less than a feather?”
It was then that Nestor heard a faint scraping sound from above him. A cerulean wood music box was teetering over edge of the shelf above Keel. “Atikkle,” Nestor whispered, and the music box was suspended in the air before it could fall.
“What was that?”
“A…shickle! One shickle! This cyan pinwheel here sparkles as it spins, see?” Nestor gave it a whirl, and the plastic blades left a trail of brilliant silver sparks in their wake. Keel was awed by their presence, simple though they were.
“Just one shickle?”
“Yes! It’s a special promotion!” There was, of course, no such promotion.
“I’ll take it.”
Captain Ernad VI was fed up. No, he was beyond fed up. He was furious. And, to be totally honest, he was scared, too. His very first scouting mission, funded by his uncle, the Arch President of Homeworld, had gone terribly. He’d done the math wrong on the Interspace Jump and now here they were, stranded, helpless, and constantly being thwarted by that bubbly, troublesome giant.
Worst of all, Ernad VI wasn’t even sure they’d be better off if the giant left them alone. They’d always traveled from realm to realm using plants from Homeworld. Their bioscholars theorized that any plant from any world would work, but as of yet they had no proof. At this point, Ernad VI was considering the possibility that he might never return home. It was a sobering thought, almost too horrifying to properly entertain, but one he, as the mission captain, had to recognize.
So, he figured, if the Minitoa were to be stuck on this floating city, they would at the very least be its rulers. This could be a test of sorts, showing the titans of the galaxy that the Minitoa were to be feared, and that when all the multiverse broke out into violent, eternal battle, the tiny civilization would not roll over and die. Their fight would start here, and this meddling giant would be the first casualty.
“So Keel,” the giant was saying as Ernad VI began to scale the stool behind the register, upon which the giant now sat. “You seem like the pious sort, if you don’t mind me saying. Why haven’t I ever seen you at the Church of Sol?”
“Oh I don’t mind at all. Devotion to Sol is what guides every step I take,” the pointy-eared titan replied. Ernad hammered a piton into the wood of the stool, shielding his eyes from the resulting splinters. As he secured his rope to the metal spike, Ernad VI’s grip faltered, and began to plummet to his death. The world was a howling storm of wind and white noise as he fell. He was helpless but to flounder for his rope as the rushing air cut his skin like a thousand tiny needles. The titan’s voice cut through the madness, and the last thing Ernad VI would ever hear before he died was: “I’m from the Church of the True Believers. I don’t mean to offend, but…we take our worship a little more seriously over there.”
Seconds from his doom, the rope around Ernad’s waist went taut, and he winced in pain as the fibers cut into his abdomen and his body was racked with whiplash. He muttered a prayer of thanks to Gromla, Goddess of Rope and Those Little Plastic Bits at the Ends of Shoe Laces, and resumed his climb.
“Oh, I’m not offended,” the giant said. “But I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I love Sol, and I know all the folks at church do, too. It doesn’t seem fair to say who worships him the right way.”
“It’s not fair,” the titan said jovially. “It just is.”
“Well, I’ll have to stop by sometime.”
“Please do. We welcome all folks within our walls.”
When Ernad VI at least reached the top of the stool, he secured himself tightly to it, allowing himself the freedom to search through his pack. He drew a small needle from within. It was his least favorite tool – a coward’s weapon, frankly – but the needle contained poison lethal enough to kill even this babbling giant. If he could just find some exposed skin…
Nestor frowned when he noticed Captain Ernad VI climbing up the stool. He didn’t want to alarm Keel, so he just kept watch out of the corner of his eye. But when he saw the Minitoa rummaging through his backpack, the gnome knew he would have to take action. As he opened the register and accepted Keel’s green, glowing shickle, he also picked up the furious Minitoa, and quickly tossed him into the drawer along with the currency.
“Is there something…shouting in your register?” Keel asked as Nestor wrote up his receipt.
“Oh, I was just testing out an enchantment to give this store some flavor. A talking register, how adorable! But it ended up quieter and…angrier…than I expected. Thank you for reminding me to disenchant it.”
Keel seemed to accept this answer, and left the store as kindly as he entered it. Nestor hollered in elation when he was gone, certain that Donovan would be very proud. But then, there was the task at hand.
“…sucker! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill your whole family, and their friends, and anyone you went to school with, and your teenage sweetheart, and her dog! I will disembowel your teenage sweetheart’s dog right in front of their eyes, right in front of your eyes, do you hear me?!”
“Mr. Ernad VI,” Nestor said when the Minitoa was through with his tantrum. “You would very much like to leave Skymoore, correct?” The tiny man took a deep breath and nodded. “And I would very much like for you to stop trying to kill me, my plants, my friends, and my mayor. It will upset my business partner, but I think I have a solution.”
Some time later, scores of Minitoa stood outside Odd & Ends, chattering angrily and excitedly and curiously. On the shop’s patio, the giant was confirming with Captain Ernad VI that everyone was there. Embedded in the dirt at the head of the crowd was a green-and-yellow pinwheel. The giant said it would take them home.
Perma was ready for all this to be done, but she did not want to go home. Home was safe, yes, but home was cruel. Home was where she would be punished for being practical. And being right.
The giant muttered something in a foreign tongue and the pinwheel began to spin. It spun and it spun until it was lime colored. And then it spun and it spun until the air around it began to distort, like a heat wave. And then it spun and it spun until it was all heat wave, and Perma couldn’t see beyond it. The gnome and the shop and the pinwheel were all one, and then they were none. She could hear the blades spinning but she didn’t see them anymore, and where once was a pinwheel was now a window to the red fields outside Ernadam, the largest Homeworld city.
The Minitoa roared with glee, and they ran. And Perma ran with them. She thought of her brother, and the banana bread he’d make for her in the morning. She thought of taking a refreshing shower in liquid uranium. She thought of gazing at the cute girl who sold teleportation insurance downtown, and how her four eyes were different colors but still part of a complete, symmetrical whole.
She thought of being punished. For being practical. And being right.
She slowed her run, and her people passed her. She slowed her run, and her squad captain shouted at her to hurry. She slowed her run, and the gnome said something that she could no longer understand. She slowed her run, and the portal closed, and now she just had to live with it.
Nestor, completely unaware of the existential crisis happening a few feet away from him, was feeling pretty grand. He felt even better when Donovan and Karessa rounded the corner into Skymoore’s port.
“Donovan! Donovan!” Nestor cried, jumping up and down and waving the pair over to the store. “Donovan! I made a sale! To a nice elf named Keel! He might come again!”
“Nestor!” Donovan said. “That’s great!”
“Two sales in two days,” Karessa said. “At least we’re consistent.”
“The evening is only just beginning,” Nestor said triumphantly. And boy did he feel triumphant. He protected the mayor, saved the city, returned a displaced people to their home dimension, and sold a pinwheel. He also felt tired.
“So what did you sell, Nestor? Did we actually make any money?”
Before Nestor could answer Donovan’s query, a rubber ball came soaring upward from somewhere beneath Skymoore and hit Donovan on the back of the head and landing in Karessa’s hand. “Sol’s sunshine! It came back!” Karessa laughed. “Nestor, you’re the best artificer a little shop could ask for.”
After recovering from the shock of being struck, Donovan had to admit that he was also impressed. “I knew I picked the right gnome for this job.”
Nestor beamed, and ushered his friends inside so he could tell them all about his sale.
It had been a good day.