A speaker crackled to life, and a woman's voice echoed through Tomorrowland.
"Paging Mister Morrow. Mister Tom Morrow ."
Tom flicked a switch to turn off the blowtorch he'd been using, and pulled his welding mask from his face with a smirk. A page via the loudspeaker was outdated tech in Tomorrowland, and usually used as a last resort. He could hear a little bit of frustration creeping into Patricia's voice. Maybe more than a little. He slid his communicator from his back pocket. He'd missed six calls. Whoops.
He tapped a few buttons to return the call. Patricia answered quickly.
"Oh, good. You're alive."
"Sorry about the delay. I'm working on the Orbiter. It gets pretty loud up here--"
Patricia cut him off. "Yeah, uh-huh, that's great, Mr. Morrow. Come down to TTA. You've got a message."
"Do I have to come right now? I'm kind of in the middle of something."
A dull beep let Tom know that she'd hung up. He sighed, dropped his mask on the ground, and hailed the Peoplemover. It arrived quickly, and he hopped on board.
A few minutes later, he strolled into the Tomorrowland Transit Authority.
"You're slow," Patricia called. He headed for her desk.
"The Peoplemover's slow. Not my fault."
"You designed it."
"Fair point," said Tom. "What's the big emergency?"
"You've got a telegram." Patricia pulled open a drawer and sifted through a few papers, looking for the right envelope.
"A telegram ? From where, Liberty Square?" Tom asked.
"No. Frontierland." She slid an envelope across the table. Like everything else from Frontierland, it was already covered in that omnipresent red dirt. "It's from Barnabas."
"He's the Big Thunder Mountain guy, right? Owns the mine?"
Tom picked up the envelope with a sigh. He hated Barnabas. For as much as Frontierland talked about exploration and new beginnings, their most prominent resident was the definition of a relic. He'd been a cruel rich man devoid of morals back east, and now he was a cruel, rich man devoid of morals out west. In private, Tom had once joked that Barnabas had only moved west in the first place because he needed more land to accommodate his enormous ego.
A message from Barnabas was most likely either an insult, a threat, or a business proposition. Still, the envelope was marked "URGENT" in deep red ink. Tom tore it open.
The message was simple:
Found something in the mines.
Not sure what it is.
Very dangerous. Need your help.
"Y'know, guy's got more money than God. You'd think he could spare enough for a longer telegram." Tom folded the telegram and slipped it into his back pocket.
"He had someone run it over here on horseback. Maybe he was short on time. What's it say?"
"He found something he doesn't understand. Shocker, right? I'll take the Peoplemover down there and see what's up." Tom headed for the door.
"Alright. I'll send a letter and tell him you'll be there in a few weeks."
"Very funny," said Tom. "I'll be back tomorrow at the latest."
* * *
Adventureland in August was unbearable. Steam rose from the river, sweat soaked through your clothes, and the heat was oppressive. It was terrible for business.
Granted, a jungle-based psychiatry practice had never been a lucrative career. Ned had known from the start that it was more of a passion project. He'd made his money years ago, and he saw no problem with slowing down a bit in retirement. Still, it had been nearly a week now since he'd had a client, and he was desperate for something, anything, to break the monotony. No one showed.
Instead, Ned hung a small, handwritten sign on his front door explaining that the practice was closed for the day, and headed out in search of cooler climes.
Before long, he found himself in Frontierland's concert hall. On his first visit, many years ago, he'd found the place somewhere between crude and quaint. After a few years of relative isolation in Adventureland, it seemed like a hallmark of civilization. If nothing else, it was cool, dry, and dark. The music wasn't so much a draw to the place as it was an unfortunate reality of the venue. Bears weren't born musicians.
On stage, Gomer tapped away at a grand piano. It was rare to see a musician dwarf the instrument so thoroughly, but at nearly eight feet, Gomer made the piano look small. He finished the piece he was playing--something staccato and somber that Ned didn't recognize. Without waiting for applause, Al began plucking away at a guitar in desperate need of tuning. As far as Ned could surmise, the song he played every evening was the only song he knew. His voice warbled through the hall.
"Theeeerrrre waaaaas....bloooood on the saaadddllle... "
Ned sighed, slid down in his seat, and tipped his tattered pith helmet over his eyes. Try as one might to tune out the music, it had a way of forcing itself to be heard.
"Ohh, pityyyy the cowwwwboyyyy.. ."
Ned felt the bench he sat on shift, and the wood groaned loudly. Gomer had sat beside him.
"Pity the cowboy? Pity the audience, more like," Gomer smiled. He was trying to be discreet, but his low, rough chuckle was enough to shake the bench. Bears weren't much for whispers. Ned smiled back all the same.
“I suppose one might say he has a certain charm,” said Ned. “I certainly wouldn’t, but I suppose one might.” He and Gomer both laughed. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it was always nice to talk to an old friend.
Al’s song concluded, and he took the disorganized applause that followed as a call for an encore. True to form, he repeated the song.
“Perhaps one of you might tune the instrument when he isn’t looking.” Ned laughed, but Gomer was silent. He frowned, after a moment.
“Listen, Ned, I got a question for ya. And I just need yer honest answer. No psycho-analasizin’,” he said.
“Of course. I don’t do pro-bono work in the first place.”
Gomer removed his hat and twisted it between his claws. The nervous habit had already ripped quite a few holes in the fabric, but it didn’t much matter.
“Now, I know y’ain’t the fearful type or nothin’, but, y’know, yer out there in the jungle all the time. You ever see any kinda thing that weren’t quite right?” Gomer asked.
“I’m a psychiatrist. I make it my business to see things that aren’t quite right. You’d have to be a little more specific.”
Gomer replaced his hat. He chose his words carefully.
“Now, you and I been in this park long as either one o’us can remember. And by now you know there ain’t nothin’ in this park that could do me no harm in a fair fight.”
Ned cleaned his glasses as he thought the statement over.
“A pirate, perhaps. I understand they have cannons.”
“Now, I said a fair fight, Colonel. Look, the point I’m tryin’ t’make is this. Last night I went out across the river to Tom Sawyer Island, doin’ a little fishin’ to pass the time. Couple hours pass, and the sun goes down, and I figure it’s roundabout time to be headin’ home. Then I hear this growl in the woods. I figure it’s gotta be one of my kinfolk, so I head on toward it. Next thing I know, I’m knocked flat on my tail, bleedin’ out.”
“Bleeding? You were attacked.”
Gomer lifted his tie to reveal the fur underneath. Three clean lines cut across his chest, barely healed over. Ned‘s brow furrowed.
“And you didn’t see the creature? Nothing at all?”
“It was real fast, Colonel. I saw its eyes. Bright red, even in the dark.”
“I can’t say I have any advice at the moment. But I’ll certainly--what’s that?”
A deep rumble shook the building, bringing the concert to a halt. No one complained.
“Should I be concerned?” asked Ned.
“Naw, ‘s just the Peoplemover.” said Gomer, pulling his tie back into place. Ned’s nose crinkled.
“What on earth would Mr. Morrow be doing in Frontierland?”
* * *
Tom brought the vehicle to a rumbling stop at the foothills of Big Thunder Mountain. He stepped out carefully.
It wasn’t the rattlesnakes or the explosives that bothered him. It was the dirt. Nothing and no one could spend more than a few minutes in frontierland without winding up caked in sweat and dirt, and infected with a vague feeling of malaise toward civilization as a whole.
The Peoplemover was designed for the smooth, clean streets of Tomorrowland. It had barely made it through the rough streets of Liberty Square, and Tom had no faith that it could climb Big Thunder. He proceeded on foot.
The climb took about fifteen minutes, and he spent all fifteen of them wondering why he was here. He didn’t particularly like Barnabas, and Barnabas didn’t particularly like him. He’d made the trip across the entire park in good faith, and the man didn’t even have the common decency to meet him at the base of the mountain.
But Barnabas had asked for help, and that was reason enough to be here. Not because Tom was an altruist, but because to ask for help Barnabas would have to admit that there was something Tom could do that he couldn’t, and that well worth a trip across the park. He made it to the mountaintop.
There was a large wooden sign nailed to the front door. In quick, handpainted letters, it read: “CLOSED.” Tom could recall a time when an entire mineshaft had caved in, and Barnabas had informed the trapped miners that they were still on the clock, and should continue working. It was hard for him to imagine something that would close the mine. He knocked on the door. It opened a moment later.
“Oh, good. You’re here.” said Barnabas. His beard had started to grow in. His face was covered in an uneven stubble--uncharacteristic for a man who typically took pride in his appearance. They exchanged greetings, and Barnabas led Tom inside.
“So, uh, what seems to be the problem?” Tom asked as they walked.
“We found something strange. I apologize for the air of mystery. I don’t intend to mislead you, but I’m not sure how to describe it. We’re storing it downstairs, for the time being.”
Calling the place “downstairs” was a bit charitable. The mine’s base of operations sat directly over a tunnel that led into the network of mineshafts. The stairs led directly to a dirt floor, then to a tunnel carved out of the rock, and eventually to a natural cavern. Barnabas stopped on the way to pick up an oil lamp. Tom actually had a flashlight built into his communicator, but bringing that sort of thing up tended to annoy Frontierlanders, so he left it unsaid.
As they rounded the corner into the cavern, Tom saw it. Smaller than he thought it would be--maybe six inches tall. It looked like a gemstone. Not the kind one would find in the mine, but an enormous, cut stone. He counted fourteen faces. There was a name for that, but he couldn’t remember it. Tetra-something. Patricia would know.
That wasn’t what made the thing odd, though. It glowed. The object itself seemed to be more-or-less transparent, but it shined from within. Tom looked closely, but couldn’t find a source. He reached out to touch it.
“Don’t!” Barnabas barked.
“I’m not gonna steal it, I just wanna--”
“It will burn you, you imbecile.”
“Oh,” said Tom. “Thanks. How do you know?”
Barnabas took a moment to reply. He lifted a pair of wrought-iron fireplace tongs from the floor, and lifted the strange object. He dropped it into a cast-iron pot, which he carefully clamped a lid onto. Tom heard a noise from upstairs. It sounded like a scream, but Barnabas seemed unphased.
“We should see Lythum,” he said. “She works in explosives. One of my brightest. I called her in when we found the infernal object.”
That didn’t answer Tom’s question, but he didn’t press the issue. Barnabas took the pot in hand and led Tom back upstairs, to a small room that looked like a ramshackle doctor’s office. Tom didn’t know of a doctor in Frontierland. This might be the closest thing.
“She touched the thing, after I called her here. It did something to her,” said Barnabas. “I’m not sure what we can do.”
A woman sat in the corner of the room, her knees pulled tight against her chest. She twitched and readjusted at random, her muscles seeming to react to some unknown stimulus. A stained white cloth was wrapped around her left hand. She didn’t seem to notice that someone else was in the room.
Tom stepped toward her and crouched to make eye contact.
“I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Tom. Tom Morrow. And you are?
The woman spoke slowly. Her eyes were blank. Her voice was strained.
“Heard of you. My name is Charlotte Lythum.”
“It’s good to meet you. Mr. Bullion tells me you looked at that thing they found in the mines. Something happened?”
“Feels like worms,” she said. “Very hot.” Tom waited for an explanation. She didn’t give one. He wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“Show the man your hand, Ms. Lythum,” Barnabas said. She pulled the cloth from her hand--it stuck to the skin in places. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Oh. That’s a problem.”
Charlotte’s hand had been much more than burned. The skin on her palm was red and blistered. Her muscles and tendons were clearly visible in places. The bones in the tips of her fingers were exposed. One finger was missing entirely.
“That’s, uh--that’s like a really big problem.”
“That’s why I called you,” said Barnabas.
“I’m not a doctor, but I think we can fix that in Tomorrowland. If we can’t fix a hand, we can at least replace it.”
“Cut it off,” Charlotte mumbled.
“Uh, no. Well, maybe. But if we do you’ll get a prosthetic. Bionic limbs. They’re very ‘in’ right now.”
“I’m not sure she’s capable of making that sort of decision at the moment. She isn’t quite herself.”
“I got that impression. I’m just not sure what to do. I mean, we can’t leave her like this. No offense intended, but Frontierland isn’t the best place for--”
Charlotte gasped, as though she’d been struck with something. Her jaw tensed, and Tom could hear her teeth grind together. He shuddered. She groaned, then her muscles loosened. Something in her changed suddenly. Her eyes focused on Tom.
“Apologies,” she said. “I haven’t been sleeping well, for obvious reasons. If there’s anything that can be done in Tomorrowland, I’d certainly love to try.”
“Of course. The Peoplemover’s parked outside. Let’s see what we can do.”