It was two against two: Gaseous Girl and Mayor Flanbury vs. the two zombie penguins that had once been Princess Caitlin and Charlie Sheen. Such odds are not particularly good, but then the mayor made it worse by a sudden burst of stupidity. Completely losing his head, he snatched the bottle that had once held Charlie Sheen’s mystical essence, raised it over his head like a club, and charged the two zombie penguins with the wildly unrealistic hope of bashing their heads in. "WINNIIIIIIIIING!" he yelled, feeling this an appropriate battle cry. It was not. It was, instead, his last word. Zombie Penguin Sheen’s beak snapped forward, the mayor staggered and dropped the bottle, and all at once there were three zombie penguins converging on Gaseous Girl, still emitting their signature horrible squawk.
Gaseous Girl tensed herself, ready for battle. She had read all the literature, and gotten all As in the two Advanced Zombiology classes she’d taken in her junior year, so she knew exactly what she should do. She knew, for example, that fire can be a troublesome way to defend oneself with zombies, as they take rather a long time to burn, and in the meanwhile they’d still be coming at her. However, Gaseous Girl also knew that she could generate a blast of fire powerful enough to instantly reduce all three of the zombie penguins to ashes, brains and all. She was on the point of letting loose when she paused. Something had been bothering her about this entire attack. All at once thoughts tumbled together in her mind: it was too fast. If a person was bitten by ordinary zombies, it was supposed to take at least 23 hours or more before they zombified. Nowhere had she ever read that the transformation happened instantly. And she had NEVER heard of anyone mutating into penguins, zombie or otherwise. If that rule could be broken, then maybe the other rules didn’t apply as well, like the one that said that you couldn’t turn zombies back. And if there was still hope…
Gaseous Girl decided in a twinkling. She wheeled about and dove through the open window of the mayor’s office, flying outside and dropping down onto the street. A tall, auburn-haired woman was standing there, clad in white and looking rather sad. "Hello," she said, raising her hand in greeting, "My name is Maralyn. My daughter’s Caitlin."
"Nice to meet you," Gaseous Girl said quickly. "Now, unless you have an emergency, I’ve got to-"
"You don’t understand," Maralyn said. "I’ve come to tell you; I know what’s causing all this. I know what’s behind the Zombie Penguin Apocalypse."
Gaseous Girl stopped in her tracks and turned to face Maralyn. "REAL-ly. Do tell."
"Well, it’s a very long and complicated explanation, and…no, there is too much, and we’re about to be messily devoured by zombie penguins. Let me sum up." She took a breath and blurted it all out in a single British-accented rush. "You and I and my daughter aren’t real people. No one here is. We’re all characters in a story. Our author wrote a death scene for Caitlin, my daughter, but she didn’t want to die and so she resurrected herself. Unfortunately that broke one of the fundamental rules that govern the relationship between authors and their characters, and that has thrown all our fictional worlds out of kilter. Do you understand?"
Gaseous Girl actually began to laugh, rather surprising Queen Maralyn. "Perfectly. It’s all so clear now. I knew something wasn’t right, I knew these weren’t ordinary zombies, and now it all makes sense! Brilliant! Right, so, all we have to do to stop this is tell the author to write a happy ending, and boom goes the dynamite. Right?"
Maralyn’s face fell. "No. I’m sorry. But there’s nothing you can do. When my daughter broke that basic rule, she snapped the connection between us and our author. He couldn’t help us now even if he wanted to. Worse, this has affected all the fictional worlds. Anyone can come back now, and there are no more happy endings. Even the happy endings that there were have changed. The Death Star just blew up Yavin 4, the Thanagarians did turn the Earth into a hyperspace bypass, Sauron found Frodo and claimed the One Ring for himself. There’s nothing we can do about any of it, for we have lost our author, and there’s no one else to appeal to."
She stopped then, partly overcome by emotion, and partly because Gaseous Girl’s face had screwed up as if she had a sudden pain. The superheroine pressed her fingers hard against her temples. "Wait…wait…I’m thinking…I’ve got it! Maybe we’ve lost the author, but there is someone else to go to! Think! Who does our author, any author, depend on? Who validates his work? Who makes the characters come alive in their own minds as well as his?"
Maralyn’s eyes grew wide with the realization. "You mean…"
"Exactly! Have you ever read Peter Pan?"
"Not while I was alive, but in Character Heaven, there was a rather large library and….wait…you’re not thinking…Chapter 13?"
Maralyn was on the point of asking how, when something black and white hurtled out of the sky, emitting a horrible squawk and landing right on top of Gaseous Girl. Caught off guard, Gaseous Girl instinctively reverted to traditional modes of combat; her sharp right knee shot upwards, slamming into Zombie Penguin Caitlin’s stomach. If it had been a man, he would have recoiled away and fled, howling in pain and clutching his stomach. But as a zombie penguin, Caitlin felt no pain. Instead, her beak slashed forward, biting Gaseous Girl in the shoulder. Gaseous Girl burped fiercely, the explosive blast of power sending Caitlin flying off her and into a nearby bush, but the damage was done. Already she could feel icy tendrils racing down her arm. "Maralyn," she gasped, "Run. Run now. Call the readers. Tell them-"
But her voice dissolved into a growing squawk. Maralyn didn’t look back. She ran pell-mell down the city streets, darting into alleyways and dodging round building corners, until she found herself in an open parking lot that seemed deserted. She came to a stop, gathered herself, and looked up into the night sky and the smoke-shrouded moon. Her heart faltered. Suppose it didn’t work? She didn’t even know whom she would be talking to! But there was nothing else for it. The world depended on her. Caitlin…And so she drew a deep breath and spoke to the cold air.
"I don’t know who’s out there, or if there even is anyone reading this right now," Maralyn began. "But if you are, I ask you, please, help us. Some of you may be mothers like me, or…or maybe you’re fathers, or girlfriends, or boyfriends, or cousins, or something. Surely there’s someone in your life who is closer to you than your own heartbeat, who is the moon in your every night, who you love more than anything else…if there is, whoever that person is to you, Caitlin is that to me. She is my daughter, my only girl, and…and I cannot bear…" her voice choked, and her hands worked in agitation. "She can’t end like this. I know she shouldn’t have done what she did, and if you…" Maralyn didn’t want to go on. She didn’t like the thought that darkened her heart.
"Even if you don’t think she should be saved, even if you think she ought to stay what she is now, trapped forever as that horrible creature, think of all the other people. There’s billions in this world, men, women, children, and none of them know anything about what Caitlin did. They don’t deserve to end as zombie penguins for her mistake." She heard a distant low squawk and a crash, and knew she didn’t have much time left. "So I beg you, whoever’s out there, readers or editors or random passers-by, please, believe in us. We’re not fairies like Tinker Bell, we’re only story characters, we may not seem real to you, but we’re real to ourselves, and we don’t want to go out this way! So please, if you believe in us, if you believe in my Caitlin, or in any of the people in all the worlds of story, please, clap your hands, don’t let us die!"
She saw them now. Rank upon rank of zombie penguins filing into the parking lot, cutting off her every escape. "Please," Maralyn gasped, "in the name of heaven, please!"
Slowly they moved towards her, Zombie Penguin Caitlin in the lead, waddling ominously, and now they began to chant, their cold zombified beaks clacking. "Squawk. Squawk. Squawk."
"Please, oh please, oh please…"
"Squawk. Squawk. Squawk."
"Caitlin, Caitlin, don’t-"