The Harrier jump jet landed on the runway with seeming ease, a slight jostle away from perfection that would only noticeable to the most seasoned of pilots. Peter Watson was as seasoned as an overturned spice cabinet, but his fatherly pride allowed him to ignore that imperfection as he smiled down at the girl on his lap.
Wendy Watson, age eight, still had her hands firmly on the controls and a wide grin plastered to her face. "Please tell me we can do that again."
"We'll have a chance on the way home, but after that we'll have to go back to my DC-3. Remember, the jet is just a loaner for the weekend. But you're a natural, Wendy – keep this up and you'll be able to fly any crate with wings and an engine before you can drive."
His daughter beamed up at him. "And then can I go on adventures with you?"
"I keep telling you, Wendy, they're not adventures, they're very serious assignments from my place of employment that may, on occasion, take me to interesting locations. But yes, maybe one day, if you eat all your vegetables and get good grades."
Wendy considered this. While she loved flying with her father, she was worried about how much broccoli she'd need to eat to get to such a point.
"Well. Okay. But if we can't fly more right now, let's go to the park!" Wendy was nearly bouncing in excitement.
She had been anticipating the trip for months; not only the chance to spend time with her father who was frequently busy with work, not only the chance to fly to her little heart's content, but the chance to visit Contingencyland!, home of the greatest roller coaster yet created.
Or the most dangerous, depending on your point of view.
God is My Co-Pilot; The Devil My Engineer ranked among the most awkwardly-named and creatively-designed amusement park rides in history (most of the others having been shut down shortly after opening due to the high death tolls associated with them). This was no ordinary roller coaster, where passengers sat passively as they were pulled through the loops and hills. GiMC;tDME allowed the passenger in the front-most seat to choose which direction the car would turn through dozens of optional routes. The design was so complex that it was said no two rides were precisely the same, and it had taken ten years to construct. Due to varying ride times, as the very nature of the ride would suggest, it only ran once an hour on the hour and competition for prime places in the line was fierce. It was rumoured the park had covered up several deaths that resulted from fights over who got to be first in line.
There was no evidence to prove this rumour, but the potential risk only added to the legend of the ride.
Peter Watson grinned and unstrapped his daughter from her custom-designed harness before unstrapping himself "Of course. We can't be late for the line, after all."
It was one of the perks of the job that Peter had been able to procure passes that would allow them to bypass most of the crowds. Passes that, on closer examination, may not have been standard issue from the park.
They left the airport in high spirits, and in a matter of minutes they had reached Contingencyland!, home of Contingencyman and one of the few amusement parks that sold survival gear in the gift shops. The park was filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of fun mixed with low-level terror as all the best parks are.
They passed the Survival Tunnel and Path of Mystery with barely a glance -- there would be time for those later -- and with a flash of the pass Peter and Wendy made their way to the front of the line. It was still early in the day, the park had just opened, and those waiting seemed to be hanging back. None of the casual riders were quite prepared for the responsibility, and there was no protest when Peter flashed his pass to allow Wendy and himself to the front of the line.
Once they were at the very front, they took a seat and prepared to wait -- it would still be some time before the ride's first trip of the day. Wendy, a bundle of anticipation, was not fully prepared for this.
"How long do we need to wait?"
"Not long. Less than an hour."
Wendy squirmed in her seat and began flexing her hands, pretending to play Duck Hunt.
"Patience, Wendy. If you want to grow up and have adventures, you need to learn to be able to wait."
Wendy sighed. "But I don't have to sit here the whole time, right?"
"As long as you stay close to me and don't go away from the line, you can move about a little." Peter smiled at his daughter before returning to a state of alert patience usually reserved for soldiers on watch.
Wendy glanced around, looking for something she could do close by. The area was limited, a gate in front of the tracks and ornate fences to her left and right containing the line. Then she noticed a boy about her age. Someone to play with while waiting was her first thought, but he was wearing a blue dress with a pony on the skirt. She approached him, frowning. "Why are you wearing a dress? Only girls are supposed to wear dresses."
The boy shrugged and pointed at her jeans. "And only boys are supposed to wear jeans."
Wendy considered this. It made sense, when she looked at it that way. "Okay. But why are you wearing it at a park? It's hard to run around and stuff in dresses."
"Well, yeah, but I like it. It's pretty, and this one doesn't tear easily. I like to wear something nice when I go out."
"All right, then. My name's Wendy, by the way."
"Tip. Nice to meet you, Wendy," he said, giving a curtsy.
"Wanna play tag? We can't go far, but at least it's something."
"Okay! But I'm gonna warn you, I'm really good at catching people."
"Oh yeah? You're it!" Wendy said, giving Tip a light punch to the shoulder before running to the fence. She'd managed to climb halfway up, Tip in hot pursuit, before a commotion behind them in line brought their game to a halt. A large robot, shaped vaguely like a lobster, was pushing its way toward the front. A blonde woman wearing a lab coat and square-framed glasses stood at the controls, a blonde girl with pigtails around Wendy's age at her side. She spoke into a microphone that blasted her voice to the crowd.
"Out of the way, future subjects of the Narbon reign! I promised my daughter she could spend the day here if she stuck with her violin lessons, and Beta wants to drive this thing."
The girl, apparently Beta, was giggling in glee. "I bet we can override the safety controls before the first turn!"
Still hanging from the fence, Wendy glared at them and called out, "No fair! We were here first. We've been waiting and you can't just cut ahead of everyone with a giant robot!"
Peter paused with his hand on his concealed weapon – a new issue that he was fond of, due to its resemblance to the lightsabers from his favourite movie. He knew his daughter had potential; he saw this as an opportunity for her to prove herself. He would step in if she needed assistance, of course. But if she didn't need it, Peter had no doubt his daughter would enjoy this every bit as much as the ride.
Beta turned to her mother and said. "Dibs!" She grabbed a box from the back of the lobster-bot and jumped to the ground, moving toward Wendy.
Helen Narbon called after her, "Be careful, kid. I don't want that body damaged before it's ready."
Wendy jumped down from the fence and met her halfway, Tip moving to stand by as backup. They squared off. "You need to follow the rules and wait like everyone else!"
Beta set the box down on the ground and glared at Wendy. "Following rules is for goodie-goodies. When I'm older I'm going to rule the world and no one will tell me what to do."
"There's still rules you have to follow." She paused, trying to remember her father's lectures. "Rules of nature. Rules of physics."
Beta grinned, then leaned down and opened the box, crying out, "The rules of nature bow down to me! BEHOLD MY ROCK-EM SOCK-EM GERBILS!"
Half a dozen of the modified rodents moved out and swarmed toward Wendy and Tip on their hind legs. Large fists, gloved in red and blue, looked odd at the end of their thin arms. Matching helmets protected their heads Wendy started to back up reflexively, but the gerbils were well trained and quickly surrounded her and attacked.
Being as they were still only four inches tall (not including the tail) and their strength was still only strong relative to their body size, this meant little beyond a slight risk of bruising around their ankles. For Tip, at least – Wendy was wearing boots.
Wendy and Tip stared down at the attacking gerbils for a moment, before Tip finally looked up and said, "Is that it?"
Helen glared at him. "Fear my gerbil army! Mom says they're sheer elegance in their simplicity."
Wendy stood firm, ignoring the tapping noise of gerbil fists against her boots. "The only one who should fear is you! Breaking the rules of nature is way worse than breaking the rules of Contingencyland!. You're going to need to go to the back of the line like everyone else – or else."
Tip bent over to take a closer look at them. "They're pretty cute, actually." He pulled something out of his purse, then scooped up one of the gerbils. "Hey, little guy. Want some of my granola bar?"
The gerbil, who seemed to be hungry, immediately stopped his attack and started nibbling on the offered snack.
"Awww! I think I'll call you Edith Head." He broke the bar in two, giving a generous piece to Edith and tossing the rest to the side to distract the others.
The Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Gerbils ignored the protests of their mistress and ran off to feed. After the granola bar was reduced to nothing but a few raisins and a wrapper, they realized that an amusement park is filled with delicious snacks. They were out of sight before Helen could grab any of them.
She pouted, then pointed at Edith. "Give me back my gerbil! You tricked the rest into running away, at least let me have that one back."
Tip frowned. "No. You weren't feeding him right. Edith likes me better." He smiled down at the gerbil in his hands.
Beta held out the box, dumping in a few alfalfa pellets she had in her pocket. "Here, FS-2354! You want to come back with me, right?"
The gerbil now known as Edith Head looked at the paltry offering of alfalfa pellets, then curled up in Tip's hands as best it could. Tip tucked him into his purse to keep the gerbil safe. "I think he's made his decision."
Beta moved to take the purse, but Wendy stepped between the two. "Don't even try it. I take karate lessons!"
A loud sigh came from the lobster-bot. "Stop messing around with them, Beta. If you want something right, you gotta do it yourself . . . Code D!"
Beta dropped to the ground instantly, ignoring the skinned knee she gained in the process.
Peter, instincts and reflexes finely honed, tackled both children to the ground one second later.
And one second before the laser fired at the spot they'd been standing.
Being as Helen Narbon Sr had failed to account for the possibility they would duck, the laser continued its path until it struck home . . . on the side of the lead car of the most legendary roller coaster in the country. Fortunately empty of passengers, it had arrived without the children noticing, so caught up were they in their battle.
Beta was the first to rise after the dust settled, and she turned to scream at her mother, "You ruin everything! I had it under control! They were gonna bow before me and be my minions!"
"Beta, I keep telling you, you're not responsible enough to look after a minion. I'll get you a goldfish at the midway, how about?"
A thoughtful pause and Beta rejoined her mother on the lobster-bot. "As long as we can get funnel cake, too."
With that, the lobster-bot turned and made its way from the remainder of the line. Peter stood, giving Wendy and Tip a hand up. Tip immediately stopped and checked on Edith Head, who was none the worse for wear from the fall – Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Gerbils were quite sturdy, it would seem.
"Are either of you injured? Were you hurt in any way? Well, beyond some emotional pain from not being able to go on the ride . . ." he looked sadly at the remains of the coaster. Repairs would be possible, but it would take time. There would be no riders today.
Wendy smiled. "No. But that was great! Almost as good as being able to steer the GiMC;tDME, but I liked standing up and stopping her like that."
Tip shook his head "I'm fine. My skirt is really durable, I don't think the dirt will even stain."
Wendy hugged her father, beaming. "Even if things didn't turn out like we planned, I'm glad we can still spend the day together."
He hugged her back. "I'm glad you're all right, Wendy. But we can't make a habit of this – fighting evil villains is dangerous, and I don't want to see you hurt. What say you we head to the Midway and win some prizes to take home? Show your mother we've been doing perfectly ordinary daddy-daughter things today?"
Wendy cheered. "I bet you can win every prize in the shooting gallery!"
"Actually, I think you're old enough to learn to win them yourself," Peter said with a thoughtful smile.
Tip perked up at the mention. "Can I come with you? My mom fainted when the robot came and the guys from the park said she'd be in the first aid tent. She does this whenever something weird happens, so I'm not worried, but I don't want to just sit there until she wakes up."
"All right, sport, I'll give you a few pointers as well, and then we'll check in on your mother."
The trio went to the midway in good spirits, high on the thrill of having defeated a dastardly villain. The carnies never knew what hit them.
It had taken a moment for Peter to adjust to the fairway's guns – the sight misaligned and the guns pulling slightly to the left – but once allowances had been made, he was quickly instructing the children how to best take out a target. Wendy had plenty of experience with Duck Hunt, and Tip was a quick learner as Peter expected. Veteran of many an undercover assignment, Peter passed no judgement on the boy's preference for dresses, but knew that such a choice would leave a boy more inclined to learn how to fight.
Half an hour later, they each walked away with a massive stuffed toy – Wendy with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Peter with an alien that bore no resemblance to any species he had yet encountered, and Tip with a fluffy-maned lion. The Watsons dropped Tip off with his mother, who had recovered as expected, and was under the impression that the ride had simply been shut down for routine maintenance.
Peter turned to his daughter and said, "Remember, Wendy, if your mother asks, we just went to the amusement park about an hour north of home."
Wendy frowned. "The one that smells like feet? And doesn't have any good rides?"
"Yes, Wendy. I don't think she would understand about the flying lessons. You're very talented, but most little girls are just learning to ride a bike at your age."
"Same with the robot blowing up the roller coaster?"
"Yes. That sort of thing tends to be hard to accept, if you aren't there. Even if you are, as you see with Tip's mother. Most people just want to pretend the world is a normal place, and prefer to ignore the more unusual aspects of it."
"All right This will be our secret, Dad." Wendy beamed at the realization that she was a part of one of her father's mysterious trips.
He smiled back at her and took her hand. "Come on. We've got the rest of the park to explore before we need to be getting back."
With that, the pair strode off to find destiny. Or at least a ride that they could get on without a villain interrupting them.