The transporter’s glow faded as Duneedon continued his laughter. However, he stopped his trademark villain chuckle when he realized exactly where it had sent him.
“This was not my intended destination,” he said warily.
The coach house and the stunned and terrified faces of the children had been replaced by the gray walls and blinking computer lights of the Problem Pit.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I’m trapped in my own dungeon! Someone must be behind this, and when I find out who it is, that person will pay most dearly!”
“Oh, pipe down, you disembodied head,” said a voice coming from the direction of the communication screen. “There’s no need to try to cause such dread!”
Duneedon would have smacked himself in the forehead if he’d had hands.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he mumbled before turning around to see the rainbow afro of one of his least favorite people displayed on the screen. “Professor Couplet, let me out of here at once!”
“I don’t think that’s what I’ll do,” she said, smiling broadly. “Instead, you must solve a puzzle or two.”
“Security devices, activate!” Duneedon yelled. “Open door! This is the ruler or Trialveron speaking! Obey me at once!”
“You’re not the ruler anymore,” Crystal Couplet said, laughing. “You can’t even open up the door! Now play along and you might be released from you captivity.”
“I warn you, this is putting me in a very bad mood,” Duneedon said. “First those ridiculous children block my supply of veronium so that I can’t take over Earth, and now this.”
“Be quiet, Duneedon, not another peep, or I’ll release the gas to make you sleep,” the professor said, and she looked serious.
With a deep sigh, Duneedon nodded. This day was turning out to be even worse than the time the Mistress of Maze had managed to throw him into the pit of snakes.
“For your first test, look at this word list. Some are blank. Put in the ones we missed,” Couplet said as a list of words appeared on the wall:
- - - -
- - - -
Duneedon stared at the list.
“You actually expect me to be stumped by a silly problem of merely changing a letter in each word to become another word?” Duneedon said.
“If you’re so smart, then you should start,” the professor said.
“Very well,” Duneedon said, not bother to mask his irritation. “’Tome’ becomes ‘time’ by changing the vowel, so I need to form another word from ‘time.’ How about ‘mime’?”
At that exact moment, a mime with a painted black and white face appeared in the problem pit and began pretending he was walking against a wind.
“What in blazes is that thing doing in here?” Duneedon said in horror.
“You guessed wrong, so you must pay the piper for his song,” the professor said. “If you guess the wrong word, that thing will appear, no matter how absurd!”
“But I hate mimes!” Duneedon said, staring in transfixed disgust as the mime proceeded to act out being trapped inside a glass cube.
“Too bad for you. Better retry the clue,” the professor said, obviously enjoying this immensely.
“When I get out of here,” he mumbled threateningly, but he rotated in midair to put the mime behind him and looked at the list again. “Mime wouldn’t have moved me any closer to lint in any case, so it was a misstep on my part. Instead, let’s try the word ‘tine.’ That will put the n into the correct position.”
He smiled in smug satisfaction for a moment until a giant fork suddenly whizzed a few millimeters from his head and implanted itself in the floor, quivering.
“Ding dong, you’re wrong,” the professor said merrily. “I grant you, it was good try. Perhaps you’ll get it by and by.”
“This is the single stupidest thing I have ever had to do, and that includes taking over Earth by becoming a small town mayor in Canada,” Duneedon said, glaring at the fork. “Fine, then if the e doesn’t change on this move, the t must. I choose ‘lime’ as the next word.”
“Very good, you did quite well,” the professor said. “Now see if the next you can tell.”
“Why must you incessantly rhyme?” Duneedon said with deepest loathing. “Have you never heard of free verse?”
“Yes, but this annoys you more. Now keep playing before I get sore!” the professor said.
Duneedon sighed again, then looked at the remaining puzzle.
- - - -
“Line,” he said immediately, doing his best to ignore the mime who was now climbing the giant fork and making faces at him every time the back of his head was turned.
“That is the word we were looking for,” the professor said, “but you have another test before you can open the door.”
“Joy,” Duneedon said through clenched teeth. “What do I need to do now? Please say it’s kill the mime.”
The mime looked worried for a moment, then shrugged and continued blowing up an imaginary balloon.
“Your next test will appear on the wall. If you waste time, asleep you’ll fall,” the professor warned.
“Threatened with my own sleeping gas,” Duneedon said. “This is preposterous! Fine, what’s next?”
Just as Lynne had been confronted with “Moving in circular orbit” and five blank lines, Duneedon saw a similar list.
“Mistakes Duneedon has made?” he nearly shrieked in rage. “This is an outrage! This is appalling! This is…”
He stopped as he realized the mime was now acting out a ticking clock.
“Oh, fine! Forgetting that other people had copies of the history of Herbertville was not my best moment,” he said.
A checkmark appeared next to the number one with the words “other books.”
“I obviously underestimated the three Canadian brats and their flimsy children’s newspaper,” he admitted.
Another checkmark appeared next to the words “Lynne, Sam, and Chris.”
“In fact, invading Earth might not have been wise. They have far too much pollution. Also,” he said, grimacing at the mime, “they have those things.”
A third checkmark was added next to the word “invasion,” but the clock was almost up.
“I probably should have occasionally checked that my prisoners were still actually in their various holding areas rather than assuming it,” he said.
One more checkmark was added by “poor prison management,” but a blank spot still remained.
“Tick tock, look out for the clock!” the professor said.
Duneedon growled, then practically screamed, “I shouldn’t have got rid of my body! Being a floating head seemed like a good idea at the time, but I can’t even scratch my own nose!”
As the words “disembodiment stupid” and a final checkmark appeared, the clock stopped ticking and the mime clapped without making a sound.
“You finished what you had to do. Now go out the door. Shoo!” the professor said, and the door did indeed open.
Duneedon’s head floated out the door and into the room where Samantha and Lynne had been teleported a few weeks earlier. He stared out the window at the landscape of Trialveron, plotting any number of highly satisfying revenge possibilities against the staff of The Herbertville Chronicle, and was just beginning to feel the slightest bit better when he became aware of a problem.
“I’m sensing . . . weakness,” Duneedon said with distaste. “Why am I unable to feel the power from my veronium?”
“Oh, that,” Professor Couplet said, appearing on the screen in this room as well. “We need to chat.”
“I warn you. You are annoying me greatly, and that doesn’t often end well,” he said through gritted teeth. “Get back to your Poet’s Pocket now. In fact, what are you doing outside of it? I gave no orders for your release.”
“While you were gone away, we shipped it off one day. Now you’re stuck here, and it’s not near, so the prisoners are out to play!” the professor said in glee.
“You removed the veronium? All of it?” he asked in disbelief.
Professor Couplet simply nodded. Oddly, the mime also reappeared through the door of the Problem Pit, sat on the floor, and began pretending to row a boat. Duneedon’s mouth fell open as all his plans unraveled.
“Oh, chin up, Duneedon,” the professor said. “It’s a long vacation you’re needin’. You’ll stay here for at least a year, so you may as well start readin’.”
“Did you just deliver a prison sentence to me via limerick?” he said in a voice so flat it suggested his sanity had already fled Trialveron along with his precious vernonium.
“Indeed I did. Don’t flip your lid!” she said. “What were you expecting to get for trying to invade Earth? A sonnet praising your admirable worth?”
“You will live to regret this,” he said in a low, threatening voice.
But Professor Couplet only laughed and dissolved from the screen.
“Wait! Come back!” he yelled, then stared at the mime. “At least take this thing with you!”
The mime waved at him jauntily and began playing tennis against no one.
“Was I really evil enough to deserve this?” he asked as his eyes began to involuntarily follow the path of the invisible tennis ball.
No one answered in the empty rooms of his palace on Trialveron.