The Void had swallowed up our favorite imp, beckoned from that crumbling tower and away from the husk of the magician who had torn open the veil, but Rumpelstiltskin did not feel like he had been swallowed. The imp had been through a number of digestive tracts before, but the shining lights of the Void, the flow of warmth around and through his leathery skin, the symphony and cacophony of all that had been created and had yet to find existence, it did not feel like the inside of some great beast.
Rumpelstiltskin felt part of the universe and what was after, unbound from his corporeal form, and he felt blessed for the experience.
However, the Void had seen Rumpelstiltskin as a mere guest—however welcome the energy treated him—and so it wasn’t long before the Void dumped him out of the ether at the first opportunity. Before he could bid farewell to that ephemeral sensation, Rumpelstiltskin was back in breathable atmosphere, his body felt like a body—even if it felt lighter than usual—and his eyes again became his only way to perceive the world. As awful as it felt to be back in true existence after such exhilaration, Rumpelstiltskin was admittedly curious as to where he had landed.
What he saw was more than just intriguing. Rumpelstiltskin was kneeling in the center of some great arch, plastics and alloys brimming with electricity and thrumming with untold powers the imp could not understand. That arch was sunk into the center of the room, with the next level of the room reaching the height of Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder. Beyond that it was difficult to see—his height troublesome once more—but he could tell there were windows complete with people watching his every move, their clothes stark white just like most of the room. However distracting and wonderful it was to have a number of people ready to greet Rumpelstiltskin, the imp was greatly concerned with the glass dome above him.
Though they were surrounded by hashed, red lines and cautionary words, even those warnings did not take away from the brilliance of stars Rumpelstiltskin could not recognize.
“Where am I?” Rumpelstiltskin mused to himself, but not in fear. He marveled at the idea that he was somewhere he had never been before, that he could see a completely different sky.
Rumpelstiltskin’s face stretched into a grin wider than he ever worn, and he quickly turned around and ran at the closest wall, propelling himself into the air with the slightest effort. He didn’t need to ask himself any more questions, and the stars could wait until he understood them better. What he needed, right then in that present moment, was for one of those fantastic, wonderful, panicked people on the other side of the windows to tell him just where the Void had spit him out.
Once he was over the first, shoulder-height hurdle—light as a feather—Rumpelstiltskin only had to rush up the twenty-degree incline to an imposing, steel bulwark. It was painted white, the jagged, interlocking teeth of which were still firmly gnashed together. Once he was at the door, Rumpelstiltskin gave a contented sigh before reaching forward and rapping boney knuckles against the surface, a clang of reverberation echoing throughout the circular room.
“Could you let me out, please?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, quite proud of his manners. If he had lost even a dose of his presence of mind, he probably would have been jumping all over the place in glee and rushing up to the windows to place his lips upon the glass and blow out his cheeks. It was all just so exciting, and it was the most he could do to restrain himself and remain polite. He expected these new friends of his to open the door within the next few seconds, due to his demeanor.
“Step away from the door!”
A frightened, yet authoritative voice had issued the command, taking Rumpelstiltskin by surprise.
Jumping back from the bulwark—floating as he returned to the ground, which he thought was his mind playing tricks on him—Rumpelstiltskin’s black eyes twitched and flicked to every corner of the imposing barrier.
“W—why? Is it going to hurt me?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, thinking it natural that these people would only
seek to warn him against malicious doors. They did have a way of operating on their own from time to time, and Rumpelstiltskin’s bottom still felt the ache of a tricksy cellar door that held a grudge against anyone seeking passage.
However, after a moment, Rumpelstiltskin’s initial wariness faded, and his curiosity got the better of him.
“Why isn’t it opening? Do I need to knock better? I can do all kinds of patterns and rhythms, if that’s what the door needs. Just ask anyone! I’m the best at knocking.”
“Just…” the voice hesitated, magically coming from all over the room again. “Just what are you? How do you know… English?”
“What am I?” Rumpelstiltskin repeated, confused as to why these people wouldn’t recognize an imp when they saw one. Stepping back from the door further, Rumpelstiltskin looked into the observation window to see a man holding himself up on some sort of panel and watching the imp with caution.
Looking at the man’s figure and his bespectacled face and his light-brown hair, Rumpelstiltskin decided to trust his gut. This man could throw his voice into the wind somehow, so Rumpelstiltskin turned completely so he could look the authoritative figure in the eye, even if there were a number of frenzied people running around and watching along with the man.
“Well, I was a boy, but now I’m not, and people say I’m an imp, so we’ll just say that’s what I am,” he explained, patting his tiny chest before setting his hand on his hips and giving the man a smile. “My name’s Rumpelstiltskin the Third! And I’ve lived in England a couple centuries, with some pretty big breaks in between the decades, so that’s why I can speak English. I always have trouble getting used to the new accents, but I’m very good at talking to people.”
“Well, give or take,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, rubbing the back of his neck with his right hand in shame. After a moment, he sheepishly looked back at the bewildered man in white. “I might have missed a handful of decades in there. I don’t always remember things too good, unless it’s someone’s name! I always remember my friends!”
“So open the door!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, pointing back at the austere contraption holding him prisoner. “Then we can shake hands and be friends. But oh! You haven’t told me your name yet! Can you?”
“Why do you need my name?” the man asked, his finger pressed to a button on the panel in front of him. Rumpelstiltskin scoffed at the question, going so far as to shake his head at the doorkeeper.
“Oh, boy, you have got a lot to learn, don’t you?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, giving a conciliatory smile to his new acquaintance. “If you don’t exchange names, it’s a lot harder to stay friends. I mean, I’ve done it before, but then you lose them for a few years and sometimes it’s too late to have adventures and then it’s almost like you didn’t get enough out of the friendship, you know? That’s why I always make a point of knowing someone’s name right off the bat so that doesn’t happen.”
“Do you need my name for your magic?”
“That’s a silly thought…” Rumpelstiltskin wondered just what kind of magic needed names. “I could ask Circe about that next time I see her, but I don’t know about my magic. I’m not even sure I know any magic honestly. Sometimes—well, sometimes I just put out my hand and think real hard and then something big happens,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, weighing the idea in his head before returning his attention to the man behind the glass. “But usually I’m too distracted to talk too much. Kinda takes away from the moment, especially since I talk so much the rest of the time.”
“I see that.”
“I like talking,” Rumpelstiltskin said, hopping in place—again, floating back to the surface in an odd manner—and then rolling back and forth on his heels. “If I can talk long enough, people laugh or smile, or sometimes I can stop bad things from happening. Talking’s good for everybody, that’s what I think. If that’s all you get out of being friends with me, then at least you get to hear some good talking.”
“Is that what an imp does? Just… talks a lot?” the man asked, and Rumpelstiltskin giggled at the idea before rushing the window and wagging his finger, almost hitting the wall and causing his new friend to back away from the panel in initial alarm.
“No, you silly man! An imp like me goes on adventures!” Rumpelstiltskin claimed, and in the course of that claim the man relaxed and inched back to the panel. “I go on big, long walks, or sometimes I ride in ships, and I climb towers and trees and dance and laugh and save people or… or—or sometimes I make music!” Rumpelstiltskin stressed, feeling warm inside from his memories of the road and all the taverns. “I’m not very good at it, but I love music and hearing lutes and people singing.”
“Lutes? Where did you hear lutes?”
“Oh, all over. They’re really popular right now, and all the minstrels are doing really nice things and making good melodies. Sometimes I try to sing harmony with the cats outside the taverns, but they’re always such drama queens and try to sing offkey,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, crossing his arms at their rebellious behavior. “They’re amateurs, really.”
“Just…” the man paused, his finger on the button once more. “Just when do you think right now is, Rumpelstiltskin?”
“What are you talking about? It’s… fifteen… oh, shoot, I don’t remember what year it is. I’m two hundred and… thirty-three years old?” Rumpelstiltskin asked himself, trying and failing to use a mental abacus with the aid of his stubby fingers. When he failed, the imp surrendered and shrugged at the man behind the glass. “1379? Something like that? Maybe a couple years earlier. Nobody ever tells me, that’s all.”
“So you came from fourteenth century England, is that right?”
“Fourteenth? No, thirteen-seventy-nine. Or seven. And I haven’t lived in England for a few years. I think I was on the mainland somewhere… Maybe in the empire?”
“Where do you think you are now?” the man asked, and Rumpelstiltskin lost his patience and pouted at his new friend, whose face had reached a certain level of halted understanding.
“I don’t know, because you haven’t told me yet!” Rumpelstiltskin said, stomping on the pristine floor for emphasis and almost rising into the air. “And you’ve been very rude and haven’t told me your name yet, which almost makes me think you don’t want to be friends, which is just totally unfair because I’ve been prim and proper and have shown all my manners and it’s just super—”
“My name’s Tom,” the man interrupted, throwing Rumpelstiltskin off-balance and off his rant, but somehow, he was able to regain that balance before he fell. Biting the corner of his lip, the imp could barely contain his excitement at the revelation. “Tom Bridgewell of the Lunar Major branch of Catalytics.”
“That is a… very fancy name, Tom Bridgewell-of-the-lunar-major-branch-of-catalytics,” Rumpelstiltskin rattled off, very proud of his ability to say it all after only hearing it once. Counting out the syllables on his hand and missing one, Rumpelstiltskin beamed at his new friend. “Thirteen sounds for a last name is up there, for sure. I’ve met someone with twenty-two, but man! That’s really nice, Tom.”
“Thirteen sounds—” Tom paused, quickly overcoming his confusion. “Rumpelstiltskin, my name is Tom Bridgewell. I work for the Lunar Major Branch.”
“Oh,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, feeling quite silly before resuming his good mood. “Well, still, Bridgewell is pretty nice, too. But, um, what’s a Lunar Major Branch and what’s a Catalytics?”
“Well, Catalytics is the company that funds my research here at the Lunar Major Branch,” Tom explained, consternation evident behind his thin glasses. However, he and all of his associates behind the glass had all calmed down considerably, which made Rumpelstiltskin swell with pride.
His talking had done the trick once again.
“Research, huh? I just came from someone researching a lot,” Rumpelstiltskin mentioned, his thoughts going dark when he recalled the sinister magician. However, he tried to remain hopeful. “But… what are you researching?”
“Well, Rumpelstiltskin, we’re researching how to create a portal to… well, somewhere else. And when we fired that up, you came through that portal,” Tom replied, his voice calm and easy to understand for an imp, but Rumpelstiltskin could tell he was still very serious. “Which makes you very important.”
“I’m important?” Rumpelstiltskin repeated, excited at the prospect. It wasn’t often that he was important, but when he looked at Tom’s companions and saw them still watching intently, the imp realized it might just be true. “Well, that’s nice! Do you need me to do something? Should I stand on my head? I’m not very good at it, but I can try!”
“No, Rumpelstiltskin, we don’t need you to stand on your head,” Tom said, narrowing his eyes before his next comment. “I guess… I guess we just need answers to some questions and we’ll go from there.”
“Ooh! I’m good at questions! I’m not always right, of course, but I can always give an answer!”
“We’d much rather like the right answer, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“Oh, well,” the imp murmured, realizing this might be a little more difficult. “Well, I guess I’ll try.”
“Thank you. You said your name is Rumpelstiltskin, and that you’re the third one,” Tom started, and the imp pursed his lips at the subject matter. He knew very little of his predecessors. “Rumpelstiltskin, to us, is a fictional person. He’s a fairy tale that has existed for half of recorded history. We all think he’s… well, that he’s made up.”
“Oh, well, the first one was around for a while, that’s true,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, backing up so he could plop down on his rear and still be able to see Tom through the window. He fell for too long of a moment, but eventually he reached the surface and tried to ignore the difficulty of his fall. After crossing his legs, Rumpelstiltskin sighed and admitted what he knew. “I don’t think he was made up, though, because I got his curse.”
“Mhmm,” Rumpelstiltskin said, nodding along with his answer. “I’m the third one, and the second one gave it to me, and that’s about all I know about that. I think Sir Death would know a little more about them, since he watches me and I think he used to watch them.”
“Yeah, he’s my friend!” Rumpelstiltskin said, feeling better after remembering the specter. “Whenever I’m in a lot of trouble, he appears and makes it go away. He sometimes adventures with me when he knows I’m feeling down, and so it’s always really good to see him. I got lots of friends, but he’s been around with me since the beginning.”
“What does Sir Death look like?”
“Oh, you know what he looks like,” Rumpelstiltskin said, flashing a knowing smile in Tom’s direction.
“He’s got big, flowy black robes and he walks around with a scythe. He’s got a little grey in his hair now and thin skin, so it looks like he’s old and tired, but he’s very friendly, if you give him a chance.”
“You’re… friends with the Grim Reaper?”
“Ummm… maybe?” Rumpelstiltskin guessed, complementing it with a shrug. “I’ve heard people call him that, but he smiles at me a bunch.”
“If I call him, he might actually come to talk with us,” Rumpelstiltskin said, jumping up to his feet in an instant and looking up at the glass dome above him. For some reason, he thought shouting at the foreign sky would have better luck. “Sir Death! Can you come talk to Tom? He’s wondering about the other Rumpelstiltskins!”
“Let’s move on, Rumpelstiltskin,” Tom said after a moment, and though he was disappointed in Sir Death’s tardiness, the imp turned back to his new friend obediently.
“Okay. He should be here soon, though.”
“I’m sure,” Tom agreed—or so Rumpelstiltskin thought while still staring at the magnificent starscape above him—but then he was on to the next subject. “Rumpelstiltskin, what if I told you that most people think you’re a story?”
“I’d say that’s fair. I have lots of strange things happen to me.”
“Alright, then. And what if I told you that I and all my colleagues think it’s almost seven hundred years later than you think it is?”
“Wait, what?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, whipping his head back around to look at the man in the white lab coat. “You think it’s seven hundred years later?”
“I do, Rumpelstiltskin,” Tom admitted, bracing himself against the panel in front of him with his left arm. “While you think it’s the end of the fourteenth century, I—and the rest of the world—thinks we’re living in the year 2027.”
“2027?” Rumpelstiltskin almost screamed, he was so bewildered. Trying to count on his fingers for a moment before even he realized how ludicrous that was, Rumpelstiltskin instead rushed forward and placed his gnarled hands against the window separating him from Tom and his cohorts. “I’m in the future?”
“It seems that way, Rumpelstiltskin,” Tom admitted, and it was almost enough for the imp to faint on his feet. However, after shaking his head a number of times—Rumpelstiltskin lost count—the imp wandered away from the glass and then looked up, hoping the stars above would help him regain his bearings.
“Seven hundred years.” He lost and regained his focus on those bright lights with each passing moment. “And… I’m not on Earth, am I?”
“No, Rumpelstiltskin,” Tom said, his voice washing over the imp’s tiny body. “We’re on the moon.”
“The moon…” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, and that’s when he realized why the stars looked so different.
They were different stars up here, on this rock he had always thought was just a very nice light in the night sky. “I always wanted to know what the moon was like up close.”
“Well, now you know,” Tom said, but he was surprised when Rumpelstiltskin snapped out of his daze and rushed at the window so fast that he did slam into the wall this time.
Still, the grin on his lips showed how much he didn’t care about the contact.
“Can I go outside?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, so happy he could not contain himself.
He must have missed quite a few adventures in seven centuries—the world was probably entirely different from what he remembered—but he was on the moon. There was no telling what kind of people lived there or what they ate or what they sang. Rumpelstiltskin always dreamed of what kind of things were up on the moon, and he was impatiently wondering why Tom had not let him loose already.
“I’m afraid not,” Tom answered, shattering Rumpelstiltskin’s newfound wonder. “There isn’t any air outside of the base, and it’s cold enough to freeze you solid within a few seconds.”
“Oh, pfft,” Rumpelstiltskin waved away his concerns. “I don’t need air all that much, and I’ve been stuck in a snowman more than once.”
“Rumpelstiltskin, you would die,” Tom stressed, but the imp only winked at him and wagged his finger again. Of course, Tom had no way to know the extent of Rumpelstiltskin’s curse, but the imp still liked the idea of knowing more than someone who can throw their voice around with magic.
“Would you like to make a wager on that?” Rumpelstiltskin jumped into the air in order to grift his new friend with his usual antics, but this time he could not ignore the time it took for him to return to the surface. “But first, what kind of magic do you have in this room? I keep floating in the air and it doesn’t take much for me to jump in it in the first place.”
“Well, that’s because there’s less gravity on the moon,” Tom said, confusing Rumpelstiltskin and realizing it soon after that. “You… weigh less up here, and the moon makes it so you come down slower.”
“Really? That’s going to be a lot of fun,” the imp mused, but all those new thoughts of jumping around the surface of the moon made him remember that Tom wouldn’t let him past the big door, much less go outside. “As soon as you let me out, that is. I want to meet all the people out there, Tom! Think of how many friends I can have!”
“There’s… nobody out there,” Tom explained, forcing Rumpelstiltskin to reevaluate everything even as he hopped back in the air just so he could float back down.
“No? Why not?”
“Because there’s no air. People need air to breathe.”
“That’s—” Rumpelstiltskin was ready to argue, but when his feet touched back down, he realized Tom was right. Any time he had seen a person go without air, they didn’t ever get back up unless Sir Death or Circe or someone like them was around to help.
Now that he knew the moon was going to be much less fun, Rumpelstiltskin’s mood was spoiled. Still, he could jump around by himself, if necessary, so he surrendered his dreams so he could still enjoy the moment.
“Well, I don’t, so if you could let me out of this door, I can go run around until it’s time for lunch. Or dinner!” Rumpelstiltskin added quickly, nodding at his own wisdom. “If it’s seven hundred years later, I guess I don’t know which meal we’re on.”
“You don’t need air?”
“It’s just a part of Sir Death’s curse. When he shows up, I’m sure he’ll explain it better than I can. I just know it’s really hard for me to die.”
“Mhmm!” Rumpelstiltskin grunted, all the while walking back to the huge door leading out of the room. “I can get hurt all kinds of ways, but my body always puts itself back together or doesn’t break in the first place. Makes it kinda confusing when other people get hurt, but it’s pretty useful on my adventures.”
“I bet,” Tom said, and he had seemingly taken Rumpelstiltskin’s cue. As soon as the imp reached the door, the mechanism groaned and then the metallic teeth spread apart.
Already, Rumpelstiltskin could hear Tom’s muted voice coming from beyond the complaining machinery and hushed whispers fighting him with words the imp could not hear, but Rumpelstiltskin was content to wait. If these were other friends waiting to meet him and shake the imp’s hand, Rumpelstiltskin would just have to be patient and display his manners once again.
Rumpelstiltskin quickly pranced toward the voices to the right, along the curve of the circular room he had just left, and then walked through the open doorway leading to the control room. Tom was still standing by the panel, but his colleagues—men and women of all shapes, sizes and colors suffering varying degrees of fear—had backed themselves into the far corner. Rumpelstiltskin told himself he would eventually win them over just like everybody else he had met, so he put on his best attempt at a first meeting with the man whose name he already knew. With a broad smile, Rumpelstiltskin extended a gnarled hand and walked forward until Tom could take it.
“Pleased to meet you, Tom,” he said, and although he had to wait for a tense moment for his new friend, Tom eventually took the imp’s paw, shaking it once instead of letting Rumpelstiltskin throw it up and down for a minute like he thought was the custom.
Although disappointed by the brevity, Rumpelstiltskin was still grateful for the acceptance.
“Pleased to meet you, Rumpelstiltskin,” Tom muttered, surrendering whatever caution he had left and walking back to a modern, glass table in the middle of the room. Once he was looking to the empty air above the table, Tom tapped his fingers at letters that immediately burned through the glass and filled Rumpelstiltskin with even more wonder.
Before he could even get used to the magic writing, the air above the table warped into a blue and green sphere covered with white clouds, spinning slowly along a tilted axis. With a smile, Tom looked back at the imp half his size. “So what do you want to know about the future, Rumpelstiltskin?”
“Everything,” the imp replied, so excited about what he was about to learn, but then all of Tom’s colleagues collectively gasped and stole the new friends from their venture. Turning around quickly—the moon’s lesser gravity allowing Rumpelstiltskin to float back to the ground—the imp realized why these people of science were afraid.
He, too, was surprised—though not that surprised—to see an older man in black robes in the threshold, the crest of his scythe just clearing the top of the doorframe.
“Sir Death!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted as he tried to run forward, but something about the reaper made him falter. Although confused about Sir Death’s seeming hostility, Rumpelstiltskin looked behind him and waved at Tom and his friends to include them in the reunion. “Everyone, this is Sir Death!”
“Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin continued, turning back to the reaper and pointing at his new friend. “This is Tom Bridgewell of the Lunar Major Branch of Catalytics, and he’s been helping me out since I got here. He’s—
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” Rumpelstiltskin interrupted himself, suddenly wary as to why the reaper was scowling at him. “Did I do something wrong? Did I… do you remember me?”
“Of course, I do. You’re Rumpelstiltskin the Third,” Sir Death said, offering relief to the imp.
“Oh, well, that’s good—”
“The issue, however, is that you are not my Rumpelstiltskin the Third, and something must be done about that.”