Tanenbaum Regions newest special ops unit awoke early the next morning, well-rested and ready for a long march to the border. They had a hearty breakfast at the Red Snapper Inn and then took a south-eastern road out of Sawbill. Most travellers preferred staying close to the coast, so the eastern roads tended to be less crowded, and since this was a secret military operation, the group decided avoiding unnecessary contact with other people would be optimal. Fin felt that travellers on the road along the coast would be less noticed since strange travellers there would be commonplace, but the others overruled this, pointing out that Snook's antics would draw unsought attention anywhere, so the fewer people around, the better. This also meant Snook had no one to hit with his stick save for his three companions, but he usually contented himself with sword-fighting imaginary polar bears rather than the real people who kept snatching away and breaking his 'sword' when he hit them with it. The Tanenbaums aversion to building paths near trees meant replacing a broken stick could take a while.

As they journey southward, Fin pondered the fact that he was speaking in full sentences now. He concluded that it was necessary to get the dialogue to work and figured it was the author's prerogative. He mentioned this to the others, who all looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. 'What author?' asked Melville.

'Oh, I don't know.' Fin laughed. 'Maybe the Zombie Gods who are writing the world's events on the fabric of the universe.'

This brief exchange seemed to sum up the feeling of the journey at its outset. They were all well-rested and well-fed, in addition to actually having a defined goal that didn't involve becoming the contents of a polar bear's pantry. Sure, they were going to war, but they had been supplied with a generous stipend--one of such magnitude that it could serve the needs of three hundred people. Money will brighten anyone's outlook on life. Plus, they had the money /right now/, whereas the whole explode-the-enemy-base thing was well off in the future.

By noon, they found themselves in the small village of Smallbrook. Being inland, it was an entirely Prawnish town, its chief export apparently was cheap clothing, and all the citizens wore their own products.

'We should stop for lunch,' said Hilfa as they passed by a local eatery.

'Gosh, really? You think? Just because it's lunch time and we're right by a restaurant and the next town is a day's walk off? You think we should stop to eat? No, let's go on. Food is for wimps.'

'I knew these would come in handy,' Hilfa commented, pulling a handful of acorns out of her pocket. But Fin had already headed in the door, so Hilfa crammed the acorns back in her pocket and followed him and the others in.

They sat at the table and a waitress came up to take their orders.

'What's on the menu?' asked Melville.

The waitress sighed, took a deep breath, and then recited: 'We have all the usual fish: flounder, grouper, herring, bass, tuna, and so on. There's swordfish today as well, which is a bit unusual and very tasty. The chef makes many excellent soups, including clam chowder (any style), fish and onion, vegetable, lentil, cream of mushroom, cream of broccoli, simple noodle soup, shark fin, tuna, mixed fish, miso, and garlic. These each come with a side of fish sticks, fish biscuits, calamari, shrimp, prawns, crab legs, or chips.'

She paused for another breath and then continued on. The four hungry travellers, however, were slightly distracted by the Cheshire cat who had just appeared on her right shoulder.

'"Chips"? All that fish to eat and she's bothering to mention chips? Oh, the humanity!' exclaimed the cat.

'Er...hello again,' said Hilfa. She glanced at the waitress for a moment, but the young woman was clearly used to people carrying on discussions whilst she talked and paid no heed to the fact that this conversation was directed to her right shoulder rather than to other people at the table.

'I see you still have the crazy one with you. I do hope you've taken away his sparks?'

'Don't be ridiculous!' said Melville. 'A boy without sparks would be in deep trouble if he got lost in the woods. Imagine, no way to start a fire. Nothing but a useless herring.'

'Of course. And yet you haven't bothered losing him in the woods yet either, I notice, or if you did, he found his way back.'

'We've been hired to blow things up,' commented Fin. 'He's probably the most valuable member of our team. Once we get to the target, we can just hand him the explosives and run.'

'Boom!' shouted Snook, causing the waitress to pause for half a second in her recitation. She resumed again almost immediately, however, and the conversation with the unreal Cheshire cat continued uninterrupted by reality.

'If you make it to your target,' said the cat. 'Wait a moment: you have explosives? Here? As in, neat the boy of fire and destruction?' Melville nodded. 'You folks are doomed. Maybe I should go enlighten someone else about the true nature of the gods.'

'Is that why you're here?' Hilfa asked surprised. 'To tell us about the gods?'

'No, I'm here to get burnt to a crisp again,' retorted the cat sarcastically. 'I'm just kidding!' she shouted at Snook before he could react.

'We don't believe anything you told us, you realise?' put in Fin. 'Everyone knows trout are dirty river fish.'

Again the waitress paused. 'There are no trout on the menu,' she informed them. 'I said /tart/. Crab tart. Honestly, if you're not going to pay attention...'

'No, sorry, we were listening,' insisted Melville.

'Fine. Then I'll continue. We have crab tart, candied calamari, cakes in all the traditional fish flavours and a lemon or a plain frosting...'

'Firstly', said the cat, 'Trout are not all river fish. Some live in the ocean.' ('Now you really /are/ talking nonsense!' interjected Hilfa, earning her a glare from the waitress and a scornful look from the cat.) 'There are trout in the ocean. But these trout /are/ river fish. That doesn't make them any less delicious or godly.'

'Fine, but I thought they weren't real, much like yourself.'

'That was just to get you to shut up earlier. They're as real as my skull and they do exist.'

'But if you're not real, your skull isn't real.'

'...and iced tea with fresh lemon. So, what'll you have?' asked the waitress, finally finishing her recitation.

The four sitting at the table looked up at her for a moment. 'Er...I missed part of it. Could you repeat the whole thing, please?' asked Fin politely.

'Just order some Daggarn food, you little twerps!'

Melville frowned and thought for a moment. 'Could you, uh, just bring us one of each?'

'There are four hundred different items.'

'Better not then. How about just four specials?'

'I want trout!' shouted Snook.

'There's no trout, you little brat!' snapped the waitress, swatting him with her notepad. 'Four specials. And to drink?'

'Water' they all said, wanting to get back to their conversation with the unreal imaginary Cheshire cat on her shoulder.

'Fine. Your food'll be ready in a couple minutes,' she said. And with that, she turned and walked off, the unreal imaginary Cheshire cat riding on her shoulder.

'Hey, wait! We're not done talking to your--uh...you're shoulder!' called Melville. But the waitress had had enough of these freaks and went into the kitchen without a backward glance.

'Why are we hallucinating again?' asked Hilfa. 'Last time we hadn't slept or eaten for ages, but now we should be perfectly fine.'

'Indeed. Perhaps spores are growing in our brains, messing with our perception?'

'Yeah, or maybe Mr. Crazy is rubbing off on us.'

'Don't blame me! You all saw the cat first last time!'

They continued to ponder the situation until their food arrived. Seizing he opportunity to speak to the cat again, Fin said to the waitresses' shoulder, 'would you like to join us for lunch?'

The waitress declined, thinking they were speaking to her, but the cat gladly accepted and jumped down onto the table.

'So tell us more about these trout. They're zombies, so they must be dead. And they're gods, so they must be powerful. Do they cause storms by waving their tails?'

'I never asked them about the storms. It doesn't seem like the most important question to ask a god. I mean, suppose you met a god. What would you ask? "How do you make storms?" It doesn't seem very deep, now does it?'

'So what did you discuss?'

'Oh, this and that. I can't really tell you. Repeating things the gods say tends to result in holy wars and all sorts of stupidity. Once, my uncle mentioned a joke a god had made about how much he could do in a week if given enough caffeine and a bunch of people decided to take it literally and made a fine mess indeed.'

'So if you're not going to tell us what the gods said, why are you here?' asked Fin.

'You invited me to join you. Remember?' The cat was happily chomping on Snook's grilled fish, leaving the biscuits for the boy.

'Yes, but why were you here in the restaurant? What were you doing on the waitress's shoulder?'

'Waiting for you guys to show up and invite me to join you. I was hungry, and most people can't see me because I'm not real.'

'So that's it? You were hungry? No gems of wisdom from the gods or anything?'

'Sorry to disappoint you.'

'It's okay. We have a legitimate goal now, so our lives aren't as meaningless as last time we spoke. We can discuss that instead of the gods. What do you know about exploding military encampments?'

The cat frowned. 'You don't have to worry about that. My sources tell me that you'll never get around to doing that.'

'What? What sources? And what could possibly cause us to be derelict in our duty so?' exclaimed Melville.

'My sources are private' ('I'll bet they're the gods' mumbled Fin) 'but as for what could cause you to be "derelict in your duty"...well, have you considered the fact that you couldn't even manage to pull off a simple life of piracy? Blowing up well-guarded military encampments tends to be even harder than robbing defenceless travellers.'

'Some of them had knives. You know, for cutting lengths of rope or stuff. They weren't /defenceless/.'

'Compared to the Pesce military?'

'It's a surprise attack. They won't even see us coming.'

'Did you ever think to try surprising the people you were robbing?'

'Look, that was when I didn't have help. The four of us together can surely handle it!'

'Yes,' put in Fin. 'I'm an expert pick-pocket, and apparently girls are just as good as boys at such things.'

'That's right!' said Hilfa. 'Everyone knows that. Everyone but the people with codswallop filling their heads.'

'And we're well-funded!' added Melville. 'For some reason, they decided to give us enough money for three hundred troops. We have no idea why.'

'Ah, the old erase the number and write in a new number trick, eh?' The cat looked at Fin. 'Your doing, I would assume.'

'It was my pencil!' exclaimed Snook, realising he hadn't said anything stupid and pointless lately.

The cat scowled at him. 'Yes, I'm sure you were instrumental in the carrying-out of the fiendish plan. Fiendishness does seem up your ally.'

'It wasn't your pencil, Snook. You got it off the floor,' Hilfa corrected.

'Finders keepers, losers not keepers,' chanted Snook. It was an old Tanenbaumian rhyme. The Pesce had a similar one, only with mention of weeping. The Tanenbaums never cried over spilt milk or lost pencils, though.

'Well, this has been a very fascinating discussion, but I see you're out of fish, so I'll be taking my leave now. So if you'd all kindly stop imagining me, causing me to vanish, I'd be most abliged.'

The four humans hadn't really thought of it that way before, but as soon as they did, their minds expanded with the subjective nature of unreal imaginary Cheshire cats, and the thoughts took their focus off the cat for long enough for her to flicker momentarily and then disappear altogether.

'Well, that was interesting!' said Melville.

Fin, the group's treasurer, paid for their meal and the group headed outside to continue along their tedious journey.