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"But I'm the President!"
"And I don't care," Tapper said calmly, wiping out an empty mug. "I can't serve root beer to a minor."
"Aw, come on!"
"Sorry. Not unless I see some ID."
Vanellope reached into her inventory and pulled out something gold, shiny, and the size of a dinner plate. "Look, my face is on the fudge-flippin' money, okay?"
Tapper eyed the gold coin. "Official state or federal proof of birthday required. Sorry, kid."
"Fine," Vanellope sniffed, picking up a napkin and signing it with a flourish of crayon. "I'm the president of SugarRush Speedway, so if I write it myself, it's official, right? Here you go."
Tapper's wide eyes narrower slightly. "Date of birth: 1979? Right, next you'll be telling me you starred in Adventure."
"How do you know I didn't?" Vanellope protested. "That little dot coulda been anybody!"
"Nope, this one's going right up on the ol' Hall of Shame," Tapper said, pinning Vanellope's napkin next to a crudely photocopied card bearing the name 'Adult Icarus'. "Now, if you'll excuse me, looks like I've got a customer."
"I'm a customer!"
"The kind that pays in quarters," Tapper clarified, walking back to his starting position. Vanellope glanced up at the screen, which was filled with slightly ice-cream-smeared face of a kid.
"Fine," she grumbled. "Guess I'll just stay back here where nobody can see me."
An enormous hand patted her gently on the head. "Don't you have a whole swimming pool filled with root beer back home?" Ralph asked.
"Well, yeah, but-but that's not the point!" Vanellope fumed. "It's just that-oooh!"
"You're still upset about losing the race last night."
"I would have qualified easy if one of Gloyd's stupid licorice bats hadn't gotten in my face! Then I couldn't see where I was going and I spun out in the saltwater taffy marsh and suddenly I'm lookin' at a whole day of not bein' playable!"
Ralph shrugged. "Take it from me, you can't win 'em all." He grinned. "Besides, it's nice to have the company. I don't know any of the daytime crowd in here. Who'd have thought I'd ever miss getting thrown off that building every day?"
He looked wistfully over the player's shoulder at the spot where the Fix-It Felix Jr. machine had stood until a week ago. Now the spot was taken up by something sleek and white, with only one tiny screen on the front. Ralph thought it looked a little like one of the refrigerators he got to throw on the rare occasions that somebody got all the way to level 36.
"What is that thing, anyway?" Vanellope said, squinting out of the screen. "It looks kinda like one of those refrigerators around Snowanna's track."
"Some new game," Ralph shrugged. "Only here temporarily. Kids seem to like it okay, but between you and me, I'll be glad when it's out of here and Felix and I get our spot back." He slurped down the last of his own root beer and crushed the mug into glittering powder.
"Well, I never saw a game like that before," Vanellope said. "Sure is popular, though. Lookit all those kids. What are the people like in that neck of the woods, you figure?"
"I don't know. They haven't set foot in here."
"I'm sure," Ralph nodded. "I've been sitting in this booth long enough to cause screen burn-in and I haven't seen anyone new come in."
Vanellope raised one coal-black eyebrow. "You mean you've been parking your stinky butt here all week? I thought you were bunkin' with the lovebirds."
"Er, yeah," Ralph coughed, "the base is nice, and all, but a little cramped. And then there's Calhoun's, uh, condition."
Vanellope elbowed Ralph in the ribs. "I know what you're talking about. The Birdos and the Beezos. Collecting power-ups for two. An extra life in her inventory. A sequel in development. Preparing for the expansion-"
"I just meant the snoring, but that too."
Vanellope stood up. "Well, you can hang around in this snooze-hole if you want, but I'm gonna go roll out the welcome wagon!"
"Be-" Ralph began, but realized he was looking at a quickly fading shimmer of blue light. "-careful."
"Trust me," Vanellope called from the door. "I know how to get out of a jam when I need to."
Vanellope's voice echoed down the long, silvery tube. She glanced back over her shoulder at the local station. It was clean-no, more than that, aside from a few flecks of frosting that had fallen off of her shoe, it was spotless. Like it had never been used. Her eyes darted up to the title, spelled out on the wall in black pixels.
MINIMON BATTLERS PROMO DISTRIBUTION
"What kinda name is that?" she wondered. "And where the H-E-double pixie sticks is everybody?" She remembered Ralph's warning and felt a twinge in her stomach. Most games weren't really too dangerous if you stayed off-screen, but there were things like Cy-Bugs out there which didn't care about the rules.
"Naaah," she told herself. "Don't be such a yellow M&M. This is probably just one of those ones with no people in it, like Tetris."
The only reason she even knew what Tetris was was that sometimes people sneaked into it to make out, at least according to Taffyta.
She walked forward into the featureless hallway... and walked... and walked, glitching occasionally to speed up the process and wishing she'd been able to bring her kart on the train. The hall seemed to go on forever.
"Mother of muffins, where's the game?" she whined. "There's kids all over this thing. There's gotta be a game world in here somewhere!"
The hallways stubbornly refused to lead anywhere. Only Vanellope's equal stubborness-and the thought of how a long a walk she'd have back to Game Central Station if she gave up now-kept her going.
And then, when she'd almost stopped expecting it, she found something different.
The narrow hallway opened up into a vast white chamber carpeted in yellow-orange. She hopped down-there was a five-foot drop or so to the floor, nothing she couldn't glitch back up-and suddenly realized that the carpet wasn't a carpet at all. It was an enormous crowd of living creatures.
They were round and yellow, with catlike face and orange manes which made them look half like chubby lions and half like little cartoon suns. Vanellope tensed. Their art style didn't look violent, but you could never be sure.
"Uh, hi, guys," she said. "I'm from SugarRush Speedway. Just touristin' it up here. You know any good spots I outta check out?"
"Sola?" one of the creatures said, cocking its head. "Solasolasola!" another one agreed, and then dozens of them took up the call, curling themselves into balls and rolling around on the smooth floor.
"Ohhhh-kay, I'm startin' to think maybe you guys aren't the 'people' I'm lookin' for," Vanellope said. "What are you, enemies?"
She struck her palm with a tiny fist. "That's it, isn't it? I know where I am now! This is one of those rooms where you guys all wait so you can keep popping out of, of a pipe, or whatever. It's gotta be! So all I have to do is find where that is..."
She swept her gaze across the room. There was something, a tunnel of some kind, just visible on the far distant side of the room.
"...and I can peek out into the game world!"
She glitched across the room in leaps and bounds.
"Just a peek," she promised herself, "just a peek, oh, boy, but I can't stand it! Outta the way outta the way outta the way!"
The creatures rolled away from the mysterious flashing object cutting a gleeful swathe through them. In moments, Vanellope had closed the distance, arriving at the other side and glitching up into the tunnel like a bolt of blue lightning. It was another tube, she discovered, but this one was far more poorly lit than the one she'd entered by, fading to pitch black only a few steps in.
"Hello?" she called into the darkness. She took another hesitant step. There was something strange about the air ahead of her.
"Docking in progress," said a pleasant woman's voice in the stillness. "Prepare for distribution."
Something soft and warm nuzzled her, and she almost glitched out of her skin before she realized it was just one of the yellow creatures.
"Hey, after you, buddy," Vanellope said. "I don't even know where I'm goin' in here."
She felt the furry body waddling forward, and a moment later there was a merry chime, like the sound of someone grabbing a powerup.
"Distribution in progress," the voice continued. The tunnel lit up with rings of vivid green, alternating with the black like a photonegative candy cane. The creature's silhouette was starkly visible against the bright green light.
"Distribution?" Vanellope asked. "Hey, lady, do you know the way to-"
An irresistible force ripped her off her feet.
For a few seconds, the utter suddenness and disorientation of it was too much, and all she could do was tumble end over end, shrieking in terror. Then her racer's instincts took over and she got a hold of herself, extended her arms and legs, and straightened out.
She was flying level now, but she still didn't have any control over her speed, let alone her eventual destination. The rings were flying by at an incredible rate; wherever it was, she was coming in hot. She tried a few experimental glitches, but couldn't do more than slow herself down momentarily.
Wherever she was headed, it was warm, and it was getting brighter by the second. She braced herself for the crash-not that that would do much good without a kart-and hoped that she wasn't headed for a lava pit.
Nope. It was a nicely padded surface, as it turned out. Quite comfortable, in fact.
"Well, that wasn't so-"
As soon as she was able to blink the stars out of her eyes, she scrambled out from under the pudgy yellow creature which had just landed on her head. She looked back up the way they'd comeand managed to catch the briefest glimpse of the tunnel before a solid-looking steel hatch slammed shut across the opening.
"Not getting back that way, I guess," Vanellope said with a shrug. "Guess I'm goin' wherever you're goin', Chubbs."
There really was no reason to worry. If she just stuck with her new companion, she was sure to find her way back to that big chamber eventually.
"Melissa, aren't you done yet?"
"One sec, Mom!" Melissa called over the heads of the kids behind her. "I'm getting it now!"
Someone shoved her. "Hurry up, kid, other people want 'em too, ya know."
"I can't help it!" Melissa protested. "Mine's taking forever for some reason. See, there it goes."
The screen of her little handheld lit up. CONGRATULATIONS, it said, YOU CAPTURED SOLEON! Melissa yanked it out of the trade port and squeezed through the mass of kids to where her mother was waiting by the door.
"Did you get your thing?"
"Yeah, I got it," Melissa said with a grin, holding up the handheld. "See?"
"Well, it's about time. Don't you have enough of those little things already without dragging me to some skeevy arcade?"
"No, Mom, this is Soleon. You have to get him from one of the Minimon Centers and they're only here for a few more days and this is the only one in town!" Melissa said. She hugged her little battery-powered baby to her heart. "Anyway, I've got mine now, so you can relax. You'll never have to bring me back here again."
To be continued-please leave a review, if you'd like!