Roger Wilco’s slight intellectual weakness is mentioned multiple times in the Space Quest series -- he manages to save the galaxy multiple times despite remaining what some might describe as not a half-wit, but perhaps a three-quarters-wit.
But players enduring the challenges of the SQ games will no doubt wonder how someone as dense and clumsy as Roger could possibly reconfigure that Datacorder, work out the logic of throwing a Cubix Rube puzzle to that Labion Terror Beast, or successfully pole vault over a river of lava. Even incredible luck has its limits.
One possibility is that Roger’s reputation as a bumbling idiot is completely fabricated, and that he is really a fairly intelligent guy full of angst brought on by all has had to endure, forever suffering the shameful indignity of being seen as nothing more than a simple-minded janitor.
While there’s nothing wrong with this viewpoint…well, I always liked SQ because it focused just on being funny and not much else, without delving deeply into the psychological traumas of Roger and the other characters, and if that innocence could be kept alive in fan fiction, I say so much the better.
However, if Roger isn’t really a smart, tortured hero, what could explain how he remains that oblivious throughout his adventures while solving incredibly devious puzzles and making it out of near-impossible scenarios? In a realistic situation, outside of the SQ games, how could the clumsy simpleton that we see depicted in them possibly accomplish all the acts that the player made him do?
Confronted with this, I eventually started thinking…
What if Roger had someone -- or something -- “helping” him throughout his quests?
Roger Wilco lay quiescently on his bed in the tiny room that had once been a cargo hold. It had been three days since Stellar Santiago had tantalized him with the prospect of a forthcoming assignment that she thought he would enjoy, and he was growing slightly irritated that nobody on the DeepShip 86 had told him anything more about it since then.
He had trouble sleeping the last few nights, partly because of frenzied speculation on what the assignment could possibly be, and partly because of what Beatrice’s take on his newfound friendship with Stellar would be if she ever found out about it.
The idea of Bea becoming angry or even violent upon discovering this left Roger quite ill at ease, but the lingering thought that the situation could possibly result in Beatrice never marrying him, thus never bearing the son that saved his life in the past, and thus causing a major paradox and tearing a sizeable rip in the Space-Time Continuum also worried him a little.
But for now, at least he had some time to rest and reflect. He didn’t need to spend it fretting over things that had happened or would eventually happen. He had just survived yet another harrowing escapade, and he definitely deserved some relaxation. Even though he wasn’t getting much in the peace of mind department, he was still enjoying a brief stint from the insanity of saving galaxies, solving impossible situations and almost getting killed numerous times in the process.
Judging by his complete silence, even Jerry seemed to be enjoying the downtime.
Roger sighed heavily as the name came to his mind. Ah, yes…Jerry.
After all these years, he still hadn’t figured out what Jerry was, or even why he was doing what he was doing. Most of the time, Roger just hadn’t had the time to speculate on such things -- mainly because of most of the time he was trying not to get killed. But now, he couldn’t help but remember all those times when Jerry had intervened…
Roger rested his head on one of his two slippery red pillows and tried to recall that time on the Arcada…the first time…
The elevator! Hurry -- get in the elevator!
That was the first time Roger had heard it -- though he didn’t hear it as much as he felt it, as if it were just the memory of a voice, replaying in his mind.
What the heck? was his first thought in response to it. It was not unlike one of the voices in his head that he normally heard, but this one seemed different somehow…stronger, more urgent, more…more there.
Just get in the elevator! The voice repeated. As complex as its sentences were, they were “spoken” almost instantly, and he comprehended them with equal speed. A more poetic mind might have described such an incredibly fast flow of words as “moving at the speed of thought”.
But…why? Roger thought, more to himself than to whatever this intrusive thing was.
A troop of Sariens is going to be coming through that door in approximately fifteen seconds, the voice hissed. Now move!
Just as he was getting ready to mentally protest again, the sound of approaching armor-clad footsteps began to press upon Roger’s eardrums. He didn’t need another moment to assess the situation. He bolted into the nearest elevator, nearly flattening himself against its inside as the doors obediently shut behind him and the chamber rose to the floor immediately above it.
He stood there in the darkness, drawing in anxious, shaky breaths as the footsteps drew closer and closer one floor beneath him. Then they halted. Roger squeezed his eyes shut, his fingers clinging to the elevator’s wall as if it were the edge of a sheer cliff.
Then the footsteps began again, this time proceeding in the opposite direction and quickly fading away, leaving nothing but the continuous wail of the sirens. Roger let out a long sigh of relief, and if it hadn’t been for his death grip on the wall, he would have slumped to the floor.
Well, said the voice, I’m glad to see that you react sensibly when confronted with certain death…unlike someone I know…er, knew. I was beginning to think I picked a bad…
But what on Xenon are you? Roger thought.
That’s not important, the voice said sharply. What’s important is that you get out of here as soon as possible -- but wait! Not yet.
“Not yet?” What do you mean, “not yet”??
The library. You need to go there -- now.But…I don’t have time to read! Roger protested, beginning to grow accustomed to this atypical form of communication. The ship’s gonna blow up in eight minutes…
Then you’ll have to move fast, the voice said tersely.But I…
There was a sudden twinge of discomfort in Roger’s left frontal lobe. His hand immediately went to the corresponding place on his scalp as he winced with surprise and pain.
Go there, the voice persisted, louder this time, almost vibrating within his head and making the pain in his temple even worse. Now.
All right, all right, Roger replied weakly. Listening carefully for the sound of footsteps, he stepped towards the elevator doors, which slid open quietly as he approached. He looked towards one end of the hallway, then the other, then cautiously stepped out into the open again, making his way towards the Arcada’s library.
Yes, that was the first time Roger heard that voice. He had hoped it was only a figment of his imagination brought on by fear, but the events that followed made him change his mind quickly. As panicky and eager to get off the Arcada as he was, he probably would have hidden in the elevator even without the voice’s prompting, but there was no way he would have thought to enter the library…and consequently encounter the dying scientist with the code for the cartridge which had the Star Generator plans on it.
Whatever that voice was, it knew what it was doing. It had screamed bloody murder at Roger when he contemplated inserting the disk in the ship’s computer, reminding him that he had only six minutes before the Arcada exploded. It even gave him some tips when he was trying to make sense out of the airlock controls and the escape pod’s computer.
It was constantly chattering as he stumbled through the deadly sandy wastes of Kerona, and it wasn’t until he was staring into a mug of cheap ale at the Ulence Flats Bar that the voice finally went completely silent. Ironically, that was the same time that Roger actually wanted to “talk” to it.
Yes? The voice replied.You still haven’t answered my question, Roger thought. Who or what are you?
Is it really that vital that you know? the voice asked innocently. All you really need to know is that I’ve saved your life at least a dozen times in the last four hours, and I’ll continue to do so, as long as you do what I tell you.
Are you my conscience or something? Roger tried. Or some kind of guardian angel?
No. I’m just someone who is looking after you and making sure that you don’t get yourself killed -- after all, it would be a shame if no one stopped those Sariens, letting them continue to terrorize the galaxy with that stolen Star Generator that only you know the self-destruct code to…
Hey, I’m a janitor, not some suicidal hero who tells heavily armed aliens to stop blowing up planets, Roger thought.
Follow my lead and nothing will happen to you, the voice assured him. You have my word of honor. Please -- you must trust me.
Roger sighed and rotated his mug of Keronian ale, watching the bubbles sail gleefully towards the liquid’s surface, where they immediately ceased to be, bursting into tiny effervescent puffs.I gotta tell you, I don’t usually make promises to disembodied voices, Buddy…
What did you call me? the voice said, suddenly sounding offended.
N-nothing, Roger replied, jumping slightly and almost saying the word out loud.
Is that your name for me? the voice asked. “Buddy?”Not really, but…
How trite. If you’re going to give me a name, I’d appreciate it if you called me something other than “Buddy”.
Well, what should I call you then? Roger asked.
There was a pause, then:
Yes. Jerry.That…that sounds like a good name, but…why Jerry, Jerry?
It just sounds right for me, Jerry said quietly.
Well…fair enough, I guess, Roger shrugged.
So you will go after the Sariens? Jerry asked.
Roger cringed, then sighed again.
I guess I’ve got nothing to lose, he admitted.
Atta boy, Jerry said gently, and as he did, Roger suddenly didn’t feel nearly as reluctant and fearful about taking on the Sariens as he had several moments ago -- in fact, he felt calm, almost elated at the prospect.
The reason for this was that his thalamus had just been bombarded with multiple impulses that would normally have been triggered by pleasure-associated external stimuli -- but of course, even if his intellect wasn’t sub-average, Roger still had no way of knowing this. All that he knew was that he felt good, and that the ale in front of him was looking less daunting as well.
Go ahead, drink up, Jerry said. Just…try not to overindulge, okay? I don’t want to lose contact with you at this stage.
So that was the name the voice went by from then on: Jerry. The name sounded faintly familiar, but Roger just couldn’t put his finger on it. Jerry lived up to his word, though -- Roger escaped the Deltaur with both the data cartridge and his skin intact, thanks to the voice’s guidance. Although, in retrospect, Roger couldn’t truly say whether his frazzled reflexes were responsible for his shooting all of those Sariens, or whether Jerry was.
With a slight shudder, Roger remembered the first time he realized Jerry wasn’t just a voice…he was a force as well.
Roger gripped the rope almost tight enough for it to become fused to his hands as he swung precariously to and fro, every swing bringing him closer to the grassy cliff in front of him…and closer to the huge, hungry-looking beast on the ledge behind him as well.
Almost there, Jerry said encouragingly. Just a little farther…
For the seventeenth time that day, Roger began wondering how he got into this particular predicament. He wondered why Jerry had failed to warn him about those thugs waiting in the shuttle he had been asked to clean. He wondered why Jerry had fiercely insisted that he take the contents of his locker with him when he left the airlock. He wondered why Jerry had guided him to that deep spot in the swamp and instructed him to dive into the murky water and swim to an underwater cavern that contained a strange glowing rock, a task which almost ruptured his lungs.
All of these actions had seemed ridiculous to Roger while he was carrying them out, but his current undertaking -- swinging from a frayed piece of rope tied to a rotting log hundreds of feet above the ground on an alien planet, just out of the reach of a huge, bear-like monster -- was definitely the most insane of them all.
It was also scaring him out of his wits.
Okay, when I say “now”, let go, Jerry said. Roger barely heard him. His palms were starting to grow slick with sweat, and the sadly neglected higher-functioning part of his mind was casually wondering why the Xenonian body was designed in such a way -- one would think that in a situation like this, it wouldn’t start doing things that could result in its demise…the palms should stay dry for a greater amount of friction, thus preventing the hands from slipping, resulting in…
He swung towards the beast again, and this time he swung so close that he felt a slight breeze when the creature swiped at him with one of its huge paws. Roger would have screamed if he weren’t breathless and rigid with terror.
Get ready, Jerry urged. Roger wasn’t listening. His hands were starting to slip, and he was gripping the rope with all his might. Nothing would make him let go of this rope. If he let go, he would fall and fall and fall and -- ugh, he didn’t want to think about what would happen after that. He had to hang on. Don’t let go, don’t let go…
Now, Jerry yelled. Now! Hey, I said…all right, if that’s how you’re gonna be…
Just as Roger reached the peak of his swing, an electrical surge shot through the nerves of his brachial plexuses and into his hands. His fingers splayed, the rope left his grasp, and inertia asserted itself.
Hey...it tastes just like the kind on Xenon.
That was the first thought that entered Roger’s mind as he regained consciousness to find himself lying facedown on the ground with a mouthful of grass. He tried to ease himself up with his right hand, but he stopped in surprise to find that his entire arm, from the shoulder down, was partially numb, as if he had been resting on it. There was a similar sensation in his left arm as well.
I’m sorry…it looks like I was a bit too forceful, Jerry said with genuine concern. But remember, that wouldn’t have happened if you’d just listened to me.
What happened? Roger thought, grateful that he didn’t have to verbally communicate with Jerry -- in Roger’s current state, thinking was hard enough.
You’re safe for now, Jerry explained. Look behind you.
Roger spit the grass out of his mouth, rolled over and craned his neck, trying to make out his surroundings. Behind him was a vast chasm. A thin rope hung down from a point high overhead, and an irate monster was perched on a ledge on the chasm’s opposite side.
It took a few seconds for Roger to realize that he had made it to the side of the chasm that he was aiming for. He managed a very weak laugh, allowed himself a moment of rest to regain his bearings, then began to rise to his feet. It took more than half a minute, but he eventually succeeded.
Well…That was…fun, he thought absently, taking one last look at the furious alien creature whose snack he had just avoided becoming.
Excellent, said Jerry. Now…onwards.
To where? Roger asked.
Roger looked at the only potential “there” he could find, which was a large, dark cave in the side of the cliff immediately in front of him.
Are you sure? he thought apprehensively.
I’ve never been unsure yet, Jerry replied.
Roger shrugged and cautiously entered the cave. It was as dark as a black hole three feet in, and it didn’t get any brighter as he proceeded inwards.
I can’t see where I’m going, he complained to Jerry.
You’ve got something to fix that, Jerry said.
What do you… Roger began, but his thoughts stopped short as his eyes detected a gentle gleam coming from his left pants pocket. He reached inside it with a hand that still tingled unpleasantly and withdrew the glowing rock that Jerry had guided him to in the swamp. Its brilliant blue-green luminance flooded the cavern, and the sounds of frightened creatures fleeing the light came faintly to Roger’s ears.
I told you that you would need it, Jerry said smugly.
Yes…Jerry seemed to know everything, Roger admitted. He knew about that rock, he knew which tributary to take in that fast-flowing subterranean river, he even knew about the toilet plunger, the lighter, the wastebasket, the glass cutter and the rebreather mask in Vohaul’s fortress, all of which miraculously saved him from various horrible deaths.
After some time, Roger was beginning to wonder just how Jerry knew all this bizarre, scattered information that made utterly no sense on its own. It made him nervous, wondering about it.
What also made Roger nervous was the slowly dawning realization that Jerry seemed to be capable of controlling his entire body. It wasn’t until that jump from the conveyor belt to the metal beam in that trash freighter that he really began to notice this, however.
The sight of the gigantic cogs chewing the scrap metal to bits at the end of the conveyor had made him freeze in terror, and when he didn’t respond to Jerry’s desperate pleas for him to jump, Jerry must have taken matters into his own hands, for Roger took a flying leap that he himself had neither planned nor executed, and it was all he could do to hang on to the beam and gradually pull himself on top of it. As usual, though, his current perilous situation combined with Jerry’s constant babbling didn’t give him much time to think about this unsettling event.
In the brief lulls between the brushes with death, however, Roger began wondering just how Jerry was able to manipulate him like that. He also wondered exactly how extensive Jerry’s control over him was -- could he influence the way Roger perceived the world? Could he somehow alter Roger’s mind? Could he…could he kill Roger if he wanted to?
As usual, however, these concerns only disturbed Roger for a few minutes.
After a few more narrow escapes, he began growing comfortable enough to start talking to Jerry out loud instead of just mentally conversing with him. Naturally, he made sure to do this only in locations where there weren’t any creatures or synthetic beings that would kill him or look at him oddly if they heard or saw him apparently talking to himself.
In some ways, talking to Jerry was better than “thinking” to him. It gave Roger the sense that he was talking to another individual instead of just a voice. Still, there were also times when Jerry didn’t enjoy this alternate method of communication, and during those times, he made his resentment quite clear…
Roger hurried down the circular corridor, towards the fortress that contained the Supercomputer. Although he himself could barely comprehend what was going on, Jerry had filled him in on what needed to be done, and had gone over the plan time and time again until Roger decided that he understood it. He had to somehow shut down the computer…and find out just what was going on in this ruined future.
He continued on, towards a section of the corridor circumscribed with three metal rings that seemed oddly out of place…
Stop! Don’t move another inch! Jerry suddenly yelled. Roger stumbled as he attempted to obey Jerry’s directive, but apparently he didn’t stop fast enough. A tiny twinge shot through his right leg, making it go rigid, and he almost fell over sideways as a result. He had halted -- or in this case, been halted -- barely a foot from the nearest ring.
“Now what’s wrong?” he hissed as he regained his balance, his leg no longer stiff but still tingling.
Don’t go any farther…not yet, at least.
“What the…first you make me scoop up that nasty slime from the sewers just so I can get into this creepy place, and now you tell me that I can’t go on??”
Not so loud, Jerry urged. You will be able to continue, but first you have to…
“I really wish you’d tell me these things before I almost step into them,” Roger snarled. He wasn’t really angry; this latest debacle had just left him a little frazzled, but he was beginning to realize that shouting at Jerry was an excellent outlet for his emotions.
I only provide guidance when it is truly needed, Jerry explained. You might have noticed these lasers without my warning, but…
“Hey, lasers are something I need to know about,” Roger bellowed. “The next time you almost let me get fried by a force field or shish-kebabed by a laser, I’m going to…”
A sharp spasm suddenly wracked Roger’s body, starting at the base of his skull and shooting down his left side. At the same time, numerous impulses hit his adrenals and his hypothalamus, with the combined result that he was immediately ready to run away from a nonexistent threat and at the same time felt incredibly hungry, which, considering that the numerous nausea-inducing rides in the Time Pod and his brief job at Monolith Burger had both effectively suppressed what little appetite he had left, was quite unusual.
Dammit, now you’ve gone and made me overdo it again, Jerry sulked. I’ll be partially incapacitated for hours now. I hope you’re happy.
Roger was stooped over, open-mouthed with shock, breathing heavily, hoping that his heart rate would return to normal before he passed out.
“You…inca-…incapacitated?” he managed. “What…does that make…me?”
Someone who doesn’t know when to shut up, Jerry said, still sounding pretty irritated. I try to help you and all you do is yell at me.
“Well,” said Roger, amazingly beginning to feel fairly stable again, “You haven’t done much all this time except yell at me, you annoying little -- ”
Roger couldn’t complete his sentence. He tried, but he simply couldn’t. He put a hand to his throat, felt it, then tried again. Nothing.
His vocal cords had been paralyzed.
Sheesh, I knew I shouldn’t have done that… Jerry muttered weakly. Then he assumed a deeper, much more serious tone:
I don’t like to be shouted at, Roger. Mental talk is one thing, but there’s only so much of a real voice I can take, especially when it’s that loud. Besides, in case you’ve forgotten, there are probably several Sequel Police stationed nearby, and they can probably hear something that noisy from where they are.
Roger swallowed and nodded.
So, Jerry continued, Why don’t we start again, from the top?
The part about the lasers? Roger thought timidly.
Exactly, Jerry said. Are you going to use your voice responsibly now?
Roger agreed, and a subtle warmth seemed to flow back into his throat as he did. He tried out several simple vocalizations, just to make sure Jerry really had restored his voice. Unsurprisingly, he had.
Now, Jerry said, If you take a closer look at those three rings, you’ll see some nozzles lining their insides. There are lasers coming out of some of those nozzles. We can’t see them now, but we’ve got to change things in here so that we can…
After that unpleasant little incident, Roger had made sure not to shout at Jerry again…most of the time, at least. He had gotten a little angry with him on the day of the StarCon Aptitude Test (mostly because it had been completely unexpected for him and Jerry hadn’t reminded him of it even once), and Jerry had retaliated by doing something unpleasant to Roger’s taste receptors -- consequently, he had to complete the entire test with the taste of burnt oatmeal in his mouth.
During his incredibly brief career as captain of the SCS Eureka, he had very little time to converse with Jerry -- he didn’t think his crew’s morale would remain very high if they saw him carrying on a conversation with something he knew they couldn’t hear.
It wasn’t until that unfortunate transporter accident that Roger finally had a chance to speak to Jerry, one-on-one:
I must admit I was a little nervous when that machine started smoking, Jerry said. I seem to be in one piece myself, though I can’t seem to manipulate anything below your first two cervical vertebrae…
“That’s probably because my head is attached to a housefly’s body right now,” Roger snapped.
I know, I know, Jerry muttered. Don’t worry, though. Things should turn out all right soon. But egad, Roger, there are times I think that Murphy’s Law was created just for you.
Roger scowled and looked at his immediate surroundings again. He never imagined that he would be able to examine an electronic keycard lock from the inside, but that was just what he was doing at the moment. It wasn’t that difficult, considering how he now measured barely a quarter of an inch long.
“I was going to ask you a question, Jerry.”
“Why didn’t you warn me about that transporter screwing up? I thought you were supposed to keep things like this from happening to me.”
Jerry was silent for a moment. Somehow, he didn’t seem incapable of answering, but merely reluctant to do so.
All possible outcomes of that incident had you coming out of it alive, he explained. If it were potentially fatal for you, I would certainly have warned you, but it wasn’t fatal. Just…discommoding.
Roger was so stunned by this reply that he didn’t even feel like asking what “discommoding” meant.
“You mean you’re only protecting me from things that can kill me instead of things that can hurt me really bad or swap my head with a fly’s?”
Well…yes, Jerry said sheepishly. And I admit, some of these inconveniences are completely unavoidable, even for me. Still, staying alive is certainly the most important thing, isn’t it?
As astounded by this new information as he was, Roger found that he couldn’t argue with this. Still, there was another pressing question that he had to ask:
“Jerry…what are you?” he asked quietly.
That’s probably the eighty-seventh time you’ve asked me that, Jerry said dully. And like I’ve already said eighty-six times before, you don’t need to know what I am.
“Maybe not, but I’d still like to know what you are,” Roger protested. “Are you some kind of invisible alien, or are you communicating with me through some kind of implant stuck in my head or what?”
That isn’t important, Jerry said sternly. And please don’t ask me about what I am again or you get zapped. Just be thankful that you’ve got me here to help you. I don’t know how one person can attract this much danger, but I’m certainly doing my best to keep you out of it. It’s enough trouble keeping you safe without having to answer all of your little questions.
“Could you at least give me a little hint?” Roger pleaded.
Sorry, Flyboy, Jerry said, making Roger cringe slightly. No dice. How about concentrating on getting your body back instead of trying to find an answer to something which will make you none the wiser and possibly even more neurotic than you already are?
Roger quivered with ire at this, but soon found himself agreeing wholeheartedly with Jerry’s logic. He certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with six legs, and now that he thought about it, it didn’t really matter what this thing in his head was, as long as it kept him alive -- half insect or otherwise.
“Okay,” he sighed submissively. “What should I do now?”
Keep on crawling through this keycard slot so we can see what’s inside this place…but wait -- try moving under these beams of light first. If I’m not mistaken, they just might yield something or great importance to us…
And they did indeed. Jerry was right again, just as he always was. Trying to steer him into a situation where he wouldn’t be was utterly impossible, Roger eventually found out. He was everything Roger wasn’t: infinitely intelligent, quick-thinking, calm in times of stress, and armed with a razor-sharp wit that often left Roger trying to think up decent comebacks for days afterwards.
All of Jerry’s abilities were out in full force in Roger’s latest adventure as part of the crew of the DeepShip 86. Still, Roger got to hear a softer side of him as well -- he sympathized with Roger after his decommissioning, and though Roger didn’t want to admit it, he felt that Jerry must have been doing something to his body that prevented him from bursting into tears and making a scene of himself at Stellar’s funeral.
Of course, between these two moments, he had to endure occasional “zaps” from Jerry when he didn’t listen or react to his warnings, as well as remarks like:
I’m sorry, Roger, I really didn’t think he would hit you that hard.
Okay, so that big guy was dancing two feet away from you and he was almost completely naked, but all in all, I’d say you were pretty fortunate -- he could’ve asked you to join him, you know.
Well, it wasn’t as if I could do anything about that gallstone falling -- at least you didn’t get flattened by it, right?
The times that Roger had wished that Jerry would just stop talking and leave him alone were all too many, but every time, something -- either his own somewhat shriveled survival instincts or Jerry himself -- would bring him to his senses. Roger, for whatever reason, lived a very dangerous life, and Jerry, for whatever reason as well, wanted to prevent it from ending prematurely.
Roger had stopped asking Jerry why he was doing this some time ago -- he figured that he shouldn’t be tempting fate by asking his invisible guardian why he was guarding him and that he should consider himself lucky just to have Jerry -- as sarcastic and annoying as he was.
There were so many other questions that Roger wished Jerry would answer, though. What he was, why he could see danger before it happened, how he knew so much about everything, why his only focus was to keep Roger alive but not necessarily well, why he didn’t start talking to Roger before the Sarien invasion…the list of questions went on and on, and Roger was only just beginning to realize that he would never know the answers to any of them.
He sighed heavily. As late as it was, he still didn’t feel tired. As he sat up and glanced at his night table, reaching for his latest issue of Popular Janitronics, he was surprised to notice a second magazine lying underneath it. He didn’t remember leaving more than one there -- but after a moment’s contemplation, he seemed to recall dropping the copy of Popular Janitronics on a stray stack of magazines on one of the tables in 8-Rear, and in his hurry to get to his room in time once he discovered that his break had already started, he must have grabbed both Popular Janitronics and whatever was under it.
Roger slipped the mystery magazine out from under Popular Janitronics and examined its title. Scientific Galactican. It didn’t make him immediately open the thing, but it didn’t make him want to toss it aside either. Still, since he had already read the latest PJ from cover to cover and had nothing else worth perusing -- plus, hopefully something that looked this dull would help him get a little shut-eye -- he decided to see what this new piece of reading material could provide him with.
A lot of monotonous articles on the ecosystems of various boring new planets and the latest ho-hum scientific breakthroughs, as it turned out. He flipped idly through the pages, pausing only to glance at the pictures. He soon reached the end of the issue, and was about to throw it on the floor (where he hoped it would eventually decompose or disappear of its own accord) when something on the final page caught his eye.
It was an article that was apparently a regular feature in the magazine entitled “Freak of the Week -- Zoological marvels from all over the galaxy”. It consisted of a large block of text accompanied by a picture of something that looked like a cross between a wisp of steam and a bolt of lightning (with some fine print near the bottom that read “Artist’s Concept”).
Somewhat intrigued, Roger began to read:
One of the universe’s most overlooked oddities. Although its form is almost entirely electrical, in most respects it behaves very much like the typical parasitic life form.
It inhabits the cranial region of its host (which is nearly always humanoid), where it is insulated from the harsh outside environment and nourished by the constant flow of nutrients to the brain.
The Wardwraith’s presence is nearly impossible to detect by either its host or by observers, since symptoms of infestation are virtually nonexistent in most cases. However, when the host is in a situation in which its life is threatened, the Wardwraith’s relationship with the host becomes much more symbiotic -- and so remarkably complex that some biologists have flatly refused to believe such a thing exists.
As it is with all parasites, the importance of the host’s survival is second only to that of the parasite’s own. However, the Wardwraith takes this rule to a whole new level.
When its host is in danger of expiring and is physically or mentally incapable of avoiding the menace on its own, the Wardwraith has the ability to manipulate various systems of the host’s anatomy, even “overriding” the body for brief periods of time in extreme cases in an attempt to avoid the danger -- this requires much energy for the Wardwraith, however, and consequently it is only done as a last resort.
Even more remarkable is the Wardwraith’s precognitive ability: it is capable of foreseeing possible threats to the host long before they occur, and it is able to warn the host of them through what some believe to be some form of short-range telepathy.
The Wardwraith also possesses a vast store of knowledge that enables it to correctly and accurately tell the host what steps should be taken to avoid the risk. Its knowledge is so extensive that some scientists have theorized that all members of its species are connected via some sort of group mentality.
Should the host fail to heed the Wardwraith’s warnings and directives, the Wardwraith is usually forced to either “override” the body or deliver a mild shock to the host’s system as a warning (which is less costly, energy-wise, and usually just as effective).
If the host’s demise is absolutely unavoidable (usually due to the Wardwraith’s energy being depleted from preceding “overrides” and shocks from numerous outside threats, but occasionally due to the host ignoring the Wardwraith’s warnings), the Wardwraith instantaneously relocates itself to the nearest available host body. Since this experience is usually somewhat traumatic for the new host, the Wardwraith tries to take up residence in the nearest dormant individual, if one is nearby.
For all the precautions that the Wardwraith takes to ensure its host’s survival, it is unclear whether it ever moves on to another phase of its life cycle, or whether it simply spends its entire existence living inside an individual’s head. Very little is known about the Wardwraith besides what is described here: it is so protective of its host that anyone infected with it will survive even the most dangerous, daunting, impossible scenarios in existence -- even if the host is utterly incapable of doing so itself.
Though most of the words in the article left Roger’s mind just as quickly as they had entered it, unpleasant feelings were starting to stir within him as he read the last few sentences. The description of the Wardwraith seemed hauntingly familiar, but his innate thickness was keeping him from realizing why.
Roger made a valiant attempt to overcome his handicap, trying to break down the strong mental wall between this new knowledge and whatever it was in his head that made it seem so not new. What was it?
As Roger was struggling to do this, however, another barrier in his mind suddenly fell, a barrier that had been partitioning off some memories he thought he had completely forgotten. As loath as he was to do so, Roger tentatively examined this hidden recollection that had suddenly resurfaced.
It was of a man, his facial features twisted in an agonized mask of death, the cause of which was all too apparent -- several gaping cavities riddled his torso. It was a man that Roger had known, and vice versa -- it was also the man that Roger had taken the keycard to the lower level of the Arcada from -- sometime after the man had been shot by the Sariens, of course. The combined panic and horror of his experience on the Arcada must have shoved this memory and all memories related to it into the darkest, mustiest, most unused corners of his head.
Now, as he was contemplating the descriptions of the habits of the mysterious Wardwraith, the strange familiarity of them that he just couldn’t comprehend and his forgotten experiences on the Arcada, he suddenly remembered the name of the dead man that he had taken the keycard from.
Just as he was beginning to fit all of these pieces together, there was a slight pulsation deep inside his brain as his pineal gland suddenly released enough melatonin into his system to put King Kong to sleep.
Roger barely had time to reflect on how heavy his eyelids had become and how funny his fingers looked before slumping back into a comatose slumber that not even another alien invasion could have roused him from, the magazine slipping from his lap onto the floor.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the depths of his mind, which over the past few years had been exposed to so much, yet remained so oblivious, a tiny, insubstantial entity cursed and muttered angrily to itself, absorbed as much surplus energy as it dared, then began meticulously picking away at the most recently formed short term memory traces -- as well as a slightly more problematic and deeper fragment of long term memory that had become quite solidly rooted -- as delicately as it was able.
Okay, now for yet another long-winded piece of behind-the-scenes blather:
Any sci-fi retro-obscurists will probably notice that the main theme of this story is quite similar to Robert Sheckley’s short story, “Protection”, and I admit that I was slightly inspired by that story.
However, I came up with the idea of Roger having a parasite guiding him through his adventures before I ever read that story (before listening to it, in fact -- I heard the X Minus One adaptation prior to reading the original version online), but I was tempted to disregard the idea because I thought it was a little silly.
Then I discovered Robert Sheckley, a man who took being silly very seriously (though he was also pretty good at “predicting” the future), and after listening to and reading “Protection”, I thought, “If this creative genius can write a story with a theme like that, why shouldn’t I give it a try as well?”
I was actually inspired more by William Sleator’s book, Parasite Pig (the sequel to Interstellar Pig), which gives various examples of what remarkably complex things a fictional highly-evolved parasite is capable of doing to its human host in order to get to the next stage in its life cycle -- it’s pretty creepy for a kids’ book. I also borrowed a concept from Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels, in which different fonts are used to indicate different languages (the "Old English" language spoken by a 12th-century prophet is in an Old English font face, for example).
Incidentally, the Wardwraith’s species name, validusia, is a variation on one of the alien words in “Protection”, and the reason why the Wardwraith has that name should be obvious to anyone who has read/listened (to) the story.
As for its genus name…if you don’t get that injoke, you need to spend a little more time looking at the fonts in your word processor. Seriously.
I also just recently realized that the name the Wardwraith has is the same as the name of the secondary character in my recent short story, “The Anachronism” -- this is a complete coincidence. I pulled the name “Jerry” out of the air, and I had completely forgotten the name of the man Roger took the keycard from in the VGA version of SQ1 when I sat down to write this story a week or so later.
Oh yeah -- Scientific Galactican be Scientific American spoof’d!
P. S.: If you're interested, you can read “Protection” here and listen to it here (it’s about halfway down the list).