Space Quest: The Time Machination
Roger Wilco Junior -- son of Roger Wilco, the man who had saved the galaxy multiple times despite being nothing more than a moderately skilled janitor -- was confused.
This was hardly an unfamiliar feeling for him, and after several years of his mind being dominated by fear, depression and hopelessness, it was a relief to be bothered by something as comparatively trivial as mere confusion. However, the reason behind the confusion was far from trivial.
RJ (the name which Roger Wilco Junior had insisted that his peers and family call him by since he hit adolescence) had just sent Roger Wilco Senior back to the point in the past that RJ had originally pulled him from. As much as RJ wished that he could spend a little more time with him, the fear of causing irreparable damage to the timeline prompted RJ to immediately return his father to the Space Quest IV time sector while RJ himself remained in Space Quest XII time sector.
He had sent his father back to his own time with a head full of questions to which the answers would not come for many years, if they would come at all. However, RJ's own head was bulging with questions as well, one of which loomed ominously above all the others (not unlike the massive Supercomputer that RJ was currently standing in):
The Anomaly. What was it? Why did it exist? How could it exist?
RJ gazed out at the mangled metropolis hundreds of feet below him, the memory of the events leading up to the discovery of the unimaginatively-named Anomaly slowly replaying in his frazzled mind.
It all started with the Supercomputer -- the Supercomputer which a group of scientists (who in hindsight really should have known better) accidentally exposed to a crippling virus. This virus was in actuality a digital replication of the mind of Sludge Vohaul, an evil, twisted, aesthetically challenged scientist who made several attempts at dominating Xenon many years prior but was ultimately defeated by Roger Wilco.
It turned out that Roger Wilco's defeat of Vohaul wasn't as ultimate as the people of Xenon thought. However, Vohaul hadn't given up on his plans of taking over the planet, and this time, he came very, very close to succeeding.
The events that followed after the Vohaul virus gained control of the Supercomputer and nearly every piece of technology on the planet were, in short, very unpleasant. Though most of the population either fled Xenon or perished, a small number of people remained in hiding beneath the streets of the planet's central city, hoping to find some way of destroying the Supercomputer.
When the rebels learned that the Supercomputer had discovered time travel, they had little time to ponder on this discovery. Recalling that Roger Wilco was the only person who had ever defeated Sludge Vohaul, the rebels realized that time travel could be their only chance of destroying the Vohaul virus. Two of the rebels (who had just recently decided to call themselves the Time Rippers, given the nature of their mission) were selected to steal some of the time technology, travel into the past and return to the present with Roger Wilco. RJ was one of these two rebels.
In the time between the infiltration of the Supercomputer, the pilfering of the time tech (a pair of guns that looked suspiciously like modified hairdryers) and the departure for Space Quest IV, RJ and his companion discovered the following information:
1) The Sequel Police -- the intimidating cyborgs tasked with making sure that the Space Quest timeline ran according to Vohaul's wishes -- were planning to travel to the past as well... however, their goal was to kill Roger Wilco.
(This was bad.)
2) In order to avoid accidentally setting off a retroactive chain of events resulting in the Vohaul virus never getting uploaded to the Supercomputer and thus erasing them from existence, the Sequel Police wouldn't confront Roger Wilco until after Space Quest III.
(This was good...sort of.)
3) Because of 2), the only available time when both the Time Rippers and the Sequel Police could reach Roger Wilco was a narrow window at the beginning of Space Quest IV.
(This was because...)
RJ quickly pushed the reason for 3) out of his flashback. He didn't feel like revisiting that memory just yet, but when put together, it became very clear that if he and his companion didn't rescue Roger Wilco from the Space Quest IV time sector before that window closed, there would be no way of stopping Vohaul.
Fortunately, luck was on the Time Rippers' side: They arrived in Space Quest IV just in time to save Roger Wilco from being killed by a pair of Sequel Policemen. After sending his father to Space Quest XII, RJ paused for a moment to catch his breath, but before he could open another rip to follow his father into the future, there was the sound of a Sequel Policeman's rifle being fired and an explosion of pain in his side.
RJ remembered little of what happened after that -- it was mostly brief, blurry moments of consciousness interspersed with what seemed like distorted dreams or hallucinations. After finally regaining full control of his senses, RJ found himself in the innermost sanctum of the Supercomputer, with his father standing in front of him. The pieces quickly came together: He was alive, his father was alive, they were inside the Supercomputer, and there was no Vohaul virus attempting to destroy them. They had won.
RJ led his father outside to the landing bay, a large opening near the top of the Supercomputer which provided a great (but depressing) view of the ruined city. He explained what had happened on Xenon, and why his father had been transported to Space Quest XII. Though the conversation began well enough considering the circumstances, it became more and more uncomfortable as it progressed, and despite his disciplined mind, RJ was quite shaken by the time he was ready to return Roger Wilco to Space Quest IV.
After saying a final good-bye to his father, RJ stared at the wall of the landing bay for several minutes, wondering what to do next. Then he returned to the entrance to the Supercomputer and began to make his way through the labyrinth of catwalks, circuitry and transport tubes, down into the heart of the technological colossus.
Sometime later, he located the small, dark chamber that housed the Chronolux -- the massive mainframe that the Sequel Police had used to track Roger Wilco through the various Space Quest time sectors. To his amazement, the machine was still running. It was also surrounded by the lifeless bodies of several Sequel Policemen -- it seemed that once the Supercomputer had been shut down, the Sequel Policemen themselves suffered a similar fate. RJ (correctly) reasoned that the Chronolux must not have been connected to the Supercomputer, despite residing inside of it.
RJ slowly approached the Chronolux. Then, with trembling fingers, he selected the Space Quest IV time sector, entered his father's name, and pressed the Scan button.
Several minutes later, a message appeared on the Chronolux's main screen:
The hairs on the back of RJ's neck stood on end. He glanced at the digital display on his time gun, looking for the line that displayed the last time entered on it. The line read: SQIV||MAGMETHEUS||00:001:00:00:00. That was the time and place he had sent his father to -- a time approximately twenty-six minutes before the Anomaly.
SUBJECT PRESENT ON MAGMETHEUS UNTIL 00:001:00:26:07.
NO PRESENCE DETECTED AFTER 00:001:00:26:07.
RJ's mind reeled as the memory of the fourth thing that he and his companion had discovered during their infiltration of the Supercomputer came rushing back to him:
A few hours after the Space Quest IV time sector began, Roger Wilco vanished. No matter how many scans Sequel Police had made on the ChronoLux, there was never a trace of Roger Wilco to be found...and he wasn't just absent from Space Quest IV, either: he was missing from every single time sector, all the way up to the end of Space Quest IX.
This absence was what RJ called the Anomaly. When he first learned about it, he had little time to ponder what it meant or why it existed, but now that the chaos on Xenon had finally ceased, his questions about the Anomaly began careening through his mind like rocket-powered meteorites.
What was going on? What had happened to his father twenty-six minutes after he returned to Magmetheus? Could he have been killed by the Sequel Policemen? If he had been killed, then why did RJ still exist?
With both his heart and his mind racing, RJ had the ChronoLux run a scan of Space Quest V. Five minutes later, the message "NO TRACE OF SUBJECT DETECTED" appeared.
RJ ran a scan on Space Quest VI, only to have the exact same message show up. He ran scans of Space Quest VII, VIII and IX and was about to run a scan of Space Quest X when he finally broke down, slamming his head into the keyboard with a howl of frustration.
Saving his father's life hadn't changed anything. The Anomaly was still there -- from the beginning of Space Quest IV until the end of Space Quest IX, Roger Wilco was gone. As for Space Quest X and beyond...
No, RJ told himself. Don't go there. Don't.
He tried to make sense out of what the Chronolux was telling him, but couldn't. It just couldn't be true. His father had existed when RJ was born near the end of the Space Quest VIII time sector. RJ remembered listening to his father's stories of his past adventures; how his father kept calling him "Junior" no matter how many times RJ told him not to; and that one galaxy-wide family vacation where, despite driving a ship with the most easy-to-use navigational computer available on Xenon, his father still managed to get RJ and his mother thoroughly lost. The Chronolux had to be wrong...but if it was, why hadn't Vohaul or the Sequel Police spotted and corrected the error? After all, they were all machines to a great extent, and they built the Chronolux -- if they hadn't detected any problems with it, then why was the machine reporting Roger Wilco as MIA in spots in the timeline where he had undoubtedly existed?
RJ lifted his head from the keyboard and noted that the Chronolux had finished its scan for an individual named LJNGHTDTCH (which it actually had located on a planet somewhere in the Dgjegtmxs galaxy). Though both mentally and physically exhausted, RJ wasn't ready to give up yet. He ran a search on his father in Space Quest I, II and III, and except for one odd patch of time in Space Quest I, Roger Wilco was detected in every one of those time sectors.
RJ rubbed his eyes and stared blankly at the screen. What was going on? Was the man he knew as his father just a clone of the original Roger Wilco, or an android duplicate? Had an alteration of the timeline caused RJ to become his own father? Was all this an illusion he was experiencing while plugged into a console deep within the bowels of the Supercomputer?
Roger Wilco only existed until the beginning of the Space Quest IV time sector. After that, he was completely absent all the way 'til Space Quest IX. Then, somewhere between Space Quest IX and Space Quest X (there was no way of telling exactly when this was, since for some reason, the Chronolux couldn't scan the time between sectors, just the sectors themselves), he vanished and never appeared on the timeline again. Of course, this had to be because...
RJ tried to push that memory away again, but by this point, he was too weak to hold it back:
...because he was dead by then. Both him and Mom. No one could have survived an explosion that large...besides, if they weren't dead, Vohaul wouldn't have needed his lackeys to go back in time to bump him off...
But why Space Quest IV? Why Space Quest IV!?
RJ froze. Though he had been contemplating smashing his head into the keyboard again, he hadn't actually done it -- that noise had come from outside the room he was in. In fact, it seemed to have come from outside the Supercomputer.
RJ's mind went on full alert. He had no idea what had made that noise, but he knew he wouldn't find out what it was by waiting next to the ChronoLux. He grabbed his time gun, sprang from his chair, barely avoided tripping over one of the deceased Sequel Policemen, and bolted out the door. He ran until he reached the tunnel that led to the landing bay, then crept stealthily along the wall, grateful that the deadly laser beams that once filled the tunnel were now deactivated. As he neared the end of the tunnel, he heard and felt the thrum of an engine filling the air. It sounded like a ship...a ship which definitely wasn't the kind used by the Sequel Police.
As he reached the entrance to the landing bay, RJ flattened himself against the wall and cautiously peered around the door's circular metal frame. The sound of the engine grew louder and louder, and then there it was -- a small, bulbous shuttle that looked as if it had been built centuries ago. It had gull-wing doors, was painted a gaudy shade of purple and its windows were too dark to make out any of the occupants. It slowly approached the Supercomputer, but despite the massive size of the landing bay's entrances, the ship's nose collided with a section of the Supercomputer's outer wall several feet above the landing bay, producing a noise very similar to the one that RJ had recently heard.
The ship slowly backed up, then after a moment of hesitation, it decreased its speed, banked slightly, then dropped its landing gear and gingerly maneuvered itself through the landing bay's rightmost entrance -- the entrance right in front of the tunnel where RJ was hiding. Suddenly the shuttle's thrusters cut out and it bounced off the floor of the landing bay with a jarring thud. The thrusters fired up again almost immediately, and after lurching drunkenly in midair for a moment or two, the shuttle slowly lowered itself until it was resting firmly on the cold, cracked plasticrete.
As a cloud of dust billowed around the shuttle, RJ gripped his gun in his hands, ready to leap out of hiding and confront whatever or whoever was inside the shuttle. Then he remembered that the only thing this gun was good for was opening rips into different time periods. Maybe if he just acted as if it were a real gun, whoever was in that ship might think it was real...if only it didn't look so much like a giant hairdryer...
There was a sudden hiss of escaping air -- the driver's side door of the shuttle was hinging open, and someone was stepping out. RJ leaped out of the tunnel, his gun aimed at the individual, who was still mostly obscured by the airborne dust.
"Freeze!" he yelled.
The figure jumped in alarm and tried to run away, but only succeeded in banging its head on the partially opened door. It clutched its skull with a primal outburst of surprise and pain that made RJ feel as if someone had injected liquid nitrogen into his veins.
That voice...he knew that voice...
The figure staggered unsteadily out of the rapidly thinning dust cloud towards RJ. RJ lowered his time gun, gaping at the figure with a mixture of astonishment, disbelief and a small amount of terror.
It was him...and yet it wasn't him. He seemed older, his clothing was completely different...and his hair definitely wasn't that color when RJ had last seen him...
Still cringing slightly, Roger Wilco lowered his hand from his head, looked into the widening eyes of his son and grinned.
Deciding that it risked serious damage if it remained conscious for a moment longer, RJ's brain promptly shut itself down. His body dropped to the plasticrete with a soft thud accompanied by a loud clatter as the time gun slipped from his limp fingers.
Roger Wilco cautiously approached his son, stared mutely at him for a moment, then looked over his shoulder at the shuttle. A tall blonde woman had just emerged from the shuttle through the now open passenger door. She took a few steps forward, regarded the unconscious body sprawled in front of Roger for a moment, then glared coldly at Roger himself.
"Uh..." said Roger sheepishly, "I guess it would've been better if you'd talked to him first, Bea."
The planet Gritt had to be one of the most boring planets in its part of the galaxy. There were some mountains; a lot of sand; plenty of rocks, boulders and pebbles and not too much else. It wasn't barren enough to be an infinite desert that a man could lose his mind in, it wasn't picturesque enough to inspire a poet or an artist, there were no dangerous beasts living there to attract the attention of a brave and/or suicidal adventurer, and it wasn't fun enough to warrant even a brief stop during a family vacation. It really couldn't be described as anything more than boring.
Despite its boringness, however, the populations of two neighboring planets -- Stam and Davka -- had been squabbling over Gritt for centuries. The inhabitants of Stam would claim that Gritt rightfully belonged to them, and not the Davkans. Inevitably, the natives of Davka would respond by claiming that the Stamians were filthy liars, and that the people of Davka were the ones that Gritt belonged to.
The two civilizations fought constantly, either on Stam, Davka, Gritt itself or in the space between the three planets. Even when both sides had become too technologically crippled to launch any more destruction at each other, they would still wage war over their communications networks. Attacks of this sort usually consisted of a Stamian sending a Davkan a voicemail with an unflattering comment about that Davkan's parental unit or a Davkan leaving several hundred inflammatory comments on a video titled, "Why Stamians are the TRUE inheritors of Gritt!"
The violence between the two planets tended to wax and wane in a predictable cycle, but the weaponry on both sides was becoming more and more formidable at an alarming rate, and many of the people living on the other planets in that solar system (some of them expatriates from Stam or Davka) were growing very worried.
Officials from the StarCon Federation and various other smaller interstellar governments had frequently conferred with representatives from the two worlds, but it seemed as if no amount of reasoning, rationalizing or pleading could ever dissuade the Stamians and the Davkans from quarrelling over "their" planet. Sharing the planet was out of the question, and despite the vast number of planets in the galaxy similar to Gritt (only not quite as boring), the two races refused all of them. They wanted Gritt, and no substitution would do.
News of the two planets spread rapidly, and it wasn't long before Beatrice Wankmeister heard about this dispute. Since her current position in the Xenon Central Government qualified her to act as a diplomat not only to the other inhabitants of the Earnon System, but those of various other systems as well, she was determined to speak with the people of Stam and Davka herself. She also decided to take her husband along, thinking that it would be a good PR move. Roger Wilco's fame might have dwindled considerably in recent years, but the fact that he had been very famous at one point was indisputable, and a small number of people still remembered him as a former space hero -- and what better way to draw attention to something as uninteresting as a peace conference than having a former celebrity attend it, she reasoned?
Beatrice also secretly savored the idea of not only succeeding where the StarCon Federation had failed, but also getting back at them a little. The people from the upper echelons of StarCon didn't like Roger Wilco, and Roger Wilco didn't like StarCon. The brief time he had spent as a member of the Federation had had its good times, but those were vastly undershadowed by the far more numerous not-so-good times. Though his heroism in destroying the Sarien menace was initially applauded by the Federation, when Roger and discovered that Captain Raems T. Quirk, one of StarCon's most celebrated members, was involved in an insidious criminal organization that was dumping a toxic mutagen throughout the G6 Quadrant, StarCon's attitude toward Roger changed considerably.
When Roger rescued the entire crew of Quirk's ship (save for Quirk himself, who merged with the mutagen and became a giant sentient blob that Roger was forced to kill in self-defense), instead of being praised for his actions, he was put on trial and accused of a number of trumped-up charges which resulted in him being losing his Captain's position and being reassigned to the rank of Janitor Second Class. Beatrice had had her suspicions about StarCon being corrupt before, but this was the first real confirmation of those suspicions. StarCon was much more interested in keeping its reputation clean rather than letting justice prevail. They had not only stripped Roger of his rank, but also his credibility -- no one would take the words of a mere janitor accused of so many crimes seriously.
It wasn't until Roger learned that another high-ranking StarCon official -- Admiral Toolman, the very man who was the judge at his trial -- was in league with Sharpei, an elderly woman funding a secret project which involved transplanting the minds of older people into younger bodies, that he finally decided to put his foot down. He had had enough of StarCon, and wanted the truth about them to be heard. Beatrice agreed to help him, and so did Stellar Santiago, a close friend of Roger's who had nearly had her mind replaced by Sharpei's.
With the help of a small band of renegade techies, the trio set to work digging up as much dirt on StarCon as they could find -- it was a task that required a very large shovel (metaphorically speaking). After a sizeable amount of damning evidence had been uncovered, the techies anonymously disseminated this information throughout the quadrant via its various communication networks. The reaction from the populous came quickly, and the word continued to spread faster than StarCon could scramble to dismiss the various accusations against it. To make matters worse for the Federation, the information the techies had discovered turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, as more and more unpleasant truths about StarCon continued to be dug up by intrepid researchers. There were many questions as to who was responsible to the original leak, but fortunately, Roger, Beatrice and Stellar remained unquestioned during the whole affair (they had made sure to leave the incidents with Captain Quirk and Sharpei out of their pile of evidence). After determining that they had done all the damage that could be done, the trio cut all ties with StarCon. It was a difficult decision, but it was one which all three of them could look back on with pride.
Though the initial attack on StarCon wasn't nearly enough to destroy it, it was nonetheless a serious blow to its reputation -- one which it never quite recovered from. As the years progressed, fewer and fewer people enrolled in StarCon Academy, and many young officers started resigning from the Federation, unwilling to associate themselves with its name any longer. Now, nearly twenty years later, StarCon was little more than a small, seriously underfunded organization which had been largely displaced by organizations run by the local governments of various systems and planets. Even though Roger couldn't take full credit for what happened of StarCon, he still considered its downfall to be a victory for him (even if he and Beatrice still harbored some grudges against it).
Once Roger and Beatrice's ship arrived at the Ka'Blui System (where Stam and Davka were located), Beatrice spoke with representatives from each of the planets via the ship's telescreen. Though Roger was sitting in the adjoining cabin at the time and was unable to make out anything being said, he could occasionally hear an outraged tirade from the other side of the conversation. Eventually, Beatrice trudged into Roger's cabin with a haggard look on her face and collapsed into the chair next to the one he was sitting in. After a few minutes, she told Roger what she had told the two representatives.
"You're holding the meeting on Gritt?" he exclaimed in complete shock.
"Yes," Beatrice said. "Nobody else has tried to do that yet -- every conference they've held has been either on Stam, Davka, an adjacent ship or one of the neighboring planets. It's ironic, really -- even though this fighting is all over one dull little planet, nobody has never tried speaking with those two species on Gritt itself."
"What if someone did try that before and got himself killed?" Roger suggested.
"I searched through the records on the Ka'Blui system several times," Beatrice said firmly. "There's no report of anything like that ever happening here."
"What if it did and the report was never made?" Roger persisted.
Beatrice gazed sternly at Roger. A few tense seconds ticked by before she spoke again.
"You're not trying to get out of attending this conference with me, are you?" she asked.
"Get out of attending the conference? Me? No -- no way," Roger faltered. "I'm...I'm just worried about you."
Roger's last few words were just as serious as Beatrice's expression. He genuinely was worried about Beatrice, and had worried about her for many years. His concern for her persisted after they made the decision to settle down on Xenon as well as after their son was born, but in the years that followed, try as he might, Roger was unable to figure out exactly why.
"You shouldn't worry," Beatrice said, her words jolting Roger back into the present. "After everything I've managed to survive, I'm sure I'll be able to handle a fight breaking out at a peace conference without any problem."
Her look softened slightly, and the icy blue of her eyes seemed to melt somewhat.
"Besides," she said softly, "I'm sure you'd figure out a way to rescue us both if I did run into something I couldn't handle."
Roger felt disoriented for a moment. He rarely experienced someone expressing such confidence in him, and the sincere, affectionate way that statement had been expressed resulted in a mixture of positive emotions somewhat alien to him.
It took several more minutes of attempting to talk Beatrice into reconsidering her plans that he realized that arguing with her wasn't going to get him anywhere. He had learned from experience that it was a battle that he was sure to lose 99% of the time, and this argument was hardly an exception.
All he could do was hope that he would figure out a way to rescue them if something did go wrong...
The first meeting on Gritt was thankfully completely devoid of anything even remotely disastrous. There were a few heated disputes between the sides, but Beatrice was able to stop them from escalating into anything more destructive than fierce insults.
Since neither the Stamians or the Davkans had heard of Roger Wilco, Beatrice explained to them in great detail how her husband had saved his home world and the entire galaxy several times. She postulated that in an ideal situation, the number of lives he had saved would be enough to earn him not merely a planet of his own, but an entire solar system. However, he wouldn't have received ownership of that solar system just because he came from a particularly privileged species or because he himself was destined to inherit it: his own actions would be what made him worthy of such a thing. Roger's ability to endure such perilous predicaments for the greater good while accepting something as fleeting as fame as a reward was something that should be admired...and yes, perhaps even emulated.
In many cases, Beatrice continued, a job well done truly is its own reward, and though saving the galaxy like Roger might not be possible for everyone, working at making one's world a better place to live has the potential to bring greater happiness and satisfaction than the ownership of a small, barren planet ever could.
Though it was a very solid speech (and Roger was enjoying one of the best ego-strokings he had had in his life), it failed to convince any member of either species present to even consider changing their mind. Though this was hardly unexpected, it was still a source of great disappointment for Beatrice.
"I just don't understand it," she muttered several hours after the conference, pacing the floor of the ship's main cabin.
"Me neither," Roger said as he watched her from a nearby chair. "The way you were talking about me, I was sure they'd at least think about not fighting over that dust ball of a planet anymore..."
Beatrice stopped pacing and looked at him.
"You haven't been listening to me, have you?" she asked.
"Yes, I -- Well, that is, I was -- Um...no."
"I was talking about these weapons the Stamians and the Davkans have," Beatrice said. "These two planets are hardly the most technologically advanced world in this system -- in fact, I'd say the only planet less advanced then theirs is Gritt. Up until a few years ago, their level of technology been developing very, very slowly...then all of a sudden, it has skyrocketed. Stam and Davka are now in possession of machines that I've never even heard of before -- even the ship's computer doesn't have any entries on them!"
She pulled a hologram viewer out of her pocket and switched it on, revealing a hologram of a machine that looked like a squat drill supported by several struts. Several Stamians stood by it, the tallest one barely a fifth of the machine's height.
"They told me that this thing converts a planet's crust into a molten liquid," Beatrice explained, "Effectively cooking every living thing on the surface."
She pulled up another hologram, this one a huge sphere floating above a massive metal base with sides festooned with lights, buttons and switches.
"And this one somehow increases a planet's gravity until the inhabitants' own weight crushes them."
"Yikes," Roger muttered as Beatrice put the viewer away. "How are they making this kind of stuff?"
"I don't think they are," said Beatrice. "I think they're getting it from somewhere else."
"Did you try asking them about the weapons?"
"Of course I did -- And they all insisted that they were 'gifts from the stars'. I couldn't get anything less vague than that out of them, no matter how hard I tried."
She sighed heavily and stared out one of the ship's windows.
"And to make matters worse, these machines have no identifying marks of any kind," she continued. "No serial numbers, no brand names, no logos -- nothing. There's no way we can track down where those things came from."
Roger couldn't think of anything to say in response to this. Beatrice sighed, turned away from the window, and sat down in a nearby chair.
"I guess I'll just have to keep talking with them," she said.
"Do you want me to come with you again?" Roger asked.
"Is Gritt the most boring planet in this system?" Beatrice replied with a wry smile.
The next meeting on Gritt took place in the same large plastic tent that had been set up on Gritt's rocky surface the previous day. The inside was spacious enough to accommodate a dais, a podium, and several dozen chairs. Though the tent did an excellent job at shielding those inside it from the sharp, stinging winds of Gritt, the considerably hotter day made the tent a considerably uncomfortable place to have a peace conference. Many of the Stamians and Davkans present at the meeting seemed slightly more agitated and fidgety than they had been before, and Beatrice or Roger weren't exactly in the best of moods either.
This time, Beatrice tried to appeal to the two species' rational sides, asking them what either side could gain by attaining Gritt, and how both sides' attempts to claim Gritt for themselves always led to more death and suffering for both Stam and Davka. And if one side managed to not only obtain Gritt but completely wipe out everyone on the opposing side, she postulated, would their desire for this world truly be satiated? Members of intelligent species seldom remain satisfied with their lot in life, and constantly strive for greater things. Consequently, Beatrice explained it was highly likely that the satisfaction of conquering Gritt wouldn't last for very long. And what would the victors do then? Leave Gritt and return to their home world, so that all those on the opposing side died for nothing? Set their sites on another planet in the Ka'Blui system?
The muggy interior of the tent as well as Beatrice's speech made Roger grow increasingly tired. He was just starting to nod off when a sudden rumbling jolted him awake. The entire tent as well as the ground beneath it was shaking violently. The Stamians and the Davkans were out of their seats, glancing from side to side in sheer terror, a look shared by Beatrice as well.
Suddenly one of the Stamians (a short, large-headed alien with bluish-green skin) leapt up onto the dais. He drew a strange, box-shaped machine out of the robe-like garment he was wearing and held it in the air, a finger poised over one of its many buttons.
"This is a sign!" he bellowed. "A sign that neither you tall ones nor those filthy Davkans are welcome on this world -- this world that is destined to be ours!"
"Lies!" came another voice from the other side of the tent. "Lies, all of it!"
It was a Davkan saying these words. The short, large-headed alien with greenish-blue skin leapt onto the side of the dais opposite the Stamian and withdrew a device identical to the Stamian's from the folds of his clothing. The Stamian's large eyebrows bristled in anger.
"How dare you plunder the stars' gifts to Stam!" he growled. "You shall be the first to die, Davkan scum!"
"Again, you lie!" the Davkan said. "The stars left this device on Davka! It is ours -- just as Gritt will be once we have rid this world of you!"
"What's going on?" Roger yelled. The Stamian turned and glared at him spitefully.
"When I activate this machine," he growled, "Every living thing within 500 klurrs save for the people of Stam will be annihilated."
"You'll never have the chance to do it," the Davkan broke in, "For my machine will wipe out everyone but my people!"
The rumbling was growing much more violent now. Beatrice fell from her place at the podium, landing on the floor of the dais. Roger crawled over to her on his hands and knees. Beatrice's face was blank with shock. She was so terrified that she couldn't even scream. Roger tried desperately to come up with an idea that would get him and Beatrice out of this horrible situation, but no ideas came. The Stamian stared coldly down at the two humans.
"Gritt has voiced its disapproval at your attempts to take it from us," the Stamian snarled. "Unless you and all the wretched Davkans here leave this planet -- "
"No!" the Davkan barked. "You Stamians are the ones who must leave!"
The Stamian waved the device in his hand in his rival's direction.
"Either you get off our planet or I press the button," he growled.
"Well," the Davkan said, raising his own device, "It seems that you leave me no choice, Stamian."
As badly as the room was shaking, Roger could just make out the greenish-blue finger press the largest button on the small machine. There was a howl of fury from the Stamian, and Roger spun his head around just in time to see the bluish-green alien press the same button on his machine.
What happened next took only a few nanoseconds to occur, though for Roger it seemed like hours. From each machine came a translucent sphere of blinding blue light crisscrossed by bolts of electricity. The spheres expanded rapidly, engulfing not only the two aliens holding the machines, but everyone else in the small tent. The lights then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared, and the machines that had created them dropped to the floor -- for the two aliens that had been holding them were both gone...and so was everyone else that had been inside the tent: the Stamians, the Davkans, Roger and Beatrice.
The tremors continued to intensify until the entire planet had become a turbulent, shuddering conglomeration of rock and magma. Then, barely five minutes after the peace conference's attendants had vanished, the planet Gritt exploded. Some of the inhabitants of Stam and Davka looked back on this event as a horrifying sight, while others found it to be a tragic, yet strangely dazzling experience. However, most individuals on the two planets were considerably angry, since the explosion had caused some serious blackouts in their communication network, and many of them had had to go several days without any amusing videos to entertain themselves with.
"So you really are dead," RJ said in a trembling voice. "We all thought you were killed in that explosion...but it was really those crazies who vaporized you..."
"For the last time, RJ, we're not dead," Beatrice told her son. "Your father and I may have had some close brushes with death over the past few years, but we've never actually gotten 'acquainted' with it."
RJ stared in mute disbelief at his mother. He was sitting in one of the purple ship's passenger seats while Beatrice herself was sitting on the floor of the ship, her legs hanging out the still-open hatchway. Roger stood nearby, trying to determine when would be safe for him to reenter the conversation.
"But if you didn't die when those electric things hit you...what happened?" RJ asked. "Where were you these last few years?"
Beatrice's face became pensive. She looked over her shoulder at Roger, who examined what looked like an impractically large watch strapped to his wrist, then looked back at Beatrice and nodded.
"Might as well tell him everything," he shrugged, walking toward the ship and leaning against the gleaming purple exterior. "It's not like we don't have the time."
The first thing Roger became aware of was sand -- hot, coarse sand. This wasn't surprising at all, since Gritt was covered in sand, but somehow this sand felt different. He lifted his face out of the grainy nest it had planted itself in and started brushing the miniscule flecks of rock out of his eyes.
"Roger..." a soft voice next to him moaned.
Beatrice! She was alive!
As soon as Roger had scraped enough of the sand away from his face, he turned in the direction of the voice to see Beatrice sprawled on the ground beside him. She looked disoriented and more than a little shell-shocked...but she was alive.
Emotion overwhelming him, Roger scrambled over to her and threw his arms around her, holding her close to him. Fortunately for him, Beatrice was too weary to push him back as she might have done under normal conditions. However, she wasn't too weary to ask him what the hell he was doing.
"It's okay," Roger said. "It's going to be okay -- it's over now. I'm okay, you're okay...everything's okay..."
As Beatrice tried to figure out just what had come over her husband, something in the distance caught her eye. As she focused on the something, she suddenly realized what (or, in this case, who) it was, and her confusion immediately grew even greater.
"Um...Roger..." she said slowly. "Who is that?"
"It'll be okay," Roger said, still rocking her gently, his face buried in her hair. "It'll all be okay..."
"Roger!" Beatrice hissed. "Look!"
This time, the urgency in his wife's voice made Roger pause and do what she had demanded. Examining his surroundings, he realized that there was much more to their new location besides sand: they were lying between two rows of parked spacecraft, with many more rows disappearing into the distance. It was a parking lot -- but a parking lot for what?
The answer to that question was a building just a few hundred yards to the couple's right. It was, large, domed, and had a fairly nondescript exterior. The only visible opening into the structure was a large doorway with a blue neon sign reading "BAR" affixed to the wall above it.
The hairs on the back of Roger's neck stood on end. He knew this place. He had been here before, many years ago. However, the shock he was currently feeling was nothing compared to what he felt when he saw what had originally caught Beatrice's attention: a skinny male human with dark blond hair, wearing a grey uniform with purple sleeves, slowly walking towards the bar's entrance with an unsteady gait and a completely bewildered expression on his face.
"Who is that?" Beatrice repeated, albeit with differently-placed emphasis.
"That's...that's me." Roger said in a high, tremulous whisper.
Beatrice squinted quizzically at the bewildered human in the distance.
"Why does your hair look like that?" she asked.
Roger didn't answer. As he watched his other self walk into the bar, a memory that had remained faded, distant and hazy for so many years suddenly came rushing back to him: the memory of that talk with his future son, Roger Junior, in Space Quest XII. What his son said about the Xenon Supercomputer, how he had spoken of Beatrice in the past tense, how he had implied that Roger didn't exist in Space Quest XII...Roger remembered it all as clearly as if it had just happened -- and suddenly felt very faint.
"This was right after he sent me back," he whispered to himself. "I spent a few hours in that bar, then I went back outside and -- "
"Roger, what is going on?" Beatrice demanded. "Why did we just see you over there? And what is this place?"
"This...this is the planet Magmetheus," Roger said without any tone or inflection. "I stopped here for a few drinks years ago. I have no idea how we got here...but I think...I think it's a very good idea if we -- "
Beatrice suddenly gasped. She was looking over her shoulder, the exact opposite direction she would have to look in order to see the bar. Roger turned to look in that same direction, and this time his shock was so great that he dropped Beatrice.
One of the nearby ships was a bulky, yellow monstrosity perched on four equally bulky legs. Protruding out from behind the foot of one of these legs was another pair of legs -- however, these legs were much smaller, slimmer, and looked like they belonged to a humanoid.
Beatrice rose to her feet and cautiously made her way towards the ship. After taking one last look at the bar's entrance, Roger got up and followed her. The body the legs were (thankfully) still attached to was sprawled on the ground. It was undeniably the body of a male human, and it looked very much as if it had fallen there. There was a dark, sticky, red puddle beneath it, and though the visor on its helmet made its features difficult to make out, the frozen expression of pain on its face was impossible to overlook.
"Woah...you think he's okay?" Roger asked.
Beatrice knelt down and touched two fingers to the man's throat. And after a few seconds, she shook her head.
"He's dead, all right...and who knows what could have killed him, in a place like this..."
"Junior!" Roger suddenly yelped.
Beatrice stared at Roger, then at the dead man, then at Roger again.
"Roger, what are you talking about? This isn't our son."
Roger took a closer look at the body, and found that Beatrice was right: wasn't Roger Junior's body, but it was wearing the same dull green and brown outfit that Junior had worn when Roger had first met him. Roger hadn't recognized the uniform immediately, but a few seconds of staring at it had jogged his memory again.
He knelt down alongside Beatrice and gingerly began to search the man's body. Before Beatrice could say anything, Roger had extracted a small, white booklet from one of the man's pockets. Printed on the cover were the words "User Manual", overlaying a pale gray diagram of a very familiar-looking device.
It took only a few seconds for Roger to remember where he had seen that device before: it was the gun that Junior had used to send him through time -- this was the user manual for that gun!
He opened the manual, only to find the text and diagrams within it completely incomprehensible. This wasn't because the language or terminology was too complex for him to understand, however: despite the manual being created inside the Xenon Supercomputer, for some inexplicable reason it had been originally written in Sarien, then translated into Rigellian, Ferbangi and then back into Sarien again before finally being translated into basic Xenonian. The result was an insane jumble of words that even the most powerful pocket translator would have run away from, screaming in horror. The text looked as if it might have been understandable at one time, but the only purpose it served now was decorating the manual's pages. Still, if Roger could make some sense out of the manual's diagrams, perhaps he could use that gun to...
Wait a minute...
"The gun...where is it?" Roger wondered out loud.
Beatrice stared at him in disbelief for what had to be the eleventh time since they had arrived on Magmetheus.
"What?" she asked.
"The gun," Roger repeated, getting to his feet and cramming the manual into his pocket. "This guy had it with him the last time I saw him...unless the Sequel Police took it, it's got to be around here somewhere..."
Roger tried to replay the scenario in his head: he and Junior had run one way while Junior's buddy had tried to split up the two Sequel Policemen that had almost killed Roger outside the bar. Junior's buddy must have run this way, only to get gunned down by one or both of the Sequel Policemen, who had then come after Roger and Junior. So if he had been running when he dropped his gun, the gun would have ended up...
"There!" Roger said, running towards a sleek, blue skimmer parked nearby. The gun was lying in the sand just in front of it. Roger picked up the strange device and examined it. It looked just like the one that Junior had used...except this one looked as if it had either been run over or stepped on by an Andorian Megaped. Its casing was badly cracked and dented. There was a keypad and an LCD screen on the side of the gun, but while both were undamaged, the screen was completely dark. It looked as if the gun was completely useless for anything except beating someone over the head with.
"Darn," Roger said, his hopes just as crushed as the gun was.
Beatrice walked up behind him, her footsteps slow and heavy.
"Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on or am I going to have to make you tell me?" she said through clenched teeth.
"I don't know what's going on," Roger cried. "I mean...I sort of know what's going on, but I have no idea how we got here, or what happened on Gritt, or how we're going to get back home, or...or..."
Roger paused. His surroundings suddenly felt strangely quiet, and time itself seemed to have slowed to a crawl. His fear and anxiety dissipated and his mind became almost completely clear. This serenity only lasted briefly before it was replaced by a peculiar sense of urgency. It screamed at him to get as far away from his current location as possible, and quickly. Roger didn't know what had trigged this bizarre sensation, but what he did know was that he and Beatrice needed to leave Magmetheus...and soon.
"We need to leave Magmetheus," he told Beatrice firmly, "And soon."
"Leave?" Beatrice cried. "But..."
"Don't worry," Roger said. "I'll tell you everything...I promise. But right now, we've got to move."
Several hours later, Roger and Beatrice landed on Utefu, a tiny, barren world at the edge of the solar system whose surface was covered almost entirely by sharp, jagged rock. It was not a place suited for most life forms; if the absence of an atmosphere or the extreme cold didn't prove fatal to the misguided soul who decided to take a walk on it without any protective clothing, he or she would most likely become shredded like mozzarella by the planet's rough terrain.
The only inhabitable parts of Utefu were a spaceport and the Hilbert Hotel. This hotel was just one of a large chain of hotels owned by Don Hilbert -- an eccentric quadrillionaire best known for his ground-breaking mathematical discoveries as well as his somewhat disturbing obsession with monkeys. It was rumored that his hotels could accommodate a virtually endless number of guests, but just how that was possible was a topic of constant debate.
Due to the bizarre nature of this hotel, Roger was easily able to get a room for both him and Beatrice despite lacking a reservation. The rooms were surprisingly cheap, a welcome surprise to Roger, especially after the cost of the flight from Magmetheus had taken such a large chunk out of the meager amount of cash he and Beatrice still had with them.
Roger informed the receptionist that he and his wife were "Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Trace," and after answering a few other basic questions, the receptionist handed Roger a keycard, told him where the elevators were and wished him and Beatrice a pleasant stay.
It took about thirty minutes for Roger and Beatrice to locate their room (Room 3x1023). By this time, Beatrice was growing very irritated, and Roger, who had remained mysteriously quiet, tranquil, and focused throughout their entire trip, was starting to return to his normal mental state -- he was also growing very nervous. As soon as he and Beatrice had entered their room, Beatrice folded her arms and glared daggers at him, not saying a word.
Every nerve in Roger's body tingled with anxiety. Remembering his encounter with the future had shaken him up pretty badly, but why did Beatrice have to know about it as well? Why had he promised to tell her everything back on Magmetheus? Why couldn't he have made up a story or just pretended that he had no idea what was going on?
Roger's anger with himself slowly faded into a sense of complete futility. He was frazzled, he was tired, and his back was killing him. He suddenly didn't care whether telling Beatrice about the future of Xenon caused a serious time paradox that erased one or both of them from existence. He had made a promise to Beatrice, and if that was going to be the last promise he ever made in his life, then damn it, he was going to keep that promise.
"Beatrice, I...I have something to tell you. A lot of things, actually."
"You'd better sit down first," Roger said, gesturing to one of the beds (his calmer, smarter self had had the foresight to order a room with two single beds instead of one double bed).
Beatrice walked over to one of the beds and sat down, never taking her eyes off of Roger as she did so. Roger sat down next to her.
All right...this is it. You're going to tell Beatrice the truth...about her, about you, about Junior...everything.
Easy, now...stay calm...don't screw this up...
"I...I was...that is, I will..."
Spit it out!
"Beatrice, before I first met you, I was on Magmetheus and Junior came there from the future and then sent me into the future. He was nineteen when I met him and he told me that the Xenon Supercomputer had been taken over by the mind of Sludge Vohaul and nearly destroyed the planet..."
"...and Junior had to go back in time to get me because something had happened to me at that point in time and I was the only one who could stop Vohaul again..."
"...and he also said that something had happened to you and that I wouldn't remember most of this once I returned to my own time and -- "
Roger doubled over, his need to reveal everything to Beatrice overwhelmed by his need for oxygen. After hyperventilating for several seconds, he nervously glanced up at her -- it was the first time he had made eye contact with her during his entire rant. Beatrice opened her mouth to speak, but before she could utter a word, Roger had jumped up from the bed and made a break for the only place in the hotel room where he felt he would be safe: the closet. Beatrice stared in the direction he had gone, barely able to even think.
Several hours later, Roger emerged from the closet. He knew that hiding from Beatrice forever was impossible, and he also desperately needed to use the bathroom. After doing what had to be done, he slowly walked back to the two beds and collapsed on the one closest to the door.
Beatrice was still sitting on the other bed. She looked at Roger, feeling confused, deceived, afraid...and yes, a little angry. It took several minutes for her to work out just what she ought to say to Roger, an when she finally spoke, her words had a distant, detached quality to them, as if she were a person in a dream Roger was having. Roger answered every question she asked him: Yes, their son was going to bring Roger's past self into the future to save Xenon; yes, Xenon was a horrible mess when Roger was there; and no, he hadn't completely remembered any of this until seeing his past self and the body of Junior's buddy had suddenly brought those hazy memories into sharp focus.
"Until just a few hours ago, all I could really remember was you and Junior," Roger explained. "I remembered him mentioning you being my wife and the picture of you that he showed me, but I didn't remember how he'd talked about you in the past tense..."
Roger sighed heavily.
"Well...I guess I almost remembered," he said dully. "That must have been why I kept changing the subject whenever you brought up the idea of us getting married...something about that just seemed so wrong..."
Roger paused, reflecting on his relationship with Beatrice. Despite the romance between them that had eventually developed after several false starts, unexpected turns and rough patches in both of their lives, Roger had still become nervous whenever Beatrice brought up the possibility of marriage. Though Beatrice initially brushed off his reluctance as a typical male reaction to the idea, Roger couldn't help but think that there was some deeper reason for the way he felt.
For several years, he had continued to shy away from the marriage prospect whenever it entered the conversation, and his life remained relatively uneventful until that one night he and Beatrice had spent at the old bar on the planet Kerona. Roger had no idea what the drink he wound up was, but it was definitely not the Keronian Ale that he'd ordered.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up next to Beatrice in an unfamiliar hotel room. According to what Beatrice told him, he had gotten down on one knee and proposed to her right there in the bar, and she was so moved by his sudden change of character that she said "yes" immediately. They were married just a few days later on one of the many picturesque moons of the planet Pantagama and were now a week or so into their honeymoon.
Roger was sure that Beatrice was playing an elaborate practical joke on him until she showed him a holodisk with a picture of her that had been taken of her during their wedding. The picture showed Beatrice from the waist up, an elaborate crown of some sort atop her head, her golden hair framing her perfect face, her body clad in some sort of traditional style of dress that Roger wasn't familiar with...
It was the same picture that Junior had showed Roger in the future.
"...but it happened anyway," Roger said sadly. "I tried to change things, Bea...but I couldn't."
He slumped back on the bed, both mentally and physically drained. Beatrice stared at the floor, her hands clasped together.
"So..." she said quietly without much emotion, "Any day now, the Vohaul virus is going to attack the Supercomputer...then couple of years later, our son is going to go back in time to get you to save Xenon..."
She paused. She looked at Roger, her brow furrowed.
"Wait a minute...if that was you we saw on Magmetheus, and you say RJ returned you there just a few hours after he sent you into the future..."
Roger continued to stare blankly at the ceiling.
"Then we're...in the past?" Beatrice asked.
Roger nodded. Beatrice's eyes widened and her voice grew a little more worried.
"How are we going to get back to our time, Roger?"
Roger turned his head to look at Beatrice. He tried to think of an answer, and none of the ones he could come up with seemed any good.
"I don't know," he confessed sadly. He returned his gaze to the ceiling, studying the various stains and cracks that decorated it. "I just don't know."
For several seconds there was a thick silence, broken only by the distant rumble of one of the hotel's innumerable ice machines. Then Beatrice noticed the strange gun lying near the foot of Roger's bed, where he had absently dropped it when he and Beatrice first entered the room.
"What's the story with that thing?" Beatrice said, pointing at the device.
Roger forced himself upright, picked up the gun and laid it across his knees.
"This is the same kind of gun Junior used to send me through time," he said. "That dead guy was with Junior when I first saw him. I thought that I might be able to use that guy's gun to bring us back to our time, but..."
He looked at the mangled device and sighed again.
"Can I take a look at it?" Beatrice queried.
"All right...but be careful."
Roger passed Beatrice the gun. Beatrice held it gently, turning it slowly and examining its screen and keypad.
"You don't know how this thing works, do you?" she asked.
"Not really...all I know is that it's broken. The screen wouldn't be like that if it weren't broken."
"Hmm...what if I pressed this?" Beatrice wondered out loud, reaching for a button on the keypad. Before Roger could protest, Beatrice had pressed it and the screen had flickered on with a high-pitched whine. Roger leapt back as if the gun had bitten him.
"It's -- it's not broken," he gasped.
Beatrice looked at the glowing red letters that had appeared on the screen. There were three lines of text, one beginning with "CURR", one beginning with "DEST" and one beginning with "LAST". LAST each consisted of a static row of text and numbers, but the numbers at the end of the CURR row were slowly changing, and DEST (aside from the word itself) consisted of nothing but zeroes.
"What do those things mean?" Roger asked.
"Well," Beatrice said after a moment's thought, "If this gun is supposed to send people through time, it should ideally show the user when and where he's going and where he is now. CURR must mean 'current time', DEST must mean 'destination time', and LAST must be the last time the user departed from.
"Although," she said, staring dubiously at the screen, "I don't understand this timekeeping system this thing is using."
She pointed at the CURR line. It read "SQV||UTEFU||-01:210:08:16:27."
"I mean, we are on Utefu, but what's on that line doesn't make sense. What's 'SQV?'"
"It means...Space Quest V." Roger said quietly.
"The name isn't important. It's the name of a time sector."
"Oh," Beatrice said, satisfied by Roger's answer but still a little puzzled. She glanced at the CURR line again. It now read "SQV||UTEFU||-01:210:08:15:52."
"Wait a minute...why is this clock counting down?" she asked. "And why is there a minus sign in front of it?"
Roger had to think about this for a little while.
"The Space Quest IV time sector ended just a few hours ago," he eventually said, "But the Space Quest V sector hasn't begun yet. We're in between the two sectors right now."
"So when that clock reaches zero, we'll be in the next one," Beatrice concluded.
Her glance dropped to the two other lines on the LCD screen.
"So this is the last spot that man departed from," she said, pointing to LAST. This line read "SQXII||XENON||00:02:12:16:00."
"Space Quest XII," she reflected. After a moment of contemplation, she turned to Roger.
"Do you have any idea what sector we were in when we got shot back here?"
"I think...I think it was close to the end of Space Quest IX," Roger surmised. He wasn't entirely sure how he came to that conclusion, but ever since his time-traveling experience in Space Quest IV, he had developed an uncanny awareness of where he was chronologically situated in regards to the various Space Quest time sectors.
"Space Quest IX..." Beatrice said slowly. "And we're in between Space Quest IV and V."
"Looks like we've got a long wait ahead of us," he mumbled.
Beatrice's face suddenly grew sour.
"A long wait?" she repeated. "Roger, I'm not going to just sit on my thumbs and wait until we hit Space Quest IX...again."
"But Bea, what else can we do? I mean, that gun may not even work..."
"I turned it on," Beatrice countered. "That seems like a good sign that it's working."
"But we don't even know how to use it," Roger protested. "And that user manual I found is useless!"
"I guess we're only going to figure out how it works by experimenting, then," Beatrice snapped. Before Roger could protest, she had entered "SQIX||XENON||00:00:00:05:00" into the gun's DEST field. She then pointed the ungainly thing at the nearest wall and squeezed the trigger.
There was a brief whirring sound that quickly choked and died. There was no blinding flash of light and no tear in the fabric of space-time appearing on the hotel wall. The gun had proven itself quite capable of telling the current time and seeing where and when Junior's buddy's last departure point was, but for actual time travel, it had just turned out to be utterly useless.
Beatrice let the gun fall onto her lap, stared blankly at the wall for a moment and buried her face in her hands. Roger thought of saying something to comfort her, but was unable to come up with anything that sounded genuinely reassuring. What he had said earlier seemed to be ringing truer than ever: it seemed like he and Beatrice were in for a very long wait...
After a few drinks at the Hilbert's lounge (The Infinite Monkey, which not too surprisingly used bananas in nearly every single concoction they served), both Roger and Beatrice had grown calmer and more accepting of their predicament. They talked about where they should go and what they should do, and whether they should try splitting up or staying together during their search for a way back to their own time. To Roger's astonishment, Beatrice announced that she would be staying with him during their odyssey.
"But...but why?" he eventually managed.
"You've gotten out of scrapes much worse than this," Beatrice said. "If there's anyone in this galaxy who can figure out problems as insoluble as this, it's you -- and I think I'd be much safer with you than without you. Call it a crazy hunch, call it feminine intuition, call it a wild guess...I just feel like you're a living good luck charm -- and as long as we're out of our element like this, I want to hang onto you."
She leaned across the table she and Roger were sitting at and spoke to him in a much lower voice:
"Besides...we are married -- I know we may not have seen too much of each other over the years, but I'd say now is a time where we definitely should stick together."
Roger looked into her eyes, then looked out the window at the cold void of space that hung above the spiky surface of Utefu. Despite Beatrice's promise to stay by his side, he suddenly felt more alone and helpless than he had felt in years.
The first item on Beatrice and Roger's agenda was the matter of returning to the time sector they had been expelled from. Though it seemed clear that time travel wouldn't be discovered on Xenon for decades, whether it had already been discovered elsewhere in the galaxy was something that Roger and Beatrice had to find out. Exactly which time and place they were safest traveling to was a problem that could wait for now.
The second and more important item was the matter of money -- neither of them had had any credit cards on them at the time of their relocation, and what little cash they had possessed had been somewhat depleted from their journey to Utefu.
Roger was still determined to put as big of a gap between his present self and his past self ("Roger Prime," he decided to call him) as possible. Fortunately, thanks to a couple of extremely unlucky slip-ups on someone else's part, Roger was able to get a hold of two one-way tickets for a trip through the nearby Lo'Li Wormhole, an interstellar gateway which enabled travelers to get from one side of the galaxy to the other in just a few hours.
"Roger...why didn't you give that clerk at the ticket desk our real names?" Beatrice whispered as they were sitting in the Lo'Li Wormhole's waiting area.
"Because there are now two of me in this time, Beatrice," Roger explained. "Two of you, too. It just seems a lot safer if we don't use our real names as long as we're in the past."
Beatrice mulled this information over for a moment.
"Of course...because of time paradoxes," she eventually said.
"Huh?" Roger asked, suddenly confused.
"You gave the clerk at the ticket desk and that receptionist back at the Hilbert Hotel fake names so we wouldn't be recognized as our younger selves and potentially cause a time paradox...and that must have been why you acted the way you did back on Magmetheus, too."
Roger paused, his confusion rapidly rising. What had happened to him on Magmetheus? He tried to remember what had been going through his head when he made up his mind to leave that planet, but everything from that time to the time he and Beatrice entered their hotel room was little more than a hazy blur.
"You know...I'm honestly don't know what happened to me," he admitted. "I just felt...weird for a while."
Beatrice smiled and shook her head.
"You always have been sort of a man of mystery," she said bemusedly. She suddenly squeezed his hand so tightly that for a moment, Roger wasn't sure whether it was a gesture of affection or aggression.
"But it looks like you got lucky again," she whispered. "In fact, come to think of it, we both did, considering what happened on Gritt."
"I guess," Roger said. "But what happened on Gritt? If those things were supposed to kill us, how the heck did we end up on Magmetheus in Space Quest IV?"
"I'm the one who should be asking you that question," Beatrice laughed. "You've had much more experience with strange phenomena than I have."
A blaring loudspeaker announcing the 5492 Lo'Li departure put an end to their conversation. Roger and Beatrice gathered their few possessions and made their way to the Decontamination Queue. As Beatrice stood in line behind Roger, she glanced at the time gun he was carrying in a discarded guitron case slung across his shoulder. She was still astounded by how easily he had been able to convince the security personnel that the "gun" was nothing more than an oversized hairdryer.
The other end of the Lo'Li Wormhole was located near the fifth planet in the Zanshin System. After getting off the shuttle that had taken them through the wormhole, Beatrice studied one of the spaceport's databases, trying to locate a nearby planet that was habitable, wasn't too expensive to reach, and most importantly, had any forms of employment that would provide them with a steady source of income. As uncanny as Roger's luck tended to be, Beatrice explained, they couldn't count on it to get them out of every difficult situation they stumbled into -- especially when money was involved.
Though the prospect of finding a job on an alien world seemed to worry Beatrice considerably, Roger wasn't concerned about the matter that much at all. After all, all civilizations had a tendency to create messes of various quantities and qualities, and there was always a need for someone to clean up those messes.
The world they eventually decided on was the conveniently close Zanshin II, a planet whose inhabitants -- a short, squat race of beings who called themselves the Muu -- were so peaceful, passive and downright laid-back that it seemed remarkable that their world hadn't been conquered and exploited by a more aggressive race centuries ago. In actuality, Zanshin II actually had been invaded, and the Muu, not wishing to cause any loss of life on either their side or their conquerors' side, had surrendered immediately. This bizarre reaction made the leader of the invading army immediately grow suspicious, and his suspicion grew greater as the Muu continued to pander to his troops' wishes. The complete lack of any sort of resistance from the race they had conquered as well as the boredom that was bound to grow after spending several weeks among a race of complete pacifists was what eventually drove most of the troops to demand their captain to leave Zanshin II. The captain reluctantly agreed to their requests, and the incident on Zanshin II was never spoken of among his people again.
However, in the centuries that followed, many more invading armies came to Zanshin II, and the same thing had happened each and every time: the complete lack of any aggression or resistance in the Muu eventually repelled every hostile alien race bent on taking Zanshin II for themselves. Ironically, Zanshin II eventually became a popular destination for beings yearning for a quiet, peaceful place to stay -- either to escape the hectic state of their own worlds, attempt to reach a higher state of spirituality, or to just simply observe a culture whose primary survival skill seemed to be simply not giving a damn.
Still, it came as no surprise that even the most peace-loving individuals got fed up and left Zanshin II within just a few of the planet's months. Some of the only permanent non-native residents of Zanshin II were the Tekhemians, bands of techies who lived in small groups, traveled from town to town and helped tourists with any mechanical or technological problems they had in exchange for money or food. Since the Muu were completely ambivalent regarding technology, there was rarely a day when a group of Tekhemians didn't have someone running up to them begging them to get his ship's computer working again or reprogram a malfunctioning robot.
Roger and Beatrice were able to locate a cheap hotel in the nearby Acclimatization Center, a place where non-natives could rest while they grew accustomed to Zanshin II's climate, atmosphere and gravity. The hotel was actually an ancient military cargo ship that had crashed on the planet during an earlier invasion. A few centuries later, some enterprising architects visiting the planet discovered the wreck and decided to convert it into a livable building -- a daunting task, but not nearly as costly and labor-intensive as demolishing the vessel would have been. However, though the architects did succeed in their project, the quality of their work definitely left something to be desired: many of the hotel's rooms (including the one Roger and Beatrice wound up in) had a noticeable slant to their floors.
Each room in the hotel also came with an Essentials Dispenser -- a machine designed to replicate whatever items an off-world tourist might have forgotten to pack on his trip to Zanshin II. The rooms came equipped with small databases as well, which contained nearly everything a visitor would wish to know about Zanshin II. This was where Beatrice learned about the planet's unusual history, which she narrated to Roger as he sat on the corner of the room's single bed, his head still spinning from the day's events.
"...so be sure to only drink from these canisters I got from the Essentials Dispenser, roger."
"Huh?" Roger asked, only now realizing that Beatrice had been talking to him. Beatrice glanced over her shoulder at him, looking slightly annoyed.
"I said don't drink the water here," she said. "Don't drink anything but what I've gotten out of the Essentials Dispenser."
Beatrice sighed exasperatedly as she turned back to the database.
"The entry isn't very clear -- Zanshin II hasn't been studied that much, but apparently its water produces different effects with various species. None of the effects are lethal...but none of them are very nice, either."
She stared at the screen for another minute, then turned off the database, got up from her chair and stretched.
"But we can worry about that tomorrow. Right now, I need some sleep."
Roger glanced at the bed he was sitting on.
"Uh...I can sleep on the couch if you want..."
Beatrice rolled her eyes, then smiled.
"I think there's enough room for both of us in here," she said as she slipped under the covers.
You can't go back.
Roger was puzzled. He was certain that he was still sleeping and that that voice wasn't Beatrice's...but where was it coming from?
You can't go back...not yet.
There it was again. Was it a dream? He wasn't sure if he'd ever had a dream with sound but no pictures.
Now it was starting to get really annoying. Roger mentally voiced the first thought that came into his head:
Silence. Thick, heavy silence. The voice never returned, not even when Roger asked it to. Finally, fatigue began to set in again and he sank into a deep sleep that remained undisturbed for the rest of the night.
"Roger...I just realized something," Beatrice said the following morning.
Something in her tone of voice made it seem like something was horribly wrong. Roger stopped eating his rehydrated breakfast ration looked up at her.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's us," Beatrice said. "Us and...the other us."
When Roger didn't respond, Beatrice continued:
"Remember how you said there are two of us and that using fake names should help prevent possible time paradoxes?"
"Well, what about our faces?" Beatrice said. "If someone from our neck of the galaxy recognized us, or realized that there are two Roger Wilcos and two Beatrice Wankmeisters running around..."
Roger shot a frightened glance at the door of their apartment, as if he had just heard someone banging on it. This was bad, he realized. Very bad. Beatrice's face probably wasn't as well-known as his, but she was still a high-ranking official, and as far from Xenon and Quadrant G6 as they were, they simply couldn't risk being recognized. Being recognized would leave the door wide open for a time paradox -- and time paradoxes were bad.
"Disguises..." Roger said quietly. "We need disguises."
"Of course we do," Beatrice said, "But disguises made out of what?"
Roger slowly walked to the window, parted the blinds a few centimeters and peered through the tiny opening. Outside he could see the dusty road, where a creature obviously not native to Zanshin II was conversing with a trio of Tekhemians. The attire of the Tekhemians was quite varied, but each outfit could easily be broken down into two components: a long-sleeved robe and a large headdress -- the sort of clothing that a desert nomad of early Terra would have worn.
Roger closed the blinds and glanced around the apartment several times before noticing the large pillows at the head of the bed. Leaving the flimsy dining table, he walked over to the bed and removed the pillowcase that encased the pillow, then removed the sheet form the bed. He draped the sheet around his body, then tied the pillowcase around his head so that his hair was completely covered and his features were shaded. He turned triumphantly towards Beatrice, who looked at handiwork and sighed, staring at the floor and shaking her head slowly.
"That's not going to work," she mumbled. "I can still see your face -- and it would take just one strong gust of wind to take that thing off."
"It's a good thing it's not windy today, then," Roger replied.
Beatrice looked up at him.
"What do you mean?" she asked, puzzled.
"I'm going out to find us some disguises," Roger said.
Roger's search took up most of the long Zanshin II day. He walked with his head bowed, trying his best to remain unnoticed. Fortunately, the only people who saw through his Tekhemian disguise were actual Tekhemians, and the only thing they did in response to his disguise was to shake their heads bemusedly or, in the case of the one telepathic Tekhemian he passed, snarkily transmit the statement "Poser." into his mind. Lacking any sort of money or items with which to bargain with, he searched various alleys and dumpsters trying to find something that could be used to make more effective disguises for Beatrice and himself: some pigment to color their skin and hair, some string to make some wigs out of, some rags that could be sewn into a convincing costume...any of these things would have been enough, but Roger failed to find any of them.
As the day progressed, he found it harder and harder to remain optimistic about his search. Even if he could find any of those things, there was always the danger of the pigment getting washed off, their wigs falling off or their costumes getting lost. Still, there had to be some way he and Beatrice could hide themselves...
As the sun began to grow low in the sky, Roger found himself in a section of the city that was populated almost entirely by the Muu. Their rounded huts with the weighted curtains that covered their doorways lined the meandering streets, and the Muu themselves were leisurely ambling amongst their dwellings, some of them greeting Roger warmly as he walked past them. Every now and then, Roger passed a shop of some kind. Most of the shops seemed to be selling various native foods, while others were selling furniture, musical instruments or tools. However, one shop caught Roger's eye since it -- unlike all the others -- had a sign hanging over its door, with the word "Everything Else" printed on it in several languages. Unsure what to make of this name and deciding that he had nothing better to do at this point, Roger entered the shop.
As he pushed aside the weighted curtains, he found himself in a small, dimly-lit room packed with a vast variety of items. No sooner had Roger closed the curtains behind him than he heard a quiet, yet eager voice calling to him from a vaguely counter-shaped form near the other side of the room.
"Salutations and welcome to my establishment, friend! I am certain that you will find my selection of merchandise quite fascinating, so please feel free to browse -- and if you should have any queries, I shall be sure to answer them with the greatest of alacrity!"
"Ah...thanks," Roger said. As his eyes became used to the gloom, he could see a Muu perched behind what was undeniably a counter. He then started taking in the rest of the store. Most of the things on display seemed completely unrecognizable at first, but upon closer examination, he started noticing crude carvings, petite sculptures, plastic figurines, shabby clothing, useless electronics, ratty toys and a whole slew of novelty items. It soon became quite clear that he had wandered into a store whose sole purpose was to sell worthless merchandise to gullible tourists. It seemed that stores like this eventually cropped up in the cities of every civilization.
"I must say, it is quite enjoyable to be visited by an off-worlder," the Muu shopkeeper said. "There is generally quite a paucity of them in this particular bailiwick."
Roger involuntarily cocked his head to one side, wondering if there was something wrong with his translator. (The truth of the matter was that the shopkeeper had determined what Roger's primary language was after a brief telepathic analysis of his thought patterns and was actually speaking this very language, but he had adopted the mistaken belief that the more eclectic his vocabulary in a foreign language was, the better he sounded to a native speaker.)
"Oh -- my apologies if I was being too garrulous," the Muu said, sounding a little flustered. "Please continue your perusal. There is quite a panoply of commodities here, so I shall remain taciturn now."
Despite his growing confusion, Roger mumbled his thanks to the shopkeeper (though he wasn't sure exactly what he was thinking him for) and started to walk around the shop, casually glancing at the many items lining the walls and counters. There were stuffed versions of a famous Muu philosophizer that spouted various profound statements when squeezed, miniature reproductions of ancient Muu artifacts, video disks containing recordings of Muu meditation rituals and books chronicling the various invasions of Zanshin II.
Roger passed by these items without so much as a shred of interest and was just about to turn around and leave the store when a rack of what looked very much like wrist-watches caught his attention. However, looking closer at the devices revealed that they definitely were not wrist-watches -- the face was much too large, and it had many more buttons than any normal watch required. As he was trying to figure out what the not-wrist-watches were, there was a hurried scuffling as the shopkeeper ambled up to his side.
"Ah -- you are indeed a sagacious individual," he said, his eye fixed on the rack Roger had been staring at. "Those contraptions possess a decidedly unique and peculiar nature."
"What are they?" Roger asked.
"When equipped to the individual wishing to make use of it, it has the capability to completely obscure that individual's entire physique, replacing them with a visage comprised of completely different coloration."
Roger attempted to decipher the shopkeeper's reply, but was unable to do so. Before he could ask the shopkeeper to repeat the sentence in plainer language, the Muu plucked one of the devices from the rack and strapped it to his upper forearm.
"Here," he said. "I will demonstrate."
He tapped a button on the device and its screen flickered on. He then tapped another button, and for a moment he flickered. He then became solid again, but his pale skin was now bright pink with large blue rosettes while his eye was a deep green. The change in the Muu's appearance was so extreme that he didn't even look like a member of his own species anymore. Roger gaped in astonishment for a moment, then suddenly realized what had happened.
"Hey...that's a hologram-based cloaking device, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes," the Muu replied jovially. "The SubterFuse 700 Hologarb: Covers every iota of the wearer's body with any hue or pattern that the wearer may desire. As you observe, the effect is quite convincing, even under close scrutiny."
Roger's mind buzzed with excitement.
"Do you have a model that works with guys like me?" he asked.
"No need," the Muu said. "Hologarbs work for all species with solid physiques."
"That's great," Roger said. "I'll take two of..."
His words faded into inaudibility as reality suddenly reared its ugly head, grinning cruelly at him as it reminded him of his current financial state. The Muu, noticing Roger's sudden silence, asked him what was wrong and Roger confessed that he had no money. The Muu pondered this for a minute, then took two of the hologarbs off the rack and held them in front of Roger.
"I told you, I don't have any money," Roger muttered.
The Muu continued to offer the hologarbs to Roger.
"I said I don't have any money," Roger repeated, growing slightly annoyed. "I can't buy those without money."
"Please don't be disconsolate," the Muu said in a quiet, almost reverent voice. "There is veracity in what you profess, but you are the most affable, urbane, extrinsic visitor that has deigned to tarry at my place of business that I have encountered in ages. I therefore find it felicitous to bestow these gewgaws to you sans any form of recompense whatsoever."
For a moment, Roger stared at the Muu in a state of utter bewilderment.
"What?" he finally managed to ask.
"Take them. No need to exchange currency...the hologarbs are yours."
"Free?" Beatrice asked as she stared at the two hologarbs Roger had placed on the bed. "Why on Xenon would he give you these things for free? He must have wanted something in exchange for these things."
Roger shook his head, though in reality he actually had done something to get the hologarbs. When the Muu shopkeeper had offered the devices to Roger for free, Roger had immediately grown suspicious. After the "free" item he had gotten from the Gippazoid Novelty Company many years prior, he had become extremely cautious whenever something was offered to him with nothing requested from him in return.
He had repeatedly asked the Muu whether there was some sort of catch to this deal, and when the Muu repeatedly stated that there wasn't any catch, Roger began asking if there was something he could do for the Muu in exchange for the hologarbs -- something he could get him, something he could do for him, some sort of errand he could run for him...anything. Finally, the Muu sighed wearily, went into a back room of the shop and returned with a large, pale, translucent leaf with some words in the Muu's primary language scratched into it. He informed Roger that this was a very important message for Mlii, his twenty-seventh cousin, and Roger could have the hologarbs if he delivered the message (or, as the shopkeeper put it, "convey the missive") and returned with proof that Mlii had received it.
After some searching, Roger had found the shopkeeper's relative, who read the message and quivered with delight, then etched out another message on a smaller leaf for Roger to take to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper seemed satisfied by this message, and after expressing his gratitude toward Roger, handed him the two hologarbs. As Roger was about to exit the shop, however, he could no longer contain his curiosity. He turned and asked the shopkeeper what the message he had delivered to Mlii had said, and the shopkeeper informed him that it was more or less the Muu version of the ancient Terran phrase "Have a nice day." Despite the shopkeeper's earnest insistence that this phrase was one of the most kindest, meaningful sayings in the Muu language, Roger couldn't help feeling that he had just done something incredibly stupid, and decided that there was no reason for him to relate this experience to Beatrice.
"But what if there are tracking devices in these things?" Beatrice asked, picking up one of the hologarbs. "What if someone knows we're here and is trying to tail us?"
"I found a bunch of those Tekhemians on the way back here," Roger said. "They took a look at these things and couldn't find anything wrong with them at all. No tracking devices, hidden cameras or explosives."
Beatrice looked warily at the hologarb she was holding for a moment, then she sighed and shook her head. In their current predicament, it seemed like the hologarbs were the only thing they could use to convincingly disguise themselves. As suspicious as she was of the gadgets being given to Roger for free, it seemed as if they had no other choice. She relayed these thoughts to Roger and passed him the remaining hologarb, strapping the one she held onto her left wrist. After experimenting with his hologarb for the better part of an hour, Roger decided on a simple green shade for his skin, and solid gold for his eyes. He chose a simple black shade for his hair, as well as a few small patches of black on his face to create a fake (but fairly convincing) beard and moustache.
After he was satisfied with the look he had given himself, he glanced at Beatrice and nearly jumped back in surprise. She had green skin and gold eyes as well, but her hair was now a fiery reddish hue. She looked at Roger and smiled at him with turquoise lips.
"Wow -- I can hardly recognize you now," she said.
"Me neither," Roger muttered. He stared at Beatrice for a moment, starting to feel a little uneasy.
"Uh...do we have to have these holograms on all the time?" he asked.
Beatrice contemplated this question for a moment, looking at Roger dubiously.
"Probably not," she decided, "But we should always have them on out in public...or anywhere where people might be able to see us."
Roger nodded. He and Beatrice could now travel freely without the risk of being recognized. Now all they had to worry about was keeping their hologarbs activated...as well as functional.
With the problem of concealing their identities now solved, Roger and Beatrice now had to deal with the problem of money. The Acclimatization Center would provide them with food, shelter and amenities for only so long, and no one was going to give them a ride to the next inhabited planet for free. If they were going to survive on Zanshin II, at least one of them would have to find a job.
Roger tried to convince himself that they wouldn't have to stay on Zanshin II for very long, but as the days rolled on, his confidence quickly began to waver. It soon became apparent that until Roger found a working time machine behind an old repair shop or two tickets on a ship bound for Xenon in a spaceport trash can, he and Beatrice would have to find a way to survive on this planet. Their money was rapidly dwindling, and Roger's brief stints where he sat near the hotel entrance pretending to be an impoverished Tekhemian didn't bring in more than a few Buckazoids a day.
Desperation is the catalyst for all manner of actions, and Roger's desperation levels had reached a breaking point. It wasn't clear just what drove him to do what he did (guilt, a reawakening of a long-dormant instinct or a minor brain injury all seemed like viable options), but whatever the reason, Beatrice was completely unaware of what had happened until she returned to the hotel early one day to find Roger sitting in front of the database, staring intently at its Want Ads section.
Whatever the true reason behind his somewhat contrary decision to seek out work despite being branded as being lazy and incompetent for most of his adult life, Roger felt that becoming a provider in his and Beatrice's partnership was the least he could do to make up for living off of her salary for so many years. He also couldn't help feeling that he was somehow responsible for their predicament in some way, given his track record for causing or being the cause of phenomenally unlikely events.
Though there didn't seem to be a great shortage of jobs on Zanshin II, it was difficult for Roger and Beatrice to determine exactly what many of the jobs were, even with the help their room's database. Some jobs seemed as if they could only be performed by the Muu, and only a few seemed as if they were meant only for off-worlders.
Roger eventually discovered a "Help Wanted" ad posted by the Screevinox Creature Sanctuary. Screevinox, Roger discovered, was a nearby town with a high population of off-worlders, and the sanctuary provided creatures that couldn't be released into the wild with reasonable facsimiles of their native environments (which was nearly always from a different planet), and visitors were welcome to enter the sanctuary and view the creatures in their various enclosures, not unlike the zoos of 20th century Earth.
Roger wasn't sure if he'd ever contemplated the idea of working at a place like this before, but the more he thought about it, the more intriguing it seemed. The ad was asking for a worker to help maintain and clean the Sanctuary's various exhibits, and though tidying up after the various species there probably wasn't be the most pleasant task in the world, it would be an interesting change of pace. The considerably large wage the sanctuary was offering was also very appealing.
Several days after sending in his application form to the Sanctuary, Roger received a message asking him to come to the Sanctuary to speak with Gezma, the Sanctuary Director.
Gezma was a large, bulbous individual who seemed to be made almost entirely out of fat and cartilage. He had no visible legs, and his two horizontally elongated eyes, one set atop the other, seemed to be half-closed. He also had two fin-like projections on each side of his head, which vaguely resembled an overgrown pair of ears. As he sat at his desk and slowly scanned Roger's application form, Roger watched him nervously, tightly holding his hands together to keep them from shaking.
"So...you got amnesia, eh?" Gezma said slowly.
"Yes...bad accident in hyperspace -- at least, that's what they told me. I don't even know what planet I'm from."
"You're not the only one, brother," Gezma said with an air of wistfulness. "I've met a lot of poor souls who don't know where they're from...it's so sad. How can you know where you're going if you don't even know where you've been?"
This was hardly the sort of response Roger had expected. Still he nodded in agreement and tried not to look confused as Gezma continued to read the form.
"Hmm...you've had experience with custodial work before? That's good...very good," Gezma said.
"Yeah...that's one of the few things I do remember," Roger said. "I just haven't been able to find anyone who'll hire me because of...you know...everything else."
"Hey, now," Gezma said, extruding a forelimb. "No need to be glum, chum. This Sanctuary was created so that we could provide a little love and caring for critters who've gotten the short end of the stick...and the same thing applies to potential employees."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you're hired," Gezma said.
"Really?" Roger asked, surprised but still somewhat skeptical.
"Sure thing," Gezma said. "You're a nice-looking individual, and you've got just the right skills for this job. You may have to do a little reading and learning before you're ready to work, but it shouldn't take long -- these little beasties are easy to take care of once you get to know them."
Roger silently listened to the rest of the director's spiel. He had never spoken with a more amiable employer than Gezma. He was so friendly and laid back that he seemed even more Muu-like than the Muu themselves, and the lack of references, previous residences or identification numbers on Roger's application form didn't seem to bother the rotund individual in the least. Just like the Muu shopkeeper, Roger was receiving something just because someone happened to like him. At least in this situation, he was required to do something in order to get something tangible in return.
Several days later, one of the other keepers, a short, blue-skinned humanoid named Krej, showed him around the Sanctuary, telling him about the daily schedule and how often the various enclosures needed to be cleaned, as well as how important it was to make sure that Roger wasn't sharing an enclosure with its occupant while he was cleaning it.
"Most of the critters here may look harmless," Krej said, "But they can still put up a real fight."
"Do you have any that actually are harmless?"
"Well, yes...but you still shouldn't be in their cages when they're in them. Give the little guys their privacy."
As Roger and Krej were talking, they had come to an area of the sanctuary which was considerably different than the rest. A large pit roughly thirty feet across had been bored into the ground. The walkway Roger and Krej were on circumscribed the pit, and several enclosures bordered the walkway. A fence with warning signs posted on it every few feet circled the pit, and as he and Krej drew closer, Roger could see several large animals lying at the base of the pit some fifteen feet down. They looked like 5,000-pound grubs with dark, scaly skin and no facial features save for a mouth with huge, bony jaws. However, their backs were covered with thin, transparent scales, and when these scales caught the sun, bright flashes of color danced along them.
Roger then noticed a plaque attached to the fence, which identified the beautiful yet repulsive creatures as Idavaros.
"Don't worry," Krej said, divining his thoughts. "You don't need to clean up after these beasts. Only trained handlers are allowed down there."
"That's good to know," Roger muttered. As far from the strange creatures' reach as he was, he still felt nervous looking at them, and couldn't help warily glancing over his shoulder as Krej was leading him towards the rest of the enclosures.
Roger's job turned out to be a bit trickier than he initially thought. He had to remember to turn up the gravity adjuster on the Aeronewts' enclosure before cleaning it so that he wouldn't wind up floating helplessly in a near-weightless environment, then return the adjuster to its original settings once he was finished so the newts wouldn't be crushed by their own body weight when they were returned to their main enclosure. He also had to put on a rebreather mask whenever he entered the Aitias' or the Smaderls' enclosures since they contained facsimiles of the atmospheres of the two species' native worlds that were both toxic to most humanoids. Another species whose excreta had to be disposed of with extreme caution was the G'daak, a creature with a diet comprised of several unstable radioactive isotopes, giving its excreta a whole new meaning to the term "nuclear waste".
As Roger continued working, Beatrice continued looking for a job for herself. Unfortunately, the more she searched, the more her thoughts kept wandering back to Xenon and RJ, and how she and Roger were going to return to their original time. Every time she sat down with the intent of looking for a job, she ended up doing research on time travel. Eventually, she decided to abandon her pursuit of finding work and dedicate her time to looking up information on time travel instead. This task was far from easy, since although the database she was using had plenty of information on subjects such as meditation, spirituality and the art of keeping one's sense of humor, there was hardly any information on theoretical sciences -- which time travel was still classified as on most of the advanced worlds at this point in history.
The most promising lead she discovered turned out to be a business that provided its clients with VR simulations of their past lives. The building immediately adjacent to it was the Vedlori Sanitarium, which specialized in the caretaking and rehabilitation of authors of horoscope books who had foolishly attempted to determine how the various planets and star signs affected an individual of their species when said individual was on a different planet, in a different solar system, or a different galaxy.
Eventually, Beatrice stopped attempting to dredge up data on time travel and started researching the nearby planets, trying to figure out which one was closest to Xenon. If they couldn't get any closer to their destination chronologically, the least they could do was try getting closer to it spatially. Even though Xenon was many light-years away, the idea of being just a tiny bit closer to it provided Beatrice with a small tiny scintilla of hope.
After several weeks, Roger began to grow used to his new job. The various creatures he cleaned up after became more and more familiar to him, and some of them even started to act as if they recognized him whenever he approached their enclosures. His fellow workers seemed to be reasonably polite to him, but since many of them were unfamiliar species, it was a little hard to interpret their various expressions and gestures. Eventually, Roger became quite accustomed to his strange new work environment -- in fact, soon the greatest potential hazard in his day-to-day existence was the possibility of his accidentally drinking some of the local water. There were a couple of occasions when this had almost happened, but Roger's luck had still managed to hold.
Then came that day -- a day which started out as uneventfully as any day at Roger's job: He had just obtained his cart from the large storage shed near the Sanctuary's main entrance, a cart which carried the various sorts of equipment that a keeper of his status required: rakes, push-brooms, shovels, protective gear and a wide variety of specialized waste receptacles. Roger was wheeling this cart towards the Sysias' enclosure when a high-pitched voice from behind him made him stop in his tracks.
Roger turned around to see what looked like a miniature version of his boss, only with small bows tied around both of its head's fins (which made Roger immediately decide that it was a female). She was sitting next to a flimsy table covered with pamphlets, books, knick-knacks, and other paraphernalia. A large poster reading "PLEASE HELP SAVE THE ORAT!" was propped up next to her, and an enormous, clear plastic barrel topped with a lid with a slot cut in it stood beside the table.
"Hi -- I'm Rixi! Wanna contribute to the Save the Orat campaign, Mister?" the little creature asked. "You get a free gift with each donation!"
Roger glanced at Rixi, then at the poster, shuddering a little at the vicious red creature depicted on it.
"Uh...maybe later," he said, turning to leave.
"But Mister," Rixi said, her voice suddenly plaintive. "Orats have been getting rarer and rarer over the years! If we don't do something to help them soon, they'll be gone forever!"
"Look, kid," Roger said, turning back to Rixi, "I'm sorry, but I've got a lot of work I need to do right now, and I hardly have any money on me anyway."
"That doesn't matter," Rixi said quietly. "Even a little money can do some good if enough people help."
By this point Roger had gotten fairly annoyed. He had no intention of donating some of his hard-earned cash to help ensure the survival of a creature that he never wanted to see again unless it was medium-well or deep-fried. He was about to tell Rixi this when suddenly he felt himself growing strangely relaxed and content. Rixi said a few more words to him, and he suddenly realized how terrible it would be if the Orat went extinct.
True, they were terrifying, vicious brutes, but there was something almost noble in their ferocity. They even showed definite signs of sentience, and what right did the rest of the galaxy have to recklessly slaughter intelligent life forms just because they happened to taste delicious? Surely, members of an intelligent species that hunt another intelligent species nearly to the point of extinction are beasts just as brutal and murderous as the Orat itself.
Nodding solemnly, Roger deposited nearly every Buckazoid in his pockets into the plastic barrel. Rixi grinned happily and handed him a small plush Orat.
"Thank you, Mister!" she chirped happily. "Here's your gift!"
As Roger grasped the Orat, it made a sudden loud screeching sound that surprised him so much that he dropped it.
"Oh -- sorry," Rixi said sheepishly as she picked it up. "I forgot to tell you -- it makes noise if you squeeze it...but you can turn it off."
She flipped a small switch on the toy's backside and thrust it into Roger's hands.
"Thanks again, Mister!" she said. "See you later!"
Several minutes after a dazed and confused Roger walked away from Rixi's table, Gezma emerged from his office and waddled up to her.
"Hello, my little Squergfruit," he said affectionately.
"Hi, Daddy," Rixi smiled.
"How's your fundraiser doing so far?" Gezma asked.
"Not bad," Rixi said. Gezma examined the contents of the barrel.
"So I see," he said. His voice suddenly became somewhat sterner.
"I hope you've been being a good girl today, Rixi."
"You haven't been using your mind control on anyone, have you?"
"No, Daddy, no...I'd never do something like that!"
"Very well," Gezma said. "Well, good luck, Rixi. Daddy has to get back to work now. I'll check on you later."
"Bye-bye," Rixi said sweetly. As soon as Gezma was out of sight, she extended her mental feelers again, trying to locate another individual with a malleable mind.
Roger dragged his cart into the rotunda that surrounded the Idavaro pit and stopped it in front of the locked gate that provided access to the various enclosures that surrounded the pit. As he was fumbling through his keys and trying to remember which one fit the gate, he suddenly froze and looked over his shoulder. He had heard a voice -- a female voice, and a familiar one, too. Roger looked around the rotunda. It was almost completely empty except for a few lone individuals staring at the captive aliens and small group of people on the opposite side of the Idavaro pit. They were all wearing StarCon uniforms, and one of them had long, dark, wavy hair tied back in a tight ponytail...
Roger gaped. It was Stellar! Stellar Santiago! Even though it had been years since he had seen her, he had never forgotten her voice, her face...and how much of a friend she had to him in the past. She had done so much for him, and despite Roger eventually marrying Beatrice, Stellar had still remained his friend -- she was the one Roger would turn to whenever he had had a difficult time with Beatrice or Junior, and it seemed like there was nothing that she couldn't help Roger with to at least some degree.
Help. Right now, that was what Roger needed more than anything else. He and Beatrice were far, far away from Xenon, both spatially and chronologically. Even if Stellar couldn't help them out of this mess, she could at least be there to offer Roger some words of encouragement...
But now she and the rest of what had to be her crewmates were now walking away towards the rotunda's south exit -- the one that led to the Sanctuary's main gates! Roger left the cart behind and took off in Stellar's direction, walking as fast as he dared around the periphery of the Idavaro pit. Stellar was almost out of sight behind a cluster of vegetation now. As Roger was drawing breath to shout out her name, he suddenly felt incredibly disoriented, as if the planet's rotation had suddenly reversed. He staggered dizzily for a minute, unable to think clearly. His vision began to darken, and the last thing he felt was the sensation of rushing air and the strong tug of gravity.
When Roger regained consciousness, he had a feeling that something very bad had either just happened or was about to happen. Lifting his head to examine his surroundings, he found himself lying on a hard, gritty surface surrounded by simulated rock walls on all sides. Several fake boulders and plants decorated the ground, and among the boulders and plants were several enormous, grub-like creatures with large, bony jaws and thin, transparent scales lining their backs.
With as little movement as possible, Roger craned his neck until he could see the top of the walls and the fence that surrounded them. There was a crowd of beings up there, staring down at him. Unfortunately, Stellar didn't seem to be among them.
With a shaking hand, Roger slowly reached into his pocket, pulled out his two-way communicator and keyed in Gezma's number.
"Uh, Sir," Roger said into the communicator, "I accidentally fell into the Idavaro pit."
There was a tense silence for several seconds, then there was an annoyed sigh from the other end.
"Hang on, Freem," Gezma muttered. "I'll get someone get you out of there. Just sit tight...and don't make any sudden moves."
Roger glanced at the Idavaros. Even though they had no eyes, ears or noses, Roger had the unpleasant sensation that they knew he was in the pit with them. Again, he spoke into the communicator:
"These Idavaros aren't dangerous, are they?"
There was another pause.
"Well, that depends," Gezma said. "Does your species have any sort of protective armor?"
"How good are you at concealing yourself and blending in with your surroundings?"
"Um...not very good..."
"Is your body any good at quickly repairing severed blood vessels?"
"I don't think so..."
Yet another pause.
"In that case," Gezma said, "I'd say the Idavaros definitely will be dangerous."
As he waited for the help Gezma had promised, Roger tried to take stock of his situation. The rock walls were too steep to climb, the only way out of the enclosure from this level was a securely locked gate, and his only possessions were the communicator and the plush Orat. He examined the large, heavy-jawed Idavaro. Could they really tell he was there?
Slowly, Roger began edging towards the nearest fake boulder. As he did, one of his boots slipped, making a noticeable scraping noise. The Idavaro nearest to him suddenly turned its large head, and the whisker-like protrusions sprouting from its cheeks seemed to swivel in Roger's direction. Roger hurried behind the boulder as swiftly and silently as he was able, then crouched there, heart pounding. Those things could tell he was there -- and judging by the way that one Idavaro reacted, if Roger made any more noise, they would all start coming for him.
As Roger was trying desperately to figure out how he could escape if help failed to arrive, help actually did arrive in the form of a panicked, shaking Krej. He pushed his way through the crowd of onlookers and stood looking over the fence, a coil of rope clutched in his hand.
"Butston!" he hollered, hurriedly starting to lower the rope over the fence towards Roger. "Don't worry, Butston! I'll get you out of --."
Before he could finish his sentence, the end of the rope slipped from his trembling hands and dropped into the pit. For a moment, the crowd stood in stunned silence, then a few of them began chuckling and whispering to each other. Krej glanced nervously around, then dashed off.
Despite his initial anger and panic, the rope that had landed near Roger's feet suddenly gave him an idea. He glanced over at one of the pit's adjacent walls. About twenty feet above the ground, a large fake vine was stretched loosely between two points on the wall, with a sizeable gap between the wall and itself, and most of the Idavaros seemed closer to that vine than they were to Roger. Roger took another look at the rope, then at the plush Orat. Suddenly, he knew exactly what he had to do.
Krej came dashing down the short flight of stairs to the gate at the bottom of the Idavaro pit. As he was struggling to fit the keycard in the lock, he glanced through the gate's heavy bars and stared at the interior of the pit in stunned silence. Butston was still alive and standing very close to the gate, and he was holding one end of the rope Krej had dropped in his hand. The other end of the rope was slung over a vine suspended from the pit's wall, with a small, red stuffed toy dangling from it. Roger was repeatedly yanking the rope, making the toy bounce against the wall and make strange growling, roaring sounds. All of the Idavaros were gathered around the toy, peering up at it and trying to figure out just what the strange, noisy object was.
After snapping out of his confused trance, Krej hurriedly unlocked the gate and hurriedly whispered to Roger to get out of the pit. Roger didn't need to be told twice -- he dropped the rope and made a mad dash towards the open gate. The no longer suspended toy dropped to the ground and the Idavaros descended upon it. The sounds of seams being ripped apart and the agonized wail of a dying voice box echoed throughout the pit.
(Roger himself would doubtlessly have let out a similar wail and undergone a similar dismemberment had he been unfortunate enough to have let the Idavaros find him. The only real difference was that the Idavaros wouldn't have eaten Roger -- they would have simply reduced him to a pile of chewed flesh. Idavaros were notoriously picky eaters.)
"What the heck were you doing?" Krej hissed. "And how the heck did you wind up in there, anyway? That fence is nearly as tall as you are!"
Roger didn't answer. That had been much too close of a call for him, and he didn't feel like talking to Krej so soon after that rope incident. As they climbed the stairs to the main level of the zoological center, Roger couldn't help but notice that a lot of the visitors were looking at him...and most of them seemed very annoyed.
"What's their problem?" Roger muttered, not really caring what the answer was, but curious nonetheless.
"They were making bets on whether you were going to survive in that pit or not," Krej said tonelessly. "And it looks like most of them bet on the wrong side."
"Then...who won?" Roger asked, not seeing a single smug smile among the various individuals they passed.
Krej shrugged and gave no further reply. Roger looked around the few patrons that remained in the center, but could see no sign of Stellar or any of the other StarCon members -- they must have left the center shortly after Roger fell into the pit, which must have been nearly thirty minutes ago.
With his hopes dashed and his mind frazzled, Roger told Krej to tell Gezma that he was leaving work early. Without a word, Roger headed toward the main gates. Rixi was still there, looking just as perky as ever. She waved cheerily at Roger as he trudged toward exit gate.
"Bye-bye, Mister!" she squeaked.
As Roger was turning around to give Rixi an annoyed glare, he suddenly noticed the barrel sitting next to her. When he had first seen it, there were just a few dozen Buckazoids at the bottom. Now, the barrel was nearly full.
"Oh...and thank you, too, Mister!" Rixi grinned.
After returning home, Roger received a call from Gezma, who told him not to bother returning to work until further notice. Several days later, Gezma called again, and informed Roger that he was being let go.
"But why?" Roger protested. "Did I scare off too many of your customers or something?"
"Oh no," Gezma replied. "My customers are fine, it's Murg that's not doing so hot."
"That's one of the Idavaros who pounced on that little 'gift' you left in their enclosure," Gezma said somberly. "He ate most of it, and whatever that thing was made of definitely didn't agree with him. He had to undergo some serious surgery in order to repair the damage to some of his internal organs. It looks like he's going to pull through...but I'm certainly not looking forward to seeing the bill for his operation."
"Fortunately for you, Freem, I find lawsuits to be utterly repugnant," Gezma continued, "But unfortunately, I'm afraid I can't risk something like this happening again. I love those Idavaros like I love my own offspring, and if something like this were to happen to one of them again...I just don't know if my pulmonary valves could take it."
Roger begged for a second chance, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. After realizing that nothing would change Gezma's mind, Roger mumbled his apologies into the phone, saying that he understood Gezma's reasoning and he wished him luck in finding someone else to take over his position. Then he hung up the phone, swore under his breath and gave the nearest wall a half-hearted kick.
For some time, Roger wondered just what had happened to him at the Screevinox Sanctuary. It seemed like it had to be more than just an accident -- even Beatrice, who had seen the fence herself on a couple of occasions, agreed that it would be difficult for anyone of Roger's height and build to accidentally fall into that enclosure, even for someone as clumsy as him.
When Roger finally gave up trying to fund an answer to this conundrum, he began to hunt for another job. Beatrice, who had managed to find a small part-time position as an assistant at one of the tourist-targeted shops in a nearby town while Roger was working at the Sanctuary, pleaded with him to be careful, saying that he should try to make sure that any kind of trouble he could get into on his next job was the non-lethal kind.
After several weeks of searching, Roger discovered an ad requesting "janitorial assistance" at a Suiraa Center. He had no idea what a Suiraa Center was, but wasn't about to let the opportunity for more cash slip past him. He set out for the Center the very next day, and when Beatrice returned to the apartment late that afternoon, she found Roger sprawled on the bed, staring blankly at the ceiling.
"I thought you said you wouldn't be home until later," she said.
Roger lifted his head, looking at her through half-closed eyes.
"I did," he said, "But there were...problems."
Suiraa, he had discovered, was a combination of exercise and meditation that the Muu greatly enjoyed, so centers like the one Roger had visited were constantly busy. Clients would go through the various motions of Suiraa while seated on absorbent mats, and not too surprisingly, the mats would gradually accumulate a thick concentration of bodily secretions. Because of this, the mats had to be thoroughly sanitized very frequently -- hence the Help Wanted ad.
Another thing Roger hadn't known about beforehand was the Fwrugs. They were small, furry creatures that the Muu kept as pets, and in the center they were often used as therapy animals to help some of the tenser clients relax. Unfortunately, after about forty-five minutes inside the center, Roger discovered that he was violently allergic to Fwurg dander. When this realization finally hit him, Roger told his employer that he didn't feel the job at the Suiraa Center was right for him before staggering out the door.
"So then what did you do?" Beatrice asked once Roger had related this story to her.
"I took some antihistamines I got from a MediVend, then caught a cab home," Roger said. "Then I felt kind of tired, so I..."
"Wait," Beatrice said abruptly, her voice suddenly tense. "The antihistamines...what kind were they?"
"Same kind I've seen being sold in MediVends in other places where we've been," Roger shrugged. "They seemed safe to me."
"And how did you take them?"
"Same way I take any pill like that," Roger said. "I just got a glass of water from our sink and...then...I..."
Beatrice rubbed her forehead with her palm as Roger returned his gaze to what he had originally been looking at when she first showed up.
"So that's why the ceiling's started melting," he reflected.
An hour later, Roger was still lying in bed, a look of pure bliss on his face. His gaze would occasionally shift to a different part of the room, whereupon he would stare at whatever he happened to be looking at for several minutes, occasionally giggling. After several minutes, which seemed to accelerate and decelerate at random intervals, Beatrice returned.
"I consulted every medical entry I could find," she said in a tired voice, "And all they could advise was waiting for the effects to wear off."
Roger had just finished a tour of a wonderfully spacious and lavishly decorated house constructed inside his head. It had a great view, the price was reasonable, and best of all, he and Beatrice didn't need to go far to find it. The master bedroom could be near the top of his skull, his mouth would make a perfect two-ship garage...
"Can you hear me, Roger?" Beatrice asked.
Roger wondered if the room was going to turn upside down again like it had a few minutes ago. That was so cool...
"Roger?" Beatrice said, slightly louder this time. Roger turned his head to face her. It took him about fifteen seconds.
"If you need me for anything, I'll be right here," Beatrice said, gesturing towards a thing that looked like the product of a gyroscope that had an affair with a nudibranch. Roger contemplated asking Beatrice what the thing was (it was just a chair in reality), but quickly became distracted by Beatrice herself. She had ears...why hadn't he noticed that before? And did they always glow purple like that?
Roger gave a mental shrug and glanced at the wall, patches of which had grown transparent again. He wondered if the people outside he could see through the patches could see him as well. As his attention shifted yet again, he realized that despite the sensory thrill ride he was experiencing, he was starting to become bored. He reached into his pocket, hoping to find something new to stare at for a few minutes.
The first thing he pulled out was the container of antihistamines. Strangely, the label was completely incomprehensible to him -- he was almost certain the label had been printed in a language he knew when he bought the pills, but it seemed like he must have been mistaken. The lettering looked familiar, but the way the letters were arranged was unlike any language he had ever seen.
Puzzled, he tossed the container aside and fished around in his pocket again. This time he pulled out a slim, paper booklet -- the time gun's user manual. It was pretty rumpled and stained by now, but it was still very much intact.
But the text on the front cover -- which had definitely said "User Manual" before -- was now complete gibberish. With growing confusion, Roger turned the manual over to see if he was looking at the wrong side, but the opposite cover was completely blank -- he was looking at the front cover, but was completely unable to read it. Despite the mental haze he was in, Roger felt a very tiny spark of genuine concern -- had he actually forgotten how to read?
His mind still a wild storm of misfiring synapses, he opened the book to a random page:
"To activate gun, press the POWER button (Fig. 1). When the gun is first activated, the CURR, DEST and LAST fields (Fig. 2) should all be blank. To cycle between fields, use the arrow buttons (Fig 3.). Once a destination time has been entered..."
Roger gaped at the manual. He flipped to the next page, and the one after that. It wasn't an illusion: the text on every page was completely comprehensible. The directions were easy to understand, and the diagrams were clearly labeled. The only thing that was complete gibberish was the cover, which hadn't been like that before.
Suddenly, Roger realized what was going on, and what he had to do. Gathering all the clarity left in his mind, he turned and called out to Beatrice.
Beatrice glanced up at him. The gyroscope/nudibranch lovechild she was sitting on had become a luminous throne made of cocktail weenies.
"Pen!" Roger forced out. "Paper! Now!"
The sudden urgency in his voice (plus the fact that he was actually speaking now) was enough to convince Beatrice that something serious was going on. She left the room, leaving Roger hoping that he would be able to do what he had to do before it was too late.
"You mean...you could read this manual but couldn't read normal text?"
"Yeah...what do you think happened?"
"I have no idea...maybe some sort of temporary reconfiguration of the visual cortex...I really can't say for certain, though."
Beatrice was still dumbfounded by the effect Zanshin II's water had had on Roger. Hallucinations and blurred vision were two effects documented in humanoids, but whatever had happened with Roger was a far cry from either. Such a convenient temporary restructuring of his brain seemed like something that had a billion-to-one chance of happening, but as Beatrice reminded herself, Roger was a lightning rod for unlikely events.
Beatrice looked at the next page of Roger's notes and noticed a crude drawing in the lower right corner.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Uh...it's a rabbit," Roger admitted.
"Why is there a rabbit on this page?" Beatrice inquired.
"Uh..." Roger said sheepishly, "I...thought the page looked too boring without it."
Beatrice shrugged and flipped to the next page.
"And...why is there a line of grass and flowers along the top of this one?"
"That's...so the rabbit wouldn't get hungry."
Beatrice stared at Roger, then the drawing, then back at Roger.
"You really are the considerate type," she muttered.
As she continued to flip through Roger's notes, her mind started wandering back to the incident with the Fruwgs. Though there were several species that were allergic to Fwurgs, humans of Xenon descent were not one of them. If this were true, then why had Roger had such a reaction? Beatrice shook her head and resumed reading the manual.
Unbeknownst to either Beatrice or Roger, however, approximately fifteen minutes after Roger had fled the Suiraa Center, a stout, middle-aged humanoid with a gray beard and a receding hairline had entered it. A slick salesman by trade, he had come to Zanshin II in the hopes of peddling his goods to the planet's natives. He suspected that a species as passive and submissive as the Muu seemed like one that would willingly buy any product he foisted upon them -- and he was right. Every Muu he encountered would buy whatever overpriced, worthless item he offered, with no protestation at all. However, the initial glee he felt at making so much money with barely any effort soon began to fade. Where was the fun in selling things to customers who didn't even try to turn down his offers or walk away from him when he was making a sales pitch? The thrill of talking a difficult customer into buying one of his wares or at least foisting a free sample onto a particularly reluctant one was completely absent on the world -- and he had just about had enough of it.
If only there were more humanoids on this world -- so far, virtually all of his customers had been Muu, and the only non-Muu he had encountered either were incapable of communicating with him or carried forms of currency that couldn't be traded in for Buckazoids. No customer presented more of a challenge than the average humanoid, and right now, he was in desperate need of a challenge.
As he entered the Suiraa Center, Nelo Jones made up his mind: if he didn't find a humanoid customer on Zanshin II before the day ended, he would leave the planet. If he did, however, he would stay there. He was certain that if he found one, there would be others, and if there were enough humanoids on Zanshin II, he could both make oodles of Buckazoids off the ever-cooperative natives and still find a humanoid sap to haggle with if he started getting bored. Perhaps he would even settle down on Zanshin II permanently -- it was a pretty nice planet, after all.
But for the moment, he was going to have a massage. He had had a pretty unsatisfying day.
Once Roger had fully recovered, he and Beatrice read through his "translation" of the time gun's manual several times. Neither of them came away from the experience feeling intellectually enriched. The manual dedicated a lot of pages to warning its owner that licking the quark wiring could cause serious injury or death and that exposing the flux coils to microwave radiation could result in inoperability, but barely any of the pages contained any information on how the gun actually worked.
Much to Beatrice and Roger's non-surprise, none of the Tekhemians seemed to recognize any of the parts shown in the gun's diagram. It was, after all, a blueprint for a gun that wouldn't be invented for many years.
Beatrice was crestfallen, but she refused to give up. She and Roger might have had no luck on Zanshin II, but perhaps they would have better luck on another world -- ideally, one that was a few light-years closer to Xenon. After some careful searching, Beatrice eventually discovered a ship that was headed for Suxtu'biiyu -- a large planet several systems away. The surprisingly low price she ended up paying for the two one-way trip tickets puzzled Beatrice until she discovered that it took two months for the ship to get to its destination. As ticked off as she was when she learned this, she soon managed to calm herself. After all, as Roger said, they were going to be in cryosleep the whole way, and they were finally leaving Zanshin II. (However, because of the former, neither Roger nor Beatrice saw or heard the huge throngs of Muu who turned out to wave good-bye to the ship as it launched -- a tradition of theirs which dated all the way back to the First Conquering.)
The two months in cryosleep gave Roger and Beatrice plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the history of their destination via the various volumes on the subject in the ship's SomnoLearn library. Suxtu'biiyu was a large planet that was owned by a species known as the Phurbians. They were a small, furry life form completely devoid of any natural defenses aside from their tiny, sharp teeth. They had large, soft eyes; diminutive, pointed noses and fuzzy, round ears. It was virtually impossible for any sentient being to not see them as heart-meltingly adorable...and this was why the Phurbians hated the galaxy.
For centuries, they had put up with being viewed as adorable, harmless little people, but it seemed as if most non-Phurbians were physically incapable of even looking at Phurbians without growing misty-eyed. Then, as if each member of the species was part of a single mind, the Phurbians decided to make a name for themselves in the galaxy -- a name that would inspire fear and unrest, and make every species treat them with respect rather than doting affection. They began embarking on voyages to other worlds, and on each planet they colonized, they set up an extensive code of rules that every non-Phurbian had to abide by. Many of the penalties for breaking these rules were incredibly strict, but there was only one infraction which could result in the death penalty: describing a Phurbian by any verb synonymous with the word "cute".
There probably wasn't a finer example of the Phurbians' deeply engrained urge to overcome nearly impossible obstacles than Suxtu'biiyu. The planet was a gas giant, and the only context in which it could be described as "small" would be when comparing it to other gas giants. It was about twenty times larger than Xenon, with at least ten times as many moons. Any normal sentient species would have been content with setting up colonies on the moons of Suxtu'biiyu, but the Phurbians had gone one step further and actually built a colony on the planet itself.
After being brought out of cryosleep, Roger and Beatrice were able to get an excellent look at the blurry, pastel swirls of Suxtu'biiyu as their shuttle slowly approached it. The colony, they knew, was nestled in the planet's topmost cloud layer. The only part of it visible from above the clouds was the top of a flexible, light-tipped spire. As they descended, they could soon make out the silhouette of the colony amidst the thick, tumultuous clouds. It was a vast series of biodomes connected by tubular tunnels. Even the smallest dome was large enough to accommodate an entire city, and a commercial spaceliner could easily pass through any one of the tunnels. Artificial lights glowed within the domes, no doubt to act as a substitute for the nearly nonexistent sunlight.
Whatever technology the Phurbians were using to keep the colony afloat, it certainly seemed to be working. The upper atmosphere of a gas giant hardly seemed like a good place to start a new life, but the Phurbians were nothing if not defiant. They would do practically anything to show the rest of the galaxy that they were a force to be reckoned with.
Once the shuttle had docked in the vast landing bay located beneath the central biodome, Beatrice and Roger thought that the most troublesome part of their trip was over and now all they had to worry about was finding a place to stay. However, there was one thing they hadn't counted on: the Phurbian customs agents.
The short, fluffy customs agent dubiously sniffed Roger's guitron case with his pointed snout, then unzipped it and peered inside. After a few moments of examining what lay inside the case, he glared suspiciously back up at Roger and Beatrice.
"What is this?" he asked in a falsetto voice.
"Oh, that's just something we picked up from an antique center a few systems away," Beatrice said as casually as she was able. "We both like collecting unusual devices like this, and -- "
"That doesn't answer my question," the agent said coldly. "What is it?"
"Well, it's definitely not a weapon," Beatrice continued. "We thought it must be some kind of hairdryer used by a much larger species, but whatever it is, it's pretty beat up."
The customs agent's whiskers quivered slightly, and the temperature of his voice seemed to drop several more degrees.
"I don't give a damn what it isn't," he said slowly. "I want to know what it is. If you two won't tell me what this thing is, I'll have to hook you two up to the brain scanner and zap the truth out of you. We've had people try to sneak all kinds of things into the Suxtu'biiyu colony that would contaminate or destroy it, and we're not about to let you two bring this thing into the colony just because you say that it's not a weapon."
"Look," said Bea, starting to falter slightly, "It's just a useless device we got from an antique vendor. In the state it's in now, it can't do anything except function as a paperweight. We honestly don't know what it is, and we have no intention of -- "
"It's a time machine," Roger blurted out.
Beatrice stared at him in wide-eyed horror. The only thing keeping her from grabbing him by the shoulders and screaming at him was the presence of the customs agent, who now seemed much more puzzled than stern.
"A...'time machine?'" he repeated.
Roger nodded slowly, realizing what a terrible mistake he had made and wondering what he could possibly do to remedy it.
The agent blinked inquisitively at him, then mumbled something into a communicator strapped to his arm. A few seconds later, another customs agent came scampering over. He and the agent who had been talking with Roger and Beatrice began speaking with each other in hissing whispers, the first agent frequently gesturing at the time gun and the two humanoids standing on the other side of the counter. After several agonizingly long minutes, the Phurbians suddenly started chuckling and glancing at Roger and Beatrice with looks of amusement. Finally, the first agent dismissed the second one, who trotted away, still snickering to himself. The first agent turned back to Roger and Beatrice with a broad, toothy grin.
"A time machine," he smirked. "Oh, you aliens...every time I think I've figured you all out, you surprise me yet again."
He zipped up the guitron case and slid it back to them. Beatrice picked it up cautiously, he eyes fixed warily on the Phurbian.
"So...you're okay with us bringing this in?" Roger asked.
"Of course," the customs agent said, "But for Tyg's sake, why didn't you two just tell me that that thing was just a clock?"
Roger and Beatrice's arrival on Suxtu'biiyu was both a good as well as a bad experience. On the upside, what could have been a grievous mistake by Roger turned out to be their salvation, but on the downside, if the knowledge of the customs agent and his assistant was any indication of that of the entire species, the Phurbians -- as technologically advanced as they were -- had virtually no knowledge of time travel, even as a concept. However, there were many other species living on Sutxu'biiyu, and Beatrice hoped that at least one of them might be able to help them. As Beatrice filled out the numerous forms that visitors to Suxtu'biiyu were required to complete in order to live in the colony, Roger searched for a job, and eventually found a "Help Wanted" ad posted by a business that called itself Bilkoria Amusements, Inc., located on one of the planet's outer moons. According to the ad, they were a company that created and distributed novelty items, and they were in need of a janitor.
Roger sent in an application form under a phony name, and approximately twelve Xenon Standard Days later, he received a call from the hiring manager, who wished to meet with Roger face to face. Beatrice congratulated him after hearing the news, but Roger couldn't shake the feeling that this scenario seemed just too good to be true -- and there seemed to be something eerily familiar about this company as well.
The hiring manager was a large individual whose species bore a superficial similarity to the cephalopods of the planet Earth. He stood on four muscular tentacles, had two others protruding from each side of his torso, and gazed at Roger out of a pair of eyes that appeared to be extrusions of his skin rather than the more conventional fluid-filled orbs. He had a large, tapered head with a pair of nostrils positioned on top of it rather than in the center of his face. Although this structural configuration enabled him to do things impossible for most humanoids (such as drinking and breathing simultaneously without the possibility of choking), it also made the wearing of hats somewhat awkward.
"Come in, come in," he said to Roger in a deep, monotonous rumble. (In addition to resembling a mutated octopus, he also originated from a planet with a much heavier atmosphere.) Roger entered the austere office, trying not to stare at the slightly unnerving creature that had invited him in.
"Thank you, Mister..."
"Quoob," the creature said. "Zorris Quoob. I am quite pleased that you have shown interest in applying for the custodian's position, Mr. Bodge. Quite a few of our employees have left us recently, and there haven't been nearly enough applicants to fill all the vacancies."
"Any idea why that is?" Roger inquired.
Quoob's face became even more solemn. He turned and began to make his way towards his desk propelling himself forward with an undulating motion of his four lower tentacles.
"I'm afraid the Bilkoria Amusements, Inc. is a far cry from its former glory," he intoned somberly. "We were once the largest provider of gag items in the entire galaxy...but now it seems that the galaxy's tastes have changed."
Quoob reached his desk and lowered himself into his chair. As he did, a loud, familiar, very unpleasant noise erupted from the chair's seat. Without any change to his expression, Quoob reached under the part of his anatomy that rested on the chair and withdrew a limp, flat, round rubber object about ten inches across with a nozzle at one end. Quoob sneered at it in disgust and flung it in the direction of one of the office's corners.
"The De-Flatus 4000," he said, sounding about as amused as he might be if someone had just dropped a large meteorite on his house. He suddenly glanced to one side, his top-mounted nostrils flaring. His sneer grew even sneerier. "Oh...my mistake, it's the De-Flatus 5000 -- the model with 'authentic odor as well as sound!' Delightful."
Quoob waved the air with a tentacle and Roger put a hand over his mouth and nose.
"As I was saying," the Quoob continued, "We're not making nearly as many profits as we once did. Sales are down, advertising offers are nearly nonexistent, and up until recently, employee morale has been in serious decline."
Roger lowered his hand. Though the air had cleared by now, his eyes still burned slightly.
"Until recently?" he asked.
"Yes," Quoob nodded. "Some genius down in the marketing department suggested that our workers should actually be encouraged to play practical jokes on each other on a regular basis. The reasoning behind this idea was that encountering shenanigans would break up the monotony of the workday and help inspire our employees or something like that -- how that idea actually got accepted, I'll never know. The long and short of it is that now, every worker actively involved in the design and manufacturing process of Bilkoria products is expected to play at least one practical joke on one or more other workers per week."
"So...has enforcing this thing actually helped?"
"I think it's still too soon to judge," Quoob shrugged. "Anyway, as a custodian, you aren't required to follow this protocol. Nonetheless, unless you yourself want to end up a victim of one of these pranks, I'd advise you to stay alert while you're working. You never know what sort of stunt those clowns might pull."
He glanced at the deflated rubber cushion lying in the corner.
"And if, for some insane reason, you feel like doing something similar, I would greatly appreciate it if you would not play any sort of practical joke on me."
Roger nodded rapidly. Quoob launched into a description of what jobs Roger was expected to perform, but Roger was barely paying attention. Something about this place seemed vaguely familiar, even though Roger had no recollection of ever being to Bilkoria Amusements, Inc. before, let alone hearing its name. Before he could quite put his finger on just what he was being reminded of, however, Quoob wrapped up his speech, welcomed Roger to the company and extended one of his upper tentacles.
After some hesitation, Roger shook it. Then, as soon as Quoob dismissed him, Roger made his way to the nearest restroom and started washing his hand in the hottest water he could stand. He had to repeat the process three times before his hand felt normal again.
Quoob had been right to warn Roger to stay alert while working at Bilkoria -- in the first four hours of his first workday alone, Roger had gotten a bucket of viscous material perched on a partially open door dumped on his head, mistaken a puddle of fake barf for real barf (and vice versa) and nearly slipped on an object which seemed very much like a banana peel.
However, the banana peel hadn't taken Roger by surprise -- it had been in plain sight, lying in the middle of the floor of the break room. When Roger first spotted it, he ignored it, intending to look for some drain cleaner in the cupboard under the break room's sink. However, as he walked past the innocuous yellow object, it suddenly zipped across the floor, stopping just where he was about to put his right foot. Astounded, Roger leapt out of its way, only to have it zoom to the side halt where his foot was about to fall a second time. After several seconds of frantic bounding, the peel finally slowed to a halt and refused to move again. Roger gingerly picked it up and found that it was not a banana peel at all -- it had a soft, warm skin and its underside was covered with thousands of tiny, fleshy tubes with miniscule suction cups on the ends.
"Blattvulian Starfish," said a voice behind Roger. He turned to see a vaguely humanoid life form sitting at one of the break room's tables -- obviously one of Roger's fellow employees.
"Pretty cool, huh?" the employee continued. "A banana peel that will actively try to make someone slip on it -- I tell ya, the guys here are geniuses."
Roger stared at the limp creature dangling between his thumb and forefinger.
"But...wouldn't one of these things get killed if someone stepped on it?"
The employee glanced spaceward.
"Ah, some do, some don't...but hey, they've got no brains, so it's not like they feel any pain. Besides, if one creature's suffering means many creatures' amusement, don't you think it's all worth it in the grand scheme of things?"
Somehow, that hit Roger a little close to home. He tossed the starfish onto an empty table and left the break room, leaving the question unanswered.
The next few weeks working at Bilkoria weren't exactly pleasant for Roger, but time spent there was immensely preferable to time spent on Suxtu'biiyu, where the risk of accidentally offending a Phurbian was constantly hanging over his head. Beatrice had tried wearing dark glasses and feigning poor vision in the hopes of discouraging any Phurbians who were likely to accuse her of looking at them in an affectionate manner. She was only marginally successful -- apparently this was an offworlder ruse that had been exposed by the Phurbians some time ago.
In fact, the only Phurbians who treated the two humanoids with the vaguest iota of tolerance were the ones who had allowed Roger and Beatrice couple to rent a Port-A-Pad from them -- a compact, one-room apartment capable of being easily transported from one location to another. There were many cheaper apartments listed in the Suxtu'biiyu database, but many of them were already occupied by at least one other entity, and Roger and Beatrice had no desire to share their living quarters with an unfamiliar species. At best, they ran the risk of having their secret found out; at worst, they ran the risk of one of their roommates mistaking them for a midnight snack.
Renting the Port-A-Pad was no easy task. Despite her many years as an orator, Beatrice had great difficulty speaking to the Phurbians who owned the apartment. After nearly an hour of arguments, pleas and apologies, the Phurbians finally relented. (Of course, when Beatrice went to pick up the Port-A-Pad's keycard from their office, they made sure to inform her of the severe penalties she and Roger would be forced to pay if they failed to pay their rent on time -- grinning maliciously as they did so.)
Fortunately for Roger, the paths of the Phurbians and Bilkoria very rarely crossed. They had essentially "rented" their moon to Bilkoria, and Bilkoria was free to do whatever they wished with the place, provided that their wishes fell within the terms of the Phurbians' many building codes. The Bilkoria headquarters took up several buildings within one large biodome, and the largest building was the one Roger worked in. It was composed mostly of offices, with one or two floors dedicated to storage or the ominously titled "testing rooms".
The many floors of the main building meant that there were many places where Roger could catch a brief nap during his shift, but as he quickly found out, there were very few places in Bilkoria that were truly safe. When he had attempted to settle down for a snooze in one of the broom closets on the 34th floor, he discovered the hard way that chattering Grell teeth weren't just annoying, but very, very painful. Ironically, it seemed that the novelty of working at a company that specialized in novelty items was incredibly short-lived.
One day -- although "day" wouldn't be the most accurate term to use, considering how erratic the day/night cycles on the moon tended to be -- Roger was cleaning up after an employee who had gleefully decorated one of the hallways with Crazy Cord, a colorful substance sold in aerosol cans. It had the consistency of shaving cream when it was first sprayed out, but once dry, it was rock-hard and nearly impossible to remove from any surface. Roger had been attacking it with every cleaning implement he could think of, but so far, he had remained the loser in the Human vs. Crazy Cord battle.
As he was staring at the wall and wondering whether a hammer and a chisel might possibly turn the tide in his favor, Mr. Quoob came gliding towards him. He paused next to Roger, looked at the wall and sighed heavily.
"And to think I once thought Bilkoria would be a fun place to work," the massive creature said wearily. "Sure, it's fun for a while, but there are only so many jokes you can take before they start really getting to you...Oh, and speaking of which, there's a 'Vaporize Me' sign stuck to your back, Bodge."
Roger reached over his shoulder (making him suddenly realize how sore it was) and peeled the sign from his shirt.
"This is truly not a place you want to work at if you want to keep your sense of humor intact," Quoob muttered.
"Uh...did you ever think that maybe this isn't the right job for you?" Roger asked. "I mean, most of the guys I've run into seem to be having fun here."
"Perhaps my species just can't take jokes very well," Quoob mused. "Or maybe I've just been working here too long."
"How long have you been working here?" Roger asked.
"Quite a while, Mr. Bodge...quite a while. I was with this company just when it started to go big...which was right around the time things started to go downhill."
"What happened?" Roger asked.
Quoob inhaled deeply, and Roger realized that he had unwittingly initiated what was commonly referred to as "a long story."
"A few years ago, we started getting deluged with lawsuits from life forms complaining that how they and/or some other individuals were injured or killed after using our products."
He shook his head, anger starting to creep into his voice.
"Doesn't anyone in this universe think anymore!? Do they honestly think that our Death Ray Specs are just a cool-looking pair of sunglasses? Or that our 10,000-Volt Joy Buzzer doesn't actually deliver a 10,000-volt shock?
"We started plastering warning labels all over our merchandise in 172 major languages -- of course, this meant using about 300% more packaging, which cost us even more money -- and still the lawsuits kept coming.
"Then the Phadchanz Casino sued us for 1.6 squillion Buckazoids after purchasing a few hundred of our slot machines -- and that was a case we should have won!" Quoob snapped. "That machine they bought isn't called 'Slots-O-Death' for no reason, and it's got so many warning labels, engravings, scents and tastes on it now that you'd have to be dead already to not notice them!"
Quoob breathed heavily for a couple of minutes, quivering with rage. Eventually he relaxed, returning to his normal, somber self.
"Anyway, paying off that casino put us so deeply in debt that we were forced to downsize. That's when we moved here. Since then, we've been scraping by. We've discontinued some of our less lethal products and started making some more...'safer' items..." -- he spoke the word "safer" as if he had just caught another whiff of the De-Flatus 5000 -- "...and the lawsuits have started dying down...but it seems like every species will always find something to sue us over."
Roger nodded, even though he wasn't really listening to what Quoob was currently saying. Some of the things he had mentioned earlier were ringing some very faint bells in Roger's head.
"How I miss the way things used to be with this company," Quoob said softly, gazing meditatively out the window and let out a heavy sigh through the top of his head. "But then again, even back in the old days, there would always be some wannabe comedian having a little fun...usually at our expense."
"What do you mean?" Roger asked.
"A few years ago," Quoob explained, "Some chucklehead in the publishing department printed a number of order forms with part of the text printed in invisible ink."
"Invisible...ink?" Roger asked.
"Yes -- and it was the kind that stays visible for ninety-six hours, so the forms looked perfectly fine when they were mailed out. It wasn't until years later that we realized what had happened -- about the same time all those lawsuits started rolling in."
Roger froze. The bells inside his head were starting to grow much louder.
"Why that yahoo thought that that joke would be a good one is beyond me -- we were sending out androids to collect payments from thousands of customers that we thought had failed to pay for their orders, but had just been tricked into thinking they were ordering a free item... It was all so horribly messy..."
The bells had now become about as loud as cathedral bells from twenty feet away.
"Our customers would get forms saying something like 'Free Uberglue', but what the form said when it was first printed was 'We WISH we were the kind of guys who would offer you some Free Uberglue, but unfortunately, you'll have to send us 10 Buckazoids if you want a tube!'."
The bells, the bells, THE BELLS!
"And that happened with order forms for dozens of our items, too -- Gambeki Finger Traps, Spontaneous Combustion Powder, Labion Terror Beast Mating Whistles -- ."
Roger would have fallen down if there hadn't been a wall directly behind him.
"Are you all right, Mr. Bodge?" Quoob inquired.
"I'm sorry," Roger said as he shakily righted himself. "I don't always handle epiphanies very well."
Beatrice was sitting at the Port-A-Pad's only table, gazing at a portable computer she had recently bought -- a perfectly justifiable purchase, since their Port-A-Pad lacked a database. Suddenly, the Port-A-Pad's door opened to reveal Roger standing outside. He took one unsteady step inside, then he paused and stood on the threshold, steadying himself against the doorframe. Beatrice looked at him quizzically.
"You're home early today," she said, faintly surprised.
"The Gippozoid Novelty Company changed its name to Bilkoria Amusements, Inc." Roger said tonelessly.
"So?" she replied. "Wait -- You mean you didn't know that?"
Roger shook his head, and Beatrice shrugged.
"Hmm...I thought everybody knew that," she said quietly.
Roger murmured something inaudible, stepped inside the Port-A-Pad, collapsed into the chair across from Beatrice and slumped forward onto the table. Beatrice watched him cautiously for a moment or two, then spoke again:
"Well...it's actually a good thing you came home early, Roger."
Roger slowly raised his face out of the protective nest formed by his interlocked arms.
"Why?" he asked.
Beatrice turned her computer so that Roger could see it. On its screen was an entry in the Suxtuu'biiyu Classifieds. There was a tiny picture of a bulbous, purple thing with a vaguely vehicular shape to it, and the title of the entry read "SURPRISINGLY SPACIOUS MINI-SHUTTLE, COMPLETELY SPACE-WORTHY, LIKE NEW, CHEAP!" Right next to this, in bold red print, was the word "SOLD!"
"I bought us a new ship," Beatrice smiled.
As incredibly varied as aesthetics were for the many sentient species that populated the galaxy, Roger found it hard to imagine that any intelligent life form could see the ship that Beatrice had purchased as anything but ugly. It was squat, bulbous, painted a nauseating shade of purple, and devoid of any feature to inspire any feelings of confidence or pride in its owner.
"I think it's sort of cute," Beatrice said.
"It's embarrassing," Roger retorted.
"It's also the thing that's going to get us out of here," Beatrice snapped. "I'm sorry it's not the most attractive ship in the galaxy, but for 100,000 Skrils, I was lucky to get one that worked."
"Okay, okay, sorry," Roger said. He slowly ran a hand over one of the ship's tail fins and noticed the name Raphus emblazoned on the hull.
"I think it still might need a few adjustments, but it definitely works." Beatrice said. "I just need to make sure it's really as space-worthy as the ad claimed before we leave this planet."
"Good idea," Roger said. "But...where should we go?"
"I actually haven't decided on a destination yet," Beatrice admitted, "But at this point, I'd prefer any planet to this one."
Roger was so elated at the prospect of finally leaving Suxtu'biiyu that he was unnaturally cheery during the next few days as he worked at Bilkoria. The pranks played on him by his co-workers were little more than mild irritations, for he knew that it wouldn't be long before the various unpleasant smells, stains, and messes of Bilkoria would be nothing but memories. Even the incident where a new employee dumped a bucket of water on him that caused his hologarb to start flickering only caused him some mild concern -- a couple of minutes under the hand-drying machine in the restroom seemed to have saved the invaluable device.
However, the sight of a large poster plastered to a wall next to the shuttle station one morning made all of Roger's happiness vanish almost instantaneously.
The poster had his face on it. His real face, not the fake one his hologarb was providing him with. The word "Wanted" was printed above his face in large, bold letters, and below his face in smaller print were the words:
"Wanted for wanton destruction and theft of Bilkoria property. If you see this humanoid or know of his whereabouts, please contact Bilkoria Amusements, Inc. immediately."
For several seconds, Roger could do nothing but stare at the poster in mute horror. He had just started to think that Bilkoria Amusements, Inc. (formerly the Gippazoid Novelty Company) was no longer on his case about the "free" whistle he had ordered. However, it seemed they were still hunting him down...but for different reasons.
"Wanton destruction and theft of Bilkoria property"...that could only refer to the droids that Gippazoid had sent after Roger in the Space Quest III and V time sectors: Arnoid the Annihilator and WD-40. Roger had destroyed both of them (though the second one had been repaired with some drastic alterations), taken Arnoid's invisibility belt, and used the cloaking device from WD-40's ship to hide his own ship. It seemed unlikely that Gippazoid would have overlooked the loss of two such powerful droids that easily. It had taken them a long time, but now it seemed that they finally knew who was responsible...and there didn't seem to be any technicalities involving invisible ink that could clear Roger's name this time.
Then there was the incident with the water bucket. Had the other employee recognized him? Did he know Roger was wearing a hologarb? Whatever the answer was, Roger couldn't risk such a thing happening again. However, Roger knew that there was one last trip to that company he absolutely needed to make.
Once arriving at Bilkoria, Roger went straight to Quoob's office and informed him that he wanted to quit immediately.
"It's my mother-in-law," Roger explained. "She's coming to visit me and my wife, and her brother was killed by one of your Radioactive Ant Farms ten years ago."
Quoob slowly shook his head.
"We tell them right there on the package that those ants will grow 100 times their original size," he sighed, "But they never read it."
"Anyway, we've never met before, but if she finds out that I'm working for you guys..."
"Say no more," Quoob said gloomily. "I understand."
He launched into a speech about how pleased he was to have had Roger working for Bilkoria and how sad he was to learn that Roger would soon be leaving. It sounded as if he had given the exact same speech many times before, and was so devoid of any sort of emotion that Roger didn't even raise an eyebrow at the quality of his work being praised so highly.
After several questions and some paperwork, Roger was no longer an employee of Bilkoria Amusements, Inc. He said his farewells to Quoob, turned to leave, and was just about to step out the door when Quoob spoke again:
"Wait a second, Bodge...come back here. I forgot something."
Roger froze. He looked over his shoulder at Quoob, who motioned for him to come closer. Heart thundering, Roger slowly walked the half-dozen steps to Quoob's desk and waited for the inevitable.
"Here," Quoob said, placing a small cardboard box on the desk. "Some things to remember us by."
Peering into the open box, Roger saw two pairs of chattering teeth, an explosive jawbreaker, a Gambeki Finger Trap, and a can of Crazy Cord.
"We try to give packages like these to all our former employees as a parting gift," Quoob explained. "Just to show our appreciation. If you're worried about your mother-in-law finding any of these things in your place, you can always give them to your friends."
Roger, still somewhat light-headed from his moment of panic, mumbled his thanks. After making up his mind that there was no way these free novelty items could be construed as anything but free, he picked up the box and left Quoob's office.
Beatrice greeted Roger at the door once he made it back to the Port-A-Pad. She seemed less composed than usual and was about to say something to him, but Roger beat her to the punch:
"We've got to leave," he said. "Now."
"Now?" Beatrice asked, her face growing even more distressed. "What do you mean? What's happened?"
Roger told her about the poster. Even though he had just quit his job at Bilkoria, the company was still practically right next door, and Roger had noticed several other posters with his face on them on his way home. If that employee who had drenched Roger told Quoob what had happened, or a Phurbian that had seen one of those posters happened to catch a glimpse of Roger with his hologarb turned off, it was game over for him.
"So where's the Raphus?" Roger asked.
"I...It..." Beatrice faltered.
"It's not still being repaired, is it?"
"Roger..." she said slowly. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, but..."
"What?" Roger asked, growing worried. "What happened to the ship?"
"It's been towed," Beatrice finally said. "I parked it in a zone I shouldn't have parked it. I thought that blue zones were fine to park in, but apparently only on the first and fourth days of the week. Phurbians can see in ultraviolet, and there must have been some ultraviolet markings in that zone that apparently mean that you're not..."
"Where's the impound lot?" Roger interrupted.
"The impound lot. Where is it?"
"It's in Lot 2 in Dome A6," Beatrice said. "Wait...you're not thinking of going there, are you? I was there all morning trying to get the Raphus back, and all I got was a pile of paperwork I need to fill out before anyone there will even talk to me."
"Well, I'm going to try getting it back, too," Roger said solemnly. "You'd better start packing in case I'm successful."
The impound lot was an ugly patch of land near one of the colony's small industrial districts. Roger spotted the Raphus the moment he stepped through the front gate, which was no surprise, given what a gaudy caricature the Raphus was compared to the other spaceships that populated the rest of the lot. It, like the rest of the ships, was anchored to the ground by large yellow parking boot, making takeoff impossible.
The impound lot's office was a small, shabby building, and the door looked so ancient that Roger was surprised that the doorknob didn't come off in his hand when he turned it. As Roger opened the door, he was greeted by a thundering voice that was so full of fiery rage that Roger could almost feel the heat from it on his face.
"NO, I WON'T! YOU CAN PAY FOR THE REPAIRS YOURSELF! WITH A SHIP AS FROOFY AS YOURS, I'M SURE YOU'VE GOT THE MONEY FOR IT!"
Another pause, then:
"I SAID NO! NOW STOP CALLING ME OR I'LL COME OVER AND STAB YOU THROUGH YOUR BRAIN WITH YOUR OWN HOOD ORNAMENT!"
There was the sound a phone being brutally smashed down onto its receiver. There were several heavy footfalls followed by a wall-rattling crash. Then, after a few moments of heavy breathing, there was silence.
Roger cautiously peeked inside. The interior of the building was just as shabby as the exterior, with no furniture but a few threadbare chairs and a single table. Near the back of the room was a window that looked into a small, private office. Roger slowly approached the window. Looking through it, he saw what at first looked like a huge, hairy, scaly mound. As he drew closer, he could see that this was just the back of an enormous, red creature with large, leathery scales. The creature was hunched over and breathing heavily, still quivering with rage. Eventually, it turned and noticed Roger, and its already annoyed face grew even more peeved at the sight of him. The creature pulled itself up to its full nine-foot-plus height, then lowered itself into a ridiculously diminutive desk chair standing next to the counter.
"What do you want?" it rumbled.
"Um..." Roger said nervously, "Well, you see, my wife and I...we had a ship, and you towed it here."
The creature's frown deepened.
"Name?" it asked.
"Nellwood Bodge," Roger replied.
"Of the ship, you denseling," the creature snarled.
"Oh," Roger said. "The Raphus."
The creature sighed, turned to a nearby monitor and began pecking away at a keyboard with many dented and mangled keys.
"Oh dear," the creature said after it ceased typing, without a shred of empathy to its words. "Parked in an Ultra Zone on the fifth day of the week? That's not good."
"I know," Roger said, "But I'd really like to get it back."
"In that case," the creature said, "I'll have to ask you to fill out these..."
It produced a stack of forms from a drawer and slapped them down on the counter.
"...and after that, if you could pay the full 5,000 Skril fine, we should have your vehicle ready to be returned to you within a couple of weeks."
Roger stared at the pile of paperwork, overwhelmed with dismay.
"But..." he protested, "Isn't there some way we could get our ship back sooner? I can probably pay most of that fee right away, but..."
The baleful glare of the creature put a premature end to Roger's request.
"Look," the creature said, in a voice so deep that it made the floor tremble, "I don't like this job. In fact, I downright hate it. The only reason I'm working here is because those fuzzy little fascists found me guilty of breaking one of their petty little laws. They gave me the choice of either two years of incarceration or two months working here. "You think coming here is a pain? Try working here. I've been at this lot for four weeks so far, and I can't tell you how close I've gotten to busting out of here and ripping the heads off of every walking, talking hairball I see. Now, I don't know you and you don't know me, but for both of our sakes, could you just let me do my job?""
"So..." Roger said after a long pause, "There's no way I could get my ship back any sooner?"
The creature quivered dangerously and seemed as if it were about to launch into another bombastic tirade, but the cheery chime of the phone seemed to quench its fury. With two massive claws, it picked up the receiver, holding it to its tiny ear.
"A6 Towing," it droned.
Roger could just make out the voice of the other end. It wasn't a Phurbian's, but it sounded just as irritated as Phurbians usually were. The creature's expression began to darken again as it listened to the voice.
"Overcharged you?" it asked, tapping away at its keyboard as it spoke. "I'm sorry, Sir, but I've got your file on my screen right now, and it says you were fined the same amount that everyone who parks in a Red Zone is fined: 2,000 Skril."
The voice at the other end became slightly louder.
"I'm telling you, that's what the fine is," the creature growled.
The voice persisted. The creature listened in silence for a few seconds, but it wasn't long before something inside its brain finally snapped:
"LISTEN, YOU LAME-BRAINED WASTE OF CARBON," the creature roared. "YOU PAID THE FINE, YOU GOT YOUR SHIP, AND THAT'S IT! IF YOU'RE NOT HAPPY, THEN TOUGH! IF YOU STILL WANNA WHINE ABOUT IT, THEN THE NEXT TIME YOU PARK IN A RED ZONE, I'LL MAKE SURE YOU FORK OVER 2,000 SKRILS PLUS AT LEAST HALF OF YOUR VITAL ORGANS!"
Slam went the receiver. The creature panted heavily for a few moments, its eyes staring blankly ahead, awash in pure bestial rage. Finally, it composed itself and turned to address Roger.
"Excuse me," it said, "But there is something I need to go get. I will be back shortly."
The creature squeezed itself through the door into the lobby, its scales brutally scratching the doorframe as it did so. After it left the building, Roger waited until his hands had stopped trembling, then peered over the counter. On the back wall, he saw a small pegboard filled with old-fashioned metal keys with yellow tags. Those had to be keys to the parking boots...but which key unlocked the boot anchoring his ship? Perhaps he could look up the parking space his ship was in by using the creature's computer, but what if the creature returned before he was successful? Roger didn't want to ponder that question too deeply. He was certain that the answer involved pain, dismemberment, and eventually death.
Looking at the floor, Roger noticed an untidy pile of nuts, bolts, wiring and scrap metal. It looked like it had once been a small robot. Apparently it was what exploded when Roger had first walked in, but Roger couldn't figure out what would make a robot of that size explode in such a dramatic fashion unless someone stuck a live grenade inside it.
The squeak of the office door and the scrape of scales along the doorframe heralded the return of the A6 Towing employee. Roger turned around to see the creature walking his way with a large box under its arm. The creature re-entered its cubicle, informed Roger that it would be with him shortly, then opened the box, dumping an assortment of fasteners, wires, wheels, circuit boards and other assorted parts onto the floor, parts which Roger realized were part of a Do-It-Yourself robot assembly kit. The parts also bore an uncanny resemblance to the nearby pile of scrap.
Glancing at the box itself, Roger saw an illustration of a small, red robot on it. Above the robot were printed the words: "The Bot-Tharsis! Goes to pieces with a single kick or your money back!" Intrigued, Roger continued to study the box.
"Are your frustrations with modern technology getting in the way of your peace of mind?" the text on the box inquired. "Are your aggressions with intelligent computers, AIs, and other forms of synthetic life keeping you from enjoying your own life? Are you just someone who is so fed up with the stresses of your day-to-day routine that you constantly feel like beating the functionality out of the nearest machine?
"In that case, the Bot-Tharsis is just what you need! Whenever you get so annoyed with machines that you feel like throwing them out the nearest window, just take your anger out on the Bot-Tharsis! It's guaranteed to explode in a satisfying shower of parts with just one kick, which has been clinically proven to be one of the most effective remedies to technology-induced frustration. It's cheap and easy-to-assemble. No more expensive computers smashed in a fit of rage, no more million-Skril robots torn limb from limb -- just one swift kick to the Bot-Tharsis will make all your Tech Rage melt away!"
Though the concept of a robot designed to malfunction puzzled Roger at first, the more he studied the box's spiel, the more sense it seemed to make to him. He couldn't count the number of times he'd been tempted to put his fist through a non-compliant computer's monitor or brutally punt a particularly annoying small robot, and he could only imagine how much stronger such urges were for a creature as temperamental as the red colossus behind the counter.
Suddenly, an idea began to germinate in Roger's mind. He watched the creature closely, waiting until it finished assembling the robot it was working on. Fortunately, this didn't take much longer than five minutes. After the creature closed a small access panel on the robot's front and pressed a button on its underside, the automaton sprang to life and began to freely roll around the office on its four delicate wheels. The creature nodded, seeming pleased with itself.
"Excuse me?" Roger said.
"What?" the creature rumbled, sounding only mildly annoyed this time.
"While you were gone, I looked outside and saw a couple of young Phurbians running around the lot."
The creature's eyes blazed.
"Phurbians?" it snarled. "What were they doing?"
"Nothing -- at least, not when I saw them," Roger said. "But I'm pretty sure one of them was carrying a can of spray paint."
The creature bared its teeth. Rising to its feet and cursing under its breath, it stomped out of the building at a deliberate pace. Once the thunderous footfalls had faded away, Roger crawled over the counter and into the office. He studied the Bot-Tharsis as it aimlessly wandered around the floor, seeming completely oblivious to him. Among the nest of packing material left over from the robot's box, Roger discovered a small screwdriver. Grabbing this, he gently picked the robot up. It was surprisingly light, and its sides seemed about as sturdy as cardboard.
Unscrewing the robot's access panel revealed its surprisingly empty interior. There were a few wires and circuits, but aside from them, the only noteworthy thing inside the robot was a small, round, metal device mounted on a steel rod sticking up from the base of the robot's body. Roger realized this had to be the explosive that triggered the robot's spectacular demise. One good kick to the robot's flimsy frame would trigger it.
He pulled out the can of Crazy Cord Quoob had given him and carefully began spraying it into the robot's body. Gradually, all the empty space inside the robot became filled with the colorful mess, completely encasing the explosive in a hard, crusty shell. Satisfied with his efforts, Roger resealed the robot and set it back down on the floor. Surprisingly, it continued functioning just as normally as before, albeit a bit more sluggishly.
Roger replaced the screwdriver and climbed back over the counter into the lobby, and not a moment too soon -- within a minute, the creature had returned, looking very displeased.
"If there were any Phurbians out there, they're gone now," it growled as it returned to its chair.
"They didn't tag any of the ships, did they?" Roger asked, feigning concern.
"I didn't see any tagging," the creature said, "But -- "
Once again, the phone jangled. Grinding its teeth, the creature picked up the receiver. This time, the being on the other end was practically begging for the creature to return his ship to him, but the creature informed the caller that he hadn't filled out pages 8 through 10 of Form 113-J, despite the caller's claim that he had. The creature attempted to look up the caller's file on its computer, but apparently something wasn't working quite right. The creature hammered on its keyboard relentlessly before giving up, then informed the caller that if he didn't stop complaining and turn in the missing pages of 113-J, A6 Towing would cheerfully return the caller's ship by dropping it onto his house from a height of at least 200 feet.
Slamming the receiver down, the creature got to its feet, growled, and gave the Bot-Tharsis a half-hearted kick. There was a dull clang, but no explosion. The creature paused, then kicked the robot again. When it got nothing for its efforts but a second dull clang, it let out a primal bellow and kicked the robot so forcefully that it flew through the air, made a 4-inch-deep dent in the wall and then tumbled to the floor...still completely intact.
The creature let out a roar which shook the building and began to lay waste to the office. Filing cabinets were gutted and stomped into irregularly-shaped chunks of metal, the computer was obliterated, and the Bot-Tharsis' box was reduced to confetti. The creature tore its office door from its hinges and came barreling through the lobby, crashing through the door which led outside. Fortunately, Roger had started backing away from the creature the moment the phone conversation had started, and had concealed himself behind one of the larger chairs in the lobby. If he hadn't done this, the creature would have doubtlessly have twisted and mangled his body into a shape strongly reminiscent of a piece of modern sculpture, one which would have sparked numerous interpretations of its meaning by countless Phurbian art students.
Emerging from his hiding place, Roger crossed the tiny waiting room and climbed behind the counter. The Bot-Tharsis, a bit dented but still unexploded, seemed to peer at him with a puzzled expression. Roger picked up the pegboard, which had been knocked to the floor but miraculously was still in one piece. With the creature's computer out of commission, it looked as if Roger was going to have to find which key matched his ship's parking boot the hard way. With the pegboard tucked under his arm, he ran from the office. The impound lot's main gate had been reduced to a tangle of metal by the creature's rampage, and Roger could faintly hear the sound of terrified shouting off in the distance.
Roger ran to the spot where the Raphus was parked. Glancing at the symbol stenciled on the ground in front of it, Roger scanned the pegboard until he found a key with an identical symbol. He carefully inserted this key into the socket on the parking boot, and to his relief, the boot immediately came unlocked. Roger unlocked the ship, hurried inside and turned it on. For one brief, terrible second, it seemed as if nothing was happening. Then, the engine slowly spluttered to life, and Roger carefully elevated the ship until he was above the top of the barbed wire fence the surrounded the lot. Then he jammed the throttle forward, and the ship sped away, out of the lot and out of A6.
Roger had probably broken at least thirty Phurbian laws in the last five minutes, but fortunately, most of the Phurbians in A6 were too busy running from a huge red creature running wild in their neighborhood to notice anything else. Thanks to Roger, they were becoming reacquainted with something they had not encountered as a species for many, many generations: True fear.
Within an hour, Roger and Beatrice had cleared out their Port-A-Pad and left the Suxtuu'biiyu spaceport. It wasn't until were completely free of the planet's gravitational pull that Roger allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. Beatrice had a lot of questions for Roger, including how he had retrieved the Raphus so quickly, and whether he had any idea what had caused the emergency sirens in their neighborhood to start going off several minutes before his arrival, but she decided that those questions could be saved until later. Instead, she told him about a planet several systems away named Xirdneth -- a large planet with an equally large population, which seemed to be on par with Xenon in regards to its level of technology. It would take them a couple of weeks to get there in the Raphus, but it seemed well worth the wait.
For several Xenon Standard Days, the Raphus sped merrily along, but Roger was unable to relax. He kept thinking about the company that had once been Gippazoid, wondering if he was truly rid of them and why he had never again been hounded by them while he was still Roger Prime. When he finally broached the topic with Beatrice, she looked thoughtful for a moment, then said:
"Well, since Bilkoria filed for bankruptcy a while ago in our own time, I'd say it's obvious why they've left both of you alone."
"Bilkoria filed for bankruptcy?" Roger repeated in surprise.
"Yes -- it happened just a few months after we started dating...I guess it can't have happened yet in this timeline, though."
Beatrice paused, gazing at Roger with a puzzled expression.
"Wait -- you didn't know that?" she asked.
Roger shook his head.
"Hmm," Beatrice shrugged. "I thought everybody knew that."
(SQV|| SUXTUU'BIIYU ||00:24:03:07:12)
The Raphus, Roger discovered, wasn't as bad on the inside as it was on the outside. It was surprisingly spacious, even with two people sharing it. It had two sleeping cots, a food and drink dispenser, and even an older database. The pilot's and co-pilot's chairs were even equipped with seat belts -- a feature which had become less and less common on many of the spacecraft in Roger and Beatrice's time, despite numerous complaints from many transportation safety organizations.
However, Roger was still skeptical about the reliability of the Raphus. The controls didn't always behave the way he wanted them to, and he often heard strange sounds coming from the engine. When their journey from Suxtuu'biiyu began, Roger was afraid that the Raphus would suffer a malfunction before they were a quarter of the way to Xirdneth. However, it wasn't until halfway to their destination that things started going wrong.
It all started with a loud clunk from the belly of the ship that woke Beatrice out of a deep sleep. Unstrapping herself from her cot, she hurried to the cockpit and saw that several ominous red warning lights were on. Yelling at Roger to wake up, she hurriedly began to search the ship's database for the nearest habitable world. This turned out to be a small planet named Minott, which the database claimed to be inhabited by a sentient species with a moderately advanced civilization. Under the circumstances, Beatrice couldn't have asked for more.
After nearly an hour of tension, fear and near-panic, the Raphus made a majestic controlled crash onto the surface of Minott, just a few hundred yards away from the outskirts of Finndo, the planet's largest city. As Roger opened the ship and stepped outside, he realized that although there seemed to be in no imminent danger of the ship exploding, there was no denying that there was something seriously wrong with it. Opening the maintenance hatch revealed what the problem was: one of the ion coils hadn't been anchored properly, and the constant vibrations of the ship had knocked it out of alignment.
"If we don't get that coil fixed, it's only a matter of time before it fails," Beatrice sighed. "Then that engine won't be anything more than two tons of dead weight."
"I sure hope they can help us," Roger said, gesturing towards the crowd of aliens that was slowly approaching them.
The planet Minott was first discovered several hundred years ago, and though its people had willingly embraced most of the information and technology their visitors had shared with them, their civilization appeared very much unchanged from its primitive past. The roads were unpaved, most of the buildings were built out of clay bricks, and even the largest cities on the planet took less than a day to pass through. However, closer examination would reveal that the wheeled carts which were their chief mode of transportation were pulled by robots, most individuals owned a telescreen or a database, and even though the Minottans had never shown any interest in space travel, there were still a few establishments on the planet which specialized in repairing spaceships.
As for the Minottans themselves, they were creatures with flat, roughly square bodies, with one spindly leg to each corner, with two eyestalks and two prehensile tentacles protruding from the center of their bodies. For many visitors, it was difficult to describe them adequately without resorting to the phrase "table-shaped".
Though the Minottans had welcomed the contributions from visitors from other worlds with open arms, they were surprisingly less welcoming of actual visitors. The average off-worlder would usually be shunned by the Minottans, while a more fortunate one would be tolerated...up to a point. It was difficult to say why the Minottans had such a profound dislike of other sentient species, but many had hypothesized that some sort of deep-seated cultural reason was behind it -- after all, the Minottans did have a habit of clinging tenaciously to their traditions, despite the sudden rise of technology on their world.
The only off-worlders living in Finndo besides Roger and Beatrice were two humanoids named Grenold and Arngor, who both lived and worked in a small hangar on the outskirts of the city. They ran a small interplanetary taxi service (which didn't extend any further than four light-years) as well as a modest repair shop. After the humanoids had examined the Raphus, they informed Roger and Beatrice that the repairing the ion coil would cost 3,500 Buckazoids. Roger's heart sank at this. Once again, he would have to find some way of earning money, and on a planet as unfriendly towards off-worlders as Minott, that hardly seemed like an easy task. Fortunately, Grenold and Arngor were kind enough to offer them a place to stay, and even though said "place" was just a bare patch of land next to the hangar which was just large enough to park the Raphus on, Roger and Beatrice couldn't afford to be choosy in their current predicament. Unsurprisingly, there were very few Minottans who were even willing to entertain the notion of Roger working for them. Most of them would turn him away as soon as the words "I'm looking for a job" were uttered by him, and the few meetings with prospective employers that he did get resulted in the exact same outcome.
The only lucrative activity Roger was eventually able to find was at a tiny restaurant. His job (if it could be called that) was walking around the city wearing a shirt that randomly flashed subliminal advertisements for the restaurant and its various dishes. The pay wasn't great, but it wasn't every day Roger had the chance to earn money by just taking a casual stroll. The only real problem he ran into was when he happened to glance at his reflection in a shop window and suddenly found himself craving kaetS kideN.
One thing Roger noticed as he continued to walk around Finndo were the tall metal spires which he would occasionally see standing in a vacant lot, a wide field, or near the outskirts of the city. At first he thought they were antennas of some kind, but their lack of any lights, panels, or anything mechanical made him wonder whether they were bizarre works of art, of possibly religious symbols of some kind.
When Roger was able to get the attention of a passing Minottan during one of his daily jaunts, he asked the little creature about the spires. However, the Minottan only mumbled an unfamiliar word under its breath, then hurried on its way. Two more attempts yielded the same result, and Roger eventually gave up. As he continued walking, he noticed that the streets were becoming strangely quiet. The longer he walked, the fewer Minottans there were to be seen. He stopped walking, wondering if such a dearth of potential customers was reason enough for him to take the rest of the day off. It was then that he realized how cold the day had become, and how thick the clouds overhead were getting.
Yes, Roger decided. He was definitely going to take the rest of the day off.
By the time Roger had made it back to the Raphus, it was so overcast that it seemed as if evening had arrived several hours early. The wind had picked up as well, blowing stinging waves of sand across the streets.
"It looks awful out there," Beatrice remarked as he stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind him. "I don't blame you for coming home early. Even Grenold and Arngor have shut up shop for the day."
"Hook anybody today?" Beatrice asked.
"Maybe one or two," Roger shrugged. "I might've earned a whole ten Buckazoids today."
He collapsed into the chair in front of the ship's database and began to idly browse its various entries. Beatrice sighed and returned her attention to her computer. She was desperately trying to find another repair shop that didn't charge as much as Grenold and Arngor, but so far, her searches had turned up nothing. For some time, Roger and Beatrice remained engrossed in their respective activities, with the only sound coming from the wind outside.
"Wow," Roger remarked, glancing out a porthole at the darkening sky, "It just keeps getting worse out there! What's the forecast like, Bea?"
Happy to do something that didn't have a strong chance of ending in complete failure, Beatrice looked up the local weather report. Unfortunately, the weather was starting to have an impact on the network she was using, and it took nearly two minutes for the report to fully load.
"Hmm...'60% chance of thlekthras today. Staying indoors strongly recommended. If you must go outside for any reason, be sure to wear a grounding device. You have been warned.'."
"What the heck's a 'thlekthra?'" Roger asked, cautiously trying out the unfamiliar syllables.
"I don't know," Beatrice admitted. "It sounds like some kind of meteorological phenomenon, but there doesn't seem to be a word for it in our language...Just a minute, I'll look it up."
She entered the word and waited for the network to respond. Roger returned to what he had been doing on the database before the weather had distracted him: flipping through a listing of all the ships available in various used shipyards throughout the quadrant, trying to find one that had a cool name as well as a low price. The list was in alphabetical order, and he was currently about halfway through the 50,000 or so A's.
Altitonant...Altikron's Gem...Altarian Bolt...Aluminum Mallard...Alu'Quistaa...
Wait a minute...
Roger blinked and backtracked to the previous ship's entry. His eyes widened. There was no mistaking that name or the image next to it. It was his ship -- well, it had been his ship until it had gotten towed after he had accidentally parked it in a handicapped section at StarCon Academy. He had never been able to scrape together enough money to get it back and had almost forgotten about it over the years...but to see it now, looking almost as pristine as it had when he first discovered it half-buried in that trash freighter, Roger felt the hand of nostalgia pluck at his heartstrings.
He had to have that ship, no matter how far away it was and how much it cost. He glanced at the location of the ship and the price, and was astonished to find that not only was the ship within his price range, but the planet that Fizak's Used Ship Emporium was located on was only two light-years away. It almost seemed too good to be true. At last he would have something familiar to have with him as he and Beatrice continued their --
"Roger, where are you going?" Beatrice asked, looking up from her computer. Roger, who had nearly reached the ship's door by this point, turned to Bea and spoke to her as if he were six years old and had just gotten his first Hoverboard (not that this had ever actually happened to him).
"The Aluminum Mallard is at a used shipyard on Plaxurik II!" he exclaimed.
"The Aluminum what?"
"That old ship I used to have," Roger said. "And I've got just enough Buckazoids to buy it! We don't have to fix that purple hunk of scrap at all -- we can just sell it after I buy the Mallard! All I need to do is catch a taxi out to the Dexikor System, and I'll be back here in just a couple of days!"
Beatrice glared sternly at him.
"Roger, we are not buying another ship," she said. "And you are definitely not...Hey! Look at me when I'm -- ."
Beatrice's sentence was cut short as Roger, completely oblivious to her words, opened the door, only to nearly be bowled over by a strong gust of wind that came hurtling inside.
"And you're definitely not going outside in this weather!" Beatrice continued. When Roger promptly did just what she had ordered him not to, Beatrice cursed under her breath and was rising from her cot to chase after him when she noticed that the entry on thlekthras had finally finished loading on her computer. After reading the first few sentences of the entry, panic seized her. She turned and bolted out of the Raphus, but was forced to cling to the doorframe in order to remain standing. Roger had almost made it to the road by now, wobbling unsteadily in the fierce wind.
"Roger!" she screamed, trying to make herself heard over the howling maelstrom. "You've got to get back inside! It's not safe out here!"
"Hey, it's just a little storm," Roger hollered over his shoulder. "I can handle something like -- ."
Suddenly, the gloomy sky was illuminated by something that looked like a blue lightning bolt twisted into a spiral. It spun out of the clouds and came crashing to the ground several hundred yards away from where Roger was standing.
"What was that!?" Roger yelped.
"That was a thlekthra!" Beatrice yelled. "Roger, get back in the ship -- now!"
Even though he still had no idea what a thlekthra was, the sight of one made Roger think that perhaps staying inside was a good idea after all. However, as he was turning to walk back to the Raphus, another strong gust of wind caught him, this one so strong that it sent him flying across the road, eventually crashing into the base of one of those mysterious metal spires. Roger lay stunned for a moment, then started to pull himself to his feet, using the spire to support him. However, just as he had hoisted himself into a hunched but steady sitting position, the gray sky above him flared with light again. Roger looked up just in time to see a blue spiraling lightning bolt come snaking down from what seemed to be directly above him. In a matter of nanoseconds, the bolt had struck the spire Roger was clinging to, then vanished.
After recovering from the brief blindness caused by the flash, Beatrice stared at the spot the thlekthra had hit. The spire was still there, looking completely undamaged. Roger, however, was gone.
You can't go back.
That voice again. Roger had heard it before, yet he still had no idea who or what it belonged to.
As Roger feebly tried to understand what the voice meant, he suddenly remembered what had happened to him on Minott, which pushed the voice (as well as any thoughts about the voice) out of his mind.
He slowly regained consciousness to find himself lying on his back on a rough surface with several pairs of Minottan eyestalks peering down at him. The Minottans that the stalks belonged to scurried backwards as Roger attempted to get to his feet, only to collapse as a wave of exhaustion and disorientation overtook him. Through unfocused eyes, he tried to take in his surroundings. He appeared to be inside a primitive, clay-brick hut with a dirt floor and barely any furnishings. It was night outside, and the interior of the hut was lit by a small fire pit in the center. As his vision grew clearer, he noticed that the Minottans were all staring at him, not looking mildly repulsed (as they usually did upon seeing him), but genuinely apprehensive and worried.
One of the Minottans swiveled its eyestalks towards its neighbor.
"Do you think it is the one?" it whispered.
The other Minottan glanced at Roger.
"I doubt it," it muttered after examining him for several seconds.
"But it appeared out of thin air in the middle of the Storm, just as the prophecy foretold!" a third Minottan chimed in. "It must be the one!"
"Erki-9, an alien has appeared out of thin air during the Storm five times now," the second Minottan said coldly. "And they all either ran away or tried to defeat the invaders and never returned."
Roger stared at the now crestfallen Minottan that the second Minottan had spoken to. Erki-9...Roger recognized that name. That was the name of the Minottan who owned the restaurant Roger was working for. In fact, come to think of it, some of the other Minottans seemed vaguely familiar to him as well...but what had happened to them? What were they all doing here, in this primitive hut?
Roger glanced out the hut's open doorway, and was shocked to see many more similar huts standing outside, their round windows faintly aglow. Though the sky was dark and thick with clouds, the sharp, spindly mountains in the distance confirmed that Roger was not only still on Minott, but in the exact same place as well. Roger gazed in astonishment and fear at the radically altered landscape, then turned back to the circle of Minottans that still stood facing him.
"Uh..." he began.
"It speaks!" Erki-9 said excitedly. "Perhaps it will tell us whether it truly is the one the prophecy foretold!"
"Uh..." Roger repeated, "What's going on?"
The answer Roger received was very long, but it did answer most of his questions. Vrivri-10 told Roger that many years ago, a flying metal monstrosity had landed near the center of the continent, and from the belly of this monstrosity came strange, squat beings armed with weapons that killed their targets without even touching them. These beings enslaved the Minottans and forced them to build a large underground fortress in the middle of their largest city, surrounded by high walls so that none of the Minottans could enter it. Ever since then, the Minottans had served the invaders, with all their attempts to fight back ending in failure. Their cities degraded into slums as the demands of their leaders became greater and greater.
"But why did they enslave you?" Roger asked when he was able to get a word in edgewise. "And why have they stayed here for so long?"
"Starstones," Vrivri-10 said, lowering his eyestalks morosely. "They are a rare, precious gem found in some of the caves outside what used to be our city. The invaders must have learned of the starstones and come here to take them for themselves. They stripped our caves bare of the stones long ago, now they continue mine for them deep underground, with their fortress as their home base."
"Did they make you do the mining?" Roger asked, dimly remembering how he had barely escaped Sludge Vohaul's plan to make him work in the Orium mines on the planet Labion.
"No," Vrivri-10 replied. "They used machines to do the work for them. The ones they used in the caves were miniscule compared to the ones they now use beneath the earth. The noise made by those machines can be heard and felt up here on the surface...and approximately every three crossings of our largest moon, a massive void some distance from the walls of the fortress's entrance opens up, and a massive metal cone with a fiery tail bursts from it and disappears into the heavens. Then, three crossings after that..."
Roger attempted to digest all of this new information. That strange, spiraling trail of light that had struck him outside the apartment must have transported him somewhere else, but it hadn't taken him to a different time or place...it was a different version of that same time and place. Alternate reality, parallel universe, whatever the proper name for his current location was, that thlekthra had brought him there. But how was he going to get back to the Minott he had come from?
Suddenly, there was a bright blue flash outside the hut. A thlekthra! This alternate Minott had thlekthras too...and if one thlekthra had brought him here, perhaps another one would...
"...and when we reread this prophecy, a few of us felt that it was speaking of our enslavement by the invaders, and that the Storm would one day drop a stranger into our midst who would conquer the invaders and free us from their tyranny."
"What?" Roger asked, not realizing that Vrivri-10 had still been talking during his reverie.
"I said that there is an ancient prophecy that speaks of a time when our people will find themselves in times of great trouble, and that a savior would come and liberate us," Vrivri-10 said with a hint of impatience in his voice, "And some of us -- "
He flicked his eyestalks in the direction of Erki-9 as he said this.
" -- believe that you are that savior."
He wearily cast his eyestalks downward.
"Just like they believed those other four unlucky zleegs were that savior," he muttered coldly.
"Uh," Roger said slowly, "I'm afraid that I'm not the guy your prophecy was talking about."
Several of the Minottans stared at him with wide, despairing eyes.
"I'm sorry," Roger continued as tactfully as he was able, "But I got here completely by accident, and all I want to do now is get back to where I came from."
The Minottans stared mutely at Roger, their expressions frozen. Another thlekthra struck the ground several miles away, prompting Roger to speak again:
"What do you know about those spiraling lightning bolt things?"
All the Minottans lowered their eyestalks, as if they were in mourning.
"What? What did I say?"
"The Hands of the Storm," Vrivri-10 said solemnly. "When the Storm comes, they reach down, searching for someone to snatch from us. Most of those who are caught by them...are never seen again."
"Well," said Roger slowly, "I want one of those Hands to grab me."
The Minottans backed away from him in horror. Even the emotionless Vrivri-10 looked shocked.
"Grab you?" he gasped. "Has the Storm robbed you of your sense of self-preservation, Stranger?"
"I mean it," Roger said. "One of those 'Hands' grabbed me from where I came from and dropped me here. I think the only way I can return is if one of the Hands here grabs me. Now how can I make that happen?"
The Minottans looked dubiously at each other, muttering nervously. Eventually, Vrivri-10 spoke again:
"There is no way of telling when and where the Hands will reach," he said. "The odds of getting randomly struck by one are astronomically low...and the only thing we know of that attracts them is metal."
Metal -- of course! The pole that Roger had hit had definitely been made of metal. Now all he needed to do was to construct a similar pole here. When Roger asked where he could get some metal, Vrivri-10's eyestalks once again drooped sadly.
"The invaders took every scrap of metal from us when they took over," he said. "For what purpose, we know not. Perhaps to repair existing machines with, perhaps to create new ones...or perhaps they simply don't want to give us the opportunity to create any weapons that could be used against them."
Roger's shoulders slumped as the implications of all he had heard so far began to grow clear. He was in an alternate version of planet where its inhabitants had been enslaved by aliens for many years. Unsurprisingly, the Minottans were unhappy about this, and had desperately clung to the hope of the arrival of someone who would defeat the invaders. Roger had no desire to risk his life infiltrating the invaders' fortress and just wanted to get back to the version of this planet that he had been plucked from, but the only way to do that was with a metal pole of some kind...and any metal the Minottans had was now in possession of the invaders...
Roger hung his head. It looked as if there was no way he was getting back home without fulfilling those crazy walking tables' prophecy...or at least trying to. He muttered that he was willing to help the Minottans, who trilled joyfully in response.
"I told you he was the one!" Erki-9 said, bouncing around giddily.
Several days later, preparations had been made for Roger's mission. The plan was to hide out near the "void" the Minottans had spoken of (which was clearly a hatch for the invaders' departing and arriving ships). Once the void opened and a "cone" had departed, Roger would then descend into the void before it closed. From there he would make his way to the invaders' main base and find a way to defeat them (hopefully). The problem of how Roger would survive the fall through the void was easily solved when Roger recalled an early anti-gravity device he had read about called a "parachute." He created a crude model of it out of leaves and cord, and several of the Minottans were able to create a full-sized version of it out of animal skins and tendons. The only other things they could provide Roger with for his mission were a leather pouch of water and piece of sharpened piece of rock similar to the flint tools used by ancient Terrans. The rock was hardly a sophisticated weapon, but for a society reduced to such a primitive level, stone tools were the most cutting-edge technology they had.
After two days of anxious waiting, the massive hatch began to open. Accompanied by two of the Minottans, Roger hurried to a spot several hundred yards away from the hatch and watched as a long, tapered ship shot out of the opening, the air around them filled with the blinding glow of the rocket nozzle and the rumble of the engines. As soon as the light had faded enough, Roger hurried toward the hatch. Then suddenly, the cautious, analytical part of his mind leaped to the forefront of his brain, making him come to a screeching halt just inches away from the rim of the hatch.
Roger stared blankly at the dark abyss before him, wondering what in the universe had made him think this was a good idea. He had volunteered to take out a bunch of hostile aliens single-handed. He had done this before, but would he be able to do it again? When he had taken on the Sariens, he was young, reckless, and the urge to stop the creatures that planned to wreak havoc on the galaxy and leave his home world to die a slow, freezing death burned within him like a supernova. Now he was older, a bit more cautious, and the only reason he was helping the Minottans was to help himself.
Before he could ponder this idea any longer, however, the hatch began to close, and Roger's basic instincts took over. He took a few steps backward, then leapt forward into the smoke-filled void.
Roger's touchdown on the landing pad was thankfully uneventful. Getting inside the fortress without being recognized as an intruder was a little trickier, but he was able to pull off that feat as well. With the help of his hologarb and a few materials he found lying around the shuttle bay, he put together a fairly convincing disguise to make him resemble one of the invaders thanks to the thorough descriptions of them that the Minottans had provided. Once he was inside the fortress, he began searching it cautiously, trying to get a feel for the place. The entire fortress appeared to have been carved right out of the living rock of the planet, making it feel like a branching network of tunnels. He could hear massive machines whirring, beeping and rumbling behind the many metal doors he passed, and judging by the nearly deserted tunnels, most if not all of the invaders were manning or monitoring those machines. Unfortunately, even the doors that didn't have machines whirring, beeping and rumbling coming from the other side of them were locked, and there seemed to be no way of unlocking them.
After a few fruitless hours of searching the fortress, Roger began to grow tired -- and the warm, poorly ventilated tunnels were making him extremely thirsty. As he was about to round yet another corner, he stopped, leaned against the uncomfortable rock wall, and took the water pouch out of his pocket. However, no sooner had he taken his first sip from it when one of the invaders suddenly appeared from around a bend in the tunnel. A large blaster hung from a belt around its otherwise bare waist, and its perplexed expression made it clear that Roger's disguise wasn't as convincing as Roger had hoped it was.
For some time, the Minottans crouched in their huts, fervently hoping that this new stranger would succeed. When he had entered the void, the sun had been low in the sky. Now it had been night for some time, and the middle-sized moon was rapidly catching up to the largest moon. When a massive explosion rent the stillness of the night, most of the Minottans had become dormant, but the few that were still conscious cautiously approached the spot where the explosion had come from -- the walled entrance to the fortress.
As they soon discovered, the wall was no longer completely impenetrable: where the massive doors once were was now a gaping hole, surrounded by rubble and billowing dust. There was a figure running towards the Minottans, who thought it was one of the invaders at first until they recognized its clothing and its voice. They gleefully ran to greet their savior, but he stopped them, informing them that the battle for their freedom wasn't over yet. He explained that there were still many remaining invaders, but he knew how they could be defeated. After all of the necessary supplies had been gathered, the Minottans took off towards the fortress, the tantalizing scent of victory strong in their olfactory receptors.
As the Minottans were attacking the fortress, Roger remained in one of the huts in their village, taking a well-deserved (and much-needed) rest. Just about every single joint in his body was aching, including a few he didn't even know he had. As he lay on the thin blanket the Minottans had given him, he replayed his infiltration of the invaders' fortress in his head, especially that one serendipitous event that had revealed the invaders' key weakness to him:
When that lone invader had appeared while Roger had paused for a drink of water, Roger had leapt back with a shout and involuntarily swung the water pouch in a shallow arc in the invader's direction, spraying it with the clear liquid. To Roger's astonishment, the invader let out a hissing moan of pain and sank to the ground. The areas of its skin that the water had touched were sizzling and melting away, as if the creature had been splashed with acid. Within a minute, the invader's flailing had grown still, though the water still continued to eat away at its dark gray skin. For a few minutes, Roger stared at the alien's body with a mixture of horror and fascination. Then he looked at the mostly full water pouch he still clutched in his hand, and a plan swiftly started to assemble in his mind.
After the better part of an hour (during which several more of the invaders received lethal showers), Roger finally found an elevator that led to the surface of the planet. Once he had reached the surface, he found himself standing on a bare patch of ground surrounded by high walls with a massive door built into them, and he knew that this was the main entrance to the fortress the Minottans had spoken of. However, the only way in or out of the walled enclosure was a massive pair of sliding metal doors built into the wall, and there were no nearby buttons, panels or switches that could open them. Roger returned to the depths of the fortress and eventually found a room full of consoles, displays, buttons and panels. After clearing the room of invaders, Roger examined the room and eventually found a console with an icon of the exterior doors on it. Unfortunately, after tinkering with the console for some time, Roger realized that it could only be activated by a verbal command from a high-ranking individual -- and he had the unpleasant feeling that most if not all of these individuals were now scattered around him on the floor with parts of their skin melted off.
As Roger was trying desperately to think of another way he could escape the fortress, he suddenly remembered that the prime reason the invaders had come to this planet was to mine starstones. Though he could clearly hear the huge mining machines laboring away, there had to be some place where the invaders kept other sorts of mining equipment. Roger's reasoning proved to be correct, as he soon found a small, unlocked room filled with small drills, pneumatic picks, spare parts for the machines, various pieces of safety equipment, and a large crate filled with extremely powerful explosives. What happened after that requires no further elaboration.
Though Roger was proud of his victory and relieved that he had survived his mission unscathed, there was something that seemed wrong about the whole thing, and when the realization of what that something was finally hit him, his satisfaction turned to disappointment. The substance which proved to be deadly to the invaders was water -- the same substance which covered three-fifths of the planet Minott's surface. They had decided to set up base on a planet where nearly the entire surface area was covered with something that was lethal to them. Though Roger had no idea how such an advanced race would be so stupid to do something like that, he was also perplexed that the Minottans had been enslaved by them for years, yet none of them had discovered the invaders' weakness. As much as he tried to reassure himself that he had performed an impressive, heroic feat, he couldn't help thinking that he had just stopped a group of idiots from enslaving another group of idiots.
Once every one of the invaders had been vanquished, the Minottans immediately began celebrating. The festivities continued all that day and into the night, during which Roger remained cloistered in his private hut, alone with his thoughts. He wished he could be happy about saving the little creatures, but somehow, his joy felt muted and distant. He had performed a heroic deed, yet he didn't feel as if he had. The whole experience seemed to ring false within him.
As Roger looked out the window of the hut at the rising moons, he dimly remembered an ancient piece of literature from Xenon about the exploits of a man named Quondi Hotae, who wandered from planet to planet in his obsolete rocket ship. He would shoot at wind turbines with a blaster, thinking that they were giant, venomous octopods, and that their whirling blades were flailing tentacles. He went through many misadventures like this, mistaking the various fixtures of what was then the modern world for fearsome "space monsters" that had long since been either extirpated from the civilized world or dismissed as pure fantasy. The days when fearless spacemen with laser pistols at their sides had traveled alien worlds, conquered them and brazenly attacked any alien they came across without a second though were ancient history even in Hotae's time, and he was trying desperately to be that fearless spaceman, completely unaware of the ridiculous futility of his efforts.
Roger wondered if he had become another Quondi Hotae. Perhaps the type of space heroism he had once been idolized for had become a thing of the past, and he, like Quondi Hotae, was unaware that he was now a complete anachronism. Were people just tired of the whole "unlikely hero saves entire galaxy with nothing to motivate him but the urge to do the right thing" concept...or was it him himself they had grown tired of? Whatever the case, it seemed like no matter what acts of heroism he performed now, he would never achieve that level of fame and respect he had after he defeated the Sariens.
His thoughts were interrupted when a large shadow suddenly passed over one of the moons, and the noise of the festivities outside seemed to cease. There was then the sound of worried voices and many hurriedly scuffling feet. Roger was about to step outside to see what was going on when Vrivri-10 drew aside the curtain covering the door with his left eyestalk and peered inside.
"Come, Stranger," he said quietly. "It will soon be time for you to go."
"What do you mean?" Roger asked.
Somewhere, far across the Minottan plain, Roger heard a familiar booming crash.
"The Storm is returning," Vrivri-10 said solemnly. "If you still want it to take you, then come."
The pole the Minottans had constructed was made of metal, but it wasn't so much a pole as it was several shorter lengths of metal tied together with cord and some sort of sticky secretion that Roger didn't feel comfortable asking about. It was situated in the middle of a wide, barren plain far away from the village, and right in the path of the approaching storm.
"Well," Roger said to the group of Minottans who had carried the pole to its destination, "I guess this is it."
"You will be remembered, Stranger," Vrivri-10 said reverently. "You will be remembered for as long as the stars shine."
"Thanks," Roger said, not sure how to take such a compliment. "Be seeing you."
It was Erki-9 who had spoken. He ambled up to Roger and presented a small pouch to him. Roger picked it up and opened it. Inside were what seemed to be a hundred round, sparkling gems that seemed to glow in the moonlight.
"Starstones from the invaders' cache," Erki-9 said. "So you might have something from this world to take with you to yours."
Roger stared blankly at the starstones, then at the table-like creatures whose species he had liberated. The Minottans of this universe were a species that truly appreciated Roger, showed genuine gratitude when he helped them, and didn't care if he was nothing more than an unemployed janitor stuck in another time...and he was leaving them, never to see them again.
Did he really want to leave this parallel universe and return to the universe where his transgressions were remembered far more vividly than his acts of heroism? Was the increasingly bleak future of himself, his wife and his planet even worth saving anymore?
The thought of Beatrice answered Roger's conundrum immediately: if he stayed in this universe, he wouldn't be able to live with himself, knowing how he turned his back on her, Junior and Xenon. Returning to that universe wasn't something Roger wanted to do...but to him, it seemed like it was the right thing to do.
After the Stranger gave his final farewells to the Minottans, the little aliens thanked him once again, then scurried back to their village. When the storm finally passed, they discovered that not only had the Hand of the Storm taken the Stranger from them, but it had also molded the pole the Stranger had been clinging to into a lumpy metal sculpture. For some time, the Minottans quietly gazed upon this sculpture in a trancelike state of reverence. The first one to break this silence was Erki-9.
"I don't understand," he said, his voice confused and distant.
Several pairs of eyestalks turned in Erki-9's direction, but no one spoke a word in reply. He shuffled uneasily and spoke again:
Several other Minottans either sighed or groaned.
"Why are you still on about that?" Vrivri-9 grumbled. "Your savior has come and liberated us, hasn't he?"
"Yes, he has...but the very last part of the prophecy declares that our savior, in spite of his wish to return to his own world, will change his mind at the last moment and decide to remain on Minott."
Vrivri-9 gave an acknowledging grunt. Several other Minottans stopped muttering and stared intently at Erki-9.
"And then," the young Minottan continued, "We would take him beyond the mountains to the Great Flaming Caldera of Eternal Stench and throw him into it -- a gesture reserved for none but the greatest of heroes, as our tradition dictates."
A nervous murmur suddenly swept through the crowd.
"Maybe...he's going to return in a little while?" one Minottan suggested.
"We're not going to end up enslaved again, are we?" said another.
"Does a prophecy have to be 100% right in order to be considered fulfilled?" a third one inquired.
The conversation quickly devolved into an incoherent shouting-match as all the Minottans began arguing with each other (all except for Vrivri-10, who was silently watching the spectacle unfold while stifling the Minottan equivalent of a grin of smug satisfaction). It would be some time before some sort of conclusion about the prophecy was reached and the preliminary plans for the reconstruction of the Minottan civilization could be laid down. The very first step, of course, would entail building a temple around the lumpy, deformed metal rod in honor of their savior (a gesture reserved for heroes who were deemed great, but not quite great enough to be thrown into the Great Flaming Caldera of Eternal Stench).
Roger regained consciousness on a dry dusty plain. It was nighttime, and less than a mile away from him was a city filled with clay-brick houses and tall metal spires. It was Finndo -- the same Finndo he had originally departed from. It didn't take long for Roger to reach the city, though it took a bit longer for him to find Grenold and Arngor's hangar and the Raphus. Once he did, he stood outside the passenger-side door for several minutes before working up the courage to knock on it. Eventually, he heard the sound of slow footsteps from inside. The door slowly hinged open to reveal a weary, haggard-looking Beatrice. She looked at Roger, blinked once or twice, then slammed the door shut.
Roger was so startled that he dropped the sack of starstones, which burst open as it hit the ground, sending the stones scattering like meteorites. As Roger knelt down and was hurriedly picking them up, he heard a muffled voice coming from inside the ship:
"Yes?" Roger said anxiously.
"Is it really you?"
"I'm pretty sure it is," Roger shrugged, not sure how to answer such a question.
The door eased open a crack, and Roger could see one of Beatrice's eyes staring out at him.
"What's your favorite color?"
"Uh...chrome," Roger replied.
"Where were we married?"
"Well, I don't remember, but you've told me it was one of the moons of...Pantagama?"
Beatrice opened the door. She still looked weary and disheveled, but there was now a wide, wondering look in her eyes. Roger got to his feet, impulsively brushing dust from his pants.
"So it is you," she said in a quiet, detached manner. "But...what about before the thlekthra? Was it you then?"
"I...guess it was," Roger said. "But what are you talking about, Bea? Why do you think I'm not me?"
"When you left the house during that storm," Beatrice said, "The way you were acting seemed so...strange. After you disappeared, I was wondering if you were going through some kind of mental breakdown...or that someone had put a chip in your head and was controlling you, or replaced you with a clone when I wasn't looking."
Roger shook his head.
"I'm sorry...I just don't know what came over me," he said. "I just couldn't think of anything but that old ship. It's almost like I blacked out, then the next I know, I'm getting zapped by one of those thek-...thlek-...things."
"Right...What does that word even mean, anyway?"
"I looked it up shortly after you disappeared," Beatrice said. "Apparently there's no equivalent word in our language, but it roughly translates to 'luminous spiral that relocates any organism it strikes to an alternate version of Minott.'"
"Ah," Roger said.
Beatrice glanced at the glowing stones that still lay scattered on the ground beneath him.
"What are those?" she asked.
"I got them from the alternate version of Minott I got zapped to," Roger said. "The guys there called them starstones and said they were very valuable."
Beatrice blinked her eyes several times and stared at the luminous gems, then returned her gaze to Roger.
"This can't be real," she muttered. "I must be dreaming this."
"You're not," Roger said. "I'm pretty sure I'd know if I wasn't real."
Beatrice stared dubiously at him.
"Well," she said after several seconds had passed, "If you're still here in the morning, I think I'll be convinced. In the meantime, we should probably both get some sleep."
Roger took a step forward, but Beatrice held up a hand, telling him to stay where he was. She disappeared inside the darkness of the ship and returned to Roger a few seconds later holding a heavy blanket, which she dropped at his feet.
"Good night, Roger," she said, pulling the door shut.
Roger frantically fumbled with the handle, but Beatrice had already locked the ship. Sighing heavily, Roger picked up the starstones and the blanket. He walked over to Grenold and Arngor's hangar and banged on the door. After repeating this several times and receiving no reply, he started looking around the hangar for the most comfortable-looking patch of ground. Fortunately, it was a warm night.
When morning finally dawned and Roger hadn't vanished, Beatrice finally let him back inside. She was happy that he was alive and astonished that he had brought back a pouch of stones which was worth more than enough money to pay for the Raphus' repairs, but before she told him either of things, she spent the better part of an hour chewing him out. She told him how worried he'd made her, how foolish he had been to step out into a violent storm, and how RJ would feel if she had to explain to him that his father had disappeared after deciding to look for an old ship he used to own.
Roger saw no point in arguing with her. By all accounts, he had done something very foolish, and he didn't blame Beatrice for feeling the way she did. All he could do was mumble an apology whenever there was a lull in her tirade.
When Beatrice had finally finished berating Roger, she slumped into a chair, looking just as emotionally drained as he was.
"There was a point when I'd almost given up hope that I'd ever see you again," she said quietly, staring at the floor. "Then one of the older Minottans told me that there are some individuals that get struck by thlekthras and do return...If they're very lucky."
She looked up at him. Her mouth had a very faint hint of a smile to it.
"That's when I knew there was definitely a chance you would be back," she said.
Converting the starstones into useable currency was a task that required much careful planning. Roger and Beatrice divided the stones up into smaller piles, then started searching for pawn shops, jewelry stores, and other similar businesses. After a long day of going from shop to shop, they had managed to sell nearly all of the starstones (and earn themselves several suspicious stares from a number of store owners as well).
The money they wound up with was nearly twice the amount of money they needed in order to pay for the repairs to the Raphus. Within a few days, it was fully functional again, which was just as well -- word of the starstones had quickly spread throughout the city, and many of the Minottans were starting to watch Roger and Beatrice very closely.
Once Roger and Beatrice were ready to leave, they waited until nightfall to blast off. Many of the Minottans remained dormant despite the disturbance, but Vrivri-10, who lived close to the outskirts of the city, was awakened.
He ambled outside and looked up to see the long plume of the Raphus rising into the deep purple sky, the glow of the ship's rocket almost as small as the stars by that point.
Vrivri-10 contemplatively ran a tentacle up one of his eyestalks, watching as the glow slowly faded. Then he looked at the large hangar that stood a short distance away from his home and noticed the two bleary-eyed humanoids that were standing outside it and also watching the departing ship. When they became aware of Vrivri-10's presence, they smiled and waved to him. Vrivri-10 responded by glaring coldly at them and huffily stepping back inside his house.
"Damn aliens," he muttered to himself. "Coming here and trying to steal our jobs."
As Minott grew smaller and smaller, Roger sat on his cot and gazed at the little planet through one of the Raphus' portholes, thinking about everything that had happened since he and Beatrice had landed there. He wondered about the thlekthra storm, and how he had so absentmindedly wandered into it. He then remembered the Aluminum Mallard -- the thing which had started that whole chain of events. He went to the ship's database and looked up the listing for used spaceships. The Mallard wasn't there. A more thorough search revealed that it had been sold barely a day after Roger had been transported to the parallel version of Minott.
Roger sighed. He shut off the database and returned his gaze to the porthole and the slowly shrinking Minott. If only they could have gotten the Mallard! Compared to it, the Raphus could almost be considered a stationary object. Even at its fastest speed, it would be several days before the Raphus reached Xirdneth -- provided that there weren't any more malfunctions, of course. Conversely, the Mallard could travel at light speed, zipping from planet to planet in the span of just a few hours, and for the most part, Roger had never encountered any problems with it that were any more serious than a slight squeak to one of the passenger seats.
Roger sighed again, and pulled the time gun out of its case. The CURR display read: "SQVI||MINOTT||-00:29:07:15." Twenty-nine Xenon Standard Days before the Space Quest VI time sector begins, Roger reflected. He wondered how many Xenon Standard Days it would take for the Aluminum Mallard to get from Minott to Xenon. Not very long, he decided. In fact, he was confident that the Mallard could fly to Xenon and then back to Minott before the start of Space Quest VI.
Then a less pleasant thought crossed his mind: Right now, Roger Prime was probably still making his way back to StarCon after defeating the Pukoid menace. True, Roger Prime wasn't that close to Xenon and wouldn't be returning to it for some time, but Roger couldn't help but wonder what would happen if he arrived on Xenon before his past self. Could he warn the people of the coming apocalypse without being brushed off as an insane doomsayer? Could he possibly do something to stop Vohaul's onslaught? What would happen when Roger and Beatrice Prime arrived on Xenon?
That last quandary filled Roger with unease. Deciding that he had done enough deep thinking for the time being, he gently put the time gun away, and strapped himself into his sleeping cot. It was a long time before sleep finally overtook him.
After several uneventful hours, Roger Wilco's sleep was interrupted by a strange voice in his head:
"Pardon my intrusion," it said, "But I have a matter of great urgency to discuss with you."
"What is it?" Roger asked, speaking the way he would speak in a dream (which he considered this to be).
"Our civilization is in grave danger," the voice said, "And you are the only one who can save it."
Roger groaned. Now he was dreaming about a civilization that wanted him to save it. Why couldn't he dream about doing something enjoyable, like going to a beach on Oglanon III? (At least it wasn't that cryptic voice that kept telling him that he couldn't "go back", he considered.)
"Who are you?" he asked. "And why do you need me to save you?"
"I have no name of my own," the voice said, "But my people have, since time immemorial, lived in a vast valley between two colossal cliffs, so high that none have ever been able to ascend them. For thousands of years our people have lived there peacefully, but just over a century ago, we were beset by a number of terrible disasters."
"What sort of disasters?" Roger asked. This dream was turning out to be a lot more complex than his dreams usually were.
"One hundred and five years ago," the voice said, "A gigantic, pale object began to descend upon us from the heavens. From what our scientific instruments could tell us, it was millions of miles across and several hundred miles high. We were powerless to stop its approach, and two years after it was initially spotted, it landed just beyond the northernmost border of our world. It then proceeded to move south, cutting a vast path of destruction across our valley. Though its rate of progress was slow enough for most of our people to get out of its way, many of our cities were badly damaged.
"After the object had finally vanished over the southern horizon eleven months later, five years later it landed near the northernmost border a second time, and tore through our midst again. This happened three more times over the course of the next few decades, and we have been trying to figure out how we can possibly prevent it from happening again, and -- ."
"But what does this all have to do with me?" Roger interrupted.
"I'm getting to that," the voice said. "You see, in recent years, our scientists have made great advancements in the field of mental abilities. I was skeptical of that sort of thing at first, but I soon grew convinced of its potential, and I have now become capable of something which my people have long thought was impossible: communicating with a being far greater than myself."
The implications of this statement hit Roger so sharply that he nearly woke up.
"Hey," he protested, "If you think that I'm a god or something, you've definitely got the wrong guy."
"Oh no, no, no," the voice said hurriedly, "I don't see you as a deity of any kind -- however, what I know for certain is that you are the only one who can save our world!"
"Why?" Roger said exasperatedly. "Where are you guys, and why do I have to save you!?"
The voice told him.
Beatrice Wankmeister's sleep was interrupted by a familiar voice from the sleeping cot next to her:
"What?" Beatrice said in a semi-conscious mumble.
"I've just been contacted by a microscopic civilization living between the first and second toes on my right foot that says that I've destroyed most of their society by scratching that spot a couple of times. What do you think should I do?"
"You woke me up for this?"
"I'm sorry...it's probably been a few hundred years since I finished talking to them because time travels a lot faster for them, but I still think I should -- ."
"Put on a bandage, go back to sleep and try not to scratch it anymore," Beatrice grumbled, pulling her blanket over her head.
"Hmm...that sounds like a good idea. Thanks."
"Grmphrg," Beatrice replied.
Roger did what Beatrice had suggested and went back to sleep. When he awakened several hours later, the memory of the whole incident was surprisingly still fresh in his mind. However, no amount of contemplation could make Roger determine whether he really had been contacted by a creature from a civilization thousands of times smaller than he was or whether it was all a strangely vivid dream. Whatever the case was, though, Roger kept the adhesive bandage on his foot and avoided scratching it until he and Beatrice had reached the planet Xirdneth ten Xenon Standard Days later. That seemed like more than enough time for any civilization for which time traveled so quickly.
Xirdneth was a large world populated by so many sentient species that it was difficult to tell which one -- if any -- had originally populated the planet. The water-to-land ratio was roughly the same as it had been on Minott, but Xirdneth's continents were tiny and numerous, many of them forming vast archipelagos. Many dense cities covered the larger continents, with bridges that doubled as monorail lines connecting them. It was a lovely world...and perhaps because of this fact, it was not a cheap place to live. Not even the tiniest apartment was within Roger and Beatrice's price range, and eventually Beatrice came to the conclusion that if they wanted to stay on Xirdneth, they would have to live in the Raphus again.
This in and of itself wasn't unwelcome news to them. What was unwelcome was that the only places on Xirdneth where a ship could remain parked for long periods of time were places populated by low-income members of Xirdneth society who were infamous for their habit of consuming vast quantities of cheap alcohol; hoarding powerful, quasi-legal hand weapons; and decorating their properties with gangly, long-necked plastic birds.
As Beatrice once again began her search for anything remotely resembling time travel, Roger began looking for yet another job. His search eventually led him to Oritull, one of the largest of Xirdneth's islands as well as one of the most industrialized ones. However, none of the proprietors of the numerous stores or businesses he encountered seemed interested in hiring him, and when Roger returned to the monorail stop, he discovered that the next monorail to Vel -- the island where he and Beatrice had parked the Raphus -- wasn't due for another two hours. Disappointed but still not completely discouraged, Roger decided to idly wander Oritull's streets while he waited for the next monorail to arrive. Thirty minutes or so of his wandering passed without incident, but just before a whole hour had elapsed, something very odd happened.
Roger's jaunt had taken him into a slightly run-down section of the city. The buildings looked much older than the ones he had been passing up until now, and several of the storefronts were empty. The businesses lining the street ranged from seedy bars to musty souvenir shops to old fashioned restaurants boasting that they served actual food -- "No Soylent-derived, replicated, hydroponically grown or genetically modified stuff here -- only pure animals, vegetables and minerals!"
One establishment, however, made Roger stop dead in his tracks. There was something about it that set it apart from the other stores that surrounded it. Unlike its neighbors, its exterior looked almost brand new, not to mention incredibly modern. There were no windows, but above the single doorway was a neon sign that read, "Oritull Shelter for Trans-Temporals."
Roger cocked his head to one side, which didn't make the meaning of the sign any clearer to him. Then he heard the footsteps of a pedestrian approaching from behind him. He turned to face the individual, a hoofed creature with an elongated face and two pairs of eyes.
"Excuse me," Roger said, "Do you know what this place does?"
He gestured towards the Trans-Temporal building. The hoofed thing looked in the direction of the building, then looked back at Roger.
"Right now," it nickered, "It stands there, taking up space...and maybe provides a fine breeding ground for rats and roaches."
Roger glanced at the building, then back to the hoofed thing.
"What do you mean?" he asked, confused. The hoofed thing rolled its eyes.
"I mean it doesn't do anything," it grumbled irritably. "It's an abandoned building, for Myur's sake!"
Roger felt a chill scurry up his spine. He looked back at the clearly visible Trans-Temporal building, wondering what on Xenon was going on. He thanked the hoofed thing for its help, then entered the establishment adjacent to the Trans-Temporal building -- a diner called The Greasy Spork. The place was nearly empty except for a couple of occupied tables and a tried looking waitress with one large bloodshot eye standing near the door.
"Take any seat you want," she muttered as Roger entered. "Just don't sit at the table in the corner over there. We had a family of slimy things there at lunch, and they left some nasty gunk on the cushions -- if you sit on one of those chairs, you're not getting back up."
Roger would have offered to help with that problem had the circumstances been any different, but right now cleaning was not one of his priorities.
"Do you know what that Trans-Temporal Shelter next door is all about?" he asked.
"Huh?" the waitress asked.
"There's a place right next door to this one called Oritull Shelter for Trans-Temporals, and I was wondering if you knew anything about it."
The waitress eyed him quizzically.
"Hon, I've been working here for five years, and I ain't never seen a place with that name anywhere 'round here."
"But it's right next door!" Roger protested, pointing in the building's direction. "Right there!"
The waitress walked to the door, opened it and peered outside. She stared at the spot Roger was indicating for several seconds, then turned to face him again.
"Hon...that place has been empty for years," she said quietly. At first she seemed irritated, but then the look in her eye seemed to soften a little. "You okay, Buddy?"
"Uh...I think I'll be all right," Roger said, even though he felt otherwise. "Thanks."
As he stepped out onto the street again, the cheerily flickering glow of the Trans-Temporal building's sign seemed to mock him and his predicament. Roger stared at the sign for the better part of a minute, then decided that there was only one way to find out whether the Trans-Temporal place was real or he had gone insane: he strode towards the door, opened it and stepped inside.
The inside of the building was a shocking change from the gritty streets and run-down shops outside. It was a large, oblong room illuminated by cool blue fluorescent lights. A variety of peculiar machines were situated on the smooth, reflective floor. There was a blue, booth-like device, a console with a large pair of eyepieces affixed to the top, and what looked like an ancient mainframe taking up most of one of the walls. The place looked like a strange mix between a science museum and a nouveau-modern art exhibit.
As Roger cautiously moved forward, he could soon make out a large desk towards the back of the room. A small furry humanoid with large, tufted ears and a long, tapered snout was slumped over it, sleeping peacefully. Roger approached the humanoid, wondering if it would be safe to poke it. However, before he was able to reach a decision, the creature's large amber eyes fluttered open. It shook its head, then sat up with much less sluggishness than one might have anticipated.
"Ah," it said in a light, feminine voice. "Hello, and welcome to the Oritull Shelter for Trans-Temporals! I'm Professor Chedla. When are you from?"
"Uh..." Roger said, not sure what he wanted to talk about first, "What is this place?"
"That is a question most people ask on their first visit here," Chedla said. "This is a shelter for people that have become stranded in different time periods. Time travel was discovered on this planet very recently, but most of our research hasn't been made public yet. However, it's clear that time travel will eventually become widely known and used...the existence of TDIs seems to be proof of that."
Roger was astounded. Time travel existed on this world! Did this mean that he and Beatrice...
"TDIs?" he asked, his attention shifting abruptly.
"Temporally Displaced Individuals," Chedla explained. "Turns out that some of the crazies wandering this planet's streets are actually refugees from the past or future. The trouble is that for a while, there was no way to really tell which of these people were chrononauts and which ones were actually bonkers."
"Yes -- it's the technical term for time travelers."
Roger paused for a moment to digest this new information. Chrononaut...it had a nice ring to it, and was certainly shorter and less of an eyebrow-raiser than the term "time traveler", and technically, he was a chrononaut...well, a former one, anyway. The more he said that word over and over in his head, the cooler it sounded. Roger Wilco: janitor, hero, and occasional chrononaut. Awesome.
"Anyway, we started doing some tests with lab animals, and every animal we sent through time came back to us completely unchanged...except for one small change to a particular region of their brains. We're not sure exactly what causes this change yet, but it's clear that any living being that has traveled through time winds up with a slightly modified brain...one that is sensitive to certain stimuli that non-chrononauts aren't."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, take this place, for example: the front of this building is surrounded by a high-speed photon-disrupting field creating the illusion of a boarded-up storefront -- only chrononauts are capable of seeing through this field."
"You mean...if I wasn't a chrononaut..."
"You wouldn't have been able to see this place," Chedla confirmed.
"Wow...is there anything else that makes time travelers different from normal people?"
"Well...I have heard of some chrononauts experiencing changes to their physical appearance, hearing voices in their heads and occasionally conversing with inanimate objects...but that sort of thing is very, very rare."
"So anyway, we initially set this place up to see if it attracted any genuine chrononauts. Then, when they started showing up by the dozen, we decided to make this spot into a safe place where trans-temporals could stay until they got used to their surroundings."
She gestured to a door behind her with a plaque reading "Residents Only" mounted on it.
"We've helped dozens of trans-temporals get off to a new start, and we were even able to return some refugees to their own time."
Roger's heart leapt at this.
"Hey -- my wife and I are from a different time, and we've been trying to get back there for ages! Do you think you guys could send us home?"
"Well, that all depends," said Chedla. "There's a lot of variables to consider when it comes to relocating someone to their own time period: what time the person comes from, how far from here they were originally, the circumstances behind their temporal displacement, their physical and mental state, and especially the paradox risk factor...and there's also the matter of payment."
Roger's face fell.
"I'm sorry," Chedla said. "Keeping a place like this running isn't exactly cheap...and you know what they say, 'Time is money.'"
She shrugged sheepishly. Roger grimaced.
"But listen," Chedla said, "Bring your wife here and fill me in on the whole situation. I'll see what can be done."
"Well...all right," Roger reluctantly agreed. "I'll be back soon."
Chedla waved to him as he left, then yawned and slumped forward onto her desk, dozing off within minutes.
As Roger and Beatrice entered the Trans-Temporal Shelter less than an hour later with the guitron case with the time gun slung over Roger's back, the first thing that caught Roger's eye was that the drowsy creature he had seen at the main desk on his last visit was gone. Instead, a tall robot stood behind the desk, a robot so outdated that it looked as if it had been borrowed from a museum.
He turned to Beatrice, then gaped at her in surprise. Her hologarb costume was off, yet it had been on when they had entered the shelter. The alarmed look in her eyes made Roger realize that his disguise was gone as well. They frantically started pressing buttons on their hologarb controls, but the costumes wouldn't activate no matter how many times they readjusted and recalibrated them.
"Wait...that photon-disrupting field you told me about," Beatrice whispered. "Do you think that's what's messing with our disguises?"
"I don't know," Roger confessed. "Do you think we should leave?" Beatrice didn't reply. Something else had caught her attention. Roger followed her gaze to see a pair of small aliens coming through the door that Chedla had pointed out to him earlier. He stared at them in disbelief, but the equally shocked look on Beatrice's face convinced him that he wasn't seeing things.
A Stamian and a Davkan!
"Yes...yes, we'd better leave," Beatrice said, starting to back towards the door. Unfortunately, she had spoken too late -- one of the beings had already spotted them.
"Beatrice?" the Stamian asked, as if he were one of Beatrice's old college classmates. The Davkan regarded them silently, and after a moment, its eyebrows arched in surprise, as did its companion's.
"Beatrice Wangmeister?" the Stamian cried. "I thought we'd seen the last of you! What in the worlds are you doing here?"
"Trying to remain incognito," Beatrice muttered under her breath as the two the beings scurried eagerly over to her and Roger, with cheerful expressions on their faces that Roger somehow found even more unnerving than the bloodthirsty glares he'd been expecting.
"And it's 'Wankmeister,'" he corrected.
"Shhh!" Beatrice hissed.
"And Roger Will-Go too!" the Davkan exclaimed. "Incredible -- simply incredible! To think I thought that only our people could have survived what happened on Gritt..."
Beatrice held up a hand.
"Wait a minute," she said. "You two were at the peace conference?"
"Indeed we were," said the Stamian. "I'm Clive, and this is Percival. After that strange explosion on Gritt, we suddenly found ourselves on another world far from the Ka'Blui system...and we soon discovered that it was many years before the two of you visited us."
"We've been doing a lot of traveling since then," Percival said, "But so far, we have been unable to find a way back to the Ka'Blui system...however, we have recently made some remarkable discoveries."
"Such as?" Roger asked.
Pervical's face suddenly became very solemn.
"The planet Gritt still exists in this time," he said quietly, "But in our own time...it is no more."
There was a long pause, and the air around the four individuals seemed to grow heavy and cold.
"What do you mean?" Beatrice asked slowly.
Clive and Percival's answer to Beatrice's question was a long one which seemed to create far more questions than answers. It seemed that after being marooned in the past, the two aliens -- much like Roger and Beatrice -- had made their way from planet to planet and eventually discovered the Oritull Shelter, where they had stayed for several weeks. They were unable to find a machine to return them to their own time, though they were able to find a MarChroni -- a device based on a primitive two-way radio, which emitted sound waves that traveled not through space, but through time. Clive and Percival used this device to communicate with their future selves, who existed in the Ka'Blui system sometime after the incident at the peace conference. Their future selves sadly informed their past selves that the planet Gritt had blown up, leaving nothing but a few rocky fragments. When Clive and Pervical asked their future selves why this had happened, their future selves gave no direct answer, but they did give them some helpful tips for finding the answer.
Roger started wondering if he and Beatrice could use a device like that to speak with their future selves, but the reminder of his apparent nonexistence in the Space Quest XII time sector shoved that thought out of his mind with brute force.
"There is also this remarkable thing," Clive said before Roger's mind could wander elsewhere. The Stamian gestured to the console with the eyepieces on top of it that Roger had noticed when he first entered the Shelter.
"It is a Time Viewer," Clive continued. "It enables one to see into the past. After learning what became of Gritt, we tried to discover the cause of its demise using this Viewer. As it turned out, we discovered a lot more than we were initially looking for."
"What do you mean?" Beatrice asked.
A heavy silence filled the room. Percival and Clive exchanged glances, then made their way back to the Time Viewer, gesturing for Roger and Beatrice to follow them. Clive punched a few buttons, then pointed to the eyepieces on top of the machine.
"Look for yourself," he said quietly.
The eyepieces weren't built for more than one person, but Beatrice and Roger were eventually able to share it by cramming their heads together and peering through each eyepiece with one eye. Looking through the viewer, they could see a black background studded with pinpricks of light and three spherical objects suspended in the void. It was part of a solar system, and Beatrice recognized the three visible planets as Stam, Davka and Gritt.
As the couple observed the planets, an enormous vessel suddenly came hurtling into view at a speed that led them to think that the entire scene was being played back in fast motion. The vessel's movements became more and more erratic, and several smaller ships began pouring out of it. As for the vessel itself, it floundered aimlessly for some time before it became came crashing down on the smallest of the three worlds -- Gritt. After the dust from the explosion cleared, there was no sign of the gargantuan craft, not even a crater.
"We viewed this sequence over and over from various angles and distances, and looked up the model of that ship as well," Clive said as Roger and Beatrice continued watching. "We determined that that ship crashed into a deep chasm between two of Gritt's continental plates, and when it crashed, its core was dislodged. Over the millennia, various seismic activities caused the core to sink deeper and deeper into the planet's strata. It also became increasingly unstable over the years, and eventually, it exploded on the day of your conference....and the chain reactions caused by the explosion were what made Gritt..."
He trailed off and became completely silent. Beatrice and Roger took their eyes away from the Viewer and looked at the two aliens, who were solemnly standing next to the machine, as still as statues.
"I..." Beatrice said slowly. "I'm sorry..."
The two aliens slowly nodded but remained speechless. Roger, suddenly remembering something he had just seen, glanced into the Viewer again and noticed the tiny ships that had taken off from the large ship. Some were heading towards Stam, while others were making a beeline for Davka.
"What about those little ships?" he asked, looking back at the two aliens. "Who were on them?"
Clive and Percival looked at each other with expressions too subtle for the two humanoids to interpret. Eventually, Pervical replied:
Roger glanced at Beatrice, then the two aliens. Then for good measure, he glanced into the Viewer again before returning his gaze to the aliens.
"Yes," Clive said in a hushed voice. "We both came from the same place. You see, my people have a story of a great silver bird that brought them to Stam, and Percival's people have a very similar story. From what our research tells us, thousands of years ago, our ancestors were being transported through the Ka'Blui system on some sort of interstellar transport vessel, possibly fleeing a doomed world. A meteor shower irreparably damaged the ship, forcing all of its passengers to evacuate. Some of the evacuees landed on Stam, some landed on Davka...and you can probably figure out what happened next. It's a funny old universe, isn't it?"
Beatrice nodded, although she had secretly suspected the Stamians and the Davkans were closely related for some time, given the striking similarities between the two species.
"I'm surprised you aren't both grossed out by all of this," Roger remarked.
"Oh, believe me, we were," Percival said. "But we've had a lot of time to think about it and we've gradually come to accept it -- especially after the results of that DNA tests we had done.
"In fact," he continued, "Clive and I have thought about this a while, and as strange as it might seem...I think we'll be much better off without Gritt."
Too stunned to speak, Roger and Beatrice could only gape at Percival as he continued.
"With no Gritt, Stam and Davka won't have a reason to fight with each other over it anymore -- I'm sure they'll eventually come up with something to squabble about, but I'm sure it won't be anything nearly as big as a planet."
Roger remained silent, and even Beatrice was unable to give anything other than a nod in response. The two aliens looked at each other for a moment, then Percival spoke again:
"Well, I suppose we'd better be going. We still have much research to be done that can't be conducted here."
"All right," Beatrice said, her silence finally broken. "Thanks for the talk. It was very...enlightening."
"You're welcome, I'm sure," said Clive. Taking Percival's hand, the two former rivals strolled off, leaving Roger, Beatrice and the shelter behind them. Roger gazed after them, feeling a strange sort of kinship for the little green humanoids. It seemed that Gritt was irrevocably doomed, but the seed of its destruction had been planted long, long ago. Perhaps there was still a chance that the crisis on Xenon could be averted...if only Roger and Beatrice could get there before it was too late...
"So now what?" Beatrice said after a long pause.
Roger blinked and turned towards the desk at the back of the room.
"I guess we should talk to...whatever this thing is," he suggested.
As Roger and Beatrice approached the desk, the robot slowly turned to face them, its metal face a mask of complete indifference.
"Welcome to the Oritull Shelter for Trans-Temporals, Sir and Madam," it droned in a grating, mechanical voice.
"Where's that hairy thing that was here before?" Roger asked.
"Professor Chedla had to leave in order to speak with one of our clients, and I was selected as her replacement," the robot replied. "She should return in a few hours, but in the meantime, I should be able to answer any questions you may have."
Roger frowned. He wasn't sure if he was going to enjoy talking with this robot.
"I see you are both wearing hologram-based disguise units," the robot remarked. "I'm afraid that they will not function inside the Shelter."
"Why?" Roger asked.
"The high electricity fluctuations caused by the various machines in the shelter interfere with devices of that particular kind," the robot replied. "They should function normally once you two have left the Shelter."
"I see," Beatrice said slowly.
"May I ask what brings you to the Oritull Shelter for Trans-Temporals?" the robot asked.
"Oh, right," Roger said. "We were...that is, we're going to...we're..."
"We got sent back here from a point about twenty years in the future," Beatrice said, "and we're trying to return there."
There was a loud whirring sound from inside the robot accompanied by several metallic clanks and clicks.
"I'm afraid, Madam, that that is not possible at this time," it eventually replied.
"What?" Beatrice asked. Roger glared coldly at the robot.
"Travel into the future is currently not possible," the robot said. "It is somewhat difficult to explain the situation to laybeings, but -- "
"But it is possible," Roger interrupted. He slammed the guitron case down in front of the robot and forcibly opened it, revealing the time gun (as well as the time gun's manual, which had been tucked into the case for safekeeping).
"Years ago, a device just like this sent me into the future," he snapped, "and then I got sent back to my original time. So you can send people to the future."
The droid slowly bent over the gun, its optical apertures growing and shrinking.
"I find it highly unlikely that a device 'just like this' could have sent you anywhen, Sir," the robot said with a faintly snooty undertone. "It is very badly damaged."
Roger turned away, rubbing his face and groaning. Beatrice, however, seemed surprised by the robot's words.
"So...you can tell this thing isn't working?" she asked. Roger removed his palm from his face and looked at her inquisitively.
"Indeed, Madam," the robot said. "The nozzle is crumpled, and the wiring inside the main computer needs to be replaced."
Beatrice's eyes sparkled with hope, but her voice still trembled with apprehension.
"I don't suppose," she said slowly, "there's anyone here who could fix it?"
There was another whir, and a succession of tiny clicks.
"I am 99.9% certain there is, Madam," the robot finally said.
Beatrice seemed as if she was going to burst into joyful tears for a moment, but all she ended up doing was embracing Roger with such force that she knocked the wind out of him. After a monotonous, overlong explanation as to what repairs it planned to make, the robot gently picked up the time gun and its manual and disappeared through a small door behind the desk, which was marked "Private".
One minute passed, then two. The tension was growing so extreme that it seemed like a gentle pinprick would cause a massive explosion. Roger tried to distract himself by looking at the various machines that stood around him. There was Time Viewer, the mainframe, and that strange blue booth. There was also a large digital clock mounted on the wall above the desk which he had somehow failed to notice before. It was displaying the local time as well as the day, the month and the year. It also showed the time in Xirdneth's various other time zones, and the time zones of several neighboring planets as well. Roger stared at the numbers, mentally pleading with them to change faster. The only effect this had was making them appear to change even slower.
Looking around the room didn't seem to be enough of a distraction for Beatrice. She eventually resorted to pulling out her computer and playing Angry AstroChickens on it, a ScumSoft game wherein the numerous offspring of the original AstroChicken waged war against small pig-like beings wearing shades and mohawks. (Apparently ScumSoft was still pretty bitter about the escape of the Two Guys from Andromeda.)
Several agonizing minutes later, the robot emerged from the back room. It walked back to the desk on its two spindly legs (both of which seemed to be in severe need of oiling), returned the manual to the guitron case and showed the gun to Roger and Beatrice. The nozzle was no longer crushed and the broken casing had been replaced. Even that small stain from the reconstituted gravy Roger had spilled on it several months ago had been removed.
"As far as I can tell, this device should be in working condition," the robot said, "However, this technology is not familiar to me, and there may yet be some chronological issues which need to be discussed before you use this device. When Professor Chedla returns, she should be able to -- "
"What do you mean?" Roger asked. "Is the gun working or isn't it?"
"I would say it is," the robot said, "But -- "
"Then give it to us," Roger said. "Let's see if it works!"
"I would advise against that, Sir," the robot said. "The technology used in this device's construction is -- "
Roger reached over the desk and grabbed the gun, trying to extract it from the robot's pincers. However, as ancient as the robot looked, it still had an iron grip.
"Sir, this behavior is -- "
"Stop calling me 'Sir!'" Roger shouted.
Beatrice slowly backed away, hoping that Roger would realize the futility of his efforts soon. Roger was brimming with so much frustration that he didn't notice the lights on the LED screen flicker on when he inadvertently hit the POWER button as he was attempting to get a better grip on the gun. He also didn't notice the jumbled mess of characters that appeared in the DEST field when he unknowingly mashed the keypad with his left palm. When his thumb ended up hooking the gun's trigger, he had a vague sense of foreboding, but it wasn't until the blinding blue light exploded out of the gun that Roger's higher brain functions finally regained control.
Once Roger's eyes had readjusted to the comparative darkness of the Oritull Shelter, he looked around, looking for the telltale shimmering hole that a working time gun would create. However, there was no hole...and there was no Beatrice either. It took approximately three-fifths of a second for Roger to put the pieces together.
"I..." he stammered. "I..."
"I believe that Sir has just sent his female companion through a rip in the space-time continuum," the robot remarked.
"I know," Roger snarled, unable to think of a wittier comeback. "Would you give me that gun so I can get her back?"
"I apologize, Sir, but after what just took place, I have no intention of returning this device to you until Professor Chedla has inspected it."
"And when's she coming back?"
"Insufficient data, but I am certain that she will return...eventually."
Roger turned away from the robot in disgust and started looking around the room.
"What about one of these machines?" he eventually asked, gesturing towards the blue, booth-shaped one. "Could I use any of them to travel back to wherever Beatrice is?"
"You would first need to undergo a full medical exam to make sure that you are capable of withstanding the physical stresses that chronambulation has been known to cause," the robot replied. "There are also numerous forms, questionnaires, waivers and mental competence tests that -- ."
"But this is an emergency!" Roger pleaded.
"I'm sorry, Sir -- You'll have to wait until Professor Chedla returns."
Roger turned and strode towards the booth. Just as he was about to step inside it, he heard the robot say "Force field on" in a loud voice. Suddenly, he was lying on his back with the smell of singed hair in his nostrils. Sitting up, he saw two narrow, circular outlines on the floor and the ceiling below and above the booth. A curved wall of visible energy was being emitted by the outlines, forming an impassable barrier between Roger and the booth.
"My apologies, Sir," the robot said, "But you are not permitted to operate that machine."
Roger tried to respond, but he was so overcome with stress and anger that all he could force out of his mouth were a few hostile-sounding syllables. He was contemplating whether punching the stodgy robot in the face would be a wise course of action when he spotted Beatrice's computer. It was sitting on the desk, right where she had left it after the robot had returned with the gun.
He hurried over to the desk, snatched up the computer, and stared first at it, then the spot where Beatrice was standing moments before.
He had to get to that booth...and that meant outsmarting and/or disabling the robot.
Roger looked at the robot and the time gun it still clutched in its pincers. The LAST field of the gun -- which formerly read "SQXII||XENON||00:02:12:16:00" -- read "SQI||ESDEYXYX||-302875059:15:03:14:02". Roger glanced up at the large digital clock and made a note of the time and date. Then he turned his attention back to the robot.
The robot had appeared pretty outdated when he had first noticed it, but upon closer examination it looked downright ancient, as if it had been created just a few decades after the automatons whose sole ability was playing chess. After a thorough visual inspection of the robot's exterior, Roger eventually located a name and a series of letters and numbers embossed above one of the seams in its midriff, which had to be the robot's brand and model number. Roger opened Beatrice's computer and entered the brand name, and in a minute or two, an entry on the robot's maker appeared on the screen. Roger scanned the entry and soon discovered that this robot certainly was old -- centuries old, in fact. Its speech wasn't generated automatically from an artificial voice box or stored as data on an internal hard drive -- it was stored on reels of tape, with each word in its vocabulary taking up a separate section. This audio medium eventually fell into obsolescence primarily because of how frail the tape was. In fact, the tape could easily break if a robot used the same word too many times.
Roger looked up from the computer.
"So," he said to the robot, "That force field around that booth...it's voice-activated?"
"Correct, Sir," the robot replied. "It responds only to employees of the Oritull Shelter for Trans-Temporals."
"What do you say to turn it off?" Roger asked.
"Why, 'force field off,'" the robot said. Behind him, Roger heard the sound of the force field powering down.
"And there's no other way it can be triggered?"
"Not by me," the robot said. "There is a control panel with a switch that activates and deactivates the field, but it is currently inoperative and awaiting repairs by a robot more specialized than myself."
"I see," Roger said quietly.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Sir?" the robot asked when Roger didn't say anything more.
"Actually, yes," Roger said, looking the robot squarely in the face. "I want you to call me 'Sir' again."
The robot obliged, and Roger nodded.
"Okay," he said. "Now do it again, about...fifty-four more times."
Fortunately for Roger's sanity, the robot only got as far as the thirty-sixth "Sir" before there was a loud, metallic snap from inside its body. The robot looked remarkably surprised for a synthetic being, and its mouth flapped wildly, but the only sound it was able to produce was a weak whirring noise. Roger allowed himself a moment of smug satisfaction, then turned and ran towards the booth. The robot made numerous mechanical wheezes of protest and tried to chase after Roger, but before it was halfway to the booth, Roger had entered the booth and shut its door behind him.
After a few moments spent deciphering the booth's controls (which were almost as self-explanatory as the ones on the time gun), Roger carefully keyed in the name of the place Bea had been sent to, according to the time gun. Then he entered the time, being sure to add the intervening years between Space Quest I and the current time. Suddenly, he heard a familiar voice from outside the booth, and looking out the clear plastic window in the door, he saw Professor Chedla coming his way with a panicked look in her eyes. Roger grabbed the door's handle and stabbed the "JUMP" on the booth's control panel.
Of course, that button didn't take Roger directly to where Beatrice was. Even though it did take him to the right world -- a small, swampy planet orbiting a large, red sun -- he was still several years (as well as several miles) off. For the better part of hour, he played with the controls, hoping that the machine didn't have a self-destruct button. Eventually, he was able to activate a 4D scanner, and after some tinkering, he was able to do a complete scan of the planet, which seemed to be devoid of anything more threatening than a multitude of slimy jungles and miniscule animals. It didn't take long for a new blip to appear on the scanner, which displayed characteristics considerably different from the rest of the life on the planet. Beatrice. Roger punched in a set of coordinates that would land him about twenty feet and two minutes away from this blip and hit the "JUMP" button again.
As Beatrice was getting to her feet, blinking her eyes and trying to figure out what on Xenon just happened, there was a loud thudding noise behind her. Still blinking, Beatrice slowly turned, wondering what had made the noise, why it was so bright and why she could suddenly smell rotting vegetation.
"Bea! Bea, are you okay?"
The voice came from a large blue blob about twenty feet away. The voice was Roger's.
"Roger?" Beatrice called. "What happened?"
"No time to explain," Roger panted, taking a couple of steps in her direction. "Just get into this machine, quick!"
Something in his voice made Beatrice hesitate.
"Roger..." she said slowly, "What did you do?"
"Something really stupid," Roger confessed, "But I'm trying to fix it! Just get in here -- please! I'll explain everything later!"
Beatrice sighed. She gingerly walked across the spongy ground and stepped into the booth. Roger slammed the door shut, keyed in the time and date he had seen on the clock in the shelter and pressed JUMP once more, leaving Esdexyx behind.
Though it seemed like a quick, clean rescue to Roger, he was completely unaware of just what had taken place in the brief time he and his time machine were on the boggy little world.
In Roger's own time, the planet Esdexyx was inhabited by many varieties of large, carnivorous, flying organisms called Konojos, which preyed chiefly on numerous species of tiny ground-dwelling animals known as Eragrapas. However, in the miniscule sliver of time Roger had spent in the primitive past of Esdexyx, he had unknowingly stepped on a small, winged creature, killing it instantly. This creature was one of the ancestors of the Konojos, and Roger's stepping on it completely changed the course of the Eragrapas' development. The removal of one of the key links in the chain of the Konojos' lineage resulted in a much decreased number of their descendants in the future, allowing the Eragrapas to develop at a much faster rate. In several thousand years, they had become advanced enough to start building primitive villages and farmlands, and in a few more thousand years, they were had developed their own form of space travel.
The technology the Eragrapas developed was impressive enough to catch the attention of several large companies, but the invention that really put the Eragrapas on the map was the Efflunergy -- a device that converted waste products into a form of energy that could easily be used by whatever ship, station or home the device was attached to. Whatever refuse was fed into the unit would be disintegrated instantly using a surprisingly small amount of power.
The Efflunergy made the entire planet of Esdexyx rich almost overnight (which was quite remarkable, considering the Esdexyx day was only nine hours long). StarCon was one of the first organizations to start integrating Efflunergy units into several of the larger ships in their main fleet. Most of their smaller ships weren't fitted with the units, except one or two notable exceptions, such as single-person shuttles, patrol ships, and garbage scows.
Because of this, as he and Beatrice returned to their own time, Roger was suddenly hit with a brief but painful headache as a flood of new memories burrowed into his brain, and in another part of the galaxy several days later, Roger Prime was decommissioned due to his alleged crimes against StarCon, but his sentence had been lightened due to several factors, including his return of the SCS Eureka. He could have sworn that he destroyed the Eureka in order to kill the mutated blob that his arch nemesis had turned into...but apparently, that had never happened.
Roger and Beatrice stepped out of the booth to find Professor Chedla standing in front of them, with the robot cowering behind her. The fur on her body was bristling, and she was staring at Roger and Beatrice, her face frozen in shock. After a few moments, she turned to look at the robot, who made several more faint wheezing noises. She then turned her attention back to the two humans.
"RD-720 appears to have lost its ability to speak," she said coldly. "Would either of you mind telling me what just happened here?"
Roger obliged. His story only took a minute or so to tell, but to him, it seemed like hours, especially with Beatrice staring accusingly at him the whole time.
"I see," Chedla said. She looked over her shoulder at the robot and the time gun it still clutched in its pincers. "Excuse me -- I'll be right back."
She took the gun from the robot and walked into the back room, shouting "Force field on" over her shoulder and grabbing the guitron case from the desk as she left. There was a low humming sound and the lights in the shelter flickered for a moment. A second later, the same thing happened, and Chedla emerged from the back room, with the gun now back inside the guitron case.
"I needed a couple of hours to study this thing and its user manual," she explained. "It's a very impressive device. None of the machines we have are this advanced."
"Roger..." Beatrice said slowly, speaking for the first time since they left Esdexyx, "Did you seriously -- "
"Listen," Roger said to Chedla, "I'm really, really sorry about what happened here. I was just so afraid that something might have happened to Bea that I -- "
Chedla held up her hand.
"Accidents will happen, Sir..." she said with the same coolness she had initially addressed them with. "And if RD-720 had left that gun in the back like it should have, this accident may never have happened in the first place."
The second half of this sentence was directed at the robot, which made a feeble whirring noise and retreated into the back room, its legs squeaking piteously.
"After your behavior today, I don't want to see you in this Shelter again at any time," she said to Roger, "But since your spouse has done nothing wrong, I'm willing to help return both of you to your original time...but after that, you're completely on your own."
"So," Roger said. "You can send us to the future?"
"Not with any of these machines," Chedla said with a shake of her head. "That booth you 'borrowed' can only travel to the future is if it has been taken to a point in the past and the destination time is roughly equal to its initial departure point."
"What about the time gun, then?" Roger asked.
Chedla motioned to Roger and Beatrice to stand back. She took the time gun out of the guitron case, turned it on, entered a date precisely one day into the future and slipped on a pair of dark goggles. She then aimed the gun at a blank wall and squeezed the trigger. There was a blinding blast of light, and Roger saw a shimmering blue hole appear in the wall, which shrank and vanished just as soon as it had materialized.
"I tested it over and over," Chedla sighed, removing her goggles. "It doesn't matter if it's one day or one decade -- it always does that. As you discovered, it works just fine if a past time is entered, but any time past the current one won't work."
"Do you have any idea why?" Beatrice asked, perplexed.
Chedla shook her head.
"You might as well ask a Stone Age humanoid why metal doesn't burn," she sighed. "Whenever and wherever this thing is from, it was designed by someone who knows much more about time travel than we do."
She put the gun away and handed it to Roger, who looked at it as if it were the body of a beloved pet.
"I hope you eventually get it working," she said, looking sadly at the guitron case. "I would have drawn a picture of it, but I was too concerned about the possibility of a paradox. I had to content myself with just memorizing its appearance as well as what was in its manual.
"However..." she continued, "I still think there is one way I can send you two to the future."
Both Roger and Beatrice remained silent, not ready to get their hopes up after what happened the last time they did. Finally, Roger asked Chedla to explain what she meant.
"Well...it may not be ‘time travel', per se," she said, "And it may not be nearly as fast as the booth or this gun, but from your point of view, it won't be nearly as slow as the current speed we're all travelling into the future...one day per day."
She reached inside her clothing and pulled out two small slips of paper, which she held out in front of them.
"'Vurspyltmilc Cryo, 20/20'?" Beatrice read out loud.
"Yes," Chedla nodded. "It's a cryofreezing center a few blocks from here, and these are coupons for twenty years in cryosleep, at only 20% the normal fee."
Beatrice stared at the coupons and sighed. Roger put his arm around her shoulders, partly to comfort her, but partly keep himself from sinking to the floor and pounding relentlessly at it with his fists.
For a few moments, neither of them said anything. Then they slowly looked into each other's eyes, each one looking for an answer in the eyes of the other. The answer that both of them gave without speaking was a reluctant, resigned "yes". Beatrice turned to Chedla and held out her hand.
"Very well," she said tonelessly. "We'll do it."
"Just one condition," Chedla said.
"What is it?" Beatrice asked, growing impatient.
Chedla glanced nervously to one side and clasped her hands together.
"Please don't take us to court over this," she said in a much quieter voice. "If word of this accident got out, we'd be ruined. All these machines would be dismantled, my colleagues' careers would be sullied forever...and all those poor TDIs would be left out in the cold..."
"Fine," she said. "Our lips are sealed."
"Oh, thank you," Chedla said, quivering with relief as she pressed the coupons into Beatrice's hand. "Thank you so much!"
"Think nothing of it," Beatrice said. "Well, I suppose we'd better be going now."
"Oh yes, of course," Chedla said. "'Time waits for no being', like they say."
Beatrice and Roger thanked her, then turned and headed towards the door.
"Oh -- and by the way, one last thing before you leave," Chedla called.
Roger and Beatrice stopped and looked back at the furry creature.
"When you start to get closer to your original departure point, there may be some slight short-term memory loss," Chedla said. "It's only temporary, but it has caused some problems in other TDIs."
"Memory loss? Why?" Beatrice asked.
"We don't know yet," Chedla admitted, "But you know what they say: ‘Time is the thief of memory'."
"Well, thanks again," Beatrice said, still sounding more irritated than grateful.
Chedla cheerfully waved to the pair as they left. She then returned to her desk, basking in the quiet stillness that returned to the Shelter. She had a lot of work to do (most of which involved a lot more yelling at RD-720), but it could wait.
Settling down in her chair, Chedla slumped over the desk and fell asleep. She had many dreams, most of them about the Shelter being invaded by armies of blond humanoids armed with guns shaped like oversized hair-driers.
Vurspyltmilc Cryo was located on a small, heavily developed island midway between Oritull and Vel, and everything about it, from the behavior of the employees to the quality of their machines to the carpeting in the lobby, practically screamed "reputable establishment". The only negative thing about the place was the attitude of the receptionist, who didn't so much greet Roger and Beatrice as much as he grunted in acknowledgement of their presence. He accepted their tickets with a sour frown, then pushed a small pile of papers towards them, muttering something about how glad he was that they had chosen Vurspyltmilc, and that it was vital that they read and understood all the warnings and disclaimers before undergoing the cryofreezing procedure. These papers didn't reveal anything about cryofreezing that Roger and Beatrice weren't already aware of, and the only thing that Vurspyltmilc required of its clients besides the inevitable series of completed forms was a full physical exam after the hibernation period had ended.
Beatrice moved the Raphus to a large stasis storage center a short distance away from Vurspyltmilc, making sure to load it with as many emergency supplies and non-perishable food items as it could safely hold -- if Xirdneth underwent any drastic changes during the next twenty years, coming out of cryosleep completely unprepared was not a desirable future.
When it seemed that there were no further preparations to make, Roger and Beatrice returned to Vurspyltmilc. There, a young attendant led them through a door at the rear of the lobby and into a long hallway. Heavy metal doors lined both sides of the hallway, each one clearly numbered. The attendant informed them that they would be treated in separate rooms -- Roger was in Room 18, Beatrice was in Room 23. He escorted them to Room 18, where he showed them what the hibernation pod looked like, pointed out the safe where their personal effects needed to be stored, and gave them a quick explanation of the cryofreezing procedure -- in case they had somehow forgotten it over the last few days.
Finally, the attendant tapped out a short sequence of characters on the pod's console and solemnly announced that it was time for the procedure to begin. Beatrice and Roger looked at each other. Twenty years...anything could happen in that amount of time. By Roger's calculations, they would just be entering the Space Quest IX sector by then. RJ would be 17 years old...and wouldn't be long before Roger and Beatrice Prime would be departing for Gritt.
Roger tried to think of something reassuring or dramatic to say, but words failed him -- as they were often wont to do. However, Beatrice didn't say anything either. She simply stared deeply into his eyes, gave him a brief kiss, then turned and nodded to the attendant. The attendant nodded back, then opened the pod and motioned to Roger to climb inside.
As Roger waited for feeling to return to all of his extremities, he realized what a good idea cryosleep had been. Even though it didn't feel as if he'd been asleep for two decades, he felt more rested than he had for a very long time.
He had slept through Space Quest VI, VII and VIII -- and Space Quest IX had just begun. Roger Prime had done a lot of stuff during that time, but the biggest thing the current Roger had done was marry Beatrice and become a father.
Having a child was an idea that he had been reluctant to agree to, but Beatrice's insistence eventually won him over. Roger still harbored some doubts during the next few months, but the sight of the pink, squirming, fleshy little creature being extracted from its vat of simulated embryonic fluid at the Xenon Medical Center made both him and Beatrice feel that they had made the right decision.
Roger smiled to himself, remembering how much trouble Junior used to get into, and how his behavior would often result in Roger and Beatrice attending meetings with his teachers. One incident which stuck out particularly clearly was the time Junior had stood up and shouted, "Time theory's just a theory! You shouldn't teach it in school -- it's never been proven!" in the middle of his science class.
Roger let his memory slide further back in time, back to the time when he and Beatrice were still dating. Some of those dates had been awkward and somewhat embarrassing, but Beatrice never seemed truly put off by any of them. Roger sighed and wished that he could remember what it had been like when he had proposed to her, back in that old bar on Kerona. The same old bartender had been there, and even the band seemed to be playing the same old music...and even in the dim, smoky light, Beatrice had still looked beautiful...
Roger's thoughts halted abruptly. He remembered.
He remembered the look on Beatrice's face when he asked her to marry him, he remembered how amazingly quickly it took to get the wedding together, and he definitely remembered the wedding itself. It had been a costume-themed ceremony -- and Roger never would have guessed that Beatrice had such a secret fondness for the old sword-and-sorcery Holovision series, Tera: Warrior Empress. He remembered how unprepared he had been for the simple, yet elegant look of Beatrice's costume: the crown, the arm bands and the plain white dress which left so little to the imagination. As for the groom's costume, it might have looked better on a more well-built man, but Roger was convinced that he looked ridiculous wearing it.
Why had he remembered all of this now? Did it have something to do with passing that particular part of the timeline a second time? What was that drink the bartender had given him?
After deciding that there was no way he could come up with a satisfactory explanation to any of these questions, Roger lifted himself out of his pod, changed back into his clothes, and gathered the few personal belongings from the safe each treatment room provided its clients. He stepped out of his room to find Beatrice already waiting for him in the hallway. Together, they returned to the lobby, which had changed considerably during their rest: all the chairs had been replaced, there were now several stylish halogen lamps lining the walls, and the man behind the counter was definitely not the one who had checked them in.
"Hey there -- you're the two who were in the #18 and #23 fridges, weren't ya?" he inquired upon noticing them.
"Yep, that's us," Beatrice said.
"Well, it's nice ta meetcha -- I'm Smurl. 'Fraid I didn't have the pleasure of meetin' ya before they put ya on ice. Didja sleep well?"
"Yeah," Roger said, surprised to find this clerk so amiable compared to the previous one. "Probably the best twenty years of my life. I might come here again sometime."
Smurl's large, round face suddenly looked slightly concerned. He glanced at his computer, then back at Roger and Beatrice.
"Uh...I'm sorry, how many years didja say you were frozen for?"
"Twenty," Roger said.
Smurl glanced at the computer again. He mashed a few buttons on the keyboard, scanned the screen a few times, then looked at Roger and Beatrice again. All the joviality had drained from his face.
"I...I'm afraid there's been a little...mistake," he said slowly.
"What do you mean?" Beatrice asked. "What's going on?"
"I'm... I'm afraid you might have been in cyrosleep a bit longer than ya wanted," Smurl said.
"So...how long were we asleep?" Roger asked.
A pause far colder than the sleep beds filled the office. Finally, Smurl ended it:
"One hundred years."
Horror. Disbelief. Outrage. Loss. These were just a few of the emotions that surged through Roger and Beatrice's heads. For several endless sentences they stood silent and mortified...then Smurl's sad, apologetic face broke into a grin and finally split open with laughter.
"BWA-HA-HA-HA...I'm just kidding, you guys -- you really were asleep for just twenty years -- but man oh man, was that worth it! HOOOO, you should've seen the looks on your faces! Priceless -- absolutely PRICELESS! HA-HA-HA-HAAAA..."
Smurl was now doubled over from laughing. Eventually, he tried to regain his composure and looked as if he were going to apologize to Roger and Beatrice, but as soon as he made eye contact with them he broke down laughing again.
Roger looked at Beatrice, who seemed to be carefully studying Smurl's body, trying to determine which part of it she could inflict the most pain on.
"You think maiming this guy would be doing this place a favor?" Roger asked, his voice barely audible over Smurl's guffawing.
"Tempting...but it would probably get us in even more trouble," Beatrice said, the cool, rational part of her mind quickly smothering her smoldering anger. She dumped the remaining half of what they owned Vurspyltmilc Cryo on the counter (which went unnoticed by Smurl, as he had fallen out of his chair by now), then turned and started for the door. Roger took one last, annoyed look at Smurl's mirthful, quivering body before following her out.
He had only been in this new time for a few minutes, but he already disliked it.
The first thing Beatrice suggested they do after leaving Vurspyltmilc Cryo was to get a medical examination, as the lengthy list of warnings and precautions they were required to read had recommended. The nearest BodyCheck station turned out to be on the way to the storage unit lot, so Beatrice and Roger set out for it right away.
BodyChecks were fully automated exam rooms, and despite the occasional injuries and inaccurate test results that they occasionally gave, the overwhelming consensus among the medical community was that BodyChecks were far superior to the inhumane exam rooms of the past, which would often force their patients to wait at least an hour before being tended to.
Still, the BodyCheck exam wasn't the most pleasant of experiences for Roger. Using it required him to sit inside a small booth with a computer hitting him with question after question about his past medical history, his planet of origin, what other planets he had lived on in the past, what illnesses he had contracted in the past, and so on. Though he was able to skim past most of the questions without much contemplation, one question that did make him stop and think for a minute was the one that asked how old he was.
Nobody was entirely certain how old Roger was, not even Roger himself. After all the time he'd spent drifting through space in suspended animation, traveling through black holes and jumping between different time sectors, he could be anywhere from 40 years old to 140 years old.
Still, regardless of what his age was, Roger was definitely starting to feel it. Even back in his days captaining the SCS Eureka, he knew he wasn't the sprightly young janitor he was back on the Arcada, but he was still fit enough to outrun murderous womandroids, hang onto slippery cliffs and leap over perilous chasms. He had felt good when he first woke up from cryosleep, but now he felt even more weak and tired than he had felt before cryosleep.
Even his recent adventure on Minott seemed like a distant memory -- at least to his body. It seemed as if things like jumping into a seemingly bottomless pit with a primitive parachute and laying waste to a horde of alien invaders were now far beyond his abilities. Though Roger was somewhat saddened by this thought, he was mostly annoyed. The urge to wander the galaxy seeking out adventure, strange new worlds (and perhaps an opportunity to save the universe) was still strong in him. Family life may have stifled it, but not entirely.
But how was he supposed to seek out adventure if his body was failing on him?
Roger's mood was slightly lifted when he realized that the exam was almost over. The BodyCheck was analyzing the various samples that Roger had begrudgingly given it and displaying the results on its main screen.
The text on the BodyCheck's screen stated that Roger's glucose, sodium, triglyceride, cholesterol, and ununoctium levels were too high. It then proceeded to list a variety of suggestions which it strongly advised Roger to follow if he wished to avoid any serious health complications. These suggestions included getting more exercise, avoiding high radiation levels, switching to a more balanced supplement intake and greatly reducing his consumption of alcohol, sugars, salty foods, polyuntransubstantiated fats and head cheese.
Roger, who had had just about enough of the BodyCheck by this point, introduced the toe of his boot to the side of the machine at a high velocity. Unfortunately, all this succeeded in doing was converting his annoyance into extreme pain. As he leaned against the inside of the booth with his teeth clenched and his injured foot hanging limply at his side, the machine added an additional line to its list of suggestions, advising him to avoid kicking BodyChecks as well.
After his exam was finally over, Roger stepped out of the booth to find Beatrice waiting for him, with the Raphus parked on the street behind her. Beatrice explained that she had had a moment of near-panic when she was picking the Raphus up from the stasis storage center. When she arrived at the center, there was nothing there but a vacant lot. A conversation with a relative of one of the center's former owners revealed that the business had gone bankrupt a couple of years before Roger and Beatrice had awakened, and everything being stored there had to either be returned to its original owners or auctioned off if the owners couldn't be reached. The only item which hadn't been returned or sold was the Raphus. After the center had been torn down, the center's owners parked it on the vacant lot in the hopes that someone would take it, but even the garbage collectors had refused to touch it. It had remained there virtually unscathed until Beatrice's arrival.
"And that's not all," Beatrice continued. "Look at this!"
She pulled out her computer. Roger stared at it, grateful to have something else to look at besides the overgrown hemorrhoid that was the Raphus. At the top of Beatrice's computer screen was a flashy red logo made up of the words "PlanetAid", with several paragraphs of text beneath it.
"What is this?" Roger asked.
"Just read it," Beatrice said.
Roger stared at the text beneath the logo:
Natural disasters. Unnatural disasters. We all know they can strike anyplace and anytime...but what happens you are hit by a disaster of a global scale?
If your world has suffered a calamity that has left most of its population dead, deformed, desolate, or convinced that total oblivion isn't too far off, don't despair...call us.
PlanetAid is an organization which utilizes cutting-edge machinery to help restore your world back to its former self. From clearing up atmospheres to eliminating planetwide epidemics to decontaminating soil -- no problem is too big for us.
We're PlanetAid -- and we're here to help.
Roger read the paragraphs, then reread them. He then slowly looked up at Beatrice, who was staring at him intently. She nodded solemnly, and Roger suddenly realized that the same thought was on both of their minds. He nodded back at Beatrice, who turned and walked towards the Raphus. Roger reluctantly followed her, their moment of pseudo-telepathy rudely shattered by the small pile of canned goods that cascaded out of the passenger's side door when he opened it.
"So you really think these guys can help?" Roger asked.
"Everything I've looked up about PlanetAid seems legit," Beatrice said, staring out at the sea of stars that surrounded their tiny ship. "Those stories from those species with devastated planets, the technology used by PlanetAid to clean up their worlds, and the quality of their work -- it's all true."
"But...how are we going to convince them to clean up a world that's not going to get messed up for another few years?"
"Right now, we're just going to talk with them," Beatrice explained. "Perhaps there's a way to get on their waiting list, even if there's nothing wrong with Xenon right now. If there is, we should do our best to get on it -- I hear it can sometimes take several years. They're a pretty busy bunch. I'm surprised I was even able to speak to an actual individual when I called their number."
Roger didn't say anything. He was looking at the map on the Raphus' main console screen. One of the nearby planets on the map had caught his eye: a planet named Estros. The name seemed so familiar, yet all of Roger's attempts to remember where he had heard the name before ended up with him smacking into a mental wall. He was so fixated on the innocuous orange dot on the screen that he didn't realize they had landed until he heard his wife yelling at him to get out of the ship. He unfastened his seat belt, scrambled out the door and hurried after Beatrice, who was walking so swiftly that he had to scramble to keep up with her.
They were in a large, dark, circular landing bay, with two pairs of elevators and escalators near the center. This, he knew, was the parking area for the Gorqwi Rotunda, a large shopping center where one of PlanetAid's many offices was located, according to the numerous addresses listed at the end of their entry. The center was so large that it even had a decent-sized hotel attached to it. However, all of this information was taking a back seat to the conundrum that was currently occupying Roger's mind.
"Now, it's on the upper floor," Beatrice muttered as she strode up the escalator, "Suite 213...or was it 231?"
As she and Roger reached the crowded main floor of the rotunda, she pulled out her pocket computer and studied it intently as she walked, slowing down only to keep from running into one of the center's many patrons. Roger continued to follow her, the name "Estros" still heavy in his mind. Where had he heard that name before, and why did thinking about it make him feel so uneasy?
Beatrice suddenly stopped in her tracks, and Roger narrowly avoided colliding with her.
"Ah -- it is 213," she said, putting her computer away before turning to face Roger. "Roger, did you notice where the elev -- "
Her face was motionless for a moment, then her eyes widened with shock.
"Roger!" she whispered. "Your hologarb!"
Roger stared at Beatrice's red hair, green skin and golden eyes, then glanced down at his hand to discover that his skin was the same color that he had been born with.
"Why didn't you turn on your hologarb?" Beatrice demanded. "Ugh, never mind, don't answer that...just turn it on now."
Roger was just reaching for the unit on his wrist when Beatrice started to hiss at him again:
"No, no -- do it somewhere where there aren't a hundred people standing around! There's restrooms back near the entrance -- do it there!"
Roger nodded -- turning on his disguise in a public place would probably attract some unwanted attention. He quickly turned and began retracing his steps, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible amidst the vast crowds.
Unfortunately, there was one individual who had already spotted him. In fact, she had noticed him when he first entered the rotunda, chasing that homely green redhead. Zondra didn't know why he was chasing that woman, but that wasn't important. What was important was that he was the best-looking man Zondra had seen in a long time. Her Bigfoot Deluxe pedicure would have to come later -- right now, she wanted this man more than anything else in the galaxy...and she always got what she wanted.
Noticing the man coming her way again, she waited until he had almost reached her, then pretended to look at a store sign as she stepped back a few paces. As she predicted, the man stumbled into her just as she wandered into his path.
"Sorry," the man muttered, trying to regain his balance.
"Oh, it's all right," Zondra laughed. "Hey...I don't think I've ever seen you here before. Are you new here?"
The man was about to start walking away again when he suddenly became motionless. He slowly turned his head to look at Zondra, looking both confused and alarmed.
"Sorry if I sound rude," Zondra continued, "It's just that we don't get many 'normal' humanoids in this neck of the galaxy...especially humanoids as handsome as you."
"Um..." the man faltered. "Look, I'd like to talk, but I'm in a real hurry right now. Someone's waiting for me, and if I don't get back to her soon, she's going to get really angry."
Zondra had heard many half-hearted excuses from her suitors-to-be, and this man's excuse was no different. It wouldn't be too hard to fix him. As the man turned to leave, she pulled out a tiny vial with an atomizer attached to it. She sprayed a minute quantity of the vial's contents onto her neck, then reached out and tapped the back of her retreating dreamboat.
"I'm sorry," she said as the man turned to face her. "But I couldn't hear a thing you just said."
The man glared impatiently at her, then inhaled deeply -- an unfortunate mistake on his part, Zondra thought.
"I said," he said at a much greater volume, "I'd like to talk, but I'm in a real hurry right now. Somebody's waiting for me, and if...I...don't..."
As his words faded into silence, his expression softened and for a moment, his eyes became unfocused. He was now looking at Zondra with a mixture of childlike wonder and complete idiocy. Zondra smiled warmly, and the man smiled back.
"Why don't you come with me?" Zondra purred. "I know a much quieter place where we can get to know each other."
The man slowly nodded in agreement. Zondra took his hand and began to lead him toward the exit.
Beatrice was still waiting where Roger had left her, and was becoming more and more irritated as the seconds ticked by. How could Roger have forgotten to turn on his hologarb here, of all places? Turning on her hologarb before entering a public place had become practically second nature to Beatrice -- how could that action have slipped Roger's mind? Still, he had seemed confused when she spoke to him...perhaps he'd had something else on his mind...but why the hell was he taking so long??
Beatrice scanned the far side of the rotunda, peering through the tall, purple vegetation growing in the immense sunken garden in the rotunda's center. After several moments of staring, she finally spotted him. He was walking with a blonde, shapely female humanoid wearing a bright, chaotically patterned dress. The woman was talking to him, smiling and laughing. Beatrice gritted her teeth in anger, and was about to take off after the blonde bimbo who was trying to steal her husband when she caught a glimpse of Roger's face and saw that he was smiling back at the woman. And it wasn't a weak, insincere smile, either -- it was the same warm, loving smile that she remembered from their honeymoon.
Beatrice suddenly felt weak, and had to hold onto the railing surrounding the garden to steady herself. Unable to move or even speak, all she could do was watch in helpless disbelief as the woman and Roger stepped onto the escalator together and vanished from sight as they descended to the center's parking lot.
He left me.
That was the thought that kept repeating in Beatrice' head. She had rented a room in the center's hotel and stayed there for...how long had it been? Three Xenon Standard Days? Six? Ten? She didn't know and didn't care. She had spent most of her time sleeping, staring at the walls or the ceiling when she couldn't sleep. That must have gone on for several days. After that, she started watching the Holovision for hours at a time until an old Tera: Warrior Empress episode made her shut off the set for good. Not even the most brain-numbing entertainment could drown out the memory of what had happened. She almost wished that she was alone on Minott again, hoping that Roger would find a way to return from that alternate universe on his own.
Why had he left her...especially now, when it seemed like they were so close to finding a solution to Xenon's future problems? How could he have done such a thing?
True, Beatrice certainly wasn't the first woman who Roger had been "friendly" with -- there was Flo Qwerty, who had served under him during his brief stint as a captain...there was also Stellar Santiago, an old acquaintance of his. There were even a number of eccentric older females from various species who had become fans of Roger back when he first defeated the Sariens and apparently never realized that Roger was no longer famous (and hadn't been for some time).
Over the years, Roger had received several romantic letters and voice messages from these women, but they never sounded like the kind of women who wanted to steal Roger away for themselves (though neither Roger nor Beatrice had ever understood what message the fan who had sent Roger her recently shed skin was trying to convey -- and weren't sure if they wanted to understand it, either). There were probably dozens of other women who had known Roger at one point or another...maybe that woman he was with was just one of those old flames.
Why Roger had just walked away with that woman without making any effort to hide what he was doing from Beatrice, Beatrice didn't know. She might have grown accustomed to Roger's unpredictable nature, but somehow, what had just happened seemed too unpredictable. Beatrice tried to come up with a phrase that was less asinine than "too unpredictable", but eventually gave up. Whatever had happened between Roger and that woman had already happened, and there was nothing Beatrice could do about it. It seemed that it was up to her alone to speak with PlanetAid and find a way back to Xenon. She wasn't sure how she would get back to the same time she and Roger had departed from, but there had to be a way.
But once she had gotten back to Xenon...what was she supposed to tell RJ? Would he have to live the rest of his life knowing that the father that he had loved and idolized all his life had abandoned his mother and run off with another woman? And if this story ever reached the media...
Beatrice cringed mentally. Her marriage to Roger had caught the eye of many journalists from Xenon as well as a number of neighboring planets. Many of them had questioned Beatrice's judgment, while others speculated that Roger had married her just so he could be back in the public eye once more as well as live off of her income.
Beatrice and Roger had been hounded by reporters and paparazzi for several weeks, but were soon forgotten as more juicy news items began appearing elsewhere -- a former celebrity marrying an ambassador was small potatoes compared to a feelie star having an affair with a pair of tetrasexual xenomorphs.
For several more days, Beatrice remained in her room, trying to get her mind off of Roger and onto what she needed to do next. She tried to muster up enough motivation to go visit PlanetAid's offices, but was so mentally and physically drained that the mere effort of walking there seemed like a ten-light-year journey to her. She thought of doing some more research on time travel, but even that seemed too tedious. As she was looking through a pamphlet listing the Gorqwi Rotunda's various businesses, she noticed one name that finally prompted her to get up, make herself presentable and leave the room in the space of barely fifteen minutes. Happy Hour was nearly over at the MoonShot Bar and Grill.
"What'll it be?" a large, wide-bodied bartender said, shuffling up to Beatrice.
"I'll take the Special," Beatrice mumbled.
"Coming right up," the bartender said, lumbering away. Beatrice stared down at the smooth, dark surface of the bar's counter. The bar was sparsely decorated, though the place's dim lighting made it hard for anyone to notice. All around Beatrice were voices of customers -- talking, laughing, shouting -- yet she felt as if she were completely alone. In fact, the more she gazed at the counter, the more it reminded her of an empty, starless black void of which she was the sole occupant.
Beatrice snapped her head up to see that the bartender had returned, setting her drink forcefully down in front of her.
"One Special," he grunted.
Beatrice thanked him, dropped five Buckazoids onto the counter, then sampled what she had ordered: a heavy, fruity concoction which the menu had called a "Dark & Starry". It was a bit sweeter than she would have liked, but that didn't matter that much to her. What did matter was getting completely inebriated as quickly as possible.
As she took another sip of her drink, she noticed a heavy glass jar sitting near the end of the bar, filled with metal pipes approximately an inch and a half in diameter and nearly a foot in length.
"What are those things?" she asked, not out of genuine curiosity, but out of the desire to fill the silence with anything beside the churning mess of her own thoughts.
"Dekampi straws." The bartender rumbled.
"Dekampi?" Beatrice asked. "What kind of drink is that?"
"Not drink," the bartender said. "Customer. Big guys with big jaws. Jaws that can crush your head like olive. They try to use normal straws...snap!"
He made a slight gesture with his hand to emphasize the word. Beatrice regarded the metal straws and nodded.
"Not easy accommodating so many species," the bartender said. "But I try my best."
"Right," Beatrice said absently.
The bartender asked Beatrice if there was anything else he could get her, and when she declined, he lumbered towards the other end of the bar to tend to a pair of small, tentacled beings who had yet to order anything.
Beatrice rested her chin in her hand as she stared into her drink. What in the galaxy had possessed someone as committed to making order out of chaos as her to marry someone as unpredictable and accident-prone as Roger Wilco? For most of her adult life, Beatrice had been married to her career -- settling down and starting a family had never been on her agenda.
Still...as much as she hated the banality of the old "opposites attract" adage, there seemed to be a tiny grain of truth to it. Roger wasn't a studly, square-jawed space hero, but he was considerate and sensitive, and even if he didn't succeed at everything, he always tried, not matter how highly the odds were stacked against him. And when times weren't so tough, it seemed like he could always make her laugh.
But now he was gone. Why he had left her and where he was now, Beatrice didn't know. Perhaps someday she might see him again, but for now, it seemed that she was alone...very, very much alone.
As Beatrice sat at the bar sipping her drink, she became aware of a pair of women sitting somewhere behind her, both of them talking in annoying, perky, high-pitched voices that Beatrice couldn't block out, no matter how she tried. Every word out of their mouths was like a pair of sharp, pink fingernails stabbing her in the eardrums.
"Did you hear about that new guy that Zondra found, Chlorette?" one woman asked.
"I did!" the other woman squealed. "He sounds sooo dreamy -- and so manly, too!"
"I know! Even his name sounds manly...'Roger Wilco!'"
If the barman had been standing in front of Beatrice when this last sentence had been uttered, he would have instantly become covered in a fine spray of Dark & Starry. Fortunately for Beatrice, he was at the other end of the bar, with his back to her. Swiftly wiping her mouth, she spun around in her chair and stared at the table the two women were sitting at. After all the steps Roger had taken in order to disguise his and Beatrice's identities, those two women had just revealed that he had broken the very first rule he had laid out at the beginning of their journey, the one rule which he had insisted that they stick to at all costs to avoid the risk of a time paradox occurring: They couldn't use their real names.
Now Beatrice was more convinced than ever that something was wrong. She was tempted to walk right up to the women's table, ask them who they were and demand to know where Roger was...but no. Not yet. Not here. She had to wait for a chance to confront one or both of those women alone. And so Beatrice waited, watched...and planned.
Lulena, Chlorette's friend, needed to make a quick visit to the ladies' room. However, once her business there was completed and she was stepping out of her stall, another woman burst out of an adjacent stall and leapt at Lulena from behind, pinning her against the nearest wall. After the shock and pain had subsided, Lulena realized that the woman was tightly grasping her wrist and was sticking what felt like the nozzle of a blaster into her back. She was also speaking to Lulena, and she sounded very angry.
"Whuh...?" Lulena managed to groan.
"Roger Wilco -- Where is he?" the woman demanded.
"What's it to you?" Lulena mumbled, still not completely coherent.
The woman jabbed the blaster nozzle into Lulena's ribs, leaned forward and whispered into her ear:
The pressure of the blaster nozzle combined with the cold fury in the woman's voice was all it took to jarred Lulena back to full alertness.
"Estros!" she blurted out. "He's on the planet Estros!"
"All right...what about this Zondra you mentioned? Who's she?"
"The leader of the Latex Babes!" Lulena cried.
"Fine. How do I get in touch with this Zondra?"
Lulena hesitated. Then a smug grin started to creep across her face as she looked over her shoulder at her assailant.
"You won't get him back," she said, suddenly sounding much more confident. "Once Zondra finds a man she likes, that man is hers and hers alone. All you can do is wait a while and hope she gets tired of him soon."
The woman grabbed Lulena's hair and shook it, and it was all Lulena could do to keep from screaming.
"I am getting him back," the woman hissed. "If you see Zondra, tell her to enjoy your time with Roger while she can...because it's not going to last much longer."
Beatrice let go of Lulena's hair and stepped back, surreptitiously tucking her "blaster" in her pocket (which was in actuality just a Dekampi straw). After warning Lulena not to follow her, she walked out of the restroom, then out of the bar, a completely different person than the one that had walked into it.
As incompetent as Roger seemed at times, whenever Beatrice had found herself in mortal danger, he had nearly always been able to save her. How many times had he saved her life now? Twice? Three times? Four times?
And how many times had she saved his life? There may have been a few times where she had gotten him out of some serious trouble, but she had never really done anything that would qualify as a life-saving feat. After everything that Roger had done for her, Beatrice felt that she had to at least try to rescue him. It was the least she could do for someone who had saved Xenon as well as the entire galaxy on multiple occasions.
As she was walking towards the parking lot and trying to figure out just how she could pull off such a feat, she became aware of someone following her and addressing her in a thin, wheedling voice:
"Miss...Miss? Excuse me, Miss?"
Beatrice whirled around angrily.
"What?" she snarled.
The owner of the thin, wheedling voice was a short, thin, pale-skinned man dressed in the gaudy, wildly patterned style of clothing that seemed to be the style of garb for tourists of practically every species.
"I was in the bar when you went after that girl," he said in a hushed voice.
"Why did you go after her?"
"That's none of your business," Beatrice spat. She turned and began to walk away, then felt a frail hand grasp her arm.
"They stole a man from you, didn't they?"
Beatrice stood frozen to the spot. She slowly looked over her shoulder at the thin man, who was staring solemnly up at her. She suddenly realized that he wasn't merely thin but downright scrawny -- he looked like an average Xenon humanoid whose body been squeezed through a waste compressor, then had 80% of its muscle mass extracted. Yet the way that this gangly individual stood with his narrow shoulders back and his soft blue eyes staring steadily into hers gave the impression of remarkable strength and intelligence.
"I can help you," the man said in a near-whisper. "I know who they are."
Beatrice stared at the man, confused yet faintly hopeful at the same time.
"Who are they?" she asked, now speaking in a quiet tone herself.
The man glanced around at the crowd of people surrounding them, then pointed to a nearby alcove that was partially concealed by a large potted plant. Once Beatrice and the stranger had hidden themselves in the alcove, the stranger answered:
"They are the Latex Babes of the planet Estros," he said. "Estrosian females are strong, fierce women who will frequently take males from other species to be their mates -- humanoids are generally preferred."
"Well, who are you?" Beatrice asked, trying desperately to remain calm despite the horror and fury that now flooded her mind. "And how do you know all this?"
The stranger placed a hand over his shallow chest with an air of faint pride as he spoke:
"I am an Estrosian male."
A few hours later, the stranger had told Beatrice more or less everything about himself, the Latex Babes, and Estros. The stranger explained that the females of Estros vastly outnumbered the males, and because of their greater strength and fiercer disposition, they ruled the world while the men were generally treated as little more than breeding stock. However, it wasn't until the stranger had escorted Beatrice to his hotel room that she learned why the Estrosian had shown such interest in her.
"I am a member of the Men's Liberation Group," the man said, still speaking in hushed tones. "We men of Estros have lived too long under the tyranny of our female oppressors, and we deserve to be treated with the same respect as that given to others of their gender."
"Wait a minute," Beatrice interrupted. "You're not trying to get me involved in some kind of revolution, are you?"
The Estrosian shook his head.
"No, no -- We're not plotting any sort of uprising, and we're not trying to overthrow our leaders, either. We only wish be treated as equals, not merely as vehicles necessary for perpetuating the species."
"So what does all this have to do with me?"
"The MLG keeps several of its members stationed in the women's favorite off-planet haunts in order to keep an eye on them," the Estrosian said, "and as I told you, the way you followed that one woman made me realize that the man they were talking about was important to you. I want to help you rescue him."
"But...why?" Beatrice asked.
"We feel that it is our duty to help any man who has become enslaved by the Latex Babes, whether he is an Estrosian or not. The only reason I'm here talking to you right now is because I was lucky. Whether you were born there or not, it's nearly impossible to leave Estros when you're a man."
We feel that the first step to our freedom is to expose the injustice of the women of Estros by rescuing men kidnapped by them and helping men born there to escape, then anonymously publishing stories about their experiences. If we make enough people aware of what is going on on Estros, eventually something has to give."
Beatrice thought about this for a moment.
"So you want to help rescue my husband...so you can write a story about rescuing him?"
"I know how unconvincing that may sound," the Estrosian admitted, "But we have been acquiring many more members in recent years, some of them with a variety of remarkable skills."
He rose from the bed, walked to the closet, opened it, and picked up something resting on the top shelf. It was a flat, featureless, black disk, with a consistency somewhere between metal and plastic.
"This is a teleportation disc," he said, holding it in front of Beatrice. "This one is calibrated to transport its user to a set of coordinates deep inside the Latex Babes' main fortress."
Beatrice stared in astonishment, first at the disc, then at the Estrosian.
"It was hardly an easy feat, getting that second disc installed," he said. "Two of our men wound up captured, and a third wound up..."
He paused, then cringed a little before completing the sentence.
Beatrice nodded sympathetically, deciding not to ask the Estrosian to go into any more detail.
"Anyway...the long and short of it is that we have a way both in and out of the fortress where your husband is being held captive, as well as a map of the place. The plan is for you to enter the fortress in disguise, find your husband, stick him with the antidote, and then -- "
"Woah, woah, woah, hold it!" Beatrice exclaimed. "You want me to enter the fortress?"
"I'm sorry," the Estrosian said, wincing at the sudden loudness of her voice. "I should have told you that this is only my plan. I haven't gone over it with the rest of the MLG yet, and I'm sure they'll want to make some changes to it. Still, it's not as if you could start this mission without their approval, anyway -- it'll take a while to put together a convincing disguise..."
He paused, then gazed intently at Beatrice for a moment, his expression growing dubious.
"Ah...please don't take this as a personal question, but...you're not wearing a hologram, are you?"
"Um...actually, I am," Beatrice replied.
"I thought so," the Estrosian said. "Hologram disguises are very effective, but they're not perfect. I can usually spot them, but only if I concentrate hard enough. The reason I asked is because hologram disguises don't work inside the Latex Babes' base. They've installed an energy field which breaks up hologram-generated images. Er...would you mind telling me what you look like without the hologram, Miss?"
Beatrice described herself in as much detail as she felt comfortable revealing.
"This is perfect," the Estrosian said. "Your appearance is just like that of a typical Estros female! Now tell me: what size swimsuit do you wear?"
Beatrice stared at him, dumbfounded by the sudden change of topic.
"I'm sorry," the Estrosian said hurriedly, "It's just that that's the style of dress that the Latex Babes prefer."
"Swimsuits?" Beatrice asked in disbelief. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd worn one.
"Yes," the Estrosian replied. "There's a lot of water on Estros, and -- "
"Never mind," Beatrice muttered. "So you're saying that I need to go out and get a swimsuit in order to pass as one of these women?"
"No, you don't," the Estrosian said.
"Then...why did you ask me -- "
"I have several pairs of various sizes right here, in my suitcase."
Beatrice's quizzical look made the Estrosian's expression change to not one of embarrassment, but solemnity.
"When we have missions where our men need to go to Estros, they usually dress in drag," he said. "Although...those missions usually don't end well."
After the Estrosian remained silent for several seconds, Beatrice cautiously attempted to change the subject:
"So...what's this antidote you mentioned?"
The Estrosian finally met her gaze again.
"The Latex Babes' leader has a perfume that only she has access to," he said. "It contains a powerful chemical that is only effective in the presence of testosterone. It makes any man who inhales it devoid of any will of their own -- they will tell her any secret she asks them about, put up with anything she does to them, and do anything she asks of them."
Roger's sudden change in behavior was finally starting to make sense to Beatrice. As she slowly digested this new information, the Estrosian unzipped a pocket in his shorts and pulled out a tiny syringe.
"Fortunately," he said, "one of our members is a chemist, and was able to create an antidote -- and he created it out of the perfume itself."
He handed the syringe to Beatrice, who held it up to the light to examine it.
"You mean you managed to steal some of it from Zondra?" she asked.
"Indeed," the Estrosian nodded. "Not an easy feat by any means. Now, you must inject your husband with the antidote when you find him -- if you try dragging him back to the teleportation point while he's still under the perfume's influence, he's bound to resist your efforts and cause some unneeded problems. As for leaving and returning, you'll need to use a transport activator. It will turn on whatever disc you're currently standing on -- but be sure to remember the exact spot you arrive at on Estros, since the disc there is concealed."
He glanced at a watch-like device strapped to his wrist.
"It's night on Estros right now, and that might the best time for you to go in. There are only a few guards posted during the night. They probably won't pay much attention to you since you are a woman, but you should still be on your guard. Try to stay out of sight, and if you should get noticed -- "
A shrill beeping interrupted the Estrosian. He looked at his watch-like device again, and he swore under his breath as he read it.
"What is it?" Beatrice asked.
"It's another MLG member," the Estrosian hurriedly, rising to his feet. "I have to meet with him at another location five minutes from now."
"Can't you tell him what's happened and meet with him later?"
"I'm sorry," the Estrosian said, grabbing some of his belongings from a desk near the door. "I promised to meet with him yesterday, and if I don't show up there, he may think that something happened to me. I've got to go -- but I promise I'll be back soon."
"But what about the activator you mentioned?" Beatrice asked. "Or the map?"
"I'll get you those things when I get back," the Estrosian said, opening the door. "I will be back -- you just need to wait for me."
Beatrice's protest was cut short by the slamming of the door.
For the better part of a minute, Beatrice sat fuming on the bed, trying to decide whether to punch or kick something. After determining that none of the objects in the room seemed like they would be ideal candidates for either action, she started to calm down and figure out what she could do.
What would Roger do in her situation?
Of course, with someone like Roger, it seemed virtually impossible for Beatrice to imagine herself in his shoes. There was no real rhyme or reason to most of his actions and no way of predicting what sort of bizarre scheme he was going to pull out of his head, but over the course of his adventures, there was one thing about Roger that had remained consistent: he had picked up virtually everything that could be picked up, even if its usefulness wasn't immediately apparent. With no other options available to her, Beatrice decided to follow Roger's example...but first, she needed to come up with a plan. She wasn't charging into the Latex Babes' fortress without one.
The first step in the plan was figuring out how to get to Estros. She had the teleportation disc, but it was useless without the activator. Looking at the open closet gave Beatrice an idea. Walking over to it, she ran a hand along the top shelf and almost immediately touched something lying on top of it. Beatrice grasped the object and took it down from the shelf, discovering that it was a small device with a single button on it. She pushed the button, and a low hum briefly filled the air. She pushed it again and the humming stopped. She repeated the action again, and this time the hum seemed to be coming from the teleportation disc. This affirmed her suspicions -- this device had to be the activator.
The next step was the matter of disguising herself. Beatrice turned off her hologarb and opened the Estrosian's suitcase. There, she almost immediately discovered the swimsuits that he had spoken of earlier, and after about ten minutes, she found one that fit her. The suit even had a discreet padded pocket which hid the syringe remarkably well.
Now Beatrice had a way to and from Estros, a disguise, and a way of restoring Roger to his senses...but she would need a lot more than that if she was going to succeed. She decided to search the Estronian's room in the hopes of finding anything else that could help her.
The first place she decided to search was the bathroom. On the edge of the sink were three bottles of ManUp! brand male hormone supplements -- "More masculinity in minutes or your money back!" the label proclaimed. If the Estrosian was taking those supplements, they certainly didn't seem to be having much of an effect on him. Beatrice suddenly realized why the two Estrosian women had been gushing about Roger: compared to the Estrosian male Beatrice had been talking to, her husband could easily be perceived as the pinnacle of masculinity by the female of that species.
Beatrice was about to turn and leave the bathroom when she remembered the decision she had made about acting like Roger and grabbed one of the bottles from the sink. The bottle created a slight lump in her suit which she hoped wouldn't attract any unwanted attention.
Upon returning to the bedroom, Beatrice realized that she had forgotten to close the Estrosian's suitcase. As she approached it, she glanced at its contents and noticed a small white box tucked in the corner with the word "DANGER!" on it. She knelt down beside the suitcase, and upon closer examination of the box, she found the words "PERFUME SAMPLES -- DO NOT OPEN WITHOUT PROPER BREATHING APPARATUS!" written under the word "DANGER" in smaller print. Opening the box revealed several vials of a clear liquid with a faint yellow tinge to it. These had to be samples of Zondra's perfume. It seemed odd for the stranger to have such a hazardous thing in his possession, but Beatrice then recalled what he had said about making the antidote out of the perfume -- perhaps he was just transporting these samples to that chemist he had mentioned. Beatrice didn't waste any more time pondering the reason behind the vials' presence was, however -- she simply took one of them from the box and carefully slipped it into her pocket.
As guilty as it made her feel, Beatrice carefully searched the rest of the Estrosian's suitcase, eventually locating a device resembling a video watch. Turning it on revealed a blueprint of what she soon realized was the Latex Babes' fortress. Every room was clearly labeled, and so was the spot that the teleportation disc was going to send her to. At last, Beatrice began feeling truly confident about her mission. It was bound to be a dangerous one, but for Roger's sake, she was willing to embark on it.
After stepping onto the teleportation disk and pressing the button on the Activator, Beatrice found herself standing inside what was undeniably a public restroom stall. The stall door was locked, the area outside the stall was just as empty as the stall itself had been before Beatrice's arrival, and a sign reading "Out of Order" was taped to the outside of the stall door. Beatrice checked the map, then stood cautiously beside the restroom door for a moment before opening it a fraction of an inch. Through the barely open doorway, she could see a dimly lit, curving hallway with concrete floors and walls that were either naturally-formed cave walls or impressive replicas of naturally-formed cave walls. The air felt thick and humid, and a thin veneer of moisture covered the floors.
Beatrice stepped out into the hallway and checked the map again. The room where Roger was being held wasn't too far away, but Beatrice couldn't afford to be any more reckless than she already was. Hugging the irregular rock wall, she edged along the hallway, staying in the shadows as much as she could. She passed three heavy metal doors, but no people -- it was night, after all.
A bright light appearing suddenly around the curve of the hallway made Beatrice stop sharply, but she relaxed to find that the light was coming from a Jav-O-Mat vending machine -- a marvel of modern technology that dispensed dozens of different gourmet coffees, quasi-coffees and various other hot, drinkable stimulants at the press of a button. Ignoring the machine's comforting, warm glow and its faint, invigorating aroma, Beatrice continued along the hallway, passing another closed door and passing through an open doorway, which led into a tunnel that led her to another circular hallway.
Several minutes later, Beatrice simultaneously found just what she was looking for and just what she least wanted to find. The former was the door to the room where Roger was imprisoned: a room which was simply labeled "The Man Cave" on the Estrosian's map. The latter was a swimsuit-clad brunette, standing right outside the door and holding what looked like a gun with an undersized harpoon protruding from the muzzle. Beatrice cursed mentally. She should have known that rescuing Roger wouldn't be as easy as just walking into his room and dragging him out of there. After the way the Estrosian had described Zondra, Beatrice strongly suspected that a woman like that would keep her men well-guarded, especially with an organization like the MLG at large -- and her suspicions had just been confirmed.
As Beatrice was wondering how she could get rid of the scantily clad guard that stood between her and her husband, she suddenly realized that that guard was slumping forward slightly. After a moment or two, the guard's head jerked up suddenly, and Beatrice instinctively flattened herself against the wall -- not an easy feat, considering how uncomfortably jagged and rocky the walls of the fortress were. Unfortunately, this motion caught the attention of the guard, but she didn't react with hostility and suspicion -- she merely turned in Beatrice's direction with all the swiftness of a morbidly obese gastropod.
"Hey," she said in a quiet voice, "Is that you, Bechdelle?"
Beatrice remained still and motionless. The query was repeated, and when Beatrice realized that the guard might start coming her way if she didn't get a response, she gave her a mumbled "Yeah" in reply.
"Oh, great," the guard said in a relieved voice. "Could you please get me a cup of Esprelattecchino? My shift won't be over for another hour, and my eyelids feel like they've had lead weights implanted in them."
"Ah, sure," Beatrice said. She began walking casually away from the guard, occasionally looking back over her shoulder. Despite her worry that she might be walking into some sort of trap, Beatrice couldn't let this chance slip past her. She now had an opportunity to get into the Man Cave -- and she knew just how to take advantage of that opportunity.
Beatrice returned with the guard's drink a few minutes later. The bleary-eyed guard thanked Beatrice profusely, then began sipping cautiously at the scalding beverage. Beatrice left the guard and walked until there was enough distance and darkness between them to ensure Beatrice that she was out of the guard's sight. Beatrice crouched in the shadows, watching the guard -- more specifically, the guard's cup of Esprelattecchino. In a few minutes, Beatrice could tell that the guard had consumed most of the cup's contents -- it was time to make her move. Beatrice pulled the tiny, yet dangerous vial out of the pocket in her swimsuit, opened it and deposited two miniscule droplets of its strong-smelling contents behind each ear. After recapping the vial, she walked up to the guard in the most casual manner she could manage. As she drew closer, she could see that although the guard's eyes were no longer half shut, there was a puzzled expression on her face. She glanced at her cup, frowned, then looked at Beatrice.
"Hey," the guard said, "Are you sure that was Esprelattecchino, Bechdelle? It tasted pretty...funny...to..."
Her words slowed and eventually stopped, and her puzzled frown began to blossom into a soft smile. She stared at Beatrice through slightly unfocused eyes, and her smile grew noticeably wider. The hormone supplements that Beatrice had slipped into the guard's drink and the perfume designed to react to that particular hormone were both working in just the way Beatrice had hoped.
"Say, Honey," Beatrice said softly, "Would you mind stepping aside and letting me in?"
The guard wobbled unsteadily for a moment, then grinned idiotically.
"Sorry...but only Zondra is allowed to go in there," she slurred.
Beatrice hesitated. She wasn't sure whether the perfume had completely taken effect, and she didn't want to risk accidentally snapping the guard out of her stupor. Still, she had to get into that room somehow.
Remembering the brief glimpse she had gotten of Zondra in the Gorqwi Rotunda as well as the Estrosian man's thorough description of her, Beatrice raised herself to her full five-foot-ten height, squared her shoulders, brushed some stray hairs away from her face and placed one hand firmly against her hip.
"I am Zondra, you silly," she said in an authoritative, yet sympathetic voice. "Now, would you please let me in so I can spend a little time with my man?"
The guard stared mutely at Beatrice for a moment, then giggled nervously and pulled a small metal keycard out of a pocket in her swimsuit.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am...I've been standing here way too long. Think you could maybe get Kelissa to cover my shift next time?"
"Oh, I'll think about it," Beatrice replied as the guard ran the keycard through a reader next to the door and the door slid open. The guard cheerfully nodded her thanks as Beatrice strode past her and cautiously entered the Man Cave.
The Man Cave was a large, low-ceilinged room with the same rough, rocky walls that the rest of the fortress had. A large-screen 3D Holovision was set up against one wall, complete with speakers the size of escape pods and a collection of video disks with a quantity that could be measured in pounds. An armchair covered with leather made from the hide of an unidentifiable beast stood in one corner, and a massive, garishly colored couch sat in front of the Holovision. There was a refrigerator in another corner, and the walls were covered with neon beer signs, pin-ups of Estrosian women, and posters of some of the most macho spacecraft ever created -- if those vehicles were any more manly, they would have hair growing out of their landing gear compartments. There was also a familiar smell in the air: Zondra's perfume. That had to be how Zondra kept her men under its influence even they weren't in her immediate vicinity.
Fortunately, there was no sign of Zondra in the Man Cave, and amidst the gaudy paraphernalia that the place was festooned with, Beatrice soon spotted a large bed standing against the back wall. It looked large enough to accommodate at least two people, but right now, there was only one person in it -- the very person she had come to Estros to find.
Beatrice sprinted up to the side of the bed. Roger was sleeping, and Beatrice was about to shake him awake when she remembered what the Estrosian's warning. She pulled the syringe out of her pocket, removed the protective cap from its needle and injected the antidote it contained into Roger's neck. He flinched in discomfort, and Beatrice ducked behind one of the red velvet curtains that framed the bed, hoping he wouldn't see her. How long would it take the antidote to take effect? And what about the perfume itself? The Estrosian hadn't been that clear on exactly how it worked -- since she was wearing it, would Roger now do whatever she said, or would he only obey Zondra's commands since she had used the perfume on him first?
After several minutes of anxious pondering, Beatrice decided not to wait any longer. She knelt down next to the bed and whispered Roger's name into his ear.
"Ugh...what time is it?" he murmured irritably.
"It's time to get up," Beatrice said gently.
Roger opened his eyes and stared dreamily at Beatrice.
"Oh, come on," he protested in a barely conscious voice. "Can't we wait 'til tomorrow? A guy's got his limits, y'know."
Beatrice fought back the anger welling up inside her and continued speaking:
"Roger...do you recognize me?"
Roger squinted at her for a moment, and during that moment, there seemed to be a flicker of alertness in his eyes, but it quickly faded away as his eyes returned to their familiar half-closed, unfocused state.
"Hey, Baby," he grinned. "It doesn't matter if I recognize you or not -- it'll be a good time either way."
"Beatrice Wankmeister," Beatrice said. "RJ. Xenon. Do those names that ring any bells?"
"Call me whatever name you like," Roger chuckled. "And I'm sure I could ring your -- "
He paused, stared intensely at Beatrice for a couple of seconds, then once again reverted to his half-awake stupor.
Beatrice frowned. It seemed that the antidote was starting to work, but not very fast -- and Beatrice couldn't afford to wait for it to reach its full effect. It looked as if she would have to resort to extreme measures. She grabbed Roger's face with both hands and turned his head so that he was looking directly into her eyes.
"Roger..." she said coldly, "Sludge Vohaul had a sex change operation, and the woman who's been dating you and calling herself Zondra is really him."
Roger's scream was cut short by Beatrice clapping her hand over his mouth, anticipating just such a reaction.
"Don't worry," she whispered quickly. "I'm going to get you out of here -- I just need you to follow me and do exactly as I say, got it?"
Roger nodded weakly. Beatrice removed her hand from his mouth, noticing that his eyes were no longer panicked and were now completely clear and focused. He stared at Beatrice, bewildered but no longer completely intoxicated.
"Bea..." he said, sounding as if he had just awakened from a dream.
"You remember now?" Beatrice asked. "About me being your wife and RJ being your son and your planet about to run into serious trouble?"
"Yeah...I definitely remember -- "
His expression suddenly grew horrified.
"Oh no...Bea, I...I..."
"As far as I could tell, nothing that's happened here was directly your fault," Beatrice said, hoping to postpone his guilt trip until they were completely out of danger, "But if you don't get off that bed and get moving right now, you'll definitely get us both caught, and then I'll really be mad at you."
"Uh...I don't feel very good." Roger said.
"What do you mean?" Beatrice asked. "Can't you walk?"
Roger made a feeble effort to sit up before slumping back down and shaking his head. Beatrice cursed under her breath. As desperate as she was to get Roger out of the fortress, dragging him to the teleportation disk would not only take much longer than she was comfortable with, but would make it much easier for them to get caught.
"Roger, do you know where the restroom in the south hallway is?" she asked.
"Well, as soon as you're well enough to walk, get over there and go into the stall with the 'Out of Order' sign on the door."
"I'm trying to get you out of here," Beatrice hissed, her patience growing thinner by the second. "I'll explain everything later -- just get to that bathroom and that stall as fast as you can! And don't worry about the guard outside -- she won't cause you any problems as long as you act casual around her."
She was about to leave the room when she noticed Roger's confused eyes. She hesitated, then gave him a brief but passionate kiss, wished him luck, then turned and bolted for the door.
In a few minutes, Roger was feeling strong enough to stand, and after a few attempts, found that he was able to walk as well. He remembered Beatrice's instructions clearly and realized what danger he was in -- yet part of his mind was still ensnared in that dreamy haze that had overtaken him that day at the Gorqwi Rotunda. Yes, he had to escape this place, but there was one thing he had to take care of first...
Zondra was awakened from her sleep by a soft tapping at her door. Groggily, she stumbled out of bed and opened the door to find the man of her dreams standing on the other side.
"Roger!" she cried. "Sugar Puppy, what are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry, Zondra..." Roger said softly. "I'm really sorry...but it's over."
Zondra stared at him.
"What do you mean, 'it's over'?" she asked. "You mean that thing with the lobsters? I thought you were enjoying that..."
"No, Zondra -- you and me. It's over."
Zondra gazed at Roger, her blue eyes widening in disbelief.
"But...but Roger," she protested, "We were having so much fun together! You can't just run off and leave me like this!"
"I'm sorry," Roger said in a suave voice, taking a couple of steps closer to Zondra, "It took me a while to realize it, but I never was a man who could stay in one place for long. I'm not the kind of guy that can be tied down -- I'm the kind of guy who needs to be free to roam the galaxy; untethered, unhindered, and uninhibited."
He paused for a moment, then continued:
"It was nice knowing you, Zondra, and it was fun while it lasted...but I'm afraid I've really got to go now. The stars are calling me."
A half-choked sob escaped Zondra's throat. Roger turned and ran, making a beeline for the fortress's south hallway. By the time Zondra had pressed the Emergency button just inside her door, Roger had nearly reached the bathroom Beatrice had mentioned, and by the time Zondra and several other Latex Babes burst into the bathroom, they found nothing inside but a row of empty stalls, one of which had an "Out of Order" sign taped to it. Trembling with rage, Zondra glared at the bare concrete ceiling.
"You'll pay for this, Wilco!" she roared. "YOU'LL PAY FOR THIS!"
Zondra would indeed have her revenge on Roger, but little did she know that for Roger himself, this had already happened...and it had happened many years earlier.
"Are you okay?" Beatrice asked Roger once they had rematerialized in the Estrosian's hotel room.
"Never better, Sweetheart," Roger said with a grin. "Maybe a little shook up...but that's just how I roll sometimes."
Before Beatrice could ask him anything else, Roger collapsed to the floor.
"I guess I should have warned you about some of that antidote's side effects," said a familiar voice from across the room. It was the Estrosian, looking mildly shocked and somewhat irritated.
"Don't worry," he continued. "He'll be perfectly fine in an hour or two."
His large eyes then narrowed, and his quiet voice grew bitter as he spoke to Beatrice again:
"I told you I'd be back soon. Why didn't you just wait here like I told you to?"
Beatrice tried to think of a decent comeback, but all she was able come up with on such short notice was:
"I told you was in a hurry."
Once Beatrice had washed off Zondra's perfume and changed back into her own clothes, the man from Estros helped her transport the still unconscious Roger back to her own hotel room and lay him down on one side of her surprisingly spacious bed. After this, Beatrice began relating her encounter with the women of Estros to her new acquaintance.
At first, she attempted to sum up the entire experience into one brief statement, explaining how she had already been in an unstable state due to circumstances she didn't wish to delve into, Zondra's kidnapping of Roger had caused her severe mental anguish, and the women of Estros needed to be brought to justice for their crimes against their own species as well as the others they had stolen males from. However, as the accumulated emotional impact of the last few hours began to take its toll on her, she ended up pouring her heart out to the lithe, solemn man sitting on the chair next to her, telling him how lost she had felt without Roger, and how angry she had been with that bimbo for stealing him from her, and how angry at herself she had been for thinking that someone like Roger would do something as run-of-the-mill as leave her for another woman without warning, when the reality of the situation turned out to be far more complex and outlandish -- just the way it always seemed to be with him.
After about an hour had passed, the Estrosian turned off his microcorder and reassured Beatrice that her identity as well as Roger's would be kept completely anonymous. He then gave Beatrice his card, thanked her graciously, wished her relationship with Roger a speedy recovery, and finally departed.
Finally, Beatrice then turned her attention to Roger, who still didn't seem to be showing any signs of wakefulness. However, the pained, miserable look on his face made Beatrice realize that not only was he regaining consciousness, but he had overheard most (if not all) of what she had said to the Estrosian.
Though Beatrice was relieved that Roger was safe and back to his old self, Roger couldn't bring himself to respond to anything she said to him. For the next few days, he remained ensconced in an impenetrable cocoon of guilt and self-loathing as the memories of what had happened to him replayed over and over in his head.
Part of Beatrice's mind felt that she should be mad at Roger as well as Zondra -- after all, if it hadn't been for him forgetting to turn on his hologarb, this whole mess would never have happened. However, the guilt he was heaping upon himself seemed to pale in comparison to any disparaging remarks Beatrice could have slung at him.
And after all, despite all her troubles, Beatrice had gained a new ally, managed to save Roger nearly single-handedly, and possibly even played a part in the liberation of a gender. However, at the moment, the only two witnesses to her astounding feats were either curled up into an unresponsive lump of misery on a hotel bed or off in search of another story concerning the misdeeds of Zondra and the Latex Babes.
Beatrice managed a short, bitter laugh. Throughout her mission, she had been constantly trying to imagine just what it would be like to be in Roger's shoes. Suddenly, she didn't have to imagine that scenario any longer.
"So...that's pretty much it," Roger muttered. "I first met Zondra in the SQX time sector, and the first thing she did was wave a harpoon at me and tell me that I dumped her."
"Then you forgot about that after you returned to your own time, and didn't remember until you saw her again at the Rotunda?" Beatrice asked.
Roger nodded glumly. In hindsight, his fling with Zondra seemed completely unavoidable, given his past experiences with time travel. He had managed to drag himself out of his slump, but still had the cold, sickening sensation of guilt resting on his shoulders.
Beatrice, however, seemed to be taking the event surprisingly well. Compared to the revelation that Xenon was going to be devastated by an infected Supercomputer which would be defeated by a past version of Roger with the help of their 19-year-old son, the news that Roger had nearly been killed by an ex-girlfriend years before she actually became his girlfriend wasn't that all that shocking.
"So...is there anything else from that first encounter with the Latex Babes that you remember?" Beatrice asked. "Something else you think I should know about?"
"No," Roger confessed. "I mean, I don't think so."
He slowly rubbed the back of his neck.
"Well," Beatrice replied, "If you do think of anything you want to tell me, I'll listen."
"Thanks," Roger said. "But...what should we do now, Bea? Should we try going to PlanetAid again?"
Beatrice looked perplexedly at Roger.
"Going to...what?" she asked.
"PlanetAid," Roger repeated. "You know, those guys who say they help to fix damaged planets?"
Beatrice stared off into space, looking very confused. It wasn't an expression Roger saw on her face very often.
"PlanetAid," she said softly. "Yes...yes, I think I know that name..."
Roger glanced at a pile of papers on the floor and noticed a PlanetAid brochure sitting on top of it. He picked it up and gave it to Beatrice. As she unfolded the brochure and began to read, her face became less and less perplexed.
"Yes, I do remember!" she finally said. "PlanetAid...and how we were going to ask them about helping Xenon. I don't know what would have made me forget that."
She put down the brochure and picked up her computer. For a minute or so she gazed pensively at the screen, only occasionally pressing a button.
"Well Rog," she eventually said, "It looks like we've got to get moving."
"Why?" Roger asked. "What's going on?"
Beatrice smiled wanly and turned her computer so that Roger could see what was on the screen.
"PlanetAid sent me a message a couple days ago," she said. "They want to meet with us."
In less than half an hour, Roger and Beatrice (both wearing their hologarb costumes this time) were making their way through the Gorqwi Rotunda, which was just as packed as it had been the last time they were there.
"So what are we supposed to say once we get there?" Roger asked as they made their way to the rotuda's second story. "We can't just say, 'Hey guys, our planet's going to be in big trouble in a couple of years -- think you could help us out then?'"
"I've been thinking about that," Beatrice said. "I think we should be honest with them, but at the same time, try not to give much away. We could say that we suspect that the Supercomputer might be seriously flawed in a way that might...what's the matter?"
Beatrice looked inquisitively at Roger, who was rubbing the back of his neck again.
"I don't know...there's something like a bite on my neck. It itches."
"Oh," Beatrice said, not sounding overly concerned. "Well, it should feel better in a day or so. Just try not to scratch it or it might come out."
"Come out?" Roger repeated in surprise. "What do you mean, 'come out'?"
"There it is!" Beatrice said. She was pointing to a storefront several yards ahead of them with the name "PlanetAid" written in large red letters over the entrance.
"Bea, what's going on?" Roger asked. "What did you mean when you said -- "
"We can talk about that later," Beatrice said. "Come on, let's go."
She hurried in the direction of PlanetAid. Roger shook his head, sighed and followed her.
The inside of the PlanetAid office was little more than a large waiting room. There were tables and chairs to accommodate species of numerous sizes and body types, one or two artificial potted plants, a bookcase with hardly any books in it, video screens advertising PlanetAid's numerous services, tasteless carpeting, a single door at the back of the office, and one large desk with a console resting atop it.
"Welcome to PlanetAid," a speaker on the console chirped merrily. "'If your world's in a thrall, then give us a call!' How may I help you?"
Beatrice approached the console.
"I'm Mrs. Neekburm," she said. "You called me about three hours ago and told me to come over."
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Neekburm," the speaker said jovially. "We're very glad you could make it here."
"I'm honored," Beatrice said. "Now, about the planet I mentioned -- "
"One step at a time, please," the speaker interrupted. "In order to make sure that you qualify for our services, you are required to fill out this application."
A lengthy form written in very small print appeared on the console's main screen. Beatrice groaned.
"You want me to help?" Roger asked, looking over her shoulder.
"No, I should be fine." Beatrice said with a sigh. She picked up the small stylus attached to the console and began to fill out the form.
Roger turned and glanced around the waiting room. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something seemed odd about the place. He had expected an office offering such a service to be swarming with people, yet he and Beatrice were the only ones there.
He then noticed two strange devices mounted on either side of the main doorway. They looked like security scanners, but why would such devices be in a place like this? This was just an office -- what sort of valuables could there be in a place like this?
As Roger was turning to Beatrice to comment on his two observations, the bookcase suddenly and silently swung open, revealing a small passageway, out of which two men clad entirely in white were rushing. Before Roger could even draw breath to shout, one of the men in white had shoved a gag into his mouth, and the other one had pierced his neck with a hypodermic needle. That was all Roger remembered before everything went black.
Roger's kidnappers moved so quickly and silently that Beatrice was completely oblivious to what had happened. However, when she turned away from the mind-numbing paperwork and realized that she was the only person in the PlanetAid office, she immediately feared the worst. Roger was gone again, and this time, there was no one who would be able to help her find him.
You can't go back.
Those familiar, increasingly frustrating phrases were the only thing that passed through Roger's mind as he lay in an unconscious state, not knowing where he was, what was happening or how much time had passed since he had been attacked by the men in white.
There was one point where he became aware of several nearby voices, he could only make out brief, faint pieces of what they said:
"...restorative procedure seems to be..."
"...should be able to handle the initial operation..."
"...suppose we could..."
After a while, he lapsed into unconsciousness again. Another immeasurable amount of time passed, and when it finally ended, Roger's mind finally began its slow ascent towards wakefulness.
The first thing he became aware of was a blinding white light piercing through his eyelids. A mixture of chemical odors with a vaguely metallic aftertaste filled the still, silent air. He also felt very cold.
He opened his eyes and squinted in the light's harsh glare. As his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the light, he started getting a look at his surroundings.
He was lying on his back on some sort of cot. He tried to move, but both his arms and legs were strapped down. He then realized that his legs and feet were bare, and so were his arms. He raised his head slightly and discovered that he was wearing nothing but a flimsy, gray hospital gown, and his hologarb was gone from his wrist.
Suddenly, there was a shuffling sound near his right side, accompanied by the approach of a large, white shape. Roger turned to see a tall humanoid clad in a white lab coat peering down at him. More shuffling noises began to fill the air as several more white-clad figures began approaching Roger's cot from all sides. There was a large, slug-like creature; an enormous, round-bodied being with skin like cracked tree bark; a tall, green insectoid; and a small, scrawny reptilian individual. Roger looked up at the strangers and shuddered -- and not just because of how chilly it was in the room.
"So...our patient awakens," said the man Roger had first noticed, speaking in a cool, calculating voice. "I suppose we might as well introduce ourselves, since we are going to be spending a lot of time together."
He raised a gloved hand to his chest.
"I am Dr. Keech Kwidnunk. My expertise spans most of the major scientific fields as well as several minor ones."
He gestured towards the oversized gastropod that stood near the foot of Roger's cot. Looking more closely at the creature, Roger realized that it really did look like an Terran slug -- aside from its incredible size, the only real differences seemed to be the large hoverchair it was perched in as well as the two metal prosthetic hands protruding from its midsection.
"This is Dr. Fyerk," said Kwidnunk. "His fields are microbiology, neurology and genetic engineering. As he himself was the result of a genetic experiment gone awry, perhaps you might see why he has gravitated toward the latter."
"It ith a pleathure to meet hyou, Mithter Wilcho," said Fyerk, bobbing his eyestalks. His voice was so phlegmy and guttural that Roger was compelled to clear his throat after hearing it.
"And this is Professor Gurrex," Kwidnunk continued, pointing to the large, rough-skinned alien standing opposite him. "He is an expert in the physical sciences, and somewhat competent in many other areas."
Gurrex glowered at this.
"'Somewhat competent?'" he echoed contemptuously.
"Now, now, I'm not saying you're bad at your job, Gurrex," said Kwidnunk gently. "It's just that some of your ideas are too, well...useless."
Gurrex's frown deepened.
"In fact, to be perfectly honest, your ideas for robot genitalia designed to make robots have human desires in order to help them get a better idea of what humans are like were truly ridiculous -- especially the one where the 'female' robot experiences nine months of slightly malfunctioning behavior after -- "
"Oh, of course," Gurrex interrupted huffily. "If only I had spent two million Buckazoids trying to invent a glow-in-the-dark sandwich spread like you did! That would have certainly been a much greater -- ."
Gurrex suddenly stiffened and winced. He shook his head and glared coldly at Kwidnunk, but didn't speak again. Kwidnunk used the pause as an opportunity to introduce the insect-like creature standing next to Fyerk.
"Professor Sfazekz is our resident computer expert. She is also quite skilled in robotics and engineering."
Sfazekz stared at Roger through her large compound eyes and swiveled her antennae towards him. Kwidnunk then gestured towards the last individual, who stood between Fyerk and Gurrex.
"And this is Mr. Bohica," Kwidnunk said. "He's our engineer, astronomer and general go-to fellow. He never could decide what sort of title best applied to him, so we just call him Bohica."
"That and...other thingth," Fyerk interjected.
This elicited some quiet chuckles from most of the others. Bohica shifted uncomfortably. Kwidnunk continued:
"We are all individuals that have been shunned or exiled from the scientific community for one reason or another, but were determined to continue our research through whatever means necessary. However, when we became unable to purchase the necessary materials for our experiments, we needed to find some way of obtaining more money. We contemplated threatening to blow up a planet or two unless we were given a few trillion Buckazoids, but realized that we would get caught far too easily with a plan like that. We had to be much more subtle. That's where we came up with the idea for PlanetAid."
Roger stared at the scientist.
"Indeed," Kwidnunk nodded. "We are the founders of PlanetAid."
"But.." Roger stammered, "But PlanetAid fixes planets, it doesn't destroy them!"
"Correct on both counts," Kwidnunk said. "We do fix planets, and we don't destroy worlds. We just...damage them a bit."
Roger shuddered and gaped wordlessly up at Kwidnunk, who grinned smugly.
"Perhaps it isn't the most elegant of plans," Kwidnunk chuckled, "But it's still an ingenious one, if I do say so myself: we send a few tiny, remotely-operated ships to an unsuspecting world, wreck a bit of havoc on it, then wait for that world's citizens to ask PlanetAid for help. They pay us a fourth of our fee up front, we send some workers to help them clean up the mess with our machines, then they pay us whatever's left. We figured that if any of our customers refused to pay, we could send a few more disasters their way, but we haven't run into any trouble yet. We make it a mission to leave every planet we've trashed as good as new -- I know that might seem a bit counterintuitive to you, but I say, 'If you're going to do a job, then do it right!' Destruction or reconstruction -- either way, we give it our all."
Roger was trembling not just with fear, but with anger as well.
"You mean.." he said slowly, "you ruin entire worlds...just to fund your crazy experiments?"
"Sad but true," Kwidnunk replied. "But some sacrifices have to be made in the name of scientific progress. Speaking of which, I'm sure you're wondering what you're doing here."
Though this was true, the previous sentence made Roger wish that he wasn't going to hear the answer to this quandary.
"As you may know, gaining knowledge of any living thing requires careful study. It may take a long time before complete knowledge of a certain organism is obtained, if it is obtained at all. It may not be a pleasant procedure for any of the parties involved, but it is necessary if any new knowledge is to be gained."
"So you want to study me?" Roger ventured.
"Correct," Kwidnunk nodded.
Kwidnunk leaned uncomfortably close to Roger and ran a finger across the top of his head.
"Because, Roger Wilco...you are special."
The mention of that word caused several repressed memories to come rushing into Roger's mind. His mother had described him as "special" many times when he was very young, usually after he had run into the living room when his parents had company over, wearing his mother's underwear on his head (and nothing else) and screaming something like "Toast goblins!" But the way his mother called him "special" was in an uneasy, slightly nervous tone of voice. The way this scientist had called him special was downright sinister.
"Yes," Kwidnunk said, "Your many victories in spite of overwhelming odds were impressive enough on their own, but that wasn't what really made us develop an interest in you."
"What do you mean?"
Kwidnunk drew in a long, heavy breath.
"To all appearances," he said, "you are the same simple-minded janitor that was working on the Arcada all those years ago...and yet you have performed feats that many people would consider not merely difficult, but nearly impossible. Not only that, but after all the hardships you have endured, you still retain a certain naivety and innocence. Merely half of all the insults, rudeness, disappointments and embarrassments you've endured would be enough to cause the average humanoid to suffer a mental breakdown or even consider offing itself.
"Then there's your luck. Trouble seems to follow you everywhere, but luck is always right behind it. Some may dismiss luck as merely a circumstantial thing, but with you, I suspect it is something very different."
"Did you ever stop and think that maybe I'm just a really lucky guy?" Roger asked.
"Oh, we did consider that, Mr. Wilco, we did...but after a thorough read through the accounts of your various exploits, we realized that many of your accomplishments simply cannot be chalked up to mere luck. Passing through a dark cave on Labion with the aid of a glowing gem that you just happened to pick up in a subterranean cave in a murky swamp that you had no idea existed beforehand? Surviving a death trap in Sludge Vohaul's fortress with a toilet plunger you just happened to have on your person when you got caught in that trap? Only a fool would say that 'being lucky' was responsible for such uncanny coincidences."
Kwidnunk folded his arms and sighed heavily.
"It has been hard work trying to catch something as elusive and wily as you, though," he grumbled. "When we learned that you and your spouse were headed to Gritt, we hoped to capture you there, but unfortunately, it blew up. We thought we had lost you forever, but it seems as if your luck saved you yet again. When we received a call from a woman whose voice pattern matched that your wife's a short while ago, we strongly suspected that you had to be close by...and it turns out that you were. You practically walked right into our hands, and of course our DNA scanners had no problem seeing through your little holographic disguise."
Roger stared listlessly at his bare wrist, then at Kwidnunk. The scientist had talked for so long that he was almost starting to nod off.
"People have spent much time speculating on your curious nature," Kwidnunk continued, "But I say, why speculate when you can investigate? You are a mystery, Wilco...a mystery that we intend to solve. I strongly suspect that if we are able to find out just what it is that makes an organism as enigmatic as you possible...we may open the door to the answers to many other questions. We may even gain some insight into the mysteries of the universe itself!"
Before the weight of this proclamation could properly sink in, the phlegmy voice of Fyerk spoke up, which immediately shocked Roger into wakefulness:
"And if thomething thould go wrong," he slurped contemplatively, gesturing towards Roger's right foot, "perhapth we could cut off the two lower appendageth and thell them as 'Lucky Janitor'th Feet'."
There was an awkward pause. Everyone in the room except for Fyerk seemed to be cringing.
"Sometimes you disgust even me, Fyerk," Kwidnunk muttered.
"Now, back to business," the large-headed scientist said. "We're almost ready to begin the initial examination, but we've still got a few more preparations to take care of. We conducted a few non-invasive tests on you while you were unconscious, but we'll definitely have to go deeper if we wish to glean any real information from you."
Roger's agitation had reached such a fever pitch that he resorted to the most clichéd line any captive sentient being could ever utter:
"You're not going to get away with this!"
"And what makes you say that?" Kwidnunk asked. "Since Gritt exploded, you and your wife are currently missing and presumed dead, and although I'm sure there may be a few people from your home planet who want to send search parties out to the Ka'Blui system to see if you might have survived that explosion, with what's happening on Xenon right now, there's no chance of that happening anytime soon."
"What? What do you mean? What's happening on Xenon?"
Kwidnunk coldly stared down at Roger.
"Their Supercomputer has gone ballistic," the scientist said. "It took over the planet's defense system a few days ago and has turned every populated area into a war zone."
He sneered in disgust.
"Just one more reason why I'm wary of technology that advanced...you never know when it might turn on you."
For a moment, Roger couldn't think or even breathe. The destruction of Xenon had begun. Even though part of him felt it was unavoidable, he had still held fast to the hope that there was something he could have done to stop it. Now that hope had vanished, leaving nothing but a feeling of utter failure and helplessness.
Kwidnunk was talking again, but Roger couldn't hear him over the sound of his own thoughts. The other scientists seemed to be growing more animated, talking with Kwidnunk and each other. Kwidnunk then said one more thing to Roger, then turned and walked away. The other scientists began to walk away from Roger's gurney as well, and Roger realized that his arms and legs were starting to grow numb. Paralyzer. That was one of the things Kwidnunk had said to him. Soon, all the scientists had filed out of the room, shutting off the light behind them.
Roger lay quietly in the dark. He would have attempted to move his arms and legs, but he doubted he would have the will to struggle even if they weren't almost completely paralyzed by this point.
It didn't seem to matter what these crazy scientists did to him now. Escape seemed pointless. Xenon was lost, and he himself was going to wind up dead within a couple of years...what was the point in continuing to attempt preventing the inevitable?
A civilization being destroyed...none of its own people able to stop the devastation...and the only one who could save it was...
Then suddenly, Roger remembered -- and simultaneously, he was struck by an idea. It was a crazy, desperate idea, but it was the only one he had -- he had reached the end of his rope, was hanging from it by one hand, and his fingers were beginning to weaken.
Though he had been tempted to dismiss the experience as a dream at the time, he was now thoroughly convinced that it wasn't -- a creature millions of times smaller than him had made contact with his mind, slowed time nearly to a standstill and had a lengthy conversation with him, and Roger hadn't walked away from that conversation unaltered.
Something had changed -- whether it was a subtle rewiring of his brain or the activation of a part of his central nervous system that had remained dormant until that point, he had no way of knowing. All Roger knew for certain was that he was about to attempt one of the most insane, improbable things he had ever tried to do...and he needed to be asleep in order to do it.
Hmm...what should I do now?
Maybe if I...
Yes...I think it's working...just need to keep...reaching...
Come on, come on...
Oh my God...I think I did it...
Now how am I supposed to...Oh, right...
"Um...hello? Is this the universe?"
There was the sound -- no, the sensation -- of what seemed like an annoyed sigh. Then there was a voice:
"Yes, it is. What do you want?"
"Uh...I'm sorry to bother you like this, universe, but...I kind of need a little help with something."
There was another annoyed sigh.
"All right, all right...what is it? You want to know what happens after death, what the purpose of purple is, what the meaning of life is or how many licks it takes to get to the center of a -- ."
"No...I actually wanted to know something else."
"That's good," the universe said, sounding a bit less annoyed. "If you had asked me any of those questions, I'd tell you to piss off."
"Wait a minute...are you saying that I'm not the first guy who's made contact with you?"
"Of course you're not. I've had conversations with millions of organisms -- religious types, seekers of truth, and entities under the influence of certain mind-altering substances...though I think you might be the first janitor I've ever spoken with."
When Roger said nothing in reply, the universe continued to speak:
"I don't know why you're surprised by that, Wilco -- I'm the universe. You think I wouldn't know about your profession?"
"Uh...I guess that would be kind of dumb," Roger admitted. "I've just never talked with a universe before..."
"I know that as well," the universe remarked. "Though there have been times during your adventures when I've been tempted to talk with you."
The shock generated by this comment might have been enough to short-circuit Roger's brain if he had been fully conscious. Fortunately for him, the only thing damaged by this revelation was the brain monitor. It shuddered briefly, spewed out an EEG reading so extreme that it looked like a section of a pelt from a submicroscopic zebra, then promptly expired.
"You've...been watching me?" Roger asked.
"Yes," the universe said, "I must confess that your somewhat contradictory nature has truly puzzled me at times...though there are a few trillion other individuals that have caught my attention."
"Yes -- there's a sun a few billion light years from your home world that seems to be developing sentience, one individual from a species similar to yours that is able to survive in the vacuum of space without any protective clothing, another individual whose brain contains the minds of every person on his now incinerated home planet...in fact, there's even one species that is even older than me. They came from the universe that preceded me, and somehow managed to survive its end and my beginning. Now their world drifts through the voids between the galaxies, unmoored and forever alone..."
There was a long pause, during which Roger caught a glimpse of what might have been either infinity or a particularly bright cluster of innumerable stars...and for some reason, a faint sensation of the color beige.
"But I'm just rambling now," the universe finally said. "What was it you wanted help with, Wilco?"
"Help? Oh, right, right," Roger said. "It's my planet...my arch-nemesis is taking over it. Is there any way I can stop him?"
"You already stopped him," the universe said. "Don't you remember your son transporting you to the future, where you..."
"Sure I do...but I want to stop him now...before he destroys everything."
There was a long pause, and when the universe spoke again, it spoke in a voice that was quieter, subdued and almost commiserative.
"I'm sorry, Wilco... I'm afraid you cannot change what you have already seen come to pass, especially something as major as the near-destruction of an entire world. Vohaul will have full control of Xenon in a few of your months. His reign of terror won't end until your past self defeats him approximately two of your years from now."
Roger's heart felt so heavy that he briefly wondered if the operating table would collapse under its weight. The universe continued:
"Perhaps if I were a more resilient, experienced universe, you might have been able to change things, Wilco...but I'm afraid I'm still a bit overly wary when it comes to things like possible time paradoxes. That's one of the reasons why I've been...diverting you over the past few years."
"I may not be living in even the loosest sense of the word, Wilco, but in some ways, I am not unlike most living organisms -- I have some sense of self-preservation as well. When you and your spouse were catapulted into the past -- which incidentally, was not my doing -- I took every precaution to make sure your older self didn't run into your younger self and cause a serious time paradox, but I left your younger self alone for the most part."
"A logic-defying oddity such as you is hard enough to keep track of when there's just one of you, Wilco...but with two of you running loose at the same time, even I felt daunted by the prospect of keeping tabs on both of you. I decided to keep an eye on just your future self. The only time I interfered at all with your past self was to...hurry things along."
Roger was about to ask what this meant, but the answer to his question came to him completely on its own.
"You mean," he said slowly, "Things like...marrying Beatrice? And having Junior?"
"Yes. The way you were dragging your feet, I was concerned that a paradox was imminent. I felt that I needed to give you a push or two to be on the safe side."
Roger suddenly felt more angry and frustrated than he had been in years, and not only because of the thought that all those people who had jokingly remarked how the universe had it in for him were apparently right.
"I was 'dragging my feet' because I didn't want something to happen to Beatrice!" he snarled. "And I'd personally like to live more than a couple more years!"
"I'm sorry," the universe said, its tone of voice not changing a whit. "Would you please elaborate? I'm not entirely clear on what it is that you're upset about."
Roger tried to contain his rage, fearful that he might wake himself up and break the link between him and the universe.
"Junior had to go back in time to get me to defeat Vohaul," he explained, his voice quavering. "If I was alive then, then where was the future me? Not only that, but he talked about Beatrice in the past tense..."
His feelings could now be best described as a heaping plate of unhappiness with a large side order of helplessness garnished with a sprig of futility.
"Besides...Xenon was a complete mess when I visited it in the future...and I couldn't do anything to stop it from becoming a mess...I thought that I might be able to stop it somehow, but..."
The universe said nothing. The darkness around Roger was thick with strange, heavy pulsations. Apparently the universe was thinking -- and very deeply.
"Again, I'm sorry, Wilco," it eventually said. "But what is happening to your world was inevitable, just as your unintentional affair with Zondra was inevitable. An event of that size simply cannot be undone -- the timeline may tolerate slight alterations, but not ones of this size. No one could have prevented this -- not even you.
"As I've already said, I am not the most experienced encompassment of all there is. Perhaps there is another version of me where the disaster on Xenon could be averted and there would be no chance of your actions or inactions creating a paradox...but I am not that universe. I may have interfered with your life, Wilco, but I was acting solely out of concern for my well-being...as well as yours. The incident that jolted you out of your current time was a lucky accident, even if it did mean keeping an extra-close eye on you."
"How is having to go through the last twenty years all over again lucky?" Roger snapped.
"Remember when I said how I couldn't keep track of two of you at the same time?"
"Vohaul and his Sequel Policemen couldn't do that either. The machine they designed -- will design -- may be powerful enough to search multiple places and times in search of a single entity...but what do you think would happen when there are not only two copies of one entity in the same time, but both of these entities have uncanny luck, are able to solve complex problems despite having a seemingly simple mind and have a behavior pattern that doesn't follow any conventional form of logic?"
"You mean...me and my past self?"
"Exactly. Their machine could not comprehend two Rogers existing at the same time -- consequently, both of you remained undetected by Vohaul and his lackeys from the end of Space Quest IV until now. But now that your past self been relocated from Space Quest IX to Space Quest IV...there is only one of you."
"Uh-oh...that's bad, isn't it?"
"When the Vohaul Virus starts searching the past time sectors for you, you cannot be on Xenon or anywhere in your galaxy once Space Quest X begins -- if you are, then Vohaul will be looking for you...and I don't need to tell you what happens if he finds you. In order to prevent the possibility of any time paradoxes occurring in the near future, you and your spouse cannot return to Xenon until after your past self leaves the Space Quest XII time sector."
"Okay, fine...but how am I supposed to get there? In fact, how am I going to get out of this place?"
"Don't worry, Wilco. You will have a chance to escape -- and I'm certain that you can do it without any help from me."
There was no reply. Roger was tempted to repeat his question, but the faint sensation of mounting irritation that suddenly filled the air made him change his mind.
"Well...thank you, universe," he eventually said. "I really appreciate the chat."
"Uh...are there any last-minute hints or advice you want to give me before I try to escape this place?"
"As a matter of fact, I do."
"Okay...what is it?"
"Don't screw up."
"Oh, and one more thing..."
"Keep this in mind, Wilco: You may have seen the future, but you didn't see the entire future. You never saw your future self die, you also never saw Beatrice's future self die...and you never saw what became of Xenon after your son returned you to your own time. You never saw any of these things, Wilco...the future is not set in stone. Remember that.
"Oh, and also:" the universe added after a long pause, "Squid Lips."
"Squid Lips?" Roger repeated.
"Yes," the universe replied. "Squid Lips. Remember that as well."
"Um, okay...Uh, could you repeat that thing you said right before 'Squid Lips', universe?"
What the hell happened here!?
Roger opened his eyes. The voice he had heard was Kwidnunk's. He turned to see the large man standing next to him, staring at the broken brain monitor. Three of the other scientists were gathered around the gurney as well, all of them wearing gloves and surgical masks. There was also an IV bag suspended from a pole and a small table holding a stainless steel tray containing a variety of surgical instruments -- many of them very sharp.
"What's wrong with this thing?" Kwidnunk snarled, smacking the brain monitor with his fist. "It won't turn on!"
"I don't know what's wrong," Sfazekz said. "It was working just fine when we left the room."
Kwidnunk ground his teeth.
"Gurrex, run up to the Dome and tell Bohica to get his tail down here. I don't want to start this procedure with broken equipment."
Gurrex turned and briskly plodded out of the room. Once his footfalls had faded, Kwidnunk turned back to Roger.
"Oh -- I'm sorry, Wilco, I didn't know you were awake," he said apologetically. "We're just about to begin our initial operation on you -- we'll mostly do some poking around inside your skull to see how your brain reacts to various stimuli and look around for anything that seems out of the ordinary...then we may or may not cut open a few other parts of your body, depending on what sort of results we get. Don't worry, though -- we'll put you back together again once we're completely done."
Roger said nothing. His tongue felt as if it been permanently attached to the roof of his mouth.
"Don't look so concerned, Wilco," Kwidnunk said in a voice that tried to be soothing but only succeeded in unnerving Roger even more. "You may very well be the source of some of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries of our time. Surely that's worth a few stitches and several years worth of tests."
Roger finally found his voice.
"Uh, you guys..." he said. "I really don't think you're going to discover any of the secrets of the universe by doing experiments on me. I mean, I actually just got done talking to the universe, and even it didn't seem to have any idea why I'm the way I am, so I really don't think you'll be able to -- ."
"Sfazekz, what the hell did you inject him with?" Kwidnunk growled at the insectoid scientist.
"I haven't injected him with anything yet," Sfazekz shot back.
Kwidnunk returned his gaze to Roger.
"Well, Wilco, I'd advise you to relax now. Once we get that brain monitor fixed, the operation will -- ."
The low voice of Gurrex coming in over a nearby wall-mounted speaker interrupted Kwidnunk.
"Guys..." he said, sounding a little uncertain, "There's something up here I think you should come take a look at."
Muttering angrily under his breath, Kwidnunk strode over to the speaker.
"What's going on, Gurrex?" he asked. "Did you find Bohica?"
"I did...but I definitely think you guys should come up here and take a look at Pygalgia."
"Why? What's going on?"
For a few seconds, the speaker remained mute. Then the increasingly nervous voice of Gurrex spoke once more:
"There's a really big message on it...and it's about us."
The three scientists stood as if they'd been frozen in time. Roger couldn't see Kwidnunk's face, but even though Sfazekz and Fyerk faces were far from human, the looks of shock on their features were undeniable. Then the trio made a mad dash for the door, with Sfazekz and Kwidnunk getting there first with Fyrek only a short distance behind them, his hoverchair whining furiously.
After the door hissed shut and silence filled the room, Roger suddenly realized that now was his chance to escape -- but before he could figure out how to get out of the room, he needed to find a way to cut the straps that were holding him to the gurney.
I've got to get out of here...I've got to get out of here and stop those jerks. I've got to...I have to.
And I can do it...I've saved my home planet at least three times, I'm the only man who ever defeated Sludge Vohaul, I've saved the entire galaxy from being overrun with Pukoid mutants, and I just had a chat with the universe...if I could do those things, I know I can take out a handful of mad scientists...
Because I'm Roger Wilco, dammit.
Craning his neck, Roger examined the surgical instruments sitting on the nearby tray. One of them looked very much like a pizza cutter, though it had a blade with sharp, curved teeth that looked as if it would not only slice through a pizza, but also the cutting board the pizza was sitting on. Although Roger began to grow faint at the sight of it, he suddenly noticed a cord leading from the end of the instrument. The cord hung over the side of the tray -- just a few inches from Roger's right hand. Roger stretched out his hand to reach it and after several seconds of tense straining, he was able to grab it.
All right, I've got it...now what?
Roger doubted that he could turn on the cutter (and wasn't sure if he really wanted to, either), but he was certain that he could still make use of it. Gripping the cord tightly, he gave it a quick, strong yank. The cutter leapt from the tray, made a quick arc through the air and landed on the operating table just a few millimeters away from Roger's face. He nudged the cutter with his head until the blade was close to the strap on his right wrist. Then he gripped the other end of the cutter between his teeth, picked it up and began to gingerly saw away at the strap.
The job took several minutes, but Roger was eventually able to cut through the strap (though not without nicking his arm several times). With one hand free, he was quickly able to unfasten the three remaining straps. He then sat up slowly, expecting his body to ache much more than usual after lying down for however long those quacks had him strapped to that gurney...but to his astonishment, there was almost no pain at all.
As Roger got to his feet, he immediately felt an unpleasant draft run down his spine. The gown he was wearing was fastened in the back by several flimsy ribbons, but there was still a sizeable gap in the back of the garment. Despite how many advances had been made in medical science over the centuries, the standard hospital gown that most humanoids were provided with had remained virtually unchanged. However, Roger's dislike of the gown didn't stem from how thin and ill-fitting it was -- it was from its lack of pockets.
Though Roger could normally carry a large quantity of items at once, the absence of any sort of pocket in his current attire put a very low limit on the amount and size of objects that he could take with him. This wasn't good -- Roger didn't feel comfortable taking on the scientists without some sort of potentially useful items at his disposal.
When his search of the room turned up nothing that could solve this problem, he decided to risk leaving it, hoping that he could find something to help him in his predicament. Roger looked through the thick glass window set into the door. Though it he could see a long corridor, with another door about halfway down it.
He was about to press the button that opened the door when he had a discomforting thought: what if the door closed behind him after he left the room and he couldn't find a way to open it again? He opened the door and peered across the threshold to find that there was some sort of scanner set in the wall next to the door. There had to be a way of keeping the door open...
He turned and examined the gurney.
Yeah...I think that'll work.
Unlocking its wheels, he maneuvered it in front of the door, pressed the button, then pushed the gurney halfway across the threshold. The door, its sensor detecting the obstruction beneath it, politely remained open. Roger sidled past the gurney and into the corridor. It was unnervingly quiet, and the cold metal walls were virtually featureless. Upon reaching the second door, Roger noticed that this door had no window and no keycard reader. His suspicions about what could be behind the door were confirmed when he opened it, revealing a dark supply closet.
Inside the closet were medical supplies, some electronic components, a couple of tool boxes, and various other odds and ends. Roger eventually spotted a large tool belt lying on one of the shelves. Pouches, pockets, loops and numerous other features which provided ways of toting items around adorned nearly every inch of it. Roger snatched up the belt and put it on. It wasn't a great fit and there were a few unsightly stains on it, but those were trivial concerns. He finally had pockets -- now it was time to start looking for things that he could fill them with.
Returning to the operating room, Roger took a good look at the contents of the surgical tray, but the remaining instruments seemed either too useless or too scary-looking for him to add to his collection. He was about to start searching the rest of the operating room when something made him pause and glance at the tray again. He pushed the instruments aside, then gaped at it in disbelief. For the better part of a minute, he remained frozen in place, staring in bewilderment at what he saw mirrored in the tray's cold, metal surface.
The scientists (now sans masks and gloves) crowded around the main console in the facility's large, domed central control room, staring in mute horror at Pygalgia, the large gas giant that was their closest neighbor. It was covered in a thick, blue layer of clouds, and spelled out in enormous black letters on its surface were the words:
PLANETAID IS A SCAM!
THEY ARE MURDERERS AND WORLD-WRECKERS!
THEY MUST BE STOPPED!
11340.2, 22563.5, 6033.4
"Those are our coordinates!" Sfazekz squeaked. "Where did that message come from? What's going on!?"
"I don't know," Kwidnunk snarled, "but we'd better get out of here soon before we start getting some unwanted visitors!"
"Can't we just try to get rid of it instead?" Bohica suggested meekly. "Because given the speed light travels and the nearest inhabited world being about -- ."
"We're not taking any chances," Kwidnunk barked. "We've got to start evacuating right now! Take everything that you -- ."
He suddenly halted and stared coldly at his colleagues.
"Why didn't any of you stay behind to keep an eye on the janitor?" he asked.
The rest of the scientists sprang into motion at his words, bolting frantically towards the two doors leading to the facility's lower levels, with Kwidnunk bellowing like a wounded Orat the entire time.
Sfazekz was the first to reach the operating room, and the sight of the empty stretcher was all it took to make her realize that Wilco had escaped. Quivering with anxiety, she turned on the intercom next to the door.
"Kwidnunk...the human is gone."
There was a howl of anger from the intercom's speaker. Sfazekz and the other scientists gathered around her winced.
"Well, don't just stand there -- find him!" Kwidnunk roared.
"What about that message on Pygalgia?" Sfazekz asked.
"I'm getting to that," Kwidnunk said. "Sfazekz, go to the main database and start backing up everything. Bohica, you start preparing the ships for takeoff. Fyerk and Gurrex, you start looking for Wilco. Stick to the hallways -- that man can't remain hidden forever."
After a brief chorus of agreements, the scientists hurried out of the operating room. Unfortunately, while they were there, they had overlooked a couple of details that would truly have benefitted them in their current situation. None of them had noticed the large ventilation duct near the ceiling that was slightly ajar, or the various small crates lying on the counter and floor below the duct which would have easily have formed a haphazard ladder up to the duct if they were stacked on top of each other.
Roger crawled through the facility's ventilation shafts, his only goals being staying quiet and out of sight. He passed several ducts set into the floor of the shaft that looked down into various rooms in the facility, but most of the ducts were too small for him to fit through.
When he finally found a duct that was wide enough, he found that it led into a room that housed a large table, a refrigerator, a coffeemaker and a sink full of unwashed dishes. Seeing a break room in the midst of such a cold, sterile environment was jarring at first, but the more Roger looked at the place through the slats of the vent, the more it made sense -- as fond as they were of their various twisted experiments, these lunatics would certainly want to take a break from their work every once in a while.
Not seeing any reason to descend into the break room, Roger continued to crawl through the shaft, soon coming to a large duct that dropped down into the corridor he had encountered outside the operating room. As he peered through this aperture, Fyerk glided through the hallway and Roger recoiled. Even though he knew that the scientists would have noticed his absence and start searching for him before too long, seeing one of his captors pursuing him was still an unsettling sight. Several minutes later, Roger heard the sound of approaching footsteps, whose sound made it seem as if they belonged to a twenty-foot-tall robot. However, it was only Gurrex. He strode methodically down the hallway, heading the same direction Fyerk had gone. From his vantage point, Roger was almost close enough to touch the Gurrex's tough, hairless head as he plodded past.
Roger continued his journey through the duct. After several more yards and a couple of ninety-degree turns, he reached a dead-end at yet another vent. This one looked down into a room that was filled with the deafening hum of an enormous computer. The heat from the machine made the metal surfaces of the vent uncomfortably warm, and despite how loud the room was, there was another noise in the room that was even louder: the sound of a large insectoid muttering angrily to itself.
Peering through the vent at an angle, Roger could see Sfazekz aggressively pounding on a large keyboard. This wasn't good -- even if he did incapacitate Fyerk and Gurrex, Roger didn't feel safe wandering the hallways knowing that Sfazekz was likely to show up at any minute.
Roger turned around and retraced his steps until he reached the vent looking into the break room, pried open the vent with the pizza cutter from the operating room, and dropped to the floor below. The room seemed just as ordinary as it had from above: there was a half-empty salt shaker sitting on the table, and an abandoned cup of cold coffee stood next to the sink (both of which Roger immediately picked up).
There was nothing immediately identifiable inside the fridge, but there were several large magnets stuck to the door -- in fact, they were stuck so securely that it took several seconds of labored tugging for Roger to liberate one of them.
He glanced at the door leading into the hallway, but decided that the plans he was quickly formulating in his head could be carried out much more safely from inside the duct. There was no way of reaching the vent from the floor, but the break room's table allowed him to reach the vent easily once he moved the table beneath it.
Returning to the vent that overlooked the hallway, he carefully pried the cover open and listened for Fyerk's hoverchair and Gurrex's footsteps. When he heard the hum of the hoverchair approaching, he quickly unscrewed the lid of the salt shaker. Then, the instant he saw the enormous gastropod appear beneath him, he upended the shaker, letting its minute white crystals rain down onto Fyerk's head. Fyerk stopped dead in his tracks, not comprehending what had happened first. Then he realized that his skin was starting to bubble violently. He let out a gurgling yelp of distress and flailed about in his chair, fumbling for its controls with his prosthetic hands. When he finally managed to find the main throttle, he piloted the chair straight into the nearest wall at full speed. His body oozed out of the chair, landing on the floor with a loud splat. The bubbling slowed and eventually stopped.
Roger cautiously squeezed through the vent, landing on the floor below it with surprising agility. There was a door nearby which opened silently as he approached it, revealing a small closet dominated by two carts piled high with soiled clothing. Undoubtedly, this was the laundry room. Roger maneuvered Fyerk's chair inside and hid it in one of the carts. Fyerk, as it turned out, was too heavy to lift into the second cart, so instead, Roger shoved him to the back of the room and piled several heavy sheets on top of him.
As Roger was leaving the laundry room, he suddenly noticed the thick trail of greenish slime that Fyerk had left behind, showing just where his body had been dragged. Thinking fast, Roger reentered the laundry room, picked a large rag out of one of the carts and began wiping away at the viscous mess on the floor. Within two minutes, the floor was spotless, but the rag was completely saturated with Fyerk's slime. For a moment, Roger stared blankly at the drippy, discolored rag, wondering what to do with it.
Eventually, he put it into one of his tool belt's pockets. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.
Suddenly, Roger heard Gurrex's footsteps approaching. He ducked into the laundry room and waited until the scientist had walked past the doorway. Then, against his better judgment, he stepped out into the hallway and began to follow Gurrex at a discrete distance. The more he examined Gurrex, the more he wondered how he could possibly take out a creature that looked about as delicate as an asteroid.
Then he noticed that Gurrex was wearing a wide belt around his waist with a large dial attached to it. After a moment of contemplation, Roger realized it was a personal gravity-adjustment device. They were worn by life forms who were having difficulty acclimating to an environment with a level of gravity much lower or much higher than they were accustomed to -- and even without looking at the current setting of the belt's dial, it seemed pretty obvious what level of gravity Gurrex was accustomed to.
With a level of quickness and stealth that surprised even himself, Roger tiptoed up behind Gurrex and turned the dial to its lowest possible setting. He then quickly backed away, putting as much space between him and Gurrex as he could. He kept retreating until he reached a wall, then called out to Gurrex:
"Hey, big guy! You looking for me?"
Gurrex stopped and slowly turned to face Roger.
"Come and get me!" Roger said. "I'm right here!"
Gurrex's enormous brow furrowed. He eyed Roger suspiciously, not budging an inch.
"What's the matter, Slag-Head?" Roger asked mockingly. "Are you scared of the little janitor?"
Gurrex seemed to twitch slightly. Then he bared his pebble-like teeth and broke into a run -- however, the very first step he took sent him flying into the air. His head connected with the ceiling with a loud, discordant clang and his body hit the ground with a thud that shook the entire corridor. After throwing a few more taunts Gurrex's way to make sure that he was unconscious, Roger gingerly approached the squat behemoth. Examining Gurrex's gravity belt, Roger noticed a strange metal device fastened to it that looked vaguely like a tape measure. Unclipping the device and examining it from all angles didn't shed any light on what it was, though Roger noticed the word "Anticast" emblazoned on one side.
Tucking the device away, Roger attempted to liberate Gurrex's gravity belt. He was certain it would prove useful, but the sizeable dents that Gurrex had made in the floor and the ceiling reminded Roger that he would have to be careful with it. After much grunting and pulling, Roger was able to unfasten the belt and pull it free.
Now came the question of what he was going to do with Gurrex. Pulling his body into a nearby room to hide it was out of the question given how much it weighed, so Roger did the next best thing and bound Gurrex's hands and feet with the surgical tubing he had picked up in the OR. Hopefully, it would be a while before anyone discovered him.
Roger returned to the ducts once more and made his way back to the computer room. The air was so filled with the drone of machinery, the hum of electricity and the angry mumbling of Sfazekz that the sound of Roger prying open the vent was virtually undetectable.
Looking down, Roger noticed a large electrical cord plugged into a wall socket directly below the vent. The plug was quite bulky, and it didn't seem to be fitting its socket that securely. A light began to shine through the clouds in Roger's mind. Carefully, he fastened the gravity belt around his waist, and immediately became disoriented by his sudden weightlessness. After adjusting the dial to a gravity level that was slightly higher (but still incredibly low by Xenon standards), Roger crept out of the vent and slowly sank to the floor. Fortunately, there was a large mainframe right next to him that kept him completely hidden from Sfazekz's view.
Roger knelt down to examine the power cord, and found that it was in even worse shape than it had appeared from the vent. It was frayed in a couple of spots, and it was plugged in so tenuously that it looked like the vibration from one of Gurrex's footsteps would be enough to knock it out of its socket. Roger gave it a delicate, experimental flick with his finger. The steady whir of the computers suddenly began stuttering, and there was a horrified gasp from Sfazekz. Quickly, Roger leapt into the air, and was easily able to crawl on top of the mainframe next to him, which stood at least nine feet high.
Sfazekz leapt to her feet and scurried over to the socket, jamming it back in. As she was cautiously examining the socket, Roger leaned over the edge of the mainframe and upended the cup of cold coffee, drenching both the plug and Sfazekz's front appendage. There was a shower of sparks and several small tendrils of smoke as the liberated electricity coursed through Sfazekz's body. She twitched violently for a moment, then collapsed in an ungainly heap.
(Sfazekz, it should be mentioned, was a member of a species whose females decapitated their male partners right after the act of copulation. Though she was not attracted to Roger in any way, shape or form, if Roger hadn't hidden from her, she would have gleefully incapacitated him before cutting straight to the head-removing part of her species' ritual, then briefly use his head to play her species' equivalent of the ancient Terran sport known as "Kickball.")
Roger lowered himself to the floor and attempted to operate the mainframe, but it refused to comply with him, no matter how many of its buttons he pushed. After finally admitting defeat, Roger turned towards the room's sole door and noticed a small diagram mounted on the wall, which he almost immediately realized was a map of the entire facility. All the rooms were clearly labeled, and there seemed to be several more levels above the one that Roger was currently on. After a few more moments of observation and contemplation, he boldly opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.
Roger's first destination was Kwidnunk's quarters. That man was the last serious obstacle that stood between Roger and his freedom. Unfortunately, Roger soon encountered another obstacle in the form of a small scanner mounted beside Kwidnunk's door. It was obvious that some sort of key was required to unlock the door, but the more Roger examined the scanner, the more confused and alarmed he became.
The scanner had no keycard slot. Roger had become so acclimated to his tried-and-true method of acquiring and using keycards to unlock doors during his adventures that this realization made him feel as if everything he had learned throughout his life was a lie. Even after this shock had subsided and he started searching Sfazekz's and Gurrex's bodies, he was still fervently hoping that he would find a keycard in one of their pockets. However, neither of his inspections revealed anything that even resembled a keycard.
Roger returned to the laundry room to find Fyerk's body just where he had left it. He was about to grit his teeth and begin going through the scientist's sticky-looking lab coat when he found himself staring at the hand at the end of one of Fyerk's prosthetic arms. It resembled a humanoid hand, only with six fingers instead of five. There were even crude fingerprints etched into the tip of each finger.
Fingerprints? Why would a prosthetic limb have...
The answer came before Roger even finished asking himself the question. Fyerk's hand was firmly fixed to his arm, but a few minutes of cutting wires, bending metal and intense pulling liberated the entire arm from the scientist's body. Roger returned to Kwidnunk's door with the arm and pressed its hand against the scanner. After a moment of analysis, the scanner emitted a flat electronic buzz and its screen turned red. Roger cursed under his breath, but it didn't take long for him to make sense out his current predicament: Kwidnunk wouldn't want just anyone opening the door to his private quarters...and if there was any door that Fyerk's hand would open, it would be his own.
It didn't take long for Roger to find the door to Fyerk's quarters, which, much to Roger's relief, courteously slid open after he placed the scientist's hand against the nearby scanner.
However, nothing could have compared him for what the inside of Fyerk's quarters looked like. Nearly every surface was covered with transparent plastic sheets, and every square inch of those sheets was coated with a fine patina of slime. There was a saggy, discolored mattress with a large depression in the middle, a low workbench covered with a variety of delicate instruments with oozy rivulets dangling from the sides, and a small rack of slime-saturated lab coats standing right next to a small dehumidifier cranked up to its highest setting.
The only thing in the room that didn't seem to be laden with secretions was a large bulletin board hanging above the workbench. It wasn't covered with slime, but with memos -- dozens, perhaps even hundreds of them. After making a path across the slippery floor with several of the sheets from the laundry room, Roger approached the bulletin board and examined it.
"Remember Sfazekz's hatchingday -- 6-16-992!" said one of the memos.
"KLE #3 malfunctioning -- Don't use!" said another.
"Tell Bohica to run test of sprinkler system for vegetation in Wilco's enclosure!" said a third.
"Get more coffee for break room! (Replicator Code: 6459923)" said a fourth.
The more memos Roger read, the more apparent it seemed that Fyerk had a very flaky memory. Nearly every note stuck to the bulletin board was a reminder of some sort. No matter how major or minor the topic was, Fyerk had made a note about it. Consequently, Roger wasn't overly surprised to find one memo buried behind several others which read:
"Door Scanner Emergency Override Code: 12281013."
After committing those numbers to memory, Roger returned to Kwidnunk's door. Taking a close look at the scanner, Roger noticed a small, nondescript keypad mounted next to it. Holding his breath, Roger keyed in the eight digits. After a nerve-wracking pause, the scanner emitted a friendly electronic chirp and the door to Kwidnunk's quarters slid open.
Kwidnunk wasn't on the other side of the door, but what Roger encountered was almost as shocking as the actual scientist. Nearly every wall of the room was occupied by rickety shelves weighted down with scrap metal, tools, wiring, crudely labeled boxes, circuit boards and numerous devices in various stages of completeness. None of the devices were immediately identifiable to Roger. Some looked as if they had been pieced together from scratch, while others looked as if they were made up of two different machines that had been mashed together. There was something on one shelf that looked like the result of the mating of a lava lamp and an automatic salad spinner, but what sort of function this freakish offspring performed, Roger had no idea.
A narrow, uncomfortable-looking bed stood in one corner of the room, and mounted on the wall next to it was a plastic, glass-fronted cabinet. Inside the cabinet were dozens of small, black, carefully labelled cartridges. Roger stared at the cartridges, reading the tiny labels affixed to each one:
General Survival Strategies
Legal Information and Loopholes
The more labels Roger read, the more puzzled he became. Was this Kwidnunk's personal library? If so, why would a man of such alleged intellectual prowess have an entire volume made up of something as mundane as humorous anecdotes?
Roger shook his head and turned his attention to the only other piece of furniture in the room: a small, plain desk which was just as untidy as the rest of Kwidnunk's quarters. Papers were piled on top of it, unfinished cups of coffee had become permanently stuck to it, and there was far more junk in its cluttered, protruding drawers than there was in wastebasket that sat beside it.
In the center of the desk was a large, somewhat outdated computer which appeared to be on despite a dark monitor. Roger tapped one of the keys on the keyboard, and the monitor immediately sprang to life, displaying a single line of text that read "Enter Password". Roger tried entering "planetaid", "kwidnunk", and "iamanevilscientist", but the computer rejected these attempts. He looked around Kwidnunk's desk, looking for something that might at least be a clue as to what the password was, but his search turned up nothing. For several minutes, he stared at the monitor in a perplexed fog. Then suddenly, an idea struck him. It was so crazy, so bizarre and so far-fetched that he knew that it just had to work. With great care and precision, he typed in the word "squidlips" and pressed the Enter key.
The text on the monitor changed to read "Password Accepted", and then a document appeared on the screen. It appeared to be the latest in a series of journal entries. Roger cycled through the entries until he reached the very first one, and began reading:
PROJECT X: DAY 1
I've had enough of being constantly surrounded by dullards who think that making snide remarks is all it takes to be humorous. If Gurrex and Fyerk refuse to curb those annoying linguistic impulses on their own, I must find a way to do it for them. That is why I have started work on this latest device, which I will call Project X for now.
Roger frowned and continued reading:
PROJECT X: DAY 17
Work on Project X has been slowed drastically due to adjustments that need to be made on some of the more temperamental machines in our arsenal -- that feeble-minded Bohica can only do so much on his own. It wouldn't have been so bad if I didn't have to work alongside Gurrex and Sfazekz, who were engaging in their usual brand of repartee -- "Of course you did a good job tightening the seals on those intake valves", "I'm sure it won't break apart when it hits the atmosphere."
I don't know how much more of this I can stand.
Roger continued reading through one entry after another, each one just as cryptic as the last. It wasn't until he reached Day 33 of Kwidnunk's journal that he started to realize just what the scientist was talking about:
PROJECT X: DAY 33
Success! At long last, success! I have finally developed a working prototype of my invention, which for now I will call the "Anticast." I have tested it on Sfazekz and Fyerk, and within just a few days, their speaking behavior had changed dramatically. The sensitivity of the device may still be too high, however -- I must recalibrate it so that it only recognizes phrases whose meaning cannot possibly construed in any other manner.
This has been a very good dirunal cycle -- I have the feeling that I'm on the verge of yet another breakthrough.
Roger reached into his tool belt and pulled out the device he had found clipped to Gurrex's belt. So this was what "Project X" was...but what exactly did it do?
Roger put the Anticast back in his belt pocket and flipped ahead to the final entry -- the one the document had originally been open to. This entry was incomplete, and consisted mostly of Kwidnunk gloating over Roger's capture, and explaining that Project X would have to be put on hold for the time being, though the "testing" would still continue as before.
With mounting irritation, Roger started to reread Kwidnunk's journal. By the time he reached Day 35, where Kwidnunk boasted that his invention would be appreciated by millions once it was patented, Roger was so annoyed that he couldn't help but mutter, "Sure...if they can figure out what it does," under his breath.
There was a brief but intense buzz from Roger's tool belt, as well as what felt like a very mild electric shock. Roger looked down at his belt, and realized that the Anticast must have been the source of both of those sensations. He slowly lifted the Anticast out of its pocket and gently set it down on one of the only clear spots on the desk. He then stared cautiously at it, as if it were a tiny, venomous snake.
"Um...hi," he said quietly.
"What made you do that just then?"
Roger sighed. It seemed as if he had almost figured something out, but now he was back to square one. He turned away from the desk and stared angrily at the ceiling.
"Wow...thanks for the help, universe," he muttered.
There was another buzz, noticeably louder than the previous one. Roger turned and stared at the Anticast, and suddenly, he understood exactly what it was...and this knowledge made him realize the true depth of Kwidnunk's insanity.
After consulting the map in the computer room, Roger discovered that the only other place Kwidnunk could be hiding was the Dome -- the topmost level in the facility. He began making his way there at a deliberate pace After climbing the first flight of stairs that led upwards from the main floor, he hurried down a long, nondescript corridor, climbed two more flights of stairs, then continued along an even longer and more nondescript corridor. Once this corridor ended, another corridor continued to this left, which in turn led to yet another corridor. As Roger turned the corner at the end of this fourth corridor fully anticipating a fifth one, he was greeted by a sight which sent an even colder chill through his already semi-frozen body.
A tall figure was standing in the middle of the corridor. Its body was heavy and muscular and devoid of any garments, and despite its humanoid appearance, there was something about it that seemed undeniably nonhuman. Even though it was several yards away and the light in the corridor was dim, Roger could clearly see the figure's face -- the bald head...the heavy brows...the flabby folds in the face...the diseased look of the skin...
"Oh no," Roger whispered. "No way..."
"I'm afraid so, Wilco," the figure chuckled in its deep, guttural voice. It began slowly walking towards Roger, who tried to run but found himself rooted to the spot in terror.
"But...but I defeated you!" Roger protested. "At least twice!"
"I'm afraid you didn't get the job done," the figure grinned. "You may have tried, but you never quite succeeded. I'm not an easy man to kill."
As the figure drew closer, Roger could see that it wasn't human at all: there was a vaguely metallic sheen to its skin and several seams breaking up its otherwise continuous surface. It also had no toes on its feet and no fingernails -- and its eyes glowed with a menacing neon light.
Sludge Vohaul. He had returned to threaten Roger's existence yet again, and now he was an android. As horrified as Roger was, though, he couldn't help but feel that something seemed wrong about this entire situation.
Why had Vohaul shown up at such a convenient time, right when Roger was about to reach the Dome? Why hadn't he confronted Roger when he was trapped in the OR, when Roger was completely helpless and defenseless? Why had none of the scientists even mentioned Vohaul's name? How had Vohaul gotten here in the first place?
And come to think of it, Vohaul's voice sounded strangely different than it had when Roger had last heard it...and there was something odd about his face, too...and why had one of Roger's first reactions to seeing Vohaul been disbelief?
By this time, Vohaul was only a few yards away from Roger. Roger hesitated, then looked him directly in the eyes.
"You know..." he said with far more confidence than he actually possessed, "I don't think you're the real Vohaul."
Vohaul stopped dead. His expression had suddenly become curiously blank. Unable to think of any other course of action, Roger swung his push broom -- the largest weapon in his possession -- at Vohaul's head. Unfortunately, Vohaul snapped out of his blank state as quickly as he had snapped into it, reached up and deftly caught the handle of the broom in mid-swing. Then he pulled it from Roger's hands and smashed it against the wall, breaking it in two.
Vohaul grinned and started moving towards him again. Roger's legs still refused to budge, and he had the horrible feeling that he had screwed up.
"Fighting me is useless, Wilco," Vohaul said, "However...you were right about one thing..."
"What?" Roger asked, in spite of his growing panic.
"I'm not the real Vohaul."
Roger's shock at this comment was compounded by an even greater shock as he was swiftly knocked to the floor by something hitting him from behind. He found himself lying facedown on the floor, covered by a large net made of thick, tightly woven plastic cord. Looking through the mesh, Roger could see that the net was held in place by several large metal pegs that were embedded into the floor as if they'd been fired from a gun. Even though the net's openings were large enough for Roger to fit a hand through, there was no way he could uproot the pegs.
Suddenly, a voice filled the corridor. It was Kwidnunk's voice, and it was coming from one of the speakers near the ceiling.
"Good show, Wilco, good show," the scientist said dryly. "I figured you'd enjoy the little surprise I'd prepared for you. My colleagues may have underestimated you, but I remained cautious. Given your history, I strongly suspected that you would escape and attempt to get up here -- so I set up this little diversion in order to stop you."
"You mean...that Vohaul robot?" Roger asked.
"He's not a robot," Kwidnunk snapped. "He is a remotely-controlled synthoid that I've customized to look and speak like your nemesis. He has no 'intelligence' to speak of -- he simply does whatever I make him do or say. I just needed something to make you stand in one place long enough to aim and launch the net...and it looks like my little metal friend was just the thing."
He spoke this last sentence with a veneer of smugness. Roger glanced at the fake Vohaul, which was now standing motionless next to the wall.
"I'm actually quite proud how the guy turned out," Kwidnunk continued. "I call him 'Fauxhaul.'."
Fortunately for Roger, the meaning of the word "faux" was unknown to him, so he was spared from the nausea-inducing nature of Kwidnunk's wordplay.
"However, I'm afraid whatever fun you've been having is over now," Kwidnunk said in a more serious tone.
The sound of a button being pushed came over the speaker.
"Gurrex," Kwidnunk ordered, his voice now not only emanating from the speaker above Roger's head, but several others located further down the hall, "Wherever you are, please come up to the upper hallway, collect Roger Wilco and put him in the observation room -- and make sure that he doesn't escape this time."
Roger glared defiantly up at the speaker.
"Why don't you just have this robot take me -- ."
Roger halted in mid-sentence, fearful that he might have just sealed his own fate -- it was a familiar feeling. There was the sound of another button being pushed, and Kwidnunk's voice could now only be heard through the speaker closest to Roger.
"A fine idea," Kwidnunk said, "But I'm afraid the range of the synthoid's controller isn't wide enough for me to walk him all the way to the observation room. As for me, I've got a much more urgent problem to attend to. Just be patient and wait for Gurrex to come and get you."
There was the sound of yet another button being pushed.
"Gurrex, where are you?" Kwidnunk's voice growled. "Go get Wilco and take him down to the observation room!"
Judging by his failure to respond, Gurrex was still out of commission, but Roger still didn't want to remain trapped in the net any longer. He pulled the cutter from his belt and started to saw away at the net's plastic mesh.
"Well, well, well," Kwidnunk said in a bemused tone. "Trying to make another getaway, are we?"
Roger froze. He looked up to see Fauxhaul coming his way, the glowing eyes staring directly into his.
"Oh," Kwidnunk said over the speaker, "I forgot to mention this synthoid's remote viewing capabilities -- anything its vision sensors see is transmitted to this screen I have in front of me...whatever it sees, I see."
Roger tried to back away from Fauxhaul, but the net hindered his efforts.
"Though I am impressed by your persistence," Kwidnunk continued, "I'm afraid that you still have to stay put."
Before Roger could make a move, Fauxhaul's hand had darted down and seized Roger's wrist -- the same wrist that had been badly scratched while Roger was freeing himself from the gurney. Roger let out a high-pitched squeak of pain and his fingers relaxed, letting the cutter fall to the floor. Fauxhaul reached through the mesh with his free hand and picked up the instrument.
"Can't have you playing with sharp objects," Kwidnunk said patronizingly. Fauxhaul released Roger's wrist, slowly straightened up and returned to its previous location, the cutter clutched in its fist.
Roger stared fixedly at Fauxhaul, angry, panicked, but not beaten yet.
So Fauxhaul was made of metal, was he?
Roger reached into his pocket and pulled out the Anticast and one of the magnets. He ripped one of the cords from his gown and used it to tie the Anticast to the magnet. Then, taking careful aim, he flung his Anticast/magnet creation at Fauxhaul as hard as he could. The loud clang as the magnet fastened onto the synthoid's smooth surface seemed more beautiful than any music Roger had ever heard.
Fauxhaul's head swiveled around sharply.
"What was that?" Kwidnunk barked sharply. "Wilco, what did you do to my synthoid?"
"Oh, nothing," Roger said with feigned innocence. "I'm sure it'll be okay."
Fauxhaul stood motionless for a moment, then started quivering slightly, its eyes flickering on and off.
"Damn you, Wilco, what have you done?!" Kwidnunk yelled. "If you break my synthoid, I'll break you, major scientific discoveries or not!"
"Ooooh, I'm sooo scared," Roger said, trying to cram as much disdain and contempt into every single word he spoke. "I knew I shouldn't have tried escaping from an institute run by such competent scientists who have such admirable ethics!"
Sparks flew from Fauxhaul's body as the Anticast sent 1000 volts of electricity coursing through it. He shook violently for a moment, then the red eyes went dark and he toppled over, smashing into the floor face first. There was an enraged, hissing sound from the speaker followed by a stream of stifled curses. Then there was a click, followed by complete silence. Kwidnunk had turned off the intercom.
Roger stared at the incapacitated synthoid with a thrill of accomplishment.
Wow...I just took that guy out without even touching him! How cool is that??
Merely thinking the word "cool" was enough to make Roger shiver violently as his chill surroundings reasserted their presence on his inadequately clothed body. Eager to get out of the net and off of the ice-cold floor, Roger reached through the net's mesh and was just able to reach Fauxhaul's hand. After prying the cutter free, he began slicing through the plastic cords once again. In a few minutes, he had created a hole large enough to crawl through. Slipping out of the primitive trap, he pulled the Anticast and the magnet from Fauxhaul's body, took one last look at the duplicate of his old enemy, then continued down the corridor, this time at a run.
Kwidnunk was startled by the sound of someone attempting to kick open one of the Dome's doors. However, the someone in question had become so caught up in his own heroic euphoria that he had momentarily forgotten that A) the doors in the facility were far too strong to be kicked in by a member of his species, and B) he was barefoot. There was a howl of pain followed by a stream of Xenonian profanities. Then, after a few seconds of frustrated silence, the someone slowly keyed in the door's emergency override code. The door obediently slid open and Roger Wilco valiantly limped into the room.
Kwidnunk stared coolly at him. If he was concerned, his face gave no sign that he was.
"Well, well," he said quietly. "I can't say I'm entirely surprised, considering all those other scrapes you've gotten out of...but to actually be a witness to one of your great escapes is a truly awe-inspiring experience."
Roger could have said something defiant, witty, or threatening in response to this, but his tongue and jaw had both gone completely slack the moment he had looked at Kwidnunk -- or, to be more specific, the back of Kwidnunk's head.
There was a large port embedded in the flesh at the base of the scientist's skull. Its presence was made even more apparent by the thick, black cable that was plugged into it, with the other end attached to one of the computers Kwidnunk was sitting in front of. Though implants like these were hardly uncommon and Roger had seen far more unsettling things than a mad scientist with a cable plugged into his brain, Roger couldn't help but feel repulsed by what he was looking at.
"I see you have noticed my little hookup." Kwidnunk smiled. "Perhaps it's a bit outmoded by today's standards, but it's a bit difficult to stay on the cutting edge of technology while you're in a place like this."
He made a grand, sweeping gesture with his arm.
"I'm going to miss this facility," he said with an air of melancholy. "Even though we may not have gotten along very well, the discoveries and inventions that we made were truly worth the turmoil. But even if this place is taken over or destroyed, I won't let its store of knowledge be destroyed as well!"
Roger stared quizzically at Kwidnunk, who continued his monologue:
"Even with a mind like mine, it's difficult to retain as much knowledge as I have accumulated over the years. That's why I've kept many backups of it in various formats. Bohica should be loading the main store of cartridges into one of the ships at the moment, but just in case something should happen to that ship, I feel that I should carry a backup of the knowledge as well."
He pointed to the port on his head.
"It does give me a bit of a headache to cram all this data into one brain, but it's a small price to pay for peace of mind."
After this, Kwidnunk fell silent. Roger blinked and shook his head, and after several seconds, he asked the scientist the first question that popped into his mind:
"An anti-sarcasm machine? Seriously?"
Kwidnunk calmly folded his arms.
"Indeed," he replied austerely. "I have invented many things during my lifetime, but I consider the Anticast to be my greatest achievement by far."
Roger gingerly touched the floor with his injured foot, then jerked it back up, cringing.
"But...why?" he asked.
"Because it disgusts me," Kwidnunk said. "If someone cannot express his or her feelings without honesty and sincerity, I see no purpose in communicating with such a person. People can be trained to phase out expletives, slurs and other universally offensive features of their language without resorting to excessive force, but when it comes to blatant sarcasm, I've found that force is the only thing that truly works in suppressing it. I may suffer fools and critics willingly, but I will not tolerate people who resort to using sarcasm on a daily basis. Reliance on such a linguistic abomination can too easily lead to the constant use of many other forms of deceit."
Roger stared at Kwidnunk in disbelief. He knew that Kwidnunk and his fellow scientists were crazy, but he didn't think they were this crazy.
"And I am certain there are many who share my views who would find an item like this to be a godsend once I made it available to the public -- especially parents whose offspring are going through adolescence. I spent hundreds of hours designing the Anticast, constructing rough models of it, and conducting numerous tests of it. But of course, this was all before I heard about you.
"After my colleagues procured you, I planned on continuing to fine-tune the Anticast while you remained our main focus...but given how easily you were able to overcome them as well as every security measure this place is equipped with, it looks as if the Anticast will once again be my sole focus once we have relocated. I may have had my doubts about your abilities at first, but now seems quite clear to me that there is no cell that you could not escape from."
Kwidnunk placed his hands in his pockets and regarded Roger with a cold, clinical gaze.
"Perhaps it is a blessing rather than a curse that you have fallen into obscurity, Mr. Wilco -- if knowledge of your remarkable heroism and uncanny survival ability were considerably widespread, I'm certain that we wouldn't be the only scientists with questionable morals interested in taking a very close look at you.
"But perhaps what you said to me in the OR was right -- maybe there are no vast mysteries that can be uncovered by experimenting on you...I was simply so enraptured by the opportunity to study such a strange, remarkable, unique individual that I completely lost perspective."
At this point, Roger had no idea what Kwidnunk was talking about. Just like back in the OR, the scientist's monotonous voice had lulled him into a state of near-unconsciousness. If it hadn't been for the sudden twinge of pain as Roger shifted his weight onto his bad foot plus the sight of Kwidnunk pulling something the same size and shape of a pulseray out of his lab coat, it would have been too late.
Instantly back on full alert, Roger bounded to one side, steadying himself against a nearby control panel just in time to keep himself from falling. Kwidnunk kept the pulseray-shaped weapon trained on him, just as calm and collected as ever.
"Impressive as always," he remarked. "Still, I would strongly advise you to leave this room, Wilco. I have many things to do before departing this fortress, and I do not need your interference. This gun contains a round of very potent tranquilizer darts, and you would be unwise to assume that my marksmanship is any less keen than my scientific acuity."
He gently squeezed the gun's trigger.
"But I'm still willing to give you a choice: You have ten seconds to leave this room the same way you came in. If you're not out that door by the end of that time, you're going to be unconscious for the next six hours. One..."
As Kwidnunk started counting, Roger frantically glanced around the room, eventually honing in on the control panel right next to him. It was a bewildering mishmash of levers, dials and screens. There was also a large number of buttons, including one large red one that stood out against every other control on the panel.
Roger glanced at Kwidnunk, who still had a firm grip on the tranquilizer gun. With no way of getting close enough to the scientist to incapacitate him, it seemed like there was only one move available to Roger. It was a reckless, risky move, but Roger was no stranger to either of those adjectives. With lightning speed, he lunged at the control panel and slammed his fist against the button. Before Kwidnunk could react, the Dome's main screen had gone black. Then it lit up with several large words in the center and a smaller row of symbols along the bottom. The symbols were completely incomprehensible to Roger, but the words were not only completely legible, but very familiar -- and the sight of them nearly made him collapse in fear.
"'Self-Destruct Sequence Initiated!?'" Kwidnunk screamed, launching himself out of his chair. A chorus of klaxons began filling the dome as the symbols started to cycle rapidly.
"No...no, this can't be!" Kwidnunk gasped, shoving the tranquilizer gun back into his pocket. "We don't have a self-destruct system! How can..."
He hesitated for a moment, then his face darkened with fury.
"Bohica...that slimy good-for-nothing must have done this! Him and his infernal gadgets!"
With the cable to the computer still firmly plugged into his skull, Kwidnunk stomped over to the control panel and began hammering away at the main keyboard.
"Well, you've not going to get away with this, Bohica!" he growled. "Once I've saved our equipment and aborted your little self-destruct sequence, you can count the hours you have left to live on one hand!"
Roger stood motionless, waiting for Kwidnunk to shoot an "And I'll take care of you later!" statement his way. However, the scientist had become so busy with the computer that he now seemed completely oblivious to Roger. Now perhaps Roger could take him out somehow...but why did that button he pushed have to trigger a self-destruct sequence? As if Roger wasn't under enough pressure already.
Still, he had survived self-destruct sequences in the past -- way too many self-destruct sequences, in his opinion -- so his chances of surviving this one seemed great. Still, Roger was seriously starting to wonder if it was possible to be killed by a cliché overdose.
Roger glanced around the Dome. Near a door opposite to the one he had entered by, he noticed a cart carrying a large metal canister which seemed to be filled with some sort of inflammable gas. He also saw a sturdy fire extinguisher mounted on the wall nearby. Roger briefly contemplated knocking Kwidnunk out with it, but he doubted that the scientist would be easy to sneak up on as Gurrex had been.
Roger examined the items he was carrying with him in his tool belt: the magnet, the slimy rag, and the Anticast. Roger looked at the Anticast, then at Kwidnunk.
Yes, he said to himself. Yes...that should work.
After determining that the pain in his foot had finally subsided enough for him to walk, he hurried over to the wall, pried the fire extinguisher loose, then moved the cart with the canister so that it stood between Kwidnunk and one of the doors. Then he took several steps closer to Kwidnunk and polished the floor with the rag until the floor shone with slime. He then positioned himself so that the slime was directly between the cart and the slime, then addressed the scientist:
"I told you you wouldn't get away with this."
Kwidnunk hesitated for a minute, then continued frantically mashing buttons, not even looking his shoulder at Roger.
"Shut up, Wilco," he snarled.
"You know, it might be easier if you just gave yourself up now," Roger suggested.
"Don't count on it," Kwidnunk said.
"You know, after I blast out of this place, I'll make sure every police force in the galaxy knows about you and your cronies," Roger continued. "Then once you get arrested, I'm going to patent your anti-sarcasm device."
Kwidnunk froze, then spun around, staring at Roger with a mixture of shock and indignation.
"The Anticast..." he stammered. "No...you couldn't...you wouldn't..."
"Oh yes I would," Roger said, holding up the tape-measure shaped device. "I'll just take this with me and head straight to the first intergalactic patent office I can find. I've always wanted to have an invention of my own."
Kwidnunk's upper lip twitched madly. Yanking the cable out of his head, he lunged towards Roger, who leapt nimbly aside as Kwidnunk's foot connected with the slippery floor. The scientist danced a mad, flailing dance as he tried and failed to regain his balance. His momentum sent him careening forward, crashing into the cart. He collapsed over the canister, his head and arms dangling over one side while his legs hung over the other. As the heavy cart rolled to a stop, Roger slowly approached the incapacitated scientist, holding the fire extinguisher in both hands. Kwidnunk blinked and stared up at him in shock.
"How..." he wheezed. "How did you..."
"Guess I just got lucky again," Roger shrugged.
Putting the Anticast away, he glanced at the fire extinguisher he had just acquired, then at the port on Kwidnunk's head. Kwidnunk followed his gaze, and moments later, color started to drain from the scientist's face.
"No...no, don't!" he gasped in mounting horror. "The data...there'll be no way to transfer any of it!"
"Oh, really?" Roger asked innocently, hoisting the fire extinguisher above his head.
"No!" Kwidnunk begged. "You wouldn't...you're not that kind of man!"
"I'm not?" Roger inquired, raising the fire extinguisher even more and carefully aligning it with Kwidnunk's head. For several seconds, he stood holding the extinguisher, while Kwidnunk quivered violently, his eyes squeezed shut. Though it was difficult to make out amidst the wail of the sirens as well as everything else going on in the Dome, Kwidnunk was saying something in a low, wrathful snarl:
"Dammit, Wilco...what ARE you?"
Roger lowered the fire extinguisher, but said nothing. He was tempted to repeat what he had told Kwidnunk about the universe itself having no idea what he really was, but this time, he came up with a much more sublime reply:
"I'm the guy who does the things that nobody else does -- either because they won't...or because they can't."
"What?" Kwidnink snapped, opening one eye just enough to glare at Roger through it.
"And right now," Roger continued, "I've got much more important things to do than talk with you. I've got three questions I want you to answer for me, and if you want me to leave that little hole in your head alone, you'd better give me the right answers."
He gestured meaningfully with the fire extinguisher, and Kwidnunk shuddered violently.
"First:" Roger begain, "What's the quickest way out of this place?"
"The escape shuttles," Kwidnunk gasped. "Door C-17. The access code is 6241. All the keys are in my desk, second drawer on the left."
"Good," Roger said. "How far away is the Gorqwi Rotunda?"
"235 light-years," Kwidnunk replied.
Roger nodded. The self-destruct timer seemed to be slowly speeding up.
"All right...one last question," he said.
He leaned uncomfortably close to Kwidnunk's face and spoke directly into his ear:
"Where are my clothes?"
"In the OR," Kwidnunk said, "In the box next to the autoclave."
Roger nodded again, then lifted the fire extinguisher over his head.
"Great. Thanks." he said.
Then, with all his strength, he brought the extinguisher crashing down...
...on the canister's valve.
Frigid gas spewed out of the canister, sending the cart it was on rocketing across the Dome, heading straight for the door in the far wall. The door obediently slid open and Kwidnunk, the cart and the canister shot through it. After the door shut, there was a terrible crashing noise, followed by the sound of a body tumbling down several flights of stairs.
For a moment, Roger stood motionless, his brain soaking in a comforting, warm bath of endorphins. Then his auditory and ocular faculties reminded him that the Dome was still full of sirens and the self-destruct sequence timer was now counting down at what was a now very fast rate. Roger frantically scrambled over to the console where the self-destruct button was, only to find the console just as incomprehensible as the characters on the timer. He tried flicking, pressing, turning, pushing, pulling and generally manipulating every part of the console that seemed functional. When nothing had any effect, he hurried over to the adjacent console and tried the same approach there, with the same result. He repeated this over and over, but nothing he did had any noticeable effect.
With trembling hands and sweat running down his face, Roger stared helplessly up at the timer. By now, nearly all of them had stopped changing, and the few that weren't were cycling faster and faster. With a cold sense of clarity, Roger silently watched as another number stopped cycling, and then another. Now there were only three...now two...now one...
Roger held his breath as the final number reached its equivalent of a zero and the sirens fell silent. For a moment, the chain of zeros remained on the screen, then vanished. However, instead of the asteroid-shattering ka-boom that Roger had been bracing himself for, an animation appeared on the main screen. It was a brief, crude sequence of images, but there was no way it could be interpreted as anything other than a smiling, laughing face.
Roger gaped at the face for a moment. Then, after deciding that there was no way he could possibly make any logical sense out of what had just happened and no reason why he shouldn't immediately pass out right then and there, Roger was finally able to let go of the frayed ropes that were keeping him just above the waters of unconsciousness.
After coming to, Roger made his way back to the OR, where he found his clothes just where Kwidnunk said they would be. However, though he was able to find most of his other possessions after some more searching, the one item that eluded him was the guitron case he had been wearing when he and Beatrice entered PlanetAid...as well as the time gun and the manual inside it. Roger searched every conceivable hiding place in the OR, but his efforts were in vain. He was nearing a state of panic and was about to go find Kwidnunk in the hopes of reviving him and demanding to know where the case was, but Roger forced himself to remain calm, reminding himself that there were still several more rooms in the facility which he hadn't searched yet.
The emergency override code allowed him to easily enter Sfazekz's and Gurrex's quarters, but he found nothing in either room but the usual array of bookshelves, unfinished machinery, several glass receptacles filled with unknown substances and scrawled blueprints. He even searched Kwidnunk's quarters a second time, but there was no sign of the guitron case there either.
Then Roger remembered the scrawny reptilian scientist: Bohica. As it turned out, there was nothing immediately surprising about his room, save for a slightly higher level of messiness than the previous two Roger had visited. Sadly, a cursory search of this last room didn't turn up as much as a single note mentioning a machine appropriated from Roger that resembled an overgrown hairdryer.
Suddenly, Roger noticed a low, throbbing hum that filled the air. It seemed like the noise a large machine would make, but none of the machines in Bohica's room seemed to be on, let alone large enough to produce such a sound.
Roger looked all around the room, eventually turning his focus to the back wall. Unlike every other wall in Bohica's room, it was completely bare except for a single bookcase...and the humming seemed to be coming from behind it. Roger examined the contents of the bookcase. It was full of books and a number of curious little trinkets -- miniature metal replicas of ancient scientific apparatuses, sculptures of unfamiliar creatures, and abstract stone carvings. One trinket was a tiny stone globe mounted on a stand. There was a name carved into the stand, but Roger couldn't quite read it. He tried to pick up the globe to get a closer look, but to his surprise, found that he couldn't budge it. When he attempted to shift it towards the edge of the shelf instead, the trinket hinged forward like a lever.
In fact, as it turned out, that's just what it was. From behind the bookshelf, there was the sound of a panel sliding to one side. Then, as Roger watched, the bookshelf slid back into the wall and rotated slightly, revealing a passageway into a second room which made every other room in the facility seem spotless by comparison. Half-crushed boxes with wires and other components spilling out of them were piled almost to the ceiling; the walls were covered with charts, diagrams and sticky notes of virtually every size and color; more than a week's worth of unfinished meals was spread out over several plates piled on a crate in one corner, and save for the small arc the bookcase required to open completely, there wasn't a single square foot of the floor that wasn't crisscrossed by at least one power cord.
The one object that took up more space in this room than anything else was a tall, cylindrical booth -- the source of the humming noise. Whatever this machine was, the numerous wires sticking out of its exposed frame plus the numerous sticky notes stuck to it gave Roger the impression that it wasn't quite finished. At this stage, even calling it a prototype seemed like a stretch.
Roger shook his head. This room raised even more questions while answering none of the ones he had already -- and reading all the barely legible notes stuck to the walls in the hopes of finding answers seemed like a fool's errand.
Then he noticed a thin, rumpled garment lying on the floor near the booth. It was a small lab coat. Roger nudged the flimsy coat with his foot, then several uncomfortable thoughts struck him in rapid succession:
Where was Bohica?
Had he escaped the facility?
If he had, why had he left so much behind?
Those cartridges Kwidnunk had mentioned were still in Kwidnunk's quarters. Why hadn't Bohica loaded them like Kwidnunk said he was doing?
What was that?
Roger froze. He wasn't sure if it was something he had heard, seen, felt or smelled, but something in the room had alerted him that something wasn't right. He slowly looked around the room, searching for anything out of the ordinary. It wasn't until he turned and looked at the doorway behind him that he discovered the source of his unease.
The bookcase which had slid back to let him into the room was approximately one foot shorter than the ceiling. It was that one-foot gap that bothered Roger. It seemed to be softly pulsing, as if the space around it was being distorted. Just as the word "breathing" crossed Roger's mind, an eye appeared near one end of the distortion. It swiveled around, locked onto Roger, and widened. Then the distortion shifted and dissolved, revealing a very concerned (and very nude) reptilian scientist crouched on top of the bookcase.
"Wha...?" Roger asked.
"Oh, thank goodness," Bohica moaned, going limp with relief. Clambering down from his perch, he picked up and donned his lab coat, and his complexion began to change from a bilious jade to a rich jungle green.
"Uh..." Roger said slowly, "You know there's a big sign on that planet out there that's telling everyone in this solar system where this place is, don't you?"
Bohica whimpered and nodded.
"Well, once everyone realizes what you guys have been up to, they're going to arrest everyone here...I mean, everyone here who's alive."
"I know," Bohica replied. "And I say it's about time."
Bohica raised himself to his full four-foot-ten height and attempted to compose himself.
"I had no idea PlanetAid was doing what it did when I first signed up to work for it," he explained, his voice still trembling slightly, "but once I did, it was too late. I tried to call for help, but I got caught every time -- and the last time I tried, they threatened to completely destroy my planet!"
He turned and gestured towards the tiny globe which had revealed the secret room.
"True, they've never completely destroyed a world, but I wouldn't put such an atrocity past them. I think the only reason I've survived this long is because I'm the only one who can fix their Destructors when they break down."
"Then when they brought you here...I just couldn't stand it any longer. To actually see a poor, innocent creature suffering under their hands...my hands...I just had to do something."
"So...you rigged up that fake self-destruct sequence?" Roger asked, starting to put the pieces together.
"Yes...the message projected on Pygalgia, too," Bohica confirmed. "I'm pretty proud of that -- I used a special invention of my own to pull it off called Dark-Emitting Diodes. I just mounted some projectors -- "
"So you know a lot about machines?" Roger interrupted.
"Do you know how a couple of machines that put out big, blue balls of light when they're turned on can cause someone to be sent back in time when they're both turned on at once?"
Bohica looked puzzled, but only for a moment.
"Ah," he said quietly. "The Chronological Acceleration Unit. I remember that thing. It was a Destructor designed to drastically speed up the aging process of any living thing within the field it sends out. The scientists would use it to hyper-age a planet's crops or livestock, or even the inhabitants themselves...sometimes to the point of death.
"Wait...are you saying the guys here invented those things?"
"Kwidnunk heard about Stam and Davka some time ago. When he learned how hostile towards each other the two species were, he decided to start leaving various machines capable of small-scale destruction on each world in the hopes that both of their tempers would escalate enough to make them generate one or more catastrophes on their own that we would then come in and fix. As you know, though, that little experiment backfired pretty badly.
"As for why those particular machines interacted the way they did on Gritt, my best guess is -- "
"How do you know what happened on Gritt?" Roger interrupted. "Beatrice and I were the only ones there aside from the locals."
Bohica's color shifted slightly.
"Ah," he said sheepishly. "We scanned your brain. Not my idea, you understand -- Kwidnunk insisted that -- "
"Never mind," Roger mumbled. He would have been far more surprised if he was told that his brain hadn't been scanned while he was being examined by a group of mad scientists.
"Well, anyway," Bohica said, "Looking at the replay of your memories of the intersection of the two CAUs, my hypothesis is that a negative entropy effect was created when the two acceleration fields completely overlapped, and the combined energy was such that instead of 'de-aging' the organisms within its sphere of influence, the organisms were flung out to a number of different time and space coordinates -- the fact that most of them apparently landed on actual planets instead of in empty space seems to conform to my theory about 'cosmic laundry lint' coagulating at key points in the fabric of space-time..."
Bohica paused. Roger's eyes were starting to resemble those of a dead fish. The small scientist sighed, then spoke again in a voice that was twice as loud, but had barely an eighth of the enthusiasm:
"When those balls of light touched, they sent you and your wife back in time. It's complicated."
"Wow...That's really what happened?" Roger asked.
"Like I said, it's a hypothesis," Bohica said. "But when we realized what had happened on Gritt, we realized that perhaps one of those Destructors could be adjusted so that they would 'de-age' an organism."
"And did that work?"
Bohica regarded Roger silently for a moment.
"It worked on you," he remarked.
Roger paused for a moment to reflect on this revelation.
"So, this de-aging thing..."
"Is that the reason for this?"
Roger pointed to his hair -- the hair which had been pale blond for the past few decades of his life, but was now a rich chestnut.
"Oh," Bohica said, turning pink. "Er...Fyerk suggested that while we were in the middle of the restoration procedure. He thought that changing your hair color would help to capture the essence of your younger self even more...I honestly can't remember exactly what his logic was, though."
"So you dyed my hair to make me look even younger?"
"Um," Bohica said nervously, turning an even brighter pink, "Actually, it's not dyed. We changed its structure via something we call Follicular Modification. It changes the makeup of the hair follicles so that they grow a different variety of hair...I don't remember what they did to change the color of the hair you currently have, but..."
"Wait...you're saying this color is permanent?"
"Y-y-yes," Bohica stammered, "B-but I'm sure I can change it back if you want it changed!"
"Actually," Roger said after a moment's contemplation, "I think I might stick with this for a while...just to see what it's like."
"Oh...that's good," Bohica nodded.
Unconsciously, Roger nodded back, then cringed and gingerly touched the nape of his neck.
"Just some bite I got back here," Roger muttered. "I thought it had gone away, but now it's hurting again."
Bohica stood on his tiptoes and peered closely at the spot on Roger's neck.
"Oh," he said quietly. "That's where the tracking chip was."
Roger stared at Bohica.
"You guys stuck a tracking chip in my head?"
"No, Wilco," Bohica said quickly. "We removed it."
Roger stared at Bohica, confused and suspicious. The fact that these mad scientists had taken a tracking chip out of him was perplexing enough, but what really made Roger's head spin was the nagging feeling that he knew where that chip had come from...he just couldn't recall where.
"I'm not lying," Bohica said. "That chip is still sitting in a Petri dish down in the OR -- I can show it to you if you want!"
"Any idea who did put that chip in me?"
"We were going to look at it more closely before you escaped," Bohica said. "All I can say for sure is that apparently someone really wanted to keep track of you."
Keep track of you. That seemed familiar as well...
Then suddenly Roger remembered where he'd heard those words, as well as what their context was -- he'd heard them from Beatrice, sometime after she'd rescued him from Estros. She explained that she was so afraid of their being separated again that she wanted to keep track of him. When Roger asked her how she intended to do this, she showed him the tracking chip she had bought at the Gorqwi Rotunda. Roger was reluctant at first, but when Beatrice informed him that she'd gotten a chip of her own in case Roger needed to locate her, Roger felt that it was only fair if he obliged. The chip's package had claimed that the insertion process was completely pain-free, and Roger had discovered that that was a blatant lie.
But why had he forgotten all of this?
"You know what they say: Time is the thief of memory."
"I see." Roger said slowly.
"Well, I suppose you're going to arrest me now..." Bohica sighed. "But to be honest, by this point I don't really care. I'd take a lifetime of prison over one more day with these maniacs. I was hoping I could escape here in my Chronambulator, but I wasn't able to get it working properly in time..."
He gestured towards the humming cylindrical booth.
"Chronambulator?" Roger repeated, stepping closer to the machine's entrance for a better look. Something about that word seemed familiar to him...and so did the hairdryer-like device which was attached to a panel inside the booth by several wires.
"Hey!" Roger exclaimed. "That's my time gun! What are you doing with it?"
In the excitement of discovering the secret room and encountering Bohica, Roger had completely forgotten the reason behind his frantic search of the facility. Except for a couple of open panels, the time gun seemed to be undamaged, and its manual was lying open on the floor of the machine, with several new notes decorating its pages. As for guitron case, it had been unceremoniously dumped in a heap of packing equipment behind the machine.
"I was trying to get my Chronambulator working with it," Bohica replied timidly.
"What is that?" Roger asked
"In laybeing's terms, a 'time machine'," Bohica explained, slowly moving towards the Chronambulator until he was standing next to Roger. "Since I figured that my colleagues could always track me down if I moved elsewhere in space, I was thinking that perhaps moving elsewhere in time was the only way I could elude them."
"Woah, woah, woah..." Roger interjected. "You're building...a time machine?"
"Yes. I've actually been working on it for some time now, but until very recently, it was far from fully functional."
"You mean...until you got ahold of my time gun?" Roger asked.
"Exactly," Bohica said. "The others didn't look at it too closely when they were prepping you for the restoration process. They were interested in you, not your belongings. When I finally had a chance to take a good look at that gun and read its manual, I was convinced that I would have a fully functional Chronambulator up and running and be out of here before I was discovered."
He stared thoughtfully at Roger.
"Looks like I was only half right."
Roger stared back at the small reptilian.
"Can your time machine travel into the future?" he eventually asked.
Bohica's demeanor and color both seemed to brighten slightly at this question.
"I'm fairly certain it has that capability," he replied. "Why do you ask?"
Roger sighed deeply.
"I've got a really big problem in my future, Bohica," he said, "and I'll need your help to fix it."
Two officers of the Northwest Arm of the Galactic Police Department were making their way through one of the upper hallways of the immense fortress that orbited the planet Pygalgia. As they rounded a corner, they encountered a body lying in the floor. It was the body of a humanoid male with a large head. He was wearing a white lab coat, and both his hands and his feet were bound. Approaching the man, the officers soon realized that he was breathing shallowly, and a gentle shake of the shoulder was all it took to awaken him. He murmured groggily for a moment, then his eyes snapped open. He attempted to spring to his feet, but only succeeded in flopping forward like a drunken walrus.
"All right, Buddy," the younger officer said. "Take it easy. We're not gonna hurt you as long as you do what we say."
The man seemed completely oblivious to the officer's words.
"Wilco," he hissed, his eyes darting about wildly. "You haven't beaten me yet, you sneaky little maggot! You can't run from science forever!"
The older officer stared quizzically at him.
"What are you talking about?" she asked. "Who is this 'Wilco?'"
"Roger Wilco," the man panted. "Man with all the secrets of the universe locked up inside him...My key to greatness!"
"Roger Wilco?" the younger officer repeated. "What the hell are you talking about? I thought that guy died when that glorified asteroid he and Ambassador Wankmeister were on exploded."
"No...Not dead. Not here, but not dead. Both of them."
"'Both of them?'"
"Yes. Wankmeister. She was the first one who walked into our trap...led us to Wilco. We were so close...so close..."
The two officers looked at each other and shook their heads. Then a voice sprang from the older officer's communicator:
"Officer, as soon as you're through up there, you'd better come have a look at this shuttlebay."
"Why?" the older officer asked. "What's in it?
"Nothing," the other officer replied. "That's what's so weird. A gigantic shuttlebay that's completely empty. There's plenty of stains and wear, but absolutely no vehicles."
"What about all those big storage rooms on that level? Anything in those?"
"So far, all of those seem empty too," the other officer said. "They look like they might've been used to store machines at one point, but right now they're not storing anything but stale air."
The large-skulled man lying on the floor was starting to make a high-pitched moaning noise, his body twitching spasmodically.
"Bohica," the man hissed, "You no-good, slimy, back-stabbing, useless, incorrigible, pusillanimous, slimy...thing!"
"All right, who in the Pleiades is Bohica?" the younger officer asked. "And why did you call him 'slimy' twice?"
"I have my reasons," the man snarled, his voice suddenly much more guttural and much less sane.
The officer wasn't sure how to respond to this. His partner, however, merely rolled her eyes.
"Yes, I'm sure you do," she said in a tone of voice that conveyed a meaning which was the exact opposite of what just the words themselves would imply.
The man suddenly shuddered violently and let out a small yelp. Before either officer could ask him what was wrong, the older officer's communicator came to life again.
"Officer," said the voice on the other end (a different one this time). "Remember that inexplicable axial shift on the planet Fiovis that was in the news a while back?"
"Uh..." the older officer said uncertainly, "I think so..."
"And that pandemic that hit Tlopra VII that they could never find the origin of?"
"And that moon orbiting Quabair II that had no recorded tectonic activity on it whatsoever that was suddenly hit by a huge quake?"
"Yes...but what are you getting at?"
There was a long pause before the other officer responded:
"I think we've found the reason for all of those disasters...and then some. There's an office down here with papers taped up everywhere -- things like blueprints for machines that could knock a world off-balance, charts detailing the chemical compositions of genetically engineered diseases, schematics of devices designed to bore holes deep into a planet's crust before planting powerful explosives at the bottom..."
The officer paused for a moment, and then continued:
"And that's not even the tip of the iceberg," the officer continued. "Remember all those machines that we found in that huge hangar? Pretty much every single one of them has a blueprint describing its design and its function...and there's a bunch of journals open on this computer describing exactly how these machines were used to wreak havoc on various populated worlds."
Both officers stared at the communicator in mute shock as the man on the floor quivered and swore under his breath.
"I think we've stumbled upon the most insidious and convoluted racket this galaxy has ever seen," the officer said with a slight tremble in his voice. "But someone managed to incapacitate most of the perps before we even got here."
"You think it was the same person who projected that message on the side of that planet?" the older officer asked.
"I have no idea...but we'd better get these guys to a medical center and save the speculating for later. Some of them look pretty roughed up."
The older officer agreed, then returned her attention to the large-headed man that was still lying on the floor, and was now practically convulsing with fury. With the younger officer's help, she hoisted the man to his feet.
"All right, Sir," she said. "You have the right to remain silent, odorless, thoughtless and motionless. Any action you perform that is determined to be part of an established language can and will be used against you in -- "
"Wilco!" the man shouted. "The secrets of the universe! I almost had them!"
"Yeah, I'm sure you did," the younger officer remarked.
At these words, the man violently shook again, and this time, the older officer noticed that his wrists were bound with something that resembled a tape measure attached to a large belt, and this device had buzzed shortly before the man had shaken.
"Hey," the younger officer said to his superior, "Do you think we should put this guy in an AntiGrav straightjacket instead of just the cuffs?"
For a moment, the older officer didn't respond. She was studying the thing that was binding the man's hands and trying to figure out what was happening. Eventually, she turned to her partner and said:
"I think cuffs should be enough. I'm sure our special friend here wouldn't dare cause us any problems."
At her words, the tape-measure-like device buzzed loudly, and the man vibrated once more. The younger officer looked perplexed for a moment, but when the older officer silently gestured towards the device and then her mouth, the dawn of understanding slowly began to light up his face.
After their prisoner had been suitably restrained, the officers began leading him back down the corridor, towards the spot where they had parked their shuttle.
"Listen to me!" the man growled. "If you incarcerate me, you'll be holding back years of scientific advances!"
"Yeah, right," the younger officer shot back brightly. After the resulting spasm, the man remained silent, save for a few incoherent whispers. The younger officer grinned and glanced at his partner, who suddenly seemed as if she were lost in thought.
"Hey," the younger officer said. "Hey, Santiago, are you okay?"
The older officer blinked her amber eyes several times and shook her head.
"Yes, Fairbain," she replied quietly. "I'm fine."
As she and the younger officer continued down the corridor and were about to descend a long flight of stairs, she paused and gazed through a lone porthole set into the wall. She stared at the millions of distant stars that shone through it, idly wondering if the focus of her attention was somewhere among those innumerable points of light.
Oh, Roger, she said to herself bemusedly. I should have known that you were the kind of guy who would never let a thing like death slow you down.
Several light years away from Pygalgia was a small, arid planet dominated by craggy mountains and vast deserts. Its hostile wildlife, unsavory inhabitants and remote location made it a world that most life forms -- either intentionally or unintentionally -- would avoid at all costs.
This was the main reason why Roger Wilco decided to go there after Beatrice had found him in the scientists' fortress. He and Beatrice parked the Raphus on top of a remote, flat-topped mountain which gave them an excellent view of the planet's very first Orat Reserve. This project had been protested by many of the planet's locals, and many of them were sure it would end up in failure once work on it began, but surprisingly, the Orat Reserve turned out to be a greater success than anyone could have anticipated. There was still the occasional inebriated individual who would crash his ship inside the reserve and end up eaten or dismembered, but these occurrences had a negligible effect on the planet's overall death count, and very few of the locals complained about them.
In the words of Rixianni Ia'lla, the wealthy (and remarkably persuasive) benefactress from the planet Muu who been the driving force behind the formation of the reserve, "It is truly inspiring to see these majestic creatures back from the brink of extinction. I hope that someday, Orats will be appreciated more for their cunning and intelligence than their delicious taste."
Kerona. It was the planet where Roger's career as a space hero had officially begun, the planet where his single life had ended, and now it was going to be the planet that would be the last stop before he and Beatrice finally returned to Xenon. Though the prospect filled Roger with apprehension, somehow he wasn't afraid anymore.
As he stood near the edge of the cliff watching the sun set, he was soon joined by Beatrice.
"I just got a call from Bohica," she said. "He says he's ready."
Roger nodded solemnly. He glanced at the large watch on his wrist, a creation of Bohica's which had a display that was essentially a miniaturized version of the display on the time gun. Roger glanced at the current time and their target time, and a look of concern appeared on his face.
"What is it?" Beatrice asked. "Is something wrong?"
"We've been together more than twenty years since we got sent back in time..." Roger said slowly, "But when we get back to Xenon, we're just going to miss our 20th anniversary."
Beatrice looked puzzled for a minute, then smiled and shook her head.
"We'll deal with that later," she said. "Come on -- it's time to go."
Once settled into the Raphus' cockpit with Beatrice, Roger gently turned on the thrusters. The Raphus slowly lifted off the ground, the dust kicked up by its ascension looking like luminous clouds in the moonlight. Once they had reached an elevation of about thirty feet, Bohica's voice came in over the radio:
"Okay...rotate about 20 degrees to port and let 'er rip. I'll join you in about four Xenon hours."
Roger turned the ship in the direction Bohica advised, and ended up facing the side of a huge mountain. Cautiously, Roger reached for the large blue button that Bohica had attached to the dashboard. He double-checked the readings for their current time as well as their destination time, made sure the doors were securely locked, then, after one final moment of hesitation, he firmly pressed his palm against the button. Bolts of blinding, bluish white light shot from nozzles mounted on the front and sides of the Raphus, and a strange, shimmering hole appeared in the side of the mountain which lit up the evening sky like an aurora.
Roger gaped at the familiar spectacle before him with a mixture of awe, excitement, and uncertainty. This is it, he realized. We're finally going back.
Was he really ready to return to that future he had left all those years ago?
Was there something that he had forgotten about, something that might render the future even more loused up than it already was?
Then, somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard the voice. This time, it wasn't a persistent repetition of an increasingly aggressive command. It was just a single phrase, and as brief as it was, it was filled with kindness, understanding, and even something that seemed like relief:
Go ahead. You're ready.
Heart suddenly swelling with confidence, Roger stared boldly into the tantalizing lightshow of the time rip and reached for the throttle. A light tap from Beatrice swiftly brought him back to his senses. He turned and stared at his wife, who gazed earnestly at him and pointed to his lap.
"Seat belt," she reminded him gently.
"So...that's pretty much it," Roger concluded.
"Really?" RJ asked, caught off-guard by the abrupt end to the story.
"Yes. I don't think he missed anything," Beatrice said.
RJ slowly rose from the patch of plasticrete that he had been sitting on.
"So...when is this little lizard guy going to get here?" he asked dubiously.
"Well...it looks like he was supposed to be here twenty minutes ago," Roger said, glancing at his watch.
"You don't think something might've happened to him, do you?"
Beatrice stepped inside the Raphus' cockpit and pressed a button on the radio.
"Leapin' Lizard, this is Tera. Do you read me?" she asked.
For a moment there was static, then Bohica's thin voice responded:
"I read you loud and clear, Tera."
"What's taking so long, Leapin' Lizard?"
"Sorry -- I ran into a couple of snags coming out of the chronostream, but everything's okay now. I'll be there soon," Bohica replied.
Beatrice acknowledged Bohica's answer, then rejoined her husband and son outside the ship.
"Well, he said he's on his way," she said.
Roger and RJ both nodded. The trio stared out at the darkening sky. The quiet twilight seemed to smooth the jagged angles of the ruined city, making it seem a tiny bit less sad-looking.
After a few minutes punctuated by awkward attempts at starting another conversation, a bright pinprick of light suddenly appeared in a gap in the clouds. It slowly grew larger and brighter, and Roger could soon make out several other lights following it. It was an ominous, yet strangely beautiful sight. In fact, it looked almost like a cluster of falling stars.
Soon it became clear that these weren't meteorites, but spaceships with their headlights on. Roger recognized the lead ship as the one Bohica had picked out for himself back at PlanetAid's fortress, and many of the ships trailing it seemed familiar as well.
Bohica's ship dropped lower and lower, with the ships behind it following its every move. Eventually, Bohica's ship touched down on a large, bare stretch of pavement. Once all the other ships had landed as well, the Bohica's ship took off again, but this time, the rest of the ships didn't follow it. Bohica's ship then sped towards the Supercomputer tower's landing bay, and Roger, Beatrice and RJ barely had enough time to move out of the way as the ship made a tidy, but slightly unsafe landing just a few feet away from the Raphus.
"Well," Bohica said as he hopped out of his ship, "This does look pretty bad...but not quite as bad as I'd feared. Most of the equipment I brought with me should help with the more urgent problems this planet has, but -- "
"Hello, Bohica," Beatrice said coolly.
Forced to put his speculations on hold for the time being, Bohica greeted Roger and Beatrice, then introduced himself to RJ, who stared at him skeptically.
"So you're the guy who's going to help us?" RJ asked.
"Well, indirectly, yes," Bohica said. "That is -- I've made most of the preparations for restoring this world, but it will take more than a single individual to do the actual restoring."
RJ nodded solemnly.
"Although..." Bohica said, "There is something that might get a lot of our work done for us very quickly."
The three humans stared expectantly at Bohica.
"Well?" Beatrice asked.
"Er...I don't think you're going to like it," Bohica said, glancing nervously at RJ.
"Try us," RJ said.
Bohica shook his head and stared at the ground for a moment.
"The Supercomputer," he said.
There was a long pause.
"But...when I took down Vohaul, I formatted that thing," Roger protested. "There's nothing on it anymore."
"True," Bohica said slowly. "But you know, Mr. Wilco...one thing I learned very early on in my profession that every computer -- no matter how large or powerful it might be -- is susceptible to viruses."
He slowly reached inside a pocket in his lab coat.
"And another thing I learned is that any scientist with more than two functional neurons to his name..."
He withdrew his hand, which was now holding a small, flat, square object made of black plastic, with one side of it sheathed in a tiny metal sleeve.
"...would be sure to have at least one backup of his system available."
Roger and his family gaped at the object delicately clutched in Bohica's fingers.
"But...but how?" Roger eventually managed to stammer.
"I do have a time machine," Bohica reminded him. "I travelled back to pre-Vohaul Xenon, found a backup disk for the Supercomputer and made a copy of it for myself."
"Hey," RJ said, waving towards the wall of the Supercomputer, "You're not talking about starting this thing up again, are you? Because I think that's a really, really bad idea."
"I understand your reluctance," Bohica said, "But this computer doesn't have to keep operating indefinitely once we've got it up and running again. If you really do want to pull the plug once and for all once we've gotten this world back to the way it was before, I'm not going to stop you...but we'd all be fools to not take advantage of this technological marvel."
RJ stared dubiously at Bohica, then at the ravaged city many feet below.
"Well...all right," he slowly said after several moments of silent reflection, "But the minute that thing starts acting funny, I'll personally shut it down with this."
He made a menacing gesture with his weapon, then remembered that he was still holding a time gun. He shuffled awkwardly for a moment, cheeks reddening. Bohica glanced uncertainly at RJ, Roger and Beatrice, then shrugged and began speaking again:
"Since this Supercomputer was able to control the weather on this planet, it should be able to repair the atmosphere in just a few days, especially since it doesn't seem too damaged. I'm not sure what it has in the way of toxin removal technology, but the machines I've brought should be able to do whatever it can't.
"I also collected genetic material from nearly all of this planet's native life forms on my trip to pre-Vohaul Xenon. After the Autotiller force-seeds the soil with the various plants I gathered and the vegetation reaches an optimal level, we can thaw out the other organisms that I've got in cold storage, give them a little time to acclimate to their surroundings, then turn them loose. And of course, the nanites should help reconstruct most of the buildings and structures once we've extracted the data about them from the Supercomputer."
"Well...all right," Roger said, still not entirely sure he shared Bohica's confidence. "So, when do you plan on rebooting this thing?"
Bohica suddenly seemed to wilt a little. He glanced nervously at the faces of the three humans, but said nothing.
"Bohica..." Beatrice asked, using the tone of voice she had used with RJ in his younger days when she suspected that he had done something wrong, "What did you do?"
"I admit that I...well...got a bit too eager," Bohica stammered. "While you three were talking, I opened a rip that dropped me inside the Supercomputer, and once I was able to find a working disk drive, I..."
Three pairs of startled, astonished, and mildly alarmed eyes were now locked on Bohica. He fell silent and started to turn a shade of greenish gray. Roger suddenly became aware of a low, constant hum filling the air that hadn't been there when he and Beatrice had landed.
"You restarted this thing already?" RJ said slowly, his voice low.
Bohica didn't respond.
"Do you realize what you might have DONE!?" RJ shouted.
"I understand your concern," Bohica said nervously, "But please -- try to look at this rationally: the Vohaul Virus is gone. There's no trace of it left in this machine. Also, it wasn't the Supercomputer itself that did all this damage -- it was the virus. And like it or not, unless you want to start your civilization over from the Stone Age, this computer may be the only way of getting your world back on its feet...and already, it seems to be working very well."
Bohica looked out the bay entrance, staring upward.
"Perhaps you might not have noticed...but there's been a change in the weather."
Roger followed his gaze, and suddenly realized that the thick canopy of clouds that had covered the entire sky was dissipating, revealing irregular patches of deep blue, star-speckled sky. The air seemed to be noticeably less pungent as well, and there was a fresh, cool breeze blowing through the bay doors.
RJ stared pensively at the sky.
"So...you're sure nothing can go wrong?" he asked.
"Without any new viruses infecting the system, I'd say we stand a fighting chance," Bohica said. "There is always the possibility of some setback, but hopefully, things should go well,"
"Then why do you sound so uncertain?" RJ demanded.
"Proclaiming that absolutely nothing can go wrong with a major endeavor has been demonstrated to increase the likelihood of things going wrong with said endeavor by up to 1000%. It's a subset of Murphy's Law."
RJ stared blankly at Bohica.
"You're not serious, are you?" he asked.
"I'm very serious," Bohica replied. "This theory has yet to be disproven in the many years since it was first postulated...in fact, I observed at least six distinct variations of the 'nothing can go wrong' sentiment when my former colleagues were preparing to operate on your father...and I'm sure you've heard how successful that plan turned out."
RJ continued to gaze at Bohica for a moment or two, then shook his head. After several seconds of contemplation, he turned to face his now not-dead parents. The shock of realizing that they weren't dead still had yet to subside. The mental breakdown would have to wait until later, though. Right now, there were much bigger problems to deal with.
"Well...I'd better get ready to start looking for survivors," he said quietly. "There's a cache of food and supplies hidden in an ancient sub-basement near here, and if there are any rebels still alive in this city, I'm sure they'll need both of those things. After we've gotten a good number of people assembled, we should start looking for the people who escaped to other planets, and possibly get some more help from them."
He holstered his time gun and walked towards the large orange patrol shuttle once piloted by the Sequel Police. After clambering into the cockpit, it didn't take long for him to figure out how the shuttle worked. As its engine began to rumble, RJ waved good-bye to his parents, promising them that he would be back soon. Then the shuttle sped out of the bay doors and was soon out of sight amidst the dark ruins.
Roger turned to Beatrice. She was standing motionless, looking out at the skeletal cityscape, and Roger suddenly noticed that she was crying.
"Hey, don't worry, Bea," he said gently. "I know it looks really bad now, but we'll make it better somehow. It may be hard, but it can't be impossible...especially now that we've got help."
He moved closer to her. Then, to his surprise, he realized that she was smiling.
"My little boy," Beatrice said, her voice trembling with joy. "My little boy, a member of the freedom fighters! I...I can barely believe it!"
"Oh...yeah. I know," Roger agreed. He glanced at his right hand -- the one which he was about to place reassuringly across Beatrice's shoulder -- then quickly hid it behind him.
Bohica looked at Roger and Beatrice, tried to come up with something to say that would lighten the mood but also would stay well within the boundaries of good taste, but eventually gave up. He quietly informed them that he was going to find a safer place to park his ships, then shuffled back to his shuttle. Soon, he too had departed.
"What are you thinking?"
Roger stared up at the sky. By now, it had cleared enough for him to see many of Xenon's largest constellations. There was Ositha the Comet-Rider, Norell the Overachiever, and Margot and Riley the Platypuses.
"Nothing," he eventually replied.
Beatrice wasn't convinced. She looked up at the stars, then back at Roger.
"Roger...you're not thinking of going somewhere, are you?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
Beatrice stared at him, astounded.
"No, wait," Roger said quickly. "Don't get me wrong, Bea; I'm going to stay here and do as much as I can to get my planet back to the way it was. Once everything is okay, though..."
Voice trailing off, he looked back up at the stars again and sighed wistfully.
Beatrice was tempted to ask Roger what on Xenon would make him want to leave his home world, after spending so long trying to return to it. But no...this was no time for bickering. Perhaps she never would truly understand him, but this was no longer a problem that would keep her up at night. It was just another idiosyncrasy of his that she would have to get used to.
She thought about the many people whose professions required them to remain several light years away from their spouses for weeks, months or even years. As unpleasant an ordeal as this was, it wasn't as heartbreaking as it had been in the early days of interstellar travel, a time when married couples (or triples, quadruples, etc., depending on the species and/or traditions of the individuals in question) spent the majority of their waking days in one another's company.
Though this custom had long been associated with matrimony, as the average lifespan of Xenonites grew longer and longer, so did the rate of divorce and domestic violence. After many decades of scientific research, the ancient saying "familiarity breeds contempt" was determined to have a sizeable grain of truth to it, and it eventually came to pass that the idea of married couples spending time apart on a regular basis was not only suggested, but flat-out encouraged. Much to the chagrin of the older citizens and many of the self-proclaimed "Traditionalists", this new trend quickly took hold, and in the years that followed, the number of divorces and spousal abuse cases (as well as various neuroses associated with married life) began to decline.
For the most part, Roger and Beatrice's marriage followed the "Together But Apart" ideology fairly closely. Beatrice's job kept her away from Roger for days at a time, and once RJ was old enough, Roger was more or less free to do his own thing (which was usually staying at home watching old Holovision shows). Still, the last few years Beatrice had spent travelling from planet to planet with Roger weren't as mentally scarring as the research had suggested. Despite the worry, the fear, the frustration, the hopelessness and that unpleasant incident with Zondra, she didn't feel traumatized by being in Roger's company for such a long stretch at a time. In fact, she felt almost as if she could live alongside him for a few more years.
However, even though he was her husband, first and foremost, he was Roger. Roger Wilco. A janitor who had saved the galaxy, yet had remained an unsung hero for most of his life, a simple-minded yet inexplicably cunning, unlucky but fortunate, loveable (but perpetually enigmatic) guy. As much as it pained Beatrice to think it, she realized how unfair it would be to keep someone like Roger perpetually at her side. Besides, no matter how far he wandered, thanks to the tracking device he begrudgingly agreed to have reinserted, she would still know where he was.
"Well..." she said quietly, "If you really do want to go somewhere else...I won't hold you back."
Roger looked at Beatrice in mild surprise.
"Really?" he asked.
Beatrice nodded, and Roger grinned meekly.
"Just promise me you'll try to keep in touch," Beatrice said. "And please...let me know when you're going."
"I will," Roger said earnestly. "I'll even try to visit you and RJ when I have the chance."
Beatrice nodded again and smiled. As Roger returned his gaze to the night sky, he began his inevitable reflection on the various events that led up to his current spatial and temporal location.
Though Xenon was still in pretty bad shape, the thought that it would eventually look better than it currently did was somewhat reassuring. However, the thought that most of Xenon's people (and most of the galaxy) would never know about the role Roger played in Vohaul's defeat and the planet's restoration was slightly less positive. Still, as unfair as this concept seemed on the surface, it didn't seem to bother him as much as it might have a couple of decades earlier. If Keech Kwidnunk had been privy to what Roger was currently thinking (and was capable of speaking rationally), he might have reflected on how, given what he had discovered about Roger's nature, it seemed perfectly reasonable that while the universe itself was intimately familiar with Roger, at the same time he was completely unknown by nearly all of its inhabitants.
Perhaps he never would regain the fame he had once had, but that didn't seem to bother him as much now. Perhaps there was a grain of truth to what Kwidnunk had said about his obscurity keeping him safe after all: Being presumed dead as well as obscure would probably make Roger far less likely to run into crazy scientists, evil geniuses he had unknowingly wronged, or (he fervently hoped), borderline-insane aging fangirls.
He faintly recalled the question he had asked his son in the same location he was currently occupying, both several decades and several hours ago:
Why wasn't I available in this time? What happened to me?
After all these years, he finally had the answer to that question. His absence in Space Quest XII wasn't because he was dead -- it was because he was somewhere and somewhen else, unknowingly keeping his past self safe from Vohaul's detection. Now that he had finally returned to his home world --
Roger's train of thought came to a shuddering halt. He had the sensation that he was being watched. Strangely, though, it wasn't a frightening feeling, but a familiar one. He looked up at the stars -- even though he knew that such a gesture was pointless, since the thing he was looking for existed all around him and spread out into infinity -- and spoke with his mind:
"Don't worry. You don't need to watch me anymore. I think I should be all right from now on."
Something beyond the stars seemed to stir slightly. A quiet, bemused sigh seemed to reverberate through every atom in Roger's body. Then, a voice audible only to him said:
"Well, don't come crying to me if anything else goes wrong, Wilco."
Though Roger was a little irritated by this reply, he resisted the temptation to respond to it. Instead, he said:
"Well...thanks again, universe."
For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Then, Roger thought he heard a faint, distant voice reply:
"Happy trails, Pantload."
Roger continued to stand on the landing pad as the night lumbered on, gazing out at the city and the stars. Beatrice remained by his side, and Roger was so deep in thought that he didn't realize her hand was on his shoulder until she was kissing him. As he gingerly returned her embrace, he was suddenly seized by a feeling of triumphant elation.
He had won. The future he had been dreading for so long had come and gone...and he had survived it. Beatrice was also alive...and she was still beautiful. Xenon had gone through a pretty hard time, but not only was it still there, but there would soon be lots of people (and one slightly neurotic reptile with a collection of highly advanced machines) to aid in its recovery. He would definitely stay there to do whatever he could to help, but after that...
...after that, he was free. Though the conversations he had had with the universe had been brief and pretty unenlightening, he was now more eager than ever to start exploring it again. With an unburdened mind and a newly restored body, the urge to travel the stars in search of strange creatures, exciting worlds and intriguing tourist attractions burned more strongly within him than ever. Perhaps he could find the Aluminum Mallard again. Perhaps he could visit some of the less dangerous planets he had explored in the past. Perhaps he could simply look up some old friends.
But before any of that happened, he had an incredibly large mess to help clean up.