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Akril

The Time Machination

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Chapter XX

 

"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.

 

Clunk.

 

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:

 

"Where...IS...he?"

 

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.

 

"So?"

 

"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."

 

 

 

EDIT: The next chapter might be delayed for either a few hours or an entire day -- I'm going to be traveling tomorrow.

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Chapter XXI

 

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.

 

"...skewered."

 

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.

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Another Sunday, another two chapters.

 

 

Chapter XXII

 

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.

 

Roger nodded.

 

"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."

 

"But...why?"

 

"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.

 

 

-----------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Chapter XXIII

 

"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.

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Chapter XXIV

(SQIX||GORQWI_ROTUNDA||00:28:02:04:21)

 

"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.

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Chapter XXV

 

You can't go back.

 

Not yet.

 

Not YET.

 

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:

 

"...almost ready..."

 

"...restorative procedure seems to be..."

 

"...should be able to handle the initial operation..."

 

"...should we..."

 

"...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.

 

"PlanetAid? You?"

 

"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.

 

"But...why?"

 

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.

 

"'Special'?"

 

"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.

 

 

 

Relax...stay cool...

 

Hmm...what should I do now?

 

Maybe if I...

 

Yes...I think it's working...just need to keep...reaching...

 

Come on, come on...

 

Almost...there...

 

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?"

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Get ready for revelations...

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXVI

 

"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."

 

"Oh."

 

"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."

 

"You've been...what?"

 

"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."

 

"Why?"

 

 "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?"

 

"Uh...yeah..."

 

"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."

 

"Are you...sure?"

 

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."

 

"Certainly."

 

"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."

 

"Uh...thanks."

 

"Oh, and one more thing..."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"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?"

 

"Good-bye, Wilco."

 

What the hell happened here!?

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It's Christmas, which means two chapters today.

 

 

 

Chapter XXVII

 

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.

 

 

---------------------------------------------------

 

 

Chapter XXVIII

 

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.

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More holidays today, so two more chapters.

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXIX

 

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.

 

 

---------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Chapter XXX

 

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: 12280813."

 

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 seven digits. After a nerve-wracking pause, the scanner emitted a friendly electronic chirp and the door to Kwidnunk's quarters slid open.

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Hmm...that would partially explain the complete lack of responses in this thread for the last couple of weeks.

 

 

 

Chapter XXXI

 

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 Psychology

 

Non-Humanoid Psychology

 

Recent History

 

Ancient History

 

Leadership Strategies

 

Communication Strategies

 

General Survival Strategies

 

Advanced Cosmology

 

Humorous Anecdotes

 

Legal Information and Loopholes

 

Tasteful Jokes

 

Tasteless Jokes

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.

"Anticast?"

 

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.

 

Silence.

 

"What made you do that just then?"

 

Silence.

 

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.

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Two more chapters...

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXII

 

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.

 

 

-----------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Chapter XXXIII

 

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.

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Yes, the offal has collided with the rotating air circulation device...

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXIV

 

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.

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Chapter XXXV

 

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."

 

"Huh?"

 

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.

 

Bohica nodded.

 

"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?"

 

Bohica nodded.

 

"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..."

 

"Yes?"

 

"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.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"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."

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Okay, so I'm obviously not going to get the entirity of this story posted by 2014, but since today is New Year's Eve and tomorrow is New Years Day, I'm posting two chapters two days in a row.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXVI

 

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?"

 

"Yes..."

 

"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.

 

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Chapter XXXVII

 

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.

 

But...

 

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.

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Well, Happy New Year, folks. Here are the last two chapters of The Time Machination.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXVIII

 

 "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."

 

"Yeah? How?"

 

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.

 

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Chapter XXXIX

(SQXII||XENON||00:03:01:02:45)

 

"Roger?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"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.

 

 

 

 

 

The End

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My personnal review of the story (Warning. Spoiler alert) :

 

This. this. is. incredible. I love everything, from the beginning to the end. I'm sorry for my lack of responses, but I was on a vacancy with family, and when I came back I realized that I was twenty chapters late, so I was not in good position to leave comments. I just finished it. My favorite thing is how you closed the gaps between the various time zones and Space Quest XII, explained why RJ was talking about Roger and Beatrice at the past tense and how did Zondra and Roger got together for the first time. You also completely ignored the fan games story, which I personnaly like. Some annoying plot inconsisties, like the famous "hum" Free "hum" Labion Terror Beast mating whistle, or Admiral Toolman's speech : "Your successful return of the SCS Eureka", are now explained, and they make sense (just as much as Space Quest makes sense). My second favorite thing of the story : the use of objects in puzzles. Even if it's a fan fiction and it isn't playable, it perfectly describes how Roger finds stuff, and uses it in a creative way. I can totally picture some of these puzzles in a fan game. My personnal favorite is passing the big red beast to get the Raphus back in the towing station. Absolutely hilarious.

 

My favorite moments and lines of the story :

 

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.

 

"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?"

 

"Okay," he said. "Now do it again, about...fifty-four more times."

 

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.

 

"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."

 

"Did you ever stop and think that maybe I'm just a really lucky guy?" Roger asked.

 

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.

 

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.

 

I can totally imagine a game made out of this. 4.5 stars. Definitely the best Space Quest fan work I've seen for a long time. Well done Akril! Thanks for your contribution at making my holidays a better time.

 

BlockMaster

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Thank you very much for the comments, Blockmaster! I'm glad you enjoyed this story, and I appreciate the positive feedback.

 

I was inspired to write this a short time after playing the two main SQ fangames of 2012 (a few weeks before the announcement of SpaceVenture), then fell into a pretty deep slump towards the end of that year which slowed my work on this thing to a slow crawl. I was just able to get going on it again towards the later half of 2014, and I was just able to get it to a point where I was satisfied with it towards the end of November.

 

I never intended for this story to be this large -- it originally started out as my own take for how the series as we know it would wrap up, while at the same time sticking as rigidly as possible to the future that SQ4 laid out for us as well as keeping the spirit of the original games as intact as possible. However, it didn't take long for the page count to grow into the triple digits, and keeping track of the timeline of the official games as well as the SQ7 to SQ9 timeline that I formulated fr this story turned this into a very complicated affair. Still, I'm glad it's done, and I'm glad that it has (so far) been received so well.

 

Now I just have to finish piecing together the Behind the Scenes page for this thing (along with the plain HTML version of the story itself).

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Don't forget paperback cover artwork so I can make a fancy PDF version of this. :)

Wow. I'm touched.

 

It's still going to be some time before I can sit down and start planning something like that out, though. Right now, I'm trying to get some work done on another project that I've really fallen behind on.

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Well, I've finally got a simple "Behind the Scenes" page for this story uploaded.* It's got explanations for the many obscure in-jokes and references, a lot of deleted scenes, a few sketches, and some other stuff.

 

 

 

*I say "finally" because when I first uploaded the page, it turned out...wrong.

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I only read the prelude, but I really like what I read so far :) I think you have a nice writing style, and I enjoy how you flesh our Junior more, and give a bit of another perspective on the events of SQ4. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the story.

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