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"Quest Cross" (by Allronix) Crossover-Game (KQ/SQ) Rating PG-13 (swearing, off-colored humor, comic mischief) Summary: Upon finding an ancient power source on a low-tech world, the insidious Sludge Vohaul has returned. However, he once again greatly underestimates a certain janitor and an adventurous royal family... Takes place post-SQ6 and between KQ5 & 6 Great thanks to all the parties I am paying homage to (read: ripping off), from Roberta Williams and the famous Two Guys from Andromeda to Christopher "Kaymo" Rowley. A big thank you goes to Daniel "Future's History" Stacey for allowing me to borrow certain characters and concepts of his design. Standard disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Sierra, Viviendi, or the Tierra fan cooperative. The principal characters in this work belong to their respective owners and creators. This is a work of fanfiction, and make no profit from it. Archive on fansites as you wish, but please drop me a line so that I can see your site, too. ---------------- Chapter 1 Just like a Bad Penny "Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Clark's Law "Any sufficiently developed magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Kessler's inverse. "Admiral Williams. I need to speak to Admiral Williams! It's Beatrice Wankmeister, Ambassador to G6. It's an emergency, damn it!" The droid on the other end responded cheerily. "Thank you for calling, Ambassador. All lines are busy. Please hold, and an operator will take your call." "Do you not understand the meaning of the word 'emergency,' you pile of scrap metal? The Star Federation as we know it could be destroyed by that time." The droid's image cut to the familiar Star Confederation crest - a gold triangle with a starburst pattern in the middle. PLEASE STAND BY ESTIMATED WAIT TIME: 1 year To add further insult, a tinny musak speaker played some cheesy tune about a girl in a tower. Beatrice pounded the desk and cried out in frustration. Seeing as she wasn't going to get a thing done by official channels, she frantically tried to think of someone who could help her. Unfortunately, the only person she could think of was someone she promised herself not to get in danger for her sake. Still, he had saved the Star Confederation at least twice - if anyone had the bravery and blind luck to clean up this mess, it was him. Cutting her transmission to StarCon, she opened another channel to Factoria station and used a personal code. Hopefully, it would just be considered a regular personal letter. She and Roger DID have a steamy, albeit long-distance, romance going since the Puckoid incident... "Roger, we have to talk - it's important. The diplomatic cruiser Janus will be stopping at Factoria Station in about twelve standard hours. Please, meet me at the cantina. I don't have long. Roger, PLEASE don't flake." Using her limited, but effective, computer skills, she managed to pad the file with the most crucial of the data and send. She was about to open a second message for the rest of it when... The door slid open behind her in the dark room. "Good morning, Ambassador." Hurriedly, Beatrice dropped the chip down her black turtleneck shirt, making it look like she was adjusting her clothes. She turned around. "Good morning, Captain Veneer. Could you tell me just why you're in my quarters?" He stepped forward. "You must think I'm as stupid as your boyfriend, Ambassador." "Stupid, no. A lot of other things, yes." Reaching behind her, she pressed the code that would lead to the destruction of the message within the message. "You could join us. You know as well as I do that the G6 is an unimportant sector, aside from this. Your loyalty to the Star Confederation would be rewarded greatly. " Beatrice took a step forward. "My loyalty to the Star Confederation's ideals isn't what's being questioned here. I'm not about to look the other way at the death of millions, and that's exactly what's going to happen." Veneer laughed. "I thought you were an intelligent woman, Beatrice. Ideals are for the weak and foolish. They'll be useless once my plan is complete. StarCon has already approved of my actions." He made a gesture and the door opened again. Two security crewmen twice her size, brandishing large proton pistols, quickly apprehended her. She knew struggling was futile, so she stood her ground. "They wouldn't back it if they knew what you really were up to," she declared, knowing she had been found out. "It's too late. I already sent my information to -" He smiled, drawing a small, black rod from his pocket. "I counted on it." Veneer put the rod to Beatrice's forehead and she instantly lost consciousness. Roger Wilco was cursed with an extraordinary amount of luck, and galactic authorities could debate for eternity on whether that luck was of the good or bad variety. The only consensus was that he certainly had it. He'd saved the universe from the genocidal Sarians and the fiendish Vohaul, liberated legions of programmers from the brutal enslavement of Elmo Pug, and stopped a rogue genetics lab from turning the Star Confederation into a dump worse than New Jersey. However, his luck took the same sour twist every time. They'd forget his saving the universe and turn to minor events along the way, like trashing a popular Star Federation hangout, forgetting postage due for a supposedly free whistle, or blowing up his ship along with the hideously mutated goop menace. And how was HE supposed to know that Orats were endangered? They certainly didn't look it when their tusks were three inches from his face. His latest stunt...er...adventure involved minor things like disobeying direct orders, breaking out of the ship's brig, assaulting the guards, and stealing a shuttle. Not to mention that the evil mastermind THIS time happened to be a prominent admiral's widow. Oh, and he left streaks on the viewscreen. Roger wasn't a space hero by trade, you see. He was a janitor, and most people treated him like the stuff he got assigned to wipe up, even when he wasn't adventuring. He expected Commander Kielbasa to throw a fit and kick his butt out the proverbial airlock. What he hadn't expected was that Stellar would come with him. In fact, the very idea that someone would stick up for him was pretty confusing, but Roger didn't pay much attention to that - life was confusing to him anyway. The two of them pooled what was left of their buckazoids and got the Aluminum Mallard out of the scrap heap (again), overhaul it, and spend the time cruising the galaxy looking for trouble. The Mallard's fusion engine would power itself on whatever waste could be found, and he and Stellar weren't much picker when it came to provisions. With their combined luck, they weren't short on trouble, either. Roger and Stellar were partners in crime, daring spacers, the best of pals... So what was wrong? "Xenon to Wilco." She took the co-pilot's chair, her eyes fixed on Roger. Roger looked up from his controls. "Sorry, Stellar. Guess I was thinking." "You thinking, Roger? Now THAT means trouble!" "Hey, Stellar. Lay off!" Stellar picked up the hard copy of the magazine Roger picked up at their last stop. He had downloaded the latest Galactic Inquirer. On the "cover page," a man wearing more ribbons and metal than a ten-year-old girl with braces. He had a dashingly handsome face and a body that was made for action figures. CAPTAIN VENEER StarCom's latest darling - everything a hero should be. Shaking her head, she put it aside. "Hate to break it too you, Rog," Stellar said. "People have a bad habit of forgetting that you're an okay guy." "Stellar," Roger admitted uncomfortably. "Something bothers me about him. I swear I've seen him before, but I'm not sure where." Roger looked away from Stellar, paying attention to the controls. "And there's that message from Beatrice. Why would she call me all the way out to Factoria station just to see him signing autographs?" He shook his head. "She looked pretty upset." "Or maybe you're getting yourself upset by thinking too much. It might be nothing." "Thanks, Stellar...I'll try not to think, okay?" Roger said, a part of him acutely aware of how dumb he had to sound. "Sorry, Roger." Stellar then noticed a flashing light on the console. "Uh, oh." "Define 'uh oh.'" Roger looked at the flashing light. It was the indicator for the Nasty-Gram, the interstellar equivalent of a note scrawled on a bathroom stall. "Uh, oh." He looked back up, patching it on through to the Mallard's vidscreen. An ugly, bloated face filled the viewer. Stellar was frozen with fear. "Roger, what is that?" "Forgot about me, didn't you, Wilco?" "Um, no." Roger was trying to play casual. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?" Vohaul would have sniffed contemptuously if he could manage it. "Don't you know, you idiot, that a good villain ALWAYS can return from the dead? It's one of the perks of the evil overlord job description." The disembodied voice reverberated through the cabin. "You've caused me a lot of trouble, but now that I found you, you're just in time." Transfixed to the viewscreen, Roger and Stellar saw a holovid shot in an unknown sector. Out from nowhere, a bright light pierced the void. Roger froze. It looked all too familiar. A small asteroid caught flame and suddenly turned unfathomably bright, blinding him and Stellar. "Roger..." Stellar's voice wavered. Being a fellow Xenonian, she knew what it was just as much as he did, even if she hadn't been the one to see it in the custody of a bunch of green-skinned freaks that turned a spaceship into a shooting gallery. "As you can see, I've rebuilt the Star Generator, and this time I plan to use it, and you won't be in the way." Roger noticed Stellar's hand moving for a small panel on the communications system and pressing it. She said, so quietly that Roger's slow brain barely detected it, "Keep him talking." As scared and as mad as Roger was, he decided to follow Stellar's direction. "So, Sludge, sorry for kicking your brain into an industrial shaft, blowing up your asteroid, turning off your life support...but no hard feelings, right?" Vohaul laughed. Not an "I'm so evil" laugh or a "You have no hope of defeating me" laugh, but more a "Roger, you are such an idiot" laugh. "I'll show you hard feelings, Wilco." A sudden flash. Stellar's hands flew across the Mallard's controls. "Roger, NOW!" Roger punched lightspeed just as the beam that would have turned them into deep-fried space debris would have hit. It was all Roger and Stellar could do to hold the controls. While the Star Generator's energy hadn't hit them directly, it had been close enough for the Mallard to suffer heavy damage. Smoke billowed from the engines as mechanical parts and alert signals screamed in protest. They finally burst out of lightspeed in an unknown system. By then, the machine couldn't tell them much aside from the fact that the fourth planet was capable of sustaining human life. Taking their chances, they hit the landing controls and crossed their fingers. Their luck didn't have much room to get worse. Or, so they thought... **** The Mallard screamed and shuddered, grazing the treetops and setting them ablaze, then skidded across a field, throwing dirt in all directions and leaving the grass scorched. Finally, friction, inertia, and other Newtonian forces kicked in and brought the Mallard to a hard stop in the middle of a huge lake. The first thing that registered with Roger was that his hide was intact. The second thing that registered was that the Mallard was starting to resemble an oversized fish tank. Stellar had unbuckled her safety belt, but was lying in the rapidly-filling area in the back hatch. It looked like she'd tried to get to the emergency controls in the back only to get knocked out. Roger undid his safety belt and struggled towards her, making sure to grab his lucky roll of duct tape from the glove box. It would be hard to swim and carry Stellar, but he couldn't just leave her here! Hastily looking about, he found what he needed - a dead cable covered in rubber. Hastily tearing it out from the non-functional panel, and remembering to take a deep breath first, Roger swam towards her. Oh, man - the water was getting awfully close to those sparking wires. He didn't have much time to tie her to him and slam the button, which opened the Mallard's hatch. Once again wishing he spent more time in the gym, Roger managed to half-crawl onto the shore, heart pounding. It was pouring rain, complete with thunder and lightening. At least it was putting out some of the fires his crash landing had started. He rolled Stellar on her side and hit her back. She coughed and spat out water. She also threw up on his shoes. He was still kneeling by her, waiting for his pal to regain consciousness when he found himself on the business end of some very primitive-looking (and very sharp) nasty, pointed objects. Looking up, Roger saw that he was surrounded by a bunch of people that looked like refugees from Scadian 3. One of them wasn't pointing a nasty-looking object at him, but stood there in a nightshirt, a pair of boots, and an odd looking cap with a bright red feather sticking out of it. The feather-cap guy was apparently the leader, and he looked pretty pissed off. Not surprising. Roger noticed that it was the middle of the night. Unfortunately, he said the first thing that popped into his mind. "Oops." *** Chapter 2 A Xenonian Janitor in King Graham's court "Ken, I thought I heard a noise outside!" "It's probably just another one of those Space Quest players. Go to sleep, 'Berta" - "Ken and Roberta Williams," Space Quest 1 Death Message King Graham quickly assessed the situation and realized he'd have to wait on most of his questions. The man was making no aggressive movements, still kneeling by an unconscious woman as the large metal bird disappeared beneath the surface of Lake Maylie. "Is there anyone else inside?" Graham asked. The man shook his head furiously. The rain pounded and lightening sparked across the clouds. They didn't have much time - the storm was almost right overhead. "Marcus, Templeton, get a stretcher. Robin - go back to the castle, and alert the healers. This woman is badly injured." The three of them vanished into the stormy night. Graham knelt next to the unconscious woman to get a better look, only to get a wary glare from her companion. "Don't worry, I don't mean you harm." Graham didn't really know if the stranger understood the words. A cursory glance revealed no weapons, at least not ones he knew of, but he wasn't taking too many chances. They looked as strange as their metal bird - the woman was dressed in a short tunic and trousers that were ripped in many places. The man was dressed in tattered garments that might have been a one-piece outfit at some point. The man pretty much ignored him, still keeping a worried eye on his companion. He ripped off another part of his ragged clothing to apply pressure to a weeping wound on her leg. After what seemed like a long time, Marcus and Templeton returned with a stretcher and carefully rolled the woman onto it. "Come with us," Graham said, gesturing so that the man might understand, even if he spoke a different language. Once inside the castle, the healers and another troupe of guards swooped in, huddling over the woman. Graham watched worriedly, hoping that the woman could be saved. The man looked confused and uneasy. Graham felt sympathy for the poor fellow - he had been lost several times in strange lands himself. His reverie was soon broken. "Graham?" Valanice was a step behind. No doubt she had been watching the entire thing, and had many questions. Turning around, Graham reassured his wife. "There were two people in that metal bird. One of them was badly injured. The other seems all right for the moment." Crossing to the far wall and hanging his battered "adventurer's cap" on a peg to dry, he added, "They don't appear to be a danger, but I will still post guards outside their rooms, just as a precaution." The thunder outside echoed through the castle. Pulling her shawl over her, Valanice shook her head. "I'm at least glad they're not out in this storm. They've been getting worse by the day." "Father?" Standing on the balcony were Rosella and Alexander. Rosella was in her night-clothes, while Alexander had a thick tome tucked under one arm - no doubt he had trouble sleeping again. Hastening to the stairs and to their side, Rosella started asking questions. Alexander came to get a closer look, putting the book on a table first. Off to the side of the knot of healers sat the male stranger. He leaned against a wall, looking tired and worn. His dark blond hair was a dripping mess, and when he looked up at Alexander, his pale blue eyes were bloodshot. Alexander stooped to look the man in the eye. Pointing to himself, he introduced himself. "My name is Alexander. What is yours?" Roger had been too tired to ask questions, put up a fight, or do much of anything but watch helplessly while a bunch of guys with the sharp, pointed objects and the man in charge herded him into this large stone castle. Roger knew then he hadn't stumbled on some waxdroid re-creation. Three men in clothing that looked somewhat like the Krissy Har-na cultists wore when begging at the spaceports were huddled around Stellar. Man-in-charge didn't seem to be a threat, but Roger didn't want to take chances. Ghu knew what in the heck he'd landed in this time. They had the weapons - and Stellar - and he didn't. Even if he tried to leave, he wouldn't get far with the Mallard beyond repair and at the bottom of a lake. Then there was Vohaul somewhere out there - somewhere with a Star Generator and the usual meglomania. The word for the day was "screwed." As man-in-charge was talking to three others, a young man approached. Roger looked him over. "Your highness?" asked one of the guards. Finally! The Babel Fiche Inc. translator nanites were working. StarCon had them injected into everyone who enlisted - even their janitors. That way, Roger could understand "Clean that mess" or "You're a moron" in any language spoken. The unfortunate part is that it took longer to work on his speech, and knowing his luck, "hello" would translate to "your mother mates out of season," or something else that would get his ass kicked. The man that approached was several years younger then Roger. While being about the same height, he had a sturdier build. Manual labor was probably more of a priority on this planet. Other than that, he looked like he could have been related to Stellar - dark hair and brown eyes, with a streak of sheepishness that didn't quite go with the go with the "Your highness" title. "My name is Alexander. What's yours?" "Roger. Roger Wilco." Belatedly, he noticed that the group of people was starting to move, and take Stellar towards a large door at the end of the hall. "Hey. Where are you taking her?" Roger struggled to his feet and tried to walk towards the door where those people had taken Stellar. He got about five steps before his head began to swim. He was dimly aware of Alexander and a guard catching him... A healer and another guard sped over, while another stretcher was brought. Alexander looked with worry as the healer checked the blond stranger. "Akril, is it serious?" The healer shook her head. "He's had a bad shock. He needs rest and a chance to get dry and warm. We will prepare a room." Alexander nodded and watched as Akril and the last of the guards hastened up the stairway to the infirmary. "Both of you, get back to sleep," Graham said. "Your mother and I will go talk to the guards and healers and tell you what we can in the morning." "Yes father," both said, almost in unison. Graham and Valanice vanished behind the east door. Rosella broke the long silence. "I hope they're going to be all right," she said. "Did that man understand you?" "I'm not sure. I did tell him my name. I think he understood that much. He said his name is Roger Wilco." "What kind of name is that?" Rosella wondered. A snap of lightening and a grumble of thunder, echoing off the stone walls, interrupted their thoughts. "These storms...It's as if the Gods are tearing the world apart." She looked up. "Is that what you were reading about, Alexander?" "I was. There are some mentions of great storms in the more ancient texts, but just bits and pieces, things that don't make sense to me." The two headed up the stairs to their bedchambers, Alexander stopping to collect the book he put on the table. He continued. "The Mirror isn't even showing anything. I guess it's not ready yet." "Or it's just another sign." Rosella said glumly. "The earth-folk have retreated underground, and magical creatures - they're either in hiding or being found dead! Worse, even you have to notice that magic is starting to fail. Godfather mentions it may be only a matter of time before it dies - and the casters with it." Alexander answered in a voice devoid of inflection. "I've noticed, Rosella." Alexander didn't have to see the frown on his twin's face. "Alexander, sorcerers are bound to this planet's energy for their life - and the source of their magic." A pause. "You're a sorcerer." "A very minor one, sister. It isn't anything to worry about." "Minor? Killing a dragon and turning your captor into a cat isn't 'minor' magic. Even I know that!" She took his shoulders. "I'm worried about you." "It will be all right," Alexander assured her. "With luck, I'll be here for many years to come." "You'd better, or I'll have to hunt you down in the Lands of the Dead and drag you back," Rosella mock-threatened. Alexander smiled weakly. "I have no doubt you'd do it, too." "Hey, you're just as stubborn as I am," she teased. Then she sobered. "Just...Alex, if anything were to happen to you, I know it would kill Mother and Father. They couldn't bear to lose you a second time. As for me, well...I don't know what I'd do." "You'd rule Daventry - wisely and well," Alexander said firmly. "Please, Rosella, the hour is late, and I don't wish to think about the prospect any more than you do." Rosella swallowed hard and nodded. "All right, just...don't keep me in the dark, okay?" "I won't. Good night." "Good night, Alexander." As Rosella vanished behind her bedroom door, another violent noise rolled through the air and the skies lit almost as bright as day from the lightening. Alexander felt very cold all of a sudden. His nerves seemed to shudder, and he leaned against a wall to catch his breath. Looking up, he caught a glance of himself in one of the ordinary hall mirrors and was astonished. His face was pale and waxen, his dark hair and eyes contrasting vividly. When he raised his hand, he saw it shake like that of an old man. Rest. I just need to rest. Alexander collected himself then shuffled to his own room. He was asleep as soon as he was under the covers. **** When Roger came to, hours later, he was in a small room, lying in a bed. He heard the guards outside talking. "What do you think King Graham will do with them?" "Probably interrogate them. You don't think they have anything to do with those bad storms, do you?" "All I know is that the sages and wizards seem worried. Even Prince Alexander is checking out the library, trying to find answers." A pause, then a sinister turn to the voice. "If they are, I hope the king treats them accordingly." Roger didn't really like the way that sounded. He had to find Stellar, and he couldn't do anything while shut up here. Getting up and riding out the momentary wooziness, he walked to the door. Locked from the outside and a single guard on patrol. Well, that was easier then trying to handle two. What could he use in here? Well, there was that bronze bedpan, and one guard at the door...and that nightstand, if pushed by the door, might just work... Stellar swallowed hard and attempted to recover her wits. Her head throbbed like the time she and Roger had a drinking contest with a couple of Space Marines and a thing with seven tentacles, and she hadn't felt this disoriented since that old bag Sharpei took her body for a test drive. There was an elderly man in brown and green robes. A younger man with a large sword was standing close, wearing a tabard with the crest of a lion and unicorn on it. The only other woman in the room was tall and aristocratic-looking. She had a look of maternal concern as she took Stellar's shoulders. "It's all right. You're safe." "Where am I?" "You're in Daventry Castle, traveler. You were injured. Our healers have been tending your wounds." Her voice was soothing, and Stellar sensed that, at least for the moment, she wasn't in danger, and that her translators were working. "Where's -" "He is fine, and resting." She looked up at the guard. "Get Graham. Tell him the woman is awake." Gently leaning Stellar back against the pillows, she addressed Stellar. "I am Valanice, queen of this land. What is your name?" "Corpsman Stellar Santiago, ma'am." She smiled ruefully and hung her head. "Well, former corpsman anyway..." Roger waited by the door, the brass "bedpan" in hand, and started to make the rudest sounds he could think of. He remembered with glee how much he could disgust people with his "repertoire," and boy was he outdoing himself! Sure enough, the door opened and there stood the guard, who must have thought his "captive" was dying in there. With a swing perfected by years of pushing mops, Roger clocked the guard with the chamber pot. The man dropped like a cement block. Roger jumped off the nightstand, shutting the door behind him. He couldn't go exploring in janitor coveralls or he'd be spotted. Well, the unconscious guard had some nice threads, even if they looked like something out of a historical recreation, and it couldn't be any worse than some of the OTHER disguises he'd used. (Thank the stars he hadn't TOLD anyone about that time in drag...) After gagging him with the lucky roll of duct tape, Roger relieved the fellow of his clothing, and used the bedsheets to tie him up. The clothes didn't fit well on Roger, and felt only slightly less ridiculous than that black dress. Still, one couldn't be picky. He cracked open the door and snuck out, determined to find Stellar. What he found was that this place was pretty big. After careful consideration (ennie, meany, minee, moe...), he turned right and started down the corridor. He reached the end of the hall when he heard guards approaching. Oh, joy. Time to hide. He opened a door and jumped inside... Only to find himself in a tiny, dark space that smelled familiar. Brooms, mops, ammonia...Why was it that everywhere he went, he somehow managed to stumble into a janitor's closet? The footsteps passed, thankfully. After exhaling a breath, Roger tried the door. Locked. From the outside. Nice move, Roger King Graham was used to the odd - gnomes with backwards names, talking owls, magic beans, houses made of candy...but people in a metal bird falling from the sky? That was slightly past odd. The woman had accepted the aid of a few clerics with their healing spells and was now sipping herbal brew. Fortunately, she had a strong constitution, and hadn't many other injuries. She was now sitting up, almost at attention. Apparently, she was a guard or soldier of some sort. "Thanks for saving us, your majesty," she said, light brown eyes fixed on him. "I thought we were done for." "It's not my way to leave behind those in need," Graham explained. "But how did you and your friend fell from the sky?" Stellar shuddered and looked back at her tea. She appeared to weigh something in her head, thinking before speaking. "I'm not sure how much I should tell." Graham and Valanice exchanged a nervous look. Stellar, upon seeing this, hastily explained. "Sorry. Hold over from being StarCon...one directive is not to share information with lower-tech worlds." She grimaced. "In fact, StarCon would probably try to take over if they came here." "So, you and your friend are running from them?" Stellar shook her head. "Nah, we quit. Roger saved Xenon and the Star Confederation at least twice, but then he saved my life, and that was the last straw as far as they saw it." Graham scowled and drummed his fingers on the chair, thinking of the blond man. The strange land these people came from considered it an insult to save lives? Valanice's gentle manners at least could get Stellar to open up. Not for the first time, Graham was glad he married someone who was a far better diplomat. "Xenon? What land is that?" Stellar pointed over Valanice's shoulder over to the starlit sky. "Well, the navigation systems blew out shortly after we hit hyperspace, but I'm guessing it's pretty close to there, past the Bellevue cluster." He hadn't been there long, trying and failing to find anything in this primitive storage area. No glass cutters, no plungers. Not even some of the caustic stuff that would require decontamination AFTER the place was scrubbed. Yup, a genuine slice of another century. Backing up, he prepared to charge the door, only to knock over a tangle of brooms and buckets. Swearing louder than he should have, he struggled to his feet (with the accompanying clatter), and attempted again. He took a deep breath, tensed his body, and prepared to charge the door. He ran at full tilt towards it. It swung open...with Roger running too fast to realize it. In that ohnosecond, Roger realized that he couldn't stop himself from ramming into the wall. He hit it with a splat and fell straight backwards. "Are you all right?" Roger groaned in response. Oh, sure he was fine...aside from the throbbing headache...He managed to override it long enough to talk. "Stellar...what have you done with...?" "Do you mean your friend? The one that was with you?" The translator microbes picked now of all times to start working! The sensation of a Led Balloon concert in his head went from "ear on speakers" to "back of mosh pit," enough for him to try to open his eyes. It was the guy he saw - the one who called himself Alexander. Rubbing the back of his head, Roger tried to sit up. "Look, for all I know, you've got the Inquisitor droids going to work on her." "She is fine. She's talking with my father now." Alexander steadied Roger. "Easy. You hit your head pretty hard." Roger said. "If you asked most of Xenon and StarCon, they'd say I don't have anything in there to injure." Alexander could only understand half of what the man said, even if Roger seemed to understand what he was saying well enough. Furthermore, if he had escaped from a guarded room...zounds, could this stranger have malicious intentions? Of course, it could be a misunderstanding, and could solve itself. However, if his friend were another assassin or threat to the palace...Unfortunately, if the guards did find them, this man wouldn't have a chance to explain his actions. Something had to be done to overcome the language problem, and get to the truth. Alexander fingered the pouch at his waist. It would be pretty simple to kill two birds with one proverbial stone in this case. He'd have to explain later. He took the knife at his belt - worn more for ceremony than anything, and three vials from his pouch, shaking a drop of each onto a small rag that had fallen in the hallway. Roger saw Alexander rub something on the knife, then say what sounded like something that could get one kicked out of the "Drink and Drop" in Ulence Flats. The knife glowed silver. "By earth and sea, no lies can you tell me." He saw Alexander rub the blade against his palm. "By fire, air, and all that is true, no lies can I tell to you." Before Roger knew what was going on, Alexander made a small cut across Roger's palm. "What the -! What're you doing?" That was cut short as Alexander grabbed his hand and looked right at him. Roger felt a chill and a feeling that something was crawling up his spine. This Alexander fellow appeared to look right into him! After that split-second that seemed to last longer than it would take to scrub the DeepShip's astro-heads with a worn toothbrush, Roger suddenly felt perfectly all right - not even a headache. It was as if Alexander was speaking perfect Xenonian. "If that worked, then it is impossible for us to lie to each other. Now, I want to know why you came to Daventry." Roger was about to spout off something stupid, but as he tried to say, "I came here for the floor show," he found his voice had a mind of its own. "We took a wrong turn with our spaceship when it was attacked and damaged." He tried to tell another lie - something about being all-powerful - but again, found that the truth was forced out of him. "We're from another planet - another place in the universe." Alexander nodded. "And about the guard?" Giving up on the concept of lying, Roger sighed. "I thought they were going to hurt us. I was trying to break out and rescue my friend. Guess I screwed up that one." Another voice, one of the guards, Roger guessed. "This is the man who assaulted Templeton!" Alexander looked up. "I think there was a misunderstanding. This man doesn't speak our language, and believed he was being threatened. I've cast a translation spell and made him understand." "My lord?" "He's to go nowhere in this castle without an escort. I'll personally take him into custody, and he'll be made to compensate Templeton in some fashion." "Yes, my prince." "He's requested to see his friend," Alexander looked pointedly at Roger. "You aren't going to cause any trouble after that?" "Actually," Roger said as he got to his feet, " I was thinking of..." He snapped a hand over his mouth. Alexander rolled his eyes and grabbed Roger's arm as if to make a point. The pair walked down the hall towards Stellar's room. In the castle's throne room, Princess Rosella had been reviewing scrolls and listening to requests from the nobility and peasants. It had actually been pretty tiring, but routine. She was glad that her father allowed her to listen to the kingdom's political business. People still had a bad habit of underestimating her, but it wasn't something she really sought to disprove. Sometimes, one heard more that way. Of course, she still had to get some of these to her father. He was the one who ruled. She considered herself a monarch-in-training, a title that she would hopefully hold for a long while. Just as she had given the latest batch of documents to the courier and was headed back through the throne room, she saw a greenish-gold flash out the corner of her eye. She turned and saw where it was coming from...then proceeded to start running. Alexander escorted Roger to the room where Stellar was still explaining things to Graham and Valanice. "It's all right," Alexander explained. "Apparently, he panicked and believed us to be hurting his friend. That's why he tried to escape. He just took that wrong turn into the servant's closet" "Oh, Roger," Stellar said, exasperated. "That's not the brightest thing you've ever done. Sweet, but not very bright." She looked over at Graham. "He's mostly harmless." Graham crossed his arms. "I'm not about to hurt your friend, but you are a guest in my castle, and I don't want to have to put you both in a dungeon." "It's cool, Rog." Stellar insisted. "I'm okay, see?" Roger turned a shade of red that Graham hadn't thought humanly possible. "Sorry." "I've told the guards to make sure he has an escort at all times, then volunteered myself for the job." Alexander explained further. "I first had to make sure he was telling the truth, however." "I can't seem to tell him anything but the truth ever since he put that stuff on the knife and cut our hands," Roger looked up. "Do you guys know what kind of buckazoids people would pay for something like that?" Graham's eyes went off Roger and back up to Alexander. "Alexander, what did I tell you about spells?" Stellar shook her head as if suddenly remembering something. "Oh, no, Roger! That Vohaul guy and the Star Generator...it wasn't...was it?" The door burst open. Rosella was panting hard, but looked up and gulped air. "Oh my gosh...you have to come to the throne room. It's the mirror!" Roger saw Graham turn ashen, then follow Rosella. Roger helped Stellar out of bed and they followed close behind. It was a short flight of stairs and a long hallway later before they all emerged in the throne room. A small, round oval...probably the "mirror" they were talking about, hung on the wall, but it was flashing gold and green like something found in a tacky zero-g disco. Finally, the lightshow ended. Roger wished it hadn't. A lone mountain, slightly curved near the top, stood out from a barren-looking landscape. Dark, brooding clouds surrounded it. A bright flash of light burst from the mountain and into the cosmos. The Star Generator! The scene changed to a laboratory. He saw the man known as Captain Veneer walk to a circular platform under the Star Generator. Behind him, a woman was being dragged, struggling against two nasty-looking creatures that made the Sarians look like Latex Babes. Roger stepped closer to the mirror to look, and felt himself get sick when the mirror focused on her face. "Beatrice!" The man smiled coldly. The light finally sparked in Roger's head. It was one of the genetically engineered salesmen - the ones he thought got blown up along with Vohaul's asteroid..."Nice try, Ambassador, but as you can see, you've already lost." Beatrice struggled, but to no avail. "Not if I can do anything about it." Veneer smiled. "Most of the Confederation's admirals have pledged their loyalty to me. They'll be here any day to take over this primitive little world. As for you..." He gestured to the goons. "Take her to the dungeon." Two figures in concealing black cloaks approached. "All is ready, emperor." The voice than answered was just out of sight, but Roger recognized it well enough. Vohaul was hard to forget. "Good. Now we will make sure there is nothing to stop us. Open the portal." The taller of the two walked over to what looked like a grim device of wrought iron and brass and turn jeweled switches and knobs. "What in the -?" Graham asked, but couldn't even finish his sentence. Before their horrified eyes, he and Queen Valanice vanished in a haze of silver and a noise Roger could have sworn was a transporter. A second beam, copper in color, shot out from the mirror. Stellar and Rosella, standing slightly towards the back, suddenly started to glow. Alexander and Roger watched in horror, quickly trying to reach them, but as Roger grabbed Stellar's hand, it passed right through as she started to speak words that didn't make a sound. A flash of green blinded Alexander and Roger. An ominous sound of phantom laughter echoed through the room as they faded to nothing. The mirror itself turned black. *** Chapter Three Fight the Future "Three little words - Fight the Future." - "Alex Krycek," X-files Graham was disoriented for a brief moment, but only a moment. This place was palatial, and strangely beautiful. A crystal skylight let in sunshine through the high ceiling, refracting the daylight into pale rainbows that played on the ivory white walls. Gilded metalwork designed the floors and ceiling of this roughly oval room. Shelves with buttons and knobs bedecked with shiny metal and jewels lined the perimeter. A rainbow mosaic on the floor seemed to radiate from the center of the room and a central platform - the tall, thick column of the same white as the walls and floor. Looking out of place in the room was a gently spinning, acorn-shaped device the size of an ogre that was metallic black. It hummed softly, surrounded by a gold forcefield. "King Graham of Daventry, I presume." A disembodied voice reverberated off the walls, making it impossible to tell just where it came from. Funny, I somehow expected more out of this planet's greatest champion. Then again, this is a primitive and superstitious world." Graham didn't answer that. "Welcome to Ivory Tower, the most advanced technology known to the multi-verse. After months of study, I am one with this machine and its power. I know everything it knows. Bringing you here was just the smallest sample of my power. I know all that occurs in your land and in lands far beyond your imagination. I create storms and earthquakes. I can even blacken the sun." "Who are you? What have you done with -?" "My name is Sludge Vohaul, the greatest mind in the universe and the one you will call 'Emperor.' All other questions are not relevant." There was a sound he could hear in the background (pages turning?) before Vohaul spoke again. "I have only given you a small sample of my power." A pause like he was reading something. "You are supposed to get down on your knees after this and declare me a god." Graham looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then made a gesture of contempt and started to investigate the room. The sound of more pages flipping followed. "Chapter Seven...intermediate techniques..." It sounded as if he was reading to himself aloud. "Here it is...'if primitive tribal leader is not sufficiently awed'...okay..." Graham was trying not to laugh at the absurdity of this situation. Some "greatest mind in the universe" THIS guy was turning out to be! Let's see, dials, switches, knobs, and no clue as to what any of them did. Well, time to find out... Before he could touch any of the controls, the room darkened and seemed to close in on him. A sudden lurch of the floor sent Graham reeling. Bracing himself against the console, he turned around. The acorn-shaped device spun, slowly at first, then speeding up to become a gold-black blur. The room quaked. The heavens turned black and stormy. "Behold." Shafts of light burst from the top of it, piercing the crystal skylight and shooting into the heavens. Around Graham, the walls displayed images like those found in the magic mirror. They overlapped and changed with maddening speed. He couldn't understand any of it. He started twisting knobs and flipping the switches - something had to turn it all off! The spinning device started to whine and hum. The golden aura around it grew blinding. "Surrender, Graham. You have no choice." A panel opened and a large silver device slid up from it. It looked like a silver rod topped by a silver, jewel-encrusted sphere, with a crossbar in its center. Grabbing the crossbar, Graham pulled with all his strength. "You won't get away with it. You will release that and surrender immediately." "Not while there's life in my body." "Very well then..." The device erupted with a gold beam shooting up to the heavens. The storm stopped rumbling. Twisting the sphere and pulling the controls to the right brought the device to a crashing halt! The room went silent. Graham was panting with the exertion and bent low over the panel. Out the corner of his corner of his eye, he could see a small panel. Sliding it open revealed a jeweled key. Graham swiped it, hiding it in his small waist pouch. "You FOOL!" shouted Vohaul over the speakers. "You have no idea what you've done." "Stopped your device?" "I was about to give all life on this planet outside my fortress a swift death. Your actions have only forestalled this." A chilling laugh. "In less than a generation, all life on your planet will cease - and you will be in my fortress to watch it." A trap door opened beneath Graham's feet and he plunged into the dark. **** Tumbling down a long and narrow slide that twisted and turned, doubling back and falling away more, finally landed Graham in a small dark room of smooth stone aside from the hatch he had fallen from and the sealed outline of a door to his right. It was dimly lit by a glowing green gem under thick glass in the ceiling. He wasn't alone in this prison, either. A woman wearing green trousers and a matching green jacket over a high-necked black tunic appraised him. "I'd say 'welcome,' but it's probably not appropriate under the circumstances." Graham recognized her as the young woman he had seen in the Mirror's vision. He wondered if she were a noblewoman in her land, because she carried herself with a formidable dignity, even being chained to the wall by a heavy cuff at her ankle. She waited for him to speak. "Do you happen to know where we are?" She shrugged, pushing a stray blond lock behind her ear. "You have as much idea as I do, mostly. I do know that this place isn't on any of the charts. In fact, it was only detected a few months ago. It was as if it was in hiding." Graham scowled. "Are you a scholar, then? An adventurer?" She shook her head. "I've been in on a couple adventures. Sometimes it comes with the job. I'm StarCon's ambassador to this sector." She sighed. "And I am forgetting protocol!" She put out her hand. "I am Ambassador Beatrice Wankmeister, assigned to Sector G6." Graham accepted the handshake. "King Graham, Ambassador. Monarch of Daventry." Beatrice straightened. "Greetings, your majesty. Under other circumstances, I'd welcome you and your kingdom on behalf of the Star Confederation, but..." "Please, just call me Graham, Ambassador." "All right. I prefer 'Beatrice,' anyway." Graham tried to put this as diplomatically as possible. "I'm sorry, but this 'Star Confederation.' Is it the same Star Confederation Roger Wilco and Stellar Santiago came from?" Her eyes lit up. "Roger? He's here? Oh, I KNEW he'd stumble into this somehow! Oh, but I didn't get a chance to warn him! He's walking right into a trap!" She shook her head. "I'd just amassed evidence of widespread corruption in the Confederation top ranks. At least half of the highest-ranking captains and admirals have made a secret alliance with Vohaul to take over the Confederation!" Sighing and reaching into one of the pockets on her green jacket, she shook her head and examined a small, round object that shined like a mirror. "I was caught when I tried to smuggle my evidence to him Veneer didn't even bother to relieve me of it when he tossed me down here." "Well, if it's discovered Vohaul has me, then he will certainly have the aid of my family," Adding with a bit of amusement, he informed her. "My son has already decided to keep an eye on him." "Your son is going to have his hands full..." she muttered. Standing up, she shook her head. "He's a sweetheart, but he attracts trouble like iron to magnets." She shivered. "It's getting cold in here. I wonder what's happened?" Graham remembered what brought him here with a shudder. "Vohaul has a device that he claims can darken the sun. He fired it shortly before dropping me here. I managed to soften its effects somewhat, but he told me this whole planet outside the fortress will die in a matter of hours. We have to get out of here and try to reverse the effects of his creation." Graham searched the small pouch at his waist and took out the key. "Let's see if this removes your bonds, Beatrice. Together, we stand a better chance of defeating Vohaul." Graham's key fit the lock perfectly, freeing Beatrice from the cuff. "Thank you, your -" she stopped herself. "Thank you, Graham." However, they had another problem - the hatch was too high to reach, and its steep slope insured it was a one-way only entrance. There seemed to be no other way in - or out - of the small room. Graham set to work searching for hidden doors. The key clattered to the floor during the search, and Beatrice gathered it up. As she got to her feet, she pressed the tip of the key to the wall. It seemed to ripple like a stone hitting water. "Graham, look!" He saw Beatrice press the tip of the key to the wall. The rippling grew more intense until an archway appeared, shimmering in all colors of the rainbow. Graham stuck a hand in, and it went through the wall, a pleasant tingling going up his arm. Pulling his hand out, the tingling stopped, but there were no ill effects. Beatrice smiled. "I think we have a way out." "I'll go first," Graham offered, taking back the jeweled key. He prepared to step through, then looked over his shoulder. Beatrice was heading to the opposite corner of the room. "I've got an idea. Cover your eyes." He did. The sound of whirling, like a morning glory about to strike, followed by a shattering noise. "Beatrice?" When he uncovered his face, he saw her picking glass shards out of her jacket. In her hand, she carried the glowing gem that had been in the ceiling. "More than one use for a chain," she said. "I'm just glad I didn't hurt myself with the shrapnel." She put it into one of the many pockets in her jacket. "Orum. It's rare, and it's guaranteed to glow forever. Makes a decent flashlight if nothing else." Graham could get to like this ambassador. When they got back to Daventry (Graham learned a long time ago that one couldn't afford to think in terms of 'ifs' while adventuring), he'd be more than happy to let her explore his kingdom. Walking into the magic door, he and Beatrice found themselves in a long corridor of polished white marble. Flickering torches lit their way, and passages forked off from where they stood. "Looks like it would be easy to get lost in here," Beatrice said. Graham put his hand on the inner wall. "Best way I know how to follow a maze is to hug one wall and continue to follow it until the exit. King Edward had a hedge maze as one of his knight's test." "Did it work?" Graham smiled. "I still hold the record." "Lead the way." Following the maze of passageways, they came to what appeared to be a large window at the end of a hallway. It seemed to be cloudy, like a thick fog. Beatrice approached it, seeing a vague shape moving on the opposite side. Realizing it wasn't her reflection, she peered closer, and saw what looked like a blighted land - twisted and dead, with a imposing stone castle in its center. Technology that sentient beings should never have to see littered the landscape - their rotting metal bones co-existing with shuffling zombies that might have been humans at one point. "Graham, do you recognize this?" Graham squinted into the image and his eyes grew wide. "That's Daventry! Great Heavens, what has happened to it?" "I'm guessing Vohaul was what happened," she said. Turning away, she saw a little gold plaque. Rubbing it a bit to see it clearly, she scowled. "Incredible! It's ancient Xenonian!" Graham peered over her shoulder. "How strange. That appears to be the language of Daventry's founders." "You can read this?" Beatrice asked. She shrugged. "Well, stranger things happen in the multiverse. Let's see..." The plaque read: In this glass, you now see The shape of things yet to be While here we post a gate, Alone, one cannot alter fate But if two can hold the key They may alter the fate you see. "The key," Graham said, pulling it from his belt pouch. Then, he thought of the inscription. "Ambassador -" "There's no way I'd let anyone go into that alone in the first place! Besides, if Vohaul gets left to his own devices, he's not just stopping with your world." Standing tall, and pulling her jacket, she nodded to Graham. "I'm ready when you are." They held the key together and put it to the glass. Just like the dungeon walls, it rippled. Coming from no discernable direction, they heard a gentle-sounding female voice. "Who wishes to pass?" Here it goes. Graham thought. "Graham of Daventry." Beatrice didn't skip a beat. "Beatrice. Beatrice of Xenon." "You both may cross." They stepped forward, resolute. Whatever dangers they faced, they had to stop what they had seen. *** Chapter 4 Long Live the Queen? "For when you are put in the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says 'You are here.'" - - Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Valanice... The voice was everywhere and nowhere, which was also an apt description of her location at the moment. Valanice could not explain how she came to be here, or even where "here" was. She had been standing with Graham one moment, looking at the Mirror's unsettling display. The next, she was in this place, utterly indescribable in its featurelessness. "Who are you? Where am I?" "You are at the nexus of the multiverse, between the Towers, Valanice. I need your help." The voice was female, and sounded tired. "I weaken." A long pause followed. "Vohaul's control of the Towers leaves this entire reality in great peril. In his lust for power, he doesn't understand what he is doing." That made sense. From what she understood, Vohaul fellow seemed little different from Mordak, the wizard who had stolen her along with her family and home some months before. Those who only sought raw power often were the worst at dealing with any consequences that might occur. "Can you help me to understand?" Valanice asked. As if in answer, the entire reality around her seemed to shift. Past, present, and future blurred together in a way much like the Mirror's images, only more intense and vivid. In the images, she saw all she needed to know and instantly understood the situation and its risks. She was being asked to undertake a task which no sane being would even attempt thinking of. Yet, it was the only way to make sure Graham and the others had a chance...the only way this reality had a chance. "I understand." "Very well. Thank you, Valanice of Daventry. I wish there was another way." "There isn't," she said gravely, steeling herself for what was to come and knowing in her heart of hearts that no amount of preparation would suffice. No sooner had she said it than the whole of reality, fantasy, and every concept between the two came to join her. Not quickly enough, Valanice's sanity shattered from the sheer infinity of it. End Chapter 4 *** Chapter 5 Another fine mess Even though she'd spent years in the Star Confederation, Stellar still never became comfortable with the transporter. The disorientation and the sudden change in environment always made her edgy and uncomfortable until she acclimated to her surroundings. She was standing in an expanse of black stone. Vegetation was sparse here, and the sky was gray and ominous. Sounds of thunder and sparks of far off lightening on were more felt than seen and heard. Absently, Stellar stuffed a small jagged pebble in the pocket of her nightgown that wasn't quite suitable for the climate here. Her legs felt like rubber, an uncomfortable reminder of her ordeal the night before. The last thing she recalled was stepping back from the flashing mirror. She leaned against a wall of featureless, dark gray stone, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a moan. "Excuse me? Are you Stellar?" Stellar looked over her shoulder. At least she wasn't alone. That was good and bad news. The nasty headache was clouding her thinking as she tried to remember the name of the young woman standing next to her. She wore a simple-looking, but elegantly crafted dress of red silk, and she wore her hair long and loose apart from two small braids that kept some of it out of her face. Finally, Stellar's memory put a name to the face. "You're the princess, right? Princess Rosella?" Rosella nodded. "Yeah. Do you know where in the world we are?" "Sorry, but I have as much of an idea as you, probably. Just what was that thing hanging in the throne room?" "Oh, that's the Mirror. I really don't know much about it - no one does. It is one of the most powerful magical artifacts in Daventry, though." Rosella scowled, as if remembering something. "Normally, it just gives glimpses of the future - storms, good dates for harvest, that sort of thing. But when the kingdom is in deep trouble, then..." Rosella shuddered. "I think I catch the drift," Stellar said. "So, it transported us somewhere safe?" Rosella looked up. "Doesn't work like that. If it's anything like last time, it just put us in the best position to stop whatever we saw. Unfortunately, that also means we might have just landed in a lot of trouble." Stellar took a step back and gasped. Rosella came over and slipped an arm around Stellar's shoulders. "Easy there. Your injuries were pretty bad. The healers had to do a lot with you, and it's still going to be a couple days before you're well." "No, it's not that. Look!" Stellar pointed upward, at a spot where the clouds had parted. "Princess, that Mirror must be powerful! If the stars above us are any indication, we aren't on your planet. We're on Xenon!" "That's where you're from, right?" Rosella asked. When Stellar nodded, Rosella brightened a little. "Then you know where we are!" "Vaguely," Stellar admitted. "Hands up!" A man's voice called from behind. Rosella and Stellar did as they were told and slowly turned to see who was with them. Stellar wanted to be ill. Star Confederation uniforms in shades of blue and orange, each with the telltale triangle on their chests. Three proton pistols were trained on them. The tallest of them had a black tunic indicating Intelligence and Special Operations. White bars on the sleeves indicated the rank of admiral, but it was the artificial eye and the icy expression that Stellar recognized far too well. "Admiral Toolman," she said as evenly as she could manage while her blood boiled at the sight of him. "Lieutenant...excuse me...former Lieutenant Santiago. I am forced to place you under arrest." "What charge?" Stellar demanded. "High treason against the Star Confederation," Toolman answered with cyborg precision, his artificial eye focusing in on her. "Not to mention the murder of Lady Sharpei with your accomplice, Roger Wilco." "That's insane!" Rosella took a step forward. "Excuse me, but can you please tell me what's going on?" All of the uniformed men gasped. A man in a blue officer's tunic stumbled back, lowering his weapon. "An ancient! This cannot be!" Toolman approached closed the gap between him and Rosella while the other goons pulled Stellar out of reach. Toolman's cybernetic legs added inches to what would have already been a tall body. He loomed over Rosella, and spoke. "Who are you?" Toolman spoke her language now. Rosella suddenly realized she was treading dangerous ground. Appreciation for the dangers of technology and a reluctance to use it were practically inborn to a native of Daventry. This man, if one could call him such, was covered in machines from the silver bars welded to his head and the glass eye that occasionally rotated and clicked to the supports of metal that once may have been legs. Another piece of odd black machinery sporting miniature buttons and levers seemed to grow out of the grayish flesh on his arm. Rosella had never seen someone so hideous - or so cruel. He stared at her like a butterfly under glass. She was not going to let him scare her, though. She faced the prospect of being sacrificed to a dragon, enslaved by an exiled fairy, and a crossing a graveyard full of zombies. If this half-machine wanted her to be afraid, he wasn't about to get it. "Rosella of Daventry," she said evenly. Toolman brushed his hand across her cheek and Rosella tried not to shudder. He was cold like one of the dead, and his face seemed devoid of anything that may have been human. A single nod and two guards trained their odd-looking weapons on her. "Daventry…interesting…" Toolman snapped back to Xenonian. "Seize her, too." "Let her go, Toolman. Even you have to know that she wasn't involved." Toolman turned and glared at Stellar. Rosella saw an escape route out the corner of her eye. Shifting position so she had a chance at it, Rosella hoped for just a moment…Stellar must have sensed what she was about to do. Stamping on the guard's foot and pulling one of the odd-looking weapons from his side holster, Stellar drew all eyes to her. Rosella hesitated but a moment, then heard Stellar's shout. "Run!" Rosella needed no further prompting. Dashing as fast as she could down one of the steeper paths, she leaped a short distance and tore off a few inches from her skirt as she pulled it free from a dead branch. At least it freed up her legs somewhat. Toolman followed, using his artificial legs to gain advantage. Even her head start wouldn't last long. He dared not look back - the sound of the gears in his legs was still closing in. Rosella scrambled up the steep path as fast as she could, knowing all too soon she would run out of path or that…thing…would close in on her. He didn't even sound like he was running, just even, mechanical steps - metal, rock, metal… She was turned around for a brief second as a bolt of what felt like evil magic grazed her ear. The smell of her own singed hair let her know she hadn't imagined it. Toolman looked behind her - an evil shadow in his dark tunic and blunt-nosed weapon. "Halt, runner!" Rosella wasn't about to obey that order. Toolman fired again. Rosella felt a sting on her shoulder. Zounds! That was close! Scrambling over boulders, ignoring the pain of her bruised and scraped legs she misjudged a step and fell! Rosella fully expected it would be her end, but it wasn't. She had only fallen a short distance when she landed on a small stone ledge next to a natural opening in the rock. At least it would be a prudent place to hide for the moment. Crawling inside the tiny natural cave, Rosella pulled herself in. There was barely room to breathe in here! Shifting a little, a glint of metal caught Rosella's eye. It was the size of her hand, a small rod of gold, decorated with inlaid obsidian and ivory. There were no buttons, knobs, or anything else that would have revealed its use. Rosella took it, remembering advice of her father's that anything could come in handy at some point. Another moment, and Rosella felt a cold wave wash over her and blackness obscured her vision. **** Stellar guessed it had been three hours since she had been transported aboard the Xenon Orbital Station 4. Life sucked…again. She was pacing a brig, still wearing a nightgown and carrying only a pebble. There HAD to be a way out. The forcefield vaguely hummed, making it hard to think. A security droid patrolled the long hall. Stellar now knew she had a count of twenty between visits by the droid. Not a lot of time, but it could be enough if she could cripple the damn forcefield. Absently, Stellar took the small pebble out of her pocket and started tossing it up and catching it. What would Roger do? He'd find some way out of this, blind luck or just a crazy idea at the right time. Missing one of her catches, the pebble rolled across the floor. Stellar got on her hands and knees to retrieve it, and happened to catch a glimpse of something. BRIG FORCEFIELD EMERGENCY OVERRIDE It was in a slot too far away to reach into, but she looked up. A wide broom was propped up against the wall. If it could be knocked over, it probably could hit the button easily. Trouble was in knocking it over. Experimentally, she picked up the rock and pitched it at the broom handle. She expected the forcefield to stop it, but being inorganic matter, it sailed right through, knocking over the broom handle and hitting the switch! The forcefield in her cell dissipated. Quickly, Stellar stepped out in the hall, but she wasn't out of the woods yet. The droid had a count of ten before it returned, and she'd be vaped if it caught her. Hmmm…she felt the walls. Ah ha! A latch! She pulled it and almost fell backwards into… Into a storage closet. Worse, it was a dark one, She felt around and felt cloth…no, coveralls - janitor's coveralls! Stellar smiled broadly. Roger always said the best part about being a janitor was his ability to be practically invisible. Roger, looks like some of that blind luck and sneaky habits are rubbing off! Discarding the soiled nightgown and pulling on the coveralls, Stellar felt a bit more like herself. She even found a pair of sturdy, chemical-repellant boots and a hat large enough to conceal most of her long hair. Swiping a keycard half-forgotten under a pile of dirty (and foul-smelling) coveralls, Stellar now felt like she had a decent disguise. She exited the closet and swiped the broom and started to sweep the floor just as the droid made the return trip. It scanned her. Since she was wearing the coveralls and carried a valid the keycard, it assumed that she was just the semi-regular janitor for this level and left her alone. Breathing a sign of relief, Stellar quietly left the brig level before she further pushed her luck. This being an old station, the ComPost terminals were in small booths, and still required picking up a handset to talk to the computer. Sliding her keycard through, she got access to the station's database. She put her hand on her chin and tapped her foot. "Hmmm." Her card key gave her access to the station infirmary, the brig level, a transporter, and the main cargo bay. She didn't have long to explore, before her escape would be discovered, but going back down without some proof of her innocence or means of defending herself could land her right back where she started - without the good fortune of a broom and stone. The cargo bay would be her first stop. Rosella hadn't been this scared of Lolotte! At least that evil fairy's threats were the devils she knew. Surrounded by metal walls and invisible barriers, Rosella knew her situation had gone sour. When she blacked out on the planet, she woke up here. This room was about the size of the castle's summer kitchen, and was full of strange instruments that blinked and cut. Humans and odd-looking creatures she'd never heard of in books surrounded her small cage, staring and poking at her like some kind of toy. The humiliation started there. She spent the next couple eternities on some kind of padded bench while lights shone in her eyes and cold metal prodded and poked at her skin while the strange looking creatures continued to babble in their odd tongue. It was easiest on her sanity not to think of what was happening as the examined every inch of her, including places strangers shouldn't see. When it was finally over, they tossed her back in this glass coffin. The walls of this place held small beds that were more like crypts. It reminded Rosella of some funeral practices she had read about. Those in Daventry preferred to cremate the dead, but other lands would inter them in catacombs, burial beds carved out of walls of stone. For something that reminded her uncomfortably of a grave, this was at least padded and somewhat warm. Furthermore, they had repaired the cuts and bruises on her legs with what must have been their variant of a healing spell. Okay, Rosella…you've been in worse…though I can't quite recall what 'worse' was at the moment. Keep your head, and try to find a way out of this madhouse! She examined the latch on the door and gave it a push. The door budged a bit! Oh, but the latch was fastened from the outside. There had to be something. Rosella raised an arm to scratch her head. One of her metal hairpins came loose. Could that trip the latch? Couldn't hurt and it would be no less inventive than trying to irritate a whale with a peacock feather… Here it goes. Squeezing her hand out of the small gap, Rosella tried to catch the small tab of metal. It took about three tries before it caught. With a tug, Rosella managed to pull it just into reach! The latch spring! The door to this small prison flew open. Turning over, she managed to push herself onto the floor. This place still gave her the willies. The probes and awful devices still hovered over the bench at the center of the room. Quickly, Rosella searched the drawers and cabinets for something she might be able to use. Reaching into the back of a darkened cabinet, she saw a long needle, full of red fluid. Apparently, the plunger was used to force the substance in the fat middle tube through the thin needle and into a person. Rosella was trying to decipher the label on its side. She heard a noise! Quickly climbing back into her "coffin," Rosella kept the needle in her hand and concentrated on being as still as possible. "Princess?" Rosella blinked and rolled over, not believing she actually was hearing a friendly voice in a place like this, but there one was! Stellar yanked open the door and helped her climb out. "Quickly, before they find out we've escaped!" Stellar said. "Here, I found this in another cabinet." She handed Rosella a pair of trousers and shoes. "I had to guess on your size. You sure find interesting things in the station's lost and found!" "No, they're…they're perfect." Rosella tucked the last of her ruined skirt into the loose trousers, finding that this style was actually comfortable. Her father might not have approved of highborn girls wearing what usually were man's clothes, but this wasn't the place to debate fashion. Stellar noticed the syringe in her hand. "Oh, good. You're going to need that." Taking it from her, she carefully emptied it of air, then jabbed it into Rosella's left arm. "Ouch! Look here, I think I've been poked enough - " Rosella realized with a shock that she was now speaking in that odd dialect that her captors and Stellar spoke. "Translator nanites," Stellar explained. "Harmless, and you'll be able to pass for Xenonian. Sorry, Princess, but this is the best plan I can think of." "The…people here…I can't call them healers. They were examining me, treating me like some kind of…experiment." "Bastards," Stellar growled, pulling out a strange black box labeled "datacorder" and rearranging odd plates and small pieces inside it. "There's another reminder why I quit StarCon." "I take it that what they seemed to be accuse you with is garbage, too?" "Well, it's…" Stellar looked disturbed. "It's going to longer to explain than we have. Come on, Rosella." Hurrying to the ComPost, Stellar keyed in a sequence she hoped would take them to the transporter and erase all trace of them in the system. What it got them was right in the middle of the Executive Conference Room. Leather chairs surrounded a heavy oak table, polished to perfection and inlaid with black glass and plastic that could display several different interfaces with the station computer - from scientific and engineering diagnostics, to the latest interspecies porn pulled off the ether. A large picture window gave a view of the blue-green planet of Xenon, while a viewscreen at the front gave a window for long-distance communication "This wasn't what you wanted, was it?" Rosella asked. Stellar looked around. "Nope." Unfortunately, the door was opening, and they hadn't anywhere to hide but under the large table. Scrambling under it and holing their breath, they saw Admiral Toolman straighten his black tunic as he walked in. Fortunately, he noticed nothing amiss as he sat at the front chair and keyed on the viewer. "What is thy bidding, master?" Stellar almost gasped, but Rosella quickly clamped a hand over her mouth. The bloated visage, brought on by years of ill-advised experiments, and the voice that sounded like he was singing through an industrial breath mask and a karaoke mike. Vohaul! "Toolman, your loyalty to me will be rewarded. I hear you have come into possession of the second Legacy key." "I have, and more. I've captured a Serenian, emperor. With her, we can actually access the Second tower." Toolman smiled. "She is also quite…pleasing…if your lordship wishes to make a consort of her. She is young and strong. I'm certain she can satisfy some of your more…exotic…desires…" Rosella shuddered and looked like she would be sick. Stellar looked ready to kill. Vohaul looked very pleased. "Indeed." "Of course, once you have mastery of the universe, certainly you're still willing to uphold our end of the bargain." "You will get what you have earned, Admiral. Do not fail me, however. I don't like those who fail me. Vohaul Out." The image faded to black, and no sooner had it than all lights on the station started to flash and a dreadful wail came from the internal speakers. "Swirly thing alert! Swirly thing alert! Prisoners have escaped. Emergency. Swirly thing alert…prisoners are still on the loose…emergency's still going on." Figuring they hadn't a thing to lose, Rosella and Stellar leapt up from the table and tackled Toolman. The small gold rod Rosella had picked up earlier rolled out of his jacket, she dove to grab it. "Security!" shouted Toolman. Stellar pulled Toolman's blaster from his holster and almost dropped it when searing pain shot trough her hand. Her palm was flashing. Red…black…red…black. Looking over, Rosella's palm was also flashing. Toolman laughed. "Time's running out for you. Once that is triggered, you have forty-eight hours to live. It's something I invented myself. It turns black, a neurotoxin will be released into your blood. Don't worry, dears. It's just like going to sleep." "Wait!" Rosella said. "If I'm not mistaken, you need the device I'm holding and you also need me to use it if Emperor Vohaul is to get what he wants. I help you, will you let Stellar go?" "Rosella, no!" Toolman keyed in a sequence using the computer panel on his arm. Stellar vanished in a shower of light. Rosella wondered if she had made a fatal mistake, but Toolman smiled and grabbed her by her hair. "I'm sure it won't take long to get what I need out of you, and it will take even less time than if I had given you over to satiate Vohaul. Come on, girl." Toolman keyed in another sequence on his arm and the cold wave of a transporter seized them both. *** Chapter 6 Present Company "Don't Panic." - - Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy With a flash of psychedelic colors and disorientation he hadn't experienced since Space Quest 4, Roger felt like someone gave him a heavy push into a wind tunnel. Just as he was starting to get used to his hyperspace joyride, he landed with a less-than-graceful thud. The rip in reality wasn't through, though. As Roger attempted to shake off the daze, something large and heavy tumbled through it, glancing on his left side and tumbling a short distance away with a shout of surprise. Looking over, Roger saw that the large heavy object was Alexander. Roger pulled himself up. "You okay?" Alexander had already pulled himself up. "Well, I've had more graceful landings. Are you all right?" "I've had more graceful landings," Roger said, dusting off his clothing. "Now, do you have an explanation for just what happened? What's that mirror thing? And how did it land us here?" "The Mirror is ancient magic. Even we don't know much about its powers," Alexander admitted. "We do know it predates the Withdrawal -" Alexander suddenly looked alarmed, as if he had said something he really shouldn't have. Roger folded his arms. "Uh-huh. Let me guess. That little trick you pulled on me works both ways." "It *is* a binding," Alexander admitted. "So, yes, it works on caster as well as the one it's cast on." Roger shook his head. "You're talking about magic? Sorry, pal, but that just doesn't happen. At least...at least, not as far as I know." He shook his head. "Aw, never mind. We've got to figure out just where in the heck that thing sent us." Where they seemed to be was blackness and void. At least it was a breathable void, or this would have been a very short story. There was ambient light coming from somewhere. In the not so far distance, a neon sign hovering above a revolving glass door seemed to greet them. WELCOME! Homeworld Destroyed? Doing the Impossible for the Ungrateful? Just plain lost? Come and drown your sorrows at Joe's! The Cantina at the Multiverse Edge! Daily Special: Pizza and margarita shooters. They looked at each other, shrugged, and then walked towards the door. Wherever they were, they looked like they would be stuck with each other's company for the time being. Alexander had to rub his eyes and get used to the garishness of his surroundings. Egad! This was nothing like the Iron Falcon Pub in Port Bruce, though it boasted some similarities like women in low-cut tops and some very unsavory looking creatures chugging down their favorite swill. The atmosphere was hazy, the interior dimly lit by a handful of lamps in jewel-tone colors. The place was huge, but that could be an optical illusion. There just didn't seem to be walls - everything seemed to fade into the void that surrounded them outside. Indeed, there didn't even seem to be a visible floor or ceiling, either. Things just seemed to float. Alexander quickly looked up from the nonexistent floor as to not become dizzy. Heights were one thing he really developed a dislike for. The creatures in the cantina were the strangest lot he had ever seen! Green skinned creatures, little bald creatures with big gray faces and solid black eyes, tall cat-like creatures with black spots on yellow fur...incredible. The biggest knot of them gathered around a marble-topped counter that was easily as long as a sloop. Behind it, a six-armed, bipedal being that vaguely resembled the giant spider in Llewdor was calmly mixing drinks. Alexander rubbed his eyes. It was as if he mixed a jar of toad spittle in with the nasty-smelling concoction he cleaned Mannanan's kitchen with and inhaled the fumes. He'd done that once. While the hallucinations were pleasant, the headache and the beating he got from the wizard afterward made it something he probably wouldn't try again. A spotlight flared to life from the vague nowhere above, centering on a patch of nothingness a few yards away. A stage rose from it. Five humans stood on the stage, all but one carrying instruments Alexander didn't recognize. The one who didn't have an instrument took the microphone. He was brown-haired and relatively well-dressed for this place. "Hey, folks. Welcome to Joe's. As you all probably know, I'm Buck Bonzai, and the gentlemen behind me are the Shanghai Chevaliers. Really a pleasure being here tonight...and it's a special pleasure to be in this time and place because we're going to witness the end of the known multiverse..." Applause from most of the creatures in the bar, but others sullenly took another drink of what was in front of them. "The universe was a good idea, the multiverse was an even better one, but like all good things, they all come to an end and that's a real shame. However, we'll be there at that moment, playing the top forty-two songs from all of creation. After number one, we'll witness the Big Collapse. But, first, enjoy a drink, have a dance, find a willing partner of whatever species and gender you prefer, and remember that wherever you go, there you'll be." The stage sunk back into the nonexistent floor. "The end of the multiverse?" Alexander was flabbergasted. "Yeah, that sounds extraordinarily bad," Roger admitted. "We have to find a way to stop that. That is, if it can be stopped." They hadn't taken more than three steps towards the bar when they found their way was blocked. Surrounding them were no less than seven instrument-playing humanoid creatures about three and a half feet tall. Their bald heads were topped by large straw hats, and two of them wore gaudy ponchos. They started playing mariachi music loud enough to wake the hung-over and dead. "Aw, great. An attack of the Bith!" Roger said, covering his ears. "What? I can't hear you, this music -" "Never mind, Alex." Roger tried to push past them, but the band adjusted their position to surround them continuously, still playing their sunny music. Now, Bith were known throughout the multiverse as accomplished musicians, often favoring the worst sorts of dives to ply their specialty. Frankly, the reason was that the species were yeast-eaters and thrived on cheap beer and stale pretzels. Yet, even yeast-eaters had to make money, and the Bith had a very impressive method of shaking down anyone in their vicinity. They surround their marks, and keep playing until they were paid, or the poor sot collapsed, allowing the Bith band to strip the poor sot of money, jewels, equipment...even a body part or three. Spacers everywhere learned to dread "the Bith shuffle." Unfortunately, neither Alexander nor Roger had any galactic currency on them. This left them with nothing they could throw at the mariachi band to get them to shut the frell up. Surrounded by the small band, they could move about, but talking to anyone was impossible, as nothing could be heard above the racket they were making. So, trying their level best to ignore the Bith shuffle, and failing just as well, they set off towards the revolving door entrance. They got in the door, turned it, and got back out...into the bar again. Thinking it was a fluke, they tried again and arrived at the same place. The front door was bogus. They were stuck and the Bith were waiting, playing their up-tempo, grating music. Looking at each other and shrugging, Alexander and Roger covered their ears and walked back into the bar. The Bith dutifully followed, still in want of payment. *** Chapter 7 Future Imperfect Coming out the other side of the magic gate, Beatrice and Graham got a closer look at their surroundings. It was worse than they imagined. The stench of pollution hung in the air, under a sky that was hazy orange, lit by the dying sun and refracting off the toxic smoke in the air. As the portal vanished behind them, Graham recognized the warped surroundings with shock. "This is Daventry! My home, what has happened to it?" "I'm guessing Vohaul," Beatrice said. "But what can you tell me about this area?" "Normally, this would be beautiful and green, rich with forests." He looked around. "But there aren't any trees, and the water is poisoned." "Clear cutting," Beatrice said. "And I'm betting heavy industry, judging by the smoke and the water." She started to wheeze. This pollution was bad - they had to find some fresh air soon or they'd choke out here. Climbing on a large rock, she peered off into the distance. A large plastisteel dome loomed on the horizion. "Those are Habitrail domes. We can take shelter in there." "And I know the fastest path, come on." It wasn't more than five kilometers from their landing point to the edge of the dome, but Beatrice and Graham were wheezing and coughing by the time they arrived. The air burned their throats like acid! Their eyes were watering too. Fortunately, a doorway in was to the east. The bad news was that a nasty-looking robot patrolled it, the orb of its body hovering in the air. They'd have to find another way in. They patrolled the edge of the dome until they could go no further. Sitting and gasping for air behind some large rocks, Beatrice's foot struck something. It took both of them to push aside a corroded sheet of metal in their condition. The remains of an unfortunate man, mummified by the dry air and the chemicals saturated in the air gave mute testimony to the fate that waited for Beatrice and Graham. Graham rolled the corpse over to get a better look. The only thing of note on the body was an iron cuff clamped around its wrist. Having been pinned under the body, it was still relatively intact. Whispering an apology, Graham took the cuff. Beatrice looked at him strangely. "Souvenirs?" "Pick up what isn't nailed down, and if it is, check for loose boards - anything can come in handy, Beatrice." He snapped the cuff around his own wrist. There was a loud scream of engines overhead as a ship touched down. Peering over the rocks, Beatrice saw a horde of helmeted cyborgs in black body armor flood out. The letters "SP" were clearly visible on their dull gray helmets. "Graham, I think I see our ticket inside." They stood up and shuffled towards the craft. Now, they intended to use the large landing gear compartment to stow away in, but that plan was cut short. "HALT!" Three of the Sequel Police had them cornered. One of them seemed to scan them, making the hairs on Beatrice's neck stand up. "Show me your entry permit." Beatrice thought quickly. "Sorry, officer, my ship had to make an emergency landing outside the dome." "Landing off-field is a major crime." The officer turned his gun on Graham. "Talk, mister." "Oh, me...I'm with her." The Sequel Police parodied a laugh, their metallic voices chilling against the utter silence of the wasteland. The officer inspected the cuff on Graham's arm. "Get aboard, we're taking you both to Processing." Herding them aboard the small craft, they took off, and headed for the top of the dome, which opened up, allowing the ship to land. At least Graham and Beatrice were not going to be in danger of suffocating, but they were now facing the prospect of what the Sequel Police called "Processing," which seemed quite unpromising. "We'll get out of this. Somehow, we're going to make it," Graham said with certainty. Beatrice didn't know if he was trying to convince her or himself. They had landed, and were forced at gunpoint through massive doors that suggested the Gates of Hell. Screams, like those of the damned reverberated through the halls. Even though he was a seasoned adventurer, Graham's blood still ran cold. They were led through a confusing maze of gray, featureless metal walls, occasionally passing a sealed door that suggested a dungeon cell. The sounds of agony and the clank of metal mixed with the faint smells of blood, acid, and ozone. Their journey ended at the far end of a long hall. A heavy door opened, leading into darkness. "In there," said the lead Sequel Policeman. His tone and gun left no room to argue. Beatrice and Graham were rudely shoved in. "Smuggling slaves off-planet is punishable by death. Slaves attempting escape are also to be executed. Wait here for processing." He turned and walked out of the room, the iron door sealing ominously behind them. There were over two dozen people in this awful room - the size of a barn. It seemed to be only one of several interconnected rooms. Piles of rags were used as sickbeds by those who were obviously past help, and people huddled in small groups of two or three. Every man, woman, and child sported an iron cuff like the one on Graham's arm. Beatrice's chest hurt as she gazed on their broken expressions and their tattered clothing. One woman was pacing the room and Beatrice walked up to her. "Hello, madam -" Before she knew it, the woman's hand flew up, and Beatrice's cheek stung. She was stuck so hard it threw her off-balance. "Xenonian! It was your kind that brought this curse to us!" Scrambling to her feet, Beatrice backed away. "I don't understand. Xenon is a peaceful planet, and my people wouldn't -" Two men got up and tried to corner her, but Graham deftly stepped between them, and her. "Hold, men. She intends no harm to any of you. Just back off." The pair of them, sensing even odds, turned away and skulked back to their corner, but it didn't make Beatrice feel any easier. She saw the looks on those people's faces - they hated her for being Xenonian, but she couldn't imagine Xenon doing this to another world. Xenon was a paragon of wise resource use, with carefully constructed cities and wide green belts. It outgrew this sort of cruelty. Darker possibilities came to mind, though. Just because the Xenonian people were compassionate and peaceful didn't necessarily mean that the more self-serving of the political and diplomatic class wouldn't wage wars or destroy those they could. The disk in her pocket seemed to burn. This future, she realized, came to pass because she failed. Morosely, she found a spot on the floor. People shuffled away from her as she moved. Sitting down and hugging her knees, Beatrice found it difficult to think. After a while, she felt a hand on her shoulder. "Aren't you moving away, too?" she asked. "No," Graham said. "But I want you to tell me why is these people blame you." "Look around us. All of this, the holding cell, the domes, and even those...things...that herded us here. Those aren't native to your planet, but they ARE things that Xenonian technology can build." "I see. And your Xenon is...like this?" Beatrice shook her head. "No, but if some people had their way, they'd use other planets to dump chemical waste. Doesn't matter to them, so long as they never have to see it." She looked around more. "And it also means those people wouldn't be past the idea of enslaving a native population that isn't as developed technologically." "So your people look down on those less inclined to develop technology?" Beatrice looked very ashamed. "Often, the answer is yes." Graham's face darkened. "Tell me what you can of your Homeworld, Ambassador. Your life could depend on it." Beatrice's jaw tightened. How much could she tell? How much would he understand? Regulations forbade sharing secrets with unaligned cultures, and double it for those who didn't meet Xenon's criteria for "advanced civilization." Beatrice thought a long moment. This was going to be dangerous, but the circumstances didn't leave her much of a choice. A near-hidden door opened and a robotic arm shoved out a tray of ration bars. Most of the people jumped like animals at the food, decimating it in seconds. The plate was broken as well, leaving a jagged shard of ceramic behind. Two small bars on the plate were just in their reach. Beatrice and Graham each took a bar. "Better than nothing, I suppose," she said, inspecting it. She also took the sharp piece of ceramic and showed it to Graham before stuffing it into another pocket of her jacket. "Might as well, your advice seemed to work last time." A faint crying got their attention. A child of two or three years cried loudly as it wandered the room. His small body was too thin to be healthy, and his large, dark eyes were glassy from tears. Beatrice got up and crossed the room, kneeling down to the child's level and stroking his hair. "There, there. You must be scared, being alone in here." The child muted his crying a bit to listen to the new voice. Beatrice broke off a piece of ration bar. "Are you hungry, little one?" The child's tiny hand grabbed the bar. Beatrice made an example, munching a bit of her bar. Imitating her, the little boy munched his bar. "That's it. I've got more." Graham watched Beatrice carefully, but he also noticed other eyes turning to watch her. Beatrice, for her part, seemed only interested in calming the lost child. Eventually, the little boy, belly full, and sensing a kind stranger, crawled into her lap. Beatrice sang an off-key lullaby to charm the little one to sleep. One of the men that had tried to attack her earlier approached. Scowling, Beatrice pulled the child closer and glared at him, silently warning him to step away. "It's all right, Xenonian. I see my son is too young to understand, or maybe he just understands that you're not the Xenonians that doomed our world. I came to apologize - and thank you." The child stirred on her lap and looked at the man. "Papa?" "It's all right," he assured Beatrice. Beatrice handed the little tyke over to the man. Instantly, the child grabbed his father and turned away from the stranger he had snuggled with a few minutes before. The child's father looked at them carefully. "Sir," asked Beatrice. "Is there anything you can tell me about what happened? About those soldiers?" Graham quickly added her cover story. "Her ship crashed near the dome. I think she may have hit her head and lost her memory." "The fumes outside may have also affected her. Still, you both seem to be in need…" The man nodded. "I'm sure the elder would like to see you. We don't get many new arrivals anymore. I think those soldiers are running out of people to take. I will warn you - he's very ill. He's spent years under the tender mercies of our captors." Getting up, Graham and Beatrice followed the man to the next room, and to a corner that had been partitioned off with the remnants of old blankets and the rotted remains of at least one tapestry. "Elder," the man said. "These two people were caught by the patrols. I think you may be able to answer some of their questions." A faint voice called to them before she could answer. "Let them pass - even the Xenonian. I will answer their questions best I can." The man drew back the tapestry, allowing Graham and Beatrice inside. On a bed made of rags lay a gray-haired man. The years of horror had aged him prematurely, and there were scars and on his body that spoke of torture, including an eye that had been gauged out. His one good eye opened and looked upon them, registering recognition and shock. "My liege? That...Great Gods, it is you! I don't understand - you've not aged a day!" It took Graham a moment to place the withered voice. "Derek? King Edward's Ghost, it...it..." "You know this man?" Beatrice asked. "My lady, I am Derek Karlavaegen, court archivist and historian of Daventry." Derek approximated a laugh and looked up at Graham. "So you're questing with a Xenonian now? Any other man and I would question his sanity. Yet, I've never known you to keep bad company, sire." "My name is Beatrice Wankmeister," Beatrice adjusted the rags so the man could sit up. "Before this happened, I was Xenon's ambassador to this sector. It would appear that his majesty and I have been sent to the future." "That would explain why he hasn't appeared to age a day, but I know his face better than my own. If you both came here from the past, what brought you here?" "A magic portal. It was activated with this." Graham pulled out the small key from his waist pouch. Derek's eye grew wide. "As I live and breathe! That was only a legend...but it's..." Taking it from Graham and inspecting it, he handed it back. "If that brought you here, then it explains much more than I thought! What you hold is the first Legacy Key. Legend holds that it's the key to the Ivory Tower, the very gate our ancestors used to withdraw to this dimension." He thought a moment. "It is said that the Ivory Tower holds all the futures of the Multiverse. Some of us scholars speculated that the Magic Mirror was linked to it." "Derek, what happened - to you, to Daventry, to...to everything?" "You don't recall it? Indeed, you have missed twenty dark years. I'm not even sure if you would have been able to stop it, even if I know well the near-impossible things you're capable of. I was there to see it." He took a shuddering breath and tried to remember. "There were two strangers in the castle - Xenonians, if I recall the healers correctly. The next day, the Mirror...it seemed possessed. If it were a living thing, I would say it was panicking. By the time the royal guard and I got there, you'd vanished along with the strangers." "Valanice, Rosella, Alexander...Do you have any idea?" "They'd vanished with you, sire. There were no clues as to their fate, or yours, until now. The guards, especially Templeton, was quick to blame the Xenonian visitors for your disappearance. Less than a day later..." Derek groaned. "Easy, old friend. Save your strength." "As you can see, I'm not...long for this world anyway. Less than a day later, the sun darkened, and it went from summer to winter in hours." He looked down. "Then, the Xenonians came - led by their Emperor Vohaul." "Emperor Vohaul?" Beatrice exclaimed. "Did I hear that right?" "Supreme Emperor Vohaul, ruler of the Star Confederation...among other cognomens he and his sycophants use. He led the Xenonians in conquering and enslaving our people, and ruining all life on this world." Derek's voice was a pathetic rasp, marked with a horrible-sounding rattle in his chest as he breathed. "The air outside this dome is poison, as is the water. Only warped plants and hideous monsters have been able to survive in what remains, and even then, it won't be for much longer." "In less than a generation..." Graham cursed softly. "His device that blackens the sun will turn our world into dead rock." Beatrice put her hand on Graham's shoulder. "Not necessarily. The Star Generator is like any technology or knowledge. It all depends on who uses it and why. The device was invented to revive Xenon's dying sun. It can save your world, too. He's set it up in the Ivory Tower. We just have to get in there and use it ourselves." "Hmmm. Do you have any ideas on how we can defeat Vohaul once we're there, however?" Derek thought. "There's a legend I've heard other prisoners speak of...but there is no way I have to verify it. There is an entity known only as the Silver Queen. She's said to hold the darkest secrets of the Multiverse, awaiting the one who can master her challenges and liberate the people. This legend was something I thought to be wishful thinking among the survivors." Derek's breathing grew progressively more labored, and he was weakening visibly. "It's not." Beatrice looked over at Graham. "If this Silver Queen exists, we will find her," Graham answered. "Again," Derek said weakly. "Any other man and I would doubt…not with you." His eye closed. "I weaken, sire. There was another Xenonian in here…perhaps two days ago. I gave my map to the Silver Queen to him and told him to seek Daventry Castle to see if there was anything left that could aid him. If he survived the journey, you may be able to catch up to him…May the Fates be kinder to you…than they were to us." Derek's voice trailed off - whether in sleep or death, neither could be certain, but in either case, they allowed him his rest. They'd barely stepped back from behind the curtains when the heard screams and saw the flash of light from the room they had been in. Blocking their way were four Sequel Police, guns raised and pointed directly at their chests. "Time for Processing." *** Chapter 8 Don't Panic Horns blared in their ears and the out-of-tune guitar only made it worse. Roger was getting a headache from this, and Alexander was already clutching his head. Roger looked around and spotted an empty table. Half-stumbling over the short musician serenade, Roger half fell into the booth, landing stomach-down on the seat. Searching it revealed a handful of fossilized crumbs and three buckazoids. Rolling over, he threw the lot at the bandleader. The gray-skinned, bug-eyed musician picked up the tip, called Roger several variants of "cheapskate" and sauntered off to find new victims with more in their pockets. Taking the opportunity of a relatively clean chair, Roger sat down and tried to think. This action not being his specialty, it soon made his head hurt. "Man, I don't think I've had a day that's gone from bad to worse like this since the Arcada." Alexander dropped his voice, but hovered at the edge of the table. "Perhaps, you can explain where we are." "Clueless. Besides, it was YOUR mirror that zapped us here. Wouldn't you mean that you have a better idea?" Alexander shrugged. "I'm sorry, but no." "And that's what I was afraid of. Well, let's see. We're stuck here for the moment, at least. Maybe we ought to check the place out and talk to the freak show." At just that moment, a little man with greasy, receding hair walked by. His out-of-date clothing and gaudy electroplate jewelry set record lows in good taste. His aftershave made them both gag - both from the scent (not quite unlike kitchen cleaner) and from the fact that he used far too much of it. "Hey, a couple new guys!" "Geez, buddy. Where'd you come from? Planet of the Lounge Lizards?" Roger fired off. Alexander was apparently too shocked or too busy turning green. "Funny you should mention that. Anyway…didn't I see you at the Nontoonyt hotel? You've got a face that's hard to forget." Roger gaped at the leisure-suit clad fellow. "I sure hope not!" Under his breath, he muttered. "I can't have been THAT drunk…" Alexander must have heard that because he stopped gagging on the aftershave long enough to crack a smile. Roger checked an impulse to deck Alexander and continued his efforts on the tacky-looking bar patron. "Say, who are you, and can you tell us why you're in this bar?" "Name's Laffer, but the ladies get to call me Larry. As for why I'm here? Look, why are you stiffs here? This place is THE best spot to get in your last vices before it all goes kaboom!" "We heard something about the universe ending," Alexander clarified. Larry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that. The whole thing's gonna go up. Boom! End of it all. My ex-girlfriend's personal trainer's boyfriend…he's into this astrology stuff. There's this one-time only planetary alignment. Once it happens, kiss it all good bye!" Shaking his head at them, he turned around and jollily waved at them. "I'll see you stiffs later. Gotta work the room." Larry vanished into the crowd, leaving Alexander and Roger only slightly less confused than before. "A planetary alignment," mused Alexander. "I certainly would have liked to get more information on that." "Don't tell me you believe in that crap, Alex." "It's no more or less 'crap' than the mark on our hands, Roger. There ARE spells and powerful magics that can only work during certain planetary alignments or phases of the moon." "Last I checked, Vohaul was Xenonian…one of my people…and Xenonians banished even the idea of magic centuries ago. It's lies and tricks with no reasonable basis…Well, so we're told, at least." "All the better for someone like your Vohaul to find it and attempt using it. Your people would have no defense against the Dark Arts if you've no knowledge of them in the first place." "You may have a point there. He was nuts enough to experiment with a lot of things sane people would run from." "Like what?" "A lot of it went over my head. But we're talking stuff like life extenders, cloning, biological weapons, Star Generators, even time trav-" Roger's voice died in his throat. Damn, whatever Alexander did must have been more powerful than he thought! "Travel through time, you say?" "Aw, geez…Alex, don't make me go there. I'd sooner keep it a nightmare brought on by a few too many on Magmetheus." "It could be important." Roger rolled his eyes and groaned. "The guy's bad news, Alex. He wants to take over the galaxy. Came pretty close a couple of times, but I managed to blow up his research. I thought I took him with it." Alexander just nodded. "And if you thought you were rid of him, why has he returned?" "That's just it - I don't know!" Roger got up from the table. He was lost, stuck, frustrated, angry, and the last thing he needed was some so-called "magician" looking down his nose at him. "Here's a thought, Prince Charming. If you're so smart, then you go ahead and nail him." Roger turned his back on Alexander and walked away. "I'm thinking of sitting this one out, thank you much. Every time I try to save the universe, I get my end up getting my butt kicked and scrubbing toilets. Not necessarily in that order, either." Roger bolted up from the table, threw up his hands, and angrily stamped off into the distance, quickly losing himself in the crowd. For a few moments, Alexander stood there in confusion. How could someone turn away at a time like this? "Don't take it personal. I think he just needs a few minutes to cool his jets. Happens." The voice was low-pitched, but distinctly female, Alexander looked around to pinpoint the source. It was the giant arachnid behind the bar. Two of its legs mixed a drink, two cleaned the bar, and two adjusted the ridiculously large purple hat on its (her?) head. He shrugged, and sat at the bar. The arachnid looked him up and down. "Aren't you the looker...by human standards, that is. What can I get you? On the house." It was tempting to order a glass of stiff ale, but Alexander remembered what happened when he tried that in Llewdor's pub. Walking had been difficult and he had the poor judgment to book fare on a pirate ship, spending a long voyage in the ship's cargo hold. Best to try for something safer. "Do you have tea?" "What kind? Loose leaves in hot water, or the stuff that could fuel a reactor?" "Um...the first kind, madam..." "Designated driver. Gotcha." She set to work, grabbing ingredients. "Just call me 'Charlotte.' I think you'd have trouble pronouncing my other names." Alexander sat down. "You certainly…well, you're not much like any creature I've ever seen before." "Thank you! There's not much of my kind left. Then again, that's all going to be a moot point. That's why we're all here." "Pardon me for asking, but where exactly is 'here?" Charlotte turned around, a tall glass in one claw, bottles in the other three. "Look," She set the bottles out on the bar and explained as she mixed. "This spot is some kind of multi-verse self-correction mechanism, a storage place for paradox. Easier to remove the problem than crash the system. So, what was it? Mishap with the spell book?" "Not really." "Maybe your friend had an accident with a time travel gizmo or a hyperdrive. Those tend to happen frequently enough. In either case, means that you no longer exist. Hate to be the one to break the bad news." Alexander shook his head. "We're dead?" Charlotte put Alexander's teacup in front of him. "Didn't say that. I said you don't exist." Wrapping his hands around the teacup, Alexander tried to digest this piece of information…and failed. "So, none of this exists? I've heard some philosophers speculate the universe is mere illusion, but this seems a little farther-fetched." "For every possibility, every dream, there is a new universe. Dream ends - so does the universe. Your kind probably has a legend - one dating back to the beginnings of your history - of a mass exodus from one realm to another. A universe became a multiverse. This is just one of infinite, of course." She served a full glass to another patron and returned to Alexander. "But why? What is going to cause the end of this universe?" "Who's to say how it all ends? I just know that we've been awfully crowded lately." Charlotte approximated a shrug. A story or two reads the same, but when you start hearing a pattern - that's when you worry. So many falling through the cracks of reality - well, it means reality has a lot more cracks." Alexander sipped his tea in contemplation. It wasn't the best cup he'd had, but a cup of tea was always a good excuse to think. He couldn't help thinking there was a connection to it all. The ability to read portents and predict the future was certainly not unheard of, even if more people claimed the gift than actually had it. Furthermore, there were sorcerers that contemplated breaking the boundaries of time, slipping back or forward. Of course, studying that kind of magic was considered unethical - if not insane. Altering events in the past could cause the present not to exist - theoretically annihilating the multiverse. Now, that Vohaul creature that they saw in the mirror was experimenting with just those things. That would explain the increase in paradox, maybe. But there was the matter of the planetary alignment, as well. Something else that nagged at him - if Vohaul did somehow get access to Serenian magic, then who gave him that access? He wasn't going to get the answers here, that much was certain, even if he was sure Charlotte had given him some valuable clues. "Thank you for the tea, Charlotte. I think I will try to find my companion now." Charlotte adjusted her hat. "Best of luck, kid. We're all gonna need it." Roger slumped over the table. "Google Blaster." Managing to scrounge a few buckazoids and assorted other galactic currency from seat cushions, Roger decided to get himself drunk. That would make oblivion a "oh, that's nice" prospect. A Google Blaster was the galaxy's fastest way to do it and not instantly keel over. The last thing he needed right how was some upper-class type trying to judge his dubious "heroic status." Sure, saving the universe from Vohaul was so simple that even a janitor could do it. Or, it was blind luck, the other thing that he was credited with. With Beatrice's life on the line, luck was no longer a factor. In fact, it looked like it had run out. There was that little matter of Space Quest Four…and Space Quest Twelve. He had sworn himself to secrecy on that one. Not only did he not have the ability to explain it, but it was pretty clear that he wouldn't be able to stop it from happening. The last thing he needed was a trip down - or up- memory lane courtesy of Alexander. The google-blaster went down cold and smooth, going right to his head in a most pleasant way. The thought of not existing didn't bother him too much. What the heck? He was such an embarrassment to Xenon and the rest of the multi-verse that it was probably sighing a collective relief at the prospect. "Say, junior. Want another?" the wait droid was now hovering at his table. Two google blasters would render him completely oblivious. As it stood, he was pleasantly light-headed. Yeah, he'd like another… You wanna drink yourself into a hole, but are you prepared to screw over Beatrice? Get drunk and leave her with that bloated meglomaniac? The thought short-circuited him for a moment while the droid hovered patiently. "Black coffee." "That won't sober you up, human. Especially not after -" "Black coffee." Roger noticed it was harder to talk. This place certainly didn't water down the booze! "Okay…" It floated away. Looking up from his table, Roger squinted. A mostly-forgotten piece of machinery lay in the corner. Getting up from the table and walking slowly so he didn't fall down when the room took a lurch, he scrutinized it. Why…it was an old-style "slots o'death" machine just like the one in Ulence Flats during his first adventure. There was a trick to these…if he could think clearly enough, he might remember what it was. The waitdroid floated out of the kitchen, and Roger took his seat again as it served him a large mug of hot, black mud that might have passed for coffee at one point. "Management not responsible for any interactions that may occur," the droid said as it sat the mug down. "Interactions? The stuff's plain coffee, right?" "Management not responsible for any interactions that may occur." "Stupid droid…er…thanks." "Share and enjoy!" called the droid as it floated to the next table. Roger smelled the coffee. Eww! It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink! At least it was at drinkable temperature. He held, his nose, closed his eyes, and chugged it. Whoa! That was STRONG coffee. His eyes felt like they were pried open by the ghastly headpieces he'd seen on the "survivors" of SQ12 Xenon. His gut felt like he'd received a sucker punch. He tried to get up, only to find the room wasn't just swaying, it was downright hula dancing. Oh, schozbot…I'm really screwed up. I've got to find some place to…sleep this off. Fortunately, there was a door nearby that didn't lead into the kichen. What a place without walls would use a door with wasn't something he questioned in his addled state. He staggered over to it, and found it was fortunately unlocked. This room actually seemed to have walls - even if a ceiling wasn't visible. An oak table with six chairs was right in the room's center, under an elaborate lamp that seemed to hang from the nonexistent ceiling. A large plant dominated one corner of the room, its pot big enough to hide a grown man. Crawling behind the giant plant pot, Roger groaned and forced his eyes shut. Unfortunately, he didn't pass out. After an indeterminate amount of time, the door opened again, admitting a group of five people. They all wore concealing black cloaks. Carefully checking left and right, the first of them to enter nodded to the others and closed the door. He took off his cloak and hung it on the back of the chair, revealing an emerald green lining with a snake embroidered in gold thread.. "As our brethren are on a mission at the moment, I call this meeting to order." "Get on with it, Severin," called a female voice, the one at the far left side of the table. "You said you had progress reports. We want to hear them." The uncloaked one, the fellow they called "Severin," was a tall, thin man with coal-black hair and a hooked nose. He glowered at them impatiently, as though he had an irrefutable authority over them. "Yes, sister. I have news. But shout at me like that again, and I'll tell everyone but you." He stood at the front of the table and paced as he spoke, like a professor lecturing a class. "It would seem as though our Xenonian ally is smarter than he appeared. He's already made his way to Serenia and found Ivory tower. Furthermore, the necessary planetary alignment will occur in forty-eight hours." "How are we to gain the second Tower by then?" "The Father is on his way, it would seem. The enchantment we put in place was successful. We verified it as such long before Mannanan's accident. The boy was ours - body and soul - for sixteen years. He only thinks he has his freedom now." A smile curled on Severin's thin lips. "All we need do is get him to the Tower." The first-left one, who spoke with an old man's voice, leaned over the table. "We already have two of our members with that bloated buffoon. It's easy enough to distract him. When the time comes, only one can go forward. It will not be the Xenonian." "You have to realize, though," Another woman's voice, this one on the near right. "That our 'allies' are likely making similar plans." The elderly man across from her shook his head. "Those weak-spirited Xenonians? Why they nurse at the teat of technology. Take that away, and they are no match for us." Roger's head spun - he may not have been able to stand up, but he understood what was going on…well, somewhat. Maybe Alexander could understand more about this. Roger's foot was falling asleep. Just a slight adjustment of position… THUD! He fell out from behind the pot, in full view of the meeting members. He couldn't move, could barely breathe, and he certainly wasn't in any shape to defend himself. The only think he could do is play dead, which certainly wouldn't be playing for long… "Kill him! He must have heard everything!" "I'll be the one to do it." He heard Severin's laughter. "You all overreact. Can't you see this man is passed out drunk? Even if he heard anything, he wouldn't have the brain power to process it. Furthermore, in his condition, no one will believe him, even when he does speaks the truth. They'll give it the same credibility as dancing pink elephants." "Nevertheless, we will take the rest of this elsewhere. There's much to do and little time left." Severin wrapped his cloak about him. "I suppose you are right, sister. Let's go." After that, Roger lost consciousness. He woke up sometime later to the feeling of hands smacking his cheeks. "HEY!" Roger groaned and cracked open an eye. He saw a gruff-looking bulldog of a man (quite literally, as he appeared to be a bulldog standing on two legs and wearing an apron, shirt, and slacks) glaring at him, arms folded. "I don't appreciate jerks like you that short the waitrons. That google-blaster and coffee came to five buckazoids. And then you disgrace my bar by passing out and making a public fool outta yourself? I oughtta…" He whistled to a wait-droid who sailed off, then returned in a few seconds with a mop and a broom. He pulled Roger to his feet, shoving them into his hands. "We're expecting the end of the multiverse soon and I want a clean kitchen before the big boom. Here, you're drafted to help clean it." **** The kitchen was immense - big enough for twenty cooks, and it looked like it hadn't been given a good cleaning in the last millennia. Roger pulled the necessary supplies out of a kit in the closet and started to work. He rubbed a knot out of his shoulder and shook more scouring powder on the grimy stove. Oh, well. Wouldn't be the first time he'd been left to do the job no one wanted...and it wouldn't be the first time he rode out a buzz by cleaning something. The dirty dishes were the job he looked forward to the least, insanely crusted vessels near the sink in the small room off in the back. The stack of dishes came up to his knee and left the place standing-room only. He didn't even want to look in there for the time being. He'd just finished wiping out the cupboards and cleaning off the countertops when he heard a voice. "Roger?" It came from the sink room. Hovered over the sink was a lanky, dark-haired young man. It looked kinda like…but there was no way. A prince doing dishes in a joint like this? "Alex?" He shook his head in amazement. "What are you doing here?" Alexander crossed his arms. He made a somewhat laughable picture with his fine-looking tunic covered by a stained old apron that said, "Kiss my Gritz." "I was about to say the same. Where were you?" "I mixed a couple drinks I shouldn't have, and was sleeping it off when that bulldog caught me. You?" Alexander cocked his head and looked like he wanted to say something. If he's gonna say something stupid about how I'm not doing it fast enough or not the way his castle servants do things, I think I'll make him eat this mop... "Do you have the cabinets and shelves wiped off?" "Why?" Alexander stepped to the side, revealing a clean countertop near the sick - stacked high with clean trays. "Alex, you've....you've..." "I'm about half-done in there, but don't want to get these dirty again." Puzzled, Roger pointed to the nearby shelves and Alexander put the stack of trays away. "You've done a lot of work in here. I was wondering if I'd have to clean it myself." "Wait a minute. You clean kitchens? And how did you get all of that crap off the trays?" Alexander shrugged. "Soaked them and used a little of the sodium bicarbonate I found in the cupboards. It really does work, I found." "It does? Huh. Gotta try that." Alexander looked at the glass on the oven door. "No streaks?" "Yeah, little vinegar works better than most of what they try to call glass cleaner. Don't know why, though." Roger swayed a little and grabbed the countertop to ride out the dizzy moment. "Are you well?" "Ugh. Not really. Take it from me, Alex. Coffee and google blaster really don't mix. Say, how you get here?" Alexander shrugged. "I wandered around trying to find you. When I couldn't, I asked Charlotte - the bartender - to see if I could make myself useful." "Well aren't you the galaxy scout." "Is that supposed to be sarcastic, Roger?" "Yeah," Roger admitted. "But I guess I've been acting like a real jerk. Sorry, Alexander. You're just not what I thought you were." "And what were you expecting?" Alexander looked mildly amused as he went back to the stack of dishes. "Not sure, really. But it wasn't you." Roger had a thought. "Say, Alex. You wouldn't happen to know anything about a fellow named Severin, would you?" "Severin? The name doesn't sound familiar. Why do you ask?" "Well, when I was sleeping it off in the back, I got to listen in on a meeting. The guys were obviously from your neck of the nebula. I didn't understand most of it. A fellow named Severin was leading it. He's tall, has black hair that comes down to his shoulders. He was wearing a black cloak with bright green lining." Alexander got a strange look on his face. "Black cloak?" "All of them were wearing them. He was the only one who took his off." Now, Alexander was looking quite concerned indeed. "What were they discussing?" "That planetary alignment for one. It means something to them. They also talked about a couple of towers, and some Xenonian ally of theirs. There's something else, but I just can't seem to remember it. Has to be due to that reaction…" Roger shook his head, and wiped down another counter. Alexander seemed to put some pieces together. "If your Vohaul is allied with them…Zounds!" "Alexander?" "Did they discover you?" "Yeah. They thought I was passed-out drunk - which wasn't that far from the truth. In either case, they let me go." Alexander shook his head. "No they didn't." "What do you mean?" Alexander looked faraway as he talked. "Because once the Black Cloak has you, they never really let you go. I should know." He slumped over the sink, cleaning some glasses. In the process, the low neckline of his tunic drooped a bit, and Roger could make out some nasty-looking scars on Alexander's back. "I was a slave to one of their members for sixteen years." *** Chapter 9 The Obsidian Tower On one hand, Toolman did keep his word in letting Stellar free. On the other hand, where he beamed her was somewhere she wouldn't enjoy that freedom for long. She gripped to the rock wall behind her, but the dangerous sound of pebbles breaking loose from the narrow ledge beneath her and the sight of jagged rocks far below made it clear that she could either chance going up, or die going down. Quickly stuffing the pistol and the datacorder in her coveralls, she turned around and tried to scale the wall. Footholds and handholds were hard to find, and she almost fell to her death several times over. She counted herself fortunate when she heaved herself over the edge, her dark hair wet from sweat. Above her was the Xenonian sky and the jagged peaks of Arcadia's Domain - the name most Xenonians called this range. It was a lifeless region of dead volcanoes and barren rock. Geothermal energy made itself known in pockets of hot steam or boiling geysers that appeared from nowhere. It hadn't been properly mapped, even with Xenonian technology, simply because the lay of the land changed so often it was hardly worth the bother. Still, Stellar had to take a chance - Toolman still had Rosella! And it was just like him to trump up some charge or deflect any criticism for his role in things. That's why he had Roger be the scapegoat in that joke of a trial rather than face the idea that he was Quirk's senior officer, and should have kept better watch. And it figures that he's working for Vohaul. Damn it all! Stellar rolled to her side so she'd be in a better position to get on her feet. Her open hand confirmed another fear - the toxic implant was still flashing red to black. Even if she was safe for the moment, it was going to be a moot point far too quickly. She saw something out the corner of her eye and quickly turned to look. Before her unbelieving eyes, she saw a large tower of glossy black obsidian. It looked like it had been crafted in the style of ancient Xenon, with its sleek, angular lines. It wasn't more than a few hundred feet away. Curiosity got the better of her as she approached, surveying the height of it - easily twenty stories. Who could have built this? And why build it in the midst of this wasteland? She approached it cautiously, but could see no doors or windows - no way in at all! Running her hands over the smooth stone, she felt it vibrating with energy - almost alive. "Come back here, you little Serenian bitch!" Toolman - and he sounded pissed. All right, Rosella! Stellar grinned and pulled out the pistol in her coveralls. The noise came from the east. Bolting that direction, she kept close to the wall, ready to duck out of sight at the moment's notice. What she found made her grin even wider. One Security guard was clutching his groin. Another seemed knocked out. Toolman was facing down Rosella, and the young princess was holding a Star Con Standard Issue kill-o-zap with the surety of a pro. "Gee, so that's how it works." "Hand it over before you injure yourself, child." "Before I make you more mechanical than you already are, you get back." Rosella started backing away, not taking an eye off Toolman, keeping her weapon steady, and being sure of her footing. Wow! If this was Rosella's first try with a kill-o-zap, then the Starcon marines could seriously use her! The guard that was clutching his groin seemed to recover a bit and start reaching for his sidearm. Rosella whirled around to deal with the threat, and Toolman took the split-second advantage to draw his weapon. Stellar leapt out and pulled Rosella out of the line of fire, letting off two shots of her own. They bolted back where they came from, knowing Toolman was on their heels. Down…up, switching back and bolting forward. They couldn't keep it up forever, though. Stellar had an idea and started running to the tower. It would be a good place to make a stand - hopefully not a last one, but she wasn't feeling overly optimistic. They reached the walls of glossy black, ominously looming over them, and standing on the bare edge of a plateau. Their run had jostled loose the gold rod Rosella had carried in her pocket. She bent down to get it, but just as Stellar was about to shout at her for not having any time to spare… The edge brushed against the obsidian wall. The wall itself seemed to waver and shift, a portal appearing. Well, not in a position to refuse an escape route, they bolted inside. The door melted behind them, effectively sealing off their pursuers. The tower's interior was made of the same glossy black stone as its outside. Rich red tapestries hung on the walls and an equally blood-red rug covered part of the floor, Flickering lamps recessed in wall niches gave off greenish light. A door on the far wall was locked, and a staircase hugged the closest wall, gently spiraling into the heights. Ignoring the door for the time being, they started up the staircase. Rosella glumly looked at the flashing disk in her hand. "You think what he said was true? About this killing us?" Stellar nodded. "With Toolman, it would be the case. He's got the ethics of a snake and the heart of a machine." "Why did you accuse you of murder?" "I…well, Roger had a lot to do with it. Toolman was old friends with this vile woman named Sharpei. Sharpei attacked both of us. I got Roger the safely, but…" she shuddered. "I could hear him, shouting my name and trying so hard to force the doors open and save me, but it was too late by then." "What did she do?" Stellar climbed another couple of steps. "I remember coming to someplace that looked like where I rescued you. In fact, it was almost exactly like where I found you. Less of a sickbay and more of a lab. I managed to get away for a few minutes and send a distress call to Roger." Looking back to Rosella, she added. "Sharpei planned to kill me and take over my body so she could be young again." Rosella wrinkled her nose. "Sounds like the nasty old witch that Dad rescued Mama from." "Don't know about that, but 'nasty and old' certainly describe Sharpei." Stellar sat on a stair. "Anyway, Roger disobeyed orders and saved my life, exposing the whole scheme in the process. Sharpei's good name was ruined, and Toolman screamed for Roger's head. I'm surprised Kilebasa showed some backbone and didn't immediately hand it over. Instead, Roger just filed his resignation papers. I think that was just the straw that broke him. No good deed he did ever seemed to go unpunished," she added bitterly. Rosella sat on the step below Stellar. "You quit with him, right. That's why you're traveling with him?" Stellar smiled sadly. "I…well, we owe each other a lot. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have guarding my back. I used to think he was cute, Rosella. Honest. Somewhere along the line, Roger just became the brother I always wish I had." Stellar pulled herself up and dusted off her coveralls. Rosella glanced down, then thought better of it. "What about this Vohaul guy Toolman is working for? Do you think we can stop him?". "I'm not sure much help I'll be, Princess, but if Roger isn't here to stop him, then I'll have to do it." "And you're not going to go it alone." Rosella's tone indicated the end to any debate. Stellar looked closely at the lights as they passed, counting them to keep a bearing on where they were. As they stopped to rest at one point, she looked at one of the lamps closely. "Rosella, this isn't burning at all. This lamp is a Xenonian glow rod!" To test the theory, she reached up and put her hand in the "fire," and pulled out the solid object she grasped in the heart of the illusory flames. She handed it to Rosella. "You mean this is what's providing the light here? It's...it's technology." "What's wrong with technology?" Stellar asked. "It certainly explains why these lamps don't seem to need anyone to light them." Rosella shook her head. "It's something..." She looked up. "Do they teach your people about the Withdrawal?" Stellar was about to deny it, but she remembered...it was a story Xenonian children were taught was mere legend. Yet, the story persisted, a heresy that never seemed to vanish. "Long ago, there was the universe, but vast as it was, not everything could live in it. Creatures from many planets and many races gathered, knowing they had to escape or die." Stellar looked up. "The Ancients were rumored to have technology so far past our own that they could alter the fabric of reality itself! Using their fantastic devices, they opened a large gate and pulled themselves to another universe." Stellar stopped herself and laughed. "But that's an old children's story." "Maybe not," Rosella warned. "What you call legends are very real in Daventry, and some things we think couldn't happen might be ordinary things to you - like your starship." "Hmm. Good point." *** Walking up a thirty-story tower can be difficult. It's even more so when one's leg is sporting a foot-long gash that was only starting to heal. Still, StarCon officers prided themselves on their stubbornness and masochistic tendencies. After an indeterminate time of walking, Stellar and Rosella found themselves at the tower's top room. It was the same sleek black as the rest of the passageway up here, but above them was a skylight. Gilded metalwork of silver and copper decorated the walls, and a stunning blood-red mosaic seemed to radiate from a central platform under an immense skylight. Stellar looked up. "Incredible." "Didn't you know it was here?" Stellar shook her head. "The land here is constantly reshaping itself. It could have been hiding in plain sight." Rosella checked the vast array of jeweled switches and knobs set into a counter that encircled the room. "Do you know what any of this is?" "Nope, not a clue." "Well, that's helpful," Rosella retorted. "Sorry." Limping over to a control console, Stellar analyzed the ornate and incomprehensible array of dials and panels. Experimentally touching one, the whole room seemed to flare to life. The women jumped back, wide-eyed at what was taking place before them. "Welcome to Obsidian Tower." Neither of them dared to speak. "A soldier of Xenon and a Serenian noble. If you are able to see and hear this, the Multiverse itself must be in terrible danger." Rosella took a step forward and looked to the ceiling, trying to find the source of the voice. "Rosella, princess of Daventry." "Why yes! How did -" "Stellar Santiago, born on Xenon." Stellar's eyes widened, but she said nothing, reaching inside her coveralls and flipping on the datacorder. She needed to learn as much about this as she could. "I knew because I was the one who brought you here." "Um, this is going to sound silly," said Stellar. "But this Tower has never been discovered on Xenon. We have no records or trace of it!" Neither of them had a retort for that, but allowed the ghostly "keeper" to explain. "This Tower was the site of your people's arrival to Xenon, Stellar. It is also the place where the danger you now face began - far in the past. A terrible separation, each losing half of our souls in the bargain, built this tower. The same separation will cause it to end - taking the very multiverse with it." One of the dark walls seemed to flare to life. Images like those of the Mirror appeared. Two towers, one of the palest Ivory, and the one they stood in - made of dark Obsidian. Stellar saw a woman in a white toga and a winged silver crown working the controls of the deck they were now standing in. Bright light filled the image, fading to the sight of the woman on the floor. Rolling from her lifeless hand was the key Rosella held.. The present day…A star chart highlighted Xenon and a small planet on the far edge of known space. Serenia…the planet Roger and I landed on…Stellar didn't know how she knew it, but she was certain it was the case. The two planets seemed to parallel each other, finally locking into alignment. Stellar more felt than saw that this was a moment of crisis… The image shifted again. It was obviously Xenon, but she saw what had become of it. Oh, the horror! Debris littered the streets and once-pristine parks were filled with trash, dry grass, and industrial waste. The sky itself was a blazing orange from the haze of smog and chemicals. Zombies in tattered clothing wore ghastly headgear that kept their eyes permanently open and no doubt chained them to a central computer. Suddenly, all of the zombies froze, looking up at the ugly sky. Another bright flash of light as existence itself seemed to die. The walls faded to glossy black once more. "You have just witnessed the end of the multiverse. It was birthed from dreams and will die in nightmares - the alignment of your worlds presents the only opportunity to alter fate." Rosella was about to speak. The Keeper seemed to anticipate this. "The Ancients put a failsafe on these towers. The Ivory and Obsidian towers are equal parts of Serenian magic and Xenonian technology. The only way to return the universe to balance is by knowing how to use both. You will also be asked to undertake a dangerous quest - to stop this terrible fate where it started - to the first days of the Withdrawal. Discover the reason for the start of this imbalance, and stop it at its source." "It's the only way?" asked Rosella. The silence seemed to indicate an affirmative. Rosella looked to Stellar, and she nodded assent. "All right - send us!" *** Chapter 10 His name...his true name...had never been spoken for a millennium. Oh, names he had, and forms. A false form gleaned from here or there. It was a simple matter to take what he wanted and whom he wanted, though there were advantages as well to the form he called "true." It had been the same millennia ago when he was called a man and a prince. "The Father" suited him well enough now. The secret leader of a secret society…they were his eyes and ears and hands, but they did nothing without his mind behind every slow and deadly move. Oh, he knew what had transpired over the ages, and gathered his power slowly. Such was his way, and the way of those who heard his call ...the way of the Black Cloak. To wear the color of shadows because that was where one plotted and listened, striking from them quickly only to fade. Membership changed with time or assassinations, and only one mage had ever turned his back on the Society, but thirteen sat around their table - twelve mortal mages and him. To them, he was greatest of all mages and the one who would reward their loyalty with incredible power. Outside the Society, his existence was known only to a handful. A thousand year wait would be over in the span of two days. Preparations had gone smoothly, aside from one or two minor annoyances...annoyances that persisted, despite curses, plots, and tricks. And how dare they! Daventry was a stunning land, high mountains, great green meadows, crystal-clear lakes and rivers, and majestic forests with tall trees that stayed emerald green, even in winter snow. It had almost been satisfying to try destroying it, even if it left him with feelings he could not place, and tried ruthlessly to shake them off. Like Grantithor before him, their current king was no noble, and The Father burned with rage over it. It was an insult that this...commoner ruled the land. How dare he be cheated out of what was rightfully his! A forest foundling adopted into the family of a childless minor knight, this one grew to a tall and wiry man, who followed in his adopted father's path. When the Society tried to gain control of Daventry, and the Ivory Tower hidden in its mountains, they had hidden behind the machinations of a gullible and power-thirsty warlord. As the last line of defense of the castle, the young knight stood his ground as the warlord's forces stormed the throne room. As other nobles ran, he threw himself between the warlord and King Edward, battling until the last of his strength, gaining a scar or two hidden under his customary red tunic. The Warlord was a fool and the foundling was admirable in battle. If only this young one could have been corrupted...Ah, but this one was not persuaded easily. Where force had failed, subterfuge had proven successful. The Three Treasures were obtained by guile over a period of twenty years, and hidden in plain sight. A clever trick, if he thought so himself. Murdering a simple healer to take his form and poisoning Queen Maylie to render her unable to carry a child was also a simple enough task, as was murdering a Dwarven healer and sending her another poison to end her life. Dahlia's mission to cozen the last treasure was a success. Edward only realized it too late. It would have been perfect, if again not for the foundling knight, now known as Sir Graham. He was Edward's First Knight, and would succeed him if he were able to complete his quest to recover the treasures. Never mind that Edward was descended from that usurper, the one that had sat on the throne that should have been his. Graham stole back the Treasures, and Edward perished. Now Graham was king...and that meant that The Father would have to do things himself. No wife or heirs, unwillingness to use subterfuge, and a thirst for adventure...again, a perfect set-up. The Father took the form of a humble minister, snaking his way into a position where he could gain the crown and attempt to find the last part of the puzzle. It was simple enough to ask a favor from Hagatha, a loyal sister of the society, and doubly simple to lure him into her clutches, baiting the trap with a lovely girl, but what he looked for eluded him as Graham kept eluding the traps. They'd underestimated the girl, too. A distant cousin of Kolyma.s ruler, Valanice had been born to a relatively minor noble and a peasant girl - a miller's daughter - that had caught his eye. A great beauty to be certain and Graham was bound at the first sight of her. (It idly made him wonder if Graham had Fae in his unknown ancestry. Recognizing one's true love at first glance was certainly common to them). Eluding Hagatha, a long-standing local feud, the undead count that ruled the land, and three treacherous realms, he rescued and wed the girl. Now the insult was doubled. A foundling and the daughter of a peasant ruling over the land that he lost to a usurper! Worse, his guise was revealed, he was humiliated by defeat in battle, and he was forced to retreat, but not without taking vengeance against those mud-blooded pretenders... Thrice now I curse, and from the first you family will feel it worst Soon they shall be, you'll surely see, in the most dire jeopardy As I your foe, 'tis I who will sow The spell to cause your heart to slow And for my shame, for you the same. O'er Daventry, your heirs shan't reign! Curses are bindings, and the oldest law of bindings read that as one shall bind, he shall be bound. Their fates were enmeshed, especially as the final hours grew near. The Ascension would make up for lost time, and the universe would have its punishment for his millennia of exile and obscurity. A land of dreams would turn to nightmares and those who ignored his existence would grovel before him and deem him higher than an old god. He especially wanted to see Graham on his knees. The finest weapon he had in store for Graham didn't even know he was a weapon, and such was the beauty of it. Mannanan was a loyal brother of the society, and could be forgiven certain faults like a taste for handsome boys to attend to the household tasks and certain other whims he may have had. Mannanan succeeded in his mission admirably, stealing Graham's son in broad daylight and managing to keep the boy hidden in a far land with an assumed name. It almost broke Graham...almost. Leaving the princess behind was part of the plan, granting his foes a single thread of hope. The three-headed dragon he set upon the land was supposed to kill that last hope and completely shatter his foes. And it had worked! Until Graham's children proved just as much a thorn in his side as their father continued to be. Mannanan let his guard down for but a moment, and it proved a fatal mistake. The prince discovered his true identity, escaped to Daventry, and used a stolen spell to bring down the dragon and free his sibling. Less than a day later, Graham should have perished from the curse...but by the next dawn, Princess Rosella was a heroine of Tamir - ending the life of Lolotte, and saving both her father and the (minor) fairy queen Genesta. It was also rumored that she had saved the high prince of all fairies, but the Fae tended to keep to themselves. Occasionally an evil fairy would aid the society, but only as it suited them. Lolotte made for a useful, albeit arrogant, ally and her death was regrettable. Mordak's plan was sound, but that young mage hadn't the patience his brother did. If he had waited to make sure all of them were in the castle and kept an eye out for spies, his plan would have worked. No, Mordak did his customary tactic of thinking with his bad temper. He lost many games of chess that way, and eventually lost his life due to the same lack of cunning and patience. By now, however, Graham and his family must have thought they were free. Two parts of the curse had come and gone, the third was still in the future with time to prepare for it. Ah, but they didn't have the time, and they'd greatly underestimated him again. "Father." "Sister Servala," he answered the telepathic call. "Vohaul is still convinced that he will destroy you. His plan looks like it could work, too. Are you certain you don't want him out of the way yet?" The Father would laugh if he were able. "Sister, it is fine. You needn't worry about that Xenonian fool. They only believe themselves clever. Thank you for keeping an eye on him, but I've had him in my pocket from the beginning. I need him to keep Ivory Tower open until I can arrive." "What then?" "You'll see." Another pause. "It would appear that your foes have also found Xenonian allies. They've gained access to both Towers now - two are in the past and two are in the future. I've lost track of the others." The Father was concerned by this. The plans would have to be stepped up, and he would have to make certain that those travelers never made it back to the present as well as seeing to Vohaul. Xenonians were another blight to the multiverse, embracing and relying on their foolish technological toys. He would have eradicated them if Legenimor and that Xenonian bitch hadn't stopped him. All sorts of details had to wait until the last minute to assert themselves. How infuriating! The Father's Chosen already knew something was wrong, could feel the pull in his mind that had been there as long as he could remember grow stronger these last few weeks. It wouldn't be long before the young one would stop his struggling and submit to it, letting himself drown under the stronger mind. The boy believed Mannanan would have simply killed him. Ah, but he would soon learn the truth was far worse than that... No one escaped the Black Cloak, after all. *** Chapter 11 Escape "Time For Processing" The other refugees in the room got a horrified look on their faces. Graham and Beatrice hardly dared to move with those nasty weapons pointed at their chests. All around the room, the black-clad foot soldiers were grabbing random people. Cries went out from those unlucky enough to be chosen, and the loved ones they had been torn away from. A random sound of blaster fire and dull thuds indicated what would happen if they dared to resist. The two Sequel Police drones grabbed them, and bound their wrists, tying their hands behind their back as they roughly pushed them out of the room. Twisting through another maze - up one corridor, down another, and through passageways too dimly lit for their normal eyes, but it probably didn't matter to their cyborg captors. The hum of electronics and the grinding of heavy machines were sometimes punctuated by a human scream or cry. This was a world of nightmares. Beatrice was busy twisting and struggling against the thin plastic cord binding her wrists. She rubbed her wrists raw trying to loosen them, but only succeeded in jostling something in her pocket -the ceramic shard. Graham noticed what she was doing, and positioned himself to conceal her attempts to pull the shard from her pocket and drop it down her sleeve. She palmed the small, sharp object and started to saw through the tough plastic. Coming to a great set of double doors at the end of a dark hallway, one of the drones punched in a code and they slid open with a great inhuman groan. Behind them was a machine the size of a two-story building - a conveyer belt of hooks went from eye level up the great mouth of it, a long chute two meters down from the ceiling. At the other end, a rack stamped the word "SOYLENT" on the top of sterile-looking gray-green cans. A suspicious brownish-red stain at the edges of the machine ruined the otherwise clinical cleanliness of the room. The smell of acid and substances both unnamable and best left unnamed seemed to cling to everything here. The drones took their bound hands and looped them over the conveyer belt hooks. "Should we kill them first?" asked one. "Let the machine do it. Why waste ammunition?" "Good idea." The machine started, carrying them up the sloping path to the ceiling and the maw of the machine. Satisfied with their work, the drones turned and left, leaving the machine to do its evil task. Beatrice sawed harder on her bonds. Finally! The weakest part of them snapped, leaving Beatrice to hold on for dear life with one hand. The belt had them a good four meters above the floor, right over machine that would surely crush her to death if she fell or jumped. Graham was two hooks ahead of her - she had to act fast. Using her weight to swing the hook, she scrambled to the hook next to him and palmed him the ceramic. He'd already frayed his bonds somewhat, she noticed, using the hook's point. Ceramic in hand, Graham made short work of them. "Thank you, Beatrice." "We're not out of the woods yet!" she said, pointing below them. The hooks withdrew back into the belt, leaving them with nothing to hold onto as they fell into the dark belly of the machine. "Oof!" They fell in a heap onto another conveyer belt. Strangely enough, there was light in here, dimly illuminating the machines straight ahead and below. Five large crushers alternated rising and smashing the converter belt. "Oh, dear," Beatrice looked at their prospects and winced. "Not much of a choice, come on!" They backed up and grabbed hands to better move in unison. Just as the front crusher rose, they made a run for it. CLANK! Whew! They made it - four to go. The next one they tried the same thing, half jumping across. Beatrice almost lost her footing, but a firm yank from Graham got her out of certain death and/or dismemberment. The third and fourth were relatively easy, but the last one...it was going far too fast to time, even if it was smaller in diameter. Razor-sharp "teeth" only added to its promise of an ugly demise. Time to take a chance. Squeezing as tight as they could against the wall, they inched their way past the deadly device. It got them through! But that was only the first obstacle through the contraption. The belt took a sudden drop in angle, sliding down towards a foul-smelling vat of a green caustic substance. They lost their footing, and attempted to hold on. When something else (presumably the mangled remains of whoever was loaded on before them) hit the substance, it splashed and narrowly missed them. Reaching blindly, Graham managed to grab a pipe. "Beatrice, look left!" Swinging off the belt, Graham climbed onto a series of pipes and ducts through the machine that made for a makeshift ladder. Beatrice narrowly escaped the acid by jumping onto the pipes with him. A sickly green substance, presumably from the large vat, had sprinkled on some of the pipes, leaving spots where it was eating right through them. More than one pipe broke under their weight as they shimmied down, spilling noisome goop all over the machine. Their escape attempt was certainly doing damage to the machine, as it seemed to shriek and shudder around them. Scalding steam from one pipe burnt Beatrice's hands and Graham almost got his foot wedged between two corroded supports. A rack was carrying the finished cans of soylent out of the machine. Leaping on top of it, they rode it out of the device, all but spilling out onto the floor, panting with exertion. "Great Stars! I can't believe we made that!" Beatrice looked up at the machine with a stunned awe. "I can't either." "Let's find a way out of this nightmare before it gets any worse." Hunting around on the floor, Beatrice found a grate that led to a tunnel. It was the only way out, and it took both of them to pry it open. It appeared to be a maintenance tunnel for access to the machine's bowels. The silent and mostly insensible droids on this level didn't even register them as they used the cramped access tunnels to navigate. The brightly glowing chunk of orum in Beatrice's pocket provided just enough light to see by until they made it to the next access hatch. Graham went first. Pushing a heavy lid on it aside, he climbed up into a better-lit section of the complex. He helped Beatrice out after him. What awaited them wasn't immediately deadly, but it made the hair stand up on their necks. Row after row of Sequel Police drones, their cyborg bodies resting in sleep chambers that lined both sides of the hall. There must have been hundreds of them. Flashing lights and readouts indicated the hibernating state of each drone. Thin tubing led from a canister located above the readouts into a port on the drones' right arms. Graham's blood turned to ice when he realized what it was - soylent. Their captors were literally being fed the remains of Serenian slaves, and they had come within a hair's width of becoming Sequel Police meals themselves. Beatrice must have seen it, too, because her face turned a ghastly shade of grayish-green. Replacing the tile they had pushed aside, they quietly crept down the hall, wanting to leave this hell as fast as they were able. At the end of another maze of dormant cyborgs, they found what passed for an office. Vast banks of computers controlled the insensible repair robots and kept tabs on the active and dormant armies of Sequel Police. The soylent machine, according to one readout, was badly crippled. They took some grim satisfaction in that, even though the computer listed it as able to be repaired. One of the monitors was a full map of "Processing Dome Beta-Sierra." They were at ground level, and a way out could be found via a circuitous route through the dormancy chambers. Graham pointed out a storage area that could help them find needed equipment, as they still faced the poisonous air and water if they did manage to escape the dome. Beatrice agreed with the idea, so they set off there first. It proved rewarding. "There must be some humans that come here from time to time, otherwise why would they need this?" Beatrice said as she inspected another shelf. "What kind of people would come here?" "Simple - the ones giving the orders now. The people who made this the future." Apparently, no one had ever planned for unauthorized personnel to ever reach this level. Doors were left wide open and unlocked, and the supplies were left out. They'd grabbed a couple packs. Beatrice put "life cans" in hers - compact kits with rations, fire-starting equipment and medical supplies. While it was tempting to stuff her pack, Graham admonished her to travel lightly. She just hoped they'd not have to spend long in this period. Beatrice was about to sip up her pack when she saw something else on a neglected back shelf. A Xenonian army knife was on a back shelf. These were small marvels of ingenuity in their palm-sized package - sharp knife, sonic screwdriver, bottle opener, toothpick, vegetable peeler, nail file...about twenty functions in all (twice as many if you were someone like Roger, who tended to find unorthodox and somewhat silly uses for things), including the corkscrew. Beatrice always thought that addition strange - like one would open up a crisp chardonnay in the middle of a steaming jungle or barren desert! She pocketed it - it could come in handy. Graham emerged from the back, carrying a couple of re-breather masks. "Beatrice, will these help for the air outside?" She inspected them and handed them back to him. "They're perfect! We'll need to put them on before we head outside." Back through the twisted corridors, they closed in on the exit. They didn't dare make noise, and they listened to the hum of the machines with acute interest. Three corridors away from the exit, the machine hum changed, becoming lower-pitched. Beatrice and Graham froze in their tracks and looked at the rows of Sequel Police canisters. The readout had changed - red lights were switching to green, and the canisters were starting to open. "Run!" they both shouted. They fled down the long corridor, and ricocheted left. All around them, the canisters were opening. Some of the drones were awake, moving stiffly as circuits and flesh started to wake up. There was no way they'd reach the exit in time at this rate. Still they ran. Dodging right, they realized they made a terrible mistake. Backs to the wall, the exit lay at the far end of the corridor, blocked by no less then three dozen Sequel Police. Two meter-high canisters labeled WARNING - COMPRESSED GASSES, DO NOT PUNCTURE were tacked against the back wall. Sensing intruders, the drones were starting to close in. "I hope you have an idea." Beatrice said nervously. Graham looked at the canisters, and thought of an experiment that had been done recently where someone used compressed air to lift a cloth balloon high in the air. The Science Minister had proposed these airships as a means to travel between lands in a fashion faster than sailing ships could go. If it didn't work, they were dead anyway. Knocking down the canisters, and turning them around, Graham straddled one as if it were a horse, kicking the valve. Beatrice must have understood what he was trying to attempt, because she got on the other one and kicked the valve until it broke entirely. WOOSH! The compressed gasses burst from the broken valve, hurtling them at ridiculous speed down the hall, bowling over the drones that tried to stop them. The canisters were spent by the time they reached the exit and by that time, the drones had armed themselves. Blaster shots whizzed past their ears as they dove into the hatchway. Another stray shot sealed the way behind them, buying them a few minutes, but not much else. More droid maintenance tunnels. Easy to get lost. Beatrice's shard of orum once again was pressed into service as a flashlight, allowing them to dodge a few places where they could have fallen to death otherwise. The tunnels grew narrow in places and wide in others. They followed the smell of fetid outside air, and donned the rebreather masks when they started to wheeze. Struggling through the tunnels, they finally reached a corroded grate. Beatrice's army knife made short work of the rusted-out bolts holding it on. They emerged from the tunnels and into the sickly light of day. It was still a welcome sight. Not far in the distance, amid groves of warped and dead trees, Graham pointed to a crumbling stone structure. "The castle, come on." Beatrice examined the tattered pennants and ran her hand along the scarred granite of the bridge across the moat. This must have been a grand structure at one time. She could only imagine what it had been like before. The boards beneath their feet were splintered and corroded by dry rot, creaking and threatening to give way. Graham took point, and Beatrice couldn't read him at this moment - this castle must have been his home. She was hoping that he wasn't about to do as the rest of the refugees had and curse her for being the race that had poisoned this planet. SNAP! One of the boards beneath her feet gave way, threatening to pitch her into the sludge-infected moat. She gripped the edge of the next board and pulled herself up, narrowly avoiding getting her ankle snatched by some thing swimming in it. She crawled back shakily. "Those," Graham said, inspecting the shapes that glided in the toxic water. "I don't know whether to be surprised or not that those survived. They've been there as long as anyone can remember." Beatrice gratefully stumbled back on solid ground, looking into the moat. "I don't think I will look at sushi the same way again." The portcullis lay useless and rusted, the way to the palace wide open. The palace courtyard and gardens were in ruins, and the front doors were barred and boarded shut/ Graham read the sign posted to them. "Future home of Daventry Condo Association? What in the name of the First King is a 'condo association?'" Beatrice shook her head. The only way inside the palace that wasn't barred shut was the door to a servants' corridor, hanging off its hinges. Again, Graham took point, and Beatrice could hear an occasional murmur of dismay at the state this once-beautiful building. As they searched the hallways, Beatrice thought it a little odd that there was little that appeared to be looted. Graham must have been a very well-loved king for such respect to be given after his disappearance. Either that, or his people just didn't see the point of trinkets like brass candlesticks when the world around them had gone to hell. Perhaps both were true. "Come on...if I know Derek, he managed to hide it somewhere in the castle." Beatrice followed as Graham walked up and down stairs and checked various rooms. All the while, Beatrice kept her silence and observed her surroundings. It was an important trait in diplomacy to listen more than one talked, or to watch surroundings and people carefully. Often it was put to use in petty backstabbing, however. They walked into the ruins of the throne room and Beatrice's breath was almost taken away. It wasn't hard to imagine what an elegant place this could have been. Twin thrones sat beneath a tapestry depicting a lion and unicorn. On one wall, a bare nail indicated where a mirror once hung. The mirror itself was on the floor - golden frame bent and glass shards scattered on the floor. A large oil painting on the wall caught Beatrice's attention. It must have been how the room looked in its prime - marble walls and polished wood with thick woven tapestries. It must have been a formal portrait, since Graham looked incongruous in his red and gold attire and large crown. Standing next to him was a regal looking woman with auburn hair and gentle blue eyes wearing a smaller, silver crown. Beatrice assumed that the woman was likely the queen. The younger pair in the portrait must have been their children. The princess and prince looked to be about twenty, and both seemed to have the finest traits of their parents. Graham must have caught her staring, because he touched her shoulder and just about made her jump out of her skin. "That's my family. My wife, Valanice, and our children - Alexander and Rosella." Beatrice smiled. "It's a lovely portrait." "Do you have children of your own, Beatrice?" Beatrice shook her head. "No. I wasn't planning to, either. In my line of work, I just couldn't have a family. It wouldn't be fair to them." She hung her head. "I'm not terribly fair to Roger, either." "How so?" Beatrice smiled sadly. "I care for him…don't get me wrong, but I'm just not sure how well it will work out for us. I keep trying to picture a future for the two of us, and I just don't seem able to. There's complications…" Graham seemed to be looking inside the picture as he answered her. "Matters of the heart always are, except for moments where it's all too clear..." His voice trailed off as he turned away from it, examining the shambles of the palace. He sighed deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose. Beatrice quickly reminded him. "Derek said they vanished with you, though. Hopefully, none of them came here. For all we know, they're working on a way to get us home - or stop this in the first place." "If they were, they didn't succeed. I fear the worst for them." Beatrice nodded. "There's so much we don't know yet, and time travel...well, even on Xenon there are so many conflicting theories as to how it would work that none of them make the slightest sense." As she turned back around to examine the picture, something caught her eye. "Graham, there's something behind this picture!" Carefully lifting it from the wall (it wasn't heavy - just bulky), they set the portrait down. Sure enough, behind the wall was an odd pattern of stones with symbols carved on them. Crudely hacked into the wall next to it was a riddle. One a minute, twice a moment, never in a hundred years. Graham shook his head and smiled sadly. "Derek's handiwork, I'm betting. He probably left us a trail to follow. Let's see. Once a minute, twice a moment..." Beatrice reached up and struck the tile carved with an "M." It sunk back in the wall, revealing a small hole with a rolled up piece of parchment. Beatrice took it out and read it. Very good! Now I know my liege is a man of wit, so he should have no trouble with my puzzles. I'm afraid I've set a few traps to catch those who would pillage our land further - be warned. Circle, rectangle, rhombus, square Which of these don't belong there? "Hmmm..." Beatrice wondered. "Could be the rhombus - the other three are basic shapes." "Circles have no edges, though - the rest have four." "Circle it is, then." Graham pushed the tile with a circle on it. Again, the tile recessed into the wall, revealing another note. Courtiers, schemers, plotters and spies Would say that here is where true power lies. Beatrice chortled cynically. "Oh, he's got a sense of humor. Behind the throne maybe?" "I think you may have a point, Beatrice." Graham was already crossing the room towards the throne at the far end of the room. "I meant it factiously." Graham knocked on the throne's back. "Hollow! Beatrice, Derek must have hid what he could back here." Sure enough, the backs of the throne were false. Graham removed it and his eyes lit up. Beatrice saw him reach in and pull out a sturdy, ancient-looking sword. A bright green crystal was embedded in its pommel, and it seemed to almost glow (was it her imagination or trick of the light?). Graham inspected the blade, then pulled a scabbard out of the hiding place and strapped it around his waist, keeping the sword securely at his side. "A sword?" "The Sword of the First King. It's the oldest artifact of this kingdom. The sword belonged to Daventry's first king, Legenimor. He allegedly died with this sword in his hand. Since then, it's been passed from monarch to monarch." "Treasure or no treasure, I'm not certain how a sword can help us." She shrugged. "It seems sturdy, though, and being armed is better than the alternative in this place." She scowled and pointed to a key-shaped indentation in its hilt. "What's that?" "I'm not sure. Legenimor used a key's shape as his personal seal, so the assumption was that it's just his symbol." "That looks like the key we got from the tower." Beatrice pulled the Legacy Key out from her jacket. "Maybe it would fit." She lined up the key with the indentation and pressed downward. It fit perfectly. The sword was now definitely glowing a faint blue. Graham looked at Beatrice, stunned. "Graham, what do you know about Legenimor?" "There's a lot about Legenimor that no one knows - it's all been lost aside from a scattering of ancient texts written after his death. A reference here and there says his successor destroyed many ancient records upon Legenimor's request, but the reason why was lost with them as well." "How strange. What might he be trying to hide?" Beatrice shook her head. "The Ivory Tower. He must have been behind it somehow. Why else would the key to it fit in his sword?" An ear-splitting ROAR echoed off the walls. Graham and Beatrice looked up to see that their only way out of the throne room ruins was a large and angry-looking dragon! Graham pulled out the sword and braced for attack, but the dragon looked hungry. Worse, it was no ordinary dragon. It was covered in angry-looking boils, and sported ugly scars. A metal helmet was clamped over half its head, and its forelimbs were encased in armor. "Looks like they experimented with the local wildlife," Beatrice said, backing up and trying to find a place to duck past the nasty-looking lizard and get out. No use, they were cornered. ZOT! A shot from a Sequel police rifle grazed the dragon, causing it to howl loudly and turn around, charging after the person firing at it. Beatrice and Graham quickly saw that it was no Sequel Police drone, but a man wearing a rebreather mask like theirs. Beatrice ran ahead towards the man while Graham used the distraction to climb on the dragon's back. The unknown man continued to fire and the dragon continued to charge. Beatrice saw Graham raise the sword and plunge it into the dragon's neck. The dragon's eyes rolled to the back of its skull, its roar dying as it did. As it jerked in the throes of death, Graham yanked out the sword and jumped off. The younger man, though, was still in the way! Beatrice plowed into the man, tacking him and narrowly missing the crashing bulk of the cyborg dragon. After a moment of stunned silence, she got to her feet, pulling the man up with her. "What on Planet Hell were you thinking? You would have been killed!" "I know...I just had to stop it." He turned around, and Beatrice was struck speechless. "Roger?" The young man was equally speechless. "Mom?" *** Chapter 12 Rog and Alex hit the road The kitchen was done in record time, and it actually did some good for Roger's mood. Mopping floors and putting away dishes was something he understood and took his mind away the current situation. Most of it, anyway. Let's see...Vohaul had a secret circle of Star Con officers, and decided to go into the galactic domination business with a secret society from Alexander's world that did and didn't let him go. This secret society seemed to think Xenonians were pushovers, and Vohaul probably thought the same about them. Well, that could make life fun. Now, add a planetary alignment about to happen in the next forty-eight or so hours that threatened to annihilate the multiverse or at the very least do an unwanted makeover to it. Then factor in that Alexander and he were stuck in purgatory's kitchen without a clear idea as to how to jet out of here and put a halt to this. The manager walked in as they were finishing up the last of it, stroked his furry chin and nodded his approval. "Wow. You boys sure you don't wanna come in on full time?" "Actually, we're in a bit of a hurry," Alexander explained. "You wouldn't happen to know how we could leave this place?" The manager's stubby tail wagged as he thought this one over. "That's kinda tough. Wait a minute! I know - someone left a machine out back before he had a nasty little...accident. Might get you somewhere. What do you think you guys are going to do?" "Um...Save the universe," Roger ventured sheepishly. "Really? And I thought you were gonna do something REALLY stupid. Well, if you wanna go out with a bang, I can't blame you. It may send you back to your reality or scatter your atoms...maybe turn you into two-dimensional beings. And before that, you need to get the key from the slot machine. But hey! Your necks, boys." The manager toddled off, paying them ten buckazoids apiece ("that oughtta cover it"). Roger finished the task of mopping beneath the refrigerator when he struck a small object. Knocking it out from its hiding space, Roger saw it was a small (but powerful) little magnet designed to hold messages on the refrigerator. Roger pocketed it, hung up his mop, and followed Alexander out of the kitchen. They found what they were looking for, all right. The small blue machine was stuffed in what passed for a "corner" here. It didn't look like much from the outside, resembling a dilapidated blue-painted phone booth. Magic marker, spray paint, crayon, and ballpoint pen graffiti with names, phone numbers, and sophomoric poetry decorated the faade. "And that, my friend, is an RV from hell," Roger said, appraising it. He tried the front door of it, only to find it locked tight. A small brass plaque, tarnished from neglect, rested above a small slot. TRANSLOCATINAL AUTOMATIC RELOCATION DEVICE, IMPROBABLE SYSTEMS TWO PASSENGERS MAXIMUM. INSERT KEY. Well, what they had on them wouldn't cut it. "What now?" Alexander suggested. Roger pulled the magnet from his pocket. "We take matters into our own hands. Come on." Going back to the "main room," they saw Larry again, but this time, he was really making an annoyance of himself. Weaving around the crowd and trying to dance the hustle, he was grabbing people at random and kissing them (or drooling on them if he couldn't manage that). Larry saw Roger and Alexander and started weaving towards them. "Hey, buddies! Pals!" Alexander tried to be diplomatic as Larry crashed into him, planting a wet sloppy kiss on his cheek. Alexander cringed. "I think you've had two much to drink, Larry." "Two google blasters and a cup of black coffee? Nonsense." "And he started kissing everything in sight. Oh, just great. Alex, hold him still, and for God's sake - don't listen to me." "Oof! I'll...try." Roger's thumb and forefinger snapped into place at the back of Larry's neck. He grumbled something. Alexander could make a few words out here and there and seriously wish he hadn't. "You know potato head, you just fell for the oldest trick in the book. Bad cop, worse cop...pantyhose riding into the unknown." Larry's eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he passed out in Alexander's arms. To a chorus of applause from the patrons, they drug him into the back room where Roger had been sleeping off the effects of a google blaster earlier. Kneeling over the unconscious man, Roger proceeded to search his pockets. "You're...you're robbing him?" "Hey, we roll him or someone else does. He might have a way to get out of here other than that scary-looking phone booth. We gotta check at least." "You might be right." Alexander picked up a small, foil-wrapped package that had fallen next to Larry, and looked at it puzzled, reading the strange writing on it. "One condom, triple-thick...'just in case?'" He handed it to Roger "I don't suppose you know what it is?" Roger looked at it then looked at Larry...thinning hair, gold chains, bad cologne, and the leisure suit. "Something he'll never need," Roger answered, pocketing the preventative. "Hey, that's this?" Roger pulled out a pen and a small slip of heavy paper. A number on the paper read, "1577" Roger jotted the number on his arm and replaced the pen. Alexander shrugged. "You never know, I guess." There wasn't anything else useful on Larry, so they left him to sleep it off behind a plant and walked back into the main room. A small crowd was gathered around the Slots-o-death Machine. A Costco-sized coyote had attracted quite the audience. "This is it, this is it!" "One more and you win the key, dude!" "Come on, Come on!" Roger and Alexander managed to position themselves so that they could get a better look. Roger noticed immediately that this machine was slightly different then the one he played back in Space Quest 1. First of all, a cabinet above the machine held a rack of strange metal keys that looked like they might fit the strange machine in the back. A computer screen above it mirrored the display's readout - all the better for anyone watching to get a show and cheer on the player. Another modification was a major one - instead of randomly stopping on a picture, the player pressed a button to stop the wheels. The first push would stop the first one, press it again to stop the second, and press it again to get the end result. FIVE HUNDRED POINTS WINS A KEY! THREE SKULLS, YOU LOSE! (Play at your own risk - management assumes no responsibility.) The coyote had racked up four-hundred fifty points, and was smugly showing off before the audience, juggling buckazoids as the slots turned. He seemed to turn it into a dance, bumping the machine's switch as he grooved to the tunes at the bar. "He seems confident," Alexander commented. "Yeah, he does. I wonder if he's going to beat us to the machine…" Roger stroked his chin. "I wonder if this is anything like the one I busted back on Kerona." A collective gasp went trough the crowd as they all backed up a step. Four-hundred, ninety points and the coyote-creature was starting to sweat bullets. Apparently, he got so wrapped up in playing the crowd, he forgot to play the machine. Two skulls were still on the readout and the third wheel was about to come to a halt. A whine that alternated between painfully high and low enough to make their teeth rattle boomed from the machine. Three skulls. YOU LOSE, FANBOY! Zot! From above them, a flash of sickly yellow and a puff of white, acrid-smelling smoke caused the rest of the crowd to disperse. The coyote stood there, fur turned a burnt black and a dumbfounded look on his face. Not more than a second later, the coyote's form crumbled into a pile of smelly, smoking ashes. The crowd let out a groan and went back to their business. The show was over. "Yup," Roger said nervously. "It's JUST like the one on Kerona." "Do we have a choice other than this?" Alexander asked. "Not unless you have a bright idea, Prince Charming." "I don't." Roger cracked his knuckles. "Okay, then. Stand back, Alex. I am stupid, and I am expendable. Therefore, I am going." Roger hunched over the game machine and inserted three buckazoids. The familiar display came to life as soon as the first one hit the coin slot. Rockets win 20 Cherries win 5 Nebulae win 10 Skulls - kiss your butt bye-bye! Taking out the magnet, Roger looked both ways and secured it to the underside of the machine. "Let's see if this trick works. If it does, we'll break the bank." "If it doesn't?" "The bank breaks us." Rocket...Rocket...Rocket. Their three credits were now sixty. Another pull. Three Nebulae and they were up to ninety. Three cherries followed, and another nebula trio. They'd finally broke four hundred without the slightest bit of trouble! That's when their luck started to sour. The machine readout read "TILT." Roger pressed the button, but it failed to respond! Skull...Skull... "Oh shiznit," Roger said. In his frantic attempts to get the machine to respond, he knocked the magnet off. The small magnet rolled into an inaccessible spot behind the machine. Cherries. Roger let out a gasp. "Guess the magnet trick has a limited shelf life on this one." Roger looked behind him. "Look, Alexander. Get as far away from me as you can. I'm going to risk it, but at least one of us has got to make it. Understand?" Alexander nodded and started to back away, but Roger noticed he wasn't running to get away. He was just standing out of range of the Slots-o-death blaster suspended from the nonexistent ceiling. Roger took a deep breath and braced himself. One, two, three buckazoids. Cherry, cherry, cherry - he broke even. Rocket, Nebula, skull - "Suck Methane!" the machine retorted Skull, Rocket, rocket - "Sucker!" Nebula, nebula, nebula - one more win needed. Rocket, nebula, Rocket - "Tough Luck!" Cherry, cherry, cherry - Five hundred! The machine vibrated like it was doing a victory dance and let out a cheery whistle. One of the odd-looking metal objects fell into the winnings slot. Roger snatched it up. "Got it! Let's bail!" Roger backed up from it rapidly and half-stumbled into Alexander. They'd just got out of range when… Boom! The cannon above blasted the slot machine into oblivion. Three seconds later, and it would have been him. "Let's go!" Both men said at the same time. The mutated phone booth accepted the strange key and the door slid open to allow them inside. The strange part was that it was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Roger didn't want to think about how that worked. The centerpiece to this vast, white, and overlit room was something that looked like an overgrown desk lamp taking up most of the room's center. "Incredible!" Alexander remarked, hunkering over what looked like the controls to this contraption. "It's asking for a four-digit access code, though. Looks like we're stuck." Roger shrugged. "Try the number we got off Larry - fifteen seventy-seven." "Couldn't hurt, I suppose." Alexander punched in the number. ACCESS GRANTED Roger looked over Alexander's shoulder at the star map that was laid out before them. Pointing to a set of coordinates, Roger checked the coordinates and started to enter them. "Just where are you taking us?" "Xenon. My home planet. Chances are, we'll be able to find something to take out Vohaul there." Punching the last set of coordinates, Roger pressed the enter key, satisfied with his work. At a second glance, though… "Oops." Alexander got nervous. "Roger, explain 'oops.'" Roger didn't have to. The machine lurched to life and sent them hurtling back to their home galaxy. *** On the bridge of the SCS Oakhurst, Captain Ascii was musing to himself just how much…nothing was out in space. Sure, everyone thought galactic exploration was glamorous - until they got out in the vastness of the galaxy and watched the same old darkness cycle after cycle. "Captain?" Spikey, his helm officer, had the most peculiar expression on his face. "Yes, Lieutenant?" "There's something weird out there." "We're in Star Con, Spike. Weird is part of the job." "Yes, sir, but a flying PHONE BOOTH?!" Sure enough, it was visible on the viewer - a blue-painted phone booth covered in rude graffiti floated past them for a few moments. The bridge of the Oakhurst was struck silent by this space oddity. Just as it had appeared, it seemed to lurch, then launch itself on a direct heading out of their view, leaving a shockwave that caused their ship to tilt and everyone to do the Star Trek lean. "Commander Jeysie?" He looked up at his science officer. Jeysie tucked her black curls behind her ears so that they didn't fall in her face. "Two life signs aboard, sir, from what I can tell." "Any idea what exactly that was?" "No, Captain Ascii.. Never saw anything like it." She smiled sheepishly. "I did manage to plot an intercept course based on its speed and bearing, though." Ascii grinned. "Well, now. Spike, you heard her - follow that phone booth and step on it!" *** Chapter 13 Past Prologue "The future can be changed, but only if fate will allow it."- Da'an (Leni Parker), Earth: Final Conflict "All right, send us!" No sooner had the words left her mouth did the room seem to spin. Rosella didn't even have the time to react. When reality stabilized, she and Stellar were standing in the exact place they had before, but the room was significantly altered and the dark skies above were bright and clear. A door that hadn't been there previously (or was it in the future?) was open on the other side of the room. Where blank walls had been now was a window that stretched 360 degrees around the room. Arcadia's domain had gone from barren rock to an astonishing expanse of snow-capped peaks with verdant foothills and meadows full of brightly colored flowers. In the distance, to the west, was a small city. Stellar marveled. "I can't believe it! Princess, look!" "It's a city? There wasn't one before." "That's because Sanctuary was Xenon's first city. It was destroyed almost a thousand years ago. Legend says it was due to a horrible war. A terrible weapon of great power was used against the enemy, and it destroyed the town. The survivors fled and founded new towns and cities, but no one dared to live in Arcadia's Domain again." "Arcadia's domain?" "Xenon's first ruler. If you believe the Withdrawal theory, Queen Arcadia was the one who led the first Xenonians through a powerful dimensional gate to escape barbarians intent on wiping them out." Stellar shrugged. "As I said earlier, most Xenonians call it a children's story, a myth. Still..." Stellar got a faraway look on her face as she looked down into the city. Rosella saw her finger her neck, pulling out a slender copper chain and a medallion with some arcane writing on it. Rosella couldn't quite read it from where she was standing. "Where did you hear that story?" Stellar shook her head. "I don't remember. It's like I always knew it. Children most often hear it from their parents." "So you heard it from them?" Stellar looked at her necklace, gripping the pendant for a moment before stuffing it back in her shirt. "I never knew my parents. The only thing I do know is that my records say I'm from Xenon. Well, that, and the necklace." She chuckled, but there wasn't much joy behind it. "Ever since, I guess I've just been trying to find out where I fit. Guess now, I won't have the chance to find out." Rosella put her hand on Stellar's shoulder. "You certainly aren't the first person to not know where they really came from, believe me." My brother would still answer to 'Gwydion' if you called him that, and then there's poor Edgar who has to start all over in Tamir...Rosella shook her head. They had a quest in front of them, and were on a limited timeframe. "Come on and let's solve that puzzle the tower gave us. We can't afford to lose time or hope." The first thing they did was take the door on the other side of the room. A short staircase led directly into the core of the tower - a windowless room lit by glow rods. A gigantic device of ornate ironwork, brass, and crystal lenses stood fifteen meters high, towering over them like a piece of art grown wildly out of control. Jacob's ladders on the sides pulsed currents of electricity, and banks of dials, knobs, and switches filled four banks on the room's sides. Unlike the main control room switches, though, these were strictly utilitarian, no ornate gilding or color. There was something vaguely ominous about the device, and Stellar checked all the readouts on the device. It seemed to be turned off at the moment, all the gauges reading at their lowest, and the dials and levers set to neutral positions. "Any idea what this is?" asked Rosella. "None." Stellar checked the dials - pressure, fuel level, beam strength..."It looks like it could be a generator of some sort. It might be some kind of weapon, too. The weapon controls look a little more recent than the other generator controls, but that's pretty relative, considering where - and/or when - we could be." Finding nothing immediately useful, the pair of them decided to go back the way they came, then exit the tower. **** "They did WHAT?" Vohaul was furious. Toolman shrugged. "I don't see what the problem is, my Emperor. They've less than forty hours left, no matter when or where they ended up. Certainly they can't interfere with your plans too much." "Silence, Toolman. I will not tolerate your incompetence further. I will give you one last chance to stop them and make sure MY timeline comes to pass. Do you hear me?" "My Lord...how?" No sooner did Toolman say it did a small vehicle materialize in his meeting room - right on top of the table. It looked like a modified land speeder, two meters long with a plastisteel cockpit. The cockpit slid open. At the controls was the scariest-looking hunter android Toolman had ever seen. "I found 'Bubbles' here at the Gippaazoid company's bankruptcy auction. They'd gone under after losing their second-best androids trying to collect late payments for a Terror Beast whistle...but that's not important. What is important is that this is the prototype of their deadliest collection android. Using my control of this tower, I have a bead on their coordinates. Your mission is to make sure they never see the present day. Understood?" "Yes, Emperor. Right away." "Oh, Toolman. If you fail in your mission, then Bubbles in instructed to make sure YOU don't return to the present, either. Vohaul out." **** The first thing they noticed as they went outside was the sound of a battle in the far distance. From where they were, and the strange echoing effect of the Domain, they weren't quite able to tell where it was, exactly. They took a path heading west, towards the city gates. The path curved north, into a valley. What they found there made them stop in their tracks. There had been a hamlet here, a small town that used the valley to grow crops to feed Sanctuary as well as sustain themselves. The charred remains of crops were scattered in the fields. Half-burnt wood and stone structures stood in the circle shape that marked traditional Xenonian towns. Freshly-turned earth was piled in mounds - fresh graves - and the earth was stained with blood and ashes. Forcing themselves to walk forward, they found more evidence of battle - Serenian armor made of steel links of chain, Xenonian flying machines and false monsters with innards of clockwork and powered by steam. Rosella walked up to the twisted remains of one of them, an iron dragon that looked very much like the ones that flew wild in Serenian mountains, aside from being unpainted metal. Stellar shook her head. "They did that for the intimidation. The builders of them figured that if their machines looked scary, it would make the enemy less willing to fight it. Those metal dragons even breathed fire and could wipe out an entire platoon at close range." She ran her hand along its flank until she was brushing the remains of the controller's seat. "Of course, the weak spot was the control chair. Take out the controller, and you could bring them to a stop." "Incredible," Rosella whispered, then saw something half-buried under the tail of the metal dragon. Pulling it free, she gasped and almost dropped it. "What is it?" "Stellar, did they ever say WHO your people were fighting?" Stellar shook her head. "Only that they were barbarians who wanted to destroy us and our technology. Why?" Rosella pointed to the banner. The familiar symbols of Lion and Unicorn were on the sides of the shield in the center - the shield bore a grayish blue background and a jeweled key in its center. "That's the symbol of Legenimor - Daventry's first king." "Daventry? My people and your people at war? But our planets are on opposite ends of the galaxy! You can't possibly think…" Stellar stopped mid-sentence when Rosella gestured to the tower far in the distance. "Okay, so maybe it's not as far fetched as it looks. Certainly no more baffling that trying to believe that what we're seeing happened a millennia ago." Stellar shook her head. "But anything we do here could be dangerous. In theory, at least, creating a temporal paradox by changing the past can start a ripple effect capable of destroying the multiverse." Rosella grinned. "Well, we're still existing, so there had to be a present for us to come from, right?" The young princess shrugged. "Besides, how do we know that we WEREN'T supposed to come here and alter history in the first place?" "Because if we came from one past, then changing this past would change out past, and…" Stellar growled in frustration. "I knew I should have paid attention in Temporal Mechanics." "We're here now. Let's see what's really going on." Stellar followed Rosella for a few steps. "Wait. Let's check the rest of the village. There might be more clues here, or maybe something we can use." "Good idea." The women went further into the village, past more battle-bots and fragments of Serenian weapons, past more blood and graves. As they reached the shattered remains of what once had been a civic building, Stellar's foot hit something. She looked down, expecting it to be another relic, or maybe a large stone. What she found almost made her jump out of her skin. "Oh, no. I hope that isn't…" she picked it up and looked at is closer. The object was a chunk of green crystal the size of her finger, and it was attached to a charred out wafer studded with solder and laced with fine wires. "Rosella, this is a divalium crystal and a chunk of circuit board. These weren't even invented for another few centuries, and we didn't have the technology to process divalium until about one hundred years ago." Stellar turned the damning anachronism over in her hands. "Rosella, someone else is already tampering with the timeline. We're going to have to stop whoever it is." "Halt in the name of the Queen!" Rosella and Stellar turned around. Two guards - a man and a woman - were pointing long pikes at them. Throwing their hands up to show they meant no harm, the two guards quickly relieved them of their belongings and started leading them towards the city. "Really, we didn't mean -" Rosella began. "Silence!" The woman was the less patient of the two. "We don't take kindly to spies, especially this close to Sanctuary. You'll not have a chance to make your reports, especially when we take you to see Queen Arcadia herself!" As the guards led them out of the destroyed village and towards the city gates of Sanctuary, they didn't see the towering hulk of a two-meter tall robot patrol the ruins they had left, scanning the perimeter. Gippazoid novelty Company was widely known for its fine-print contracts, which charged twenty buckazoids shipping and handling for a "free" giveaway, the "free" part referring to what allegedly was the price itself. Even when shipping and handling fees were not required to be so high due to the differing postage and shipping rates on a variety of galactic sectors, the price stood. Never mind that one of their gewgaws was only cost twenty buckazoids shipping and handling if it were delivered on a gold plate by an attired butler droid straight to one's colony dome, accompanied by a singing telegram. Inflating the shipping and handling costs was only one way that the Gippazoid Novelty company gained a certain notoriety in the galaxy. The second way was their accounting and legal practices, overseen by the prestigious firm of Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe of the Arthur Dent Anderson planetoid. Using creative tax and accounting loopholes that could have been called the Eighth Galactic Wonder, the firm could make a profit of twelve centrons look like twelve million buckazoids to the gullible investor, thereby granting them more money. For a long time, things looked rosy for Gippazoid, their executive board members were on the cover of Fortune Hunter and Crooked CEO. They took lavish vacations on Risan, and laid off their staff every year before Christmas before shipping production to the latest array of backwater colonies where they could pay less and less. Then, one executive got the idea of using androids to do the work. They never needed to sleep or eat, they never wanted pay or formed unions, and they could just be thrown away if they ever became a bother. Gippazoid's production facilities made fine robots, and worse gewgaws. To compensate, they started getting more creative in their fine print, leading them to become even more creative with their "collection agents." Androids trained in all methods of intimidation and elimination were sent out against delinquent customers. However, one fellow named Wilco had the largest account - totaling over three million buckazoids for one of their (free) novelty products. (Interest was calculated by D, C&H; in a fashion so ingenious that it won them the golden weasel, the highest award of their profession). Worse, two of their finest collection droids were rendered inoperative by the customer, and were promptly added to his bill. Just as they had created THIS android, nicknamed "bubbles" by the six-year-old granddaughter of a company executive, the creativity ran out of their accounting firm, and they were unable to collect not a single centron on the Wilco account (which they counted as their sole asset during an audit by the Bank of Xenon). Between that, and the lawsuits brought about by the survivors of the other "delinquent accounts," the company folded in disgrace and auctioned off bubbles to one S. Vohaul for zero buckazoids and the standard twenty buckazoids shipping and handling. Not like any of it mattered to Bubbles. TARGET 1: SANTIAGO, STELLAR POSITIVE MATCH TARGET 2: ROSELLA (SERENIAN) POSITIVE MATCH ORDER: TERMINATE ON SIGHT The android assassin lowered its hand from the red, faceless visor and continued its patrols, its full compliment of ammo stocked, and all systems operational. **** Stellar could hardly believe her eyes! Her common sense told her that this place no longer existed, but she was standing in the legendary palace, and her eyes drank up the rich detail - tall, sculpted columns of red marble and mosaics of green tile. Two owls, an old symbol for knowledge, guarded the large archway leading into the palace. Hydroponic gardens boasted water plants like lilies and lotuses. The palace itself was roughly pyramidal in shape and covered in climbing vines. Rosella seemed equally in awe, unable to say anything as she marveled at the sight. As the guards led them through the stucco halls to the throne room, they opened the two huge wood and brass doors at the end of a hall and goaded the women up a short set of stairs into the oval-shaped throne room. Sitting on a rather plain-looking bench of white stone was a slender, dark-haired woman. She wore a loose toga of fine linen, held in place by ornate gold pins. Her crown was also made of gold, and was in the design of ancient Xenon - a tight-fitting circlet with two large wings seeming to grow from its sides. The male guard knelt at Arcadia's feet. "We caught these two in the ruins of Artax, my Queen. We think they may be spies, sent by the barbarians." "We're not spies, my lady," Rosella tried to explain. "We're just travelers." Arcadia said nothing for a few seconds. Her orange-gold eyes looked the pair of them over from head to foot. She turned her attention to Rosella. "I can tell you're from Serenia. Did Legenimor send you?" "Legenimor? As in King Legenimor of Daventry?" "Whom else would I mean, young one?" Arcadia shook her head. "Never mind that. Which portal did you come from? They're all over this planet. Perhaps one of the portal keepers can vouch for you." "We came through the tower, Queen Arcadia," Stellar said, forcing all disbelief from her mind. "The one made of obsidian that's only a few kilometers from here." The guards started getting nervous. "They must be lying, milady. The tower is off limits to -" "Did you take their possessions, Lednam?" The male guard nodded and brought a pouch to her. The female guard put herself in front of them, blocking their view of the queen. They heard Arcadia, though. She put the two pistols aside, then took out the glow rod, and then there was silence. "Yrita, it's all right. You and Lednam may leave us." "My lady?" "You're both dismissed. Take these, though." She handed the two pistols to Yrita, who put them in her pouch, still glowering at them as she backed out the door. Lednam followed, closing the door. Arcadia held up the Legacy Key. "You did come from the Tower. This is its only key. Or so I thought." She pulled open a hidden panel on the bench and pulled out a twin of it, right down to the pattern of obsidian and ivory overlay. As soon as she did, the two slender rods melted into one. She looked upset for a moment, then nodded like she understood and put the key to the side. "The Towers hold many secrets. They are the very center of the web that keeps this multiverse stable. If you hold the key, and the Tower has granted you access to its secrets, then you are not ordinary travelers - nor spies. They have simpler methods to get what they want." She walked right up to Stellar and stared at her, almost expecting to see something, but Stellar didn't know what. "Strange. It's almost as if I should know you," Arcadia said. "You look a lot like…never mind. Tell me who you are, and how you came here. I'll tell you right now, I will know if you are lying." Rosella took a deep breath before speaking. "Queen Arcadia, I'm Rosella of Daventry. But, you see…King Legenimor hasn't been…he hasn't been around for some years. I'm…well…" Stellar decided to get it over with. "We're from the future. The Tower sent us here. Something is terribly wrong. I think someone from the present…well our present…is trying to interfere with the past. See that wafer and green rock? That's not technology of your time, but it is of ours." "Great Gods of knowledge," Arcadia breathed. "It cannot be true but it is. I knew the Tower had the ability, but we didn't dare try it." She looked up. "You're Xenonian. I can at least tell that. Who are you?" "Stellar Santiago, ma'am. I'm a soldier…well, was a soldier. Rosella is my friend. We escaped here because someone in our time was trying to gain control of the Towers. I know the man behind it is crazy enough to try time travel." "Are you referring to Prince Morgelien? I know well his experiments with dark magic - including his theories about traveling in time as easily as we now travel between Serenia and Xenon." Stellar shook her head. "I've never heard of Morgelien. Rosella?" Rosella looked as if someone shot her with a kill-o-zap sent to heavy stun. "I…know of Moregelien, Queen Arcadia. I wouldn't put anything at all past him. He's cursed…he will curse…" She took a deep breath. "He put a curse on my family." "A thousand-year old prince?" Stellar asked. "How could he have cursed…Rosella, you -" "Stellar, please -" Arcadia put up her hand to halt conversation. "I also put nothing past him. He's the reason we've had to flee to this planet, and he will not be satisfied until every Xenonian down to the smallest child has been killed." Almost as if on cue, an infant's cry pierced the thick atmosphere of the room. Walking to a knot of plants on the far end of the room, Arcadia reached into their midst and pulled out an infant - not more than a few weeks old - and cooed gently until it quieted. Holding it to her breast, she had a bittersweet smile cross her face. "Legenimor is no enemy of mine or of the Xenonian people." She looked back up, all business. "But I don't trust many of those that are in his court." She shook her head. "Unfortunately, this war will destroy both worlds unless it is stopped, and the high council will not hear my pleas, either. Unless I can bring more than my suspicions to them, we will have no choice." The door opened and a petite, imposing woman wearing a toga of bright blue stormed into the room. "My queen, why do you waste time with attempts at peace? The Serenians are barbarians, jealous of our prosperity and technology. The device is in place and I will use it to rid the multiverse of those vermin forever!" Arcadia adjusted the grip on her child as she stood. "Last I checked, Ambassador Jenya, I am still Queen." Jenya scowled. "And what are these?" she asked, gesturing to Stellar and Rosella like they were a pair of ugly statues cluttering up the palace. Arcadia smiled. "Ambassadors from Legenimor, Jenya. They've come to take my latest proposal for peace to Daventry. You'll go with them, of course." "Why do you insist on negotiating with those filthy animals when it would be easier to destroy them outright? After all, it's what they plan for us." "When you become queen, then you will know." Arcadia didn't spare the sarcasm. "Now, take them, use the Tower, and do as I say." Jenya all but spat at them as she turned and stormed away. "Your majesty," said Stellar. "Someone from the Xenon of my time is using advanced technology to aggravate the war. Rosella and I have to be allowed to stop whoever that is." "And you have my full blessing to do so." Arcadia took the circuit board and put it to the side. "As soon as you are washed and dressed appropriately, you will travel with Jenya as ambassadors. Tell Legenimor that I sent you personally, and tell him that you come on behalf of the Little Star. He will understand." Her face darkened. "But I must protect my people, and Jenya is correct - unless a treaty is brought to me that ends this war in a day and a half, the high council will launch the weapon." "We will do what we can, my lady," Rosella said. "For the sake of Daventry…and for Xenon." Arcadia looked genuinely relieved, and summoned the guards. "Yrita and Lednam will see to you. You'll be ready to go to Daventry within two hours." *** Again, the concept of Legenimor and Morgelien beling not to me, but to Daniel "Future's History" Stacey. The poem towards the bottom belongs to him as well... ------------------------------------------------------------- Chapter 14 Roger "Junior" Wankmeister-Wilco could hardly believe it. "Roger?" "Mom?" That was when he realized he made a critical error. And I thought bailing out Dad was a strange experience...just how did MOM get tangled up in this? She stared at him, uncomprehending, but definitely curious. Even if he tried lying now, he wouldn't get away with it - especially if this woman was, by some weird fluke, the person she appeared to be. Warped luck and a near-inability to lie with a straight face - two things he had inherited from his father that proved the most annoying. A quick glance at her hands - there wasn't a ring there. Surely it was just someone who looked like his mother. There might be a chance to get out of this. She shook her head. "You must be mistaken. I...I'm..." "Beatrice, are you all right?" Oh, damn! That just confirmed it- but why? [i]How?[/i] It was a man's voice, but it certainly wasn't his father's. The Serenian accent sounded thick to his ears. Emerging from behind the dragon's carcass was a man of about fifty, but his strong build and fine balance indicated that this Serenian could be a dangerous warrior if it came to it. Junior had seen how the man had used the distraction to scramble onto the dragon's back and slay it. The sword in his hands was stained red, and some of it had spattered onto his tunic - darker red than the rest of it. "I'm not sure," Beatrice said warily. She seemed to corner Junior. "Who are you?" Junior felt backed up against the wall. He gave up on lying for the time being. He would play along until he had a chance to get clear. "My name is Roger - Roger Wankmeister-Wilco. Most everyone calls me 'Junior,' though. Could you please tell me who you are?" She looked confused. Good. At least it gave her something relatively minor to ponder, something that wouldn't do a great deal of damage. "You're...you're my...our...Roger's and my..." "'Fraid so," he admitted. "But I don't get it. Why are you here?" The Serenian explained. "I am King Graham of Daventry. You're standing in what once was my castle. Your mother and I were sent forward in time by a magic gate to stop a madman named Vohaul " Ok, this just went up a few notches on the weird-o-meter... Graham held up his hand. "Wait a minute. You must be the Xenonian Derek spoke of - the one he gave his notes about the Silver Queen. We think she may have a way to stop him." "Or prevent this holocaust from happening in the first place," added Beatrice. Just what I was afraid of. You never wanted to admit just how much like Dad you used to be... Junior sighed with exasperation. "Look, you'll have to go back where you came from and forget everything you saw. You don't belong here." He took another device from his pack that resembled an overdeveloped hair dryer, and started setting dials. "You could help by telling me the exact date you left - Serenian or Standard calendar. You'll be back home, safe, and you won't cause more damage." Beatrice folded her arms. "No." "Excuse me?" "We've traveled here from the past to put a stop to this. Now, you start explaining what you're doing here." "Stop this? Are you insane? I...I can't let you do that." "Last I checked, young man, we're still in our right minds," Graham reminded him. "Those monsters in the dome have enslaved my people and ruined my homeland. The job of a king is to serve and protect the land he rules. It is my duty to stop this, and doing anything less would be an insult." "You haven't the slightest idea, do you?" Junior dropped his voice and spoke in Spacer's Basic - a pidgin tongue that worked great for crude trading and cruder language. "This whole damn rock's crawling with jakor..." Beatrice heard the insult this fellow claiming to be her son used - one that one never used even in impolite company! She snatched his arm before he even knew what was happening. Her words were polite, but her tone and body language were anything but. "Pardon me, Graham. We're going to have a chat." Dragging him off, she pushed him into a door and slammed it shut behind her, trapping them in what probably was a storeroom of some sort. "You do not use that kind of gutter language - ever. And if you do use it, you will NOT use it in front of Graham. He is a king, and he's save my life several times already. That means, by default, he has also saved yours. Did I not teach you manners, or did it go in one ear and out the other?" "You were the one who taught me those people were a lost cause," he fired back unthinkingly. If he hoped to rattle her, he did, but Beatrice was a diplomat. Words were often weapons, and Junior apparently took after his father when it came to verbal attacks - more a club than a stiletto. All she did in response was turn away for a moment to bar the door. "Care to repeat that?" He had a twisted and somewhat cruel smile on his face. "Oh, now you pretend you have some ideals. You certainly stopped pretending by the time it all went to hell." Beatrice folded her arms. "Start explaining." "Why should I?" They reached an impasse for a minute or so, each silently challenging to other to yield. Junior shook his head. "Me and my big, fat mouth." "Spill it, Wilco." He shook his head again. "How much do you think you and that crazy Serenian can handle?" "Try it." "A slip of the tongue here and there - the whole thing could fall apart faster." Another sigh and shake of the head as he examined the strange device in his hands. "Schiznit. Look, I can't explain. I don't want to explain." "You're not getting out of this, and it was too late once you told me who you were. I don't need gory details. The basics will do." "I'm having trouble believing...Wow. You're serious?" "From what I gather, I changed and not for the better, but the Beatrice of the here and now isn't about to go without a fight. I'd like to believe we're on the same side, since I can't imagine you'd aid Vohaul." "It's too late for picking sides...it's too late for anything. You don't get it. The multiverse is doomed, all we can do is stave off the forces of entropy in a losing war." He looked up. "It wasn't Vohaul - it was the Serenians, Mom. The effect started here - and it will end here. They destroyed us like they planned to all along, even though it takes them with it." A knock on the door. "Beatrice?" Beatrice turned her back for a second to open the door, letting Graham enter. Junior made his move. He took a small sphere from his belt and threw it. It cracked open and a red flash washed over Beatrice's vision before blackness hit. **** "Beatrice?" Beatrice groaned. Oh, she hadn't felt this awful since getting hit with poisonous sludge on Thrakus...Her head pounded and her body hurt all over. She was vaguely aware of someone shaking her. "Say something if you can?" Steeling herself, Beatrice forced herself to sit up, riding out a moment of blinding pain. "He attacked us. I can't believe it..." "He used something to stun us long enough to get away," Graham said. "Did you figure out who he was? Was he -" The terrible ache in Beatrice's head was starting to fade. "He was who he said he was. I don't doubt that part, even if that should be hard to believe. It's the rest of his story that leaves more questions than answers." She opened her eyes, expecting more pain, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the effect was negligible. "Graham, are you all right?" "No worse then being hit with a stun spell," he said. "It took the wind out of me, but I think I'll be fine with a little rest." Beatrice examined their surroundings. This wasn't the storeroom. "Where are we?" Graham shook his head. "I'm guessing he locked us in one of the dungeon cells. If he used a cart, it wouldn't be that hard to get us both down here. Do you think he intends on coming back?" Beatrice shook her head, finally glad it was starting to clear. The only blessing with the aftereffects of a stun blast is that the aftereffects didn't last long. "I think he means to slow us down. Whatever he's doing, he certainly didn't want us interfering. For some reason, he claimed your people planned to destroy Xenon all along." Leaning against the wall for support, she dragged herself to her feet. "" She shifted position. "As I said, more questions than answers." "I don't see how he could blame the entire planet. We're not united the way your people seem to be. Granted, most of the kingdoms get along well enough, aside from a few incidents here and there. For most realms, the cost outweighs any benefit we may get from it. A few realms try to grasp power every once in a while, but the standing armies of most lands can keep the borders intact." Beatrice shook her head. "You'd think war would be frequent on this planet." "Because we're so 'primitive' by your people's standards? Because we don't live as you do?" Beatrice felt her cheeks grow hot. "Yes...and no. Xenon wasn't always such a peaceful world. If you're one to believe in old stories, our history began by fleeing a world filled with enemies. And when we got out into space and met other species, many of them were warlike. Of course, our people developed weapons - nasty weapons. Our technology has too often been used as a way to pat ourselves on the back and take advantage of places that develop differently, or to control what could hurt us." A bitter smile twisted her face. "Arrogance is a mask for the fearful, Graham, and that goes for individuals or societies." "I see." Graham examined their surroundings. "Seeing as Junior relieved us of our possessions, we'll have to find a way to escape." "We seem to be doing a lot of that lately," Beatrice said. "Since these are your dungeons, I don't suppose you have any ideas?" "As a matter of fact, I do..." Graham was searching the walls. "Seeing as my palace is such disrepair, I'm betting these walls will have a loose stone somewhere..." Finding one on the front wall that gave he gestured to Beatrice. It took the two of them to push the bricks. In the end, they only had a small tunnel. Graham looked at it and shook his head. "I wouldn't fit through that, but it looks like you would, Beatrice. It'll have to be up to you. This is locked from the outside. You'll have to find a key or something to pick the lock so I can leave. If you can, try to find where he stashed our things - especially the key and the sword." The dungeons were in a long east-west corridor. Sure enough, there was a makeshift cart nearby - probably used by Junior to put them in the dungeon so he could go about his business. There wasn't anything in it Beatrice could take for the moment. Heading west proved useless, but at the end of the corridor to the east, Beatrice came to the junction of two staircases. One was wide and straight and lead up. The other was narrow and twisted, leading down into darkness. Well, without the orum or some means of light, Beatrice wasn't going downstairs. She headed up, hoping there weren't more dragons or similar creatures looking for a meal. Piles of rubble obstructed passages to the north and a solid wall was west, leaving a southern corridor. The way back down was on the east wall. Heading that way brought her to the castle library. Remarkably, most of the shelves and contents seemed intact. Quite a few books and scrolls were scattered on the floor as if the readers cast them aside in a hurry. Layers of dust indicated that most of these shelves hadn't been searched in years. Under normal circumstances, Beatrice would stop and browse. Books were rare things on Xenon, most information having gone to data cartridges decades ago. Tomes made of paper and cloth were fascinating relics - things eccentric wealthy people collected as hobbies. A door lead to a reading room where Beatrice found their missing items. She guessed that all Junior meant to do was slow them down. Touching the sword made her almost leap back. It felt like a living thing and not the cold metal it appeared to be. "I'm taking you back to Graham," she said, feeling a little foolish for talking to an inanimate object, but this was Serenia. Things worked differently here. As if it seemed to understand, the sword seemed to calm down and the uneasy feeling she had vanished. As she went to leave, one of the shelves caught her eye. It looked like it had been searched recently, several books scattered near it like they'd been flung off the shelves. Beatrice shook her head and searched through them, placing some of them back on an empty shelf. One of them caught her eye, A History of Daventry. Picking it up, she leafed through it. ...Most historians will claim that only one Great Withdrawal was made, and that small "holes" account for the migration that continues to this day in a mere trickle, mostly in the form of objects - odd socks, overdue library books, and other such flotsam. While considered somewhat heretical, there is evidence that a second group came. However, many records of that time have been expunged. Much of this can be attributed to the Great War, which destroyed several early kingdoms...The second group was driven from our world and assumed destroyed... Beatrice scowled and paged forward. Legenimor, First King of Daventry, left no heirs and did not take a wife during his reign. A consort is mentioned in a correspondence from Pesidilla, an ambassador of Llewdor, to King Blusk, and it provides the best evidence one existed. Said to be a dark-haired beauty from an unknown land, the fact she existed has been the only fact about her that historians have been able to prove... Towards the end of the chapter, a longer passage made her pause, reading carefully over it. ...The Great War was fought with a terrible foe, which used dread technology as easily as our kind uses the energies of the universe and magic. The most common name for them was "the Xenos" - derived from the Grecian word for "stranger." Leading the assault against them was Prince Morgelien, Legenimor's brother, and Grantithor, Legenimor's First Knight (who became King Grantithor upon Legenimor's death in the Last Battle). The War engulfed the entire planet as the Xenos retreated. Some say they used a secret system of gates that allowed them to travel between worlds as easily as a strong mage can teleport. Some say they fled behind these gates, other say the gates were destroyed and the Xenos with them. What is known is that Legenimor sealed these portals by casting his magic to the heavens from the top of the fabled Ivory Tower, ending his life and the War in the same night. The Xenos were never heard from again. Prince Morgelien was assumed killed as well, and the crown went to Grantithor, establishing the Daventry custom of the First Knight place in the line of succession. Beatrice almost dropped the book. "Xenos" - Xenonian! Beatrice's mind reeled as things that couldn't make sense suddenly made far too much sense - stories considered children's fables took on chilling new meanings and reality. She would have to tell Graham. Like everything else on this quest, however, it left three questions for every one it was able to solve. A page fell from the book. Beatrice picked it up as she put the rest of the tome on the shelf. If seeketh you the power of Legenimor, thou be well appraised. It will not be an easy task; from the path, thou may be swayed For in great Daventry lies the means, for which it may be found. Belonging to one who rules the land, by one who wears the crown. From this circle nature springs, from royal thoughts thus sown Though woe betide the unjust thief who claims it for his own In this great land, 'tis known to rest, the corpse of Legenimor Who died defending his home turf in the longest, fiercest war. His greatest mistake, which sealed his fate; he cast his magic aside. Up high into the heavens, which forever stretches wide. But the search may prove rewarding, for the seeker of this power As its apex soon approaches; when come the darkest hour Hark! Spy sun and moon and planets, as all of them align, The one prepared for the Ascension will surely see the sign Power can then be granted, to just one from this great tool If one be thee, then thou shalt be, the everlasting jewel. She stuffed it in her pocket and quickly left to find anything else that could be of use, wondering if Junior found anything useful in here, or whether he put together any of the same things. Maybe he was looking for information on the Silver Queen and found it. In either case, she couldn't afford to wait here. Graham was expecting her. A quick foray downstairs yielded the key to the cell. She unlocked the door and handed the sword back to Graham, pulling him up to the library. As they pored over texts, Graham listened intently to her theories and of the Xenonian origin legends. "Maybe this future is what's going to happen if our people go to war again. Maybe this 'Ascension' is the last chance to stop it before it all goes." Graham checked the chart in front of him. "No." He pounded the table with a fist. "Damn it all!" "Graham?" "If the Ascension was our last chance, Beatrice, then the planetary alignment they're talking about has already come and gone - twenty years ago." Beatrice walked over to the chart and took a deep breath. "Well, if that's the case, then Junior might have a point. I was hoping he didn't." She looked at the darkening skies outside. Where there should have been a canopy of stars, there were impending storms. Even the parts of relatively clear sky seemed to have large tears in them. Everything looked and felt wrong. "Junior told me before he stunned us. He said the multiverse was doomed and that there wasn't much time left at all." *** Chapter 15 Roger Wilco in Attack of the Latex Babes Dear reader, I will spare you the description of certain things along this trip, such as the sound of two heroes screaming like little girls and Prince Alexander's discovery that he can get VERY space-sick. I will instead cut directly to the - "Oh, you're as bad as that Gary guy!" Roger shouted as he pulled his carcass off the floor. "Who?" Alexander said groggily. He still looked a bit green. He shook his head. "Your landing skills could stand improvement, Roger." "We can walk away from it, Prince Charming. That's as good as you're gonna get from me." Pushing open the door, they walked out into the sunshine. They were on a plateau high above clear blue water. The landmasses around them were peaks and valleys, curves and crevasses, gently sloping and gracefully falling. The sky above them was a cheerful blue and the waters seemed just as calm, rising and falling like breath and sounding like a sigh as it reached its peak and fell into waiting pools below. "What a…beautiful place. Is this your Xenon?" Roger shook his head. Oh, it was lovely, all right, but it gave him an awful sense of d?j? vu. Somehow, some time, he had been here. Now, if he could just remember it… "No, but it sure looks familiar." Roger found the beginnings of a steep trail and started climbing down. About a meter from the bottom, a shout was heard. "Halt, men!" Alexander kept his footing, but Roger didn't, tumbling head over kiester down the slope and landing right at a pair of hoofed feet. Shaking his head to get a modicum of sense back, he looked up those legs. Atop an elegant-looking horse was a humanoid woman wearing a one-piece bodysuit that should have been labeled "dangerous curves," as it accentuated her figure in all the right places. Around her waist was a loosely-wrapped sarong, probably there to make sure she didn't chafe while riding. The spear gun she pointed at Roger, though, meant that now wasn't the time to be sitting and admiring the view. Alexander walked down the hill, hands-up. "My lady, we mean you no harm." As the first looked up, a second woman, also dressed in a curve-hugging suit, galloped up on a second horse. "Halt, boys. We don't take nicely to intruders." Alexander still kept his hands up. "My friend and I were just -" "Spare me the excuses," the second one said. "We know that men like you are nothing but trouble. I'm sure Mistress Zondra will know what to do with the likes of you." She adjusted a setting on her spear gun and fired. Fine mesh encircled and bound their hands to their sides. "Follow us to the sub - and don't get cute," said the first sentry. Too late, Roger remembered where they had landed. They were on the planet Estros, home of the Latex Babes, and the place he was about to make a few colossal errors. Maybe he could minimize the future danger to his hiney… Most likely, the best he could do would be to make it worse. **** "It was YOUR idea to steal THIS ship, Cliffy! 'Top of the line everything,' you said. 'Star Con wouldn't know it was gone until it was too late,' you said -" "Aw, go play in the airlock, Droole." Cliffy pulled out another component. For having no visible mouth, Droole sure couldn't shut up on this trip. He was a brighter shade of neon orange than normal as he continued to chew out the Xenonian engineer. "Men," sniffed Flo, throwing up her hands in a sign of frustration as she checked her green beehive hairdo in the reflection of one of the panels briefly. "Never think ahead." "Shut up, Flo," Cliffy and Droole said in unison. The Heart of Glass, a discarded Star Confederation prototype ship, was sent off to the Vivendi System to be scrapped, but the contractors hired to dismantle the advanced weapons and system on the ship was backlogged with a shipment for other military surplus, and the Heart would simply have to wait in line. It sat, neglected, but in pristine condition. Until last Tuesday, that was. With the time nearing to dismantle the beauty, Clifford Kolowski had fallen in love with it. Not literally, of course, but to take apart such a one-of-a-kind advanced ship was, in his book, worse than painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Over a few drinks with his former Eureka crewmates in a spacer's pub, they got the bright idea of stealing it. Unfortunately, they didn't make any plans for what to do after they stole it, and they found out the hard way why the ship was sent to the scrap yard. "No freaking use. Nothing wrong with the design, just Star Con uses the cheapest plastoid trash for parts, and this gal's too powerful for 'em. We're gonna need some new fuses and a higher-end buffer for the divalium chamber." Pushing himself out from under the console and giving it a strong kick, it flared back to life. "That oughta patch it until we get to a planet. From there, we find fuses, or we don't fly. Droole, what's the closest rock where we can beg, borrow, or swipe some half-decent ones?" "Well, there's Space Base fifty -" "Sure thing, Droole," Flo said. "Pull up in a stolen prototype and just ask nicely, I suppose?" "Well, the alternative is..." Droole groaned. "The alternative is Estros." "I don't see the matter with that," Cliffy said with a shrug. "Estronian factories come out with the BEST fuses and spare parts. Too bad Star Con doesn't contract with them." "There's reasons why," Droole said. "You ever SEE a Latex Babe, Cliffy?" Cliffy smiled. "Only as a centerfold. The stuff dreams are made of..." "They chew up and spit out men like Flo here." "Hey, mouthless, I resemble that remark!" Even though Droole's face wasn't capable of humanoid expressions, Cliffy could have sworn he saw a smirk. "Yes, Flo, you certainly do. Eighteen divorces?" "Eighteen husbands, only TWELVE ended in divorce, thank you. I outlived six of them," Flo retorted. "And before you make that smart-ass remark, my species doesn't eat our mates. Well, not under normal circumstances…" "It looks like the only shot we get is to try and haggle with the Latex Ladies, so let's quit wastin' oxygen and get our butts there before my patch job blows." Swinging into the helm control, Droole lay in the course. "Estros, but don't say I didn't warn you both." **** Roger and Alexander were herded into a small submarine, which plunged into the depths of the Estronian Sea. Under its placid waters were currents so strong they could pull skin from bone, but the small sub was deceptively powerful, navigating the contradicting currents like they were born to them. "I hope they realize we're not a threat to them," Alexander whispered, still trying to loosen the fine mesh that limited his movement. "Uh, not likely, Alex. I get the feeling that I'm really gonna screw things up here." "Not to offend you, Roger, but I think you've made plenty of mistakes already." "Shut up back there, male scum!" roared the pilot. The sub surfaced in a vast undersea fortress, the passage to the outside contained in a vast artificial lake. The sub docked and the sentries herded them out. Through tunnels that peaked and curved, making it nearly impossible to tell exactly where they were, Roger and Alexander were brought before Mistress Zondra, the leader of the Latex Babes. Zondra's receiving room was elaborately decorated. A plush couch in dark purple velour was canopied in purple gauze. Atop the sofa and on two velour recliners were throw pillows decorated with colored rhinestones. Large cushions provided seats on the floor as well. Zondra herself was wearing a blue bodysuit, with a purple bathrobe over the top. She was reclined on the couch, talking on an old-fashioned looking communications device. It had no visual capabilities, and consisted of an earpiece and a base. Zondra cradled the earpiece between her shoulder and ear as she talked. "Good. This will be the most fun we've had in weeks! Make sure there's plenty of fruity drinks, too." A pause. "What are we going to for entertainment? Well, there was going to be a floor show, but I think they're canceling." Seeming to notice her sentries and their two prisoners, she waved to them. "Sorry, Jane. Sentries found something. I'll get back to you later. Oh, yes, I'll come up with it. Bye-bye" She hung up and greeted her sentries. "Xeyna, Gabbi…what have you brought me this time?" "Two intruders. We caught them while out on patrol." A somewhat predatory smile crossed Zondra's lips as she walked around them, inspecting them like she would a piece of furniture. "Gee, they're cute. Especially this one." She ruffled Roger's hair. "Always had a thing for cute and clueless." "Uh, er…" Roger was a little confused by this. He remembered his first…well, maybe this was his first visit. But he remembered it, and you couldn't remember the future, or could you…? Forget it. He was in trouble here and now with the Latex Babes, and would probably find out soon enough why they Zondra was out to make him sorrier than usual in the SQ10 era. Alexander again tried diplomacy. "We are trying to get back to the planet Xenon when our ship crashed. We don't mean you or your fortress any harm." Zondra seemed to mull this over. "Really?" Alexander started laying it on. "Why would anyone try to destroy a fortress or a people as lovely as yours?" She seemed genuinely flattered. "Really? Well, we normally feed intruders to the sea slugs, but you're cute and you seem to want to stay, so we'll let you." She signaled to the sentries. "Take them to the cloister, make sure they're clean and groomed." She leered evilly at Roger. "I think I'll break you in myself!" She pulled open a drawer and started looking into it. "Let's see. Where is my set of ropes?" Roger tried to say something and failed. A boy toy? Okay, before he got that glimpse of what they would do to him later - or met Beatrice - this would have been a fabulous offer. He'd faced worse fates than being the plaything of a leggy, curvaceous, white-hot… Pull that tongue back in your mouth and remember how bad she wants to kick your butt later. He then got what he thought was a bright idea. "Uh, sorry. Me…being tied down…I can't…I've got to get back to roaming the galaxy." Roger blurted out. "There's no way!" Zondra pouted. "Guess you and your friend are going to need a little sensitivity training." Alexander was genuinely puzzled. "Sensitivity training?" They had been led to a large room and strapped into two large chairs using five-point restraints. A control panel was mounted to one wall. Zondra reentered the room with two other women - one a redhead in a green robe. The other was a large woman in a black leather bodysuit and spiked black hair. This one favored bracelets with silver spikes set into them. The redhead started setting controls. "Ack!" WHAM! The chairs fell backward to become padded benches. The restraints still held though. Zondra smiled. "Welcome to sensitivity training, guys. This will be the best thing that happens to you, trust me. After we're through with you, you won't be just plain men anymore. You'll be the PERFECT life partners for us!" She patted Roger's cheek. "I'll just leave you to Maybelline and Thoreen, okay? Alexander was attempting to talk his way out of it. "You ladies flatter me greatly, but I'm afraid my heart is elsewhere." Zondra looked over at Maybelline, and then looked back at Alexander. "Don't tell me, you like show tunes…" she said, almost whining. "Uh, no." "How about Judy Garlic movies?" "I've never heard of her." "I don't know," Thoreen said, the husky, black-clad woman inspecting Alexander closely. "He does have more fashion sense than usual." Maybelline smiled evilly and pulled a thin leather whip from her belt, not unlike the ones used in taming large beasts. "Well, I could just take him to my quarters and have a…private chat…with him." She held it right under Alexander's nose. "Maybe a session with this will loosen him up a bit." Alexander looked positively terrified. His face went ashen and he started to shake. It almost made Roger physically sick in sympathy. Strangely, he wasn't even looking at the Latex Babes, but into a very private hell. Roger had seen the look on his own face after waking up from dreams where he'd been trapped on the Arcada, or when he remembered…or foresaw…or…Oh, hell! Enough of this! "Leave him alone! Just do what you're gonna do to us and get it the hell over with, okay?" "Well," huffed Zondra. "If that's how you boys want it. "Put them on 'caveman' setting, Thoreen. We'll make you sensitive if it kills you." Another flick of the switch and the benches pulled upwards. Bright pink helmet-like devices dropped on their heads, blocking out all vision and hearing. The sickening sound of an overplayed and maudlin love song filled Roger's ears and he groaned. "Aw, not Starship Trytanic…" Roger gritted his teeth. He tolerated Vohaul, he could tolerate this. **** Flo had hailed them, and their communications outpost responded nicely, inviting them to beam down and meet the party. The Heart of Glass assumed standard orbit. Flo and Cliffy, beamed down, leaving the ship with Droole. They materialized in the transporter chamber of the Sea Fortress. Greeting them were two sentries and Engineer Lana, who controlled the largest space-parts factory on Estros. Unlike most of the women, she did not favor the one-piece, swimwear-style suit, preferring a full-on catsuit with a high neck. It accentuated her square jaw and cropped brown hair. Lana looked them up and down, addressing only Flo. "Well, now. You said you were interested in our fine replacement parts?" "Yeah, you know men - always build it in a hurry. Our ship is in need of a few small parts. Cliffy can tell you which ones." "We need some fuses," Cliffy said. "232-J series, and also use a divalium chamber buffer. Now, as for stuff that would be nice to have…" He pulled out a short, hand-scrawled list. "A P-32 Space Modulator, a Oscillation Over-thruster, and -" "Excuse me?" Lana was looking at Cliffy in a most peculiar fashion. "Could you name those parts?" "J-232 series fuses, P-32 modulator, and -" Lana patted Cliffy's cheek. "What an interesting specimen you are." "Specimen? You think I'm some sorta -" Cliffy forced himself to shut up once he noticed the sentries getting antsy. "Well, we're prepared to pay for your parts, doll, I know your type likes jewels, so we did get these -" Cliffy opened the chest they'd beamed down with. It was filled with high-quality orum, worth plenty in trade on most worlds. It was Cliffy's private collection, and while he was upset to part with his prized rock collection, he was more interested in surviving. "Well, that orum is sure pretty," Lana said. "But I found something that I really want!" "And that would be?" Lana pointed to Cliffy. "I wanna borrow him, Flo. I'll return him after tonight." Flo looked at Lana in disbelief. "I find it SO sexy when a guy talks spare parts to me," she cooed. "And when he's still able to insult me. The men here are so docile after they get their sensitivity training, and that does nothing for me." She leered. "I get eight hours with your engineer, no strings attached. Up to him, though. I'm a little old-fashioned that way." "Cliffy?" asked Flo. "Can you believe?" "Eight hours with a…oh, you gotta be kidding me." "Nope." Cliffy's hormones overrode his head. "Eight hours…just eight hours?" "I think you'd get on my nerves after that," Lana answered. "Sold," Cliffy and Flo answered in unison. **** Roger soon found out something interesting. It started with the maudlin heroine's attempt to throw herself out the airlock. The git of a hero told her that if she went, he went. Roger cheered at this and was rewarded with a painful shock. Maybe it was possible to overload the helmet. Well, either that or it would turn him into Roger flamb?, either of which was better than having to put up with a marathon of this drivel. The bridge crew announced an asteroid was dead ahead. "Where'd you get that pilot license? Gippezoid?" ZOT! The asteroid collided with the ship. "Oh the asteroid! Three cheers for the asteroid!" ZOT! The hull breech was compromising life support and sending dozens of hapless extras into deep space. "Everybody out in space? Well, we all KNEW this movie sucks!" ZOT! ZOT! The shocks were getting stronger and the picture was starting to waver. It was actually working! The escape pods were quickly taken, leaving the doomed lovers with one escape pod. The vengeful fianc?e of the heroine (who certainly wasn't the hero) charged up to the deck. "Yeah, pal. Sorry she cheated on you. Maybe the fact she laughed when you pulled down your boxers was a clue." ZOT! ZOT! ZOT! Heroine dragged her mortally wounded hero into the last escape pod and blasted away, leaving the pissed-off (and doomed) fianc?e on the deck of the doomed ship. "Told you - leave the broad behind!" ZOT! The picture didn't recover, and Roger's nerves were feeling shot. The heroine shook her hero, begging him to wake up. "He's dead, babe!" ZORCH! "You get his car keys, I get his wallet!" The next jolt was so bad that Roger convulsed with the power of it. The picture faded to black. The only thing that could be heard was a repeating loop of the god-awful title song. Roger sang along in an off-key falsetto. "Every night in my dreams, I see you, I smell you…Your farts will go on and on…" A final convulsion of the machine and the feeling like someone was rearranging his insides. The smell of smoke and melting electronics assaulted his nostrils. As his limbs jerked with the surge of electricity, he felt the restraints loosen, pouring him onto the floor, weak and sweating, but alive. Behind him, the sensitivity trainer smoked and finally gave up the ghost with a small explosion. Running over to the control panel, Roger hit the power button, and released the restraints on the other bench. "Alex?" "I'll never let go, sweetheart. I'll never…" Roger pulled off the helmet and shook him. "Hey, snap out of it!" Alexander groaned and opened his eyes. "Y'know, that wasn't such a bad story…" "I worry about you. Come on. Let's get out of here!" Sneaking through corridors, and making sure to keep a low profile, they started to make their way back to the sub platform by way of maps along the route with the convenient "You are here" markings. They had to stop once they reached a corridor labeled "Living Quarters 218-300." Two women hung out in the corridor talking. "You look sooo good, Trixie. What's your secret?" "Well, diet, exercise, and just a little bit of Speed…" Both women found this amazingly hilarious. "Well, Trixie, glad to see you lost all that weight and managed to KEEP it off. What are you gonna do with your old clothing?" "Maybe make curtains out of them. I dunno. Anyway, let's head for the party. I hear Lana's got one hot guy to do some dancing." The pair giggled as they walked down the corridor and out of view. One of the quarters was left open. Dashing inside, they shut the door behind them. The room was pink and pinker. A stuffed monkey sat on top of a day-glo pink dresser, and the walls were painted a pretty pastel. A vanity sported a mirror framed by pink fake fur. "The only way to the submarine bay is THROUGH the party room, and it'll be crawling with sentries," Roger said. "The good news is that I think we have a way we can sneak out of the fortress undetected." "Great, Alex! Now, what's the bad news?" Alexander held up two tent-sized, extremely ugly dresses, and related accessories, including a pair of wigs. **** The party room was HUGE, and it seemed as though every Latex Babe in the compound was crammed inside. Liquor flowed, and every drink had a cute little umbrella as garnish. Men could be seen here, mostly wearing unflattering Speedos or tight-fitting uniforms as they mixed drinks or waited tables. The Latex babes themselves were all beautiful beyond belief, curvy bodies and long legs, toned and tanned. Perfect breasts and hips…The sight was enough to make any straight man's hormones carbonate. Roger reminded himself not to get caught checking out the scenery. "I'm not looking, I'm not looking. Beatrice would have my hide…" He thought he heard Alexander muttering something similar, only with a name that sounded like "Cassandra." A bass-heavy, percussive tone blasted through the auction hall. Rainbow strobes flashed to the music as crowds around the stage whistled and howled. "Shake it Sugar!" Roger caught a glimpse of the sight on stage and froze, causing Alexander to blunder into him. "Roger, what the - " "I'm seeing it. I ain't believing it." He pointed to the stage. Up on the platform, Cliffy bumped and ground. Swiveling his hips, he reached behind him and pulled out the bandanna, whipping it around three times before spinning with a grace that seemed unlikely in his portly body, and tossed it back. Roger could have sworn three women dove for it, shrieking, while a fourth passed out. Cliffy certainly could shake his butt. The low-slung jeans he wore were slipping down further than usual, and Roger wanted to attribute that to the dancing until he saw Cliffy's tool belt hit the floor, and the jeans follow. What an incredibly…unattractive…sight. It seemed to make the Latex Women even more ecstatic, though. His former engineer stood there in a shirt and boxers decorated with hearts. After a few more seconds, the shirt went by way of A cat-suited woman climbed up on stage with him, to the appreciative hoots and howls of the gathered women as she started dancing with Cliffy. He swept her into his arms and started dancing across with her, and she was obviously appreciating it. Roger and Alexander had ducked into the tunnel system, and were running (as best as two men could manage in high heels) towards the sub bay. Hopefully with all the Latex Babes distracted by Cliffy's "full Monty," they'd be able to hotwire a sub and get out. The entrance was guarded, though by one green-skinned, middle-aged woman. Roger signaled to Alexander to halt. "Flo? That you?" "No, it's the divorce fairy." She looked them up and down. "Captain, you make one UGLY woman." "Thanks for the compliment. Now, we have to get out of here before they send us back to sensitivity training!" Flo huffed. "No kidding. These broads have no idea how to tame a man." Whipping out a communicator, she signaled the ship. "Hey, Droole. You are NOT going believe what I found. Bring your Quadrac insta-cam, and set three to beam up along with the parts." "Cliffy with you?" "Nah, we traded Cliffy for the parts." "Pardon me?" "Just get us aboard. I'll explain…best I can." The cool tingle of a transporter gripped them. **** "And so we rented Cliffy to the lady for eight hours, and she let him install them before she took him into custody." Roger, grateful to be out of the dress, was sitting on the bridge, getting the full story from Flo and Droole. He introduced Alexander, and told them of his twisted path to Estros. He told them of the upcoming alignment to the planets, and of Vohaul and Veneer. "Figures," huffed Flo. "Star Con's gone to hell. Lots of captains seem more out to grab power than to serve their crew. It's gotten ugly out there. That's why we decided to make a run for it. We've got most of our systems on auto. This ship was designed for a skeleton crew of two-dozen." "Then how are three people...?" Roger shook his head. "It's Cliffy. I'm not asking." "With half of the top brass in on the conspiracy - well, how are we gonna stop this lunatic?" asked Droole. Flo smiled. "Well, we saved Star Con from those toxic sludge bandits in a garbage scow. We've got a top of the line prototype, and now that we've got the finest captain the fleet's ever seen…" Alexander shot a glance over at Roger. "I hadn't known you were a captain, and are these deeds of heroism true?" Flo laughed. "Alex, honey. Captain Wilco here saved Star Con's butts several times over, starting with the Sarien incident, and gotten kicked in the butt for his trouble. Frankly, the Confederation seems not worth the trouble for how they treated him." "I'm no hero, guys. I'm just -" Roger shook his head. "We've got less than thirty-six hours before this alignment, and we have to find some way to get to Xenon and warn them about Vohaul. Even better, find a way to warn them about Vohaul and get them to believe it!" "We also have to find out just what the Black Cloak is getting out of this deal," Alexander said. "And we're running out of time to do it." Cliffy, wearing naught by a blue silk robe, staggered in through the doors of the briefing room, interrupting the meeting. He walked as though drunk, and his eyes were glassy. Roger caught his bulk. "Easy, Cliffy." "Captain," Cliffy said, delirious. "There be ladies there." "I know, Cliffy. I know." "I think I can die happy…" Cliffy said, falling unconscious with a glassy smile plastered to his face. Propping Cliffy up in a corner, Roger, Flo, and Droole entered the bridge of the Heart of Glass. After Flo and Droole took their seats at helm and communications, the pair looked expectedly at Roger. Droole gestured to the center chair - the captain's seat. "It's where you belong, sir." Roger felt the contours of the captain's chair, almost as if in a dream. Holy hand grenades, they expected him to sit there. Somehow it felt different than when he was put on the Eureka. There, it was a fluke. Now, it was asking him to take that seat deliberately. With trepidation he'd not felt since realizing he was the lone survivor to the Arcada, Roger sat down, adjusting his tunic. No time for blundering this round. "Flo, scan the sector. Droole, set course for -" Flo turned around. "Captain, I'm picking up a distress call. It's the SCS Rio, a medical ship. They're only three minutes by Lite Speed." "Captain," Droole advised. "We're in a stolen ship, and we risk losing time and are going to be vulnerable if we stop for a rescue." "Are there any other ships in the sector?" Flo shook her head. "The SCS Excalibur, Captain Veneer's ship WAS near this sector, but I can't find a trace of it now." She looked up. "Life support is failing. By the time anyone gets there, any survivors won't be." "Droole, set course for the Rio." "Setting course. Aye, Captain Wilco." Roger almost forgot how good the title sounded. *** Chapter 16 Five hundred worlds, and one hundred, forty-seven species made up the Star Confederation. From the oldest sectors, like Xenon and Andromeda, to the fledgling colonies at the edge of the known multiverse, the Senate was the voice of central governance. Sector ambassadors were the eyes and ears of the Senate, reporting and investigating the goings-on in their assigned sector. The Senate Room was a huge rotunda, with a floor set in the center and seats for the two hundred and eighty three senators, with Consul Brox Beetle sitting on at the seat opposite from the large doors making up the entrance to the platform below. To his left was Admiral Williams, Admiral-in-Chief of StarCon Fleet. Williams was a middle-aged human woman, her auburn hair just starting to go gray, and her tunic was a crisp white with the gold emblem of Star Con. The only other color on her uniform was the array of medals and ribbons, from the Gold Star for bravery and valor, to the small orange pin that signified her first-place victory in the StarCon Officer's Chili Cook-Off. Consul Beetle was...Well, a Beetle, from the planet Vagenfolk. To call most planets a dump would offend the natives, but to the flying, crawling, and creeping citizens of Vagenfolk, it was the highest form of praise. Their capital city, Bugtopia, was a mile-high wire frame filled with all manner of substances most species would consider noisome. Spacer slang referred to it by the quite accurate nickname of "Great Galactic Trash Can." His six-limbed, tortoise-shaped body was covered in a finely woven robe of local arachnid "silk" the same shade as Admiral Williams's dress uniform tunic. In the gallery above the Senate were the reporters, and the few citizens who waited five years and a full background check to be allowed the honor of watching an actual session. Many of them were referrals from local insomnia clinics - the best form of therapy for the worst of cases. The heavy door slid open and Captain Veneer marched in the door. Quickly, he took position in the floor center, snapped off a quick salute to the admiral and consul, and a dramatic set of poses for the cameras. He was getting so absorbed in getting the right angles for the gathered press that he almost forgot himself when Williams called him to attention. "Report, Veneer." "Of course," he said. "Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gender-optional, I bring news that will forever change our views of history, leadership, and the nature of the multiverse itself!" the last words seemed to echo dramatically off the walls. "For eons, we have dismissed certain stories as legends - myth and fairy-tale. I am here to tell you all that they are more than the truth." Admiral Williams seemed tired, even as the rest of the gathered seemed spellbound. "Dispense with the melodrama, Captain." He seemed annoyed for a moment that his dramatic speech was being cut short, then remembered the Admiral's presence. "Of course." Clearing this throat, he took a step aside and took out a rod-shaped control. Pressing a set of buttons on the controller, a giant holoprojector rose from the floor. Inserting a data card into its access slot, a three-dimensional map of the known multiverse flared to life - large enough so that the gathered could see it. "Our patrol ships have been examining the G6 sector - a sector that is barely explored, and only recently warranted our attention at all. It is in this sector that the Excalibur and the Janus made an astounding discovery." Veneer changed the holographic display to bring up the scattered and mostly unknown sector of G6, Among the coordinates of planets, asteroid belts, and star systems, a single planet was lit in red. "We have discovered the fabled planet of Serenia." A gasp went through the room. "Serenia? Can it be true?" "Serenia is a myth! It can't exist!" "Veneer, explain this to us!" Beetle banged a gavel held in one claw while the others gestured for a halt to conversation. "Order, order! Veneer, are you CERTAIN that planet is indeed..." he seemed unable to say it. "Indeed, it is. And it bodes even worse news for the Star Confederation, Great Consul. In less then thirty-two hours, Xenon and Serenia will enter into an alignment." He switched back to the large map, with Xenon showing a bright blue and Serenia still a tiny speck of red. "I've also detected a powerful energy source on the planet - and it's only growing stronger the longer we wait. There is also evidence of two greater threats." He switched off the terminal. "Two ships have already been destroyed. The diplomatic cruiser, Janus, was destroyed. Only a few survivors. The next to be destroyed were the SCS Rio, an unarmed and helpless medical ship - no survivors. Star Con's ambassador to G6 has gone missing and is presumed dead." He made a great show of sorrow. "Ambassador Wankmeister had attempted to make a show of peace to those animals, only to be killed." "It would seem the Serenians have not forgotten their ancestral hate of us," Senator Balfour of Xenon said calmly. "We must make certain they are controlled and cannot hurt us." "Is this merely a Xenonian problem?" asked another Senator. Admiral Williams shook her head. "Not if the stories are indeed true, Senator. It would mean that the Serenians would be intent on destroying not only Xenon, but all who would defend her. They were said to be barbarians, not content to rest until they had drank every drop of Xenonian blood." She shuddered. "But if they are barbarians, then how did they obtain such power?" Veneer smiled, briefly, then remembered himself and quickly put on his show of regret. "I believe that one of our own has betrayed his home to the Serenians - none other than Roger Wilco." Another gasps and murmur session among the senators. Could it be true? Veneer paced the room like a clichd master detective, stating his case. "Admiral Toolman captured his associate, the former Lt. Stellar Santiago, in the company of a Serenian terrorist. The two held him at gunpoint and tried to escape, only to vanish into Arcadia's Domain." More murmuring. The Senator from the Mitos system laughed. "What? All of you believe this? Wilco is a grand fool - a falsehood. His so-called deeds are nothing more than either blind luck, or sheer exaggeration. The man you claim as masterminding grand treason against the Star Confederation is a mediocre mop-jockey!" Veneer smiled. "Or he merely acts the part of the fool. Did anyone else think it strange that he was the ONLY survivor of the Arcada, for example? We know the Sariens, ladies, gentlemen, and gender-flexible. Do you really think a fool could escape their clutches? Perhaps he was the one who let them aboard to destroy the Star Generator..." Even more worried mutterings. "He brought the plans back to Xenon, let's not forget, and the Sarian ship was destroyed." Senator D'Sane from Andromeda. "Ah, but he alone carried the plans - and there is the matter so several missing years from his file between the Space Quest 2 and 3 eras...Who knows what he may have done with those plans, your honors? Copied them, sold them, put them up on Napstoid or Flea-Bay..." More nervous whisperings among the Senators. "A weapon that is more powerful than anything we've seen before - modified from the Star Generator, your honors! And let us not forget Wilco's trial and the charges he got off so lightly from - abandoning his post, insubordination...even the cold-blooded murder of the very man who gave him his command! And another murder - Lady Sharpei. She was a philanthropist, a pillar of the community, and the widow of Admiral Blundtphang, hero of the Phallopian Campaign...and now I receive word that his confederates in the murder of Captain Quirk have stolen a ship, no doubt on his orders..." "A warrant, then. A warrant for Wilco's arrest!" shouted one. "A death sentence! Nothing less!" As the council started haggling over Roger's impending death, Admiral Williams gestured to Veneer that he was dismissed if he had nothing further. **** Outside, in the halls of the space station that passed as the Senate hall, Admiral Williams quickly caught up to Captain Veneer on his way to the admiralty's briefing hall. "Captain, a word please." Veneer tried to hide a scowl, but his copious charm failed with Williams. It always had. "What has the Senate decided, Admiral?" "They're ordering Star Con to hunt down and bring back one Roger Wilco - based on your copious persuasion and considerable damning of him on the senate floor." "I'm pleased to know he'll be gone at last. It ought to please my..." he stopped himself. "Well, aren't you convinced, Admiral?" "Not in the least," she said flatly. "Veneer, I've watched you flatter and charm your way through the ranks and into my halls, but you're transparent - your service record is mostly mediocre, aside from some incidents that you've manage to exaggerate and inflate. You're a hero of StarCon because you're the type of image they like to project, but I'm not impressed - or fooled." Veneer seemed genuinely hurt. "There is enough to warrant suspicion against Roger Wilco, but he has given me something you haven't - results and evidence. The testimony of Dr. Beleauxs in the Sharpei incident, linked with files taken from cyberspace, were more than enough to clear his name and almost ruined Sharpei's. We saw the wreckage of the Deltaur and of the Arcada, and have the testimony of the Goliath's surviving crew to boot." Veneer folded his arms. "If I may, Admiral, it sounds like you're a friend of this Wilco." "I'm a friend to the facts and results, Veneer, and there's precious little when it comes to you." She shook her head. "But it does appear as though the Serenians haven't forgotten their ancestral hatreds, and that someone has been supplying them with weapons based on the Star Generator technology." She gestured to Veneer to follow her. "Admiral Williams, surely an investigation should be conducted, and no ship can match the Excalibur." "Yes, which is why I'll head up the investigation myself, captain - aboard your vessel." Veneer shook his head. "Ah, yes. I anticipated this." The door to the briefing room slid open, and Williams walked in, taking her seat at the head of the table. "Gentlemen, Ladies, I trust you've looked over the briefing materials before we -" Her words died in her throat. Veneer was standing next to her, a kill-o-zap aimed at her forehead. "Veneer, have you lost your mind?" she looked around the room at the five other high-ranking admirals. "Why are all of you sitting here?" "Consider this a takeover, Admiral," said the oldest of the group, Admiral Ken Cron. "Veneer will find what he's been ordered to find, we've named our scapegoat, and soon none of this will matter." "What? This is an outrage!" "Stay still, Admiral Williams..." A metallic, hollow voice filled her ears. "I only want you out of the way while the final stage of my plans is complete." On the viewer in the room's front, Vohaul's distorted image stared back at her. Veneer held his ground, but the other admirals stood at attention and saluted. Williams was too stunned to speak. "You have a choice. You can swear loyalty to me and the New Order, or you can die." "How did you do this? My own admirals...the men and women who swore allegiance to the Confederacy..." Veneer dropped all pretense of civility. "We simply let them know who the winning side would be and let them choose accordingly." "There are still loyal captains and admirals, Dr. Vohaul, people who will stop you." Vohaul laughed. "No one in the Star Confederacy was able to defeat me or halt my clone armies. You remember well how many were lost trying. No, the only man who blemishes my perfect record of invincibility is now marked for death by your own Star Confederation and has no chance of stopping me - even with his pathetic Serenian friends." "Then...then it is true..." "More than enough, Admiral Williams. Captain Veneer will notify me of your decision. Vohaul out." **** Meanwhile, on the edge of known space... "Captain Ascii, priority three transmission from StarCon Command." The ship's computer was a cheery, female-sounding voice, normally a little too saccharine for the ears, and twice as annoying when announcing a shipboard emergency or that the Soylent machine ran out of the makings for Kerona Ale. "On screen, computer." Admiral Luc Vanhal, one of the newly-minted admirals, addressed the crew. "Ascii, good to see you." "Likewise, sir. But I'm guessing this isn't a social call." Vanhal cleared his throat. "No, it's not. I regret to inform you that Admiral Williams has taken ill, and will be detained for some time. I've been appointed to act in her stead." As you and DeepShip 86 are the closest vessels, this order will go for both of you. You're being sent to find and intercept a stolen prototype vessel. I'm transmitting the specs now." Ascii pressed the side of his temple and the large, wrap-around visor he wore. It first allowed him to "see" normally after an accident involving an academy initiation prank gone haywire. Subsequent upgrades had him able to receive transmissions and data directly from StarCon frequencies - and get premium channels without having to pay extra. "The Heart of Glass was slated to be destroyed when Star Con realized that it actually had to pay for top-notch parts, rather than going with the cheapest contractor then triple-billing the taxpayers. It made building a fleet of them impractical at best. It's got a warp injector and type ten neutron beams. It also has banks for ten proton torpedoes, but we never armed those." "And our job is?" "Find the Heart, and do whatever you have to delay it, or get it back to Star Con's nearest command center." His voice darkened. "You are authorized to use deadly force, Captain. We have reason to believe it's fallen into the hands of Star Con personnel turned traitors...allied with the planet of Serenia." "Serenia? That old legend? Sorry, but magic can't exist. Technology is provable, logical, but the powers of the Ancients were nothing more than..." "Very real things, Captain. I've transmitted the Heart's last known coordinates. They were seen leaving the Estros sector an hour before you arrived. They can't be far. Vanhal out." Ascii turned to his crew and shrugged. "You heard the man. Pleimert, start long-range scans, start looking for ships matching the Heart of Glass transponder code and class. Spikey, we're going to need to set course back to Estros and start searching there." "Yes, Captain. Correcting course." Ascii looked up at the science station. Sorry, Jeysie. Orders are orders." Jeysie looked at the vast expanse of stars. "We're turning on our own, sir." "Doesn't make me feel any better, Jeysie. But we're going to protect Star Con - that's what matters." **** The Rio had that massacre decor scheme and destruction ambiance that brought to mind the Sarian-invaded Arcada and post-apocalypse Xenon. Of course, it certainly wasn't Roger's favorite design. Droole beamed down with him and the two were attempting to find life signs on board the wreck. They arrived on the bridge, one of the few intact areas. "And here I thought the Goliath was a sight," Droole said. "Klorox 2 comes close, though." "Two places I never want to revisit, Droole." "Me, neither, Captain." Droole pushed aside the corpse of the unlucky helms-being and punched up what was left of the ship's controls. "Bryce Almighty...SCS Rio...manifest reads eighty-six aboard. They'd just dropped off a group of ill colonists from the G6 colony of Lukaszuk - radiation burns." Droole looked up. "For being the middle of nowhere, G6 has seen a lot of action lately. The Excalibur's the fleet flagship - this isn't usually their patrol route. Then there's the diplomatic cruiser Janus...Sir, it's listed as destroyed." He looked up. "Ambassador Wankmeister's among the -" Roger held up his hand. "She's not dead, Droole." "Sorry, sir. It's right here." "Alex and I saw her in Vohaul's custody. Secondly, she can't be dead, because then I'd be." "Pardon you, Captain?" "No time for this, Droole. Pull up what you can. Lifesigns are top of the list." Droole nodded and continued to work the half-fried panel. "I'm reading life support intact and probable life signs coming from the cargo bay. Could be survivors - could be the attackers." "Noted and logged," Roger said. "Any way to get there from here?" "Emergency access through the tunnels. I'll put them on your communicator, sir. You'll need to activate and deactivate a series of emergency force fields to get there. Unfortunately, it's a trial process." "Don't you mean 'trial and error,' Droole?" "An error means you'll be sucked out into space, Captain." "Oh." He had pushed much of his slave past to the darkest recesses of his brain, hoping to lock it away and trying to remind himself that it was dead to him. Gwydion of Llewdor was a falsehood, the name of someone that never existed. As long as he could tell himself that, he could wear this new name and role - Alexander of Daventry, a life so far removed from Gwydion's as to be almost alien. This new persona took getting used to, and on most days, he could believe that persona and person were the same. It was in the middle of the proverbial nights that reminded him otherwise... The room had been lit by candles and perfumed with spicy incense. He couldn't remember how old he was, but he did remember the new clothes. They were a fine white tunic and breeches of doeskin - the first and only set of clothing other than rags that he would have a chance to wear until his escape. He lay in the middle of the floor, unable to move and softly whimpering with terror. The cold tiles had been painted with an arcane symbol, and the vermilion color suggested blood. For all he knew it was blood. He was surrounded by men and women in concealing black cloaks. He couldn't make out the faces of any of them - save one. Mannanan, his master, was at his feet, staring at him with a look akin to hunger. They started to chant in a mysterious language he did not recognize. Another figure appeared, almost made of smoke, but with blue, glowing yes. He also wore a concealing cloak. Calmly addressing the gathered ones, he spoke in a low voice. "You've called me, my children?" "Yes," Mannanan, the elder of the group, spoke. "We've brought you what you have asked for." Though he could not see it, the boy imagined a smile on the figure's unseen face. "You have served me well, Mannanan. Yes, he is perfect. Such a beautiful boy as well...He will be my link - my eyes and ears until the time comes." He addressed the wizard society. "Your offering is accepted. Let the ritual commence." He felt the death-like touch of the figure on his chest and forehead, felt the evil power seep into him until the only sensation was bitter cold and the only sight were those terrible blue eyes... Alexander woke in a cold sweat. At Roger's insistence, he had been shown to one of the empty quarters and told to rest. Roger showed him how to use some of the implements he didn't recognize, and after worriedly looking him over, told Alexander he had matters to attend to on the bridge and that he'd return later. Of course, this only added to the enigma that was Roger Wilco. These "memories" had never haunted him while he was Mannanan's slave, but he could attribute that to the wearying chores and the preoccupation with surviving the wizard's ill temper. Resisting the temptation to throw on his shirt right away, Alexander walked over to the looking glass that hung in the bathroom. Remembering Roger's instructions on how to use the sink and basin, he washed his face and ran his fingers through his hair to at least make himself look decent. Alexander looked in the mirror. Gwydion stared back. His wiry body had caught the eye of more than a few noblewomen, and he found it baffling when Rosella told him that her ladies-in-waiting were talking about his handsome features. Would they consider him so if they could see what was under the fine clothing of a prince? The scars were there, of course - old and deep - thick lines from Mannanan's whip. Other scars were smaller - thin and white. Those were caused by mishaps for the most part, and some were certainly attributed to Mannanan's cravings for blood and pain. Mordak had caused a few more a couple months ago, but he didn't regret those a whit. While Rosella and his mother were forced to stay in the bottle, Mordak decided that maybe a 'visit to his former life' might get him to remember a weakness for the transformation spell used on Mannanan. Of course, the captivity of his sister and mother only served to act as insurance of his compliance. With his voice taken away (so that he wouldn't be able to do to Mordak what he did to Mannanan), he was sent to the kitchens. The other servant Mordak had in the kitchen was the loveliest woman Alexander had ever seen. Cassima was a captive as well. Mordak had tried everything from persuasion to threats to get her to consent to wed him. She was brave to refuse, and was sent to be a slave in the kitchens until Mordak found another use for her. Despite his forced silence, they understood each other quick enough. She wasn't repulsed by the scars, and didn't care that he had been a slave. Together, they had almost escaped that vile place, but being spotted by his old master (with a temper no more improved by a change in form) sent him back to the bottle, and Cassima locked in the kitchen to await her death. Of course, hours later Graham had slain Mordak and freed them all. They had but a few moments for a formal introduction. Strangely enough, during their entire (far too short) time together, they hadn't disclosed that they were royalty! He told himself he'd see her again someday. Perhaps she'd allow him the honor of a formal courtship, as he'd completely lost his heart to her from the time they'd been put to work scouring Mordak's hearth. Of course, it could all be a moot point if this planetary alignment was indeed the dark portent the Black Cloak wanted. Gwydion, it's time... Alexander whipped around at the sound of the voice, the low and threatening baritone. The quarters were empty, save for him. No one could have said anything. He took a deep breath. He must be hearing things. With all that was going on, it was hardly shocking. Bring me to life. A glance up in the mirror and Alexander saw someone with him - a terrible figure that looked like the common caricature of Death. Two glowing sky-blue eyes were the only feature Alexander could make out beneath the concealing hood. "Who are you?" A part of him knew - remembered. Your time is up, and your soul is forfeit. I've been merciful long enough. "Mercy?" Alexander retorted. "Is that what you deem it? All those boys Mannanan destroyed? All those maidens killed by your pet dragon?" Weak and unworthy, but good enough to fulfill those purposes. You, on the other hand...I've been watching you - been part of you - for a long time now. Why else would you have magical Gift? Admit me, and you will have power beyond imagining. "Leave me." I'll have what I came for - whether you surrender to my grasp willingly or not. Alexander suddenly froze - unable to move, unable to breathe! He felt invisible fingers- cold like the dead - run up his arms, followed by a searing pain in his head. When it was over, he dropped to the floor like a tossed rag doll. Swearing, and once again reminding himself that he never wanted to be stuck in a ship's crawlspace ever again, Roger shimmied his way down to the functional cargo bay and possible survivors, falling out from the ceiling on the lowest deck and landing flat on his rump. A sudden pain flared in his hand. Thinking he must have banged on it wrong, Roger opened it up. The healing cut seemed to burn, and in the dim light, he could almost make out a flash of blue. He'd have to have a LONG talk with Alex about what the hell this meant. This place didn't settle his nerves any. Charred bodies on the deck, blood of several species on the walls and the stench of charred electronics and fire suppressant. Way too much like the Arcada…and too damn close to - Now isn't the time to attempt thinking, Rog. It's not your specialty. A sound - someone was here! Quickly rolling to the side, so he could put his back to the wall, he held his breath and listened. Whoever it was, it was getting closer. Drawing his kill-o-zap, Roger tried to creep along the wall towards the cargo bay. Maybe whoever it was wouldn't notice him. Just quiet…quiet like the mouse, quiet like he was when he didn't want the boss to know he was slacking off… CLANG! Schiznit! ZOT! A shot narrowly missed him. Clumsily falling over the wreckage allowed him to miss becoming target practice for a second volley. Recovering his bearings, Roger tried to see who was shooting at him… No sign. Coming to a corridor edge, Roger quickly checked both directions before bolting around it. With an attempt at a dramatic florish, he rolled to the other side, looked left and right again, then started backing up to keep his eye out for whoever was shooting at him. He didn't look behind him long enough, though. He felt a kick land in the small of his back, sending him falling flat on his face, the kill-o-zap sailing out of his and out of reach. Pushing himself up, he hooked his ankle behind a booted ankle, but again misjudged. The assailant did lose her balance, crashing right on top of him. The pair fought for control. She was almost animalistic, grabbing his wrists, but roger used his greater weight to an advantage, shoving her aside long enough to get into a crouch. Now, they were both on their feet, and she charged him. They both crashed into a bulkhead, and Roger's head cracked against it, his vision blurring for a moment - or was that due to the fact she had a hand squeezing his neck? The light was better here, enough to look at his attacker. Maroon hair and dark blue skin…What the -? "Xavi?" he choked out The deathgrip on his neck loosened. "Roger? Oh, that can't be YOU, can it?" He grinned. "Uh, hi…?" Xavi scowled. Before Roger could register anything further, her hand cracked against his cheek, sending his head against the bulkhead so fast he thought he got whiplash. "What in the…what was THAT for?" "The Commodore system!" "Hey, I was just doing what I had to!" Before any more explanations could come out of his throat, Xavi yanked him into her arms and kissed him with vigor, it made a Hoover class suction system look pathetic. When she finally allowed Roger to breathe, he gasped. "And…that was…?" "For Kerona." "Uh, doing what I had to, Xavi." She nodded, and took his arm. "Come on, some of us survived the attack. I was heading up to the bridge to see if anything would still work. This way." THE END Quest_Cross_sq_kq_fanfic.txt