A Story
 
 
The Poison Sun Rays
 


 Copyright ©1997, Jon Patch

CHAPTER ONE - OUR GAME DISTURBED

The universe wasn’t always the peaceful place it is today.  No, it used to be quite different.  And not so long ago as I’ve forgotten.  Let me tell you about it.  I was there, you know.  Right in the thick of it.
          The changes started during a routine voyage.  Me and my mates aboard the good ship Hickelroy were enjoying an exciting game of hide and seek.  Except for our paper-airplane fights, it was our only fun on many of our interplanetary voyages.  The hardest part was finding places to hide on our tiny ship.
          In the middle of the game, a mighty roar interrupted the discovery of Jack Black (our candlemaker) hiding under a large pot in the scullery.  Now mighty roars are rare in space, and we decided to send Pete Porter (our normally inoffensive elevator operator) to investigate the cause, and continued with the game.  Porter had taken a correspondence detective course a few years back and had his own pocket magnifying glass.
          But he was still looking for his equipment when another roar came out of nowhere and the room was filled with a purplish-green glow emanating from a large caterpillar which had materialized in our midst.  We were irritated at this caterpillar for spoiling our fun.  Vladimir “Sparks” Ilness (our normally offensive radio operator) took issue with the intruder.  In a blistering outpouring of invective Sparks attacked, “Caterpillar, you bug me!”
          The caterpillar arched its back into the air, and snarled an angry reply, “HyTuir  iU^ki’lgn!!”
          Jack jumped out of the corner.  “Now, I think both of you are over stressed.  Maybe we should all calm down and share a group hug.”  Sparks and the caterpillar both looked at Jack.
          Sparks sneered, “You can take your incense and your crystals and . . .”
          “Hey, is something going on?”  Our Captain, Captain McElroy, had come out of his reverie.  He rarely took part in our games.  We were always pleased when he decided to join us in our reality.  His mother had called him “Henri Jacques” but that was a point of embarrassment for the Captain, and it was never mentioned.
          The caterpillar spoke, this time more intelligibly, “You bet there is!  I’m looking for Fancha . . .”
          The Captain interrupted, “Now just a minute.”  Forceful, our Captain.  “You have boarded our ship without permission,” he berated the oversized insect.  “You have not followed protocol.”  As the Captain spoke Jack was putting the pot back on its hook in the scullery.  But the stool he chose to stand on was past its prime.  We heard a snap, then . . .
          “CLANG!!”  The huge pot hit the floor with a deafening noise.  Everybody hit the deck.  The caterpillar jumped two feet in the air, looked terrified, then dematerialized.  That settled the matter.  So until morning we all went to bed, except for the man on watch, George (our zebra).



 
 

CHAPTER TWO - EXCUSE ME, MR. TREE . . .

George added something extra to the crew, always ready with a joke or a story.  He would often gallop in tight circles around the room throwing paper airplanes at everybody.  And it was his lessons in origami that had gotten us started with the planes in the beginning.
          At first, he wouldn’t clean up after himself and that bothered some of the crew.  But in time we got used to it, and George Jungle was really more like everyone’s kid brother.
          In fact, most of our crew of 15 had been together on the Hickelroy since we were children, pressed into service on our way to kindergarten.  Named after ancient King Edmund Hickie, our ship hauled fruits, vegetables and (at Jack’s insistence) a variety of 100% natural dietary supplements to outposts throughout the Federated Planets.  Although there was only one room, it was 150 feet across, and the thoughtful designers had artistically zig-zagged the walls so that we each had our little corners.  Plus we had neat special corners like the radio shack and breakfast nook.  The center of the room was piled high with boxes of sugar beets and kiwi fruit bound for our destination planet, Molevine.
          From a distance the Hickelroy’s original bold orange and magenta markings were still visible here and there through the rust.  On closer inspection the thousands of parasitic creatures clinging to the underside of the ship gave signs of life to what otherwise might be given up for dead.  Molevine was a planet which the Hickelroy had visited many times before delivering various cargoes, but this time we had an extra passenger: a Federated Planets envoy, Montague Plantagenet.  He had kept pretty much to himself during the trip, always writing in a little notebook.

* * *

          A lizard kept poking his tail into my flesh with an insistence that was fast becoming annoying.  I reached for my shotgun, but before I could grab it, I woke up.  It was really George poking me awake.  Rats!  Such a neat dream—I wish I did have a shotgun.
          “Hey, Carl, wakey-wakey time.”  George was whispering intently, or as intently as a zebra can whisper, “Get your gun and follow me.”
          I suppose I should tell you something about why I was on board the Hickelroy.  As the best marksman this side of the Gong planetbelt, I was a natural to be sergeant-at-arms on board a spaceship in those times of full scale war with the Rotnufians.  Carl Alexis Thimm could be of great value in a pinch.
          Picking up my gun without bothering to dress, I followed the beckoning George out of my corner.  Thinking I might be more useful if I knew why I was being accosted in the middle of the night, I stopped him and said, “George . . . ”
          “Shhh!  Do you want to wake the egg?”  I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the egg was, or why it was asleep, but the urgency in George’s voice was unmistakable, even at night.
          He led me to the cookhouse (another corner of the room) where the reason for his urgency became clear.  A tree had sprung up where no tree had sprung before, out of an egg.  I had obviously awakened the egg.  The tree was filling the room, and its snakey arms were starting to reach for some of the bodies sprawled in the depths of sleep.  I guess it was hungry.
          I toyed with waiting a while to see if it would feed, then decided it would be best if I shot it where I thought it would be fatal (the head).  I lifted my trusty weapon.  And then an idea hit me: here’s a chance to try out some of those fancy negotiation skills they’d taught us during the last layover.  Let’s see, first establish communication.  I lowered my gun.
          “Excuse, me, Mr. Tree, I wonder if I could have your attention for a minute.”  The tree paused, one branch only a couple of inches from McElroy’s head.  OK, now we’re supposed to acknowledge.  “Thank you, Mr. Tree, I really appreciate your time.”  What was next?  Introductions!
          George turned slowly to stare at me, mouth agape.  I ignored him.  A branch from the tree began to move towards me.  This negotiation stuff was really working!  “Mr. Tree, my name is Carl.  Welcome to our ship.  Would you mind telling me your name?  I hope that I haven’t offended you by calling you Mr. Tree.  If you . . .”  Suddenly the branch shot towards my head.
          BLAM! BLAM!  My shots found their mark.  The tree withered.  Clearly I should not have called him “Mr. Tree.”  I would know better next time.  They did say that becoming a good negotiator took some time.
          Then George started laughing hysterically, falling back on his hind legs and clacking his forehooves in delight.  “Boy, you fell for that, hook, line and sinker.”  Then I realized what was going on and glared at him, beet-red.  It was just another mail-order joke. The noise woke everybody up so Barnard Berkeley (our Chinese? stovepipe scientist) suggested that Cook make breakfast.  Cook’s insistence on using prechewed whale sinew for cooking oil, salad dressing and as a tenderizer had resulted in variety of digestive disorders and disfiguring degenerative diseases in the crew.  But everything tasted great.
          Later Jack announced the discovery of a new game.  “There must be a reason this came to me,” he said thoughtfully to nobody in particular, “But, if you take a two-credit piece, and put it on a table, press down on the edge with your fingernail, and then slide your fingernail off the edge the piece pops three feet in the air!”
          This was amazing, and cries of, “Demonstration, demonstration!” arose immediately.  Jack was always looking for the reason behind this or that, and giving us lectures on spiritual oneness and Reiki.  He came up with the weirdest ideas.



 

Chapter Three - Can I Play?
 
The last stretch of the trip to Molevine went pretty uneventfully, except for some interesting discoveries on the part of Jack about his new game.  About two days after he discovered that he could send a two-credit piece flying with a fingernail, he found out that by using another coin instead of his fingernail, and using the same principles of pressure, he could make a coin go at least five feet in the air, and TEN along the floor.  Montague had furiously taken notes.
          When he first demonstrated this new principle, Naba Kov (our one-eyed helmsman) came up with a great idea.  Kov had an edge to him, and usually kept to himself, but he had a keen eye for new ideas.  He hadn’t proven as good at avoiding spacebergs.  Rumor had it that he’d lost the eye in a collision.  His wild teenage years had resulted in the loss of an arm and a leg to settle a gambling debt.  Now still alive 70 years beyond any normal lifespan, a number of the crew were jockeying to be next in line for his job.
          "I think you young’uns should set up a target and see who can come the closest," Kov suggested.  A downright exciting idea, that, but I thought of one problem.  "What can we use as a target?"  That stymied us for a while, but Jack saved us from thinking too long and hard.
          "What’s wrong with the shower drain?"
          "Nothing at all!"  Porter echoed the general sentiment.
          A few hours of cleaning later (we rarely used the shower, but George had used it the day before and it was a mess), Jack challenged Porter to a game.  Jack won and took all comers until we got to Molevine.  "It’s meant to be," Jack observed philosophically.
 
* * *
 
          One day Porter decided that our meals needed some variety.  Porter always wanted to please, and he had an idea for some kind of delicacy.  He wouldn’t tell anyone what it was, but took an old garbage bag and one of Berkeley’s chisels out the back door with him.
          He was gone for hours.  Occasionally we thought we heard hammering on the hull, but were too absorbed in our new game to care.  Eventually we could hear him back at the door.  There was a loud knock.
          "Who is it?" George asked.
          "It’s me, Porter!  Open the door, please, I’ve got my hands full."
          George responded in his best sing-song voice, "I can’t heeaaar you!"  He looked around at us and winked.  A look came on Jack’s face, and he turned out the lights.
          "PLEASE OPEN THE DOOR!  I’VE GOT MY HANDS FULL!"
          George ran up to the door, put his shoulder to it and said, "Oh, OK, I’ll turn the knob but you’ll have to push hard, I think it’s stuck."
          "OK, TELL ME WHEN TO PUSH."
          George put all his weight against the door and turned the knob.  "Porter?" he called.
          "YES?"
          "You can push now."
          "OK.  I’M PUSHING."
          The door creaked a bit.  George said, "You’ll have to push harder, it’s really stuck!"
          "I’M ALREADY PUSHING HARD!"
          "Haaarrrddeerrrr!" sung George in his alluring falsetto.  Suddenly we could hear the clatter of hooves as George ran away from the door. In the faint light of the instruments, we could see the outline of Porter flying through the door, a full garbage bag over his shoulder.
          "Wwooooooooooooohhhhhhhhh!"  Porter slid on something, straight into the fruit crates in the middle of the room at full speed.  The garbage bag flew through the air, hit the ceiling and split open.  Whatever was in it showered down all over the room.  Jack turned on the lights.
          "Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrggggggggggghhhhhhhhh!"
          I don’t know who screamed.  I don’t think it was me, but it could have been.  Six-inch parasites were everywhere, scrambling with their many legs to find nourishment. They were latching on to legs, arms, kiwis, anything they could find.  Then Kov shouted, "Just a gol-darn minute!  Hold it everyone!"  We all stopped in mid-flight, the parasites pausing in mid-munch.  "You little guys know better than to come in here!  Out!  Right now!"  The parasites hesitated.  "I mean it!"  Kov put his hand on his hip menacingly.
          One by one they sheepishly let go of their mouthfuls and scuttled out the still-open back door.  When the last one was gone Kov went over and slammed the door.  "Dang varmints!" he muttered.  That’s the last time Porter suggested a change in our diet. Sparks sounded three chimes--planetfall in one hour.

* * *
 
          Our destination on Molevine was the main fruit distribution center, Norsilzarota. As we approached the planet, I took a seat where I could watch it racing towards us.  Its light purplish glow soon filled the porthole, and about ten minutes before planetfall I could make out a dark smudge that was our destination.  The smudge became a city in a few minutes, and in what seemed like seconds later we came to a stop with a not-very-gentle bump.  Cutlery and plates crashed to the floor from cupboards in the breakfast nook.
          "Kov, you couldn’t berth a ship gently if you were moving it two inches."  Somebody obviously agreed with my evaluation of the landing.
          "Are we there yet?"  Kov’s question did nothing to improve our confidence.
 
* * *
 
          Norsilzarota’s tough reputation had been earned in early pioneer days, when hardy settlers challenged an arid climate, rocky soil and acidic atmosphere to create a completely unsuccessful agricultural industry.  More recently it had grown to be a top-notch high-technology center, and boasted a modern full-service spaceport second to none.  In aesthetically landscaped  industrial parks, leading-edge science was married with innovative minds and endless capital investment in a carefully balanced ménage-à-trois that provided substantial incomes for technical gurus carefully selected from many galaxies.
          Well-planned parks, gourmet restaurants serving good old Federation wholesome food, and graceful subdivisions carved into the bleak landscape ensured a happy, healthy, nurturing family-oriented environment.  Up-to-date glass buildings, perpetual water fountains, and creative entertainment were to be found everywhere, all the conveniences that you’d expect in a booming metropolis.
          That’s what the big sign said anyway.  I’d seen it enough times.  All I knew was that this is where we delivered our cargo and we had two days for "creative entertainment" at the notorious North Norsilzarota Nebula Club, only a block from the modern full-service spaceport second to none.  That’s as far as most of us ever got on our layovers there.
          But as we were leaving the ship, Berkeley pulled me aside.  He’d never joined us at the Nebula Club.  He’d gone to university in Norsilzarota, so we figured he visited friends on our regular trips here.  Berkeley said, "Hey, Carl, how about something a little different this time?"
          I looked at him.  "Why?"
         "C’mon, I’ve got an idea for something really neat!  Trust me!"  Berkeley rarely spent much time away from his technical journals.  Sometimes he’d spend hours on the Semiconductor Substrate Forum on the GalacNet.  And I was ready for some creative entertainment.  I wasn’t too interested.
          "Hey, Carl, what’s keeping you?"  George was calling from across the tarmac.
          "Just this once?  Do it for me," Berkeley pleaded.
          I hesitated, then looked at George and waved, "I’ll see you there!"  I sighed.  "OK, but this better be good."
          "You won’t regret it!"
 
* * *
 
          "Here he is!"  Berkeley had taken me to one of the endless leading-edge buildings in an aesthetically landscaped industrial park.  We walked into a large room with a couple of friendly-looking shirt-sleeved people at a table.  It looked like I was expected.  There was a box on the table, with a picture of a candy-cane on the side.  Berkeley introduced them, "Carl, this is Ken and Kurt.  Ken, Carl.  Carl, Ken. Kurt, Carl.  Carl, Kurt."  They both gave me warm handshakes and friendly smiles.  They looked like twins, youngish, with glasses and nifty pencil holders in their white shirt pockets.
          "Here, Carl, have a seat."  Ken slid a wheeled chair towards me, and waved me into it.  I had no idea what was going on, but sat down anyway. "Carl, Berkeley here tells us that you’re pretty smart."  Kurt looked at me with a knowing nod.  He leaned forward, gave me a wink and said, "So we’re going to let you in on something that could change your life!"  Oh, oh, last time I heard that I ended up with a time-share condo.  On a sun.
          Berkeley sat on the edge of the table beside me, one foot on the floor.  "Carl, are you tired of always working for the other guy?  Tired of never having enough money?"
          "Actually, no, I don’t mind at . . ."
          Ken made a sweeping gesture with his arm.  "Carl, have you considered your retirement?  Do you know what inflation can do to your savings?"
          "No, I’m letting my . . ."
          Kurt shook his head and pursed his lips.  "Isn’t that always the way?  Tell him, Barnard."
          Berkeley looked at me for a minute, then put his hand on my shoulder.  "Carl, fate has put us together.  There is a once in a lifetime opportunity here.  An opportunity to invest in a technology that will change the face of the universe forever.  A technology that the three of us here have developed in our spare time."
          Berkeley nodded to Kurt, who took something out of the box.  It looked like a little girl, except it was only 8 inches tall or so.  Kurt said, "Carl, this is Candy."  I don’t think it was real.  Some kind of plastic maybe.  It sure didn’t look like candy.  Kurt reached behind the little girl and I could see him put a finger in a little loop.  He pulled and about a foot of string came out of her.  Then he let go.
          "Maaaa maaaa."  The little girl spoke!  Wow!
          Berkeley smiled and looked at me.  "Now, Carl, for less than the credits you probably spend on food in a year, you can be a part of the future."
          Ken and Kurt started talking so fast I lost track of who was saying what.  "Get that sailboat you’ve always dreamed of."
          "How ’bout a new powersaw?"
          "Get rid of those old debts!"
          "Have enough change for the bums in the street!"
          "Have your family and friends wish they were you!"
          "Buy yourself a beautiful new home, with running water!"
          "Your life will be one fabulous vacation!"
          Finally, Berkeley smiled and said, "So, Carl, whad’ya say?"
          I looked at Candy, and then sadly at Berkeley.  "I don’t have any money.  Well, enough for some drinks, maybe.  I send it all to my grandmother."
          Berkeley, Ken and Kurt were quiet for moment.  Then Ken and Kurt looked at Berkeley.  Berkeley flushed, then stood up quickly.  "That’s very compassionate of you, Carl.  Need a ride to the club?"
 
* * *
 
          As blastoff time approached I was accosted in the club by Kov who hobbled rather furtively up to me and said nonchalantly, "Did you know that we are taking the Marsop back to Carvile?"  That was something.  We’d never had a cargo for Carvile before, and the Marsop was a troop ship, with offensive weapon capability.
          Trying to hide my excitement, I replied with equal nonchalance, "Really?"
          "Really.  And I just bet you think you’re going to be quite the whippersnapper on board in charge of the neuroneutralizer."
 
 




 

CHAPTER FOUR - MY YOUNG BONNIE BRAE

On the way to Carvile on the Marsop, of course I’d let no-one from our crew near the NX-53 neuroneutralizer.  Or the quarkruptor.  The disinteflator was well beyond their understanding as well.  It was fun playing with the weapons, and I’d almost forgotten my disappointment at missing the investment opportunity of a lifetime.  Granny was worth it anyway.  I figured that as President of the First Interstellar Bank she probably knew what she was doing with my money.
          I did let Jack oil the NX-53 injector pins.  He seemed to enjoy himself; his Tarot cards had said that he needed to be working with his hands.
          Our entire crew had been assigned to the Marsop.  We were joined by sixty ThunderTroopers of the 7th Argyle Division, complete their with playfully-colored socks and full complement of enthusiastic pipers.
          Before we left, we had been briefed on the blastoff pad by no less than Her Rampantly Holistic Princess Doda Nigit III, suffering from one of her rare moments of sobriety.  It was not a pretty sight.  Her body had been wasted from years of late-night parties and appearances on talk shows.  We’d hear rumors that her diet consisted only of red-orange algae.  The bright sun reflecting off the black plastic of the ThunderTrooper ThunderSuits provided a blessedly blinding background to HRH, as she was affectionately known.  Montague stood at her side.  He had apparently been evaluating our crew for suitability for our task.
          The pipers were playing, “My young Bonnie Brae,” it’s romantic and yearning lilt bringing tears to our eyes.  Eventually they wheezed to a stop and HRH stepped up to the podium.  “Good day, gentlemen.”  She surveyed her audience meaningfully.  “You are about to embark on a critical mission, of the utmost importance.  The security of the entire Galactic Group is in your hands, and no cost or means is being spared to ensure the success of your mission.
          “You have been carefully chosen for this most urgent task.  Your intelligence, your diversity, your commitment, your attitude, your . . . ah, yes, ah . . . your character, yes, the character that this crew has shown manning the Hickeytoy on its important missions in the past is the firm foundation on which we now lay the mortar of our trust . . .”
          “Important missions?”  Porter had whispered to me, “What important missions?”
          “Shhh!  She’s coming to the important part.”
          “. . . when you succeed on this mission—and we know you will succeed—the glory of the Federated Planets will be bestowed upon you, and we will pleased, no, we will be humbled, to grant you whatever small tribute can possibly compensate for the brave task you will have completed.”  HRH, dressed in her traditional boyish blue-jeans and tank top, flanked by brass with banners waving behind her, raised her hand in a royal gesture.  We cheered and clapped as one, eager to show our willingness do whatever small part we could for our Federation, as the pipers began, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

* * *

           “So, just exactly how much do you think we’ll get?”  Sparks asked the Captain the next day.
          “That’s not important, Mr. Ilness, what’s important is that we have an important mission, and all these fine young ThunderTroopers to protect us.”
          Kov took his remaining withered hand off the wheel for a moment, and peered at the Captain with his good eye.  “Just what exactly is our mission, Captain?”
          “Well, then, it’s to . . . ah . . . we are going to . . .”  The Captain lapsed into silence.  All eyes turned to him.  Except for the thrumming of machinery, the sighing of air escaping from suddenly silenced bagpipes and the faint chka-chka-chka-cha of mutilated rock from George’s headphones, you could have heard a pin drop.

* * *

          The Marsop was a completely different ship from the Hickelroy.  Much larger, we each had individual cabins, with video, foodalator, urinal and multi-colored plastic-coated bobby pins.  The central control room alone was larger than the entire single room we’d shared on the Hickelroy.  One by one, though, over the first few days, we’d taken to bringing our sleeping bags to the control room (which we now called the playroom), and spent less and less time in our cabins.
          So by now, everybody except the ThunderTroopers (who we’d come to call TeeTees) was either on duty or sleeping in the playroom.  It felt like home.  It looked (and smelled) like camp.  We had lots of fun with our new game, and Berkeley had let me have my own Candy when I told him who my Grandmother was.  He even gave me an extra one to send to her.  Everyone wanted to pull her string.
          The TeeTees were very standoffish at first.  I had never understood how much of them was human and how much machine.  In port they rarely said hello on the street.  Really, I didn’t know anybody who’d seen them out of their ThunderSuits.  Mostly they sat around and read comic books.  They showed no interest in the Tuesday evening origami lessons, or even in throwing the paper airplanes.  The only time they seemed to come to life was during their ritual dances when the pipers would strike up a lively jig or some light jazz.  From time to time some of us would join in the dance, holding hands with the TeeTees as the firelight warmed our faces and our hearts.
          At one point their First Nation commander, Jout Foogall, came to inspect the armaments.  “Sergeant Thimm!”
          “Mmmph?”  I’d been thinking about my new SpeedStreek 100.  That’d be a good reward.  My commute time would be cut in half.
          “Sergeant Thimm, I wish to inspect the neuroneutralizer!”
          “Oh, Commander Foogall!  Yah, sure, no problem.”  I knew he like being called “Commander.”  Sounded like a video control to me.  We walked down the stairs to the weapons room.  Jack was there busy polishing.  Dedicated, that Jack.  He didn’t look up.
          “Mr. Black, I have come to inspect!”  The TeeTees in general were a pretty weird lot, and Foogall was no exception.  Everyone was Mr. this, Sergeant that.  Jack looked up.
          “OK by me, your Commandership.  Enjoy.”  Foogall proceeded to completely dismantle and reassemble the equipment over the next hour.  He knew his stuff.

* * *

          About this time the TeeTees began to take an interest in Jack’s game, which we now called “Snapitatata.”  Now with TeeTees, “interest” is a pretty strong word.  It’s not like they were madly flipping two-credit pieces with their fingernails.  We weren’t even sure if they had fingernails.  No, they were way more subtle than that.  It was just that whenever we had a Snapitatata tournament (which was almost all the time) there would be more than the usual number of TeeTees in the playroom.
          A couple of days before we reached Carvile, one of the TeeTees, who had never told us his name, but we called “Fluffy,” approached one of the gaming tables.  “Me beat any of you at game.  Me watch, me learn already.  Me bet many credits.”
          “Woh, Fluffy, don’t be too hasty.”  Sparks looked up.  He had been giving Jack a run for his money at the game.  They both were expert.  Actually we were all getting pretty good.  Even George had developed a snappy two-hoof delivery that was breaking records.
          “Me beat Black!  How much you bet?”  Fluffy eyed Jack belligerently.
          “Fluffy, have you been drinking?”  Porter summed up our common thought.  In thirty seconds Fluffy had already exceeded the total word count of himself and all his clones in the entire trip.  And he was showing something dangerously close to emotion.  Caution was the word here.
          “You not like me?  You not let me play?”  A few TeeTees moved closer.  This was getting unpleasant.
          The Captain blinked awake and queried incisively, “Is there a problem here?”
          George broke the tension.  “Sure, Fluff, hey, no problem.  Let’s have some fun.  How ’bout 20 credits to start?”
          Well, that did it, by the time we reached Carvile, every TeeTee except Commander Foogall was a committed Snapitist.  Fluffy did lose the first game, but was almost unbeatable after that.

* * *

          “Planetfall in one hour.”  The intercom announcement echoed the three chimes, “All personnel please report to the playroom for a briefing.  Repeat.  All personnel . . .”



 
 

CHAPTER FIVE - RIPPED GENES SHOCK FEDERATION

The intercom announcement was redundant.  “All personnel,” including TeeTees now, were always in the playroom.  But it sounded official.  Both the Captain and the Commander would like that.
          McElroy began the briefing.  “As you know we are on an important mission.  As you also know, we don’t know what it is.  Commander Foogall.”
          “Thank you, Captain McElroy.”  Foogall paused impressively.  I think that’s what the pause was, anyway.  “I, too, remarkably, and for the first time in my rather extensive and illustrious career have not been appraised in advance of our complete mission.  All we know is that it is important, we have the unending support of HRH and the Federated Planets, and that it begins on Carvile.  Captain, the remote.”
          McElroy picked up the video control from the console.  And the narrative.  “We have just received a flashvideo transmission from Federation headquarters.  Please give your attention to the viewing pod.  Mr. Black, lights, please.”  The room darkened ominously and an image took shape in the center of the room, wavered and then stabilized.  A groan passed through the room.
          “My people.”  It was HRH again.  “Your mission is about to begin.  We can now reveal its true purpose.  You have been chosen for this great work because of your dedication, your resilience, your malleability and your corresponding intelligence.  My brave warriors, my wonderful, fearless gladiators, I have sad news for you.  “We now believe that the evil Rotnufians have actually been dangerously influencing the Federated Planets for longer than the current conflict.  Indeed we have learned that the recent round of hostilities has been preceded by several million years of genetic manipulation on the part of these notorious foes.”  She leaned forward for emphasis as she said “notorious.”  Every line in her face screamed for medical attention.  “Let me explain,” she continued.
          “As you know, I am one of the few women in the Federated Planets in recorded history that has worked outside careers in the tourism industry, driving trucks and designing variegated-impulse star drives.  Men, like yourselves, fulfill the other roles, such as raising children, growing crops, telling bad jokes and operating starships.  We, as peoples of the Federated Planets, have come to understand these as our roles.
          “But, we now know this is not always how it was.”  This pause was definitely for emphasis.  In fact I nearly had time to go to the washroom.  HRH attempted to straighten her malnourished four and a half foot frame, the result was not impressive.  I could see George out of the corner of my eye trying to stifle a giggle.  He managed a cough.
          “My courageous soldiers, recent analysis has proven conclusively that at one time men and women had equal roles!”  A murmur ran through the crew.  Even the TeeTees glanced at each other.  At least I think that’s what they did.  A couple of their shiny heads rotated a bit anyway.
          “. . . and we have concluded that the only way we could have lost this wonderful heritage is through a fiendish alteration of our genetic makeup!  Our scientists have labored intensely and concluded that the evil Rotnufians must have altered the radiated spectrum of all luminaries of the Federated Planets!”  Spittle began to fly.  “This mutated spectral energy then has warped our very genes!”
          Ick!  Those bad Rotnufians!  HRH was building to a frenzy.
          “And we believe that the control center for this horrible travesty is right in the midst of the Federation!  Yes, we have proof that Carvile is the center!”  HRH was drooling.  She stopped and looked down for a moment, mercifully wiping her chin.  There was silence in the room.  Even the machinery stopped.  This was pretty scary.  Maybe I didn’t need that new SpeedStreek.  No, I knew I didn’t need it.  I started to put my hand up, then thought better.
          HRH continued in a low, measured voice, “You, my undaunted heroes, will find that terrible control center and destroy it.  With its destruction will come freedom for all of us from roles that have caged us for millions of years.  With its destruction will come glory for the Federated Planets, glory for you, and unbounded joy for all our peoples.  Our hearts go with you.”
          The image vanished.  No-one spoke.  The slap-skrunch-slap, slap-skrunch-slap of the windshield wipers counted out the seconds.  Caged?  Altered genes?  Fiendish alteration?  I kind of liked my job.  In fact most everybody I knew was pretty happy.  Maybe we should think about this first.  The lights came up.
          “You have heard the words of HRH.  Planetfall in 30 minutes.  We have plans to make.  I am confident in our success,” Captain McElroy said authoritatively.  I looked around.  Although there were some uncomfortable looks, nobody was objecting.
          At least we had a mission.



 
 

CHAPTER SIX - PRACTICAL SCIENCE AT WORK TODAY

The tunnel was completely dark.  Well, we weren’t sure it was a tunnel.  But we were sure it was completely dark.  And damp.  And smelly.  Jack, George and I had been assigned to infiltrate the massive data banks of the Department of the Anterior in the southern Carvilian capital of Heeldert.  We were joined by a half-dozen TeeTees to make us feel warm and fuzzy.  A scout ship had deposited this menagerie near a ventilation intake less than a mile from the storage facility, and we had enthusiastically crawled in.
          But we found almost immediately that we had forgotten the flashlights, and with radio silence our next move was the object of debate.  “Whenever there’s a challenge, we are always given what we need to solve the problem.”  We could hear Jack pull out the string that normally bound his fetching pony tail.  “I’ll make candles!  We just need wax, but I remembered my Q-tips!  OK, who’s first?”
          “Who’s got matches?”  I asked.  Silence.
          “Oh.”  Jack sounded disappointed.
          “Why don’t we just wait a couple of hours here until the pickup time?  We don’t have to tell them that we didn’t go anywhere.  Do we?  Who’s to know?”  Now George was making sense.  This was the kind of thinking that brought us here in the first place.
          “I do not understand.”  One of the TeeTees spoke.  In the dark it was hard to tell which one.  In fact even if there was light it would have been hard to tell which one.
          “Pardon?” I asked.
          “I do not understand.”  Yes, it was Marvin.  He’d been a problem child, rumor had it, and had yet to come to grips with his assigned role in the scheme of things.  Whatever that was.  It looked like it might be time for a little reality bite for our shiny black friend.  I took on the challenge.
          “Yes, Marvin, what is it that you don’t understand?”
          “Our mission is to destroy the evil Control Center that is changing the spectral emanations from our luminaries that are altering our genetic makeup causing us to create artificial differences between the roles of the sexes that prevent us from realizing our true destiny in the great universal plan.”
          “Very good, Marvin.  You have been listening well.  I think you do understand.”  Didn’t this kind of logic work for Kirk?  “So how long do you think we have, George, before the ships come?”
          “No more than . . .”
          “Excuse me.”  Marvin wasn’t giving up so easily.
          “Yes, Marvin, is there something else?”  He must be near overload by now.
          “Yes, I do not understand.  If we do not search the data banks then won’t that make it difficult to find the Control Center?”
          I countered quickly, “That’s right, Marvin.”
          “Then how do we destroy it?”
          “Exactly.”  I let this one sink in for a while.
          In the darkness we could hear the faint whir-whir now and again as a TeeTee head swiveled this way or that.  To what end, I have no idea.  At last Marvin spoke again.
          “I see.”
          Jack spoke up.  “So, about an hour and half you think, George?”

* * *

          “Well, gentlemen, our first reconnaissance missions have been less than satisfactory.”  McElroy was beginning to sound like Foogall.  “I am able to summarize the preliminary analysis as indicating a fundamental bias towards a presumption of insufficient ancillary evidence.”  We were back on the ship.  McElroy paused, looking pleased.
          “Does that mean we found nothing, Captain?”  Porter’s eyes widened as he realized what he’d said.  “I mean, we don’t have your training, Captain, perhaps you could explain in . . . ah, what I mean to say is that we come from a cross racial-linguistic-specie background . . .”  Porter trailed off.
          Foogall spun his head twice, then looked at Porter; we’d come to know this gesture as the TeeTee equivalent of a dirty look.  Then he scanned the rest of the crew.  “We’ve sent out four teams to the most likely locations for the enemy Control Center and found nothing.  All teams report a thorough search.  So we are going to have to take a different approach.
          “Now my staff and I . . .”
          “Excuse me, sir, why don’t we ask the computers?”  Berkeley was the unlikely speaker.  Ask the computers?  What was he talking about?
          “What’s that Mr. Berkeley?”  Foogall sounded surprised.  “What do you mean, ‘Ask the computers?’”
          Berkeley bubbled, “Well, I mean, we scientists know that when we are studying something and we don’t quite know exactly what it is we’re studying or quite what it is we’re looking for but we know that there’s something there and we have a research team and a budget and papers that we have to publish in the next four months then we take all the data that we have and put it into a computer.  Then we ask the computer questions.  Sometimes you even get an answer that makes sense.”  At last he took a breath.
          Porter spoke up, “Hey, didn’t HRH say that it was her scientists that had figured out the genetic stuff?  Did they use computers?”
          “I bet they did.”  Berkeley sounded authoritative.  “So even if we don’t find the control center, we can make a huge report that shows what a thorough job we did and proves that the other scientists really need to go back to their computers and ask some more questions.
          “We know that HRH won’t want to make any mistakes after she thoroughly reads the 500 page report that we give her so she’ll understand and give us our reward anyway.  Or at least an extension to our research grants.”
          Glancing around, Berkeley saw all eyes on him.  He barely paused.  “And to help in making sure that she fully understands the report maybe she’ll have to hire some of us as expert consultants, seeing as we have first hand experience.  At extremely high daily rates.”
          Foogall looked thoughtful.  McElroy was nodding sagely.
          Berkeley nailed his point home.  “If something goes wrong, we can blame the computer.”
          That clinched it.  Foogall turned to one of the TeeTees.  “Mr. Dodgers, do you know where the computers are on this ship?”
          “Why, sure I do, sir.  I know right where they are.  Yes I do.  They’re right in storage section 027, sir.”
          “Do we know how to hook one up?”
          Berkeley broke in, waving his arm frantically.  “I do! I do!”
          “Very well.  Mr. Dodgers, take a detail and retrieve a computer to the playroom here.  Set it up . . . ah . . .”  Foogall looked around at the sea of sleeping bags, cots, candy wrappers and unwashed underwear.  “Belay that.  Set it up in my cabin.”  He turned to Berkeley.
          “Mr. Berkeley, is 30 minutes sufficient time before we can begin our questioning of the machine?”
          “An hour would be better, sir.”
          “Make it 30 minutes.”
          “OK!”  Berkeley was too excited to argue.  “I mean, yes, sir!”



 
 

CHAPTER SEVEN - A DAY AT THE ANTIQUE SHOP

“OK, now put the black plastic thing with the three metal rods sticking out, and push it into those holes in the wall.”  Berkeley was reading from a large manual.
          “Is that what those holes are for!  You learn something new every day!”  Mr. Dodgers lined up the black thing and pushed it into the wall.
          “Now take the other end of the rope and push it into that box there.”
          “You know what, Barnard?  It just doesn’t fit.  Isn’t that something?”
          Berkeley put down the book.  “Let me see.”  He took the rope from Mr. Dodgers and turned the end over.  “Now try.”
          Mr. Dodgers pushed it in.  “That’s better.  Didn’t that feel good?  That felt really good to me.”  From inside his helmet, we could feel Mr. Dodgers’ warm smile.  Someone had got the idea to connect the cabin video scanner with the video pod, so we were all able to watch the action from the cozy comfort of the playroom.  Berkeley had Mr. Dodgers and Sparks to help him.
          Sparks asked, “What do I do with this?”  He was holding another rope that came out a different box, this box had one side that was glass and had a really nifty stand that it sat on.  Berkeley had called it “herganaumik” or something like that.
          Our stovepipe mechanic picked up the manual again.  “Ah . . . same thing, yes.  Exactly the same.”  Sparks repeated Mr. Dodgers’ actions.
          In the end it did take almost an hour.  The result was one rectangular box with some buttons on it that sat on the floor with ropes that went to the glass box, and to a flat thing with dozens of buttons.  The flat thing sat on a table in front of the glass box.
          Another rope went from the rectangular box to an even bigger box.  Berkeley had Mr. Dodgers fill it up with our scrap paper.  We even had to flatten out some of our paper airplanes.  He said that this box would be very important when we were ready to make our report.
          All these boxes had ropes that went into those holes in the wall.  Finally there was one little box in the shape of rat with a little rope to the rectangular box.  It had a couple of buttons on it and sat on the table.
          “Commander Foogall,” Berkeley called to the playroom on the intercom.
          “Yes, Mr. Berkeley.”
          “We’re ready to turn it on.”  Berkeley was almost jumping from one foot to the other.  He was excited.
          “I’ll be right there.”  Foogall and McElroy went to the cabin.
          When everyone was settled, Berkeley whispered to Mr. Dodgers, who put his finger to one of the buttons on the rectangular box.  Berkeley folded his arms.  “Whenever you’re ready, sir.”
          Foogall nodded, Mr. Dodgers looked at Berkeley.  “Should I push it now, Barnard?  Just tell me when.  I won’t push it until you tell me.”  Berkeley nodded.
          “OK, then, here we go, hold on to your hats.  Isn’t this exciting?”  Mr. Dodgers had become very talkative recently.  He pressed the button.  We held our breath.  A whirring sound started, got faster, then another whirring sound merged into a high-pitched whine.  The glass part of the glass box began to glow.  Suddenly words came up on it, flashed by too fast to read.  Then the glass went blank.  Berkeley looked a little worried, some colors and more words appeared.  Then we heard trumpets!  It must be working!  This was great!  A murmur ran through the crew, some smiled.  Berkeley looked relieved.  Minutes passed as little boxes appeared on the glass in different colors.  What was it doing?
          Finally the glass stopped changing.  Foogall looked at Berkeley.  Berkeley hesitated for a moment, then looked at the manual, reached over and pressed one of the buttons on the rat box.  The glass went dark, then a magnificent warrior slowly appeared on the glass, swinging a mighty sword.  The computer began to sing!  This was more like it!  HRH would be pleased!
          Suddenly the sword froze, the singing stopped, and some words came on the glass on top of the warrior.  Everybody leaned forward to read them.
 
 

Fatal Violation Error

QUAKE XCVII caused a Fatal Exception Error in
Module QUAKCORE.EXE at 0001:09FE

Application Terminated



 

CHAPTER EIGHT - DON’T TREAD ON ME

Fancha rippled across her cell for the thousandth time.  What could be keeping Vortok?  Vortok had promised.  He said she’d only have to wait a day.  It had been more like a week.  She was surviving on one Lalolita leaf a day shoved through a slot in the door.  She’d kill that Vortok, rip every leg off if it took all day.

* * *

          “Well then.  There it is.  Isn’t it?  Not much one can say, is there?  Even if one wanted to.  Which one might not.  Bother!”  Hoop Inniw was at his wits’ end.  Vortok was adamant: he said he had no idea what had happened to Fancha.
          It didn’t matter whether Hoop believed him or not, he was going to have to get help from somewhere else.  He had no choice but to call out his cats-at-legs.
          The vast empire under Hoop the Inniw’s control was under constant threat, and his troops were scattered across many galaxies.  It would be an annoyance to have to redeploy key resources just to find his missing sister.
          But the few scouts he’d sent into the Natball sector where Fancha was last seen had all disappeared, probably victims of local hostiles.  His personal transcendentalist, Yogi Mahesh Nautgo Baire, had related a vision in which Vortok had seduced Fancha.  But with Vortok’s steadfast denials, that was leading nowhere.
          He’d just have to send in the troops.



 
 

CHAPTER NINE - TRANSMUTILATION ANYONE?

“What’s it saying?”  McElroy looked a little concerned.
          Berkeley thought for a moment, then brightened, “I think it understood our question—this may be our answer.”
          Voices began to clamor in the playroom.  “Where is the 500 page report?” Porter wanted to know.
          “Where’s the warrior?”
          “Where’s the singing?”
          “Can I try?”  Somebody (rather pointlessly) shot a spitball at the video pod.  Paper airplanes began to fly.
          In Foogall’s cabin, Berkeley continued, “I see, yes, now I understand.”
          “Go ahead.  Anytime.”  Foogall was ready.
          “Well, the warrior and the music must represent the glory of the Federation before the Rotnufians started to mess with our genes.”  Berkeley began to warm to the explanation.  “Yes, that’s it.”
          “Then they interfered, that’s the ‘Fatal Violation Error,’ and those numbers must be the coordinates of the control center.”
          “Then what’s this ‘Fault’ thing?” McElroy cocked his head at the glass.
          “It looks like someone named Quake something broke down our defenses.  Maybe she was a traitor.”
          McElroy looked up at the video scanner.  “Mr. Kov, come down here.”
          In the playroom, Kov handed the wheel to George.  “Here, take the helm.”   George put it back on the console and gave it a little spin.  The ship lurched.
          George sat back in the seat and stuck a hoof in the wheel.  He smiled.  “Sorry.  Won’t happen again.”
          Kov glared at George, then made his way to the cabin.  “What do you make of these coordinates?” Foogall asked.
          Kov squinted.  “Would you mind reading them out?  Just to make sure I’ve got them right.  Hold on a minute.”  With agonizing slowness he pulled out a notepad.  “Anybody have a pen?”
          Mr. Dodgers held a pen out.  “Here you go, Mr. Kov.  This is a very nice pen.  Don’t you like very nice pens?  I like very nice pens.”
          Kov looked down at the pad in his hand, then at the pen.  He thought for a moment, then dropped the pad and took the pen.  “Thanks.  Now what were those coordinates again?”
          Berkeley read them out.  Kov put the pen thoughtfully in his nose.  “Sounds like coordinates all right.  But not in our system.  It’ll take some time to decode.”  He handed the pen back to Mr. Dodgers who took it gingerly between two fingers.  “Mind writing those down for me?  Pad’s on the floor.  Thanks.”  Kov turned and left the cabin.

* * *

          A few days later Kov went to the Captain.  “Captain, can I see you for a minute in your cabin?”
          The Captain cleared his throat.  “Yes, Mr. Kov.  Where’s Commander Foogall?”
          “Ah, we don’t need him quite yet, Captain.”
          “Very well.”  The Captain led the way to his large (and unused) cabin.  Kov looked at the floor.
          “I don’t know quite how to tell you this.  It’s like . . . well, I’m not sure those coordinates are exactly right.”
          “Why not?  Weren’t you able to decode them?”
          Kov hesitated, then said, “Well, yes, I was, but  . . .”
          “But what!”  The Captain was getting impatient.
          “Captain, the coordinates are located in the center of The Wasteland.”
          McElroy stared for a moment, then began to pace back and forth.  “I see your point, yes I do.  This won’t do.  The coordinates must be wrong.  Yes, maybe the computer malfunctioned or something.  Computers do malfunction, don’t they?  Yes, there must be a problem with the computer.  Mr. Berkeley will know.”  He turned to the communications screen and flipped the switch.
          “Mr. Berkeley, to my cabin on the double!”  In the playroom everyone looked up.  Nobody could remember when McElroy had ever wanted anything done on the double.
          Berkeley showed up with Foogall.  Foogall looked at the Captain.  “Anything wrong, Captain?  Anything I should be aware of?”
          The Captain stuttered, “Ah, no, it’s just . . . I mean, it’s . . .”
          “. . . an internal disciplinary matter.”  Kov came to the rescue.
          “Yes, Commander, a minor internal matter.  Not to worry.”  The Captain was sweating profusely.
          “Very well, Captain.”  Foogall left.  Kov closed the door after him.
          Berkeley looked from the Captain to Kov.  “What did I do?  I didn’t mean it, honest.  It was somebody else’s fault.  It must have been.”  He began twisting his toe rather endearingly in the velvet plush carpet.
          “Stop your blubbering, idiot.  We have a question about the computer.”  The Captain looked scared.
          “How can you discipline a computer?  What did it do wrong?  I didn’t promise it would work!”  Berkeley’s paranoia was deeply entrenched.
          “Listen for a minute!”  Kov sneered at Berkeley.  “Consarned scientists!”
          “Mr. Berkeley, do you think those coordinates are correct?” the Captain asked.
          “I suppose so, hard to tell for sure, I mean they seem OK, don’t they?”
          Kov picked up the questioning.  “Is there another way we can ask the machine?”
          Berkeley hesitated.  Over the past couple of days he’d worked on the computer endlessly, pushing different buttons, plugging in different ropes, turning it upside down.  The result was always the same.
          “That’s the only answer I can get.”
          Kov moved closer to Berkeley.  “How do you feel about a little vacation in The Wasteland?  Been there recently?  Know anybody that has?”
          Berkeley’s eyes widened and he started to tremble.  Then the door burst open.  Foogall stood there with half the crew craning their necks behind for a view.  George had the best view.  Foogall looked at the Captain, hands on his hips.  From behind Foogall, Porter called out, “We don’t have to go to The Wasteland, do we, Captain?”  Kov leaned over to the communications screen and flipped the switch to “Off.”

* * *

          “I am authorizing the installation of the new experimental subspace transmutilator on the Marsop.  My sister designed it herself.  It will allow you to travel to The Wasteland in less than a week in a series of pleasant subspace hops.”  HRH had spoken directly to Foogall.  A technical team had traveled to Carvile while we waited, and now swarmed over the ship.
          Dozens of hammocks had been installed in the playroom.  Apparently we would need to be in these during the pleasant subspace hops.  They hung them on ropes from the ceiling, and we’d taken to stringing our laundry between the ropes.  It was really quite convenient.  I had them make a special little hammock for Candy.  It put a damper on Snapitatata, though; there wasn’t enough clear space to get any kind of a decent shot.  So we’d taken to lying in our hammocks and swinging back and forth until we hit the next hammock.  It was most effective when the target contained a sleeping body, and if done just right the victim would end up on the floor.
          The TeeTees showed no interest in this, and when Sparks dumped a dreaming Fluffy, it cracked the plastic top of his helmet.  Fluffy was not amused, and Porter had to put a strip of red electrical tape across the crack.  Although Fluffy wouldn’t let on we secretly suspected that he was proud of his battle scar.
          The technical team worked on the outside of ship as well, although we had no idea what all the hammering was doing.   Early on they had covered the windows with lace curtains in a stunning array of designer pastels.  In the engine room, the steam engines were removed in sections and replaced with dozens of small cages with cool little wheels inside them.  Later a series of boxes with small holes were delivered.  From behind the closed doors to the engine compartment we could hear strange squeaks as the technical people worked long into the night.
          Finally one day the work was completed, and the technical team left.  Kov was given some last minute instructions and we were ready.
          “OK, dim the lights!”  Jack turned a knob at McElroy’s command.  “Everybody in your hammocks!”  We all jumped in, and 76 hammocks swung gently back and forth.
          Kov had a neat little remote control with an antenna on it and everything.  It had a couple of knobs and some buttons.  From his hammock he adjusted the knobs carefully.
          “Dagnabbit!”  There was a crack as Kov’s control hit the floor.  “That darn thing is hard to hold on to!”
          Over the last few days we’d lost some of our fear.  Certainly with the windows covered it would be less likely that the evil dog-monsters that we’d heard about in legends of The Wasteland could see us.  We were also looking forward to the pleasant subspace hops.  And of course we had all those ThunderTroopers.  Everything would be fine.

* * *

          The last thing I remember was Kov’s gnarled finger coming down on a red button, there was a sudden squealing, a roar and then I blanked out.  What seemed like days later I came to.  I immediately threw up.  It was horrible.  My guts felt inside-out.  I felt better after ten minutes or so.  But relief was only momentary, as I looked around the crew and TeeTees were slowly waking up and heaving everywhere.
          It was a nightmare.  I won’t even begin to describe the smell.  I will leave the whole terrible scene of TeeTee’s helmets filling up, the cleanup with the firehoses, the washing and airing of the clothes, and the psychological recovery to the imagination.  I don’t want to think about it.  Ever.
          “What do you mean, there’s 16 more?”  McElroy was almost screaming at Kov.
          “Captain, it’ll take us a total of 17 hops to get to those coordinates.”  Kov didn’t look like he was too happy with the idea either.
          Foogall was listening.  “Get me Federation Headquarters,” he told Sparks.
          In the end we were airlifted several hundred bottles of Lovarg, a drug which put us into a hallucinatory state.  Now we were ready for some pleasant subspace hops.
          “Here we go!”  That may have been what Kov said, anyway.
          How Kov managed to keep pushing the buttons, I have no idea.  I remember hearing him cackling wildly, “Last one!”  Nobody cared.  I vaguely saw a 50-foot claw pushing on a giant red beetle, and was out again.



 
 

CHAPTER TEN - I’D LIKE MINE MELTED ON THE INSIDE, PLEASE

“Check it out!”  Jack was peering through some kind of waving pink flag.  “There’s, like, millions of antelopes out there, man!”  I focused on a spinning spiral of black and white.  Must be George.  I closed my eyes, and opened them again.  Rows of hammocks.  That was better.
          The crew was all staring different directions with a fascinating variety of expressions on their faces.  Except for the TeeTees.  Their heads were spinning at several hundred RPM.  We must have arrived.  I crawled generally in Jack’s direction, then decided to fly, it’d be quicker.
          “Ow!  Get off my stomach!”  Porter was whining about something.  I reached for a beautiful pastel tablecloth, then it shrunk to an inch across.  I pulled at it, and there was a ripping sound from somewhere.
          I looked out the little window.  “Wow!  Those aren’t antelopes!  They’re marshmallows!  Big black marshmallows with yellow markings and weapons turrets!  Open your eyes!  There are millions of them, though.  You’re right about that.”  I was amazed that anyone would equip marshmallows with weapons turrets.  But there it was.
          Suddenly there was a blinding flash, and seconds later there was a deafening “CRACK!”  I was thrown violently against the wall.  Dishes crashed and crew and TeeTees alike flew everywhere.
          “Hey, they’re firing on us!”  It was impossible to tell who spoke:  the floor was a mass of seething bodies and TeeTees.  Nobody was left in the hammocks.
          “Marshmallows can’t shoot!”
          “Then it must be a video game!  Let’s shoot back!”
          Now that sounded like fun!  “Battle Stations!  Battle Stations!”  McElroy was shouting.  Somebody found a button, the lights went red, and sirens screamed, “AH-OOO-GAH!  AH-OOO-GAH!”
          A rather pleasant automated female voice announced over the sirens, “We are under attack, please attend to Battle Stations at your earliest convenience.  We are under attack.  Please . . .”  The recording repeated endlessly.
          “Maaaa maaaa,” Candy said.
          “Jack!  Porter!  Marvin!  Fluffy!  Follow me!”  The effects of the Lovarg were wearing off quickly.  I wanted to get into the game while we were still spaced-out.  It’d be way more fun.  The five of us scrambled our way to the weapons room.
          “Alpha Platoon!  Engage megagasters!  Gamma Platoon!  Activate forstall devices!”  Foogall was shouting orders at the remaining ThunderTroopers.  TeeTees desperately grabbed at their spinning heads, and began to flip open access panels on their chests.  Buttons were pressed, and many of the TeeTees began to shout insults.  Others sprouted wheels, antlers and comic books.
          “All platoons, follow me!”  Foogall led the way to the back door.  The TeeTees were bouncing off each other and the walls like balls in a pinball machine as some of the spinning began to transfer to their bodies.  As we raced down the stairs, I glanced back and saw TeeTees crashing their way out the door like Swiss army bowling pins.
          FLASH!!  We all hit the deck and waited for the impact.  We could hear the shell whistle as it passed just by the bow.  That was close!  Once in the weapons room, I assigned the goodies.  “Marvin, man, er . . . you use the disinteflator!  Fluffy, take the quarkruptor!  Porter, keep them supplied with ammo!  I’ll take the NX-53.  Jack, you absorb the recoil.”  Jack took position behind the butt of the neuroneutralizer.
          “ . . . under attack, please attend to Battle Stations at your earliest . . .”
          “AH-OOO-GAH!  AH-OOO-GAH!”
          “Maaaa maaaa.”
          Boy, was this fun!
          Our armaments were formidable.  The disinteflator projected an energy field that let the air out of the tires of any ship unfortunate enough to fall within its deadly range.  The quarkruptor created a vibration in its targets that caused complete disintegration, leaving only small chunks in a variety of Lego®-brick shapes and colors.  Attempts to reconstruct humans sometimes took months.  And the results weren’t always pretty.  Although ruthlessly effective, it had a short range.
 The heart of our defense was the NX-53 neuroneutralizer.  It was capable of sending a wide beam of brain-scrambling infomercials nearly a million miles.  Those unfortunate enough to be caught in its vicious swath had their IQ drop 50 to 60 points, and found their names added to over 500 e-mail lists.
          We took our positions.  “Boogie at 10-o’clock high!” shouted Jack.  Actually there were boogies at every-o’clock everywhere, but it sounded good.
          “I’m on him!”  I had him in my sights and pressed the trigger.
          “Ooof,” said Jack.  Immediately the target began to turn, and spiraled into two other marshmallows in the tight formation. All three exploded in a multicolored fireball.  Great simulation!
          “How many points do you think that was worth?”  I ignored Jack’s question, and just held the trigger down.  With millions of targets so densely packed, it was impossible to miss.  Marshmallows started careening in every direction.  “Ooof.”
          Meanwhile Marvin was busy with the disinteflator.  Marshmallows had started to slow down, some came to a complete halt.  I could see troops coming out with tire-irons and spares.
          “Hey that one’s headed straight for us!”
          Fluffy had seen the shell coming and said, “Me got.”  He carefully aimed the quarkruptor and fired.  The shell exploded and a shower of blue, red and yellow Lego® rattled off the ship’s hull.  “Try put that back together!”  We hadn’t seen Fluffy’s vengeful side before.
          As the battle raged, I noticed many of the TeeTees clinging to the outside of the ship, hurling humiliating taunts and insults at the marshmallow people.  Others had used self-propulsion devices and were off in the distance butting the marshmallows with their magnificent antlers.  Some had created a distraction by reading them Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk.  Now more marshmallows were firing.  These graphics were really hi-res.  Shells were coming from every direction.  All three weapons raked the skies knocking out hundreds of marshmallows.  But there were too many of them . . .
          Suddenly we heard a squealing and a roar and I blanked out.  I came to almost instantly.  We were still in the middle of the game, but no-one was firing at us.  In the distance we could see a great battle as thousands of the marshmallows seemed to be firing at each other.  Every second dozens of them were exploding in flames.  We stopped to watch for only a second, though, shells began streaming towards us, and we returned the fire.

* * *

          So every time things got too hot, Kov would push the red button.  He’d found that if he pushed a green button at the same time there were no ill effects from the transmutilator and we were only out for seconds.  He’d put us somewhere else among the marshmallows.  Over the next hour the crew, watching intently from the windows, counted over 7 million marshmallows destroyed.  Only a few thousand remained, and eventually they turned and fled.  We couldn’t begin to imagine how many points we’d racked up.  It took a while to retrieve all the TeeTees, though.  Hopefully that didn’t lower our score.



 
 

CHAPTER ELEVEN - IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE

“Your HRHness.”
          “Yes, Montague.”  HRH had never liked her chief advisor much.  And she hated being interrupted during a workout.
          “We have reports that several million dog-sleds have appeared along the border with The Wasteland.”
          HRH continued to pedal, wiping the sweat from her forehead.  “Why are they there?”
          Montague looked flustered.  “Well, we don’t really know, your HRHness.”
          “Well, then get their leader on the radio!  I’ll ask him myself!”  HRH returned her attention to the CliffMaster.
          A few minutes later Montague returned with a portable radio.  “He says his name is Hoop the Inniw, most Imperial Emperor of the Caterpillar Empire and High Keeper of the Great Yenoh Fields.”
          HRH cleared her throat, then took the radio and pressed a button.  “A great pleasure to speak with you, sir.  This is Her Rampantly Holistic Princess Doda Nigit III of The Federated Planets. You may call me HRH.  How may I address you?”  She kept pedaling.
          Hoop answered, “Ah, yes.  Don’t let’s be too formal, eh what?  Just call me Hoop, if you like.”
          “Very well,” HRH nodded.  As if Hoop could see it.
          Hoop continued, “Look, sorry to bother you and all that.  But, well, the thing of it is, is that it seems as if, well, we rather misplaced my sister, Fancha Watcha Bono Inniw.  The odd bit is we last heard of her in your neck of the woods, as it were.”
          “I see, can you give me a description?” HRH asked.
          “She’s rather difficult to describe, if you know what I mean.  Tell you what though, I do have a photo.  And a rather boffo one at that.  I could show you the photo, if you like.”
          “That would be satisfactory.  One moment, please.”  She turned to Montague.  “What are their coordinates?”  Montague gave her a string of numbers.
 HRH turned back to the radio.  “Mr. Hoop, are you still there?”
          “Yes, HRH, haven’t moved a muscle.  Absolutely not.  I wouldn’t be going anywhere, would I?  You know.  Not without my sister.”
          “Perhaps it would be best if you brought the photograph here.  Why don’t you and a few of your key advisors attend to my castle.  From where you are, let me see . . . yes, proceed straight to the green globular cluster, and then turn left and continue for about 20 minutes.  You will come to a group of yellow planets around a pink and white sun.  Have you got that so far?”
          “Jolly good.  Just a tick, though, and I’ll fetch a biro.”  There was a pause.  There was a faint sound of reggae in the background.  “Right then, I’ve got that part.  Then what?”  Hoop’s voice crackled a bit.
          “Very well, at the stoplight, turn left.  My planet will be the fourth one on your right.  Look for the monkey puzzle tree out front.  My escorts will meet you there.  The journey should take you under an hour from where you are.”
          “Well, HRH, this is so good of you.  Yes, much appreciated, you know.  We’ll see you in a bit then, won’t we?  Indeed.  I do look forward to meeting you, I’m sure you’re quite enchanting.  Quite.  Enchanting.  Bye for now, then.”  Hoop signed off.
          “Ta.”  What a fascinating voice, HRH thought to herself.

* * *

          They stared at each other, jaws slack.  In the door to HRH’s throne room Hoop stood erect on a few hind legs, displaying his full ten foot height.  His 75 well-formed forelegs dangled languorously at his sides, framing the soft off-white of his segmented underbelly.  His elegant yellow and black striped antennae twitched, perhaps a little nervously.  He exuded an earthy, musty odor that filled the room, overwhelming the usual smell of Chianti.  His 24th and 25th legs clutched a large brown envelope.
          HRH sat on her throne, the bones of her emaciated frame clearly visible through her tight fitting jogging suit.  Mascara ran from her eyes.  The hastily applied lipstick had only partly found its mark. Montague coughed.  “Possibly we weren’t expecting such an, ah, unusual species?  Bourbon, perhaps?”  He snapped his fingers and a waiter appeared with a tray.
          Hoop and HRH continued to stare at each other, then she turned to her advisor.  “Montague, leave us alone.  We are not to be interrupted.”  She looked at the servant.  “Out.  You’re dismissed for the day.”  They left the room by the side door.
          Hoop took a step into the room, then turned back to the door and spoke to his retinue, “Do wait outside, will you?  Would you mind?  Thanks, so much.”  He turned back to HRH, closing the door.
          “Ah, HRH, I really had no idea you were so, so, well . . .” Hoop trailed off.  HRH stood, swayed for a moment, then walked towards him, trembling.  She stopped just in front of him and looked up at his exotic face.
          “Mr. Hoop, I am feeling a little disconcerted.  I do not quite understand . . .”  She tentatively reached out and touched a leg.  It was soft, well lubricated, stimulating.  Her lips parted.
          Hoop stuttered, “Ah, if I may be so forward, HRH, I cannot remember meeting anyone so, so very attractive.”  The envelope fell to the floor, forgotten.
          HRH looked up at Hoop, her glazed eyes glazing to opacity.
          Suddenly she grabbed a handful of legs and pulled his pulsating mouth down to hers.  Then she pulled back, teasing, smiling fleetingly.
          “Ohhhh, HRH,” Hoop shuddered.  He could control himself no longer.  He grabbed HRH with dozens of legs, pulled her tight body to his yielding softness.  His antennae wrapped around her head, forcing her eager mouth to his.  They kissed deeply, passionately, then they fell together to the floor, Hoop’s undulating torso cushioning the blow.
          “I want you,” HRH breathed.  “I want you now, my love.  Take me.”
          “Yes, yes!  Oh, my princess!”

* * *

          “We are much alike, you and I, in so many ways.”  HRH inhaled, and passed the cigarette to Hoop.
          “Quite so, my little chicken, quite so.”  Hoop’s many legs rippled contentedly as he lay on his back.  He drew deeply, then blew little figure-eights with the smoke.  They lay quietly for a time, HRH sprawled on Hoop’s abdomen, absently playing with his feet, Hoop rippling.
          This tranquil scene was interrupted by a chime.  “Damn!”  HRH crawled to the communications console, put her hand over the video sensor.  “What do you want!  I asked not to be interrupted!”
          It was Montague.  “I apologize, HRH, but we have an emergency transmission from the Marsop.”
          HRH snapped, “Very well, go ahead.”
          There was static, then a voice said, “Commander Foogall reporting, HRH.”
          “Go ahead, Commander, what is so important?”
          “Yes, HRH.  We have not found the control center at those coordinates.  Instead we found ourselves in a somewhat detailed, ah, video game, HRH.”  Foogall sounded a touch nervous.
          “A video game!  What do you mean?”
          “We materialized in the middle of this 3-D projection of millions of marshmallows.”
          Hoop sat up abruptly.  “What, ho!  Do ask him if the marshmallows had any markings.  Could you?”
          “I heard that,” Foogall responded, “They were black with yellow markings.”
          Hoop looked stunned.  “I say.  Those sound like my ships!  Now, look, can you tell me where this happened?  If you don’t mind, of course.”
          “Oh dear,” HRH said.  She started to put her jogging suit back on.  Hoop and Foogall continued to talk.  After some discussion and translation of coordinates, Hoop looked puzzled.
          “Blimey!  That’s right in the Disco sector!  Usually I have that area patrolled with the dog-sleds I have with me here, you see.  You know, those bumbleships you’ve seen are normally in the Kanu and Fing sectors.  Odd that they’re in Disco, isn’t it then?  It doesn’t make sense.  Something’s afoot!  Right, Foogall, my good man, can you tell me where these ships were headed?  Be clear, now.”
          Foogall gave more coordinates.  Hoop furrowed his brows.  “Zip, zip, ziiiiip.”  HRH was getting dressed.  She didn’t like the sound of this.
          Then Hoop’s eyes widened.  He jumped to his many feet.
          “They’re headed straight for the center of the Empire!  Vortok!  It must be that Vortok!”  Hoop frowned.  “Now this is very important, you understand.  Listen closely, do you hear?  What  Exactly  Happened  To  Those  Ships?”
          On the Marsop everyone was listening in, and all eyes were on Foogall.  This looked like big trouble.  They had no idea who was on the other end of the radio, or who Vortok was, but somebody had just got a lot of ships destroyed, and he was with HRH.  Kov began to reprogram the transmutilator.  Foogall took a deep breath and said evenly, “We annihilated almost the entire fleet.  Seven million marshmallows reported destroyed.”
          HRH had backed towards the side door, ignored by Hoop.  Now she turned to run.  Hoop looked shocked.  Then he laughed and shouted, “Oh, good show!”  HRH stopped dead and looked at Hoop.
          “‘Good show’?  What do you mean, ‘Good show’?  Are you serious?”  HRH asked in disbelief.
          Hoop explained, “That blackguard Vortok is a dastardly traitor.  He was going to use my own ships to overthrow me.  While I was distracted looking for my dear sister that he’d kidnapped!  Indeed!  My own ships!  I say, your ship has saved my empire!”



 
 

EPILOGUE - BILLY ASKS A QUESTION

“And that, my boy, is how the universe came to be such a wonderful place.  We found Fancha safe on Carvile, and the grateful Hoop joined forces with us in defeating the Rotnufians.  Vortok was captured and sent to a healing circle.  Hoop and HRH were married and the Great Pan-Galactic Alliance that is our home today was born, with all the galaxies of what was the Federation of Planets, the Caterpillar Empire and the old Rotnuf Kingdom.
          “Our crew were all heroes.  That’s how we got our SpeedStreek 100.  But I was only doing my job.  Of course, it might never have happened if I hadn’t been manning the neuroneutralizer.”
          “But, Dad, what about the poison sun rays?”
          “Oh, right, there’s one more part.”



 
 

EPILOGUE II - BUT, DAD, WHAT ABOUT THE POISON SUN RAYS?

“Y ou know there’s got to be something else this computer can do.”  Berkeley was poking at it again.  He’d moved it to the playroom.  The transmutilator had broken down under the stress of battle, with the steam engines removed it would take us nearly a month to return home under tow.  We were all looking for things to do to fill the time.  And disappointed that we couldn’t join in the roust of the Rotnufians.
          Mr. Dodgers came up, he’d been rummaging in the computer storage room for more parts.  “Barnard, hello!  I found another book.  It thought it might help.”  He handed the book to Berkeley.  Berkeley took the thick volume, turned it over and handed it back to Mr. Dodgers.
          “That’s OK, you read it.”
          Mr. Dodgers thumbed the pages.  “I already did that, I knew you were very busy.  Would you like to know what I found out?  I can tell you if you like.”
          “Sure.”  Berkeley was not enthusiastic.
          “OK, I’ll tell you.  Well, this computer is broken.  That means it’s not working properly.  The book says it ‘crashed.’  So it must have been in an accident.  The numbers you got on the glass weren’t coordinates at all.  No they weren’t.  Not even in the neighborhood.  They just looked like coordinates.  Because coordinates are just numbers.  Why, I might have made the same mistake myself.  Can you say, ‘mistake,’ Barnard?”
          McElroy overheard, and ignoring the fact that Mr. Dodgers did make the same mistake asked, “Do you mean that computers can make mistakes?”
          Mr. Dodgers replied, “Well, sometimes, even though we mean well, we all make mistakes.  And that’s all right.  We’re not all perfect, you know.  We just have to say we’re sorry.”
          Everybody started to crowd around.  Porter said, “So HRH might have been wrong about the genetic stuff?”
          Berkeley looked shocked.  “I talked to her scientists the other day.  They found the same numbers on their computer that we had.  They had decoded them as the formula for the spectrum shift.  I thought that’s why the coordinates didn’t work for us.”
          “Our genes are OK?”
          “Does that mean we don’t have to give directions to lost tourists?”
          “Or drive trucks?”
          “Or design star-drives?”
          McElroy turned to Sparks.  “Get me HRH, immediately!”
 
 

THE END

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