Main Sfstory Page     Previous Log     Next Log     Index for Logs 091-117

Sfstory Log 093

=========================================================================
Date:         Fri, 24 Jul 1998 23:37:45 -0400
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)
To:           Superguy (superguy at eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Starcruiser Anonymous #20 (2/2)

[ Continued from Part 1 ]

Anme had been passing the time until Captain Harrison arrived by toying with
an "Intelligence Tester", a small wooden game she had found on her table.
The object was to remove all but one of fourteen pegs from the fifteen holes
on the board.  So far, she hadn't managed to leave fewer than four, which
the instructions implied was not a particularly desireable score.  Thus
distracted, she had missed the activity in the level overlooking the food
court.  Her first hint that something had gone awry came when Louis Jackson,
director of Ship Security, asked if he could join her.
    "Is something wrong?" she asked once he had settled in.
    "A group of assassins were hiding in that store up there," he told her,
gesturing at a now-lit storefront filled with security personnel one level
above them.  "For some reason," he continued, "your friend Horlun appears to
have confronted them and was taken hostage as a result."
    "Is he... all right?" Anme asked.  This was not a welcome development.
That idiot Horlun was going to get himself killed.  Why did he have to pick
_now_ to take an interest in these things?
    "We think he's okay," answered Harrison.  Anme barely managed not to
jump in surprise; Harrison had managed to take the seat next to hers without
Anme noticing.
    "That's good," Anme said, willing her heart rate to slow back down to
normal.  She did not enjoy being startled, something she had learned at that
monster movie marathon Horlun had dragged her along to.  "Isn't it dangerous
for you to be here right after an assassination attempt?" she asked.
    "That's what _I_ told her," Jackson grumbled.
    "Yes, a bit dangerous," Harrison replied.  She didn't look too
concerned.  She almost seemed amused by the whole affair.
    "We've sent a team after them," Jackson explained.  "We're hoping to
conclude this without further violence.  Or any violence, I guess, since
there doesn't seem to have been any so far."
    "Actually," Harrison added, standing up.  "I should be going if I want
to catch up with that team.  If you'll excuse me?"  Anme nodded and Harrison
strode off.  Jackson looked unhappy about it, but kept his peace; he had
evidently discussed this before.
    "Wait--she's going after them _herself_?" Anme asked once the Captain's
statement sunk in.  Jackson nodded 'yes', rolling his eyes and muttering
something about a 'Kirk Syndrome'.  Anme stood.  "Then I'm going too," she
declared.
    "I don't think you should," Jackson told her, also standing.  "It really
isn't safe.  The Captain may not be taking this seriously, but... that's her
decision, I guess."
    "It's mine too," Anme told him.  "Horlun's the only one of us who can
pilot the Finstar--I _have_ to make sure he's okay."
    Jackson sighed and began to remove his uniform jacket.  "Take this," he
said, offering the heavy navy-and-silver jacket.  "It'll give you a little
protection."
    Anme eyed it uncertainly.  Wearing a military uniform--for whatever
reason--seemed a betrayal of her ideals.  Eventually, practicality won out
over principle.  "Thank you," she said, accepting the jacket.  It was a
little big, but that was the least of her worries.

                                 *   *   *

Number One peered into the holding cell Ms Gaelen had recommended.  It would
do quite nicely, he decided.  "Will you join us inside?" he asked once he
and Number Two had entered.
    "Maybe I should stay outside," Beth replied thoughtfully.  "That way, if
anyone asks if you're in there, I can say 'No, they're not.'"
    "You would do that for us?" One asked.  She nodded.  "Thank you," he
said.  Stepping inside, he closed the door behind him.  The engagement of
the automatic lock did not faze him; he knew the combination, after all.

    "These rebels are real pushovers," Daniels commented to Gaelen.  "I
think you and I could take 'em all ourselves."
    "Don't get overconfident," Gaelen told him.  "Pride goeth before a
fall."
    "You're starting to sound like Hydrospok," Daniels warned him.  The
group began to round a corner.  "I'm telling you these rebels are--gllk!"
    "Are what?" asked the large trenchcoat-clad man who had been lying in
ambush just around the corner.  He jabbed Daniels's neck with the barrel of
his assault weapon once more for emphasis.  His companion trained his own
weapon on the rest of the team, who slowly put their own weapons on the
floor.
    "My, that's a big gun you've got there," Daniels commented, rubbing his
neck.  "I was just telling my buddy here how much respect we've got for you.
It takes real guts to take on the Captain--you're sure not pushovers, that's
for certain."  He laughed weakly.  His large opponent just frowned and
raised his weapon to fire.  Daniels gulped, watching the renegade slowly
apply pressure to the trigger.
    Click.
    "Huh?" the renegade asked, glancing at the assault weapon's status
display and trying to decipher the error readouts.
    "Is the safety on?" the other rebel asked.
    "Lemme check, I--"
    "Hold it!" Winters interrupted.  She, Gaelen, and Losar had retrieved
their pistols and trained them on their confused assailants.  "No one
threatens Green Squadron," she intoned.
    The first rebel sheepishly raised his hands in surrender.  His companion
bolted.  "After him!" Losar ordered.  The four pilots gave chase, dragging
their embarrassed captive along with them.

    Beth looked up, hearing the footsteps of someone running towards her.  A
panicked rebel ran around a corner, skidding to a halt in front of the cell
where his leaders were hiding.  "Sirs," he cried.  "There's four of them
coming this way!  We've got to get out of here!"
    "Don't be silly," came Number One's muffled voice through the door.
"We're perfectly safe in here."
    "But the crew will just sit out here and wait for you to leave!" the
rebel cried.  "They'll be here soon, we have to leave now!"
    "That's right!  There's no other way out of here.  We're trapped!"
After a moment, they heard someone inside struggling with the door.  "It's
locked!  My combination doesn't work.  What have you done to the door,
Gaelen!?"
    "All I did was repair the lock," Beth explained.  "Number Five said it
was all right."
    "You've destroyed us!" the rebel yelled, aiming his weapon at her.
"Open that door!"
    Beth swallowed nervously, and began to stand.
    "Freeze!" someone shouted from behind her.
    "Beth!" added someone else who sounded remarkably like her brother.
Turning, she saw that it _was_ her brother.
    "Roy!" she called, running towards him.  They embraced.  Daniels gagged.
    "Get the insulin," he groaned, sticking a finger down his throat, "I'm
going into shock."  Winters bapped him.
    "Is anyone in here?" Losar asked, gesturing at the holding cell while
keeping an eye on their prisoners.
    "No one's in there," Beth told him, "especially not the leaders of the
rebellion."
    "You idiot!" One shouted through the door.  "You said you wouldn't tell
them we were in here!"
    "I didn't," Beth replied, sounding confused.  "I said you _weren't_ in
there."
    The rebel leader had no response for that.
    "How do _we_ get in there?" Losar asked.
    "Simple."  Letting go of Roy, she walked over to the panel in keyed in
five zeroes.  The door smoothly slid open, revealing Number Two and Number
One, the latter jumping up and down in frustration.
    "Why didn't _my_ combination work?" he demanded angrily.
    "When I fixed the lock, it cleared the memory," Beth told him.  "I
didn't know what combination you used, so I left it blank."
    Number One exploded in a vast, fiery cataclysm.  Well, no, not really.
But the expression on his face suggested that he _would_ have, if given a
chance.  The fact that Losar and Winters were armed calmed him down, or at
least prevented him from taking any violent action.  While Losar ushered the
other two prisoners into the cell with their leaders, Beth walked back to
her brother.
    "Pez?" she offered, holding out a nondescript dispenser.
    "Um, thanks," Roy said, accepting the small package.  He looked at it
quizzically.  "Where did you get Pez?" he asked at last.
    "There's a small storeroom full of it nearby," Beth told him.  "It's
right next to the Room of Spam."
    "The Room of Spam?"
    "It's best not to ask."
    Pause.
    "I won't, then."

                                 *   *   *

In the command room, Number Five lay in wait with eighteen of the rebels,
ready to defend their headquarters from the invaders.  The problem was that
the invaders were taking an awfully long time to reach them.  Five was
considering sending out scouts; who knew what those cursed crewmembers could
be doing?
    "See anything?" he asked one of the lower-level renegades towards the
front.  He had taken a page from Number One's leadership style and had
stationed himself in the back, where it was safe.
    "Nothing yet," was the reply.  Five could tell that the others were
growing tired of the waiting as well.  The invaders would be fools to ignore
the command center; they _had_ to come here eventually.  What was taking
them so long?
    "What is _taking_ them so long?" someone in the rearguard asked.  He was
quickly hushed up.  It wouldn't do for the invaders to hear them.  It
defeated the whole purpose of having an ambush.  Five listened carefully,
trying to hear the approach of the invaders over the breathing of the
rebels, the almost-inaudible noises of the ship, the footsteps approaching
from behind, the--
    Wait a minute.
    Five slowly turned to see if perhaps his mind was deceiving him.
Nothing.  He had almost decided it _was_ in his mind when one of the
invaders stumbled into the light.
    "They're behind us!" he shouted.  "Run for your lives!"
    With a great war cry, the renegades rushed forward, leaving their
adversaries dumbfounded in their wake.

    "What now?" asked Stanford as their quarry vanished around a corner.
    "I suppose it would be best to follow them and prevent any further
mischief," Hydrospok replied.
    "Um, maybe Masaki and I should stay behind to tell the others where
we're going," Menendez suggested.
    "That won't be necessary," Stanford told him.
    "If we're leaving the compound, we really should tell them--"
    "That _won't_ be necessary."
    "But--"
    "You are _not_ leaving me alone with him," Stanford hissed fiercely.
    "I guess not."
    "Then let us be off," Hydrospok said, and with that he leapt into
action.  After a moment, the three Black Squadron pilots followed.

                                 *   *   *

The elite assassination team (plus one) was about halfway to rebel
headquarters when Number Three called a halt.  "I've been hearing footsteps
behind us," he explained.  "I want to make sure it's not an echo."  The two
renegades and their prisoner halted, listening for movement from behind.
    "It stopped," Four whispered.
    "Yeah.  _After_ we did.  We're being followed."
    Horlun drew a deep breath to shout, but decided against it when Four
stuck the barrel of his assault weapon under his nose.  "Just yawning," he
said, grinning nervously.  "I--wait, do you hear that?"
    The renegades listened.  From the sound of it, a disorderly mob was
running towards them from the other side.
    "You think they got around us?" Four asked.
    "I don't see how," Three replied.  "Let's hope it's reinforcements."

    A short distance beyond the disorderly mob, Hydrospok and the three
Black Squadron pilots were busy chasing Five's defense force.  Whenever the
renegades began to slow, Hydrospok let loose a fierce war cry that sent them
running again.  This was beginning to annoy his companions.
    "If you keep... scaring them off like that," Menendez panted, "we are
_never_... gonna catch up."
    "I'm not sure we _want_ to catch them," Masaki told him.  "We're heavily
outnumbered."
    "Oh... great."
    Ahead, they heard shouting, then silence.  Their quarry had halted.
    "What now?" Masaki asked.
    "It sounds like they're making a stand," Stanford guessed.
    "Come, Stanford," said Hydrospok, "let us go forth and investigate this
matter."
    "We'll stay behind," Menendez said quickly, "and, uh--"
    "--provide cover," Masaki chimed in.  "It's not a glamorous job, but--"
    "--someone's got to do it," Stanford finished.  He rolled his eyes, but
didn't otherwise comment.  "In any case," he added, "we'd better hurry
before they can organize."
    "Right," Hydrospok agreed.  The two squadron leaders moved forward with
all the stealth they could muster, while Menendez and Masaki followed a
short distance behind.  The halls were short in this section of the
restricted areas, forcing them to take a roundabout route to get make
significant progress in a given direction.  Approaching the last corner
before the renegades, they paused to listen to the rebels' conversation.
    "Can you hear any of that?" Stanford asked.
    "No," Hydrospok replied, "it's too quiet.  But, we'll soon find out, I
suppose."  With a mighty leap, he burst around the corner and trained his
pistol at the rebels.  "Surrender, villains!" he ordered them.  "If you
don't give us trouble, we may be inclined to go easy on you."  Stanford
slowly joined him and raised his own weapon.
    The rebels closest to them looked to be seriously considering the offer,
but their leaders were not so inclined.
    "Hold it!" one of them shouted.  "Throw down your weapons or we'll kill
the hostage!"  Another pressed his assault weapon against the neck of their
hostage, whom Hydrospok recognized as Horlun SoFah.
    "You cad!" cried Hydrospok.
    Stanford merely sighed and lowered his weapon.

    "What should we do?" asked Menendez.
    "At this point, all we can do is hope for the best," Masaki told him.

    "_This_ is the force you were running from?" Three asked Five in
disbelief.
    "There were more of them before," Five said sheepishly.  His eyes
narrowed.  "Who were _you_ running from?  Did something go wrong on your
mission?"
    "You could say that...," Three began.
    "Security found us," Four said plainly.  "Ow!" he added when Three
smacked him in the head.
    "So they're chasing you?" Five snickered.  Then he paled.  "How close
are they?  Are we in danger?"
    "Don't panic," Three told him.  "I doubt they're expecting twenty of us
and we've got three hostages, now."
    "But not all of us are armed," Five reminded him.  "That thrice-cursed
Beth Gaelen didn't get us enough weapons."
    "How dare you soil the name of Beth Gaelen, you uncouth vermin!" one of
the new prisoners cried.
    "We are _not_ vermin!" Four shouted back.  "And we're plenty couth,
too."
    "Don't talk to the prisoners," Three admonished.  "And stop
hyperventilating," he told Five.  "Honestly, there are times I wonder what
Number One was thinking when he promoted you two."
    "Um, we've got a bit of a problem," one of the lower-level renegades
said, gesturing at their rear-guard.
    Three turned and saw the rebels he had set to guard against the security
forces behind them sitting cross-legged on the floor and watched by several
members of Ship Security.  More of the security men (and women) were in
front, aiming their weapons at the renegade forces.  Behind them, Captain
Harrison leaned against a wall, an amused half-smile on her face.  She
waved.
    "You!" Four cried, raising his assault weapon and firing off a shot
before being wrestled to the ground by the security forces.  The shot hit
the wall where Harrison had been leaning; she had seemingly vanished into
thin air.
    "She's gone!" one of the rebels cried.
    "She's a sorceress!" another added.  Three could hear hysteria spreading
through the rank and file.
    "Don't panic!" he shouted.  "Retreat!"

    "I think that's our cue," Menendez said.  He and Masaki burst around the
corner, cutting off the rebels' escape.
    Trapped between overwhelming forces on one end and significantly less
overwhelming but still potentially dangerous forces on the other end, the
last of the renegade forces quietly surrendered.
    And that was that.

                                 *   *   *

Anme barely waited for things to calm before rushing to greet her friend.
"Horlun," she said, embracing him, "I'm so glad you're safe."  For the
moment, she could forget what an idiot he had been and simply experience the
joy of their reunion.  A joy that Horlun only seemed to share halfway.
    "Aren't you taking a big risk being here?" Horlun whispered in answer to
her unspoken question.  "What if they find out you were part of the
assassination attempt?  They could arrest you... or worse."
    "That... won't be a problem," she told him, hoping that he wouldn't ask
why.  She had made the right decision, but it still made her uncomfortable.
    "Why not?" Horlun asked, not picking up the 'I don't want to talk about
it' vibe.
    Anme took a deep breath and released it.  "They already know," she
confided.  "I told Harrison about it when I called to make the lunch
arrangements.  That's why security was there."
    "You set them up?!"
    "Shh!"
    "But, why?" Horlun asked, lowering his voice again.  "Supporting the
government instead of the rebels... I don't get it."
    "I talked with the rebel leader leader," Anme explained.  "He didn't
seem as interested in ending oppression as in getting more power for
himself.  And... I guess Harrison isn't so bad a person after all."
    "I'm glad you think so," said the Captain.
    "Gyaah!" cried Anme and Horlun.
    "Do you _have_ to sneak up on people like that?" Anme demanded.
    "No," Harrison told her.  "We're heading over to the renegade base, now.
You'll want to tag along; it's easy to get lost out here."
    "Thank you," Horlun said.
    "No problem."  Harrison started off, then turned and added: "Oh, Anme,
that jacket looks good on you."  She smiled that half-smile of hers and went
to join the others.
    "That's right," Horlun said, "what's with the uniform?"
    "I'm just borrowing it," Anme said quickly.  "It's for protection."
    "Against what?"
    "I'm not sure.  Ray guns or something."
    "Oh."  Seeing that the security personnel and their prisoners had
already gone around the corner, Anme and Horlun moved quickly to catch up.
They had caught up with the others and walked some distance before Anme
voiced a question that had been troubling her.
    "So, you really thought I would go along with these idiots and help
murder someone?"
    Horlun looked embarrassed.  "It seemed consistent with your attitude
about these things."
    She sighed.  "Oh, Horlun, Horlun, Horlun."
    "What?  You could have _told_ me about this, you know."
    Anme grimaced.  "It _was_ a secret and all.  And you were kinda angry
that night, so...."

    Eventually, Anme agreed to be less secretive and Horlun agreed to read
some of her back issues of _Sullen Rebel_ magazine.  The group had started
down the causeway into the rebel headquarters when they all sensed the
transition back into realspace.  The great ship had arrived at Arorua, where
they would hopefully find the missing Blue Squadron.
    "Shouldn't you be on the bridge?" Menendez asked Harrison, a moment
before he remembered that one shouldn't say such things to the Captain.
Fortunately, she didn't seem to mind.
    "I don't think anything will come up," she told him, "and if it does, I
imagine Gerhardt can handle it."


CAN GERHARDT HANDLE IT?
WHAT IS "IT", EXACTLY?
MIGHT IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE FACT THAT ARORUA IS CURRENTLY HOME TO
    A ZAKAVIAN FLEET AND A GIANT ROBOT WHO AREN'T ON VERY FRIENDLY TERMS?
DO REALLY WE HAVE TO ASK THESE QUESTIONS WHEN THE EPISODE DOESN'T LEAVE A
    CLIFFHANGER?

SFSTORY: You're Soaking In It

--

I'll admit it: this episode was a bit delayed.  For some reason, nothing I
wrote seemed good enough to post.  I'm hoping that's because my standards
got higher and not because my writing got worse...

I've included the summary since it's been so long since the last episode.
Those of you who joined since then may want to check out the archives or my
own website to get the previous episodes.  Unless you didn't like this one,
of course.  Then you don't need to bother.

If all goes well, I'll be posting this on July 24, which my records tell me
is the second anniversary of the series.  I'm hoping I can get #21 out well
before the third.

Dave Menendez
24 July 1998
--
David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)    |  "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.personal.psu.edu/dmm264/  |        of thermodynamics!"
=========================================================================
Date:         Wed, 20 Jan 1999 22:07:07 -0500
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)
To:           Superguy (superguy at eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Starcruiser Anonymous #21

I'd been _planning_ to send this yesterday, since that was the 12th
anniversary of SFSTORY, but things didn't quite work out for reasons I
don't fully understand.  Where _does_ the time go?

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

                           STARCRUISER ANONYMOUS
                          (A Tale Within Sfstory)

                                Episode 21
                         Wherein the Ampron Force
                             Returns to Space
                                    by
                               Dave Menendez

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

Prince Lotekh of the house Entesh--heir to the Imperial throne,
Captain-Commander in the Imperial Military Aggregate, ranking officer over
all Zakavian forces in the Aroruan system, and exactly the sort of person
Machiavelli was talking about when he said it was safer for a leader to be
feared than loved--had been in a foul mood ever since the Aroruans had
defeated Alpha Ra.  Oddly enough, the crew onboard his flagship _Absurd
Physical Harm_ saw this as a good thing, as it meant Lotekh spent his time
being moody in his room rather than wandering around the ship finding faults
and picking nits and generally threatening the careers of anyone he came
across.  It might be a little hard on the furniture at times, but furniture
could be easily replaced.  Some of the wiser crew members were concerned
that the prince was merely bottling up his anger and would eventually
release it in an explosion of irritability, but they could do little beyond
waiting for their transfer requests to get processed.  The rest of the crew
went about their business with a hollow cheerfulness, knowing in their
hearts that Lotekh would eventually get over his problems and then they'd
have to deal with him again.
    Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Lotekh's mood had only grown
darker after receiving a response from Lord Ganush regarding Alpha Ra's
maiden battle.  The Sonar Men's armored sales representative had sent his
regrets about Alpha Ra's destruction, but pointed out that the battle with
Ampron had voided its warrantee.  He had offered to discount their next
giant robot purchase, but there would be none available for the next month
or so.  Lotekh didn't have that kind of time.  The last message from planet
Gloom had said they were sending "additional forces".  Lotekh didn't know
what they had meant by that, but he was sure it wasn't good.  His idiot
father had been severely displeased by the reappearance of Ampron.  The
defeat of Alpha Ra could only have made things worse.  He needed to act
_now_ if he was to redeem himself.  He couldn't let victory be attributed to
those "additional forces".
    The fool Mselt didn't agree.  "Let's wait for the reinforcements," he
had said.  "The Aroruans aren't getting any stronger," he had said.
"Bombing them from orbit seems excessive," he had said.  The advice of a
coward.  A whiny, sniveling, irritating coward.  What Lotekh needed was
action!
    "Gyaah!" he shouted, hurling a paperweight against the wall.  Being made
of advanced plastics, it bounced to the floor unharmed.  "That wasn't very
satisfying," the frustrated prince muttered.  Maybe the storeroom still had
some glass ones left.  He had already gone through all the crystal ones.
    He needed a diversion, something to take his mind off the interminable
waiting.  Passing over the book his stepmother had given him, he switched on
his viewscreen.  He had mostly absorbed Captain-General Tvanir's space
forces into the Third Fleet after her incapacitation, and that included the
local military entertainment department.  Their low-budget productions
ranged from the poorly acted to the spectacularly awful, but it was less
work than reading.
    He flipped through the entertainment and news channels aimlessly,
waiting for something to catch his eye.  He found one quickly, but it took
him a moment to identify what it was: neither news nor entertainment nor any
public broadcast.  It was the signal from the hidden camera outside Princess
Elim's cell.
    Officially, the Aroruan princess was a guest on the _Absurd Physical
Harm_ to protect her from rebel terrorists.  As such, she had been shown
some courtesies at the beginning of her stay.  They'd decided to forgo most
of them after that disaster during her tour of the engine room.  The chief
engineer _still_ hadn't forgiven Lotekh for that, but the prince grudgingly
withheld his wrath.  Mselt had convinced him that the chief engineer was too
important to execute.
    The princess was evidently something of an athlete.  She had managed to
stand her bed on its side and was using a leg as a chin-up bar.  Lotekh had
to admire her resourcefulness.  While he was at it, he made a note to have
her bed bolted to the floor.

                                 *   *   *

While Elim passed the time in exercise, her brother wandered through the
Aroruan palace accompanied by the soft bap-bap-bap sound of his paddleball.
Since the defeat of Alpha Ra and the Zakavian retreat into orbit, the rest
of the Ampron Force had been busy preparing the great robot for its next
battle.  Boltar had been excused from these preparations out of deference to
his position.  With King Gisp dead and Princess Elim supporting the
Zakavians (or so the Aroruans believed), he was now the planet's ruler.
Thus far, his only official actions had involved re-appointing Desir Elahte
as Chancellor so that _he_ could handle the actual details of ruling the
planet, which were numerous and often quite complicated.  That kind of
stress Boltar didn't need.
    In the library, he found what he'd been looking for.  Samantha Dixon was
standing by the windows, intermittently sipping a glass of tonic water.
Normally, the windows were opened in the morning, allowing easy access to
the balcony just outside, but today had been overcast with occasional
showers, so the windows were closed.
    "Good morning, Ms Dixon," he said in greeting.  She turned to face him
and nodded.
    "Good morning, Your Highness."
    "Don't be so formal," he told her.  "We're both on the Ampron Force.
Just call me Boltar."
    She took a sip of her tonic water.  "I suppose I'd rather die with
people I know on a first-name basis," she mused.
    "That's the spirit!"
    "Then you may call me Samantha, I suppose."
    Boltar grinned and turned his attention out the window for a moment.
From here, he could see the final preparations being made for Ampron's next
battle, which would hopefully take place in space.  Although the vast,
high-tech hangar they had discovered beneath the palace was large enough to
hold the great robot, no one had figured out how to get Ampron into it.
Thus, they worked on the robot's space frame on a hastily-constructed
platform just outside Capital City.  To hide it from the Zakavians in orbit,
they had hung an enormous tarp over it and placed a sign advertising
half-schilling cups of lemonade nearby.  Finding a tarp big enough to hide a
hundred-meter robot had been a challenge, Boltar understood, but the
palace's attic held many strange things.
    "You're up bright and early," came the cheerful voice of Alex McCurry
from behind them.
    "I'd hate to oversleep and miss the launch," Dixon replied.  "What with
destiny and all."
    "It _is_ a momentous day, isn't it?" McCurry commented, stepping up to
the window and rubbing his hands briskly together.  "Pity about the weather,
though.  Kinda gloomy.  Not too auspicious."
    "I don't know," Dixon said.  "It seems appropriate enough."
    "You know, Samantha," Boltar interjected, "it's almost like you don't
think we'll win."
    "There are times when I'm not certain," Dixon told him, "but then I
remember what we're up against."
    "Oh yeah, I can see why that might concern you."
    Dixon raised an eyebrow.  "You're not concerned?"
    "Not me," Boltar said, grinning again.  "We've got fate on our side.  We
met up with you four, we found Ampron, we beat that other robot... we're on
a roll, here.  If that gloomy weather's a bad omen, then I'll bet it's for
the Zakavians."
    "The fleet is in space," Dixon noted.  "It's not raining in space."
    "Well..., yeah," Boltar admitted, "but it's still fate."
    Dixon shrugged and the conversation drifted into silence.  Boltar's
paddleball continued beating its soft rhythm.  Dixon finished off her tonic
water.  Outside, workers explained to some out-of-town travelers that they
weren't _really_ selling lemonade.
    "Well," McCurry said at last, "I'll see y'all at the briefing."
    "How long do we have?" Dixon asked.
    "About an hour."
    She rattled the ice in her glass.  "I think I'll get another drink.  See
you two later."
    Dixon and McCurry wandered off.  After a moment, Boltar left as well.
He hadn't visited the shrine to Microtron, Goddess of Giant Robots, in a
while, and--while he knew fate wouldn't let him down--it never hurt to hedge
one's bets.

                                 *   *   *

Beneath the mighty tarp which concealed Ampron from the Zakavian eyes above,
Tels Garav sat at a makeshift desk, carefully looking through the status
reports on Ampron's refit.  Garav had little experience managing a giant
robot repair crew, but Bentor had assured him that he could do an adequate
job and given him a copy of _Giant Robot Maintenance for the Truly Ignorant_
which had been found in the mysterious chambers beneath the palace.
    Ampron lay on its back on a platform which avoided being condemned as a
safety hazard only because the Aroruans had no laws setting guidelines for
giant robot repair platforms.  The newly-reassembled space frame augmented
Ampron's unique physique rather nicely, in Garav's opinion.  The
strategically placed blast shielding and maneuvering engines actually made
Arorua's defender look more like a death-dealing war machine and less like a
mad scientist's attempt to create a human being using only penguins.  (When
shown the plans, Thomas Dent had made a comment about the enhanced Ampron
looking like it was "all out of bubble gum".  Garav hadn't had the courage
to ask what that meant.)
    Officially, the project was proceeding smoothly and without incident.
This was a lie.  There had actually been several incidents, which Garav had
covered up at the insistence of his workers.  He wasn't comfortable about
it, but he would not have to do it much longer.  The operation was virtually
completed, and after today he would never have to deal with giant robots or
people trying to buy lemonade or those... _other_ problems again.
    "AAAAGH!"
    Garav swore and looked up from his papers, trying to guess where that
scream had come from.  His search was aided by a burst of gunfire and
shouting that followed a few moments later.  It was coming from the left
elbow this time.  "Is the whole frame infested with those things?" he
muttered.
    "What things?"
    Garav jumped and spun around to see Roger Vasta and Thomas Dent.  "Um,
good morning," the lanky ex-waiter said uncertainly.  "You gentlemen are a
little early; the launch isn't for a few hours yet."
    Vasta shrugged casually.  "We thought we'd see how things were going,"
he said.  The two pilots had just finished a series of tests in the Penguin
simulators, which is to say that Vasta had spent several hours honing his
skills at piloting giant penguins and robots while Dent sought to discover
just how large an explosion the simulator could produce.  (The final result
was, in fact, quite large, but Dent felt it couldn't really compare to the
real thing.)
    "Things are going pretty well here," Garav told them.  "We've finished
putting things together, and now we're cleaning up before the launch."
Behind him, something in the general area of Ampron's left elbow exploded.
    "Not bad," Dent said, nodding in approval.  Garav laughed nervously.
    "Does the clean-up process normally involve explosions?" asked Vasta,
eyeing the prone form of Arorua's defender.
    "Um," Garav said, scratching the back of his neck, "I'm sure the workers
know what they're doing."
    "OW!  CAREFUL WITH THAT, YOU MORON!"
    Vasta looked uncertain.
    "Really," Garav assured him, "everything is fine.  Nothing whatsoever to
get concerned about."
    "LOOK OUT!  THEY'RE ALL OVER THE WALLS!"
    "Oh, the fun we have," Garav chuckled.  "What a bunch of cut-ups."
    Now Dent looked uncertain.  Vasta looked flatly suspicious.
    "Garav," asked the leader of the Ampron Force, "are you _sure_
everything is all right?"
    "AAAAGH!  GET IT OFF ME!  GET IT OFF ME!"
    "Absolutely," Garav assured him.  "Everything's going smoothly."
    Vasta looked at Dent.  Dent looked at Vasta.
    "You know," Dent said sagely, "the first step to dealing with a problem
is admitting you _have_ a problem."
    Garav opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by another burst of
gunfire and shouting.  He sighed in resignation.  "Well, we're, ah, kind of
having a problem with cave squirrels," he admitted.
    Vasta blinked.  "Cave squirrels?"

    The cave squirrel is the only aspect of Arorua more widely known than
Ampron--not that this is saying a whole lot.  Little is known about them,
save their general appearance and disposition.  The creatures are slightly
smaller than a cat, with six legs and a bushy tail and soft, white fur and a
vicious set of claws and fangs.  Aroruans generally avoid their lairs,
heeding their reputation as fierce fighters who are not above ganging up on
an opponent.  Off-worlders take the legend less seriously, and occasionally
a band of hunters will drop by, head off to the caves, and never be heard
from again.  One such expedition was loosely adapted into a low-budget
horror movie called _Cave Squirrel Rampage_, described by Leonard Maltin as
"an embarrassment to the cinema."
    Even the name "cave squirrel" raises unanswered questions.  Although
cave squirrels do live in caves and do look and move much like their
non-cave counterparts, regular squirrels are not native to Arorua.  Several
theories have been put forth in an attempt to explain this, but most
authorities agree with Kasak Llan's conjecture that this is "just one of
those things."

    "Cunning and vicious, eh?" Dent said, smacking a fist into his palm.  He
chuckled.  "That could be amusing."
    Garav groaned.  He was not looking forward to the next few hours.

                                 *   *   *

Elahte had been reluctant to start the briefing with two-fifths of the
Ampron Force missing, but even _his_ patience was limited--especially when
hostile fleets were lurking in orbit.  He had hoped to begin with a report
from Tels Garav about Ampron's status, but Garav hadn't shown up either.
Instead, Elahte had gone over the known composition of the Zakavian Third
Fleet.  Dixon and McCurry both seemed to benefit from the review, and
Boltar... well, there was a reason Elahte had let an off-worlder like Vasta
lead the Ampron Force instead of Arorua's ruling prince.  Of course, Vasta's
absence wasn't exactly filling Elahte with confidence.  Elahte was beginning
to worry that something terrible had happened.
    "We're here," Vasta said, walking into the conference room with Dent and
Garav.  All three looked somewhat worse for wear, like they'd been in some
sort of fight.  Dent, the scruffiest-looking of the three, had a satisfied
grin which did not comfort Elahte at all.  He looked at the newcomers and
frowned.
    "You gentlemen are late."
    "Did we miss anything important?" Vasta asked, taking a seat.  The other
two followed suit, Garav pausing to brush some dust and ash off his pants.
    "I was just starting to describe the battle plan," Elahte told him.
    "Ooh, ooh!" Dent cried, waving his hand in the air.  " 'Kill the enemy,'
right?"
    "That's your solution to everything," Dixon chided.
    "It's a flexible plan," Dent said with pride.  "What's more, you can
apply it to any enemy without major modifications."
    "It seems more like a goal than a plan, if you ask me," McCurry
commented absently.
    "I don't recall doing that," Dent told him.
    "It, er, occurs to me," Elahte interjected, "that the sooner I can
finish describing the battle plan, the sooner you can head out and implement
it."
    "I'll be good," Dent said quickly, straightening in his seat and looking
at Elahte attentively.
    "Right."  Elahte cleared his throat and began the briefing.  "Now, the
legends state that Ampron was able to defeat forces even when vastly
outnumbered--with one exception--but, unfortunately, they don't go on to
explain _how_.  As a result, Bentor and I have had to come up with something
based on the known capabilities of the Third Fleet and Ampron.
    "The first step will be getting into orbit.  The space frame by itself
doesn't carry enough fuel for this, so you'll be using an temporary external
fuel pack.  Unfortunately, Ampron can't walk with the pack attached, so
you'll have to launch while standing on the repair platform.  Once in space,
you'll--yes?"
    "How will the exhaust affect the city?" Dixon asked.
    "We're advising people to stay inside with the windows shut," Elahte
replied.  "Once in space, you'll need to jettison the pack for maximum
maneuverability.  At that point, you'll be able to see the fleet in the
long-range sensors.  Don't head straight for it: you're not experienced
enough to take the entire fleet at once.  You'll want to draw ships off
individually and fight them one-on-one.  If possible, you can try to get
them to destroy each other in their attempt to destroy you.  Yes, Vasta?"
    "How many ships are there?"
    "Including the supply ships, around thirty.  The flagship appears to be
the _Absurd Physical Harm_.  We're hoping that if you manage to take it out,
the remaining fleet will be demoralized and retreat."  He stopped and looked
at the others expectantly.  They looked back at him.  "Are there any
questions?" he asked, signaling that he was finished.
    Dixon voiced her concerns first.  "Our plan is dependent on the enemy
being stupid?"
    "It seems more like a tactic than a plan, if you ask me," McCurry
commented.
    "Shut up, McCurry," Dent said.
    Elahte cleared his throat again.  The petty bickering of the Ampron
Force was beginning to wear on his nerves.  "The truth of the matter, Ms
Dixon, is that we're working without any real knowledge of Ampron's more
advanced abilities.  If you can think of a better plan, please don't keep it
from us."
    Dixon arched an eyebrow, but remained silent.
    "Any other questions?"
    "I have one," Vasta said.  "Assuming we survive this--and I know _I_
plan to survive--will we be receiving any sort of benefits package?"
    Elahte winced.  This could turn ugly.

                                 *   *   *

Lotekh leaned back in his chair, idly munching some popcorn.  (He'd gone to
a lot of trouble to get it; the ship's vending machines were clearly
unsuited for a flagship.)  After a quick meal and a surprise inspection of
the life support staff, he had returned to his office and resumed watching
the camera feed from Elim's cell.  She had long ago completed her chin-ups
and returned her bed to its original orientation.  At the moment, she was
staring blankly at the ceiling.  Lotekh had been watching for some time,
lacking anything better to do while Mselt made plans to deal with the
Aroruans.  It was oddly relaxing, like staring at an aquarium.  He wasn't
sure why.  It was a new experience for him.
    Abruptly, the dark-haired princess sat up and looked directly at him.
Lotekh's throat caught.  She knew he was watching!  She was _challenging_
him!  Lotekh wasn't about to let a challenge go unanswered, and was standing
up to storm down to her cell when he was interrupted by the intercom.
    ((Lotekh to the bridge.))
    He bristled.  How _dare_ they address him so familiarly?  Had they _no_
respect for his position?  "I am a PRINCE!" he shouted, slamming his fist
onto his desk.
    ((Are you there?)) the voice from the intercom continued, unruffled.
((You need to hit the reply button to respond.))
    It was Mselt.  It had to be.  Keeping a tight reign on his temper,
Lotekh swatted at the control panel.  "I am on my way," he said through
clenched teeth.
    ((Acknowledged.))
    Lotekh glanced back at the viewscreen.  The princess was still staring,
an odd, inquisitive look in her eyes.  Snarling, he switched it off and
stomped out of his office.

    Elim squinted at one of the random protrusions in the ceiling.  Was
_that_ the security camera?  She shook her head, mentally deriding Zakavian
industrial design.  It was like they _deliberately_ made things hard to
identify.

    "This had better be important," Lotekh raged as he stormed into the
bridge, "because if it isn't, by Amsa, I _swear_ I'll--"
    "The Aroruans have launched a counter-attack," Mselt interrupted
casually.
    "They WHAT!?"
    "Launched a counter-attack," Mselt repeated.  He gestured at the main
screen, which showed a zoomed-in view of Ampron leaving Arorua's atmosphere.
The damage from its fight with Alpha Ra had been repaired and it sported new
weapons, new armor, and a set of zero-gee maneuvering thrusters.  According
to the tactical display, it was slowly heading in their direction.
    "So," Lotekh sneered, quickly regaining his composure, "they dare to
launch an attack against us."  He turned to his fleet's commander and jabbed
a finger at the viewscreen.  "Mselt!  I want that robot destroyed!"
    "It's an awful lot bigger than I am, sir," Mselt said blandly.
    Lotekh fixed his subordinate with a withering glare.  "Is there a
problem with my orders, Captain-General?" he asked quietly.
    "Not at all, Your Highness," Mselt replied.  He quickly ordered two
cruisers nearest Ampron to begin the initial attack.
    Smiling, Lotekh returned his attention to the viewscreen, which showed
the _Golden Spider-Duck_ and the _Squat Crimson Pig_ moving towards their
prey.  "Perhaps I should have the Princess brought up so she can witness her
planet's final defeat," he mused.
    "We haven't won yet," Mselt reminded him.  "Remember Alpha Ra?"
    Lotekh scowled.  "I am unlikely to forget _that_."  Unfortunately, so
was everyone else.  "Very well, you have made your point.  Once we have
defeated this Ampron, I will show her the highlights of the battle.  Space
battles can be rather tedious, after all."

                                 *   *   *

Vasta had been pleasantly surprised at how well-prepared he felt for this
mission.  The simulators beneath the Aroruan palace had proven to be quite
accurate in giving a feel for how Ampron flew, and the controls were
surprisingly similar to the fighters on the _Anonymous_ in terms of basic
principles and organization.
    They didn't expect to be splitting Ampron into its component penguins,
so the five pilots were sitting together in the primary command center
located in Ampron's chest.  Vasta, being the leader, had the fewest
button-pushing responsibilities.  His job was to make sure the other four
pilots didn't work at cross-purposes and keep an eye on the larger strategy.
In a separate room behind them, Dixon hung in a control frame suspended in a
display sphere, giving her the best idea of where Ampron's various limbs
were in relation to the outside world.  This was a good thing, since the
control frame transferred her movements to Ampron's control software.  On
the ground and in close combat, this job was the most important and the
least comfortable.  In space fighting starships, the job was less important,
but equally uncomfortable.  Dixon had taken the job after getting annoyed
when the members of Ampron Force had spent fifteen minutes declining to
accept it.
    The remaining members of Ampron Force were in charge of functions that
didn't translate well into body movement.  McCurry was in charge of the
maneuvering thrusters, and Vasta was confident that he would do a competent
job.  Prince Boltar had communications, which disquieted Vasta for reasons
he couldn't quite identify.  Dent had weapons control, which disquieted
Vasta for reasons he _could_ identify.  He would have preferred Dixon or
McCurry for that job, but Dent had given him that "lost puppy with a
howitzer" look he did so well and Vasta had relented with the cryptic
reminder that ammunition was expensive.
    "We've left the atmosphere," McCurry announced.  "Or at least the
official boundary.  Technically, there's still atmospheric particles this
far out, but they're so diffuse that--"
    "Any reaction from the fleet?" Vasta asked, cutting off McCurry's
exposition before Dent had a chance to.  He didn't really need to ask--the
displays at his station were just as informative as McCurry's--but Vasta was
trying to encourage a more professional feel in the group.  Also, it gave
McCurry something _useful_ to talk about.
    "Two ships have broken off and are headed this way," McCurry told him.
    "Should I contact them?" asked Boltar.
    "Not yet," Vasta decided.  "Let's see what they do."
    McCurry eased up on the thrust and Ampron glided slowly towards the
Zakavian fleet.  (Of course, how one defines 'slowly' depends a great deal
on context.  If, instead of being surrounded by thousands of kilometers of
nothing, Ampron were in a narrow trench on a large battle station, it would
appear to be going quite fast indeed.)  Between the robot and the fleet, two
cruisers drew closer to their target.  They were nearly within fighter range
before they attempted to make contact.
    ((This is the Captain of the Imperial Zakavian Starship _Golden
Spider-Duck_,)) began the message.  At Vasta's request, Boltar had put the
message on the command center's speakers.  ((On behalf of the Empire, we ask
that you identify yourself and explain your attack on our forces.))
    ((Sure, they're all diplomatic _after_ we beat them,)) Dixon muttered
over the intercom.
    "We are the Ampron Force, representing the free people of Arorua,"
Boltar replied.  "For too long, our people have toiled under your yoke.
Today, we swear that we will end it!  We have defeated your army!  We have
defeated your robot!  Leave this system, or you too will face our might!"
He and Dent high-fived.
    "Nicely direct," Vasta commented, leaning back and steepling his
fingers, "but try to be less belligerent in the future."
    ((Ampron Force,)) came the reply from the Zakavians, ((I am not
authorized to propose a truce, but I can request that a diplomat be sent to
discuss--))
    "That will not be necessary," Boltar interrupted.  "The time for talk
has passed!"
    ((I am certain that a peaceful--))
    "There can BE no peace with the likes of you, VILLAIN!"
    Vasta had identified why Boltar's position had made him uneasy.  He
resolved to pay more attention to those feelings in the future.  As for the
Captain of the _Golden Spider-Duck_, he merely replied, ((So be it,)) and
cut the transmission.  What he had meant by that became clearer a few
moments later, as both ships launched fighters.
    ((Remind me to thank you for this later,)) Dixon commented acidly as she
watched the fighters approach.
    "As you like, Samantha," the young prince replied.  Vasta raised an
eyebrow.  First names?  If Boltar and Dixon were having some sort of
relationship, it might impact the team as a whole.  On the other hand, this
wasn't the best time to be concerned about such matters.
    "Warm up the small-craft defenses," Vasta ordered.
    "Right, Boss," Dent replied.  He chuckled slowly, dry-washing his hands,
before activating the defensive shields and short-range weapons.

    Like a swarm of mosquitoes, the fighters closed in.  But _these_
annoying pests weren't just out to suck blood--they wanted death and weren't
powerful enough to cause it.  So they were more like a swarm of biting black
flies or an angry hive of hornets or something.  Wasps, maybe.
    It didn't take long for Vasta to notice a problem.  Individual fighters
were no problem for Ampron, but a coordinated group posed some difficulties.
The small craft had the capability to cause serious damage, and while these
attacks could easily be blocked, it did require some effort.  Ampron's
larger weapons were oriented towards full starships; using them on fighters
would be wasteful.  Ampron's smaller weapons _were_ appropriate for smaller
craft, but also required some effort to use.  Thus, Ampron could defend
itself, attack its foes, or do a real half-assed job of both.
    As it was, their attacks currently consisted of Dixon occasionally
taking a swing at a nearby fighter, and most of the pilots had learned to
keep out of reach.
    "This isn't working," Vasta said finally, a sentiment with which the
others quickly concurred (except for Dixon, who was trying to kick a fighter
into oblivion).
    "I'll bet the Zakavians are just watching and laughing," Dent seethed.
Again, the others were generally in agreement.
    "We need a new plan," Boltar declared.  The others felt this was pretty
much obvious, and noted that any suggestions would be appreciated.
    "Perhaps it would be best if we pulled back and regrouped," McCurry
suggested.
    (((Regroup?)) Dixon asked.  ((There's only one of us.))
    "I don't think we all need to be manning the barricades," Vasta said at
last.  "Let's see if we can't keep these pests off our back while we attack
the bigger ships.  Dent, what can we do against a cruiser?"
    "We have three Plasmic Destructo-Pods," Dent told him, "and we might be
able to do something with the Penguin Spear."
    ((Like what?)) asked Dixon.
    "Stab 'em, I guess."
    "I'm having doubts about this plan," Vasta muttered.  "Let's try this
then," he added more loudly.  "Dent?"
    "We'll want to get a little closer," Dent said.
    "Okay, take us in, then."
    McCurry activated the thrusters, and Ampron moved towards the _Golden
Spider-Duck_, the cloud of fighters trailing behind it.  Unfortunately, they
had forgotten that their target was armed.  The first Megadeathkill blast
nearly broke the giant robot into pieces.  Dent quickly redirected the
shielding, but this left them vulnerable to the fighters, which were massing
to strike from the rear.
    "Okay, people," Vasta barked, "I want ideas, fast."
    "Something's translating into realspace," said McCurry.
    "What?"
    There was an off-white flash.

                                 *   *   *

The mood on the bridge of the _Absurd Physical Harm_ was one of glee,
particularly that part of the bridge occupied by Prince Lotekh.  He had been
watching Ampron's largely ineffectual attack on the fleet and found it most
amusing.
    "So this is the great Ampron?" he crowed.  "Tvanir was a fool to be
routed by that.  Twice, even!"
    "Both those battles took place on the ground," Mselt noted.  "Ampron may
be less effective in space."
    "Bah."  Lotekh went back to watching the struggle, his good mood only
slightly dampened.  Around him, the bridge crew went about its business,
most keeping one eye on their instruments and the other on the fight.  A few
contemplated placing bets, but Lotekh's presence made the safety of such an
idea uncertain.
    One station lit up a warning.  Sensors had detected a disturbance in the
local structure of space.  It was a moment before the warning was noticed,
interpreted, and passed up the chain of command.
    "Something is dropping out of overly-hyped space," Commander Dfale
informed Mselt in a low tone.  "It's big enough to be a fleet."
    "A fleet?" Lotekh asked.  He had been waiting for such an announcement.
"It seems my father's 'additional forces' have arrived."
    "Perhaps," Mselt agreed, "but let's not jump--"
    There was an off-white flash.
    "--to conclusions... It... I... oh no..."
    "What?" Lotekh asked.  Mselt looked unusually distressed, even
frightened.  It was unnerving.  Lotekh glanced at Mselt's viewscreen to see
what had upset his subordinate.  Whatever had just translated in-system had
ended up just outside the Third Fleet's formation, which meant it wasn't
Zakavian.  The fleet had taken a position far from Arorua, but still close
enough that Zakavian ships could not translate in or out of overly-hyped
space safely.  That way, the fleet would have time to prepare for attacks
coming from any direction.
    Lotekh didn't need to know the details of the ship's engines to know it
represented a higher technology.  Its sheer size was enough for that.  He
looked at Mselt again, and saw that the Third Fleet's commander had
partially regained his composure.
    "That ship," he said, a hint of panic in his voice.  "The pilots I
captured were from that ship.  It must have followed me, somehow.  It's
looking for them!"
    "Those Terrans?" Lotekh asked, thinking back.  "Didn't we leave them on
Planet Gloom?  No, wait, they tried to escape and got shot down."
    "Wonderful," Mselt snapped, "I'll let _you_ tell their friends that."
    "First a legendary robot, and now a massive starship from you annoyed,"
Lotekh mused.  "I wonder if any _other_ threats from the past are going to
show up."
    "Something else _is_ dropping out of overly-hyped space," Dfale noted
helpfully.
    "It had better be those additional forces," Lotekh growled.
    It wasn't.

                                 *   *   *

Captain-General Rtali stood proudly on the bridge of his flagship, the
_Valorous Moon Yak_.  At last, his forces had arrived at Arorua, their first
target in their campaign against the Empire.  The local garrison was said to
be weak, so he anticipated an easy victory.  Perhaps he might even sway
Tvanir to his side.
    "Today," he intoned, "we cast away our old lives as the Eighth Fleet.
Today we formally end our service to the Zakavian Empire.  No longer will we
hide in the shadows!  Today, we... we..."
    "We what, sir?"
    "Is that viewscreen accurate?"
    Before the former Zakavian Eighth Fleet was the largest starship Rtali
had ever seen.  Beyond that appeared to be a giant robot fighting two
Zakavian cruisers.  Between them was an entire Zakavian battle fleet.
    "This _is_ Arorua, right?"
    "All evidence says so, sir."
    Rtali bit his lip.  This was not looking like the quick and easy battle
he had anticipated.


WILL THE ZAKAVIANS DESTROY AMPRON?
WILL THEY DESTROY THE _ANONYMOUS_?
HOW ABOUT RTALI?
FOR THAT MATTER, WHAT THE HECK IS RTALI DOING BACK IN THE PLOT?

More confusion, a long-awaited reunion, and the introduction of _another_
participant in this battle in our next throat-gobbling episode!
    SFSTORY: Bringing you overly-complex plots since 1987
--
David Menendez (zednenem at psu.edu)    |  "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.personal.psu.edu/dmm264/  |        of thermodynamics!"
=========================================================================
Date:         Tue, 02 Feb 1999 12:01:23 -0500 (EST)
From:         Roger Christman (christma at cse.psu.edu)
To:           superguy at eyrie.org
Subject:      AA/SF/SG:  Busy as Hell

			     BUSY AS HELL

			     an interlude
			  by Roger Christman
			 (One Mad Planarian)

		     with brief consultation with
			    the Swede, and
			    CHAOS Engineer


   Satan T. Lucifer Jones, Duke of Smelly Feet and all-around not so
nice a guy sighed diabolically as he reached the bottom of yet another
stack of paperwork.  So far it had been a quiet, peaceful day, and it
was especially appreciable in that another stack of forms hadn't yet
been dumped into the 666 overflowing in-boxes.
   Suddenly and without warning, the door burst open and his office
was invaded by a covey of Quayles.  "Hut!  Hut!  Hut!  Hut!"
   Satan growled ferally and blasted a few of them with Hellfire,
sending them straight to, well, Hell.  "What is the meaning of this?"
he roared.
   "We're playing Morning Jog, sir!" they replied in unison.  "Hut!
Hut!  Hut!  Hut!"
   "Then go play somewhere else!  Out!  Out!"
   "Yes, sir!" they shouted amiably, exiting as a group after a half
dozen laps around his desk.  "Cabana!  Cabana!  Cabana!" one chanted
for variety.

   Satan growled and slammed a much-abused button on his desk, trying
to recall the name of his secretaire du jour.  "Hey, you!" he roared,
his aesthetic sense rebelling against the total lack of satisfaction.
   "Yes?" a mousey voice replied timidly.
   "What's your name?"
   "RoXanne.  With a big X."
   "Right."  Satan mentally sighed.  This was no way for the CEO of
Hell to conduct business.
   "Will that be all, sir?" the mousey voice asked.
   But Satan had already abandoned the intercom, and charged into the
outer office.
   "RoXanne!" he roared.
   The secretary was caught completely by surprise and cowered most
gratifyingly.  "Y-y-yes, sir?" she whispered in terror.
   "What did I tell you about not wanting to be disturbed?"
   "Um," she fumbled.  "That you didn't want to be disturbed?"
   "Er, right."  Satan's aesthetic sense began to nag him again.  He
looked about the room for an excuse to reassert himself, seeing the
covey of Quayles was still gadding about.  "Then how was it that
*they* came into my office?"
   "I-i don't know!" RoXanne quavered.  "They just sort of appeared!"
   Satan grunted.  "Useless waif.  Get me Anthony!"
   "Y-yes, sir."
   Satan grumbled menacingly, feeling much better about himself.  This
secretary cowered quite nicely.  She could go far.
   "Oh, there's someone to see you, sir," RoXanne added, indicating a
scruffy figure who was vainly trying to get comfortable in a chair
designed specifically to foil such efforts.  Sensing Satan's approach,
the figure stood and extended a hand.
   "One Mad Planarian, at your service."
   "Just what I needed," Satan muttered.  "An Author.  At my service,
you say?  What do you want?  I'm a very busy being."
   The Author smirked.  "I know.  Help you with your wheelbarrow?"
   "Wheelbarrow?"  Sure enough, parked next to the RoXanne's desk was
the object so named, half full of new paperwork.  "Why wasn't this
brought to my attention?" he roared.
   RoXanne duly cringed.  "You didn't want to be disturbed."
   "Idiot!"  Satan turned to the Planarian.  "Follow me."

   The two stepped into Satan's inner desecrum.  "So what brings you
here, Author?"
   The Author shrugged.  "Change of pace, partly.  I don't get out
much, really -- not even to the Chapterhouse.  My Muse never lets me
out of her sight.  It's amazing the sorts of things I miss in my
self-induced seclusion."
   "Oh, really?" Satan asked half-heartedly.
   "Yeah.  It seems the other Authors had a major battle or war or
something for a timeless time for reasons I'm not entirely clear on.
I only found out when they decided to use my Pond as a landfill."
   "How unfortunate for you," Satan muttered, trying to find something
else to do.
   "Not really.  Most of the stuff corrodes immediately, thanks to the
Nerf-weapon chemical plant that's been nextdoor for years, but somehow
never written about.  All of the penguins and weasels and razor-tipped
goldfish succumb to the toxins, to which I am immune after my devotion
to institutional food.  And anything that happens to survive all that
suffers from the curse of the Spring of the Drowned Planarian, changes
into a flatworm, and, like that very first one, inexplicably drowns."
   "Why did I have to ask?" Satan muttered.
   "Because it gives me a great opportunity to spew a lot of useless
exposition," the Author replied.
   "You weren't supposed to answer that!" Satan roared.
   The Planarian simply smiled.

   Fortunately any new nonsense the Author was about to utter was
preempted by the arrival of Susan B. Anthony, Executive in Charge of
Plans to Dominate Sfstory.  "You rumbled, dear?"
   Satan grumbled.  "Why is that band of nincompoops running around
my office?"
   Anthony consulted her notebook.  "Near as we can tell, they were
the ones assigned to the PLS Tolling Bell several years ago."
   "What are they doing *here* *now*?"
   "There were reports of a spam-based reality fluctuation in the
vicinity of Time Central.  Apparently they were hurled into their
future, and this is where they ended up."
   "Well, tell I want them out of here.  Tell Bennett Quark I want
them dealt with immediately.  Better yet --" He stabbed the button on
his desk.  "RoXanne!  Get me Bennett Quark!"
   "Sorry," Anthony interposed.  "He's moved back to the Home for
Forgotten Sfstory Characters."
   "Then get him back!"
   "Can't, unless somebody decides to write about him."
   "Damn!  Damn!  Da-"  Satan glanced over at the Mad Planarian, who
had taken the opportunity to roam the office.  "Yo, Author!  Buddy!
Pal!"  Satan clapped an arm around the Author's back, jarring him
enough to rattle his teeth if such a low life form had them.
   "Er, hi," the Planarian coughed, admiring an exquisite interlocking
jade statue that stood in a sealed alcove.  "That's real jade?"
   Satan blinked, then beamed proudly.  "All from the same block.
It's my finest acquisition."
   "It's lovely, and I like how you've set it between those twin
Doberman statues, as if they're guarding it.  They almost look like
they're alive."
   "They *are* alive."
   "Urk?"
   "They're in stasis.  CHAOS Engineer asked me to take care of them."
   "Like that?"
   "They talked to much.  But they're in perfect health, and the only
other instruction he gave was not to feed them soft tacos."  Satan
grinned evilly, as only he could do.  "I haven't fed them at all --
they'll be quite hungry when he returns."
   "When's that?"
   Satan shrugged.  "Another dozen years or so. .. So, how would you
like to write for Sfstory?"
   This time the Author blinked.  "Er, I wasn't planning on it."
   "I'll loan you a fully-manned Hellcruiser and four coveys, er,
regiments of, ahem, well-trained, er, men, and all I ask in is that
you bring me Bennett Quark.  Of course, I wouldn't mind if you
conquered me a planet or two, but that's negotiable."
   The Author smiled uneasily.  "Well, that's an attractive offer, of
course, but I'm afraid I'm rather busy.  I've got two stories to
write, a Pond to refurbish, my title character's world to screw up,
and some as-yet-undetermined event to blame for it.  I'm swamped!"
   Satan frowned.  "If you're looking for comfort, you've come to the
wrong place.  Susan!  Go see if there's any way to justify sending the
Quayles to Arorua or Abgila IV."
   "Where?"
   "Someplace far, far away."
   Susan B. Anthony nodded and disappeared.

   When Satan turned around, the Author was admiring the statue again.
"Let me guess," the Author said.  "That's the Five Brothers?"
   "Right the first time.  Now, why don't you tell me why you're here
-- the short form."
   The Mad Planarian laughed lightly.  "I've actually got a proposal
for you."
   "What is it?"
   The Author waved his hand expansively over the paperwork on Satan's
desk.  "I can help you get rid of a lot of this stuff."
   Satan's eyes broadened hopefully.  "Fabulous!  How?"
   "Uh, uh.  First things first.  I'd like a favor in return."
   Satan scowled disgustedly.  "All right.  Out with it."
   "Okay.  About three years ago, I lost a few characters by accident, 
and now I'd like them back."
   "You lost them."
   "Yeah.  I had an arc all set up to feature them, and they sort of
died when I wasn't looking."
   "They died."
   "Well, I toyed around with not having them actually die, but it's a
bit late to change that now."
   "So now you want me to just give them to you."
   "Well, in exchange for the favor I proposed."
   Satan pondered the idea with wary greed.  "Who are these characters
that you want back so badly?"
   The Mad Planarian snapped his fingers and produced an index card,
which he handed over to the CEO.  "These are the ones."

   Satan scanned the card.  "All right.  I'll do it."
   The Author smiled hopefully.  "You will?"
   "Three souls is an affordable price."
   "You'll return them to a fully healthy life?"
   "*A* life," Satan stressed.  "There's no Resurrection here."
   "But otherwise fully healthy and human."
   "Absolutely."
   "And under my complete control?"
   Satan looked over the Author quizzically.  "Since when are *any* of
your characters under your control?"
   "Point," the Author conceded.  "But you know what I mean."
   "All right.  There will be no discernible behavioral differences
between these characters and any of your others, save those dictated
by characterization."
   The Mad Planarian blinked.  "Um.. okay.. I almost understood that."
   "Be glad I didn't say any of it in Latin.  Now, do you want to
write up the contract, or shall I?"
   "Contract?"
   "Well, if you prefer, I could give you my solemn word."
   "From the Prince of Lies?  No thanks -- nothing personal.  I guess
we should get this in writing, and I think I'd better do it."
   "Good enough.  Just keep it down to a hundred words or less."
   "A hundred words?  That's just asking for loopholes!"
   "Do you want to spend the next month writing it?"
   The Author sighed.  "No, I guess not.  Let's try this on for size:"
He closed his eyespots tightly; his cilia stood out straight as he
concentrated.  Then he snapped his fingers and produced two pages of
parchment, one of which he handed to Satan.

   "Do you hear something?" Satan asked as he accepted the sheet.
   "What kind of something?"
   "I almost thought I heard a faint tapping sound."  Satan shrugged.

   The CEO of Hell hmmed thoughtfully as he read the document.  "You
didn't tell me the people you wanted were superguys."
   "Do you have a problem with that?"
   "No," Satan grated lightly.  "No problem at all.  I'd just have to
make a phone call."  He read some more.  "This looks fine to me," he
concluded, scorching his signature with a claw.  "Now hand me the
other one."
   As he began to read the second form, the Author explained, "That's
just my copy of the contract.  It's got the same wording."
   Satan growled.  "*I'll* be the judge of that!"
   "What?  You think I'd make them different?"
   Satan grinned ferally.  "You really *are* new at this, aren't you?
It's amazing what people will sign that way."
   The Mad Planarian balked.  "All because they think it's just a
duplicate of the contract they did read.  That's, like, really low!"
   "Thank you," Satan replied, affixing his signature.  "Now, you sign
them, and we can get back to business."
   The Author stood nervously as he stared the parchment.
   "Well?" Satan prodded.  "Sign!"
   The Author swallowed.  "Well, this isn't exactly easy.  It's not
like making pacts with the Devil runs in the family."
   "What's that supposed to mean?"
   "I don't have Faust to advise me."  Satan growled.  "Er, was it
something I said?"
   Satan only answered by pointing a talon at the pact.  "Sign!"
   "Okay!  Okay!" 
   Once he did so, Satan relaxed noticeably and sat in his chair.
Almost amiable, he asked, "So, what do you propose to do for me?"

   "Well, for starters, I'd recommend you release the trademark on
Hell (tm)."
   There was a pause, after which Satan spoke.  "Is that all?"
   "Well, let's see.  There ought to be an example here someplace."
He snapped his fingers, and a thick document flew out of one of the
stacks on Satan's desk, spilling several others on the floor.  "Oops.
Sorry about that."  He snapped his fingers again, and they were back
on top of the pile.
   He then turned his attention to the acquired document.  "Now, let's
see here.  An Abuse of and a Flagrant Disrespect for a Duly Registered
Trademark, as occurred on 25 October 1998.  Quote.  What happened to
Hell's trademark?  That's a tired joke.  It's time it became a REtired
joke.  End Quote."
   The Mad Planarian whistled.  "Wow!  I bet your legal department had
a field day.  Now look at these attachments: 'I, Satan T. Lucifer
Jones am CEO of Hell, Inc. (signed).  I have read the attached report
describing the alleged abuse of trademark -- blah blah blah (signed).'
And so on... it seems like they're having you sign to every single
sentence.  No wonder you've got a heavy load."
   Satan gristled.  "Don't tell me about it.  What will you do?"
   "I already said:  Get rid of the trademark."  Satan growled, but
the Author went on.  "Consider your opposite number a second -- he's
got that third commandment on the books, but do you see him filing a
lawsuit any time someone uses His name out of context?  No.  He just
waits till the very end and processes all the offenses at once."
   "You're going to have to do better than that," Satan groused.
   "Better than what?"
   "Initiating the process of cancelling would itself require reams of
paperwork.  Trust me -- I know the system."
   The Author grinned.  "Well, like they say, a ton of prevention is
worth a kiloton of cure."
   "Your contract said you would help to *reduce* my paperwork, not
increase it.  Trademark violations are actually only the smallest part
of the things I have to deal with."
   "Then fire your entire department of legal affairs.  Do you realize
that they actually *enjoy* dishing out this bureaucratic nonsense?
What kind of eternal suffering for the damned is that?"
   Satan lifted the newly signed contract.  "That absolutely will not
do.  Legal affairs are my bread and butter."  He paused.  "There's
that tapping sound again."
   "I don't hear anything," the Author replied.
   "It's probably nothing.  Where were we?  Oh, right.  Disbanding the
legal department is out of the question."
   The Mad Planarian frowned.  "I can't help someone who refuses to be
helped."

   Satan grumbled.  "You really don't get the picture do you?  Take a
look at those papers.  They aren't all legal documents -- not even a
quarter of them.  They're purchase orders, requisitions for repairs,
subscription notices, cancellation notices, requests for extensions on
filing all of the above...."
   The Author flipped through a few documents near the top.  "Hell's
Bells!  Don't you know how to delegate?"
   Satan roared angrily.  "Sure, I know how to delegate!  How do you
think Hell got to be as successful as it is?"
   "Then why are you still doing it yourself?"
   "Because it was given to me by an Author, damn it all!"
   The Author cringed.  "Oh.  I thought it was all Machiavelli."
   "Not him.  Why would he?  He expected to be running the place.
It's that damned Swede that made it like this."
   "Oh.  The Swede.  That changes things."
   "What are you saying?"
   "I'm not sure that I can undo something the Swede did."
   "You have to.  It's in your contract."
   "It only says I will help you."
   "Right.  That doesn't include telling me things I already know, or
recommending actions that are structurally impossible.  You're going
to have to put some elbow grease into this, Author."
   "But what if I can't?"
   Satan's feral grin would have sent chills up the Planarian's spine
if he were a vertebrate.  "Oh, just the standard breach of contract
procedures."
   "Er, um, I'll do what I can.  This could take a while.  I mean, I'd
have to work up a lot of Edit to counteract something the Swede did."
   "How long are you thinking?" Satan grated.
   "At least till the summer."  He paused to think, then counted on
his fingers.  "How does the third of June sound?"
   "The third of June?!?"
   "Well, timing is everything."
   "What would you know about timing?"
   "Hey!  Just because I'm incompetent doesn't mean I don't have a
sense of aesthetics.  It's got to be the third of June -- which should
give me enough time to hoard up the Edit I need."
   "But what's so special about that day?"
   "Well, the best indicator we have to the incorporation date for
Hell, Inc. is the fifth of October, 1992, this number being based on
the assumption that the Swede's prolificity at the time was keeping up
with continuity, as it did with CalForce.  The third of June of this
year would therefore be the date when the company will have been
incorporated for 6.66 years.  It's the best chance I've got at having
any major effect."

   Suddenly and without warning, the office door burst open.  A small
group of Quayle's came in, carrying the struggling form of RoXanne
among them.  They ran about the office merrily a few times, then set
her gently down in Satan's lap.  After this, they romped about the
office a bit more.  Some folded documents into paper airplanes, others
merrily scribbled the word POTATO on them.  One flattened his face
against the statue's display case, to see what sort of mark his breath
vapor would leave.
   "Out!  Out!"  Satan roared fiercely, zapping several into ash with
his finger.  The rest disappeared as the Author snapped his fingers.
The office was just as suddenly restored to relative calm and order,
the only sound coming from RoXanne's panting as she clung to Satan's
neck for dear life.
   The CEO tossed her over his desk like a rag doll.  "What is the
meaning of this?  How did those, .. those Quayle's get *into* *my*
*office*?!?"
   RoXanne cringed dutifully, like she did so well.  "I-i-i couldn't
stop them, sir!  They've overrun the entire ship!"
   "How hard could it be to manage a few hundred Quayle's?"
   "Um... not a few hundred, sir.  A few billion."
   "What!?!  Why wasn't I notified?"
   "I tried to reach you, sir.  I knocked on your door several times."
   "Why didn't you use the buzzer?  It's on your desk for a reason!"
   "Um... you were in conference, so I didn't want to disturb you."
   Satan flared fearsomely and burnt RoXanne to a crisp.  "QUARK!!!"
   There was understandably no fitting response to that outburst.

   Satan fumed for awhile, then noticed that the Mad Planarian was
still in his office.  "The offer regarding Sfstory still stands."
   "Sorry, sir," the Author smiled.  "But it seems I've already got a
contract to fulfill.  But if you don't mind my saying so, I don't
quite think this is really his fault."
   "Why not!  He was in charge of the compiler!"
   "True, but every one of these Quayles is a duplicate.  As far as I
know, the original is still alive and well.  Trying to incorporate
everything together without the master copy would have some inherent
instability, so the return of the other copies must have disrupted
what cohesion existed.  If you'd like, I could toss in a little more
technobabble, but that really isn't my forte."
   "So, all I need to do is have Smartman killed."
   "Potentially.  But I don't think you want to do that."
   "Why not?"
   "He might be running for president."  The Author smiled.
   Satan smiled back.  "He doesn't have to be alive to do that."
   The Mad Planarian shrugged.  "Well, that's another tale entirely.
Is June third okay with you?"
   "Do I have a choice?"
   The Author shrugged with a slight smile.  "Not really."
   "Then it will have to do.  Of course, that means I can take that
long to hold up my end of the bargain."
   "Whatever.  Okay, I'll mark that on my timeline."
   "Hold it.  What did you just say?"
   "What word didn't you understand?"
   "You said you'd mark the date in your timeline?"
   "Yes.  Why?"
   "It took you over two years to get through a single week.  When are
you ever going to make it to the third of June?"
   The Author shrugged and winked.  "How the Hell should *I* know?"
He looked on more time at the jade statue.  "Real jade, huh?"
   "What is it with you and that jade?" Satan roared.
   "It's just so .. Green!"
   "What?"
   "Sorry.  Inside joke, that only one other person in the multiverse
would understand, and he doesn't even read this list."  And with a
snap of his fingers he was gone.

   Satan glared malevolently at the spot the Author had occupied, then
at the ever-present stacks of paperwork, then at the smudge that used
to be RoXanne.  Beyond his door, he could still hear the sounds of
chaos being caused by rampaging Quayles.  With a muttered curse, he
reached for a little used drawer in his desk .. and found it locked.
   With an impatient snarl, Satan blasted the lock on the drawer and
nearly pulled it completely out of the desk.  A dust cloud erupted
from the space the drawer had occupied, finally settling after several
long seconds.  Inside the drawer, seemingly unsullied by all the
surrounding dust sat a white phone, so white that it gleamed.
   Satan frowned repulsed by the white purity of the device, and
carefully extended one talon towards it.  At the last moment, he
retracted his claw and curled the Author contract in it like a hot
mitt.  Now safely protected he lifted the receiver and held it a safe
distance away from his ear.

   "Hello... Yes, it's me.  Did I wake you?  Of course I did.  It's
awfully quiet up there, isn't it?"  Satan chuckled.  "You really do
need to work on your P.R., or look into tourism. .. Why did I call?
.. Oh, of course.  An Author seems to think I have his characters,
even though they used to be superguys, and wants me to return them. 
.. Did I tell him?  Of course I didn't! .. Now, don't go lecturing me
all over again.  You run things your way, and I run things mine.
   "So, anyway.  About these souls, all I need is to borrow them for
the transfer.  The Author expects me to have them, so I darn better.
.. Yes, I have it all in writing.  I've got the contract right here."
Satan turned his head to glance at the parchment that insulated him
from the telephone.  "You might say I've got everything well in hand.
   All right, all right.  I knew you'd raise a stink, so I'm prepared
to sweeten the deal.  I'm willing to trade you for them.  I've got a
few souls here that simply don't belong here and I don't want them.
.. Yes, that is surprising, coming from me, isn't it? .. It was some
Author's idea of a practical joke. .. So, you send me the three people
I need, and I'll send you this batch.  .. Oh, don't worry, they're
perfect for you.  They'll do anything you ask.
   Say, do you remember when we used to argue about that Tabula Rasa
thing?  Well, it seems that idea actually does have some merit.  These
slates are about as blank as they can get ..."


   WILL SATAN SWING A DEAL WITH THE BIG GUY FOR THE SOULS?
   WHAT DOES THE AUTHOR WANT TO DO WITH THEM?
   WILL THE QUAYLES HAVE A FUN TIME IN HEAVEN?
   WILL THE AUTHOR'S PENCHANT FOR LONG DIALOGUES BE THE END OF HIM?

Who knows?  I just read this stuff.  Only on Superguy
Main Sfstory Page     Previous Log     Next Log     Index for Logs 091-117