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Sfstory Log 097

=========================================================================
Date:         Tue, 25 Apr 2000 01:56:21 -0400
From:         "Gary W. Olson" (swede at acd.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #4

                              UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                             (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                   Episode 4
                                  "Turquoise"
                                      by
                                 Gary W. Olson

                                     -~-_-

     When Jerriphrrt woke, he knew something was amiss.  What that
something might be was not immediately apparent, as he was snugly wrapped
in a zero-g sleeping cocoon, and his arms were snugly wrapped around Gham.
The smartfabric cocoon was performing its usual functions -- admitting and
circulating air, regulating interior temperatures, drying up excess
perspiration, and so on -- with its usual erratic efficiency.  Gham was
asleep, her warm breath ruffling the Calican's neckfur.
     He sighed, and stroked the back of his wife's furless, slightly pale
neck with his fingertips.  One brushed the long scar that was her sole link
to her upbringing on the now- obliterated planet Karma Chameleon II.  He
jerked his fingertip away; she disliked its being touched, and while she no
longer wore her hair long enough to cover it entirely, always found ways to
keep it out of sight.  It was a reminder, she had once told him, of how
wrong things could go.
     Which reminded him that his ship, the W.S. Universal Solvent, was
towing an abandoned spaceship that had evidently belonged to a non-humanoid
species, though the only bodies aboard had, quite inexplicably, been the
dead ones of six Earth-originating humans.  Humans who had eaten several
kings' ransoms worth of pudding, before dying while making rude gestures at
a mysterious something that had not been present when his salvage crew had
found the derelict ship.
     How wrong things could go.  Perhaps this was it, the thing that was
amiss -- rather, a premonition that things were about to go very amiss.
Ever since the breakup of the Renegade Anarchists, and the subsequent
buying of the Universal Solvents chemical business and the sub-subsequent
turning of said business into a salvage operation (though without changing
the business name, as that would have been pricey), his life and the lives
of his wife and his two best friends had been skating along a little too
smoothly, despite the frequent financial woes.  The past three years had
been noticeably free of excessive firefights, deathtrap threats, exploding
planets, and all other sorts of space-operatic hoo-hah, but he had never
been able to shake the feeling that it was because the universe was saving
up something really whacked for them.  Something that could very well begin
with finding a derelict space--
     "WHACK!" said the top of his head, which is what it usually said
whenever it struck something hard.
     "Ow!" he replied, and decided a sudden blow to the head could also
have been the 'something amiss' he had detected.  He poked through the
layers of the cocoon covering his catlike head, and peeled them down to
chin level.  Just in time to see the peeling beige paint of one of the
sleeping cabin's walls coming towards him in a leisurely menacing manner.
     "Whack!" his forehead said.
     "Ow!" he replied.
     "Huh?" said Gham as she awoke.
     "I think they're awake now," a rumbling voice said.  "Haul them in."
     A tug, and he felt their cocoon being pulled toward the door.  A quick
look-around showed him that the cords that had kept the cocoon anchored in
the center of the room had been burned through, and that the likely reason
he had hit his head at least twice was that whoever was 'hauling them in'
had done the burning and had then thought it fun to swing them about for a
bit.
     "Which ones would you be, then?" the voice asked.  "Jerriphrrt,
Slithis, Gham, Benjen, or some other crewmember or passenger not listed in
our records?"
     The room was spinning some more.  Jerriphrrt pulled the cocoon opening
down further so he could talk.
     "I demand to know--"
     He abruptly stopped spinning in time to face the barrel of a gun, the
diameter of which was roughly equal to his head.
     "--if the answer 'I'm Jerriphrrt and she's Gham and we surrender' is a
sufficient reply!"
     "It is," said the voice.  "Though you are not under arrest... yet."
     The barrel lowered, and Jerriphrrt got his first look at the source of
the voice: a greyish being with three arms, six legs, no nose, and eyebrows
that could double as a nature habitat.  Four somewhat identical beings
stood by this being, two to each side.  All wore rather obnoxious turquoise
uniforms.
     "I'm Major Lalan," said the being, "of the Goornashk Authority.  I
believe you were on your way to surrender a derelict spaceship to us."
     "That's right," said Gham.  She was fighting to turn around as she
talked, though the snug nature of the cocoon meant that she had to twist
around Jerriphrrt.  "Don't tell me... hrrr... that we're... ow!... in orbit
around... unf... Fringmar III already."
     "I won't tell you that," Lalan said, "because it is not true.  You're
still a day and a half from that planet.  We intercepted you and were able
to take control of your ship with minimal effort."
     Jerriphrrt tried to say something, but with Gham circling around his
back and trying to hook her chin over his shoulder, and pulling the
smartfabric of the cocoon tighter as she did so, all that came out was a
long wheeze.
     "What?" asked Lalan.
     "He means," said Gham, "that an arthritic clam could take this ship
with ease, and it's not exactly something worth bragging about."
     Jerriphrrt wheezed again.
     "Also, he wants to know what you did with Slithis and Benjen."
     Lalan blinked, causing a breeze that propelled Jerriphrrt and Gham
back a bit.  "You were the only two beings on board when we arrived," he
said.  "Moreover, and, I should add, the reason we so precipitously came to
visit, the derelict spaceship you were towing is no longer around."
     "Gah," Jerriphrrt managed to get out.  If he could just pull the
smartfabric from his throat...
     "Where is it now?" Gham asked.
     "That's what we wish to learn from you," said Lalan.  "We've already
reconstructed what must have happened.  Indignant that the fortune in
pudding you'd detected would be lost by the necessity of turning over the
spaceship to us, you contrived the 'hijacking' of said ship.  You will no
doubt contend that you had no idea the spaceship and your crewmates had
gone missing, and this comes as a complete shock to you."
     "Wheeze," said Jerriphrrt.
     "That about covers it," Gham translated.
     "Well, it's not going to work!" Lalan shouted.  "I give you five
minutes to yourselves to think this plot over, and hopefully put on
something less restrictive than that silly cocoon thing.  If at the end of
the five minutes, you still refuse to tell us where your compatriots took
the ship..."
     They waited.
     "Wheeze?" he asked.
     Lalan raised his absurdly large-sized laser weapon.
     "...I will introduce you to the business end of Mr. Funboy!"
     "Wheeze."
     "He said, 'We've met.'"

                                     -~-_-

     As space stations went, Norman Sassafras thought, it wasn't quite
Freedonia 5 or Near Space Three.  For one thing, it was intact.  For
another, it showed not even the faintest attempt at "style" or "design" or
even "sobriety."  Gargavix Ooolavant's Pocket Guide to the Space-Time
Continuum asserted that it looked like a "gigantic metal frame," and Norman
guessed that that was accurate, if by "frame," the Guide meant "squiggle."
     Still, it seemed to be a popular sort of place.  Thousands of ships
were either physically docked with the station or had relatively parked
themselves nearby.  Garish lights from the station and the ships all but
drowned out the glow from the small white star the station orbited.  A
gigantic sign mounted upon the station proclaimed its name and purpose:

                      DIRK'S SPACE SWAP-O-RAMA AND GRILL
                            Barter like you oughter

     "We've arrived," said Norman.
     "I see that," said Ronald Hastings, who was seated next to him.  "Scan
for vessels of known space villains."
     "Aye," Norman replied, then frowned.  "How do I do that again?"
     "The cigarette lighter."
     "Oh, right."
     It had not been without some trepidation that he had agreed to pilot
the Pinto again.  The last time it had flown, it had taken them from Earth
to Freedonia 5, only to be submerged in a swimming pool inside the station,
wrecked (or so they thought) beyond repair.  It was delivered to
Interstellar University some months later, and he and Ronald realized that
it would take a major amount of work to make it spaceworthy again.
Fortunately, since they were both twelve weeks ahead in their studies, and
had to have something to do to avoid the frequent pantsings that
upperclassmen loved to bestow upon lowerclassmen in general and
lowerclassmen in gold or blue velour shirts in particular, they were able
to put in that work.
     They had come a long way, thought Norman, since that time a mysterious
entity named "Omegas" had guided them in making a discarded Pinto into a
space vessel.  He, Ronald, and the Pinto.  The Pinto, Ronald, and he.
     "Ow," an annoyed voice came from the back seat.  "When do we dock?  My
legs are cramped."
     Norman looked in the rear-view mirror at Kissy Hitowers.  She appeared
uncomfortable, which was understandable given the tight conditions.  He had
hoped the uniform change mandated by the freelance professional ingenue's
contract would have helped, but strangely, she didn't seem to appreciate
the comforts of a red velour shirt with matching miniskirt.
     "I still don't see why I have to wear this," she grumbled.
     "We're a team," Ronald lectured.  "We ought to be identifiable as such--"
     The results of the scan Norman had initiated flashed upon the
dashboard, and Ronald ceased talking while he read them.  Almost
immediately, he started wildly looking around.
     "Now what?" Kissy asked.
     "There are lots of villains in the area," said Ronald.  "I-- look!
There's Lord Beeznor's Doom Cruiser!  And the flagship of the Invincible
Armada from the Black Galaxy!  And... hey, is that Trump Plaza?"
     "Says so on the readout," Norman confirmed.  "And look who else is
here."  He pointed to an item near the end of the list.
     "The Sonar Men?" Ronald asked.  "Where?"  Kissy pointed.  "Oh, there."
     "There" turned out to be a sleek silver spaceship, not nearly the
biggest of those present, but up near the top in the category of Cool and
Menacing.  No armaments were visible, but Ronald and Norman knew that the
Sonar Men dealt in, among many other things, liquid metal weaponry.  The
very sleekness and silveriness threatened to flow at any moment into
menacing (not to mention cool) space cannons, particle weapons, and the
like.
     "I don't see why it's a surprise," said Kissy.  "Anywhere there's an
open market, large wallets and minimal ethics regarding the obtaining of
weapons of mass destruction, you're bound to get some Sonar Men."
     "She's right," said Norman.  "Look here."  He pointed at the readout.
"That Lord Beeznor bought his Doom Cruiser from the Sonar Men.  He might
have conquered a galaxy or two by now, if it wasn't for the balloon
payments."
     "What if Toni Williams ran afoul of the Sonar Men when she was here?"
Ronald asked.  "She was associated with, and later adopted by, Buzz
Williams, and he had a long history of fighting them."
     "He did?" Kissy asked.
     "Yup," Norman confirmed.  "Ron and I did a multimedia presentation on
it last semester."
     "It got an A+," Ronald added.
     "Did it," Kissy said, flatly.
     "Even if she didn't," said Norman, "they probably have some record of
her appearance and what she was up to.  They make it their business to know
stuff like that."
     "Do they."
     "Yup."
     "But we'll worry about that when we're aboard the station," said
Ronald.  "Kissy, open hailing frequencies."
     The silence in the Pinto was nearly that of the void outside.
     "What?" Kissy asked. The icicles practically dripped off the word.
     "Hailing frequencies," said Ronald.  "They are currently closed.  We
need for them to be open.  You're in the communication officer's seat.
You're wearing the communication officer's uniform and miniskirt.  That
means you get to operate the communication equipment."
     Kissy glared daggers at Ronald, but finally relented.  Next time, she
silently vowed, she would very closely check the fine print on the
freelance agreement.  She picked up the speaker, pressed the button on the
side, and spoke.  "Um, station, this is the... what's the name of this ship
again?"
     "The AOEDWOSTWHARSUSPWKSS _High-Spock-Is-A-Weenie_," Norman said.
     "The... the W.S. Weenie," said Kissy.  "Requesting a docking berth."
     "Roger that, Weenie," an oily voice replied.  "Berth 875-020-709 is
open.  Transmitting precise coordinates now.  Have a profitable day!"
     "Thanks," Kissy said before she closed hailing frequencies.  Norman
looked from her to Ronald, hoping his friend and captain wasn't too angry
at her spontaneous renaming of their Pinto.  But Ronald seemed more stunned
than anything else.
     "Did you hear that, Norm?"
     "Yes..."
     "The berth number.  Do you recognize it?"
     "I--"
     "It's the same as the proper beam-down coordinates of the Gideon
Council Chamber in 'the Mark of Gideon'!"
     Norman blinked, and realized what his friend said was right.  "By
Shatner's rug, I'd almost forgotten!  But what do you think it means?"
     Ronald didn't answer.  He seemed lost in thought.
     "Argh," was all that Kissy had to say on the matter.
     Norman shrugged and punched the transmitted coordinates into the
Pinto's auto-steering system.  He then leaned back and watched the Sonar
Men's ship as the station grew closer.

                                     -~-_-

     The warning light flashed.  Slithis mumbled a curse or two, and did
his best to ignore it.  He also did his best not to contemplate why the
manufacturers of his space suit decided that the best way to inform a
wearer that his air was about to run out was to rig a huge red strobe above
the faceplate on the inside of the helmet and repeatedly zap the wearer's
eyeballs.
     Decision time again.  The reptiloid had been faced with an alarming
number of quick-snap decisions in the last few hours, and he wasn't
terribly sure he'd gotten any of them right.  Particularly since all had
gone against his natural instincts, in that they were the opposite of "run
away."
     They were good instincts, and had served him well in his years as a
Renegade Anarchist.  But when he recovered following a surprise
blow-to-the-head from a petrified bagel wielded by Benjen, one of his best
friends, he had not elected to, upon regaining consciousness, scurry into
the shower room and hide under the sink.  Nor, upon learning that Benjen
had brought their ship to a stop, put on a suit, and left the ship to go
board the derelict spaceship that their ship had been towing, did he start
the ship's engines up again and wave out the porthole.
     Instead, Slithis put on a spacesuit and jetted after Benjen,
determined to bring him back before he did something immensely stupid.
Like stealing the derelict spaceship and leave Slithis, Jerriphrrt and Gham
holding the bag.
     He left the _Universal Solvent_ in time to see Benjen entering the
derelict ship through the same unlabeled hatch that had admitted him
(Benjen) and Gham for their original inspection.  By the time he jetted
within reach of that hatch, he could see light beginning to grow in the
ship's thrusters.  There was no way, he thought, that Benjen would have
been able to restart the cold engines that quickly.  Even if he knew how.
     At that point, Slithis made another decision and opened the hatch.
Going back to the _Universal Solvent_ would have done no good, he thought.
By the time he got there, the no-longer-derelict ship might be gone, and it
wasn't like the _Universal Solvent_ could catch anything faster than a head
of lettuce.  Fortunately, Benjen hadn't locked the hatch behind him.
     Or, perhaps he had, and something else had unlocked it.
     Perhaps the same something that had witnessed the deaths of six
pudding-bloated Earth humans.
     Putting this thought briskly aside, Slithis jetted through the
airless, gravityless curving corridors.  The fact that he was unarmed had
occurred to him the moment he had left his ship, but it was too late to do
anything about it now.  He had to find Benjen, take control of the ship,
and bring it back to where his ship waited.
     A few seconds later, he revised his plan when, upon drifting past a
porthole, looked out and saw his ship, engines started up again, resuming
its trip toward Fringmar III.  The fact that he had not thought to check
the ship's autocontrol before he left became swiftly apparent.
     Locating Benjen had not been difficult.  He was on the bridge, the
only portion of the ship, according to the suit's scanners, that had power,
gravity, light and air.  It was apparently built to function that way, as
all three potential entrances to the bridge went through rooms that seemed
to have emergency airlock functions.
     Now, nearly airless, and annoyed by repeated red flashes, he had a
decision to make: go in and risk possible violent death, or stay out and
risk certain nonviolent death?
     "Well, duh," Slithis said, upon thinking of it like that.  He floated
into the vestibule / airlock, closed the door, and waited while air hissed
through hidden vents and artificial gravity drew him gently towards the
floor.  When the hissing and drawing was done, he got out of his suit and
strode toward the bridge door.  There was no keypad or button, so he
settled for knocking.
     The door slid open.  He gulped, considered the possibility of undoing
all those quick-snap decisions he'd made, then stepped inside.
     "Hello, Slithis," came Benjen's voice.  "I was told you were here."
     Slithis looked around.  He'd only seen the bridge through the the
suit-cams that Benjen and Gham had worn on their initial visit, and it
looked as black as it had then.  Only this was an unnerving, pulsating
black, the kind that made the words "black light" mean something.  A large,
bloblike viewscreen showed an intensely boring grey that he immediately
identified as overly-hyped space.  Benjen sat just in front of it, next to
a fair-sized table.
     "Please, friend," said Benjen.  "Take a seat and join me in joyful
partaking of breakfast substances."
     "Er?" said Slithis.  Benjen usually didn't sound like this, except
when one or both of them were in chemically-altered frames of mind, and
their erratic finances had forced them to mostly abandon that lifestyle
years ago.
     Benjen didn't reply, instead turning to eat a spoonful of crunchy and
colorful puffed things.  Slithis took another look around, shrugged, and
sauntered to the indicated chair on the other side of the table.
     "You've met Shoon-ma, of course," Benjen said as Slithis sat.
     Slithis looked around.  "Who?" he asked.
     "Shoon-ma," said Benjen, who gestured to an item on the table next to
the bowl.
     The frozen bagel that Benjen had found on the ship and taken back to
the _Universal Solvent_.  The same bagel that he had hit Slithis with
before returning.
     "Um," said Slithis, "hi."
     "Hi," the bagel replied, sounding almost exactly like George Clooney.
"Come here often?"
     "Um.  No."
     "Can I make you my zombie slave?"
     "No."  Slithis wasn't sure where the conversation, nevermind the ship,
was going, but was determined to do something about it.  As soon as he
could figure out what.
     "Orange juice?"
     Damn, Slithis thought.  Another quick-snap decision.

                                     -~-_-

     Bagelos, "would be" universal conqueror and "actually is" failed
entrepreneur turned aimless drifter, felt his ears tingle, and wondered if
someone, somewhere in the vast universe, was considering breakfast options.
He accepted another free drink, downed it in one gulp, felt other body
parts tingle, and decided that his intuition was correct.  Not that it made
much difference; he was in no position to provide breakfast items or profit
by such provision.  Moreover, he didn't care if he was ever in such a
position again.
     Alpha Rio VI, a.k.a. The Planet of Casinos, was the most exciting
planet he had ever stood upon.  Four of six continents were almost entirely
given over to casinos and casino-oriented businesses (with the fifth
continent dedicated to valet parking and the sixth given over to
administration).  In the two weeks since he had arrived he had won more
money than he had ever made in the forty-four previous years of his
space-villainous life.  That he had also lost all that money at the
gambling tables, the entertainment lounges, the hotels, the dens of scum
and villainy and loose morals, the mugger-filled alleys behind said dens,
and the emergency rooms conveniently located near said alleys trimmed his
excitement somewhat.  Still, the drinks were free, and that cheered him
considerably, as he was, at the moment, flat broke.
     He looked around the gargantuan, smoke-filled main chamber of one of
the smaller casino's ("Vino the Three-Headed Yak's House of Merriment and
Extortion") in that sector of the third continent ("Moriva the Rock's
Continent of Hotsy-Totsy Offers You Can't Refuse").  A half-mile down the
aisle to his right, a comedian was doing a routine about Giant Space
Weasels and asteroid-juggling, which Bagelos didn't comprehend but assorted
people close by seemed to find amusing.  A massive, granite-hued being
wearing nothing but clown shoes and Chiquita Banana stickers was cheering
due to her suddenly having won a massive volume of coins from the slot
machine she had been working.  Casino personnel weaved about, serving free
drinks, carrying out incapacitated patrons, running the games, and
performing the occasional jackrolling.  Even in such chaos, Bagelos
thought, a wzaxtil should have stood out, but he could not see one anywhere.
     Certainly not the one wzaxtil he was seeking: Quooth, his
not-so-aimless wandering companion of the past few years, and the only one
of the party with whom he had left Freedonia 5 three years ago who still
hung out with him.  Steve Vogel had disappeared mysteriously on Sarnip VII.
Zen Navigator had driven off after Bagelos convinced him that he had
succeeded in delivering him and Quooth to the place that Quooth had been
seeking (something Quooth would have disagreed with, had Quooth not at that
moment been on the beach, frolicking with the limpets after all sobriety
had been driven from phim by being splashed with water while phe was
unconscious).  Only the wzaxtil remained.
     And Bagelos urgently needed to speak to Quooth.  Particularly since
their hotel bill was well past due and management had threatened to unleash
their Assassin Yaks if they didn't pay up by midnight, local time.  Surely
Quooth had some funds left from the people who had paid phim not to play
phis Holy Harmonica just the night before--
     A yak!
     Bagelos dropped his drink and dived behind a cleaning bot.  The bot
was built rather low to the ground, and had the annoying habit of not
staying still while it worked, so he ended up crab-walking alongside it.
Even worse, he'd been forced to dump his drink, and was now forced to think.
     Was that an Assassin Yak, planning on not waiting for the midnight
hour to come and kill him?  Or was it just one of the many innocuous
tourist yaks one commonly found in gambling establishments?  The only thing
he was sure of was that he didn't want to find out.
     He crab-walked down the slot machine aisle alongside the robot, hoping
it would mask him until he reached the nearby intersection, at which point
he would do something incredibly suave and smooth as soon as he thought of
what that might be.  He only tripped over his voluminous robes a few times,
and resisted the urge to blast patrons out of his way with the energy ruby
that covered his left eye (said ruby being low on power and unlikely to
destroy so much as vaguely irritate).
     Finally, he was at the intersection.  He stood up suavely--
     --and smacked his head against something metallic.
     "Hello, friend Bagelos!" a cheerful, insectlike voice declared.
"Please watch where you are rising.  The well-armed red robot hovering over
you would not like it if you did that again."
     Bagelos looked up and saw Quooth looking down at him with benign
concern expressed upon phis buglike face.  He looked over and saw the
large, menacing red robot that Quooth mentioned looking down at him with a
single, gleaming red eye.  He stood, fighting against the sudden insistence
of his bladder that all the free drinks he had consumed in the past hour
had to leave again.
     "Friend Megabot, this is friend Bagelos.  Friend Bagelos, this is--"
     "I, Bagelos, am no friend to any agent of The Man!" Bagelos declared.
     "The Yak, you mean," said someone else.
     "Er, yes, any agent of The Yak," Bagelos amended.  He frowned and
peered at the someone else, who turned out to be a human male with sandy
brown hair, pinkish skin, a white tuxedo, and a black patch over his right
eye.  "Do I, Bagelos, know you, sir?" he asked.
     "You probably saw me at that big to-do on Freedonia 5 a few years
ago," said the man, "but we weren't formally introduced then.  My name's
Kalvin Certain."
     "And I, Bagelos, should care because...?"
     "Friend Bagelos!" Quooth chided.
     "You should care," said Kalvin, "because I've got a business
proposition for you that should alleviate your current financial
difficulties, as well as give you the opportunity for unlimited conquest
you've always dreamed of."
     Bagelos considered.
     "Please," said Kalvin, "let's go back to my office, where we can
discuss this matter fully."
     "I have been in the company of this human only a short while, friend
Bagelos," said Quooth, "but I feel that his offer represents a wonderful
opportunity for me to pursue my quest.  Please follow."
     Bagelos considered.
     "Will there be free drinks?" he finally asked.
     "Yes," said Kalvin.
     "Then let's go," Bagelos replied.
     So they went, with Kalvin Certain in the lead, Quooth following
Kalvin, Bagelos following Quooth, and Megabot bringing up the rear.
Bagelos took the opportunity to stick his tongue out at the
now-openly-glaring yaks as he passed.
     Fortune was once again smiling upon him.  And upon Quooth, to be sure,
but mostly upon him.

IS FORTUNE TRULY SMILING UPON BAGELOS AND QUOOTH?
WILL THERE REALLY BE FREE DRINKS IN KALVIN'S OFFICE?
WILL SLITHIS BE MADE INTO SHOON-MA'S ZOMBIE SLAVE?
WILL HE HAVE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN BUTTER OR FRUIT SPREAD FOR HIS TOAST?
DO THE SONAR MEN HAVE INFORMATION ON TONI WILLIAMS'S WHEREABOUTS?
WILL KISSY HAVE TO OPEN HAILING FREQUENCIES AGAIN?
WILL JERRIPHRRT AND GHAM BE ABLE TO TALK THEIR WAY OUT OF A RETURN VISIT
FROM "MR. FUNBOY"?
HOW WRONG CAN THINGS GO?
The answers to all of these questions will be evaded in the next nutritious
episode, coming up sooner or later in... SFSTORY!
--
The Sonar Men (or their ship, as far as this episode goes) were created and
trademarked by David Menendez, and appear with his permission.
=========================================================================
Date:         Thu, 22 Jun 2000 23:10:39 -0700
From:         Gary (swede at acd.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #5

                               UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                              (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                    Episode 5
                                    "Sienna"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

      Quooth Thiiksi smiled, causing Kalvin Certain to peer at phim in
alarm, Bagelos to sneer with inebriated disdain, and Megabot to arm a
couple particle disruptors and point them at phim.  While phe was
aware that other sentient races were not fond of the wzaxtil way of
smiling (which involved sticking two tentacles into one's
chest-mounted ear while waiving a third in the air and whistling what
phe had been told by an Earth human sounded like the American
National Anthem), phe had not gotten tired of seeing their reactions.
They could be *so* entertaining.
      "Um, right," said Kalvin, the elegant-suit-and-eyepatch-wearing
human who had found Quooth and phis traveling companion Bagelos and
had brought them to his office with promises of an easy way to find
what lay at the end of Quooth's great quest.  That Kalvin knew what
the great quest was came as something of a surprise to Quooth, since
phe had not articulated it to anyone in any way.  Come to think of
it, neither had Kalvin.  But he implied that he knew it, and Quooth's
instinct was to trust him.
      (The fact that following phis instinct had led phim through long
years of randomly wandering the universe, getting shot at, blown up,
teleported, and subjected to the rudeness of a host of beings was not
lost upon phim.  It just wasn't important.)
      "Free drinks," said Bagelos.  "They are here, yes?"
      Kalvin gestured at the drink-o-rama that was a fixture next to
his slightly shabby balsawood office desk.  While Bagelos punched in
the number for a "rum and hoodihoodi and more rum," Quooth considered
what Kalvin had said to Bagelos in the casino (one of many on Alpha
Rio VI, the Planet of Casinos).  He had promised, in no particular
order, great wealth, military power, and free drinks.  Quooth wasn't
all that sure what those items had to do with what phe was questing
for, but phe wasn't ready to rule out that they might play a role.
      "Now," started Kalvin, "as I said before, I have a business
proposition for you--"
      "Mmmm," said Bagelos, as he sipped his drink.  "This is good."
      "Right," Kalvin replied.  "Business proposition.  Wealth,
despotic power, babes who think middle-aged space villains with
eye-rubies and paunches are really sexy.  Let's focus, okay?"
      "Excuse me," said Quooth.  "But how do those relate to my
finding the ultimate end of my quest?"
      "I'll get to that too," Kalvin promised.
      "Does anyone have a swizzle stick?" Bagelos asked.
      Kalvin signaled to Megabot.  The largish, menacingish red robot
hovered forward, opened a small hatch on its chest, and extended a
thin red limb.  At the end was a small, ominous red metal thing that
looked like it was ready to swizzle the hell out of any drink it
encountered.
      "Ehrm," said Bagelos, duly intimidated, "I think I'll do without."
      "I'd let him if I were you," Kalvin advised.
      Bagelos looked at the robot's giant, gleaming red eye, set down
his drink, and backed as far away as he could -- all the way to the
other side of the dingy grey office.
      "Now," said Kalvin, "my proposition is simple: I need you to
find and bring back a bagel."
      Quooth was mildly surprised, and expressed this by humming a
tune that phe had once been told sounded like 'pop goes the weasel,'
whatever that meant.
      Kalvin focused on Quooth.  "Mr. Thiiksi--"
      "Just Quooth, please," Quooth insisted.  Phe wouldn't accept
being called 'Mr.', since phe wasn't a he.  Nor, for that matter, was
phe a she or a neuter, which is why phe was referred to in this
humble narrative as a 'phe.'  As for phis last name, 'Thiiksi,' it
was an intimate, personal name, to be used only when discussing
matters of great import with telemarketers.
      "Quooth, then," said Kalvin, impatience briefly twisting the
suave features Quooth had previously observed.  "I refer to no
ordinary bagel.  Rather, I'm talking about is a millennia-old relic
of star empires long since crumbled to dust.  An ancient bagel widely
believed to be the first of its kind ever, a sort of 'ur-bagel,' if
you will."
      "My quest is for many things," replied Quooth, "but it is not for--"
      "Shoon-Ma," Bagelos interrupted.  "You're talking about Shoon-Ma, right?"
      "You've heard of the legend?" Kalvin asked.
      "For many years, I tried to achieve universal domination through
businesses centered around providing breakfast foods.  I talked to
many of my fellow breakfast food providers during that time, and they
related the myth."
      "Then you know--"
      "Of the great volumes of knowledge supposedly coded into its
petrified body?  Oh, yes.  Of the fantastic wealth that anyone who
possessed it might attain?  That too.  Of the unstoppable armies and
fanatic devotion anyone who possessed it would inspire?  Righto."
      "And you've never looked for it?"
      "No," said Bagelos, "I would never go after something so clearly
foolish--"
      "I thought you said you never could afford to travel," said Quooth.
      "Sssh," Bagelos replied.  "Anyway, I don't see why you're
bothering telling us this, since it's not real--"
      "It's real," said Kalvin.  "It was found by agents working for
my employer a few weeks ago."
      "Oh."
      "Unfortunately, said agents disappeared soon after, on their way
back to this location."
      "How tragic."
      Kalvin's eyes narrowed as he focused on Bagelos.  "I assure you,
I am not kidding, either about Shoon-Ma's existence or its
disappearance.  I lost a fortune in pudding just financing the trip."
      "So that's why you're trying to get us to do it," said Bagelos
through a space-villainous sneer that Quooth thought was a bit on the
out-of-practice side.  "You can't afford anyone else."
      "Partially true," Kalvin admitted.  "But I also know your family
history.  You're not the first in your line to mix breakfast and
evil.  Your great-grandfather, for instance--"
      "How do you know that?" Bagelos demanded.
      Kalvin merely smiled.
      "Friend Bagelos," Quooth said, "even if you do not believe
friend Kalvin, there is the matter of our debts--"
      "I accept," Bagelos interrupted.  There was something in his
voice, Quooth realized.  Something humans considered 'cold,' although
the same tone in the voice of a wzaxtil indicated either a desire to
mate or an invitation to play hacky-sack (a game wzaxtils were
inexplicably good at).  "I presume you will at least arrange for
transportation to be put at the disposal of myself and Quooth here.
As well as *all* the information on those who found Shoon-Ma and
failed to return with it."
      "Already set up," said Kalvin.  "I suggest you go now.  Megabot
will guide you to your ship."
      "May I finish my drink?" Bagelos asked, turning to where he had
left it.  Unfortunately, the drink, the glass, and a good chunk of
the desk corner were no longer present -- at least, not in intact
form.  Megabot was busy swizzling the wet sawdust and shards of
glass, and was making serious inroads on the tile floor.
      "Ehrm, right," said Kalvin.  "Megabot, show Bagelos and Quooth
here to the search ship, won't you?"
      Megabot looked hurt for a moment, which was fairly impressive
for a large red robot with no expressive features other than a
red-lit eye.  Then it hovered away from the wreckage of drink and
desk and toward the door.  Bagelos followed, but Quooth lingered at
the door.
      "Yes?" Kalvin asked.
      "I was curious," said Quooth.  "I remember you from the chaotic
events on Freedonia 5, but I do not recall that you had an eyepatch
at the time.  May I inquire as to how your eye came by injury?"
      "I ran into a chicken."
      "Ah," said Quooth, adding a shrug (which involved a convoluted
series of tentacle maneuvers and a series of notes that, according to
at least one human, sounded remarkably like the chorus of 'Like a
Virgin').  Phe tottered off after Bagelos and Megabot.
      The quest was picking up at last.

                                      -~-_-

      "General alert," a toneless voice droned from the speakers.
"There are intruders aboard the vessel.  All security personnel
report to your squad leaders for hors d'ouvres."
      Captain Steve Vogel blinked upon hearing the last statement.
Ordinarily, general alerts were strictly background noise,
unnecessary for professionals who had been on the receiving end of
millions of dollars of security training, but present nevertheless as
a nod to tradition and an extra voiceover paycheck for some General's
brother's out-of-work-actor son.  If they were noticeable, it was
only because something had been changed.
      "General alert," the voice purred, "this ship's internet
connection has not been optimized.  Click here to do so."
      Four of the command staff of the wrecked space station Freedonia
5 -- Captain J. Michael Spaulding, Security Chief Chicobaldi, Lt.
Zacko, and Zeppus Coleslaw -- were loose aboard his ship, for no
apparent reason other than the fact that their space station was busy
being repaired and they had some free time on their hands.  Their
claim to having top secret information regarding Steve's mission was
patently ridiculous, as was made evident by their depantsing of two
of his best security guards...
      "General alert.  I've fallen, and I can't boot up."
      ...and their evident tampering with the general alert announcements.
      The turbolift *finally* arrived on the bridge level, and Steve
stepped out of the turbolift and into bedlam.  The bridge crew was
rushing hither and yon, shouting techno-gibberish at anyone with
ears.  Only one being in the vicinity seemed at all content.
      "Miaou," said Lucky, the ship's uninvited-but-unremovable
seven-foot-tall-at-the-shoulder mutant black cat.  Steve noted that
his last order to his second-in-command, regarding feeding Lucky, had
been obeyed.  He hoped that the wrist-com and datapad, lying as if
dropped on the floor in front of the cat, didn't mean what he
suspected.  Their mission was tight enough as it was without the
added threat of workplace safety litigation.
      "Captain Vogel!" Commander Jean St. Thomas, his
second-in-command, exclaimed.  "We've got reports of emergencies all
over the ship.  There's a maniac with a laser sword on deck 12,
insurgents with olive loaves on deck 4, some sort of hockey player on
deck 9--"
      "General alert.  Cod is now the new tuna."
      "--and I think someone's been tampering with the computer."
      "You don't say," said Steve.  "Give me some good news, Jean.  Please."
      "We're about to emerge from overly-hyped space at the edge of
the Fringmar system."
      "When?"
      The _Challenger III_ emerged from overly-hyped space at the edge
of the Fringmar system.
      "Just about now."
      "Oh."
      "General alert," the toneless voice intruded.  "Extreme long
range sensors detect particle emissions identified with the ship
known to have been stolen by six of the ten beings on the mission
list."
      "Set course to follow the trail," said Steve.  "At last, the
expert system's reasserted itself--"
      "General alert.  When the moon in the sky is a big pizza pie,
that's amore."
      "--or not."
      "Miaou," Lucky agreed.
      "Where's the tactical officer?" Steve asked.  "I'd like to talk
over strategies for dealing with the Goornashk authorities if they
decide to horn in on the action."  He noticed that Cmdr. St. Thomas
seemed rather uncomfortable.  "Commander...?"
      "Tactical officer Robinson is... um... out right now," she said.
      Steve pursed his lips.  "May I ask where?"
      "Brap," belched Lucky.
      Steve looked from Lucky, to Cmdr. St. Thomas, back to Lucky, and
finally back to Cmdr. St. Thomas.  "Commander..."
      "It was an accident!" she protested.  "We took a vote and
decided to feed it a couple pizzas from ship's stores.  Robinson was
walking toward the cat, ready to toss the pizzas in its general
direction, when he just sort of... tripped."
      "Tripped."
      "He forgot to tie his bootlaces."
      "So you're telling me that Lucky *ate* my tactical officer?"
      "Sir--"
      "Commander, that shouldn't happen to anyone!  And if it does
happen to someone, it shouldn't be the tactical officer!  A security
guard, maybe, or one of the ensigns..."
      "Sir, Robinson landed on the floor in front of the cat and
twisted his ankle.  He went off to the medbay for an x-ray and some
bandages.  The cat only ate the pizzas.  And the boxes.  And he did
try to nibble on Robinson a bit, but he didn't care for the taste."
      "Oh!" Steve exclaimed, suddenly embarrassed by his assumption.
"Sorry about that."
      "General alert," the toneless voice interrupted.  "The scene is
drifting.  Plot integrity in danger of compromise."
      "Ehrm," said Steve.  "Right!  What's the status of the particle
emission trail, Commander?"
      "Hmmm," St. Thomas answered.  "The readouts now show two ships
-- a Goornashk patrol cruiser and an extremely obsolete salvage ship
-- docked and drifting in space, near where the emissions trail
begins.  The latter identifies as the _Universal Solvent,_ the ship
reported to have found our target ship and the bodies of the six
we're hunting."
      "Needlewarp," Steve swore.  "The Goornashk's are trying to horn
in after all.  Well, then, I suppose we'll have to go in and lay the
smack down.  Right, crew?"  He waited for a reply, which was not
forthcoming.  "Right?"
      His crew, comprised almost entirely of ensigns and security
guards who had overheard his earlier remark about the place of
ensigns and security guards on the list of who might be best fed to a
mutant cat, took an almost manic glee in neglecting to respond this
time.
      "Um, Commander...?" he asked.
      She sighed.  "Crew, he was joking.  This time."
      "Yes, sir," the crew listlessly grumbled.
      "That's better," said Steve.  "Plot a course for the ships.
Have Robinson report to me as soon as he gets back from medbay."
      "General alert.  To save on your collect calls--"
      "And turn off that needlewarping alert system!"
      This, at least, got a rousing cheer.

                                      -~-_-

      (system rebooting.)
      TH1K1 tried to move, but his tiny robotic body would not obey.
      (subsystem check commencing.)
      He tried to remember what had happened.  Images and readings
were available, but they would not come together.
      (check complete.)
      He was trapped.  Held prisoner within his own little body, as
much a toy as he appeared.
      (core AI unit online.)
      "...don't know who you guys are, but if one of you don't tell me
where I can get a fucking pair of pants, I'll come *up* with
someplace to put all this spam, and you won't like the places I got
in mind."
      Female voice.  Subharmonics indicate human, scanners unable to confirm.
      (memory online.)
      There was no female anything on the ship.  TH1K1 felt
particularly frustrated.  He had occasionally gone through forced
shutdowns and systems reboots in the years since being built by
Professor Parsasentence, and he had come to savor what the shutdowns
brought: the strengthening of his loathing for all life other than
his own.  The presence of a being that had not been present prior to
the event that caused his shutdown distracted him from the
all-too-brief moment of pure contempt that was his ideal.
      It meant he had to recalculate all his plans to include her.
      "I-- I--"
      Sajon's voice.
      SNAP!
      TH1K1 strained to identify the sound.
      "There're spare jumpsuits in the service bay--"
      "And where's that?"
      "Next to the wet bar in the galley."
      "Oh, right.  I can probably find that.  Stay there."
      (hover gyros now functional.  unit fully functional.)
      "Y'damn right," TH1K1 said as he scanned the bridge of the
warpshuttle.  Dr. Bing Von Spleen was out of commission, sprawled
before the main control console, his black bowler hat protruding from
one nostril.  Sajon, Von Spleen's energetic if less-than-inspiring
heroic assistant, was in the corner next to Von Spleen, looking
unharmed but in full cower mode.  The unknown female intruder was not
present.  The instruments indicated that the ship was on emergency
power, and that there were no nearby planetary systems.
      Finally, the ABPSARI was missing.  Which meant they were
irretrievably stranded in deep space, with scant chance of rescue.
      "Ha!" TH1K1 exclaimed.  "Let's see you squirm your way out of
*this* jam, my little meat puppets!"
      "TH1K1!" Sajon exclaimed.  "Oh, you funderful, wonderful little
robot, you're functioning!  You've got to help!"
      "Oh, I'll help," said TH1K1, knowing that Sajon only heard fast
and cheerful unintelligible squeaks.  "Would you like to be carried
or pushed into the airlock?"
      "There's an intruder on board," said Sajon, as he struggled to
his feet.  "I don't know how she got on.  One moment, the ABPSARI was
processing some pudding, which is something an ABPSARI ought not have
any truck with.  Then there was this bright cerise light, and I
blacked out.  When she shook me awake, Dr. Von Spleen and you were
out.  Oh, and she was only wearing a-- hey!  The ABPSARI is missing!
TH1K1!  Save us!"
      TH1K1, who had figured out most of what Sajon had just related
long before Sajon finished, had drifted away and was examining the
doctor, wondering if he should kill Von Spleen straight off or
torture him with subliminally projected scenes from a high-level
anti-drug conference he had recorded just the week before.  Before he
could decide, the bridge door opened.
      "I said 'stay there,'" warned the intruder's stern voice.  "Or
do I have to use this thing again?"
      "Eep!" exclaimed Sajon, who immediately dropped to the ground
and raised his arms.  "No!  Not that!"
      TH1K1 spun around to regard the intruder through his single tiny
photoreceptor.  She was definitely human, probably of Earth origin,
judging from the amount of junk food and random carcinogens in her
system.  Five feet four inches tall, gold-bronze skin coloring, light
brown eyes, small nose, shoulder-length straight blonde hair, a face
creased with laugh, worry, anger, and smoker's lines.  No trace of
makeup.  A closed hole in her left nostril, several more in both
earlobes.
      She had found the closet with the brick-red nylon jumpsuits, and
clearly was not happy with the look, which would have been
appropriate for a space ingenue.  That she was not an ingenue was
clear from the way she looked around the room, from the way her
graceful, wiry form moved as she stepped in.  TH1K1 realized that she
would do many things before screaming.  Including, quite possibly,
dying.
      "Hey, mind if I program the security system to shoot your arms
off?" TH1K1 asked.
      The woman looked down at him.  She smiled, having not understood
what he'd just asked.
      "Hey, a cute little robot."
      TH1K1 hovered toward her.
      Her arms blurred--
      Something blue and wet from behind her back--
      SNAP!
      The small robot shot over Sajon's head, struck the far wall of
the bridge, and went spiraling towards the bathroom door.  As TH1K1
struggled to regain control of his trajectory, he heard the woman
speak.
      "I *hate* cute little robots."
      What? thought TH1K1.  How could anyone hate cute little robots,
even fiercely homicidal cute little robots?
      "Now," said the woman as she advanced on Sajon.  "Tell me how is
it that one second I was at home, on Earth, just toweling off after a
nice hot shower, and, one bright sienna flash later, find myself
here, on some kind of small-ass spaceship in the middle of nowhere,
totally starkers except for my towel, bereft of my jewelry, my
magic-wielding abilities, and worse, my cigarettes."
      TH1K1 stabilized his position and retrained his photoreceptor on
the woman.  There was a wet blue towel in her hands, and she was
brandishing it in a manner that indicated she knew how to use it to
get answers.
      "Who are you?" Sajon whined.
      SNAP!
      "Ow!" Sajon exclaimed, even though the tip of the towel had
missed him by nearly an inch.  "I just asked--"
      "My name," the woman said, "is Shadebeam Moroboshi.  And if you
don't answer *my* question, *your* name is going to be Worm Chow.
Get me?"
      "Eep!"
      Unfortunate that they all had to die, TH1K1 thought.  Sometimes
they could be *so* entertaining.

WILL TH1K1 LET HIMSELF BE ENTERTAINED, OR WILL HE MOVE STRAIGHT ON TO
THE DEATH?
WILL SHADEBEAM BECOME EVEN MORE SURLY WHEN SHE FINDS SHE'S RETURNED TO SFSTORY?
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ABPSARI?
WILL STEVE VOGEL BE ABLE TO DEAL WITH THE INTRUDERS AND THE GOORNASHKS?
WILL HIS BRIDGE CREW BE ABLE TO DEAL WITH THE LOW SELF-ESTEEM BROUGHT
ON BY VOGEL'S CALLOUS REMARKS?
WOULD LUCKY EAT AN ENSIGN, OR DO ONLY HIGHER-LEVEL OFFICERS HAVE TO
TAKE STEPS TO BE UNAPPETIZING?
WILL BAGELOS AND QUOOTH FIND THE LEGENDARY UR-BAGEL SHOON-MA?
HOW DID BAGELOS'S GRANDFATHER COMBINE EVIL AND BREAKFAST?
WILL MEGABOT SEEK A CAREER IN BARTENDING?
Probably none of these answers will be found in the next
sporadically-thrilling SFSTORY episode!  Write your congressbeing now!
=========================================================================
Date:         Thu, 07 Sep 2000 22:31:08 -0700
From:         Gary (swede at acd.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #6

                               UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                              (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                    Episode 6
                                     "Peach"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

      Gham pulled on the peach-colored windbreaker, wishing she hadn't 
had to sell most of her wardrobe the month before to pay for a 
replacement fuel regulator.  But the slightly-more-tasteful olive 
green jumpsuits were in the closet just behind the navigation console 
on the bridge, and there was a metal door and five heavily-armed and 
even-more-heavily-eyebrowed Goornashkan military types acting as 
obstacles, so she settled for the windbreaker, a t-shirt that 
advertised 'Vino the Three-Headed Yak's Industrial-Strength Whiskey' 
("Like a weekend at my casino, it'll really clean you out!"), a pair 
of faded blue jeans, and a pair of ill-fitting sandals.
      "This will never work," Jerriphrrt, her husband, commented as he 
floated past, still struggling with his kilt.  She looked at her 
watch.  Thirty seconds left.
      "Of course it'll work," she replied to the tan-furred humanoid 
feline.  "That kilt matches your hunting jacket and sheep slippers 
perfectly."  Jerriphrrt had had to sell most of *his* wardrobe two 
months ago to pay for a hypertechnotron realignment and the late fees 
for their videos.  What he currently wore he had been paid to keep.
      "I mean the plan."
      "What plan?"
      "The one we haven't come up with."
      Less than ten minutes ago, she and Jerriphrrt had been rudely 
awakened from their cocoon-sleep by agents of the Goornashk 
Authority, led by a Goornashkan who identified himself as 'Major 
Lalan.'  Lalan informed them that the enigmatic alien ship that their 
ship, the W.S. _Universal Solvent,_ had been towing had disappeared, 
taking with it six dead pudding-bloated humans known to be on board 
and two live crewmembers of the _Universal Solvent_ who weren't 
supposed to be with them.  He then went on to peremptorily deny that 
she and Jerriphrrt knew anything about the disappearances, and 
threatened a vague but emphatic sort of violence if they didn't 
reveal the whereabouts of the lost ship.  The five minutes he had 
given them were nearly up.
      What Jerriphrrt said was true.  Planning had never been her 
strong suit, and would have been drastically out of place with the 
company she had kept over the years since her rescue and escape from 
the (now destroyed) planet Karma Chameleon II.  But Slithis and 
Benjen, the two missing crewmembers of her ship, were practically 
family, and they weren't about to let something so piddling as the 
need for a plan get in the way of--
      The door swished open.  She heard Jerriphrrt curse and try to 
hold down his kilt.
      "Your five minutes are up," said Major Lalan as he peered up at 
her.  "Where is the derelict spaceship you found?"
      Gham observed that two of Lalan's three arms were hefting 
Lalan's obnoxiously oversized laser-weapon-rifle-thing so that the 
business end was pointed directly at her.  She lowered her chin, as 
if in shame, and spoke.
      "Dantooine.  They're on... Dantooine."
      Lalan frowned.  "I've seen the movie," he warned.
      "Oh," said Gham, looking up.  "In that case, they went to... to..."
      "Planet Gloom," Jerriphrrt interjected.
      "G-Gloom...?" Lalan asked.  His suddenly shaky voice and widened 
eyes indicated he had heard of the bleak, desolate world that served 
as the capital of the Zakavian Empire.
      "Bit of a trip," said Gham, trying to play it up despite having 
no idea where Jerriphrrt was going with this.  "But it seemed best 
under the circumstances.  Fewer chances of being pursued."
      "Easy profit," Jerriphrrt added.
      "A distracted government," Gham noted.
      "Loose morals."
      "Free parking."
      "Sentence fragments."
      "Er, sir," said the armed Goornashkans standing next to Lalan. 
"The Zakavians lost that war with the Aroruans.  And you know the 
first casualty of any war."
      "Pudding prices," said Lalan, his nervousness vanishing as 
suddenly as it had come.  He waved 'Mr. Funboy' at Jerriphrrt and 
Gham with fresh vigor.
      "I thought truth was the first casualty of any war," said Gham.
      "You fool!" Lalan exclaimed.  "Pudding *is* truth!  And truth is 
pudding!  And there's no freaking way this Slithis and this Benjen of 
yours would have taken a fortune's worth of pudding to a place where 
they wouldn't have gotten a good price for it!"
      "Er?" Gham asked.  While she hadn't really expected the 
desperate lie to work, an outburst of fanatic devotion to pudding had 
not seemed any more probable.  The Goornashk Sector's pudding demand 
was generally consistent with neighboring sectors, last she knew.
      Before she could voice this objection, and also before Lalan 
could rant further, the ship violently shook.
      "Hey!" Jerriphrrt exclaimed.  "Be careful when you flush the toilet!"
      "None of us are in the bathroom," one of the Goornashkans pointed out.
      "Oh," said Jerriphrrt.  "Then we must be under attack."
      "Aieee!" the Goornashkans, with the notable exception of Major 
Lalan, screamed.
      "Like heck," Lalan sneered.  "I suppose you want me to believe 
that a warship just happened to spot us with its long range scanners, 
and that someone aboard just happens to care enough to find out 
what's happening to one little rusting freighter in deep space."
      "Atsa bout right," a voice to Gham's left and Lalan's right 
said.  "Just raisa you tree arms anna nobody get hurt.  Unless you'a 
no do you stretches dis morning.  Den you getta muscle pull."
      A honking sound emphasized the new arrival's words, and Gham 
realized who had come to their rescue.  "Chicobaldi!" she exclaimed. 
"Zacko!"
      She recognized them both from her encounters with them a few 
years back on Freedonia 5.  Neither looked appreciably changed. 
Zacko had his horn directly aimed at Lalan's weapon, while Chicobaldi 
brandished a green banana in what could have been a menacing manner, 
had he been brandishing something other than a green banana.
      "Not to worry," said Chicobaldi.  "We'a see dis inna movies alla 
time.  I fool 'em by makin' 'em think this banana issa gun.  Don't 
tell 'em the truth til they tied up.  Works every time!"
      "Except you just told us," one of the guards said.
      "And we can see the banana," Lalan noted.
      "I'v'a heard dat onna so many jobs," said Chicobaldi.  "You'a no 
fool me this time."
      Lalan pointed 'Mr. Funboy' at Chicobaldi.  Gham saw Jerriphrrt 
tensing, as if ready to leap at the Major.
      The next few seconds were a complete blur, as orange gas 
suddenly flooded the bridge, accompanied by honking sounds and the 
hum of a lightsaber blade.  When the ship's creaky circulation 
systems finally got rid of enough of the apparently ineffectual gas, 
Gham found she could not see Chicobaldi or Zacko around anywhere. 
Moreover, while she could see the Goornashkans, she could not see 
their weapons or their pants, since said items were in pieces and 
shreds on the floor.
      "Er," another voice called from the airlock.  "Everyone okay in here?"
      "Mr. Funboyyyy!" Lalan wailed, clutching at the slivers of his 
beloved weapon of mass destruction.
      "Passably so," said Jerriphrrt.  "Who are you?"
      The uniformed, somewhat effeminate man stepped onto the bridge. 
Gham found she recognized this one, too.
      "Brother Vogel?" she asked.
      "Captain Vogel," the man corrected.  "I'm pleased you remember, 
but I'm on a different assignment now.  I'm after the derelict 
spaceship you were towing, and I'm curious as to why you aren't 
towing it anymore."
      Gham sighed.  "Tell you all about it-- what little we know-- in 
exchange for dinner and a chance to change into something less 
comfortable."
      "Okay," said Vogel.

                                      -~-_-

      Dirk's Space Swap-o-Rama and Grill was not quite as Kissy 
Hitowers had imagined.  The villainy she had pictured was there in 
myriad forms, from the open bazaar that ran along every visible 
corridor to the assortment of buyers and sellers yelling at one 
another about prices, e-z loan terms, and just what was it that 
unlabeled big red button really did.  The occasional ne'er-do-well 
skulked about the throngs of traders, as did the occasional 
hero-pretending-to-be-a-ne'er-do-well doing a sort of heroic skulk 
while pursuing whatever mission brought them there.  Various boards 
and intercom announcements related the statuses of a large volume of 
trades.  An air of Machiavellian amorality mingled with the scent of 
soft pretzels and incessant shopper alerts.
      The part that Kissy had imagined but did not see was the part 
where various space villains, noting the presence of 
would-be-space-heroes who weren't even disguising themselves in 
cloaks and heroically skulking around, drew weapons and reduced them 
to a fine red mist.  Ronald Hastings and Norman Sassafrass, the 
Interstellar University Space Heroics majors in question, were 
looking about in open incredulity at their surroundings.  Kissy 
followed, maintaining a distance without making it too obvious.
      "Are you sure we're even on the right side of the station?" 
Norman asked.  "I thought the guide said two lefts, an up, a down, 
and three rights to get to the Solar Men."
      "It was a taxi operator," Ronald replied, "who was talking about 
payment.  I didn't ask about the context."
      "So we're lost?" Kissy asked.
      "Of course we're not lost," Norman replied.  "We're... um..."
      "Reconnoitering," Ronald filled in.
      "Right.  Reconnoitering."
      "Because you can't just connoiter once."
      "It'd be silly."
      "Forget I asked," Kissy grumbled.  Maybe *this* was why no hail 
of weapons fire had come their way upon boarding the station.  They 
just weren't worth the effort.
      Still, a contract was a contract, and her pay scale was based on 
the success of the mission.  Which meant, since the "heroes" were 
having problems, there was only one thing to be done: get kidnapped. 
Nothing made heroes thrive like adversity, particularly when said 
adversity involved the ill-timed disappearance of the party member 
whose main purpose was to banter with and berate the heroes.
      There was no shortage of potential kidnappers in that section of 
the ship.  Kissy counted no less than three seven-foot-tall beings in 
waxed-and-buffed-within-an-inch-of-its-life black armor, and assorted 
minions running about, placing orders with arms sellers and 
attempting to assassinate one another.  Ideally, she would be 
kidnapped by the Sonar Men, so her employers' quest could be 
advanced, but there appeared to be no silver-suited humanoid beings 
about.
      Very well, then, she thought, she'd just saunter over to one of 
the minions and say something indiscreet about knowing everything 
about a plot to take over the universe--
      Hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her toward an opening in 
the wall.  Kissy let out an ear-piercing scream just before a metal 
panel slid down, cutting her off from the main corridor.  She 
continued screaming because that's what Space Ingenues did.
      She stopped screaming when a silver-gloved hand covered her 
mouth and nose with a silver napkin.  Her disgust at the realization 
that the napkin had been used to hold a soft pretzel prior to being 
used to hold knockout gas quickly faded into unconsciousness.

                                      -~-_-

      It was hardly the first time Shadebeam Moroboshi had been 
forcibly relocated from one point in space and time to a quite 
distant other.  Nor was it the first time the translocation occurred 
and was complete before she could perceive it.  She had been abducted 
from her home altiverse through a temporary vortex created by a 
bizarre science-fictiony metal box.  She had been translocated by 
mages, shifted willy-nilly in time and space by a power-hungry 
metaphysical intelligence, and popped about from one planet to 
another by transmat beams and similar technologies.  She'd even 
learned how to do it herself, through the magic she'd unwillingly 
inherited from the occasionally dead version of herself in the 
altiverse to which the box had taken her.
      This translocation, however, felt like the first.  Worse, it cut 
her off from use of her formidable-if-erratic magic.  Worst of all, 
it cut her off from her cigarette supply.  Those three facts gave 
Shadebeam a sinking feeling in her gut and a pissed-off feeling 
everywhere else.
      "Ask him!" exclaimed the scrawny man cringing before her.  "It's 
his ship!"
      Shadebeam snapped at him with her wet bath towel, the only item 
that had translocated with her from the bathroom of her rented house 
in Berkeley.  The young man yelped and dived partway into the laundry 
hamper.  She resisted the urge to snap the towel at his protruding, 
jumpsuit-covered butt, and instead turned to look for the alleged 
owner of the small spacecraft to which she had been abducted.
      "Ow," the man in question grumbled as he sat up.  Shadebeam 
observed four distinct things as she readied her towel for further 
action.  One, the man was naked.  Two, the man's skin was the 
cleanest-complected she had ever seen.  Three, it was the 
most-disturbingly spam-pinkish she had ever seen.  Four, the bowler 
hat lodged partway up the man's left nostril had come loose and 
fallen to the floor.
      "Right," she said, "I don't know who you are, but--"
      "Needlewarp!" the man yelled.  "I'm sober!"
      "I sympathize," said Shadebeam, "but you'll also be in a great 
deal of pain from having one or more body parts wedged where body 
parts really ought not go if you don't--"
      "Needlewarp!" the man yelled.  "The ABPSARI's gone!"
      "Will you shut *up*--"
      "Needlewarp!" the man yelled.  "A hot blonde, and I'm out of 
breath freshener!"
      Shadebeam punched him in the chin.  His body absorbed the blow 
like a weeble absorbing a tap.  When he stopped wobbling, he frowned 
and looked at Shadebeam as if seeing her for the first time.
      "Well, crap," he said.  "It's not like I *meant* to put pudding 
in the ABPSARI instead of Spam."
      "Who... are... you?" Shadebeam asked, ignoring the dull pain 
that had lanced through her right hand following the punch.
      "My name is Von Spleen," said the man as he climbed unsteadily 
to his feet.  "Doctor Bing Von Spleen, the Earth's foremost 
spamologist.  My assistant over there in the hamper is Sajon, and the 
little robot right behind you is TH1K1."
      Shadebeam glanced back at the small, floating, toylike robot she 
had sent flying with a flick of the wet towel only moments before 
terrorizing Sajon.  Despite it's cuteness (which Shadebeam innately 
despised), it seemed almost disappointed that Von Spleen had pointed 
it out.
      "You may want to watch out for that one," Von Spleen went on. 
"It's a monster.  But never mind that.  I think I can answer your 
questions."  He turned to the nearest console and examined several 
screens of what looked to Shadebeam like random squiggles and 
rectangles.
      "Mrgggg," Sajon groaned as he finally extracted himself from the 
hamper.  "Hfff nfff wfff."
      "Says you."
      Sajon pulled a jumpsuit top from his mouth.  "I said, 'Hey, 
you're from Earth.'"
      "Brilliant," Shadebeam answered, without taking her eyes from 
Von Spleen.  "What kind of psychic reading do you get from your sweat 
socks?"
      Von Spleen looked abruptly up.  "She *is* from Earth.  But not 
*our* Earth -- she's from altiverse 000SUPERGUY."
      "Huh?" asked Sajon.
      "I'm not in 000SUPERGUY anymore?" asked Shadebeam.
      "Nope," Von Spleen replied.  "This is 001SF--"
      "Sfstory?" Shadebeam asked.  "I'm stuck in... Sfstory?"
      "Apparently," Von Spleen said, "when the ABPSARI disappeared, it 
created a quantum spamological vacuum, which somehow abducted you 
from your altiverse and brought you here."
      Shadebeam elected at this point to sit down and just let the 
words 'quantum spamological vacuum' slide through her brain and find 
someplace dark and quiet to lodge until she was ready for them.  She 
tried to let the concept of 'Sfstory' do the same, but it stubbornly 
remained front and center in her mind.
      Most of what she remembered were the things she either wanted to 
forget or couldn't remember clearly due to the illegal frames of mind 
she had been in when they happened.  An image of her old boyfriend, 
Remmy d'Macabre, floated up and just as quickly away; just as well, 
considering how their reunion in 000SUPERGUY had gone and what an 
utter prick he'd turned out to be.  Then came memories of years spent 
on bizarre worlds with Emma, James, Jerriphrrt, Benjen, Gham, and... 
the other one.  The green one.  They'd had a nowhere fling, or 
possibly several, or possibly one that seemed like several.  She 
tried to focus on the memory--
      "Aha!" Von Spleen exclaimed.  "I know how to find the ABPSARI now!"
      Shadebeam winced.  The memory vanished.  She looked up at Von 
Spleen and scowled.  "Could you work on that *after* you get me back 
to my home altiverse?"
      "Afraid not," said Von Spleen.
      "Let me rephrase," Shadebeam said as she slowly stood.  "Could 
you work on that *after* you recover from your savage beating and get 
me back to my home altiverse?"
      "Er," said Von Spleen.  "The thing is, I can't get you back to 
where you came from without the ABPSARI.  And not just any ABPSARI 
will do -- it has to be that one, as it's charged with your 
quantospaminoid particle signature, and--"
      "Rrrrr," Shadebeam groaned, as she sat back down.
      "Tell her about Schrodinger," Sajon suggested.  "That helped 
*me* understand."
      "Good idea," said Von Spleen.  "Back in the early days of 
spamology, the physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed a mind game in 
which a quantity of spam was put into a box, which was subsequently 
bombarded with radiation.  He went on to point out that the 
quantospamological equations could not conclusively determine the 
state of the spam in the box.  Until the box was opened, it could not 
be known if the spam was dead and putrid, or radioactive *and* dead 
and putrid."
      "Which means...?" Shadebeam wearily asked.
      "There's a ship about to crash into us!" Sajon shouted.
      "It does not mean that," Von Spleen said.  "Schrodinger was 
ridiculing something that the quanto--"
      "No!" Sajon yelled.  "There!  On the screen!  A ship!"
      Shadebeam, Sajon, and Von Spleen turned to the large viewscreen 
above the main control console.  The last time she had seen it, she 
recalled, it had been filled mostly with black, and only the 
occasional distant star.  Now it was mostly filled with a largish, 
dark-painted-yet-still-inexplicably-well-lit ship.
      TH1K1, which had been hovering near said console, made some 
noises that seemed, to Shadebeam, filled with disappointment.
      "Needlewarp!" Von Spleen swore.  "It's going to run into us in 
ten seconds!"
      Shadebeam groaned.  As homecomings went, this was looking like 
it would be a short and permanent one.

WILL SHADEBEAM DIE BEFORE VON SPLEEN CAN SUM UP HIS ANECDOTE ABOUT 
SCHRODINGER'S SPAM?
WILL SHE KILL VON SPLEEN FIRST?
WHERE DID THE THREATENING SHIP COME FROM?
WILL RON AND NORM BE SPURRED INTO ACTION BY KISSY'S KIDNAPPING?
WILL THEY HEROICALLY SKULK?
WILL THEY CONNOITER SOME MORE?
WILL STEVE VOGEL TEAM UP WITH JERRIPHRRT AND GHAM TO FIND BENJEN AND SLITHIS?
WILL HE SERVE A GOOD DINNER, OR JUST A BUNCH OF RANDOM MICROWAVE CRAP?
IS LT. ZACKO POSSIBLY HAVING A BIT TOO MUCH FUN WITH HIS SABER/HORN?

Move along, citizen.  There's nothing for you to see here, at least 
not until the next SFSTORY episode.
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