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Sfstory Log 098

=========================================================================
Date:         Fri, 27 Oct 2000 07:08:04 -0700
From:         Gary (swede at acd.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #7

                               UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                              (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                    Episode 7
                                     "Rose"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

      Benjen was not clear on the exact moment when the bagel ceased 
its mental possession of him.  Drinking grapefruit juice directly out 
of the carton, which he had done twenty minutes ago, was the last 
outstanding example of something he Just Would Not Do (not with 
grapefruit juice, anyway).  Following that had come a series of 
breakfast choices in which he did things he didn't ordinarily do but 
wouldn't necessarily never do, such as apply grape jelly to his Grape 
Nuts, drink the leftover milk from his cereal bowl through a bong, 
and use a stack of french toast and several english muffins to 
pointlessly illustrate some rather obscure episodes from Earth 
history.  Finally, there came a choice that was wholly and 
indisputably his own, but even that had its downside, as he would 
still need several more boxtops to get the Tane Tessier Box CD set 
("Look, I Have Big Breasts").
      By the time he was able to reflect on his newfound control over 
his mental faculties, and also upon the photographic evidence of Ms. 
Tessier's claim, he also realized that he was not alone at the 
breakfast table in the middle of the barely-lit bridge of the alien 
spaceship the bagel had used him to steal.  In addition to the bagel 
(named Shoon-Ma, he recalled), his friend of many years, Slithis, was 
seated right across from him, having Grape Nuts and saying something 
about the ultimate fate of the universe.
      "So, the ultimate fate of the universe," said Slithis.  The 
reptilian humanoid failed to add anything more to this, though not 
without visible effort.
      "Exactly," Shoon-Ma replied.  It didn't speak, in the sense of 
moving any of its bagelly parts (or, more accurately, part).  The 
word sort of hovered into their ears from somewhere in Shoon-Ma's 
vicinity, as though George Clooney was looping in its dialogue.
      "The fate of the universe, ultimately," Slithis reiterated.
      "Gets you by the po-pos, don't it?" asked the bagel.
      "I don't -- never mind that," said Slithis.  "You've gone on 
about the ultimate fate of the universe for the last twenty minutes 
now.  I can tell it means a great deal to you, but I'm not exactly 
sure where I fit in.  Or what the ultimate fate you have in mind is."
      "That's because the ultimate fate is soon to be determined," 
Shoon-Ma replied.  "It is why I allowed myself to be 'discovered' 
after millennia of being buried under the ancient ruins of Lompork 
II.  It's why the warrior race that created this ship ambushed the 
archaeological team that found me.  It's why a group of humans then 
subsequently ambushed them, and managed to vanquish them through the 
most amazing stroke of luck."
      "Is it why they died in turn?" Benjen asked.
      "Benjen!" Slithis exclaimed.
      "Hi, Slith," said Benjen.  "Do you, by any chance, know what the 
hell is going on, or should I play this like all the other times I 
wake up in odd rooms with odd talking artifacts and no memory of what 
happened for the last day or so?"
      "Er," Slithis answered, "I've only got sort of a vague idea as 
to what's going on.  And you might as well react to this like you 
usually do, though I think you can skip the part about creating a 
makeshift explosive out of gravel, oil, and an Arkavian toad."
      "Aw," Benjen grumbled.  "That's my favorite part, too."
      "Allow me to recap," Shoon-Ma said.  "I'm Shoon-Ma.  I took over 
your mind and brought you back to this ship so I could continue on my 
journey.  Your friend here came to rescue you, but as you can see, 
you're still here."
      "I was waylaid by breakfast," Slithis explained.
      "Isn't that always the way?" Shoon-Ma asked.
      "Not always," said Benjen.  "Sometimes, it's lunch."
      "Right," said Shoon-Ma, sounding about as annoyed as a 
frozen-for- millennia ur-bagel could.  "Focus on me again."
      "What are you, anyway?" Slithis asked.  "What the heck is an 'ur-bagel'?"
      "Oh ho," said Shoon-Ma.  "I can tell you haven't heard of the 
Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe."
      "Nope," said Slithis.
      "Me neither," Benjen added.
      Benjen and Slithis proceeded to finish their eggs and toast. 
Both became aware, at more or less the same instant, through some 
sort of bagelly vibes, that Shoon-Ma was expecting a certain question.
      Slithis sighed.  "Okay.  What was the Breaking of the Fast at 
the Dawn of the Universe?"
      "I can't tell you," said Shoon-Ma.
      "Saw that one coming," Benjen noted.
      "Still hurt," Slithis grumbled.
      "You are not ready for the knowledge," Shoon-Ma declared, his 
voice booming through the dark, computer-panel-lit bridge.  "Only my 
chosen Champion shall be allowed to receive such esoteric kno--"
      "Hey, wait," said Benjen.  "I think I do remember."
      "What?" Shoon-Ma asked.  "Impossible!"
      "It was that miniseries last month, right?" Slithis asked. 
"With Ted Danson and Molly Ringwald."
      "Yep," said Benjen.  "You know, Danson brought such conviction 
to the role of Ur-Bacon, he just stole the show from everybody else--"
      "You're making this up," said Shoon-Ma.
      "No he's not," said Slithis.
      The bridge quaked with vaguely menacing energy.
      "Yes I am," said Benjen.
      "Right," Shoon-Ma growled.  "Only my chosen Champion shall be 
allowed to receive such esoteric knowledge."
      "And who is your chosen Champion?" Slithis asked.
      "That being whose ship we are about to run into," Shoon-Ma said.
      Slithis and Benjen looked at the heretofore ignored main 
viewscreen, and saw a small ship growing larger as either it flashed 
towards them or they flashed towards it.  Their reactions were 
instantaneous and born of long experience.
      "Aaaaaaaah!" they cried.

                                      -~-_-

      Life was a gamble.  One gambled every time one got up in the 
morning, every time one ate a slice of pizza or nicked fifty large 
from anyone nicknamed "the Enforcer."  Kalvin Certain lived gambles 
like that (but not *exactly* like the last one, in case anyone named 
"the Enforcer" is reading, he would like to point out) throughout his 
long and eccentric career as spacegoing dandy-turned-spacegoing 
smuggler-turned-planetbound casino middle-management type.  His 
current position in Vino the Three-Headed Yak's organization revolved 
around making such gambles possible for other people.  Life was a 
gamble, but Kalvin liked it best when it wasn't his life under the 
shadow of the dice.
      "You shall not come with us," said the grey-skinned gnome who 
was seated behind Kalvin's desk.  "We have need of you here."
      "I see," said Kalvin.  He frowned while considering the gnome's 
dirty brown robes, oily brown hair, and disturbingly 
Freddie-Prinze-Jr-like facial features.  The creature looked like one 
of the beggars in the alleys that ran between the buildings of the 
planet they were on (Alpha Rio VI -- the Planet of Casinos).  For all 
Kalvin knew, that was where the creature lived when it was not 
barging into Kalvin's office and ordering him around.  If he didn't 
need what the creature had, he would have sent him on his way long 
ago.
      "No, you do not," the gnome answered.  "Nor do you need to.  I 
have not forgotten our arrangement.  When the training has concluded, 
you will be permitted to come to our world and collect your reward."
      "When will the training conclude, Sa--"
      "I am not optimistic," the gnome said through a snarl.  "I have 
heard legends of our Chosen One, and I was prepared for one set in 
his ways, as the prophecies foretold.  I was prepared for One who 
displayed single-minded dedication to his calling, One whose mental 
faculties are unrivaled, One who was pure in spirit."
      "Are we talking about the same person?" Kalvin asked.
      "Your prisoner is single-minded," said the gnome. 
"Single-mindedly violent in his response to any given situation.  His 
mental faculties are unrivaled in their lack of function.  He is pure 
in spirit, if one considers that ignorance is bliss."
      "Then..."
      The gnome pushed a button on Kalvin's computer terminal.  The 
wall behind him rose, revealing a viewscreen that in turn revealed a 
fortified room deep within the casino complex.  Within that room was 
a large man in a Time Police officer's uniform.  The man was trying 
to interrogate a rubber chicken as to his current location.
      "Then," said the gnome, "we can only conclude that the Ancient 
Prophets were being extremely sarcastic."
      Kalvin nodded as he considered Zark Flyby.  He had little faith 
in prophecy, not because of any disbelief in the ability of a being 
with the appropriate biological equipment to forecast the far future, 
but due to the low social respectability of prophets who couldn't lay 
claim to being Ancient (or couldn't afford to buy a certificate that 
said they were Ancient from one of the many non-accredited 
universities that Kalvin ran as side-ventures and 
scratch-money-raisers).  Prophecy, as a career option, tended to 
attract the incompetent, the sarcastic, or science-fiction writers 
looking for a social-status boost.
      "Remember," said the gnome, as Kalvin turned to depart, "you 
must keep the hyperdimensional transporter functional and guarded 
until the training is complete!  Only then will you get the reward 
you so richly deserve!"
      "Gotcha," said Kalvin as he walked out of his office.  It was 
not until he had gone down the hall and into his other office (an 
even smaller, shabbier room which featured various high-tech games of 
chance that were tagged as being in for 'maintenance' due to not 
staying rigged) that he allowed a smirk to cross his suave features.
      He pulled the handle on a slot machine, and watched as images of 
three roses appeared on the readout before him.  The slot machine 
immediately split in two, revealing a hypercommunication set and a 
microphone.  He flipped the main switch and keyed in a preset code.
      "K.C. to Team E," he said.  "Send a report on the status of the 
hyperdimensional transporter at once.  It must be kept functional and 
well-guarded at all times."
      Kalvin paused.  Should he ask over an open channel...?
      "Also advise as to the status of the nega-cell and its contents."
      He switched off the comm set, and restored the phony slot 
machine.  The report would be waiting for him in the morning.  In the 
meantime, he had other preparations to make, and a few drinks to 
consume.
      He would get the reward he so richly deserved.  Regardless of 
whether the gnome meant to keep its promises or not.
      It was the gamble of a lifetime.  Best it be done with loaded dice.

                                      -~-_-

      Interstellar University was justly famed throughout known space 
for the thoroughness of its classes on Space Heroism.  A reasonably 
bright student could learn how to thwart the psychotronic beams 
emitted by the cave dwellers of Marius VI (duck), how to 'just 
happen' to fill the description of a prophesied leader to start an 
insurrection against a space despot (wear a Kyle McLaughlin mask - 
for some reason, it works), and how to evade more than two-hundred 
death traps (when you see a sign that says "this way to the two 
hundred death traps," go some other way), all in the course of one 
afternoon's classes.  But it was inevitable that some situations just 
couldn't be covered.
      "Hello?" said Norman Sassafras.  "I'd like to buy something, please."
      Neither of the two silver-suited, silver-haired young men before 
him deigned to glance in his direction.  Instead, they continued 
their conversation on something Norman thought might be sports, or 
warfare, or body-suit waxing.  One stroked a wispy silverish goatee, 
while the other lazily fingered various pierced bits of his (the 
other's) face.  Were it not for Kissy Hitowers's sudden 
disappearance, and the fact that he doubted Ronald would follow, he 
would have stomped off.
      The lair of the Sonar Men on the space station Dirk's Space 
Swap-O-Rama and Grill had been difficult to find.  They were located 
in an inconvenient bend in the station's architecture, one that only 
the foolish or desperate might attempt.  (There was, in fact, an easy 
way, but neither Ronald or Norman wanted to pay the 'transit fee' the 
Sonar Men were charging for transmat services.)  Kissy Hitowers, the 
space ingenue they had hired to assist them in completing their 
mission (and thus their Senior Project, which would allow them to 
graduate from Interstellar University as Space Heroes), had been 
kidnapped, no doubt by the very Sonar Men they now faced.  Ronald had 
decided to pretend that he and Norman were space mercenaries looking 
to equip their private vessel with military-grade weaponry and a 
first-class symphonic soundtrack generator, a plan that was 
guaranteed not to fail... if one of two Sonar Men before him ever 
condescended to address a lowly customer.
      Norman gave up on the conversing Sonar Men and sidled on over to 
Ronald, who was standing in the center of the all-white (and 
apparently wallless and ceilingless and floorless) showroom, looking 
through a catalog of weaponry.  Or was trying to, at least.
      "Guns," he said.  Racks of guns utterly failed to zoom in out 
from nowhere.  "Hello?  Helloooo?"
      "Maybe you're supposed to push something first," Norman suggested.
      "Aaaah!" exclaimed a startled Ronald.
      "Sorry."
      "Er, right," said Ronald.  "Just... keeping up the disguise. 
Anything to report?"
      "The salesbeings are ignoring me," Norman replied.  "They are 
breathtaking in their rudeness and unwillingness to provide even 
basic customer service."
      "Needlewarp," said Ronald.  "Our classes never covered this."
      "Maybe there's no solution."
      "There *must* be a solution," Ronald said, clutching and raising 
his fists as heroically as Norman had ever seen.  "Our mission to 
locate the missing Time Agent Toni Williams hinges on our actions 
here!  The life of Kissy Hitowers hangs in the very balance!"
      "The life of who?" asked a voice that came from behind them.
      "Aaaah!"
      "Oh, most sorry," the Sonar Man who was now standing over them 
(Norman and Ronald having wiped out in their attempt to spin around, 
look tough, and flee in four directions at once).  "I forgot how 
easily startled you space mercenaries get."
      "We've had a... long flight," said Ronald.  "Flying against... 
the... Tholians... can really take... it... out of you."
      Norman was impressed.  Ronald's impression of Captain Kirk 
pretending to be a space mercenary was flawless.  He had been worried 
that Ronald would choke under the pressure.
      "Of course," said the Sonar Man, a sneer curling over his 
youthful features.  "How droll.  Now, would you stand aside?  There's 
a good--"
      "W-we're here," Norman said, "t-to buy stuff."
      "Stuff," the Sonar Man replied.  "How... predictable."
      "Weapons," said Ronald.  "Guns.  Things that... go... boom."
      "Yes, yes," said the Sonar Man.  He gave them a sour look, then 
raised his right hand and spoke, apparently into the fabric.  "Guns."
      At least a dozen racks lunged out of the nothingness.  One 
smacked Norman and sent him skittering a good ten feet.
      "Watch out," said the Sonar Man.
      "Hah," said Ronald, as he helped Norman up.  "We space... 
mercenaries... take hits like that... all... the... time.  Right?"
      "Wooka?" asked Norman.  He shook his head to clear it, then 
looked at the racks again.  "Excuse me," he said, "but do you realize 
that those aren't guns?"
      The Sonar Man glanced at the racks, which were filled with many 
differently shaped and sized nuns.  Loud, angry declarations soon 
filled the air, and Norman soon found himself dodging beads and 
rulers.  The Sonar Man said a hurried something into his suit fabric, 
and the racks abruptly retracted.
      "Sorry," he said, sounding like he actually was for a moment. 
"Just had new voice recognition software installed.  It takes a few 
goes before it sorts out the idiosyncrasies."  He lifted his hand 
again.
      "Guns!"
      This time, it was Ronald who got smacked by an incoming rack. 
And while what was on the rack didn't take the initiative in 
attacking this time around, it nevertheless did not prove to be what 
they sought.
      "Mind you," said Norman, "I would have bought some if butter 
came with 'em."
      "Oh, shut up," said the Sonar Man as the rack of buns retreated 
into the illusory nothingness.  "Look, what is it you want, exactly? 
What kind of guns?"
      "Phasers," said Ronald.
      "Phasers?" asked the Sonar Man.
      "Phasers," said Ronald.  "Type I."
      The Sonar Man sighed.  "You could have just said."
      "But--"
      "Look, just go to the back room, and stop bugging us.  Mirmask, 
Sovereign Warlord of the Fifth Dimension is about to arrive, and he's 
brought his charge cards with him.  You want antiques, talk to old 
man Satik."
      A doorway appeared, showing a somewhat scruffy-looking, but 
nevertheless silvery hallway.  A closed door was at the far end.
      "You're being extremely rude," Norman groused as he and Ronald 
were shoved through the opening.  "You ever work for any of the big 
computer store chains on Earth?"
      "We do consulting for many of them," the Sonar Man answered. 
"Train their salespeople, that sort of thing.  If you're interested, 
pick up a brochure on the way out."
      Norman would have replied, but the disappearance of the door 
made doing so futile.  He and Ronald turned to face the dingy 
corridor.
      "Ronald," said Norman.
      "Yes?" asked Ronald.
      "Did you see any brochures?"
      "No, I didn't."
      Ronald shook his head.  "Fiendish."
      No other comment seemed necessary.  They set out for the far end 
of the corridor, watching for the 'old man Satik.'  And hopefully, 
Norman thought, something their school training could actually handle.

                                      -~-_-

      Space, Bagelos reflected while gazing out the cockpit glass, 
ought not be that difficult to conquer.  Most of the universe was 
vacuum, devoid of everything but light and dust.  Not so much as a 
space-cabbage to fight back if one decided to conquer a volume of 
nothingness.  He, a washed-up failure of a space villain, could still 
easily conquer a volume of void the size of billions of planets.
      It was the bits of matter bobbing around in the nothingness that 
put up all the resistance.  The inhabited planets, asteroids, space 
stations, giant space animals, and so on.  Conquering those was 
considerably tougher, due to his entrepreneurial bunglings 
("'Rent-a-Lee-Majors-Clone?'  What was I *thinking?*"), but due to 
his latest deal, all that was about to change.
      Or was it?
      He found the crew allowed him by Kalvin Certain gave him little 
cause for optimism.  Quooth, while phe seemed to know phis way around 
the modestly-sized warpship's flight controls, did not inspire 
confidence, especially when phe interrupted an important course 
correction to play an ear-grating rendition of "Yes Sir, That's My 
Baby" on phis Holy Harmonica.  Megabot, meanwhile, showed no 
inclination to help with any aspect of ship's operations, unless one 
called "hovering next to Bagelos while idly polishing one's many 
robotic implements of death" a form of "help."
      "Friend Bagelos," said Quooth, "it is nearly time for our exit 
from overly-hyped space into the Fringmar system."
      "Hmmm?" hmmmd Bagelos.  "Oh, yes.  Right.  I, Bagelos, am pleased."
      This statement seemed to cheer the insectoid wzaxtil.  Said 
cheer took the form of a painful harmonica mutilation of "My Heart 
Will Go On" (which, despite critics who have long insisted that 
painful mutilation was what the song deserves, only made it worse). 
Bagelos clutched his ears and wished he was back on Alpha Rio VI, 
penniless and sobriety-less again.
      "Friend Bagelos, are you all right?"
      Bagelos swiveled in his pilot's chair to look at Quooth.  On 
seeing phim scratch phis ear (which was located on phis chest) with a 
tentacle, he turned right back and faced the grey of overly-hyped 
space again.
      "I, Bagelos, wish to hear your thoughts on a few matters," he 
said.  "Matter one: do you trust Kalvin Certain?"
      "Yes," Quooth answered.  "Why would I not?  He has proven 
himself to be a true friend, by providing us with a ship, with 
currency, with a mission that might aid my quest, and with a cute red 
robot."
      Bagelos did not turn to see what Megabot thought of being 
described as "cute."  He could hear its annoyed hum already, and 
heard the cutting blades that it had been whirling about sound 
somewhat less casual.
      "Next matter," he said.  "Why, out of anyone he could have sent, 
did he choose us?  Right off the floor of the casino he worked at. 
Bit of a coincidence, yes?"
      "I do not know--"
      "Well, I, Bagelos, do.  He picked you because you were with me, 
and he picked me because, somehow, he knows about my grandfather."
      "Did you not tell me about him two months ago?" Quooth asked. 
"Was he not the one who made his living as a dancing pig in a 
traveling circus?"
      "That was my *other* grandfather."
      "And the traveling dental-floss seller--"
      "My grandmother."
      "And the acrobat--"
      "My other grandmother.  Who later became another grandfather, 
but that's what you get when you juggle gene-mod black boxes for a 
hobby."  He held up a hand to forestall further guesses.  "No, 
Quooth.  This grandfather was a space villain.  One of the greatest 
the universe ever saw.  His plots were legendary.  His battles with 
the space heroes of his day were ferocious.  Even though he was 
forced to retire after old Hutch Williams shut down his Ion Wave Bed 
N' Breakfast O' Death, my father and I looked up to him.
      "These days, nobody much remembers old Hutch, except that he was 
Buzz Williams's father, and that he was Buzz's inspiration for 
becoming a Space Hero.  Nobody remembers old Baconos at all, except 
myself and, for no reason I can see, Mr. Certain.  And I'd wager a 
year's drinks that it's not the space villainy, or even the old man's 
fixation on bacon as the lever with which he would move the universe, 
that brought me to Mr. Certain's attention."
      Quooth hummed a quick burst of notes from "Who Let the Dogs 
Out?," which Bagelos understood to mean that phe was in suspense.
      "It all has to do with a trip my grandfather took, late in his 
life, when I was just a boy," Bagelos continued.  "To uncover the 
truth behind the myth of the Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the 
Universe."
      He heard Megabot's hum change, and risked a glance back at the robot.
      "Don't worry," he said.  "I asked for a tape of that miniseries 
that aired last month.  I'll show it to you and Quooth lat--"
      "We are coming out of overly-hyped space, friend Bagelos," 
Quooth reported, phis tentacles waving over the control board too 
fast for Bagelos to follow.  On turning back to the cockpit window, 
he saw the endless grey of overly-hyped space dissolve into the inky 
blackness of the void.  The Fringmar system's yellow sun was the 
bright point near the center, he surmised.
      "Any ships in the vicinity?" asked Bagelos.  "Escape pods?  The 
information he gave us stated that only six of his agents turned up 
dead on the mysterious ship.  That leaves four unaccounted for."
      "No escape pods," Quooth replied.  "There are two other ships." 
The wzaxtil put them on the screen on Bagelos's console.
      One was a battle cruiser, the _Challenger III,_ an Earth ship. 
Kalvin's information warned them that Earth was after the same ten 
humans for reasons of its own -- some sort of quarantine to keep a 
mind-numbing inanity from spreading, apparently -- so he regarded it 
with interest.  It had docked with another, much smaller ship, no 
doubt the _Universal Solvent_ described in the info packet as the 
ship that had discovered the mystery vessel and the six dead humans. 
There was also a Goornashk Authority cruiser, which displayed some 
rather severe damage--
      Wait.
      He increased the magnification on the _Universal Solvent._
      The shape.
      Could it be...?
      "Fools," he muttered.  "The answers are right under your noses."
      "Friend Bagelos?" asked Quooth.
      "Quiet," said Bagelos.  "I'm attempting to formulate a cunning plan."
      Quooth emitted more sounds of suspense, dashing whatever 
concentration Bagelos fleetingly established.  Megabot's hum 
suggested it wouldn't hold its breath, even if it had breath to hold.
      The robot didn't realize how important this was.  In fact, 
Bagelos hadn't realized what was at stake until just now.  More than 
power, more than fame, more, even, than free drinks.
      Bagelos indulged in an evil chuckle.
      A luxury he hadn't allowed himself in a long time.

WILL BAGELOS INDULGE AGAIN?
WILL HE COME UP WITH A PLAN?
WHAT DOES HE SEE IN THE DESIGN OF THE _UNIVERSAL SOLVENT_?
WHAT *IS* THE DESIGN OF THE _UNIVERSAL SOLVENT_?
HAS IT EVER BEEN DESCRIBED?
DOES ANYONE CARE?
THAT OTHER STUFF THAT HAPPENED, WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?

Answers are forthcoming.  Unfortunately, evasions are firstcoming, 
secondcoming and thirdcoming, so it'll be a while, here on... SFSTORY!
--
The Sonar Men were created and trademarked by David Menendez, and 
appear with his permission.
=========================================================================
Date:         Mon, 19 Feb 2001 23:46:36 -0500
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at alumni.psu.edu)
To:           Superguy (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Out of Space #1

OUT OF SPACE
A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 1: Going Down


HORLUN SOFAH reached for the controls of the Finstar F6000 and
deftly entered a minor course correction. The ship's computer
pondered that for a moment and promptly suggested a further
refinement, noting that Horlun's new course intersected the core
of a star. This didn't bother Horlun, as it would take several
years to reach that star at the small ship's current speed and
the computer would give another warning well before there was any
danger of collision, but he accepted the revised course anyway.
Why tempt fate?
     That largely-theoretical brush with death handled, Horlun
leaned back and attempted to relax. He considered himself a
fairly unremarkable person: he was average height, perhaps a bit
thin, with perfectly normal dark hair and gray eyes. People often
had a hard time picking him out of group photographs. It didn't
help that, like many young people on the planet Foobarh, he
dressed mostly in black and dated a political activist.
     The ship belonged to his girlfriend's father, who had become
obscenely wealthy through some highly-complex process that Horlun
had never been able to understand. Since Anme seemed to take her
father's wealth as a personal affront, he didn't ask about it
much. He, Anme, and his cousin Orliss had borrowed the Finstar
with the intention of visiting Barbados, Planet of Physical
Delights. Instead, they had run across a band of aliens from the
planet Earth and gotten sidetracked. After getting involved in a
civil war or two, Orliss noted that his vacation had ended and he
needed to get back to Interstellar University before he fell
behind in his courses. Since they had transportation, Horlun
offered to drop his cousin off at school and then return to
Foobarh with Anme.
     That would have worked out fine, except that Orliss had made
friends among the Terrans and had invited two of them along to
check out the Space Hero program at Interstellar University. That
wasn't a problem by itself--they were nice people and Horlun
enjoyed their company. The problem was that Anme and the male,
Roy Gaelen, couldn't seem to go for five minutes without breaking
into a shouting match over some philosophical point or another.
It was both annoying and tedious, and Horlun tried to stay as far
away from it as he could. This meant he spent a lot of time on
the control deck trying to think of things to do, such as making
pedantic course corrections.
     If he concentrated, he could make out their voices even now.
He tried not to, leaving him with the humming of the air
circulators, the soft beeps and clicks of the navigation systems,
and the odd scratching noises the iced behin dispenser
occasionally produced. After a few hours, he could detect an odd
rhythm. Later still, he could pick out a simple melody in the
beeps, clicks, hums, and so forth. Soon, he would be adding
lyrics.
     "That's it," Horlun declared. "I'm taking a break." His
mother had warned him about hearing songs in white noise.
     He unstrapped his harness and stretched, momentarily
forgetting that he was weightless in a cramped compartment. The
sound of fingers accidentally striking a control pad quickly
brought him back to reality, but to his relief he had only
activated the beverage dispenser. Grabbing his squeezebulb of
iced behin, Horlun launched himself down the access tube towards
the common area. He was going to end that fight, or get annoyed
and leave. One or the other. He was certain of it. Taking a deep
breath and straightening his goatee, he entered the fray.

     "--which is exactly the sort of argument I'd expect from my
idiot father!" Anme was saying.
     "He must be an idiot," Roy agreed, "to lend an interstellar
starship to an ungrateful parasite like you."
     "How *dare* you speak about my father that way!"
     Horlun cleared his throat. "If I may interrupt--"
     Anme didn't seem to hear him. "He may reap the benefits of
the working class's labor, but at least he's not a paramilitary
thug."
     "Yeah, I can see how it would be better to exploit the people
than to protect them."
     Horlun tried again. "Do you think we could--"
     "My father provides useful services to society at large!"
Anme shouted. Her face was starting to turn red with anger. "Your
precious fighter squadrons sit around consuming resources and
waiting for an enemy to kill!"
     Roy bristled, giving Horlun a chance to interject.
     "Will you two SHUT UP!?"
     Anme and Roy broke off their argument to stare at Horlun, as
if he had swung a club around and shouted "Graah!" at them. (He
had tried that in a similar situation once; it hadn't proven very
effective.) Anme recovered first.
     "I'm sorry Horlun. This wouldn't happen if *someone* would
keep his mouth shut." She glared at Roy.
     "You're right," agreed the Terran, "and that someone is you."
He snorted derisively. "Mike better than Joel, indeed."
     "He is!" Anme insisted. "In terms of acting talent alone--"
     "Give it a rest! The show isn't about 'good acting'--"
     "STOP IT!" Horlun shouted. The others jumped back in
surprise, and then spent a few moments trying to regain their
grip on the floor. Horlun took a breath and continued more
calmly. "I don't know what you're arguing about--I don't even
*want* to know. Just don't bring it up anymore, okay?" He paused,
and looked them both in the eyes (sequentially). "This is a very
small ship, and you're making things difficult for everyone."
     Roy had the grace to look embarrassed. Anme just sniffed and
crossed her arms. Had she been a few years younger, she might
have stuck out her tongue. Like Horlun, she was dressed mostly in
black, with a deep red shirt under her vest for variety.
Depending on which part of her social circle you talked to, that
was either a regrettable concession to traditional esthetics or a
daring break from the conformity of the rebel set. She had
similar coloring as well, although her dark hair had a subtle
highlight which was absolutely *not* the result of a dye, so
don't even ask about it.
     Horlun heard movement behind him, and turned to see Jen
Kadar's head peeking out of the shaft leading down to the
personal quarters below the common area. She and Orliss had
avoided the Argument by hanging out below and discussing hero
stuff. Horlun had joined them in the beginning, but he could only
hear so many stories about Buzz Williams or Mark Hyperthrust or
Crunch Rockslab before they all started to blend together.
     It had been a while before Horlun could look at Jen without
staring. It wasn't merely that blonde hair and blue eyes were so
rare on Foobarh that most people interpreted them as signs of
God's disfavor (creating a small but loyal market for colored
contact lenses). Jen was, quite simply, the tallest person Horlun
had ever met. Even Orliss had to stand on his toes to match her,
and he was about 190 centimeters. Horlun had wondered how she
ended up a fighter pilot instead of a supermodel, but Roy
explained that Terran supermodels were generally so thin they
could accidently fall through sewer grates (presumably humor,
although one could never be certain with aliens), whereas Jen was
more athletically proportioned.
     While she and Orliss propelled themselves into the room,
Horlun concentrated on trying to end the current feud. It
wouldn't be easy. It didn't take much to set Roy and Anme against
each other, and neither was likely to back off or admit defeat.
He needed a way to end things without hurting their pride. It
would take some careful thought.
     While Horlun thought, Orliss pushed his way towards the
duelling pair and clapped a hand onto each of their shoulders.
"How about you two shake hands and make up?" he asked cheerfully.
     Horlun smacked his forehead so hard he saw stars. Anme and
Roy stared in disbelief. Jen was smiling hopefully, but looked
ready to bolt should things suddenly turn ugly. Orliss just
waited patiently. Horlun vaguely remembered his cousin talking
about a heroic conflict resolution class he had taken and
wondered if Orliss had learned this technique in class or had
just pieced it together from other students' notes.
     Finally, Roy stuck out his hand and grinned ruefully. Anme
looked at it with distaste before gingerly offering her own. The
two shook and agreed not to provoke each other further. The other
three sighed in relief. Despite its crudeness, Orliss's plan
appeared to have worked. At last, peace had come to their ship.
     Then the universe exploded.

                              *   *   *

     Horlun revised that assessment when he regained
consciousness, reasoning that he probably would not have survived
the universe exploding, and his head hurt too much for him to be
dead. His eyes were closed, but he could tell the lights in the
common room were off. The quiet background noise of the
ventilation system was gone, leaving behind an eerie silence.
That could only mean the power had failed. They were floating
dead in space. Metaphorically for now, but literally too, once
the air ran out.
     He could hear movement. Probably the others , trying to
determine what had happened. Horlun kept quiet and tried not to
move. His head ached, and he wanted to spend a few moments
floating in the darkness before he admitted being awake. It
couldn't last. Without him, the others would turn to Orliss to
attempt repairs, and Horlun was not confident about his cousin's
chances. He wasn't confident about his own chances, either, but
at least he knew enough to recognize the truly dangerous
equipment.
     Not that it mattered, if the situation was as bad as he
feared. There was a remote possibility that he could restore
power to the ship. There was no possibility that he could repair
an overly-hyped drive. It simply wasn't designed for field
repair. After all, it had been engineered never to fail--all the
marketing said so.
     *I'm taking this rather well,* he thought. Acceptance of
impending death had never been a strong point of his. Anme's
friends would occasionally tell him he would never make a good
revolutionary unless he could calmly take action knowing it would
lead to his death. For her sake, he refrained from noting that
(a) he had no interest in being a revolutionary, and (b) he
didn't see any of *them* taking potentially-fatal action, either.
But now, faced with either starvation or asphyxiation in the
depths of space, he wasn't panicking at all.
     The others were being awfully quiet, too, now that he thought
of it. He could hear motion, but no one was talking. It didn't
make sense. How did they keep from smashing into things?
     "Ow!" said a voice Horlun didn't recognize.
     He opened his eyes, then blinked a few times to make sure
they were open. It was really dark.
     "Is that everyone?" asked another voice. Like the first, it
was female and unfamiliar, but perhaps a bit more professional.
Horlun tried not to move. He certainly couldn't see in the dark,
but there was no sense in taking chances. Who *were* these
people? Had the ship been attacked by pirates?
     Statistically, this was unlikely. Horlun's space piloting
class had taught him two things about space pirates. The first
was that space is very big, thus making the odds of an individual
ship encountering a pirate astronomically low. In their case,
these odds were enhanced by the overly-hyped drive, which
provided considerable protection to a ship in transit, although
less than its initial marketing had claimed. The second was that
if his ship did get attacked, it was probably best to give in to
any demands the pirates made, as there is very little an unarmed
ship can do against a horde of desperate criminals.
     A sudden grip on his shoulder startled Horlun into crying
out. "Hey," said the first voice, whose owner had apparently been
able to see Horlun despite the dark and his black wardrobe, "this
one's already awake."
     "You know what to do," replied her companion. "Is that the
last one?"
     "I think so. It's kinda dark in here."
     "...which doesn't matter, since we have infrared gear."
     Horlun felt the woman holding him shrug, then something
pricked him in the neck. His vision started to blur, which was an
interesting experience, since he couldn't see anything anyway. He
briefly considered struggling against the arms holding him, but
it seemed less and less important. He could struggle later, after
he took a nap.
     "I don't see why we couldn't just use flashlights," the first
woman was saying as she dragged Horlun towards the airlock.
     "Honestly," said a third voice, "you have no sense of style."
     The conversation may have continued beyond that, but Horlun
wasn't conscious enough to hear it.

                              *   *   *

     He awoke to find a woman leaning over him. He was in a bed of
some sort in a gravity field, and she was holding something he
couldn't make out. For a moment, he thought it was Anme, but he
changed his mind once his vision cleared. She was tall,
dark-haired, and wore a khaki uniform with more pockets than
seemed strictly necessary.
     "Am I dead?" he asked groggily.
     "Why does everyone keep asking me that?" she demanded,
grabbing his collar and pulling him into a seated position. Blood
rushed into his skull, protesting the sudden movement. "I may not
be a doctor, but I took a very good first-aid course and I have
*never* lost a patient." She let go, and Horlun dropped back onto
the bed. "If everyone's just going to criticize, I don't know why
I should bother. I mean, beyond saving lives and stuff. That's
kinda the point and all. You know?"
     Horlun contemplated the ceiling. It was pretty generic
panelling, like in a business office.
     "Are you listening to me?"
     "Not really. I seem to be incredibly dizzy."
     The dark-haired nurse nodded. "Don't worry. That's probably a
side-effect of, uh, whatever it was that knocked you out." She
toyed with the vaguely-medicinal tool in her hand. It made a
soft, whirring noise. "My name is Marjoram, by the way. Your
friends should be here soon. I'll explain what happened then."
     "What did happen? Who are you people?"
     "I *just said* we'd explain when your friends arrived. Did
you suffer some kind of brain damage or something?"
     There was a moment's warning--running in the hall, the swish
of the door, a voice calling his name--then Horlun abruptly found
himself lying on the floor next to his bed, his girlfriend
clinging to his side.
     "You're awake!" Anme said happily. He noticed she was wearing
the heavy silver-and-navy jacket the security chief on the
*Anonymous* had given her, which was odd. She hadn't been wearing
it before.
     "He won't be awake too long, if you keep tackling him,"
Marjoram said acidly.
     The others trickled in while Anme was helping him to his
feet. They were accompanied by another khaki-uniformed woman with
short, green-tinted hair. Her shirt was sleeveless, possibly to
show off the abstract tattoo on her shoulder. At least, Horlun
assumed it was abstract. You never could tell, with aliens.
     "It's good to see you've rejoined us," Orliss was saying.
"Without you, we'd have no one to pilot the Finstar." He paused,
perhaps sensing how mercenary that sounded. "Also, you're a
decent fellow and we enjoy your company."
     "Likewise," said Horlun.
     Marjoram and the other stranger watched from a distance while
the five caught up on their experiences. As Horlun was the last
to recover by several hours, his was the shorter story.
Apparently, their ship had failed somehow, knocking them
unconscious. When they woke up, they were here. Their hosts,
employees of the Sonar Men, had promised to explain what had
happened as best they could, but wanted to wait until everyone
was awake. In the meantime, they had visited the ship to grab a
change of clothes. Anme sensed Horlun's curious glance at her
jacket and whispered that she would explain later.
     "So," she said, addressing their hosts, "now that we're all
awake, how about that explanation you promised us? What happened
to our ship?"
     "Oh," said Marjoram, "we're not sure about that. We were
doing some testing in deep space and we think it interfered with
your engines. Luckily, we noticed and brought you back here for
recovery." She smiled reassuringly. "We'll pay for damages, of
course. The Sonar Men always make up for their mistakes."
     Anme frowned. "That's *it*? Why couldn't you tell us that
before Horlun woke up?"
     "I don't like repeating myself." She turned to her quiet
coworker. According to Horlun's friends, she was named Oregano.
"Why don't you show them back to their rooms for now? We still
have some time before dinner." She glanced back. "I do hope
you'll come. The head of research is so looking forward to
meeting you."
     "Why do we need a guard?" Anme asked suspiciously.
     Marjoram smiled again. "This *is* a research facility. It's
not our policy to let guests wander around unescorted."

     Once they were alone, Horlun asked Anme about her jacket.
Truthfully, he was only mildly curious, but her reluctance to
discuss it intrigued him. She was probably just embarrassed: she
had spent a considerable time berating Roy for his membership in
the *Anonymous*'s security forces, and now she was wearing part
of their uniform.
     Instead of answering, she was wandering around their room,
peeking under the chairs and lampshades. Their rooms were
considerably nicer than Horlun had expected, with soft lighting,
lacquered wooden furniture, and a lovely view overlooking a
native forest. Even the ceiling panels were tastefully painted.
Anme had claimed the bedroom for them while he was still
recovering; Orliss, Jen, and Roy had set out cots in the parlor.
Horlun felt a bit guilty about that, but Orliss claimed it was
all for the best: a space hero had to get by in situations far
worse than this. Some day, they might face lodging that would
make a cot in a guest suite parlor look positively opulent in
comparison. Some toughening up would do them good. Besides, it
wasn't as if they would be staying on this planet any great
length of time.
     The continuing silence from Anme was becoming worrisome. She
got very defensive when her views were challenged, and few things
set her off like a suggestion of hypocrisy. He had expected a
denial, or at least a request that he help her find whatever it
was she was looking for.
     "Anme?"
     She pulled her head out from under the bed and held a finger
to her lips.
     Horlun watched her start examining the bureau drawers,
confused. *Is she looking for bugs?* Anme was no fan of spies or
intelligence agencies, but she did see a lot of espionage movies,
which she claimed were filled with harsh social criticism. Horlun
accepted that without comment, as it meant she didn't challenge
his claims about the commentaries on science and art contained
within the Giant Monster branch of the cinema.
     Evidently satisfied that the room was clean, Anme stood and
motioned Horlun to come closer. "I don't trust these people," she
said quietly.
     "I guessed."
     "I mean it! I've heard about the Sonar Men. They're arms
dealers of the most detestable sort. They supply tyrants and
terrorists all throughout this area. I don't believe they had an
accident which just *happened *to disable our engines, and I'm
not looking forward to learning what they have planned for us."
She hesitated, looking a little self-conscious. "And that's why
I'm wearing this. Aside from any unfortunate symbolism, it's a
good defence against blaster fire."
     "Unless they shoot you in the head."
     "Well... yeah. But they could do that anyway." She walked
over to the window, adding quietly, "You probably think I'm being
paranoid."
     Horlun joined her by the window and looked out. The research
center was apparently located on the side of a mountain, and
extended downward in a series of connected terraces. Beyond that
was largely unbroken forest extending as far as he could see.
Nearby, a small copse of trees grew on the roof of a lower
section of the center. They were pretty unremarkable, as trees
went, vaguely palm-like. Horlun wasn't sure if they had been
planted or if that section was in severe disrepair. Strangely,
there seemed to be crumpled wads of white paper clustered in the
tree, like some cheap holiday decoration.
     "I notice you're being rather quiet," Anme observed.
     "I don't particularly trust the Sonar Men either," Horlun
evaded. It was true; their story rang false, but he couldn't put
his finger on why. Hopefully, the ship would be repaired soon and
the question would become academic. "Shall we join the others? We
still have some time before dinner."
     From the look on Anme's face, she suspected that the upcoming
meal might well be their last, in which case she might as well
have some fun. "All right, but I am not playing that idiot card
game."
     Horlun shrugged. "Orliss probably left it on the ship." As
the two of them turned to join the others, a sudden movement
caught Horlun's eye. The paper wads had unfolded into angular,
bird-like shapes and were launching themselves into the
aqua-colored sky.
     He watched them disappear before following Anme into the
anteroom.

     Oregano came to take them to dinner during the fifth round of
Space Cards. Orliss, as usual, was winning handily--despite his
protests that he was holding back in deference to Jen and Roy,
who had never played before. Anme and Jen decided that they
should "freshen up" before dinner, and while they were gone
Horlun asked their host about the birds he had seen.
     "They aren't actually birds," Oregano told him. "It's a local
species here with the ability to fold its body into various
configurations, like the bird form you saw. In their relaxed
state, they're a flat sheet."
     "It is always humbling to be exposed to the awesome variety
of space," Orliss commented.
     "Actually, part of the reason we formed this research center
was to study them. The locals call them 'origami'."
     Orliss smiled. "And what other wonders does this planet
hold?"
     "None that I'm aware of."
     "Oh."
     By the time everyone had freshened up to his or her
satisfaction, Oregano was tapping her foot impatiently and
looking a little agitated. It didn't help that Anme kept
remembering little things they had forgotten to do. "Are we
ready?" she asked, once the activity quieted down. "The Director
is probably wondering where we are."
     "Is this a formal dinner?" Anme asked suddenly. She turned to
Horlun. "You should probably comb your hair."
     "He's *fine*," insisted Oregano. "We're a very informal
bunch." She slid the door open and stepped outside, beckoning
them to follow. "Shall we go?"
     As before, the halls were strangely empty. It occurred to
Horlun that so far he had only seen two actual employees at this
research center, even though it had obviously been designed to
hold far more. The complex stretched out in all directions, but
only the halls they walked in were lit. The rest were dark,
either to conserve power or to keep visitors from wandering off
on their own. All the place needed was a layer of dust to look
abandoned.
     He slowed down a bit, letting the others get ahead of him and
Anme. "I know you don't trust these people," he said quietly,
"but if you could avoid *actively* trying to annoy them..."
     "Sorry." She didn't look very sorry, but Horlun didn't feel
like pressing the issue.
     They sped up a bit to rejoin the others, Horlun keeping an
eye on the darkened cross-corridors. It was crazy, but he
couldn't shake the idea that unseen eyes in the shadows were
watching him. Anme had that effect on people sometimes.
     "Do you hear something ahead?" she asked.
     Horlun was about to say no when a large shadow rolled into
the hallway ahead of them. Anme gave an involuntary cry of alarm
and ducked behind him. It was taller than either of them and
produced a steady mechanical rumble from its wide base. Towards
the top, a glowing red eye mounted on a thick cylinder swivelled
to face them. It stopped, and they looked at each other for a
moment. Horlun's brain began to interpret what his eyes were
showing him and he realized it was a large, black robot on
treads. On one side was a sturdy claw holding what looked to be a
sophisticated feather duster. While Horlun pondered that, the
behemoth returned its attention to the corridor before it and
rumbled out of their way.
     "What was that?" asked Anme, once it had passed.
     "A cleaning robot," answered Oregano, who was standing with
the others a short distance ahead and looking a bit annoyed.
"Could we try to stick together?"

     They made it to dinner without further incident, which must
have been a relief for Oregano, who had been keeping a very close
eye on Anme after the dusterbot incident. Fortunately, Anme had
followed Horlun's request to tone down her campaign to annoy
their hosts. Now all they had to do was get through a meal with
them without a food fight breaking out.
     The dining room was elegantly furnished and could probably
hold two dozen or more. Like everything outside their guest
suite, it was not filled to capacity. There were the five of
them, Oregano, Marjoram, a third khaki-uniformed woman, and a man
who introduced himself as Vreetz Rentacar, Director of the
Tangerine Research Center. He was an unathletic-looking fellow in
a green and white costume that existed somewhere between
aristocratic uniforms and space suits on the great continuum of
fashion. It included epaulets, a cape, and a square control panel
on the chest, its dials and indicators serving no obvious purpose
other than to match the antennae and other technological doodads
on the helmet he carried. He seemed friendly enough, welcoming
them with a warm smile and hoping that their stay would be
pleasant, despite its involuntary nature.
     Anme did not look convinced of his sincerity.
     Possibly to spite her, Roy sat next to the Director and the
two struck up a casual conversation on a wide range of topics,
including the repair efforts for their ship (proceeding slowly,
as Finstar parts were hard to come by on isolated research
posts), the wilderness outdoors (nice, if one avoided the
origami), and the nature of the research performed here (too
secret to say, but assuredly very interesting). They might have
gone on for some time if Jen hadn't pointed out the lack of food
on the table. This caused some confusion.
     "I thought Marjoram was bringing in the food," said Vreetz.
     "Me? I'm a highly skilled worker. Why would *I* bring in the
food?" When no one seemed impressed by that excuse, she added,
"Besides, no one asked me."
     The Director considered that, silently making some
calculations on his fingers. "How very strange," he said at last.
"We knew that food needed to be brought here before we could eat,
and yet no one was assigned to do it. I just can't understand,
unless...." He turned to the quiet woman beside him. "We haven't
recently acquired any robot servants which could perform such
tasks with an efficiency you or I could only dream of, have we?"
     "We have not," she replied. "Until then, Marjoram can do it."
     "But Sage--" protested the dark-haired medic. She didn't
bother completing the sentence, evidently deciding it would do no
good. Oregano snickered, and Horlun suddenly had the feeling he
had heard these women's voices before. Which he probably had when
he was unconscious, come to think of it.
     It didn't take too long for Marjoram to retrieve dinner, and
at Sage's silent prompting she began to serve with an expression
that could be termed cheerful, if one was not overly concerned
with accuracy.
     "If you keep making that expression, your face will freeze
like that," Vreetz noted helpfully. Marjoram compliantly shifted
her expression to one that might be called a smile, but probably
shouldn't. Horlun heard her mutter something about renegotiating
her contract.
     The food was an odd mixture, comprising a few
artfully-arranged vegetables and an amorphous gray mush that
lacked any discernible scent. Horlun poked at it uncertainly with
his most spoon-like utensil. It had a disturbingly variable
cohesion: it flowed like a liquid, but when he poured a spoonful
onto his plate it formed a narrow gray spike sticking upwards.
     Anme leaned over and whispered, "Be careful. It may be
dangerous. Like poison, or something worse."
     "If they wanted to kill us, they had plenty of opportunities
before now," Horlun quietly reminded her.
     "Maybe it didn't occur to them before now, or they changed
their minds, or they want zombie slaves, or--"
     "Enough." Anme was never much fun when she was being
paranoid, but it was even worse when she didn't have a firm
grounding for her fears and started speculating. Once, when she
couldn't find the remote control for her home video unit, she
listed two hundred and forty-eight theories about who had taken
it and what nefarious scheme they needed it for. That, at least,
had ended when she found it behind the couch. This had the
potential to go on for days.
     "I'll bet it's a parasitic lifeform," Anme whispered. "Or a
mass of nanomachinery that'll rebuild your body from the inside
out."
     "Then how come *they're* eating it?" He and Anme were the
only ones not eating, and as far as he could tell no one at the
table had abruptly died or had their will enslaved.
     "They're immune, or they didn't give themselves the same
stuff--"
     "Never mind." He took a spoonful of the gray stuff and tried
it. It managed to be appealing despite tasting like wet paper,
which was something Horlun had never previously considered
possible.
     "How is it?"
     He shrugged. "Not bad. The personality reprogramming is
actually pretty painless."
     "Forget I asked."
     Horlun quickly did so and started on his dinner. He couldn't
remember how long it had been since his last meal, primarily
because he had spent a good portion of the intervening time
unconscious, which tends to distort one's time perception. The
vegetables were unfamiliar, but nothing so painful as the
peperoncini he had sampled on the *Anonymous*. (After that
experience, he made it a point not to accept food if the people
offering it were visibly restraining laughter.)
     After taking the edge off his hunger, Horlun slowed down and
returned some attention to the rest of the table. To his left,
Vreetz was regaling Roy with tales of sporting events he had
witnessed as a child. Or something. He had missed the beginning
of the conversation. To his right, across from Anme, Orliss was
chatting with Oregano about his favorite subject: his study of
space heroism.
     "It does sound like an interesting career," Oregano was
saying, "but rather risky from a financial standpoint."
     Orliss nodded. "Yeah. My grandmother said studying heroism
was fine for some, but I should study something with a future,
like poetry. That's how I ended up in comparative literature."
     Horlun couldn't help but chuckle at Oregano's surprised
reaction. Comparative literature was a lucrative field; people
were always surprised that Orliss had beaten the stiff
competition to get accepted. Then they were baffled by his
insistence on pursuing heroism seemingly at the expense of almost
certain financial success. To her credit, Oregano got over it
quicker than most.
     "You must lead a very interesting life."
     Orliss nodded vigorously. "You got that right! Why, just a
week ago, Jen and I were prisoners on Planet Gloom. Right, Jen?"
     "Yes," said Jen evenly. "It was quite a time."
     Not noticing the implied irritation in her tone, Orliss
launched into the story of how he helped destroy a Zakavian
superweapon. Horlun did notice, though, and he made a mental note
to discuss it with her later. It was bad enough having Roy and
Anme in close quarters. Bad feelings between Jen and Orliss would
make their stay intolerable. He tried to catch her eye, but Anme
was between them. While shifting his position, he saw Sage
sitting just beyond Oregano, furthest from Vreetz's position at
the head of the table. He already knew she was sitting there, of
course. What caught his eye was the way she was looking at
Orliss. Like she was trying to absorb all there was to know about
him just by staring really hard.
     As if she sensed his gaze, she shifted her attention to
Horlun, who quickly shook his head as though he had been staring
into space. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't want her to know he
had seen her staring at Orliss. For some reason, the thought made
him uneasy.
     He felt a wry grin coming on. *Anme's paranoia is starting to
rub off on me.* He was probably jumping at shadows. Nonetheless,
he kept a low profile for the rest of the meal.

     Jen had not wanted to talk after dinner. Horlun attributed
that to the way Oregano and Orliss kept chatting all the way back
to their rooms, and then continued to talk once they arrived.
Anme didn't look too happy about that either, but she already had
a reason to dislike the Sonar Men, so Horlun was less concerned.
     Finally, Oregano left, citing still-unfinished work. Anme
took advantage of that moment to announce her mistrust for their
hosts, a revelation which might have gotten more of a reaction
had it not already been blindingly obvious. She followed up by
suggesting they find out just what their hosts were up to. *That*
got a reaction.
     "And just how do you propose we 'find out'?" asked Roy. "Even
if they *are* up to something, it's not like we can ask them."
     "Well, duh," said Anme. "Any idiot can see *that*. But there
are other ways to get information."
     "I'm sure Orliss can extract it from our lovely guard," Jen
observed lightly.
     "Maybe," said Orliss, "but that would take some time." He
seemed oblivious to any hidden meanings in Jen's suggestion.
Horlun needed to have a talk with him; for a man of the galaxy,
Orliss could be frustratingly clueless.
     "We *saw* the repairs they're making on our ship," Roy
pointed out. "It's insanity to antagonize them now."
     Ignoring Roy's concerns, Anme laid out her plan: "We'll just
take a look around. Nothing fancy. If they're up to something
unpleasant, we'll find clues."
     "I suppose it's possible," said Orliss. "Oregano said they
wouldn't lock us in, and if they *are* up to something..." He
didn't sound too certain.
     Roy shook his head. "I don't like this. If they find out we
abused their trust, things get a lot less friendly around here."

     "I still don't like this," Roy noted for the dozenth time.
     "We're already aware of that," said Jen. "You don't need to
point it out on every floor."
     Horlun wasn't sure how tall the research center was--it was
apparently built on a mountain slope, which gave their suite a
fantastic view but made judging their relative height
difficult--but he was pretty sure they were in the basement. They
had generally moved downslope as they descended, though, and this
region had no windows, so all he could judge by was the decor.
Gone were the wall-to-wall carpeting and marble drinking
fountains. In some places the ceiling wasn't even panelled,
revealing the network of pipes and cables above. Definitely omens
of basementness.
     It had taken them some time to decide on this course of
action. Despite his misgivings about the Sonar Men, Horlun wasn't
entirely convinced it was wise. Orliss didn't look very
comfortable either, and Roy... well, it was pretty clear how Roy
felt. Only Anme and Jen were particularly gung-ho about it, which
marked the first time their group had divided along gender lines.
(Some obscure part of Horlun's brain occasionally pointed out
trivia like that. It rarely provided much insight.)
     So far, they had found nothing remotely incriminating, unless
one counted a massive facility manned by four people as
suspicious. Even Anme's enthusiasm was beginning to flag.
     "Perhaps we should consider turning back," said Orliss. "It's
possible there is simply nothing to find, and if we don't get
enough sleep, we'll miss that breakfast Oregano mentioned."
     "Yeah," said Jen. "We wouldn't want to miss that."
     Anme sighed. "I know we're all tired, but let's not give up
just yet. We're bound to find some clues eventually."
     "Clues?" said Roy, sounding amused. "I feel like I'm out with
the Scooby gang."
     That meant nothing to Horlun, but Jen apparently caught the
reference and asked Roy to elaborate.
     "Well, first of all, we're sneaking around a large, creepy
building looking for clues. Then there's us. Orliss is the heroic
leader guy. You're his beautiful friend--"
     "*Daphne*?" protested Jen. "I feel vaguely offended."
     Roy winced. "It's not a perfect fit. Please don't take this
as a comment on anyone's intelligence."
     "I was thinking more of her fashion sense, but go on."
     "Okay. Anme's the brainy, suspicious one and Horlun's the
scraggly, pseudo-beatnik guy."
     "I suppose," said Jen. "Of course that leaves you as the
dog."
     Anme snickered, but Roy seemed unperturbed. "Well... he *was*
the title character."
     "Wait," said Horlun, "the title character was a dog?"
     "Pretty much."
     "He could talk," Jen offered. "Not very well, though. It was
a weird kinda hybrid barking-speech thing."
     Horlun shook his head. "Your ways are strange to me, Terran."

     As they passed through the endless vaults of office supplies
and spare laboratory equipment, Horlun found himself wondering
what had happened. The place had been operating with a reduced
staff for quite some time, but the efficiency of the dusterbots
made it hard to tell how long. Decades, possibly. But why build
an enormous research center and then mostly abandon it? Budget
cutbacks? A natural disaster? Cannibalism? It was the best sort
of mystery: perplexing, but irrelevant enough that it didn't
matter if he never figured it out.
     They were deep in the complex by now. Horlun was tempted to
think they were at the bottom, but he had made that mistake
before. The halls were long and straight now, with heavy doors
that might have been very secure had they been shut. By unspoken
agreement, they were sticking to the well-lit corridors. It made
the search process much faster, and less likely to involve
falling down an unexpected staircase.
     Ahead of them, Anme gave a sudden cry of victory. "I found
it! If there's *anything* incriminating here, it's in this room."
     "And what is it which distinguishes this room from the others
we've encountered?" asked Orliss wearily.
     "It's locked, it's seen recent use, and it's got this sign."
She tapped a finger on a large label which read ABSOLUTELY NO
ADMITTANCE. That alone was unique: it was the first attempt at
security they had seen, which pretty much guaranteed a connection
with the reportedly interesting but definitely secret work that
went on here.
     Predictably, Roy did not like it. "Once we open that door, we
cross the line between forgivable curiosity and outright
trespass," he warned.
     Anme mimed gasping in shock. "What a surprise! Soldier-boy's
too scared to disobey a sign! Want to know what our hosts are up
to? Too bad! That would be breaking the rules!"
     "Rules are the core of society," Roy shot back. "We can't
just ignore inconvenient ones--we have to ignore them all
equally! ...or not at all, which would be closer to what I meant
when I started that sentence."
     "Not to mention that the makers of this particular rule are
heavily armed and the only people who know we aren't lost in
space," added Jen.
     "All the more reason we should see what they're up to,"
insisted Anme.
     "There is also the issue of the lock on the door," Orliss
reminded them. "It looks quite sturdy, and my course on heroic
sneaking did not cover ways to defeat electronic security."
     Anme blinked, taken aback by this unexpected obstacle. "Um...
maybe they're so used to being alone they left it unlocked?" She
tapped the control hopefully, producing the traditional quiet
beeps associated with security access keypads. It didn't set off
any alarms or attempt to electrocute her, which was good, but it
also didn't get the door to open, which was not.
     "Well, this was pointless," said Roy. "Can we go back yet?"
     "No," said Anme, stepping away from the door to confront her
Terran nemesis. "We can't come this far and give up, not when the
goal is in sight."
     "Yeah, it might be. Except for the locked door there."
     Anme glared. "So that's it? We should just trust our lives to
the amoral profiteers who supply weapons to any terrorist or
dictator with a stable credit line?" She stabbed a finger at Roy.
"What makes *you* so comfortable with them?"
     "Okay," said Horlun, interjecting himself before the
situation degenerated further, "let's keep in mind that we're all
friends." He glanced at Anme, willing her to let the matter drop.
     "If they're as bad as you say," Roy noted quietly, "the last
thing we want to do is anger them by, say, breaking into a
forbidden laboratory."
     Orliss nodded in agreement, and even Anme seemed to
grudgingly accept Roy's logic. After painting such a dark picture
of their hosts, she couldn't turn around and argue that they
would go easy on trespassers. Almost against his will, hope rose
in Horlun's heart. They would end this quest without finding
anything, and whatever evils the Sonar Men were creating would be
left for those qualified to handle them. They would leave the
planet alive. He knew Anme had their best interests at heart, but
her zeal had blinded her to the consequences of her search.
Fortunately, while reason had failed to stop her, a simple door
lock had succeeded.
     He noticed the sound of metal sliding over metal, alarmingly
similar to what a shielded door smoothly opening would sound
like. Horlun's newfound hope quavered, and he slowly turned to
face the door. It was gone, leaving an entrance to dark spaces
unknown in its place. Its control panel was also gone, revealing
the wires and circuitry it had hidden. Jen was still there,
holding the control panel's faceplate and looking guilty.
     "The door's open," said Horlun, always quick on the uptake.
He could make out a faint glow in the distant darkness, but he
could see nothing in the room clearly except for the patch of
floor nearest the entrance. The only thing he would have added,
if he was trying to make it *really *ominous, would be a few
buckets of dry ice to make a nice eerie fog.
     "I noticed the control layout was like an electronic lock
unit Bob showed me back on Planet Gloom," Jen explained, "so I
thought I'd open it up and see if it was the same type." She
pointed to a spot on the circuit board indistinguishable from any
other, as far as Horlun could tell. "There's a way to override
the password mechanism for maintenance purposes, and sometimes
people forget to reset it, and..." She gestured at the open door.
     The implications did not take long to sink in.
     "Right," said Anme. "Let's do this." She and Jen stepped into
the gloom, followed closely by Orliss. As a trainee space hero,
he knew best how to effectively enter a darkened and potentially
hazardous laboratory--in theory, at least. Horlun followed at
what he hoped was a safe distance.
     Roy hesitated at the threshold, clearly torn between
curiosity and principle. By the time curiosity won out, Orliss
had located the lightswitch. After semi-seriously warning the
others to be ready for any light-activated deathtraps, the
trainee space hero flipped on the lights.
     The lab--for it was pretty clear what it was--did not inspire
confidence. It had a certain lazy sterility: the room was free of
dust, but clutter collected in odd corners. The disinfectant
smell in the air was old and stale. In the lab's center were
three metal tables equipped with shackles and a narrow trough
around the edges. Any further hints as to their use had been
scrubbed away, save for the damage to the left-most table. Its
gouged metal surface and mangled manacles suggested a possible
explanation for the center's reduced headcount, but Horlun
stopped his thoughts before they could speculate further.
     Along one wall was a row of transparent tubes large enough to
hold Orliss or Jen without difficulty. Possibly both at once.
They were filled with a green liquid that seemed to cast back
more light than it received. They were otherwise empty, which
Horlun counted as good fortune.
     He was no scientist, nor was he inclined to blindly accept
Anme's theories, but it was pretty clear what sort of thing
happened here: creatures were grown in the tubes and then studied
on the tables. This was a lair of bio-engineers, brewers of
species whose discipline had long ago been banned on Foobarh but
was apparently still practiced in space. The sign on the wall,
with its stern cartoon mutant warning readers to WASH HANDS
BEFORE HANDLING GENETIC MATERIAL, was merely confirmation.
     "...right," said Orliss. "I propose we return to our suite
and decide what to do." He looked like someone had kicked him in
the stomach. Sounded like it, too.
     "Decide?" asked Anme. "What is there to decide? We're going
back to the hangar, stealing a ship, and getting out of here."
She paused. "Anyone who wans to risk their lives fighting this,"
she gestured at the lab, "is welcome to stay behind."
     Jen and Roy shared a puzzled look. "This *is* creepy," Jen
agreed, "but I don't understand the sudden need to escape."
     "Oh?" said Anme. "Think about it. Our engines just *happened*
to be destroyed by a group of bio-engineers who just *happened*
to be out in space doing testing?" She glanced at the
green-glowing vats against the wall. "I am not interested in
'contributing' to their research. If you get my drift."
     "Not really."
     Anme sighed. "They capture space travellers to use in their
experiments. Like us, for instance."
     "That doesn't make sense. Why would they give us a suite and
a fancy dinner if--"
     The door opened. That alone wouldn't have caught their
attention, if the object behind the door hadn't been a large,
black, noisy robot. It rolled about half a meter into the room
before rumbling to a halt. The door closed behind it. Seeing
them, it lowered the vacuum-cleaner nozzle in its gripping claw
and stared with its glowing red eye.
     "It's just a cleaning robot," said Horlun, relieved. "For a
moment, I thought we were in real trouble." The others nervously
agreed. If Anme was right, getting discovered would likely get
them killed. If she was wrong, well, getting caught would still
be embarrassing.
     The robot looked back and forth, then backed up slightly. A
panel opposite its gripping claw opened and a triple-barrel
blaster unfolded. "*Intruders detected,*" announced the robot,
"*activating final defence mode.*"

FINAL DEFENCE MODE?
CAN OUR HEROES SURVIVE AN ATTACK FROM THIS DEADLY ROBOTIC MAID?
WILL ROY'S YOUNGER, MORE IRRITATING COUSIN SHOW UP AND SAVE THEM?
OR WILL THE SERIES BE ABOUT SOME OTHER GROUP OF PEOPLE ATTEMPTING
     TO AVENGE THEIR DEATHS?

SFSTORY. Thirteen years and thirteen months.
-- 
David Menendez (zednenem at alumni.psu.edu) | "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.eyrie.org/~zednenem/          |       of thermodynamics!"
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