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

Sfstory Log 102

=========================================================================
Date:         Sat, 22 Dec 2001 12:22:07 -0500
From:         "Troy H. Cheek" (troy at copperhill.com)
To:           Superguy List (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: HMS Golden Lance #11 - We're Saved! (Maybe)

SF: HMS Golden Lance #11 - We're Saved! (Maybe)

A short, short time ago in an alterverse not all that far away, the
HMS Golden Lance hung dead in space, slightly off kilter.  True, there
is really no up or down in space, but still, the ship did appear to
hang at an odd angle.  This effect was heightened by the bits of hull
plating that were breaking loose and drifting away, and by the various
types of gases which were leaking in a few places.

There were also, of course, the dozens of shiny, rodent-sized escape
pods being jettisoned at regular intervals.

Inside the ship, people and things floated about quite aimlessly, the
synthetic gravity apparently having failed at some point.  The ship's
speakers emitted random squawks of white, pink, and mauve (with just
the slightest touch of taupe) noise, which is a polite way of saying
that it sounded like the ship was having a prolonged and quite painful
release of intestinal gases.

Ralph, the Giant Space Weasel of Anthrax V, sprung to his feet.  As he
was under a table, this resulted in his head hitting the underside of
said table.  "Ouch!  Gaddamim!  Stupich muckerfugging bable!" he
exclaimed, not at all his usual cheerful self.

Omegas, formerly all-powerful and currently mostly-annoying, likewise
sprung to his feet.  Omegas was not under a table, and instead hit his
head on the ceiling tiles, causing him to bounce back toward the
center of the control room.  He reflexively gestured with his arms and
somehow brought himself to a gentle stop, feet firmly planted on the
deck plates.  "I say," he said cheerfully, "superpowers, even at these
low levels, certainly have their advantages."  He calmly strode
towards the controls while Ralph, floating in mid-air with arms and
legs flailing wildly, tried repeatedly to bite him.

=I seem to be regaining control,= announced the overhead speakers,
sounding suspicously like Doctor Bing Von Spleen, even though one
could plainly see Spleen floating in the corner quiety retching.
=Synthetic gravity will be restored in five, four, three...=

Everything in the ship dropped suddenly to the deck plates as the
synthetic gravity cut back on.  Everything except Omegas, who stood in
the center of the control room, a bemused expression on his darkly
handsome face.  Ralph scurried around muttering to himself.

=...two...=

Time Agent 357 (retired) and Diana Dark (of Earth) untangled their
arms and legs.  357 quickly stood and began walking, and just as
quickly lost his balance and did a half-gainer into the nearest wall.
Diana also stood, but then swayed wildly, arms pinwheeling in a very
amusing manner, until she fell forward, landing flat on her face.
Well, she would have landed flat on her face if not for her rather
large and shapely, um, attributes.

Diana climbed unsteadily back to her feet.  "Stupid place to put a
center of gravity," she muttered to herself, slapping at the
aforementioned attributes.

"Hey, careful with those!" exclaimed 357.

"Graffle frezzing mugger nachi flargle!" slavered Ralph.

=Okay, I think I've got this figured out,= announced the overhead
speakers.  =Let's have a roll call.  Time Agent 357!=

"Here," said the body of Diana Dark, still adjusting her attributes.

=Diana Dark!=

"Over here," said the body of Time Agent 357.

=Ralph!=

"Right here, Doctor," said the body of Omegas.

=Omegas!=

"Slah do yum geb dese blips do flerk?" said the body of Ralph.

=Val!=

"Over here, trapped in this stinking meat suit!" said the body of
Doctor Bing Von Spleen.

=And I, the intellect of Doctor Bing Von Spleen, appear to be inside
the ship's VAL 9000 computer.  Interesting.=

"What happened?" asked 357.  Uh, Diana.  Omegas?

=To escape from Greez Hyperiok's attack, we put 37 cents in change, a
used subspaceway token, a button, and some pocket lint into an ABPSARI
(or Automatic Beet Peeler and Sub-Atomic Re-integrator Mark I) and
activated it.  In addition to the desired effect of escaping from
Greez's attack, the ABPSARI also switched our bodies around.  I'm
having very little trouble adjusting because, luckily, I modelled the
VAL 9000 computer's neural circuitry after my own brain.=

The body of Doctor Spleen stood up.  "I seem to be adjusting quickly,
as well," said Val in a nasal voice only slightly more annoying than
Spleen's normal crothety old man rasp.  "Though I do appear to have
soiled myself."

=Um, actually, I did that when Greez first attacked.=

"Well, what do the rest of us do?" said the rest of them in unison,
except for Omegas in Ralph's body, who bit his lip during the "well"
and spent the rest of the sentence spitting out blood.

=Assignments:  Ralph, teach Omegas how to properly speak in your body
or we'll never understand a word he says.  Val, get my body cleaned
up, then lay it down for a nap; I was tired and cranky before all this
started.  357, quit pawing at Diana's attributes and check our fuel
cells; I'm getting some funny readings.  Diana, go with him in case he
needs any heavy lifting.  I'm going to figure out how to operate the
navicomputer from the inside and calculate exactly where we are.=

Everyone went about their assigned duties.  Walking toward the fuel
cells, Diana briefly saw the world briefly go dark around her, almost
as if the body she was in (which was 357's) had faded out of existance
and then just as quickly returned.  Behind her, 357 felt the body he
was in (which was Diana's) recover from a stumble he didn't remember
taking, almost as if his intellect had faded out of existance and then
just as quickly returned.  Both shrugged off the experience as not
their problem and continued on their merry little ways.

=Status!= demanded Spleen, when they all met in the briefing room a
short while later.

"We completely out of Spam and all other food-related fuels," reported
357.  "All we have are the so-called conventional fuels, which limit
us to moving around at a few thousand times the speed of light in this
alterverse, with maybe some limited time travel."

"So we're stuck in this particular alternate universe?" asked Ralph.

"Well, if we can get the ship's time travel capabilities working, we
can go back in time, change important historical events, then move
forward in time along the new timeline of maximum probability, but
that's very dangerous, time-consuming work.  It's the way we used to
do it back in the old days."

"So we need Spam," said Omegas from inside Ralph's body.  "If I was in
my own body, and in full command of my powers, I could simply teleport
us to where some was."

=If you were in your own body and in full command of your powers,=
Spleen snapped, =you'd simply teleport yourself out of here and leave
us to die.=

"Doctor, you wound me," protested Omegas, placing a hand over Ralph's
heart.  Or rather, over where he thought Ralph's heart might be.

=Stuff it, Omegas.  I'm detecting a star with planets a relatively
short distance away from here.  I suggest that we head there, buy
supplies, make repairs, and run away to hide for a while.=

"I don't like running from a fight," said 357.

"Are you brave or foolhardy?" asked Diana.

"Neither.  I prefer avoiding the fight altogether in the first place."

=Avoiding altogether is out of the question.  Greez Hyperiok has my
ABPSARII and with it he can find anything anyplace anytime, which
includes us here now.  It's just a matter of time.=

"So, what do we do?"

=There's a trading post on an asteroid in the star system I mentioned.
I suggest we go there, buy or steal some Spam, and start a random walk
through alterverses to make it as difficult as possible for Greez to
find us.  That should give us enough time to plan a counterattack.=

"Whoa!" said Omegas, preening Ralph's whiskers.  "Who said anything
about a counterattack?  How do you counterattack someone who has
ultimate power?"  Omegas was, of course, refering to the ABPSARII, or
Automatic Beet Peeler and Sub-Atomic Re-integrator Mark II, which had
the power to search through all alterverses and all time epochs until
it found the person, place, item, or situation that the owner had
requested.  The ABPSARII was currently in the possession of Greez.

"Our being alive right now proves that it's not ultimate power," said
Diana crossly, sounding even more cross as her voice came out in Time
Agent 357's usual gravelly baritone.  "The ABPSARII is obviously only
as good as the person using it.  We're not dead because our enemy,
Greez Hyperiok, didn't know what to ask for."

Ralph, in a rumbling bass voice usually heard from Omegas, added
"Obviously, Greez isn't the brightest bowling ball in the shed."

As our collection of adventurers were used to not understanding a
single thing that came out of Ralph's mouth anyway, they simply
ignored this comment and readied the ship, the HMS Golden Lance for
which this serial is named, for its trip to the trading post asteroid.

                        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Meanwhile, a very, very far distance away, in terms of time and
universes and such, anyway, aboard a ship that looked like a bright
two-year-old's attempt to model a warship out of clay and pipe
cleaners, two beings were in deep discussion.

"Look, Greez, it's not that I'm ungrateful..." began one of them.

"Why, you ungrateful little worm!" said the other threateningly.

"Hey, I just said that it wasn't that I was ungrateful.  See?  This is
me being grateful.  I fully appreciate your springing me from that
jail cell.  I just have my reservations about this plan of yours.  I
think it's a little unnecessarily complex."

The speaker was a medium-sized, human-looking male being wearing
impossibly expensive but utterly ridiculous-looking clothes, taupe
sports jacket over mauve trousers.  He went by the name of Dijon
Mu'tard.  Once, he had a pet black hole named Rick.  Together, they
were a cosmic threat of nearly unlimited power.  Now, Dijon was a
washed up has-been, a lackey for other supervillians.

"I won't have a washed up has-been lackey questioning the brilliance
of my plans," said the other speaker.  This was one Greez Hyperiok,
renegade Time Agent and all-around bad egg.

"Well, you see," said Dijon hesitantly.  He cleared his throat.  "You
see, Greez, it's just that you can just tell that ABPSARII that you
want 357's head on a platter and it will give it to you.  Why these
convoluted schemes which actually give the heroes a chance to defeat
you?  When you've got cosmic power, use it!"

Greez sneered, which wasn't all that different an expression than the
one he usually wore.  "I suppose that's how you lost your pet black
hole 'Dick?'  By fully using this vaunted cosmic power."

"His name was Rick, and don't speak poorly of him.  I was operating
under the orders of Satan T. Lucifer Jones, Prince of Darkness and
Duke of Smelly Feet, back when I was still a SAAL, or Satanic Agent At
Large.  I had guidelines I had to follow.  These guidelines were put
into place to insure that the heroes always had a chance.  You,
however, are not limited by such guidelines.  Do something cosmic!"

Greez, taken aback by Dijon's outburst, considered his options for a
full three seconds before completely forgetting everything that Dijon
had said.  "There's no fun in that.  No drama.  No style."

"Well, then I'm opting out.  Where do I pick up my last check?"

Dijon stood defiantly staring at Greez.  He continued to stand there
defiantly until he realized that the ship's internal defense systems
had armed and were all pointing in his general direction.  He then
decided that principles were much easier to stand for when you weren't
going to get vaporized for having them.

"Glad to see that you've come to your senses," sneered Greez.  "The
ABPSARII has already located the HMS Golden Lance.  For some reason
they are without fuel and are heading towards a trading post that is
located nearby.  The ABPSARII has set up a very special store there,
and is about to transport you there as well.  Follow the plan as I've
explained it to you exactly and our enemies will be destroyed."

"Okay," said Dijon, just before he was teleported away.

As Greez chuckled maniacly to himself, the closing credits rolled.

What is this plan that Greez has explained?
Will Dijon follow it exactly?
What is the crew of the HMS Golden Lance getting into?
When is the Sci-Fi channel going to show us new episodes?

For the answers to totally unrelated questions that have nothing to do
with this week's story line, tune in next week, same SFSTORY time,
same SFSTORY channel!

Copyright 2001 by Troy H. Cheek troy at cheek.org http://www.cheek.org
=========================================================================
Date:         Thu, 17 Jan 2002 11:16:26 -0500
From:         "Troy H. Cheek" (troy at copperhill.com)
To:           Superguy List (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: HMS Golden Lance #12 - In Transit

SF: HMS Golden Lance #12 - In Transit

The HMS Golden Lance hurdled through space at approximately 3,000
times whatever the speed of light happened to be in that particular
alterverse (or alternate universe).  This would have given the local
equivalent of Albert Einstein a stroke, or caused him to roll over in
his grave, or frompled his graknar, or whatever the local equivalent
of Albert Einstein would do if someone had taken his life's work and
tossed it out the window like last year's Christmas fruitcake.

Onboard the HMS Golden Lance for which our series is named, Doctor
Bing Von Spleen was considering his lot in life.  It was not a good
lot.  It didn't have lakeside access or a good service road or even
electricity.  In fact, it was a pretty dismal lot all around.

Spleen thought back fondly to his days on Earth, where he partied, did
lots of illegal drugs, slept around with willing co-eds, and generally
got as much fun out of being in college as he could while doing the
least amount of academic work possible.  The fact that he was actually
a college professor and not a college student might have had something
to do with why everyone in authority was always upset with him.  But
all that aside, it was a good life, and money he stole from the
college allowed him to create his first Automatic Beet-Peeler and Sub-
Atomic Re-Integrator, or ABPSARI for short.

It was, however, that very ABPSARI that was responsible for his
leaving Earth.  It was sabotaged by Radar Vogel, a competing Earth
Spamologist.  Spleen did not notice this sabotage due to being
blissfully unaware of anything, basking in a post-coital glow at the
time, Radar Vogel having that effect on men, some women, most aliens,
and the occasional small furry woodland creature.

Once injected into the veins of SFSTORY, Spleen bounced from adventure
to adventure.  He had so many adventures that they are still being
told to this day, and perhaps will never all be told.  Eventually,
however, he retired, set up a research station, went back to Spam
research, and soon began a lucrative side business designing and
building spaceships powered by this mighty ABPSARI.  One such ship,
the HMS Golden Lance for which this serial is named, was sold to one
Time Agent 357, who later used said ship to go back in time and
adventure with said younger Spleen.

The older Spleen currently wished he was the younger Spleen, because
the mind of the older Spleen was currently trapped inside the VAL 9000
computer on the HMS Golden Lance while the mind of the computer was
trapped inside Spleen's body.  Time Agent 357 and Diana Dark of Earth
had also swapped bodies.  Even Ralph the Giant Space Weasel of Anthrax
V and Omegas the Former Immortal had swapped bodies.

Nobody was very happy with this.

"Biological bodies are disgusting!" shouted the mind of the VAL 9000
computer using Spleen's voice.

=Just clean yourself as best you can,= said the mind of Doctor Bing
Von Spleen through the ship's speakers in what he imagined was a
comforting tone of voice.  =And please remember to eat something.
Fuel intake is not automatic.=

"Grumble grumble grumble."

Elsewhere on the ship, Omegas and Ralph were teaching each other the
finer points of operating each other's bodies.  While Ralph wasn't
having any problems adjusting, Omegas was particularly upset that he
could neither drink from a glass nor suck from a straw using Ralph's
weasel mouth.  "All this lapping from the bowl is frothing all the
fizz out of my beer!" he complained.

Um, let's go elsewhere, shall we?

357 staggered into his quarters.  All in all, with the body swapping
and getting shot at and everything, it had been a pretty rough day.
He wanted nothing more than to get a good night's sleep.  Well, he
actually wanted nothing more than to get out of Diana Dark's body and
back into his own, but a good night's sleep was second on his list.

After several minutes of fumbling, he finally managed to undo all the
odd hooks, zippers, and fastenings that held Diana's clothes on.  He
was almost completely undressed when the bathroom door opened and
Diana walked out toweling off 357's naked body.

"Eek!"

"Ack!"

There were a few seconds of fumbling as they grabbed for towels and
throw pillows to cover themselves.  Neither was entirely sure why they
would feel a need to cover themselves, seeing as the only people
present were the current and previous owners of said bodies, but the
urge to cover themselves was overpowering nonetheless.

"I thought," Diana said as she adjusted her towel for the tenth time,
"that we agreed to swap quarters until we could get back into our own
bodies.  Match the quarters to the body, so to speak."

"So we did," answered 357, trying to get Diana's body back into her
clothes without actually exposing any of it.  "It's been such a trying
day, I must have forgotten."

"Well, accidents happen," Diana allowed.

Trying to reach for some more or less clean underwear, Diana saw the
world briefly go dark around her, almost as if the body she was in
(which was 357's) had faded out of existance and then just as quickly
returned.  Behind her, 357 reached for another pillow and felt the
body he was in (which was Diana's) recover from a stumble he didn't
remember taking, almost as if his intellect had faded out of existance
and then just as quickly returned.

Diana and 357 regained their senses to find that they'd somehow fallen
together and were now clutching at each other as they lay in the bed.
They also noticed that they'd lost their towels and pillows.

"Eek!"

"Ack!"

"What the hell was that?" Diana asked, plunging into one of 357's
all-purpose jumpsuits, disdaining niceties such as underwear or
unzipping it first.

"Maybe we hit some turbulence," 357 offered lamely as he hooked,
zippered, and fastened as quickly as possible.  "I've noticed it
happening a few other times recently."

"Probably some obscure plot point which will come back to bite us
later," Diana suggested.  She smiled.

"Possibly," 357 agreed.  He returned the smile.  Or tried to.  Diana's
face appeared to prefer a knowing smirk.  "Well, I'd better..."

"Yeah, I guess we should..."

"Um, later?"

"Later."

That was weird, 357 thought as he entered Diana's quarters.  He first
evicted Omegas, who was using Ralph's nose to sniff through Diana's
underwear drawer, and then climbed into bed without undressing.

                        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a tall figure was cutting wood.  Sure,
he had automated devices that could have cut the wood for him, and for
that matter had central heat and air and didn't need firewood in any
case, but he liked working with his hands.  He paused in his cutting,
flexing his fingers to get the stiffness out, and checked the evening
sky.  Seeing that it was near nightfall, he set down the ax and headed
back towards the cabin.

He took his faded and broken-down hat from a nearby fence post, put
on a much-patched leather vest, and adjusted his mirrored sunglasses.
Silver spurs jingling, he walked into the woods and out of this story
for the time being.

                        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

A medium-sized, human-looking male being wearing impossibly expensive
but utterly ridiculous-looking clothes, taupe sports jacket over mauve
trousers, materialized on a nameless trading post asteroid.  His own
name was Dijon Mu'tard, former agent of darkness and currently toady
for a power-mad dictator.  Said power-mad dictator, renegade Time
Agent Greez Hyperoik, had sent Dijon to this asteroid to wait for the
heroes of this story and then destroy them utterly with what Dijon
felt was an overly complicated and inherently flawed plan.  Well,
Dijon didn't know exactly what the plan was, as Greez's explaination
had been roughly as clear as the Bakula Nebula, but Dijon was sure
that it was overly complicated and inherently flawed, anyway.

Dijon looked around.  He knew that he was supposed to be going to
some store or another on the trading post asteroid, and that Greez
was supposed to teleport him there, but Dijon realized that Greez had
neglected to tell him which store it was.  All Dijon saw in this
section were fast food restaurants.  In fact, he was standing right
in front of one.  It had a big green sign with yellow letters.

"Oh, no," muttered Dijon to himself.  "Even Greez Hyperiok couldn't be
so evil as to ambush our heroes here.  Not here.  Not the IHOW!"

Wondering exactly how one girded one's loins, Dijon entered the
establishment.  He was quickly beset by a pack of waitresses.

"Hello there!" snorted the tallest.  "Welcome to the Interstellar
Huddle of Waffles.  Our special today is (snicker) waffles."

"Um, yes," Dijon said uncertainly.  "My name is Dijon Mu-"

Dijon broke off as he was picked up bodily and thrown across the
counter.  A huge eight-armed creature weilding spatulas, forks, and
frying pans stalked towards him menacingly.

"Gulp," said Dijon weakly.

"No, Kabnar!" barked one of the waitresses.  "This is our new cook.
Friend, Kabnar!  Friend!"  Kabnar, not taking her word about it,
started sniffing Dijon suspiciously.

One of the other waitresses threw Dijon an apron.  "The new owner
said that he'd hired a cook.  We've been waiting for you all day.
Kabnar was getting a little irritated.  He's been working seventeen
days straight."

Kabnar finished sniffing and nibbling at Dijon's extremities and
decided that even though Dijon neither smelled nor tasted quite right,
but rather smelled of ill intentions and tasted of pure evil, he
wasn't going to let a little thing like that cost him a day off.
Kabnar grabbed his coat and hit the door running.  Well, slithering.

"New owner?" asked Dijon in his best leading question voice.

"Yes, the old one was sitting around after a particularly bad day and
said that he was so fed up, he'd sell the restaurant to whoever wanted
to take it off his hands.  A few seconds later, Mr. Hyperiok came in
and offered him 10 credits for it."

"I see," said Dijon camly, though inwardly he was seething.  Hyperiok
had the only known working ABPSARII, or Automatic Beet-Peeler and Sub-
Atomic Re-integrator Mark II, capable of granting any wish or desire,
and here he was wasting it on frivilous things like getting a good
deal on a restaurant!  That really burned Dijon up.

And so, incidentally, did the grill, which he just realized he had
slammed his hand down on while he was seething.

The waitresses all laughed loudly while Dijon ran around screaming
for a while.  As Dijon was soaking his hand in the sink, he thought
dark thoughts about Greez Hyperiok.  "This vaunted 'plan' of his had
better work," he said to himself.

"What plan?" asked one of the waitresses.

Okay, maybe not as to himself as he thought.  "Never mind."

What is the 'plan' of which Dijon speaks?
How will it affect our heroes?
How do our heroes plan to get their original bodies back?
Was Humpty Dumpty really pushed?

All this and a Spam-a-lama-ding-dong in the next exciting chapter
of...  SFSTORY!  Now in color!  (where available)

Copyright 2001 by Troy H. Cheek troy at cheek.org http://www.cheek.org
=========================================================================
Date:         Sun, 20 Jan 2002 20:52:42 -0500
From:         "Troy H. Cheek" (troy at copperhill.com)
To:           Superguy List (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: HMS Golden Lance #13 - Want Fries With That?

SF: HMS Golden Lance #13 - Want Fries With That?

Time Agent 357 got dressed and put on his favorite utility harness.
The harness promptly slid off and fell to the floor, almost as if it
were several sizes too big.  This was impossible, of course, as 357
was exactly the same size as he had always been since varsity team
days in highschool, not having gained one single ounce of fat nor
having lost one single ounce of muscle, just like every other
middle-aged male being in the universe.

The difference with 357 being that in his case, it was actually true.

357 was born on a classified planet in a classified universe.  (His
people like their privacy.)  His people are also, for the most part,
immortal.  Though they can be killed by violence, most live for
hundreds of thousands of years until they die by the aforementioned
violence, although boredom and stupidity round out the top three
causes of death.

357 sighed as he adjusted the utility harness, tightening the straps
to fit the body he was in, which turned out not to be the body he was
born with.  For, you see, Time Agent 357 had recently traded bodies
with the Earth female known as Diana Dark.  While most humanoid males
would have been willing to cut off their left arm (or left various
other extremities) for a chance to get close to Diana Dark's body, and
357 admitted that he was not altogether opposed to the idea, being
trapped inside said body was another ballgame.

357 reached the Temporal Teleporter Terminal room a few minutes late,
and the rest of the crew was waiting for him.  "Sorry I'm late..." he
began lamely.

"But you had trouble getting Diana's clothes to fit," finished Omegas
for him.  Omegas was currently wearing Ralph's body, which resembled
nothing so much as a giant space-going weasel and didn't require a
whole lot in the way of clothing.  "I don't see why you bother with
clothing.  It's not like it's required on the trading post asteroid."

"Keep your eyes off my body!" commanded Diana Dark, who was herself
inside of Time Agent 357's body.  She picked Omegas up by the scruff
of his (well, Ralph's) neck and shook him a few times before setting
him back down.

"No need to get violent with my body," chided Ralph, who was himself
wearing the formerly immortal body of Omegas.  Ralph had dressed said
body in a white leather jacket, purple-tinted sunglasses, and cobalt-
blue jeans.

"Why are you wearing that?" asked Omegas, obviously quite upset about
the way Ralph had dressed.  "I dropped that look ages ago.  It doesn't
show off my muscles."

"Or your knobby knees," said Ralph, obviously quite pleased with the
way he had dressed.  "Besides, I like it."

"STOP THE FASHION SHOW AND LET'S GET ON WITH IT!" shouted the two
remaining members of the crew.  They were Doctor Bing Von Spleen,
currently trapped inside the CPU of the ship's computer, and the VAL
9000 computer, currently trapped inside the body of Spleen.

=While you were arguing,= continued Spleen from the overhead speakers,
=Val and I managed to hack into the trading post's central teleporter
controls.  We don't have enough power left to use the ship's
teleporters to send you down, so we're going to try to operate their
teleporters from here.  Once down there, you will have exactly two (2)
hours to get the supplies we need before you return automatically.=

"I will remain here and monitor your progress," said Val from Spleen's
body, which she actually intended to lay down for a nap.  "And don't
forget to get some food.  We're running low on rations."

"Yes, dear," mummered 357.

=Teleportation in five...  four...  three...=

Ralph, Omegas, Diana, and 357 dissolved in a rainbow blur of colors.

=...two...=

                        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

"Three meese burgers, hold the bun, extra meat!"

Dijon Mu'tard was beginning to hate meat.  Just a few days ago, he
would have said that he loved meat, and that a great big hamburger
like the one he had eaten on an Earth colony he had tried to destroy
in another dimension would have really hit the spot after years of
prison food.  Now, the very thought made him want to retch.  Dijon was
in the Hell(tm) of all meat lovers.

"Two zentaar steaks, one medium well, one well done!"

Dijon was a short-order cook at the Interstellar Huddle of Waffles.

"Give me three number two's with a side of four, burn 'em, over easy,
and an extra helping lard!"

Dijon was also beginning to hate the lard.  It splattered every time
he put an extra helping on the grill.  It splattered all over the
grill, the floor, the walls, and the ceiling.  And, of course, his
exposed skin.  The only place it didn't splatter was on the twelve
square feet of apron he had wrapped protectively around himself, for
all the good it was doing.

"Fried Skrogg toes, baked, with mangnar sausage!"

Yes, Dijon was beginning to hate the sight, feel, taste, and even the
sound of meat.  He was beginning to hate meat so much that he feared
he was beginning to hallucinate.  Even now, it looked as if the pile
of meat he had just thrown on the grill had assumed the shape of a
head and was turning to look at him.

Dijon dropped his spatula with a clang when he realized that the pile
of meat really was looking at him.

"Mu'tard!" yelled the meat, "Get back over here so I don't have to
yell so loudly!"

"Greez?" asked Dijon incrediously.

"Of course it is I, renegade Time Agent Greez Hyperiok," snapped the
pile of meat, bits of sausage flying off into the deep fryer.  "Who
else controls the ABPSARII, or Automatic Beet Peeler and Sub-Atomic
Re-integrator Mark II, which has the power to give me access to an
alterverse, or alternate universe, from whence I can project my image
into this pile of meat?"

"Okay," admitted Dijon.  "But why didn't you just call me on the phone
you gave me?"

"No drama," said Greez.  "I used this method to remind the reading
audience of the kind of power I possess."

"The kind that makes me nauseous?"

"Quit joking around!" shouted the pile of meat, spraying hot grease
all over Dijon's apron for the first time in its life.  The apron, not
at all pleased, untied itself and crawled under the counter with a
whimper.  "The HMS Golden Lance has arrived in orbit around the
asteroid.  The crew just teleported down.  Are you ready?"

"Yes, I'm ready," Dijon said, not sounding at all enthusiastic.

"You don't sound at all enthusiastic," observed the pile of meat.
"You'd better shape up.  I can put you back in prison as easily as I
got you out.  Now get to work!  Greez out."

Dijon prodded the pile of meat, still in the form of Greez Hyperiok's
head.  Deciding that Greez had really signed off, he flipped it over
and let the face brown for a few minutes before throwing it on a plate
and passing it to a waitress.  "Give this to that big guy on the end,"
he ordered.  "I've got to get something from the storage room."

                        =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Exactly one hour and thirty minutes later, the crew of the HMS Golden
Lance for which this serial is named met in the restaurant district.
Each was pushing a large cart heavily laden with supplies.  Each told
their success story.

Omegas, in Ralph's body, went first.  "In this body, I was able to
slip into the stores through the back way unnoticed and just take what
I wanted.  When they did see me, they thought I was just a big rat."

"I think I'm offended by that," said Ralph, in truth not sounding at
all offended.  "I made better use of your body, Omegas.  In my case, I
would simply politely request a better deal.  Or rather, I'd try.
Coming out of this body, any request rumbles out in a deep bass voice
that everybody finds quite intimidating."

357 decided not tell everyone that he got good deals simply by
unzipping the front of his jumpsuit and leaning over the counter,
giving the salesmen a good view of Diana's body.  "Um, I just got
lucky, I guess."

Diana Dark, in Time Agent 357's body, had her turn.  "Every time
somebody would try to run up a price, I'd just reach out and grab them
by the lapels and my mouth would spout out some stream of nonsense
syllables.  The sales people would apologize and give me a great deal.
I wonder what I was saying."

"'Just how stupid do you think I am?'"

Everyone looked at 357, standing there in Diana Dark's body, as it was
he who had spoken.

"Beg pardon?" Ralph asked.

"It goes back to just before I got my IUD..." 357 began.

"Got WHAT?" Diana almost screamed, wondering exactly what 357 had been
doing in her body.

"My Interstellar University Diploma," 357 explained.  "Back then, they
were experimenting with a process where you could have a certain very
useful language skill implanted directly into the physical structure
of the brain.  The brain was supposed to go back to normal after the
skill was absorbed into the neural interstices, but since you can do
it while in my body so many years after the procedure was performed,
it's obviously still there."

"What skill, exactly?" asked Omegas, since it had been a while since
he had any dialog.

357 took a swig from his hip flask and continued.  "Well, at the time
I went through the process, they could give you the ability to say one
particular phrase (which you had to choose at that time) in the native
language of anyone you might later meet in your travels.  They
suggested things like 'Which way to the nearest Time Police office?'
and 'I claim diplomatic immunity' or even 'Take me to your leader.'
Most chose more useful phrases.  My good friend the Intern, who
probably has his doctorate by now, chose 'Give me a keg of beer.'"

357 smiled.  "I, however, chose a phrase which had gotten a lot of use
back in my Time Security days.  'Just how stupid do you think I am?'
Every time somebody would start trying to bull me, I'd just grab them,
say that, and they'd straighten out.  Works even better when they
don't realize that you speak their language.  You don't, of course,
aside from the ability to say that one phrase."

"Cool," said Diana, summing up the feelings of everyone present.
Well, except for Ralph, who was just listening to be polite.  And
except for 357, who already knew all this.  And except for Omegas, who
really didn't care about anything or anybody except himself.

Omegas was mostly concerned with the way Ralph's stomach was growling,
as said stomach fueled the body that Omegas was currently residing in.
"What say we put the language class on hold long enough to eat?"  By
accident or design, they had arrived in a section comprised solely of
fast food restaurants.  In fact, they were standing right in front of
one.  It had a big green sign with yellow letters.

"An IHOW!" exclaimed 357.  "I haven't eaten in one of these in 150
years!"

"You haven't eaten in any restaurant in 150 years.  You were trapped
inside that anomoly with me!" huffed Omegas.

"And loving every minute of it, I assure you," said 357.

Diana and Ralph broke up the impending fight by simply grabbing 357
and Omegas and carrying them into the restaurant.  They were almost
immediately beset by a pack of waitresses.

"Hello there!" snorted the tallest.  "Welcome to the Interstellar
Huddle of Waffles.  Our special today is (snicker) waffles."

The intrepid band of adventurers quickly gave their orders.  Back at
the grill, Dijon Mu'tard strove to just as quickly prepare them.
Then, just as the dishes were finished, he reached for several
containers he had brought in from the storage room.  Some were marked
with bio-hazard warning signs, skulls and crossbones from various
species, and one had an animated image of a tiny cartoon mouse giving
a very impressive simulation of delerium tremens.

"Want fries with that?" Dijon said silently to himself as passed the
finished plates to the waitress.

"We don't serve fries here," answered the waitress.

"I have got to work on talking to myself more quietly."

"What was that?" asked a patron at the bar.

"He said he has to work on talking to himself more quietly," answered
another.  "Oh, and could I have another one of your meat faces?  That
last one was quite tasty."

"That's does it!" shouted Dijon.  "I quit!"

Out at their table, Omegas, Ralph, 357, and Diana were too busy eating
to pay any attention as Kabnar, the other cook, stuffed Dijon into a
waste disposal cannister and shot him out into space, despite the
best efforts of several waitresses.

What has Dijon Mu'tard put in the food?
How is that part of Greez Hyperiok's plan?
Will Kabnar ever get another day off?
Did Spike and Buffy practice safe sex?

Watch for the answers on the exciting season premiere this Fall, only
on...  SFSTORY!

Copyright 2001 by Troy H. Cheek troy at cheek.org http://www.cheek.org
=========================================================================
Date:         Mon, 21 Jan 2002 08:28:38 -0500
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at alumni.psu.edu) (by way of Gary)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: [SFY15] Anonymous Chronicle #1

OBSERVATION
Which is the first Anonymous Chronicle.
A tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez.

Days were something of a formality in space, where time passed
with an endless, mind-eroding sameness. Whether accompanied by an
alternating cycle of light and darkness or not, whether a social
convenience or a biological necessity, it was equally arbitrary
and subject to redefinition at whim. Hence its unpopularity as a
unit among those responsible for space logistics, especially
after a few scheduling mishaps when dealing with creatures from
slowly rotating planets.
     On the *Anonymous*,  the day was set at 86,400 seconds,
divided into lighter and darker segments whose lengths varied
according to a complex system designed to mimic the seasons of
upstate New Jersey. The period of greatest darkness marked each
day's beginning. Tom Kadar was familiar with this system. He had
helped draft the report for the light scheduling committee
recommending the current system. Nonetheless, in his private
thoughts the day began when he woke up in the morning (or early
afternoon, on those rare occasions when something important *and*
urgent was happening at the lab.)
     Thus, in his mind the day began not with the quiet arrival of
a Zakavian task force shortly after midnight, but with the much
noisier shriek of his alarm clock several hours later.
     After directing some angry but soon forgotten words at his
long-time bedside companion, Tom stumbled towards the kitchen to
make himself breakfast. As usual, his youngest sister had begun
before him and neglected to put the milk back in the refrigerator
after fixing her cereal. Every so often, he tried explaining how
that gave it an unpleasant, powdery taste, but she always changed
the subject, noting that someone of his age and professional
status should have no trouble finding a home outside of his
parents' condominium. (Which was true, provided he didn't want
one as nice. His parents had claimed space in tower 608 before
anyone had had time to examine the available real estate, and
their luck was the envy of many who had been more cautious or
less fortunate. The waiting list now was half a kilometer long,
and the names at the top were written in bold with red ink and
little glittery stars.)
     "I've been thinking of getting a job," said Megan.
     "What?" replied Tom, who had been concentrating more on
putting the milk away once he had finished with it.
     "A job. Something to pass the time and provide me with
money."
     Thoughts whirled slowly through the fog in his head. "School
isn't exciting enough?"
     "Oh, it is," said Megan, who was remembering that her brother
wasn't a scintillating breakfast conversationalist. "In fact,
it's *so* exciting that I'm hoping for a really dull job, to
compensate."
     "I see." He ate a few spoonfuls of cereal, and reflected on
his tendency to second-guess his breakfast choices. Eggs, for
example, were sounding much more appetizing than they had when he
was making the decision.
     Gradually, like the tides pulling back to reveal concealed
detritus, Tom's sleepiness receded and he became aware that Megan
was trying to start a conversation. He glanced up, to judge
whether it was salvageable, but before he could speak their
mother burst into the room.
     "Have you seen your father?"
     Tom navigated the day's first abrupt topic shift without
disaster. "Not this morning," he told her.
     "He never came back from his evening jog," added Megan.
     Their mother's face darkened. "Clever. But I think he'll find
his escape quite temporary." She slung her foam-ball rifle over
her shoulder and joined them at the breakfast table. "Where's
Jen?"
     Tom and Megan shared a quick glance.
     "She's out," said Megan.
     "Facing unknown dangers in the heartless void of space with
some aliens she's known for less than a month," clarified Tom.
     "And Roy," added Megan.
     "That's not much better."
     "Of course," said their mother. "It must have slipped my
mind." She glanced at her pocket watch. "Oh, the Assembly's
meeting soon. I'll see you two tonight." A pair of kisses later,
she was out the door, pausing only to swap her rifle for a
foam-ball handgun.
     Tom and Megan sat quietly for a few moments, picking at their
cereal.
     "I'm thinking of something where I work weekends," said
Megan.

     "They arrived around midnight?"
     "Yes."
     Captain Harrison leaned back in her chair and steepled her
fingers. The rest of the Operations Council waited for her to
comment. "Why wasn't I informed immediately?"
     Gerhardt, who had been in command at the time, looked a
little uncomfortable. "You said you didn't want to be disturbed,
except for emergencies, and, well, you haven't been getting that
much sleep lately, so I figured we'd wait until something
happened."
     "The arrival of eight Zakavian warships doesn't qualify as
'something happening'?"
     "Some of those are support craft, actually, but they're all
within the sixth planet's gravity well--too close to make an
immediate jump here. They haven't made any hostile moves or tried
to contact us. It's not really clear *what* they're doing there.
We're on defensive alert and we're watching them very closely. As
soon as they do anything hostile, we'll go to battle stations."
     Harrison nodded, neither approving nor disapproving her
subordinate's actions. "Have you informed the Aroruans?"
     "Informally. We, ah, talked them out of an immediate attack
and suggested they hold off on threatening righteous justice
until we had a clearer idea of what's going on."
     "Good. After the meeting, we'll contact the fleet and ask
what they're doing." She looked around the table, silently
checking for further comments.
     "Would it be useful to send over a stealthed ship to get a
closer look at things?" asked Louis Jackson, head of security.
     Harrison considered that. "Possibly. Do you think anyone
would be willing?"
     "Actually," said Jackson, "I already have volunteers."

     "We're doing *what*?"
     Across the room, a few members of Gold Squadron glanced up to
check the source of the disturbance. Seeing nothing dangerous,
they returned to watching *Top Gun* for the two hundredth time.
     At their booth, Green Squadron waited for their leader to
explain matters further. Rick Hydrospok's big, honest face held
the look of quiet disappointment it always did when his squadron
resisted his important causes. "We're going to take the
*Futility* out to the sixth planet and observe the Zakavian task
force. They say they've come with to negotiate the release of the
soldiers the Aroruans captured, but the Captain wants us to go
take a closer look and make sure nothing underhanded is going
on."
     As usual, George Daniels seemed least impressed by his
leader's explanation. "How did she come to pick us, of all the
possible choices?"
     "I suggested the idea and said we could do it. It'll be a
great feather in our caps, I think."
     "You volunteered us for a *spy* mission?"
     Hydrospok shook his head. "It's not a spy mission. We're
simply flying near them in secret with a stealthed ship in order
to see if they have any secrets we should know. There's no
spying.
     "Now, we'll need-- Could you stop hitting your head on the
table like that? You'll injure something."

     The *Anonymous*, as the reader may already be aware, was a
large ship with cubic kilometers of space available for
residences, warehouses, factories, and offices. Even with its
large population, most of the ship was unused. Thus it
occasionally annoyed Tom that he had to share an office with Beth
Gaelen. It wasn't that he disliked Beth's company or didn't
appreciate the energy saved by not needing to ventilate or heat
those unused regions. He just figured that if there was enough
space for the Captain to have an office bigger than his house on
Earth had been, there should have been enough space to give the
technical staff individual offices.
     He didn't complain much. If physical plant started rethinking
their office-assignment policies, they might decide to stick
everyone in cubicles--or worse.
     Beth wasn't there when he arrived, but the half-eaten bagel
by her workstation suggested she had been there earlier that
morning. That and the note on his monitor asking him to stop by
maintenance bay G4. Tom cleared the note, checked that there were
no urgent messages for him, and started on his way.
     The trip was long and uneventful, as usual. Bay G4 was
located in the Goedel Docking Complex near the bottom of the
*Anonymous*, and pretty much the only people who needed to be
down there were the fighter pilots, their support staff, and
researchers examining the ancient craft stored in the docks. This
made travel something of a challenge, as the volume of traffic
wasn't enough to justify regularly scheduled V-trains, but Beth
had warned the operators that he was coming.
     It was kind of suspicious, really. He couldn't imagine
anything so important that she would hold a V-train for him. Or,
rather, that she would actually think that far ahead and then
remember to follow through.
     The arrival at bay G4 was something of a disappointment,
really. The trip down had given Tom time to speculate, and he had
settled on the discovery of a new class of starcraft as the most
likely cause for his urgent summons. Instead, he found the
*Futility*, which had not only been discovered already, but had
actually been used on an excursion recently. (In fact, Megan had
stowed away on it, leading to some irritating new security
measures intended to keep her out in the future.) The ship had
been painted black, and one of the engine assemblies was
undergoing maintenance, but there didn't seem to be anything that
needed the attention of the applied archeology team.
     "Hello?" called Tom. G4 was large, noisy, and seemingly
empty, but he figured it was worth a shot.
     "Over here!" yelled Beth from behind the disassembled engine
assembly.
     Tom worked his way over, careful not to step on any
paint-spattered rags or random equipment piles. He found his
office-mate kneeling near the engine's base, wearing a
grease-smeared maintenance coverall, and holding a nine-function
space wrench (its shape suggested a tenth function, but those
jokes had been old for years). Tom decided to get right to the
point. "What's going on?"
     "The Captain wants us to run a secret observational mission,
so we're trying to make the *Futility* stealthy. We figured out
how to trade some efficiency for lower visibility, but we're
operating under a tight schedule so we can't do everything as
cleanly as we'd like." She adjusted a few doo-dads with her tool
while Tom wished he had spent more time studying the engines used
on the ship so he might have some idea of what she was doing.
     For that matter... "Why are *you* doing the adjustments?
You're a senior scientist in applied archeology, not a
maintenance guy."
     "It's okay," Beth assured him, brushing away a stray lock of
hair--and in the process smearing grease on her forehead. "Don's
here to make sure I don't screw up."
     Sure enough, Goedel Docking Complex's chief mechanic was
watching her from a chair near the wall. His expression was hard
to read, but he might have been amused.
     "Okay," said Tom. "You know the engines a lot better than I
do."
     "That's what *I* said, but with the risk and all it's 'out of
the question'. You were sort of the compromise pick." She looked
up, concerned. "Not that you're expendable, or anything. It's
just-- You know how the boss is."
     Tom looked at her, nonplussed.
     "I forgot the part where I tell you what's going on, didn't
I?"
     "Possibly. Or I could be dreaming all this." Even the oblique
suggestion that he was going to do something their boss had
deemed too risky for her to do was enough to start his palms
sweating. Tom was not a friend of risk.
     Beth set to work reassembling the disassembled engine
assembly and explained the facts thus far. A Zakavian task force
had appeared in-system a few planets out and declared itself to
be a diplomatic envoy. Since there was a chance the Zakavians
might try something sneaky while the diplomat spoke with the
*Anonymous* and Aroruan representatives, Captain Harrison wanted
something nearby to keep an eye on them. That something was to be
the *Futility*, piloted by Green Squadron and retrofitted to be
not easily seen.
     He, for some reason, had been selected to accompany Green
Squadron during their secret, possibly very dangerous and denied
after the fact mission.
     This news did not fill him with joy.

     Tom had met Green Squadron before. Beth's brother Roy had
been a member and Tom's sister Jen had been in Blue Squadron, so
he had been present at some parties and other informal events.
With Roy gone, they were missing a fifth of their manpower, but
since the fighter squadrons didn't actually do that much it
wasn't a problem.
     Rick Hydrospok met them at the pilots lounge door. "Ah, Tom,
Beth, you're, ah, here. Welcome."
     "Hi, Rick," said Beth sunnily. She and Tom were lead in and
reintroduced to the rest of Green Squadron, who were gathered in
a briefing room playing Scrabble. They were pretty much as Tom
remembered them. George Daniels was a little shorter than him,
with a sly look for any occasion. Sally Winters was trustworthy
and loyal, but would have made a terrible Boy Scout on account of
being female. Stan Losar was large and quiet, which everyone
agreed was probably for the best.
     They would be working as a team on the *Futility*, which is
to say that Green Squadron would be doing most of the actual
work, while Tom was there in case something went wrong with
Beth's modifications. (He wasn't quite sure how to thank her for
recommending him for that task.) Tom predicted some cultural
friction. The pilots and the research staff were both casual, but
they were informal in different ways. He wasn't sure, for
example, whether to address them by their first names, like he
did, or last names, like they did. Beth addressed everyone by
their first names, but this was accepted as one of her charming
quirks.
     Also, being around armed people, even theoretically friendly
ones, made Tom uncomfortable. That was one of *his *quirks.
     There wasn't a lot of small talk going on. Tom didn't speak
much for fear of sounding foolish, George seemed annoyed by
something, and Stan never spoke much anyway. That left Sally,
Rick, and Beth, all of whom were expressing their confidence in
the mission and agreeing that it was good for Green Squadron to
be involved.
     "Granted," said Rick, "there won't be much glory for us.
That's always the case with, er, secret observational work: great
risk for small personal rewards. But the knowledge that you've
helped your nation is all the true warrior seeks."
     "Oh?" That was Marshall Stanford, leader of Black Squadron,
who happened to be passing by at the moment. "That's funny, in a
way our mission is the inverse of yours."
     "How so?"
     "We're escorting the Zakavian diplomat's ship. It's highly
visible, yet extremely easy, whereas your job requires hard work
and long hours and most people will never know you did it."
     "Unless we screw up," said George. "That'd be pretty visible,
I think."

     It always surprised Tom to learn how long things took to set
up. The Zakavian envoy didn't actually reach the *Anonymous
*until more than a day after the task force's arrival. Granted,
some ship preparation and transit time was expected, but the
Zakavians had just accepted that the *Anonymous *needed
additional time for no readily apparent reason. (The *Futility*
needed to be launched well in advance of the envoy's fighter
escort or else the Zakavians would notice something going on, but
of course they couldn't tell them that.)
     Even after Beth and Don put the *Futility* back together,
there were a few hours of pre-flight tests. Tom had to get fitted
for a flight suit. George needed to go back and make sure the
oven was turned off. But eventually, they were able to launch and
head towards the sixth planet.
     The transitions to and from overly-hyped space were rougher
than usual. The changes Beth made to improve stealth also
resulted in considerable rattling onboard the ship, but of course
the noise didn't carry through space. They timed their
reappearance in realspace to match the envoy's departure from the
fleet. That, combined with appearing on the other side of the gas
giant, was hopefully enough to mask their arrival.
     They weren't immediately attacked, which was a nice stress
reducer. In fact, that part of the plan had succeeded completely,
to the delight of everyone--even George, who had bet against it.
     They hid in the ring system, figuring that the Zakavians
might not notice a matte-black object moving under its own power
if it were surrounded by millions of brightly-colored, unpowered
chunks of rock and ice. Once they caught up with the fleet, they
shut down the engines and orbited, their passive sensors waiting
for something interesting to observe.
     There wasn't a whole lot of it.
     Most of the communications they picked up from the task force
were encrypted, except the entertainment broadcasts. It took Tom
a few hours to work out the encoding, but eventually they could
get an acceptable picture. Unfortunately, George latched onto one
channel showing back-to-back episodes of some incomprehensible
soap opera about a game show, or game show that was a soap opera.
Tom began wishing he had loaded more books into the ship's
library.
     "It may seem boring," Rick assured them, "but the work we do
here is no less important just because there's nothing to
observe."
     "Is there a difference between seeming boring and being
boring?" asked George.
     If nothing else, the resulting debate helped pass a few
hours.

     Every so often, the non-spies signalled the *Anonymous* that
nothing of interest had happened. To minimize the chances of
detection, they communicated via extremely brief pulses from
their signalling laser. The Zakavians couldn't detect the beam
unless they were directly between the two ships, and Green
Squadron made sure they weren't before signalling. It was if they
weren't there.
     In theory, at least.
     Subcommander Tsfar approached Captain Mellikt on the bridge
and whispered: "The signals intelligence group think they've
found something of interest."
     The task force commander raised an eyebrow. "I should hope
it's of interest. Otherwise you're wasting my time."
     Despite the skepticism, the two adjourned to the nearby
briefing room to discuss the potentially interesting thing.
     "My people have been watching the *Anonymous* very closely
since we got here," Tsfar explained. "We've noticed a very faint,
periodic glow around one of the sensor arrays. We guessed it
might be a signal laser being sent from far enough away that the
beam had spread. Based on the angle of reflection and the amount
of diffraction, we started observing the local ring system." He
brought up a highly-magnified, false-color view of the rings on
the monitor. "It's hard to see from here, but this line is most
likely the same signal passing through a dust cloud in the rings.
Following that line backward, we found this." Another, more
magnified picture showing a black, ship-like speck among the rock
and ice particles. "This appears to be the source."
     "I take it that black speck is a spy ship?"
     "It seems likely. The signals themselves are very short and
don't seem to contain any complex information, so it could just
be a beacon."
     "This *is* interesting." The Captain drew a lace-edged
handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it up to his nose.
"If they were spies, could they have learned anything?"
     "We don't think so. There isn't much for them to see."
     Mellikt inhaled through the handkerchief. "I'll order a quiet
investigation, but I can't imagine they're too dangerous. For one
thing, a smart man planning to hide between us and the planet
would have painted his ship orange."

     "Patrol coming."
     "*What*?!"
     Stan smirked. "Relax, Kadar. We're a grain of sand at the
shore; they'll never see us."
     "They just happened to start patrolling after four days of
nothing?" To think he had come to the cockpit because he thought
it would be less stressful than staying in the main cabin with
George and the endless *Game of Chance* marathon.
     Rick stuck his head into the cockpit. "Did I hear a cry of
alarm?"
     "Zakavian patrol," explained Stan. "Kadar here is having a
cow."
     "Will they come this way?"
     "I'm not sure," replied Stan, pressing the tips of two
fingers against his forehead. "Lemme contact the spirit
world...."
     Rick blinked. "Right, ah, you do that." He quickly turned to
Tom. "I wouldn't worry too much. There's no reason to assume they
saw us."
     "Why else would they be sending a patrol?" asked Tom.
     "If their entertainment programming is any indication, I
think their soldiers would jump at an excuse to get away for a
while." Seeing Tom's unconvinced expression, Rick added, "Don't
worry; we've prepared for this possibility."

     The pair of Zakavian fighters had been given a specific
flight plan, but hadn't been told to look for anything specific.
Speculation during the flight lead them to conclude that they
were looking for a spy ship, but the Captain wanted them to act
naturally so the spies wouldn't know they had been seen.
     They quickly learned that trying to act naturally on purpose
is surprisingly difficult.
     "You think we're fooling anyone?"
     "What am I, an acting coach?"
     Since patrols were traditionally a great excuse for stupidly
dangerous stunt flying, they decided that, in the interests of
acting naturally, they would have some fun with the ring
particles. Besides, zooming around chunks of rock and ice was
valuable training. And the weapons needed testing, didn't they?
You didn't want to suddenly find out that your cannon were
misaligned during battle.
     "Okay, I think that's enough."
     "Wait, I think I can blow that one in half."
     She could, as it happened, and they both agreed that the
explosion was quite satisfying. They followed one of the
fragments that happened to be going in their general direction,
then sped up to rejoin their flight plan.
     "You think that's it?"
     "It certainly looks like a spy ship, but what's that written
on the side?"
     "It looks like... 'Unmanned Orbital Research Probe'."
     They slowed down a bit, to get a better look before they
passed it.
     "'If found, please notify Beth Gaelen, c/o The *Anonymous*.'"
     "Sounds legit."
     "A research probe?"
     "Kind of a let-down."
     "I'll say. We're missing *Game of Chance* for this?"

     Tom watched the fighters leave with a physical sense of
relief. He had almost forgotten to breathe when they had slowed
down to take a closer look. Watching them leave without a
confrontation was the sweetest feeling he could remember. "I
can't believe that worked."
     "Well," said Stan, "they might be acting casual so we won't
know they know we're here."
     "You enjoy destroying the happiness of others, don't you."
     Stan shrugged and returned his attention to the ship's status
displays. "That's odd."
     Tom refused to panic again. "What?"
     "This blinking light here. It means we're on a collision
course with something, but we haven't moved since we got here so
I can't see why it's suddenly a problem. Also, it's coming up
pretty fast, which is weird since we're in the same general orbit
as everything else."
     It was becoming clearer why people preferred Stan to be seen
but not heard. "I guess we should tell Rick."
     "Ah, the insights of the scientific mind."
     "Shut up."

     One quick conference later, it was decided that a research
probe might plausibly change course to avoid crashing into
something. Actually plotting the course change was slightly more
complex, since they wanted to reach another stable orbit without
crashing into anything else, but ring systems are less densely
populated than they appear from a distance, and the navigation
system had already mapped the orbits of the nearby debris.
     The problem came when they tried to execute the course change
and the engines failed to come on-line.
     "Okay," said George, "no engines. That's bad, right? We're
gonna die, right?"
     "Don't panic," said Rick firmly. "The true warrior faces
adversity with calm and composure."
     "I'm a poseur, we're all about panic!"
     "Isn't that why Tom is here?" asked Sally. "In case something
went wrong with the engines?"
     "She's right!" said George. "I wasn't alarmed for an instant,
knowing that he was here!" He started to laugh hysterically, but
stopped himself with a cough and proceeded to look very calm,
indeed.
     "I'll do what I can," promised Tom. The fear of oncoming
death, he was learning, is even worse when combined with the
pressure of being the person expected to save the day. "We'll
need to go back to the engine access."
     Rick nodded. "Okay. You and Sally check the engines, the rest
of us will keep an eye on things."

     The *Futility* had been designed in the general style of a
naval ship rather than a rocket ship, so the engines were in the
back. This made acceleration confusing, with the rear walls
suddenly becoming "down", but it did reduce neck strain for
people in the cockpit. Tom was hoping that the problem was
something he could solve without going outside. He told himself
that he didn't want to blow their cover, because that sounded
better than being afraid of the safety line breaking and leaving
him tumbling through the endless reaches of space.
     Spacewalks made his teeth ache.
     "This looks like the main hatch here." It was locked,
naturally, and Tom wasted several seconds looking for an
automatic control before he realized there wasn't one. "How long
do we have?"
     "An hour or so."
     The manual control comprised a lever that had to be pulled
through ninety degrees to unlock the hatch. It needed to be
pulled sideways, rather than away from the wall, so he couldn't
easily brace himself. Also, as he discovered when he tried
pulling it, it was really tightly closed.
     "Let me help," said Sally, but even their combined efforts
couldn't move it.
     Hearing the grunts, Stan floated over and pushed his smaller
crewmates aside. "Let me handle this." He grabbed the lever with
both hands and pulled, his muscles visibly straining beneath his
skin.
     "Maybe if we all pulled together?" suggested Sally.
     Stan almost looked irritated for a second, but he just rolled
his shoulders and shook out his hands. "Okay, this time for
real." He braced himself and pulled again, harder.
     "I think it moved a little," said Tom.
     "Quiet." Stan looked at the lever assembly more closely.
"There isn't a lock on this thing, is there?"
     "It *is* the lock."
     "Right. Let's all try then."
     This time, the lever moved. Unfortunately, it moved by
breaking off entirely.
     "Such craftsmanship," spat Stan. He hurled the broken metal
post against the wall, where it bounced off and sailed forward
towards the main cabin.
     "Okay," said Sally, watching the broken post sail off, "is
there another way to do this?"
     Tom was searching his memory for answers for that very
question, but it had been a long time since he had thought about
this class of ships. Also, he was thinking about how getting the
hatch open was probably the easiest step involved in fixing the
engines, and how time was running out because a gigantic chunk of
rock was hurtling towards them and they couldn't call for help
because there was an enemy fleet sitting *right next to them...*.
     "Are you okay?"
     "Yes! Er, that is, there should be another hatch over there.
The builders were big into symmetry."
     "Great. But this time let's try not to break the door."
     Stan smacked his forehead. "*Now* she says it."
     The alternate hatch was in the other corridor, thankfully,
and Tom repeated his earlier search for an automatic control,
with similar results. "No harm in looking, right? Except for that
rock hurtling towards us and getting closer every second...." He
grabbed the lever, braced himself, and pulled with all his might,
which was enough to unlock the hatch and send him spinning into
the wall.
     Sally grabbed his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
     "Why do you keep asking me that?"
     "Because you keep-- Never mind, let's get started."
     They opened the hatch and peered into the maintenance
crawlspace. There were perhaps fifty notes stuck to various parts
of the equipment, all labeled DON'T TOUCH --BETH.
     "That's weird," said Sally.
     "I'll say; the handwriting's the same on all of them. She
must have them printed up in bulk."
     "I meant, how are you supposed to fix anything if you can't
touch it?"
     "Gloves?"
     "I'm serious."
     "Sorry. The threat of impending death is making me giddy."
     At the very least, the designers of the crawlspace could have
lit it, Tom grumbled to himself. He had a few flashlights,
though, so he could see the important bits. Unfortunately, with
Beth's modifications to the engine assembly, he wasn't sure what
it was supposed to look like when it *wasn't* broken. He couldn't
see anything obvious, like broken pipes, but that was probably a
good thing, as it reduced the chances of a sudden explosion.
     After a few moments of fiddling, he was able to link his
datapad to the status displays, and was alarmed by the number of
high-level metrics reading "inconclusive". Beth hadn't had time
to modify the control software, it seemed. Or else she derived
some obscure pleasure from throwing obstacles in his path.
     "Have you found anything?" asked Sally from just outside.
     "Not yet."
     "Hydrospok thinks it might be something with the fuel
regulator."
     "Thanks, but I'll make my own diagnosis here."
     "Don't forget we're losing time."
     Tom gritted his teeth. "Wouldn't want to forget that, no."

     "I think we're ready!"
     "Great!" said Sally, helping him back into the corridor.
"What did you end up doing?"
     Tom coughed. "I, er, overrode the fuel regulator." He hurried
on before she could comment. "The readouts are all positive, but
I haven't actually confirmed that this will work...."
     "Look at it this way," said George. "If you're wrong, it'll
be too late to do anything about it."
     "Everything's ready," announced Rick from the cockpit.
     "How much time do we have?" asked Tom. "I'm worried about how
some of the other elements are going to hold up if we move too--"
     The engines activated, and suddenly everyone was in motion
relative to the ship. Perhaps as much as three seconds later, the
engines cut out, accompanied by a short warning klaxon.
     "--quickly. Crap."

     "Hey, you're back from your spy mission!"
     Tom tried to indicate that Megan should go away and leave him
alone while he recovered, but she chose to interpret his
inarticulate groan as a "yes". After hanging up her jacket, she
sat down on a chair near the sofa he was sprawled on.
     "Rumor is, you had some mechanical problems."
     Tom groaned again. It was strange; he hadn't been doing
anything particularly tiring, and it wasn't as though the last
few days on the *Futility* had been especially uncomfortable, but
he felt exhausted. He had only gotten as far as the parlor before
collapsing a few hours ago.
     "They had to send Red Squadron out to tow your ship home
after the Zakavians left, or something."
     He made a non-committal noise. It wasn't clear to him how much
of the mission was supposed to be a secret, and he knew his
sister well enough to assume she would ferret out the truth
eventually--if she hadn't already.
     Beth had told him to look on the trip as extra paid vacation,
and that was accurate in the sense that he hadn't needed to come
into the office and work, but he couldn't remember the last
vacation which had left him so wrung out. At least it was over
now; he would return to studying the artifacts left by the ship's
creators, and Green Squadron would return to whatever it was they
did when the *Anonymous* was at peace. In the past, he had agreed
with those who argued that the fighter squadrons didn't actually
do that much, but now he realized that they concentrated their
stress into brief moments of absolute terror, rather than
spreading it evenly through their lives. It sounded like an easy
life, but as far as he was concerned, they could have it. He, on
the other hand, was looking forward to going back to the office
in a few days.
     Megan handed him an envelope. "This came for you."
     Strange. Tom tried to guess who might be sending him actual
physical mail. He tore open the envelope and glanced at the
letter.
     "What's it say?"
     Tom tried to tell her, but his mouth was dry. "They, uh,
Louis Jackson says he was very impressed by my performance during
the observational mission..."
     "That's good."
     "...so he's offering me a position as a reserve member of
Green Squadron."
     "Hey, cool! You'd get to do your job *and *be a fighter
pilot!"
     Tom stared at the paper, unseeing.
     "First Jen, now you. You think I could be a pilot? When I'm
older, I mean. It's not like they get to pilot giant robots, but
there's still..."
     What really disturbed him was that he didn't immediately
refuse. He absolutely didn't want to accept, so why couldn't he
refuse?
     "Tom? You okay there?"

----

It's amazing how productive having a deadline can make you. I 
desperately wanted to post *something* for the 15th anniversary of 
Sfstory, but by Wednesday all I had was an old story idea and half of 
a scene. I think I've written as much in the last few days as I have 
all of last year, and if it's not everything I hoped it could be, at 
least it came out in a timely fashion.

Here's to another fifteen years!
-- 
David Menendez (zednenem at alumni.psu.edu) | "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.eyrie.org/~zednenem/          |       of thermodynamics!"
Main Sfstory Page     Previous Log     Next Log     Index for Logs 091-117