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Sfstory Log 106

=========================================================================
Date:         Mon, 06 Jan 2003 17:34:13 -0500
From:         "Troy H. Cheek" (troy at cheek.org)
To:           Superguy List (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: HMS Golden Lance #23 - Last Cowboy Song

SF: HMS Golden Lance #23 - Last Cowboy Song

Time Agent 357 pulled himself to his feet, which was not an easy task
as he had been sitting on a log cabin's porch in an ancient human
seating device known as a "rocking chair" which was extremely
difficult to get out of if you were not practiced at it.  If one was
not careful, one could end up falling flat on one's face.

Diana Dark and Doctor Bing Von Spleen, humans from a little planet
they liked to call Earth, got up with practiced ease.  Omegas and
Ralph ended up falling flat on their respective faces in the piles of
wood mulch that constituted their host's sole efforts at landscaping
the ground around the log cabin's porch.

Their host, a being known only as Cowboy, snickered softly.  "Sorry
about the flashback stunt," he said, not sounding sorry in the least.
"It was the only way to fill everyone in on my backstory."

Omegas snarled.  "You could have just said 'Hi!  I'm a Zeroxed copy of
the Cowboy.  What can I do to help you?'"  Omegas raised one hand as
if he had half a mind to blast Cowboy with a power bolt of some kind.

Cowboy raised a hand of his own.  "I wouldn't try it, Omegas.  I'm not
exactly an Author in this altiverse, but I've been here long enough to
figure out how to tap into the local power structure."

"Stand down, Omegas," 357 ordered curtly.  "Cowboy, it is true that
we've come here looking for help.  I've recently started fading in
and out of reality.  It all started-"

"I know how it started," Cowboy interrupted.  "I've been watching it
all on ESPN."  He referred, of course, to the Extra-Sensory Perception
Network.  "I figured out what was happening almost immediately.  This
sounds very similar to an old plotline that I came up with years ago
and just never got around to writing.  Obviously, my original, THE
Cowboy, has run out of ideas and decided to dust it off."

"Authors," muttered Omegas to himself as he brushed mulch from his
jacket.  A formerly all-powerful immortal, Omegas feared nothing, but
was mightily annoyed by beings who possessed more power than himself.
That was a very short list, comprised mostly of the current rulers of
Heaven and Hell(tm), with various Authors rounding out the Top 10.

Cowboy ignored that.  Seating himself on a nearby fence rail post, he
commenced to speak to them all, one by one.  His voice shifted from a
pleasant nasal twang to deep, resonating tones.

"Time Agent 357, born mortal from a race of immortals, your situation
is grave.  You have taken the task of capturing renegade Time Agent
Greez Hyperiok and recovering the Automatic Beet-Peeler and Sub-Atomic
Re-integrator Mark II.  I have no advice about that, as it is a recent
storyline that I was not involved in planning.  However, I do know the
cause of your personal temporal instabilities.  An enemy you do not
yet recognize is systematically erasing and re-writing your past.
You must track down and destroy this enemy before you are completely
erased.  Succeed in these things and you may yet get to retire.

"Diana Dark of Earth, transported into SFSTORY by an explosion caused
by the interaction of Cheez-Whiz and beer, you have adapted well to
your unusual situation.  Trust your strengths and you will succeed in
whatever you attempt.  Also, we warned that that which you fear the
most will come to pass, but you will find that you no longer fear it.

"Doctor Bing Von Spleen, the Galaxy's foremost Spamological Engineer
(because you personally killed the other threemost) and inventor of
the Automatic Beet Peeler and Sub-Atomic Re-Integrator (or ABPSAR),
you feel that you are getting too damned old for all this.  You are
correct.  After this, you need to retire.

"Omegas, former streetwise servant of Heaven and current pain in the
collective ass of the multiverse, just be yourself.

"Ralph, the Giant Space Weasel of Anthrax V, actually a friendly,
easy-going weaseloid from Leibowitz IV and an accomplished ukulele
player in your own right, you control powers that you do not yet
understand.  You will know what to do with them when the time comes.

"VAL 9000 computer, heart and soul of the HMS Golden Lance for which
this serial is named, stop eavesdropping on conversations that don't
concern you."

=Oh, but I wasn't eaves...  I hate you!  Click!=

Omegas bristled at these comments, but then decided that bristling
didn't look cool, so he feigned disinterest.  Ralph peered myopically
at the ring on his finger, obviously the source of the power that
Cowboy referred to.  357 and Diana looked at each other thoughtfully.
Doctor Spleen snored quietly, having sat back down and rocked himself
to sleep at some point during Cowboy's speech.

"We travelled a gazillion miles through untold altiverses for a bunch
of banal self-help tips?" he gabbered crocthedly when awoke.

"Actually, I think this is just the information we needed to know,"
357 said as he gathered everyone together for teleport back to the
ship.  "Cowboy, I owe you one.  Is there anything I can do?  Can we
drop you somewhere?"  The last was said with just a bit of hope.
Having an Author, even a dusty old copy of one, on his side would make
357's quest a lot easier.

"My place is here, 357," answered Cowboy.  "I have one final duty to
perform, then I'm getting written out of the series.  But thank you
for the offer."

Cowboy waved as the group disappeared in rainbow splash of colors.
Another figure stuck his head out the cabin's front door.  Seeing the
cost was clear, the small, balding, man walked out to join Cowboy.

"You could have gotten us both out of this mess right then," the
smaller man said in a high, whining voice.

"Our fates have already been determined," Cowboy answered.  "It's too
late for us.  The best we can hope for is a well-written death scene."

The sky above their heads suddenly clouded over.  Lightning struck the
ground all around them.  The earth (so to speak) shook.  Winds rose
and a tornado sprang into existance just long enough to rip the cabin
from its foundations and send it flying off into the rapidly fading
sunset.  The crickets stopped chirping.

A huge, dark, hooded figure strode through a rip in the very fabric
of time and space itself.  Its voice boomed throughout the valley.

"THAT CAN BE ARRANGED."

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

In the HMS Golden Lance's Temporal Teleporter Terminal room, the
group of adventurers shimmered into being.  357 shimmered back out a
time or two, but finally stabilized.

Doctor Bing Von Spleen, in addition to being a crotchety old fart, was
also a brilliant scientist.  "Val, do we still have those complete
life histories that 357 and Omegas recorded back when they were
trapped in that unknown and unknowable temporal, dimensional, and
spacial anomaly way back in episode 1?"

=Of course, Doctor,= answered the VAL 9000 computer in her sexy
though slightly annoyingly nasal voice.

"Well, burn an audio copy onto a CD-R and dig out my Phony Warpman
personal CD player.  I just had one of them there epiphany things."

Diana assisted Spleen in setting up the Warpman and inserted the CD-R.
"I was born in a small hospital just outside of..." it began in 357's
quiet, gravelly voice.  Spleen cranked the speed up to a few thousand
times normal, then crammed 357's head between the headphones.  357,
who had been looking a little fuzzy around the edges, solidified.

"There," said Spleen with pride.  "357 is being constantly reminded of
his life history.  That should keep him from fading out until I can
work out something more permanent."

=Just finished a scan of all the newsfeeds,= mentioned VAL 9000 almost
casually.  Almost.

Diana looked up at the ceiling questioningly.  "And?"

=I think that Cowboy guy was right.  357 and I cleaned out a mess of
pirates in the Barbaron Nebula several years back.  According to the
newsfeeds, that never happened and they're still operating.  And the
Evil Dictator we took out back when we first started working together
was, according to all reports, actually taken out by a Superguy team
from another storyline altogether.  Somebody's rewriting history.=

Diana tried to look concerned, but succeeded only in looking sexy.
"Well, we're in a timeship with interdimensional capabilites.  We
could try to fix everything..."

=I estimate that even with all of the Time Police helping us, we'd
only be able to fix history at 47% the rate that it's being changed.=

"Needlewarp!" cursed Spleen.  "This is turning into a blasted space
opera again.  We need a plan.  357, what do you suggest?"

357, still in headphones, was busy grooving to the tunes of his
teenage years, and had little to offer.  Spleen saw that Omegas and
Ralph had wandered off somewhere.  No help there.

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

A very long distance away, the S.S You Are About To Die, which looked
to be made of modeling clay and pipe cleaners and designed by a small
child, hung menacingly in space.  It was, quite possibly, the most
powerful destructive force ever known to sentient life, created for
Greez Hyperiok by Doctor Spleen's ABPSARII, or Automatic Beet-Peeler
and Sub-Atomic Re-integrator Mark II, which sat in the corner beeping
and buzzing and contentedly and generally looking nothing at all like
a food or sub-atomic processing device.

Greez Hyperiok, former Time Agent and current power-mad dictator,
turned to his chief toady, Dijon Mu'tard, former cosmic-level Satanic
Agent At Large and current... um, chief toady.  "Has the new shipment
of battlebots arrived?"

Almost as if in answer, a humanoid form walked in.  All in silver
metal, it was almost two meters tall and vaguely suggested a humanoid
female shape.  "NEKKID 69 reporting for duty," it said in a perfectly
normal (and fairly sexy) feminine voice.

Two technicians in the corner seemed to think this was humorous, or so
one would judge from their laughter.  "She said 'naked.'  Hehe.  I
think...  ARGH!"

Greez and Dijon never did find out what he thought, as NEKKID 69
attacked the two technicians with weapons that seemed to spring into
her hands from thin air, or at least from places that humanoid females
normally did not store items quite so large.  The two technicians soon
resembled quivering sushi.

"Urp!" said Dijon, apparently unfamiliar with this particular feature
of the NEKKID battlebot series.

"I dislike laughter at my expense," stated NEKKID 69.

"Obvsiously," Greez answered smoothly.  "NEKKID?"

"Networked Electronic Killing and Kamikaze Infiltration Device."

"I see.  Will any more like you be joining us today?"

"I appear to have been the only one of my product line in the current
shipment," NEKKID 69 answered.  As she spoke, holographic projectors
went into action.  Her silver metal form was quickly covered by the
appearance of firm, pink flesh, followed immediately by the illusion
of leather and metal.  "However, I am accompanied by eighteen other
robots of varying designs."

"Eighteen?" Dijon asked.  "Plus you equals nineteen.  I ordered twenty
units from your manufacturer."

"Eighteen others are still functional," clarified NEKKID 69 as she ran
a holographic brush idly through her illusionary blonde hair.  "I
dislike laughter at my expense."

Dijon decided not to press the matter.  Greez snickered and passed
NEKKID a data crystal, which NEKKID placed in her reader.  After
lengthy soul-searching, the Author decided not to describe the exact
shape of the data crystal or the location of NEKKID's reader port in
order to maintain his story's PG-13 rating.

"You have your orders," Greez said.  "You'll find the interdimensional
transporter down that corridor.  Get to work."

She did so.

"Your plans proceed as anticipated," Dijon said in his best toady
voice.  "Yet, I would be remiss in my duties as your chief toady if I
did not point out that such plans are completely unnecessary."

Greez snarled.  "Dijon, I am NOT going to simply pick up the ABPSARII,
type in my request, and have it instantly make me Ruler of the Entire
Multiverse.  I keep telling you, there's no fun in that."

"But shouldn't you cement your victory before something goes wrong?"

"I can't be defeated.  Time Agent 357 and his cronies are dead, I am
the baddest bad guy in the storyline, and the Authors are smiling on
me.  Nothing can go wrong!"

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

In an altiverse a long, long, way away, an Author frowned.  Cowboy
faced a bad guy much badder than Greez Hyperiok.  Far above their
heads, the HMS Golden Lance warped out of orbit, 357 and his cronies
safely aboard.

Cowboy and his opponent both shivered.  "Did you just sense someone
tempting the fates to kill him?" Cowboy asked almost conversationally.

"DO NOT CHANGE THE SUBJECT."

"Oh, sorry.  I almost forgot.  Big bad evil overlord come to kill me.
I suppose you want to get started now."

"YOU WERE WARNED."

"Yeah, you sent that little short, round, orange guy and his tall,
angular, yellow friend.  Brnie and Eert were their names, if I recall.
They explained that you were going to take over SFSTORY and that if I
left you alone, you'd leave me alone, else you'd kill me."  Cowboy
smirked.  "I was never one to take ultimatums well.

"THEN YOU WILL- WHAT?"

The small, balding, man had been standing off to the side, almost
unnoticed.  With a squeaking feral scream, he had launched himself at
the hooded figure and was currently biting at its ankle.

"THIS IS AN ATTACK?"

Cowboy made an expansive gesture with his arms.  "No, that's what I
like to call a diversion.  *This* is an attack."  With that, space and
time distorted around them.  They materialized on top of a small
mountain of suitcases, backpacks, and camera carrying cases of varying
designs and sizes.

The hooded figure sent a power bolt flying toward Cowboy, but the aim
was way off.  The figure realized that it was now being held upside
down, its booted foot firmly held in the jaws of a twenty foot tall
demonic creature.  Clawed hands tore at its robes.  Leathery wings
beat against its body.

"By the way," said Cowboy as he responded with a power bolt of his
own, "I don't think I introduced you to my friend here.  Big Evil
Overlord, meet Angorax.  Angorax, meet Evil Overlord."

"Mrmphle," growled Angorax from around the boot.

"WHAT?"

"Yes, I know that Angorax is a former Satanic Agent, but he's reformed
now.  And, as you might have noticed, in most altiverses other than
his home one, he manifests as a very powerful demon."

The hooded figure's cloak glowed white hot and blasted out with a wave
of raw power, throwing Angorax into the middle of a pile of carry-on
bags.  He clawed his way out and was on the hooded figure again before
it could regain its feet.

"That gave me an idea," Cowboy continued, digging through a pile of
steamer trunks as if looking for one in particular.  "Welcome to
altiverse 418LOSTLUGGAGE.  This is one of the dumping grounds for, you
guessed it, all the luggage lost in all the other altiverses.  These
were all lost while their owners travelled on airplanes.  The next
universe over, lost during sea travel."

The hooded figure's cloak parted to reveal a utility belt just
brimming over with really neat-looking destructive devices.  The
figure pulled the pin on one and shoved it into Angorax's mouth.
Angorax belched nuclear flame and spit neutrons for several seconds
before he could continue his attack.  This gave the hooded figure
time to almost close the distance between itself and Cowboy.

Cowboy ignored him as he ripped open a particular trunk he had finally
located.  "It occurred to me that if Angorax, an unassuming librarian
in his home altiverse, was a demon is most others, then somewhere in
the multiverse there existed realities where all librarians manifested
themselves as demons.  This, incidentally, is one of them."

The hooded figure reached out a gauntletted hand to snatch at Cowboy,
but was knocked back by the impact of a well-targetted, hard-thrown
leather-bound reference book.

Nanoc the Librarian, his leather loincloth and horn-rimmed glasses
looking slightly out of place on his huge demonic form, advanced on
the hooded figure.  A dozen other librarians spread out behind him,
the least of which looked as large and powerful as Angorax.  Other
groups appeared on the distant horizon.

"About time you got here," Angorax grumbled.

"Took a while to decide if this copied Cowboy guy was serious," Nanoc
to the L answered, lofting another dictionary at the hooded figure.
"The original Cowboy only signed us up for the one episode.  Is this
guy on the level?"

"Oh, he's disgustingly honorable," replied Angorax.  "He's quite
willing to set each of you up as supreme being in any altiverse he can
get his original to conjure up for us, assuming any of us survive long
enough to actually ask it of him."

"Assuming that, yes," one of the other librarians answered after
performing a flying sidekick that bounced inneffectually off the
hooded figure's forcefield.  "Still, it's the best offer I've had
since I gave up medical school to become a librarian."

One of the new arrivals pushed up a library cart.  "Has anyone tried
an Encyclopedia Galactica yet?" he asked almost cheerfully as he began
chucking said tomes at the hooded figure.

Cowboy, in the mean time, had unpacked the steamer trunk.  He was now
wearing silver and gold powered armor that would have given any member
of Aurora or Team M.E.C.H.A. wet dreams for a month.  Jumping fifty
feet into the air, he brought a flaming sword down on the point of the
hooded figure's hood, which actually dented it, forcefield or no.
The hooded figure was not amused.

"I WILL DESTROY YOU ALL!"

"Save your breath!" Cowboy snarled, launching a full rack of plastic
bottles of Coca Cola and Sprite.  The resulting cola/uncola reaction
threw the hooded figure backwards into a group of librarians.  Having
realized that they had heat vision in this altiverse, several combined
their efforts to set the hooded figure's cloak ablaze.  "And take out
a loan and buy a caps lock key, newbie!"

The hooded figure's response was drowned out by the roar of his chain
gun, which mowed down several of his opponents before they swarmed
over him again.

"That won't work, either," Cowboy replied, his armor apparently having
very good audio processing filters.  "The only way to destroy a bunch
of demons like this is to destroy the entire universe that gives them
power, and that means destroying yourself, because I made damned sure
when I transported you here that you wouldn't be able to teleport out
on your own!"

The hooded figure, his utility belt almost empty, clutched at two
metal cans hidden within his robes.  With small metal keys, he worked
feverishly to open them.  Angorax, from his viewpoint atop a small
hill composed mostly of Samsonite luggage, was able to read some of
the writing on the cans.

Angorax called out to Cowboy.  "What do 'Hormel' and 'Armour' mean?"

"It means he's going to do it.  Damn him to hell!  He's actually
finally going to do it!"

The cloaked figure threw the contents of the two cans, globs of a
meat-like substance that were similar to and yet different from each
other, onto the ground in front of him.  They had just started to glow
in a very strange manner when a group of nineteen robots appeared in a
violent teleportation effect that threw all the combatants onto their
respective backsides.

The apparent leader of the group, a robot wearing the holographic
guise of an attractive blonde humanoid female wearing leather and
metal, addressed nobody in particular.  "I claim this altiverse in the
name of Greez Hyperi-"

And that, as we say in the South, was that.

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

Onboard the HMS Golden Lance for which this serial is named, Diana
Dark entered the control room.  "Status report, Val."

=All systems working normally.  I'm working an automated program which
is discreetly walking us through some of the places and times where
history has been re-written, looking for distinctive energy signatures
and whatnot.  Nothing so far.=  VAL 9000 paused.  =How's 357?=

Diana sat down.  "I gave him a few beers and fu...  This is to say, I
*tucked* him in bed.  He's had a big day.  Made sure his headphones
will stay on nice and tight while he sleeps.  He's okay, for now."

=Hmm, that's odd,= VAL 9000 said in an equally odd tone.

"What is it?"

=According to my sensors, the entire LOSTLUGGAGE milliverse just
ceased to exist.  Everything in it has been destroyed.=

"Milliverse?"

=1,000 altiverses, everything from 000LOSTLUGGAGE, which contains only
European designer leather overnight bags, to 999LOSTLUGGAGE, which
contains mostly paper grocery bags used as luggage by rednecks.=

"What could do something like that?" Diana wanted to know.  She had
once had vague plans to travel to 394LOSTLUGGAGE to get back some
vacation slides she'd lost.  No such luck now, she guessed.

=If these readings are correct, it was a massive spam/antispam
reaction on a scale never before seen.  I have no idea what could have
caused it.  The only good thing is that whoever did it can't possibly
still be around to do it again.  Anything and everything that was in
that milliverse at the time of the reaction has been destroyed.=

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

Onboard the S.S You Are About To Die, NEKKID 69 materialized.  Her
polished silver frame was actually bent in a few places, and in said
places was visible through her hologram, which wavered and flickered
in a way that the skin it was simulating should not.  The projectors
responsible for clothing didn't appear to be functioning.

Greez Hyperiok, who was busy berating an underling for doing exactly
what Greez had ordered him to do the day before, was taken aback by
NEKKID's sudden appearance.

"I'm taken aback by your sudden appearance," Greez said.  "Didn't I
just send you and your squad off to take over an altiverse for me?"

NEKKID's programming did not allow for the possibility of failure, nor
embarrassment, but she adapted.  "When we arrived in 418LOSTLUGGAGE,
ready for battle, we discovered that the locals were already engaged
in a battle of their own.  Before we could take any action other than
announcing our presence, one of the combatants set off a massive spam/
antispam reaction.  I was barely able to teleport out in time.  The
entire milliverse has been destroyed."

"Oh, no!" shouted Dijon Mu'tard.  "My vacation slides!"  No one paid
him any attention, and you wouldn't either if you were in the presence
of an unclothed hologram built like NEKKID 69 was.

Greez digested this, then belched up an answer.  "No matter.  The
multiverse actually requires a place to store lost luggage, so the
LOSTLUGGAGE milliverse will eventually re-create itself once the
imbalance caused by so much luggage actually reaching its destination
has time to effect the chrononic hypersphere."

He looked to NEKKID 69, who unfortunately had already repaired her
malfunctioning hologram projectors.  She was also using the head of a
technician who had been laughing at her nakedness as a fulcrum as she
bent one of her structural members back into the proper shape.

Greez remembered that he had not sent out that "no laughing" memo yet.

"Get yourself cleaned up.  I have another assignment for you."

An entire milliverse, destroyed?
Our beloved Evil Overlord, dead?
All those vacation slides, gone?

For the answer to none of these questions, tune in next week for
another exciting episode of...  SFSTORY!

Copyright 2002 by Troy H. Cheek troy at cheek.org http://www.cheek.org
=========================================================================
Date:         Sat, 01 Mar 2003 21:47:36 -0500
From:         David Menendez (zednenem at psualum.com)
To:           Superguy (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: Out of Space #2: Underbeneath

For those of you who need a quick refresher, Part 1 is available at 
(http://www.eyrie.org/~zednenem/library/out-of-space/out-of-space-1.html).

---

OUT OF SPACE
A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 2: Underbeneath

MARJORAM KNEW that the late-night meetings were essential. For
budgetary reasons, the Tangerine Research Center could only link
to the Interstellar Information Interchange once a day, and for
technical reasons that link currently occurred at night. The link
didn't last very long, so if they queried a Sonar Men database,
they wouldn't get an answer for twenty-one hours. That meant
their queries had to be well-chosen, and somehow it was decided
that this could best be done in rushed meetings taking place
moments before the uplink itself.
     She didn't like them, though. In her opinion, the night was
for having fun or, failing that, sleeping. Work could wait until
the daylight returned.
     Not that there was much of a night life on Tangerine for her
to miss. The planet was nearly devoid of cool people to party
with, and even the research staff had been whittled down to
virtually nothing. They got bursts of entertainment media over
the link each night, but Marjoram had no interest in becoming a
vid-potato.
     "Well?" asked Sage, indicating that the meeting should begin.
     Marjoram checked her datapad. She knew what it said, but
checking showed that she was concerned about accuracy, which the
boss respected. "Orliss SoFah's ID card is co-signed by
Interstellar University," she reported. "We'll be requesting
confirmation tonight, but hardly anyone tries to spoof them these
days." Not since Crunch Rockslab's little campaign, anyway.
     "And the others?"
     "We don't have information on any of Horlun SoFah's or Ms
Rifba's co-signers, but there's some overlap with Orliss's. That
may or may not be legitimate." It was hard to fake a known
organization's digital signature, but it was easy to claim that a
random chunk of data was the signature of an obscure one.
     "I doubt we're dealing with identity fraud," said Oregano.
"And if we are, so what? It doesn't change anything."
     "I was asked to confirm our... guests' identities," Marjoram
explained patiently. The boss liked patience. Oregano just
shrugged, as though it didn't matter to her.
     "We don't know anything about the Terrans," Marjoram
continued, "although the spaceship they claim to be from might be
connected to the recent Zakavian defeat at Arorua. The Empire's
being all secretive about that, so it's hard to confirm."
     Sage nodded. "That's fine. Excellent work." Marjoram flashed
a victorious smirk at Oregano, who pretended not to be impressed.
"I believe that covers tonight's uplink. Oregano, what's the
status of our guests?"
     "They're fine," said the green-haired woman. Like Marjoram,
she was puzzled by their orders to treat the prisoners like
guests, but neither was about to question the boss. "Hopefully,
they're asleep and not plotting some escape attempt."
     Sage raised an eyebrow. "They have nowhere to escape *to*.
Their ship is unusable for the foreseeable future, and Tangerine
is devoid of advanced civilization."
     "That's true, but Orliss seems like the type who would
consider hiking through the jungle a grand adventure, and Ms
Rifba really dislikes us. I think we should have locked their
door."
     "Perhaps," said Sage, "but consider--"
     An alarm went off on Marjoram's datapad. Startled, it took
her a moment to check what it was, by which time a hint of
impatience was showing on Sage's face. The boss didn't like being
interrupted.
     "Someone's broken into the lab," Marjoram reported. She
called up a video feed and blinked. "It's the prisoners!"
     "*Guests*," Sage corrected.
     "They're in the lab with one of our cleaning robots."
     "Is it armed?" They had been forced to repurpose the security
robots after budget cutbacks left them unable to afford a
janitorial staff. This had turned out well, as the center needed
dusting far more often than it needed armed defense.
     Marjoram quickly checked the robot's manifest. "No
ammunition."
     Sage nodded and leaned back in her chair. "Oregano, go down
and make sure nobody gets hurt."

                              *   *   *

     All Horlun could see were the three barrels of the cleaning
robot's weapon. They were of an older style, one he wasn't
familiar with, but reminiscent of the projectile weapons popular
on Earth and other less-enlightened worlds. No doubt they would
fire a high-speed barrage of metallic projectiles which, for all
their primitiveness, were nonetheless very effective at killing
things. There was considerably more to the cleaning robot than
its gun, but Horlun's attention was understandably focused on the
weapon, as it was pointed at his own personal head.
     The three barrels started to revolve, their forms blurring
until they looked like a single cannon. A quiet, high-pitched
whine filled the room. At the back of his mind, Horlun considered
leaping under the nearest table, but he knew it would do no good.
Even if the robot wasn't able to shoot him while he was moving,
the metal tables would undoubtedly provide little protection. He
and the robot faced each other, motionless. Time seemed to stop.
     K-CHIK K-CHIK K-CHIK K-CHIK!
     The sudden silence was thunderous. Horlun slowly noticed that
neither he nor anyone else had been torn apart by high-powered
weaponry. In fact, nothing appeared to have happened.
     "*Ammunition depleted,*" announced the robot, "*Engaging
close-range combat systems.*" As it spoke, another panel opened,
this one just below the head. With a startling suddenness, a
boxing glove on a spring shot out towards Roy, reaching its
maximum extension a few centimeters from his face. He blinked.
     "*Please step closer,*" requested the robot, coolly
retracting the spring-loaded glove.
     "Forget it!" shot back Roy, "You think I'd just walk into
range?"
     "*You will not be harmed,*" assured the robot, smoothly
rolling forward.
     "I find that hard to believe, seeing as you just tried to
kill us all."
     WHAP! The glove connected and Roy went flying, landing a few
meters away with his hands over his nose.
     "Aaagh! You call that 'no harm'?"
     The robot ignored him, turning its glowing red eye towards
Anme, who happened to be standing nearby. She quickly stepped to
the side. The whole robot started turning to face her and she ran
to keep out of its presumed angle of attack.
     Horlun watched in dismay. This was a disaster. Their snooping
had been discovered and they were under attack by the Sonar Men's
security forces. Well, one security unit. And not a particularly
threatening one at that. But in *principle* it was a disaster,
and once their hosts found out what had happened, he had no doubt
that--
     "Get down!" shouted Anme.
     Without thinking, Horlun dropped to a crouch. He heard the
robot's glove pass overhead from behind, then begin to retract.
He decided that getting under a table might not be so bad an
idea, after all.
     "*Now* she starts shouting warnings," grumbled Roy from
behind the hand gripping his nose. Horlun offered his
handkerchief, which was accepted gratefully. Getting blood out of
the white cloth would be a pain, but it didn't matter much since
they were all about to die anyway.
     Orliss and Anme had ducked under the other operating tables,
leaving only Jen still facing their mechanical adversary. She
appeared to be taunting it.
     "Don't wanna come over here? 'Fraid I'll dodge and you'll end
up smashing the lab equipment? Coward! Come get some!"
     "Why is she taunting a robot?" asked Roy quietly. "It doesn't
sound intelligent enough to get angry."
     "Weren't you accusing it of lying a few minutes ago?" asked
Horlun.
     Roy grumbled something unpleasant-sounding in English.
     "I have a plan," said Orliss quietly from underneath his
table. "While Jen keeps that monstrosity distracted, we'll sneak
up from behind and disable it."
     It was plans like that which made Horlun wonder what,
exactly, his cousin's college education was teaching him, but
before he could comment something exploded in the robot's general
direction.
     "Problem solved," said Jen in the quiet that followed.
     Horlun and Roy cautiously got out from under the table and
stood. There was an irregular, smoking hole where the panel
concealing the robot's boxing glove had been. Jen was casually
standing on the other side of the room. She gave Horlun a
thumbs-up.
     "What happened?" he asked.
     Roy didn't bother waiting for her answer. "*Where* did you
get a gun?"
     Jen just smiled. "What gun?" She held up her hands to
demonstrate that she was not, in fact, holding a weapon.
     "I suppose the robot just exploded on its own, then?"
     Jen made a face, and slapped the side of her left boot. "It's
a pain to get to and it can't hold anything large, but people
never think to check that holster."
     "Concealed weapons aren't really part of the heroic style,"
said Orliss, brushing himself off.
     "Neither is breaking and entering."
     "That depends on whether these Sonar Men are villains or
not." He looked at the motionless form of the security robot.
Smoke was still wafting from its central panel. "You don't see a
lot of innocent bystanders with deadly robotic security
janitors."
     "Speaking of which," said Anme, heading towards the door,
"maybe we should get out of here before any more show up." She
tapped the door control and, once again, nothing happened.
"That's just great. We're trapped."
     "Maybe I can bypass it again," said Jen, walking up.
     Anme nodded and was about to lean back on the locked door
when it suddenly opened, revealing another black security robot.
     "*Target acquired.*"
     "Huh?" said Anme right before a blast from the robot sent her
flying across the room. Jen quickly hit the door control,
blocking the next shot from the deadly janitor.
     "We need to get out of here," Jen told them, reaching the
obvious conclusion. The door started to open, and she swiftly hit
the DOOR CLOSE button. "They'll figure out a way around this
soon."
     "Just smash the controls," Orliss told her.
     "That won't stop the *door* from working."
     "We'll have to take the other way out," said Roy, running to
join Horlun by Anme's fallen form.
     "Suicide?" asked Orliss. "Things aren't *that* bad."
     Anme was lying on her side, some faint wisps of smoke coming
from a black patch on the back of her jacket. Otherwise, she
looked uninjured. Aside from the unconsciousness, that is.
Apparently, the security staff on the *Anonymous* weren't kidding
around when they told her it would block blaster fire.
     "I meant the other *exit*," said Roy irritably.
     "Oh, right. The portal into the black, unknown depths of the
mountain."
     "Exactly."
     The door opened and the robot managed to get off another shot
before Jen could shut it again. Fortunately, no one was in the
way this time.
     "Well," said Orliss, walking over to the other door while Roy
and Horlun lifted Anme, "let's get going."

     Horlun resolved not to think about what might have been.
Sure, he might have spent the evening asleep in a comfortable bed
instead of carrying his unconscious girlfriend through the unlit
chambers of the research center's basement, but dwelling on it
would only distract him from his immediate needs, such as
avoiding obstacles in the dark.
     "Ow!" said Roy, who then chose to curse the darkness rather
than light a single candle. (He probably would have chosen
differently if he had been carrying any candles, but that was
another might-have-been that Horlun was choosing not to
consider.)
     "Are you all right?" asked Jen. She was behind them a bit,
having stayed to make sure the security forces didn't immediately
follow them out of the lab.
     "Stubbed my toe," Roy explained. "I'm fine."
     "You sure it isn't broken or anything?"
     "No, I'm okay."
     "'Cause we wouldn't want you walking around on a broken toe."
     "I'm *fine*," Roy insisted. "I just wish it wasn't so dark."
     The other exit from the lab had lead onto a catwalk over a
deep pit. A window from the lab had provided some light, but by
the time they got to the other side of the bay, all the light
helped them see was the window itself. Past the bay was another
storage area, which meant more chances of walking into something
but fewer chances of falling to their deaths. A pretty good
trade, in Horlun's opinion.
     "You know," Orliss said from the front of their group.
"There's a light on my wrist-chronometer."
     "Great," said Roy. "I was wondering what time it is."
     In the dark, Horlun could just make out his cousin raising
his wrist near his face and activating the light. Its feeble blue
glow was just enough to illuminate Orliss's face, leaving the
rest of him largely invisible.
     "Hmm," he said, "all I can see is the chronometer."
     "Try pointing it away from you," Horlun suggested.
     The student hero did so. It wasn't much of an improvement.

                              *   *   *

     "Marjoram, I've reached the lab."
     "*Right. I can see you on the monitor.*"
     "Then you also know that our guests aren't here anymore."
     "*They fled into the deep storage areas while you were still
on your way down. We don't have video coverage, but Sage and I
think they're still in there.*"
     "Why don't we have video?"
     "*The lights are out. You'll need to go in after them, but
watch out for crates and stuff. You could smash up your shins
real bad.*"
     "And how am I supposed to see anything in the dark?"
     "*You didn't bring your night-vision equipment?*"
     "No."
     "*A flashlight?*"
     "Not really. Couldn't you just turn on the lights from your
end?"
     "*But then they'd know we're looking for them.*"
     "They may have guessed that by now, what with the robot
attacks and all."
     "*Oo, good point. I'll ask the boss.*"

                              *   *   *

     "Okay," said Orliss, "I think we're going to have to accept
that we're lost."
     "If by 'accept' you mean 'admit', we're way ahead of you,"
replied Roy.
     "Why don't we stop for a moment?" suggested Horlun. "I think
Anme's starting to come around, and it's not like we're in a big
hurry."
     "Not that I object to resting," said Roy, "but I was under
the impression we were in considerable danger, what with the
robot attacks and all."
     "Hopefully, they're just as confounded by the darkness as we
are," said Orliss.
     "I'll keep watch," offered Jen, "...in the sense that I'll
listen for anyone approaching."
     Horlun waited for Roy to ask what would happen if the people
approaching were being very quiet, but apparently the Terran had
met his sarcastic commentary quota for the time being. He turned
his attention to Anme, who was groaning quietly. He wished he
could see her, but Orliss had switched off his light to preserve
the batteries.
     "How do you feel?" he asked her.
     Anme groaned. "Are we dead?" she asked groggily, a reasonable
if inaccurate conclusion to draw when waking up in a dark cavern
after being shot.
     "Not presently," replied Orliss. To demonstrate his vitality,
he pointed his watch's weak beam of light at his face.
Unfortunately, he had forgotten to consider that people who think
they might be dead are not generally comforted by the sudden
appearance of a friend's floating, disembodied face.
     Once they got Anme to stop screaming and calm down somewhat,
Horlun briefly summarized their situation. "We crossed a narrow
bridge over a chasm and walked aimlessly through this dark
basement for a while. Then you woke up."
     Anme considered that. "Sounds boring," she said, "but still
preferable to getting shot by a heavily-armed automatic vacuum
cleaner." She rose to a sitting position. Horlun could just
barely see her rubbing her forehead in the dim light from
Orliss's watch. "So what's our next move?"
     "Escape," said Orliss confidently. They waited a few minutes
to see if he was going to elaborate.
     "Okay," said Roy. "I like this plan so far."
     "Yeah," agreed Jen. "Especially the escaping part."
     With the requisite snarky asides out of the way, Horlun took
it on himself to ask whether his cousin could perhaps clarify the
details of his plan.
     "Um...," said Orliss. It didn't exactly fill them with
confidence.
     "I thought we were going to steal a ship," said Roy. "Since
the Finstar is, well, not in working order."
     "I don't like leaving the ship behind," said Orliss. "It's
borrowed and we've already gotten it damaged. Anme's father won't
be too happy if she goes back and tells him we left it with the
Sonar Men."
     Anme shook her head. "I wouldn't worry too much about what my
father thinks."
     "Perhaps, but it saddens me to contribute to the estrangement
of my friends from their parents. We heroes have a responsibility
to save people, not just from physical danger, but from emotional
troubles as well."
     "Look," said Horlun, "that's a very honorable sentiment, but
the fact is the ship was damaged through no fault of our own." He
turned to face Anme, for all the good it did in the dark. "I'm
sure your father would rather see you get home alive than get
killed trying to rescue his ship from the Sonar Men, right?"
     "I don't know," said Anme. "He paid a lot for that ship."
     "Perhaps we should focus more on the immediate difficulties,"
suggested Jen. "For one thing, it's too dark for us to just
wander around and hope we chance across a stairway leading up."
     With the kind of ironic timing normally reserved only for
television and, to a lesser extent, the rhythmic shadow puppetry
of Foobarh's southern continent, the lights in the room switched
on immediately after Jen finished talking. Startled, the five of
them sat blinking for a few moments while their eyes adjusted.
     "Hey," said Roy, who had recovered first, "there's a
staircase leading to the upper levels over there." He pointed
towards a set of double doors which were clearly marked ACCESS TO
THE UPPER LEVELS.
     "What unbelievable luck!" exclaimed Orliss. "It's as though
the gods had grown weary of us just wandering around endlessly,
or something."
     Gods or not, the five of them wasted no time rushing towards
the staircase and hurling themselves up the first few flights.
Then it began to sink in just how far they still had to go, and
they started to pace themselves. They had descended quite a
distance in their quest to find out what exactly went on in the
research center, and now they would have to travel all that
distance again, only tired and against the flow of gravity.
Horlun began calculating how long it would be before someone
expressed a preference for taking an elevator.

                              *   *   *

     "*Oregano?*"
     "Yeah?"
     "*Our guests have left the deep storage area. They're in
staircase 5 about three levels above you and climbing.*"
     "Okay. How do I get there from here?"
     "*I'm not sure where you are. Could you describe your
location?*"
     "It's a big room sparsely filled with crates."
     "*Ah. Okay... that's not going to be enough.*"
     "Look, why not use our advanced technology to trace my signal
and use our floor plans to figure out the quickest path?"
     "*That's a great idea! And if we had that sort of accurate 3D
model of the center, I'd get right on it. But we only have some
schematics, so maybe you could describe how you got to where you
are now and I'll figure out where that is.*"
     Sigh.

                              *   *   *

     "All in all," commented Roy, "I think I would have preferred
taking the elevator."
     *Rats,* thought Horlun. His guess had been off by a flight
and a half.
     "At least it's a spiral staircase," said Jen. "No annoying
one-eighties every few meters. Much easier to get a steady
rhythm." Much harder to judge flights, of course, but Horlun kept
that complaint to himself.
     "You think we'll come across a door anytime soon?" asked Anme
nervously.
     "There has to be one eventually," said Roy. "You don't dig a
big hole in a mountain and build a staircase inside if there's no
place for it to go."
     "Well, duh. It's just that the stairwell is really tall, and
I don't feel like climbing to the very top if I can avoid it."
     Roy gestured to the empty space in the center of the
stairwell. "If we get to the top and nothing's there, I can
recommend an easy way down." Apparently, the Sonar Men considered
themselves above such petty things as safety railing. There were
no guard rails or bannisters on the inside curve of the stairs.
They simply stopped, leaving a circular shaft in the center of
the stairwell which served as a freight elevator, judging by the
four grooved columns spaced evenly around its circumference.
Sharp edges have a strange attractive force, especially when
beyond them is a long vertical drop, and to avoid this the five
of them kept as far to the right as they could be without
scraping their shoulders on the wall.
     "You can go first," said Anme, glancing at the pit. "I'll
follow you."
     As it happened, they encountered doors leading out of the
staircase before they reached the top. Unfortunately, they were
locked. More ominously, while Horlun was considering the
depressing possibility that *all* the exits were locked save the
one where they entered, the freight elevator's counterweight
slowly passed them on its way down.
     "Wait," said Jen. "The elevator car was at the *bottom*?"
     Roy cleared his throat. "I don't like to say 'I told you
so'--"
     "Liar," interruped Anme.
     "I beg your pardon?"
     "You're lying. No creature in this universe dislikes being
able to say 'I told you so.' "
     "Under these circumstances, me being right also means pursuit
is behind us and gaining. I'd rather be wrong than dead."
     "You see, that's what's wrong with your philosophy. You're
willing to compromise your principles just for the sake of
staying alive. How can you compete with people who are willing to
die for their beliefs?"
     "I'm not aware that my principles are at stake here, and in
any case, an organization whose members prefer death to being
incorrect had better have a good recruitment policy if it hopes
to remain active in the long run."
     "There you go again, with your 'organizations' and
'policies'..."
     Horlun tuned them out and slowed down a bit to be nearer to
Jen. She, at least, could hold a conversation without it becoming
a grudge match.
     "It's funny," she commented. "They keep getting into these
arguments, but they always end up next to each other. It's almost
like they enjoy it."
     "Yeah." Time for an abrupt topic shift. The only thing more
boring than listening to two people having a pointless argument
was discussing those two people and their arguments with someone
else. "How long do you think we have before our pursuit catches
up?"
     "I don't really know. Judging by the counterweight, this
thing was built for lifting power, not speed, but it's still
moving faster than we are." She opened her jacket slightly,
revealing the gun in her shoulder holster. "I'd be more
comfortable if I had my handgun with the blinking lights, but
this was enough for the security bots. We won't go down without a
fight, brief though it may be." She glanced again at the center
of the shaft. The elevator cables were just visible, silently
sliding through lubricated grooves in the support columns. As she
had said, they didn't seem to be moving very fast. "Actually, I'm
surprised they're using cables. I'm pretty sure the Sonar Men
have anti-gravity technologies."
     Horlun shrugged. "I'm sure cable-and-pulley systems are less
expensive, even for the Sonar Men." The two walked in silence for
a few moments, each trying not to listen to Anme and Roy, whose
argument had somehow evolved into a debate over the relative
merits of subtitling and dubbing foreign-language films. The
problem with trying to hold a conversation with Jen was that the
only real connection between them was Orliss, and they couldn't
really talk about him while he was only a few meters ahead of
them. At least, Horlun didn't feel comfortable doing so. He loved
his cousin, but he was also aware of his... short attention span
in certain areas. He and Anme were both worried that Jen was
setting herself up for a disappointment.
     "I found an exit!" called Orliss from the front of their
group. It was the message they had been waiting for. It was good
news at last. It was about bloody time; Horlun's feet felt like
they might fall off at any moment. Would it have *killed* Anme to
wait until he retrieved a better pair of shoes from the ship
before she got them involved in her hiking-intensive quest for
truth?
     Despite the aches in their insoles, the five sped up a bit
and left the stairwell in high spirits. They found themselves in
a large chamber. At the far end was a large set of double doors
marked EXIT. Nearby was another set, presumably leading deeper
into the mountain. Between them, dividing the chamber in two, was
a chasm spanned by a single, narrow bridge.
     Roy observed the room with a sour expression. "If we run into
a balrog, I'm going to be very upset."
     "*Attention,*" came a familiar-sounding synthesized voice.
"*For your safety and convenience, we request that you surrender
immediately.*"
     Before Horlun could finish spinning around to face the
inevitable robot guard, Jen had already drawn her weapon and
fired off two shots. Both struck the janitor's armor and bounced
off harmlessly.
     "*Discontinue your attacks,*" ordered the robot. "*They will
prove ineffective.*"
     "Crap!" exclaimed Jen. "Our weapons are useless against
them!"
     "What about that last one?" Horlun asked, eyeing the
black-armored figure warily.
     "When it opened its panel to strike, I fired into the hole."
     "What now, then?"
     "Follow me," said Orliss. Figuring that his cousin's plan
couldn't be worse than doing nothing, Horlun did so. The five of
them slowly moved in an arc, keeping a constant distance between
themselves and the robot, which rotated on its treads to keep
itself facing them.
     "*This is pointless,*" observed their foe. Horlun found
himself agreeing, but tried to give Orliss the benefit of the
doubt.
     Once they had moved so that the robot was between them and
the stairs, Orliss motioned them to a halt. The nature of his
plan was becoming clearer to Horlun, and he wasn't liking the
implications.
     "Go!" shouted Orliss. He and Jen were off like a shot,
running directly towards their metal opponent. Roy, Anme, and
Horlun followed a split-second later, reasoning that they might
as well die together. (At least, that was Horlun's reasoning.)
The robot didn't have time to react before they reached it, but
Horlun imagined it was doing the robot security unit equivalent
of blinking in surprise.
     Somehow they all hit at the same time, which was enough to
start the machine sliding backwards on its treads. For such a
large piece of equipment, it was surprisingly light. *Wouldn't it
get better traction if it was heavier?* wondered Horlun. But he
was not about to argue with a poor design choice that worked in
their favor.
     Almost before he knew it, they reached the edge of the stairs
and the robot briefly found itself flying. Then it crashed into
the stairs on the other side of the gap and started rolling
downwards. The five of them stood watching with silly grins on
their faces. There was a part of the sentient mind that deeply
enjoyed pushing expensive machinery off of high ledges.
     "All right," said Anme. "That was pretty cool."
     Some distance below them, the crashing abruptly came to a
halt, and a voice rose in its place: "*Emergency staircase
contingency plan successful.*"
     Without any need for coordination, the five travellers took
off towards the narrow bridge and the exit. Behind them, the
sounds of the robot slowly ascending rose from the stairwell,
along with another, non-synthetic voice.
     "...the hell?"
     "Miss Oregano...," said Orliss, who slowed down and started
to turn back to the stairs. Jen grabbed his arm and yanked him
along.
     "There's no time for that," she barked. "Do you want to get
out of here or not?"
     "But... no, I guess escape is the better option."
     They kept running, fear temporarily overriding the more
sensible parts of their brains, which would have pointed out that
they had already spent a considerable chunk of the evening
running or walking from one disaster to the next. Each time,
fatigue returned sooner--Orliss wasn't having any trouble, but
Horlun lacked his cousin's heroic physique, which he had obtained
through a heroic exercise regimen.
     At least this room was lit. Tonight had provided years worth
of running in the dark from unseen, unconfirmed,
possibly-nonexistent pursuit. It was classic nightmare material:
the endless chase, the fearsome-but-unspecified consequences of
capture, the growing exhaustion threatening to nullify his
efforts. Horlun considered that. Maybe all this *was* a
nightmare. Maybe he was still on the ship, unconscious. Perhaps
the Sonar Men had never captured them, and they were free, alone,
lost in space, and slowly running out of oxygen while his brain
manufactured a jumbled mishmash of anxieties and fear for his
entertainment.
     It sounded less appealing the more he thought about it.
     "Almost there," said Orliss. The narrow bridge beckoned them,
holding forth the promise of escape and a chance to sit down for
a bit.
     *Sure,* thought Horlun, *but once we get there, we'll have to
escape from something else.*
     As it happened, he was wrong. A blaster shot struck the top
of the bridge's arc just as Roy was about to step on it. Since
firing on the ground right where someone is about to walk is
pretty much a universal signal to stop, the five of them stumbled
to a halt, achingly close to the bridge and its uncertain promise
of freedom.
     "Stop!" shouted Oregano redundantly.
     Jen had already drawn her weapon and aimed, but Orliss had a
hand in front of her weapon before she could fire. "I'll handle
this," he told her.
     Jen didn't seem too pleased by this, but she didn't comment.
Not verbally, anyway.
     The cavern was large, and it took a few seconds for the
green-haired employee of the Sonar Men to reach them. "Okay," she
said. "Just *what* do you think you're doing?"
     "Escaping," said Anme. "You'll forgive us if we don't feel
like participating in your twisted tinkering with the fabric of
life itself."
     "Nicely put," said Orliss.
     "Thank you."
     Oregano looked at them blankly. "One moment," she said,
holding up a finger. After a quick whispered consultation with
her communicator, she looked up and tried to smile reassuringly.
"Okay, I'll level with you. Marjoram and I aren't entirely sure
why you're here, but we don't think you're in any danger. Aside
from that brought on by your escape attempts, that is."
     "I find your assurances less than convincing," said Anme.
     "Yeah, *there's* a shock." She turned to Orliss, apparently
in the hopes of reaching a less suspicious audience. "Why don't
we all sit down and catch our breath, and then head back towards
your quarters. There's still a few hours before morning, and then
we can have a late breakfast or an early lunch or something."
     "A brunch, perhaps," suggested Orliss.
     "That would be great." She faced Jen. "How about you give me
your weapon first. We don't want any accidents."
     Jen nodded, and held out her emergency backup gun. Oregano
took it and briefly nodded, acknowledging how they were all
working together peacefully and without sudden violence such as
Jen's other hand striking Oregano's head from the side at high
speed.
     The khaki-clad guard very briefly found herself airborne, but
didn't look to be sufficiently conscious to enjoy it. Jen quickly
scooped up her gun, grabbed Orliss, and took off for the exit.
     "Let's go!" she added, when the others were slow to catch on.
     They made it across the bridge without incident, and soon
they reached the exit, whereupon a new obstacle presented itself:
the doors.
     "Was it really necessary to be so abrupt?" asked Orliss as he
squared his shoulders in preparation for a frontal assault on the
closed portal. "She could be dead now."
     Jen shook her head. "At worst it's a concussion. She's fine."
     "Hey!" came an outraged shout from beyond the bridge.
     "See?"
     Orliss nodded and launched himself at the double doors. They
were more than twice his height, and looked pretty sturdy. It
wasn't clear what, exactly, Orliss thought was going to happen
when he hit them.
     They never found out; the doors slid open with amazing speed
just moments before Orliss passed through the doorway and out of
the research center entirely.
     "Get back here!" shouted Oregano from the top of the narrow
bridge. She was holding the side of her head in one hand, and a
pistol in the other.
     This time, Orliss wasn't able to stop Jen before she fired a
few shots at their pursuer, but she had no more luck against this
foe than she had against the robot; Oregano threw herself
backwards, where the curve of the bridge protected her from Jen's
fire.
     And speaking of the robot, Horlun could just make out a dark
shape emerging from the stairwell in the distance. He pointed
this out to the others, and the four of them wasted no time
joining Orliss on the other side of the doorway.
     The night sky was dark and overcast, the low-hanging clouds
and humidity making it seem like they were still indoors. The
nearby river helped dispel that illusion, but beyond it was
another wall of rock.
     "Hurry," called Orliss, "I found a boat." Two, in fact. He
was standing on the end of a small pier on the edge of the river.
The whole area had the look of a loading dock, although Horlun
wasn't sure how much river traffic a secret, mostly-abandoned
research facility could expect.
     They piled into a boat, except for Jen who fiddled with the
controls on the other one for a moment before joining them.
Orliss quickly intuited the controls of the craft, and in no time
at all they were flying down the river, Jen trading fire with
Oregano, who had emerged just a little to late to stop them.
     Horlun watched the concrete dock slowly shrink with distance
and looked for the rest of the center, but it didn't seem to be
in evidence. *We must have gone through the mountain and come out
the other side,* he thought. He took off his shoes and was about
to remove his socks and dip his feet in the river when he
remembered all the nasty things which live in jungle waters. They
were probably moving too fast for any local predators, but why
take the chance?
     They rounded a bend in the river, and the canyon walls soon
hid the center completely. They were alone and free, with only
the roar of the engine echoing off the stone walls for company.
For a while they sat and rested, except for Orliss, who was still
piloting the boat. At length, Roy spoke up.
     "Isn't this taking us further from the ships?"
     "In the short term," said Orliss. "Once we regroup, we can
make a new attempt to break back into the center and steal a
spaceship. This way, they won't know where we'll be coming from,
either."
     "Actually, they will," said Roy. "Unless we climb out of the
canyon or something."
     Orliss considered that. The walls of the canyon were tall and
steep and promised much pain to those who dared climb them. He
shrugged. "The canyon won't last forever. Once we're on level
ground, we can circle back and strike from a different
direction."
     "Goody. Nothing follows up a night of running around through
basements better than a day of hiking through alien jungles."
     "We'll need to take some time to rest," said Orliss. "But
then we'll be ready to brave the elements and the unknown terrors
of the wilderness. It'll be a grand adventure."

                              *   *   *

     To the east, the mountains were sinking to reveal the sun.
Oregano had seen the dawn on Tangerine before, but that had been
the result of getting up early, not staying up late. Certainly
not after piloting a boat all night in search of escaped guests.
     It was the worst sort of luck that this had happened when it
did. The darkness meant she had to scan the banks carefully once
she left the constriction of the canyon, forcing her to either
move slowly and let them get further ahead, or try to catch up
and risk passing them. It really was a two-person job, but Thyme
and Rosemary were away from the center, Lord Rentacar and Sage
were too important to come along, and Marjoram certainly
*thought* she was too important.
     "Besides," Marjoram had said, "*you* let them get away, *you*
go get them back." It had a certain grade-school logic to it, but
it wasn't the sort of decision-making that lead to the most
effective solutions. Now, any failure would be Oregano's alone.
This was worrisome: Marjoram liked to flaunt her authority, but
ultimately Sage was calling the shots. (And everything Sage did
was done with the approval of Lord Rentacar, if the organization
charts were to be believed.)
     A splash on the riverbank distracted her and she almost
didn't see the markings on the bank. A boat had pulled up and
been dragged out of the water. She turned around and pulled up to
examine the tracks. They were old. Several days at a minimum.
     "Needlewarp." A false trail, and her quarry had gotten
further ahead while she examined it. Frustrated, she brought the
engines back on-line.
     At least, that was what she was expecting to happen. What
*actually* happened was more like nothing.
     As is traditional among people faced with unexpected
mechanical failure, she tried it a few more times, in case it
hadn't realized she was serious. Still, nothing happened. Her
engines had failed. In the middle of the jungle, hours away from
the research center, after a night without any sleep, and
increasingly far from her targets.
     This wasn't going to stop her. It would only slow her down.

WILL OUR HEROES GET WHERE THEY'RE GOING BEFORE OREGANO CATCHES
     UP?
WHERE ARE THEY GOING?
SHOULDN'T THEY BE TRYING TO STEAL A SHIP AND GET OFF THE PLANET?
OR HAVE THEY BEEN SEDUCED BY TANGERINE'S TROPICAL CHARM?

SFSTORY. For great justice.

-- 
David Menendez (zednenem at psualum.com) | "In this house, we obey the laws
http://www.eyrie.org/~zednenem/       |       of thermodynamics!"
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