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Sfstory Log 108

=========================================================================
Date:         Wed, 09 Apr 2003 22:12:21 -0400
From:         Gary (swede3000 at earthlink.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #11

      According to Gargavix Ooolavant's Pocket Guide to the Space-Time 
Continuum, gambling is one of the greatest vices in the universe, 
ranking behind only smuggling, ingesting weird substances, and 
coating one's naked self with butter and leaping into a Red Lobster 
and shouting "Where are you, Mrs. Paul?  Don't leave me like this!" 
(It should be noted that this was not a quantitative listing of vices 
as they actually occurred throughout the universe, merely a survey of 
at least three or four people at the bar where M. Ooolavant was 
working on the Guide as to what some really great vices would be.) 
Gambling, the Pocket Guide noted, was prevalent throughout the 
universe, and its most popular expression was in the form of The 
Casino.
      The most popular expression of The Casino in the universe was 
Alpha Rio VI, more informally known as the Planet of Casinos.  The 
Earth city Las Vegas was a mere dingy bauble compared to the opulence 
of this garish world.  Neon lights gave the atmosphere a permanent 
green-and-red-and-orange glow.  What forests were allowed to remain 
standing had slot machines ringing every tree trunk.  What mountains 
had not been leveled offered betting on how much tectonic plate shift 
would occur, how much it would cost to repair the damage, and whether 
or not it would spill Vino the Three-Headed Yak's drink.  Everywhere 
else, across the land and beneath the sea was an interlocking series 
of casinos, hotels, bars, brothels, and generically seedy underworld 
hangout type places.
      It was one of the most popular worlds in the known universe, and 
there was scarcely a species that did not yield up at least a few of 
its members to its promise of instant success and its threat of 
exotic, or at least photogenic, dangers to life and limb.  It was a 
world with a simple motto.
      The House Always Wins.
      Something an early draft of the Pocket Guide (suppressed by 
generous donations of money and creative threats of violence from the 
Alpha Rio VI Chamber of Commerce) found issue with.
      Odds are always expressed as a "to one" statement.  No matter 
how ridiculously improbable the feat, it can be expressed as a "to 
one."  When Buzz Williams singlehandedly defeated the Dark Armada of 
the Seventh Galaxy, using nothing more than a hyperwave transmitter, 
a Commodore Vic 20, a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, and a garden 
weasel, he did so despite odds of "seventy million bazillion 
quintillion to one against."  M. Ooolavant's point was that this 
proved that, no matter how foolproof something was, there was one 
person out there, somewhere in the universe, who could cock the whole 
thing up.
      It is a corollary of this point that, if this were true, one 
might as well create this person, and keep him well away from where 
this person can do any real damage.  (At this point, it is believed 
M. Ooolavant passed out, and that his fellow Pocket Guide researchers 
stuck him with the tab.  Hence, the Pocket Guide's rather hefty price 
tag.)

                                      -~-_-

                               UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                              (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                   Episode 11
                                     "Teal"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

      Sajon, up until three minutes ago, had thought his life could 
not get any stranger.  He'd been randomly teleported by an ill-fueled 
ABPSARI, towel-whipped by a beautiful yet terribly intimidating woman 
from another altiverse, captured by a sleek black starship commanded 
by a floating bagel, told by the bagel that he was supposed to be a 
Champion of some sort, and then a strange man with curly hair and a 
horn showed up with the ABPSARI again, and then the world went this 
sort of teal color, and then he was riding a yak that had a grenade 
launcher sticking out of its left nostril.  It, in turn, was sprawled 
upon a yak that had several throwing stars in its nostrils.
      "Er, sorry," he said to the Yaks.
      "Agggh!" the Yak on top answered.  "Geddoff!  Geddoff!"
      Sajon, ever the soul of perception, noticed that there was smoke 
coming out of the barrel of the grenade launcher.  He realized that 
the creature must have fired the weapon just as Sajon materialized 
and landed on its back, and that they had somehow managed to run over 
another Yak in the process.
      "Sorry," he said again.  "Bit of bad luck there, I'm afraid--"
      "Good luck, you mean," a woman's voice interrupted.  "Now come on!"
      Sajon looked up and saw the woman who had earlier towel-whipped 
him on Dr. Von Spleen's warpshuttle.  He remembered that her name was 
Shadebeam Moroboshi.  There was a guy with a green, scaly face next 
to her, who he dimly recalled was named Slithis.  But he had been 
randomly teleported by the ABPSARI.  Why would they be teleported to 
the same place as he?
      And where was here?
      And why were they wearing spandex bikinis festooned with 
sequins, ostrich feathers, and fresh fruit?
      Sajon's mind retreated firmly from that question, and back to 
the slightly less controversial question of where here was.  Here, he 
could see, was a garishly-lit, overly-loud, smoke-filled room that 
echoed with the cries of victory, loss, and free drinks.  And though 
he had been away for years, he instantly recognized it.
      "Oh, needlewarp," he groaned.  "I'm back on the Planet of Casinos!"
      Shadebeam grabbed his hand and pulled him off the Yak.
      "No time to explain, kid," she told him.  "Your sudden 
appearance kept us from being made into dark splotches on the nickel 
slots, but we'd better run before more of these guys show up."
      "You said you've been here before?" Slithis asked him.
      "I was born here," said Sajon.  "More or less."
      "Know where we can hide?"
      "If we can get out of this casino," said Sajon, as he looked 
around, "we ought to be able to lose ourselves in some seedy back 
alley or hotel of some sort.  Problem is, we may be miles from the 
nearest exit."
      "ALERT!" a loudspeaker blared.  "UNAUTHORIZED TELEPORTATIONAL 
ENTRY HAS TAKEN PLACE IN SECTOR 8984-B!  All security personnel 
converge and neutralize the intruders at once!"
      Sajon noticed a wallscreen next to the speaker.  The screen 
rippled as the odds on various races and battles changed, as new ones 
were added and concluded ones disappeared.
      At the top of the list was a new entry: SECURITY vs. INTRUDERS. 
The odds, it seemed, were heavily in security's favor.
      "Follow me," he said.  "There's nothing to worry about."
      He started running, knowing that if he stayed in the slot 
aisles, he should find an exit sooner or later.  Shadebeam and 
Slithis followed, cursing as their new apparel (added, Sajon guessed, 
in transit by the ABPSARI) scratched them in sensitive areas.
      "Nothing to worry about?" Shadebeam asked, as the first laser 
beam from a pursuing security bot flashed overhead.  "Nothing to 
*worry* about?"
      Sajon didn't answer.
      Five seconds later, every slot machine for three hundred yards 
behind the fleeing trio, including the few machines not being played, 
hit the jackpot.  Thousands of heavy metal coins shot out of the 
winnings dispensers.
      "Waugh!" cried out their pursuers, before disappearing in a 
deluge of coins.
      "Waugh!" they said again, as the sea of coins disappeared in a 
deluge of casino-goers trying to scoop up the loot.
      "Wow!" he heard Shadebeam exclaim.  "What were the odds of *that?*"
      Sajon did not answer.  He knew all too well.

                                      -~-_-

      Captain Steve Vogel fought to retain control of his emotions. 
That it was a losing battle he already knew; all he wanted was not to 
bust out into tears in front of his first officer and his guests.  He 
dabbed at his eyes with his handkerchief, took a deep breath, 
straightened up, and in his best, most captainly voice, said, 
"Lights!"
      The lights came on, illuminating the commissary, and Steve 
suddenly saw that he was not alone in his feelings.  Gham was seated 
next to her husband, Jerriphrrt, sobbing into a napkin and 
occasionally blowing her nose in his fur.  Cmdr. Jean St. Thomas was 
sniffling, Lt. Zacko was playing harp music, and Lucky the Cat spit 
out what was left of six unguarded bags of freshly-popped microwave 
popcorn.  (Spaulding, Chicobaldi, and Zeppus were mercifully absent.)
      "It was so *sad*," Gham said, "when Ted Danson screamed 'you 
have betrayed us' and got all atomized and stuff.  I never knew he'd 
be so good... so *right*... as a cosmic piece of ur-Bacon."
      Steve sniffed.  He, personally, had been moved by the tragic 
death of the ur-Coffee (played in able fashion by Eartha Kitt), but 
Ted had been amazingly good in his star pork-product turn.  An 
absolute crime, he thought, that he lost the interstellar Emmy for 
best actor in a miniseries to Jet Li as Marco Polo in "Marco Polo 
Gets Abducted by Altarians and Made to Kick a Lot of Other Altarians 
Repeatedly, And Hit Them a Lot, Too."
      "Well," he said, "that was the miniseries version of the 
Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe.  Which tells us... 
what, exactly?"
      "Shoon-Ma sold out his fellow ur-Breakfast Foods to an ally 
unrevealed to us," said Jean, "and this ally decided to suck up more 
energy than they'd agreed to take, which resulted in the destruction 
of all the other ur-foods except Shoon-Ma, which leads to him 
declaring wacky revenge, and then the Fast Breaks, and whoomp, 
there's the universe."
      "Now, one part I didn't get," said Jerriphrrt, "is how he could 
find an ally if the universe didn't, per se, exist yet."
      "They covered that when you were off getting more kleenex," said 
Gham.  "Someone from their future, that is, anytime between the 
Breaking of the Fast and the end of the universe, burrowed back into 
the pre-Break bubble and made an offer.  They didn't say who *that* 
was, either."
      "Yeah," said Steve, "which leaves us nothing."  Nothing but 
Eartha Kitt complaining, tragically, of losing caffeine integrity. 
He trembled and sobbed into his hanky.
      Zacko honked his horn.  Steve looked up and saw that the refugee 
from Freedonia 5 had rewound the tape, to a scene that took place on 
the "unnamed ally's" mysterious world.  George Clooney, as the 
ur-Bagel, was talking to a skulking figure (played by the 
ever-versatile Topol).
      "I hated this part," said Jerriphrrt.  "Clooney totally chews 
the scenery here."
      Zacko honked his horn and pointed to a tree in the background.
      "That's not what I think it is," asked Steve.  "Is it?"
      "It's a tree," said St. Thomas.
      "Um, yes," said Steve.  "I meant, that's not the kind of tree I 
think it is, is it?"
      "Were you thinking of an Arcturian Periwinkle Flipoff Tree?" Gham asked.
      "Yes," said Steve.
      "That ain't it," said Gham.
      "Oh," said Steve.
      "That's an Arcturian Periwinkle Flipemdaboid Tree," she said. 
"You can tell by the branches."
      Steve squinted at the still frame.  The branches did, indeed, 
appear to be flipping him da boid.
      "Great," he said.  "But what does it mean?"
      "Ever since Arcturus paved all its continents and made itself a 
gigantic U-Stor-It for all the worlds in its sector of the Milky Way 
galaxy," said Jerriphrrt, "these trees have become incredibly rare. 
In fact, there's only one world where they're known to still grow: 
Zeta Ricola Beta."
      Steve frowned.  Apparently, everyone else in the room did so as 
well, because Jerriphrrt suddenly started looking defensive.
      "What?" he asked.  "So I watch the Interstellar Geographic 
channel every once in a while."
      "So they filmed a few scenes on Zeta Ricola Beta," said Steve. 
"What does this prove?"
      "Nothing," said Gham.  "Nothing... except... didn't it say in 
the credits that the story of the Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of 
the Universe was adapted from an old Zeta Ricola Betan legend?"
      "And didn't Zeta Ricola Beta used to be a retreat for a small 
order of eccentric monks about forty or so years ago?" Jean asked. 
"Until they suddenly and mysteriously acquired a vast energy source 
that they used to build a huge space armada and corner the 
intergalactic pudding market?"
      "And wasn't the film financed by the Zeta Ricola Beta Chamber of 
Commerce?" Jerriphrrt asked.  "And doesn't the Zeta Ricola Beta 
Chamber of Commerce Motto read: "Breakfast: it's What's for Dinner"?
      A moment later, he added: "What?  Okay, so I watch the food 
channel now and then..."
      Steve frowned, then spoke.
      "I'm not convinced," he said, "but it's our only remaining lead, 
so we have to take it.  Um... does anyone know where planet Zeta 
Ricola Beta is?"
      He waited while Jean checked the computer.
      "Yes, but it's no help," she said.  "The Zeta Ricola Betans 
seems to have gotten a bit paranoid about letting folks drop in and 
visit in the past few years.  They've sealed their solar system off 
in a hyper-mumbo-jumbo-energy-tesseract.  Very difficult to crack. 
Time Central might have agents with the technology that could get 
through, but not us."
      Lucky burped.  An empty bottle of beer flew out of his throat.
      "Ew," Jerriphrrt commented.  "And I thought the hairballs were bad."
      "Wait," said Jean.  "We do have some intel that there's a 
transmat machine on the planet Mydrus that's been used by the 
Goornashks in recent years to visit Zeta Ricola Beta.  Unfortunately, 
Mydrus is a high-security planet deep in the heart of the Goornashk 
Authority.  Our one ship wouldn't stand a chance against all they've 
got to defend themselves."
      "Is there any other way in?" Gham asked.
      "Could be," Jean said, "but Mydrus is all we know of."
      "We do have a captive Goornashk vessel," said Steve.  "If we had 
to, a small team of us could sneak in, I think.  But I'd rather go in 
with the _Challenger III,_"
      "We can," said Gham.
      "How?"
      Gham smiled.  "Just trust us."
      Steve nodded.  He knew he should voice some objection, but he 
was tired, a big grotty from having watched a six-hour miniseries in 
four hours time, and frankly, a little bored.  A daring raid into 
Goornashk space would be just the ticket to clear that right up.
      "Just one thing," said Jerriphrrt.
      "Name it."
      Jerriphrrt pointed out the porthole at the captured Goornashk 
ship.  "How do you steer it?"

                                      -~-_-

      If there was one advantage to constantly being bullied from 
elementary school through high school through hero training at 
Interstellar University, it encouraged one to learn how to run.  Run 
quickly, cleverly, and for prodigious lengths of time, all while 
carrying considerable weight.  The only real twist, thought Ronald 
Hastings as he and Norman Sassafras zipped around a corner (deep 
somewhere in the commerce-minded space station known far and wide as 
Dirk's Space Swap-O-Rama and Grille), was that the weight that he was 
pulling along this time was screaming at decibel levels that made 
everything inside his skull hurt.
      "Kissy!" he tried to yell, "could you stop screaming for just a minute?"
      She stopped.
      "Why?" she asked, not sounding the least bit out of breath.
      "Because," said Norman, who *was* out of breath, and sounded if 
he was worried that a breath embargo was in his future, "we're far 
enough ahead that if they don't hear you, they'll just drive by and 
we can escape!"
      Kissy considered this for a few seconds, then resumed screaming.
      "She's a professional Space Ingenue!" Norman shouted as he and 
Ronald resumed running, pulling Kissy along as they did.  "You know 
she can't pass up a chance to make our heroic escape even more 
difficult!"
      "Sorry!" Norman grunted.
      Ronald's punchy, Kirk-like reply never made it past his lips. 
He and Norman barreled around another corner and into a broad sea of 
loudly-dressed beings who were yelling loud, incomprehensible words 
at one another and the universe in general.  They seemed oblivious to 
the fleeing heroes, which meant they had to dodge, bounce, weave, 
trip, slide, stagger, hop, canter, and (just once) boogie to get past 
them all.  Ronald finally realized where they were.
      "We're in the auction pits!" he yelled.  "They'll never be able 
to drive that thing in--"
      A laser blast zinged past him and slammed into the wall.
      "Stand where you are!" the voice of Satik roared.  As he and 
Norman utterly failed to stand where they were, or even slow down 
much, Ronald found himself reluctantly admiring the aging, dotty 
Sonar Man, and wondered if all the tales Satik had slung about how 
bad he was back in the day might have been true.  The man could 
certainly drive his balsa-wood-like mini-tank like no one's business.
      They passed under a low arch into the next auction pit, where 
more beings of varying colors, shapes, densities, and decibel levels 
were trying to put in the high bid on a jello pudding pop once licked 
by Carmen Electra.  The auction here was further advanced, Ronald 
judged, since the bidders were pressing closer to the stage, trying 
to ensure their success by out-maneuvering, out-yelling, and (if all 
else failed) out-stabbing the others.
      "There's the lift!" Norman exclaimed.  "It's part of the main 
line!  It can take us back to our Pinto!"
      Ronald cheered (one of the very few times in the history of the 
universe that anyone has cheered about returning to a Pinto) and ran 
faster.
      Kissy stopped screaming.  Ronald's inner ears responded by doing 
the inner-ear equivalent of an exhausted collapse onto a sofa, and 
both he and Norman stumbled.
      "What's going on?" Norman asked.
      "Satik stopped!" Kissy exclaimed.  "It looks like he and the 
High Spock are arguing..."
      Ronald found his legs again and renewed his run for the lift, 
the doors of which were already opening.
      Opening to reveal the other members of Team E... and a 
shimmering, rectangular thing on a trolley.
      Ronald tried stopping.
      His feet slid.
      "Whaaaaaa!" he yelled.
      "Whaaaaaa!" Norman, in a similar predicament, also yelled.
      "Eeeeeeee!" Kissy, who knew her cue, screamed.
      They slid past a naked, butter-covered man, the evident source 
of the butter that was causing them to slide.
      "Er, excuse me!" he called.  "The other gentlemen in the 
colorful velour shirts told me there was a Red Lobster on this floor. 
Do you know where--"
      Ronald, Norman, and Kissy struck the shimmering rectangular thing.
      "Foom!" said the rectangular thing, as it made them disappear. 
"Fizzle fizzle fzzzzzz."
      "Damn," the buttered man grumbled.  "Buzzing Applebee's just 
isn't the same."

WILL THE BUTTERED MAN FIND A RED LOBSTER RESTAURANT?
WILL RONALD, NORMAN, AND KISSY FIND HAPPINESS BEYOND THE SHIMMERING 
RECTANGULAR DOOR THING?
HOW WILL STEVE VOGEL AND COMPANY SNEAK THE _CHALLENGER III_ INTO 
GOORNASHK SPACE?
DOES ATTEMPTED DIGESTION OF A BEER BOTTLE BY A 
SIX-FOOT-TALL-AT-THE-SHOULDER CAT CAUSE THAT BOTTLE TO BE NO LONGER 
RETURNABLE?
WHERE WILL SHADEBEAM, SLITHIS, AND SAJON RUN?
IS THE ALLITERATION OF THEIR NAMES INTENTIONAL, OR JUST A SIDE-EFFECT 
OF THE USUAL ABPSARI WACKINESS?
WHY ISN'T DRESSING UP LIKE A SHEEP AND RUNNING FOR THE SENATE 
CONSIDERED ONE OF THE GREAT VICES?

Questions answered, answers questioned, and prices rolled back to 
yesteryear in the next thigh-tingling episode, right here on... 
SFSTORY!
=========================================================================
Date:         Sun, 24 Aug 2003 23:30:19 -0400
From:         Gary (swede3000 at earthlink.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #12

                                UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                              (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                   Episode 12
                                     "Sepia"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

      No one gives much credit to the stupid, thought Sark Flyby.  Not 
as such, anyway.  Whenever stupid people did get credit, it was 
generally of the left-handed variety.  Critics would say things like, 
"unlike *some* dark lords we've heard of, at least he didn't give his 
Death Cruiser an Express Obliteration Duct that nobody on his side 
picked up through all the years of design and construction but the 
rebels spotted within ten minutes of studying the plans," or "at 
least he wasn't fooled into thinking the enemy was hiding its 
biological weapons in mobile cows."
      He watched his son, Zark Flyby, savagely obliterate a tree with 
cosmic energy that shot out of his eyes.  It was energy that nobody 
on Zeta Ricola Beta, other than Zark, could control.  All who had 
tried to control it had their minds reduced to utter slag.  Of 
course, the same happened to Zark when Zark first grasped the Proofs. 
But, and this is where the whole 'credit to the stupid' thing came 
in, with Zark, no one could tell the difference.  And since Zark 
already had a lifetime of practice with blowing stuff up without any 
interference from his few functioning brain cells, he was quickly 
able to master the 'how to destroy stuff' aspect of using the Proofs.
      "That's enough for today," said Sark, as he waddled forward. 
His son, who was considerably taller and wider, looked around, having 
again forgotten the height of his father.
      "Whozat?" Zark asked.  "Friend or foe?"
      "Would it make a difference?" Sark asked.
      Zark chewed on the question.  As he did, Sark gave the sign to 
Tarlus, the Keeper of the Proofs, to thin the Connection.  The 
yellowish, godlike glow that surrounded Zark dimmed until it simply 
looked like he hadn't showered in a week.
      "No," Zark answered.  He looked down, saw Sark, and immediately 
tried to fry him with another beam of cosmic energy.  Nothing came 
out, though, and Zark frowned.
      "Zark, my son," said Sark, "I said that's enough for today. 
Allow Kimea to lead you back to your quarters.  You must be 
exhausted."
      "Nope," said Zark.  "Feel just fine."
      Sark watched as several tranquilizer darts suddenly struck Zark 
in random locations on his backside.  Zark scratched the locations. 
Sark watched as more tranquilizer darts struck.  Zark yawned.  Kimea, 
a young monk in a grey robe, gingerly took Zark's hand and led him 
toward one of the holes leading to the underground complex that was 
the Repository of the Proofs.  Zark was snoring, though still 
walking, when Sark lost sight of them.
      "He is not ready," said Tarlus.  Sark turned to regard the old, 
bald, and pale-skinned man who tottered close.  "He has barely any 
grasp of tactics, is easily stymied by words of more than one 
syllable, and his track record with cosmic powers as a onetime 
Satanic Agent At Large is not terribly encouraging."
      Sark nodded.  "He shall have to become ready, and soon.  For is 
it not written that Shoon-Ma, the ur-Bagel, shall send forth a 
Champion to take back the Proofs and with them the cosmic energy 
stolen from the Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe?"
      Tarlus gave Sark a sour look.  "I know the prophecies.  Both the 
ones Shoon-Ma planted eons ago and the new ones we came up with some 
decades ago, after the unfortunate incident with the villain."
      "The villain," Sark said.  "I don't suppose you got the dispatch 
from our orbital fleet this morning?"
      "I did," said Tarlus.  "It can't be a coincidence, *him* showing 
up just now."
      "Is it not also written..."
      "...yes, it's written!" Tarlus exclaimed.  "I *wrote* it!"
      Sark did not reply.  He hadn't meant to tweak Tarlus about the 
prophecies, the visions that he had received in the days immediately 
following 'the unfortunate incident with the villain.'  The visions 
that burned bright and soon faded.
      He thought of the final prophecy.  A new visionary, one who 
would supply The Way Out.  He wondered if that was a true vision of 
Tarlus's, or an occultish C.Y.A. maneuver.  It seemed they were 
destined to soon find out.
      "When I got the report," said Sark, "I ordered that the 
prisoners be taken down to Daaksvong Central.  Do you want to 
interrogate them with me?"
      Tarlus considered, then shook his head.  "I have to go over the 
data we gathered from Zark's most recent trials."  Without further 
comment, he turned on his heel and went back into his fortified 
bunker.  Sark turned as well, heading for his air flitter.
      Two of the prisoners, a Wzaxtil who was reported as being 
considerably annoying and a red robot who was easily immobilized, 
were of no particular concern, he decided.  It was the third who 
would bear watching..
      Bagelos.  The grandson of 'the villain.'  Soon to be 
face-to-face with Sark.
      He hoped the grandson was less deluded than the grandfather. 
Otherwise, they were *all* doomed.

                                      -~-_-

      Strangely familiar sounds filled Ronald Hastings' ears.  Clicks, 
whirrs, and beeps that made him think he *had* to be dreaming, he 
couldn't *possibly* be where his ears insisted he was.  His brain 
knew that he was on the commerce-minded space station known as Dirk's 
Space Swap-O-Rama and Grille, and that he, his longtime friend Norman 
Sassafras, and their hired Space Ingenue Kissy Hitowers, had just 
been tricked by their archenemies into running into a glowing 
rectangular thing that transported them... somewhere.
      Cautiously, he opened his eyes.
      A railing.  And beyond that.
      "Needlewarp!" he heard Norman exclaim, and then he knew it was real.
      Ronald grasped the railing and hauled himself to his feet.  The 
sounds receded to their proper place as barely audible background 
noise.  He inhaled the recycled air, looked around at the various 
screens showing stationary star formations and planets.  He looked at 
the Captain's chair, just waiting for the right posterior to claim it.
      There was no doubt about it.  He was on the bridge of the 
original-series Enterprise.  And he was in command.
      Norman Sassafras was standing almost next to him, groggily 
examining the same scene.  Kissy Hitowers was seated in the 
navigator's chair, looking around with an air of someone who knows 
it's just a television set, but can't seem to find where it leaves 
off and the studio starts.  Neither was moving toward the chair.
      Ronald jumped the railing and immediately sprawled back onto the 
floor.  Norman, shaken out of his reverie by Ronald's sudden move, 
dodged around the railing and made towards the Captain's chair. 
Ronald scrambled to his feet and deflected his friend with a 
well-placed, Kirk-like karate chop.
      "I just want to try it out!" Norman protested.
      "I'm command, remember?" Ronald asked.  "I've got the gold 
velour on.  That means it's *my* chair."
      "Then I'm revolting," Norman countered.
      "You sure are," Kissy commented.
      "Thanks," said Norman.  "I-- hey."
      Ronald leapt for the chair, and Norman did the same.  They 
collided in mid-air and both landed in the seat.  For several 
minutes, they continued to fight, and it might have gone for several 
minutes longer if a voice that none of them recognized spoke.
      "It doesn't matter which of you sits in it," the voice said. 
"It's just a prop."
      Ronald looked up, moved Norman's hand off of his eyes, and gasped.
      At the back of the Enterprise bridge, by the door leading to the 
Captain's quarters, was a woman with long, deep crimson hair, an 
old-style Space Hero uniform that was tattered and worn and yet clung 
to strategic locations on her voluptuous body in such a way that the 
story remained PG-13.  Despite the differences between her photo and 
her, Ronald had no difficulty identifying her as the one they'd been 
searching for.
      "Toni Williams!" he exclaimed.
      This seemed to surprise her.  "You know me?"
      "We were given a mission from Time Central to rescue you!"
      Toni shook her head.  "Sorry, I'm not buying that one.  You're 
too young, for one, and you didn't even bother changing out of your 
velour shirts, for another.  Though you--"  She pointed at Kissy. 
"--seem familiar."
      "Kissy Hitowers," said Kissy.  "I'm an Ingenue.  We met back 
when I was a student at Interstellar University.  You remember Mark, 
right?"
      "Mark Hyperthrust?" Toni asked.  "God, how could I forget? 
Whatever happened to him?"
      "Well, there was a Space Harem, and these guards and... well, 
you know how that goes."
      "Oh, right," Toni said.  "So who are these guys?"
      "Hey!" Ronald exclaimed.  "You could ask us directly."
      "So who are you guys?" Toni asked, without missing a beat.
      Ronald looked at her beautiful, inquisitive face, at her soft, 
red lips, and remembered that day, so many years ago, when his 
second-grade class had taken a field trip to a dairy farm, along with 
several other second-grade classes, including hers.  He remembered 
how she talked, how she moved, how she didn't laugh when the words 
tripped out of his mouth when he introduced himself.  He remembered 
thinking that maybe there was something to be said for girls, or at 
least this particular girl, despite the general popular opinion of 
most all the boys he knew.
      "I'm Norman," he heard Norman say, "and this is Ronald.  We're 
Space Heroes.  Or we're going to be, at any rate.  We're in our 
Senior year at Interstellar University, and finding and rescuing you 
is our Senior Project.  Ron, of course, knows you-- ooof!"
      Ron retracted his elbow from Norman's ribs when he was sure 
Norman wasn't going to complete his sentence.
      "How do you know me, Ron?" Toni asked.
      "From the briefing," Ronald replied.  "And from what we know of 
Buzz Williams."
      "Have you really been stuck here for a year?" Kissy asked.
      Toni walked down the steps and sat down in the Helmsman's seat. 
"About that," she said.  "I was captured while I was investigating 
the theft of a Nega-Cell and Nega-Transporter.  I tracked it to 
Dirk's, where I found it in the possession of a group of 
velour-shirt-wearing thugs who called themselves 'Team E.'  I would 
have rounded them up, no problem, but there was this old Sonar Man 
who was their ally, and he tricked me into--"
      "We met him," said Norman.  "He tricked us as well."
      "Where are we?" asked Kissy.  "This doesn't look like a cell."
      "We're inside a Nega-Cell," said Toni.  "The stolen one I was 
looking for, I should point out.  A Nega-Cell, in case you don't 
know, is a small pocket in Nega-Space that can be accessed with the 
Nega-Transporter, which looks like a glowing rectangular thing, which 
I'll assume you saw since you had to go through it to get here.  The 
door is portable, of course, which is what makes it so versatile.  It 
also, sad to say, renders weapons, such as your personal nukers, 
inoperative."
      "Erk," said Norman.  "You mean, we're stuck here?"
      "Yes," Toni replied.  "The guys who stole the cube decided to 
make the cell look like the original Enterprise bridge, although only 
the buttons that control the food and drink replicators seem to 
actually do anything.  There's a shower and toilet through the fake 
turbolift door.  There's only one bunk, though, in the Captain's 
ready room, which will remain mine alone.  Our captors occasionally 
come through the cell door, which on this side is the viewscreen, 
though *their* weapons always seem to be functioning, so I don't 
recommend trying anything.  Any questions?"
      "It's surprising Buzz Williams never was able to find you," said 
Kissy.  "It's also surprising that, strategically tattered uniform 
aside, you don't look to be in particularly bad shape, despite having 
been confined alone in a cell for about a year."
      Toni smiled and stretched, shifting the tattered fabric in ways 
that seemed to seriously threaten the PG-13 rating and Ronald's and 
Norman's ability to stay conscious.
      "Any *questions?*" she repeated.
      "Yeah," said Norman, "did you and Ron ever kiss?"
      This startled Toni so much she nearly slipped off the railing.
      "What?" she asked.
      "In second grade," said Norman, doggedly ignoring the elbow that 
had returned to his rib cage.  "Ron never would give me a straight 
answer about-- ow!  My arm!  Stop it, Ron!"
      Ron, who hadn't been exerting much pressure, stopped it, and 
looked at Toni.  He knew his face had to be crimson red again, but he 
wondered what her answer was going to be.
      "I don't know what you're talking about," she said.  "The 
replicators are over there.  I'm going to go lie down now.  Don't 
bother me until I come out again."
      With that, she stood, walked up the steps, and disappeared into 
the Captain's ready room.  When the doors closed, with that 
particular swoosh, Ronald let go of Norman's arm.
      "What'd you do that for?" Norman asked.  "I only wanted to know--"
      "Norman," said Kissy.  "Let it go."
      Norman seemed on the verge of not letting it go, then relented. 
Ronald looked at the closed Ready Room doors, took several deep 
breaths, and unclenched his fists.
      "You can have the chair, Norm," he said, as he turned toward the 
viewscreen, which featured a rolling animation of stars whooshing by.
      He leaned on the railing, and stared at the screen for a long time.

                                      -~-_-

      Only three days to go until he entered the Alpha Rio system, and 
already Dr. Bing Von Spleen knew he was doomed.  He knew that no 
matter what strategy he tried, he would not be able to alter Benjen's 
cellular structure in a way that would allow him to use some form of 
cosmic power.  It was generally something that only the amazingly 
strong, the awe-inspiringly wise, or the thunderingly stupid could 
hope to accomplish, and Benjen displayed none of those traits.  Yet 
his captor, the ur-bagel known as Shoon-Ma, demanded he create a 
machine that could instantly alter a being and make him a cosmic 
power, and told him he had until they reached Alpha Rio VI (the 
Planet of Casinos) to succeed.
      The problem was that he was sober.  Utterly, absolutely, 
painfully sober.  Not a single perception was altered one tiny little 
jot.  Which meant all he had to avail himself of was the vast 
scientific and biological knowledge recorded in the databanks of the 
alien spacecraft that was his prison, his own amazing Spamological 
prowess, and the motivation that comes from having a bunch of zombies 
in velour shirts pointing laser guns in his general direction.
      At the moment, he was waiting for Benjen to emerge from the 
bombardment chamber.  Von Spleen's stomach was doing flip-flops, and 
let's not even get into what his spleen was doing.
      Shoon-Ma hovered nearby, humming a malevolent little ditty to 
itself.  That actually helped Von Spleen calm down a bit, since it 
was the sort of thing he was used to seeing during one of his 
chemical binges.  It took the edge off the fact that his most recent 
random relocation via ABPSARI (Automatic Beet-Peeler and Sub-Atomic 
Re-Integrator) was responsible not only for his current crystal-clear 
outlook on life, but for making it impossible to willingly remedy 
said condition.
      The door to the bombardment chamber hissed open.
      Von Spleen leaned forward, ready to help Benjen out.
      Benjen needed no help.  Still clad in a flimsy white paper gown, 
he stormed out of the chamber and kissed Von Spleen full on the lips.
      Shoon-Ma stopped humming.
      Von Spleen pushed Benjen away and tried to catch his breath.
      "Doooctor!" Benjen cooed.  "Theere you are!  I was looking all 
over for you."  Von Spleen noticed that Benjen's voice was now 
incredibly high-pitched, nasal, and whiny as all get-out.  "You wanna 
go out and dance?  We could go out to this bar on Altair III and 
drink pink frothy drinks and you can groom my poodles and we can 
expose ourselves on national t.v. because everyone finds me 
faaaascinating."
      "Impressive," said Shoon-Ma.  "But hardly cosmic."
      "Well," Von Spleen replied.  "It hardly would have been a good 
idea to make him into a full-fledged cosmic being, right?  I mean, 
that's what you have planned for Sajon, once we reach Alpha Rio VI. 
If I can replicate this on a cosmic scale, there's no force in the 
universe that can oppose you!"
      "Daaaaaance!" Benjen wailed.  "I just love to daaaaance and 
swing my big hips and rip off my shirt and let my...."  He stopped 
and looked down.  "Oh, needlewarp!" he exclaimed.  "My bosom 
deflated!"
      "Though I see there are a few kinks to work out," Shoon-Ma said, 
with more than a hint of smug satisfaction.  "I will then leave you 
to the cleanup, Doctor.  Report to the bridge when you are done; I've 
prepared a special breakfast of omelettes and bacon."
      Shoon-Ma floated out.  The three zombies who had been guarding 
Von Spleen left with it, leaving Von Spleen with Benjen.
      "My bosom!" Benjen wailed.  "Nooooooo!  Now what will I use as a 
personal floatation device at parties?"
      "We're alone now," said Von Spleen.  "Please stop."
      Benjen stopped in mid-wail and cautiously looked around.  "Sure 
he's not monitoring?"
      "No," said Von Spleen, "but if he was, I doubt he would have let 
this charade go on as long as it has."
      "I'll say," Benjen replied.  "Are you sure he bought that you 
injected me with molecular destabilizers that you hoped to agitate 
into cosmic devastation mode by exposing me to a highly-accelerated 
marathon of 'the Anna Nicole Show'?"
      "Same answer," said Von Spleen.  "Now, come on, make like I've 
just injected you with a tranquilizer, and I'll take you back to the 
cell.  I may have bought the next three days, but I still need to 
figure out how to get off of this ship."
      "To get us off this ship," Benjen reminded him.
      "Hey," said Von Spleen, "I could have actually performed the 
experiment on you."
      "True," said Benjen, "which only means you think I might be of 
use when the time comes to exit stage left."
      Von Spleen had no reply to this, as it was all too true.  He 
gestured toward the door, and took Benjen's arm.  Benjen slumped, and 
allowed Von Spleen to guide him.
      They were both startled when the doors wooshed open and a small, 
plastic-toy-looking robot flew in, driving them back into the room. 
The doors shut and the robot emitted several rapid squeaks.
      One thing the ABPSARI had not corrected in Von Spleen was the 
incredible changes wreaked by substance abuse of Biblical 
proportions.  That included the change that made it possible for Von 
Spleen, uniquely among biological beings, to understand just what the 
heck TH1K1 was saying.
      "Ok, doc," TH1K1 chirped, "no time for our usual round of 
threats and rejoinders, I only got a couple seconds to do this."
      "Hey, how cute," Benjen said.  "It's like he's trying to tell us 
something."
      TH1K1 hovered in front of Von Spleen's eyes and flashed a beam 
of light directly at him.  The beam obliterated his vision, swept 
through his conscious mind, plunged him into the depths of 
unconscious thought, past archetypes and egos and ideal forms and a 
group of people who called out 'you sank my battleship!' as he fell 
past.
      The solution he had been looking for blossomed in the depths.
      When Von Spleen regained consciousness, he realized that 
Shoon-Ma and the zombies were all looking down at him.
      "Ow," Von Spleen said.  "What--"
      "The renegade robot TH1K1 attacked you, then flew off," said 
Shoon-Ma.  "It seems able to use the ship's own security network 
against me!  It is most... vexing."
      "Benjen..." Von Spleen said, as he pulled himself to his feet.
      "Ran off," said Shoon-Ma.  "He is of no concern.  There is no 
where for him to hide.  I have dispatched a couple of my 
mind-controlled zombies to catch him.  I will assign another couple 
to keep guard on you at all times.  You must complete the machine for 
making Sajon into my chosen Champion within three days!"
      With that, Shoon-Ma twirled, as only an ancient and 
ultra-powerful bagel can, and floated out of the room.  Two of the 
armed zombies stayed, watching Von Spleen with patient eyes.
      Von Spleen shook his head.  Benjen clearly didn't trust him, 
which only marked him as a good judge of character.  Von Spleen hoped 
his own judgement that Benjen was a whole lot more likely to figure 
out a means of escape was as accurate.
      If that was even necessary anymore.
      The idea TH1K1 planted was blossoming in his head.  As it did, 
Von Spleen mentally kicked himself for missing such a blindingly 
obvious application of his knowledge of Spamology.  It would be an 
intricate process, and would require him to convince Shoon-Ma to let 
him build another ABPSARI, but if it worked....
      If it worked, the hell with Sajon.
      Von Spleen would step inside the transformation chamber himself.
      The zombies gave him looks as sharp as zombies could manage when 
he cackled with glee and clapped his hands together.

WHAT IS BING VON SPLEEN'S AMAZING TH1K1-ASSISTED INSIGHT?
WHY WOULD TH1K1 GIVE HIM THE IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE?
WILL BENJEN ESCAPE THE ZOMBIES?
WILL HE REINFLATE HIS BOSOM?
WILL RON, NORMAN, KISSY, AND TONI ESCAPE THE NEGA-CELL?
WILL TONI BE DISTRACTED FROM KEEPING HER STRATEGICALLY TATTERED 
UNIFORM IN PLACE AND LOSE THE STORY'S PG-13 RATING?
WILL IT BE WORTH IT IF SHE DOES?
WHO IS THE VISIONARY WHO WILL SUPPLY 'THE WAY OUT'?
IT'S NOT ARNOLD, IS IT?  PLEASE TELL ME IT'S NOT ARNOLD.

SFSTORY.  What's in *your* mailbox?
=========================================================================
Date:         Wed, 03 Dec 2003 19:11:46 -0500
From:         Gary (swede3000 at earthlink.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #13

                                UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                               (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                    Episode 13
                                     "Hazel"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

((Deep space (Goornashk Sector)))

      The one thing that could be said for the bridge of the Goornashk 
ship, Jerriphrrt thought, was that it was roomy.  Some part of that 
was the simple necessity for ample space for a crew comprised of 
six-legged, three-armed beings, but the greater part, as far as he 
could discern, was for the conveniences that Goornashks felt were too 
important to do without, even for a moment.
      "Is everything set?" he heard Gham ask.
      One of the Goornashks, who was tending a workstation next to the 
main viewer, turned towards them and blinked several times.  The 
resulting breeze caused by the being's astonishingly thick and hairy 
eyebrows made Jerriphrrt cough.
      "We have coordinates and fuel," the Goornashk reported. 
"Falsification of travel logs is almost complete.  Sleeping quarters 
for yourself and your husband are in process of modification.  They 
should be complete in two hours."
      "Where's Major Lalan?" Jerriphrrt asked.
      "Sulking, sir," the Goornashk said.  "In the Captain's office."
      "Right," said Gham.  "Carry on with... whatever it is you're doing."
      "Stocking my mini-fridge and programming my TiVo."
      Jerriphrrt blinked.  "You have those?"
      "Of course."
      "At your workstation?"
      The Goornashkan somehow contrived a condescending expression 
upon its grey, noseless face.  "It would hardly be appropriate to go 
to one's quarters to catch up on one's favorite shows in the middle 
of a space battle, sir."
      "But--"
      "That's great," Gham interrupted.  "Carry on with that... thing. 
Um... which way is the Captain's office."
      When the Goornashk pointed out the correct direction, Gham 
grabbed Jerriphrrt's arm and dragged him along.
      "It's probably not a good idea to antagonize them," she whispered.
      "Antagonize?" he asked.  "I was only wondering--"
      "We've got them by the short hairs now," said Gham, "but that 
could change if things don't go right.  And other than the Major, the 
rest of them seem fairly reasonable."  They dodged around two 
Goornashks who were busy aligning sensors and running communications 
tests whilst simultaneously engaging in a spirited game of ping-pong. 
"Besides, having an Xbox wired to the main viewscreen isn't a bad 
idea.  Beats streaking stars all to heck."
      "Right," said Jerriphrrt, filing the idea away for someday when 
they had more money, freedom, and absence of people who wanted to 
kidnap their friends.  "As for the Major... you think he'll 
cooperate?"
      "His crew's already cooperating without him," said Gham.  "He'll 
have to if he wants to stay in command."
      "That's kind of... a messy situation," Jerriphrrt replied.
      Gham paused before the door to the office, turned, and kissed him.
      "Admit it," she whispered.  "You like it when it gets messy."
      "Well, some things," he replied.  He thought back to the last 
time they had been on their ship, the W.S. Universal Solvent, and his 
premonition that things were about to go very wrong, that the lack of 
chaos in the past few years was just a sign that the universe was 
saving up something really whacked for them.  Had that been just that 
very morning?  Or years ago?
      "Come on," said Gham.  "Let's deal with him and get it over with."
      Jerriphrrt nodded and gave her nose a playful lick.  Gham 
wrinkled her nose, then swatted him just below the base of his tail.
      The door whooshed open as soon as they pushed the 'Make 
Whooshing Noise' button next to it, and it whooshed again when it 
closed behind them.  Jerriphrrt's eyes took a moment to adjust to the 
lower light level.
      "I won't do it," said a voice from the far corner of the office. 
"You can't make me, you know."
      "Major..." Gham started.
      "Don't try to persuade me," said Lalan.  Jerriphrrt could make 
out his shape now, behind a desk that looked as if it had every 
electronic time-wasting device known to sentient life installed in 
one place or another.
      "If this is about the pudding..."
      "It is not!" Lalan exclaimed.  "Have you forgotten?"
      "Forgotten what?" Jerriphrrt asked.
      "Mister Funboy!"
      The outline of Lalan's massive eyebrows reminded Jerriphrrt of 
hula skirts, which were apparently being jiggled by inebriated hula 
ghosts.  That Lalan was agitated was beyond question.  What would 
soothe him was questionable.  Jerriphrrt wanted to suggest a hedge 
trimmer, but doubted that would go over well.
      "Mister Funboy," said Gham.  "Your laser rifle, which you 
brandished at us when you first captured us."
      "Yes!" Lalan exclaimed.  "Funboy, who I built from a pup! 
Funboy, who was cruelly carved up by your evil allies on the 
_Challenger III_!  Funboy, who did not deserve to be cut down in the 
prime of life!  Funboy--"
      "Er, yeah," said Jerriphrrt.  "That Funboy.  About him--"
      "The crew on the _Challenger III_ was able to repair him," Gham 
interrupted.  "Once you've successfully smuggled us into the 
high-security facility on planet Mydrus, and once we've taken down 
the security grid so that Steve Vogel and his crew can take over the 
transmat systems, the new and improved Funboy will be yours."
      Jerriphrrt had to clamp his jaw shut to keep from gaping. 
They'd both seen the crew sweep up the pieces and dump them into the 
nearest trash bin--
      "You lie," said Lalan, in a small, unsure tone.
      "You'll get that," Gham continued, "and what we promised to the 
rest of your crew."
      "All the pudding we can swim in," Lalan said, a tremor entering 
his words.  "Regardless of cost, or availability, or swimming pool 
regulations.  But I... I don't know whether I should believe you...."
      The pudding part was true, Jerriphrrt knew.  At least, it had 
sounded true when Steve Vogel promised it to the Goornashks in their 
cell.
      "Pudding is life," said Lalan.  "And life is pudding."
      "Riiiiight," said Gham.  "So are you with us...?"
      Lalan scratched his chin.
      "Very well," he finally said.  "I will get this ship, and you, 
past the security patrols to Mydrus.  But if you fail in fulfilling 
your promises... all the pudding in the universe will be your tomb!"
      With that, Lalan lurched past them, through the whooshing doors, 
and onto the bridge.
      "Um, Gham..." Jerriphrrt said as the doors whooshed shut.
      "We need him," said Gham.  "I don't like lying to him any more 
than you do.  I was thinking that if we can get a message to Steve, 
he can have something suitable ready in three days, about when we get 
to Mydrus."
      "Three days," Jerriphrrt repeated.  "Are you sure relying on 
their religious fixation on pudding is a better goad than a threat 
that we'll detonate their ship if they don't get us where we're 
going?"
      "It was your plan."
      "Oh, right."
      Jerriphrrt reached out and found Gham's back.  He slid one arm 
around her waist, leaned down, and kissed her.  Slowly, this time.
      In case things weren't done going wrong.

                                      -~-_-

((Zeta Ricola Beta))

      It was the room that was giving phim the feelings.  Quooth was 
sure of that.  Maybe not the room in particular, but the *kind* of 
room it was.  Again phe raised phis Holy Harmonica to phis mouth. 
Would friend Bagelos understand?
      Quooth began to play, on the Harmonica, the Song of Lonely 
Longing for Being Unconscious While Being Splashed With Water and 
Then Explaining To the Prime Minister That No, the Goat Just Likes 
You.  It was a song fiercely cherished by all Wzaxtil for its subtle 
melody, the piquancy of the emotions it evoked, and how merely 
playing it could clear the sinuses of everyone in a sixty meter 
radius.
      To Bagelos, it sounded merely like the sort of lonely harmonica 
wobble that was practically mandatory as background music in a jail. 
Quooth watched as he sat down on the cot and clutched his head.
      "What do you think they'll do to us, Quooth?" asked the 
entrepreneurally-challenged would-be space villain.  "I, Bagelos, 
tried to explain why we came to Zeta Ricola Beta, but no one wanted 
to listen.  And here we are, finally, on this legendary world, 
following in my grandfather's footsteps, so close to the answers and 
yet so far."  He paused, and sniffed.  "Hey, my sinuses are draining."
      Quooth continued the Song, stopping only a minute later, when 
the cell door opened.  A grey-skinned, bald, gnomelike humanoid with 
disturbing features (disturbing because the Wzaxtil race has no 
concept of, and consequently no words to express, "kind of like 
Freddie Prinze Jr.") waddled into the room, accompanied by two 
grey-skinned, balding, but entirely ungnomelike guards.  The 
gnomelike being neither smiled nor regarded them with anything less 
than contempt mixed with suspicion.
      "Hi!" Quooth exclaimed, just as the being opened his mouth.  "My 
name is Quooth, and it is an honor to meet you, sir or madam or both 
or neither, as the case may be!  This is my good friend, Bagelos, and 
we are on a great quest that has brought us to this charming jail 
cell on this charming planet!  Please, sit with us and tell of the 
many wonders you have on this world, and if there are any horlekkian 
fire ants on the dinner menu!"
      The being closed his mouth and stared at Quooth for several 
seconds.  He opened his mouth again, only to be interrupted by 
Bagelos.
      "Never mind him," said Bagelos.  "If you're here to interrogate 
us, forget it.  I, Bagelos, will tell you nothing!  No matter how 
much you torture Quooth, I, Bagelos, will never reveal our purpose in 
coming here--"
      "You're here," said the gnomish being, " because your 
grandfather, the space villain known as Baconos, came here decades 
ago, in search of a power with which he could take over the universe, 
and you were hoping you could succeed where he failed."
      Now it was Bagelos's turn to open his mouth but not speak.
      "My name is Sark Flyby," said the small being.  "It may interest 
you to know that I was there when Baconos landed on our world.  This 
was an undefended world, then, and this place you are in now, 
Daaksvong, was the home of a small order of monks.  Baconos forced us 
to reveal the deeply hidden secrets of our order, and he used that 
knowledge, along with the knowledge he acquired throughout his many 
years of pursuing space villainous schemes, to seek ultimate power."
      Bagelos only nodded.  "Yeah, that was gramps.  He'd tell me all 
his old war stories, about him and Hutch Williams and all the times 
he'd come within a hair of universal domination.  He told me about 
this one, too."
      "Which is why you are here," said Sark.  "With the one piece of 
the puzzle Baconos lacked: the ship you came in.  The so-called W.S. 
Universal Solvent.  The True Saucer."
      "I, Bagelos, hoped to succeed where he failed," Bagelos replied.
      Sark shook his head and gave a mirthless smile.
      "But he did succeed."
      "Hooray!" shouted Quooth, startling both Sark and Bagelos. 
Before either could do anything about it, Quooth raised phis Holy 
Harmonica and played a jaunty celebration tune that had quite an 
effect on Sark and the guards.  Phe stopped and looked up at Bagelos.
      "Is bleeding from the ears the way they express joy?" phe asked.
      Bagelos, in the process of relieving the guards of their 
personal nukers, shrugged and said "I, Bagelos, have no doubt that is 
the case.  But perhaps we should make good our escape, so that we may 
spread joy to ourselves."
      "Hooray!" shouted Quooth.  He played another jaunty celebration 
tune, this time causing Bagelos to clutch his ears.
      "Enough!" Bagelos exclaimed.  "I, Bagelos, am in charge, and I, 
Bagelos, say it is time to move quietly!"
      "Oooh," said Quooth.  "Does that mean no horlekkian fire ants for dinner?"
      "We will see," said Bagelos.
      "Hooray!" shouted Quooth, as phe ran past Bagelos and into the 
corridor beyond the cell door.  Behind phim, Quooth heard Bagelos 
mutter curses in several languages.

                                      -~-_-

((Alpha Rio VI (The Planet of Casinos)))

      Slithis hadn't realized how tired he had been until he sat down. 
All at once, the fatigue poisons in his body, which had up until that 
point been kept lively and swirly by all the bizarre turns his day 
had taken, fell on him like a blanket of meat.  He fumbled for the 
drink he had set on the ground just before sitting down, but could 
not find it.
      "Left," Shadebeam's voice instructed.  Not quite able to work 
out what 'left' meant in his present state of mind, he settled for 
swinging his hand about until he found the bottle.  After taking a 
swig of Supa-Fizz and letting his head roll aimlessly about his neck 
for a minute or so, he sighed and opened his eyes.
      "There was a time," he said, "when this wouldn't have fazed me at all."
      "You and me both," Shadebeam agreed.
      Slithis's head lolled to his left, the closest thing to a 
head-turn he could manage.  From what he could see, Shadebeam 
Moroboshi did not seem to be anywhere close to being as out of it as 
he.  Where he was hangdog tired, she seemed merely mellow, taking 
long and contemplative puffs on her cigarette while ignoring the beer 
in her other hand.  She didn't even seem bothered by the fact that 
she was only wearing a two-piece spandex bikini (festooned with 
sequins, ostrich feathers, and fresh fruit).  Slithis hoped it was 
less uncomfortable than the version that the ABPSARI had foisted upon 
him.
      "How's Sajon doing?" Slithis asked.
      Shadebeam glanced back through the sliding glass balcony doors.
      "He was sleeping when I came out here," she said.  "Poor kid.  I 
don't think home was a place he really wanted to visit again."
      "Did you believe what he told you about what they did to him?"
      Shadebeam nodded.  "It's weird, but it sort of makes sense. 
Bioengineering someone as an oddsbreaker just to have it done and 
have that person under control and not around to break the odds that 
the bioengineers don't want beat... yeah, sure.  I'll buy that.  Not 
the weirdest thing I've seen."
      "At least we don't have to worry about cash too much," said 
Slithis.  "We've got food, drink, a sleazy cash-only hotel room, 
thanks to all the coins that ejected from every slot machine he came 
near... now all we need are real clothes."
      "Tomorrow," said Shadebeam.  She smoked the last of her 
cigarette and flicked the butt into an ashtray.
      "Yeah," said Slithis.  He took another sip of Supa-Fizz and 
stared into the garish green-orange-reddish night sky.  There wasn't 
much of it to see, as they were in a small hotel surrounded by taller 
buildings, but it was easier on the eyes than looking at the 
buildings themselves.  "So... what's the plan?"
      "Plan?"
      "For getting out of here," said Slithis.  "Sajon said that was 
Vino the Three-Headed Yak's casino that we escaped from.  And Vino 
isn't the kind of Yak to not go after someone he's pissed at."
      Shadebeam shook her head.  "You can take off if you want.  I'm 
not leaving until I've got some answers as to what's going on."
      Slithis let the words bounce around in his head, hoping they 
would slow down long enough for them to make sense.  When they failed 
to do so, he asked the inevitable question.
      "Er, what?"
      "We're here for a reason," said Shadebeam.  Her eyes narrowed, 
as if she were trying to focus on that very reason.  "I don't think I 
was plucked out of the 000SUPERGUY altiverse and then subsequently 
replucked out to here completely at random.  And even if I was, I 
don't think it was completely by chance that Sajon got 'ported twice, 
just to get here to the planet where he was born.  And if I'm right, 
you're not here by chance, either."
      "Um," Slithis commented.
      Shadebeam looked up and met his eyes.  Slithis tried to blink 
but found he could not.  All at once, the fatigue left his head, and 
he could acutely feel the blood racing through his body.  It was hard 
to look at her and not see her as she had looked so long ago, a 
twenty-four-year-old woman with spiky blonde hair, bronze skin, a 
gold ear-to-nose chain, and enough attitude to blow out a year's 
worth of Firestone tires.  And seeing her like that, it was 
impossible not to think of what they had done in their time together, 
where they had done it, and how difficult it had been to clean the 
carpet afterward.
      The woman before him now was older (thirty-one, he guessed), had 
let her hair grow long (though it still remained blonde), and lacked 
an ear-to-nose chain.  But somehow, Slithis thought, that wasn't the 
biggest change the intervening years had wrought.
      Shadebeam broke off eye contact first.  She looked down, and 
Slithis was almost sure she was blushing.  Any doubt he had was due 
to his idea that there couldn't be anything that would make her blush.
      "Do you remember," she said, finally, "when we were together?"
      Oh, yes, he thought.
      "Kind of," he replied.  "It was a hectic time."
      "Right, right," she agreed.  "But you remember, right?"
      "Yeah."
      "And you remember the weird... um...."
      Slithis waited for her to finish her question.
      "Hey," she said.  "Can I ask you something personal?"
      "Like the last couple questions weren't?" Slithis asked.
      Shadebeam laughed.  Not a simple snicker, which he remembered 
her as her response of choice from the old days, but a real, clear 
laugh.
      "I was thinking about this," she said, "and I realized 
something.  You're not a mammal."
      Slithis blinked.
      "Yeah?" he said.
      "Well, obviously you're not a mammal," Shadebeam continued, 
"since you're green and scaley and reptilian and all.  But I seem to 
remember something about... well, how should I put this... how you 
could never be a UPS driver."
      "Pardon?"
      "Because you don't have a package."
      "Er," said Slithis, "I actually do.  It's just isn't obvious, 
like it is for mammals."
      "Oh," she answered.  "Right..."
      "Why are you trying to remember this?" Slithis asked.  "You 
don't... um... want to..."
      "No, no," Shadebeam said.  Slithis felt a twinge.  She'd said 
that far too quickly.  "It's just... well, it's like this.  When the 
ABPSARI teleported us to this planet, I had a sort of vision... 
thing.  A vast cosmic fight between various breakfast foods sometime 
in the early moments of the universe, or something like that. 
Shoon-Ma was part of it.  Then someone stealing energy from them all. 
Then... I don't know.  I just feel like the vision came to me because 
there's something I'm supposed to do about it, because there's 
something I *can* do about it.
      "And the thing is, this ain't the first time I had this vision. 
I've had it before -- years ago, when we were stoned to the gills and 
gettin' busy on the Red Emma."
      "Ah," said Slithis.  He thought back to the time.  "My memory of 
it is kind of hazy, too, and I saw a lot of strange things, but I 
don't remember Shoon-Ma being any part of them.  And even if I did... 
what's it to me?  I'm more interested in getting off this planet and 
finding Jerri and Gham and Benjen."
      "Benjen's involved, too," Shadebeam reminded him.  "He's still 
on Shoon-Ma's ship."
      "Well, yeah, but--"
      "But nothing," she interrupted.  "I-- Christ, I can't judge you 
or anything.  Back when I knew you, I had the same attitude.  I 
understand it.  It's just... I'm not that person anymore.  I went 
through a lot after I got whisked away from this altiverse and into 
000SUPERGUY, and... running away is something I don't do anymore.  It 
doesn't matter that I lost my magic-based abilities when I got 
whisked back here.  Not when there's something important on the line. 
Not when there's something I can do to make it come out right."
      Slithis said nothing.  He could see why she had, upon first 
meeting him in Shoon-Ma's ship, not been able to remember his name. 
He was part of a past she had left behind, a reminder of a past self 
she would just as soon forget existed.
      She drank a few more sips of her beer, then lit another 
cigarette.  Slithis finished his Supa-Fizz and set the bottle down.
      Twenty silent minutes passed.
      "I'm sorry about not remembering your name," Shadebeam said, 
finally.  "That must have hurt."
      Slithis sighed.  "It happens," he said.
      "I knew it started with an 'S'," she replied.  "I just blanked 
for a few seconds."
      "It's okay," he told her.  "It's not like..."
      He paused.
      "Not like what?" she prompted.
      Not like I've been thinking about you for years now, he thought. 
Not like I've been thinking that if I had the chance, I'd tell you 
everything I was too scared to say before.  Not like... no, not like 
that at all.
      "Not like it was the end of the world," he said.
      "Yeah," she agreed.  Again, a bit too quickly, to his mind.  She 
yawned and stubbed out her cigarette.  "I'm gonna try to get some 
sleep, if Sajon's snoring doesn't drive me up the wall."
      He watched her stand, watched her stretch.
      "Don't stay up too late," Shadebeam told him.  "No matter if you 
decide to help or not, you've got a busy day ahead of you."
      "Good night," Slithis said as she opened the sliding glass door.
      "'Night," she replied as she closed it.
      The balcony was silent.  He leaned back in his chair and looked 
up at the unnaturally garish sky.
      It's not like I'm still in love, he thought.  Not like that at all.
      He looked at her empty chair.  He glanced back at the sliding 
glass door, at the darkness of the room.  He looked back up at the 
sky and tried to think of something else.  Anything else.
      "Oh, needlewarp," he whispered.

WILL SLITHIS FEEL BETTER IN THE MORNING?
WILL SAJON STOP SNORING?
WILL QUOOTH ENTERTAIN BAGELOS WITH A HARMONICA RENDITION OF 'BLUEBERRY HILL'?
WILL BAGELOS STUFF BAGELS IN HIS EARS TO AVOID SUCH ENTERTAINMENT?
WILL JERRIPHRRT AND GHAM MAKE IT TO MYDRUS WITHOUT INCIDENT?
WILL MAJOR LALAN EVER AGAIN KNOW THE HAPPINESS THAT ONLY WIELDING A 
LARGE, PHALLIC, DEATH-SPITTING METAL OBJECT CAN BRING?

SFSTORY is as SFSTORY does.
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