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Sfstory Log 110

=========================================================================
Date:         Thu, 02 Sep 2004 23:11:46 -0400
From:         Gary (swede3000 at earthlink.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #16

                               UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                              (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                   Episode 16
                                  "Chartreuse"
                                       by
                                  Gary W. Olson

                                      -~-_-

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

      The Planet of Casinos was famous throughout the 001SFSTORY 
altiverse for many reasons.  The expansive, glittering designs of the 
casinos themselves, for instance.  The fabled decadence of the casino 
owners.  The deliciousness of the food in the 24-hour 
all-you-can-ingest buffets.  The freeness of the drinks when one is 
at the tables.  The sleaziness of the back alleys one is tossed into 
after losing all of one's money.  That thing in front of
'Carcass Carcass' (a themed casino designed by, and for, beings who 
believe that carrion means never having to say you're sorry) that is 
either a giant marble statue of the god Vul-Tor of Arion IX or a 
fruitcake subjected to ten or so millennia of forced sudden evolution 
by a stray cosmic ray.  All of these are known throught the universe, 
and are reasons the planet has become a vast monetary nexus, a sort 
of gigantic spherical neon-lit laundry machine that cleans out its 
patrons and sends them away to find more filthy lucre.
      There is one more component to Alpha Rio VI's success that must 
not be ignored: the shows.  Very few who have ever seen Blue Spam 
Group in performance, or seen the stage magic of the Brain-Hurting 
Mavando and Gubb, or attended An Evening With Tane Tessier and Lesser 
Mortals, have failed to tell their families and friends all about it. 
Never mind if the shows were good or bad, liked or disliked, attended 
willingly or because it was a good place to hide from security for a 
couple hours.  These shows get talked about.
      It seemed impossible to Shadebeam Moroboshi that the show she 
was currently witnessing was among the most famous in known space. 
On stage, a Yak in a glittering, strapless evening gown was emitting 
a series of soulful bleats which was, insofar as she could tell, 
either a cover of a Julio Iglesias tune or a sign of advanced 
digestive trouble.  Much of the audience was comprised of Yaks, and 
seemed to be appreciative of what was going on, so she guessed it was 
the former.
      "Where is he?"
      Shadebeam turned to look at Sajon.  He was not looking back at 
her, but was instead looking at the door, which was nearly invisible 
in the darkened auditorium.  As he had been ever since they set foot 
in Vino the Three-Headed Yak's House of Merriment and Extortion, he 
fidgeted beneath his chartreuse robe.  He had not objected to having 
to strap on so many Typical Luck Generators in order to mute the 
odds-busting field he generated while on Alpha Rio VI, but they 
apparently made him itch.  A lot.
      "We'll give him ten more minutes," said Shadebeam.  "Then we'll 
go find him."
      *Easier said than done,* she thought.  They had not exactly had 
a plan when they re-entered Vino's establishment, because their 
objective - to find out what the hell was going on and why the 
ABPSARI specifically teleported them to this casino on this world - 
was vague at best.  Sajon was some help, but even he knew little of 
the Admin levels, or how one might gain access to the Security 
System.  Slithis, who a long time ago had been an interstellar 
communications tech, thought he would be able to break in, if they 
knew where to break.  Break in and then look for whatever it was they 
were looking for.
      Thinking of him now made her think of him then, in the very 
early days when they were Renegade Anarchists and occasionally had 
sex while strung out on a variety of mind-altering substances.  The 
memories were hazy and incomplete, but what she could remember had 
been good.  No, not just good.  Very, very good. 
Make-you-see-red-and-have-visions-of-talking-bagels good.
      *Christ,* she thought.  *Have I been alone that long?  I mean, I 
couldn't even remember his name when I first saw him, so he couldn't 
have been that great.  A nice guy, though.  Really nice.  Sort of 
like Bart, without the ques... tions....*
      "Oh, needlewarp," she whispered.  Was that what was behind it?
      Better to think about the visions they had shared.  She was 
sure, now, that they were why the ABPSARI, or the weird forces that 
operated through it, had caused them, despite overwhelming odds, to 
be thrown together again.  There had been something in them she was 
meant to see, a key to whatever was going on that she was meant to 
know.  Something she could not remember because she had been so 
whacked out when she had them she dismissed whatever it was as just 
another hallucination.
      "There he is," said Sajon.  Shadebeam looked up toward the door, 
but saw no one entering.  She looked at Sajon, and saw that he was 
looking toward the left side of the stage, just past where the 
singing yak was doing some sort of bleating duet with a male yak who 
wore cowboy boots, a red bandanna and a fake white beard.  There was 
a door next to the stage, and it was open.
      In the doorway stood Slithis, easily recognizable despite the 
nun's habit he wore as a disguise.  Next to Slithis was a man in a 
silver tuxedo, who had one hand behind Slithis's back.  Shadebeam 
groaned, knowing it was unlikely that the man was trying to scratch 
one of the reptiloid's hard-to-reach areas.
      The man evidently knew where they were sitting, for he was 
looking right at them.  He made no gesture, for there was no need.
      "Come on," said Shadebeam.  "They've taken him hostage."
      She and Sajon made their way down the ill-lit side aisles toward 
the door.  They passed a number of well-armed Security Yaks, but were 
challenged by none.  When Shadebeam got to the door, the features of 
the man in the silver tuxedo were more visible, and seemed oddly 
familiar.
      "Hi, Shade, Sajon," said Slithis.  "You remember Kalvin Certain, right?"
      "Freedonia 5, a few years ago," said Sajon.  "I think."
      "I was there," Kalvin replied.  It was on hearing his voice that 
Shadebeam recognized him.
      "Hey," she said, "weren't you that foppish dude who stole the 
Omnidean's ship from us...?"
      "I'm glad you remembered," said Kalvin.  "It was a long time 
ago.  I had an image makeover since then."
      "So... are you going to threaten us now, or wait until we get 
back to your secret lair?"
      Kalvin raised a suave eyebrow.
      "Threaten?" he asked.  "Don't tell me... you thought..."  He 
looked at Slithis, and took his hand away.  Shadebeam was surprised 
to see that it was holding a back scratcher.
      "Oh, that," said Slithis.  "See, I have this hard-to-reach area 
on my lower back, and when it gets itchy--"
      Shadebeam fought the urge to beat her head against the wall. 
She then fought the much stronger urge to beat Slithis's head against 
the wall.
      "But I would like to take you all back to my secret lair," said 
Kalvin.  "Which isn't a lair so much as an office, and which isn't, 
per se, secret.  There are things going on that extend far beyond 
this planet, and may have to do with the ultimate fate of the 
universe itself.  I've been trying to deal with it, but its been 
tough going."  He paused.  "Have you heard of the Breaking of the 
Fast at--"
      "--the Dawn of the Universe?" Shadebeam finished.  "Yeah.  It's 
sort of why we're here, I think."
      At this, an expression of delight crossed Kalvin's face.
      Expression, Shadebeam thought, hell, it lit his face up like a 
lamp.  An oil lamp.
      "Come on," Kalvin said.  "Let's go back to my office.  We've got 
a lot to talk about."
      Slithis took the back-scratcher from Kalvin and continued 
applying it to the small of his (Slithis's) back as he followed 
Kalvin backstage.  Shadebeam turned to Sajon and raised an eyebrow.
      Sajon shrugged.  "He seemed like an alright guy when I met him. 
It could turn out okay."  And Sajon followed.
      Shadebeam followed behind Sajon.  Kalvin, she knew, was not 
someone to be trusted, no matter how much he had changed following 
their one brief encounter.  But they had come back to the casino to 
find out What Was Going On, and it looked like that was about to 
happen.
      Whether they really wanted to know or not.

                                     -~-_-

((Zeta Ricola Beta))

      So this, thought Sark Flyby, was the True Saucer.  The Ideal 
Form that was made to hold the Ideal Cup of Coffee at the Breaking of 
the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe.  An object that had persisted 
in defiance of the laws of physics, time, and sanity.  A mighty 
object.  A hallowed object.
      *And a crappy object,* Sark thought.  *I'll be lucky if it 
doesn't collapse around my ears.*
      It maintained the shape of the True Saucer, sure enough, but 
every item on the ship had undoubtedly been replaced many times over 
the eons, and the most recent replacements looked to be very aged 
scrap-heap parts that were held together more by their rust than 
anything else.  Its current incarnation was as a salvage ship, named 
the W.S. _Universal Solvent,_ and Sark had to believe it was some 
kind of cosmic joke that it was the ship doing the salvaging, rather 
than being the salvaged.
      The interior was a little better.  The floor creaked only 
slightly ominously as Sark's grey-skinned, gnomish body tread toward 
the main control console.  Scraps of paper, video game discs, a pile 
of DVDs featuring Radar Vogel, some empty bottles, a plethora of old 
pizza boxes.  Sark shook his head, then winced as the sudden movement 
gave him a headache.
      *Damn that Wzaxtil,* he thought.  *Maybe I *will* let my son fry 
phis insectoid carcass...*
      The last he had been told, before leaving Tarlus in the 
Repository of the Proofs, was that his son, Zark, was pursuing 
Bagelos and Quooth through the forest, and would no doubt obliterate 
the two before long.  Sark told Tarlus to monitor the pursuit, and to 
thin Zark's connection to the Proofs if it looked like he was close 
to success.  He did not want Zark to prematurely fry either of the 
ex-prisoners, despite the aural assault from the so-called Holy 
Harmonica that Quooth possessed which enabled their escape and made 
Sark's ears momentarily bleed.  Bagelos was dangerous, in that he was 
in pursuit of universal domination via completing the work of his 
space-villain grandfather, Baconos, but as he was the only one who 
knew how the True Saucer worked, they still needed him alive.  As for 
Quooth... well, he could not exactly think of a reason for needing 
the Wzaxtil, but waste not, want not.
      *Back to the ship.  By the Nicotine Patch of Belroq, what a mess--*
      Sark's thought was interrupted when he tripped and fell face 
first into a pile of old magazines (many of which featured Radar 
Vogel, again).  He struggled, kept slipping on the glossy pile, 
managed to turn over, then gave up trying to move.  He panted heavily 
(a result of his attempts to get up, not as a result of looking at 
the contents of the magazines, which he steadfastly ignored) and 
looked around for whatever he had tripped over.
      On the ground, prone, rested a large, reddish metal object which 
Sark recognized as a robot.  Some kind of security model, judging by 
the design and its obvious menacingish nature.  He remembered the 
report that the captured ship had a robot which was easily disabled, 
but he did not remember hearing what was done with the robot 
afterward.  The answer, evidently enough, was 'nothing.'
      So.  A decaying, barely intact ship, an inert robot, and a 
control room in desperate need of cleaning, preferrably with nuclear 
explosives.  *This* was what they had feared for so long?  Were the 
prophecies wrong?
      Sark took a breath, pushed hard against the mass of magazines at 
his back, and managed to wobble into a standing position.
      They were probably wrong.  Prophets got it wrong all the time. 
They pretty much had to, otherwise the universe would have been 
destroyed, taken over, or turned into borscht numerous times over. 
The only parts that had to be right were the parts leading *up* to 
the big finale, in order to give the prophets a long lead time for 
getting away or being dead or whatever.
      *And since this is one of those parts,* Sark thought, *you'd 
think it'd be right, but--*
      Then he noticed the wet bar.
      Or, more precisely, what had been exposed when the wet bar had 
been rolled aside.
      Even with the ship's power ostensibly off, the red rock glowed. 
It pulsed.  It shimmered.  It did a sort of twisty squirmy thing that 
probably has a name.
      Here was what kept the saucer together and in its perfect form. 
A rock that was not a rock, because it came from the earliest time, 
before matter was really matter.  A thing with the power to scour 
clean everything in its path, to purge the universe of all that was 
waste, to destroy and renew.
      "The Fiber," Sark whispered.
      After a few minutes of awed gibbering in this general vein, Sark 
settled down somewhat and thought.  Baconos, all those years ago, 
would have captured the universe if he'd had the Fiber.  Bagelos knew 
this, and was no doubt planning on using it if he ever made it back 
to his ship.  Which meant he had to get a team out to the ship and 
get it moved to a more secure location.
      "Secure location?" asked Tarlus, after Sark relayed the above to 
him via his wrist communicator.  "How are we defining secure?"
      "As secure as possible," said Sark.  "Somewhere where the 
escaped prisoners can't get to it."
      "What about Zark?"
      Sark thought about this.
      "If it comes to that," he said, "we'll just tell him it's not there."
      "Oh," said Tarlus.  "Right.  I'll send Cassel's team.  They 
should be there in fifteen."
      Sark shut off his communicator and comtemplated the Fiber for a 
bit longer.  Then he turned to go.
      A red metal wall that had not been previously present was now in 
his way.  Sark frowned and looked up.  The metal wall was large and 
robot shaped.  It had a single red eye, which glared down at him.
      A tag on its breastplate identified it as 'Megabot.'
      Sark only got to the first 'ai' of "Aieeeeee" before the air was 
filled with a high-pitched mechanical scream.

                                      -~-_-

((Mydrus))

      *Grey,* thought Gham.  *Always with the grey.  Why not taupe, or 
violet, or chartreuse?*
      Tamask Citadel, the high-security installation on planet Mydrus 
where the transmat machine that was their only way of getting to the 
planet Zeta Ricola Beta was located, was indeed a very grey place. 
The walls were a kind of cementish grey, with gunmetal grey supports 
and dark grey windows protected by so-grey-they're-black laser gun 
turrets.  The personnel of the citadel wore ash-grey uniforms and 
carried silver-grey nukers.  Were it not for the various PDAs, 
televisions, arcade games, and other items scattered about the 
approach to the complex, Gham might have thought she had gone 
color-blind.
      Major Lalan and his three accompanying Goornashkan crewmembers 
stood out in their turquoise uniforms, but she had to turn her head 
to look behind her to see them.  Jerriphrrt, next to her, was 
shuffling beneath an oversized olive-green jumpsuit, doing his best 
to look like a prisoner.  The clanking noises that emanated from 
beneath said jumpsuit made this difficult.
      "Did you have to bring *every* electronic toy from our quarters 
on the ship?" she whispered.
      "No," Jerriphrrt replied in a quiet voice.  "I left the 
GameSquid behind.  Its batteries were out."
      "Dohw."
      They were approaching the gate that led into the prison section 
of the Citadel.  Major Lalan had assured them that it was the best 
way to get to the part of the fortress they really desired - the 
control complex that ran the security grid for the entire planetary 
system.  Once that was down, Steve Vogel and his crew on the 
_Challenger III_ could fly in and be transmatted, ship and all, to 
the Zeta Ricola Beta system.  Once *that* was done, Gham, Jerriphrrt, 
Lalan, and his crew had to get back to their ship and follow before 
the Goornashk Authority could regain control.  It was a risky plan, 
but the only one that Gham could see would get her and Jerriphrrt to 
the place where Slithis and Benjen either were or were going to be, 
and the only one Major Lalan could see that could get him a new giant 
death-spitting laser weapon and enough pudding to do the backstroke 
in.
      *Speaking of pudding,* she thought, *where is it?  I would have 
guessed there would be giant hundred-foot shrines to Bill Cosby in 
the courtyard, the way Lalan and his crew go on about it.*
      What was in the courtyard were grey walls, guns, and guards. 
Two of those guards, upon noticing the approach of Lalan's crew and 
two prisoners, paused their game of 'Doom 3', stood, and saluted.
      "Major Lalan, sir," said the one whose name badge read 'Hello! 
My name is Fronk.'  "Welcome back, sir.  Two prisoners to check in?"
      "That's correct, corporal," Lalan answered.  "Just two 
prisoners.  Vile fiends who we caught trying to salvage a ship that 
was by rights ours to tow in.  Nothing more."
      "As you say, sir," said Fronk.  "Er... if you don't mind my 
asking, sir..."
      "Yes?"
      "Where is 'Mr. Funboy'?"
      Gham winced, imagining the look on Lalan's face.  She waited for 
Lalan to say something, to start blubbering, or screaming, or just 
start beating them with the portable DVD player strapped to his belt.
      "Mister Funboy," Lalan said, in a voice so tight you could milk 
a brick with it, "is being... upgraded."
      Fronk's face brightened upon hearing this.  "I told you it was a 
great idea!  You can never have too many upgrades, that's what I 
say."  He quickly scanned the Major, his crewmembers, and Jerriphrrt 
and Gham with a generic handheld scanner device, without bothering to 
actually look at what the readout indicated.  "Are you going to get 
the voice module?"
      "I--" Lalan started.
      "'Halt, intruder!'," said Fronk, his voice growing deeper as his 
massive eyebrows quivered with quotational delight.  "'If you're not 
eating pavement in five seconds, you'll be eating neutron beam!  Ow! 
I am so male I vibrate with musculature!  Hoof!'"
      "Not that particular module," Lalan replied.  "It loses 
something in the translation, anyway.  I was thinking more of 
something like--"
      Gham coughed.
      "Ehrm," said Lalan.  "But enough gay banter for one day!  I must 
be taking these prisoners to their cells."
      "Fine," said Fronk, already turning away to view the cheats that 
the other guard was entering into the game they had been playing. 
"Don't forget to get your parking validated on the way--"
      "Halt!"
      Gham's head snapped up in the direction of the new voice.  Its 
owner, a Goornashkan in a sterling silver uniform that bore large 
amounts ribbons, medals, and other fiddly bits, was striding towards 
the group with perhaps a dozen armed Goornashk guards in tow.  Lalan, 
his crewmembers, and the guards saluted with as many hands as they 
had available.  As each had three, and were all standing at 
relatively close quarters, this resulted in a bit of a tangle.  Gham 
and Jerriphrrt took advantage of the confusion to edge slightly away.
      "General Varsoome!" Lalan and the others exclaimed.
      "Don't you 'General Varsoome' me, Lalan," Varsoome snarled.  "We 
received intelligence that you were captured by a warship crewed by 
giant radioactive gerbils, and have every reason to believe in its 
accuracy."  He held up a photograph and a piece of paper.  Lalan 
looked at both and scowled.
      "It's not true!" Lalan replied.  "We stopped these two 
scurrilous thieves from plundering a ship that was carrying large 
reserves of valuable pudding, and their nefarious allies put up a bit 
of a fight.  It's true they managed to escape, but we kept these two 
and will be locking them up and subjecting them to interrogation 
and... and..."
      "And?" asked Varsoome.
      "...and, you know," said Lalan.  "Stuff."
      "Lalan..."
      "Yes, sir?"
      Varsoome held up the photo.
      "Explain this."
      Lalan squinted at the picture.  His crewmen squinted at it, too. 
The guards did as well, though they had no particular reason to do 
so.  Jerriphrrt squinted at it.  Gham squinted at it.
      "It's a autographed photo of Dick Cheney," Jerriphrrt said.  "I 
mean, okay, he sort of looks like a giant hamster, but--"
      "He provided the intelligence!" Varsoome exclaimed.  "Admit it, 
Lalan!  Your ship was captured by giant radioactive hamsters!"
      "I was not!" Lalan protested.  "They were humans, and they 
weren't giant or radioactive.  So there!"
      A long moment followed.  Gham watched as Lalan's expression of 
rage did a slow, majestic slide into an expression of 'oh, I did not 
just say that'.
      "Major Lalan and crew," said Varsoome, "you are under arrest. 
Soldiers!  Take them and these so-called prisoners to the cells at 
once!"

HOW WILL GHAM AND JERRIPHRRT DEAL WITH THEIR LATEST SETBACK?
IS DICK CHENEY A GIANT RADIOACTIVE HAMSTER?
IS HE VIBRATING WITH MUSCULATURE?
WILL MEGABOT SPARE SARK FLYBY?
WILL THE FIBER BE A REGULAR PART OF THE STORY FROM NOW ON?
WILL SHADEBEAM SEE THROUGH KALVIN'S SCHEME IN TIME?
WILL THE SINGING YAKS DO A RENDITION OF 'SHE BANGS'?
WILL THEY SOUND BETTER THAN WILLIAM HUNG?

Vote SFSTORY in November!
--
Copyright (c) 2004 Gary W. Olson, All Rights Reserved.
=========================================================================
Date:         Sun, 24 Oct 2004 17:44:49 -0400
From:         "Troy H. Cheek" (troy at cheek.org)
To:           Superguy List (superguy at lists.eyrie.org)
Subject:      SF: HMS Golden Lance #27 - New Weaseloid Order, Part 2

SF: HMS Golden Lance #27 - New Weaseloid Order, Part 2

Emperor Ralph sat camly on his throne, paw held over the ENTER key of
the ABPSARII, ready to reset the universe as soon as one of his
one-time companions attempted to attack him.  Would it be 357 and his
telechronal displacement pistol this time?  Would Diana Dark expertly
attack using her martial arts skills?  Would Doctor Bing Von Spleen
use his inside knowledge of the ABPSARII to try to sabotage the reset?
Would the VAL9000 wristcomp, uncharacteristically silent during this
exchange, try something?  Or would Omegas simply attack with what he
thought was overwhelming force?

D) All of the Above

Which, unfortunately, did not do a damned bit of good.  Emperor Ralph,
having read every page of "The Evil Overlord's Handbook," watched
calmly as all the attacks bounced harmlessly off the invisible
impenatrable forcefield which surrounded his throne dias and which he
had been careful never to reveal the existance of.  With a quiet sigh,
he hit the ENTER key.

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

Time Agent 357 shook his head violently, almost as if he were shaking
off the effects of being present when an entire universe was reshaped
into a completely new reality, which describes exactly what he was
shaking off at that moment.

"Mes amies, we are zoe hap-py that you have zurvive-ed!" said the
furry monster who had just helped him to his feet.  Said furry monster
was wearing a shirt with horizontal red and white stripes.  An
eyepatch covered one eye.  His whiskers curled at the ends.  A ragged
ear poked out from one side of his head.  The other ear was covered by
a red beret worn at a jaunty angle.  He smiled a smile that was
missing several teeth.  "You have just been rescued by zee Ferretine
Underground Resistance!"

Time Agent looked around and checked on his companions:  Omegas, a
former all-powerful streetwise servant of Heaven, Hell(tm), and mostly
himself;  Diana Dark, a sweet innocent girl from Chicago, or at least
as sweet and innocent as anyone from Chicago can be; Doctor Bing Von
Spleen, the galaxy's fourmost (because he personally killed the other
three) Spamologist; and VAL 9000, the synthetic intelligences which
normally inhabited the HMS Golden Lance for which this serial is
named, but currently stuck in 357's wristcomp.

Our heros stood by while Jean-Perrier, the unofficial spokesweasel for
the Ferretine Underground Resistance, which normally went by the
acronym of FEW (don't ask), explained that their long-time companion
Ralph had used the  Automatic Beet Peeler and Sub-Atomic Re-integrator
Mark II (or ABPSARII) they had been struggling to recover to make
himself undisputed King of This Reality.  To wit, Emperor Ralph.

"Then why doesn't he call himself King Ralph?" Diana wondered.

"Copyright restrictions," answered Jean-Perrier.  He went on to
explain a plan to dethrone Emperor Ralph, which coincidentally
required the unique talents of all our favorite adventurers.  After
Diana Dark had traversed and deactivated the electronic minefield,
Omegas had entered and dissolved the biolectric energy field, Time
Agent 357 had solved and passed through the temporal maze, the VAL9000
wristcomp had tried all 3x10^17 combinations and opened the lock in
6.97 seconds, and Doctor Bing Von Spleen had reached the control panel
and vented all the soporific gas to deep space (though he naturally
kept a few bottles for himself)...

The crew of the HMS Golden Lance, for which this serial is named, and
their weaseloid companions were immediately arrested by the army of
weaseloid soldiers whose barracks they had just gone through all that
trouble to break into.  They were then dumped unceromoniously in
front of a tall throne.

"Hello, old friends," he said warmly.  "Have fun storming the castle?"

"Somehow, I knew you were going to say that," 357 muttered.

"Amazing!" exclaimed Ralph.  "It must be your special Time Police
training.  It has allowed you to recognize the time loop you are
trapped in after only a few dozen trips through it.  I'll have to
remember to edit it out during the next iteration."

Emperor Ralph went on to explain that Jean-Perrier and FEW broke into
the castle every week or so, usually after recruiting Time Agent 357
and/or his companions to help them.  After allowing them to think they
had succeeded, he would them show them how easily they could be
stopped, finally erasing their memories and sending them out to do it
all over again.

"We do this every week?" a muskrat asked incrediously.

Ralph smiled.  "Of course.  It keeps you occupied and, as I mentioned
before, it keeps me amused."

"You didn't mention that before," Diana corrected.

"Well, I'm sure I did in some other iteration," Ralph said.  And with
that, he summoned the ABPSARII and reset the universe.

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

Time Agent 357 shook his head violently, almost as if he were shaking
off the effects of being present when an entire universe was reshaped
into a completely new reality, which describes exactly what he was
shaking off at that moment.

"Mes amies, we are zoe hap-py that you have zurvive-ed!" said the
furry monster who had just helped him to his feet.  Said furry monster
was wearing a shirt with horizontal red and white stripes.  An
eyepatch covered one eye.  His whiskers curled at the ends.  A ragged
ear poked out from one side of his head.  The other ear was covered by
a red beret worn at a jaunty angle.  He smiled a smile that was
missing several teeth.  "You have just been rescued by zee-"

"Ferretine Underground Resistance," Time Agent 357 concluded for him.
"Also known as FEW, not FUR, due to your outrageous accent.  You are
Jean-Pierrer, unofficial spokesweasel.  Our one-time companion Ralph
has used Spleen's ABPSARII to reshape all reality with himself as
undisputed king, but you have a plan to dethrone him, but it will
require all our special talents."

"Um," said a dumbstruck Jean-Pierrer.  "Oui."

"Hey, that does sound kind of familiar," Diana said.  Omegas and
Spleen also concurred.

Time Agent 357 explained "I think we've been through this time loop
so many times that even Ralph's editing of our memories is not enough
to keep us from realizing it.  I have special Time Police training.
Diana, whose intellect was housed my physical brain during that
poorly written body swap episode, also has access to that training.
Omegas is a timeless immortal who has a natural resistance to
temporal paradox.  Spleen..."

Doctor Bing Von Spleen was at that moment raiding FEW's fridge for
more beer.

"As for Spleen, a lifetime of pulling his memories back together
after blowing his mind on a daily basis has apparently paid off."

Omegas snagged a beer for himself.  "Now that we've realized what's
going on, how do we stop it?  Even I," he said with false modesty, "do
not have the power to wrest control of the ABPSARII from Ralph."

"Not that we'd let you get your hands on it if you could," Diana put
in coldly.

"We may not have to," Spleen said, belching quietly.  "I've been
running some simulations."  He paused to gesture at the artistically
stacked beer cans covering a nearby table.  Around them could be seen
a holographic chart generated by the VAL9000 wristcomp.  "Even the
ABPSARII can't completely negate entropy, and I think the
space/time/spam continuum will eventually begin to break down.
Remember, he's not only creating the perfect universe, but he's
re-creating it weekly and making sure nobody dies or gets seriously
injured, which is a major deviation from the way any universe is
supposed to run."

=Meaning that if Ralph were the usual run-of-the-mill immoral
power-hungry dictator,= VAL9000 added in her sexy if irritating
feminine robotic voice, =he might reign forever.  But since he's a
sweet and considerate power-hungry dictator, he's going to have
entropy problems.=

"That makes absolutely no sense whatsover," 357 said.  "But it's all
we have to work with so far.  Let's go explain that to Ralph."

After Diana Dark had traversed and deactivated the electronic
minefield, Omegas had entered and dissolved the biolectric energy
field, Time Agent 357 had solved and passed through the temporal maze,
the VAL9000 wristcomp had tried all 3x10^17 combinations and opened
the lock in 6.97 seconds, and Doctor Bing Von Spleen had reached the
control panel and vented all the soporific gas to deep space (though
he naturally kept a few bottles for himself)...

The crew of the HMS Golden Lance, for which this serial is named, and
their weaseloid companions were immediately arrested by the army of
weaseloid soldiers whose barracks they had just gone through all that
trouble to break into.  They were then dumped unceromoniously in
front of a tall throne.

On that throne sat Emperor Ralph, Undisputed King of this Reality,
formerly known as the Giant Space Weasel of Anthrax V.

"Hello, old friends," he said warmly.  "Have fun storming the castle?"

"Loads," admitted Omegas.  "However, you have a problem.  This time
loop is going to eventually destabalize your little perfect universe."

"What?" exclaimed Ralph.  "Your being a timeless immortal should not
have allowed you to recognize the time loop so soon.  I'm certain
that I edited that out half a dozen iterations ago."

"Your time editing is not working," explained 357.  "At least, not
fully.  Not with us.  Not every time.  Watch this."

357 had VAL9000 show her fancy holograms.  Spleen gave his best
lecture ever.  Omegas spoke at length from his vast supply of (un)holy
knowledge concerning death and destruction.  But in the end, it was
Diana Dark and her threat to cry which convinced Ralph.

Which was a good thing, as she'd figured out a way past Ralph's
invisible impenatrable forcefield and was seven seconds away from
breaking his furry little weaseloid neck.

"You've convinced me," Ralph finally conceded.  "I'll put everything
back to exactly the same way it was before I captured the ABPSARII."
With that, he typed in a few commands on the ABPSARII, which for some
reason looked like an impossibly archaic computer keyboard, and
pressed the ENTER key.

Just has the keyclick hit home, 357 had a terrible thought.  "Wait!
Not EXACTLY the same!"

Too late.

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

Time Agent 357 found himself typing in a firing sequence.  A beam of
pure destructive energy and Cheez-Whiz leapt from the HMS Golden Lance
and sped towards the S.S. You Are About To Die.

Only to be turned aside at the last second by a forcefield.

"Very good shot, Agent 357," came the voice of Greez Hyperiok, whose
image soon appeared on a convenient nearby monitor.  "Fortunately, I
was able to get to my ABPSARII in time to have it create a shield to
block your famous Golden Lance energy beam."

357 shielded his head a half second before the control room was
deluged with a rain of hail-sized golfballs.

"Deja Vu," said 357.

"Deja Vu?  You mean THAT seemed familiar?" asked Diana Dark.

"I think so.  Something's not right here.  Do you remember anything
about a time loop?"

"Vaguely, but I also get the feeling that we busted out of it..."

On the viewscreen, Greez was shaking the ABPSARII violently.  Dijon,
his chief flunky, took some readings.  "The Zipper-Locked (tm)
protective field of the Planet of the Supermarkets is interfering with
the ABPSARII's ability to process SPAM.  If I read this right, it only
has enough power to grant one more request.  One.  Uno.  Single.  Give
it to me.  I've got an idea which can save both you and the ship."

"Never!" Greez shouted.  "I will never give up the ABPSARII.  I will
die first.  I will...  Hey, where the Hell(tm) did it go?"

357, and everyone else, turned around at the sound of a soft "plop."
The ABPSARII popped into existance and fell into Ralph's paws.  His
Least Great Ring of Power glowed brightly and then went dark.

"Great job, Ralph!  You da weasel!" Spleen and Omegas shouted.

Greez raged and fumed on the screen.  357 called for his attention.
"Greez, I'm not quite sure what's going on, but we've got enough
power to teleport you and your crew to our brig before we kick in our
Cheez-Whiz Interactive Drive and get out of here.  Or you can die.
You have 30 seconds to decide."

Greez fumed some more.

357 turned to his companions.  "Diana, perhaps we were wrong.  It
looks like everything's all wrapped up.  Another few minutes and...
Ralph?  Just what do you think you're doing with that?"

It was only then that everyone heard the pitter patter of little
weaseloid paws on the keyboard of the ABPSARII.  357 reached for the
device, but suddenly found that space and time were twisting around
him.  He passed out.

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

357 realized that he was being shaken awake.  "Hur-ree, mon amie.  We
must flee before eet iz too late!"

357 allowed himself be dragged to his feet by a group of small, furry
beings.  It was only after he was dumped inside an abandoned warehouse
with Diana, Omegas, and Doctor Spleen that he got a good look at said
small, furry beings.  Weaseloids.  Familiar-looking weaseloids.

"Mes amies, fear not," Jean-Perrier said.  "You have just been rescued
by zee Ferretine Underground Resistance!  Or FEW for short!"

"The few, the proud, the... FEW." Diana added, deadpan.

Will 357 be able to figure out a way out of the time loop?
Will Ralph's perfect universe be destroyed?
Will the Author ever finish this "Groundhog Day" knockoff?

Find out the answers to these, and maybe a few other questions, in
Part 3 of The New Weaseloid Order.  Only in...  SFSTORY!

Copyright 2004 by Troy H. Cheek troy at cheek.org http://www.cheek.org
=========================================================================
Date:         Sun, 5 Dec 2004 22:56:04 -0500
From:         Gary (swede3000 at earthlink.net)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #17

                              UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                             (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                                  Episode 17
                                    "Azure"
                                      by
                                 Gary W. Olson
 
                                     -~-_-

((In space, somewhere vaguely near the planet Mydrus, in the 
Goornashk Sector))

      It cannot be emphasized enough that Goornashkans do not taste 
like chicken.  Ask any Goornashkan you find if he or she tastes like 
chicken, and he or she can be relied on to give an emphatic "no," and 
perhaps a few rounds of laser fire to discourage further inquiry. 
The homepage of the Goornashk Authority on the UWW (Universal Wide 
Web) has several links to leading studies confirming the lack of any 
form of chicken taste in the Goornashkan body.  No less an authority 
than Gargavix Ooolavant's Pocket Guide to the Space-Time Continuum 
has dedicated many thousands of electronicized words on how the word 
'chicken' ought never to even hove into general hailing distance of 
one's synapses when contemplating what a Goornashkan tastes like. 
There is such a singular body of opinion on the subject that one 
would be crazy to even suggest it.
      Which makes it surprising that, despite the staggering volume of 
crazy people that gallavant about the universe on a daily basis, no 
record can be found of anyone actually suggesting that Goornashkans 
taste like chicken.  Few races even know what chickens are, or the 
planet they come from.  Most of the few that do know what chickens 
are don't know what they taste like, because they also know how they 
are converted from clucking mammal-units into shapeless nugget-units, 
and would almost rather eat Spam.  The only race that is on record as 
knowing what chicken tastes like has never had any record of any of 
its members eating a Goornashkan.
      The question of how denial of the 
Goornashkan-Chicken-taste-alike proposition grew so ferocious in the 
face of the lack of anyone actually making that proposition is one of 
the many questions that vex Space Philosophers. Gargavix Ooolavant's 
Pocket Guide to the Space-Time Continuum also has much to say on the 
vexing of Space Philosophers -- mostly that it is jolly good fun, and 
there are lots of ways to do it, some of which are described in 
rigorous detail.  But it has no answer to the particular question at 
hand (or the slightly related question of whether or not Space 
Philosophers taste like chicken).
      Lucky, the six-foot-tall-at-the-shoulder black-furred mutant cat 
which was the default mascot of the Earth warship _Challenger III,_ 
was not a Space Philosopher, nor had he eaten any, at least not on 
camera.  But he had eaten considerable amounts of chicken over the 
years, and was considered by witnesses to his eating habits (at 
least, those witnesses who could not find an avenue of escape) to 
like the taste of chicken very much.  He also liked the taste of 
pizza, parfait, beer, waffles, roast mutant hellbeast, truffles, 
varmints, cardboard, wood, velour, and many, many other things.  He 
was not a finicky cat.
      Which is why, Steve Vogel immediately knew what happened when he 
woke from his gas-induced sleep and saw a crew of ten naked 
Goornashkans cowering in one corner of the bridge, with Lucky lying 
down in front of them, crunching up the remains of their weapons, 
electronic devices, and uniforms.  At some point while he and his 
crew had been passed out (thanks to an ill-considered display of a 
newly-constructed weapon's knockout-gas-spraying capacity by one Lt. 
Zacko), a party from a Goornashk ship had boarded his vessel, intent 
on capturing his crew.  Lucky, being a mutant attack cat and 
therefore resistant to knock-out gas (through some compelling bit of 
scientific reasoning I'm going to skip just now, save to note that 
the word 'quantum' is used at least twice), saw the invaders and 
decided it was time to chow.  And, had the Goornahskans, contrary to 
all denials, tasted like chicken, they would not be naked in front of 
him, and Lucky's belly would be as bloated as a Macy's Day parade 
float.
      But they were there, and Lucky was limited to snacking on what 
they had brought.  So they did not taste like chicken.  Q.E.D.
      "Ehrm," said Steve, as he forced himself into what was roughly a 
vertical position.  "Would anyone care to surrender?"
      "He ate my DIESCUM pistol!" one of the naked Goornashkans shouted.
      "He ate my P.D.A!" another exclaimed.
      "He ate my entire digitized set of 'Space Ingenues Gone Wild' 
video collection chips!" a third added.
      "Is that a 'yes'?" Steve prompted.
      The Goornashkans frowned.  Lucky paused in chewing up a copy of 
'Space Ingenues Gone Wild III', glared at the invaders, and growled. 
The Goornashkans cowered some more.  Lucky started in on 'Universe's 
Most Astonishing Space Ingenue Chases.'
      "Yes," the Goornashkans said in unison.
      "Right," said Steve.  "Commander!  Where are you?"
      "We're on B Deck," the voice of his second-in-command, Jean St. 
Thomas, came from the intercom.  "We ran out after that idiot started 
spraying knockout gas everywhere, then we got locked out by the 
invaders when they boarded.  Can you let us back in, sir?"
      "On it," Steve answered.  The door opened and bridge crew 
members started pouring back in.  Commander St. Thomas stopped when 
she saw the captured Goornashkans.
      "Have those guys escorted to the brig," said Vogel.  "Don't mind 
Lucky, I think he's got more than enough to chew on."
      St. Thomas nodded, but did not approach the prisoners.  Instead, 
she signaled to two guards, who approached the prisoners in her 
place.  Lucky looked up but did not growl.  The prisoners and guards 
alike breathed sighs of relief once they were off the bridge.
      "What happened to the stowaways, sir?" St. Thomas asked.
      Steve looked around.  Spaulding, Chicobaldi, Zeppus and Zacko 
were nowhere to be seen.  Mr Funboy II, the laser-rifle-type weapon 
they'd built at his request (and had been the source of the knockout 
gas), was on the floor at Lucky's side.  As far as Steve was 
concerned, it could stay there for a while.
      "Never mind them for now," Steve said.  "Can you get any 
information on how Gham's team is doing on Mydrus?"
      Cmdr. St. Thomas peered at some readouts.  "They reached the 
planet.  Long-range scans can't tell us any more than that."  She 
pressed some more buttons.  "Looks like the Goornashkan ship tapped 
into our computer before the invaders came aboard.  I should be able 
to use that to read their computer... there."
      Mug shots of Gham, Jerriphrrt, and Major Lalan replaced the 
picture of planet Mydrus on the screen.  Lalan and Gham looked grim. 
Jerriphrrt was doing his best 'Bill the Cat' impression.
      "It looks like our ruse failed," said St. Thomas.  "They got to 
the prison checkpoint, but a General Varsoome came in and exposed the 
plot."  She read some more.  "Um, sort of."
      "Sort of?"
      "He thinks it was Giant Radioactive Hamsters that captured Lalan's ship."
      "What?" asked Steve.
      "That's what it says."
      "Did any of them look like Dick Cheney?"
      "What?" asked St. Thomas.
      "Never mind," said Steve.  "How many Goornashkans are still on 
board the vessel that 'captured' us?"
      "None," St. Thomas replied.  "Cheeky monkeys, they are."  She 
paused.  "Are you thinking what I'm thinking, sir?"
      Steve thought hard, trying to come up with a response that did 
not sound like it was being ripped off from 'Pinky and the Brain.' 
Unable to come up with one, he instead answered "I believe so.  But 
if we're going to pretend to be captured, we'll need to have control 
of the Goornashkans ship, and we already know that's very hard for 
any non-Goornashkan crew to do.  Gham and Jerriphrrt were able to 
come up with leverage to get Lalan's crew to cooperate, but will it 
also work on the guys we just captured?"
      St. Thomas considered the question for a few seconds, before a 
smile spread on her face.
      "If not, sir," she said, "I know what will."

                                      -~-_-

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

      Norman Sassafras opened his eyes and realized that he was 
falling.  There was a concrete wall before him, moving in a 
continuous upwards direction.  Every so often, flashing by his eyes 
were yellow-stencilled words in some kind of alien language. 
Probably, he thought, translating into "If you're praying, now would 
be a good time to skip to the 'amen.'"
      Something was digging into his stomach.  Norman wondered if some 
kind of alien thingie was going to jump out.  It was not entirely out 
of likelihood, he reflected, given his luck.  Perhaps, if he twisted 
just right, he could squash it when they both landed.
      Another something flashed by his peripheral vision on the right. 
He looked up and saw that it was a doorway.  A doorway for very 
short, very broad people who could fly, he guessed, given that it was 
much wider than it was tall and it was located in the side of a wall 
with no means of climbing to it--
      At this point, the 'waaaaaaiiit a minute' circuits in Norman's 
head finally cut in.
      "Is it down this way?" he heard someone ask.
      "Yeah," a voice close to his stomach replied.  "At least, I hope 
so.  I'm getting tired."
      "It could've been worse," the other answered.  "You remember how 
big he used to be."
      Norman winced.  He had once been, way back in the time when he 
had first been introduced in Sfstory, described as 'morbidly obese.' 
The description also applied to his best friend, Ronald Hastings. 
Had it not been for the fact that they had once had to spend quite a 
few months in space, trapped in an abandoned (yet still somehow 
spaceworthy) Pinto, with all the weight-loss implications of such a 
feat, he had no doubt it would have still been true.  But the fact 
that the speakers remembered that he had once been of such size gave 
him clues about who they were.
      They were members of Team E, a group that had once been nothing 
more than a Star Trek fan club with excessive delusions of grandeur. 
He and Ronald had once been part of such a group, before internal 
politics forced them to leave.  Norman tried to remember just what 
had been so important and had provoked such fierce emotions at the 
time of the split, and found he could not.
      Years had passed, and circumstances changed.  Norman was now on 
the verge of becoming a Space Hero, once he and Ronald finished their 
Interstellar University senior project of rescuing Toni Williams (and 
what a balls-up *that* had turned out to be, he thought), and the 
group he had left was now working with an as-yet-unknown Space 
Villain.  And one of its members was carrying Norman down a corridor 
in an undignified, over-the-shoulder position (that being Norman's 
position, not the carrier's), leaving him looking at the floor as it 
passed.
      And leaving them unaware that he had revived.
      He wondered if they had Ronald and Kissy as well.  The last he 
remembered, they were escaping from the Nega-Cell, through the 
Nega-Transporter that Toni Williams had secretly set up in her room. 
Norman had not gotten to the transporter in time before it blew up, 
but he had seen two flashes before that happened, so it seemed 
possible that Ronald and Kissy had successfully escaped.  He hoped 
that wherever they were, they were all right.
      His captors stopped before a door.  Norman closed his eyes to 
slits, so they would not think he had awoken.
      "He's still out," one of them said.
      "Good," said the one carrying him.  "I gotta set him down."
      "Come on," said the first.  "I'll get the door.  The High Spock said--"
      "The High Spock isn't here.  My back is, and it hurts.  Ow."
      "Okay, okay.  Be careful--"
      Norman landed on the hard floor without much in the way of 
gentle preparation.  He held in his reflexive 'oof.'
      "The High Spock said that K.C. wants him out of the way while 
he's with his guests, and that K.C. wants to interrogate him 
personally."
      "As opposed to impersonally?"
      "I guess."
      Norman heard a door swish open, and knew now was the time to 
make his move.  He kicked out with his right leg, intent on tripping 
his guards, and experienced an immediate and massive charley horse.
      As it happened, he was so close to their legs that the resulting 
wild spasms and screams and so on and so forth knocked them over 
anyway, and furthermore panicked them so much they dropped their 
keycards, their phasers, their communicators, their tricorders, and a 
half-full box of Krispy Spleen Donuts.  Norman, who had been trained 
to take advantage of flimsy plot contrivances such as this as part of 
his Space Hero training, straggled to his feet, picked up a keycard, 
a phaser, a communicator, a tricorder, and a 
lemon-type-substance-filled donut, and took off down the corridor. 
His charley horse was subsiding, and he was able to reach a half-run, 
half-stagger that he hoped was enough.
      His captors, he realized, must have recovered with alacrity, for 
he could hear their steps behind him.
      "Halt!" one of them called out.  "Halt or we'll fmhlrrfff!"
      "Hmmmmffff!" his companion added.
      Norman decided to try out a yell of defiance.  He had gotten an 
'A' on the subject in his Heroic Bellowing 204 class, but it was the 
first time he had a chance to try it out in the field.
      "Ynnnf nvvvhhh cmmmmf mffff!"
      It was at this point that Norman learned a little something 
about himself, and a little something about life.  To wit: heroic 
bellowing and donut consumption do not mix.  He tried to spit out the 
mouthful he currently had, but the lemon-type-substance within had 
already effectively immobilized most of his jaw.
      "Hmmmmffff!" called one of his former captors, who were in the 
process of discovering the similar lesson that villainous flunky 
bellowing and donut consumption also do not mix.  Norman decided it 
was time to let his phaser do the talking, and turned his head to see 
what he was aiming at.
      What he saw were two decidedly nonmuscular guys in red velour 
shirts and black pants, one attempting to aim a phaser at him, the 
other attempting to call someone on his communicator.  Norman fired a 
wild shot that hit the floor in front of his pursuers, leaving a hole 
that caused them both to trip.
      "Hmmf!" he exclaimed.  "Thkff thhhfft, vfffnfffs shcmmmff!"
      He turned his head back to see where he was running.
      "Auuugh!" yelled Kalvin Certain.
      "Auffffff!" Norman replied, just before the collision.

                                      -~-_-

((Still on Alpha Rio VI (The Planet of Casinos), only someplace else))

      Benjen snarled and threw his spent laser pistol at the nearest 
velour-suited zombie.  It struck the zombie's dead-yet-still-pimply 
head and clattered to the carpet.  The zombie groaned.  Benjen cursed.
      Any second now and the ship would blow up.  It had been his own 
fault, having accidentally triggered the self-destruct mechanism 
while trying to search the computer for any means of escape for 
himself, the diminutive robot TH1K1, and Dr. Bing Von Spleen.  And 
had he found any means of escape?  No.  Had he found any means of 
sending a distress call?  No.  Had he even found a good bottle of 
scotch and the unedited version of 'Space Ingenues Spring Break in 
the Horsehead Nebula'?  No!  There was nothing on the ship but 
zombies and pudding and dark-black-steel corridors--
      Corridors which did not have carpeting.
      Corridors which certainly did not have worn, funky-patterned 
carpeting that looked as if it had previously been used in 
reupholstering Elton John.  Even the zombies seemed confused.
      "Benjen?" a semi-familiar voice asked.
      "Dr. Von Spleen?" he replied.
      "Over here!"
      Benjen peered over the shoulders of the disoriented zombies and 
saw Earth's foremost spamologist standing by a large buffet table. 
Floating next to him was the villainous and deranged ur-bagel known 
as Shoon-Ma.
      "Well," Shoon-Ma intoned, "I guess he really did get everyone."
      "Um, right," said Benjen.  "He did."  He paused, and looked 
around at the zombies.  He peered over their shoulders.  He looked 
under their legs.  "Where's TH1K1?"
      A lump beneath a shirt of one of the zombies shifted.  Moments 
later, the tiny, toylike form of TH1K1 flew out from under the 
zombie's collar.  The zombie reacted to the sudden development by 
falling down.
      TH1K1 emitted a loud series of bleeps and gleeps.  Benjen applauded.
      "You're ingenious, TH1K1!" he exclaimed.  "Is there anything you 
can't do?"
      The robot gleeped some more.
      "He says," Von Spleen told them, "he can't seem to send us all 
to the gory and painful deaths he feels we all so richly deserve."
      TH1K1 turned and gleeped at Von Spleen.
      "Never mind him, TH1K1," said Benjen, as he shouldered his way 
past zombies to get over to where Von Spleen was standing and 
Shoon-Ma was floating.  "He's just being a grouch.  So... what's up 
with the changed decor?  This your doing, Shoonie?"
      The ur-bagel trembled with anger.  "In a manner, mortal.  I 
empowered Dr. Von Spleen to contact someone known to him on this 
planet, who had the means to effect our immediate escape from the 
self-destructing ship.  That we are still here and intact should 
indicate that he was successful.  And if you call me 'Shoonie' again, 
you will experience a brief but powerful moment of regret as my horde 
of zombie agents fall upon you, rip you to shreds, and consume you 
with brie on these little tiny crackers."
      Benjen looked back over his shoulder at the zombies, who were 
clearly over their confusion and were now re-focused on him.
      "Urk," he commented.  "No problem, Shoon-Ma.  Sir.  Er."
      More comments along these lines were forestalled by a sudden 
dimming of the overhead chandelier lights and an equally sudden 
brightening of a large, rectangular section of wall close to where 
they stood.  Benjen took advantage of the confusion to horde the last 
of the buffet's cocktail shrimps.
      "This," a crusty, Ed Asneresque voice commented from hidden 
speakers, "was the ship in which you came to our world."
      "I don't see it," said Von Spleen, as he nibbled on a sausage-on-a-stick.
      Benjen squinted.  The viewscreen was showing an outer space 
scene, and as such, it was filled with a lot of inky darkness and 
only the occasional bright spot.  It took a minute or so before he 
caught the outline of the alien ship.  He had almost forgotten how 
hard it was to see from the outside.
      "That's it, all right," he said.
      Suddenly and without warning, it exploded.
      "That was it, all right," he said.
      "Kind of a waste, don't you think?" the speaker voice asked.  "I 
mean, what exactly was the point of having a self-destruct on that 
thing in the first place?  I mean, it wasn't exactly a warship, now 
was it?"
      "We do not know who triggered the self-destruct," Shoon-Ma 
replied.  The bagel fluttered about, doing the equivalent of a wobbly 
shrug.  "Nor did we realize one was available to be triggered in the 
first place." 
      Benjen scuffed at the carpet with his foot, while projecting 
nonchalance with an intensity that bordered on the maniacal.
      "But there is no point in considering the question further," 
Shoon-Ma continued.  "It is gone, and we are not, and we have you, 
our hidden host, to thank."
      "Oh, don't thank me yet," the voice said.  It was immediately 
followed by a loud squealing sound, then a couple clicks, and some 
static.  "Needlewarp," the voice muttered.  "Is it this one?"
      It evidently was that one, for the speaker hiss was cut off.
      "We're in trouble now," Von Spleen said.
      "You mean you are in trouble now," Shoon-Ma taunted.  "You knew 
the tradeoff for asking this particular individual for help."
      "It doesn't work quite like that," Von Spleen replied.
      "Who are you talking about?" Benjen asked.
      TH1K1, who was busy trying to change the molecular composition 
of the little crustless tuna sandwiches into something that would 
explode on contact with teeth, gleeped a short reply.  It sounded 
very cheerful to Benjen, but not so to Von Spleen, judging from the 
unhappy expression on his face.
      "They are talking," said the Ed Asneresque voice, this time from 
inside the room, "about me."
      Everyone -- humans, humanoids, little robots, floating bagels, 
and zombies alike -- turned to regard five Yaks that had risen up on 
a circular platform in the middle of the room.  The lights rose as 
they did.
      The one-headed Yaks all wore armor and carried nasty-looking 
gun-shaped objects, the business ends of which were aimed in the 
general direction of the new arrivals.  They stood, two on either 
side, by the three-headed Yak in the center.  That Yak's six eyes 
radiated a mixture of iron-willed benevolence, no-nonsense business, 
and a complete and utter willingness to have Benjen and company 
turned into corn fritters at the first sign of lack of respect.  Two 
of the three heads smoked fat cigars.  Its black robe and gold 
jewelry gave it the look of a gaudy and malevolent three-headed 
drinks trolley with a tail, but Benjen knew that no one present would 
dare laugh.
      "My name," said the Yak, "is Vino.  Welcome to my humble establishment."
      "Vino," said Von Spleen, who rushed forward and immediately 
prostrated himself.  "We owe you our lives!  I beg for mercy!  You 
have always been like a father to me!  You know it wasn't me who 
betrayed your sons to Icthor the Marauding Goat with a Thousand 
Whining Teenage Goat-Young, right?"
      "Oh, shut it, Spleen," Vino snarled.  "If I wanted you dead, I'd 
have left you on that ship."  The head on the left looked around. 
"Which one of you is Shoon-Ma?" it asked.
      A 'duh' question, Benjen thought, but Shoon-Ma floated forward 
-- as if to distinguish himself from all the other floating bagels in 
the room -- and bobbed once in the air, the closest it could come to 
a bow.
      "Good," said Vino.  "Now, you've got sixty seconds to explain 
the Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe, why one of my 
underlings has gone to great lengths to get in on it, why the price 
of pudding is so goddamn high, and why I shouldn't have you as a 
snack with cream cheese."
      "You are unwise to threaten me so," said Shoon-Ma.  "Behold, my 
power!"
      Everyone waited, while thunderous things failed to happen.
      "Erk," Shoon-Ma said.  "I do not understand."
      One of Vino's heads let out a puff of cigar smoke.
      "You're in my house, sir," another head said.  "and the House 
always wins.  Now... talk."
     
WILL SHOON-MA TALK?
WILL BENJEN HAVE TO GIVE UP ANY COCKTAIL SHRIMP?
WILL NORMAN BE ABLE TO GET AWAY FROM KALVIN CERTAIN?
WILL HE OFFER KALVIN A DONUT?
HOW WILL JEAN ST. THOMAS GET THE CAPTURED GOORNASHKANS TO COOPERATE?
DO SPACE PHILOSOPHERS EVER 'GO WILD' ON 'SPRING BREAK'?
DO GOORNASHKANS TASTE LIKE TURKEY?

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