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Sfstory Log 115

=========================================================================
Date:         Tue Jan 29 04:08:51 PST 2008
From:         swede at novitious.com (Gary)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #20

                         UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                        (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                             Episode 20
                               "Mauve"
                                 by
                            Gary W. Olson

                                -~-_-

((Alpha Rio VI - The Planet of Casinos (Vino's House of Merriment and
Extortion)))

     As a rule, Vino the Three-Headed Yak accepted disrespect from no
being.  When Uulong, the Shadow Ruler of Back-Street Action from
Planet Chicago tried to move in on his casinos on Alpha Rio VI, Vino
fed the twelve-foot tall pinstripe-wearing shadowspawn its own wide-
brimmed shadow hat.  When the son of the Godsfather of Alfhrak IV made
disparaging remarks about the poor feng shui of how Vino's three heads
were distributed on his yak body, Vino arranged to have the boy's head
relocated to a more spiritually suitable location, without having the
rest of his body along.  When Ichthor--the Marauding Goat with a
Thousand Whining Teenage Goat-Young--abducted two of Vino's sons
merely because they were showing some of Ichthor's teenage goat-young
how to have a good time, Vino did not let mere laws of time and space
deter him from leaning on Ichthor until the hideous hellspawn relented
and gave them back.  That was how Real Yaks Deserving of Respect
rolled.
     The current situation posed a challenge to Vino, in that he was
sure he was being disrespected in some fashion, though he was not sure
how, or by whom.  Insofar as Vino had been able to discern, a woman in
an office not far away had fed a lock of hair from a peculiar man
named Sajon into a device that in turn made space all wonky.  The
warped space then abducted the woman, the man named Sajon, and a
variety of other individuals from said office and from the buffet room
that Vino was currently in.  This was upsetting to Vino, because he
had been in the middle of sewing up the allegiance of the more useful
of them, and they had not had his permission to leave in any case.
     "We have a list of the abducted, sir," said one of his lieutenant
Yaks.  "Doctor Bing Von Spleen..."
     "Mmm," said Vino.  "Von Spleen.  A very disrespectful human.  Go
on."
     "The humanoid male called Benjen, the small floating robot thing
called TH1K1, Shoon-Ma the ur-Bagel, an anthropomorphic reptilian guy
called Slithis, your human employee Kalvin Certain..."
     "Kalvin," Vino interrupted.  "A terribly dishonest employee.  And
disrespectful.  Carry on."
     "...and the humans named Shadebeam Moroboshi, Norman Sassafras,
and Sajon."
     "I do not know this 'Shadebeam' or 'Norman,' save by name," said
Vino.  "But Sajon I knew well.  I would be saddened if he is the
source of this disrespect."
     "Our techs indicate that the device known as an ABPSARI, that is,
an Automatic Beet-Peeling Sub---"
     "Skip the balloon juice," Vino snarled.  "Do I *look* like Mister
Freakin' Data?"
     "Er... it's a device that makes extremely weird and improbable
things happen," said the tech Yak.  "Completely random when the wrong
fuel is put in, which happened when the human named Shadebeam put a
lock of hair from the human Sajon into the funnel...."
     "That's it," said Vino.  "You need explain no further.  Go back
to your duties."
     The tech scuttled away.  Vino regarded the now blank monitor
above the dinner buffet and imagined the mess at the office.  How
strange it must have been for the Arachno-Newtons to see their targets
disappear.  Of course, it had not been really random--a lock of
Sajon's hair had been fed into the machine, which meant that Sajon's
bioengineered luck must have affected the machine somehow.  But still,
it had to have been startling to the Newtons' expert intelligence
systems.  He imagined they were still looking for their targets....
     His thoughts were interrupted when a group of velour-shirted
humans were led at gunpoint into the room by several of his Hench
Yaks.  The humans were lanky, uncoordinated, and unathletic, and
appeared to be squabbling with one another.  Their leader, a man with
rubber points glued to his ears, was the only one looking about the
room, and Vino enjoyed the rise of alarm in his expression as this
happened.  There were already been a number of velour-shirted humans
shuffling about the room filling out employment applications before
this group arrived; the only difference was that the new humans were
still alive.
     "What have you done to them?" the leader of the new group angrily
asked.  Vino could tell he was angry by how his voice squeaked.  "What
have you *dooooooooooooooone?*"
     Vino nodded to his Hench Yaks, who proceeded to instruct the new
prisoners on the virtues of not overacting.  When the beatings ceased,
Vino answered the question.
     "I... have done nothing," said Vino, "save offer them employment
as part of a new show I am putting on.  A chorus line of dancing
zombies."
     "And..." said the human, "...how did they become zombies, if I
may ask, sir?"
     "What shall I call you?" Vino asked.
     "They call me... the High Spock.  These guys with me are... Team
E.  These zombies all used to be part of Team E as well."
     "Very well, High Spock and Team E," said Vino.  "They became
zombies, as far as my techs can tell, after gorging themselves on
pudding, dying and floating around in a derelict alien spaceship, and
then being resurrected by a cosmic-powered ur-Bagel."
     "That... that... that's not true!" the High Spock exclaimed.
"That's *im--*"
     A yak waved a cattle prod at the High Spock in a threatening
manner.  The High Spock immediately closed his lips to stifle his
overdramatic and surprisingly non-Trek-based exclamation.
     "I don't make these things up," said Vino.  "The other zombies I
have were made using the latest necro-tronic reanimation gear.  I'm
not sure I trust this 'cosmic power' crap, but we'll see how it goes.
At any rate, these zombies became this way by following orders given
by your former employer, a Mr. Kalvin Certain."
     "I... see."
     "And what were your orders, if I may enquire?"
     The High Spock was not as slow a student as Vino had earlier
thought.  He quite readily spilled the tale of how he had been sent by
Kalvin to Dirk's Space Swap-o-Rama and Grille to detain and hold a
space heroine, one Toni Williams, whom Kalvin believed had tumbled to
Kalvin's pudding price-fixing scheme.  They held Toni in something
called a Nega-Cell for a while, until two Space Hero-students and a
Space Ingenue showed up and also got captured, which led to everyone
escaping from the Nega-Cell and the High Spock and his crew returning
to Alpha Rio VI empty-handed.
     "Not empty-handed, surely," said Vino.  "Didn't you keep that...
what did you call it... 'flying Pinto' that these Space Hero students
arrived in?"
     "Yes," said the High Spock.  "Um... until it was stolen by this
old Sonar Man named Satik.  He was kind of, that is, very, unhappy
with the job he was stuck with at the Sonar Men's weapons outlet on
Dirk's, and saw it as an opportunity to ditch work and go out and see
old friends.  Stupid old man."
     "Well then," Vino answered.  "All you have then, to answer for
your complicity in Kalvin Certain's crimes against me... are
yourselves."
     "I have a two-for-one pizza coupon," the velour-shirted man next
to the High Spock said.  The High Spock scowled and cuffed him.
     "What about our ship, sir?" the High Spock asked.  "Surely, that
is of value...."
     Vino nodded to a tech, who punched some buttons on a pad on its
left front hoof.  The screen over the buffet lit up and displayed a
blocky, nondescript ship against a background of stars.  Barely
visible was how the old name, the W.S. Box-Thing, was crossed out, and
'Enterprise' was spray-painted beneath.
     It became entirely not-visible soon after the ship exploded.
     "Hey!" the High Spock yelled.  "The Nega-Cell was on there!  And
our only link to it!  That was worth something!"
     "Perhaps," Vino replied.  "To any Space Hero looking to break
*in* to my turf.  I looked into it a long time ago, boys.  Not worth
it."
     The High Spock looked rather forlorn.  But Vino was not done yet.
     "I have decided," said Vino, "to allow you to join your zombified
compatriots in my new all-zombie dance revue, 'Goodbye Limbs, Hello
Love.'"
     "But... but..." sputtered the High Spock.  "We're not zombies!
We're not even dead!"
     "Mmm," Vino replied.  "A good point."
     The High Spock beamed.  Logic had always been one of his strong
points.
     "Harlas," said Vino.  "Rigner.  Correct that condition in our new
guests, won't you?"
     As the Assassin Yaks converged on the now-screaming Team E, Vino
moved away, so as to avoid getting any blood on his robes.  He
approached his chief Tech Yak, who genuflected when Vino got close.
     "We've found the means that Kalvin was using to communicate with
his henchmen," said the yak.  "And a tele-transport gate connecting a
portion of his office suite to the planet Zeta Ricola Beta."
     "Zeta Ricola Beta?"
     "Yeah," said the Tech Yak.  "Monks with their own armada and
soldiers and crap.  Some kinda impenetrable barrier around their star
system.  Anyway, after the usual technical crap which I know you are
not interested in, sir, we were able to break the security and
establish a connection.  What are your orders?"
     Vino thought.  Respect was important, but he was tired, and in no
mood to invade a well-armed and far-off planet to chase a group of
disrespectful people who appeared to have some very improbable luck on
their side.  Whether they would still have that luck now that Sajon
was off of Alpha Rio VI and thus not reacting to the planet's
probability fields, Vino did not know.  If Von Spleen was there, he
might have been able to answer the question, before Vino had his
throat replaced with Folgers Crystals.
     Then he thought of Kalvin's former office.  An idea occurred to
him--one that would satisfy his demands for respect *and* allow him to
knock off early for the day.
     "Send three of the Arachno-Newtons through the tele-transport
gate," said Vino.  "*Then* destroy it and Kalvin's communications
apparatus."
     "Right away, sir," the Yak replied, before scuttling off.
     Vino lit up cigars for all three of his heads, and blew smoke
rings with each one.

                                -~-_-

((In orbit above Mydrus (on the _Challenger III_)))

     Major Lalan, who had spent much of his life in the service of the
Goornashk Authority, did not understand humans.  He was sure of this
as never before, on arriving via tele-transport beam along with his
fellow prisoners to the bridge of the captured Earth starship
_Challenger III._  Instead of the despair and wailing Lalan expected,
all the humans present seemed focused on their tasks, and the one six-
foot-tall-at-the-shoulder mutant cat hardly seemed alarmed.  In fact,
the only alarmed beings around (human or not-human) seemed to be the
prisoner group itself.  One of their number, Kissy Hitowers, was
screaming at a frequency that made Lalan's massive eyebrows shed.
     "This ship will be destroyed any moment," said Toni Williams, as
soon as she had finished materializing.  Captain... oh, hi Steve!"
     "Toni," Steve Vogel replied.  He stood up from his Captain's
chair, and gave a somewhat effeminate salute.  "How's Buzz?"
     "Good, last I heard," Toni said, as she looked over the shoulder
of the helmsman to get the ship's position.  "We're going to be
destroyed in just a few---"
     "I wouldn't worry about that," said Vogel.  "Kissy, you can stop
screaming now."
     Kissy stopped.  She looked around the bridge, returned her
attention to Steve Vogel, and resumed screaming.
     "Kissy," said Ronald Hastings, who had also been a prisoner, and
who was Kissy's nominal employer.  "Why don't we go scream in the
commissary.  I'm hungry."
     The Space Ingenue took a break from screaming long enough to say,
"What you're hungry for isn't on the menu."
     "Well, yes," said Ronald.  "But I'll make do without ho-hos and
froot loops just this once.  Come on."
     Lalan watched as Ronald escorted Kissy to the turbolift.  They
were followed by Gham and Jerriphrrt, who appeared too distracted by
the prospect of imminent death to be bothered by the screaming.  Once
the lift doors shut, both Vogel and Toni seemed to relax.
     "Sir," said Jean St. Thomas, Steve Vogel's second-in-command.
"Receiving a transmission from the Goornashk Authority vessel that
'captured' us."
     Lalan heard the mocking emphasis of the quotes and wondered what
was going on.
     "On screen," said Vogel.  The screen before him lit up and
displayed the face of a Goornashkan commander whom Lalan did not
recognize.  "Commander Karshak, status."
     "You've got a clear path to the tele-transport gate," said
Karshak.  "We've re-routed all traffic, and de-activated security, per
your orders.  Is that Major Lalan I see there?"
     "Affirmative," said Vogel.  "Get a fix on him, but don't
transport him yet."  The Captain turned to Lalan and smiled.  Even to
Lalan, who had trouble with human expressions, it seemed a rather
effeminate gesture.  "Major, this is where we part ways, I'm afraid.
We're on our way to Zeta Ricola Beta, and I doubt you want to go with
us there."
     "True," Lalan said.  He glanced at the image of Karshak.  "How
did...?"
     "They tried to board us," Vogel explained.  "We captured them,
and then we bribed them shamelessly to get them on our side.  We did
have a fairly convoluted plan worked out where we'd get down to the
planet and rescue you somehow, but instead you got yourselves captured
and transported up here.  It's funny, your command below seems to
think Karshak's ship is about to destroy us."
     "When they don't," Lalan noted, "they'll be branded as traitors
to the Authority, and will be banished."
     "That's where our bribery comes in," said Vogel.  He held up what
appeared to be a small compact disk.  "Coordinates... for Puddenar V,
the Planet of the Living Pudding.  There the natives live in a
symbiotic and slightly perverse relationship with the Pudding that
permeates that planet.  I'm sure you'll fit right in."
     Lalan accepted the disk and felt a little shiver go through his
three arms.  He could barely keep himself from wiggling in
anticipation.  But there was one more thing....
     "What of," he asked, "Mister Funboy?"
     They had promised to get him a new version of his beloved semi-
automatic weapon of mass destruction to enlist his cooperation.  He
had prepared for disappointment; a replacement seemed unlikely to him
due to the circumstances of its destruction--he *had* been trying to
use it against the very people who promised so sincerely to get him a
new one.  But Steve Vogel only nodded and signaled to one of his
subordinates.
     "Behold," said Jean St. Thomas, sounding about as leaden as
someone saying 'behold' possibly could, "the new Mister Funboy, Mark
II.  There's the barrel, there's the trigger, there's the safety, this
thing shoots fish out of this hole here, any questions?"
     Lalan's mind nearly locked up with joy, but he had enough motor
control left to work his three arms and accept both gigantic space
rifle gun thing and compact disk.  Then St. Thomas and Vogel backed
away and saluted.  Lalan thought about saluting back, but his hands
were full, so he settled for waggling his bushy eyebrows at them.
Then a tele-transport beam shimmered around him, making him tingle in
special places.
     When it went away, he was on the bridge of a Goornashk vessel.
He recognized Commander Karshak at once and handed him the compact
disk.
     "The _Challenger III_ is approaching the tele-transport gate,"
said the Goornashkan at the helm.  "Gate security is down and is
preparing to transport their vessel."
     "Tamask Citadel Security is screaming at us," added the mini-
skirted Goornashkan at the communications console.  "We've disobeyed
our orders, are traitors to the Authority, will be hunted down like
sea otters, blah blah blah... so do we go to Puddenar V now?"
     "In a moment, Phil," said Karshak.  On the viewscreen, the
_Challenger III_ was now within the gates, which were shining with
multicolored energy.  Lalan was fairly certain that a lot of it was
for effect--his race was a conquering one, but it also loved a good show.
     A few moments later, the lights died down, and the _Challenger
III_ was gone.
     "Tele-transport successful," the helmsman reported.  "_Challenger
III_ has made it to the Zeta Ricola Beta system.  The security
subroutines we disabled should ensure that no Authority ship follows
them through the gate for twenty-four hours at least."
     "Co-ordinates for Puddenar V have been loaded to the system and
verified," the navigator said.
     "We're ready to go on your mark, sir," said the helmsman.
     "Major Lalan," said Karshak.  "You have the largest phallic
symbol in the room, quite possibly on the entire ship.  Even though
our race doesn't actually have phalluses, per se, we are all
nonetheless impressed.  Would you do the honors?"
     "Of course," said Lalan.  "And just 'Lalan,' if you please.  I
suspect that our lives in the Authority's military service have just
about come to a close."  Karshak nodded, and Lalan turned to the
screen.  Two Goornashk Authority war cruisers were just beginning to
move toward them.  Lalan raised his hand and made the sort of
effeminate hand-choppy sign he had once seen Steve Vogel make.
     "Do that thing!" he exclaimed.
     Engines roared to life, and the ex-Authority cruiser sped out of
the Mydrus system, on its way to a happy, pudding-filled next phase of
life.

                                -~-_-

((Zeta Ricola Beta (Daaksvong)))

     It was not the first time Slithis awoke in a prison with a bad
headache.  Nor was it even his first time for waking in a prison with
the words to 'Love Makes the World Go Round' ringing in his ears,
though the first two times had nothing to do with rampaging Wayne
Newton-mecha-spider contraptions.  But it was the first time this had
happened after events in which alcohol and dancing beings were not
involved.  Not as such.
     The cell he was in was roughly eight feet by eight feet by eight
feet in size, and seemed almost archaic to Slithis, being that it was
made of tough-looking metal bars (rather than the more modern force-
field).  There were no cameras around that Slithis could see.  Outside
the bars was a single door set into a white plaster wall that ringed
the bars.  The bars themselves were too thin for even Kate Moss to
slip through, and the sole cell door looked pretty resistant to
tampering.  It was certainly resistant to the tampering attempts of
Slithis's one cell mate.
     "Needlewarp," Shadebeam Moroboshi muttered, as she tried to work
the lock with two metal slivers that Slithis recognized as once having
been part of an Arachno-Newton.  Slithis noticed that the ABPSARI had
replaced what she was wearing before with a black t-shirt, mauve
jeans, and 'Hello Cthulhu' sneakers, and that he had on identical
garb--though it looked far better on her than it did on him.  Suddenly
he was grateful that they appeared to be alone.
     "These locks are tough sonsabitches, you know that, Slith?" said
Shadebeam.  "Either that, or I'm way too rusty on pickin' locks.
How's your head?"
     "Sore," Slithis replied.  "How long have I been out?"
     "Dunno," Shadebeam answered, returning her attention to the lock.
She swept a lock of long blonde hair away from her eyes and scowled.
"I've been conscious for about an hour now.  No one's showed up to see
who the two new people who showed up in their jail cell are.  Either
it's a weekend and they're all off partying, or something big and bad
is underway, and they're too busy to worry about security on a
supposedly empty cell...."
     Slithis watched her fiddle some more, then turned his attention
to the ABPSARI.  The large, ungainly contraption rested in the far
corner of the small cell.  It was quiet now, but Slithis remembered it
last as not having been quiet at all.  It had been terribly loud when
it came to life and opened up the dimensional vortices that swallowed
up himself, Shadebeam, Kalvin, Norman, and Sajon....
     "Hey," he said.  "Where's Sajon?"
     Shadebeam looked up.  "Don't know where the boy blunder is.  Hope
he's not in as tight a pickle as we are."
     "And where... is this particular pickle?"
     "Someplace called 'Daaksvong,'" said Shadebeam.  She pocketed the
metal pieces she had been trying to use on the lock, and gestured to a
plaque on the wall next to the door.  "On planet Zeta Ricola Beta."
     "Zeta Ricola Beta," Slithis echoed.  "Where Kalvin's allies went.
Where Shoon-Ma wanted to go, after turning Sajon into his Champion."
     "Yeah."  Shadebeam sat down on the cell's single bed, next to
Slithis.  Slithis struggled to sit up, and rubbed the back of his
head, which had been resting against cell bars.  "Doubt that's a
coincidence."
     Slithis looked at the ABPSARI again.  It seemed like the lifeless
assemblage of recliner chair, magazine rack, funnel, and assorted
other appendages he remembered it being.  "Did you try--?"
     Shadebeam snorted.  "You think I'm so irresponsible as to try
just chucking something into that funnel again, just 'cause I'm
momentarily stuck somewhere and I'm too honked off to think straight?"
     Slithis just looked at her.
     "It didn't work," said Shadebeam.  "Watch."
     She tossed one of the metal pieces at the funnel of the ABPSARI,
and Slithis could tell it was a dead-on shot.  He braced himself for
more destabilizing hijinks, and was startled when the metal piece
struck something about an inch from the funnel entrance and bounced
away.  It clattered to the floor next to the ABPSARI.
     "What is that?" Slithis asked.  "A force field or something?"
     "Dunno.  Don't care.  It's effectively shielded itself from
having any kind of fuel, useful or not, shoved into it for the time
being.  Guess we shouldn't be too surprised."
     "Why?"
     "'Cause it's been wanting to get us alone for a while now,"
Shadebeam answered.  "Not alone with it, I mean.  Alone with... us.
Each other.  You know."
     Slithis blinked.  Just in case additional emphasis was needed, he
blinked again.
     "I didn't get a vision during our last transit via the ABPSARI,"
she went on.  "The time before, I did, but I think that was just to
get the point across to me that there was something to get--the key to
how to stop all this cosmic revenge crap brought on by people mucking
about with the Breaking of the Fast of the Dawn of the Universe, and
saving said universe in the process.  And that vision was just enough
for me to work out that there was only one way to get that key."
     Slithis nodded slowly, because he did not trust himself to talk.
They had touched on this in a conversation three days before in a
sleazy hotel on Alpha Rio VI.  Years ago, when they had both been
Renegade Anarchists, they had sometimes had casual sex while casually
abusing illicit substances, which caused them to have casual visions
that now turned out to have been rooted in the non-casual cosmic
drama now unfolding.  Shadebeam's suggestion had been that another
round of sex, this time minus the illicit substances, might tease out
the rest of the vision, delivering the answer to getting out of this
whole mess.  She had backed away from the idea a bit too quickly for
Slithis's ego's liking.
     "Now," she said, "you know I'm not a shy girl, right?"
     This drew a laugh from Slithis.
     "I mean," she went on, "if it was just sex, I'd've said, 'let's
do it.'  That's about all the run-up I used to give you, right?"
     "I was high," said Slithis, "and trying to figure out why I was
getting so turned on by a mammal.  I'm sure I missed even the minimal
run-up."
     This time Shadebeam laughed.  Slithis liked the sound.
     "Here all this time I was wondering if I was weird for finding a
reptilian guy attractive," she said.  "I mean, you're generally
anthropomorphic, except for the snout, and your scales feel like
leather, and you've got this long tongue, and..."  She paused, then
shook her head, as if to clear it.  "Right, where was I?  Oh, yes.
Reptile.  Mammal.  Not an intuitive pairing."  She paused again.  "By
the way, what *is* your race called?"
     "Reptilos," Slithis said.  "I'm a Reptiloid.  From Reptilos II in
altiverse 000SUPERGUY."
     "Right," Shadebeam answered.  "Funny I never asked that before.
Anyway, Slithis of Reptilos II, the point I'm trying to get to is that
it's not just sex for me.  Not anymore."
     "I've had my shots."
     "So have I, and I even found a few rubbers in my jeans pocket,
but that's not what I'm talking about," she said.  "The others I've
been with over the years were mostly no great shakes.  One guy, Remmy,
was very bad for me.  He's dead now.  And one... one guy was very
good.  And not because he was good in bed."
     Slithis was not sure where this was going, but it now occurred to
him that there was something he really ought to say before she went
too much further.  What he had always told himself he would, had he
just one more chance.
     "You kind of remind me of him," Shadebeam went on.  She was not
looking at Slithis now, but rather at her hands, as if she was
suddenly scared of his eyes.  "I realized that, not too long ago.
Back at that Blue Yak Group show on Alpha Rio VI, before Kalvin
brought us to his office and things went wonky with Arachno-Newtons or
whatever those things were."
     "Shade...."
     "You don't take it to the extremes he did," she continued.  "But
you've got his... um... genuine... ness... thing.  You know.  I look
at you, and I think there are things that are possible that I'd
thought I'd never...."
     "I've got to say this," Slithis tried to interject.
     "It's occurred to me," she said, "that maybe I got things turned
around.  You don't remind me of that one good guy... his name was
Bart, by the way... but maybe he reminded me of you."
     "Shade, listen, I..."
     "Someone I had and, because I fell through a freak hole in the
fabric between altiverses, lost.  Maybe that's why I forgot your name.
Because I'd been trying to forget that I had you once, and that it's
still possible that I--"
     "I--"
     "--love you," they both said.
     They both blinked.  Shadebeam looked up.
     "What?" she asked.
     Slithis, still trying to process what Shadebeam had just said,
made a kind of gurgling sound.  Shadebeam waited while he tried to
remember what order words were supposed to go in to form sentences.
     "I love you," he repeated.  He mentally went back to check that
he had used all three words, and in the right order.  He double-
checked to make sure he had actually used his external voice to say
them.  "I think I have ever since... then.  The old days.  I knew for
sure three days ago, back at the hotel."
     Shadebeam considered this.  She closed her eyes.
     After a few moments, she started to giggle.  Slithis felt himself
grow warm beneath his scales.
     "I'm sorry," he said, his words feeling stiff as he spoke, "if
I---"
     "I get it now," she interrupted.  "It's not the ABPSARI that
manipulated us to this point.  It's just a tool."
     "Er... what?"
     "An impersonal cosmic force wouldn't have gone to all this
trouble," she said.  She had stopped laughing, but he could see a kind
of odd delight in her eyes.  "I mean, there are more direct ways to
relay visions than... I mean... it could have just... oh, screw it."
     Shadebeam grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him to her.
He felt her hand against the back of his neck.  A kind of euphoria
swam through his senses, and he was quite sure it was the best he had
ever felt while in a jail cell.  Or, likely, outside of one.
     "C'mon," she said.  "Let's save the universe."
     Neither of them noticed or cared that the ABPSARI began to glow.

WILL THE UNIVERSE BE SAVED?
WILL THEY NOTICE IF IT IS?
WILL MASS QUANTITIES OF PUDDING BRING HAPPINESS TO LALAN AND HIS
RENEGADE GOORNASHKANS?
WHY ARE HO-HOS AND FROOT LOOPS NOT ON THE _CHALLENGER III'S_ COMMISARY
MENU?
WILL THE HIGH SPOCK AND TEAM E MAKE BETTER ZOMBIES THAN HENCHMEN?
WILL VINO GET HIS OWN REALITY SHOW?

SFSTORY happens, and you are there!
--
Gary W. Olson
swede at novitious dot com
swede3000 at earthlink dot net
Sfstory Archives: http://sfstory.novitious.com
=========================================================================
Date:         Thu May 29 04:32:02 PDT 2008
From:         swede at novitious.com (Gary)
To:           superguy at lists.eyrie.org
Subject:      SF: Universal Solvents #21

                         UNIVERSAL SOLVENTS
                        (a Tale of Sfstory!)
                             Episode 21
                              "Orange"
                                 by
                            Gary W. Olson

                                -~-_-

     Steve Vogel preferred to avoid space combat.  Often, this was
because he was rarely in control of a ship that was good at it.  The
_Challenger II_ had essentially been a tricked-out space shuttle with
interstellar capabilities, which limited the armaments it could carry,
which in turn limited what it could do when attacked.  His current
ship, the _Challenger III_, was considerably larger, and had much in
the way of things that shot space lasers and space missiles and space
etcetera, but he still had his old distrust of how it would hold up in
space combat situations.  Particularly this one.
     His crew, he noted with some pride, seemed to be handling the
situation in a professional manner.  That is, when their ship
materialized in the Zeta Ricola Beta star system (having been tele-
transported from the far-away Mydrus system) and immediately
encountered an armada of screamingly-big, yelpingly-well-armed,
holleringly-menacing space battleships, they did not immediately dive
for cover behind and/or underneath the nearest thing that looked like
it would afford some protection.  Instead, they shouted things and
pressed buttons that soon caused the _Challenger III_ to fly in a
direction that would avoid the enemy fleet, and would get the ship to
the planet.  They pressed other buttons which fired space lasers and
space missiles and space etcetera, which were very colorful and
impressive and, sadly, not terribly effective against the well-
shielded enemy.
     Steve, as Captain of the _Challenger III,_ knew it was up to him
to take charge of the situation.  Trying to project as much paternal
authority as possible, he extricated himself from where he had been
hiding--behind Lucky, the six-foot-tall-at-the-shoulder black-furred
mutant cat ship's mascot cat, who had regarded Steve's quivering form
with about as much contempt as a mutant cat could muster--and strode
to the center of the bridge.
     "Um," he said.  "How's it going... um, crew?"
     "Five minutes, Captain," said his second-in-command, Commander
Jean St. Thomas.  "We just got word from Toni Williams.  She has the
skiff ready, and as soon as we reach the atmosphere, she, Gham,
Jerriphrrt, Ronald Hastings, Kissy Hitowers, and six of our complement
of space marines will launch and fly down to the Daaksvong complex,
where the cosmic space-time power fluctuations are coming from."
     "Ah," said Steve, nodding in as effective and not-effeminate a
manner as he knew.  "Very good.  Very good."  He paused.  "Er...
cosmic... space-time... what?"
     Jean gestured to the large screen at her console, which featured
a colorful display of the planet below, with a sort of warped orange
patch on a continent in its northern hemisphere.  Steve guessed that
the warped patch was not a regular feature.
     "You remember what Toni told us, along with what we learned from
 that video Captain Spaulding provided to us" said Jean.  "The Zeta
Ricola Betans are turning one of their number--we don't know who,
yet--into a sort of Champion or Chosen One or whatever, which
apparently involves pumping them with a great deal of cosmic energy
stolen from the Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe.
They have this sort of prophecy-thing going on that this Champion or
Chosen one will face off against a Chosen One-slash-Champion
determined to take back said stolen energy on behalf of an ur-Bagel
named Shoon-Ma, that they'll engage in some sort of titanic, universe-
throttling battle, and so on.  I'm not sure I followed much of it, but
it sounds terribly important."
     Steve nodded.  The _Challenger III's_ original mission had been
to find a means of saving Earth from a televised plague of a form of
bad television, and he and his crew had only recently learned that
said plague had actually been taken care of in their absence by
legendary space hero Buzz Williams.  The new mission they were on was
even more important, something that was clear to all, even though most
seemed hazy as to exactly what it was about.
     "Three minutes to Zeta Ricola Beta's atmosphere," Jean reported.
"Skiff is ready to launch."
     Explosions rocked the ship, but no red lights flashed, indicating
to Steve that the ship's shields were holding steady.  The
_Challenger III_ was clearly faster and more maneuverable than their
pursuers.  Steve sat down in the Captain's chair...
     ...and promptly stood when he discovered that the Captain's chair
was, in fact, occupied.  He spun on his heel to see who had the
unmitigated gall to usurp his position, and more importantly, his
comfortable seat.
     "Commander, belay that order," said Captain J. Michael Spaulding,
as he lit a cigar and leaned back in the Captain's chair.  "Or order,
belay that commander.  If something isn't belayed in the next minute,
you're all going to the brig!"
     Steve took a deep breath, then let it out.  He regarded the man,
who in his excessively decorated blue Earth military uniform
(acquired during his time captaining the space station Freedonia 5,
which at the moment was parked on Earth's moon, being repaired)
seemed like a rather silly version of... well, of him.  Only he did
not have Captain Spaulding's thick black mustache, or his cigar, or
his mischievous smile.  Steve smoothed down his own not-so-well
decorated uniform and spoke.
     "I knew you'd turn up sooner or later," he said.  "We're in the
middle of a desperate flight to the enemy planet there, and we have no
time for... excuse me."  He turned to Chicobaldi, the curly-haired
Freedonia 5 security chief, who had been tapping him on the shoulder.
"What?"
     "Here's'a your turnip," said Chicobaldi, handing Steve the
indicated vegetable.  "What about'a rutabaga?  We'a gotta fresh
rutabaga.  Or squash.  You like'a the squash?"
     "No," Steve coldly replied.
     "Well, then," said Spaulding, as he rose from the Captain's
chair.  "No wonder you stink.  If you'd squash more often, I wouldn't
have to hold my nose."
     Steve sputtered.  He realized that his crew was in the middle of
a tense situation, and that a distraction at this point could be
fatal.  He realized that Spaulding and Chicobaldi were deliberately
provoking him, heedless of the importance of the moment.  He realized
that he had to get them to deal with him on his terms, not on theirs.
He realized he was holding someone's thigh with his right hand.
     Zacko, the blond, curly-haired Lieutenant from Freedonia 5,
grinned and honked his horn.  Steve Vogel dropped Zacko's leg, and
felt his rage surge past his will to keep it contained.
     The tirade that followed will not be reproduced here.  This is
not solely due to the profanity contained, though it was colorful,
varied, and involved a variety of mammals.  Nor is it due to the
gestures used, as dramatic, pointed, and anatomically unlikely as they
were.  It will not be reduced here because it is impossible to
capture, in mere text, the sheer whine of the tone, the teeth-rattling
effeminate petulance, or the almost-sublime depths of passive-
aggressive blame-shifting.  Suffice it to say that when Steve ran out
of breath and sat down hard on the floor of the bridge, no one was
paying attention to their controls, or the oncoming enemy, or much of
anything else.
     After several long moments, Spaulding spoke.
     "What about a kumquat?" he asked.
     Jean St. Thomas shook her head, as if to clear it, and turned to
the comm panel.  She pressed a button, and a green light turned red.
"Transmission sent, sir," she said.
     "Er," said Steve.  His throat felt sore.  "What?"
     "No," Chicobaldi.  "Quat."
     "That's what I'm asking," Steve replied.
     Chicobaldi grinned.  "Now you'a gettin' it.  Keep'a this up,
you'a be almost as'a funny as'a Zeppus."
     Zeppus Coleslaw, the forth and least remarkable refugee from
Freedonia 5, started juggling fresh produce.
     "Sir," said St. Thomas, "I transmitted your performance to the
enemy ships, claiming it was a surrender hail.  It looks like it's had
an effect."
     "What?" Steve asked.
     "Quat?" asked Zeppus.  Zacko accepted the proffered fruit and put
it in his pocket.
     The space radar made the situation clear.  The enemy ships were
veering wildly off course.  Two had collided with one another, and a
third appeared to be doing a sort of corkscrew thing while headed
toward a moon of the system's sole planet.  The enemy's pursuit was
thoroughly munged.
     "It appears," said Jean, with as much diplomacy as she could
muster, "that the enemy is... that is to say... er... laughing... too
hard... to pursue us.  Due to your... um... amazing improvised
performance, which you of course knew was being broadcast to produce
precisely this effect.  Sir."
     "Riiight," said Steve.  He looked up at Zacko, who held out his
horn to help him up.  Steve grasped the knob, was not surprised to
hear a loud honking sound, and was pulled to his feet.  "Well, then.
Are we in range of the planet?"
     "Getting there now," his helmsman responded.  Steve was a bit put
out that he could not remember the man's name.  "Atmospheric contact
in five... four... three... two... one...."
     "Skiff is away," Jean reported.  "Toni Williams knows her
business, that's for sure.  Looks like the skiff's heat shields are
holding... they should be on the surface in twenty minutes."
     "That's that, then," said Steve.  "What about the enemy ships?"
     "They appear to be regrouping," Jean said.  "Looks like they'll
be coming after us soon."
     "Right," said Steve.  "What do you think, Captain Spaulding?
Time to run away?"
     "With alacrity, Captain Vogel," Spaulding replied.  "Though I
forgot to bring my lacrity, so I'll have to borrow yours."

                                -~-_-

     There are artifacts in the universe that beggar the imagination--
grand constructs, exuding power and antiquity in their elaborate
designs, their sublime textures, and their sheer awesomeness.  They
are the most desired, the most conspired for, the most fought over,
and the most jealously guarded of artifacts, and the histories of
empires have turned on their fates.
     There are also artifacts in the universe that are just stupid.
As the space villain Bagelos gazed upon what had been introduced to
him as 'the Proofs,' he strongly suspected they fell into the latter
category.  In fact, they appeared to be nothing more than twelve
cardboard rectangles cut out of random cereal boxes and attached by
wires to what appeared to be an enormous dented teapot.  Each
rectangle had a series of vertical black lines, with a set of numbers
beneath.  Below the numbers was alien lettering that Bagelos had been
informed translated to 'Proof of Purchase - Unstoppable Cosmic Power.'
     "I, Bagelos," said Bagelos, "feel the need to ask... what is this
needlewarping crap?"
     "Watch your language," Sark Flyby responded.  "You're in a holy
place!"  He emphasized this by swatting Bagelos on the kneecap, which
for him was at eye level.
     Bagelos barely noticed the swat.  "You said you had the Fiber
hooked up.  Where is it?"
     "I believe it is right here, friend Bagelos," said Quooth.  The
wzaxtil stood at the base of the thirty-foot-tall teapot, gesturing
with phis feelers at a rectangular hatch set into the smooth silvery
metal.  Bagelos looked down at Sark, who gestured to a couple of the
soldier-monks who guarded the entrance to the Repository of the Proofs
(the underground complex into which Sark had brought Bagelos and
Quooth following their capture at the Temple of the Ancients).  The
soldier-monks advanced to where Quooth stood, roughly displaced phim,
then opened the rectangular hatch.
     The fist-sized chunk of rock seemed to squirm in Bagelos's sight.
Bagelos recognized it at once as the ancient power source of the
wretched _W.S. Universal Solvent,_ the ship in which he and Quooth had
come to Zeta Ricola Beta.  Sark had told him that it had been taken
from the _Universal Solvent_ and installed here, as well as its true
name and purpose.
     Had Bagelos's grandfather, the space villain Baconos, possession
of The Fiber forty years ago, when he had been on this world trying
to make Unstoppable Cosmic Power his own, he would have succeeded.
Not even the space heroes of the time, including the legendary Hutch
Williams, could have stood against him.  Bagelos contemplated these
facts with anticipation as he again regarded the Proofs.
     "How are they controlled?" he asked.  "I, Bagelos, must know if
I, Bagelos, am to draw Unstoppable Cosmic Power to this world for your
control!"
     The monk next to him sighed.  Bagelos remembered his being
introduced as Tarlus, the Keeper of the Proofs, and also remembered
his first impression of the grey-mop-haired, rake-thin old man as
someone who missed his calling as a dissection cadaver.
     "This is the remote," said Tarlus, holding out a small black
metal rectangle with two knobs and a lever.  "This controls the
overall power flow, this is for fine tuning the directional quadrant
expenditures, and this is for thinning and thickening the power
allowed to the Chosen One."
     "And that's it?" Bagelos asked.  "That is all you do with the
power you have already tapped?"
     "Until the Chosen One has defeated Shoon-Ma's Champion in single
combat," Sark said, "that's how it's got to be.  We gained enough
power, forty years ago, to build a hyper-mumbo-jumbo-energy-tesseract
to seal off our star system from the outside universe, and build an
impressive and stylish space armada, but we do not dare do more until
we've got the cosmic stones to back it up!  And for that, we must
bring the ancient prophecies to fulfillment!"
     "Ah," Bagelos said.  "Right.  Which is where I, Bagelos, come in.
But to gain the Unstoppable Cosmic Power you seek, I shall have to
have more direct contact than what is afforded by Tarlus's small black
box."
     "It's a nice control box," Tarlus said, a bit of petulance in his
voice.  "I painted it myself."
     "Friend Bagelos," said Quooth.  "You must reconsider these
actions.  Recall the fate of Baconos, will you not?"
     "My grandfather," Bagelos replied, "became a pseudo-ghost in the
Temple of the Ancients through his own errors, which I, Bagelos, shall
not repeat.  My grandfather, Baconos, did not have The Fiber, which I,
Bagelos, do.  Are you, Quooth, getting this?"
     Quooth gave no reply, not even an annoying tune.  Bagelos turned
away and regarded the Proofs.
     Perhaps direct contact---
     "No!" Tarlus and Sark exclaimed, as Bagelos reached for the
nearest of the Proofs.  But they were too late.  Bagelos's fingertips
touched the nearest two of the Proofs, and the entire control room
complex dropped away from his perceptions.
     "I, Bagelos, will stay calm," he murmured, as the world above
swam into his head.  "I, Bagelos, am the master of all which I,
Bagelos, see."  The Daaksvong Complex was smaller than he thought, and
the people in it were small and quick.  More appeared as he watched,
and he realized some were actually being tele-transported from outside
of the Zeta Ricola Betan star system.  A few of these tele-transported
beings were passingly familiar, with names such as Von Spleen and
Kalvin Certain and Benjen and... Shoon-Ma!
     "I, Bagelos..." he started to say.  Then things went weird.
     He was in the kind of place he had always envisioned himself in
at the end of any of his impressively detailed plans for universal
conquest: the bridge of an enormous starship, gazing down at his
minions as they scurried about, ever fearful of committing some kind
of blunder that would bring down his wrath.  The screens on the walls
and on the consoles showed scenes of epic space battle, and government
leaders promising surrender and servitude.  The air smelled vaguely of
donuts.
     But the minions were not minions, exactly.  They were places and
times, and as he watched they blurred into patterns and histories.
The battle scenes became stellar ballets, the surrendering governors
some form of light rock music.  The donut smell became a coffee smell,
and in the distance--the infinite distance!--Bagelos heard the while
of a machine that created lattes.
     Across from him, in the booth he did not remember being seated
in, a bagel hovered.
     "I, Bagelos, am thoroughly confused," he admitted.
     "What confuses you?" asked the ur-Bagel, who Bagelos knew to be
Shoon-Ma.  "Your tiny, pathetic human mind must process the enormous
cosmic energies and enhanced perceptions of the infinite workings of
the universe somehow.  Why not a coffee shop?"
     Bagelos looked around again.  The coffee shop was oddly
furnished, and the way the walls and people seemed to blur was both
strange and pretentious.  A couple in the booth behind Bagelos--a
blonde human female and a reptilian being of a sex Bagelos could not
ascertain--were kissing in a passionate if slightly awkward fashion,
completely ignoring their triple-mocha lattes.  The barista behind the
counter was developing an epic sneer in preparation for an approaching
customer.  An enormous plate glass window let in light from outside,
but all it revealed was that all outside was light.  Right offhand,
Bagelos could think of several reasons 'why not' a coffee shop, but
since it was what he was going to have to work with anyway, he decided
to let them go.
     "You are... Shoon-Ma?" Bagelos asked.
     "You know of me?" Shoon-Ma replied.  "Does word of me somehow
survive the Breaking of the Fast?"
     "Er, yes," said Bagelos.  He realized that the Shoon-Ma before
him was not the Shoon-Ma that had just been tele-transported to planet
Zeta Ricola Beta.  The Shoon-Ma before him was here to make a deal to
betray his fellow ur-Breakfast Foods, not knowing that Bagelos fully
intended to betray him, thus setting up the event that would send the
embittered and ancient Shoon-Ma on a quest to find a Champion to send
to Zeta Ricola Beta to take revenge.  "But let us not talk of this...
we hardly would like to cause a temporal paradox, would we?"
     "The other I spoke with," said Shoon-Ma.  "Baconos, his name.  He
tried to describe time to me.  And paradoxes.  They seem rather
complicated.  I'm not sure I followed the explanation."
     Bagelos started to answer, pausing only when he realized the
background music had shifted.  It sounded something like 'Annie Get
Your Gun,' performed on a harmonica.  The higher dimensions were
proving to be as annoying as they were odd.  He returned his attention
to the business at hand.
     "They are unimportant," he said.  "I, Bagelos, am not concerned
with them."
     "Where is Baconos, anyway?" Shoon-Ma asked.  "We worked together
on the preparatory phases."
     "He is no longer with us," Bagelos replied.  "A sad accident.  I,
Bagelos, am his grandson, and am prepared with his blessing to
complete this great work."
     "Right," said Shoon-Ma.  "Let us begin."
     Neither noticed that the couple in the next booth had stopped
making out, and were now watching them.

                                -~-_-

     Shadebeam Moroboshi was no longer in her cell on Zeta Ricola
Beta.  Nor was she on Zeta Ricola Beta at all.  At least, she did not
think she was.  She was not sure that she was limited to a single
place or a single time.  What was before her seemed so much more than
that, though she could not entirely work out what all was in it.  It
was images and lines and movement, an assembly she knew she would
never be able to describe, even though at the moment it seemed to make
enough sense.
     She had no body, but she could deal with that.  What were less
easy to deal with were the sounds of 'Annie Get Your Gun' being played
on a harmonica in the background.  It was the wrong choice, to say the
least, for a meta-cosmic experience.
     "Hey," said Slithis, who seemed someplace close to her.  "I think
that's where we first met."
     She could not see him, but as he spoke, the strange lines before
her shifted, and there they were, on the _Red Emma,_ arm in arm as the
ship lifted away from Earth.  So long ago, so much more young, and
already together, inhibitions erased by the smoke they shared.
     "You see," she said, "I told you this was how it worked."
     "How what worked?" Slithis asked.  "And where are you?  And...
um... where am I?  This isn't a dream, is it?"
     "No," said Shadebeam.  She focused on the mass of past images,
and found where she had been taken away from the 001SFSTORY altiverse
and into 000SUPERGUY.  More correctly, as she remembered that time, it
took shape.
     "Weren't we," said Slithis, "you know... doing something?
Before?"
     "That's how we got here," Shadebeam replied.  "The ABPSARI
brought us inside."
     "Oh," said Slithis.  "So this is just happening in our heads
while our bodies are still there--"
     "No," Shadebeam interrupted.  "It brought our bodies in with us.
Anyone looking in on our cell will just see it empty.  I don't know
where our bodies are right now, but I expect they'll catch up to us."
     "Right," said Slithis.  "So... what are you doing?"
     "Remember what I told you earlier?"
     "Um... before the goinking?"
     "Goi... what?"
     "Goinking.  It's a verb.  It means---"
     "Yeah, got it," Shadebeam interrupted.  "What I said before.  It
wasn't the ABPSARI that manipulated us to this point.  It's just a
tool, right?"
     "Um.  Sure."
     "It only seemed to be manipulating us.  See, like right here.
This point where I'm brought back into 001SFSTORY, by Dr. Bing Von
Spleen's misuse of the machine."
     "With nothing but your bath towel," Slithis commented.  "May I
venture a 'hubba?'"
     "Only one."
     "Hubba."
     "Now," said Shadebeam, "the point is, when I saw what was
happening, I wasn't just re-watching it... I was causing it to
happen."
     "Er?"
     "I was remembering what happened," she went on, "and that caused
it to happen in that way.  See?"
     "Oh... um... no."
     "It's not really a time loop, since we're outside of space and
time.  More like an... um... information loop.  The ABPSARI gets from
us what happened, and then makes it happen."
     Slithis considered this for a while.
     "So... the agency behind the clearly non-random manipulations the
ABPSARI's been inflicting on us for years, and the last three days in
particular is... us?"
     "You got it," said Shadebeam.  "So, here's the thing.  I think we
could change what it did... if we wanted."
     "You mean," Slithis replied, "instead of it next teleporting us
from Shoon-Ma's ship to the Planet of Casinos, it could send us to,
say, Barbados, Planet of Physical Delights?"
     "Basically, yes.  Of course, if we do that, we never end up in
that cell on Zeta Ricola Beta, and then we never realize we're
basically mad for one another, never goink, and probably eventually go
our separate ways.  I'm not sure if that would disrupt the information
loop or not... this *is* a weird-funky-ass machine, and I don't know
that paradoxes apply."
     Slithis considered some more.
     "So what's with the harmonica music?"
     "No idea, sorry."
     "So, the choice is still ours, then."
     "Right."
     "We can choose to inflict all this danger and weirdness on
ourselves, all for the sake of getting to this point now where we can
choose."
     "Right.  So, if you could do it all over again, would you?"
     "Would *you?*"
     Neither one answered.  Neither one needed to.  Their combined
memories of the final three ABPSARI incidents--being teleported from
Shoon-Ma's ship to the Planet of Casinos, being teleported from the
Planet of Casinos to Zeta Ricola Beta, and being snorked out of their
cell on Zeta Ricola Beta to this odd and squiggled non-place--happened
in rapid succession.
     Shadebeam opened her eyes to find she was seated in a booth of a
coffee shop, kissing Slithis.  The harmonica music was still audible,
only now it sounded like it was coming through the shop's speakers.
Two voices came from the next booth.
     "He is no longer with us," said one.  "A sad accident.  I,
Bagelos, am his grandson, and am prepared with his blessing to
complete this great work."
     "Right," said the other.  "Let us begin."
     Shadebeam and Slithis looked at the two in the next booth.  She
did not know the guy in the dingy 'evil' black-and-red robes, or
particularly like his black-and-grey goatee or the ruby over his left
eye.  Shoon-Ma she recognized, and was somewhat surprised when he did
not recognize her or Slithis.
     They listened while Bagelos and Shoon-Ma conspired.  Most of the
details Shadebeam did not particularly get--there was some energy to
be released to Zeta Ricola Beta circa forty years ago, with the
remainder to be delivered to 'present day' Zeta Ricola Beta, this
energy would let Bagelos do such-and-such, and Shoon-Ma would then be
able to do this-and-that-and-that-other-thing--but one plot point was
conspicuously absent.  It was the one that Shoon-Ma had been always on
about when she had been on his ship: the Champion who was supposed to
carry out Shoon-Ma's revenge against Zeta Ricola Beta, after taking on
and somehow defeating Zeta Ricola Beta's Chosen One.
     Bagelos and Shoon-Ma, at the end of their conspiring, vanished.
The coffee house did not, though it started to waver.
     "Bagelos is going to betray Shoon-Ma," said Slithis.  "And set up
this whole chain of events.  How... how do we stop it?"
     "This music..." Shadebeam whispered.  "It's not just music."
     "Um.  What?"
     "In the background..."
     "Is that what that is."
     "Technically, yes.  Let me hear it clearly..."
     Perhaps it was the place they were in, she thought.  The
harmonica sound had something inside it, something that evoked both
the cosmic reaches and the hillbilly in the ditch, the thunderous
silence of deep time and interminable ennui of longtime jailbirds.
The more she focused on it, the more it focused on her, until it was
in her, and she...
     "Hello?" asked a tentative voice.  Shadebeam could not decide if
the voice was male or female, but it also did not seem right to call
it 'neuter'.  "Friend Bagelos?"
     "Not here at the moment," she answered.  "I'm his secretary.  May
I ask your name?"
     "Oh, certainly!"
     Shadebeam waited.
     "Who are you?" she asked, fighting back exasperation.
     "I am Quooth Thiiksi," the voice replied.  An image formed of a
bipedal buglike being with a harmonica clutched in phis feelers.  "And
I see that friend Slithis is with you.  Hello, friend Slithis!"
     "Er, hi," said Slithis.
     "You know... er... phim?" Shadebeam asked.
     "Met phim on Freedonia 5," said Slithis.  "Briefly.  Not sure I
even introduced myself."
     "Is friend Bagelos around?" Quooth asked.  "I have been playing
on my Holy Harmonica the wzaxtil Song of Connection to A Friend Who is
Having Cosmic Things Happening to His Head At The Moment, but have not
connected.  I fear he is conspiring to gain great power for himself,
at the cost of great damage to the universe in general, and Zeta
Ricola Beta in immediate particular."
     "That's about the size of it.  Tell me something..."
     For a while after, they discussed events as they had experienced
them to date, gaining great insight into the plot.  Indeed, at that
point, they probably had greater insight into what was going on than
most other characters, or the readers, or the Author.  At the end of
the discussion, Quooth brought up a vital question.
     "What shall we do next?" phe asked.  "Friend Bagelos has already
struck his deal with not-friend Shoon-Ma.  Already increased power
from the Breaking of the Fast at the Dawn of the Universe is flowing
into him, and will be available to Zeta Ricola Beta's Chosen One,
friend Zark Flyby.  If, as you say, it is likely that Shoon-Ma's
Champion, friend Sajon, is already on Zeta Ricola Beta, then their
prophesized meeting is inevitable!"
     "But he's not Shoon-Ma's Champion yet," Slithis noted.  "At
least, he wasn't last we saw him.  Dr. Von Spleen was going to work on
the means for his transformation, probably a Spam-based pill or
something..."
     "He's going to cause friend Sajon to ingest... Spam?" Quooth
asked, horror in phis reedy voice.
     "Likely some kind of Spam that's been altered to bestow super
cosmic power, in convenient pill-like form," Slithis said.  "Not sure
if that's better or worse than regular Spam."
     "So what you have to do is just keep Sajon from his
transformation," Shadebeam said.  "Once you find him, I mean.  Chances
are he's in your vicinity on Zeta Ricola Beta."
     "I will!" Quooth replied.  "And what shall you do, friend
Shadebeam?"
     Shadebeam sighed.
     "Go home," she said.
     "What?" Slithis and Quooth simultaneously asked.
     "We don't have a way back to Zeta Ricola Beta, Slith," Shadebeam
explained.  "We lost that connection when Bagelos withdrew.  And now
that we completed the memory circuit and chose to cause to happen all
that the ABPSARI did with us... it's pushing me out.  And unless you
come out with me, back into 000SUPERGUY, you'll be trapped here
forever."
     "That wouldn't be good," said Slithis.  "That barista looked very
sur... hey, what happened to the coffee shop?"
     "Gone."
     Not only was the coffee shop gone, so was the panoramic
phantasma-of-space-and-time imagery they had before so easily
manipulated.  Now were just darkness, a bright hole in said darkness,
and some fading harmonica music.
     "Hey, Quooth," said Slithis.  "If you see Benjen, Gham,
Jerriphrrt or Sajon, let 'em know that Slithis and Shadebeam had to go
back to the 000SUPERGUY altiverse, to planet Earth.  We'll try to get
back to 001SFSTORY when we can, but that may not be possible for a
while."
     "I will let these friends know," Quooth promised.  Phis voice was
now very faint.  "By..."
     They waited, but both wzaxtil and harmonica were now silent.  The
bright hole in the fabric of the inky blackness had grown, and
Shadebeam could tell they were close to being pushed out.  Through the
hole she could see the bathroom of her home, the very place from which
she was abducted by the ABPSARI three days before.
     "Three days," she grumbled.  "It feels like eight years."
     "Hmmm?" Slithis asked.
     "Nothing," said Shadebeam.  "Okay, this might get strange.
Strange-er, I mean.  I lost my magic when the ABPSARI plucked me out
of 000SUPERGUY, though Dr. Spleen or Von Spleen or whoever said I'd
get it right back once I returned.  All well and good, but since
you're coming back through with me, it might affect you as well..."
     She felt his arms around her, and turned to face him.  He was
smiling, and she kissed him.
     A moment later, they were through the altiversal rift.  A moment
after that, the rift was gone.
     Back on Zeta Ricola Beta, in the cell that once held Shadebeam
and Slithis, the APBSARI stopped glowing, and, for no apparent reason,
turned into a wetvac.

WILL SHADEBEAM AND SLITHIS MAKE IT BACK IN TIME TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS
NEXT?
WHAT IS HAPPENING NEXT?
DO THINGS START MAKING SENSE?
DOES BAGELOS CONQUER THE UNIVERSE?
DO WE FIND OUT WHAT'S GOING ON WITH CHARACTERS WE HAVEN'T SEEN IN
AGES?
DO WE GET MORE 'QUAT' JOKES?
QUAT?

More obfuscation in the next episode of SFSTORY!
--
Gary W. Olson          swede at novitious dot com
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