Chapter 27: Milking information from You-Know-Where
They were both perspiring, muscles straining, hearts racing, their chests heaving from labored breath as they struggled with the emotions raging in their bodies.
Qwark's hand wandered to the armrest across from his, brushing over the hand of his companion as they drew deep, warm breaths. Al's eye opened wide when he realized what was going on, as did Qwark, and as their eyes locked in horror, they cried out as they flinched away. "Hey!" Qwark exclaimed. "It is strictly forbidden for sidekicks to get so... intimate! Even androids! Keep your hands to yourself! Especially when you're... well, you know..."
"Don't look at me!" Al protested in a fluster, ignoring the android remark. "I wasn't the one trying to pet... eww! Of all the disgusting..." He waved his hand as if trying to shake something off, though his eye was gradually drawn back - as was Qwark's - to an irresistible display where a Courtney Gears video was playing. Quite a lurid one, though they all were, and they had gone through a number of them in their travel down the wormhole between galaxies, and growing increasingly... excited. "Uhm..." he began faintly, "maybe this should be the last one. I, uh... need a shower."
"Tell me about it," Qwark muttered, flinching back from an angry look from the cyborg. "Hey, I didn't mean that you smel-!" he began, jumping as his ship emerged with an alarm into normal space, and grouched at being caught off guard. "Darn it... I guess you're right though, little buddy," he declared, reluctantly ending the video. "Looks like we've arrived."
Al gave the hero a dim glance at the little buddy remark, drawing his tablet from under his lab jacket to learn about their destination. When he began reading, his eye opened wide. "Qwark, I thought we were trying to pick up the trail of Ratchet. What the heck are we doing here?"
"Squeezing the tender udders of the underworld for information, chum. Watch and learn as a master of sleuthfullness slides between the soiled sheets of crime to seize nuggets of knowledge," Qwark replied brightly as Al grimaced in disgust.
"And just how do you intend to go about doing that?" he asked dubiously. "Isn't this enemy territory? I sincerely doubt you rank very high on anyone's guest list."
"Au contraire, my doubtful deputy," Qwark told him with a lofty smile. "Naturally, you couldn't possibly know of my previous heroic exploits here, being on tha down low, but I managed to strike up a few crucial contacts deep in the intestines of this seething diarrhea of evil. If there's anything to digest, I'll get the hard poop-"
"Qwark, please hush up before you make me ill. Good grief..." Al interrupted squeamishly. He distracted himself from any further unsavory dialog of the hero by reading up on the world they were approaching.
On the screen, the flabby, scarred face of the Port Boss appeared as he grumbled, "Welcome to Mukow, the galaxy's most popular and dangerous resort world. Now, get the hell onto this approach vector..."
In a secluded office cloaked in shadow and high above the twisted fairgrounds, a bizarre figure ringed with a halo of otherworldly energies watched a monitor with a growing smile. "Well... it seems that an old friend of mine has finally made his way back here, and more or less on schedule, for once." He looked up to a tall figure wearing a well traveled bush hat, asking, "You have the items I gave you-?" He paused as the saurian nodded, holding them up. "Good. Now, tend to your orders. You don't have time to dawdle."
"Hey, wha'd'ya know, it quit raining." Qwark folded his umbrella and collapsed it to pocket size, adding, "I tell ya, it rains here more than it does on New Seattle."
They welcomed the lull in the incessant showers as the pair made their way towards the Coliseum ticket line, sunlight gleaming in water puddles and rainsoaked foliage. Qwark's vivid green and violet leotard was covered, mostly, by an immense labcoat rather like Al's. As he tugged it more or less in place under the straps of the backpack concealing his Dimensionator, the geeky technologist remarked, "Qwark... I know I'm going to hate myself for admitting this, but I think you're too well built a fellow for that labcoat to conceal much of your cluster spanning identity."
He looked left and right to make sure no one was watching them, though it was hard to ignore the odd couple, and drew Al aside to the cover of some tall hedges. "That's why I have... these," the hero countered with a smile, reaching into the cloak and drawing forth a pair of items in each massive hand. In one, he held some gaudily colored lenseless glasses, in the other, a plastic mustache. "Here. They're the latest in identity confusion technology."
"Wow, that sounds even better than a disguise..." Al muttered dubiously as he took them from the insistent hero. "And right out of the clandestine section in Galaxy Mart." Looking them over skeptically, he stuffed them in a breast pocket as Qwark put his own on.
"How did you know?" he asked, whipping around and going, "Boo! Hey, I bet you didn't know it was me!"
Al grumbled, "Qwark, you look-" He managed to choke off ridiculous, continuing as smoothly as he could, "Nothing like yourself."
"See? I told you they were perfect. Say... why aren't you wearing-?" he began, reaching for Al's pocket, flinching back as he got his hand slapped for the trouble.
The cyborg pushed Qwark out and towards the lengthening ticket line. "You're disguised well enough for both of us. Besides, no one even knows who I am."
"Oh, this is way beyond a mere disguise, little buddy," the hero replied guardedly as he jumped in front of a large metal clad figure, dragging Al with him. Looking up at the angry fish in a water-filled dome atop the mechanized suit, Qwark flashed him a smile. "Uh, we were here yesterday." As his sidekick stifled a groan, Qwark eyed the others like it in the line, and there were a large number of them. "Wow... have you noticed that there are a lot of armored sushi clunking around here?"
Al tried to wave him quiet with a loud shh! "They're Drophyds. Emperor Tachyon expanded the arena areas to entertain his mercenaries, because they demanded the satisfaction of seeing other races decapitated in bloody gladiatorial combat. They're considered a delicacy among many of the people in the cluster, and that's kind of a sore point with them."
Qwark gave out a laugh. "Oh, who cares what tasty goldfish think?" He cringed back as the Drophyd leaned over him with a growl from the suit speaker.
"I see your tact and social skills are as sharp as ever," Al muttered dryly. "Or the lack thereof." As Qwark tried in his usual clumsy way to placate the offended Drophyd, Al inquired, "Say, why are we going in here again? I'm not a big fan of wanton ruthless killing, you know."
"I have... friends in high... and low places," Qwark groaned out as he grappled with the aquatic warrior. "Hey... have any... fish food handy?"
Al sighed, fishing a small bag of bolts from an inside pouch of his labcoat. "Bribery is usually a pretty good way to-" He flinched as the Drophyd snatched it from him, releasing the hero with a final glare. "End a disagreement." As Qwark stuck his tongue out at the mercenary, rubbing his wrist, the cyborg added, "You owe me five hundred bolts."
"What?" he cried in disbelief, drawing forth his debit card and checking the balance in a small display. "Why, I remember the days when a sidekick would glady bankrupt himself for his mentor."
"Thank heaven, those were the days..." Al mumbled.
Just then, Qwark burst out gleefully, "Wow! Oh, that's right, I forgot to pay Sasha baahh..." His voice trailed to silence as he caught Al glaring at him from the corner of his eye.
"You forgot to what?" he demanded hotly, folding his arms at the Captain.
"Uhh... nothing," Qwark snapped in response, stuffing the card back in his wallet, then he froze in the motion of jamming it under the belt of his leotard as he saw something bizarre at the head of the line. A strange creature that looked like a large legged sea slug stuffed an insectoid about to buy a ticket into its maw, then stepped up to the counter with a belch. Pointing with a quivering finger, he asked in a thin, incredulous voice, "Is... that one of those... things Ratchet's people banished, and... did it just eat...?"
"Yes, and ignoring it will prolong our lives greatly," Al warned him. "Honestly, didn't you learn anything in superhero school?"
"I kinda... took long lunches and skipped a few classes. Now and then," Qwark admitted timidly.
"Well, that explains a lot..." the cyborg muttered.
Fortunately, it took some time for the line to draw short, and Qwark managed to regain his usual heroic bluster. Behind the weapon-resistant crystal of the booth, a large wrinkled old toad of a woman with a beehive hairdo regarded the mismatched pair with disdain. "Well, look what we have here... two rejects from the science club, backpacks and all." As an insect buzzed out of her hairdo, her tongue lashed out at it, snapping it into her mouth, followed by noisy, crunchy chewing.
"Err... precisely!" Qwark declared, after recovering, with an upraised, finger pointing arm, offering his debit cars with the other. "We're on a working summer vacation to take in the sights of this marvelous mecca of Cragmite delights!" Al slapped his hand across his face in dismay as Qwark added quickly, "And I'm not a superhero."
"Well, that goes without saying..." the saleswoman remarked dryly as she returned the card with his name prominently displayed, and two tickets.
Qwark shot back a sour look, wandering off towards the Coliseum entrance with Al, but his head popped around the side of the booth a second later to glare at her. "I could'a been, ya know."
"Qwark?" Al groaned warningly.
"Sure thing, twinkle toes," she muttered as Al dragged the hero away, reaching for the phone and pushing a red button on the console. "Boss? Listen... Captain Qwark and his wind-up nephew dropped in at the Arena just now. Should I have the boys show 'em upstairs?"
There was laughter in the receiver. "No, I have a better idea. Why don't we give them a front row seat, if you know what I mean?"
"Sure thing, boss." She chuckled with him as she pressed another button, murmuring, "I love the perks of this job."
As she strutted smartly down the corridor back stage of the arena accompanied by her saurian manager, Courtney Gears felt a twinge of lingering uncertainty. "Are you suuurre this is really a career enhancing appearance, Klinkenbolt?"
"Klinkengold," the manager corrected tiredly, as he'd done countless times. "And yes, Courtney baby, read a paper once in a while! The Cragmites are poised to take this whole galaxy over, so we need to establish your market presence ahead of the game. Trust me on this."
"I trusted you on that toothpaste commercial deal," she remarked sourly, "and look what it got me." She tried to shut out the memory of sparks flying from her mouth from that first brush, followed by her toppling over to end with her head exploding from her neck. The tabloids were plastered with the embarrassing images, headlined with A shocking endorsement! "I could kill you for that!"
"Hey, a minor technical oversight!" he protested. "Besides, why didn't you know that would happen?"
"I don't brush my teeth, you idiot!" she growled, then slowed in her walk as a lanky, ragged figure approached them. "Oh... goodie, a fan," she murmured sarcastically, grabbing the manager by the arm. "Give 'im a signed eight by ten glossy and shoo his squishy butt off, kay?"
"Hold on now," he said to them, and as he drew closer, they could make out an odd blue eye-patched figure dressed mostly in black, a small red bird on his shoulder, and topped with a quaint bush hat that looked to have been through a few scuffles. "I'm part o' the staff, here to greet'cha. See?" He thumbed a small laminated badge clipped to his vest pocket at them, and on the pale green surface in marker was scrawled, STAFF.
"Ohh..." Courtney said in dawning realization. "Well, I have to tell you that so far, your people haven't been very accommodating to the needs of a star of my caliber."
"Prima donna!" squawked the red avioid. "Never happy-!"
"OH!" the Sorlak blurted out, muzzling the bird with one hand. "Well, by all means, gimme a run down of all the, uh... unfortunate oversights, an' I'll do my very best to get them rectified a-s-a-p! In the mean time, follow me to yer... waitin' room."
"Oh, thank heaven, finally someone who understands how to treat a gigastar!" she gushed in relief as the manager snapped up a notepad of all the details his star has ranted to him. "Well, to start with, the charging station was one whole volt off. I hope you understand, I'm not used to such poorly calibrated equipment."
"Those precisely machined curves o' yours deserve the very best, I agree," the Sorlak empathized. "Why, what other fembot can make a squishy like me weak in the knees?" He grinned as the avioid gaped at him in shock.
"Hey, you should come to my dressing room after I'm done with this gig," she told the reptile in a sultry voice, giggling as her manager blinked up at her from under his dark glasses. "Anyway, I'm also still waiting for that synthetic oil Shih Tzu massage..."
She was still rattling off demands five minutes later as she was walked into a gloomy chamber full of cleaning equipment, blinking as she tried to fathom what the situation was, the door closing. "Klinkenbolt, where's that nice staffer? I need him to change this room. These accommodations look more like a damn janitor closet."
"This is a damn janitor closet!" he exclaimed, rattling the handle. "And we're locked in!"
She turned on him, eyes bulging from behind his shades as she growled angrily, "All right Simon, what the hell are you doing, booking a gig that makes me wait in a faqing broom closet!"
The Sorlak stepped away from the door as sounds of commotion came from within, murmuring, "I think I'll just leave the two o' them to sort this all out amiably."
A large saurian guard watching over the milling crowds raised his walkie-talkie to the side of his head at a burst of static. "Yeah boss?" His eyes narrowed at the Coliseum manager's instructions. "Two punks dressed like lab rats? Yeah, I see 'em." He blinked in surprise at what was said next. "Seriously? What did they do to ya? Eh, never mind, I'm on it."
"I dunno, Qwark, I'm not to keen on this..." began the geek fretfully.
"Oh come on, Al, don't be such a wimp," the hero said chidingly. "This is known throughout Tachyon's Empire as the best in family-friendly entertainment!"
"What family says that?" the cyborg muttered.
Qwark went on obliviously, "I must admit that the concessions are way overpriced, but I know a cute little register jockey who can shave off a few..." He looked up in surprise as a large scaly arm stretched out before him, cringing when he saw that it was attached to a reptilian guard even larger than he was, and with rows of sharp teeth. "Uhh... hey, I was just kidding about the concessions-"
"Special... vee eye pee accommodations," the saurian interrupted, nodding towards a side corridor.
"Oh! Uhh... thanks! Here's a bolt for your time, good citizen," Qwark said happily, fishing a washer from a hidden pocket and flipping it at the guard.
He didn't bother to catch it, blinking as it bounced off his nose and clanged on the floor. As the pair marched off down the corridor, he muttered, "Enjoy the show... cheap ass."
Al's brow furrowed at the sign above the doorway which read CONTESTANTS, trying to point it out to the unobservant hero. "Are you sure we're going the right way? It sounds like the crowds are back in the other direction."
Qwark waved him off dismissively. "Oh, like you'd know. You've never even been here before." But as he passed another sign, a notion struck him. "Hey! I bet this is one of those V.I.P. meet-the-gladiators deals!"
Al gave the hero a suspicious look. "And just why would you be getting any kind of special treatment?"
The question caught him off guard, and the seldom-used gears of his adolescent brain spun wildly in hope of a good answer. "Wellll... uhmm... former employee perk! That's gotta be it."
"So much for the latest in identity confusion technology," Al mumbled dubiously, wondering what the heck they were about to stumble into, then the implications of what Qwark admitted had his eye popping open. "Wait a minute! You mean to tell me that you worked for Tachyon?"
"Well... uhm..." he began, rubbing the back of his head self-consciously, "sort of. I mean, I was on the payroll and all, but that doesn't really mean anything..."
Al lolled his tongue in distaste. "Do I even want to know about that?"
"Stand on the platform and get ready," came a voice over a speaker as they neared what looked like an elevator pad.
"Sure thing, mister... speaker guy!" Qwark replied brightly as he stood in the center, snatching the cyborg to his side as he tried to wander off. "Come on Al, get with the program-" he began, cutting himself short at the sound of the arena announcer above and a roar from the crowd. "Listen to that!" he enthused. "It sounds like the arena is right above us!"
"That's what I'm afraid of..." the cyborg muttered, just as the platform began to rise, ascending into a cylindrical wall like a piston.
The sound of the arena grew louder and the announcer more distinct. "...Ready for our first exciting match! For the first time ever, two relative unknowns are going to face the full monty of Mukow Coliseum's battle hardened veterans!"
"Did you hear that?" Qwark exclaimed. "Wow, I wonder who those two poor saps are! But it should be one hell of a..." His voice faltered as he was about to slap his companion on the back. "Gee, you look a little green for some reason. I mean... you know, actual green."
He looked up to the hero, beginning to grow angry. "Qwark, get a freaking clue! We're about to be-!"
Abruptly, a plate slid aside above them, and the roar of the crowd drowned out Al's outrage as they rose to the level of a wide expanse. And all around them ran row upon row of spectators yelling for blood. "Wow!" Qwark exclaimed. "Just look at this view! Why, it's just like you're right down in the middle of thee... uhh... wait a minute." He fell silent, his finger at his lip pensively as he cast about, trying to fathom what the situation was. Looking to Al, he began with a weak chuckle, "This isn't... is it?"
"Dang it Qwark, don't you get it?" he exclaimed, pounding his squishy fists against the hero's rock hard abs. "We're not watching the main event, we ARE the main event!"
The hero shot back to him sarcastically, "Well gee, sidekick, thanks for the heads up at the last minute!"
"I tried to tell you!" he exclaimed in frustration. "But you were all 'Don't be a wimp, Al, get with the program Al!' If only I could be more assertive... and if only you had a fraction of the common sense Ratchet has!"
"Why does everyone always have to drag him into these sorts of discussions?" Qwark grumbled. He pocketed the fake glasses and mustache, muttering, "Guess I don't need these anymore..."
Al buried his face in his hands, whimpering, "Now we're gonna get... gladiatored! They didn't even give me an organ donor card..."
The hero was about to smart back, but the pitiful sight of his sidekick being close to tears managed somehow to touch his heart. He told Al reassuringly, patting him on the back as gently as he could, "Now, now, little buddy, just stick with me, and the only blood squirting organs which will be flying around this chamber of horrors will be those of our fallen foes. Remember these keys to a sure victory: keep your chin up and projected, and your stomach down and... not!" He poked Al in the tummy for emphasis, muttering, "Not. Work with me here." The cyborg tried to comply as best he could, so he let it drop and continued. "Give your opponent the steely eye of confidence, while curling your upper lip in a stylish sneer of disdain! Style points rank pretty high in the superhero biz, remember that. Keep your weapon tightly held, and shoot high, aim low! Never turn your back to an opponent, even when surrounded! Be sure to brush and floss after every meal! And most importantly-"
Abruptly, there was a loud, nasty clang of a rugged metal door slamming open behind them, and in the dark were the glare of several pairs of red glowing eyes. Qwark uttered the most succinct and profound sentence Al could remember.
Unfortunately, they ran headlong into each other, and Qwark won that contest easily. He hauled the stunned cyborg to unsteady feet as he dragged the geek to the center of the deck, asking, "You do have that blaster I assigned you, don't you chum?"
It took a moment for Al to recover, and when his vision cleared, he drew the weapon out awkwardly. "Well... yeah, but... I wasn't trained or anything!" He jumped as he saw hoards of nasty looking creatures stomping towards him with evil intent.
"Uhh... consider this your O.J.T.," Qwark told him as he opened fire on a group approaching them from the other side. He grumbled as his shoulder seams ripped, "How the heck do you fight in a stupid labcoat!"
"Of all the ridiculous... oh my gosh," Al blurted out as a tall ugly saurian tromped forward, drawing back a long, thick sword for a hefty swing. The cyborg fumbled with his blaster, shooting the deck in front of him, into the stands and destroying an ad for pain relief, into the air, and finally shot the startled brute in the chest, felling him. "Wow..." he gasped in amazement, "I actually got one! Oh my gosh."
"Don't pat yourself on the back yet, sidekick, we still have a small army yet to go! And go easy on the trigger, that thing only holds a thousand rounds," Qwark said over his shoulder. He had to duck as a sword made a deadly swing for his neck. "Hey, no fair!" he shouted with a massive fist to the thug's face. "I'm advising the new kid, here!"
Al tried to steady himself as best he could, but quickly found that with his augmented cyborg vision, aiming the blaster accurately was actually child's play, and he picked off the goons coming for him with ease. "Nine hundred seventy eight, nine hundred seventy seven..." he said to himself.
"What... you keep count?" Qwark laughed incredulously. "You really are a geek!"
"And you were doubting?" Al muttered back dryly. "Nine hundred seventy four..."
The Captain blinked in surprise as moments later, the cyborg began picking off the remaining attackers in front of himself. "Uh... hey chum, not that I don't appreciate the help and all, but you really should be paying attention to your own..." Glancing over his shoulder, he gaped in amazement at the sight of nothing but bodies littering the arena deck behind him. "Gee, that's... not bad..."
After dropping the last opponent in front of the hero, Al blew across the maw of his blaster barrel nonchalantly. "And you were doubting?" Around them, sections of the floor rotated to dispatch the bodies of their foes.
The cockiness of the cyborg brought him back to his senses, and he thought it best to remind the lad of his position, patting him on the back fatherly. "I mean, that's pretty good for a rookie, but-"
"Wow... that's pretty good, for a pair of rookies," the announcer interrupted, "but let's see how well our special guests handle a company of some of Emperor Tachyon's finest Drophyd mercenaries!"
"Uh... does he mean those armored sushi guys?" Qwark asked, just as the rusty doors admitting the gladiators banged open, and out poured dozens upon dozens of the black suited fighters. "I guess he does! Keep in position, back to back, sidekick!" As they began firing, they were dismayed at how many shots it took to blast through the special black alloy of the armor. "I guess those power suits aren't just for show," the hero commented, then a thought struck him and he blurted out over his shoulder, "Hey! Gimme a yank!"
"What?" Al exclaimed in shock at the suggestive remark, then understood as he saw Qwark strapping on the black helmet of his Dimensionator. "Oh, yeah, here," he said, giving the handle dangling from the unzipped backpack a tug. But as the arcane device sputtered to life, he came to his senses and shouted, "Qwark, wait - what do you think you're doing!"
"Just thinning out the crowd a bit, chum," the hero replied, focusing on the nearest Drophyd. "Say goodbye, surf 'n turf!"
The mercenary slowed a bit, unsure what to make of the strange device on the Captain's head, cringing as a bolt of energy shot from it and enveloped him. When he opened his eyes, he saw to his bewilderment that he was on the pleasant beach of a Pokitaru sea resort. When he realized that there was nothing much he could do about it, he gave a resigned shrug and jostled the bag of bolts on his waist that Al had given him.
"He looked rather familiar..." Qwark remarked, then laughed. "What am I saying? They all look like dinner entres."
Al was counting off shots frantically as a Trooper refused to go down, and drew ever closer with a group at his heels. "Eight sixty seven, eight sixty six... oh poop-"
"Uhh... what was that?" the Captain asked as there was a gurgling sound from the cyborg behind him. Casting a look over his shoulder, he gaped in alarm as the geek was being mauled by the Drophyd with several scorch marks in his suit, and taking wicked delight in choking the plump youth. It looked up in shock to see a massive green fist swinging for its water-filled dome, Qwark shouting, "Leave him alone!" The helmet shattered with a satisfying crash, the unfortunate fish sailing to land amidst the tromping feet of his companions. The suit flew back into a crowd approaching them, giving Qwark a moment to hoist the sputtering cyborg to rubbery legs. "Speak more clearly when you're in trouble, little buddy. Those gargling sounds don't convey much information, I have to tell you - uh oh." He stopped short in his dissertation as he saw that the Drophyds were taking advantage of the lull, and they were being set upon from all sides. "Oh yeah? Sayonara, fish fry!"
The Drophyd blinked in bewilderment as he found himself standing atop one of the carousels in the park next to the Coliseum. Hearing a rasping noise, he turned around and yelped in terror as he saw that the ride was ascending towards a plasma generator, bathing the enclosed booth in deadly energy.
"Later, railroader!" Qwark shouted.
The Trooper looked around him in confusion, as he was standing on a rail high above the bay, then squeaked in alarm, diving to the side as a train nearly slammed into him.
"Say cheese!" Qwark exclaimed.
The mercenary blinked in the darkened room he found himself in, then gaped in lurid delight as he saw that he was in the Playbot photo studio, and in the middle of a centerfold shoot. His pleasure was short lived as the model began screaming and throwing pillows at him.
"Freeezer burrrn!" he cried in a pirate voice.
The Drophyd had very little time to react as he found himself on the surface of a comet, the water of his combat suit freezing within seconds. A short time later, Rusty Pete happened along, eying the frosty suit with a hic. "Oy... that be a right nice figurehead fer the bow o' the new ship!" He struggled vainly to lift it once or twice from the frozen surface, then ambled off instead. "Err... think I'll go fetch me mates."
The mercenary found himself surrounded by inert robot figures on the deck of a starcruiser... or so he thought, as he looked up and saw the high framework of an immense studio. "All right people, quiet on the set, and... action!" blared from a lofty platform against the far wall, where a camera was poised and a production team watched. Above them was a large sign reading, You Only Clank Twice.
As if in obedience, the mindless drones began to run around frantically, blathering in monotones, "Oh woe is me." "Must get away." "We're doomed." "Warning, battery is low."
The aquarian's confusion was soon replaced with horror as the director shouted, "All right, that's good. Blow it up!" The fiery blast that shook the chamber didn't seem to impress the director all that much, who complained loudly over the reverberation of it, "Where's that damned star of mine! I'm running out of preliminaries to shoot!"
"Uhhh... sir?" began an aide uncertainly, not sure what the reaction would be. "You might wanna look at this..."
The bearded film-maker raised his glasses as he watched a replay of the scene, nearly choking as he saw a black figure standing among the hectic mass of droids. "Oh, for the love of Ion Fleming... why does every damned shot need editing!"
Tachyon gaped in disbelief from his office overlooking the arena, exclaiming, "What does that imbecile think he's doing! And where in the name of Zordoom is he sending my Troopers!"
The one sent to Pokitaru was delightedly helping some children create an elaborate sand castle, and with a Drophyd figure gazing from a high tower.
Having sufficiently recovered, Al shouted, "Qwark, just where the heck are you sending these Drophyds!"
"Ohh... here and there, just... out of the way places where they can't bother anyone," the hero replied, adding under his breath, "Off the top of my head..."
A Trooper clung fearfully to the head of a false-gold statue of Captain Qwark in a Metropolis plaza, his legs straddling the neck, surrounded by police with weapons drawn. "You know..." began the officer in charge, "I'm not a real fan of the Big Guy, personally, but you just can't do... whatever the heck you're doing."
It took some effort, and a lot of dimensionating from Qwark, but they finally managed to dispatch the last Drophyd. The Captain ambled over to the side of the panting cyborg, gasping, "Whew... that was a pretty good work out, wasn't it?"
"It would be... to you..." Al wheezed, doubled over in agony and exhaustion.
A thought struck the usually slow mind of the hero, and he asked, "That was... two rounds, wasn't it?"
"Well, how about that! Amazingly, our contestants survived two rounds of Coliseum combat!" the announcer said as if in answer. "The wimpier ones, anyhow. So, let's kick it up a notch and see how our dynamic duo handles The Marathon Round!"
"What?" Qwark exclaimed in shock.
"What?" echoed Tachyon, somehow even louder. "Not that deadly, you sadistic fiend! I'd better have a little talk with my program director," he grumbled, slapping the scepter in his bony hand.
"Can't a guy... even catch his breath?" Al panted, struggling to lift himself to his feet.
Qwark helped him up, saying, "You'll have to wait to play catch till this is all over, chum. Move like your life depends on it, because it does!" Before he'd even finished, the thick metal doors clanged open, and a mix of robot slayers and living marauders poured forth. The hero gave a yelp of pain as vents opened up behind him and just scorched his rump with a blast of plasma. "And watch out for those!"
"Oh... this is ridiculous!" Al wailed as he ran as fast as he could from a series of illuminated targets which appeared all around the deck. They chased after him, and seconds later, rockets began blasting the floor of the arena behind him. He just managed to hop over a vent as warning lights blinked, a second before it opened and a jet of plasma roared out.
"Stay kinda close so I can help out, little buddy!" Qwark warned him.
"And just how the heck am I supposed to do that with all this Blarg poop going on!" he shouted, backpedaling and shooting at the same time, while trying to keep mental track of everything going on around him. The patterns of the plasma jets followed a strict timing routine, but keeping track of the different mobs and their various behaviors was another matter. "Six thirty eight, six thirty seven... oh jeepers!"
Up in the control booth, the program director found himself in a rather painful, and terrifying, confrontation with the Cragmite, the scepter hooked around his throat in much too snug a fit. "B-b-but... Emperor," he gasped,"you know that the crowds demand the very finest and deadliest arena combat-!"
"This is a special circumstance, you heavy handed cretin!" Tachyon interrupted, leaning as far out of the unearthly halo as he dared. "I have a feeling that Captain Qwark is too blasted stupid to die, but his companion is considerably more vulnerable. And that supposedly heroic buffon needs all the help he can get to have a hope in flaming black Hades to follow even the simplest threads of my plan! Now..." He shoved the director's face against the panes overlooking the arena. "If one of them should happen to die, your prospects aren't looking any better. Understand?" He tried to nod, making squeaking sounds against the pane in response. Tachyon released him and drew out his phone, muttering acridly, "Good. Now... Joe? You know the drill. Keep that oblivious pair of halfwits alive. Qwark is nearly indestructible, so focus your attention on the short dumpy cyborg. They need something resembling a mind between them, so that one is extremely important. And be discreet. I don't want the crowds thinking the contest is being rigged."
"I'm on it, boss," the Sorlak replied quietly, setting his phone down on the ledge overlooking the arena to take up a proper sniping position with his rifle. As he sighted in on a thug near others being shot at, he muttered, "The hell is wrong with that bug face, puttin' these guys through all this crap if he didn't want 'em gettin' killed?"
He winced as over the phone came, "I heard that! And it wasn't my idea, so watch who you're accusing, you well paid lackey!"
The Sorlak rolled his eyes, saying more guardedly, "One hunk o' Raritanium an' some lunch money here 'n there ain't all that well paid, yer benifience."
"Open mouth! Insert leg-!" squawked his feathered companion from his shoulder, just before Joe swatted him away.
"Shut it, Red. You don't gotta deal with... his holiness like I do." As he carefully picked off or wounded select opponents, the saurian had to admit, "Ya know, those two yahoos really ain't doin' half bad for a pair o' newbs. 'Specially with all that flamin' hell goin' down on 'em."
Al found himself being crowded to the edge of the arena by a deadly looking group, headed by a floating blue-black robot drifting towards him, looking much like some demented chess piece with huge electrified plates for hands. Plates that, if it came much closer, would snap closed on him, both crushing and electrocuting him. And they made excellent shields against his blaster fire. "Qwark!" he shouted anxiously. "A little help here, please!"
"Don't mess with my sidekick!" Qwark shouted as he fired on the thugs closing in on the cyborg. "They're surprisingly hard to find these days..." His eyes popped open wider as he saw three goons fall when he was sure he'd only hit two of them. He raised his blaster to admire it, saying, "Well! Betsy, it seems you're enjoying that upgrade I got you last month!"
"Qwark? For crying out loud-!" Al yelped, backing as close to the edge as he dared, as beneath the deck of the arena was a wide expanse of red hot stones.
"Oh! Right, sorry," the Captain muttered sheepishly, firing carefully for the head of the black robot over the crowd. Unexpectedly, the highly charged systems in its core exploded, sending the mob flying from the blast. While momentarily jubilant, his broad smile of triumph faded as his sidekick was nowhere to be seen, and he called anxiously, "Uhm... Al?"
Just then, a cyborg rocketed upward from over the edge of the deck, crying in pain and trailing smoke from his rump, landing heavily on the floorplates a moment later. Qwark scampered over to the singed and blasted sidekick, kneeling down beside him and looking him over in sympathy. "Al, are you all right?"
He lifted himself with an effort, muttering as he tried to center his hat, "I'll... have to get back with you on that one..."
The hero chuckled, patting him on the back as gently as he could. "You're doing great, chum! Just... oh crud."
Al wondered why the hero would react like that, then noticed that they were on one of the vents, which was opening. They threw each other back with a cry just as plasma shot up through it, nearly frying them both. If that wasn't bad enough, illuminated targets began to appear around them again. Al gathered his remaining strength and ran for it, hopping over the bodies of the fallen combatants while trying to run for as open an area as he could. That brush with plasma jets had Qwark thinking, and he shouted over his shoulder, "Hey! Here's an idea! Lure the bad guys into the you-know-whats!"
Al was incredulous, yelling back as he scrambled behind an ammo crate, "You're just now thinking of that?" He rested his blaster on the crate as he was nearly exhausted, panting, "Four hundred and... and... aww, forget it. This has to be... the last of them... or I'm finished..." As they dealt with the few remaining opponents, he slumped over the crate, gasping out, "Finally..."
Qwark looked around for a gladiator and saw no one, chuckling, "Well, whadya know! We-"
Al's eye popped open at a loud ringing clang of a metal door opening on either side of him, and he practically wept as he hauled himself tiredly to legs barely able to hold him upright. "Oh for the love of... mommie!"
Qwark knew his well of strength was almost limitless, within limits, but could see clearly that his companion was almost spent. Rushing to the open port nearest the cyborg, he grabbed the black robot emerging, giving a cry as energy arced along his body and to the metal deck. "AOWW! Crap... electrons... hurts!" With an effort that stunned everyone watching, he resisted the pain, lifting the robot and hurling it into the crowd of opponents in the exit tube. It struck a second robot and exploded, doing away with the entire mob.
The Smuggler gaped at the sight in amazement, raising his patch to view the scene properly with both eyes. "Damnation! That guy ain't even real!"
Qwark wasted little time, running to the next electro-bot and managed to overcome both the terrible charge and his own dread of pain to do the same thing. The blast again took out everyone. Driving himself onward, he ran for the third group, the mob having enough sense to know what was coming and turning to flee for the open portal, but they didn't get far. Qwark repeated the epic feat, the explosion killing the entire group, but also threw the hero back, and he toppled to the arena deck. At that point the portals slammed shut and withdrew, leaving the reluctant gladiators to deal with the consequences.
Al gaped at this unbelievable spectacle for a few moments, but quickly came to his senses. Even as insanely strong as Qwark was, he obviously couldn't take much more, but he knew what to do. Aiming precisely for the head of the electrified robot drifting near him as he had seen Qwark do, he fired, ducking as it began to spark dramatically. He yelped as it exploded and bits of metal pelted him, then rose up afterward to deal with the next one. He didn't get a chance to do much more, as a tentacle circled his neck from behind. "Oh gak... guess Qwark is... still down..." he choked out, struggling vainly to tug away the elastic arm of the goon who had him.
As the thug lifted him to stare him angrily in the eye, both of them blinked in surprise at a voice beside them. "Don't... count me out yet... little buddy."
The reptile gave out a childish wail as one of the black robots came sailing right for him, knocking him down and taking the crowd behind him down with him. Fortunately for Al, the being had let him go and he fell to the deck plates, gasping for breath, but he had the presence of mind to push himself up to see what was going on. And he was glad he did. He watched in amazement and admiration as Qwark kicked one of the remaining electro-bots into the other, the resulting blast taking out a small mob behind them. He was haggard, his suit scarred from all the abuse, and blood seeped from cuts here and there, but he had never in all his life looked more heroic and imposing. Panting a bit from all the abuse and exertion, he strode up to the remaining group backpedaling to the edge of the arena, and glared at them in a way that even made Al tremble. "Any of you punks... feeling particularly lucky today?" He drove the unspoken point home with a loud fist to his palm. "Well?"
The mob wanted nothing to do with the hero, choosing instead to take their chances with the heated trap around the arena. They dove over the side and bounced with cries of pain from the superheated rocks until they bound over the open edge of the Coliseum facing the fairgrounds, and to safety.
"Holy Hannibal Lecture!" cried the announcer. "Our two guest gladiators somehow made it all the way through the Marathon Round! But let's see if they can manage to pull it together and face..."
Just then, lights began to shine around the arena, and apair of large reinforced doors began to part high over the exhausted pair. A thick tentacle snapped through the broadening gap, accompanied by a deep growl. They looked to each other and began to cry childishly, "Nooo-ho-ho-ho..."
Tachyon looked in alarm to the schedule, seeing one of the gladiatorial behemoths cued up, Tentaclus. He hooked the director around the neck and shook his head menacingly. The unfortunate being reached desperately for the console.
As the crowd began to shout in anticipation of squashed guests, the announcer cried, "The one... the ONLY-!" Al and Qwark looked up in surprise as the lights went out and the doors closed on the tentacle, yanking itself inside with a yelp from the monster at the other end. Befuddled, the announcer finished as smoothly as he could, "Oookay... never mind. But with this last second merciful correction of schedule, it looks like our soon to be immortalized guest gladiators... have WON!"
Al stood there, blinking in shock and gasping, "I... I don't believe it... we lived..." He fell over backwards as bolts rained down on them from above.
The crowd roared in celebration, mostly, of one of the greatest spectacles they had ever witnessed. "WOW!" exclaimed the announcer. "I can safely say that this has to go down in Coliseum history as one of the greatest matches of all time!"
Qwark perked up at that, and becoming aware of the jubilant spectators, as well as the tens of thousands of bolts littering the arena deck, he naturally struck a heroic pose despite the pain it caused. "Yeah, I guess you could say that-"
"Right behind the monumental victories of Mr Mustacheo!"
He winced with a growl, muttering, "I never did like that guy." But still, the excitement of the roaring crowd was infectious, reminding him of what he'd accomplished, and he chuckled as he collected his blaster. "Ohh... no matter. This is a singular day of... singular achievements, writ large with... large writing. Across the big sky known as History... eh, I'll have my publicist come up with something dramatical later." He chuckled as the stream of gibberish sounded silly even to himself, swaggering to the center of the arena, twirling his blaster nonchalantly on one finger and shouting, "Is it awesome in here, or is it just me! Woops..."
Everyone fell silent as the pistol went flying, struck the flooring and went off, a bolt of energy ricocheting around the arena. The crowd ducked for cover, as did Al who did his best to lie flat, but amazingly it didn't strike anywhere in the stands. Qwark crouched down, peeking from beneath the dome of the Dimensionator, and when it seemed remotely safe, he chuckled in a thin attempt to seem cool. "Uhh... sorry about that, folks, but that's a new custom manicured grip and I'm - YEOW!" He straightened immediately, holding his rump as the bolt struck home, then frowned sourly, grumbling through clenched teeth, "Please, tell me that's not a draft..."
Al looked up cautiously as the sound of blaster fire zipping around the arena ended, and had to laugh at the sight of the embarrassed hero. Trudging forward, he told his mentor with a pat to his massive shoulders, "Qwark, I have to admit that... that was pretty darn incredible. Well, except for that pistol thing at the end, there."
Making sure that one hand was still strategically placed, he rubbed his head with the other. "Ohh, you're just saying that because it's true, aren't you."
At first, he gagged at the arrogance of the being, but as the seconds passed, he gave in to the inevitable aspects of Qwark's nature, and the joy of being alive after the ordeal, and chuckled. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. Big buddy." He pushed the hero's massive arm up in the dramatical pose that was sure to come, declaring, "The triceps that ate Metropolis!"
As the crowd roared, he beamed forth with an appropriate smile. "Why, thank you sidekick for that flattering... huh?" He shot the cyborg a puzzled look, as that didn't exactly sound flattering.
"And now," boomed over the loudspeakers, "to present the grand prize to our two newest, err... gladiator victors in the Mukow Coliseum hall of fame, is that eeelectrifying robot bombshell breaking the hearts of squishies across the universe..."
Al looked up in alarm at the Dimensionator dome still atop Qwark's skull, the engine still puttering along, and exclaimed in a loud hiss, "Qwark, get that thing off!" He jumped up to grab it and began tugging on it frantically.
"Hey, Al - hold on!" Qwark protested as he struggled to undo the chinstrap. "Easy on the noggin, little buddy! Gimme a minute."
"We don't have a minute," the cyborg warned, fighting to get everything into Qwark's backpack. "She's coming!"
The announcer went on loudly, "The sexy robotic megastar known clusterwide, and needing no introduction, COOOUUURTNEYYY... Gears?"
The cyborg was promptly bounced onto his rump as Qwark snapped to attention, exclaiming, "Courtney Gears? WOW!" He looked expectantly to the ramp forming from the Coliseum to the arena deck.
Al watched in perplexion, as did the murmuring crowd, as a one-eyed saurian male dressed in scruffy black with a travel-worn bush hat strode forward, and wearing the same purple glasses and plastic mustache Qwark had bought. The hero began happily, "Hey, Courtney, baby! Yoouuuuu're..." His voice faltered and he rubbed his prominent double chin uncertainly as not-so-subtle differences became apparent to his scalpel-sharp eyes, though it took his brain a few moments to catch up. "...Not Courtney Gears. Not even close. You aren't here to introduce her, are you?" Joe rolled his eye and began to speak when Qwark blurted out a laugh. "Oh, wait, that would make two introductions! That would be kind of silly, wouldn't it? Even for her."
The little red avian on Joe's shoulder, wearing his own glasses and mustache, squawked out, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a wiener!"
"That ain't no lie," the Sorlak muttered. A laugh erupted from the crowd, as the whole thing was being displayed on the big screen.
"You do look kind of familiar..." Qwark noticed, leaning forward a bit.
He waved dismissively. "Oh, well, us Sorl-" His feathered friend coughed a warning. "-Orepidrons all look alike. Thanks Red," he added under his breath.
Qwark folded his arms, demanding, "So... where's Courtney?" His question was echoed from the stands.
"Oh! Well, I have unfortunate news in that regard. Seems that Miz Gears came down with an unfortunate viral infection shortly after her arrival-" There was an abrupt outburst in the Coliseum, as all the robots began making a mad dash to the nearest data terminals for a scan. "...On Mukow. Poor thing's locked up tight."
Courtney held her manager horizontally, driving him repeatedly against the metal closet door like a battering ram. "I'm getting out of here if it kills you!"
"That's... what I'm... afraid of..." he moaned between strikes, the pain threatening to make him pass out.
"Really?" Al asked suspiciously, as there had been no news feeds on any such event.
"Unless somethin' happened otherwise, she's currently in a sanitary location," the saurian said with a straight face. As straight as one can be wearing cheap plastic toys, anyway.
"Wow... that's rough," Qwark murmured, looking crestfallen, as he hoped to try and rekindle the romance that may or may not be a figment of his imagination. "Say, is it appropriate to send flowers to a shallow celebrity robot babe?"
"I have it on good authority that those iridescent chromium replicas trip their relays," he replied. "But that's neither here nor there. The purpose o' this little event is to give you... yer well deserved prize!" Accompanied by dramatic music, he reached under his vest and held out a data disc in a caddy.
"Oh goodi-!" Qwark began in mid jump, his hands about to clap, looking dumbstruck as he took the disc, looking it over. Then he said in a dour tone, "Look pal, I already have more Courtney Gears videos than unofficially exist."
"Oh, that's no video," the Sorlak said advisedly. "I think yer friend here can inform you of its true value... once it's installed. Maybe even before that. Oh, and in case ya don't have one o' these lyin' around... here." He also gave Qwark a universal data buss cable.
"Uh-huh..." the Captain muttered, handing the things to Al and asking guardedly, "Is this stuff worth anything?"
He scanned it over with his cybernetic eye. His electronics detected computer programming, and highly advanced proprietary code at that. "Looks... interesting..."
"Is that a good thing?" Qwark asked.
"Besides, what're you frettin' about?" the saurian continued. "Why, don'cha have a small fortune to sweep up here?" He looked at the scattered curency with a sigh, adding wistfully, "Could use a couple handfuls o' this stuff myself."
The hero's demeanor instantly brightened. "Hey, you're right! Uh, thanks, mister... spokesperson. Say, what is your name anyway?"
The Sorlak waved him off. "Oh, name's not important. I'm just an honest joe doin' a nameless, thankless job, doin' what's necessary here 'n there to move things along. And now that my job here's done, gotta run. But thank you for puttin' on one hell of a show. Doubt we're gonna see anything like it fer a good long while." As he turned and marched back up the ramp, he added in earnest amazement, "And that ain't no danged lie, neither."
Qwark waved at the departing saurian vacantly, saying to Al, "There's something very strange going on here."
He rolled his eye, muttering sarcastically, "What was your first clue? Anyhow, let's get back to the ship and get on with this, before one of your friends here really do gets us killed, for old time's sake."
"You... have a point, there," he muttered, looking up at the Emperor's suite, sure that a familiar bug-like figure was watching them from on high. As he went up the ramp to leave the arena, he couldn't help but look back to the deck, and the cleaning crew vacuuming up the countless bolts. "Wow..." he giggled with delight, "I'll have so much money, I won't even notice when I pay back Sashhh..." His voice drifted silent as he caught the cyborg giving him a dark look. "What?"
"How much did you borrow from her?" Al demanded.
"Who said anything about that!" Qwark replied defensively, and then clammed up.
When no further admission was forthcoming, he sighed, "Never mind." But he added a few seconds later, pointing to the bolt littered arena, "I get half of that."
"What?" the hero exclaimed. After a short staring match, Qwark relented, muttering, "You can have a third."
"Ehh... that's more than I thought you'd say," the cyborg admitted glumly. "Thanks."
Something in his companion's tone dug at his consciousness, and small as it was, it was slowly growing a bit over time. Out of nowhere, he told Al, "Ohhh... what the heck, you can have half. That's at least double. You've been a pretty good sidekick, at that. In fact, the best I've had yet." Thinking a bit more on the matter, he added, "Of course, you're the only one..."
The cyborg looked up to him in surprise. "Why... Qwark! If I didn't know better, I'd say you were gradually becoming almost human."
"Hey now, let's not go that far," the hero objected, having missed the backhanded compliment. But what he didn't miss were some rude snickers and pointed fingers aimed in his direction from the crowds, and a slight breeze on his behind reminded him why. Covering his rump as best he could, he told Al urgently, "We have to see a tailor. Right now."
The cyborg eyed his backside over, briefly, saying, "Oh, let's just go. I have a roll of duct tape back at the ship."
Up in the darkened Emperor's suite, a solitary Tachyon slumped down grumpily behind the desk from which he once ruled, trapped in the halo of radiance which imprisoned him, and kept the world he'd come from infuriatingly just out of reach. But not out of view. It was becoming almost intolerable, to see the splendor and delights of his world... of any world, but unable to partake of any of it. It was like a slow poison to his mind, but still, he couldn't resist being here, and gazing on everything he couldn't enjoy. It was still far better than facing where he really was. "To think..." he grumbled bitterly, "just a few short cubits away, are not one, but two Dimensionators. And I'm letting them slip through my fingers... deliberately." He stared at his hand before him sadly, as if that very thing were literally happening.
He curled his fist and smashed it hard into his desk. He felt a bone snap, but he scarcely noticed. "No... it doesn't matter. Not really. Only one Dimensionator matters. The one which did this to me. The one which banished my people from this universe unjustly. The one once owned by the despicable bastard who committed this racial crime. The one in the possession of his beloved son, who is my unwitting puppet. The son who I am going to take great, fiendish delight in tormenting endlessly, until he suffers a thousand times more than I ever will." He pulled open a desk drawer with his scepter and used it to fish out a roll of medical tape without looking, and began wrapping his hand with it almost absently. He rested it gingerly in his lap and went on, "That... and my marvelous, entertaining, deviously clever plan... are all that matter to me in this senseless, purposeless, stupid world. A world which is going to fall very... very hard, wreathed in lovely flames and cries of anguish and fear. And that is going to be fun to watch."
The Sorlak gaped at this disturbing scene through a barely open door behind the wraith, his blood running cold and making him shiver, but unable to tear himself away. 'What the hell am I doin'... workin' for this half-dead lunatic?' he wondered, but he could think of no safe way out, as trapped as the Cragmite. He jerked as his avian companion flitted off noisily, unable to face any more of it.
His throat clenched shut as the demonic alien spoke again, his voice slicing the silence like a rusted butcher knife. "Come in... Joe. We have matters to discuss."
"There I was, standin' at the wrong end of the butt-ugliest... well, butt..."
The crowd of Space Rangers and their organic friends burst into laughter as Cronk paused a well practiced length of time to let the noise work itself out. The lights were dimmed and the entire off-duty battalion had assembled in a hangar bay to hear the tale of what their small group of insurgents had pulled off on Odum. "Anyhow, everyone else was all scattered and fightin' for their lives while this Craggymite monster threatened poor Talwyn, and all the while, throwin' huge cargo crates one after the other at me with his tail! Musta been the size of a mainline luxury blimp, if not a good fifteen kilotons more!"
"He finally found a target he couldn't miss!" Zephyr cackled as the throng shook with laughter once more.
Cronk gave his friend a dull look, then went on, "And there I was, firin' away at this thing's rear quadrant with everything Ol' Faithful could dish out, and still that darned behemoth hardly noticed!"
"I think he fergot he had the thing set on stun," Zephyr tossed in amidst another uproar from the robot soldiers.
"And just whoo invited youu in to tell this part of myy story?" Cronk asked haughtily, his arms crossed.
"I-I'm just tryin' to keep you from strayin' too far from the details of what actually happened, that's all," Zephyr replied, looking away amidst another round of laughter. "Now don't get so dad gummed long winded everyone's batteries run down, so I can relate how I turn the tables on them scalywags."
"Oh! That musta been when you nearly got yer head bit clean off at the neck ring," Cronk declared with a grin as the soldiers roared harder than ever.
Sasha and Talwyn rocked back and forth from laughter themselves, sitting a bit apart from the crowd, as they enjoyed a moment of much needed mirth and a break from the tension of their ordeal. The Cazar wiped tears from her eyes and gasped out, "Talwyn... I had no idea your guardians were such incredible storytellers!"
She chuckled in reply, "Well, they've had decades of practice to hone their skills. And while the details of their adventures have been polished just a scouche over time, they really have been through a crazy number of incidents. I've listened to their stories for hours, sometimes through recharges."
Sasha's smile faded a bit as the memories and emotions of the past day around Odum refused to be quelled for long. She had been crushed with guilt when she remembered the last cries from the two racers doing their best to run interference for Talwyn, only to be caught in a hail of missile fire meant to blast the Cragmite fleet. She didn't know what she would do if she had to admit to the girl that the missile barrage had been launched on her orders. Fortunately, she could tell that the young Apogee wasn't in mourning, and through small talk, learned that the two Leonids had miraculously survived, lifting an immense burden from her shoulders... for the most part. The tension of what could have happened was hard to shake. So many things had happened, so many things gone wrong, and Ratchet had nearly died in one of them. Talwyn had remained a bit glum, reluctant to discuss much of what had transpired on that backwater world, and that ate at the woman's curiosity, as well as her conscience. She worried that her friend was holding something unfortunate inside, praying that she was mistaken.
Talwyn couldn't miss the shift of expression on the Cazar's face, asking, "Sasha, what's wrong?"
She leaned forward with a sigh, kicking her legs under her seat as she propped herself up. "Ohh... trying to fight dragons back into their caves." Before the girl could give voice to her puzzled expression, Sasha went on, "Just dealing with doubts and fears, that's all. This has been one crazy, mixed up fuster-cluck, and I'm just... exhausted from it. And lost... I've never felt so confused in my life."
"I know what you mean..." Talwyn said in a near whisper, her voice trailing to silence. For a time, they shared in their gaze things that words couldn't express, though at last she found some. "This isn't just about Ratchet, is it. You need a goal, an enemy to shoot at and beat, something which follows rules you understand, and there aren't any. And you don't know how to handle it. Right?"
"You read my mind," Sasha chuckled mirthlessly, but that feloid curiosity got the better of her just then, and she decided to seize the moment. "Talwyn... just what did happen on Odum? At least tell me what you can."
She smirked sourly, her gaze drifting away for a bit as her own dark memories of that time were much too fresh. "Oh... it was a mess, a really big one. The yarn Cronk and Zephyr are spinning is pretty much on the mark. Those poor people needed our help... still need it in the worst way. They're so hopeless, maybe because no one ever really came to their aide, and they were never able to defend themselves through a number of wars. I got so mad at you for not fighting for them, but... maybe Busby's right." She looked down with a sigh.
"He's been right so far about almost everything-" Sasha began.
She flinched back sharply as Talwyn exploded with way too much enthusiasm, "Oh! Tell me about him!"
"Who? Busby? Why do you want to know about him?" Sasha asked, blinking in confusion at the abrupt change of mood. Then certain possibilities occurred to her, and she edged away defensively.
"Well, like..." the girl began, leaning forward eagerly, though she didn't know how to broach the subject tactfully. "Oh, come on. I can see that there's something going on between you two-"
"There's nothing going on between us," Sasha interrupted, though it didn't sound the least bit convincing to either one of them.
"Hey, you can't just leave it at that-" she began, hoping to wear the woman down.
"Drop it," she snapped, hoping to slam the door shut on the saubject. But when Talwyn sat back looking deflated and unhappy, she felt sorry for being so abrupt. As the silence lingered much too long, she decided to satisfy the girls curiosity just a bit, drawing a deep breath as she collected herself. "Talwyn... I'd gone through a very difficult time, having learned that Ratchet had died, or so we thought. I suppose you must have fallen to pieces for a while. Well, I did. Busby was very helpful in pulling me back together. And... well, it's not hard to feel something a little more than simple gratitude for a man in such circumstances, all things considered. But we're just good friends, and... that's all we can be."
The Cazar's voice went a little quiet at the end, and the emotions tore at her heart. Talwyn felt supremely stupid just then for bringing it up. Of course there couldn't be anything between them. They were Naval officers, Busby's superior, and that was about as forbidden as it got. "I'm... sorry, Sasha," she sighed. "I suppose... I'm just a frustrated romantic at heart. On top of that, I guess I'm too pushy. I never really had a boyfriend or anything."
Sasha gave her a thin half-smile. "I don't know if that's a Markazian trait or an Apogee, but... I hope we understand each other on the subject. And not a word about it to Busby. All right?" she asked firmly.
"Uh, yeah, sure," Talwyn mumbled, swinging her leg glumly. Rather than let an uncomfortable silence develop, she said, "I could seriously use a change of subject. Like... do you have any ideas on what we're up against? And how to get hold of Angela? She's running around loose without a clue. I'm worried about her."
"I wish I had something solid to tell you..." Sasha murmured, looking out at nothing in particular. "My instincts are screaming like mad at me that there's something wrong, very wrong. And I'm not sure of the scope... maybe galaxy wide, maybe in the whole cluster. Who knows? But if I don't figure out what the hell is going on and what to do about it soon, I swear, I'm going to explode. And if someone doesn't figure something out, and let the rest of us know... I'm afraid of what might happen."
The girl tugged on her lip pensively at that foreboding remark. "It's like Millennium Madness. Kind of a rumored string of disasters either caused by some weird cosmic... karmic thing manifesting in civilization at the end of the Age, or just our collective fears making the worst case scenario come true."
"I almost wish it was that simple," the Cazar sighed, looking back down as dark thoughts swirled and chased each other in crazy circles in her mind. "But it's definitely something significant. It scared Ratchet, made him hide from us, for our own sakes. So I doubt it's anything like the Alliance has faced before, perhaps in our recorded history."
A shiver of fear at the dire words ran all through Talwyn, and goosebumps prickled her skin. "And the Zoni have something to do with it."
Sasha's lips twisted in a morose smirk. "And isn't that the ideal untraceable lead to a completely unknown threat. Just perfect... how the hell are we supposed to conjure up one of those damned things?"
"But wait," Talwyn cut in. "We have those security files, right? Have you looked them over yet?"
"Some," the Captain admitted, "but not nearly enough. And it's written in spy-speak, so even with my Navy background, I have to do a lot of cross referencing to be sure of what I'm reading. And... Space, there are so damned many files to read through. What about you?"
She cringed at the question. "Well... not much. It's... kind of scary stuff, and... it makes me think of my dad..." The Cazar wilted at that, but before she could offer words of solace, Talwyn added quickly, "But I feel safe here. We should divvy them up and work on them together so we can find out something useful quicker. Why not now? Or... how much longer till we reach that modder's port?"
Sasha gave her a lopsided smile at the anticipated surprise from the girl. "Only about twenty minutes. You'll get used to how fast the Phoenix can get around the universe eventually. But knowing our luck, Ratchet won't be within a thousand light years when we get there, so we'll have some downtime when we jump after him."
"Great! I really want to help you out, especially after... well, all the crud I put you through," Talwyn told her solemnly, then made a fist, her tail twitching. "And I can hardly wait to get my hands on Ratchet."
"Hey, you and me both, girlfriend," Sasha muttered as she dropped to her feet. "Anyway, I should head to the bridge and spell Busby before we arrive. He's been pulling a lot of bridge duty lately-"
She froze, her eyes wide with horror at what she heard. Cronk was looking down sorrowfully as he went on, "...Poor Slab fell into his cousin's arms. A Craggymite got 'im... a blaster bolt, burned clean through his back..."
Her teeth clenched hard, her fist knotted harder, and she quivered in the grip of dread. She was wrong - not at fault, but still wrong. Slab had died, and Talwyn had borne the pain of it quietly. She practically moaned in sorrow, unable to face the girl, "Oh, Talwyn... I'm so sorry..."
She blinked in surprise at the girl's reaction, as it struck her that she had misunderstood. Talwyn grasped her hands, squeezing them, saying earnestly, "Hey, he's all right. He's fine, really..." But as she tried to continue, she faltered as emotions and dread welled up inside, and her eyes grew moist. "But, I... we... left them, there... that wonderful family... with the Cragmites... Slab, he's such a reckless... he won't listen... oh, I'm so scared for him..."
As glistening eyes filled with shining beads and her voice broke, Sasha wisely marched the girl over behind some machinery along the wall where she could melt into tears privately, hugging the shorter Cazar woman tight as she wept out her fears and longings. Sasha waited patiently, much as Busby had done for her, holding her until the poor girl could collect herself.
"Uhh... you didn't peek, did you?" Qwark asked, casting a nervous glance over his massive shoulder.
Al rolled his eyes as he put the roll of duct tape back in the ship's utility locker. "I saw nothing that would get you embarrassed on YouVid. Much. Anyway, do you have any idea where to go next? We have some money now, so we can afford to do some serious traveling and research."
Qwark made a face. "Research? Like what, the one bolt fortune teller at the mall? Browsing Galactipedia entries isn't going to tell us what nefarious schemes Ratchet is scribbling out from his hair-littered crayon box. No little buddy, I think it's time we thought more... deviously. Like Ratchet does."
Al made a face back. "Devious? What makes you say that?"
"Well... he has to be cheating to be so far ahead of us," Qwark said, waving his hands as if that made it more authoritative. "It stands to reason. I mean, between my towering intellect and your..." He waved again as he climbed into the pilot's seat. "Educated guesses, how else could he evade us so well?"
"Your powers of convoluted, vapid rhetoric are as sharp as ever," the cyborg muttered tiredly as he strapped himself in.
"Err... thanks," Qwark replied, assuming that big words must mean something positive, as no one ever used them in put-downs. At least that he was aware of. "Anyway, strap in as I - oh, you are. Uhm... where was I - oh yes, as I use my hero's perrogative to-"
"Prerogative," Al corrected.
"You don't correct the hero, sidekick, even in private," Qwark shot back sternly, struggling through his straps to fish something out of a hidden pocket. "Uhm... as I... oh, heck, just make some calls. Now, let's see..." He began browsing a little black book full of scribbled notes, rough drawings of women and solitaire tic-tac-toe games. "Hmm... Furnoss... Loggerhead... Dreadnoth... huh, where did that shady bunch hang out? Helgast..."
"Geisel," Al declared rather definitely.
"Geisel?" the hero blurted out questioningly. "Never heard of it. What makes you bring it up?"
"This. Look," Al replied as he pointed to the ship's console. On the display was a scene of the Thief musing to theirself as they consulted a star chart. "So... Geisel, is it? Maybe I should pay the good doctor a visit first."
Qwark gaped at it, not quite grasping what he was seeing. "Uh... what's that?"
"A message, from..." Al shrunk the video to check the logs. "Some guy named Derp Blue, from the Office of the Emperor of the..."
His voice faltered, and Qwark was about to chide his companion for stumbling over big words when he read it for himself, his own eyes opening wide. "The Cragmite Empire?"
They both whispered to each other quietly, "Weird."
"Err... but, so what? What does this guy have to do with Ratchet?" Qwark asked, though he added, tapping his chin, "I have to admit, he does look familiar..."
"He does have something to do with Ratchet," Al informed him, rewinding the message. "Listen."
A familiar Lombax voice came over a speaker in the other ship's cabin. "I have to go." A quieter voice spoke a moment later, "I had a feelin' you'd say that."
The Captain leaned back in his seat pensively. "My lower intestines are getting the willies eaten out of them from this treacherous enchilada of evil. I wonder how much it would cost to have someone walk into a trap for us. That used to be Ratchet's job."
Al gave Qwark a dim look. "Didn't that use to be the hero's job?"
"No, that's the sidekick's job," he muttered without thinking, then laughed awkwardly when he saw how the cyborg was glaring at him. "Oh, hey! Just a little hero humor to lighten the mood, there, chum..."
"It had better be," Al grumbled.
But as he returned his gaze to the display and the message ended, the image of the Thief rattled the gears of some crusty old memories into place, and he grinned jubilantly. "Ha! Now I know just what to do to flip that ripe enchilada onto the face of that wicked Lombax himself!"
Al licked his lips distastefully as Qwark gunned the engines to life. "Does that adolescent outburst indicate something resembling a plan?"
"Oh, much more than that, little buddy." He thrust his finger into the air as he declared, "I have a plan! Just leave everything to Captaaaain Qwaaark!"
Al cringed from the excessive volume of the outcry, something he was learning of the Captain's habits when he got excited. "Qwark, that's what you said before we set off for Mukow. Ya know, where we almost got retired permanently?"
"This is entirely different, little buddy," the hero replied as the craft soared above the rainsoaked clouds above the Coliseum. "And it's only going to cost me - us a few thousand bolts."
The cyborg coughed in dismay, but had learned over the past few days that when Qwark's mind was made up, it was set like concrete. "I just hope that you aren't spending it on something as lame as those identity confusion devices," he sighed resignedly. He decided to make a discreet call to Sasha for advice while Qwark was merrily blathering about some remotely related heroic adventure that was most likely ninety percent fiction. He was shocked to find that her number was no longer valid, and linked to the Solanan Naval Fleet Operations office, and further notified him that she was involved in some fleet activity, and currently unavailable. He decided to drop it for now, and wait for some discreet moment to send her a private message.
As the ship rocketed into space towards whatever strange destination Qwark had in mind, he drew out the disc the saurian had given him, wondering about it, and the reason why someone in Tachyon's empire was nudging them along. 'Are we just pawns in some bizarre game? What the heck is the goal? And just who's goal is it? Are we gonna end up like those Drophyds Qwark dimensionated?'
A seared Drophyd suit was welded to the top of the carousel, making yet another pass under the jet of plasma.
As a small utility vehicle dozed up the robotic remains on the floor of the studio, a supervisor halted it momentarily, picking out a large glassy dome. "Hmm... looks like something the prop department could use."
A black suited soldier perched anxiously on a rock outcropping fronting the bay while tentacles lashed out at him. He gave a yelp as one wrapped around his leg and yanked him back into the water.
The Trooper finally managed to find an oversized dress that fit him, and grabbing a parasol, tried to wander daintily towards the exit of the Playbot Studios. "There he is!" someone yelled, and flinging the umbrella at his pursuers, the chase was on again.
As they lashed the frozen mercenary to the bow of the ship, one pirate gave the work a critical eye. "I dunno, Pete... a Drophyd fer a figure'ead don't quite say 'ARR!,' know whut I mean?"
He gave a rusty shrug, offering back, "Well, we don't gotta carve one. Wood at the temp'rature of frozen ammonia's a booger to chizel."
The other nodded thoughtfully. "Good point, that."
As they led the cuffed Drophyd to the paddy wagon, a police sergeant came up to the mission officer, asking, "So, what are we charging the suspect with?"
The lieutenant rubbed his metallic chin for a moment, replying, "Make it, 'doing strange acts in public which could be taken the wrong way.'"
"Come on, kids!" a parent called.
"Okay! Bye!" they said with a wave to the Trooper who had nicely helped them build an elaborate sand fortress. He waved back with a sigh, as it had been longer than he could remember when he'd had any fun at all. But then he recalled the bag of bolts Al had bribed him with, and giving them a shake, decided to see what the local cuisine was like. And making it a point to avoid certain seafood entries in the menu.
Alarms were going off, and inside a rectangular opening in an otherwise nondescript cylinder, a pair of eyes popped into view, sleepy ones. As the gap rotated to face out a viewport of the remote station, a grumpy voice called out, "Awright, awright already! Just gimme a minute to get my shorts... holy flamin' HELL!"
He was staring at the bulge of a massive bridge housing that was a part of a huge vessel, the nose of which ran beneath the station. Asteroids were smaller than this behemoth. Any closer and the hull would touch. A display screen came to life, showing the torso of a feloid woman, smiling in a way that meant she held all the aces, as if the size of the dreadnaught he was facing wasn't the first clue. "Well, it's always good to know that I've made an impression."
"Uhh... is it too late to say, don't shoot?" Slim murmured sheepishly.
The woman chuckled good-naturedly, but her smile revealed fangs. "We can certainly discuss that. Now, let's get the pleasantries out of the way. I am Captain Sasha Phyronyx, aboard the UFS Phoenix II of the Solanan Navy. And you are...?"
"Damn impressed... I mean, Slim Cognito, ma'am," he added quickly, knowing full well from the situation that the Captain knew who he was. "Uhh... listen, I doubt you came all the way out here just for li'l old me, but this is one time I'm not fighting extradition. This whole damn galaxy's a powder keg looking for an excuse to blow."
Her gaze softened, and Slim heaved a mental sigh of relief. "This is just what concerns me. Let's get down to business."
"Business?" he asked in surprise. "So... I take it, this isn't an arrest?"
"Not if you answer my questions carefully," she replied, the sort of response he expected.
"Our questions," an elfin girl added, coming to the Captain's side. A throat was cleared and a gloved hand settled on the girl's shoulder.
"It's okay, Busby," Sasha told the man, then resumed her interrogation. "I have it on good authority that you were harboring a Lombax going by the name of Ratchet. Is he still aboard the station?"
He blinked in shock, looking aside with a mutter. "Crap, aren't there any damn secrets left in this universe?"
Sasha bristled, edging forward in her seat, her voice taking on a metallic edge. "Mister Cognito, I expect you to answer my questions-"
"Okay, okay your highness!" he exclaimed. "Just gimme a minute, will ya?" As she visibly calmed down, he still wasn't quite sure how to proceed. "Uhh... yeah, Ratchet was here."
The two girls were visibly upset, though Sasha evidently expected as much. "How long ago did he leave, and what was his destination? And let me inform you that you had better not lie to me. Understood?"
Uhm... yeah, perfectly," Slim murmured, looking down, and knowing that how he lived his life for the next several years would depend on some very carefully worded responses. "He left... a little less than a standard day ago, but, he..." His voice grew faint as he continued, "He... made me promise not to say where to..."
The Cazar's gaze became painful to endure, her voice tight as she murmured, "I can't believe this..."
Talwyn shouted, "You can't do this to us! Don't you know he's in danger?" She grabbed the Cazar's shoulder, demanding, "Make him talk! You can do that, right?"
As Busby talked her down, Slim heaved a very tired sigh. "Listen, girls... I wanna help, ya gotta know I do, but... I owe him-"
"No, you listen, Cognito!" Sasha exclaimed. "You know the situation! And I don't mean this sham of a stand-off which I allowed to take place thanks only to my good graces! I mean this galaxy! What's going on in Polaris is threatening to engulf this entire local group in a damned bloody war! For all I know, it could spread throughout the entire Alliance! I don't have a clue what the real cause is! All I know is that one foolhardy idiot Lombax isn't strong enough to face this menace alone! Do you know that the Zoni are a part of this?"
"Uhm..." he began feebly, "Ratchet did mention somethin' about 'em-"
"Well you, mister, are going to tell me all you know if I have to cut you out of that tin can of yours myself! Now, spill it before I get really angry and forget all about Naval regulations and the rights of civilians!" The Technomite shuddered, not only from the unnerving outburst from the shockingly terrifying woman, but from the almost hungry looks from Talwyn and Busby. "Start talking! About where Ratchet is headed! The Zoni! What this menace is... anything!"
As Slim began to recover from the tirade, what she said began to register. "Wait - what? You don't know anything about the Zoni? You're in the freaking Navy!"
Sasha gripped the armrests in her fists tightly, her chest heaving from the effort to control herself. Under any other circumstance, her sinuous curves would melt men's hearts, among other things. "Slim... you listen to me good. I'm going crazy with worry over the fates of countless lives depending on someone to protect them. If you have a shred of a conscience, you have to understand this. If you don't, you're going to regret the day you lost it, because I'm just that desperate right now. Ratchet has a knack for winding up in the very heart of every single god-cursed conflict he's ever faced, so by hook or by crook, I'm going to get to him and help him stop this terrible disaster. Now... we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. But if I have to rip the answers out of your damned skull, so be it."
He was sweating profusely inside his canister, and whimpered in a thin attempt at humor, "You, uhh... really got a way with words, babe, I gotta say." When it looked as if she was about to unleash both barrels on him, he cut in quickly, "Hold on, hold on! I, uhh... gotta get somethin' off my chest first. I wanna help, I really do. I want you to understand that I... well, I love the guy. In a manly kinda way, ya know. I don't wanna see the furball get vaporized, or disappear down some black hole forever either. But, uhm... I can't answer about Ratchet's whereabouts... directly..."
Sasha nearly bit her tongue as she caught herself just before losing control, and took a few breaths to calm down. "I'm listening." The others in the screen turned from her and fixed their eyes on him intently.
"Well... I was just gonna say that, uh... I hear there's some darn good - if unorthodox - medical care on a little dirtball down the road named Geisel..."
Talwyn cupped her hand over her mouth, whispering, "Oh, thank heaven..."
Sasha closed her eyes for a moment as she felt a huge burden lift from her heart. "Geisel... did you get that, Lola?" She turned to face off-screen, getting a confirmation from some other woman.
Talwyn's eyes popped open at the implications of Slim's remarks. "Wait, you mean he's still injured? What happened!"
His eyes fell at the still fresh memory of that dreadful event. "Ehh... Drek shot a slug of metal into his chest when Ratchet went to see if he was all right, the big-hearted dork."
"That must have been what nearly killed him," Sasha murmured somberly. "It's also likely that he's out of Nanotech. Is there anything else?"
His eyes gave the equivalent of a shrug. "Nah... I really doubt I know anything you don't, but, I'll scribble some notes that might help out with a thing or two around Polaris and shoot you an email."
"Thank you, Slim," Sasha told him quietly, and finally, she seemed like a very nice, refined, and beautiful - if frazzled - woman.
"Same here," Talwyn added, smirking," even if what you did was pretty damn mean."
"Uhm... hey, I really am sorry for the double-talk and all," he admitted, "but, I do owe the guy a ton, and even if this is for the neener's own good, it's kinda hard, breaking my word on 'im like that."
"I understand. Ratchet has developed a habit of putting everyone he knows through the wringer," Sasha said with a wry smile. "And Slim, I can offer you safe haven aboard the Phoenix, as long as you cooperate and behave yourself."
He drew a deep breath, casting his gaze out the viewport at the immense vessel. "Hey... you really make this galaxy seem like a scary place. Even if it meant a little lockup time, I sure appreciate the offer. And chances are, you'll get to Ratchet before I ever see 'im again. Buut..." He looked out the viewport once more. "We all know what a slippery feline he can be, and there's always a chance the guy might show up again, needin' an upgrade or somethin'. And ya know... I think I might just cross my fingers when he asks me to keep mum next time."
Sasha and Talwyn both had to chuckle. "I sincerely appreciate that."
"Oh, and listen... just in case things get dicey, I don't suppose I could put you on speed dial...?"
"No..." Sasha began, and his heart sank as he felt a vital lifeline slip away, though his heart jumped as she added with a hint of a smile, "Not officially."
He chortled as he turned to his console inside to add the special Naval codes to his communicator. "You Navy guys are as sly as we are-" She cleared her throat at him meaningfully, and he gave a self-conscious cough. "Uh, right, right, no chance o' that, no way..."
"Well, we do need to hurry if we're going to have a snowball's chance of catching up with him. Knowing our luck, we'll just miss him again, and I've had enough of these near misses." She turned to face the helmsman below her, saying, "Mr Mimo, back the ship away from the station carefully, and set course for the assigned jump point."
As the officer barked back his compliance, Slim said to her, "Hey... godspeed. You'll probably need it, and... be safe, you guys."
"You too," she replied, flashing him a little smile just before signing off.
He took the time to marvel at the immense ship, watching as it pirouetted about with amazing grace for such a large vessel, and sped off, borne on a stream of light. "Ratchet," he murmured, "for pity's sake, quit running. I doubt you're gonna find a bigger ship in these parts, and I bet you'll need it before ya know it. And my bets usually win."
The Galactic Parliament of Bogon were debating heatedly for what seemed the millionth time over how to resolve the annual budget. The sticking point, as it had been for weeks, was how to fund the military buildup without running too far into deficit spending. Every galaxy was feeling the pinch due to the tenuous situation in Polaris, so borrowing was essentially a dead issue. Speaker Ogorof pounded his lectern with a massive gavel, trying to call the body to order. "Borsch! You bonch off hooligans! We all know the Bogon Navy needs addeetional fonds! Can you not come to some sort off agreemont on some kind off bodget shifting?"
Before the uproar could begin all over again, a small black-cloaked head appeared in a corner of the display over the podium. "Might I suggest a modest two percent cut of every office and ministry with a budget of more than twenty mirrion bohts, and one percent from those with ress?"
"Mirrion bohts?" one councilman asked as the face disappeared.
"Million bolts, you dunder... friend," another informed him.
"Who suggested that?" someone demanded.
"Who cares!" cried the Speaker. "It is the best idea I have heard from you scoundrals yet! Oll in favor, say aye! And we can go eat!"
There was a rousing chorus of, "Aye!"
"Good enough!" Ogorof shouted, pounding the gavel. "Pest!"
Guys, I'm sorry it's taken so long, but this has ben a zoo of a year for me, not the least of which is a move – still unfinished – into a new home. I'm still living out of boxes and bags, unfortunately. And I know I'm neglecting Ratchet, but I feel obligated to give all these guys some screen time, and I'm intending to rectify that shortly. Fall is a pretty creative time for me, and I intend to take advantage of it. I'm also going to do my darndest to squeeze in as much activity among all the characters in one chapter as I can, so Ratchet can get on with the actual quest, which should be quite a romp when it gets going.
Note: one small addition was made at the end, where Sasha and Talwyn were interrogating Slim Cognito. I'd written it pretty late after a three day writing marathon and forgot to give Talwyn a reaction at the word of Ratchet's condition.
Oh, by the way,
Ion Fleming: a retired security robot in the Solanan military who was captivated by tales of Clank's exploits, and when fans began writing fiction based on holonet-myths about the little bot, he decided to glean the best ideas from them, and thus the cluster-wide novel and movie sensation Secret Agent Clank was born. Much to Ratchet's chagrin, at least during the early days, as his popularity was totally eclipsed by his friend.
Pest: (the bill is) passed (into law) ;D
Shih Tzu: this is a breed of Oriental dog, which Courtney had confused with Shiatsu, Nihonese for "finger pressure," the name of the type of massage she actually wanted.
UFS: United Federation Ship, if I forgot to mention that.