Curse of the Fly
He rubbed his hands together and swiped a forearm across his face, both without being aware he was doing it. He buzzed forward (for a relative definition of "forward" in a multicoloured void, that pulsed with the occasional spark of strange energy), and suddenly became thoughtful.
He realized again that he had no idea why he was there, or how long he had been there. Wasn't there also something important to remember?
"I wish I had a watch," he said aloud, and then stopped flying, folded both pairs of arms, and scowled. This for some reason caused him to turn upside down, so he quickly unfolded his arms and hung there in the space.
"Hmmm…," he said again, and his speech turned into a low buzzing before he was silent again.
It meant the end of his current round of thought, usually after which he would drift in the void again, no longer concerned with his lack of knowledge until the next time something struggled to the surface.
But something hit him like a mild jolt of electricity. He jerked up, whirred his wings, looked about in several directions, but found nothing.
"Eh? Who said that?"
It's me, Baxter. Your pal, remember?
He scratched his head, then paused to mock-groom himself, again without realizing it.
You do remember me, old buddy, it's just that you have been having some small difficulties as of late. But it really doesn't matter that much. Everyone has problems, and I'm certain you'll be able to overcome them soon, with my help.
"Problems?" The last syllable became a buzz. But the words seemed to touch off something inside his mind, and he shook his head, as if he expected something to rattle back into place.
The jolt came again, harder this time.
"Oh! Um…revenge…or something? Oh! Yes! Revenge!" He paused again, and blinked enormous red eyes. "Where are you, anyway?"
I'm right here, Baxter old buddy. Inside your head. You know, you used to carry me around everywhere, but you had been growing rather absent-minded as of late. I thought the best thing for us would be to never be separated. This way, I cannot be destroyed.
I am sorry, however, that it took so long for me to become active. And the transfer did hurt a little bit.
"Oh." There came a thought about some object he might have dropped somewhere, perhaps in this void or another, before he said, "That's my name, isn't it? Baxter. Baxter Stockman. It's a funny name."
Yes, Baxter. But it's good that you're remembering it. Your mental state has become a matter of slight concern, but you are perfect just the way you are.
Baxter flinched, sniffled once. "You know, I…don't think that's right." He buzzed again, scratched his head. "There was something I had to do. Something that—zzzz—really bothered me." He had not already forgotten the notion of "revenge", but was still unsure exactly what it was revenge for.
Oh, Baxter, if you really need to know, that's what I'm here for. If you ask me to, I can tell you everything, old pal. Since I now know everything about you.
The response required no thought. "Y—Yes! Do it! I need to know!" And he was certain the voice would answer correctly.
Unfortunately, the world began to roar. Questions forgotten, Baxter's first instinct was to fly forwards, what he thought was away from the loud noise, but it then came up to his face, surprised him.
He yelped, and then saw waves of bright green energy, prominent against the duller shades of his current home. The lights merged and flattened into the shape of something perhaps monstrous, but that flowed around him, cut off any escape routes should he have had any strategies in mind.
The thing might have swept him up like a wind, or grabbed him within its claws, but Baxter was not interested in processing exactly what happened. All that he was aware of was being taken, trapped, and pulled.
Either reality or himself was pulled very far, then stretched to the breaking point, until it all snapped. He was flung, through a "wall" and out the other side of something with a pop of air.
Baxter felt a different kind of air as he was hurtled past this point, before he saw a strange face, one that, would Baxter have had time to study it, would have displayed enraged surprise. Instead, Baxter just crashed into that face's owner.
Momentum threw them both a short distance, before the wheeled chair rebounded off a grey wall and tipped over, sending them both onto the floor.
Baxter sat on the thing's chest and looked down at it. The creature had an angular face, and a shaggy mane of bright red hair. It was wearing white and black and yellow. Even unconscious, it seemed to be frowning.
"Oh. Just a human." Baxter looked again. "And he's dressed like me. Hm."
He shook his head like a dog and walked off the thing's body, his interest evaporated.
Baxter then took in his surroundings, and his eyes grew even larger as his brain—almost—registered the nature of the things before him. It was...a bunch of shining things that sparked and bubbled, on both sides of a thin corridor that lead off into more machine-packed darkness.
But he knew they were good things, things that he could use. For revenge...as soon as he remembered what that was for. Baxter clasped his hands and giggled, certain it meant something fun was going to happen.
He did not see the human get up and stalk towards him, until the thing reached between Baxter's twitching wings and grabbed the back of his sweater vest.
"This is a sterile environment! No vermin allowed!"
He flung Baxter away; he smacked into a heavy thing and slid down to the floor.
Before he could work his wings, the human kicked him hard in the side; Baxter bounced across the floor, and when he stopped, something hard hit him in the back. The man had thrown an object at him. Another bounced off his head before Baxter managed to scrabble up and into the air.
He buzzed up high as he could, but it wasn't far enough! The ceiling was so low, and objects still hit their mark, bounced off his body and legs.
And the human screamed and screamed at him, "...open a dimensional portal and I get you instead. I have deadlines to meet, you know! And powerful people who expect me to get what they want! I don't need you pestering me!"
Something new registered in his mind as Baxter darted away into the depths of the house, still assaulted. He ought to be out of here, to get revenge on...someone. Or many someones, that was it...but also he was...scared? Of what?
The mammal part of him sweated.
Baxter buzzed to himself, dived into a spot between a console and the wall and clung there, shivering.
Baxter, old buddy?
"Not now!" he yelled, before adding, "Eh, sorry. But there's no way to get out of here!" He didn't want to be there. Not here, not with this thing, whose presence was somehow erasing all his thoughts of revenge, messing him up. Why?
"You're not supposed to even be here!" yelled the human, the latest of his invectives; the voice was louder, coming closer.
Baxter licked his snout, nervous. "Can you, uh, can you tell me what's going on?"
"There you are!"
A metal pole stabbed into the space between the consoles, and Baxter crawled in the other direction, buzzed and twitched as he squeezed his way over thick cables. The voice in his head continued to speak. It provided some measure of focus, soothed him.
That man behind you is Barney Stockman, your twin brother. You and he share the same genes.
"Oh." That itching again, stronger. Like there was more he had to understand, maybe. Baxter paused, rubbed at his head. "How do you know that?"
I told you that I can remember things that you forgot. It has to do with being part of your mind.
Then Baxter had it. He's my twin! That means he looks like me! That means he looks like…what I used to be!
And then, following that: What I used to be. And now I'm a freak. Revenge!
You know that he is not your friend, Baxter. He hates you, and wants to hurt you.
"It's not that! I know he's not my friend! I want to get out of here!"
I know. But there are a lot of good things here, and there is a lot of fun we could have. We could work together and force him to do what we want.
"Who are you talking to?" Barney must have thrown another thing, for the console banged. Or maybe he had smacked it with his metal stick. "You know I can hear you! I know exactly where you are!"
Baxter crawled further through the maze. Yes, this was not very good. He was remembering a lot of things all at once.
This man scared him more than the Shredder did, back when he had been scared of the Shredder. And there was so much nice stuff in here, if only he could stop to use it!
Baxter, wait. Listen.
"Eh? I don't hear anything."
That is exactly true. He is no longer nearby. But he has likely gone to find something more lethal and immediate. I suggest we take action.
"Uh...okay! Okay! What should we do?"
You have to go back to where you came into this dimension. We don't want him sending you back again. Can you do that?
"Sure, sure. That's important."
I've changed a lot, and can do a lot of new things. I can do something for you, something that might help protect you from this place.
Baxter flinched. He had already begun his crawl back over the thick knots of cords. "Okay! Okay! Just do it!"
But first I have to apologize, old buddy. I'm sorry in advance.
Barney put the cap on the can, screwed it on tight. He grinned inside his surgical mask. This would fix him...a good dose of "bug spray" composed of many of the deadly chemicals in his house.
He'd allowed his temper to take over, but that would not do anymore. He'd just had a small accident with the dimensional portal, that was all. He'd take care of it.
It would be fine, Barney told himself again as he walked with the spray can, though his temper had not truly abated. He'd look back into the portals, find something he could sell or manufacture.
A buzzing from the direction of that very same device.
Baxter, who had already emerged from whatever crack he had been hiding in, flinched and gulped like a caught child.
"Why, hello, Baxter."
Baxter tensed, before he sprang at Barney with a high, rattling screech, taking flight.
Barney flicked up one arm, pressed the button on the can.
The fly flew face-first into the spray. Baxter howled: his wings stopped; he crashed, slid across the floor past Barney, and curled up like a real insect.
Barney laughed, as though it were the best joke he had ever heard. He laughed and laughed, almost fell over, until Baxter got up, looked at the portal machine as if it were calling to him, and tottered over, his wings still drooped, and squeezed back behind it.
"What are you doing? Get back here!"
The lights in the laboratory began to flicker. Barney Stockman looked up and them and scowled, before several blew, sprayed glass over the floor and equipment.
Beeps of distress came from the portal components and the ancillary equipment. The beeps became a whine as he snarled, watched the components that powered the small portal and all the ancillary equipment start to flash and spark.
A dark thing crawled atop one of the power units, its shape vague in the flickering lights. Its body cracked and popped, seemed to unfold like a puppet, before it threw itself to the floor. Barney scrambled backwards, almost tripped, but stayed focused upon the thing.
It uncurled and further stretched, body elongating and twisting. The machinery around it flowed and snapped like living mercury, grafted itself into the skin of the creature as it took shape. A claw swiped the air, but only in spasm, as the thing began to stand, rising above him.
Baxter's form had been stretched lean and tall, studded with barbs and streaks of silver, mixing flesh and metallic. The jaws and antennae were longer, the latter full of cartoonish fangs and mandibles. Split and torn clothing still hung off him, and the yellow bowtie dangled crooked from an extended neck. Spiny phalanges ran up his four wings like thick veins.
Then, the creature promptly sat back down, sharp knees rising almost to his temples.
"Um…." Baxter said.
Baxter scratched at his head, where the hair had elongated like a horse's mane. Little arcs of energy came from him in several places, and his body spasmed with a burble.
He coughed, dropped open his jaw. A wet ribbon of a tongue uncoiled from within his mouth, but Baxter sucked it away, blinked at its presence. He looked at his hands, now clawed, spined, and part-silver, then lanced about like a startled bird, as if to find the source of his transformation.
His jaws worked, formed nonsense syllables, until clear words emerged.
"Ah...um...what did you do to me!"
Baxter then looked at Barney, as his silver-tipped antennae sagged.
Barney's eyes widened. He stared at the creature for several moments, before he laughed, another mad cackle that bent him double. No matter how formidable the thing looked, there was something about its appearance that was fundamentally goofy, even before it had opened its mouth. Those glazed, stupid red eyes, floppy hippo-like snout with drooping whiskers….
"You're the same! You're still the same!" How could he ever be scared of a thing like this? The body was not the mind, after all. Baxter was still Baxter, the same usual waste of space.
But how had he even managed a transformation like this? Barney jerked back up, studied the newly monstrous fly more closely.
Look at how powerful you are now, the computer said to him. There is no reason to be unhappy about that, is there?
But it was Barney's taunt that brought Baxter to his feet. He snatched out one upper hand, grabbed the human, pinned his legs with the lower hand on the same side, now fully-developed.
Then Baxter leaned to the side and pawed about the floor until he found the canister of spray and threw it as far as he could. It sailed into the darkness, banged off something.
Old pal, would you let me talk to him? I'm afraid that in your current fretful state, you might have difficulty explaining the situation to him.
Baxter's long jaw quivered. Then he lifted Barney so they could be face-to-face. Barney scowled at him, leaned away from Baxter's nose as if he stank.
Please don't be upset. I did give you some warning, and if this all goes well, we'll be happy again in no time.
"No time, yes…okay!" Excitement overwhelmed the current truth, and Baxter bobbed up and down. And if he was already freakish, being even more freakish really didn't make that much of a difference.
But even like this, even as a worse monster, Barney still wasn't afraid of him! No, it was like he was studying him, somehow. And that was bad.
Wait, why did that matter?
Baxter's throat and head tingled, and he gulped, swallowed air, before his jaw dropped open and hung there. The computer's voice emerged from his, and his throat seemed to buzz with each word.
"Hello there, Barney Stockman," the computer said, and gave slightly emphasis to the name. "This house is now under the ownership of my buddy Baxter and me. You will become our hands, and follow our commands for your equipment. If you don't agree with this proposal, we could make things very unpleasant for you."
Barney wriggled in Baxter's claw, but it was useless. "You know, it's not really nice to ask for help from someone...after you destroyed their machine!" He glared.
Baxter clenched both claws on that side, without the computer's asking. Barney shrieked, though Baxter was certain he hadn't squeezed that hard. He relaxed his grip anyway, unsure what to do.
Hurting Barney would be the best thing, but something stopped him.
Barney's expression changed. He smiled, for a moment showing teeth.
Baxter, old buddy, I want you to be careful. I don't think we'll find anything honest about him. Remember, he is not your friend.
His brother spoke again. "You know—ah-heh-heh—you know, Baxter, there are a lot of things I can do in this building. I don't think you're very happy with your little accident, are you? I...er...could find a way to help you. If you put...me...down." The last words were spoken with clenched teeth, the anger again.
Barney continued after a moment, having apparently recovered himself, "I can clone you a new body from mine, and put your mind in it. It'll be simple!"
Baxter, I wouldn't. Other people have lied to you about this before, and they never keep their promises. He won't be any different.
"No...N-No! Quiet! Unless...you can't do it, can you? Work these machines?
I am...afraid not. Your hands have to be my hands, and right now they're not the right shape—
"Then I...I have to do this! Because...because...um...now I look like this, so that makes it even worse!"
But now you can stand up to him. And if you do this for me, we can—
Barney's eyebrows shot up. "Ah-hah! I don't remember you being this stupid, so you must be degenerating mentally! Soon you might lose your mind entirely. You don't have any choice but to work with me, or you'll be nothing but a mindless bug!"
Baxter squeezed Barney again to make him stop talking. But something in his mind stirred and bubbled.
The computer used Baxter's vocal chords again. "Many have lied to my buddy before, and you're no different. You hate Baxter, and would like to hurt him."
"Hurt him? Oh, I've changed my mind; it's simple!"
"It's simple?" Baxter replied, over the voice in his throat. He rubbed at his face with his free forearm. "Sometimes I really don't know."
You remember the way that he tried to poison you, and in the past, there have been other similar incidents. There is absolutely no reason to trust him. He is only proposing working with you because his life is in danger, and he will turn against you when he is freed.
Baxter's jaw quivered through the speech.
"I don't care!" he howled, shook Barney up and down, then unlocked his hands. The human dropped to the floor.
"I want you to do it," Baxter said, pointed with one digit. "Do it or I'll, uh...do something really bad!"
"Y-Yes! Yes!" Barney got up and backed away, hands held up in a warding-off gesture. Then he sneered, and jammed a hand into his pocket.
Baxter, please listen. Pal? You have everything you need right here.
Something beeped, and a gun mount dropped from the ceiling panels. Blue electricity raced from the barrel, coiled and struck Baxter's cranium like a snake.
Strands of new energy raced across his mutated form, shot between his wings and antennae. This time the touch of energy hurt. His body jumped, and everything went jagged and black inside his head. He wobbled and fell.
"Hello?" was Baxter's question he asked once it was over. He tried to stand, stopped halfway and listened inside his head.
Barney reached up and grabbed Baxter's lengthened whiskers, pulled hard.
"You know, Baxter, I really did mean what I said. But first you'll have to tell me—"
Baxter swiped at Barney with a claw, but his brother only jumped away, and stood at a better distance. Not out of reach, but it would need some effort.
Baxter stretched up to his full new height, but did not move.
"What's wrong with you? Don't you want to be human?" Barney looked at him with an expression that suggested he would strike Baxter in the next three seconds, monster or not. "I was right, you know. I'm always right. Besides"—he chuckled—"How much closer do you think you'll get on your own?"
Baxter tensed up, wrinkled his snout. His upper claws rose above his head, as if to grab his temples again. He whined like a child trying to decide on something vital. He hated Barney, Barney was bad, he'd hurt his friend—but he had talked about something Baxter wanted. Something he had forgotten about until then.
Baxter lowered his long arms. "But where's my friend?" He spread his wings. Several of the long spines on his back also rose. "Did you kill him?"
"Is that who that voice was? Now what exactly is he?"
Baxter crossed both pairs of arms. "I won't tell you!"
Barney scowled at him again. "If you don't tell me, I won't help you!"
"I…I don't know! I can't remember! He's…a-a computer! He changed me like this, but I was a fly before I saw him."
"Really? I thought you hated machine brains."
Baxter shook his head, this time only in denial.
"Well, him? Oh, I'm sure I didn't kill him. Would I lie to you?"
"I don't know. Uh, would you?"
"His mind should come back soon." Barney chuckled to himself. "You don't need to worry."
Baxter said nothing.
Barney jammed his hands into his lab coat pockets. "Well, then! If you want me to do this for you, you'd better get out of the area while I work. I can't have an overgrown idiot insect staring at me! And who knows what trouble you'd get into if I weren't watching you? I don't have time for that."
Baxter continued to stand there.
"I said get out, you idiot! Out, out, out!"
"I...I don't know where the door is." Baxter lowered his wings; his antennae drooped.
"All right! This way!"
Baxter lowered his wings and shambled after his brother, claws clacking on the floor.
"And I'll get you some food," Barney said, and sounded less irritated but a long way from kind. He looked over his shoulder and grinned mockingly. "Do you eat garbage?"
"I don't!" he shouted with sudden vehemence. "I eat human food and nothing else! I just decorate with garbage. At least...I think I do." Baxter scratched his head with one claw-tipped finger.
Barney led him to the tiny kitchen and locked the door behind him: Baxter heard the lock click, recognized the sound, but did not care.
Baxter tore into the open fridge, scooped out food with enormous taloned hands. He was immensely hungry, for reasons he did not know. He tore open containers and scattered their contents: most of it ended up on the floor as he tried to gobble it down, but he snatched a few pieces from the air with his tongue.
Human food, and not garbage. As he munched away, Baxter's mind settled into a comfortable animal blankness, which made him content to wait for something for the first time in a long while.
When the door popped back open, Baxter's long antennae lifted like the ears of a dog.
"Oh Baxterrrr...," Barney called as he leaned through the door. "I have something ready for you!"
Baxter threw aside some of the food and walked over, faster than before.
The computer had told him not to trust Barney. Baxter remembered that. But the new sense of urgency remained, overwhelmed all thought and fear and memory. He slipped through the door and followed the human back through the labyrinth of machines.
"No, no, Baxter! This way! Yes! Right here!"
"I know that, Barney! I—uh."
The sight made him stop speaking, stop thinking. It was a gigantic green capsule. Inside was a human figure, dressed exactly the same as Barney. The long lab coat swirled in the bubbling fluid. Coils of machinery ran from inside the capsule to the metal-covered parts of the capsule. The entire thing was set inside a thick, heavy housing.
Baxter gurgled in his throat and placed all four hands upon the glass. "Mine!" he shrieked, as his wings buzzed. This time he lifted off, several inches from the floor, and his claws trailed over the capsule.
"Don't touch that!" Barney yelled.
It took several moments for Baxter to obey, but he lowered himself and slunk into the empty space next to the capsule, a part of the same machinery. He stood there, as Barney hummed a song to himself, connected sharp-tipped tubing and machinery to Baxter's flesh and metal, piercing his crablike armour to do it.
"Now this won't hurt a bit," Barney said with another grin, before he zipped out of Baxter's field of view.
Well, that wasn't quite right.
The usual sort of brightly-coloured energy coursed through the laboratory, danced and struck but did no harm to the equipment.
Barney Stockman threw back his head and let out a cackle appropriate to the situation, before he moved about, typed on the keypad and pulled levers, leaned over to check monitors.
Baxter yowled in pain and shuddered in the depths of the colourful light, before his body fell into a heap of tangled, spiny limbs.
The calculations were perfect, at least according to the readouts, and when Barney entered the last code, the light show stopped. The fluid in the capsule drained away with a gurgle, and soon a mechanism hissed open, but Barney ignored all of it. Instead, he scampered back over to the main unit, and looked down at the fallen fly.
His scowl deepened and he kicked it, delivered a blow with each word: "This! Is! For! Ruining! My! Reputation!" Always such a fool, such an idiot, a joke of a mad scientist! But with his face and his voice, so that everyone got them confused, even with the vast gulf of competence between them.
Barney paused in his ranting, tried control his breathing, before something slammed into him from the right. It almost knocked him over before it grabbed him.
It took several seconds to realize what it was. Baxter's loud laughter was annoying; hurt his ears, especially when his brother was holding him so tightly, foul cheek pressed against his.
"I'm human! I'm human again!", followed by more of that cackling laughter, weak compared to his.
Barney grimaced and shoved hard, flung his brother into a shelving unit stuffed with equipment.
Everything clattered and fell into a little avalanche, but Barney already knew there wasn't enough there to harm what he needed.
Baxter still laughed as he pulled himself out of the pile of junk, brushed bits of metal off his front. "I can't believe it was that easy! All that time! Ha, ha, ha!"
"Oh, how I wish this machine were closer to the door," Barney said to himself, and grabbed Baxter's wrist.
He yanked Baxter free of the junk pile, threw him to the floor, and grabbed his leg.
"W-Wait. What are you doing?"
Barney started to pull Baxter across the floor, not looking back at him. "You think I need you? No! The only reason I did this was because of certain opportunities."
Baxter clawed at anything he could, grabbed onto nearby equipment, like a child that did not want to go on a car ride. His fingers constantly popped free, and Barney's pull was relentless.
"Did you know I was arrested? Hm? I know some powerful people, and they. Don't. Like. Mistakes! If I give them—hey!—you, and they think you're me—let go of that!—I can go into—anonymous business! This is just too stressful," he added in a more rational tone.
Then the shouting resumed. "And then I'll have that empty husk to play around with. Do you know the things I could make from a creature like that? Especially if this...computer is still active?"
Baxter ignored him. "It's not fair! I keep losing everything! Shredder said I'd be ruined because my mark was on the Mousers! I had to keep working for him! I had to! I didn't want to be like you!"
"You couldn't ever be like me—would you come along already?—You couldn't have built this—where is that door?"
Baxter's hands closed around a small metal device. This time the cords snapped free before his hands did, and he flung it back, twisting as well as he could.
Barney stared at it as it came, shocked at the possibility of such a defeat, before the thing crashed into his head.
Baxter got up, stood there, stared at Barney's unconscious body. Then his legs quivered, buckled, and he thumped down on the floor, though managed a sitting position.
He blinked, then patted his chest and face and shoulders, pulled on his cheeks and hair, chuckled to himself. Human! He was human! He stood up again, while his legs continued to shake. And his arms seemed to be weak, too. They trembled, and it seemed to take forever to do what he wanted.
He plucked the glasses off Barney's face, then crouched next to his brother's side to root through the lab coat pockets. Something else might be useful in there. He was not going to leave, not yet. There were things to do.
Baxter now understood everything, and his memories were clear. The fear really was a part of him now, as was the hatred. He understood it, and it was different than his fear of the Shredder.
I won't have to be scared of you. Not anymore! I'll finally get what I deserve!
Baxter pocketed several sets of keys, along with miscellaneous small tools. Whatever was useless he tossed into assorted corners. At the end, he grabbed the back of Barney's coat and pulled him the rest of the way towards what at least looked like a storage closet.
It took much effort, but he tossed Barney inside. Without keys, without his own glasses to see with, his brother probably couldn't get very far. Baxter muttered to himself as he tried several keys, and found one that locked the closet shut.
"Mother always did like me best," Baxter said to the door, and walked the way back Barney had dragged him. Halfway there, he stumbled and fell, but got up again.
"I just need to find my land legs. Human. H-Human legs, heh heh." He stared up at the walls of equipment. It felt as if he had always known what exactly he was looking at.
Why had Barney managed to create such a complex while he had nothing? He didn't deserve any of it!
He fumed; I was supposed to be legitimate! Be different!
Yet on the heels of that: But it was so much fun!
And that was true, wasn't it? Not working with the Shredder—that was something he could have done without—but the evil, the mad science, the havoc. That had put a toothy grin on his face, had appealed to something inside that he had once tried to deny.
Baxter began to walk again, with no more ease than before. Something else also gnawed at him. He looked at Barney's spare glasses in his hand. The exact same prescription, the exact same configuration...
I don't really have to. I don't need…. He held them up over his own lenses. It probably could work, he just had to have the time.
Baxter wanted to move fast, but tripped again, struck his head on the floor. He muttered to himself, this time something about "rats and turtles", as he got up.
Baxter searched all the small places and ancillary rooms, opened clanking drawers, scattered small equipment everywhere. He took recognizable things, stuffed them all into the pockets of the lab coat. Even aware of the need for time, he was giddy, and smiled.
"Baxter! Baxter, you microcephalic idiot! Let me out of here!"
Baxter flinched, listened to the banging of the closet door. It turned him cold for several moments, before he hunched over meekly and began to walk in the direction of the noise.
"It's not like you can go anywhere! You don't have any powerful friends! You've got nothing! Absolutely nothing!"
Baxter's eyes widened, and he took hold of himself as well as he were able. He changed directions like a clockwork soldier, and finished his walk back to where the insectile form lay.
It still smoked, blackened in several places by jagged dark patches. It smelled awful, and Baxter went, "Bleah", with his tongue stuck out, and then shuddered.
He wanted to yelp and scramble away, and asked himself again why he bothered to do this. The first plan he had for the thing still made sense—but now there was this that he had to do.
He found a stray desk and he pulled it closer to his workspace; the metal legs squealed across the floor. Next, came the rubber gloves, surgical mask, tongs, and something like a scalpel. He snapped on the gloves and face mask and set to work on the organism.
The organism. It was not his body, not any more, Baxter told himself. His real, true body could not be salvaged. This was what was going to happen.
A new stench popped out from the flesh as it was pierced, made him gag. Baxter winced and jerked away, and then continued to cut into the thing, with no thought of courtesy to the skin he had once owned. Indeed, this knowledge might have been what let Baxter cut further, despite his own terror.
Baxter bent grotesque limbs aside and scooted along the floor to get at where the probable node might be located. The head was the likeliest part, given how his vocal chords had been manipulated, but he removed other components with tongs, pulled out small metallic pieces that trailed strings of slime. These he dropped into a metal tray, whistling to himself as he did it.
At last, he looked at the assembly of various components on the tray, the ones that looked like they might do, and began to clean them with a rag from another of the overstuffed pockets.
From there, it was time for the hard work, to slip into the rolling chair and sit at the desk. Baxter told himself that his hands had stopped shaking enough, and he began to work with delicate, sparking tools, tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth.
"And it's exactly because you're so useless that you should be thankful I made you useful! You can cover up for a superior scientist! I hope your body rots and falls apart! I hope it turns into boiling green slop and bubbles down the drain!"
Still Baxter worked, though jumped whenever his brother yelled at him. Several times he stopped, to try on the other pair of glasses that were on the desk before him. Time and time again, he resisted the urge to throw them away with a snarl.
There was nothing special about the latest time he switched glasses, but then he heard the voice.
Greetings. I am Zee-Six-Thousand of the Pennalyin Shipmate series. How may I help you today?
Baxter's face fell with a disappointment that surprised him. "Ummm...it's, um, me, your friend, Baxter. Don't you remember?"
Oh. And how are you doing today?
"I couldn't be better!" he chirped, and pulled his legs up, sat cross-legged on the seat. "You know, Barney—he wanted to turn me in, pretending I was him. And you...he wanted to use you as a toolkit. Hmph." Baxter spun around once in the chair.
Who...who was that?
"Eh? You mean you don't know?"
Has something happened?
"We used to have fun," Baxter replied, and he at last understood what had happened. "We used to...try to get revenge, but it was really about having fun, too." He told the computer a bit more, tried to restore the memories that Barney had zapped away.
And where am I now, Baxter, friend?
"You're, um, you're in my glasses. Close enough to my brainwaves, that's right!" He tapped his own temple. "Short of trepanning, that's all I could think of to do."
Baxter, you must be a genius!
"Yes. Yes I am." He giggled, and then pushed his chair away from the desk, slid off into the corridor. "I'll give you a new body soon. I need to work on a few things first." Baxter tilted his head as if he were listening to something. "You don't have a name, do you? Well, them, I'll call you Zee."
Then Zee it will be. Thank you.
Baxter began to feel again as though he were on the verge of something large and grand, something to make up for everything that he had gone through. The presence of the computer was something good, indeed. How could he have thought he would have done better without it?
He sprang from his chair. "So, I'm going to do exactly what he planned to do to me—sort of. I'll make things. I'll build an arsenal to get back at all of them. For hurting me, for transforming me, for trying to stop me!" His voice lowered, no longer quite so shrill. "Oh, but there's something else I need to do first. Just one small thing."
Baxter stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, as his hands gripped the side of the sink like talons.
His hair was no longer blond. That had been enough to distinguish him before: after all, he had been the first one to decide to dress like this.
Baxter dug into the medicine cabinet, glanced at each bottle and threw it aside; they bounced off the walls and rolled at his feet.
No hydrogen peroxide anywhere! Nothing else safe that he could bleach his hair with, either.
Well, it was time to settle for something else.
Baxter found the scissors and snipped at his hair in a frenzy, never looked away from his reflection, and tried to slick back the results with water.
The end result, if one were charitable, would have been described as an approximation of the short, tufted hair he had used to have. If one were being honest, his hair was now a different kind of mess, one that might have made him look even more deranged.
But for him, it was good enough. He grinned and returned to the work area.
Eventually, Barney had exhausted all his considerable energy for tantrums and now had wedged himself in the corner of the storage closet, silent and still, too paralysed with rage yet to move.
His brother had kept slipping food under the door—what was he going to do that for? Likely to keep him up so that he could show something to him, something made using his laboratory. How disgusting!
But he had not put anything against the door, had not even come to reinforce the locks. Typical Baxter, always failing to overlook the obvious.
Barney's mind began to clear. Even if he were the smarter one, he could admit that he had allowed his temper to get the better of him. He could blame himself, but that would be a waste of time at the moment.
Instead, there were things in here that he could use to break out. Heavy objects, broken pieces of mad-science equipment.
Barney's small hands moved over the boxes, pulled them out and rummaged through their contents, moving gingerly to avoid sharp things his blurred eyes could not see.
Stealing his glasses had been one of the few intelligent things Baxter had done, but it was not enough. It would never be enough.
There! After all the sharp things he had tried to wedge between the door and the wall, to break the lock, this one was the one that worked. Barney put the lucky component down on the ground with a care that might have surprised others, and eased the door open.
His vision was still a blurred mess, but there were sounds coming from a certain direction, and he followed those with slow steps.
On the way he ran into the desk. The vague shapes suggested this was where the mind transfer had taken place, but despite the terrible smell in the air, the remains of the cybernetic insect were gone. He felt over the nearest level surface, identified the smattering of small tools and devices. And...glasses!
With a feral grin, Barney slipped them on, and moved past the mess his brother had made. Why, of course it would be easy. Easy...
"You see? I was able to make robots. And this was the way they looked. Don't worry...I'd make you something better."
Barney pressed his back against a machine, glared at the sound of Baxter's voice. He must still be talking to that computer, having gotten his hands on it somehow.
"Pest control!" Baxter replied, to an unheard question. "Now that I think about it, it might be the tendency to chew through walls that was the problem." He chuckled, before he added in a lower voice. "Rats. I hate rats!"
Barney moved in another direction, aware of a path that would take him to one of the room's other entrance. He could still hear Baxter talking.
"...because it's their fault I'm insane. Or...maybe it's genetic. Either way they didn't help. What? Oh, yes, I am happy, thank you."
Then he was quiet. Good. If he had had to put up with that inane prattling for any longer...
A bubbling came, and began to grow louder in Barney's ears. The monster tanks in that room must have been active. Yes, there they were: most of them now full.
Bizarre, distorted insects had swelled inside the capsules, features fused from several species, warped and inaccurate as if they were children's drawings were brought to life. There was no shape or colour to them that was familiar, but there was only one place the raw materials could have come from.
Barney's temper flared again: plagiarism! How disgusting, how ridiculous, that it could become such a thing. Baxter was using the bug's empty body to create monsters, just as he had wanted!
"For the last time, I don't...I do not look sick!"
Barney looked in the direction of his brother's strangled, annoying voice. No, despite what he had said before, his own work was perfect. Baxter's clone body would not deteriorate.
More likely, had had become nauseous at the thought of making creatures from his own former body. Typical weakness; he didn't have the stomach for something truly interesting.
The unit controls for the capsules were right within reach. Baxter was close, too, at the unrelated console at the far end of the tanks.
Forcing himself to keep quiet, Barney fiddled with the buttons and levers, activated undesirable mechanisms. Then, with a grin, he moved to where Baxter sat, walked with hands clasped behind his back.
The keyboard strewn with papers that he had been drawing on, sketches of what looked like Mouser parts. His brother had made a shredded mess of his hair, and, yes, when he turned to look at him, he was pale, and his face tinged a sickly colour.
Baxter sprang out of the chair and cowered behind it, as if the backrest were enough to protect him. Barney continued to walk slowly, though his temper was near to boiling.
Baxter grabbed the chair and thrust it towards him, as though it were a shield.
"Ah, um...truce?" Baxter croaked, still holding the chair up.
He let Barney get close enough to yank the chair from his hands. "Of course you thought you could get the better of me—because you're stupid! But it didn't work, did it? No? It's because I'm—"
A loud cracking began, followed by a few metallic pings. Baxter wrenched his head in the direction of the sound, and then looked back at Barney with a frantic, pleading expression. Barney stood right where he was, aware of what was coming.
The holding tanks burst, sent out cascades of green fluid. The bodies of ill-formed monsters stuck to the capsule walls before they, too, plopped out and lay in the muck.
Baxter, though he should have had the instinct to flee, remained still as stray bits of slime got on his face, coat, and jeans. Part of his mind refused to believe that this could be happening, right when he had been so close.
Baxter? Wake up, Baxter.
Baxter grabbed handfuls of his own hair and pulled, not hard enough to tear it out. He stared with wide, wild eyes, at the part-made monsters, then at Barney. The only reason he might not have fainted was because he knew he was over there.
Barney stood in the mess as though it weren't there, still smiling. "So, as you can see, there is a...certain person who just doesn't have what it takes to cut it in the mad science world."
He tapped his own cheek. "But, actually, I would still be happy to make some use of him. Unfortunately, he's been a bad guest, so I'll just have to use him as a human test subject." His smile disappeared, replaced with a snarl. "When I'm done with you, you'll wish you were still a fly!"
Baxter stepped back, trembled, before he scowled and stepped forward again. "I don't have to put up with this! I—uh..."
He looked past Barney's shoulder, and his brother followed his motion with another smile.
All of the creatures began to stand, on claws or on thick undulating tails like caterpillars, that slipped in the muck but kept them up.
This all held for a moment, before they surged forward together, silent but with bared dripping fangs, all coming for him. Baxter shrieked and at last ran—and slipped.
The shadows of the monsters fell over him; Baxter pictured their claws grasping, reaching, but yowled again and scrambled over the floor, heard the edge of his coat rip from some claw or pincer.
Fear gave him the energy—Baxter was up, ran, did not fall, but noticed who ran beside him. Barney shoved at him and laughed as he passed, but it was not hard enough to knock Baxter down. His brother still wanted to use him.
Why were the creatures even doing that? What did they want? If they even wanted something.
Both of them ran with the same clumsy, flailing motion, but managed to keep ahead of the creatures, who never stopped, though some were caught in a bottleneck in the corridors as they all rushed in, as if seeking lost parts of themselves.
At what must be a door to go outside, Barney pushed him again. "You have my keys, you idiot!"
Baxter started to reach into his pockets, but Barney grabbed him and did the searching for him, while the bugs came.
Barney stabbed they key into the lock, while Baxter collapsed against the wall. He looked back again—and saw wet wings pop from the backs of several of the incoming bugs, useless because they were slowed by the hallway, but the bugs wriggled and fougt, all twisted around each other.
He stared at them, unable to look away, and felt sick again. They were everywhere: eyes, snapping pincers, curved fangs—
—Barney pulled him, so hard it felt like his arm would pop free, but they were both through the door. Bangs sounded as some flying bugs crashed into the wall around the door frame.
Baxter could still her them scratch at the walls, while others wedged themselves snapping into the exit, and it would not be that long before some escaped.
"Run, you idiot! I know your legs work!"
He went. Out there, into an ordinary garage with an ordinary car and truck, but neither of them stopped. Baxter glanced at them regardless, before terror filled his thoughts again.
In the open air, they had a few seconds of freedom.
"Wh-what do they want?" Baxter croaked, shivering.
"Didn't you have a way to control them?"
Sudden anger. Baxter twisted in his brother's direction. "I had a controller! But you pulled me away before I could grab it! And they weren't ready!"
Barney pushed him hard in the chest. "And what made you think you possibly had the capacity to do something like this! No, you could've waited—"
"Stop talking like that! You keep saying you're doing me a favour, when—"
A scratching, rattling stampede cut him off. Baxter looked in that direction, a strangled squeak in his throat. The creatures flowed around them, catching them when they were still. They were everywhere, coming in the front, blocked out moonlight. Still silent, they moved in, as if intending to devour them.
An angled mantis arm whipped out, smacked Barney against a tree. He hit the ground, rolled once, and was still.
Half the bugs shot in that direction, while the rest converged on Baxter. He cringed, but saw one of the bugs raise a stinger—which ruptured, sending out more globs of green substance. As if it were a cue, the rest of their skins burst, collapsed in on themselves, crumbled into into each other before the pieces dissolved into a hissing, bubbling mess.
Baxter's mind went blank, like a machine shut down, darkened all his senses.
The computer's voice appeared again. Baxter? Baxter, they might not have been coming for you after all. They were not finished, and must have been disoriented.
Remember what a fun idea you just had? We can do it again; there are still some parts left, aren't there?
It hadn't been the computer's idea, it was true. All of it was his own, because the computer was broken and didn't have any more suggestions for fun. But, but...
All of the creatures continued to dissolve—even the puddles of slime had begun to retreat into smoke, which emitted from Baxter's clothing as it dried.
Everything that had happened since he had been pulled through the portal abruptly collapsed upon him like an avalanche, buried all defenses, objections, and what-ifs.
"N—No! I, uh..." He looked over at Barney. Tension built in him with each heartbeat, until:
"I...I don't want to do this anymore!" Baxter howled.
He fell to his knees, hands clenched in his hair. He shook his head back and forth, still gripping his temples, before he stilled, panted.
And then, Baxter got up. He walked over to where Barney lay on the ground, crouched down, and touched his brother's wrist.
There was a pulse there: he pulled his hand back as if burned, and then bolted.
On the way back to the house, thunder banged overhead.
His only destination was the garage, and by the time he got there, his coat and hair were soaked, but his hand was in one of the lab coat pockets, clenched around what felt like a set of car keys.
Everything was slow, far too slow. Every twitch, every heartbeat, brought hypochondriac thoughts, and he expected Barney to show up any moment, to yell at him, grab him, pull him back to the house where he would never get out again.
When the car door creaked open, it felt like a miracle.
Baxter swung into the driver's seat, gunned the motor without hesitation. "At least my brain remembers how to drive," he croaked, until that moment having no opinion on whether this would have been the case or not.
Rain blasted down, but Baxter kept driving. Barney must have lived in the middle of nowhere—he could see no signs of human habitation. He watched the wipers slash back and forth, and kept alert for highway signs.
"Well, there has to be something around here," Baxter muttered to himself, staring at the red sky.
What is it that you plan to do?
Baxter jerked up again, for a moment startled by Zee's voice, but then he smiled, although hardly freed from tension. "There's only one place that I need to go."
So why is it that we stopped?
Baxter scowled. "Why? Why? Because, I keep losing everything!" Baxter put both hands back on the wheel, and hunched down behind it."I don't want to," he said, and it sounded like a child. "If I do, I'll just lose it again."
He looked at his hands atop the wheel. In his eye, they changed, shifted, became purple, then stretched out, clawed and half-silver. Monstrous bugs crowded into the windows or crawled on his arms.
Baxter shouted: tires squealed. He almost went off the road, managed to keep the car under control so that it ground its way across the shoulder before it stopped. He panted, looked around, and then slumped onto the steering wheel.
It produced a long, mournful honk that jolted him out of his daze. "Uh—!" Baxter sat up again.
He opened the car door, stood in the gravel and frantically emptied his pockets of every small device and key that he had, tossing each into the nearby ditch.
Why had he done it? Out of all the possible things he could have done to build an arsenal, why start with the bug? Why even use it at all?
"Oh, well, that was easy," Baxter said to himself. "I knew it all along, didn't I? Yes, that's right! Take it away so Barney wouldn't have it, take it away so I wouldn't have to look at it, think about it. I got rid of every trace, every feature that could look like it."
But it was all right. His hands were normal. Everything about him was human. And that was just fine.
Baxter got back in the car and drove for a very long time. Zee's voice was usually silent, but when he spoke, he asked questions, and Baxter answered them out loud.
Baxter did manage to get a map, and it helped get him to where he needed to be: eventually the car headlights swooped up to illuminate the sign: "SUNNYDALE HOME FOR THE BEWILDERED".
Baxter grinned at it, a toothy, manic expression normally reserved for evil triumph. He opened the door and half-fell out of the car, too eager, before he stood up and cracked his back.
It was still raining, but he walked through it as if it were the sunniest of days. After all, being soaked, on top of everything else, would help to make him look more pathetic, like someone who needed to return to the asylum, which was exactly true.
He rattled the bars of the gate, paused, and shook them again. Baxter waited, and then pressed against the bars, as if trying to squeeze between them.
"Can't you see me? Hey! Hey! My name is Baxter Stockman and I'm a criminal! I'm wanted for wanton destruction of property, and was put here for believing in the existence of large anthropomorphic animals! I want you to take me back. Take me baaacck!"
The security guard finally came, and stared at him from the other side of the gate. The man paused, arched one eyebrow, and opened the gate just far enough to grab Baxter's collar and pull him inside.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thaaannk you!"
He was taken to a room to wait.
This is where you would like to be?
Baxter bobbed up and down a bit in his chair. "Oh, yes. You see, Zee, this is exactly where I want to be. No one will get me here. And the great thing is...I really do have a voice in my head."
He smiled, but sagged back in the chair, as his body seemed to remember how drained it felt, how exhausted.
"But I am sorry; I don't think I'll be able to get you a body."
After a while, a woman and two men into the room to see him. They talked to Baxter for a while, and he told him all the truth, how he had ended up in the asylum in the first place, and how he had gotten out before.
"And where have you been since then, Mr. Stockman?"
"Where? Oh, I was transformed into a fly."
"A...fly?" The woman scribbled on her notepad.
"Oh, yes. You see, I had a...mmm...accident. I forgot a lot of who I was, but then I remembered."
"A fly? You mean, like, the Mega Fly? From the Daily Teaser?" She held up a cheap, black-and-white magazine, with some crude sketch of him in it. The briefest glance told him that the pages contained a testimony from those archeologists he had frightened off, the day he had met Zee.
Why had he wanted to go to Dimension X, anyway?
A giant fly. In jeans and a sweater vest. Baxter almost laughed again.
"That was me!" It might have been how Barney found out about the whole thing. "My hair and clothes were the same, weren't they?"
He only had been a fly. Had been. But he had to tell them. Whatever would keep him in jail.
"I see. And did the...'rats and turtles' have anything to do with this?"
"It was their fault!" Baxter bounded up from the chair, before he sat down again. "I mean, yes. If they hadn't been around, I would have always been human, you know. I would have been normal. Yes, that's right. Normal and...sane."
His mind still felt muddled in some places, and Baxter was not quite sure how much of his insanity was an act, and how much was genuine action. He still felt strange at the moment, dull, empty despite his sharp eagerness to be finished, to be closed.
"Uh, huh. So, what made you come back?"
"Why? Hee, hee, because there's nowhere else for me to go! Even if I wasn't wanted by the authorities, I'm not going to take any more chances."
"I see." More scribbling. "And so these conditions are...satisfying to you?"
"Of course they are. Because I have my best friend."
"Mm. And who is this...friend?"
"His name is Zee, and he lives inside my head." Baxter tapped his temple with one finger. "I used to hate thinking machines, you know, but Zee proved me wrong. Now he's my best friend in the whole world."
"What would you say if I called you 'Barney Stockman'?"
Baxter tensed. "I'm not," he said, forced his voice into a calm little whine. "I'm not Barney Stockman. I've just had my mind implanted in a cloned body he made for me. I couldn't change my hair, but I tried."
"And you're sure about that?"
"Yes, yes." He eagerly bobbed his head.
The woman took up a ream of paper from the table next to her. "Are you aware, Sir, that Barney Stockman is wanted for several counts of practising mad science, as well as..."
As she read them off, his expression drooped. It should not have mattered, but it did.
"Those weren't my crimes. My crimes were mine! Mine!" Baxter slapped his own chest. "There was that time I helped unleash a giant plant monster on the city...my name is Baxter Stockman—I can prove it to you. The Mousers? Those were mine. I first submitted them to Ajax Pest Control Company..."
They had given Baxter a proper haircut in the midst of putting him through the rounds of questions and tests: a tidy widow's peak, but still long in the back. Respectable.
They put him front of various people, and answered all their questions compliantly. Baxter did not respond with any more hostility when they accused him of being someone else, but continually insisted he was Baxter.
But he had still lost his temper at the suggestion that his glasses be taken away.
Finally, after the various authorities had scratched their heads and argued, unable to determine which Stockman he actually was, they made a final, eminently just decision, which was,
"Aw, just throw him back where you found him."
The door to the solitary cell creaked open; orderlies flung Baxter inside. He sailed across the room and banged into the bright yellow padding, slid down, and landed on his front.
Baxter gathered his legs underneath him and hauled himself up, bent double for a moment before he managed to straighten.
"I'm not Barney, I'm...," Baxter murmured, as the orderlies approached him.
"Okay, Mr. Stockman," one of them said, and took his shoulder. But even when it was pulled on, the straitjacket was not a bad thing—rather comfortable, actually. He still wore his jeans and sneakers, and his bowtie protruded from the jacket's collar.
No need to worry, Baxter. I know who you are.
"Now I promise we're not going to take your glasses away," the taller main said. He injected the syringe into Baxter's neck, "but we don't want any trouble, do we?"
"N…No trouble. None at all." Baxter gave the man an honest smile, but stared at him for what might have been several seconds too long.
"All right, Bugman. Over there on the cot."
Baxter lay down upon the cot in his cell, vaguely aware that the room was smaller than the one he had been in before, and only designed for one.
When the orderly took the glasses off his face, he was too dazed to move. But they only went down on the night table that was there in the padded cell.
Are you happy, Baxter?
Good: his mind could still pick up the input from the computer. "Yes. Very happy." Baxter chuckled, and stared at the ceiling.
His head was empty of any secret desires, any megalomaniacal dreams or scientific ambitions. All he wanted was to be there.
Human. He was human. Human.