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Black and White

A Fan Novel in Three Parts

By McPoodle,
Erik (Ice) Berg and Roxor

Edited by ModernTimes

Please see the end of the story for acknowledgements and credits.

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Table of Contents

PART TWO: Francine

Chapter 11: We're Off to Never-Never Land

Chapter 12: Disappointment

Chapter 13: Arrival

Chapter 14: The Demonstration

Chapter 15: The Judgment

Chapter 16: Coronation

Chapter 17: The Final Battle

Chapter 18: Voices in the Darkness

Chapter 19: Choosing Sides

Chapter 20: Where's Waldo?

Chapter 21: Bad Moon Rising

Chapter 22: Victory Speech

Chapter 23: Substitution

PART TWO: Francine

Empty is the sky before the sun wakes up.
Empty is the eyes of animals in cages.
Empty, faces of women mourning
When everything's been taken from them.
Me, don't ask me about empty.

Empty is a string of dirty days
Held together by some rain.
And the cold winds drumming at the trees again.
Empty is the color of the fears
Long about September when the days
Go marching in a line toward November.
Empty is the hour before sleep kills you every night
And pushes you to safety away from every kind of light.
Empty is me. Empty is me.

--"Empty Is", Frank Sinatra

"Empty Is".

Chapter 11: We're Off to Never-Never Land

T-118 days, 5 hours, 26 minutes and 45 seconds (February 14, 7:33 PM EST).

It was Saint Valentine's Day. The world chose to ignore this fact.

It was a cold and miserable night. It had rained, and then a plummeting drop in temperatures at sunset had caused the water to freeze. The trees had become locked in a permanent appearance of weeping, and the city streets with their black ice had been converted into death traps. On the lonely forest road, darkness and silence reigned beneath the stony cloudbanks.

There was both life, and death, dwelling in the woods on either side of the road. The life consisted of birds, mammals, assorted invertebrates, fungi, mildew and above all the frozen trees. The life was sleeping, but not dreaming, waiting, but not knowing what it was waiting for. The death consisted of those who had waited their entire brief lives without ever learning their purpose. Most of this death took the form of crumbling stone statues, things that had once been human before the War. No one now living remembered the origins of those misshapen lumps of rock, not even their few survivors and descendants, who even then futilely sought the secret of their fate. The wood nursed its secrets, and was jealous of those who might expose them.

Down the lonely forest road rolled a small Army jeep, its pale yellow headlights rapidly swallowed by the darkness all around. It edged forward as if aware of the forest's malevolence towards it. In the driver's seat sat a short little fat man in a tight, badly fitting army uniform. His face was clean-shaven, so clean in fact that he looked incapable of sprouting facial hair.

Lou didn't like driving through the woods, especially at night. Bud would tell him he was a scaredy-cat, if he were here, but he never was there when it got really scary. Lou told himself what Bud had always told him, that there was no such thing as spooks, that they were simply the inventions of scaredy-cats with overactive imaginations. Of course, he wasn't imagining the eyes, so many eyes that were watching him from the woods. He started driving a lot faster then, black ice or no black ice.

After only a few near-death experiences, he reached his destination, a point on the road no different than any other point, other than the fact that it was exactly halfway between the city and the sanitarium. There, a small cabin, called "the shack" by anybody who had ever set eyes upon it, had been constructed according to specifications and a checkpoint set up to screen passing motorists, a patent absurdity as the only traffic the road ever saw was when a new pair of guards was sent out every twelve hours to relieve the checkpoint. Once on duty, the pair was never to be separated, which made Lou's little trip to the city even more dangerous. But Bud wanted a few things, and he could be very persuasive.

Lou parked the jeep in the designated parking spot next to the cabin, got out, and walked halfway to the cabin door, then stopped and walked back to turn off the headlights of the jeep. He got halfway to the door again before turning to retrieve the bag of supplies. Finally he walked through the door.

"It's about time!" exclaimed Bud as Lou entered and closed the door behind him. Bud was a tall thin man with a long thin mustache. His army uniform was impeccably fitted and pressed. He was sitting in a wooden chair leaned back against the wall, his arm snaked out to one side to adjust the frequency of a contraband radio. He suddenly stood, strode the two paces of the narrow room that separated him from his partner, and pulled an open bag of Heinrich's Chocolate-Anchovy Strudel out of the bag he was holding. "Hey!" he exclaimed, "you ate nearly half the bag!"

"I can't help it," Lou explained. "I eat when I'm nervous."

"You didn't get caught, did you?" Bud asked in an accusing tone.

"No, but those woods..."

"How many times do I have to tell you? There's nothing wrong with those woods. It's all in your head--you're like Little Miss Muffet: a spider would give you a heart attack." He poked his head in the paper bag. "Now, did you at least get a newspaper?"

"You mean this?" Lou said with a wink, pulling the item from his back pocket.

"Give me that!" Bud exclaimed, yanking the paper from his hands. With an eager Lou following, he walked over to a small desk and started separating out the sections of the paper. News, Sports, Business, Ads and Personal Ads were all cast aside as the Entertainment section was opened and eagerly perused by the pair. They soon found what they were looking for: the box office breakdowns of movies playing in theaters that weekend.

Bud handed the paper to Lou as he retrieved a notepad from his breast pocket. "Alright," he said, "what's the number one movie?"

"It', not the boat movie again! When will people stop watching the boat movie! The ending is so depressing!"

Bud chuckled. "That it is. What's number two?"

"The depressing detective movie."

"Number three?"

"The depressing political thriller."

"Number four?"

"The really depressing historical romance."

"And number five?"

"The chase movie. I liked that one."

Bud checked his notes. "Yeah, but I still predicted four of the five. Pay up."

"But," Lou blustered, digging out $50 and handing it over, "that's not fair!"

Bud leaned over Lou as he pocketed the sum. "Are you accusing me of being unfair?"

"No!" protested Lou. "Not you! This paper's got to be wrong. Those can't be the top-grossing movies."

"And why not?" Bud asked, as he picked up the News section. The headline proclaimed "Detroit Standoff Enters Third Week", and the photograph beneath it showed a smoke-enveloped city surrounded by what appeared to be a ring of giants.

"They're all so depressing!"

"Exactly," Bud said, he head buried in the paper. "Don't know how the chase movie got in there. Must have been the blues music."

"Where are the rest of the happy movies? Where's the Jack Nicholson movie?"

"He was completely out of character, smiling like that."

"The big vs. little movie?"

"Dodgy accents."

"The one they made from that book? Great Vibes?"

"What? Oh, I know which one you mean. That one blew the romance subplot completely out of proportion to the doom and gloom subplot."

"But that was the best part!"

"Lou, when will you wake up? People want their movies to match their lives."

"Hopelessly depressing?"

"Exactly," agreed Bud. "Well," he reconsidered, "not exactly. But happy endings haven't worked since the '30's. The only reason Hollywood keeps using them is for the kiddies." He looked up to see Lou's hurt expression, then rolled his eyes and sighed. "Ah, don't look at me like that, Lou. I'm sorry. Now does that make you feel better?"

"It'd help if I got your half of the Cracker Jacks."

Bud, his head back in the newspaper, waved his hand absently. "Fine."

"Goodie!" Bud pulled the box of candy out of the paper bag and started in on the comics. He was up to "Family Circus" when Bud plunked his paper down in front of him.

"Take a look at that!"

"'Commander Cellini To Be Released'," read Lou. "Waitaminute, wait a minute! Is this the same Commander Cellini who last year got locked in the loony bin we're guarding because he said Earth was in danger?"

"The same," Bud agreed, nodding.

"The same Commander Cellini who was your 'close personal friend'?"

"The same."

"The same Commander Cellini who promised us a transfer right before his Ultra Probe launched?"

"The very same."

"Hooray!" Lou sang. "We don't have to live in the shack! We don't have to live in the shack!" Then a thought came to him. "Hey, Bud?"


"Why'd the Army take so long to let him go? Everybody knew he was right months ago."

"Because the Army never admits when it's wrong, kid. This article--it's buried in the back of the paper, on a Friday. They let him go because Cellini's friend Captain Koenig has friends in high places, but that doesn't mean anybody has to know about it, see?"

"Yeah, I guess." He sat there for a bit before resuming the refrain of "we don't have to live in the shack!" He looked around to see Bud at the window of the cabin, looking out at a car honking at him from the checkpoint. The rain had started up again.

"It's your turn, Lou. Go out there and see what that lady wants."

"Oh, no!" Lou protested. "It's your turn. Besides, I'm not finished with the comics yet."

"I'll pay you five bucks to do it."



"Deal." Lou said, putting down the paper. He put on a rain slicker that was hanging on a peg near the door, walked back to Bud, grabbed the clipboard that was hanging on the wall next to him, and held out his hand.

Bud checked his wallet, which was mostly full of money he had won from Lou. "I haven't got a ten," he explained. "Give me two tens for a five."

Without thinking, Lou handed over two ten-dollar bills, and got a five in return. "And here's what I owe you," Bud said unctuously, returning one of the tens while pushing Lou out the door.

Lou stood outside the door for a minute, reviewing the transaction in his head. "Hey!" he exclaimed. He turned to go back in the cabin, but found the door locked. "Hey, Bud!" he yelled, rattling the handle.

"Go take care of that woman!" Bud yelled through the window. To emphasize this point, the car horn honked again.

"Alright," Lou reluctantly agreed. "But we're not finished!"

Putting on his best authoritative air, Lou sauntered up and knocked on the driver's side window of the car, a beige 1960 Plymouth Suburban Wagon in very used condition. "I need to see some identification, ma'am," he announced.

The driver rolled down the window to reveal a middle-aged person (you had to look a bit to be sure it was a woman), wearing wrinkled powder blue coveralls. Her hair was red, long and stringy. Her pearl-rimmed glasses only served to emphasize her age.

The two instantly recognized each other. "You!" they proclaimed in unison.

"Hiya, Frankie!" Lou greeted her as he regained his composure.

"Never call me Frankie!" she snapped in response.

"Uh, sorry, Francine."

She raised a red eyebrow at him.

"Mrs. Nulton?"

"That's better. I should have known it was you the moment I smelled your breath." She glanced over to take in Bud through the cabin window. "Aren't you two supposed to be guarding the Vostaach Space Center?"

"Ah..." Lou stalled, rubbing the back of his neck. "There was the little matter of the first Ultra Probe blowing up on Launchpad Seven. Nobody was in there, but..."

"That was you two?" Mrs. Nulton asked, raising her eyebrows. "I should have known."

Lou looked nervously at his clipboard, then waved it for her to see. "The Army's keeping a tight lid on the Mitty Sanitarium. We have to keep track of everybody who comes or goes." He pulled out a pen and started writing. "Francine Nulton," he said and wrote. Checking his watch, he added, "7:46 P.M." He looked at the clipboard. "It says here I need to write down why you're going there."

"You're getting nosy," the woman noted.

"Hey, if it was up to me you could go waltzing down the road, no questions asked!" Lou attempted to illustrate this, and nearly tripped over his own feet. "So it's not me being nosy, it's the Army. Now what should I write down?"

Mrs. Nulton rolled her eyes. "Write down that I've come to pick up my husband."

"...pick up her husband," he repeated, writing that down. "Okay, then I can raise the barrier," he read off of the clipboard.

Mrs. Nulton looked at Lou. Lou smiled back at her. Mrs. Nulton waited.

"Oh, I'm supposed to raise the barrier!" Lou said. He raced over and operated the mechanism.

Mrs. Nulton put the car into drive and started driving through the gate.

"I'll see you later!" Lou said as her car turned a corner. "With your husband!" he added.

Lou walked back into the cabin, lost in thought and dripping rainwater onto the floor. "Hey, Bud?" he asked.

Bud was leaning against the wall again, still studying the article he had found. "Yeah, Lou?"

"That lady was Francine Nulton."

"I noticed."

"She said she was going to pick up her husband from the loony bin. I didn't know he was in the loony bin."

"You weren't paying attention," Bud informed him, referring to the article. "He cracked up right after the invasion started. The Army snuck the news of his release right at the end of the Cellini story: 'Also being released from the Mitty Sanitarium tonight will be Norris Nulton, failed inventor.' 'Failed inventor'," he repeated. "Now there's the understatement of the year."

Chapter 12: Disappointment

T-118 days, 4 hours, 48 minutes and 16 seconds (February 14, 8:11 PM EST).

A few minutes later, a woman wearing a yellow raincoat over powder blue overalls swiftly made her way from her parked car into the main entrance of the Walter Mitty Army Mental Sanitarium, as the rain fell in buckets around her. After hanging up her coat to dry and signing in with a young Army clerk, she quickly made her way back to the office of Dr. Pritchard-Mitford, the head psychologist, her waterlogged shoes making a high-pitched pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound on the linoleum floor.

"Good evening, Mrs. Nulton," Dr. Pritchard-Mitford greeted her. "Please have a seat. I was expecting you a little earlier; you were informed of your husband's release well before lunch."

Francine Nulton bristled from her seat. "That would have required me to miss work, Doctor," she said, and dared him with her stare to question her priorities. She glanced down at the desk to see a set of release forms and a pen waiting for her. Seeing that he had not answered her she continued. "I understand that he has recovered?"

"Well..." the psychologist hemmed, sitting down behind his desk, "Mr. Nulton is still a rather nervous individual, and prone to a variety of neuroses..."

"My husband has always been like that," Francine stated, rolling her eyes. "What I need to know before I sign these and take him home is, have the panic attacks stopped? Does he still blame himself for the invasion? Is he a danger to himself?"

"...or others?" Pritchard-Mitford added.

"Norris Nulton a danger to anyone other than himself?" Francine asked ruefully. "Now that would be a dramatic change."

The doctor cleared his throat in disapproval. "Yes, yes, he's over all of that. We gave him a radio that could only pick up the news channel, and he's finally come to accept that there wasn't anything anybody could have done to prevent the invasion, including himself." He produced a long manila envelope out of a drawer of the desk and placed it on top of the forms in front of Francine. "If you have any doubts you are free to review his file."

Francine looked down coldly at the file. "Allowing me to review my husband's private medical file is a bit irregular, is it not? Especially since according to you, he's a sane man and my power of attorney over him should no longer apply."

The doctor looked at her imploringly.

Francine glowered. "The Army doesn't want to pay for him anymore, and his presence here will inevitably remind a reporter some day that it was the government's money that paid for my husband's failure," she accused.

The head psychologist wilted. "Yes," he admitted in a low voice.

Francine proceeded to sign the release papers. "That's all I wanted," she told him sweetly as she was doing this, "a little truth will always make things easier. Now where can I retrieve him?"

A little balding man sat on a hard wooden bench in the middle of an endless antiseptic hallway. The bench was so high and the man's legs so short that his plain brown shoes did not touch the ground, and he was idly kicking them back and forth. Above the shoes were brown slacks, and above that a brown sports jacket over a yellowing buttoned shirt and a fat brown bowtie. A miniscule brown porkpie hat in the center of his mostly-bald head completed the ensemble. The hair he did have, a handlebar mustache and a fringe around the back of his head, was red and fluffy in appearance. A large pair of spectacles sat on his bulbous red nose. He was looking down and twiddling his thumbs. Next to him on the bench were a brown suitcase and a book with a brown cover. The book was a well-worn biography of Thomas Edison.

"Norris." The voice came from the end of the hallway. It was a harsh voice, and always carried the subtext that the person addressed was in trouble, yet to Norris it was the sound of violins and oboes, his muse and his salvation. "Coming, Francine," he replied, eagerly, as his picked up the suitcase and book and waddled down the hall in the direction of the voice.

"What were you doing down there?" Francine asked her husband when he had caught up with her and removed his hat. "You were supposed to wait for me at the entrance."

"Ah...the attendant said to wait in B wing and...wait. Was it B or D?"

Francine signed. "Come on. I'm not fond of driving in the rain as it is, and now it's dark as well." She started leading the way to the exit, with Norris following her.

"It's good to see you again, Dear," Norris told her back. "I've missed you terribly." Francine cast a warning glance over her shoulder at him, and he did not say another word until they were in the car, with Francine in the driver's seat.

After turning over the engine a few times, the old car sputtered to life and the radio turned on. It was an after-market unit, practically brand new. Many of the men who had built the car had died of old age before the men who had built the radio had even been born. The first words out of the radio were, "...and here is the news out of Detroit."

Norris groaned. "Do we have to listen to the news station?" he pleaded. "I've been desperate for music the entire time I was in there." He reached for the dial.

Francine looked from the radio to Norris' hand in panic. "No, you fool, don't touch it!"

But it was too late. As soon as Norris' fingers touched the knob, the unit gave off a loud spark and a puff of black smoke and died. Norris pulled back his hand quickly, casting a fearful look at his wife like he expected her to strike him.

Instead she sighed and turned the ignition off. "That was my fault, Norris. I had a new radio put in while you were away, and I forgot to switch it back on the way here. If we're lucky, all that was damaged was the radio itself. You just sit here while I disconnect it." She pulled her raincoat back on and pulled a lever to release the hood of the car. Norris sat in the driver's seat, trying to be as small as possible and desperately trying not to cough from the smoke.

The trip home was mostly devoid of interest. In between the dozens of long-abandoned buildings were the usual roadside ads to trade in your gasoline-powered car for one of the cheaper nuclear-powered models. One of the ads had been torn off in the wind, revealing an older public-service ad showing a photograph of a man wearing a purple costume with two M's on the chest, domino mask, broad-brimmed Panama hat and cape, posing heroically. A wind machine had obviously been employed during the photo shoot for dramatic effect. The hand of young girl could be glimpsed holding one corner of the cape in frame. "There's No Need to Fear, Good Citizen," the ad proclaimed, "The Masked Marvel is Here!" Francine chuckled when she saw it. Her reaction was a bit stronger to another ad, located at a traffic stop. This ad showed a lush carpet being vacuumed by a gleaming chrome machine, wielded by a happy couple that looked like they belonged to a bygone era much happier than the present day. The couple was identified as Dinah and Harold Largess. Dinah's eyes sparkled as she admired her shapely Parisian dress, while Harold gave the viewer a crafty smile, his pencil mustache underlining a powerful beak of a nose. At the top of the ad were the words "Orlac's Machines: Solving all of life's little problems." Francine stared enraged at the ad, attempting to crush the steering wheel of the car into dust with her grip, until Norris informed her for the third time that the light had changed. Then she shook it off and continued driving.

It was about nine o'clock when the Plymouth pulled into a cul-de-sac in a somewhat suburban corner of Hartford, Connecticut. Unusually for neighborhoods in this area, a full half of the homes were occupied. The car drove past a young man and a teenage girl, both of them looking up into a tree, to pull into the garage of the house at the back of the court. While Francine got to work giving the car's wiring another examination and preparing to swap out the burned-out radio for the factory original unit sitting on a bench, Norris wordlessly brought his luggage as well as an empty cooler belonging to Francine into the house.

"I'll make you supper," he called out from the kitchen.

"Mac and cheese again," she muttered to herself before replying to him. "Very well."

"Herbert," Alice Wentworth said, "we need to talk." The girl was about thirteen years old, her long black hair neatly done up in dozens of braids, and wearing a purple dress.

"I think she was just startled by the exhaust," said Herbert d'Foote, looking up in the tree and not paying attention to the girl. "I suspect the Nultons may have the only internal combustion car left in Hartford." The young man looked to be about eighteen years of age, a bit on the short side, with short blond hair and every accoutrement associated with a stereotypical nerd, starting with the Coo-Coo Cola bottle spectacles. He was wearing black jeans and an open tan jacket that revealed a black tee-shirt, on which was silk-screened an image of a anthropomorphic mouse in a purple jumpsuit catching a falling star in her hands. It was his favorite piece of fan-art for the Rescue Rangers television show, the work that inspired him to become the fan artist known as "Honker".

Light as a Mouse, by Candy Courtnier

"Herbert," repeated the girl more firmly, "I'm leaving the fandom."

This caught his attention. "Leaving? But Alice, this was only your first time on the forum!"

"My first and my last. Did you read what they said about me?"

"Look, the Rescue Ranger fandom is the nicest, most well-behaved fandom I've ever encountered. This was just a fluke. You posted in the afternoon, when only the young hotheads are on. And you touched on a controversial subject."

"I politely expressed my opinion of who belonged together in my welcome post, and I got the Spanish Inquisition! I want you to take this back." She opened up the backpack she was wearing and removed a blue tee-shirt, onto which had been silk-screened an anthropomorphic chipmunk in a Hawaiian shirt lying at the feet of the same mouse from Herbert's shirt. The mouse seemed so absorbed in a technical explanation that she didn't even notice the chipmunk. The fan-art was signed "Honker".

It's unlikely that anybody reading this remembers the cold days of the Ranger Wars. The reference here is to the second of these epic flame wars, otherwise known as the St. Valentine's Massacre of February 14, 1998. The entire shipping controversy is briefly documented on this page of the RangerWiki.

Also, the fanart mentioned above doesn't exist, but is in the style of "Look at the Moon" by Matt Plotecher:

Look at the Moon, by Matt Plotecher

Herbert accepted it with a heavy heart. She then reached in to remove a stack of four videotapes held together by rubber bands. "No," he said. "Keep those. Regardless of what you think of us, the show is more important. Don't let what happened today poison what you think of that. Leave the fandom if you must, but please, remain a fan."

Alice continued to hold out the tapes.

"At least watch them again before giving them back. Can you at least do that for me?"

Alice closed her eyes and lowered her arm. "Not today," she pleaded. "I couldn't possibly..."

"Take as long as you need. We're still friends, aren't we?"

Alice nodded, then turned and walked back to her house, which was located on the opposite side of Herbert's house from the Nultons' house.

After a few minutes of work, Francine put away her tools and cleaned her hands very thoroughly with a rag, a satisfied grin on her face for a job well done. Then, remembering the two people she saw on the way in, she stepped out of the garage door.

The young man was still there, standing in the front yard of the next house over. He looked to have something stuffed inside his zipped-up tan jacket. In one hand he was holding one end of a long leash; his nervous attention was focused on the other end, which was up a tree.

Francine grinned wickedly, and strolled over to stand beside the teenage boy, her hands clasped behind her back. "Good evening, Herbert, Jr.," she greeted him, a catlike grin on her face.

Herbert, Jr. jumped, causing a blue shirt to drop to the ground. "Uh, good evening Mrs. Nulton," he replied, trying to hide the leash behind his back.

"Pet problems?" she asked.

"What? No, no. This is a dog leash."

"I've noticed," Francine replied smoothly, "and Pudgy doesn't climb trees that well. Have you gotten another pet?"

"No, no," Herbert repeated. "I, uh, I was playing with the leash and it got stuck."

"Perhaps I can help you pull it free, then?" she offered.

"No! Ah, no thanks, Mrs. Nulton. I...I wouldn't want to damage it."

"As you wish, Herbert," she answered. "You dropped this..." She picked up the shirt and got a good look at it, then scowled. "Where did you get this?"

"I...uh, found it at a flea market. It must have been a tie-in product."

"You know as well as I do that nothing this good was ever associated with that show, and the studio would never sign off on a design like this. You drew this, didn't you?"

Herbert said nothing.

"Herbert, you're better than this! Why are you wasting your time doodling for a dead cartoon?" She held up the shirt. "It's obvious you have real talent--use it on something with merit! It could be commercial or pure art, just do something with your abilities. And I saw Alice here earlier--were you trying to suck her into your little cult as well?"

"Look, Alice can be a fan if she wants to. Why do you have to be so critical of us all the time?"

"Can't you see what you're doing? It's a show, it's just a show. I should know--I used to clean Rockwell Studios, and I had plenty of opportunity to observe the man who created your idols. Take my word for it: all E. Thaddeus Rockwell wanted was to inundate children with advertisements and rip them--and their parents--off with cheap merchandise. He didn't want to make the world a better place or provide positive role models. Rescue Rangers was a TV show, a cartoon for children, which had no higher purpose than to keep the little brats quiet for a half hour so their parents could get some relief. That is all, no more! Undeserving of art, undeserving of fiction, undeserving of discussion! And most certainly undeserving of that!" The "that" in question was the end of Herbert's leash. She turned to walk back to her house, looking over her shoulder to add, "it's a good thing there isn't an animal at the end of that leash, Herbert. Like for example a certain endangered bat that by law belongs in a zoo. Because if there was, I'd be obligated to do something about it." She looked back to see him shake his head back and forth, his head white as a sheet. "A very good thing, indeed," she repeated, chuckling to herself, as she returned to the garage and from there into the house.

The macaroni and cheese was awful. You wouldn't think it was possible to screw that up, but Norris had a bit of a knack in that department. Afterwards Norris sat in a chair in the living room and read his book while Francis vacuumed. She was using an Orlac machine, but this one was made of yellowed plastic and had not required a major repair for decades, while the one in the billboard ad (which Francine had still not forgotten) had been all looks, had weak suction, and could not be expected to last one month after its 90-day warranty had expired.

After the vacuuming came the dusting and polishing. The room, and indeed the whole house, was not really in need of dusting, as it had just been dusted the day before, the windows were never opened, the air conditioning and heating filters were regularly replaced, and the doors were all well sealed. Nevertheless, Francine dusted, and the act made her feel as if she were fighting back the forces of chaos in the universe, keeping the house her own small bastion of order in a world long-since gone mad and quickly crumbling into dust.

At the left end of the wall were the photographs dedicated to Francine's life before she met Norris, all of them in black in white. The first, labeled "Orlac's Machines, Bristol, CT, 1970," depicted Roger Orlac, his family and his employees, standing in front of a factory. Roger's eyes were on the trophy wife at his side, a good twenty years younger than him, and his arms gestured outwards to his employees and the world beyond that he dreamed of dominating. The two daughters standing in front of him were completely ignored, for Roger Orlac's plans had no room for children. The girls, aged 10 and 8, reached back with their arms to cling desperately at his legs, as if this gesture was enough to keep him from going away again. At Roger Orlac's other side stood an elderly man with the company's balance sheets tucked absent-mindedly under one arm. Beside him stood his grandson, a serious boy of 12 trying to catch the attention of the elder girl.

The second photograph, "Orlac Funeral, Athens, Greece, 1977," showed the two sisters wearing black and standing before the caskets of their parents and their accountant. The elder sister was grief-stricken, while the younger appeared to be flirting with the photographer. The guests behind the two sisters seemed to be milling about in a state of shock, none more so than a young man standing behind the older sister--this was the boy from the earlier picture.

The third photograph was labeled "Dinah's Wedding, Bear Mountain, CT, 1982." The center of the original panorama photograph had apparently been Dinah and her husband, but they and most of the wedding guests had been cropped off of the photo that was mounted. What was left was the older sister, a shy and confused woman in her early twenties, looking with longing and relief into the eyes of the confident young man from before. She looked like she was scared of life and relieved to have somebody beside her to stand up to its terrors, while he looked very tired, but very much in love. Francine got past this one rather quickly, not wanting to dwell on the memories it summoned. The young man did not show up in any other photographs on the wall, and the next decade of Francine's life was not represented, either.

Another section of the wall was dedicated to Norris, also in black and white. There were photographs of him receiving academic awards, both as a young boy and as a college student. Neither of these photos included his parents. Instead, there were photographs of Norris presenting strange devices he had built for the camera, with Norris acting as the parent and the device acting as the child. Next, some covers from science fiction magazines from the early 1970's had been framed and mounted beside the other photographs. Each depicted a scene where the center of attention was a strange invention, and all of them were signed "NN". There was a photograph of Norris in his twenties, with a full set of long hair, sitting behind a table at a science fiction convention and signing one of those covers. The centerpiece of this section was a framed fold-out spread from Analog magazine dated March, 1973, that depicted Norris' vision of a permanent base on the Moon. Below it was a newspaper clipping dated September 2nd, 1984, showing a cleaned-up and somewhat older Norris shaking a man's hand beside a scale model of the same base, the headline reading "Moonbase Alpha Begins Construction." There appears to have been a shift in career around this point, for this was followed by numerous framed plans of inventions done in a cartoon style. Each drawing was stamped "Property of Rockwell Studio." One labeled "Ratcatcher" showed a plane in the shape of a duck's bill and another labeled "Rangermobile" showed a skateboard with a car battery powering a hairdryer for propulsion.

The final short section of wall, the only part in color, included photographs of Francine and Norris. The first of these was an interesting contrast with the "Dinah's Wedding" photograph, taken surreptitiously at the Rockwell animation studio late one night when the two of them were supposed to be working: Norris the concept artist was the one who was both confused and in love, while Francine the cleaning woman was grumpy and at the same time satisfied that she had found someone so completely dependent on her. After that there were a few dating photos, followed by the wedding photo (a full spread to highlight the fact that the event had been snubbed by Dinah and Harold Largess), followed by photos showing life in the years that followed. Norris was always enraptured in those photographs, and Francine at best looked like she had something better to do. They were both middle-aged, both recognizably the same people who had walked in that door a few hours earlier. Unlike her parents, Francine had few servants. The most prominent of them was a woman in her mid-thirties with blond hair and a permanently vacant expression in her eyes; in half of the photos she found her reflection in a nearby mirror more fascinating than the camera.

This was the entire set of photographs that Francine had sent herself to dust; there practically wasn't any wall visible between them. When she reached the Moonbase magazine spread she paused, looking at one corner of the diagram that depicted the device that had failed to detect the invasion. She considered removing the magazine spread and the photograph below it after her husband had gone to bed, but eventually decided that their absence would probably have a worse effect on him than their presence, and so continued.

The dusting that night was never completed, because Francine was interrupted by a knock at the door. She answered it to see her next-door neighbors, the d'Footes: Herbert, Sr. and his wife Elizabeth. Herbert, Sr. was a wide, jovial man in a loud Hawaiian shirt and shorts, even in miserable weather like this, while Elizabeth wore her blue dress and a string of too-obvious pearls, her blond hair up in a beehive. Francine was not fond of either of them, the husband because he was loud and always happy, and Elizabeth because she reminded her of her sister. For once, Elizabeth looked worried.

"Hiya, neighbor!" proclaimed Herbert, Sr. happily before his expression changed to mirror his wife's. "Sorry it couldn't be under happier circumstances, though."

"Have you heard?" asked Elizabeth.

"Heard what?" asked Francine.

"The Danaans are coming!" Herbert, Sr. informed her. "Hartford is being evacuated! We're the last families left in the court."

Francine calmly leaned out to look around. The only car left in the cul-de-sac was a brown and white station wagon in front of the house next door, decades newer than the Nulton's car. The station wagon contained two passengers in the back seats, Herbert, Jr. and a mountain of a young man in his early twenties. At that moment, the older man punched the younger Herbert in the arm. Herbert mouthed the words "quit it" and tried to rub the feeling back into the assaulted arm. Francine noticed that although there was a large dog roaming freely back and forth in the car, there was also a cat-sized animal carrier in Herbert's lap. Francine's eyes returned to meet those of Elizabeth. "It appears you are right," she observed.

"I've got family in Canada. You can come with us if you have no place else to go," Elizabeth offered.

Francine managed to suppress a look of horror at the thought of spending weeks with Elizabeth's relatives. Instead she thought for a moment. "No," she finally replied, "I think we'll be alright. You better go now, before the traffic backs up too much."

"Are you sure?" Elizabeth asked anxiously.

"Quite sure," Francine replied.

"Well, if you insist," said Herbert, Sr. "Good luck!"

"Thank you," Francine replied. Then she closed the door. A few seconds later, she heard the station wagon driving away.

"What was that about?" Norris looked up from his book when Francine returned.

Francine's response was to turn on the ancient Zenith color television in the corner of the living room (the TV was old enough that "COLOR" was printed on the cabinet with very large type, each letter in a different color). It took a few minutes for the tubes to warm up, but there was no need to change channels to discover the explanation Francine was looking for.

The image depicted a stream of enormous flying machines cloaked in vapor making their way in a wide double column. As they passed, the ground between them was rendered utterly devoid of all life, down to the microscopic level. A large logo in the corner identified the image as "LIVE" and the voice of a reporter eagerly described details that a baby could see with the sound turned down. What eventually could be discerned was that the column was headed east out of Detroit, and that their target appeared to be New England.

Norris jumped up in alarm. "They're coming for me!" he shrieked, pointing at the television. "They know I tried to stop them and they're coming for their revenge!"

Francine turned off the television with an annoyed flick of the wrist. "Don't be ridiculous," she retorted. "It's obvious that they are coming to Connecticut to topple the insurance industry. You have nothing to do with the matter."

"You really think so?" he asked, relieved.

"Of course," she replied. "That doesn't mean we don't need to evacuate, though."

"Yes, of course!" he realized. "Where will we go?"

"I think the family mansion at Bear Mountain is likely to be overlooked," Francine said. "At least for a day or two. I'll inform Miss Weir to pick us up. We have a much better chance of getting out of here alive in a helicopter than in the car."

"I'll start packing," Norris offered.

"Yes, you do that," she said, walking over to a telephone in the kitchen and starting to dial. "The Danaans won't reach Hartford until tomorrow morning. I'll instruct Miss Weir to delay her arrival by four hours--that should be enough time for a nap."

"How could you sleep at a time like this?"

Francine gave Norris another warning stare, and he obediently shut up.

Chapter 13: Arrival

T-117 days, 21 hours, 45 minutes and 47 seconds (February 15, 3:14 AM EST).

Afterward, Francine wasn't sure which sound she heard first, the explosion to her left or the thunder to her right.

"The Danaans are early," she said calmly.

She sat upright in bed, replaced her sleep blindfold with her glasses, and turned the nightstand light on. Bright searchlights illuminated the world outside the bedroom window. Instinctively, she flipped the lights back off to avoid attracting attention. What she did notice in that brief moment of light: it was 3:14 am, and the bed next to hers was empty.

Cautiously, she got up and retrieved an ancient Army surplus flashlight from the nightstand and turned it on.


No response.

She got up. As she was expecting the helicopter any minute now, she had gone to bed mostly dressed, and it was a simple matter to put on the rest of her things.

"Norris, where are you?"

Still nothing.

Searching the room, she finally found her husband unconscious on the other side of the bed. He had rolled off the bed when the attack began and apparently bumped his head when he hit the floor. Francine propped up the flashlight so she could see what she was doing and tried to awaken her husband.

"Now is not a good time for taking a nap, Norris. Norris?"

He returned to consciousness with a labored moan.

Francine put her hand over his mouth. "A little quieter, please. The Danaans are in our back yard. I don't know what's keeping Miss Weir." She helped him to sit up with his back to the bed, but all that came out of his mouth was gibberish.

Francine rolled her eyes, thinking he was playing for attention. "How many fingers am I holding up?" she asked.

The man jerked his head around strangely. "Uhhh...I, I, I can't, I can't, I can't see."

"You're timing is as impeccable as always, Norris," she drawled. "Stay here."




"That's you. Norris Nulton."

"Noo." His brow furrowed. "Nnorrrton."

Francine froze. "Norton. Professor Norton Nimnul?"

The man flopped his head up and down.

"You've got to be kidding me. Look, we'll deal with your delusions later. Now stay where you are." She crawled over to the window and cautiously looked out. "They appear to be going east." She crawled over to the nightstand, took down an antiquated telephone, and dialed a number. "Pick up, Laurel, pick up..."

A minute later, she hung up. After another glance out the window, she made up her mind and returned to the man's side. "Okay, it looks like we're on our own," she told him. "I'll try to get you to a hospital if it's safe. If not we can hole up at the estate until they leave." She helped him to stand up, picked up a suitcase with her free hand, and then began walking him towards the door.

"Wherrre?" asked Nimnul.

"To the car, Norris," responded Francine. "I'll drive."

Partway across the living room, a whistling sound was heard rapidly approaching.

"Get down!" cried Francine, pulling Nimnul to the ground. A moment later the building shook from the force of an explosion. She gave "Norris" a rueful look. "It looks like you were right after all--they are in Hartford to kill you." She helped him up to his feet and then, more quickly than before, escorted him out the front door.

Francine and Nimnul exited the house into an abandoned neighborhood, the beige Plymouth the only car in the cul-de-sac. She led him into the passenger seat and then shut the door and retrieved the rest of the luggage to put in the trunk.

While she was gone, Nimnul swung his arms about wildly for a few seconds, then stopped and tried to focus on the hand he was holding before his face.

It took a couple of trips, but eventually Francine got the car loaded. She stopped to look back at the house. She and Norris had spent the last eight years of their lives there, and now she fully expected never to see it in one piece again.

"It was always such...a clean house," she eulogized before climbing into the driver's seat and driving out of the cul-de-sac.

The roads of Hartford were deserted, even more than usual. Smoke rose into the air, probably from burnt-out buildings, but Francine was relieved to note that none of the destruction was directly visible from the road. All lights were out, the clouds above illuminated by roving searchlights.

After nearly a half-hour of eerily-silent driving, she switched on the radio to soothe her nerves, only to be met with static.

"They took out WOLD!" she exclaimed. She adjusted the tuner of the factory original radio until she found a signal.

"...until you reach Long Island," a pre-recorded voice from the radio informed her. "Be sure to bring completed copies of Federal Relocation Forms 15-187 and 347-61, or you will not be admitted into the shelters. This is an emergency broadcast message. All evacuees from the upper New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut areas are instructed to head south to the safety of New York and New Jersey. New York residents shall take highway 87..."

Francine frowned, taking the onramp to Highway 91 North, and continued tuning as they made their way alone, the southbound lane clogged with fleeing motorists.

Nimnul craned his neck around to take in his surroundings.

"It worked," he concluded. "This isn't my original world. What happened here?"

In the distance the alien spaceships could just be made out against the eastern sky, beams of silver light obliterating everything in their path.

"Who's attacking?" he asked.

Francine raised a stringy orange eyebrow at this question. "The Danaans, obviously. Unless that's another alien race attacking us." She tuned the radio some more, until she found a news station that was still manned and operational.

The news was not good. As usual, all efforts to stop the alien advance had utterly failed against the Danaan's superior technology.

"It is suspected that Emperor Freewheel is among the casualties," reported the news announcer.

"Good riddance!" replied Francine.

"You already have an emperor?" Nimnul asked in some alarm.

"We had an emperor, until Freewheel's robots failed to keep the Danaans penned up in Detroit. The man had invented a giant remote-controlled robot and started mass-producing them, but never figured out how to control enough of them at once to stop the Danaans, and the controls were so complicated he wasn't able to teach anybody else how to use them. Don't worry, though, the crown and scepter will not remain unclaimed--as soon as another scientist comes up with a plan to save the world, you can be sure the title will be presented once again."

"All of your emperors are scientists?" Nimnul eagerly asked.

"They have been for the last fifty years. Who better to put in charge of the world than a scientist?" asked Francine.

"Who, indeed," agreed Nimnul. "Now what about that man I saw on the billboard on the way out of town, the one in the mask and cape? I thought I made very sure there were no superheroes in this world before I selected it."

"The Masked Marvel? He was less hero than egotistical blowhard. And you don't have to worry about him--he's retired."

"Super powers or no, I don't want to have to worry about heroes getting in my way."

"Then don't. The Masked Marvel was a product of the late 80's, a very unusual period in recent history. Man was venturing into the Solar System, nuclear power was solving the power crisis, and the Cold War between the U.K. and the U.S.S.R. was winding down. Irrational feelings of optimism were widespread, so when New Haven's local billionaire hired an android named 'Roboman' as his personal bodyguard, everybody looked at their comic books and got inspired to put on tights for justice.

"Hartford's version was the Masked Marvel, a man who seemed at least as interested in his publicity as in fighting crime. Just as with the other cities, the presence of a masked hero inspired other borderline-crazy people to dress up and become masked villains. Their theatrical battles destroyed downtown again and again and drove down the property values. Eventually, people stopped paying attention and the heroes all sort of gave up." Francine glanced over at her passenger. "Are you feeling any better, Norris? I'd rather not fight my way into the hospital unless I absolutely have to."

"My vision has cleared up," replied Nimnul. "I think I'm alright now. But don't call me Norris--it makes me think you're not taking me seriously."

"I never take you seriously, Norris," replied Francine flippantly. "You're the one in love with me, remember?"

"I'm not Norris. I'm Professor Norton Nimnul! Why can't you accept that?"

"Because fantasy and I have never gotten along very well," Francine remarked. Seeing the look on his face, her expression soured. "Right!" she announced, and then rapidly pulled over to the side of the road. "Okay, genius," she warned. "If you're Professor Norton Nimnul, how come you look just like my husband?"

"Your husband," Nimnul informed Francine with hauteur, "has the honor of being my stunningly-handsome counterpart in this universe. The interdimensional portal I invented brought me here, and...there wasn't another me next to me when you found me, was there?"

Francine took a moment to parse this. "No."

Nimnul buried his head in his hands. "Which means it didn't transfer any matter at all." He looked up, a frustrated expression on his face. "If I'd known it would only swap minds, I could have just plugged a Tesla coil into a wall socket and those rodents would be none the wiser!"

"The Rescue Rangers?" Francine asked.

"How do you know about them?" Nimnul asked, grabbing her lapels.

Francine slapped his hands away. She decided to humor his delusion for now. "In this universe, The Rescue Rangers is a cartoon show, and you're the main villain. You can guess who the heroes are."

Nimnul was beside himself with rage. "I can't believe it--they got their own TV show and I didn't?"

"Well in this universe, you're not exactly star material."

"This Norris Nulton...what was he like?" Nimnul asked. "The whole time I was spying on him, he was in an asylum."

"Well, that should tell you everything, shouldn't it?" Francine replied. "Like yourself, his dream was to invent, only his inventions all failed. He came to believe he was cursed before his plans for Moonbase Alpha were accepted."

"This world has a moon base? I've always wanted one of those."

"You wouldn't want it now," replied Francine. "The Danaan's mothership is up there. They were able to invade because Norris' alien detector failed."

"Alien detector? Does alien invasion happen on a regular basis on this Earth?"

"It doesn't on your Earth? We've gotten 50-50 odds with alien invasions this century--two duds, and two genuine Wars of the Worlds." She hooked a thumb in the direction of the distant spaceships. "These guys have so far proven unbeatable."

"Well, they've finally met their match in me," proclaimed Nimnul. "Now, woman, if you could drive me to the scene of the devastation, perhaps I can find what I need to begin my rise to power."

She gave him a warning stare but he refused to flinch. She considered the situation: her Norris had gone so far around the bend that he thought he was Norton Nimnul. Her spineless mess of a husband had become a raving lunatic husband who actually fought back against her insults, and she found herself preferring the replacement to the original. "Alright Professor," she chuckled, "you've convinced me."

"We're going?"

"No, you've convinced me that you're not my Norris. Not even he would say anything that crazy, although come to think of it, those war machines would probably crumble to dust if Norris had ever touched one of them. We should reach Gogol, my mansion, in a couple of hours. If my father (may he roast) knew anything, it was how to build to last. Nothing can touch us once we reach it. What you do after that is your concern, not mine. After all, the Danaans are not exactly leaving anytime soon."

"How are you so sure of that?"

"The goal of every alien invasion has always been the same: the extinction of all animal life on Earth. You can understand why I might want to head away from them under the circumstances."

Nimnul folded his arms and pouted. "If I knew more about this world, I'd ask to be dropped off right now."

Francine ignored him, pulled back onto the freeway, and turned the radio back on.

"This just in," the voice of the radio announced. "The remains of a helicopter have been found in Colt Park, apparently shot down by the Danaans about an hour ago. The female pilot was unconscious and was taken to Hartford Hospital, but the insignia identify it as being in the private ownership of the Orlac family.

"The Orlacs, founders of the world's biggest vacuum cleaner company, are renowned as much for their privacy as their wealth. Owner Dinah Orlac married investor Harold Largess in 1982. They moved to Moonbase Alpha last year to help set up the station's hospital. Older sister Francine Orlac married..."

Francine abruptly turned the radio off. "Laurel," she deduced. She took the next freeway exit, then pulled into an abandoned gas station and pulled out a map. "We've got to go back."

"Go back?" asked Nimnul incredulously. "You won't turn back so I can save this world, but you'll risk your life for a pilot...your employee, I presume?"

"Look!" yelled Francine, getting in Nimnul's face. "You apparently know nothing about me. I hold employee loyalty in high regard. It's a lot more dependable than love, I can tell you that! She stood by me during a pretty rough patch, when I was much less of a people person than I am now. If she was willing to risk her life to save us, it's the least we can do to go to that hospital."

Nimnul said nothing. Francine stared at him for a little longer, then got back to the map and plotted out a route that would not involve any of the clogged southbound freeways. After a few minutes she started the car and headed west, on a route that was mostly away from the still-visible alien ships. Nimnul spent the drive with his neck craned back, studying the ships for obvious weaknesses.

Eventually, the two of them reached Hartford Hospital. As might be expected, it was rather crowded. Francine checked in with the attendant then turned around to bump into a woman who was eagerly checking her reflection in a window, as if she were afraid she'd see someone other than herself. This woman turned out to be the servant from Francine and Norris' pictures. She was wearing a red jumpsuit with an "Orlac's Machines" patch over the breast pocket and her head was bandaged.

"I'm sorry about the helicopter, boss," she said. "I just can't get the hang of flying in clouds. That Danaan ship was completely hidden--I didn't see it until it was too late."

"Think nothing of it, Miss Weir!" Francine replied, relieved. "I'm happy you're in one piece."

"Probably not as much as I am," the pilot replied with a half smile.

Nimnul popped his head into the conversation, bearing a copy of the newspaper under his arm. To Miss Weir he asked, "Could you point out on a photo exactly what part of the spacecraft you hit?"

Miss Weir shrugged. "I think you'd probably be more interested in seeing it for yourself. The ship didn't self-destruct like all the others. It's still in Colt Park, if you'd like to take a look."

"I'll wager your crash knocked out the self-destruct system. You're right, Miss Weir, I do want to take a look."

Francine looked out the window. "Well, I need to take pictures anyway for the insurance adjusters; they'd never believe me otherwise. And the Army's between the park and the Danaans right now, so we should be relatively safe."

"The doctors say I can go, as long as I take it easy for the next week," Miss Weir said. "It'll probably take a few days for you to get a new helicopter for me to fly anyway, boss."

"That's alright," Francine replied. "You can leave the driving to me."

After signing a veritable mountain of paperwork, the three piled back into the Plymouth and made their way over to the city park, where Miss Weir led the way on foot through the gravel paths. Chipmunks peeked at them from the treetops. Nimnul glared at them.

"Don't worry," Francine assured Nimnul. "Our rodents are as dumb as they look, unlike yours."

Francine pulled Miss Weir aside to fill her in on recent developments. Nimnul was sure he saw Francine use the "he's crazy" gesture at one point.

Miss Weir then pulled ahead of the group. "Just a little further, Professor, Mrs. Nulton." Unlike Francine, the pilot appeared to have instantly believed Nimnul's story.

Francine produced a Polaroid 420 camera from her purse and pulled out its "snoot", then looked suspiciously at Nimnul.

"Don't get too close," she warned. "There's no telling what you'd do with technology so recent."

"Recent?" Nimnul asked incredulously. "That camera looks twenty years old to me."

Francine cautiously stretched out her arm and touched Nimnul with the camera. She seemed surprised that it didn't burst into flame.

"Let's just say that Norris and anything invented in his lifetime didn't get along together very well," she explained.

"What kind of inventor could this Norris be if technology blew up when he touched it? No wonder he was a failure!"

"On the contrary," said Miss Weir half to herself. "Perhaps technology reacted to so badly to Norris because he thought he was a failure?"

"That's magical thinking," Francine remarked, smiling. "We're not living in a world of witches and talking animals, after all."

"Thank goodness for that!" exclaimed Nimnul.

Francine turned her head to keep the others from seeing the hurt expression on her face.

Topping a rise, they saw the remains of a spaceship embedded in the next hill. Police tapes attached to plastic orange poles surrounded the craft, and a lone police officer was standing guard.

"Hey there!" the officer yelled at them the moment he spotted them. "This is a restricted area."

"Leave this to me," Francine told the others, instantly self-assured again. She walked up to the officer and began haranguing him, pointing to the mostly-intact helicopter also inside the police line and the camera in her hands. Some money may or may not have changed hands, I'm not at liberty to say. Afterwards, she waved Miss Weir and Nimnul to her side. "You've got ten minutes before his shift ends," she informed them.

Nimnul said, "I want to get as much of a look at the ship as I can. Miss...Weir, was it? I'll probably need your help."

"Let me guess, you'll need a bit of extra muscle?" she quipped.

"Well, I'm not exactly built for heavy lifting," replied Nimnul.

The mad genius took a quick walk around the spaceship then returned to what was obviously a door with a keypad. He quickly started pulling it apart. A minute later, with a spark from the open keypad, the door slid open. "Who needs a lockpick?" he smirked.

"Nice work, Professor!" the pilot exclaimed.

"'Professor'!" he exclaimed over his shoulder. "Now how come you believed me from the first when your boss didn't?"

She tapped the side of her head. "'Cause I was a fan of your TV show even before it aired. In fact, I may be your very first fan. She may have worked on the show, but she didn't like your character because she thought the producer made him up to make fun of her husband. Besides, stranger things have happened--believe me, I know." She then looked up at the spaceship, holding back. "I hope none of those aliens survived the crash," she said.

Francine joined her, holding Polaroids of the helicopter. "The fact that you're looking at a whole spacecraft and not a field of debris is pretty good proof that they must all be dead. I think this is the first Danaan spacecraft ever to fall into human hands."

Francine and her pilot walked into the spaceship to join Nimnul. The inside consisted of a single room, the burnished metal walls otherwise unadorned. A shelf of strange computer equipment circled five feet above the ground; the several flat screens on the wall behind them were all blank, and one was broken and leaking some kind of viscous clear liquid. Two chairs sprouted from the floor to support the dead pilots. Each one was seven feet tall and impossibly spindly, almost all legs and arms attached to a tiny torso. Their two eyes were on stalks above each oval head and their skin (what showed outside their militaristic jumpsuits) was bright red in color, with a texture resembling that of a basketball. The two aliens were slumped over their computers.

"What a smell!" exclaimed Francine. "What is it?"

"You mean besides the smell of burnt alien?" asked Nimnul. He was examining the broken screen and hadn't bothered to turn to face them. "What I detect is electrical. The collision with the helicopter must have triggered a catastrophic short in the wiring, killing everyone inside instantly. It looks to be a freak accident, or perhaps the crew was grossly incompetent--I wouldn't rely on something like this happening on a regular basis. Anything else I should know that doesn't work against these ships?"

"Explosives, flamethrowers, you know, the usual," listed Francine. "I think somebody even tried throwing acid on one once as it was ravaging a city--the results were definitely not pretty."

"So there's something that blocks anything from hitting the ship, like a force field?" speculated Nimnul.

"And I ended up hitting the ship because it either wasn't on, or the system was faulty?" Miss Weir asked.

"Right. I'd guess they didn't have it turned on, given you hit them when they were in the clouds. Why waste power on defenses when you're hidden?"

Francine shrugged. "Force fields. That's science fiction territory. The experts all say there's no such thing." She made a circuit of the small room, craning her neck to get a look at the computer equipment. "I imagine all the scientists will want to figure out how that death beam thing works," she remarked.

"Oh, that's easy," said Nimnul as he pulled himself out of a crawlspace. "It looks pretty standard to me."

"Really?" asked Francine. "You've got light rays that can kill people on your world? That's something else the scientists on this world said was impossible before the first Danaan attack."

"It's just a high-powered laser. In my universe, the technology has been around since the 1960s."

"Laser?" Francine asked.

Miss Weir waved her hand in the air. "Ooo, I think I can get that one! Light Amplification...that was the easy Simultaneous Emission of Radiation?"

"Stimulated, actually," said an impressed Nimnul. "Where did you find her?" he asked Francine.

"The temp agency sent her to me fifteen years ago," she replied proudly. "And despite surviving a head-on auto collision before we even met, she has never missed a day of work!"

"It took you five years to hire me full time!" Miss Weir complained.

"Well to be honest I wanted to see if your memory ever came back."

Nimnul sighed. "Forget I asked. Getting back on topic, it appears that the Danaans don't think you have lasers. I'll build one, and then we'll see how well they stand up to it."

"Could you build one powerful enough to cut one of these ships in half?" asked Miss Weir.

"The power requirements would limit portability, but I could do it."

Francine stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Hmm..." she mused, "maybe I can profit from this madness after all." Raising her voice to address Nimnul, she said, "sounds interesting. What do you need?"

"Let's see, a glass cylinder I could add electrodes to, a semi-silvered mirror, a regular mirror, and a gas to fill the tube. Carbon dioxide or argon would suffice. Oh, and I'd need lenses for focusing the beam."

Francine thought a bit. "Argon might be tricky. I think I know where we can get the rest. Miss Weir?"

"Yes, boss?"

Francine pulled out a pen and a business card for "Orlac's Machines" and wrote something on the back. "Take my car and Professor Nimnul here and get him whatever he needs, then meet me at this address. It's an abandoned industrial laundry--plenty of room to build your prototype." She handed Miss Weir the business card as well as her credit card.

"And what will you be doing?" asked the pilot.

"I'm going to call my contacts, and start filling out the paperwork. If we can make this demonstration impressive enough, we may find ourselves working for the next Emperor of Earth." She rejoined the police officer and after some more quasi-legal deals were made, he let her borrow the radio in his car.

Chapter 14: The Demonstration

T-96 days, 12 hours, 52 minutes and 48 seconds (March 8, 12:07 PM EST).

On a low ridge ten miles east of Hartford, CT, three people waited nervously. They would have one chance to demonstrate why they were Earth's only hope against alien conquest.

It was early March, and although it was noon, a cold haze still clung to the lowlands under the ever-present clouds. This had the advantage of obscuring much of the devastation caused by the Danaans, who had moved north only a week earlier. Emerging from the muck from two opposite directions, two black limousines approached. The job of the dignitaries inside was to determine the next emperor of Earth.

"Miss Weir, would you please check the mirror-control system while I double-check the CO2 laser?" asked Nimnul, clearly nervous.

"You're really paranoid about something going wrong, aren't you, Professor?" replied Miss Weir as she tested out a joystick. The joystick was connected to a set of motors, which in turn manipulated a mirror. When nobody was looking, she used the mirror to help her check her makeup, primping her hair a little so it was just right.

"Wouldn't you be?"

Francine walked up and straightened Nimnul's tie, to his annoyance. "I think we'll be alright as long as you don't bring up the whole 'other universe' thing," she told him. "They really don't need to be reminded of that. One more thing to keep in mind: the emperor might be elected by a committee of a hundred scientists and world leaders, but they always rubber-stamp the recommendations of just two bodies: The Company and the World Space Commission."

"The purpose of the World Space Commission seems pretty obvious, but what does 'The Company' do?"

"The Company is the informal name given to the world's foremost anti-criminal organization--the group is so secretive that their true name is unknown."

"Sounds like something out of a Dirk Suave movie."

"Their primary antagonist since the end of the Cold War was T.H.E.M.--Thieves, Headhunters, Extortionists and Mercenaries, but that organization was recently shut down, leaving The Company without much to do, and a shrinking budget as the World Space Commission claimed more and more or their funding."

"So the two groups don't get along very well, then?"

"Why else do you think they are coming in two separate cars?"

The first of the two limousines climbed smoothly up the monotonous mountain road, so smoothly in fact that it seemed as if it were standing still and the road was moving backwards in a loop like some old cartoon. The shock absorbers were the only part of the limousine that worked correctly. In fact, the catch on one of the passenger doors was so weak that it would give at the slightest shock. A rental car would have been a safer substitute, but the lack of an official logo on the door would have made it obvious that The Company could not afford the services of a full-time mechanic.

"The Commissioner is up to something with this nomination, I just know it!" So said the Assistant Director in a thick Russian accent. The Assistant Director was an imposing man with dark red hair wearing a pressed black suit. The suit was the semi-official uniform of the semi-official organization known as The Company. The man's code name within that organization was "The Bear".

"The Commissioner is always up to something," replied the woman seated next to the Assistant Director. She was string-bean tall with a cloud of brown hair hovering over her narrow head and a pair of oversize round glasses perched on a small sharp nose. She was the only person in the car not wearing black, instead wearing the standard white lab coat expected of semi-mad scientists. She was known as "The Thinker". A pair of headphones were on her head, the sound turned down so nobody else could hear what she was listening to. Everybody assumed it was Bach or some other ancient composer, but in fact she was listening to Titanium Gander's new album Ham On Kablam.

On the opposite seat, a middle-aged man in a black suit was trying to look back through the smoked glass and the haze at the city they had passed through. His relationship with The Company was rather irregular, and the code name given to him, "The Hero", was not meant as a compliment. "You know, other than the fact that it's abandoned, the place hasn't changed much in the past five years," he said.

"That's sort of an important point to pass over, Dad," declared the young woman at his side. She was wearing a black suit similar in many details to her father's, but with a long skirt instead of pants. Her flaming red hair was easily the brightest thing in the car. She was not actually affiliated with The Company, so she didn't get to have a code name.

"Now remember what I told you, Carolyn," the father addressed her.

"And that would be...?" she asked, batting her eyelashes at him.

"The usual: don't make me look bad, and don't blow anything up. In fact," he mused, "you've actually been doing that."

"Maybe I'm just due for a major eruption, if you catch my drift."

"That's what I'm afraid of," he replied.

The Thinker reviewed the file on Norton Nimnul. "I can't verify any of these credentials," she sighed. "And this whole section about 'alternate universes'--ridiculous!"

The Hero grinned. "You've worked with dodgier scientists before, Doctor Irwin. And I don't think the inventor of the 'Norma Ray' should scoff at any scientists' wild claims."

Doctor Irwin frowned. "The Norma Ray would have worked! I just never found a subject who could follow instructions. When I say 'don't think' during the procedure, I mean it!"

"You could have tried hypnotizing them," Carolyn suggested.

"Impossible!" The Bear exclaimed, "section 14, paragraph 14 of Company regulations clearly state that 'agents must be in a conscious and un-mesmerized state during working hours'."

"Aww!" Doctor Irwin pouted. "You never let me have any fun."

"Speaking of Doctor Irwin's inventions, Agent Maughlarde, have you managed to recover her KEPN helmet yet?"

Agent Maughlarde and Carolyn looked uncomfortably at each other at this question. "Still looking," the agent hemmed, looking at his nails.

The Assistant Director crossed his arms. "I don't even know why you and your daughter are on this mission, considering you have still not recovered it!"

"You mean you're still stuck in Florida?" the scientist asked.

"Yeah, Connecticut was our home turf prior to Florida," said Carolyn, defensively. "But The Philosopher, your boss, specifically asked for our opinion on this matter. He's always turned to my dad whenever he thought you couldn't handle the situation."

Annoyed, The Bear turned and knocked on the black glass partition that separated him from the front of the car. "Driver!" he bellowed, "how much longer?"

The partition opened, revealing Lou in a fancy chauffeur's outfit. "Hold your horses!" he cried. "I'm taking a shortcut! It's just around this corner."

"You're going to let him take a shortcut?" Carolyn laughed. "You'd never let me do that!"

"Carolyn..." Agent Maughlarde began.

Just then, the car rounded a tight corner and ran out of road. The passengers grabbed on to anything they could as the limo plunged down the incline.

"...I agree completely!" he finished.

Francine pointed up the side of the small mountain next to them. "Isn't that one of the cars now?"

"Looks like it," replied Miss Weir.

"They better not damage the equipment."

"Brakes, brakes, brakes!" cried Lou, as he depressed the foot pedal in question.

The car screeched right past the equipment in question, stopping only when it hit the guardrail at the edge of the hill. The impact caused the Assistant Director to strike the door with the faulty catch, spilling out and over the edge.

Without thinking, Carolyn sprang forward and grabbed the hand of the Assistant Director before it was too late, pulling him back into the car. She looked accusingly at her father, as if it was his job in every dangerous situation to save the day. Agent Maughlarde looked away in embarrassment.

The Assistant Director looked over his shoulder at the fall he was almost forced to take. "I...I owe you my life, Miss Maughlarde."

"Oh, think nothing of it. You would have done the same if our positions were reversed."

"Nevertheless, your act has imposed a debt of gratitude upon myself. You may rest assured that I will re-pay it in kind someday."

Carolyn sighed. Men and their chivalry. "Cash will be fine."

The second car, traveling significantly faster than the speed limit, bumped along the country road. Thanks to an excellent set of shock absorbers, the passengers were largely unaware of this, but to the outside observer, the car looked like a model car careening through a miniature set.

"The Assistant Director is up to something with this nomination, I just know it!"

This accusation was made by a tall man in a very official-looking uniform that identified him as Commissioner Simmonds of the World Space Commission. Simmonds and three others, who he regarded as his entourage regardless of what they thought, were the passengers of the second limousine. The driver of this limousine, Bud, was sick to death of hearing Simmonds talk and so was driving far too fast to get to his destination.

"Well certainly, Commissioner Simmonds, it's a plot, that's what it is, a plot!"

This statement was made by a small-looking man named Gorski, but he only looked small because he was cowering before the might of his boss. By title he was Commander of Moonbase Alpha, but considering he had fled to Earth the moment the Danaans had landed, that title didn't mean very much right now, and Simmonds was his only ticket to getting back his once prestigious and perk-filled position.

Another man facing Simmonds sighed to himself in mild disgust. "Can we get to the matter at hand?" he asked.

In appearance, he was a man well into middle age; his wild gray hair receded far from his forehead. Norris Nulton would have known him as the man shaking his hand in the "Moonbase Alpha" photograph from 1984. He was working some calculations on a pad of paper. "David, do you have those figures yet on the power requirements?"

The man addressed was working rapidly at a thick calculator-like device called a "Handy Navi" that was plugged into the car's power port. Despite the fast work with his left hand tapping a stylus on the device, his right hand reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a printout. After handing it over he pulled out a stick of string cheese with the same hand and began nibbling on it nervously. "Preliminary reports say that the new weapons system will need a couple of hundred kilowatts of power to be useful, Professor Bergman," he said in a gentle voice, his accent a mix of Jamaican and British.

Professor Bergman looked over the printout and nodded. "Yes, that was what my calculations were pointing at as well."

"So this meeting is already a waste of time!" declared Simmonds, pounding his fist into the armrest.

"I wouldn't say that," replied Bergman. "I still want to see what this man has to offer."

"You're wasting our time, and you know it, Professor Bergman. Commander Gorski and I have already made our choice."

"You have?"

"Yes. We think that you should be the next emperor of Earth." Simmonds accented the statement by stabbing Bergman in the chest with a finger.

"Me?" the Professor protested. "I haven't the skills..."

"You have my full confidence, Professor," Simmonds declared. "I've seen your work on Moonbase Alpha up close. Surely you know that only on the Moon will this invasion be finally defeated, and who knows the Moon better than yourself?"

David spoke up. "I would not advise that, Commissioner. We should still hear out Nimnul before dismissing him."

"Pfaugh!" (Yes, there are still people in the world who say "pfaugh!"--Simmonds was one of them.) "This Nimnul character is an obvious lunatic. Professor Bergman, on the other hand, is a trusted member of the scientific community, somebody I'd trust to save the human race. You've worked with him for what, fifteen years now, David? Surely you agree that the Professor is the man for the job?"

David hemmed. "Professor Bergman is a master of the defensive sciences. I have no doubt that he could invent a quite good shield to defend us from attack, and that he'd have it ready by September of next year. However, this crisis requires a maverick, someone good at the offensive sciences. And he must be quick. The fate of humanity depends on it." This last bit was said almost too low to catch.

"Very well. We'll watch this little 'demonstration', and we'll see what we'll see." Simmonds gave a significant sideways glance at Gorski, who nodded imperceptibly.

As if he had planned it that way, the limousine stopped at just that moment. Simmonds gestured to Bergman. "After you," he said.

Frowning, Bergman and David exited the limo, followed by Simmonds. Gorski knocked on the driver's partition. "Just need to ask about something I saw on the way," he explained, pulling the door shut.

"Well," said Francine, approaching the three new arrivals, "everyone's finally here!"

"Close enough," Bergman smirked.

"If you would sit down over here, the presentation can begin."

Carolyn rushed to get a seat up front; the others found theirs at a more leisurely pace. Most of the guests tried to avoid looking at each other, so they spent their time reading the brochure Nimnul had left on each chair.

Nimnul returned to the stage, set up his flat display screen and opened the file containing his notes. Then he looked out over his small audience and froze.

Out of the seven people before him, he recognized four. Nimnul's greatest apprehension was reserved for two men in black suits seated next to each other. The larger one appeared to be criminal genius Aldrin Klordane, the only man Nimnul truly feared. The next seat over appeared to be occupied by Donald Drake, the retired police detective and the only man to ever outsmart Klordane. And yet here they were sitting semi-amiably beside one another.

The reason, Nimnul quickly realized, was because these two were not actually Klordane and Drake. Klordane would never dress in anything so plain as what he was wearing. Moreover, his face actually had a healthy shade of pink to it instead of the "gravestone gray" he had acquired as a result of his accidental drowning at the hands of Detective Drake. The difference in the other man was less marked, but the presence of the young woman at his side trying to draw him into conversation certainly seemed different. After all, as Nimnul told himself, if Norris Nulton is so different from myself, why shouldn't these people also differ from their counterparts from my world?

Besides "Klordane" and "Drake", Nimnul also recognized the woman in the lab coat, who was currently swatting at a bee that had become fascinated by her headphones, as someone he used to bump into at his neighborhood supermarket, and the aging male scientist as his world's leading astronomer. Collecting his thoughts, he looked down at his notes and began his presentation.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this new technological development could not only result in the defeat of the alien invaders, but would also benefit industry tremendously, especially in precision areas."

David raised his hand. "Question: what's the resolution on that device?"

"1024 by 576 pixels, 48 bits per pixel."

David, impressed, wrote that down. "Okay, continue."

Nimnul turned back to the screen. "Laser technology is based on not only an initial stimulation of the material, but maintaining that stimulation via the light emitted. The devices produce beams of monochromatic, coherent light."

The two scientists looked bored. The Assistant Director and the Commissioner were staring daggers into each other. Agent Maughlarde was paging through Nimnul's handout. Only Carolyn seemed to be paying rapt attention, although it seemed that the words meant less to her than the person giving the presentation.

Undeterred, Nimnul continued. "Up here I have two lasers to demonstrate with. The small box contains a low-powered Helium-Neon laser to assist with aiming the much larger, high-powered carbon dioxide laser. As the beams are simply light, a mirror can be used to redirect them. Miss Weir will now demonstrate that with just the visible laser."

Laurel used the joystick on the desk to direct a spot of red light around the thick panel twenty yards distant.

Agent Maughlarde glanced up over the edge of his brochure.

"As you can see," explained Nimnul, "a beam of light, but one that doesn't spread out over a distance anywhere near as much as a normal light source. Now for the part that could help defeat the aliens and improve industry. Miss Weir, cut a hole in that steel!"

"Yes, Taurus Bulba." She shook her head. "I mean, yes, Professor Nimnul."

Miss Weir pulled the trigger on the joystick and guided the beam around again, the invisible beam from the CO2 laser precisely cutting through the steel as it was guided by the mirror. When Miss Weir reached the start again a minute later, a roughly circular piece of steel an inch thick clattered to the concrete floor.

Bergman picked up a pair of binoculars and examined the hole. "Yes, that looks about right." He then stood up. "Professor Nimnul, I wonder if your device has a bit further range than that--say the other side of the mountain over there?"

"This is only a prototype model, and I did have limited resources and time to build it, but it could indeed cut metal at a greater distance than this demonstration. Of course, more power would be needed to compensate for atmospheric scattering of the beam."

Bergman shrugged. "Well, I was curious as to the far range of the device. Could you at least brown the grass from this distance?"

"Yes. Even with the beam spread out a bit by a lens, the infrared beam from the CO2 laser would be powerful enough to dry and ignite the grass."

"Alright, well, if that's all you have...the computer display was a nice touch, though." Bergman got up, and began walking back towards the limousine.

Commissioner Simmonds quickly stood up. "Not so fast, Professor Bergman. Surely Professor Nimnul has something else." Pr. Bergman gave the Commissioner a curious look for this statement, but Simmonds continued on unperturbed. "For example, you've demonstrated the cutting capacity of your laser, but what about its heating properties. Can it melt lead?"

"The metal that was cut through was vaporized. Lower power or a more diffuse beam would easily melt lead."

"Yes, that is the sort of thing I was thinking of. In many cases, these alien ships cannot be defeated by a simple punch through the center--you need to melt the entire outer shell to incapacitate it. Is there any way we can see a demonstration of a wide-area melting effect?"

"Give me a few minutes and I can rig up a simple demonstration with some solder. The shields around the alien ships wouldn't stop a beam of light, anyway."

"Go ahead, Professor. We have all day."

Doctor Irwin meanwhile was making a notation on a clipboard. "Only had one demonstration prepared. Tsk."

"The one I thought you'd be the most interested in, Madame," snapped Nimnul without looking up from where he was adding a lens to the assembly.

Doctor Irwin looked at Professor Bergman and smiled wickedly. "Shall you tell him or shall I?" she asked.

Professor Bergman frowned at her warningly. "Wait for it..."

While Nimnul finished installing the lens, Miss Weir set up a roll of solder and a Coo-Coo Cola can on a small table at the edge of the hill.

"Ready, Professor?" she asked.

"Fire away, Miss Weir."

Suddenly the power to the equipment winked out.

Chapter 15: The Judgment

T-96 days, 12 hours, 18 minutes and 13 seconds (March 8, 12:41 PM EST).

"What was that?" Nimnul demanded.

As if to answer the question, Commander Gorski turned the corner of the powerhouse and sat down in his seat, tucking a wire cutter into his pocket.

Nimnul sighed and shook his head.

Professor Bergman leaned over towards the Commissioner. "Really, Simmonds? You would stoop so low?"

Simmonds smiled. "Just seeing how he responds to the unexpected, Professor."

Nimnul unplugged his equipment from the powerhouse cables and transferred them to a small handheld box, then pulled a starter cord on it. The box hummed quietly to life and Nimnul's computer started booting again.

The man known as The Bear sputtered. "What...what is that?"

"A backup generator. My own personal design," replied Nimnul.

"I've developed something similar for use on Moonbase Alpha," said Bergman. "But mine would never be powerful enough for a laser. Not at that size, anyway."

"This directly harnesses the energy from radioactive materials at 95 % efficiency."

"Ninety-five?" asked the Assistant Director. "How, may I ask, are you converting heat radiation so efficiently?"

"The generator relies on manipulation of the weak nuclear force to harness the energy of the unstable isotopes used as fuel...that and a men's size 10 tube sock, but I'd rather not get into the technical details just now."

Professor Bergman eyed the small box ruefully. "I'd love to see the equation behind that process sometime. But in the meantime, continue on with your demonstration."

Nimnul nodded. "Right. Miss Weir, fire."

Miss Weir turned the diffused beam on the can and solder and pulled the trigger on the joystick. After a few seconds, the solder melted, taking the plastic spool with it, and the can of drink popped, producing a cloud of steam.

The Assistant Director nodded. "Impressive."

Carolyn waved her arm in the air excitedly.

Nimnul blinked. "Err, yes?"

"Now Mr. Nimnul, what gave you the idea for such impressive technology?"

Nimnul hooked his thumbs into imaginary suspenders. "The laser is merely a re-engineering of technology from my original universe. The display is a spot of reverse-engineering of the displays in the alien ships. The generator is admittedly my own idea. It's really just taking electro-nucleo-static technology to its logical conclusion."

At the words "my original universe", Francine planted her head in her hands. "That's it, we're toast," she declared to no one in particular. To her surprise, none of the adults seemed to be shocked by this revelation, but then Nimnul had been self-congratulatory in the pamphlet everyone had received, and that included the tidbit of his extra-dimensional origins.

The major exception to the general lack of reaction was Carlolyn, whose eyes sparkled at the same phrase that had dismayed Francine. "Keen gear!" she exclaimed. "How exactly did you get here?"

"To make a long story short," Nimnul explained, "what I thought was going to be an interdimensional teleporter merely swapped brainwaves between myself and my counterpart in this universe."

"Oh sure, I can see how that that would work!" Carolyn responded, as her father gave her a glance clearly demonstrating his desire for her to stop that thread of questions right there.

"Nice to know someone understands what I'm talking about," replied Nimnul with a nod at the young woman as she walked over to where her father was standing.

Agent Maughlarde had wandered over to the railing that the Assistant Director nearly broke through. Seeing that it was still intact, if a bit bent out of shape, he leaned out over it to get a good look at the city. Alone of the group, he was still unimpressed with Nimnul. "You know..." he declared to Carolyn, who had just joined him. "I think I can see our old house from here!"

"Weren't you even paying attention?" she asked in exasperation.

"Hm?" her father asked absently. "Yeah, lasers, little power-doohickeys, that stuff?"

Carolyn rolled her eyes at him.

Francine, seeing that Nimnul was busy explaining the operation of his power unit to Professor Bergman, decided to join the Maughlarde family. "It's nice to see you again, Drew, Carolyn," she said quietly. "Nice suits."

Carolyn took this to be a veiled accusation. "In all the years you babysat me as a kid, did you ever seen me wear a dress?"

"Not of your own free will, no. I believe your exact words on the subject were, 'me, Frilly and Pink have agreed to disagree,' and I see your opinion on the subject has not changed. So, Drew, I see your step-daughter talked her way into another delicate situation where she wasn't invited."

"She can be very persuasive," Drew replied. "So, are you still enjoying suburbia?"

Francine shrugged. "It has its good days."

"Did I miss much?"

"After leaving Harford? It's been pretty quiet. So quiet in fact that the Masked Marvel retired. Right after you left, in fact."

"Did he now?"

"Yeah, I heard that, too," Carolyn said, staring accusingly at her father. "Rather a shame about that."

Drew looked curiously at his adopted daughter for a few seconds, then glanced over his shoulder at Nimnul. "You mind telling us what's really going on?" he asked.

Francine frowned. "It's...complicated."

Carolyn laughed. ""Well I'd figure that multi-universe travel would be complicated! Care to give any detail on that?"

Francine shook her head. In the last few weeks she had witnessed more scientific miracles than Norris' hero Edison had created in a lifetime. The theory that this was merely a deluded version of her husband was no longer possible. "I never was one for science. But...he's definitely no longer my husband."

"That's for certain. Has he cared to tell you anything about it? Or are we going to have to pry it from him?"

"Not much to tell. He decided he wanted to be emperor of Earth and failing on his own world, he picked this one."

"And he's the Professor Norton Nimnul?" asked Drew Maughlarde. "From the TV show?"

"Yes," answered Francine.

"Wow," said Maughlarde. "You know, Bergman and Irwin are considered the two smartest people in the world, but I don't think either one of them have realized the implications of him being here."

Francine grinned. "I think it's beginning to sink in."

Maughlarde frowned. "You don't get it either, do you?"

Francine stopped laughing. "Get what?"

Carolyn sighed. "He's Professor Norton Nimnul. He doesn't follow the physical rules of the universe, he breaks them like twigs!"

"...and all with very little waste."

"Very interesting," remarked Professor Bergman. "As you might know, the world has had a bit of a problem with handling the tons of nuclear waste generated every year. The original area allocated for it on the Moon reached capacity four years ago, seven years ahead of schedule. It was lucky we were able to get a second waste area on the far side of the Moon set up as soon as we did."

"And Moonbase Alpha?" Nimnul asked.

"Moonbase Alpha primarily exists to monitor the nuclear waste, to be perfectly frank," said Commissioner Simmonds. "The occasional surveys of the solar system and deep space that we launch from there are as much for publicity as for science. By the way, I'd like to take this moment to apologize to you about a little bit of misdirection regarding this demonstration."

"What misdirection?" asked Nimnul, perplexed.

"You see," explained Bergman, "The principle of the laser is already known to us. We picked it up when one of their ships crashed on the Moon eight months ago. Careful study revealed that the alien's 'death ray' was indeed a powerful weapon, but the power requirements were prohibitive. The aliens themselves use bio-energy to power them, draining the life of their terrestrial victims like some sort of vampire. No other power source was capable of charging and firing the weapon fast enough to get through their defenses."

Commissioner Simmonds, standing nearby, chimed in. "Every candidate for emperor we've had in the current crisis came up with the laser. The ones who got the job were those who had something more."

"And that power cube of yours is exactly that 'something more' we need to end this war, once and for all," added the Assistant Director, grabbing a hold of Nimnul's hand and shaking it firmly. "I believe we missed our introductions earlier, what with the runaway car and all! The name's Klaudaine, Assistant Director Aldus Klaudaine. If there's any way I can be of assistance, do not hesitate to ask! For example, you said you intend to take over the nation's infrastructure. That will require a K-31A form. If you don't accompany that with a pink #14 slip, the request will have to go through an additional seven levels of oversight. Most people don't know that."

Nimnul nodded slowly. "I've noticed this world is really fond of paperwork, so thanks for the advice, Mr. Klaudaine," he said, being careful to get the name right.

"Hey, Buddy! Bud! Look what I found! Can I keep it, huh, Bud, can I?"

Lou came out of the powerhouse leading a metal bulldog by a thick rope.

Bud came running over. "You put that back, Lou! I'm sorry folks, Lou didn't mean to mess with your experiment."

"Careful with that!" cried Nimnul. "I haven't gotten all the bugs out of his programming yet!"

"What is that thing?" asked Doctor Irwin.

Nimnul pulled out a remote control and started fiddling with it. "A robot guard dog and a companion of sorts. Unfortunately, there are some glitches in the programming I still have to fix."

"That's an awfully simple-looking remote."

"Do you mean compared to the ones used by Emperor Freewheel? Well, my remotes only provide guidance. The dog thinks for itself."

"Indeed?" Irwin started walking around the robot. "Its motion is quite lifelike," she observed. "It appears to be observing its surroundings." The dog bowled Lou over and started licking him with a metal tongue. "And it even shows signs of personality. I've never seen artificial intelligence so advanced! And it's self-contained! How big is the processor, Professor?"

"The same sort as in this desktop computer."

Irwin shook her head incredulously. "Well surely it's a different sort of processor--the dog's computer must be capable of holistic learning and lateral thinking, while the desktop needs to optimize for linear processing."

She kneeled down and ran her hand along the back of the mechanical dog. It responded by panting and wagging its tin tail. "If I wasn't seeing it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe it!" she exclaimed. "This shouldn't be physically possible!"

" twigs!" Carolyn repeated to Francine, as she and her father went to join the others by the mechanical dog.

Francine blanched.

Professor Bergman once again approached Nimnul. "Alright, I think we're nearly done here. I'd like your advice though, on some unfinished business from our last emperor."

"What might that be?" he asked.

Bergman pulled out a case file marked "TOP SECRET" and gave it to Nimnul. "Fifteen years ago, David here was involved in a project to improve human communications, a project run out of Kensington College by a former colleague of mine, Professor Hodgeson.

"The experiment was split into two parts. Adult volunteers like David here were implanted with circuitry that allowed them to directly connect with computers. Unfortunately there was a fault with the interface and..."

Bergman flipped a few pages in the case file to reveal a couple of photographs. They were not pretty. "David was the only survivor. Indeed, for awhile there, we were certain he was dead."

Nimnul frowned. "I must admit, I haven't done anything related to biology for some time. Given the poor success rate of the project, I'd hazard a guess that entirely the wrong approach was being taken."

Bergman nodded, and then flipped a few more pages. "The other part of the experiment, involving children, was even less successful. The children all tested positively for a minor form of parapsychological powers: the form of telepathy known as intuition, or enough telekinesis to get a child in trouble, that sort of thing. Professor Hodgeson invented a device, called the Kensington Identity Development System, or KIDS, that he hoped would allow the minds of the children to join into a gestalt consciousness. Now here are the schematics of the device that Hodgeson used. I was wondering if you can see any way to avoid a repeat of the unfortunate consequences of the last time the device was used." Another page was flipped, revealing another ugly photograph.

"Golly!" Nimnul blurted, "That's horrible! Those poor kids!" He immediately put his hands over his mouth in shock.

Bergman smiled. "Very good. I was afraid we were about to crown an emperor without a heart."

Simmonds smiled as well. "So it's a unanimous vote, then?

"I...I would never stoop so low as to experiment on children," Nimnul stated in a low voice.

Agent Maughlarde, playing with the iron mutt, looked up. "Yes, I don't really see any other choice."

Simmonds looked around for a dissenting vote. Not finding one, he stepped forward and shook Nimnul's hand. "Very well. Professor Nimnul, you are hereby appointed emperor, your office to last until the end of the current crisis. What name should we address you as?"

Nimnul stood as tall as someone of his stature could. "You shall address me as Norton II, Emperor of Earth and Protector of the Moon."

Francine laughed out loud.

"I'm distantly related to Norton I," Nimnul explained, sheepishly.

"I know!" guffawed Francine. "So was Norris!"

Simmonds shook his head in bewilderment. "Well, if our business is done here, we shall go. The forces of Earth..."

" well as the Moon..." added Gorski.

"Are now at your disposal," finished Simmonds.

"Oh, and if you'd ever deign to share the plans for that remote control, I just had a brilliant idea of how to use it on Moonbase Alpha!" exclaimed Gorski.

The men and women turned around and headed back to the cars to leave.

"A moment, if you will, ladies and gentlemen," said Francine, regaining her composure. "One final order of business. You know and I know that both of your organizations will attempt to plant spies within the new emperor's organization, and I know that if I expose them, you'll just plant some more." Klaudaine and Simmonds looked at their feet. "So therefore I am accepting one member from each group into Imperial employment. Whether or not these plants actually get anything useful to do will depend on their loyalty to the emperor and their good behavior. Any volunteers?"

David looked to Professor Bergman. "May I?" he asked.

Bergman nodded.

Assistant Director Klaudaine looked around. "Perhaps Doctor Elena Irwin would be the best candidate..."

"And abandon the work on my robo-bee saboteurs? Forget it!" she declared, climbing back into the car.

"A pity. I would have liked to have worked with her," mused Nimnul. "As a matter of fact, what I really need is a political adviser." ("And someone to fill out all those forms for me", he muttered). "Would you be available, Assistant Director?"

"Me?" Klaudaine thought for a bit. "Well, I do have about two years of vacation time built up. It sounds like an interesting challenge--I'll do it! I'll have to temporarily resign my position, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, but I'm sure that the Gander will understand. There is also the small matter of my cat..." He pulled out his wallet and began thumbing through multiple photographs of a rotund purplish feline with a perpetually disappointed expression on its face, as if it disapproved of its master's choice to have a law-abiding career.

"No pets."

"Oh. Oh, well, I guess in that case I'll need to make a few arrangements with my regular sitter. It shouldn't be too hard for him--Greenstreet is very good at taking care of himself. Is there a phone around here by any chance?"

Francine directed him towards the telephone inside the powerhouse.

"Hello, Percy..."

Carolyn ran forward to curtsy and then vigorously shake Nimnul's hand. "An honor to meet you, your Excellency!" she said, before running to join her father.

With the four departing dignitaries in place, the two cars drove off.

Nimnul turned his head to meet eyes with David, who was still standing a few feet away. "I don't believe I caught your name?"

"David, David Kano," he said, approaching. "I'm an expert on computers and the conditions on the Moon. I thought you might find my services to your liking." He handed over a business card, explaining, "You can look up my references on this node of the Wired."

Nimnul stared at the card for a bit. "'September 14th Society'?' he read.

"A society of just two, I'm afraid."

"Is it your birthday?"

"No, but it is a day I very much wish to see."

Nimnul thought a bit, then shook the man's hand. "Very well. Talk to my assistant over there, she should be able to brief you on anything you need to know."

Francine walked up to Nimnul, looked around to make sure nobody could overhear them, then said one word: "'Golly'?"

Nimnul grunted in annoyance. "There was a certain episode...involving the telephone system and a teleportation device of my own invention..."

Francine nodded. "'A Fly in the Ointment.' We never got to air that episode."

Nimnul's eyes went wide. "You were going to?"

"Sure, if Agent Maughlarde hadn't shut the studio down. Let me tell you now, if you want The Company off your back, pay your taxes on time!"

"I can't believe you were going to air that, on a children's cartoon show. You people are sick!" Nimnul exclaimed.

"I liked that episode, myself."

"That was the worst day of my life!"

"I can imagine."

"No," declared Nimnul. "You cannot imagine. Being a half-hour program, I assume you don't know about the worst part."

Francine grinned impishly. "Surprise me."

"Telephone lines are notoriously noisy." Nimnul said this statement like he expected it would reveal everything, but Francine was stumped.


"So, your episode may have ended nice and tidy with everything back to normal, but the fact of the matter is, those rodents and I were never completely separated."

This got Francine's attention. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, there are parts of my brilliant mind that are no longer my own! That there are thoughts and utterances that are not me, but them! And, especially...HER. The mouse, the one who builds tinker toys out of garbage." Nimnul rapped his knuckles on his head for emphasis. "She's up here, where she most certainly doesn't belong!

"At night, in my dreams, I'll be rehearsing my plans of world domination, when she has to stick her little snout in, and express her opinion. I'm sick of it! I hoped, when I built the transporter, that the trip would repair the damage, that I would finally be 100 % me again. But no, it appears I'll be stuck with those lousy vermin, forever!"

Francine was touched. "Wow. I...I'm so sorry. Maybe after this whole 'rule the world' thing has been accomplished, I can help you to cure..."

"You think I haven't tried!" Nimnul turned away. "Begone, woman!" he cried over his shoulder. "The world is mine in name, but now I have to take it!"

Francine turned and walked towards the powerhouse. As she passed the mechanical dog, which was playfully tearing a corner of the building apart, she remembered the worlds of her former neighbor and shuddered.

David Kano walked up to the beautiful blond woman who was busy putting the equipment away. "Lorina?" he asked.

"I had a dream about a month ago," she told him, without turning around. "There was this gray wasteland, littered with gigantic blocks and covered with several feet of heavy blue dust, endlessly swirling in the wind but never rising very high. There were no clouds, and the sun was clearly visible in a dark red sky. I was there, in some sort of spacesuit, because I could hear myself breathing. I entered the only surviving building, a tilted crumbling spire that was snapped off above the third floor. It was a miserable apartment complex once, I think, only built for giants instead of men. In a living room on a floor with no roof was some kind of shrine with a ripped banner that read 'The Man Who Could Have...'. 'The Man' in question was Norton Nimnul, and there was a big portrait of him dressed in rags but posing as Napoleon on one of the less-damaged walls. I swept the dust from several glass cases to reveal his inventions: a metal dog much like the one we saw today, the model for a cheap U.F.O., a simple Jell-O mold...I felt sure that I had been there before."

"You had been there before," David answered, gently. "It was in San Diego. Your father built that museum, and you spent most of your childhood there. You made that banner, Lorina, and you were the driving force behind our mission." He moved some hair aside on her head to reveal a faint white line. "It was your impulsive trip that showed me the dangerous effect the trip has on memories, so I could take the necessary precautions to preserve my own memory."

The woman shook her head, covering the scar. "I don't remember any of that. All I have is the dreams. And the questions you still refuse to answer. That's why calling me 'Lorina Liddell' is a waste of time. There's nothing left in me of her. 'Laurel Weir' is now not just the name I have stolen, as 'David Kano' is yours, it's who I am. You know what else I saw in that museum?"

Without waiting for an answer, Laurel turned, quickly grabbing David's left wrist and pulling up the woolen sleeve to reveal a thick metallic wristband. The device was covered with controls and lights. On a small screen was a photograph of David's face.

"I knew it!" she proclaimed. "We are the same! What do you really look like when you take this off?"

David put his hand over Laurel's mouth. "You must never speak of such things where they can be overheard!"

"Why? Is somebody after us?"

David looked around. "Perhaps. More importantly, we must not let any of them know the truth about us. We are completely powerless in our true forms, and the stakes are far too high to fail."

"But you told me the mission was to make Nimnul emperor, and now he's emperor. What more do you want?"

"September 14th, Laurel. I want September 14th."

Chapter 16: Coronation

T-41 days, 15 hours, 25 minutes and 1 second (May 2, 8:35 AM EDT).

The Orlac family estate of Gogol was located near Bear Mountain in northwestern Connecticut. Francine usually used the helicopter to approach it, but the black limousine was using the long country road on this early May morning. The car had earlier passed immense farm lands separated from each other by narrow strips of native forest, the former cared for by teams of automated machines, but now the terrain consisted only of scattered bushes, all in a rather unhealthy state. Ahead on a hill was the three-story mansion. The only sound to be heard was the quiet hum of the car's nuclear engine and the crunch of tires on gravel. There was not a bird, chipmunk, or any other sign of animal life to be seen. The sky was overcast. It had always been overcast, and it would always be overcast.

"We have a little more time," said the car's passenger. "Neither Nimnul nor Francine have told me about the history of this place."

"You're in luck--I've heard every story ever told about Gogol. In the beginning, this was all one big forest, the 'Dark Entry Forest', because it was so thick no light ever reached the ground.

"The Mohicans say that one day the spirit of the dead was passing through the area and wanted to rest, so he raised up the Coltsfoot Triplets range to rest his head, and Bald Mountain and Woodbury Mountain to put his feet on. These three mountains shut out the sun for most of the day, making Dark Entry Forest even darker.

"The English moved into the area in the 1600's, leading to plagues for the Mohicans and witch hunts for the English. The last witchcraft trials held in New England were for Winifred Benham and her daughter. The judge could not prove that the two women were or were not witches, so he issued a verdict of 'not proven'. The Benhams after the trial moved up here to settle where two ley-lines crossed, and Gogol sits on the site of their cabin. Francine is a direct descendant of those two.

"After the deaths of the Benhams, the three Dudley brothers built Dudleytown in 1740 on the very land we're driving through now. It is said that the brothers were descended from the Dudley lords of England, who were cursed by King Henry VIII for their plots against him. Dudleytown soon became known as a place where people did horrible things, and in every case the criminals would tell anyone that would listen that they were driven by visions of demons and weird animals emanating from a hole in the earth that some said was a portal to the Underworld." The car was entering the driveway, so the driver was forced to omit all the juicy details of the curse in action. "Then the trees all died, and the animals for ten miles around abandoned the place, and Mister Orlac won Dudleytown in a drunken poker game and rather than admit he'd made a mistake, he razed the town and built his third mansion here so nobody would have to look at his not-sons, and oh look, we're here, so that's the end of the tour."

The limo pulled up to the door. Out of the driver's door stepped Lou, wearing the most elaborate lab coat ever devised. It was made of cloth of gold covered with seven different kinds of precious stones. Written on the back in a trail of small glittering diamonds, the name "NIMNUL" was written like the man was a prizefighter.

The driver ran over to the passenger compartment and opened the door, allowing a large man in a plain blue suit to exit. The man, former Assistant Director of The Company Aldus Klaudaine, tapped the side of his head significantly.

Lou sighed. "Do I have to?"

"I didn't pick the costume, Comrade Lou. Nimnul did."

"Alright." Lou went back in the car and came out with an enormous crown on his head, nearly half Lou's own height.

Klaudaine crossed his arms and looked Lou up and down. "You look good."

"I feel ridiculous."

"Well of course you feel ridiculous. All tsars should feel ridiculous. Keeps more heads attached to necks."

While they were talking, a large black van had pulled up behind the limousine, and from it had emerged a camera crew. The driver of the van, Bud, walked over to Lou and Klaudaine and started laughing.

"That's got to be the silliest outfit I have ever seen! You gotta let me take a picture before this is all over."

Klaudaine wasn't laughing. In a voice loud enough to be heard by the camera crew, he declared, "That is not the tone you should be using when addressing the Emperor of Earth and the Protector of the Moon. I demand that you apologize to Emperor-Elect Norton this instant!"

Bud was taken aback. "Err...right, Emperor-Elect Norton. Will you accept my most humble apology?" He even went down on one knee.

Lou giggled. "Heh, what if I don't want to accept it?" he declared for the crowd.

Klaudaine "accidentally" jabbed him in the ribs. "Watch it, Emperor-Elect," he hissed. "You may look close enough to the real thing for today, but you most certainly don't sound like him."

"Oh, all right," Lou replied in a low voice. Reaching back into the car he produced a two-foot long scepter/mace. "I forgive you. Arise, Sir Loin of Beef!" and he bonked Bud on the head. "Arise, Earl of Cloves!" Another bonk. "Arise..."

Klaudaine grabbed the scepter. "You will be quitting the 'Looney Tooning', yes?" he whispered sharply. In a public voice, he said, "shall we visit your wife, Emperor-Elect?"

"I get a wife, too?" said Lou. "Woo-hoo!"

"Allow me," said Bud, as he took the scepter from Klaudaine's hand and tried to "accidentally" bonk Lou. Only with the crown on, bonking Lou had no effect.

The Emperor-Elect stuck out his tongue.

Bud shrugged. "Remember, Lou, the wife in question is Frankie."

Lou shivered.

"Is anybody going to open this door?" demanded one of the cameramen.

Klaudaine rushed forward. "It appears that I must add 'designated knocker' to my job description," he joked.

As the camera crew was setting up, Klaudaine found time to make a phone call. "Miss Maughlarde, I hear you are taking the World History class, are you not?" he said. After pausing for an answer, he continued. "I have also been informed that this is not one of your best subjects, and if you fail, you will not be able to graduate. I will have you know that I am an expert at world history, and I would be honored to help you as your 'study buddy'. I will stay up late nights with the books and the notes, and make the tea. I can also provide you with the answers for the tests that you...oh, well, I suppose that is a little out of line, yes, but still you must admit that this help would be very near to 'life-saving', thereby fulfilling my debt to you and...Oh. I see. Very well. Good day to you."

Klaudaine looked up to see Francine, who was looking disapprovingly at the carpet the camera crew had crossed. No mud or other stains were visible, but in her mind's eye, Francine saw clearly the dirt and contagion that the crew had brought into her home. She appeared to be visibly restraining herself from grabbing a scrub-brush and disinfectant and going to work on the invisible footprints. "Oh, Your Excellency!" he exclaimed.

With an effort, Francine broke out of her spell and noticed Klaudaine with the telephone in his hands. "Not for a couple of hours yet," she said, in reference to the title. "I'm still Mrs. Nulton."

He noticed her looking at the phone. "I hope you don't think that I would, to use the American expression, 'stick you with the bill'. I always repay my debts. And might I observe, that is a most beautiful dress you are wearing. It really compliments your appearance."

"Thank you very much," she replied, taking the phone out of his hands and spraying it with a sanitizing spray positioned for that very purpose. "It was the most expensive dress I could find. I usually do not care for my appearance, but today a good portion of the world will be spending several hours looking at me, and I thought I should make an effort to be worth looking at."

"Indeed. This is a must impressive mansion you have here. Do you mind telling me a little about its history? I asked Lou, but..."

"Say no more! Lou probably told you all the lies the city folk tell. Hobbomock has stories told about him north of here and south of here, but the Mohicans never claimed he raised the three mountains. Winifred Benham moved to Massachusetts after her trial, not here. Dudleytown failed not because of 'the curse', but because the lack of sunlight and poor farming practices depleted the soil, and it was in a dumb position for trade. The trees didn't disappear; they were all cut down to fuel the ironworks up on Mount Riga. That's why there are so few animals around.

"As for Gogol itself, it was built by my father in 1958 as a place to get away from it all. My mother named it after Nikolai Gogol, the Ukrainian author. My sister and I spent more of our time here then in any of the other family homes. We inherited it in 1977, and I became sole owner in 1982. It hasn't been used much in the last decade, as I found a home in the city to be much more convenient. Besides, I've never been much into the whole 'master-servant' thing. Any other questions?"

"Francine Benham was your ancestor, then?"

"Yes, she was, on my mother's side. Anything else?"

"No, that clears things up nicely."

"Good, because I have a question for you." Francine took a moment to look around at how her living room was being transformed. She was pleased to see that nothing had been broken and the men handling her belongings were wearing gloves. "I have to say, you've got a nice operation going, Aldus. I thought I was the only one paranoid enough to pull off a charade like this."

"Remind me to tell you of the epic five-year battle of paperwork between myself and Agent Maughlarde for the position of Number Two in The Company. A battle that I have won, you will note," Klaudaine replied, coldly. "That was a lesson in the true nature of power."

"You think I have not been taught that lesson as well? Or do you think I gave up control of Orlac Machines for the sake of my health?"

"Very well. And what was your question?"

"What are you and Nimnul really up to? Earth Forces have all been equipped with lasers by now, but the Danaans keep kicking our tails!"

"That was ironic, just now. Nimnul came from a world of intelligent animals, and then you use the phrase 'kicking our...'"

"Are you going to give me a straight answer, or not? Do you and Nimnul trust me?"

"Do you actually want me to answer that question, Francine?"

Francine said nothing.

"I thought not. Suffice it to say that Nimnul and I know what we are doing."

"Really? Sending all of those prisoners up to the Moon, that doesn't look very competent."

"You're not giving Nimnul enough credit. That man is a genius with a computer. He's already figured out the Wired."

"The Wired?"

"'A series of tubes', as I believe it is called," Klaudaine joked. Drawing no response, he gestured vaguely with his hand. "This month's name for the world computer network. Anyway, Nimnul's developed a laser for the lunar troops that mounts on their backs and does all the aiming and firing for itself. It doesn't matter who wears it!"

"And so you send up people you'd prefer not come back." Francine shook her head in wonder. "I would stoop so low, but I never suspected that a Company man would allow such a thing on his watch. I thought you were the good guys."

"The equipment's ready, Mr. Klaudaine," Bud said, walking up to them.

"I am not 'the good guy', Madame. I am 'the guy who gets things done'."

"This is Supervisor John G. Houker at Vostaach Space Center calling Mr. Klaudaine. Bear, do you copy?" The man on the screen was short, if possible even shorter than Nimnul or Lou. A head resembling a loaf of white bread dwarfed a tiny pair of spectacles, accented by bushy gray eyebrows and a halo of gray hair.

Klaudaine sat down at his appointed post and picked up the microphone on the desk before him. "Aldus Klaudaine at Gogol Mansion here, over."

Supervisor Houker peered dimly through the spectacles. "Ah yes, Klaudaine. I was wondering if you could be a dear and put the Emperor-Elect on? Captain Cellini is ready for his final orders."

"Of course," Klaudaine replied, moving over in the seat to make room for Lou, who was doing his best to sit down without losing his gigantic crown. He closed his eyes for a second and silently hoped he wouldn't forget his lines.

"Eh...Emperor-Elect Norton II is here," Lou announced in a very shaky impersonation of Norton Nimnul. He remembered he was supposed to be condescending, so at the last moment he tacked on the word "mortal".

The man addressed on the other end of the video link in Russia stood erect in his orange jumpsuit. He had the look of an alpine skier and the wandering eyes of an inveterate explorer. He was also trying valiantly to keep a straight face. Behind him could be seen crews busy loading a large space transport. One of them was quite obviously Norton Nimnul. Seeing this, Klaudaine silently squeezed the bridge of his nose between his fingers to try to make the headache go away.

"My instructions?" the captain gently prompted.

"Ah, yes. You are to take Commander Gorski back to Moonbase Alpha, where he will resume his duties. I will be coming up as soon as the coronation ends and I become ruler of Earth. Mwa. Ha. Ha, ha, ha." Lou beamed at getting all that out in a recognizable form.

Houker stepped back into frame. "In addition, Emperor-Elect, it would be our honor to send you Russia's message of thanks for your imminent liberation of their great nation."

This statement seemed to take both Klaudaine and Lou by surprise. Klaudaine recovered first, jumping up and turning on a fax machine located on the table. "Of course, sir. You may transmit that thanksgiving message from Mother Russia at any time."

The machine responded by spitting out page after page.

"I believe that concludes our business today," said Houter, reaching forward for a switch off-camera. The image turned off.

Klaudaine looked up at the camera crew. "That will be all, gentlemen. I would suggest you return to the van while we finish up in here. Agent Keigh, could you drive? I need Bud to man the fax machine for me."

"Sure thing," the man addressed replied, as his men filed out.

"'Thanksgiving message'?" asked Bud.

"Last-minute instructions from the Emperor Elect. In code." Turning to the fax machine, he picked up a pile dozens of pages long that looked like a standard self-congratulatory message of thanks. Flipping through the pages, he said, "This can't be more than five or six pages here, decoded. There's a unit in the limo. Are you coming with us, Empress-Elect Francine?" He offered his arm.

"It would be my honor, Aldus," she replied, taking it. "By the way, why is Gorski on that flight?"

"Let me put it this way: you are the enemy. You have that rocket in your sights. Then you learn that Commander Anton Gorski, a man who requires an instruction manual to put on his boots, is on that rocket and he's going back to the Moon to run it as well as he did before. Would you shoot?"

Francine shook her head, laughing.

It was a long drive to Philadelphia, site of the coronation. Klaudaine spent the whole time on his car phone making various arrangements, while Bud "operated the decoder mechanism". This consisted of feeding pages one at a time into a slot on the side of the device and waiting for a little bell to ring before feeding in the next, as well as dealing with the used pages that tended to get spat out randomly and violently. Lou, despite being Emperor-Elect, was still stuck driving, as he wasn't trusted to be able to "operate the decoder mechanism" successfully.

Once all of the pages had been scanned, the black rectangular box thought for ten minutes, and then started kicking out more pages, which Bud did his best to catch and keep separate from the input pages. Francine took each one out of his hands as soon as they were caught and glanced at it, and then returned it to Bud. The first three pages each consisted of a list of names, addresses, and "reasons", with the header "Induct into Lunar Army ASAP". When the machine was finished, Bud put it aside, opened a compartment in the side of the car, and removed the Handy Navi. He started entering the names and addresses, but quickly got frustrated.

"None of these people exist!" he exclaimed.

"Let me see that." Francine took back the first page and started looking at it more closely. "Oh," she said at last, "I see. Nimnul made this list from memory, using people from his universe. They have different names over here. For example, 'Huey Newark' must be 'Howard Jersey', Norris' college roommate in his freshman year. I bet all of these addresses are wrong as well." She got out a pen, then picked up one of the used sheets of paper and turned it over. "I'll see if I can figure out who these people really are, and then you can use your computer to look them up."

Bud handed over the pages and straightened his back. "Fine by me!" he exclaimed.

As Francine worked on the names, she started paying attention to what was in the "reason" column. Among the entries were "mocked me in gym class", "gave me a B in Chemistry" and "tied my shoelaces together". Obviously, this was an enemies list, all of them condemned to do duty on the Moon alongside the convicts for what their counterparts did to Nimnul in another universe. Strangely, at least a third of the names had the same baffling reason: "called me 'Waldo'". She made a mental note of that name for now.

The last two pages changed format from the earlier ones. Now there were many columns instead of just three, and none of them was "reason". One of the new columns was "alias", and another was "age". Francine read the first line and became very still. "Alice Wentworth", the line read. "Alias Queenie. Age 13."

Francine skimmed the rest of the list, but found nobody she knew listed. She was somewhat impressed to see that some of the aliases, like "ConMouse" and "QQ", lacked contact information--that meant that they had hidden their information so well that Nimnul couldn't track them. From the aliases used, it appeared that this was the user list for the online forum dedicated to the Rescue Rangers cartoon. She also noticed that neither Herbert, Jr., nor his alias of "Honker" were on the sheet. Francine looked over the list and deliberated. She reasoned that making this second list disappear would accomplish nothing in the long run: Nimnul would eventually follow up and re-send the list, and Francine might not be lucky enough to intercept it a second time. She therefore started copying out the list onto the end of the first list, leaving out anyone younger than 18. The rest were legal adults, she coldly told herself, and therefore liable for the consequences of their poor judgment. For the "reason" column, she wrote, "Watches cartoons too much".

By this time, Klaudaine had finished his calls. "Well?" he asked her.

"Nimnul wants more recruits. Here's the corrected list," she said, handing over her hand-written list as she pushed the decoded pages into an opening on the side of the car labeled, "for destruction of incriminating documents."

The coronation ceremony was very long, and very boring. Francine, however, reveled in it, for she was the center of attention, something she had long been craving. Yet for some reason it felt strangely unsatisfying. There were many interviews with the press, most of them entirely devoid of any intellectually significant content, and then the limousine finally turned around and drove back to Gogol. Francine went back to her room and collapsed on her bed, sound asleep.

Chapter 17: The Final Battle

T-36 days, 0 hours, 45 minutes and 6 seconds (May 7, 11:14 PM EDT).

Five days passed. Francine spent the days in social activities, actively snubbing the many people who had hurt her through the years. She told herself the humiliation was acceptable; after all, she wasn't sending any of them to the Moon. Her sister Dinah and scheming brother-in-law Harold took this moment to finally break the decades of pretending that Francine had died before marrying "some bankrupt artist". The fact that they now tried to pretend that it was she who had never contacted them led the Empress to seriously consider forging Nimnul's signature on an order to condemn their precious lunar hospital.

Very little of her nights was spent sleeping. Instead she compulsively vacuumed the hallways of Gogol as she tried to imagine what was happening on the Moon at that moment. Francine had trained for spaceflight with the others, so she was keenly aware of the dangers.

One night, Klaudaine poked his head in the door. "It has started," he told her.

Francine sat up, grabbed the remote control, and turned on the bedroom's television. Now that Norris was gone, she could finally bring modern conveniences like remote controls into Gogol, but she had limits. The only computers in Gogol, for example, were those brought in by Klaudaine and his men.

Francine didn't have to turn channels, because coverage of the battle was on every station. There was sporadic fighting on Earth, but most of the Danaans had returned to their ships as soon as the lunar mothership had blown up. The news agencies lacked reporters on the Moon itself, so the fighting was covered using ground and space-based telescopes--the ground telescopes were radar-based to penetrate Earth's cloud cover. There was even a hapless reporter stuck pointing his camera at the Moon from the Space Dock, after he had been stopped from stowing away aboard a Moon-bound freighter.

In her mind, Francine trusted in Nimnul's cynicism to stay out of the thick of fighting. He had his "drone" fighters on foot, the moon buggies and the shuttles, and the big guns mounted on the mountains, all of them powered by Nimnul Power Cubes, little blue boxes that the operators had all been told were observation devices until the last one had been installed and the whole set had been irreversibly activated by radio control immediately before the battle. There was no need to be in the front lines. That was the work of heroes and fools, two words Francine held to be synonymous. On the one hand, Nimnul had Miss Weir beside him, a person Francine put into both categories at times. On the other hand, he also had David Kano with him, and a more levelheaded man Francine had never met.

"They're retreating!" David Kano told Nimnul. He was not elated. In fact, he sounded horrified.

"Let them!" replied Nimnul, sitting back in his chair at the Moonbase Alpha command center. "They're headed right for the central force field roller. However did you think of that, anyway?"

"It wasn't me; it would have been Professor Bergman's contribution if he had been made emperor. But it's not moving!"

"What!" Nimnul shouted, standing up. "Where's the crew?"

David checked his instruments. "They fled as soon as the Danaans started heading their way, and it appears they sabotaged the remote controls on the way out."

"That was the roller Commander Gorski volunteered to pilot. This is treason! When I get my hands on him..."

"There's no time! If the Danaans get past that roller, they've got a straight shot at Waste Area Two!"

As David gestured at the electronic map, the left sleeve of his bulky sweater was pulled up his arm, revealing a peculiar wristband that looked an awful lot like one of Nimnul's Metamorphosizers, but he didn't have time to dwell on that in the middle of a battle. Looking instead at the map he said, "Yes, that's where Earth stored most of its radioactive waste. So?"

"So, they have the whole area rigged to explode!"

"Explode? Don't be ridiculous! They would never survive an explosion of that magnitude, now that their mothership is gone."

"Neither would humanity. Think, Nimnul! What do the Danaans want? And the answer is not 'conquest'."

"Destruction? They would sacrifice themselves to destroy all of us?"

"Yes! They would have done it on September 13th against Emperor Bergman, so I'm dead certain they'll try to do it again!"

"What?" Nimnul shook his head to clear it of cobwebs, consulted an electronic map showing where everybody was, then picked up the microphone. "Captain Cellini, we need your troops in Clavius Crater immediately! We cannot let the Danaans reach the nuclear waste!"

Cellini face appeared on the screen. He appeared to be fighting off a lot of fatigue. "My forces are boxed in at Theophilus Crater, but we'll try to flank them."

"They'll never make it in time," David said, pointing at the map. "No, we have to go out there and man that roller."

Nimnul hesitated for a moment, then reached down and picked up his equipment bag. "Alright, I'll try to rig up another remote control unit on the way."

Laurel caught up with them on the way to the Eagle shuttle. "Where are we headed?" she asked.

"Just over that ridge," Nimnul replied. "If I can fix the remote control unit, we can just stand back and let it handle the Danaans."

Laurel nodded. "I'll fly the Eagle, you two do the rest."

The Danaans were continuing to fire their electron beam weapons as they retreated, so Laurel needed some fancy flying to keep the shuttlecraft in one piece as she flew around them to reach the enormous cylindrical roller. After landing, the three occupants suited up and bounded across the lunar surface to the open airlock at one end.

Once inside, Nimnul wasted no time in finding the damaged remote control unit and quickly started repairs. A few minutes later, he was finished and the whole vehicle powered up upon receiving the signal from Laurel's computer. David sat down, booted up the computer controls and started entering commands. The cylinder levitated upwards and was immediately surrounded by a larger cylindrical force field. Another control caused the unit to begin rolling back towards the Danaans.

"What are you doing?" demanded Nimnul.

"I'm making sure your victory in this battle is total, Emperor," David replied. Ahead were six other rollers, all of them manned by crews who had not deserted. David ordered his roller to speed up to close the gap.

"We're leaving, now!" Nimnul ordered, grabbing David. Seeing that the roller was locked on course, David allowed himself to be dragged away.

Nimnul, David and the silent Laurel sped down the corridor to the airlock. A set of lockers nearby had held rocket packs, but all of them had been taken by the deserting crew. "How do we get out?" Laurel asked. "We're fifty feet above the surface, and miles away from the Eagle."

The wily scientist turned to another locker with a padlock and twirled it open. Above it was the sign "For Imperial Use Only!" Inside were two rocket packs. He put on one and handed the other to David. "These can support two people each," he explained. After cycling through the airlock, Nimnul stood for a minute at the open edge and looked around at his surroundings through the shimmering wall of the force field and the sheer drop down to the lunar surface. He then removed a device called a "comlock" from the side of his suit. Commander Gorski had issued one of these to everyone on Moonbase Alpha as soon as he had returned from Earth; they acted as universal remote controls, among other functions. Nimnul pressed a button, and the force field became completely transparent. Over the suit radio, he announced, "we have two minutes--after that, we'll just bounce off the inside of the field." Putting the comlock back, he took hold of the two control handles of the rocket pack, jumped away from the airlock, and activated the rockets. He passed through the field, quickly followed by David Kano with Laurel Weir strapped facing him.

As they were flying back towards the waiting Eagle, there was a tremendous flash of light behind them, followed by a great percussive force that plucked them out of the sky and hurled them into the ground. Nimnul's training paid off as he rolled into a safe landing. Standing up and seeing chunks of metal flying past him to embed themselves in the lunar regolith, he looked back to see that the axle of the next roller over had been snapped by an electron beam discharge, and had collapsed, leaving a hole in the trap. This as the outer edges of the line of rollers had already contacted the enemy. Then he heard a scream over the radio.

He turned around to see Miss Weir, who had unstrapped herself from David, removing his right glove. Nimnul opened his mouth to protest, but then saw that one of the shards of the shattered roller had already destroyed the left glove, including the mysterious wristband. A glimmer showed that the removed glove was sealed by a miniature force field. He bounded over to see what had happened. To his bafflement, David's suit was empty. Without saying a word, Laurel secured David's right glove to her suit and then used the rocket pack to continue her flight to the Eagle. Nimnul mutely followed.

When he entered the Eagle, Nimnul saw Miss Weir putting a small creature into a compartment in the cockpit and locking it. "You know, I think you're much cuter this way," she appeared to inform the animal. From the way she was cradling her right arm, it appeared she had broken it in the same accident that had damaged David's suit. The next thing she did was pull out a pocket mirror and examine her reflection closely. "But it looks like I'll remain Laurel Weir for now," she concluded.

"What's going on here?" Nimnul demanded.

She responded by pointing out at the screen with her good hand. The view showed the Danaans streaming through the gap in the force field trap and heading straight for the Eagle.

Nimnul strapped himself into the pilot's seat, while Miss Weir did her best with the co-pilot's seat. He started up the controls, and then considered his next course of action.

Run for it! the logical, scheming part of his brain told him. That gap is tiny and I can see Cellini's forces returning. Let them handle it.

You have to stop them, Nimnul, Gadget's disembodied voice told him. The fate of all life on this Earth depends on it.

I...Miss Weir could get hurt! Nimnul's self protested.

His inner Gadget smiled. Isn't this a perfect Earth? she argued. They elect scientists to rule over them. They think, like you, that optimism is a waste of time. They recognize and applaud your genius. Would you allow such a world to be destroyed? A world without 'meddling vermin'?

"Let's show them that we don't take kindly to being invaded!" Nimnul cried. He aimed the Eagle straight for the breech, lasers blazing.

"The battle for Earth is over, and humanity is victorious." So stated Galt Braunbight, the legendary television news anchor who had covered the manned space program from the beginning, and had returned from retirement to cover the Battle of Clavius (as it was now being called). "The number of casualties is still being determined. Among them is Norton II, the most recent Emperor of Earth and mastermind of the effort that liberated humanity from alien annihilation. We have been following the aftermath of the battle on Earth, and...hold on." Braunbight picked up the piece of paper that had been set before him. "It appears...that Emperor Norton is alive! Yes, the Emperor has been found in a crashed shuttle near the site of the battle and he and a Miss Laurel Weir have been taken to Orlac Lunar Hospital. We bring you now a live announcement from the hospital spokeswoman, Doctor Helena Russell."

Francine leaned forward, staring intently at the screen. The scene before her shifted to a curtained backdrop with a podium. A young austere woman with wavy, nearly white hair stepped up to the microphone. Since there were still no press on the Moon yet, the sound of her organizing her notes was the only sound to be heard.

"Ah, Emperor Norton was brought to Orlac Hospital at 03:18 Lunar Time. His co-pilot is in stable condition, with a fractured radius bone that is expected to mend. As for the emperor, he was severely electrocuted and his spine was severed in several places. Luckily the cervical nerves were still intact, so the patient is still alive, but he is paralyzed from the neck down. He is currently being prepped for surgery, and we have high hopes to have some sort of artificial lung set up shortly to help him with breathing. He is currently unable to speak, but..." at this point Dr. Russell looked down at her notes, and a rather unpleasant look flashed across her features. "But," she forced herself to continue, "Doctor Harold Largess is preparing a radical new technique which will allow him to say whatever he wants him to...allow him to speak his will to the people." A hopeless look came in the spokeswoman's eyes as she spoke her final sentence: "Largess expects that the emperor will have plenty to say when he comes out of surgery."

Chapter 18: Voices in the Darkness

T-35 days, 5 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds (May 8, 3:53 PM PDT).

"Alright, I'm still not happy with the busboy scene."

So said the woman's voice coming out of the speakers. It was a little recording studio located somewhere in the vast suburbs of Los Angeles, and this was a recording session for a cartoon show. Normally, that would mean that each voice actor would record all of their lines in isolation, but this particular episode's recording had been lost at the last minute, forcing a rare meeting of the entire seven-member cast, five men and two women. A somewhat large cast for this series, but this episode was set in the 1930's and required plenty of celebrity impersonators. The group stood in a semicircle, wearing headphones to help them concentrate. Before each actor was a music stand holding their scripts, and behind each of those was a microphone.

"Err, is that before or after the attack of the paparazzi?" asked Moe L. March, star of the cartoon series Pinky and the Brain. He played The Brain, a mouse that continually plotted to take over the world. Physically, March didn't resemble his character at all, being a tall, slightly overweight man with a thick head of black hair and wearing a large pair of glasses.

"After," replied the disembodied voice.

March flipped a couple of pages in the script on the podium before him. "Got it."

Jay Cummins, the voice actor playing the guest role of the Busboy, gave a thumbs up to the one-way glass that separated the cast from the director and the recording engineers. Cummin's hair was long and black with a fair amount of gray, and totally unmanageable. It was matched by a thick mustache and a small goatee. The man seemed to have a permanent twinkle in his eye.

"We only have five minutes left in the session," announced the voice of the director, "so I'm going to risk doing the whole scene at once. Don't make me have to buy another session! This is Pinky and the Brain, episode 347A: 'Whatever Happened to Baby Brain', Scene 7, Lines 11 through 18, Take 5. And...action!"

"Back, back you animals!" proclaimed March as the character of the Brain.

"These people are savages!" commented Cummins as the Busboy, using a voice virtually identical to Brain's.

"Yes," agreed "the Brain", "cannibals gorging themselves on the red meat of celebrity."

"Bloodthirsty hounds scavenging the field of battle," soliloquized "the Busboy".


Together they proclaimed, "things will be different when I take over the world!"

The Busboy introduced himself. "Welles, Orson."

"Brain, The."


The actors waited while the director and the engineers reviewed the take.

"Perfect!" the director finally announced. "That's a wrap, people!"

The group of voice actors made their way out of the studio. After following a maze of hallways and staircases, they ended up in the atrium, a large round room surrounded by one-way glass. March got ahead of the group and addressed them.

"You know," he suggested, somewhat sheepishly, "Rob and I were thinking that now would be a perfect opportunity for a lunch date, to celebrate the completion of the recording session."

"And..." prompted Rob Polson, voice of Brain's brainless sidekick Pinky. Polson was short and skinny, with thin brown hair. He tended to be the "class clown" in any group he found himself in.

"Oh, and the end of the war," March remembered.

"With the Danaans taken care of," Polson remarked, "maybe the Emperor will finally have time to tackle the cloud problem. Just once I'd like to get a tan on a beach, like folks in the 1920's used to do."

Pam Haydn, one of the guest stars for the episode, and Jeffery Burnet, a regular on the show, declined the lunch date, as they had prior engagements.

The same went for the best-known member of the group, Gary Elway, live-action star of The Princess Bride, Hot Shots!, and many more films. The three of them exited the building.

"Sure, you talked me into it. Didn't have anything better to do this afternoon." This was Tress McNell, a woman with wavy reddish-brown hair.

Polson turned to the last holdout. "Please say you can come, Jay. I desperately need somebody who hasn't heard all my jokes yet."

Cummins took a look out the window. "Maybe you'd better go without me," he said, regretfully, "it looks like I have a little work to do first."

Waiting outside the front door of the studio complex was a group of about two-dozen excited people, aged from 8 to 38. Based on their clothes and signs, they were all fans of Jay Cummins's work as the character Winnie the Pooh.

"That's OK," said March. "We'll wait."


The crowd erupted into cheers when Cummins emerged to greet them, recite some lines in character, and sign autographs.

McNell blanched at the sight of the crowd. "What are they doing here?" she asked.

"Disney probably told them where he was recording today," guessed Polson.

"They can do that?" asked McNell.

"It's Disney," Polson replied. "You might need to check your contract with a high-powered microscope to find that clause, but it's definitely there."

"Well if you ask me, that seems like a terrible invasion of privacy."

"We all know your feelings on the subject, Tress," Polson said, for once with a straight face, "but the fans aren't all bad. Just a couple of months ago I ran into a couple of Rescue Ranger fans at a convention. Nicest, most polite kids I ever met. I think I have their business card."

He pulled out his wallet and searched a bit before retrieving the card to pass around. On the left side was a stick figure of a girl next to a younger boy, the two of them in front of a complex bank of audiovisual equipment. The right side proclaimed the company's name as "Jane and Michael...Banks".

"Cute," commented March. "So, did they want to hire you to play the part of Lassie, or Ben Turner?"

"Not Lassie's Rescue Rangers! The Rescue Rangers was a 1989 series by the Rockwell Studio."

"Aren't they the guys that made Mystery Mantis and the Clew Crew Review?" March interrupted.

"Don't forget Intergalactic Battle of the Network Stars," McNell added.

"Or Three's a Crowd," said Polson. "As close as you can get to an animated rip-off of Three's Company without calling in the lawyers! Now with Don Knotts!" That got a chuckle out of the others. "Yeah, Rockwell made nearly every cartoon stinker imaginable in the 1970's and '80's, but sometime after Weeble Wobbles: The Animated Series, they finally turned their act around and made Darkwing Duck."

"Rockwell made Darkwing Duck?" asked March in amazement. "That was like the number one cartoon in the late '80's."

"They followed that up with Rescue Rangers, which in my opinion was even better, although since it never went into syndication, is largely forgotten nowadays. Anyway, Rescue Rangers was about two chipmunks, a couple of mice, and a fly, that solve the cases the human police overlook. Miss McNell here played Chip, the fearless chipmunk leader, and Gadget, the brilliant and beautiful inventor mouse miss. Personally, I think Gadget was one of your best parts, Tress."

"Thanks," the actress addressed replied. "It's certainly in my top five."

"Let's see," Polson continued, "Jay played burley-mouse Monterey Jack (half of the time--it gets complicated), and Corey Button played the rest of the regulars. I did a lot of bit parts for the show, while Jay also voiced both of the main villains in the show: Fat Cat and a certain Professor Norton Nimnul."

March's bushy eyebrows shot up at the mention of that last name.

"Yes, interesting coincidence, don't you think?" remarked Polson wryly. "Anyway, with only 43 episodes in the can, The Rescue Rangers met an untimely end when Mr. Rockwell was arrested for tax evasion in 1990."

Tress shook her head. "Correction: the warrant went out, but The Company never caught Rockwell. He's still at large."

"The Company?" asked March. "I didn't think taxes were in their jurisdiction."

"Neither did I," replied Polson. "Although, given the current imperial situation, it's beginning to make sense. Like they say, if it's weird, you know The Company's involved somehow. Anyway, to return to the plot, the lawyers made sure that The Rescue Rangers never aired again. Nevertheless, a fairly respectable fandom has emerged, trading black-market fifth-generation videotapes in back alleys at three in the morning, I imagine. Even more incredibly, this group has managed to contact the show's head writer and got him to put onto the Wired all twenty-five of the scripts to the episodes that had never been completed. Seeing that nobody owned the characters anymore, the group decided that between them they had the technical expertise to make the missing episodes themselves."

"Really?" asked an incredulous March.

"Well, not to the level of the original episodes. The Navis today are pretty advanced, but they still can't replace cell animation."

"Alright then," March summarized, "the A/V branch of this Rescue Rangers fan group wanted to hire you to do some voices for them."

"No, they plan to do all the voices themselves. I checked out their website, and either through natural talent or electronic trickery, they have come up with pretty good matches for all of the regulars. All Jane and Michael Banks wanted was to ask me how I would do a Hawaiian surfer character in one of the episodes. I read a couple of lines into their tape recorder for their guy to imitate, and that was it."

McNell took another look at the business card. "You know, I think this same pair may have approached my agent. Something about voicing a witch character. I still remember one of the lines: 'It's an ill wind that blows no one any good!'" She delivered the line using the voice she intended to use. It sounded remarkably familiar. "He turned them down, of course. I wonder if..."

"I hate to interrupt, Tress, but I think you better see this."

McNell joined the two men at the one-way glass window. Outside, they could see that a black limousine had pulled up to the curb. A large bear of a man dressed in a black suit had emerged from the limousine and was now talking in hushed tones with Jay Cummins. Flanking the two and keeping the Winnie the Pooh fans at a distance were two more men in black with dark sunglasses obscuring their eyes. The more paranoid of the two kept checking over his shoulder, as if he were expecting a team of rivals to swoop in at any moment.

" that The Company?" McNell asked.

"Sure looks like it," replied Polson.

As they watched, Cummins turned to address his fans, which replied by groaning loudly and dispersing. He then joined the three men in the limousine. It appeared that he had done this freely, but this was The Company, so you never could be sure. The limo pulled away from the curb and quickly made its way out of sight.

"Wow," said March.

"I wonder if Jay paid his taxes," joked Polson.

McNell replied to this remark by bonking Polson on the head.

Chapter 19: Choosing Sides

T-34 days, 17 hours, 54 minutes and 47 seconds (May 9, 6:05 PM OMSST).

Eleven hours later, Jay Cummins emerged from a plain private airplane at a small airport located next to the Vostaach Space Center in central Russia. He was escorted by a man in black to a table at the back of an almost-empty cafe. Although the cafe looked run down, this table had been cleaned and polished so thoroughly it looked brand new.

"Delivering Mr. Cummins into your custody, Empress," the agent addressed a large cardboard box that was atop the table.

"Thank you, Agent," Francine replied from behind the box. She transferred it to the floor so she could be seen. "I hope I don't have to fill out any forms to receive him?"

"No, Empress. Mr. Klaudaine filed the 1115S on your behalf."

"Ah, good." She spent a moment studying the agent, an intense-looking young man with swept back brown hair. Behind the intensity she detected sparks of wonder and curiosity, traits she once possessed and treasured. "Tell me your name, Agent," she asked him, with a trace of a smile.

"Agent Keigh, Empress, Reynard Delano Keigh."

"And you were assigned this job by Mr. Klaudaine..."

"I volunteered, Your Excellency," Agent Keigh gently interrupted.

"And why did you volunteer?"

"For a chance to get off-world," he replied, softening. "I've always been fascinated by the mysteries of outer space."

"Ah. Will this be your first time leaving Earth?"


"The same with me," said Francine.

Francine noted the other man watching their conversation, which caused her to recall the circumstances that brought her here. Sitting up straight, she addressed the agent with steel in her voice. "Get some seats reserved for us, Agent Keigh," she said. "I assume The Company has some suitable aliases for us to use on this occasion." Standing, she picked up the box.

"Your Excellency," Cummins said, bowing, as the agent walked passed him.

Francine shrugged. "You can call me whatever you want. I don't care anymore. I'd like to thank you for volunteering to help me save the world, Mr. Cummins. I'm not sure what I would have done if you had refused, as you are essential to my plan. There's a rocket waiting for us, so we should board immediately. I don't suppose you've ever been exposed to space flight?"

"As a matter of fact, I was chief janitor for Space Dock Centauri in 1984. I've been getting in a few flights every five years or so since then."

"Really?" asked Francine, curious. "I didn't see any mention of that in your official biography."

"Well, I didn't want to brag or anything, so I just grouped it in the 'odd jobs' category."

"A very 'odd job', indeed! Well, good, that means you won't have to take the drug cocktail the casual passengers have to take. It would be a boring trip if my flight companion was semi-conscious the entire time."

A few minutes later, the empress and her party boarded the small transport rocket. For once the rocket was nearly full, the majority of passengers being non-essential crew members of Moonbase Alpha that had managed to escape to Earth during the early moments of the Danaan invasion. Francine and the voice actor were sitting in adjoining seats at the back of the passenger compartment. Agent Keigh and the cardboard box took the seats in front of them, and the aisle was fairly wide, allowing the two of them a moderate degree of privacy. From time to time the agent would glance over his shoulder at them.

"You know," Francine told the agent with a smile, "we're not going to disappear if you're not looking at us."

"Did, yes, Empress," Agent Keigh replied sheepishly, before turning around and grabbing an in-flight magazine to hide behind.

"I...I don't mean to pry," Cummins said to Francine in a low voice, "but about this mission to stop Harold Largess: could you tell me a bit more about the man? All I've ever heard about him was the fact that he runs Orlac's Machines with his wife, your sister, and that he gives a large percentage of his earnings to various charities."

Francine Orlac Norton grinned darkly. "Harold tried courting me originally. He switched his attentions to Dinah when he realized I would not allow him to exploit the company to further his own criminal schemes. I didn't know it then, but Harold was the North American head of T.H.E.M. Perhaps you've heard of them, they nearly enslaved the planet a couple of times?"

Cummins nodded, his eyes wide.

"Of course nobody was able to find enough evidence to convict Harold, even after the collapse of T.H.E.M. By this time he had married Dinah, who was fully complicit in his crimes. In fact, I have strong suspicions that the T.H.E.M. agent known as 'The Grimemaster' was in fact my sister--she always had a way with dirt." Francine spoke this last word like it was a curse word for her.

"These two now have possession of the unconscious body of the emperor, and are even now in the midst of masquerading this body as a puppet that they control. We must not allow this to happen. The first thing Harold Largess did when he moved to the Moon was order the Research and Development arm of Orlac's Machines to come up with a way for sharks to swim on the Moon. He keeps a pool full of sharks on the Moon, into which he throws anyone that displeases him. When he runs out of people that displease him, he just chucks somebody at random. Can you imagine what he would do with absolute control of Earth?"

Cummins shook his head, once again stunned into silence.

Francine sighed. "We have a long flight ahead of us, and I'd rather not dwell on such unpleasant subjects. Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"What is it?"

"Where do you get all your voices from? I ask because there was a character you voiced several years ago, Darkwing Duck, with a voice identical to someone I met once."

"I remember that character," Cummins answered. "I just...invented it. I wasn't trying to mimic anyone."

"Are you sure? The match was unmistakable."

"No, I swear I came up with the voice myself. It's a funny thing: you're not the first person to ask me about that sort of coincidence. It seems to be one of the odd quirks of the voice acting business, exactly mimicking people we've never met before, and none of us have ever been able to come up with an explanation."

Jay Cummins was not quite telling the truth with that last statement. It would be more correct to say that there were no sane voice actors who had ever come up with an explanation.

Just then a voice came over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen," the voice drawled in an Australian accent. "This is your captain speaking. We have just received clearance to take off, so I will be turning on the seatbelt sign. As soon as the stewardesses have confirmed that everyone is strapped in, we will be ready to begin our flight."

Cummins chuckled. "Well, I feel a lot better about our trip."

"Why's that?" asked Francine.

"You don't recognize the voice? That's Alan Carter himself as our pilot!"

"Alan Carter? The name sounds familiar..."

"That man is the greatest pilot in the solar system, taught me everything I know about surviving in space."

"Wait, I remember, he was the third person to set foot on Mars, wasn't he?"

"That's right."

"But that voice..."

"Yes, that voice. He always had a flair for the dramatic, Alan had, so he took my advice to take a few side jobs in voiceover work."

"Ah, of course! He narrated the Jurassic Park trailer."

"And Free Willy, Last Action Hero, Stargate, Richard III, and ..."

"It is morning," said the voice of Captain Alan Carter over the intercom. "You wake up, you board a shuttle. And although it seems an ordinary day, it isn't, for one extraordinary reason: you're going to Moonbase Alpha." The passengers cheered in response.

"...Independence Day. The guy's a genuine hero, but also a bit of a ham, I'm afraid."

Captain Carter kept the crowd entertained with stories and jokes about the Moon and lunar exploration (including the old chestnut with the punchline "training: it makes the job look easy") for the entire trip up to Space Dock Centauri and, after transfer to another ship, for the shorter journey to Moonbase Alpha itself. It was an extraordinary, if unusual, display of stamina. He ended the flight seemingly as energized as he began it, by switching to an American accent to parody his most famous voice-over line: "I welcome you to the Moon, an adventure 4.5 billion years in the making!"

Francine forbade Cummins to talk with Carter during or after the flight, as the success of her plan depended on speed and a reasonable degree of secrecy. As soon as the door of the shuttle opened, Francine and her party rushed out. They barely noticed ex-Commander Gorski passing them in chains, being escorted into the departing shuttle by two MPs.

Consulting a color-coded map of the uncompleted station, Francine and her companions boarded a travel tube, a squat cylindrical object used to commute between the far-flung sections of Moonbase Alpha, and made their way to Orlac Lunar Hospital. During the trip, Francine could feel occasional vibrations--the effect of ongoing construction in the airless vacuum of the lunar surface. Construction that had been continuing at an advanced pace, because that had been Emperor Norton's last order before the battle began. The casualty rate among the workers (or, to remove the euphemism, prisoners) must be immense.

Entering the hospital, they bypassed the front desk and entered an elevator. Without hesitation, Francine pushed the button for the fifth floor. "My next-door neighbor is a wiz at the Wired," she explained to Cummins. "Found out what room Nimnul is being kept in without triggering any alerts. He's also the one to get me some good screenshots of this baby, so I'd get the paint job right," she said, patting the box being carried by Agent Keigh.

Exiting the elevator, the group made their way down deserted hallways to Room 586. Francine peered in the door's window to make sure that the room was occupied, although with the lights turned down it was impossible to be sure by whom. Checking a notepad, she then turned left and led Cummins and Keigh to a storage closet. Giving the box to Francine, Keigh removed a device shaped like a brick and by pointing it at the door and pressing a few buttons, got it to unlock. The three hurried inside.

Putting down the box, Francine opened it to remove a large object that looked like a hairdryer from a 1950's salon, decorated with any number of wires and microchips. Flicking a switch caused several lights on the device to start flashing slowly, accompanied by a low "woop, woop" sound. Turning back to the box she pulled out a pair of headsets. She examined the pair until she determined which one worked as it was supposed to and gave that set to Cummins, putting on the other set herself. "You will hear everything said within Nimnul's room, thanks to this," she said, pointing at the strange helmet. "When I press the talk button on my dummy unit, it will turn on this light on your headset. As long as that light is on, repeat everything I say, but in Nimnul's voice. I trust you can figure the rest out on your own."

"What does that thing do, anyway?" asked Cummins.

"You're looking at everything it does. Other than the microphone and speaker, it's an empty shell. After all, I only had ten hours and one of my husband's drawings, and I'm no mad scientist. No, the success of this plan depends on Norton Nimnul, and how well I can trick him into snapping a twig or two."

"Good luck, Empress," said Agent Keigh, somewhat mystified.

"Now remember agent, if anything goes wrong, you know what to do."

The agent pursed his lips and glanced at Cummins, but said nothing.

Carrying the helmet under one arm, Francine exited the closet and entered Room 586, then approached the bed. Turning on the light, she saw that the patient was indeed Norton Nimnul. The parts of him that weren't bandaged looked awful. A machine in the corner was attached to him by wires and a thick tube that ended at his mouth. Bellows on the machine inflated and deflated with audible wheezing sounds. Another machine was wired to his chest and by its beeping appeared to control Nimnul's heart. Francine quickly examined the displays on both machines. This done, she carefully lifted up his head and put on the helmet. She started fumbling with the controls of her headset when the door suddenly opened to admit Harold and Dinah Largess, accompanied by two men dressed as orderlies. Their laser rifles belied their dress, however. The group had been summoned by a silent alarm connected to the door.

"A family reunion!" squealed Dinah Largess in a very unpleasant voice, "and you didn't invite us."

"Hello, Dean," hissed Francine, refusing to turn around.

"Don't call me Dean!" barked Dinah. "You never get my name right! Never, never, never!"

"She's just pushing your buttons, babe," soothed Harold, in a voice remarkably like Rob Polson's. Harold was, if possible, even oilier in person than on his ads. "So, what brings you to the Moon on this bright and airless day, a-heh! a-heh! a-heh!" His laugh rivaled Dinah's voice for noxiousness.

Francine finally turned to face her captors. "I came to get you two out of trouble, for once," she said.

"Oh!" exclaimed Harold sarcastically, "we're the ones in trouble! However will you save us?"

"You know what?" retorted Francine, "You gloat too much. Every idiot on Earth could tell what you were really up to with the emperor here."

"You know," Dinah said nasally, "my sister's got a point. Even Frankie could figure out our plan."

"Don't call me Frankie!"

"Hah! How's it feel now, with the slipper on the other shoe, huh?"

Francine rolled her eyes. "How you two idiots managed to steal Orlac's Machines from me, I'll never know."

"These 'two idiots', as you so nicely put it," replied Harold, "stole your company because we were willing to cheat! The only thing that made defeating you a challenge last time was your namby-pamby lawyer boyfriend, and oops, I'm sorry, he's not here for this round!"


"I think you touched a nerve," commented Dinah caustically.

"Well, that piece of paper I bought does say I'm a surgeon," replied Harold. "Ah, dear old Douglas. My sharks were very fond of him."

"That was you?" asked Francine in horror, as the emotional wound of losing the love of her life was viciously ripped open again. Her rational mind was nearly overwhelmed with grief and helplessness, but as she had been forced to do so many times before, she transformed her despair into rage, and then buried that under the cool facade that everyone else thought was the true Francine Nulton. "Un, unfortunately for me, I have no room for sentiment at the present moment," she said, once again in character.

Harold cast a sideways glance at the orderlies' rifles. "Indeed."

Francine looked down at her shoes. "I...I burnt too many bridges as Empress. If I had stayed down there while you took over the Emperor, I'd be finished. So I'm throwing in my lot with you two."

Dinah snorted through her nose, thereby revealing that her laugh was even worse than her husband's. "That's rich! Give us one good reason to keep you out of the shark tank!"

"This!" Francine exclaimed, gesturing at the helmet on Nimnul's head.

"That thing?!" exclaimed Harold. "It looks like the sort of toy I'd give our daughter, if we had a daughter."

"If we had a daughter, you'd spoil her rotten," said Dinah. "You'd probably name her something like 'Shnookums', or 'Buffy'."

"Ah, you know me too well, my little mud pie."

"Do you want to know what it is, or don't you?"

"Very well: what is it?"

"It's a reproduction of the Nimnul Thinkomatic 5000. Copied from a prop on the show, so nobody will suspect Nimnul didn't build it."

"What does it do?"

"Watch, or rather, listen!" Francine said, pressing the "talk" button on her dummy headset. "People of Earth," she said into the microphone in a near-whisper. Her voice was drowned out by the same words emerging from Nimnul's helmet, in Nimnul's own voice. "You will each deposit one-tenth of your paychecks each week in the bank account of Mister Harold Largess. Consider it a Largess Tax. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

The perfect Nimnul laugh was the clincher for Harold and Dinah, who rushed over to examine the helmet. "This is perfect!" Harold exclaimed.

"Even better than your brilliant plan, O Wise One?" sneered Francine after releasing the button on her controller.

Inside the storage closet, Agent Keigh was stewing. "You know," he told Cummins, "if I didn't know any better, I'd say that was no act on the Empress' part!"

"She's really selling out to the Largesses?" asked Cummins in alarm. "Then that means..."

"You've got yourself a new job as the emperor's voice. Permanently."

Dinah tapped a dirty fingernail against once of the lamps on the side of the helmet. "What did this thing do, anyway? On the show, I mean."

"Oh, it was a thinking cap," Francine explained. "Nimnul used it to help come up with new inventions. He called it his 'second brain'."

Nimnul's eyes suddenly shot open.

"He shouldn't be conscious yet!" Harold exclaimed. "Brown, hold him down! Hash, put some more of that knock-out stuff in his veins! Pronto!"

The second orderly addressed put down his rifle and fished a vial and needle from his pocket, then advanced on the bed to join his companion. Just before he inserted the needle, he was stopped by the hand of the patient.

"But that's impossible!" shrieked Dinah. "Dr. Russell told us he was a vegetable below the neck!"

Meanwhile Francine was frantically ripping sensor wires and equipment off of Nimnul's body, including the heart and lung machines that should have been keeping him alive.

With a lurch, Nimnul got up off of his bed and threw Brown off of him. "Traitors!" he screamed. "Traitors all of you! When I get my hands on you..."

The Largesses and their three toadies made a break for it. "That guy's not human!" exclaimed a fleeing Brown. "Leave us get out of here!" added Hash.

"Let them run!" exclaimed Francine, stepping in front of an advancing Nimnul. "This is the Moon--where are they going to hide?"

"I suppose you're right," said Nimnul, suddenly sagging as the adrenaline wore off. Francine helped him get back into bed. "Thank you for getting my thinking cap to me. How were you able to recreate something so complex?"

"The Internet," Francine lied.

Chapter 20: Where's Waldo?

T-27 days, 11 hours, 41 minutes and 52 seconds (09-14 ∇ 10:03).

"To what do you ascribe your miraculous recovery?" the reporter asked.

"It was certainly no miracle," the Emperor of Earth replied from his hospital bed. "You hear about injuries similar to mine on my world all the time. The victim partially recovers, but bears some lasting damage for the rest of their lives. Similarly, in my case I was able to recover control over my upper body, but I will never be able to walk again." Nimnul was calmly sitting up in his bed. His sheets were cluttered with intricately hand-drawn mechanical plans of robots and positronic brains, and a pencil was tucked behind his ear. He was wearing a pair of dark goggles to shield his sensitive eyes, but the parts of him that were visible above the sheets looked completely healed.

"That may be the case on your world, Your Excellency, but wasn't it true that your thoracic spinal cord was severed in four places? I fail to see..."

"It was a standard case," Nimnul stressed, looking with some distress up at Francine, who was standing beside the bed.

"But it was severed in..."

"The Emperor has answered the question," Francine snipped, "and no more need be said on the subject." A couple of attendants took the hint and escorted the complaining reporter out of the room.

"I have something to say before moving on," Nimnul announced, waiting a few moments until he had regained the attention of everyone in the room. "I have heard enough talk about my 'miraculous' recovery and my 'miraculous' defeat of the Danaans. Let me make this clear: I am no different than any other ordinary person, and I possess no extra-ordinary powers. From an early age, I was surrounded by those who, by virtue of unfair advantages at birth, claimed the right to be my superior, because they had family fortunes to draw on, or were gifted with the ability to calculate impossible calculations in their head. I was born with none of those, yet I got where I am today because I worked longer and thought harder than any of my rivals at unraveling the secrets of the universe. Those secrets I will continue to use for the benefit of the people of this, my adopted home."

The people gathered duly applauded at the conclusion of this little speech. Francine responded by shaking her head at the depths of Nimnul's self-deception. While this was happening, a couple men in white pushed a large-screen television on a stand into the room. After plugging in the power, one of the men played with the controls of the television and the equipment sitting in the cart below it for a few minutes. When he stepped away, the face of Commissioner Simmonds beamed on the set. "Emperor!" he cried. "I'm so glad to be seeing you in such excellent health!" A corner of the television image showed the output of the video camera that was mounted on top of the set.

"Really?" Nimnul asked accusingly. "Are you really glad? Your lieutenant, Commander Gorski, did not want to see me in such excellent health! He was paid by Danaan gold to betray me, to betray the entire human race!"

The dignitaries in the room with Nimnul looked away, not wanting to get involved in a possible shouting match. They included veterans and commanders of the recently-concluded war, engineers and scientists and three reporters, who were eagerly transcribing every word. Francine and Reynard Keigh now stood behind the television set, unnoticed. On a table next to them were stacked four videotapes with sarcastic labels that showed they contained every episode of the Rescue Rangers show that was ever aired.

After a pause considerably longer than the 2.56 seconds it took for light to make the round trip from the Moon to the Earth, Simmonds responded. "Anton Gorski is currently under maximum security, awaiting his trial for treason in a military court. I assure you that I had no part whatsoever in his actions during the Battle of Clavius."

Nimnul glared at the image on the screen. "You're as addicted to money as Gorski," he accused. "The same corruption of greed that infects the entire World Space Organization, and The Company. You're not interested in the greater good, only in lining your own pockets! However, I believe in the rule of law, and it's true that the communications uncovered between the Danaans and Gorski do not involve you. Yet. If you are innocent, you will have to work hard to regain my favor."

Simmonds paused. "Yes, Your Excellency."

"Expedite the trial. I will let the general public decide on his punishment. While we are on the subject of crime and punishment, have the Largesses been caught?"

A man in the room spoke up. "Yes, Your Excellency."

"Good. While I may be angry beyond words with them, I will not be having them executed. In fact, I will even go so far as to completely abolish the death penalty."

This announcement electrified the reporters.

"Yes, I thought you might like that," Nimnul said, although he was addressing the inhabitants of his head rather than anyone in the room. "With that business out of the way," he continued, "I have a rather optimistic announcement to make. The power generators that won us our survival will be going public, and the nuclear waste on the Moon will become a new energy source. I have had the time to finally name the devices: the Nimnul Weak Force Transducer."

The reporters were beginning to think they might need more paper in their notebooks.

"I'll get the word out," replied Simmonds. "There is one final order of business: the matter of appointments. The job of administrator for Nimnul Lunar Hospital was simple enough. Doctor Helena Russell had the best qualifications for the position."

"Inform her immediately," Nimnul ordered. "We'll evaluate her performance in three months."

"The tougher position to fill is that of Commander of Moonbase Alpha. We currently have..." (the Commissioner looked down at his computer screen) "...Paul Morrow as acting Commander, but I think we need someone more prestigious to take over on a long-term basis."

"Who were you thinking of?" asked Nimnul, his eyes wandering to his plans.

"Actually, I was thinking of naming you to the post," Simmonds replied. "In your current physical condition, the Moon's lower gravity would be ideal."

Nimnul looked up in annoyance. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Leave me so busy managing construction up here that you have free reign down on Earth. Well, the needs of the Empire outweigh any physical discomfort on my part, and just as soon as I'm strong enough to make the trip, I'm going back down there. Name somebody else."

Simmonds sighed. "Very well. My second choice would be Captain Anthony Cellini. A decorated war hero would do very well for publicity, and given the recent construction mishaps, Moonbase Alpha needs all the publicity it could get."

Francine looked over at Captain Cellini, who was in the room. He looked very uncomfortable. "Do you want the job, Tony?" she asked.

Cellini put a finger under his collar. "If you appoint me, I'll do my duty to the best of my ability," he stammered.

"But you don't think your abilities are best suited to the job of command," she completed his thought.

"I...I'm an explorer, Empress. The unknown is where I thrive. People I don't really understand."

"But you commanded men in the field," Simmonds observed, trying to get the camera to pivot far enough so he could see the captain. "You were essential in the recent victory."

"That wasn't really me," Cellini replied, sheepishly. "I worked on strategy, true, but the command, the camaraderie that led to victory, that was the work of Captain Koenig here."

All eyes turned to the man mentioned.

"Do you want the job, then?" asked Simmonds.

"Ah, well, that is...if, if you will have me," Koenig answered.

"Fine with me," remarked Nimnul, who was already working on another diagram.

The sounds of keys being tapped came up from the television screen, as Commissioner Simmonds reviewed Koneig's file. "Yes, this is acceptable. John Koenig, I hereby appoint you Commander of Moonbase Alpha, effective immediately. The requisite paperwork will arrive via the next Earth-to-Moon shuttle. Please get it back to me promptly."

"Yes, sir."

"This concludes our business today, Emperor."

The people in the room turned to congratulate the new commander, as the image on the screen went black.

Most of the group left then. Nimnul reached over to a side table that was covered with videotapes and picked one up labeled "The Underwater Menace".  

(The video no longer exists on Youtube.)

"Could somebody get this into the VCR? I left off on Chapter 3."

Keigh stepped forward and put the cassette into the machine that was under the television. The image on the screen changed to a monochrome scene of humanoid creatures swimming underwater. Nimnul picked up a remote control and pointed it at the machine, pressing a button to cause the scene to fast-forward to the next scene, which showed a wild man in a surgeon's smock and a theatrical black cape. Facing him was a young man wearing a black wetsuit, but the scientist was addressing someone off-screen.

"I underrated you, Doctor," the man on the screen said in a German accent. "I hardly imagined you'd have the nerve to kidnap Zaroff himself!" Professor Zaroff laughed evilly. Like many mad scientists, he had a habit of referring to himself in the third person.

Nimnul smiled. "I love Doctor Who," he confessed. "That show always had the best villains. On my world, most of the early episodes were erased by those idiots at the BBC, but here, I can watch every serial!"

"I'm sorry to interrupt," said Professor Bergman, one of the scientists who remained.

"What is it?" scowled Nimnul.

"It's the matter of the Danaan's records. The ones we were able to recover from their mothership."


"We've discovered the key to decoding their written language, with the help of one of the patients, a Miss Laurel Weir."

"Miss Weir?" Nimnul asked in surprise. He saw her standing at the doorway and beckoned her forward. She was wearing a cast around her right arm. She was wearing street clothes (including the obligatory long-sleeved blouse to cover her left arm to the wrist) and had a suitcase at her feet.

"Yes, Emperor?" she asked, walking up to him.

"I didn't know you had a talent for languages."

"Neither did I," she confessed. "Funny what amnesia can hide from you, isn't it?"

Examining her critically, he reached forward and plucked a small object off of her sleeve. "What is this?" he asked.

"Oh, that's a wood shaving. I must have missed it when I cleaned up after Sparky."


"Yes. That's...that was David's pet mouse. You remember, the one I found in his glove?"

"He kept a vermin, as a pet?" he asked, dangerously. "The man must have been deranged. Perhaps it is best that he didn't survive. If you wish to remain my assistant, you will space that animal immediately!"

"I can't believe you, Emperor! David saved my life. I think the least I can do to repay him is to take care of his pet."

"Get out of my sight!" Nimnul ordered. "I never want to see you again!"

"Fine! Consider me walking out that door as my resignation from your service!" She picked up the bag, and a small wooden box that was next to it. Small scratching noises could be heard from inside it. She was followed by Francine, who gave Nimnul a dirty look before leaving.

"As I suspected," said Nimnul, reviewing the pages which Professor Bergman had handed him, "this is just the opportunity I was waiting for. I want you to put all your men to work on decoding the rest of those alien texts, immediately! Soon, we will be able to proceed to the next stage of my master plan." He handed back the pages. "Take good care of these translations, translations which were made by nobody." He looked around the room at all the people that were milling about. "Well, you have your assignments, now get out of my room! All but you, Agent Keigh."

The scientists and reporters rushed out of the hospital room. Nimnul picked up a comlink and pressed a button, causing the door to close itself. "I'm getting tired of remotes," he muttered. "What's taking those engineers so long?"

Keigh had the distinct feeling that the eccentric emperor had forgotten him, so he picked up the stack of Rescue Rangers videotapes, cleared his throat, and stepped in front of the television. "Did you want me for something?" he asked.

"Yes. First of all, I've been told you had a major part in saving my life. For that you have my gratitude. I can grant you anything in my power."

"Well, it's not precisely in your power, but I'd appreciate a recommendation to the Company--I'd really like to stay on the Moon."

"You actually like this place? I admit, the fact that the inhabitants of Moon Base Alpha are 100 % human is comforting, but I feel too constricted here. Everything is preplanned. No surplus parts to play with. But I can understand that you might see things differently. I'll do what I can for you.

"With that settled, there is another thing I need you to do for me."

"What is it?" the agent asked.

"I need you to go upstairs to Harold Largess' room and search it again. You need to find proof that the man was a fanatical Rescue Rangers fan, that he was impelled by that fanaticism to attempt my assassination."

"I was already in charge of the investigation, Your Excellency, and we found no such evidence. By all accounts, Harold Largess was a megalomaniac, pure and simple. He was motivated by no cause greater than himself."

"Then you weren't looking hard enough," said Nimnul carefully. "Go back there and find me the proof I need." Nimnul reached forward and took one of the videotapes Agent Keigh was holding. "In fact, how about you find me this in Harold Largess' bedroom. You obviously forgot to press the 'Eject' button on his VCR."

"Are you asking me..."

"Don't ask me what I am asking you to do. Just do it. Now. And don't try anything funny, because I have my ways of watching you. Now give me these other tapes--I'll need something to watch when Doctor Who is done, and I need to become better acquainted with my true enemies. No wait, hold it, this is my favorite scene!"

On the screen, the King of Atlantis was addressing Professor Zaroff, who was accompanied by a pair of henchmen. Zaroff's cape concealed his right arm. "Zaroff!" the king complained. "You are subject to me in all matters. I will not have my people..."

"Your people?" Zaroff interrupted incredulously. "Your people? They are my people now! I hold their entire world in my power."

The king was shocked. "The Doctor was right about you. I order your project stopped at this moment. Guards! Take Zaroff to the temple and hold him there."

"You're a fool! You're a fool! I'll send you to your beloved goddess Amdo to discuss the future of the universe with her."

"I demand that you..."

"You demand?" asked Zaroff, laughing. "You demand? Well since your...since your beloved goddess has developed such an enchanting appetite for people, it is only fitting that the great Thous should offer himself. No. No, I shall offer him." He pulled the cloak off of his right arm to reveal that he was holding a pistol. He fired at King Thous, point-blank. The king fell.

"Kill those two men," Professor Zaroff ordered. Two shots were heard off-screen. To the audience he victoriously screamed, "NOTHING IN THE WORLD CAN STOP ME NOW!" Roll credits and the familiar Doctor Who theme music.

Agent Keigh stepped out of the hospital room and into the corridor, passing a group of engineers who were pushing a large metallic...something down the corridor. Curiously, it looked like it could be a prop from Doctor Who.

Keigh looked accusingly over his left shoulder at the invisible somebody that he now realized had been watching his every move for the last twenty-four hours.

Francine got delayed in the elevator, and was unable to find Miss Weir when she reached the ground level. Then she tried to think if there was anywhere on the base the woman might want to visit before returning to Earth.

As she suspected, Francine found Miss Weir at the observatory, looking through the lens on the visitor's telescope. A small monitor showed the object of her observations: the gray globe of Earth. "Laurel..." she said.

"So are you going to fire me, too?" Miss Weir asked without looking up.

"I would never do something like that," Francine told her. "There's plenty you can do that does not involve the emperor 'seeing' you."

"Thanks, boss," Miss Weir said, facing her. "This war has changed him for the worse. As for me, I'm taking the next shuttle back to Earth. There's nothing for me here."

"I'll join you. We just need to make one more stop, first."

"It's a far-side moon rock. Do you know how much those are worth? I can get it past Customs and straight to your desk in less than 48 hours. It even glows in the dark, thanks to a completely safe level of residual radiation from the nuclear containment facility. Surely that, no I suppose that has nothing to do with lifesaving. Yes, yes, I understand. I will repay this debt, Miss Maughlarde, mark my words!"

Klaudaine hung up the pay phone and then walked away, leaving a glowing rock behind. A few minutes later, Francine and Miss Weir passed the phone from the opposite direction. After walking a few steps past it, Francine doubled back and pocketed the Moon rock. "'Impulse purchase'," she explained with a shrug.

The main branch of Moonbase Alpha's circulating library was located between the travel tube entrance that led to the shuttle launching bay and the local branch of the Seymour Travel chain. Once inside, the reference desk was right in front. Behind it was a bookshelf that went up at least twenty feet. The left side was labeled "Robert A. Heinlein" and the right side was labeled "Reference." Manning the reference desk was a young woman with a dome of brown hair; her green eyes were behind a large round pair of spectacles that were perched on her nose. She was wearing a green turtleneck sweater, and Francine noticed she was in a mechanized wheelchair. "Can I help you?" the librarian asked.

"Yes, I have a question," said Laurel before Francine had a chance to open her mouth. "Do you know if the Earth was always covered with clouds?"

"Oh, it was not always that way," the librarian responded. "I have plenty of old books describing 'sunny days' and 'starry nights' on Earth in between the expected cloudy, rainy and snowy periods."

"Well, what happened?" asked Laurel.

"Nobody's really sure. It started fifty years ago, at the end of the First Interplanetary War, so the general opinion is that the Fomorians are to blame, but nobody has been able to determine the exact mechanism, or a way to reverse the effect."

"Oh," said Laurel, disappointed. She turned to Francine. "Did you have a question?"

"Yes," said Francine, stepping forward. "I need to track down a reference to a fictional character or historical personage named 'Waldo'. I'm not sure which."

"Well," the librarian replied, "the Where's Waldo? series can be found in the children's section. It's to the left through that archway."

"Care to fill me in on this?" Miss Weir asked Francine.

"Probably nothing," Francine answered. To the librarian, she said, "No, I don't think that was it. When was that series started?"

"Around 1990, I think," answered the librarian, adjusting her spectacles as she thought.

"Then that won't do," said Francine. "This reference would have come from the 1960's."

"Well, there's the short story 'Waldo,' written in 1950."

"Could you describe the main character?" Francine asked.

The librarian smiled. "I can do better than that," she said. Working the control on her wheelchair, she pivoted around to face the left-side bookshelf behind her. A button caused her chair to lift upwards, pushed by a scissor-lift system. She plucked a paperback book from the shelf, then lowered herself, turned and handed the book to Francine.

"That's quite some chair you've got there," said a wondering Miss Weir.

"Yes," the librarian replied, blushing. "I designed it myself."

"By the way, why do you have such a big section devoted to one author?"

"Most of that is just one book. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is very popular with us Loonies," the librarian explained.

"Let's hope it doesn't give Nimnul any ideas," Miss Weir warned.

"I doubt it," the librarian laughed, misunderstanding her. "The book is very anti-authoritarian."

"That's exactly what I mean," said Miss Weir.


Waldo & Magic, Inc.

The battered and much-read book in Francine's hands was Waldo & Magic, Inc., by Robert A. Heinlein. The cover depicted a man in a spaceship standing before a window. Outside the window floated the Earth in space. The man was fat and bald, and probably short, with electronic gadgetry covering his outstretched arm and hand. He was looking over his shoulder at the reader with an annoyed expression.

"Yes," said Francine triumphantly. "This is what I was looking for. Could I borrow this for the trip to Earth?"

"Of course," replied the librarian. "We have an arrangement with Vostaach for just this situation."

"Very well. Thank you very much."

Francine turned to go, but was stopped by Miss Weir. "Don't you have to get a library card or something?" the pilot asked.

"She's the Empress of Earth," remarked the librarian. "I trust her not to lose a book."

Francine laughed, and the two walked out of the library.

As they exited the travel tube, Francine spotted Emperor Norton waiting. She gave the book to Miss Weir and signaled her to remain out of sight, then stepped out to confront him.

Nimnul's lower torso and legs were encased in a white plastic box covered with electronics. Working some controls, Nimnul caused the box to levitate and take him to intercept the approaching empress. His eyes were still obscured by the goggles.

"You didn't tell me you were leaving today," Nimnul told her. "No matter. I would have asked you to meet me here in any case. I have something to show you." He led her to the door of the shuttle and beckoned her to look inside.

The shuttle was full of children aged from thirteen to seventeen. All of them were wearing the orange jumpsuit of lunar prisoners. The girl in front looked at Francine beseechingly. The name on her jumpsuit was "A. WENTWORTH".

"Wh...what have they done?" Francine asked in shock, clutching desperately at the rail of the shuttle door's stairway.

"Don't you recognize them?" asked Nimnul ominously, floating beside her. "These are the Rescue Ranger fans you saw fit to remove from the list I sent you. Let this be your one and only warning: obey my orders in future, or you shall be joining these brats in eternal servitude! Shut up, Gadget! Shut up, all of you!" Clutching one hand to his head in pain, he shoved the control on his hover unit with the other, causing it to rapidly leave the scene. This was the cue for several armed guards to climb the stairs, shoving her aside to remove the prisoners.

It was at that moment that a fundamental discovery was made.

"I miss Norris," Francine Nulton whispered to herself.

Chapter 21: Bad Moon Rising

T-27 days, 22 hours, 13 minutes and 47 seconds (09-14 ∇ 11:32).

Once the shuttle had left the Moon, Francine opened Waldo & Magic, Inc. and began reading. "Waldo" began with a man demonstrating impossible feats of physical agility and strength. A reporter asked him, why did he choose dancing as a career?

Meanwhile, events were transpiring that Francine and Miss Weir knew nothing about:


The animated television program known as The Rescue Rangers has been found to be treasonous to the Emperor. Henceforth, all individuals associated with the creation of this program are to be shipped to the Moon, where they will spend the remainder of their lives serving the State.

In the alternate future described in "Waldo", all power was transmitted through the air in the form of high-energy radiation, replacing electrical lines and gasoline engines alike. This radiation had unknown effects on the human body, but the benefit was thought worth the possible risk, until the power receptors of North American Power-Air, or NAPA, started failing, and planes started falling out of the sky. Neither the Chief Scientist, Doctor Rambeau, nor the chief engineer, Stevens, could find the cause of the problem, since the deKalb receptors were supposed to be infallible, and had been manufactured correctly. Because of the strong dependency on radiant power transmission, the spreading failures threatened to topple the whole of civilization. The company had no choice but send Stevens to beg for the help of the man their lawyers had stolen millions from in the form of forged patents: Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones.

The same penalty of perpetual servitude applies to all individuals who are members of groups that promote The Rescue Rangers, or who are found to possess videos or memorabilia associated with this program. A reward of Ten Thousand American Dollars will be given to anyone that assists in the detection and apprehension of these traitors.

Waldo had been born with myasthenia gravis. In fighting his physical weakness he had developed his intellect to genius levels, and the inventions that he had created to live like a human being had revolutionized the world. He had been living in a permanently weightless space station for the past seventeen years, nursing his grudges with humanity, which he considered his inferiors. His primary means of interacting with the world was a series of scaling manipulators controlled by the hands. The public called them "waldoes" in his honor.

The words "Rescue" and "Ranger" are no longer to be used in the same sentence, other than in the context of discussing this law or attacking the program. Violation will be punished with a fine of One Thousand American Dollars for each occurrence. Any organizations that might use these words and are not associated with the treasonous television program will have to change their name immediately, at their own expense.
Finally, the same penalty applies to the use of any of the following words when used as names: "Chip", "Dale", "Gadget", "Monterey Jack" (or "Monty"), "Zipper", ...

Stevens realized that the only way Waldo would let him set foot on his station, Freehold (called "Wheelchair" by the public), would be in the company of the closest thing the genius had to a friend, Doctor Gaines. Gaines had been the family physician when Waldo was born. He was also one of the few men to believe that radiant power had been slowly sapping the physical strength of the human race over the years. In a few years, he predicted that the whole of humanity would be as weak as Waldo. With Gaines' help, Waldo was finally convinced to help NAPA. Gaines also challenged Waldo to come up with a solution to the problem that involved an end to radiant power.

An Open Letter to the Emperor
June 1st

To Professor Norton Nimnul,
The World Space Commission and the government agency popularly known as "The Company" would like to congratulate you on your successful work in liberating the planet Earth from control of the Danaan race. We will forever be in your debt.

While Stevens was groveling before Waldo, his assistant McLeod had been investigating one of the airplane crashes when his personal skycar failed as well. He found himself in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, the place he had grown up. While waiting for help to transport the failed skycar back to headquarters, McLeod bumped into Grandpa Schneider, an impossibly old hex doctor. Bored, he told his problems to the man, and Grandpa Schneider fixed the deKalb receptor by means of chalk lines and an incantation. Not only did this fix the device, but as a result the antennae of the receptor were now alive, flexing and writhing. He brought the skycar back to headquarters.

However, with that crisis resolved, we humbly request that you relinquish your powers and duties as Emperor of Earth to the civil governments. In return, we are prepared to provide you with generous living conditions, and enough money so that you never have to lift a finger for the rest of your life.
Please return your answer in the next twenty-four hours.
The World Space Commission, Geneva, Switzerland
The Company, Washington, D.C.

If Stevens was disconcerted by the change to the receptor, the chief scientist, Dr. Rambeau, was driven insane. Rambeau called Waldo with the revelation that that he had reproduced Grandpa Schneider's results, proving that nothing was certain anymore. He then demonstrated this by cutting his finger without bleeding and causing the knife to defy gravity. "Chaos is King," Rambeau cried, "and Magic is loose in the world!" Francine gasped in shock at this passage.

NBS News Bureau
This is the six o'clock news for Tuesday, June 2nd.
Our top story: the cities of Washington, D.C., and Geneva, Switzerland were destroyed today. The former city was crushed by an enormous silver dollar, approximately three hundred million tons in weight, while the latter was crushed by a similarly sized gold euro. Both objects were launched from the Moon. Thanks to early warning by Emperor Norton, there were no casualties.
These two cities were the headquarters of the two most influential organizations on Earth, and both of them had sent an open letter to the Emperor yesterday asking him to resign his post. When asked for comment, the World Space Commission had no comment. Members of The Company could not be found for comment. In fact, it appears that the organization has completely ceased to exist.
All praise Norton II, Emperor of Earth and Protector of the Moon!
Phantoma. It's the hottest new videogame out of Japan, but could it be dangerous? Find out, after the break.

Francine continued frantically reading, her mood mirroring Waldo's desperation in the story. Waldo was forced to return to the Earth and the crushing forces of its gravity to learn Grandpa Schneider's secrets. He then studied every book on magic that he could find, striving to extract the scientific truths hidden inside about the Other World, the world of magic and infinite possibilities, which Schneider spoke of. Waldo surmised this Other World to be a parallel universe operating on different physical laws than our own, and apparently full of energy, which the modified receivers were using instead of radiant energy. It was the solution to the crisis, the solution to Mankind's energy needs forever, and potentially the end of NAPA, if they weren't willing to pay though the nose to Waldo. The crisis itself was proof of the existence of magic on a mass scale: the depression which was a side effect of radiant energy on the human brain had caused a global loss of faith in humanity, and it was therefore the gloom of the pilots themselves that had caused their planes to drop out of the sky.

Waldo eventually realized that if the modified deKalbs could pull energy from the Other World, then so could he, and he could use this energy to finally free himself of his debilitating illness. Losing his disability caused him to shed his contempt and hatred of humanity. And it was he who was demonstrating unbelievable feats of physical agility at the start of the book.

excerpt from The Company's Report on Norton Nimnul:
...These objects were fashioned from no observable source, killed no one, and succeeded in destroying the cities without causing any additional damage to the surrounding area. The silver dollar contained as much silver as all the silver that has ever been mined on Earth, and the gold euro contained twice as much gold as has ever existed.
All of these events are impossibilities.
We are led to the inescapable conclusion that Norton Nimnul is no mere scientific genius, and is rather some sort of god.
We recommend The Company go underground until such time as this being's weaknesses, if any, can be determined.

Chapter 22: Victory Speech

T-18 days, 0 hours, 57 minutes and 2 seconds (May 25, 8:03 PM PDT).

In honor of his defeat of the Danaans, Emperor Norton was putting on the biggest party in the history of the world.

No man-made structure was big enough to contain it, so Crater Lake in Oregon was drained at enormous expense and converted into suitable standing room.

After raucous musical concerts given over the course of several days, Emperor Norton finally emerged, to a deafening ovation that lasted twenty-six minutes. Many of the celebrants' hands were bleeding by the time they were finished clapping. They had waited so long to glimpse the one man capable of lifting their spirits and dispelling their permanent state of depression. What they saw was a small man floating in mid air, his eyes encased in a visor and his lower half encased in a gleaming titanium shell that tapered to a point. The upper part of this shell was shaped into a thick ring. Although this certainly wasn't the effect he intended, Norton Nimnul rather resembled an acorn.

"People of the world!" Nimnul cried, his voice carried across the lakebed and to every television and radio in the world. "I greet you tonight as a planet of free people!"

Another ovation, even louder than the first, although thankfully much shorter in duration.

"I, Emperor Norton, have organized the immense effort and requested the immense sacrifice needed to do this! But this is not all I have done. I have solved your energy problems, eliminated starvation with super grains and wiped out disease with nano machines. I have found ways to ease the pains of the elderly with automatic nurses and banish the boredom of the youth with games that are not only entertaining, but educational as well!

"You might think my work here is done. But it is not."

The hundreds of screens mounted around and throughout the lakebed came to life at this point, and began displaying a diagram of the Milky Way galaxy.

"You see before you a video made by the Danaans to train their new recruits. It explains the great mystery of why Earth has been targeted for destruction so many times. See this narrow cloud that remains stationary as the galaxy rotates through it? This band is considered holy ground, forbidden territory by the space-faring races of the galaxy. The origin of this absurd superstition is lost to the dim pre-history of the eldest of these races, but yet they still obey the one unwavering rule: no living creatures are allowed to exist in this cloud. See how these other systems have been targeted!"

The video showed solar system after solar system edging into the cloud as it was dragged by the rotation of the galaxy, only for armadas of spacecraft to arrive each time to blast the life-bearing planets to oblivion or bathe them in sterilizing rays.

"For more than a million years, entering that cloud has been a death sentence. Our Solar System entered that cloud in 1906. History records what followed."

The screens now showed photos of the aftermath of the Tungunska Explosion of 1908, which the Soviet Union had later revealed was the crash-landing of an alien scout ship. This was followed by black and white footage that was part of the childhood education of everyone watching: the Fomorian Invasion of America and then the world, 1938 - 45, the film showing the petrifaction rays sweeping out from the triangular spacecraft. There was some footage of the failed Firbolg invasion of Brazil in 1967, and finally the just-concluded Danaan invasion and the Battle of Clavius.

"We have been extraordinarily lucky," said Nimnul, "because the Galaxy has been embroiled in an immense and multi-sided civil war for the last five thousand years, and only splinter groups of each race have been fanatical enough to sacrifice the possible existence of their own race to attack us. This luck cannot last.

"Therefore, I am preparing the world for a preemptive strike. I have already mastered their technology. Within a year, we will have our first faster-than-light warship. We can build a mighty armada, step out boldly onto the galactic stage, and claim our rightful place. More than our rightful place--for our pains, we demand compensation!

"We demand worlds to settle on. We demand that the species that tried to conquer us must be our slaves! Under my leadership, the Terran Empire will be the greatest empire in the history of the Universe! Are you with me? Do you believe in a future of greatness?"

From thousands of speakers, the syllable "NIM" was intoned in a deep mechanical voice.

The voices of Earth responded: "NUL!"





Norton Nimnul, the man who had been expelled from MIT for the contents of his doctoral dissertation, the man who had had such dark thoughts the night before Aldrin Klordane had recruited him, the man who was now absolute ruler of the planet, gazed out at the tens of millions of adoring followers, and through the television cameras at hundreds of millions more. It was the greatest moment in his life.

In the corner of his eye he saw Francine, standing in the wings. She alone, alone in the whole world, was not cheering for him. Her arms were crossed and she had a look of contempt in her face. It was the same look on the faces of the Rescue Rangers in his head.

Suddenly, none of the adulation mattered. The only person he wanted to respect him was her.

She turned and strode away, and he raced after her, leaving the crowd in the lurch.

Backstage, Nimnul caught up to Francine and turned her to face him. "What is with you?" he demanded.

"Are you proud of yourself?" she asked him, calmly.

"Yes!" he shouted. "I think I have very good reason to be proud. I have..."

"You have finally proved that you are not a failure," Francine stated firmly. "You. Nobody else. And that is all you have ever tried to do. Yet you still insist on living this lie."

"Lie? This is no lie! What are you talking about?"

"Your grand imposture. Your insistence that you are Norton Nimnul."

"I AM NORTON NIMNUL!" he shouted in her face.

She stood her ground, continuing to stare at him until he faltered. "You are not Norton Nimnul," she repeated firmly. "You are Norris Nulton. You were born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on October 2nd of 1950. Your father left your family before you were born, and your mother got so tired of tending to your childhood illnesses that she wished you would just give up and die."

"I am..." Nimnul began, feebly.

Francine continued on. "You were one of the most-respected science fiction illustrators in the industry, and your prop designs for the cartoons of Rockwell Studio are the only redeeming factors of the vast majority of garbage they produced.

"Norton Nimnul on the other hand is a sick joke, created out of jealousy by a bitter parody of a studio producer that never understood why you were wasting your talents on his studio.

"You have to let go of him now, Norris," Francine said, pleading, taking his hand in her own. "Nimnul was a millstone around your neck, like the failure of the Alien Detector. But you have redeemed yourself. You have saved humanity from destruction, and brought the world into a new Golden Age. Let go of Norton Nimnul. Let him go so I can have my husband back."

The man before her reared back his head and screamed at the top of his lungs. "WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO CONVINCE YOU, WOMAN?! Norris Nulton is gone, dumped into a dead-end waste of a universe! I am Norton Nimnul! I am Norton Nimnul! I have created wonders the world has never known! I have slain the mighty dragon that has kidnapped the fair princess! What more could I possibly do to convince you?"

Francine's brow furled in confusion. "And how did you get here again, Mister so-called Nimnul?"

"I used a machine! A machine to switch my mind with my counterpart's in this universe! The mechanism is absurdly simple!"

"Sure it is," Francine said, turning and walking away.

Nimnul's pod raced in front of her. "I'm not finished! I...I could re-build it. Use it on someone. Then would you be convinced?"

Francine still remained skeptical. "Who would you switch?"

"I could switch anyone in the world! I could switch you!"

Francine inspected her nails. "Yes, I suppose you could. Replace me with some witch who rides a canister vacuum. But why do that, when you could do something really satisfying?"

"What do you mean?"

"The Rescue Rangers. You may have defeated them by coming here and winning the world, but do they know that? Or do they mistake Norris for you? Just think of that weak milksop of a man sobbing in a corner--the Rangers think that he is you."

"No, they can't think that!" Nimnul retorted. "I'm the great Professor Nimnul! I have never admitted weakness!"

"Norris admits weakness," Francine sneered. "He proclaims it from the rooftops. It is why I despise him."

" I can't. Bring my worst enemies here? Ridiculous!"

"They will be completely in your power. You have all of humanity behind you, and no animal has the intellect to help them--pure black and white. I mean, what could they do?"


"Not to mention, if you have the Rangers in your possession, you can reverse the Modemizer mishap. Those dissenting voices in your head will be gone!"

"But it's impossible. To get the Rangers using the Switcher, I would have to use the Rangers' counterparts in this world--wild animals! How can I possibly tell which vermin correspond to the Rangers?"

"You forget," Francine said, tapping the side of Nimnul's head, "a bit of the Rangers are in there. Rig up some sort of tracking device to find the matches to the parts of you that are not really part of you!"

"Yes! Yes, that could work! I'll rebuild the Dimensional Switcher! I'll swap the Rescue Rangers, and then you'll have to believe me!"

Nimnul turned and headed back to the crowd.

"Yes," said Francine, smiling darkly, "then I'll have to believe you."

Chapter 23: Substitution

T-0 days, 0 hours, 37 minutes and 0 seconds (June 12, 11:23 PM EDT).

It was nearing midnight on the evening of Friday, June 12th. In homes across America, high school students were winding down from their graduation ceremonies and parties.

Miss Weir often wondered what her high school graduation was like. She wondered if she ever dated somebody like Lou, because they seemed to act like friendly exes whenever they got together.

Miss Weir closed her eyes and guessed. "So, is it a super-weapon for destroying an entire planet with just one shot?"

Lou smiled. "No, but I saw the movie."

Lou was standing outside the double doors of a bunker less than a mile from Gogol mansion that led deep underground. The bunker had been excavated within the last week from an abandoned bat cave that was said by the locals to be an entrance to the Underworld. Two guards had stood at the door ever since, refusing entry to any "unauthorized personnel." And Laurel Weir was near the top of the unauthorized personnel list.

Lou was currently alone, as the call of Nature had temporarily claimed Bud. This was Miss Weir's best chance of getting inside.

"Aw, come on, you can tell me. We're friends, remember?"

"Well, yeah," Lou replied, "'s a secret! I could get in an awful lot of trouble!"

"And who do you think can keep a secret better than me? You know, I still haven't told anyone about that, ahem, questionable collection of you-know-what fan pictures you keep on your computer."

"Shhh...not even Bud knows I collect Harvey the Wonder Hamster, and he knows stuff I never knew I knew!"

"Exactly my point. I'm good at keeping quiet, so you can tell me what Nimnul is up to without having to worry about him tracing any leaks to you! Plus, if you let me see, I'll take you up with me the next time I get access to the company jet."

"I've always wanted to fly. What does it look like above the clouds?"

"More beautiful than anything on this gray earth. What do you say?"

Lou appeared to be deep in thought. It looked painful. "Alright," he said finally, "I'll tell you."

"Tell her what?" asked Bud, who had just turned the corner.

Lou nearly jumped out of his pants. "B...b...bud! What a pleasant surprise!"

Bud got in Lou's face. "Alright, out with it, squirt. What were you going to tell her?"

"I was just telling her...just telling recipe for almond cookies!"

Bud looked hurt. "You never told me your recipe for almond cookies!"

Lou was now doubly on the spot, as he didn't have a recipe for almond cookies.

Just then, the doors burst open and Francine emerged. She was wearing a white lab coat with welder's goggles matching Nimnul's perched on her forehead. She bounced off of Bud and landed on Lou before righting herself. "Boys!" she cried jovially. "I need you to take me to a pilot! Immediately!"

Bud smiled. "How much will you pay me for even faster than immediately?"

"One hundred dollars!" Francine proclaimed.

"Done!" Bud cried, shaking Francine by the hand. He then stepped aside to reveal Miss Weir.

"I just stepped right into that one, didn't I?" laughed Francine.

"Sorry Boss, I'm afraid you did. But I was here the whole time, so I don't think Bud deserves that money."

"Nonsense!" insisted Francine. "A deal's a deal!" She reached into a pocket of the lab coat, extracted a hundred dollar bill, and slapped it into Bud's outstretched hand.

As she and Miss Weir walked towards the helicopter, Francine told her, "You don't know how badly these two are paid, especially with all of the infractions on their record. They earned that money. Come on, we need to be in the air an hour ago."

"So, where are we going?" Miss Weir asked as they climbed into the aircraft.

"Hartford. I need to borrow something from the neighbors."

"The Empress needing to borrow something from the neighbors. This I've got to see!" said Miss Weir as she buckled her safety belt.

The copter set down in the middle of the court, facing the Nulton house. "Keep the engine running!" Francine shouted from the open door. "This won't be a second!"

She ducked under the blades and ran to the door of the d'Foote home, a wooden box under one arm. After several poundings at the door, the lights in the windows went on and she was let in by a groggy Herbert, Sr.

Miss Weir noted that the time was 12:04 am.

At 12:07, Francine came running out at top speed, with Herbert, Jr., and his entire family at her heels. "Go, go, go, go, go!" she shouted as soon as she had set foot inside the copter.

The helicopter lifted up in to the air. Francine looked down at the family, who were shouting and cursing at her. She turned to a questioning Miss Weir and declared, "At some point in life you get to the age when explaining yourself is a big fat waste of time. You just do what needs to be done, and deal with the consequences later."

Once the helicopter was in the air and headed back towards Gogol, Miss Weir cast a glance at her employer and at her box, which was jerking randomly around in her arms. "I take it they weren't too happy with your request?" she smirked.

Francine smiled. "Well, if I weren't the Empress, you would have been accessory to a theft just now."

"Why'd you take it, anyway?"

"If I were to waste my time being defensive, I'd say that the d'Footes had no right to this animal. It's on the endangered species list. It needs to be in a zoo, or in a habitat among its own kind. Since I'm not being defensive, I had a need for this particular bat, at this particular time."

"And what's this have to do with whatever Nimnul's up to in that bunker?"

"It's the cherry atop the Nimnul sundae. Or completely unnecessary. Not sure which. Do you mind if I call you 'Insurance', bat?" It was entirely possible that Francine was drunk.

Miss Weir smiled. "You're trying to make Nimnul shoot himself in the foot, aren't you?"

Francine sprouted an identical smile. "And it's not a crime if I'm the one selling him the bullets."

"Of course not. It's his fault if he doesn't read the friggin' manual."

The laugh left Francine's face. "But that's the problem," she told Miss Weir. "Norton Nimnul's the only person in the whole world with the manual, and he's reading it upside down!"

"Isn't that worse for him than not reading it at all?"

"Precisely, my dear Laurel, precisely! I know...I know a little now. Enough to be dangerous, I thought. Enough to take him on, I thought." Francine pulled her legs up on the seat so she was facing Laurel. "Do you know I spent seven hours in the 'Thirteenth Room' yesterday?" she confided. "Just me, the Book of Asteroth, and an old chair. Chipendale, I realized after the fact. Kinda appropriate, don't you think? Seven hours of Substitutiary Locomotion until my throat was sore. And the chair refused to budge! Refused! How dare it? Doesn't it know who's its master?"

Miss Weir tried to avoid eye contact. She remembered the week she was hired by Francine, there was a vast bonfire in the backyard. Hundreds of old books and parchments burning in strange colors with loud popping noises that kept her up all night. A departing servant warned her to beware of the evils of witchcraft. At the time, she had dismissed this as the ravings of an overworked mind. "Um...Boss?" she asked cautiously.

"It was never the books. All this time, all that money, all those charlatans, and it was never the books or the spells. It was me, Laurel, me all the time! I'm the reason my life has gone so badly, and no spell in the world will ever make things right until I truly want it to go right. Right...should have taken that right turn at Albuquerque."

"Boss, how long has it been since you slept last?"

"No time, no time! The clocks will not stop when you bop them on the snoot! Wait, that didn't rhyme!"

"You really should get some sleep."

"Just...just let me deliver this bat! This cute little pink bat. Thompson swings her...and THWACK! Into the left field stands! The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! The..." And at that moment she fell asleep.

Miss Weir landed the helicopter on the pad outside Gogol and tried to wake Francine, but to no avail.

Gently taking the box, she walked purposefully to the bunker, where she found Bud and Lou sharing a bottle of champagne.

"Hey boys!" she greeted them. "The Empress is out like a light, and I need to deliver this package to Nimnul."

"Go right in," slurred Bud, "The cat's out of the bag now!"

Without waiting to see if either of the guards would come to their senses and stop her, Laurel slipped inside. Just inside the door was a large platform with a railing that could be swung aside if you wanted to jump down to the ground level, assuming that you could survive the fifty-foot drop. Laurel elected to use the stairs instead to reach the lower level, which opened out into a large natural cave. Various pieces of equipment lined the walls of the cavern. A forty-inch plasma screen television mounted on one wall was playing sports highlights for the week. Sitting in front of the television were the rest of the guards, who were well on their way to a level of intoxication usually only found on Saturday night leave.

Miss Weir was expecting anything other than what she actually found in the center of the cavern, for it looked like it belonged in a carnival midway. A long sloped track led from one side to the other, with a small cart on top, the perfect size to put a four-year-old in. It would not be a very pleasant ride for the tyke, however, because at the end of the track was a brick wall. Only, it didn't really look like brick right now. The red shifted and shimmered into silver and back in a slow, steady rhythm.

Nimnul was next to the wall. He had somehow found a way to pilot his hover-pod into dancing an Irish jig. A set of electrodes were on his head, attached through a box-shaped device to more electrodes connected to several animals kept in a wire mesh cage on a table. "Free! Free! At last my mind is free!" he sang.

"Emperor!" called Miss Weir as she approached him. "The empress sent me something for you!"

Nimnul stopped singing and scowled. "Took her long enough!" he said, removing the electrodes from his bald scalp. "Tell her she missed out on all the fun."

"She fell asleep in the helicopter on the way back. I couldn't wake her."

Nimnul shook his head. "That woman mystifies me," he stated. The emperor met Miss Weir at the half-way point of the track and took the box from her, sliding a wooden panel aside and holding the box up to his goggles. "Hmm...ah, yes. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the entire reason she goaded me into this little demonstration was just so she could put the 'whammy' on her counterpart's arch-nemesis. Well, I'll show her, I'll do the swap when she isn't even here! I'll just put this in the..." Nimnul realized that the cart was way down at the other end of the track. "WILL SOMEBODY GET THAT CART OVER HERE!" he shouted.

A couple of men dressed in lab coats raced up. Since the disappearance of The Company, Nimnul had been forced to form a new group to guard him and do the things he liked to delegate. They were called the Nimnul Security Agency. "What can we do for Science!?" they shouted in unison.

Nimnul floated over to them, raised himself so he was towering over them, and pointed down the track. "Do you see that cart over there?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

"And you see that it isn't over here?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

"Well, bring it over here!"

"We hear and obey!" They ran down the track and tried to pick up the cart.

"No! You'll break it! Slide it down here! Slide!"


"When did I get the cat's henchmen?" Nimnul asked himself.

"A bit dim, aren't they?" Miss Weir observed.

Nimnul turned his head sharply and finally noticed whom he was talking to. He was especially annoyed by the fact that Laurel was irresistibly drawn to the reflective surface of the hover-pod, so she spent more time looking at it than at his face. "Hey! When did I give you permission to enter my sight?"

"I had to make the Boss's delivery for her." She shook her head. "I really don't understand her at times."

"Well, you'll have to explain her to me during the times when you do." Nimnul turned to the guards. "Finally! I could have been on 'It's a Small World' three times while you were bringing that cart up here. Ooo! I just thought of another punishment for my political enemies! Who here has a notebook?"

As he was saying this, he put the wooden box down on the cart, which immediately started to roll downhill. "I usually have one in one of the compartments of this thing, but wouldn't you know it, I had to make room for that pack of cards..."

Everybody started checking their pockets. "What's this doing here?" Nimnul asked, producing a pack of cigarettes. Realizing what was in his hand, he dropped it with a shudder. "Alright, fine, forget it, folks! I'll just rely on one of you to remember. A lost cause, as we all know..."

One of the guards clapped his hands. "Yay! I love rollercoasters!"

"What are you babbling about now...the cart!" Nimnul raced down the side of the track, trying desperately to outrace the accelerating cart. With a last desperate lunge, he managed to slap a large green button mounted next to the brick wall just before the cart hit, and the wall turned fully silver. When the cart reached the end of the track, a slide on top extended, which the box traveled down until it hit the wall. If this were a brick wall, the box would be fairly broken up by the impact, but instead it bounced gently away from the wall along the slide, sliding and bouncing a few more times before coming to a stop.

Nimnul pressed a red button below the first, which caused the wall to go back to "standby" mode, and gently removed the box, putting it beside the wire cage.

"There, we're done for the night. I don't care if that's actually Foxglove or not, I'm going to bed. Somebody cut the power on the way out!" Nimnul stacked the cage and the box on the edge of the hover-pod, floated up fifty feet, and opened the platform railing to exit the bunker.

THUNK! went the lights.

"Why am I always in the dark?" asked Miss Weir.

"Here's a summary of the news at the top of the hour: Africa suffers from an outbreak of Dengue fever, Moscow remains submerged after yesterday's torrential flooding, Britain continues to endure its year-long heat wave, Michigan has supplanted New Jersey as America's most depopulated state, and Japan is gripped by hysteria as thousands claim to have witnessed a new 'Goddess of the Wired' saving the nation from the Phantoma attacks. Emperor Norton promises to have all of these problems cleared up within the next week, with the exception of Japan--'I can't cure crazy,' he is quoted as saying.

"All hail Emperor Norton, the great and powerful." The announcer looked less than enthused by this last statement. Watching the broadcast, Nimnul made a mental note to have that corrected within the next week as well. He looked over at Francine to judge her reaction, but she kept her face studiously blank.

Nimnul and Francine weren't the only individuals watching the news broadcast from the comfort of their separate beds. The wire cage with two chipmunks, two mice and a turtle had been given a permanent place in the master bedroom of Gogol a week ago, with the bat from the box added to complete the group. The cage faced the television set, and Nimnul made sure the set was tuned to the more depressing of the news channels when he didn't have anything in particular to watch, just so the Rangers would know what they were up against. A big sign was installed above the cage, which said "THE RESCUE RANGERS. No touching."

Nimnul's grim enjoyment of the new program was interrupted when a small woman's choir arrived outside the bedroom window to serenade the Emperor. While he was thus distracted, Laurel entered the room, disguised as a maid. In the midst of her dusting, she managed to "accidentally" open the cage door.

Francine walked up to her. She looked at the cage door, then looked at Laurel, and then shook her head in disapproval. Then she turned the cage around so that Nimnul could not easily see the open door and nodded conspiratorially.

The two women snuck out of the room and went to Miss Weir's room. Francine took a moment to take in Laurel's costume, a frilly pink outfit that looked like it belonged on a three-year old. "Where did you even find one of the old uniforms?" she asked. "I thought I had the lot of them ceremoniously burned the day I inherited the mansion."

"You missed Nimnul's re-orientation meeting for the servants. He discovered your father's designs for 'company dress', and apparently thought they were a better idea than the more-sensible dress code you had in place."

"I'm not surprised," said Francine. "Nimnul and my father have in common the same reaction to status: suck up to your superiors, and humiliate your inferiors at every opportunity. Now, with that cleared up, why don't you show me this pet of yours?"

"He's over here," said Miss Weir. "Meet Sparky. Sparky, wave hello to Francine."

Francine waited a moment, then waved her hand frantically.

Miss Weir was shocked. "You saw Sparky wave? I didn't think any human could see that!"

Francine smiled. "I saw no such thing, Laurel, but if I did, I wouldn't be surprised. That pillow over there could wave at me right now and I would not be surprised, not anymore."

"Does your new attitude have anything to do with that book you read on the Moon-Earth shuttle?" asked Miss Weir.

"Laurel, let me tell you about Waldo."

"You better not be referring to me, ladies," said Nimnul, who was hovering in the doorway. He was not in the best of moods, to put it lightly.

"Norton!" Francine said, turning around suddenly. "What brings you here?"

"Oh, just looking for my darling 'wife', the one who hired that band of fake opera singers."

"Um, happy birthday?"

Nimnul sighed. "Come on," he ordered. "We are going to finish this farce, once and for all." He grimly led them back to the bedroom.

The cage was just as they had left it. The door was wide open, and none of the animals inside had left.

"Come on!" urged Nimnul them. "Make your grand bid for freedom!"

One of the mice sniffed in his general direction.

"So that device you showed me before was your 'Dimensional Switcher'?" Miss Weir leaned over and looked closely at the inhabitants of the cage. "No, that's not really the Rescue Rangers," she declared.

"Sure it is!" countered a manic Nimnul. Pointing at each of the animals in turn, he introduced them. "This is Chip, this is, wait, this is Dale and this is Chip. That's Monty, and the particularly stupid-looking one is Gadget. The turtle is that blasted fly of theirs--trust me on this, alternate universes are not an exact science, and sometimes species get a little mixed up. The bat of course you met earlier, Foxglove."

"Forgive me for being skeptical," said Miss Weir, "but they're not acting anything like their characters on the show."

"Ah, now we are getting to the fun part," said Nimnul, an evil glint in his goggles. "You see, once you arrive in this universe, you are bound by its laws. This is a universe of super science and proper respect for human minds, which is why I chose to move here. It is not, and never has been, a universe for nosy vermin that don't know when to leave a hard-working scientist alone! No other animals are sentient here, so neither are the Rescue Rangers. Oh, they're here, all right--see, just now, that glimmer in Chip's eye? That's his intelligence, intelligence trapped in bodies that will not obey them."

He turned to the Empress. "I really have to thank you, Francine, for the excellent idea of bringing the Rescue Rangers here, to this universe. Now I have the satisfaction that not only will they never bother me again, they will never bother anyone again for as long as they live!" He reached into the cage and pulled out the two chipmunks. They screamed and squirmed in his hands. "They are completely ruled by their hormones. Any desire to be heroic is overridden!"

Francine and Laurel's hopes slumped.

Nimnul returned the animals to the cage and triumphantly shut the door. The vibration shook the water bottles, and in a Pavlovian response, this made the animals thirsty, so they started fighting each other for access. Seeing this, Nimnul started laughing. "Don't you realize what this means?" he crowed. "I've won! I've finally, utterly won!


Continue to Part 3.

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