Chapter 24

A cool sea breeze blew a slight mist through the clear night. The Milky Way, barely visible to many, wove its way across the millions of points of light. A breeze rustled through the cypress and carried scents of the sea. Margie wanted to sniff them, but she had a job to do. Her gaze was fixed on the ruddy yellow spot of light that slowly crept across the sky. She had no trouble locking on the planet and dutifully kept it within .001 degrees of center.

The cable itched a bit, but she knew better than to scratch at it. The cable jostled against the power feed and when the breeze hit it just so Margie got a bit of a spike. Still, she wanted to be a good girl. She knew that it wouldn't be much longer, at least she hoped it wouldn't be much longer.

Inside Bob ran yet another search. Margie's visual scanners were easy to augment for the telltale exit warp signal. Several of the monitor windows scrolled a near endless stream of numbers as others showed false color images of Saturn. Bob had picked up the warp signature when it had left Boise, but had not managed to get the exit signature. It had been several days now.

It had been several days. Of course Bob had placed several additional tracking devices on the vehicle, but none of them were working either. Bob had checked and re-checked the design of the engine and was sure that it should work. Granted, this had been the initial test, but he felt a bit disappointed that it didn't work as well as he hoped. Still, it had solved at least one of his problems.

Sure, getting rid of "the Grayhound" and "Puppyboy" would certainly make getting his masters that much harder, but they had simply gone too far. Bob had to be quite clear that he simply was not one to be trifled with. Who knows, maybe he might even be able to pass this off as a project and get some extra credit out of it.

He clicked on a back window to do one last check for the low frequency pulse signal. It was pretty easy to spot, all you had to do was keep a running sum of thirty or so of the four digit numbers then take the cube root and ... or was it the square root? Bob lost count. He blinked to clear the fog and started again.

One one three eight plus nine sixty two plus forty five oh two plus... wait, what does that add up to again err, carry the three... A vague sense of panic started to creep up Bob's spine. He grabbed his note pad and tried to calculate the mass differentials of multidimensional space, and suddenly couldn't get past the first eight.

The panic had really started. Bob had guessed that the increase in his intelligence may have been a result of the artifact. Bob had spent several days trying to summon up energy blasts before he realized that he did not have that asset. He had quickly deduced that the effects of the artifact behaved significantly differently on humans than he had first expected or was lead to believe.

Unfortunately, he suddenly realized that apparently the effects were also short lived. Bob raced to apply different, and simpler passwords to as many files as he could. While he frantically wrote down the various formulae he used to encrypt his files. Damn, he had been so clever using different formulas for each of the aspects of the drive, and all the other projects he had been working on.

He should have known better.

He hated "clever".

As suddenly as it had come, his knowledge was gone.

Bob sat in the darkness of his den, looking at the gathered notes and drawings, suddenly rendered indecipherable. He sighed heavily, and stood up. It was late, much later than he had expected, 'Poor Margie,' he thought, 'she must be getting a cramp by now.'

He walked out into the cold. Margie was still carefully tracking Saturn. Her tail carefully wagged a bit, excited to hear Bob walk out but not wanting to lose track of the planet.

"It's ok girl, that's enough." He reached up and patted her shoulder, then undid the feed cable from her junction box. Geez, in his excitement, he hadn't even properly seated the power cable. He undid it, and resat the connection. The feed indicator flicked from orange to green and Margie let out a low moan of relief. She rubbed her muzzle against Bob's back in gratitude. For being so large, Margie could be surprisingly gentle. Bob rubbed the rubber gasket beneath her ear, and Margie flopped onto her side in near ecstasy.

Bob wondered how many seismographs registered that.

"Would you like anything else Zurung?" Elizabeth (call me Liz, dear) Reid called back to the den, where the faint sound of Headline News played out.

"Ab gunxf, v'z svar."

Liz stood standing for a few seconds trying to decipher if that was was a yes or a no.

"He said he was ok for now, Ma." JB offered. He and Chris sat next to each other each with matching glasses of soda. "I'm sorry we're a bit late, and for bringing Zrng."

Liz waved it off, "It wouldn't be the holidays if we didn't have a few strays at the table. Your friend seems very nice, but a bit anti-social."

"Yeah, he said that he needed to do a bit of work before he came out. I'll go ask him how it's going." JB practically leapt from the couch and hussled into the den.

"You say that he's European?"

Chris was a bit surprised by the question. "Uh yeah, Dad. We met him kind of recently, he's basically visiting us and evaluating for... well.. it's a bit complicated really. Basically he's doing research."

"And where in Europe is he from again? I'm not really familiar with his accent." the skeptical retired Marine colonel asked.

Chris' mind raced a bit, trying to remember the complicated details that JB had worked out for this very question. Chris envied JB's ability to weave details in an almost believable fashion, a facility that Chris notably lacked. "San Marino." Chris replied with a bit too long of a delay. "I couldn't remember if it was there or Sweden."


"Err, Switzerland. Sorry, somewhere like that. Unfortunately his English is pretty awful."

"Then how come you two don't seem to have a problem understanding him?" The Colonel leaned forward a bit, very interested in getting the answer.

Chris started sweating. "Mostly it's lucky guesses on my part."

The Colonel leaned back a bit and smiled, somewhat satisfied with the answer. "So what kind of research is he doing?"

"Uh, cultural mostly."

"So he's with a university?"

"Uhm, not quite. Actually JB knows the most about him, you really should ask. So when are you and Ma going to move out of here anyway?"

His Dad laughed. "Are you looking to move in?"

"No, actually, we've got a place in Boise."

"We're doing some government contracting work." JB said, Zrng stood behind him, looking somewhat annoyed, but apparently swayed by whatever argument JB made. Zrng had applied a somewhat thick layer of base to significantly tone down the overall green skintone, normally seen on system administrators. Of course his squat bulky physique made him look like he had been bench pressing the room rather than working in it, and JB convinced him to leave his sunglasses on, but otherwise he looked almost human, or at least human enough.

"Your brother and I were just talking about your friend there, Zug?",

"Zrng", he corrected.

"Parlate italiano?", the Colonel asked.

"Ab, qb lbh fcrnx wryina?", Zrng replied raising and eyebrow.

"Uhm, actually, Zrng speaks a dialect of old San Marinian out of deference to his great grandfather, twice removed." JB quickly countered.

Everyone in the room looked at him with the same expression you're making now.

"Dinner's ready!" Liz called from the kitchen, "Everyone, come to the table."

JB was the last to move, and his first action was to exhale.

Zrng looked at him for a few seconds and began to giggle, then started walking toward the table as well.

JB muttered something under his breath at the laughing alien and headed off as well.

The table was spread with all sorts of foods. Ma Reid was never one to scrimp, particularly during the holidays. Zrng looked carefully at the collected alien forms of food. They generally appeared appealing, but he was not sure. He pulled out a quick scanner and began checking the foods.

Chris snatched the device before the parents could see it, particularly before Ma could get upset that anyone didn't appreciate the amount of effort that she had put into preparing the feed. Zrng looked a bit upset. Chris carefully positioned the scanner so that it was under the table lip, pointing up. He then reached for the bread, and held it above the scanner. "Bread?" he asked.

Zrng looked at the scanner, the light was green. He smiled, rather clever these humans. He nodded and took a warm slice of crusty French bread, sniffed it, and took a small taste. His eyes grew wide behind his visor and he quickly ate the rest. He started reaching for a second slice before Chris pulled the basket away. "Hang on, there's more later, we have to wait a few minutes first."

Once everything was to the table, and prayers were offered, the dining commenced. Platters began to make their way around the table, and Chris carefully held each above Zrng sensor. Apparently human cuisine was remarkably compatible with Grylix metabolism and soon Zrng was giddily piling up something other than two hundred years of deep space rations onto his plate.

"So tell me, Zurung? is it." Mrs. Reid began. Zrng winced a bit at the slaughter of his name, but considering how the food tasted, he was not one to quibble. "How long have you been here?"

"Aobhg guvegl zvahgrf "

"Uh, he hasn't been here that long really. He's still trying to get settled into things. In fact he was nice enough to give us a ride here.", JB translated.

"Really? He drove here from Boise? That must have taken him hours, I certainly hope that you all split the driving."

"Ubhef? Ab, vg gbbx gjb ubhef gb trg urer sebz Whcvgre. Sebz Obvfr vg bayl gbbx gra zvahgrf, naq abobql qevirf zl fuvc ohg zr."

"Yes, rather nice of him really. In fact he refused to let us do any driving." Chris responded.

"Qnza fgenvtug, gur gubhtug bs orpbzvat lbhe zbbaf yngrfg pengre vf yrff guna nccrnyvat."

"Granted it was an interesting drive. Apparently the laws that Zrng is used to driving under are a bit different than the ones we have here, but we made sure he was aware of them."

"Lrnu ol fpernzvat gurz ng gur gbc bs lbhe yhatf. 'Zrng, fybj qbja! Zrng! Ybbx bhg sbe gung zbhagnva! Zrng! Lbh fhpxrq n pbj vagb gur vagnxr!'"

"And I'm not helping you clean that out either, next time we're taking our car." Chris shot back.

"Say why didn't you drive down here yourself?" The Colonel asked.

"Uhm, car trouble. The engine wouldn't start."

" Orpnhfr vg jnf erzbirq."

"I keep telling you, not to buy those damn imported cars."

"Oh, so I should get a BMW like you drive?" Chris retorted.

"At least it's more reliable."

"True, it's in the shop every other month just like clockwork."

"Boys, behave." Liz put an end to the debate before it could once again spark.
"So why Boise? Couldn't get a job anywhere else?"

"Crane!" Liz snapped at her husband.

"Liz, the boy hasn't been able to hold down a job since college, and now he's got his brother wrapped up in whatever cockamamie scheme he's got going this time At least I'm concerned about him."

"Well, actually Dad, I've got a guaranteed projected income of over thirty million, post taxes, over the next twenty years. My mutual and retirement funds are doing better than the markets and are netting me about eight to twelve percent and almost all of my current expenses can be declared as work related. Now, granted, I'm still somewhat worried about how to properly depreciate some items, but that's why I've got Jonathan on retainer."

"Well, what about heath care?"

"Oh, that's fully covered by USH-ow!" JB said and before Chris could properly correct him.

"Ushow. It's a division of Aetna. They specialize in small businesses."

"Hmm, so long as you're not messed up with those damn mutant vigilante idiots."

"Crane, the boys are much smarter than that. Besides it's not like they flew here."

" Jryy, npghnyyl, jr qvq -OW!"

"You boys doing ok?" Liz asked them with a bit of concern.

"Uhm, yeah just a spate of muscle cramps, that's all. You know how it is when you've been going at it. We've started running to keep in shape." Chris said as he shot angry glances toward JB and Zrng.

"Well, I'm glad, you both look like you've lost some weight."

The dinner went reasonably well after that, well, except for Liz wondering if JB was cold because he had such bulky clothes on, and Crane informing Chris that he should seriously consider getting a real job one day rather than riding on JB's coat-tails, and of course most of the makeup coming off of Zrng's hands which JB covered up by saying it was traditional for San Marinos to eat spinach with their hands, and it kind of stains after a bit...

After dinner came the usual clean up, well, that would normally have been the case, had Zrng left anything remotely edible at the table. Liz took an immediate shine to the short "European", and with JB's help the three spent most of the rest of the night discussing various food preparation techniques.

Chris excused himself and said that he needed to take a bit of a walk.

The air outside was bracing and fresh, the dinner was good, but too many things kept creeping up into Chris' mind. He turned at the end of the walkway and headed down the sidewalk, his overcoat fluttering a bit in the wind. It was thin, but very warm, and blocked all of the wind. Considering what the coat was capable of, wind should be the least of his concerns. Chris smiled a bit at that. Eight months ago he had no idea what he wanted to do. A year ago, if someone had told him what he'd be going through, he would have laughed at him.

Leaves crunched under his feet. He wondered what was happening in Boise.

"So, do you have an answer yet?" A familiar voice said behind him.

Chris whirled around in surprise, there standing behind him was the woman from the Division of Super Heroes, still holding her clipboard. It must have been thirty degrees out, but this woman was still dressed like she was when Chris first saw her. Apparently the extra insulation she carried around with her was proving to be quite useful. That or the cold was too scared to approach her.

She stood still looking at Chris waiting for his answer, and a bit impatiently at that.

"Answer for what?" Chris sputtered back.

"Answer for what?" the woman mocked back, "Why else would I be standin' out here freezing my knickers off?" She poked his chest, accentuating each word as she demanded, "Why do you want to be a superhero?"

Chris blinked at the woman.

"'Why do I want to be a superhero?' Lady, I never wanted to be a superhero. About a year ago, I got a little reminder from my past that I should really watch how much I drink. I head on up to Boise with my idiot, gung-ho brother in tow, to say 'Thanks, but no thanks'. Before I even have a chance to talk to anyone about anything I'm standing knee-deep in a fountain making myself the chew-toy of choice for every cat in Idaho. What's more, some raving lunatic has decided to set up shop and everyone up there is suffering the mass delusion that only I can save them."

"I've been blown up, shot, electrocuted, battled mutant robots, chefs and surf-witches. My car has been totaled, twice now, and I'm still not finished paying for it. My brother has suddenly become the conduit of choice for the Psychic SuperFriends because of all of this, which I'm pretty sure is my own damn fault for getting him involved in this insanity."

"I don't even want to think about how much I've spent already on tools, armor, repairs, medical bills, and God-only-knows what else. Oh, and I'm no closer to stopping the one guy that I've been asked to stop than I was when I started all of this. In fact, I'm willing to bet that it would have been cheaper for Bob and I to have just pooled our money together and bought some damn island somewhere and let him go nuts ruling it."

"But that would be too simple, wouldn't it? Oh, no. Now I've been shot into space, and fortunately wound up stuck in some alien's beer locker, then threatened by some other alien nut-job who could have destroyed the planet, but is holding off because of 'personal reasons' but has managed to tell me that we're all pretty well screwed anyway because the walking garbage disposal that saved our planet's hide is probably the galactic equivalent of the Libyans."

"Madam, if I could, I'd hang up this stupid getup, plop my lazy butt down in front of my collection of game consoles and get the thumbs of a lumberjack." Chris had his head back and was smiling at that. He held the pose for a few seconds, then collected himself.

In a quieter voice he continued. "But I can't."

"Like it or not, it's now my job to keep that delightful burg from getting itself prematurely offed by the improbable without getting myself killed in the process. I can't go get help, because if I ever told anyone about any of this crap, I'd be locked up. Heck, I'm not sure I believe it all myself."

"Oh, and as for you and your USHA or whoever? Go get stuffed."

"Look, I'm sure y'all keep yourself plenty busy and find all kind of creative ways to waste time, but I gotta tell you that anyone who honestly thinks he or she can expect you lot to be the cavalry obviously never had to fill out your paperwork. Those other big time heroes can take a few days off to go hear some lycra clad blowhard talk about evil space seafood and feel all important while telling the folks that obviously didn't need to be there 'Don't do anything. Go about your business.', but frankly, I've got a city to watch. Besides what am I gonna do about it? Go mano-a-mano in the fridge at the local Red Lobster? You could have saved yourselves a heck of a lot of cash by simply sending us an e-mail."

The woman patiently waited for Chris to finish. Chris knew was was coming next. It always happened when he lost his temper like that. He knew that he was going to get yelled at by this woman for some reason or another, but frankly he didn't care. 'Fine.' He thought, 'Let them sue me. I'm not a superhero anyway.' Still, it felt good venting his spleen, as well as several other major organs.

"Are you done with your whining now?" The woman asked.

Chris nodded, here it came.

The woman chuckled. That, was not what Chris was expecting. When she spoke, it was far more gently than he imagined and the woman seemed to glow with bemusement. "I'm very impressed.", she began. "You've managed to figure out more than most of the others have. You're dead on about somethings. Others, well, hopefully you'll find out about them too. You're quite the rare breed, Mr. Reid. Most folks in your position would have simply given up or gone insane."

"Who says I haven't done both of those?" Chris responded.

The woman simply laughed and held up a finger to chide him. "Because that would be quitting, and that's not quite your style, now is it Mr. Reid?"

Chris gave no reaction, but knew the answer to that.

"Well, I guess you'll be needing this now." The woman said as she handed Chris a small card. She held onto the card a bit and looked at Chris directly, "I must tell you Mr. Reid... Chris... that there are some that do not want you to have that. Fortunately for you, it is not just their choice to make. We are taking a big risk with you. Do not let us down."

Chris looked at the card. He had no idea how or when the picture was taken. He could only presume that it must have happened after he had been beaten up, still it was his official card. He was now a superhero.

'Oh, great.' Chris thought, slightly annoyed by the prospect of telling JB. Maybe he could hold off on letting him know.

"Your full benefits package will arrive by mail shortly." Chris' shoulders slumped as the realization that JB was the one that got the mail hit him.

"Good luck Mr.. Grayhound. I fear you'll need it."

End of Book One

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