Going through college, both Chris and JB would often get together on weekend nights to play games with friends. JB's game nights generally involved dice, hex graph paper, long sheets of statistics and bags of Doritos with blocks of cream cheese. Chris' involved piles of brightly colored pieces of plastic, cards, and bags of Doritos with blocks of cream cheese.
JB may be an incredible geek, but the Dorito thing was pretty darn tasty.
Game night was a common obsession with both of them, although neither would admit it, or even know about the other's habit. Still, both easily had accumulated horrendous amounts of experience that often wound up being fantastically useful in unusual circumstances.
JB often used his acquired problem solving expertise dealing with networking issues back in his consulting days. Although, his occasional references to bugs as kobolds generally flew over the heads of his employers.
Chris' poker skills were equally useful.
"No, I'm not saying we weren't in the area." Chris said angrily into his phone. "Look we arrived got assaulted by duckies and dealt with the problem. We were out of there before the blackout hit."
It was the third time that Chris had said that within the past four minutes. He was starting to believe it.
"Energy blast? What energy blast?" Chris hand once managed to outbluff a straight. "No, we don't have anyone who can generate those."
Chris sat back against the futon and started flicking through the channels.
"Well, yeah, but she's got revolvers and shoots bullets. She took out a few hundred of the duckies in just a few seconds."
The TV carried news reports of the massive blackout that had shut down most of the northeast .
"No, they're just revolvers, you know, like you see in old cowboy movies."
Various experts of various quality spoke endlessly about aspects of the power system, the costs of the failure and who to blame for the crisis.
"I don't know how she managed to fire off so many rounds." Chris shot off angrily, himself. "Maybe she's bad at math or something. Besides she was blowing away duckies. It's not like she missed."
The US blamed Canada, the Canadians blamed Ohio, Ohio blamed a series of severe thunderstorms that had hit the area, and a guy in Dubuque blamed aliens who speak to him through static cling. Naturally the last guy got lots of time on the interview shows. There was some discussion about how the surge apparently took out the Fort Frances power substation, but currently it was pretty far down the list of suspects.
"Look, trust me, she doesn't miss unless she clearly wants to."
A reporter walked through a lake front parking lot past piles of shredded and melted yellow plastic speaking of how the brave residents had recently suffered so much tragedy.
"No, Industry is strong and all, but I didn't see him zapping anything."
Suddenly, Chris sat forward, the thread of conversation he was having with the USHA rep lost.
"What the heck is this?"
Chris turned up the volume on the TV.
"Citizens of Fort Frances, your dealings with the deviling DUCKIE is done!" the recorded voice of Alpha Guy addressed the gathered crowd. Granted, this was a report that was taped earlier, so one would generally presume that Alpha Guy's voice would be recorded. One would not expect that Alpha Guy would be a life sized cardboard cutout being bounced like a bad puppet by an Alpha agent just barely below camera range. One would have also hoped that the voice saying "DUCKIE" would have at least matched the rest of Alpha Guy's heroic statement.
"I have rid you of the DUCKIE menace that has plagued you for so many weeks, days and/or months. Justice has triumphed against the evil DUCKIE and goodness has won the day. "
Chris sat and stared at the mindlessly applauding crowd. "What the heck are you guys trying to pull?", he demanded of the voice on the phone.
"I'm sitting here watching Alpha Guy lay claim over cleaning out those ducks." Chris' temper started to rise. "Ducks, I'll have you remember, you guys asked us to take care of because he and his other buddies were out windsurfing."
On the TV a hand reached up and flopped Alpha Guy's permanently upraised wave. The crowd waved back.
"In fact, the real Alpha Guy couldn't even be bothered flying his baboon colored butt up here to give the speech. It's being delivered by a stand in. Oh, perfect, a stand in with a portable CD player duct-taped to it's back. What do you mean 'How do I know?' It fell over onto the crowd and is now mosh surfing, face down. A couple of guys in blue look like they're trying to grab it back."
"'He's got a few days left!?' You mean they're still on vacation!? Shouldn't they be, oh, I don't know, ON PATROL FOR LOOTERS!?"
The voices on the TV and the phone both explained why, but gave only half reasons. There was no looting because the villains were on vacation too.
The USHA rep finished up and told Chris that they would be in contact again if there were further questions. "Yeah, fine, whatever." Chris said, desperately trying to control the painful tingling that was building up in his arm. He hung up the phone and turned off the TV.
Myron chuckled from the shadows of the apartment. "Have you considered a career in gambling?"
Chris said nothing, simply choosing to glare in Myron's direction.
"I wish I had been there. I'm sure you put on quite a show. Tell me, when did you get the device?"
Chris thought about bluffing, but was haunted by Kenny Rogers. He shook off the chill and taunted his reply, " 'A hero always has to have an ace up his sleeve.' "
"That's a heck of an ace." Myron said cooly. "Any other tricks?"
Chris chuckled, "Yeah, like I'm going to show all my cards to you."
The two stared at each other not willing to give in. Chris blinked first. "Myron? What the heck are you doing here?"
"You were late." Myron said with false concern, "I was worried."
"Ok, fine. You were here, the others weren't and the coffee hit."
Chris grew concerned. He didn't remember hearing a flush.
"Besides," Myron continued, " I think you bear keeping a closer eye on."
The universal translator continued to blink at Plaskowitz. He typed in the next key sequence, mostly from muscle memory.
He had gone through several thousand known languages, unknown languages, fictional, non-fictional and autobiographical languages with nothing even making a blip. More importantly he was running out of language packs.
The main display switched over to a prescheduled broadcast that examined the interaction of sea life. Plaskowitz felt it was important to keep up with the neighbors.
Are ya ready kids?
The document he had salvaged from the engine code had produced a name, but Plaskowitz knew he needed more than that to go on. So he hoped to decipher the remainder of the language in order to get as much information as he could.
I can't hear yooooooou!
Plaskowitz wasn't sure where this language came from, or even what it meant but he knew that if he ever needed to make something unreadable, his new language of choice is what the Humans call 'Perl'.
OOOOO, who lives in a pinapple under the sea?
"SpongeBob Square GAAAAH!" Plaskowitz leapt three feet out of his chair, which woudn't have been a problem provided there was more than two feet of clearance. Needless to say the main display did not feature a bright yellow sponge, but instead featured a unnaturally large mottled brown and green face that looked at Plaskowitz in the same caring way that a Mother Wolverine looks upon a frightened rabbit.
"Ah, Plaskowitz, good to see you." The Shareholder disturbingly smiled. "So how are things going. All settled in and cozy? Getting enough oxygen or whatever?"
Plaskowitz tried to press his head back into shape and bring most of his heartbeats back into the subsonic ranges. "What? Oh, yes, I'm still setting up a few monitoring circuits and determining the approximate vector for the bilinear vacillating monopolar..."
"Yes, yes, all very exciting, I'm sure." The Shareholder responded with a grand lack of enthusiasm. He turned back to the monitor and rested his head in his hands and filled the screen with his smile, "Say, Plaskowitz, guess who I had taj with the other day?"
Plaskowitz didn't have time to reply.
Even though Plaskowitz didn't have a beverage handy, he still managed to do a beautiful spit-take. "KILL 'EM ALL K'LAUL?" Plaskowitz shrieked back at the monitor as color and a few other fluids drained from him.
Commander k'Laul was, without peer, one of the most ruthless pirates. He was wanted Dead or a live in most systems and just plain ol' dead in the rest. k'Laul was known for having at least one body part in every dirty dealing in known space and had a personal armada dedicated solely to battle whichever society decided to declare suicidal war against him.
It should also be noted that while dreaded, feared, cursed and despised by all spacefaring societies, he was also well protected. It was often quite convenient to have k'Laul to distract the voting populace during awkward political times.
Still, dealing with k'Laul was akin to dealing with the Devil's own teacher and best student, and usually required a thorough inventory of possessions, persons, and planets afterwards.
"Yes, lovely fellow k'Laul. We had quite the conversation, catching up on all sorts of things. Turns out he had a bit of a run-in with some folks a few months ago, horribly disagreeable lot but k'Laul worked it out with them and had their planet smelted. Heh-heh, and wouldn't you believe that the silly goose forgot to tell them first. What a card."
Plaskowitz stared at the monitor in horror trying to even comprehend the amount of energy required to smelt a planet.
"Any-hoo, we got to talking about that nifty little engine we found last year. You remember the one."
Plaskowitz nodded. Of course he knew the one. It was the one he had been working on since they found it.
"And k'Laul was quite excited to hear about it. In fact he thought it might be rather nice to have one or two himself."
"What!?" Plaskowitz blurted out as the seeping terror rose up inside of him. "That engine isn't registered. It's totally untraceable. Heck, we wouldn't even know about it if it wasn't for that signature sweep we picked up a month before we found it..." Plaskowitz' voice trailed off as he thought about that. All of the folks he talked to, and all of the measurements he made indicated that there was no time shift, but there was no denying the fact that his sensors recorded the blip. The sudden fear of time traveling sociopath sent a wave of nausea through him. Surely even someone as insane as the Shareholder had to realize how fundamentally wrong something like that would be?
"So he said he'd like about four dozen or so. He said he'd wait 'til they were ready, but I told him that we'd have them for him in two months." The Shareholder beamed happily from the screen. Plaskowitz still couldn't get past the shock of what he heard.
"I know I can depend on you dear lad. Otherwise I'd be very disappointed. But have no fear, I've learned much from our good pal k'Laul. He said that I should channel that negative into a positive and find some way to help out others. Say, hasn't your home world had a few chilly nights lately? I bet I know a way that I can warm them up all toasty. See? Now I know how to cheer myself up if you can't get those engines for me."
The Shareholder was going to Gate-Bake Plaskowitz' home world. He was going to channel a solar flare through a jump gate and sterilize it. Billions of his people gone in an instant of untraceable devastation.
"Well, best not dally any longer. You're a busy, busy being. Ta-Taaa!"
The screen went dead and Plaskowitz was left alone in silence, trying to work out how he managed to get into this situation. He needed a friend.
Captain Industry shifted nervously in his chair. Across the small table was an interviewer carefully pouring over various papers, including the Captain's resume.
"I have the test results, Mr. Marx."
Karl smiled uncomfortably, "Please, Call me Karl."
The interviewer chuckled, "Ah, Karl Marx. Heh. I bet you got a lot of kidding about that growing up."
Karl smiled back and waved off the comment, "Actually, no, he was after my time. Mostly, it was that rascal Zeppo."
The interviewer stared blankly at Karl for a few uncomfortable heartbeats. "Yes. I suppose. I must admit, Mis.. Karl, that these results are peculiar."
Karl felt his heart sink. It was the start of the same conversation he'd had far too many times lately.
"I see you've done excellently in the math portion of the test, but I must point out that there are other areas that I'm afraid you need a good deal of work in. You've scored rather low in business and tax law, you seem to be unfamiliar with any accounting method other than double entry, and frankly, your computer skills are non-existent. I'd also note that if I am to believe your own resume, you have a nearly sixty year gap in your educational curriculum and employment record."
Karl sat and silently mouthed the words of the report.
"Still," the interviewer noted, I can't help but note you're enthusiasm regarding this opportunity. I'll be frank. Not many people want a position like this. Why should we consider you for it?"
"Well," Karl said uncomfortably, I'd like to think that I bring a certain level of experience into the position."
"I can't argue with you on that point." The interviewer flipped through a few other pages. "But I have to ask, why?"
Karl wasn't sure how to answer the question. "Why?"
"You're obviously smart, albeit a bit rusty in some skills. You're well off if your suit is any measure, and you certainly are eager, but is this really the job you want?"
Karl was confused, "What do you mean."
"Well, it's the other interests area you've included."
"Yes, some of the resume sites said that I should include that."
"You have listed here, 'Karl enjoys running, lifting weights, and boxing.'"
Karl still didn't see a problem, "Well, yes, but I hardly think those are unusual."
"You also point out that you enjoy leaping tall buildings, can benchpress nearly two tons and are able to see through walls."
Karl continued to be blissfully ignorant. "Yes, but having those sorts of assets have provided me with great access to various researching various business practices..."
"'Karl also enjoys thwarting evil plots to conquer the world.'"
"Well, everyone needs a hobby." Karl tried to defend his comment and find a way to get back at JB for convincing him to add it.
The interviewer closed the file and looked at Karl. "Mr. Marx, Karl, really I'd like to hire you, but I'm afraid that you're both underqualified and overqualified. Why don't you stick to something you seem to enjoy, like crime-fighting?"
"Because there's no money in it!" Karl snapped back angrily. He quickly composed himself, driving his fist against his leg and cracking the cement beneath the carpeting. "I'm sorry. It's just that I've been under a good deal of stress lately and wished to find an outlet." He took the folder from the interviewer's desk, "I'm sorry for having wasted your time. Thank you, and good day."
Karl shook the man's hand, and left the building without saying another word.
The air felt particularly fresh this time of the day. The fog, which normally enshrouded the area never really reached the top of the trail where Bob sat in a folding lawn chair.
Since the incident, Avey had ordered that Bob spend less time in the garage and more time out enjoying the world. He complained about it, naturally, but eventually gave in.
The days had settled into a regular pattern. On the days he worked from home, he'd head out in the early afternoon and take Margie for a long walk. He'd stop to talk to neighbors, check up on the house they were building a few blocks away, help some kids get a sack of poop burning properly, and play some frisbee with Margie. Eventually, they'd wind up enjoying the sunset from atop the hill.
Bob reached into a pocket and pulled out the device he had been working on. Even though he was away from the garage, it didn't mean he had to give up his hobbies.
Margie gave the device a careful sniff, checking up on it for lingering evil. Bob managed to hold onto the thing before it was sucked up into her nasal vortex. Margie returned to her repose, satisfied with her answer, whatever it may have been.
Bob chuckled to himself. He couldn't imagine what having a harem must be like. It was bad enough having two wives constantly checking up on him.
The device was vaguely pistol shaped with any number of wires wrapped around it. Bob remembered building it, but only in the way one remembers a dream they had just awoken from. It had a finished, unfinished look to it. Bare wires wrapped around polished chrome with welding marks. Three larger wires dangled from the handle. These were for the power unit.
Ah, yeah. Power. That would help, wouldn't it? Bob supposed he could use the truck to bring a sufficiently large generator. There was no way he'd risk Margie on supplying anything of the magnitude, particularly nothing untested.
Bob still wasn't quite certain what the device did. The dreaming part of him
Kind of hard to sneak up on anyone to use the thing. Particularly, with a crackling generator and an antique flatbed truck. Heck, he'd need to practically invite someone over...
Bob stared out at the horizon. The fog moved like waves in the breeze, washing against the trees and hills above, the purple sky tinged to red in the dying rays of the sun. Bob saw none of it. Instead, ideas began to percolate and form. Growing more solid as the darkness grew.
It might work, even if it didn't go exactly as planned, it could very well work out in his favor over the long run. Granted, the biggest problem would be selling the idea, but then that's what he did for a living. It was simply a question of contacting the right person at the right time.
Bob reached into a pocket and pulled out his cellphone. He tossed it in the air twice as he weighed the chances.
"Ah, what the hell."
He dialed a number and waited for an answer.
"Ah. Wonderful!" Bob said in happy surprise, "I was hoping I'd get you."
What fiendish plot does Bob have in mind?
What fiendish plot does the Shareholder have in mind?
What fiendish plot does JR have in mind for MS Word?
(Hint, it involves a rather powerful magnet and a microwave oven.)
Tune in next time for more fiendish
plottery, plottering, plottliness, stuff in
The Ballad of W.C. Handy
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