Meanwhile, in the Universe Next Door
“…But in spite of all of that, his credibility was completely trashed when pictures surfaced on the internet of him wearing nothing but assless chaps.”
“Assless chaps? Isn’t not having an ass what makes them chaps instead of just leather pants?”
“I’m no expert on that, Darrin, so I’ll just have to take your word on that,” Tim said, trying to squelch a giggle. “Please join us next week when we’ll be talking with one of our favorite authors, the prolific Rick Nedbracken. Rick has a new book out, “Time Tunnels,” about how alien technology can manipulate time and space, creating wormholes not only in space, but time as well. This is the end of the free segment, so if you’re Primo, stick around. Otherwise, we’ll catch you next week. Coming up after the break, we’ll start with an owl story of a different kind, involving Native American skinwalkers. Is there a connection between these shapeshifting legends and The Greys? Mysterious Multiverse wants to know.”
Tim Cumby clicked the stop icon on his screen and took a long glug of water before he pulled off his headphones.
“I’m ravenous,” Darrin White said, as he removed his own headgear. “How ’bout we pop across the street to that new Five Guys?”
“Why don’t we give it another ten minutes? The lunch rush should be just about over. I’ve got to grab that music clip, anyway.”
“If I pass out from hunger, you’ll throw me over your shoulder and lug me over there, right mate?” Darrin asked, squeezing out his chair in the recording booth.
“Only if you raise your vibrations,” Tim answered, opening a .WAV file and putting his headphones back on.
“Bastard,” Darrin replied as he shut the clear glass door.
Tim ordered, while Darrin claimed one of the three available tables. The smell of fries made his stomach rumble. He slapped at his neck – there seemed to be an insect crawling on him. When he checked his hand, there was no evidence of bug remains. His full attention was now on Tim, who was approaching with a tray of food. Any fly that came near his lunch was taking its life in its own wings.
Tim set the plastic tray on the table and Darrin grabbed his food. As Tim unwrapped his burger, he paused to scratch at his neck. And noticed something that made him drop the sandwich back onto the tray.
“Darrin!” he whispered as forcefully as he could.
“What is it?” Darrin snapped, frustrated by his burger’s inexplicable second wrapper.
“Look to your right, four tables over,” Tim said.
Darrin sighed in protest and glanced at the other table.
“What the…” he said, hunger suddenly vanishing.
Two very tall, thin men sat at the table, watching Tim and Darrin intently. Each wore a black suit, crisp white shirt and a skinny string tie. The black fedoras that topped each head accentuated the nearly luminescent pallor of their skin. Mirrored aviator glasses that hadn’t been in style since the 70’s completed their peculiar look.
“Are those-” Darrin started to ask.
“MIBs” Tim cut him off.
In perfect synchronization, the Men in Black rose and approached the podcasters’ table.
“Yes,” said one of them, as he loomed over Tim.
“Yes, what?” Tim asked.
“You will come to hunt ducks with us, yes?” the second MIB said.
“No,” Tim and Darrin said, nearly in unison.
The Men in Black looked at each other, and a wordless conversation seemed to pass between them.
“It will be fun. Many ducks,” the second one tried again.
“I’m sorry,” Tim said, “but we’re dangerous criminals, and we’re not allowed to have guns.” The corners of his mouth twitched as he worked to stop himself from grinning.
The first MIB frowned. “There is nothing in your file—”
“Tsssst!” the second MIB cut him off. “We will find another fun activity, which we will invite you to. But we have another appointment now.”
As soon as glass door closed behind the MIBs, Darrin gave Tim a skeptical look.
“Was that a set up? Just ‘cuz it’s my birthday?”
Tim nearly choked on his burger. “No, of course not. I might put an S&M soulmate card on your number plate, but I’d never get fake MIBs to come after you.”
Darrin, clearly unconvinced, crammed too many fries into his mouth.
“Dudes!” a shaggy young person of indeterminate gender approached their table. “Saw what just happened, bros. Just wanted to let you know, my pack and me, we got your backs.”
“Your pack of what?” Tim asked.
“I’m sorry,” Darrin said. “I don’t mean to be dense here, but eight whats?”
The interloper glanced around and leaned over the table. “We’re werewolves,” he said, nodding.
“Oh. I see. Thanks for the support,” Darrin said. “But if you don’t mind, we’ve got to finish our lunch so we can get our episode finished.”
“Sure, bro,” the unkempt stranger said with a wink.
The alleged werewolf turned and shuffled back to a table, where five other, equally scruffy companions clustered around half eaten lunches. They all grinned and gave Tim and Darrin a thumbs up.
The two podcasters, waved half-heartedly.
“Let’s take this food back to the studio,” Tim said.
“Perth is overrun with weirdness today,” Darrin said as he re-wrapped his sandwich.
After the podcast was finished and loosed upon the interwebs, Tim and Darrin locked up the office and walked out together.
“I’ll have to take a rain check on the birthday cake – Tamara’s got dinner plans for us tonight, some of her old school mates are in town. They’re all at our house – probably be blind drunk by the time I get home,” Tim said.
Darrin opened his mouth to answer, but instead, “What. The. Hell?” came out.
Tim looked up. Standing in front of the elevator, a man in a green polo shirt petulantly poked the “up” button. There was nothing remarkable about him. From the waist up. Below his shirttail, hairy goat legs, cloven hooves and all, comprised his lower half. The door slid open, and the man walked in, short goat tail wagging behind him.
“I’m done. I’ve had enough of today, thank you,” Darrin said.
“Should we go back in and try to figure out where it went?” Tim asked.
“No. And not only no, but hell no. I’m just going to my brother’s for some beer and cake.”
“Let me drop you off.”
Tim swore softly after he dropped the car keys into the crack between the driver’s seat and center console. As he groped for them, he heard someone tapping on his window.
“Don’t look up! Just get the keys and drive!” Darrin all but shouted.
“Please sir, can you give us a lift?” a voice said outside the window.
“No!” Darrin shouted. “Go away! You’re not getting in this car.”
Tim found the keys and eased them out of the tiny space.
“Let us in!” the voice outside blustered, and his fist pounded on the glass.
Unable to stop himself Tim looked up to see two teenaged boys glaring into his window. Their skin was oddly pale, but their freakish eyes, dull, dead black from lid to lid, almost made him drop the keys again.
Tim grunted as Darrin body checked him and grabbed his right hand.
“Are you insane? Don’t open the door!”
Horrified to find his hand hovering over the door lock button, Tim gasped and jammed the keys into the ignition. Tires spun, spraying gravel, and the vehicle careened onto the roadway, leaving the two black-eyed kids glaring after it.
“I swear,” Darrin began, “if anything else happens today, I’m just going to drown myself.”
“That would be a terrible waste,” said a voice from the back seat.
Tim and Darrin whipped their heads around, only to discover that the two Men in Black from lunch were sitting in the back seat.
The car’s engine suddenly quit, and the radio stopped. Seemingly on their own, the car doors opened. The MIBs got out first, followed by Tim, then Darrin.
“Would you look at that?” Tim said, bending to inhale the perfume of a brilliant red flower. “This is amazing.”
When Tim opened his eyes, something felt wrong. He was cold and his limbs felt oddly heavy. Darrin lay on a metal table a short distance away, making a gentle whirring sound as he curled and extended his fingers.
“What happened to us?” Tim asked, surprised by the tinny sound of his voice.
“Welcome to the singularity,” a dapper man with a close-cropped beard said.
Servos whined as Tim turned his head.
“They’ve turned us into robots,” Darrin said.
“No. We’ve uploaded your personalities, your souls, if you will, into sentient avataristic mechanisms, or SAMs, as we like to call them. You have gained immortality!” The man said with a grin and a flourish of his left hand.
“I don’t want immortality!” Tim said. “I want to have dinner with my wife. Change me back.”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way,” the man said. “The process is irreversible.” His eyes strayed to two clear, man-sized containers, filled with dark red goo. “You will live forever. Forever, don’t you see? You no longer have a need for offspring, or messy physical…gratification.” The bearded man grimaced, as if the very idea of bare skin offended him.
“Why have you done this? Why us?” Darrin asked.
“An excellent question. You see, Mars is a very long way away. And there’s no oxygen there. The best way to set up a colony there is to send an advance party to set up the terraforming equipment. You’ll have no trouble doing that – you no longer require food, water, or oxygen, and the equipment practically runs itself. Once that process is up and running, the colonists can be sent for. Some of them, of course, will be in SAMs, but most will be old-fashioned flesh and blood. We’ve got to propagate human DNA throughout the solar system, you know, and personalities have to be grown in meatbags before they can be uploaded to SAMs. We got the idea for all of this when one of our programmers won your jet ski for being the millionth subscriber. With such a big listener base, it would be easy for you to convince many of those expendables, I mean followers, to sign up to become Mars colonists, especially if it meant joining you two on the red planet.”
“…and that’s a wrap for this week’s Primo episode. This is Tim Cumby”
“and Darrin White”
“and we’ll catch you next time on Marvelous Mars.”
Tim clicked the “stop” button. “That buys us three days. Maybe we’ll get it this time,” he said, standing up.
Darrin ducked out of the way of the three feet of steel rod that protruded from Tim’s neck. His own head only rotated about 90° now, and one of his optical sensors was broken, so it was a little awkward for him.
In the hundred and fiftty years they had been marooned on Mars, they’d discovered three things: 1) being sixty million miles from home and awake 24/7 is not as fun as one might think, 2) SAMs are practically indestructible, no matter how hard one tries, and 3) Mars has large deposits of lodestone.
The SAMs’ data storage units were located about where real humans’ hearts would be, and they were heavily shielded from radiation, electromagnetism, heat, shock and liquids. Darrin had pulled out some wire from one of the terraformers, and he sat and stripped off the insulation, while Tim worked on ways to get the protective SAM chest plates off.
“Darrin,” Tim smiled, “I think I just voided the warranty.”
“Well done, mate!” He hurried to strip more plastic off the wiring. “What’s all that?”
“Some kind of gel,” Tim frowned, pawing at the squishy, yet tough gelatinous material encasing the data unit.
Darrin poked at it with the wire stripper, but it resisted puncture.
Hours passed. It also resisted bolt cutters, a laser knife, a soldering iron, a screwdriver, a hacksaw, a pipe wrench, an acetylene torch, a fire extinguisher, and a shard of broken glass.
Dejected, Darrin stared out the window, towards Earth. He wondered who was living in his house, and if his sexy neighbor still lived next door, the one who used to sunbathe nude in the backyard on summer mornings. An American friend had taught him how to make the perfect margarita, and Darrin had always planned to show up one morning with a pitcher of the icy beverage. But he’d never followed through. In his mind’s eye, he could see the pitcher, sitting forgotten in the sun, condensation pooling on the table, all the remaining ice crystals floating in the center. Ice crystals. Ice…crystals.
“Tim. We have to go outside.”
“Outside. Look at the thermometer. It’s -107°C. The hydraulic fluid inside the SAMs has an antifreeze, right? But if we take the covers off, and the gel isn’t protected, it might freeze, right?”
“It’s worth a shot, mate, worth a shot.”
The automatic airlock seemed to take forever to open to the outside. Tim lifted the chest panel that hung by one corner over his data unit. Darrin looked around for a rock. When he found a good one, he smashed Tim in the chest as hard as he could.
The flash-frozen gel shattered and fragments of it spewed out of Tim’s chest.
“Yes!” Tim said. “I need some tools to get your chest open. Let’s get back inside.”
In half an hour, Darrin’s chest had been opened, the gel shattered, and they had returned to the terraforming control room. Darrin wrapped bare wires around a softball-sized chunk of lodestone, and Tim did the same to an even larger piece. Then they each hugged the rocks to their data units. Tim rested his hand on the power supply switch for the shut-down terraformer. Darrin nodded.
“And that’s a wrap,” Tim said.
Then he pulled the switch.