Quetzalcoatl 4000 chuckled. On TV, the squash was arguing with the beet.
”What do you think you’re doing with that vegetable grinder?” the squash said, backing away from the beet.
”You’re not really a vegetable, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?” the beet said. “You’re about to be ... squashed.”
”Well!” the squash said. “Doesn’t that beet all!”
Quetzal choked on his soft drink, spewing it everywhere. It splattered across the television screen, refracting the colours. “Oh ...” He fell onto the floor, clutching his stomach.
The doorbell rang.
”Oh ...” He couldn’t stop laughing. With a painstaking effort, he stood up, walked over to the unlocked door, and pulled it open. “Yes?” A pig and a human were standing outside.
”Hey, Quetzal. How ya doing?” the pig said.
”Oh, hi ... uh ... oh, it’s you, the Time Hog, right?”
”I haven’t seen you in a while. How’s everything going? Who’s that?”
”Oh, this is He Imaluni, royal biological waste disposal specialist and former president of my very own fan club.”
”Hi,” the woman said. She looked as if she were about to say something else, but she stopped.
”Well, we’re investigating something really important, and we were wondering if you could help us with it,” the Time Hog said.
”Huh? Oh, sure. What is it?”
”Well, Round Robin is apparently missing. We don’t know where e is or anything.”
”Oh. Rotund Robin just called me about that. She said to come over and she’d give me the details.”
”Oh, really? How long ago was this?”
”Oh, I don’t know. Several minutes ago.”
”And you haven’t even put on your suit yet? What are you doing?”
”I’m watching the latest episode of Veggie Telly, you know. It’s pretty funny. The really funny part is on right now, so if you’ll excuse me ...” He started to shut the door.
”Hey! Hold it!” The Time Hog pushed the door the other way. “Finding Round Robin is way more important that watching your stupid TV shows, Quetzal.”
The Time Hog barged his way in, followed by the other visitor. “Look, we’ve got something really important to discuss with you, and you have to cooperate.”
”Oh, really? If I recall correctly, it was I who was your mentor, not the other way around.”
”Oh, yeah? Well, have you taken a look at yourself in the mirror lately? What kind of a superhero are you, anyway? Your standards have dropped really low since the last time we met. You know, I don’t think you even care about anything anymore-”
”What are you talking about?” Quetzal said.
”You know exactly what I’m talking about! When was the last time you went out to fight crime? Or don’t you remember? When was the last time you weren’t watching TV?”
Quetzal thought about that, but he couldn’t remember.
”Exactly. Now I suggest we sit down and discuss this really important matter.” The Time Hog picked up the remote and turned off the TV. Reluctantly, Quetzal sat down on the couch.
”All right,” the Time Hog said, sitting down on the chair facing him. The woman sat down in the other chair. “From what Rotund Robin told He here, Round Robin is missing. Apparently, that is all we know so far. So I suggest we all visit Rotund Robin and find out more details.”
”So put on your suit.”
”Your Quetzalcoatl 4000 suit! Or have you forgotten that as well?”
”I’m pretty sure it’s in the closet somewhere.”
”Then go get it.”
Quetzal went upstairs and dug around in the closet. At the very bottom was the old orange Quetzalcoatl 4000 suit. It had a few holes in it, and there was a big brown stain on its front. He shrugged, put it on, and went downstairs.
”It’s not in perfect condition, but what the heck,” he said.
The Time Hog, eyes flaring with anger, stared at him.
”Oh, can I ask you a question?” the woman said.
Quetzal turned. “Sure.”
”Um ... I was wondering ... um ...”
”Are you the god-person Quetzalcoatl returning to Earth?”
”What? Uh ... no ...”
But he wasn’t sure if that was the right answer.
Gorvlar stood in the middle of the road, watching as the vehicle sped off into the distance. It waited there for a while, but nothing happened. The vehicle did not return.
There had been something inside the truck that had radiated a certain something that evoked a strange feeling in Gorvlar. Using its genetically-engineered sense of super-vision, it had seen that the something came from a couple of boxes stored in the back. It had waited for the two people to move away from the truck so it could find out what the something was, but they had gotten back in the truck and driven off. Gorvlar had chased after them for a while, but the truck had moved too quickly, and soon it had disappeared from view.
Gorvlar turned and crawled back to the compound where the bad people had kept it in a cage at night and brought it out for a few hours every day to talk to other people (although the words it said had been supplied by the bad people through radio signals sent directly to the nanocomputers in its brain), but very few people had ever come and asked it questions. It never understood the reasons why the bad people treated it that way. As time passed, fewer people came, and one day the bad people locked it in the cage and left. Gorvlar waited, but the bad people never returned. It got hungry and finally broke out of the cage. The compound was empty. It searched the place again and again, but there was no sign of the bad people or anyone else. It toppled some of the furniture to knock a hole in the side of the building and escaped. Outside, it ate the plants in the park beside the compound and found the food strange yet delicious. It took some of it back to the compound and had lived there ever since.
Now, as it started to crawl through the hole in the building, it received a distinct radio signal. It was a call for help. Instinctively, Gorvlar found its way back to the road and followed it to the source of the radio signal, which identified itself as Dingo Malfromage.
Quetzal’s confusion wasn’t helped when two complete strangers walked through the open door. One of them was wearing a backpack with aerials and bits of wire sticking out and carrying a device that looked like a TV remote. The other one was carrying a large suitcase embossed in gold letters with the word “Carrot.”
”Who the hell are you?” demanded Quetzal. “And what are you doing here?”
”Don’t you realise the danger?” asked Backpack.
”You guys are in danger of finding out what hospital food tastes like,” said Quetzal, advancing menacingly.
”Our scanners have picked up a critical level of superhero costume advanced distress syndrome in this room,” said Suitcase.
The Time Hog put a restraining hand on Quetzal’s arm and spoke to the strangers: “You really should explain.”
”Come on, what sort of superheroes are you?” said Suitcase. “You must know the risks of costumes that aren’t clean, tidy, and well-fitting.” He gestured at the Time Hog. “I hate to say it, but you really are a bit too porky for that costume-all those bulges are very unbecoming. And as for you,” he continued, turning to Quetzal, “the holes and stain are a positive disgrace. What have you been playing at? Critical SCADS can do weird things to the fabric of the universe-reality phase flows, chronosequential paradoxes, the usual stuff. My brother Yooah spotted that you’d gone critical a few minutes ago and we came at once.” He put down the suitcase and knelt to open it.
”That’s right,” said Yooah, “and Ymenot here is the best in the business.”
Ymenot had opened his suitcase and the others could see that it was full of fabrics of many colours, sewing equipment and lots of little boxes with lights and switches. Ymenot picked up one of the boxes and flicked a switch before pointing it at the Time Hog. A light pulsed orange and Ymenot grunted. Then he pointed the device at Quetzal and four red lights came on.
”Well, that stain looked like the obvious problem, but we needed confirmation,” said Yooah. “Now we’ll get that cleaned for you and then if you are really about to rush off and save the world, that’ll have to do, but ideally we ought to mend the holes and sort out the pig’s fitting problem. And don’t worry, the costs are tax-deductible.”
Ymenot had returned his device to the suitcase and picked up a larger white box with a nozzle. He touched the stain on Quetzal’s costume with the nozzle and groaned. “This is a bad one,” he said. “What have you been eating in this suit?”
Quetzal, bellicosity completely gone, flushed with embarrassment. “Chips and chocolate guacomole dip in those days,” he mumbled.
”Tsk, tsk,” muttered Ymenot, rubbing the nozzle along the stain, which very slowly started to fade.
”There you go,” said Yooah, when the stain had completely disappeared. “Now, shall we deal with the other problems? If not, we’ll leave you to it. Prompt payment of the bill will be appreciated.”
The bus swerved as its driver lost control. It wobbled back and forth uncontrollably. The passengers shrieked. The Corn Ghool, still grabbing the driver by the throat, maintained its grip. The bus skidded across the road and completely flatted a parked car. Then it struck a streetlamp, which fell down and broke through the window of one of the shops, destroying its collection of fine jewelry. The bus swung back and rolled across the street on its left wheels, its right wheels a metre in the air. Then it started speeding down the hill. Pedestrians, screaming, dashed out of its path. The bus hit a bump.
Briefly, it flew.
One of its tires popped, and the nanomachines started to repair it, but they weren’t fast enough. The bus plowed through a tree. It skidded across the grass and scraped across the road on its side, sparks flying everywhere. Its passengers screamed some more.
The bus finished its skidding across the road and hit the curb. It bounced back onto its wheels and rolled sideways down the street, smashing a couple more cars in the process. Pedestrians on the sidewalk screamed. The bus swerved to the left and its back end smashed into a fire hydrant. Water shot out, raining down on the ground. The nanomachines in the street disassembled the water molecules and released hydrogen and oxygen gas into the air.
The bus swung around and the front end whipped across the street at high velocity, smashing into a newsstand, scattering paper everywhere. It started rolling down the hill again. The Corn Ghool squeezed tight on the driver’s throat, and the driver, by reflex, stepped down hard on the gas pedal. The bus sped down the road and through an intersection, smashing through cars. Then it continued, wreaking havoc as it accelerated down the hill. The end of the road lay ahead. The street the bus was on ended at an intersection with another street. Beyond that was the lake. The bus skidded and bounced. The street now descended steeply while the sidewalk to the left and right remained at the same elevation. The bus’s right wheels hit the sidewalk while its left wheels continued on the road, lifting off the ground as the road descended. The edge of the sidewalk brushed against the bottom of the bus, and sparks flew. The bus smashed into a giant inflatable taco in front of a restaurant. It popped. The bus popped. It rolled to the left, and its centre of gravity shifted. The bus tilted, turned, and flew, inverted, toward the street. The top of the bus hit the top of a car below and smashed it. The two vehicles continued onward at breakneck speed, crossing the intersection. Then the car underneath the bus hit the wall at the end of the street, and the bus flew off. Majestically, it soared across the air. Then it splashed into the lake, sending water flying.
The Corn Ghool reacted with the water. It fizzed and bubbled. Then it rose to the surface. It could feel itself changing, metamorphosing, becoming one with the lake. Strains of evil spread out from its skin, diffusing throughout the water, draining the life from the organisms nearby. The plague of evil spread.
It was now the Loch No-Gro.
”... of darkness I command thee, serve me or ...”
”... dare to challenge me, you, the ...”
”All right, enough of that.” Umberto pressed his humanlike index finger against the POWER button on the TV, but, expectedly, Quetzal turned it back on with his remote. “I said enough of that!” He stomped over and grabbed the remote control out of Quetzal’s hands. He pressed the POWER button on it to turn off the TV. The image on the screen, a lousy depiction of two fuzzy shapes, flickered and, with a ZAP, disappeared.
”Hey, what the-” Quetzal said. “I was watching Polygon Pals ...”
Umberto pocketed the remote control and stood up. “We’ve got a job to do, Quetzal. And we can’t do it if you remain stuck to the tube like that.”
”I don’t know how you managed to turn the TV back on during the ... uh ... confusion that took place when the ... uh ... Carrot brothers came by, but ... but you are not going to continue watching these stupid TV shows while Round Robin is missing! I don’t know why you even continue to watch these stupid TV programs in the first place. The graphics are horrible, and whoever wrote the script must have been out of their mind-or on some kind of ... substance. In short, Polygon Pals does the same thing a vacuum cleaner does when you turn it on.”
”Enough out of you,” Umberto said. “Me and He are leaving. I suggest you come along or lose Rotund Robin’s trust forever, you pathetic mass of pond scum. You’re not even worthy of wearing that suit, holes or no holes.”
Quetzal started to say something but changed his mind. He paused for a moment and then blurted, “But what about the bill? I don’t think I can afford to pay for the ... uh ... stain removal ...”
”Forget about it. They’ve got other customers.”
”But what if they come after us?”
”They won’t,” Umberto said. But as he and He marched out the open front door, Quetzal trailing along behind them, Umberto realised he wasn’t sure if that was going to be the case.
Rotund Robin looked out the window again, but there was little there to see. The Southeast Asian polka-reggae group was still playing, but Robin wasn’t really paying attention to it. They seemed to repeat themselves every fifteen seconds, playing the same notes over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Robin gazed for an eternal instant upon the landscape, the labyrinthine garden with its fourteen genemod bovines. Beyond-past the seventeen invisible layers of protective shields put in place to thwart almost any kind of assassination attempt imaginable-was the street, where a kid had just entered her vision, turning at the intersection and starting along the sidewalk. Following the kid was an amorphous-looking thing on five-and-a-half legs.
Such things were common nowadays. The strange tastes people had. The strange pets that inhabited their households. Such chimeras as the crocomoose and the donkeymonkey and the threecan and the elephantelope, not to mention the protist-plant-fungus-animal hybrids running (locomoting, using various methods) around, that had been thought impossible only a mere twenty years ago now roamed the streets with their even more bizarre owners. Nothing as strange as a human being, modified to the limit.
But the kid now walking along the sidewalk didn’t appear too enhanced. Sure, his head was a little large, and he literally had eyes in the back of his head, and his skin was a strange greenish colour, but he was human, more or less.
Robin zoomed in on the kid and the creature with her telescopic vision. She turned up the volume and could hear what the kid was saying.
The kid laughed an evil laugh. Robin groaned.
But then the kid slapped the creature across its ... face and continued to laugh.
Don’t hurt the poor creature, Robin thought, but the kid continued laughing. Synthetic creatures had been legally declared nonliving nonorganisms by Parliament, so the laws against cruelty to animals didn’t apply. Still, what kind of sick person was this? To slap a helpless animal that posed no threat...
Robin felt the urge to vomit.
She really had to do something about this. Only she had no power at all. She was the Monarch, or Diarch, rather, but that was only a traditional position-in a country that had never had a monarch until twenty years ago. She had no authority at all. She was only there to make everybody else look good-and to take the blame for Parliament’s errors.
She cursed out loud.
Somewhere, a bovine mooed.
It sounded awfully near, but she dismissed it. One of the genemod bovines must have been a little too loud.
She glanced back at the kid and the synthetic creature.
”You-” the kid said, and Robin could see the pitiable look on the creature’s face. “You will serve me now. I am Dingo Malfromage, the rightful ruler of Earth! You will be my loyal servant! You will take back the throne for me! You will kick that fat Rotund Robin off her throne, and you will kick the other one out, too! And I will be the Supreme Monarch of the Universe! Wa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
”In your dreams,” Robin mumbled.
But the kid’s mentioning of Round Robin reminded her of the task at hand. Where was Round Robin? And what happened to that pooper-scooper anyway? What took her so long? And where was Quetzalcoatl 4000? That moron! She should have known better than to trust him to be on time!
She smacked her forehead and laid her head in her hands.
Somewhere else, a bovine mooed.
Robin looked up again and saw the thirteen genemod bovines in the labyrinthine garden. They all looked quiet. Which one had mooed so loudly? Something didn’t seem right...
The kid and the creature had disappeared. A taco truck rounded a corner and sped across the street, coming to a screeching halt in front of the garden. Robin looked more closely.
The pooper-scooper got out of the passenger side and started running in her direction. Then the door on the driver’s side opened, and a genemod pig stepped out, wearing a tight costume with a cape that stirred gently in the breeze. Then the back door opened, and someone else rolled out, flopping on the asphalt like a fish out of water. It was Quetzalcoatl 4000.
The pooper scooper leaped over the hedge and landed in the labyrinth, where she started running in Robin’s direction. “Hey!” she said. Then she said something else that Robin couldn’t quite hear. The first of the seventeen invisible shields detected her velocity and calculated that she was a potential threat and stopped her right there with nanomachines. She fell down and couldn’t get up.
”Help!” she called, and then the pig leaped over the hedge.
Somewhere, a bovine mooed, and it sounded a lot louder this time, and Rotund Robin noticed that there were only thirteen bovines in the garden-weren’t there supposed to be fourteen?
And then a bovine mooed right behind her, and Robin turned around...
First published at the Asimov’s Forum, 2002.
Copyright © 2002, 2003 by Sherry Gray, David Norris, The Invincible Spud