(back to Zool V Chapter Six)
said the placid voice suddenly from above Alan's head: the serene holographic face was also replaced by Deborah's. "Hey, Deborah!" Alan exclaimed. "What the dickens are you doing here?"
"Yes." Alan winced, trying to screen out Prometheus' continued plaints coming in from the other comms channel.
"Righto. Erm, what? Explain what?"
"Oh, dear," Orusagoon sighed, as an ominous stomping that would have done credit to Peter Jackson's Uruk-hai echoed through the corridor beyond the door to the chamber. The only door to the chamber. Hey! Come back, you...! Artu yelled, as Grytpype-Thynne descended in his powered bubble-chair to fight another day. Isidore shrugged. (That's the way these things usually go,) he observed. (First they take you captive and ask you silly questions, then they get their goons to beat you up. This is getting to be a habit.) You're telling me, Artu scowled. Ready? Isidore nodded. (Eelalog, whatever your name is, you'd better keep back until you're needed.) "You need not fear for my safety..." Orusagoon began. (I'm more worried about the fabric of reality's safety. It was bad enough with Artu...) Orusagoon huffed a bit, releasing a few Broken Links from his alchemical fingers in mild frustration.
The door hurled itself open with a splungg before the armoured might of...
<Well, erm, Marvin>, Prometheus said, nervously, <what d'you think?> It's an interesting answer, the android sighed. I quite like it. After all, if you square the prison population, well, you're a bit stuffed; if you square the planet's attributes you end up with a planet even more depressing than the existing one. <But...??> It's not the answer I was looking for. <Well,> Prometheus added hastily, <is that the point? Maybe you're just asking the wrong question. Or maybe you're looking for the wrong answer. Either way, you've just said it's a good answer, so why not let it be the answer?> Marvin paused, stepping from foot to foot with a grind of servos and gears, favouring his left foot a little. Oh, go on then. Zool squared equals trouble. One Eye Shield. Mind if I come with you? I hate this job, and I don't think your companion is going to arrive any time soon. Death? Don't talk to me about Death... Prometheus donned the Eye Shield rather clumsily. <Wait for me!> he said, hurriedly, seeing for the first time that, with a rather syncopated pattern of hisses and sighs, Marvin was waddling off into the dungeon's depths.
What? said Artu unbelievingly, even as he took up a combat-stance. (Aardvarks?) Isidore said with equal incredulity, glancing to Orusagoon.
The Wiki Zen Master merely shrugged. "Aardvarks." --TL
The cherubic faced Doug Death clasped his hands together with glee. "Goody-goody." Deborah looked round at him from the monitor and raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
"It won't be goody-goody if we don't match the amount of progress on your parallel quests. What? Reactors are unstable enough at the best of times. Why you couldn't have balanced the competence factor, I don't know..."
"If you had stayed in the quest where we put you you'd have been just as effective as those two cyborgs!"
Deborah turned and patted him on the cheek. "I'm Death, sweetie. I do not run around tunnels in the hamster cage. I stand underneath the wheel for when the hamster stops running. If you're serious about the whole cloak and bones deal, I suggest you get to know that sort of thing."
(Frelling Aardvarks!) Isidore threw one of the beasts back out into the corridor. They'd been fighting for several minutes now. At first, they'd tried to drive the beasts off in their own shapes, but although bigger and more manoeuvrable, they were heavily outnumbered, and the time it actually took to crouch, seize an aardvark, and throw it away (neither had felt comfortable actually killing or deliberately hurting the things) allowed several more to get a hold on them so, in the interests of bringing themselves to the fight's level, both cyborgs had taken on the form of rather large, silvery coloured Battle Aardvarks.
Come back the flying spider-things, all is forgiven, muttered Artu, smacking an aardvark in the face with his nose and then pushing it on to its back. A weird flash of light seemed to pass through the room, leaving behind a distinctly peculiar smell.
That gives me an idea... (Well, give it back, quick, and keep hitting aardvarks. I can't believe I just said that... I mean... What?) Isidore sighed, rearing up on his hind legs, holding one of the animals above his head, and then throwing it, knocking the others flying. Then, even as that happened, the metal doorframe shattered- along with a sizeable part of the wall- and a massive shape loomed, like unto an aardvark but vast, wreathed in fire, and wielding a massive, fiery sword and a whip like a tongue of flame.
(OK... Eelalog? We might... want to try a bit of Wiki Zen now.)
Elsewhere, the league of moody primitive robots had found their way deeper into the dungeons. No longer being so dependent on Alan-Breck for directions, after a few initial problems with 'left' and 'right' which had unnecessarily sapped his life force a bit, Prometheus had managed the walls of spikes, shifting paths over lava, and the deadly Tersuron Sofa quite well. Marvin, on the other hand, had just plodded through blazing heat, jagged spikes, and other perils with depressed indifference. Finally, they passed through a portal- although to Prometheus' restricted vision it actually resembled nothing more than a big black rectangle of cardboard- and emerged- in a field.
<Any... hints, Alan?> Silence. <He's gone into sleep-mode again. Still, it's nice to be out in the open air, isn't it?> He looked round. It was indeed, after the claustrophobic darkness of the dungeons. Strange electricity pylons loomed in the distance. Other than that, it was a beautiful day. <Look at the sky...> Prometheus muttered. <All those years undercover on Zool... it's been decades since I've seen a blue sky.> Marvin sat down in a depressed heap with a clang. It's blue. It'll probably start raining in a minute. It usually does. Then two figures appeared on the horizon. The taller... for a moment Prometheus thought it might be another robot, but it was merely wrapped in metal, a wild-eyed figure with a prominent nose and circular haircut, followed by another, smaller, its face dirty and sporting a mouth filled with jagged, decayed teeth.
The figures charged towards them, the taller waving a sword madly.
<This must be the next test. Do you suppose they'll ask us another riddle?>
"Montjoie! Saint Denis!"
<What?> -- WJR
"Oh, drock," Eelalog neeped, "he doesn't look very friendly, does he? I think we can tackle him together..." (What, by throwing you at him?) Isidore gave the Zen Master a sidelong look. "No, something more subtle than that. Give me your hands; I'll have to execute a rather complicated spell to get rid of this one, not just throw him onto his own Wikipage..." Orusagoon strode up in his best Sir Ian McKellen impression. "Avaunt you, foul fiend of the Fiction!" he bellowed at the giant aardtroll. The latter just snorted foul-smelling fumes from its nose (Artu privately suspected this particular aardvark was a steroids addict, from the stink), stomped a bit, and drew back the whip of flame as if to lash out with it. Orusagoon stepped forward threateningly. "I am the Servant of the Unspeakable Command Line. You - shall not - pass!"
The Aardtroll just laughed filthily. teach your grandmother orusagoon it growled, too barbarian to employ punctuation or uppercase. "So be it," the Wiki Zen Master replied chillingly. "Prepare yourself for the might of the Unspeakable Command Line, and despair." Orusagoon threw his head back and laughed maniacally. "++widdershins.exe++!!"
Reality, virtual or otherwise, suddenly seemed to give up on Artu, Isidore and Orusagoon...
This isn't a riddle, Marvin said boredly, they give you a duel for the next bit - "Que trepasse si je fayblis!!" yelled the armoured one suddenly, bringing round his primitive weapon in a deadly arc. Bugger, said Marvin's head as it was severed from his shoulders: his body, which had been sitting on the ground with its legs extended in front, toppled so that his feet dangled in the air. <Marvin!> Prometheus wailed, but it was too late, and already he was having to dodge back in order not to suffer the same fate. A wickedly-spiked mace went clunkkk against his Eye Shield, and he staggered back, only to be jumped upon by someone he couldn't see. He reeled as the someone now sitting on his shoulders thumped him on his head, then pulled his helmet off. <What -?> Prometheus barely had time to say, before another thump sent him senseless.
Artu blinked, his vision wavering above him. No, nothing wrong with his eyes... ah, he was underwater. Looking sideways, he could see Isidore's form moving as it came round, and Orusagoon on the other side of him wearing a mixture of a primitive neural-relay and scuba apparatus. Presumably this was a kind of virtuality/sensory-deprivation tank. Fascinating. He surfaced, and sneezed once as drops trickled off his nose. His rather too long nose, even if his default one erred on the side of aquiline. A rather long, hairy... Is?
(Uhh... what?) A long-nosed long-eared head surfaced splashily, clutching its paws to its eyes.
We're still aardvarks.
Why are we still aardvarks? Artu struggled to right himself, wrinkling his nose and trying to change form. Nothing happened. Then a door slid open at the top of a ramp and a wild-haired man in lab coat and boxer shorts dashed into the room, hands flapping wildly.
"Oh no... no, you mustn't do that... keep still, don't..." the man's tirade ended abruptly when he tripped and fell through the air, landing in the tank with a splash. Isidore caught him, holding his head out of the water and pulling him to the side, and glaring at him while Artu woke and extracted Orusagoon.
(Well?) The man's eyes snapped open, and his brain seemed to be somewhat perturbed by the ill tempered stainless steel aardvark glowering at him. He struggled to pull free, but Isidore held him firmly with one paw.
"I... er... you shouldn't have left the simulation. We're running the Absurd Quest Programme and if you stop... especially now the parallel quest's paused..." he gulped. The lights were beginning to flicker a little.
(I'm not a total cretin, human... or whatever you are. I'd worked out we were in a sim, I can see that we've allegedly come out of it... but why the frelling frelling frell are my friend and I still frelling Aardvarks?) Because we're not out of it. Artu interjected. Eelalog nodded.
"Quite so... what we experienced then was a simulation within a simulation... at least, from your perspective. For most of the people on this ship, of course, this is reality... but none the less, when I invoked The Unspeakable Command Line I appear to have not only disrupted the lower level simulation, but the higher one also. Oh dear."
(So we're stuck like this unless we can get back to reality?) I should think it'll self repair over time. Unless the system we're in now's completely useless... I mean, it can't be any more bonkers than Wiki, can it? Artu looked at the scientist. What's the name of the computer we're inside?
"Guys!" Deborah had appeared at the top of the ramp. She didn't seem to have any problems recognising them- she was an Endless, after all. "Chat later, we've got problems."
(You've got problems?) Isidore emerged from the water, shook himself, and made his way up the ramp on all fours. (How do quadropeds sort out two sets of legs at once?)
"Listen, I deliberately hacked into the programme and messed up Prometheus' current task... he's unconscious, but not dead. That forced them to give you something unstoppable to try and keep the Absurd Quest Parallels in balance... which I thought would make Eelalog try something that would short out the system."
(So I've got you to thank for this wretched nose?)
"I'm sorry." Deborah snapped, shortly. "I'm just trying to save our necks, here... be grateful you've still got a nose."
"How do you know who I am?" Eelalog asked suspiciously. Deborah shepherded them out of the room and along a long corridor. "I'm sure we've never met before...?"
She shook her head. "I can remember the future... we'll meet quite soon, old man."
Eelalog knelt to surreptitiously address Artu as they went on. "Why does her saying that scare me? Is she somebody important?" You do not want to know.
"You got them? Excellent?" A black cloaked figure loomed up. "My brothers... will not condone this act of defiance."
(What act of defiance?) Isidore sighed, shaking more water from his metal fur.
"It's quite simple." The skeleton-man turned round. "We are... creators. Ghosts, computer simulacra of personae, robots, clones... frankly, when the laws of physics are as bewildered as they are in Saitra's private kingdom, even we have trouble telling. She requires entertainment, and it was for that that she brought us here, just as she brought you here, when you were hit with an unstable energy wave standing rather close to the time portal which led to her beginning. She requires... paradox, misfortune, non sequitur... madness. Legend has it that, between her discovery by the Earth Child, Sally, and her conquest of Zool, a secret religious group, whose name has been passed down to us from father to son, byte to sprite as the Oozefugue, once provided her with such power... but they are long gone, unless one might journey into the deeps of unknown and unknowable reality to find whatever state of transcendence they have now reached... and what of that power we can muster, as she demands, we know only as What? energy. All the physics, all the power, all the technology of this ship, of this realm, is based upon it, and we, we are both her source of food, and her helpless slaves... unless the time may come when we, with your help, may reform the Oozefugue, take the mighty sword of Committee and use the power for ourselves." There was a pause. Isidore and Artu looked at each other. Finally Artu raised a paw.
Er... didn't you start that explanation with "It's quite simple?" How was that simple, exactly? The ship rocked violently.
"What was that?" Eelalog swore the worst curse he knew. "Bad Picture!"
"It's Saitra..." Doug-Death's voice squirmed with fear. "We're behind with our What? delivery... I never could deal with deadlines... she's coming for us!" -- WJR
Continued in Zool V Chapter Eight
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