Chapter 23
The first thing Chris & JB noticed was not the creature's face, which was a brownish green mixture of knarled wood surrounded by layers of moss. Nor that he was smiling, his teeth an almost disturbing shade of white that shown like a cheshire cat. There were at least two visible arms and legs that also failed to be noticed until later, followed by the series of small horn like growths that formed his brow.

No the first thing they noticed was the fact that he was dressed in a bright green and blue morning suit and top hat. Frankly, he looked like Gene Wilder from "Willie Wonka". He also sat in a odd chair that looked as if it had been hastily spray painted gold, patches of the metal shown through in more than a few spots.

He held up a hand as he looked at the new arrivals. "Now, now," he said with a disturbing grin, "business first awkward gawking later..."

"Actually," JB observed, "I think that we were going for terrified screams."

"Well I'm quite sure we'll have time enough for that too. Can I offer you a nice cup of taj? Maybe a crumpet?" He produced a tray of very English looking biscuits and a slightly steaming pot. Chris was a bit suspicious of course, but JB was hungry enough to try. He gingerly took the biscuit off of the offered tray, sniffed it quickly and nibbled a bit. It melted in his mouth in a wash of sweet butter and tart baking soda.

"Oh, man, Chris, you gotta try one of these! They're fantastic!" JB said between bites.

The Stockholder nodded his welcomes and offered the plate to Chris. "You really should have them with a cup of taj." Chris took the mug and the Stockholder poured the steaming hot brew into the cup. "I'd note that it smells far worse than it tastes, so don't let that put you off."

Chris sniffed the brew, it was pungent, and that was about the best way to describe it. Chris took a bite of the biscuit. JB wasn't kidding, it was delicious. He took a sip of the taj, and..

"It smelled really bad didn't it?" The Stockholder whispered into his ear as he poured a cup for the smiling JB.

Chris honestly couldn't begin to describe exactly how revolting it was. He could feel his tastebuds retracting into his tongue. Chris could almost describe it as tasting a slow motion car wreck, or having a warm cup of watching Joe Thiesman's leg being broken.

He stood, not sure if he could some how convince his throat that it should join in the fun. He felt an eyelid starting to twitch and tear up. He could almost feel the liquid pounding against his lips desperate to get out. It was taking every ounce of control not to help it along.
Chris slowly looked to his brother for help. JB had the same expression. Apparently JB was enjoying the taj just as much as he was.

"Still, darn tasty cookie, don't you think?" The Stockholder said as he popped one into his mouth and walked a few steps back toward his seat. "Darn shame all we have is this bloody awful taj to wash it down with. I can't stand the stuff, myself. Sinks are to the left, about thirty paces." He listened as two sets of feet raced toward the sinks, followed by the sounds of vigourous gargling.

"Well, enough of the pleasantries, we have business to conduct. Let's see what we've found out about that little toy you have. Oh, Plaskowitz?"

A short blue being walked out of a back room with an odd rolling gait. It was definitely not northeast European. Well not unless Chenyobl was far worse than previously thought.

"We've finished th' preliminary scans." it (or more properly 'he') said. He spoke in an almost slurred frenzy of geekish delight. If this species had an equivalent to a role-playing, multi-level chess and computer club, he would be the president. "I have to admit that at first I would have dismissed it as being a simple hack on an early Parrtunni warp core but then I figured why would we be interested in that? That's when I noticed that there wasn't a V'nax compensator, which meant that it couldn't charge any TTG arrays. Which would be a waste since there wasn't any TTG arrays anyway so that meant they must be trying to bypass the Freening effect by inserting a trans-prall signature into N-space. But that would mean that they are somehow able to t'rapax without a CPC. So I hitched it up to my TFUG and sent a series of low RGR2 pulses across the secondary...grumph"

The blue creature discovered that trying to continue the discussion was rather difficult if you have a Jelvan branch wrapped around his head. Being elivated about half his height above the deck didn't help much either. Fortunately, Plaskowitz was unable to see the Stockholder's glare through the branch that held him fast.

"My apologies." the Stockholder said to the assembled group after a few seconds. "Autakoo tend to get be a bit excitable." he apologized, "You know how they are. Oh wait you two don't, do you?" JB and Chris slowly shook their heads, not exactly sure how to answer. The Autakoo, began lightly tapping at the Stockholder's branch. The stockholder simply ignored him.

The Stockholder blissfully continued on, "Ah well. No matter. The trick to dealing with them is to give them questions that require simple answers. Questions like,'what time is it at this location in this plane of reality?' or 'What's three minus one in base ten?'" Plaskowitz was tapping with a bit more vigor, still it was for naught as the Stockholder continued on. "Still even those two questions can take hours for them to answer. Still, provided you can get beyond the babble to the real core of what they're saying, they've got a real knack for figuring out new things, like you're vehicle. Very impressive that and several hundred years early, I might add."

Plaskowitz was now frantically clawing at the stockholder's branch. JB was growing a bit concerned and tried to get the stockholder's attention. "Uhm, sir? "

"But you should never ask them something like 'How does this work?' since whole civilizations have risen and falling in the time it took to properly answer that. And that was when someone asked about a simple toaster. Amazing story that. The early Praglaa civilization actually emerged and collapsed without ever once understanding what toast was." The Stockholder smiled a bit as he reflected upon whatever it was he found worthy of reflection.

"And all because someone made the mistake of asking an Autakoo how a toaster worked."

By now the Aukatoo barely slapped at the branch, his whole body having turned from light blue to a deep purple. The Stockholder suddenly became aware of the problem. "Oh, right, Air." He dropped Plazkowitz who lay on the ground gasping and wheezing.

JB rushed over to the small alien and helped him sit up a bit. "Are you alright?"

The alien looked at JB as he continued to try and catch his breath, his body returning to a more natural shade of blue, well, more natural for an Aukatoo JB summized.

"Sorry about that Plaskowitz, I keep forgetting that you animal types respirate only one way. Must be terribly limiting. Now, feeling better are we? Good. May I ask a simple question then?"

Plaskowitz looked at the Jelvan with a bit of a worried look. Then he nodded meekly.

"Good," the Stockholder nearly laughed. He twirled on one foot and walked over to the Maxima. He looked at the vehicle. "Is it human?"

"Yes," Plaskowitz muttered, "it's a ground effect vehicle from an island nation called Japan."

The Stockholder laughed and looked at the Aukatoo like a parent would look at a toddler. "No you silly. The Engine!"

Plaskowitz looked a bit embarrassed and chucked warily himself. "Oh, uhm, yes, it is human."

The Stockholder did a bit of a dance. "You're quite sure? This isn't something rebuilt?"

"No. There are some off-world devices in the vehicle, most are museum pieces, but the engine is completely unlike anything I'd ever seen before."

The Stockholder stopped dancing and suddenly became very somber. "Plaskowitz, I need you to be honest with me now."

Plaskowitz became a bit nervous. "Sir, I.. I'm always honest.. I've never even considered…"

The Stockholder continued to ignore the blue alien. "We must be very careful in how we answer this question." He paused, allowing the weight of his question grow. "Does the engine violate GTG code?"

Plaskowitz sat in silence for a moment. He looked at JB with eyes that lay somewhere between pleading and pity. He looked back at the grinning Stockholder and almost whispered his answer.

"Yes."

The Stockholder did a backflip.

"You're quite certain about that."

Plaskowitz stared at the lunatic. "Y.. Yes, quite sure."

The Stockholder did a quick cartwheel, unable to contain his joy. Both Chris and JB had no idea what-so-ever to do although panic was not an option at the time.

"We have to bring in your associate. Quickly!"

Zrng was nearly thrown into the room by the original two guard beings. It was quite obvious that there had been a bit of a workover session involved. Zrng bared little damage, but the guards were more than a bit mussed.

"Ah, my Grylix friend. Zrng was it?"

Zrng snapped around to face the Stockholder, he charged then ricocheted off of some sort of force wall. The Stockholder chuckled a bit. "Fun time later, right now I have some news to share with you! My associate Plaskowitz here tells me that the device in question is of completely human design. Isn't that just marvelous?"

Zrng's eyes grew very wide at the news a bit of a smile almost crept on his face.

"Yes! But it gets even better!" the Stockholder bubbled. "According to my research manager, it's using GTG technology!"

Zrng's face dropped, as did most of the color from his face.

"Uhm, Sir?" Plaskowitz meekly interjected, "It's not using GTG Tech."
The Stockholder stopped dancing for a second. "Excuse me?", he said over his shoulder, holding the last pose he struck, "I thought you said it violated GTG code?"

"Uhm, well, technically, it does, but it's nothing even close to anything we have."

The Stockholder became very serious. "Explain.", he commanded.

"The device uses Gatespace, but it doesn't travel through it, it sends a beaconing signal through the space. It then collapses the area and creates a micro wormhole to transmat. In all honesty, it violates a fair number of other regulations as well, and I don't think any sane being would even think about using something like it. Maker knows that thing would probably cause a fair number of folks' heads to implode, possibly starting with anyone who happened to be inside of it. If it wasn't for the fact that we picked up their signal a month ago I don't think I'd ever believed it would work."

"A few months ago?" Zrng asked. "I've been in orbit for half a year. Their planet was under siege for most of it. You must have picked up one of those signals."

"No, the signature matched this device." Plaskowitz produced a portable monitor he turned it around and displayed three identical scribbly lines.

The Stockholder leaned over to look at the details of the near-indecipherable readout. "What's this third line?"

"Third line?" Plaskowitz asked and turned the display around again. His blue brow furrowed and he looked toward the device a few times before finally walking over to it and placing a hand on part. "Ah, well, we can add a tachyon echo signature as well. It's a shame really. I would have liked to study this a bit more. I'll go warm up the gate generator."

"Ooh, I like this part." Glrrp burbled happily.

"What's going to happen?" Chris asked.

"Oh, they're going to use a one gate to trigger a massive solar flare, then another to vent it on your planet. Fantastically devastating, virtually untraceable but really, really pretty."

"WHAT!?" Chris screamed in horror.

The Stockholder held up a hand, pleasantly oblivious to Chris' sudden concern. "No, Plaskowitz, I don't think that will be necessary this time."

"Sir?", the Autakoo asked. He glanced rather uncomfortably at the two representative humans, and spoke in a near whisper "the.. the rules are rather clear in matters such as these. There's the whole non-compete clause.."

"Well, we'll simply have to change that." The Stockholder said calmly, with a wide smile.

"Change? The non-compete clause? Now? Here?" Plaskowitz became mired in his own confusion.

"What's the "non-compete clause"?" JB whispered to Glrrp.

"Oh, it's a clause that goes back several of your millenia. It basically says that the GTG owns transit gate technology and can take measures to ensure that technology remains under their control."

"By destroying any planet that they like?" Chris sputtered.

"Saves a bunch on legal fees, let me tell you."

"You're destroying billions of innocent lives!!"

Glrrp blew a few bubbles and held up his hands in a gentle way. "No, no, it's not that bad really. Ok, so maybe a few billion are eradicated in a firey hell of radioactive bombardment and your atmosphere is thinned out a bit, and maybe there is the whole world enveloped by clouds of dust and ash, but the planet usually becomes habitable in a few thousand years and, within less than a million years, you're pretty much back where you started. It's more just a minor setback, really. We even drop off some nice brochures for either you or whatever species succeeds you. They've got some great deals on portable grills and carapace care kits. They're really sweet deals."

Chris stood in near shock, not quite believing what he was hearing.

JB simply continued to listen to the more important discussion at hand.

"Sir.. you.. can't just change..."

"Why not?"

"Well, these things need to go through committee first, I mean there have to be Stockholder meetings and a vote..." Plaskowitz struggled to come up with the business cases he had heard most of his life.

"My dear Plaskowitz, what is my title again?"

"Uhm... you are the Stockholder."

The Stockholder struck a classic Victorian pose, as if he were setting up for a portrait. "Yes, yes it is." He swung his walking stick out and caught it under Plaskowitz' chin. "And why, my dear boy, do you suppose that might be?"

"Uhm, because you own some stock?" Plaskowitz said. He wasn't really sure. He was an engineer for Maker's sake, he barely followed any of this.

"Well, yes, I do own some stock." His smile grew a bit wider and he cocked an eyebrow as he leaned a bit closer to the smaller blue creature. "Tell me, are you aware of any other stockholders?"

Plaskowitz stood, thinking for a few seconds. "Well, I'm sure that .."

"Nope, I got his first."

"Well, then there's always..."

"She really plays lousy poker."

"But then there's that company that.."

"Not since they had that nasty spell of bad luck and their assets hatched."

"You mean not even..."

"He really needs to stop listening to analysts and do some of his own reasoning, you know."

Plaskowitz' eyes grew a bit rounder as the realization hit him.

"All of them?"

"No, not all, merely 70%, but it's enough, don't you think?"

Everyone in the room was suddenly very silent. Glrrp blew a bubble, JB was positive it didn't come from his mouth.

"But... why?" Plaskowitz asked, not really arguing, more just curious.

The Stockholder slowly pirouetted, "I have reasons, but let's just say that I don't feel like it right now." With arms and one leg out-stretched he stopped and looked at Zrng. Who was simply glaring at him.

"Ah, yes. My little Grylix friend. What to do about you..." He collected himself and placed a hand upon his chin in a mockery of deep thought. It was more than evident that he knew quite well what he was proposing. "While I whole heartedly agree with your objectives..."

"You don't know what my objectives are." Zrng said flatly.

The Stockholder dismissed the comment with a bit of a chortle. "Please, you all are easier to read than a Tolstoy novel."

Zrng, not being familiar with twentieth century Russian authors, had no answer for that comment, so he simply stood, objecting by making confused gargling noises.

"But point of fact, you're still too early." The Stockholder broke into a bit of a dance and soft-shoed his way toward Chris and JB. "Did you know that your associate there had been telling folks that there was a Grylix war fleet headed toward your planet?"

JB and Chris looked toward Zrng, who just sort of shrugged.

"Sure thing." The Stockholder said as he continued his Fred Astaire routine. "Basically, he would go around, snatch folks and tell them that the human race had twenty years to get their act together, stop killing each other and prepare for the battle."

Chris felt a bit numb, really. He had no idea how to react, it was just one more piece of good news he had to deal with today.

"Of course, it's all a load of hooey."

"Hooey?" Zrng fired back, "Look, I risk my vital fluid life to warn that Maker forsaken rock that an invasion fleet is headed to enslave them and you expect me to just get on the comm. and say, 'Hey Gang, Jigs up. There's some Jelvan seed work that's saying you don't exist, better head on back.' I don't think so, buddy."

All the time Zrng was responding, The Stockholder faced Chris and JB, making faces and puppeting Zrng's complaints. "Need I remind you, my little Grylix friend,", the Stockholder called over his shoulder, "that the population you were sent to observe has already repelled two alien invasions already?" He looked at Chris and JB with wider eyes and said in an innocent, yet catty tone, "You know, you've got to respect their goals, but one would hope they'd be more creative than they are." He whirled and walked to where Zrng was pressing himself against the force field. "You see, the problem is that you're just too disconnected from the group you're studying. If you're not keeping a real eye on them, the do silly things like repel a fleet of Zxanxi battle crabs,

"Zxanxi?" Chris asked.

"The space shrimp that took out Melbourne" JB whispered out the side of his mouth.

"...invent a FTL drive two hundred years early, and get into just all kinds of mischief."

"I thought that was just a load of crap to keep us from beating up the Netherlands."

The Stockholder bounded over to the Maxima and once again leaned over the hood. "Still, I'm not particularly worried about this little device in a way. You see it simply never existed."

"What do you mean 'it never existed'?" Chris said suspiciously. "We didn't exactly get here by switching over to four-wheel drive."

"Well, you see it's really rather simple. There simply is no record of any human drive until your 2217, right after… well, that would give away too much. Let's just say that this" he struck the drive with his walking stick, "wasn't it."

"Fine, but they still managed to break light," Zrng continued suddenly becoming very deliberate, "that means they're no longer 302's. And since it occurred while under our province,"

"Your province?" The Stockholder laughed out loud, "One scout in an unarmed ship keeping his seat warm several million miles from the planet, and you seriously want to claim province?"

Zrng calmly folded his arms and stared hard at the Stockholder. "Do you wish to contest the claim?"

The Stockholder stopped laughing. He stared at the smaller green alien, JB could almost see the aggression between the two. He cautiously glanced toward the other inhuman occupants to gauge their reactions. They looked like someone had just pulled the pin from a hand-grenade.

The Stockholder looked like he could have spat fire. Zrng, looked like he was made of stone. It was a rather impressive display.

After a few moments, the Stockholder leapt into the air laughing. "Oh, this is too rich to pass up! Ok, you win- hee-hee! They're your protectorate." He suddenly swung around and pointed his staff at the still rock-fast Zrng. The Stockholder said with a fair amount of conviction, "but, they're not ready yet for full admission."

"That would be an understatement" Zrng agreed.

"And word of their status will get out."

"It's inevitable, but that is our problem, not yours. I know you won't be running around telling everyone that there's a race out there somewhere that managed to beat GTG at it's own game. Nor will you be all that excited about someone accidentally copying the drive."

"Of course not, It's staying here."

"Fair enough."

"Can I at least have my car back?" Chris asked.

"Plaskowitz?"

"I can't see why not. The drive is self contained. I can have it completely removed in about two hours or so."

JB turned to the Autakoo and with genuine concern asked, "It's not too much trouble, is it? I'd be happy to give you a hand if you need."

Plaskowitz looked at JB for a few seconds and smiled a bit, "No, it's not to much trouble. I've got a full lab, and I haven't had a chance to really see some of those antiques you've got installed into it. Your, 'car' is it? will be good as new."

"Well, other than the fact that it's still missing the engine." Chris grumbled.

"Chris, give it a break, will you? Look be happy that they're giving it back to you at all. We'll get it fixed." He turned back to Plaskowitz, "Thank you, you're very kind."

Plaskowitz smiled again at the infrequent compliment, and walked back toward his lab.

"So you mind telling us how the heck we're going to get home?" Chris said rather surly.

"I dunno." The Stockholder shrugged, "ask your 'Protectorate'." He turned and walked back to the main Dias, the suddenly swung around to look at Chris and JB, "Oh, there are a few other things you two should know. Being under a protectorate is a nice luxury for a civ that's getting started, but it does come with a price." He took a few slow steps toward them and said quietly, "You never find out who your enemies really are until after it's too late."


A few hours later Chris and JB were sitting back in Zrng's main hold, the three of them exceptionally drunk.

"I tell you two something. You owe me big time. I nearly had to change my pants after standing up to that crazy bark sucker." Zrng slurred.

"Who was that fruit loop anyway?"

"That, was a Jelvan. Rule number one; don't annoy a Jelvan. Very old, very powerful, very rich bunch of complete and utter nutjobs. Wackier than a jax in a room full of key fobs. Mostly into zen philosophy and card games, though."

"Are they all like that?" JB asked.
"Dunno, really, that was the first time I ever met one." Zrng replied honestly.

Chris sat frowning a bit. "So, tell me. What's in it for you?"

"Me?" Zrng asked.

"Yeah, you and your buddies. Why are you so hot to be our 'Protectoratorates'?"

"Kicks mostly." Zrng said as he crushed yet another empty keg and tossed it toward the pile of large crumpled aluminum canisters in the far end of the room. "Plus we kinda got jobbed ourselves when we started out and figured it'd be nice to keep others from making the same dumb mistakes."

"You gonna make us into your slaves or eat our brains or something?"

"Nah," Zrng said, dismissing the comment, "Slaves are more hassle then they're worth and your brains give us gas." He waited a few seconds before laughing at his own joke. "Look, we've got our reasons and I'm not gonna tell you right now, but basically it's in our best interest that you all succeed on your own terms. We're just here to point you in the right direction."

"Uh oh, We're screwed." JB said suddenly.

Zrng harrumphed a bit, "Well, if it wasn't for me bucko, your planet would be holding the galaxies biggest weenie roast, so if you don't mind…"

JB looked annoyed and waved Zrng off. "No, no, no. Not that, something far worse."

"Worse than being barbequed?"

"Crap, you bet Brah! We've gotta get back home."

"Relax, I'll get you back to Boise in the morning. Right now we need to…"

JB grew more irritated. "No! Listen to me, Chris, it's the Holidays."

Chris sat thinking for a few seconds, then said profoundly, "Oooh crap!"

Now it was Zrng's turn to be confused and concerned. "What?"

Chris and JB turned to look at their green companion, and said in unison. "Parents are coming to town."

The three leaned back against the side of the returned Maxima. In near perfect, albeit drunken three-part harmony said, "Oh Crap."


Just who is Zrng and what is this
about becoming a protectorate?

Just who are the enemies of the Grylix?

And will Mom and Dad mind having an extra guest
at the table?

Tune in next time for

Happy New Fear!
or
Guess What's Coming to Dinner?

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