Chapter 42

Dark.

Stuff like this always starts off like that, in darkness. Quite possibly it's a union thing, but that's probably not the case here.

Something not quite a trumpet plays a few quick notes. The echoes fade away slowly.

The dark gives way to light that begins to glow against a huge fluttering flag. It's a simple design heralded in history, a field of white flutters against a slight breeze. Near the center, a moderately stylized galaxy hangs within the clutches of an iron gauntlet. The fingers curled around, threatening to crush the mass of stars and planets at the fickle whim of an unseen titan.

Against the stirring image we see a shadow work it's way toward the raised dais. The trumpet plays another pair of notes that echo and fade, accompanied by a steady, low drumbeat pounding out a military order of attention. As the lights slowly grow brighter, the shadow takes on a blocky form. It stops in time with the final drum beat.

The center of the robot flickers to life and a chrome helmed figure with a sinister van dyke peers out with a satisfied grin.

"Doomians!" The voice booms out, "Our hour of conquest has arrived. For years now, we have suffered the humiliation of the unprecedented attack on our.. Yes?"

"Hey, why did Taco Bell pick a Chihuahua as their mascot? Don't dogs eat anything?"

Krullux looked a combination of confused and angry."What?"

Another voice called out. "You know what'd be cool? Strap a whole bunch of old tires around your car and you'd have a big ol' bumpercar."

Krullux stopped being confused and simply glared at his audience. The screen showed him slowly raise up a small remote control. He carefully pressed the button.

The hall was filled with the anguished cries as hundreds of shock collars went off at once.

Krullux surveyed his now somewhat more sedate audience, raising an appreciative eyebrow. "As I was saying... I have gathered all of you together so that we make take revenge on our greatest enemy, the ones that have... Is that a giant shoe? That had better NOT be a giant shoe I see!

Krullux's Resumatrix spun around to view several pieces of crushed melon splatter against the flag. He turned back and glared again. He thought about using the shock collars again, but decided against it. He thought about the stirring speech he had planned on giving, a speech about justice and destiny.

Instead he simply dropped his head into his hands for a few seconds as pandemonium reigned below him. He raised his head up again. "Ok, well, screw the speech." He turned the amplifiers up to just below deafening. "The armada lands in two weeks. Oxygen drops the day before. I recommend you all be suited before then."

The small art-deco bot simply turned and stormed off of the stage. Even unmanned, the Doomian war bots would make the required impression.


Zrng looked at the ship's message monitor without blinking. JB climbed over his shoulder trying to determine what had brought out Zrng's untranslatable reaction. Unfortunately, the screen full of untranslatable gibberish wasn't much help.

"Zrng," JB asked with more than a bit of concern, "wh-what's wrong?"

Zrng slowly blinked and with a touch, cleared the screen. He continued to stare at his screen for a few seconds. He turned and looked at JB with a disturbingly blank stare. "I.. can't believe it. It had been years. I never.. I never thought I'd ever hear from them again," He mumbled. JB grew increasingly nervous.

Chris wasn't paying any attention to the microdrama unfolding infront of him. He was more intent on the partially opened closet, and the short dark rod that lay just inside of it. The rod was vaguely familiar looking, with two brass looking nubs at one end and what looked like a cow with far too many... Chris looked over his shoulder and quickly stored the device into one of his coat pockets.

"ZRNG!" JB yelled, Chris flashed a glance, knowing that he must have been caught, but neither JB nor Zrng were looking his direction.

"You were giving me a major heart attack there." JB was yelling at the alien.

"Look, do you have any idea how much of a pain it's been to get a high speed omninet connection? I've had to use burst, and I've never gotten anything faster than 48Gigs or the connection would drop in the middle of a download, or..."

Amazingly, JB was not as impressed. . "From the way that you acted, I thought that you saw an invasion heading toward earth."

Now it was Zrng's turn to be a bit defensive. "Look, do you have any idea how long it takes to send a 200 Terrabyte planetary update over burst? It's kind of a big deal for me."

Chris tuned out the two as his mind began to whirl with what having the device meant. For the few minutes it took for Zrng to fly them back to the car Chris was silent. Likewise, he gave no response to JB's rambling on the drive toward home.

He nearly ignored the buzz of his cellphone, but habit made him answer it.

"Yeah?"

"We're still going tomorrow, right?" Sandy asked.

Chris stared as his mental clutch burned.

"Chris? You there?" She asked.

"Yeah! Sandra. Uhm, yeah if you're still up for it."

"Of course I am. I've made the reservations, you took care of getting the flight, right?"

Chris winced and lied, "Transportation is all taken care of. When should I pick you up?"

"Chris?" Sandy asked, "Shouldn't you be telling me when we should go? I mean you did get the tickets right?"

"Uh, yeah, but they're pretty flexible. Let's shoot for me picking you up around eight or so. That'll get us down there nice and early and we can make a good day of it."

"You're the boss." Sandy replied, not quite believing Chris, and hoping she could rub it in anyway. "But if we lose our reservation, you're still paying for it."

Chris winced again, so much for that dodge.

"I'll see you at eight, Chris."

"Eight it is." Chris said cheerily and hung up. He leapt to the laptop with amazing speed and started looking around for any available flight.


The dense morning fog that hovered over the California coast muffled most of the thunderclap as a gray Maxima slipped out of the deflector field and rolled to a stop in an ocean side parking lot. The cries of the startled gulls were no match for the unholy scream of terror emanating from the passenger side of the car.

Sandy stared out the front window as Chris removed his set of earplugs. "See, I told you we'd make up time once we got out over the Pacific." He checked his watch. "Eighty five seconds, had I known about the fog I suppose I could have trimmed a few off. Is that the hotel?"

"Sandra?"

Sandy sat gripping the safety belt, waiting patiently for her heart, stomach and any other major organ left behind to finally catch up to her. Her head jerked as she shot Chris a terrified stare.

Chris calmy looked at her and pointed again to the building outside. "Is that the hotel you made reservations at?" He asked in calming measured tones.

Her head snapped to where Chris indicated. "Uh -- yeah." She said, finally able to put words together.

Chris eased the car forward and Sandy slammed her eyes shut, not yet ready for another burst of speed. Chris said nothing and simply pulled up to the lobby and went to the reservations desk.

By the time he returned to the car, Sandy was back to normal.

"Would it have killed you to have just gotten a few simple airline tickets instead of showing off the latest toy? We could have gotten ourselves killed in this hyperactive death mobile, and I'm not going to end up stuck to..." "I don't believe this! I go in and tell him that my name is Chris Reid and that I've got a reservation for two rooms, no smoking just like you requested and he tells me that he only has one room available and but it's got a double."

"What?" Sandy asked.

"They've only got one room left. Apparently there's some festival going on in San Samunci and everyone's booked up solid."

Chris stewed for a few moments. He put the car in gear and started to pull away. "Well, screw that. Let's just head on back to Boise. Lemme warm up the drive and set the route..."

"NO!" Sandra commanded in a voice that refused to be denied. "If you so much as move this car one more inch you're going to find out exactly why having rocks in your head is a bad thing."

Chris looked at Sandra's hand, then her expression. She was not joking. He slowly put the car into park and carefully turned it off.

He smiled nervously. "Right, well, let me go find out what room is ours." Chris scrambled out of the car and ran back into the main office.


Sandra sat at a small table outside of an equally small coffee shop. The town of San Samunci sat just beyond the reaches of the fog, but the air was still cool and damp. She dug her hands deeper into the army green jacket, fighting a chill.

Chris emerged from the coffee shop holding two steaming cups. "Here you go. Steamed Cider, with cinnamon. You sure you don't want anything to eat too?"

Sandra took the offered cup and let the heat warm her hands. "What? No, I'm still stuffed from lunch. Mmm, thanks. This is good."

Chris blew a bit of steam from his and took a sip. "You're welcome."

"Chris? I.. "Sandy, I.." They both began.

Sandra held up a hand. "I'm sorry, you go first."

Chris swallowed a sip of cider and a gulp of pride. "Ok. Look I'm sorry I didn't get airline tickets down here. I know that this was my idea, to go somewhere other than Boise and talk about Mark and other stuff. I shouldn't have brought you here in the Maxima."

Sandra watched the steam rise from her cup. "No, no, it's ok, just a bit disturbing the first time. I'm sorry I kind of lost it with you too. I know you've got a lot of responsibility and I appreciate all you're doing for me. Let's call a truce and start over."

Chris chuckled softly, "No problem. This will be truce number?..."

Sandra smiled, "Eighty six by my count."

Chris turned and began to stroll along the street. "Oh, good, we match then." Sandra laughed and fell in step next to him.

The main street was littered with the usual antique shops, café's and gift shops found in most coastal towns. "This is a nice place."

"Yeah, it's not too bad. It's an artists colony."

"Oh, where are the studios?" Sandra asked, suddenly aware of the loss.

"Well, there haven't been any relapses." Chris said with a shrug.

Sandra took a few steps before the confusion hit. "Excuse me?"

"Ah, there's Tom", Chris waved to a man sweeping in front of his shop. The man smiled warmly and waved back. "He has a case of severe Post Modernism, but looks like he's in remission."

"Chris!" An elderly woman called. Chris smiled and waved to her. They exchanged polite small talk for a few moments before Chris continued on his way.

"That was Sarah. She nearly succumbed to folk art three years ago. Thanks to drugs and therapy though..." Sandra turned to look at the woman. Sarah waved and smiled matronly. Sandra gave a polite smile and wave back.

"Are you saying that..."

"Colleen!" Chris called out to a woman who obviously recognized him. "How's Jack?"

"Oh, he's fine, fine. He's over helping at the Center right now. You know how he is with that darn thing." She laughed.

"Well, it's good to see him find a good way to get that monkey off his back, particularly one that's got a chainsaw." They both laughed politely and carried on a bit of small talk. They parted with a wave and Chris continued on his way.

"I, " Chris began, "had a friend of mine here for a while. I used to visit him pretty regularly."

Sandra raised an eyebrow as she folded her arms. A slight smile curled her lips, "Right...."

"He's currently up in Alaska somewhere, I think. I haven't really kept up with him much this past year. I should see if I can give him a call." Chris said as he strolled further down the lane. Sandra shook her head and quickly caught up with him.


"Hey Sweetie."

JB jumped back from the penguin that was drifting above the field of donut sprinkles. "Becky Sue?" He asked in a curious voice.

A wisp of blond hair drifted by the corner of his eye, he turned to look. "In the flesh, sort of." She stood against a wooden water trough that would normally seem shocking on the surface of Io, but the landscape shifted to a Texas ranch.

"What are you doing here?" JB asked, the rainbow of laser fire that once lit up the ice mountains now forgotten.

"Yer dreamin' hun." Becky Sue said with a wry smile, "I figured y'all wouldn't mind a bit of company."

JB suddenly felt a bit nervous. "Uhm, Becky? What about..." If it were possible for JB to point in three directions with only two hands, this would have been the place.

Becky giggled, "Hey, they all gotta sleep too, y'know. Right now, it's just you and me babe." She slowly walked over to JB, who was feeling increasingly more uncomfortable.

"Is this part of some job description for sidekicks or something?"

Becky stopped, put her hands on her hips and looked at him like a dog that just didn't understand, only far more upset. "What?"

"I just didn't know if I should be in some sort of Elder God Bar and Grill with shambling horrors lurking near a juke box." He then shuddered realizing a few other details about that scenario and the individual behind it.

Becky had folded her arms and wore an expression that might as well have been one hundred and eighty degrees from the previous one. JB felt a bit sheepish "Look, Becky Sue, I'm sorry. It's just that I'm not really sure that..." he caught himself. He knew that anything he said right now would only make things worse.

Becky continued to stare him down, but an extra glint in her eye told JB that she was fighting back some tears.

JB felt about three inches tall, and dropping.

He sighed heavily and sat down in the chair that appeared behind him. "Jeez, Becky, I don't mean to hurt you but I'm just worried that if you find out how much of a jerk I am and get ticked at me, it'll just be worse for you. You won't be able to leave my head, you know."

Becky laughed. "Sugar, I can't leave it now." She walked over and took JB's hand. "Look, in case y'all hadn't noticed, I've been settin' up house in your head for well over a year now so I'm pretty sure that if y'all were a jerk I'd know about it. Aw heck, if you were one o' my ol' dates you'da never even thought of all that."

Becky Sue leaned a bit closer. Her deep green eyes held JB transfixed. "Fact is Mr. JB, you're really the kinda guy a gal could get right sweet on."

It took a few moments before JB realized that Becky Sue was kissing him. The part of JB's mind that argued for rational thought and team balance never stood a chance. He kissed her back.

They kissed a few more times that night.

Among other things.


JB awoke to the sound of Chris' heavy footfalls up the stairs. "Chris? That you?"

Chris' barely gutteral grunt was the only acknowledgement that some form of communication had occurred.

JB carefully slid out of the futon so that he didn't...

He looked at the empty futon and felt confused, embarrassed and any number of other thoughts. Most of them were pleasant, so he smiled a bit as he walked out to the living room.

Chris looked like he had just finished a pair of marathons. He moved slowly and his head was at an odd angle.

"You.. You ok Brah?" He asked.

Chris turned his whole body to look at his brother with an expression that clearly stated "no". "JB, you know how in movies and stuff they always talk about sleeping in the bathtub? My advice to you is: Don't"

JB had no idea what his brother was talking about. "Why didn't you sleep in your bed?"

"Because I didn't have a bed."

"Wait, you went to a hotel and there wasn't a bed in the room?"

Chris snapped his hand up in classic Holmesian style. He also instantly regretted the sudden movement. "Ah -- ow. But there was a bed in the room."

JB closed his eyes trying to figure out why the tub would be more attractive to sleep in for two nights. Chris let him stew over it for a few seconds. "Unfortunately, Sandra was occupying it both nights."

Chris applied some Aspricreme to his neck and shoulders. "Ok, the hotel goofed up and didn't book us two rooms, they booked one. Sandra didn't want to come back and I figured since I already paid for it we were going to damn well use the room. She got the bed and I made due with whatever else there was. I tried the tub but it was freezing, so I spent both nights in one of the chairs."

He flexed his cramped muscles as the medicine began to work its way in. "I guess it's my fault really. She did say I could sleep next to her, but it just didn't seem right. Actually she was pretty nice about it and made sure I was comfortable. She even drove back all night I could get some extra sleep in the car. Well, that and she wanted to make sure we took longer to get back than to get there."

JB listened carefully to his brother and then smiled. "You, uh, do realize that she likes you, right?"

Chris looked at JB as if his language skills had suddenly departed.

JB laughed a bit harder. "Oh come on, Chris! It's obvious. In fact I think she likes you as much as you like her."

Chris continued to look freshly lobotomized.

"Why else would the two of you go down to a romantic part of the California coast for a quiet weekend alone? Why else would she have booked a single bed? The two of you already act like an old married couple, now. I've seen the way the two of you sneak peeks at each other when the other isn't looking. About the only thing you two haven't done is gone for dinner and a movie."

JB yawned and stretched a bit, then turned to the shower. "Geez, and to top it off she's drop dead gorgeous. She's got two supermodel sisters, fer cryin' out loud. And you spent an entire weekend alone with her. You're a case."

Chris closed his open jaw and thought about the past weekend. They'd stood close to each other, but then the fog made it damp and cold. And Sandy said that she only had that stretch babydoll T-shirt because that's all she brought to sleep in.

Chris shook his head. 'Nah, look we're just doing our part for Mark. That's all. In fact this past weekend was good because they really covered a lot of ground about... whatever it was that we were supposed to talk about.

While in the shower, JB never heard the sound of Chris pounding his head against the kitchen counter.


Can I just take a moment to thank him for not using the really horrible joke about JB's date?

What did that have to do with the title?

When the heck did this become
Five Star City?

When will he get back to the
really bad jokes and (lack of)
thrilling action scenes?

Tune in next time for:

Becoming Resolute
or
To Be Determined

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