It was a dark and stormy night. If it hadn't been, I would have seen the basilisk mecha coming.
Lightning hit it at the same time it attacked me. I wasn’t sure what exactly the rays coming out of its eyes were supposed to do, but I can tell you what they did do: knocked me out and gave me a hell of a headache.
When I opened my eyes, I was lying on the cold floor of an unfamiliar room, and Jun was standing over me, looking worried.
“Are you all right?” she said.
I put a hand to my head. “Where am I? What happened to the basilisk?”
She was looking at me strangely, and so was Ryu, who was flopped in a white plastic chair beyond her. Jinpei was off to the side, fiddling with a guitar. There was a disco ball hanging over his head.
“We blew it up, don’t you remember?” Jun said. “And you’re at Center Neptune.”
I pushed to my feet. I’d been in my car, alone, but I didn’t see my car and I clearly wasn’t alone. “How did I get here?”
“You walked in here. You just collapsed a minute ago…"
I turned in a slow circle, trying to find something familiar something and failing. A door slid open behind me and Ken came through the door.
"Oh, Mark," Jun said. "There's something terrible wrong with Jason."
I frowned, trying to find this Jason guy. At least everybody knew CPR.
Then I realized they were looking at me. "Me?" I said. "I'm fine. I just have a splitting headache."
"Have a spaceburger," Ryu said. "That always works for me." His voice sounded all wrong. So did Ken's, for that matter. And Jun’s.
"You don't think something’s wrong with your cerebonic implant, do you?" Jun said.
"My…what? My cybernetic implant? I don't have any cybernetic implants. I think I have still some metal in my head because of that damn puppy, but…"
"I think he's all right, Princess," Ken said.
He didn't sound sarcastic when he called her Princess; he said it like he thought it was her name.
As I looked back and forth between them, I picked up on this…vibe between them. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not like it had never occurred to me that they might be a little attracted to each other, but whatever was going on here, I felt uncomfortable standing in between them.
I needed to find a painkiller.
"He collapsed,” Jun said. “And he doesn’t remember walking in here.” To me, she added, “What’s the last thing you remember?"
"He just doesn't want to finish that game I was winning before Tiny swallowed the ping-pong ball,” Ken said.
“You always hit that thing into my mouth,” Ryu said, glaring at me. And to Ken, “Jason always does that when he thinks he’s going to lose.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Where the hell am I?” This had to be some kind of Galactor trick.
“Jason,” Jun said, reprovingly.
"What did I say?”
Jinpei leapt to his feet and made a series of strange sounds that sounded like he was choking on a bird before finally managing, “Did he just swear?”
“No,” Jun said in her no-nonsense voice. “He said ‘heck.’”
I laughed. "He swears almost as much as I do."
"He most certainly does not."
I narrowed my eyes at her, then at the fake Ken, Ryu, and Jinpei. “Tell Katse his trick isn’t going to work.”
Everyone exchanged glances. Ryu grabbed a hamburger off a pyramid of them stacked on a huge tray and started eating, his eyes no less round than anyone else’s.
“You’re trying to get out of a ping-pong rematch,” Ken said.
“I don’t play ping-pong!” I didn’t even like saying it. Ping-pong. It sounded ridiculous.
Jinpei whirred and gurgled. “Sure you do!” He grabbed a paddle off the table and hit it in Ken’s direction.
Ken returned it with little difficulty, and Jinpei hit it back.
Maybe Galactor was trying to drive me mad. This would be the way to do it. I grimaced. Ken was bent over in such a way that his ass stuck out. It was embarrassing to even see.
I had to get out of here. I practically ran for the door. I’d open it and find fifteen Galactor goons, but at least then I’d know where I was.
Beyond the door were the halls of Crescent Coral. I stopped, frowning.
“Come on, enough with the joke.” Ken caught the ball in one hand. “If you just want to name me the champ and give up, you can do that.”
I ignored him, striding down the hall. I grabbed the first person I saw, a vaguely familiar man wearing a lab coat. “Is Dr. Nambu here?”
I sighed, heading off on my own again, growing uneasy as I drew closer to Hakase’s office. Everything was as it should be, and there was no way Galactor’s flunkies could imitate the details of a base they didn’t even know about.
Maybe the headache was distorting my perceptions. Or maybe I was on some kind of drug, and I was caught in a nightmare. Was that possible?
But then why wouldn’t everything be as it should be? Why was Ken downstairs playing limp-wristed ping-pong with an unintelligible Jinpei?
“Hakase,” I said, walking into the office.
He looked up from his paperwork. “Jason?”
He looked concerned. “You are. What’s wrong with your voice?”
“What's wrong with yours?"
He frowned at me. “If this is a joke, I don’t have time.”
“Chief,” Ken said, coming through the door behind me. “I’m not quite sure what’s going on..” Then he paused, struck by a thought. To me he said, “This isn’t your way of trying to undermine me, is it?”
“Undermine you? What do you mean? Why would I do that? Did you do something stupid to deserve it?”
Ken and Nambu exchanged a glance. Big, colorful fish swam through the ocean on the other side of the glass behind Nambu’s desk.
“Maybe you just need some sleep,” Nambu said to me. "But not right now. Zark has brilliantly uncovered evidence of a new Spectra plot. Apparently they're in the development stages with a millipede monster. Mark, assemble the team together downstairs and he’ll brief you. It's early, but we need to be prepared.”
“Mark?” I said.
Ken looked at me. “What?”
“Your name is Ken.”
He scowled at me. “No, it isn’t. I'm Mark."
To Nambu I said, “You called me Jason.” I waited for him to tell me I’d misheard, but he didn’t. “What’s my last name?”
“You don’t have one.” As if that were perfectly normal.
“I…what? Do you?”
“Of course I have a last name. Did he get hit on the head?" he added to Ken. Mark.
"Your name isn't Dr. Nambu?" I said.
Mark sighed. "Enough with the jokes, Jason. You know who he is. Security Chief Anderson."
"Anderson? But Anderson's the President."
The fake Nambu did not look amused. I wondered suddenly why he wasn’t asking me the kinds of questions he normally would.
Because, I answered myself, he wasn’t Nambu. But if it was a Galactor plot, why wasn’t he pretending to be?
“Zark is waiting,” he said.
Mark/Ken dragged me back downstairs to the strange room with the ping-pong table. I had to be having a nightmare. A really, really bad one.
We’d hardly arrived when a bank of monitors along the wall lit up. Everyone jumped to attention in front of the one with the funny-looking egg-shaped robot.
“Jason!” Jun…well, Princess…hissed. The same voice she used when Jinpei was misbehaving.
I looked more carefully at the robot. In addition to sporting a symbol on his chest that reminded me of Egyptian finery, he seemed to be wearing a cape. A bright yellow cape.
“My monitors have picked up a new threat from Spectra!” it announced. “At first I thought it was some dirt on the screen, but you know I wipe them down at least ten times an hour. I’m quite certain Zoltar is working on the latest Spectra menace!”
“Zaaarrrrrrrk,” a new voice said. It was coming through the same monitor as the robot’s voice, and it was slinky.
The robot’s antennae shot straight up in the air, quivering. “Oh, Susan!” He giggled.
I have no idea how one programs a robot to giggle.
“I hope I’m not…interrupting something,” she breathed.
She sounded like a phone sex operator.
“I just…wanted to make sure you got…the message I sent…on your monitors,” she said.
I wondered if she’d sent him porn.
“Oh, you’re on my monitors, Susan! I mean, I’m definitely looking! I mean, yes, I know about the problem! I’m talking to Mark, the commander of G-Force, and the rest of the team about it right now.”
“Oooohhh,” she said. “I was hoping to catch you during one of your…ten-second oil breaks. I like to talk to you when you’re…lying down.”
The robot giggled some more, his antennae vibrating with excitement. I wanted to look away and couldn’t seem to. It was that disturbing.
To us, he said, “That’s Susan, the early warning system on planet Pluto! I tell her all the time how proud I am to work with the G-Force team!" He raised one metal hand and whacked himself in the chest with it, an imitation of what we did when Nambu sent us out. "Oh my, I do hope I get to meet her some day! She just lights up all my transistors.”
A new sound, a series of loud, high-pitched electronic bursts, and the robot added, “One-Rover-one agrees!” That sound again, apparently a robot dog yapping. The robot leaned a little out of the screen and when he came back he said, "He does so love those wrenches I feed him."
I snickered, and when both Mark and Princess turned to glare at me, I tried to make it into a cough.
Zark focused on Mark again, if a robot without a real face can focus. “Well, I know you're taking a little time off for the race,” he said. “Jason is one of the best racers on the planet! We know you'll win this race and make us all proud, Jason! I am so proud of you, even if you can be a little hotheaded. You're still a valuable member of the G-Force team! Oh, I do care so much about you young people! Do be careful while you're away!"
He faded out.
He was like a crazy old lady on crack. I couldn't wait to see what 1-Rover-1 looked like.
“You heard him, team,” Mark said. “Let’s go!”
The floor dropped out from under us.