Author: NetRaptor PM
A 9-point crossover. It's so lousey you don't want to read it.Rated: Fiction K - English - Adventure - Words: 11,873 - Reviews: 3 - Published: 05-03-00 - id: 23548
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Copyright notice: Commander Keen, vorticons, and related characters copyrighted by ID software and Apogee. Jazz and Spaz Jackrabbit copyrighted by Epic Productions. Sonic the Hedgehog copyrighted by Sega. Vectorman copyrighted by Blue Sky Software and Sega. Used without permission. All other characters copyrighted by K. M. Hollar.
By K. M. Hollar
"Why did we have to come on this stupid hike? Do you have any idea how far we are from the outpost?"
"Yes Avian. We're little more than a mile."
"You didn't answer the first question."
"Because I needed a walk, that's why. Our freighter still has five AU between us and Zantar. I needed to get my land legs back."
The bird shook his gleaming head. "Isn't artificial gravity good enough for you?"
"Oh shut up, or I'll deactivate you."
The bird obeyed.
The boy paused beneath a tall tree and drew a deep breath of the cool air. The tree's bark was soft and thick, like orange mattress stuffing. The purple leaves above were long an serrated, like a cross between a maple leaf and a fern frond. They stirred in the faint breeze, rustling softly. The alien scrub brush clumped on the ground refused to move even a leaf.
The boy looked at the robotic raven on his shoulder. It was made of metal, sculpted so skillfully it seemed to be the real thing. It was painted a glossy black, and it's eyes were glass lenses. The computer in it's small body contained its artificial intelligence, making it the perfect pet for a boy who spent most of his time on board space vessels.
His clothing was the normal thing, but would seem strange to one from our time. His shirt had long sleeves, was red, and at first glance he appeared to be wearing a green vest over it. But it was once piece, made of thick, shiny fabric, like nylon. It was a self- fitting body-glove, one size fit all. Once on, it contracted to form an extremely comfortable, durable outfit, perfect for wearing while on space vessels. His long pants were blue, and fashioned of the same bio-mechanical material. His shoes were normal sneakers--that is, they bound his feet with straps, molding themselves to the contours of his ankles and feet, tough and made for heavy use. His blond hair was brushed neatly (though slightly ruffled by the wind), and his eyes were a dark blue. His name was Ray Starre.
"There, you've had your fresh air," Avian said. "Can we go back now?"
"Oh, okay." The boy turned slowly, enjoying the feel of the fresh air on his bare face and hands. "I won't get to walk on a planet until we get to Zantar, and then I'll have to stay inside the complex. It doesn't have an atmosphere." He walked along in silence, Avian riding on his shoulder, expertly bobbing to keep his balance.
The round roof of the spaceport had just come into view through the treetops when Avian said softly, "Ray, my sensors detect a lifeform moving this way. Due east." Ray looked back, but saw nothing but the woolly tree trunks.
"I don't know. It seems to intend to intercept us before we get out of the woods."
Suddenly the boy felt a chill. Nobody knew where he was. If he were attacked, no one would hear him cry for help. He began to run, his heart starting to race. Avian said, "It's increasing its speed. Do you have a weapon?"
"Just my little stunner; I left the other stuff in my cabin."
"Oh great. I'll see that your remains have a decent burial."
Somewhere, off in the trees, a twig snapped. Ray drew his stunner as he ran and cocked it. It was about the size of a water pistol, but packed more punch. Avian stuck his head up and twisted it in a complete circle, looking all around. Then he cawed, "There it is!"
Ray turned and felt his heart freeze in his chest.
Coming at him at a dead run was a great four-legged creature. It was built like a bear, with heavy fur and legs, but instead of sharp teeth, it bore a pair of twisted horns on it's head. It's claws were over an inch long, digging into the ground at each step. It's small eyes gleamed red.
The boy's legs felt as if they had turned to rubber. They simply wouldn't carry him. He ran a few more steps, then tripped and went down. Avian leaped off his shoulder and hopped around to come between his master and the attacker. The monster (known as a reeb) galloped up, head lowered and blunt teeth bared. It slowed to a stop ad paced forward, its steps rolling like a bear's. Avian stood in its way. "Come no further, villain!" The beast had eyes only for the human, who was frozen in terror. In response, the robot bird leaped into the air and sank his sharp beak into the reeb's tender nose.
The monster roared in pain and swatted at the bird with one massive paw. The raven hung there, wings folded, tenacious as a bulldog. The reeb shook its head back and forth violently, finally slinging the robot off--and losing a piece of its snout in the process. Maddened by the pain and the blood streaming down its muzzle, it again advanced on the boy.
But Ray had had time to gather his wits. His stunner was no match for this beast, he knew, but an idea had come to him. As the reeb paced toward him, growling ferociously, he set the stunner on full-charge-rapidfire. As he expected, the monster opened its mouth to roar at him. He threw the tiny gun into its throat. The jaws closed on it, igniting the rapidfire. Wild green sparks shown inside the thing's mouth. It struggled, clawing at it's jaws, but hadn't the sense to open them. Ray leaped to his feet, snatched up the fallen Avian, and fled.
Ray strapped himself into the passenger's seat in the Prowler, and sat silently. Avian was in repairs--he wasn't banged up that bad, but he had a few bugs that needed fixing.
The admiral had given him a good scolding for arriving back late and delaying takeoff. Now they were behind, and it was his fault. Wistfully he thought of his home back on Earth. It sure would be nice to be home right now--no, he wouldn't make himself homesick. This was part of earning enough credits to pass high-school. He had to spend four months on a merchant freighter and travel all over the galaxy. Many times he had longed for it to be over. Buying Avian had helped his loneliness and made him laugh, but the robot couldn't replace his human friends and family. Oh well ... only five weeks left. Zantar was the last stop, and then ... home!
He stared out the window, feeling the thrust of the jets as they lifted off. This planet, Garr-9, hadn't been too impressive. Mostly forested, it sheltered fierce animals, like the reeb that had attacked him. Most of the planet's resources were being mined below the surface, trying at the same time to settle it, and so had become a regular stopping place in commerce.
He grasped the armrests as the freighter left the planet's atmosphere, bucking and jerking. Modern science had done much to cut the feeling of huge force during liftoff, but he could still feel it on his chest and thighs. In another moment it had passed, and he drew a deep breath. Outside the window was now only black space. He unstrapped himself and stood up.
Ray walked out of the passengers compartment (he was the only passenger) and headed for droid maintenance. He was vaguely aware of orbit 1 being announced as he pushed open the door. Inside looked like a car garage, with machinery, parts and droids everywhere, a tool wrack lining one whole wall. There were several robots being worked on by the mechanics. Ray let his eyes trace the room. Avian was here somewhere ...
One of the mechanics noticed him. "Hey there, kid," he said kindly. "Whatcha need? Your Jupiter break down?" (A 'Jupiter' was a next-generation videogame system.) Ray shook his head. "No. I've got a robot in here. A black raven. Is he fixed yet?"
"Oh yeah," the mechanic replied. "Had a few things busted, but they're fixed now." He lifted Avian into view from behind the workbench, aimed a remote control at him and clicked. Avian's eyes flickered to life. Ray set the bird on his shoulder, then walked back to the passengers' compartment.
"How you feeling, Avian?"
"Okay. My systems are all working properly again. Hey, how'd we get away?"
"I fed it my stunner," Ray explained.
They lapsed into silence for a while and watched the green planet go by outside. Orbit five was announced complete, and it slowly slid out of view. "How long until hyperspace?" Avian asked the boy.
Ray shrugged. "I donno. I think we got half an hour until--"
The ship lurched and rolled to one side. A small, strange-looking craft sped by their window. "What was THAT!" Avian and Ray exclaimed at the same time. There was the sound of energy lasers striking the top side of the Prowler. Another fighter flew by, and another. Ray and Avian looked at each other and muttered the dreaded word: "Pirates."
Space piracy was common, and merchant ships were especially prized. Some pirates were worse than others--shooting down a freighter and gathering up the floating cargo. Others simply disabled them and boarded, though what happened to the admiral, crew and passengers was a mystery.
These seemed to be trying for disablement. They were shooting at the energy transmitters instead of the power core. Ray's eyes swept the ceiling, following the tusk, tusk of laser blasts. Suddenly the ship shuddered. The engines whined to a fever pitch and the blackness outside was engulfed by blue light. Hyperspace--already?
The admiral's voice came over the speaker system. "We have been attacked by space pirates. Everyone stay calm. We are jumping to safety." Avian and Ray both breathed a sigh of relief.
But instead of the blue fading back into black, as it normally did, it faded part way, then back into blue. The engines wound up, then down, then up. Something was wrong. Avian remarked, "The hyperjets are damaged. They're firing at random. The admiral lied to keep us calm."
"What's so bad about that?"
"We'll eventually pass the computer's estimated course. Then, to quote a famous smuggler, 'We might fly through a star or bounce too close to a supernova--and that'd end your trip real quick, wouldn't it, boy?'"
Ray stood up, frightened. "What do we do?" His answer came over the speakers. "This is a stage-one emergency. All crew report to your stations. Prepare to evacuate."
The escape pods were little more than escape pods. They contained a week or two of emergency rations and a long-range radio, but that was it. Ray, carrying his one suitcase, climbed inside and sat down on the bench. The furnishings were crude, and the pod reeked of oil and grease. Ray was too scared to care. He and his robot companion watched as one of the crew members swung the heavy door shut and locked it. The lock turned on the inside, too, giving him a ay to get out. Distractedly he listened to the instructions. The pods were to launch as the freighter dropped out of hyperspace. A solar system was being approached with a hospitable planet in it, and all the pods had been aimed for it.
They felt the ship slowing as it dropped out of hyperspace. "Go," Avian said to Ray. The boy pressed 'Launch'. It was because of this premature departure the problem was solved. As the pod reeled away from the damaged Prowler, the thrust caused a balance in the hyperjets, knocking out their malfunction. The crew was able to dock in place, repair the jets, then go on without abandoning ship.
But Ray and Avian knew none of this. All they knew was that they were hurling almost unprotected into deep space, toward an uncharted planet.
The pod screamed toward the ground, its outer hull red-hot. The passengers had a brief glimpse of trees, grass, rocks, blue sky--Then the pod was ripping its way through forest growth, splintering small trees, denting big ones and flattening brush. The boy and the robot were thrown helter-skelter as the pod rolled and bounced.
Finally it stopped. Ray slowly uncurled himself and lifted his head. They were both bruised, but not seriously hurt. The boy carefully stood up and looked out the tiny window. There were trees all around--it looked like a forest on Earth. Was this Earth? He hoped it was.
The robot crow on his shoulder once more, he examined the lock. It was hot to the touch, but bearable. He twisted it, then shoved at it, but it wouldn't budge. "I know," Avian suggested, "try lifting the safety latch off it."
Ray did so, and the lock turned easily. "Thanks," he said wryly as the hatch hissed open.
They stepped out into the sunlight. The air was oxygen rich-- perhaps a fraction more than on earth--but that was fine. It was warm and balmy, like spring. The ground underfoot was rocky, and the patchy grass was blue and orange; rather strange. They could see that their pod had torn a deep furrow in the ground, its heat-shield on the front still smoking. A wall of trees began about twenty feet away; they had landed in a meadow.
"Well, it's not Earth," Avian observed, "but with a climate like this it's bound to be inhabited."
"Are you picking up any life-form readings?"
At that moment they were interrupted by the roar of a spoon-shaped freighter. It went by overhead, scarcely clearing the trees, landing gear extended. As its noise faded into the distance, the robot cocked his head and said, "Ten to one we're a mile or so from a space port. A freighter that size wouldn't land in empty forest."
"You're probably right," Ray agreed, relief replacing the lonely fear of a moment before. "Maybe we can be picked up after all. C'mon."
The boy set out at a fast walk in the direction the ship had gone, feeling the bruises from his rough landing. The turf was rough and uneven underfoot, and was even more so when they entered the forest. The trees appeared to be an odd mix of cyrri, pine, sycamore, bulya, rorimm and many others Ray could not identify. It was as if someone had taken a cross-section of flora from most of the galaxy's inhabitable planets. It was not until he stumbled upon a small gravel path he realized that was what it was. Every so often there would be a little sign beside some tree or bush with the name and description. "It's a nature trail!" Ray exclaimed in amazed surprised. "I haven't been on one of these since we hiked the Grand Canyon on Earth!"
"Educational," Avian observed blandly. "At least we know we aren't lost now."
Ray walked along in silence, feet crunching on the gravel path, reading each post idly as he passed them. Maybe they would meet other tourists who could give them directions ...
Suddenly he heard footsteps on the trail ahead, and talking voices. A moment later three figures dressed in long capes and hoods came into sight, their faces hidden, but talking unconcernedly. Ray's heart sank--they were speaking Standard Galactic, which he had only taken classes in for a year.
They obviously intended to pass him by, thinking him another tourist. Ray moved to the middle of the path and said, "Excuse me ..."
The three halted and looked at him. "Can you help me?" the boy asked in halting Galactic. One of them said something so rapid it passed him entirely. He must have looked blank, for the central figure stepped forward and said in English, "Do you require assistance, Human?"
"Yes," Ray replied, and explained about crashing and needing to contact the Trade Corporation to come and pick him up. As he spoke, the three figures looked at each other, but did not speak. When he finished, the middle one asked, "No one knows where you are?"
"No one," Ray affirmed. "Our admiral had never heard of this planet."
Another round of exchanged glances, and some whispering in Standard Galactic.
The central figure threw back his hood and extended a hand, grinning. His head was like a big German Shepherd's, but with very large, pointed, bat-like ears, and blue fur. The hand he extended was a dog-like paw, tipped with blunt claws. Ray shook his hand, not knowing why. The dog-alien said, "Welcome to Museume! I am Head Director, Vulcan of Vorticon 6. Come with us--we will show you to our fine city where you can make arrangements to convey you home."
"They're vorticons," Avian whispered in Ray's ear. He had been unusually quiet. He intended to say more, but Vulcan touched him and said, "By the Mothership, what a remarkable device!"
The robot crow jumped and looked at him with his glass eyes. "Manufactured in 2297 by Pet Crew Incorporated," he croaked. "Why?"
The vorticon seemed to immediately lose interest. "Oh, how nice," he said, and strode on ahead.
A few minutes walk brought them out of the woods and to the crest of a low cliff. Below them was a wide valley, mostly filled with a city. Dominating the cityscape was a vast, grey-stone building in the center, towering up ten stories and covering several square miles. Vulcan, sensing Ray's curiosity, said proudly, "That is the crown jewel of this planet--the Museum of the Universe. It contains everything worth looking at and more, all contained in one small structure. Come--perhaps you would like a tour?"
"Maybe," Ray replied doubtfully. He had never liked museums much, and if this was such a great one, why wasn't the planet on any of the charts? But he kept his thoughts to himself.
The two other vorticons went their ways when they entered the city, but Vulcan led Ray and Avian on, down street after crowded street, working his way toward the imposing Museum. Ray was footsore and weary by the time they reached it, and his mood was not improved when the alien in charge of communications told him graciously that transmissions were unoperational, and could he come back in a few days?
Ray found himself and his robot in a nice hotel room a black from the museum. "What a day," he groaned, kicking off his shoes and flopping on the bed. Avian hopped on the bedpost and looked around the room. "You have to admit, things could be worse," he chirped in his synthetic voice. "At least we're in civilization."
Ray didn't answer. He was too busy relaxing, eyes closed, limp. Avian was silent a moment, then commented, "Doesn't it worry you that we were picked up by vorticons?"
"No," Ray replied without stirring or opening his eyes. "Why should it? Vulcan seemed all right."
"That's just it," said the bird. "He SEEMED all right. Don't you know anything about vorticons? They're the worst snobs in the universe."
"So?" Ray asked, without moving. "At least they were nice to us. Now shut up, Avi. You're only peeved because he snubbed you about your year."
The black robot clicked his silver beak and settled himself securely on the post. Ray would be more sociable once he had rested.
The next morning the boy was awakened by the communicator on his nightstand beeping incessantly. Sleepily Ray rolled over, clicked it on and mumbled, "Hello?"
"Good morning," came a cheerful voice his sleepy brain couldn't identify. "Your morning meal is being prepared in the library downstairs, and then you and I will begin our tour of the Museum. I'll expect you down in an hour. Goodbye." The comm clicked off, and Ray sank back on the pillows with a groan. His entire body ached from the crash landing in the pod the day before. More then anything he wanted to sleep the rest of the day.
"Avian," he said, "who was that?"
The robot crow, who had been shut down on the bedpost, twisted his head and croaked, "Vulcan of Vorticon six, sir."
"Oh yeah," Ray moaned, closing his eyes. "He WAS going to give me a tour. Oh man, I guess I have to get up." He sat up, threw the covers back and climbed out of bed. Shockwaves of pain rippled through his arms and legs, and he winced.
"Sore?" Avian asked pleasantly.
"Yeah," Ray replied, lurching toward the bathroom like a zombie. "Shower--I need--shower--"
Breakfast was a solitary meal Ray ate alone with Avian looking on. Vorticons viewed themselves as too advanced a civilization to eat with a mere human, and Vulcan was no exception.
After Ray had eaten, however, Vulcan met him at the door and escorted him to a hover vehicle parked at the curb outside. "Good morning," he said as he climbed behind the flight yoke and started the engines. "Today we will travel the north wing of the Museum. I guarantee you have seen nothing like it anywhere else in your travels. Oh, here is a floorplan." The dog-like paw offered Ray a brochure. He took it and unfolded it. Avian, on his shoulder, leaned forward and looked too.
The building was divided into four wings, each with hundreds of outbuildings and ten floors apiece. Each section was labeled with the contents of that room. 'Ancient machines' 'Saurian skeletons' 'Wares of Earth.' 'Wares of Zokbarr-3' 'Wares of ...' Almost every planet was represented by wares. 'Mounted beasts' 'Cryogenic freeze display--unfinished'
The last one caught Ray's eye. "Mr. Vulcan," he asked, "what's this unfinished display?"
"Ah," the vorticon sighed, eyes on the airway ahead, "the hardest display we have ever attempted to put together. It is wax sculptures, but they are constructed of such a fragile substance they must be kept in cryogenic freeze chambers."
"Oh." Ray saw nothing strange about this, but Avian stared at Vulcan for the remainder of the trip.
Two hours later, Ray remembered why he disliked museums. If allowed to wander through on his own it would have been interesting, and maybe even fun, but Vulcan was a boring tour guide. Each display was explained several times before moving onto the next, and after two hours Ray's feet hurt, and he was chilled from the air conditioning.
At one point, a hooded vorticon hurried across the room and up to Vulcan, interrupting him in the middle of his dialogue. They exchanged a few hushed words, then Vulcan excused himself, told Ray not to wander away, and strode off.
Ray gazed after him and muttered, "I wonder what the rush is."
"He's the Director," Avian chirped. "The air system probably broke down."
"Hope so," Ray said, folding his arms and shivering. The marble floor was very unforgiving to his aching feet. After a moment of bored silence and watching the other tourist-aliens walking about, Ray turned and walked toward the wall, where a row of huge stained-glass windows spilled cheerful color on the floor. Maybe it would be warmer there.
Standing in the sun and looking idly about, the boy noticed a large door in the wall. It had a small metal tab on it he couldn't read from that distance. Idly curious, he approached. Suddenly he snapped to attention. It said, "Cryogenic display--Not Open To Public."
"Try the door," Avian whispered. He had read the tab as well.
Ray hesitantly touched the engraved knob, but the door swung inward silently, as if it were not closed properly. Inside was a dark room, but lit around the edges with a ghostly blue light. He tossed a glance over his shoulder. No one was looking. He slipped inside and closed the door softly behind him. As he turned, Avian gasped, "Oh my gosh!" Neither spoke for a long time after that. They were too busy walking around the huge room and looking, looking, looking.
The tubes were separated from each other by small wooden partitions and blocked off neatly with a small metal fence, so viewers couldn't harm the displays. Each tube had a little brass plate mounted on a pedestal before it, to tell visitors what they were seeing. The room was neat and clean, as if ready to open any moment. But the door was shut and the light off, and only the chambers shed a strange blue light into the darkness.
There was more than 100 tubes, each one containing something--a wax sculpture. They were all different aliens, a representative from each planet or race. There was a heavy-set green robot, built of magnetic spheres. There was a blue creature called a 'Mobian Hedgehog'. There was a large bird with long pointed wings called a Swift. There was a huge burly monster with one red eye, a big mouth and bird-like feet, called a 'Bloog'. The list went on and on. The amazing thing was how lifelike each creature was, and how perfectly modeled they were.
The last tube was empty, its blue light off. Ray had to squint and lean close to read the words in the gloom. 'Human'. "They're gonna put a human statue in that one," Ray told his pet.
Avian surprised him by crying, "This is wrong! The vorticons should NOT have constructed this! It is wrong!"
"Why?" Ray asked, slightly annoyed. He thought it rather cool. "They're just sculptures."
"For one thing, there's no artist name anywhere," Avian growled. "For another, no artist would use clay that must be kept frozen cryogenically. Ray, those are REAL people!"
"No way," Ray said, shaking his head. "If they were real, there'd be tons of machinery hooked up to keep them alive."
"Go through there and see what we find," Avian said, indicating a small door with a wing.
"All right, I will," Ray said, annoyance growing. He twisted the knob, pulled it open and stepped in.
His eyes beheld a vast assortment of machines, computers, wires, flashing lights and turning gears. He squeezed in among them, shocked. He read the first screen he came to--it was a listing of critical bodily functions, all of which were listed as 'normal'.
"I told you so," Avian said smugly.
Vulcan returned to where he had left Ray and found him standing in the sunlight under the windows. "Sorry about that," he said amiably. "Business, you know. Would you like to get lunch?"
"Sure," Ray shrugged. "Hey Mr. Vulcan, what's that door over there?" He pointed to the cryogenic room.
The vorticon never missed a beat. "The museum storage chamber. It contains all the extra artifacts we have not been able to fit into the exhibits. A junkroom, really. Quite uninteresting. Come along." He turned and walked across the floor, Ray following. The boy and his crow sideyed each other. Vulcan had lied. Why?
The rest of the day was a duplicate of the morning--chilly, impressive rooms of bizarre artifacts, Vulcan's droning voice, aching feet.
When night came (which wasn't for a long while, as the summer months on that planet were largely daylight with seven hours of darkness), Ray dropped into bed, relieved to be off his feet.
But in spite of his weariness, the boy could not sleep. In his mind he kept seeing those even rows of soft blue tubes. There were living people in there. Wouldn't they eventually die in the frozen chambers? He remembered reading about the long-term effects of cryogenic freezing ...
"Avian," he said into the darkness of his room. He saw the dim red glow of the robot's eyes as they came on. "Yes?" the mechanical voice replied from the bedpost.
"Avi, those people in those chambers ..."
"What about them?"
"Can't we do something about them? I mean, defrost them and send them home?"
The red eyes shifted as the crow turned his head. "They're from almost every known planet. You and I are a young human and a toy robot. What can we do?"
"I don't know," Ray said irritably, rolling over and punching his pillow. "If only we could just free ONE ..."
"Which one would you choose, Ray?"
In his mind's eye, the boy walked through the chamber again, looking into the various faces. Who should he pick? Who would be the best choice? Someone he could smuggle out and hide, but could fend for themself. He thought of the green robot built of spheres. It was only a foot taller than himself. A robot would stay put when he told it to.
"That green robot guy," Ray said decisively. "I can handle robots. I wouldn't have to feed him and he'd stay hidden."
"A wise choice," Avian remarked.
Ray snapped the bedside lamp on, swung out of bed and began to dress. He paused after a few moments, a look of consternation on his face. "Avi, how will I get in? The doors are locked."
The little crow hopped off the bed, picked something up from the floor and deposited it at the boy's feet. It was the brochure Vulcan had given them, with the floorplan of the museum. "Avian, you're a genius," Ray said with feeling.
Getting in was something of a chore. Ray finally spotted a mail drop, shoved Avian through, and waited while the robot disarmed the security system and unlocked a side door.
Once the door closed behind them, however, the security systems activated again. "Sorry," Avian said as Ray picked him up. "That was all it would let me do."
"You did fine," Ray whispered. "Now I've got to find the cryogenic room."
It was harder than it seemed in the monstrous darkened building. The dim lights in the displays cast a spooky glow across the cold floor, and the mounted animals in their hall looked alive and ready to leap from their stands as soon as Ray turned his back.
After fifteen minutes Ray spotted the stained-glass windows, and a moment later was at the door of the room. But there was one small problem: the door was locked.
Not yet daunted, Ray dug out his pocketknife, selected a particular blade and inserted it into the lock. After a bit of burgler-esque jiggling of the lock, it clicked and the knob turned. The blue light of the tubes spilled out upon them. They entered quickly and closed the door.
The green robot was still there, hands at his sides. His head was a sphere. He had two knobs for ears, light-lenses for eyes (off) and the suggestion of a nose and mouth. Ray made note of his display number--35--and entered the side maintenance door.
It was not easy to find the life-support system hooked up to his chamber, but the further Ray walked the more he made sense of the machines' layout.
At last he located number 35. The screen listing the robot's systems instead said simply 'off-line'. "I guess it isn't hard to pickle a robot," Ray murmured to the crow on his shoulder. "How do I defrost him?"
Avian observed the equipment for a long moment before answering. "I'm not familiar with the process, but I believe if you pull down those two levers and press the yellow button, something will happen."
Ray did so."
The machine adjoining the robot's chamber began to hum, and the little screen flashed, "Defrosting process begun. Stand by." It displayed an outline of the robot's body, and slowly began to trace it in red. Ray watched nervously, biting his thumbnail.
The screen blinked, "To continue, please insert password."
"Oh heck," Ray hissed, "Avi, it wants a password!"
"Don't look at me," the robot replied. "I didn't know."
The red line continued to trace down the robot's outline. It finished and seemed to be waiting. "The password will turn him on," Avian observed. "Probably a good idea."
Suddenly, from the room outside, there came a colossal crash of breaking glass. "I think he came on-line anyway," Avian said. Ray whirled and ran for the door.
By the time he reached it and stepped out, the robot had put his fists and feet to work splintering the tube, and was stepping out, orange eyes glowing and looking about. The floor was littered with broken glass. "Oh NO!" Ray yelped when he saw the mess.
The sound drew the robot's attention. He whirled to face them and lifted one hand, palm outward. His palms were clear laser lenses. Ray ducked, hands over his head. "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"
"What are you?" the robot demanded in a loud monotone.
"I'm a human!" Ray cried, expecting to be blasted. "My name's Ray, and I just broke you out of cryogenic freeze! Don't shoot!"
"Oh," said the robot in quite a different tone. He returned his arm to his side. "I apologize. I thought you were a vorticon. Can't be too careful."
Ray looked up and straightened, relieved. "What's your callsign?"
"V-156, 700 billion," the robot replied, "but my nickname is Vectorman." He stepped forward and extended a hand, this time in friendliness. Ray shook his hand, staring. Vectorman looked as if he would move clumsily, but his parts moved as smoothly as any human's. None of his limbs were connected. Instead, he was formed of multisized green spheres held together by some powerful magnetic force contained in the largest sphere, the robot's 'chest'.
Now Vectorman was staring about him at the darkened room and other displays. "What is this?" he asked, suddenly quiet. "Who are these others?"
"It's a museum display," Ray explained. "All these are other people--from other worlds--frozen so tourists can see them. I can't do much, but I wanted to free one."
Vectorman shifted his weight to one foot and folded his arms. The glass shards crunched shrilly under his metallic foot, and Ray looked at the floor. "What a mess. I'm in trouble now."
"No kidding," Avian chirped. He had been silent the entire time, but had decided that the newcomer was safe. Vectorman glanced at him, then down at the glass. "Oh, that. A little glass is nothing. Watch."
Before their eyes the green spheres rearranged themselves to form a broom, which began to industriously sweep up the mess. Vectorman's eyes shown from the end of the handle. It looked so comical that Ray burst out laughing. The robot didn't seem to mind. He swept the glass into a little white pile in the middle of the floor, morphed back into his original form, but with a brush at the end of one arm and a dustpan in the other. He gathered up the glass, poured it carefully back into the empty cryogenic chamber, then morphed the dustpan and brush back into hands. "There," he said, dusting them off. "I was built as a janitorial bot, to help with garbage control on Earth, but I was captured by vorticons." The emphasis he put on 'vorticons' belied his dislike.
"You're from Earth?" Ray exclaimed in surprise. "So'm I!"
"Yes," Vectorman replied. "I pilot a space freighter and few civilians know of our work. Should we depart?"
"Yeah," Ray replied, suddenly remembering what he was doing. "Sneaking out is gonna be a lot harder than sneaking in. C'mon Vec, and be quiet."
The door wouldn't re-lock, so Ray simply closed it and led the robot across the big display room, toward the exit doors at the far end. Vectorman's big metallic feet clopped loudly on the stone floor like a horse's hooves, no matter how lightly he walked. It had the boy's nerves on edge by the time they reached the doors--what if a guard heard them?
A small red light was blinking on and off above the doors. If they opened an alarm would sound. "Great," Ray whispered to the black raven on his shoulder. "Avi, how will we get out? Can you turn off the system again?"
"No," Avian started, but Vectorman broke in. "I can hotwire it. I've done it before." The green robot knelt at the corner of the doors, his orange eyes casting a faint light on his hands. Ray looked all around the room, feeling unprotected. What if they were caught? What if Vectorman couldn't jam the security system? How could he smuggle the robot into the hotel? What had been that grey stuff on his plate at dinner?
As these questions nagged at his anxious mind, Ray suddenly noticed a light under a door off in the corner. How long had it been on? Was somebody in there?
He lifted Avian from his shoulder, whispered for him to help Vectorman and that he would be back in a second, then tiptoed toward the light. He must see what was going on ...
As he drew closer, he heard a soft mumble of voices. There were a couple people behind that door. He crept up, his sneakers scarcely whispering against the floor, discovered a peephole in the door and looked in.
Inside was a sort of office with a big desk, a few chairs and a potted plant. Sitting behind the desk with his feet on it was Vulcan, a thing like a long-stemmed pipe in one hand. Facing him was another vorticon, seated comfortably in one of the chairs. Both wore strange-looking jumpsuits with complicated-looking utility belts, but Vulcan's suit was blue while the other's was red. Somehow it made them look all the more fierce, with their long muzzles and pointed ears.
As Ray listened, the other vorticon said, "If you only knew how this was affecting your reputation--hanging out with an earthling." He spoke in a slangy mix of Standard Galactic and vorticon, but by now Ray knew enough of both to get the gist of that he was saying.
"Yes," Vulcan replied in his perfect Standard Galactic, "but it is necessary. He must feel reasonably secure here, for he could escape though the space portal quite easily."
"He doesn't know about it, does he?"
"No. I have seen to it he knows nothing, and humans are too stupid to learn new languages very quickly."
Ray bristled. He had picked up quite a bit of Standard Galactic in two days.
Vulcan placed the pipe stem in his mouth and said through his teeth, "He is to be placed in the display the day after tomorrow. Then we will be free to open to the public, and the display will pay for itself a dozen times over."
A sick rush of adrenaline overtook Ray and he braced himself against the doorframe. HE was the human needed for the last cryogenic freeze chamber. He should have known from the way they had been so nice to him. To them, he was an ignorant savage who deserved to be stamped out, and putting him in a museum was no big deal.
"Psst," a voice across the room hissed. "Ray boy, c'mon!"
Ray tiptoed back to where the robots had disabled the alarm on the door, trying to quell the trembling that seemed to have taken ahold of him. Vectorman whispered, "Softly now," and pushed the bar to open the door. It opened, emitting the glow of the streetlight outside. Ray picked up Avian, and the three stepped out.
As Vectorman closed the door behind them, he said, "Now where to?"
"Back to my hotel room," Ray replied unsteadily, "about a block that way."
"Right," the robot replied, and promptly four small spheres appeared on the bottoms of his feet.
"Rollerblades?" Ray asked incredulously, temporarily forgetting his fear.
"In-line skates," Vectorman replied with a shrug. He knelt and said, "Climb on. I'll carry you."
With a glance at Avian, Ray obeyed, climbing astride the big sphere that formed the robot's torso. Holding on was not as hard as he had thought, as each sphere was held rigidly in place by magnetic force.
Vectorman shoved off and in a second was gliding along the pavement like a bird on the wing. His movements were remarkably smooth, and Ray found himself enjoying the ride immensely. He happened to cast a glance at Avian, and saw that his beak was parted slightly, which was his way of smiling.
It was over far too soon. Before long the robot was rolling to a stop in front of the hotel, asking, "Is this the place?"
"Yes," Ray replied, sliding to the ground. "But how am I gonna get you up to my room?"
"Hey, no problem," Vectorman said, waving a hand. "Watch this." As he spoke, a panel opened in his chest, and most of the robot's spheres vanished into it. The rest moved around until they formed a table lamp on the pavement at the boy's feet.
Ray laughed incredulously. "A LAMP?"
"It works, doesn't it?" came the robot's voice. "Carry me in."
Thus Ray smuggled Vectorman into the hotel by simply carrying him under one arm.
Ray did not awaken until late the next morning. As he opened his eyes and saw the sun coming in the drapes, Avian hopped up on the bed, looked at him with one glass eye and chirped, "He's awake."
The boy grunted and rolled over, intending to go back to sleep, but as he did so, he caught sight of Vectorman in the corner, studying a book. It gave Ray a start; he had forgotten about the night's activities. He sat up.
"Good morning, Ray-boy," the robot said, glancing up for a moment. "It's about time you came on-line."
"The nights are too short," Ray complained, sliding out of bed and stretching. As he sat back on the edge of the bed and looked blearily toward the sunny window, he remembered what the vorticons had said, and his stomach knotted. Avian must have seen his master's face change, for he asked, "What's the matter?"
Briefly Ray told him. Vectorman lifted his head, and he, too, listened. As the boy finished, the green robot looked at the black one and said, "Well well, looks like our plans to escape were made none too soon. Ray-boy, read this." Vectorman tossed the book to Ray, who caught it and stared at the cover. "Transportation devices of Museume."
"They claim to have the widest range of transportation of any known planet," Avian said calmly. "Including a teleportation device stolen from some backwoods planet called Mobius. They charge an arm and a leg to use it, too."
"Our idea was to sneak though it," Vectorman added, extending an arm and juggling two spheres in his elbow. "I can create a diversion. I've been in my share of battles, you know."
"We wouldn't hurt anyone, would we?" Ray asked, pulling on his clothes. "You know ... a battle sounds a bit drastic ..."
"So it does," said Vectorman with a shrug of his shoulder spheres. "They'd try to shoot us, that's for sure. I know how vorticons operate."
"But when would we try?"
"Tonight," Avian spoke up. "You said yourself tomorrow is the day they'll take you in. We'll have to leave tonight."
The teleporter was located near the small spaceport, on the edge of the city. 100 buckazoids, one way. No refunds. Of course, Ray didn't have that much. They would have to sneak through. Good thing they were all going to Earth.
Vulcan the vorticon met Ray at the door of the hotel (thankfully, Vectorman had been left in the hotel room in the disguise of a suitcase) and dragged him off for another 8-hour tour of the monstrous museum. Ray kept sneaking glances at the vorticon's canine face, wondering if he felt remorse for what he planned to do to his young charge. Vulcan showed no emotion whatsoever. He was polite, of course, but quite indifferent to the barbarian he was leading about.
The one interesting thing Ray learned the entire day was that that 'closet' Vulcan had told him was so 'uninteresting' was barricaded with orange pylons and yellow tape. Vulcan told him in his usual elusive manner that a special shipment of artifacts had arrived and were being cleaned. Ray gazed at the closed door for a moment as they walked by it. That room contained a hundred other vorticon-victims. If only he could help them escape, too! But how?
He whispered this to Avian over lunch. The robot raven listened without a word, then replied softly, "I'll think of something. I have a good microsystem for a toy."
And indeed, by the time the tour was over for the day, Avian had come up with something--a sketchy, dangerous plan. It was stupid, it was risky, it was bad. But between the two of them, Avian and Vectorman won Ray over, and he finally agreed. Grumbling in tired nervousness, the boy went to bed early. He would be up all night.
That evening, the vorticon guards locked the Museum's doors and went to their posts outside the cryogenic room, ignoring the green houseplant in the corner. But the pair of eyes in the houseplant's base watched them steadily, deciding what to do next.
The building grew dark, and the guards leaned against the wall and talked softly in vorticon. Vectorman very slowly morphed back into himself, but with wheels on his feet. He crouched and rolled himself quietly in the direction of the guards.
There was a loud gasp and a flash of light, then Vectorman was standing over the unconscious guards, using their handcuffs to lock them to a giant metal sculpture in the corner. They wouldn't wake up for several hours, and when they did, they wouldn't be going anywhere. Pleased with himself, the robot strode to the side doors, disarmed the security system by unplugging some wires, and opened it. Ray stepped in with Avian on his shoulder. "All clear?" the boy asked.
"All clear," Vectorman replied. "Let's get a move on."
The cryogenic room was as silent and empty as ever, the rows of tubes shedding an eerie blue light. The figures inside them looked even more grotesque and mis-matched than ever. "Who should we do first?" Avian chirped.
Ray's eyes were drawn to a short figure in the corner--the 'Mobian Hedgehog'. It didn't look very special. It was only three feet tall, had thick, shark-fin spikes protruding from the back of its head and running down its back, big gloved hands, skinny legs, oversized shoes. Its eyes were very big, but closed. "Let's try this one," Ray said. "I'll defrost it, Vec, and you jump on it if it tries to escape. I hope it's sentient."
The defrosting process was a little trickier, for Ray had to keep a nervous eye on critical life functions as well as the defrost manager. He also had to open the glass tube, which he had not yet done. All in all, it took fifteen minutes to release the 'Mobian Hedgehog'.
But as Ray emerged from the back room, he realized they had a slight problem. The hedgehog was out of the tube, yes, but lying on the floor, shivering. Vectorman was standing near the creature helplessly. "He's very cold, Ray-boy," the robot said as they boy approached. "Perhaps you can warm him."
Ray knelt beside the hedgehog and placed a hand on his shoulder. The hedgehog started violently at the touch, leaping to his feet, eyes wide. His teeth were chattering and his small body shook like a leaf, but the words that came out were heated and defiant. "W-w-who ar-r-re y-you? W-w-what d-do y-you w-want?!?" Then he dropped to his knees and folded his arms tightly across his chest. "It's okay," Ray said gently. "My name's Ray. I just got you out of cryogenic freeze. We're gonna try to send you home."
The hedgehog rocked back and forth, trembling, and stuttered, "You're a h-human. I h-hate h-humans."
Ray glanced at Vectorman, who shrugged. "I didn't do this to you," Ray explained, trying not to be unnerved by the blue hedgehog's direct stare. "The vorticons did. I'm gonna let out everybody else, too. What's your name?"
The hedgehog's head turned and he saw the freeze chambers. His shivering ceased and for a second he was perfectly still, gazing at those glowing tubes. Then he resumed his trembling and growled, "I'm S-Sonic. How do I know I c-c-can trust y-you?"
"You can trust him," Vectorman spoke up. "He got me out first."
Sonic jerked about and looked the robot over from head to toe, as if expecting attack at any moment. He struggled to his feet after a second, as if he didn't want to be caught napping between a robot and a human. "You-you're a funny lookin' robot," he commented between shivers. "Y-you from Mobius?"
"No. I'm from Earth. I was kidnapped, as were you."
"V-vorticons? Are they those b-big dogs with w-weird feet?"
Vectorman, Ray and Avian all nodded.
"They're jerks," the hedgehog frowned, hunching his shoulders. "They had this one kid--" he limped off across the room, scanning the tubes. Presently he nodded to one. "This kid was crying and begging them to let him go. I w-was tied up or I would have attacked them."
Ray and Vectorman approached and saw a creature not much bigger than Sonic. His face slightly resembled a lizard's. He had short, human-like red hair, green skin and was freckled with red spots. Instead of hands, he had suction-cups. From a distance they looked like hooves.
"I'll defrost him next, then," Ray said, eager to please the new arrival. For some reason, he liked this hedgehog and his no-nonsense attitude.
"Let me help," Sonic said sharply. "I know a little about how freeze chambers work." Ray shrugged, nodded for Vectorman to stay put, and led the shivering hedgehog into the room behind the displays.
Indeed, Sonic knew all about cryogenic freezing. He stepped between Ray and the controls and took over the young alien's defrosting. Somehow he called up a screen called 'body heat', which rose from blue to green before Sonic would open the tube. "This is how you do it," he instructed cockily. "Robot-bird-guy, make sure he does it right. Do the next few people, and me and the green robot will introduce them." By now his shivering had mostly ceased; his metabolism rate was high and he recovered quickly. He strode away through the machines, and Ray and Avian set to work defrosting the next two tubes. Then, so curious he couldn't stand it, Ray walked back out to see what had happened.
The green alien was standing beside Sonic--they seemed to have made friends--and he was not shivering. But his, Sonic's and Vectorman's attention was fixed on the other tubes' occupants.
It was a pair or rabbits. Well, one was obviously a rabbit; big hind feet, furry chest, big ears (his fur was a tropical green), but the other looked like no creature Ray had ever seen. The only resemblance he bore to a rabbit were his buck teeth and floppy ears. His fur was a brick-red, eyes bulging and bloodshot, and his tongue lolled out when he spoke. He was speaking as Ray emerged from the machinery hall.
"Duh yeah, I know you! It's da blue dude with a 'tude! Ya know, Jazz--" he elbowed the green rabbit, who flinched and looked embarrassed. "Ya know, Jazz," the red rabbit-thing continued, pointing at Sonic and panting, "he's from dat game--ya know, with da buttons--" he held his hands together and wiggled his thumbs, as if playing a videogame "--duh, wike dis--boomboomboom! And ya jump and wun weel fast, wike you, Jazzy. I really really wike dat game."
The green rabbit, whose name seemed to be Jazz, elbowed the other creature savagely and hissed, "Shuddup already!" The red rabbit nodded and stood quietly, breathing through his open mouth.
The green rabbit hopped forward and offered a hand to Sonic (apologetically, Ray thought), then to the human, the green robot and the green alien, who had been standing by without a sound. "I'm Jazz Jackrabbit," the rabbit said, "and that's my brother, Spaz." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the red thing. "I have no idea where the heck we are, but it sure ain't Carrotus."
"Can you really run fast?" Sonic asked with interest.
Jazz's ears pricked up. "Hedgehog, you are looking at the fastest dude in the galaxy!"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Sonic said with a sly grin. "We'll have a race to prove it."
"But not now," Ray said hurriedly, stepping forward. "I've got to let out everyone in these tubes tonight, then we've got to escape through a teleporter."
"Groovy!" Spaz called. They ignored him.
"Vec, can you finish telling them? I've gotta start defrosting more tubes or we'll never get done tonight."
The robot nodded and began a more detailed explanation as Ray stepped back into the machinery hall.
The group listened more or less quietly to Vectorman, although Sonic and Jazz (who were obviously a lot alike) yawned, tapped feet and wandered idly about in boredom. Spaz appeared to be in his own world, standing off by himself, rocking to and fro and humming under his breath.
As the robot finished, a soft voice said, "Excuse me." They looked about and noticed the green alien with the suction cup hands standing by himself, looking up at Vectorman in awe.
"I don't know anybody's name," he said shyly. "My name is Cosmo." The others introduced themselves to him, wondering vaguely where he had come from. "Nice to meet y'all," Cosmo said. He looked toward the row of blue tubes and observed, "Looks like we'll have to do this again in a minute."
Two more tubes were opening. Spaz, who had been standing off near them, was the first to greet the newcomers as they stepped out. "Duh, hi, I'm like, you know, da Spaz dude. Duh, ya look hungry, huh? What's yo name?" The burly creature growled, "I'm the Blooguard of Bloogton Towers. Get away, nitwit." The thing shoved Spaz out of its path, but the rabbit was in position to greet the next person out--a bird. "Duh, hi, nice ta meetcha. I'm like, da dude Spaz. What's yo name?" "Vortex," the bird chirped. She was as tall as Ray, but five times as light. She hopped to the floor and mingled with the growing crowd.
Ray was working furiously in the machinery hall, defrosting two and three tubes at a time with Avian's help. After a while Sonic the hedgehog came in and began operating tubes a short way down the row. Between the three of them, they managed to defrost the rest in about an hour.
When they finally emerged from the hall, rather weary of working, they found the room packed with alien people, each as different from each other as night and day. The odd thing was they were all standing in absolute silence, facing a lone creature standing by an empty tube, speaking quietly and furiously. It was a vorticon, dressed in blue. For one sickening second Ray thought it was Vulcan, that they were discovered, then realized he must have been frozen, too.
This was confirmed when the vorticon glanced at him, broke off in mid-sentence and stared. After a second he gasped, "Keen!"
"I'm Ray," Ray said, perplexed, looking at Sonic, who shrugged.
"Naw," a rude voice said from somewhere in the crowd, "dat ain't Commander Keen. Dat's just ol' Ray. I know Keen. He was, like, in a game, too!" This was followed by a unanimous savage, "Shh!"
After everything had quieted down, the vorticon resumed speaking. "Our only chance of escape tonight is to leave here two by two, in ten minute intervals. The portal will be secured by Vectorman the robot, who has volunteered. But it must be done in absolute silence, or we will all die." This vorticon was obviously on their side, for his eyes blazed as he said, "I will fight to the death to assure you your safety. Vulcan has crossed the line one time too many."
The march out of the museum took two hours and ten gallons of cold sweat. Ray chewed his thumbnail to a nub wile waiting for Vectorman to return after escorting the first group. The robot returned with a laser burn on his left shoulder sphere, but assured everyone the teleporter was secure and ready for service. (He confided in Ray afterward that it had been his most entertaining battle since encountering Warhead, whatever that meant.)
Two by two the mismatched victims departed into the dark streets, Ray watching like a hawk. One of the things he worried about were the two vorticon guards cuffed to the metal sculpture in the corner. One came to and stared groggily at the procession of creatures before him. The vorticon who had been defrosted approached the guard, gave him a drink of something from a hip flask, and gagged him. "There," the good vorticon said to Ray in English, "now he won't know a thing for hours."
"Why are you helping us?"
The vorticon chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. "Call me TJ. I'm helping because my kind here are corrupted criminals and must stand trial on Vorticon 6. Not all vorticons are bad, you know. Most of us were so grateful to Commander Keen for freeing us we vowed to be friendly to all humans. Of course, there are always those who disagree. Vulcan was one. He is a criminal. He is wanted on seven planets for various crimes, which is why this planet is isolated from most trade routes." TJ was mush friendlier than the other vorticons. Ray liked him.
"Who is Commander Keen?"
The answer came with a smile. "A young human in a football helmet and carrying a pogo stick. He freed us from our mind slavery a few years ago. Perhaps once you return to your home you can contact him. His alias is Billy Blaze."
At last only Ray and Avian were left, waiting nervously at the exit door for Vectorman to return for them. "We'd better hurry," the robot crow chirped. "Looks to me like dawn is coming." The boy glanced at the sky and saw that the darkness was not as complete as it had been. In another hour the museum would open and their escape would be discovered.
In the corner, the vorticon guard who had not been drugged lay awake, watching, watching. His eyes were like black coals, his pointed canine teeth showing beneath his upper lip. He could not move without alerting the human. If only he were free! Slowly the vorticon reached down to his belt with his free hand and pressed a button. A yellow light on his belt began to blink on and off. Now that it was morning, the solar tracking systems would pick up his signal. The human would never escape alive ...
A whirr of metallic spheres on pavement and Vectorman glided into view, morphed into the form of a motorcycle. His orange eyes shown from the place of his headlight. "Hop on!" he said, and Ray obeyed, marvelling at how exactly like a motorcycle the robot was. He even had handlebars!
Vectorman turned around in the street and hummed off the way he had come, Ray sweating with relief. Finally, it was done! They were going home!
Suddenly the bike beneath him said, "Ray-boy, we;ve got company. Duck."
The boy obeyed, looking about for the 'company'. He barely saw the hovering black-and-white police pod before it was firing crimson lasers at them. "Return fire," Vectorman droned. Several spheres flew to the tail of the bike, behind Ray, formed into a rifle and began shooting white blasts at the police pod. It wove to and fro behind them, took a hit to the hood and dropped behind. "He's gone!" Ray exclaimed.
"To get more help, most likely," Avian said from between Ray's knees, where he had been shoved when firing commenced.
"Right," Vectorman affirmed. "We'll have a heck of a time at the portal. Jazz and Sonic insisted on waiting for us."
They tore through the empty streets, the green motorcycle making less noise than a cat, the human bent low behind the handlebars. Finally, after a breathless ride, they slid to a halt before a wide open area with a glowing blue disk in the center.
Ray grabbed Avian and jumped off the bike, which reformed into Vectorman. They rushed to the portal to find a blue hedgehog and a green rabbit waiting for them. Or rather, they were supposed to be waiting. Jazz and Sonic were arguing fiercely over who was the fastest, whether robots or turtles were worse enemies, and that Mobius and Carrotus were NOT stupid names for planets.
"What are you DOING?" Ray cried. "Why are you still here?"
The two looked up guiltily. "We wanted to say 'bye," Jazz explained, "but this moron doesn't know when to shut up."
"I'm a moron?" Sonic exclaimed in outrage. "Look whose talking--the buffoon with ears!"
"Cut it out," Vectorman said warningly. "We're in danger here. The vorticons have been alerted. Are the portal coordinence set?"
"No," Sonic said, casting a narrow look at Jazz, "certain people distracted me."
"I can do it!" Jazz said, breaking into a run in the direction of the nearby control booth. "Oh no you don't!" Sonic yelled, tearing after him. "You don't know diddly-squat about teleporters!"
Ray set Avian on his shoulder and looked at Vectorman helplessly. The robot shrugged and said, "Born enemies. Uh-oh, here comes the entertainment. Get down." Sure enough, five hovercars were gliding silently into the area and armed vorticons were stepping out. As Ray lay down flat, he saw that Vulcan was in the lead, a mortar cannon lashed to one arm.
"Stay back," Vectorman warned, crouching slightly and facing the oncoming crowd.
"We aren't afraid of a barge pilot," Vulcan snarled, stopping and taking aim with his cannon. Vectorman raised a hand, crystal palm outward. "Don't fire," he warned.
The vorticon fired. Quick as thought Vectorman fired as well, hitting the shell in mid-air and blowing it to pieces. Ray wrapped his arms around his head as fragments rained to the ground.
"A pretty bit of shooting, that," Vulcan sneered, his long ears laying flat to his skull. "But one robot and a young human are no match for the vorticon military! Men, surround the area." Twenty vorticons dressed in yellow and blue took up their positions in an L-shape about the area, various weapons aimed at Vectorman and Ray.
"You can't fight all of them," Ray whispered to the robot above him.
Vectorman seemed oddly at ease. "Oh yes I can," he said. This is no different from those two nights I spent in the swamps." Whatever that meant. Ray was firmly convinced they would all die. He buried his head in his arms and waited.
Suddenly a voice called, "It's all over, Vulcan."
The vorticons whirled about, and Ray lifted his head to see TJ, the once-frozen vorticon, standing on the roof of a two-story building not far away. How he got there was not made clear until Vulcan snarled and leaped easily up with him. Vorticons are terrific jumpers.
"What are you doing alive?" Vulcan spat.
"You failed," TJ replied quietly, but all could hear him. "The human freed me, along with the other prisoners. I have notified the Vorticon Elders of your actions. You will be laboring in the sulfur mines of IO before the week is out."
For one instant the snarl on Vulcan's face relaxed into a look of horror, then hardened again. "By the Mothership," he growled, "you will not live to see me disgraces."
"So be it," replied his opponent.
Vulcan raised his mortar cannon.
From the ground, Vectorman took aim and fired a single white proton bolt from his palm. It struck Vulcan just below the knee. The vorticon gave a hideous yell and crumpled to the roof. But with his next breath he was shouting orders. "Kill them! Kill them all!"
In an instant the air was full of bullets and laserblasts, barely missing the cowering human. Vectorman took the largest amount of damage without a sound, returning fire with both hands, dancing, leaping into the air, always moving.
The glowing blue portal, meanwhile, had shifted to bright turquoise, showing it was active. What it was set to, Ray had no idea. But Jazz and Sonic had decided to take a hand from behind.
Their control booth was outside the line of fire, and they had gone unnoticed by the trigger-happy vorticons. They had, however, seen and heard everything. Now the blue hedgehog and green rabbit broke from cover and attacked the vorticons left and right. Jazz hit, bit and kicked until he got a gun in his hands--then he was downright deadly. Sonic felled the canines with his unique spinning-in-mid-air jump, moving faster than the bullets around him. The vorticons, what with shooting at a robot that seemed to take no damage and kept shooting back, and dealing with two quick, savage attackers at their flanks, found themselves outmatched. Their fearless leader lay wounded on top of the building, hissing insults at TJ (who had taken the mortar cannon), and had already been reported to the Vorticon Elders. What was left to fight for? Abruptly they ceased fire and fled the scene.
A dead silence descended on he teleporter bay.
Ray lifted his head, hardly daring to wonder if it were over. Then Jazz and Sonic let out a whoop, Vectorman threw his hands in the air with 2 fingers up, and he realized that yes, it was over. They had won.
Ray climbed to his feet unsteadily. Avian had been kept safe--he had been lying on him. He smiled weakly at the robot, jackrabbit and hedgehog as they congratulated each other on winning and him for surviving. Really, he thought, he hadn't done anything at all. They had been the ones fighting. Vectorman was riddled with holes from top to bottom, but didn't seem to care. "They missed my core," he said cheerfully, "and that's all that matters to me."
TJ jumped down from the roof and hailed them, grinning. "I hope you don't resent us vorticons for this," he said. "Perhaps you'd all like to come to Vorticon 6 one day and see us."
"Maybe," said Ray, setting Avian on his shoulder. "All I want now is to go home."
"Me too, I guess," Sonic said from nearby. "No offense, but I like Mobius best."
"Not me!" Jazz exclaimed. "I don't stick to Carrotus--I like interplanetary adventure!"
"Drop by Mobius sometime and I'll introduce you to Robotnik," Sonic said with a wry grin."
"Ditto," Jazz smiled back, "but about Devan Shell, and we'll be even."
"You're on." Sonic turned to Ray. "Thanks for getting us out of those freeze chambers. I owe you one."
"What he said," Jazz said. "I guess we'll see you later."
The teleporter had been set for Carrotus, as Sonic had been trying to get rid of Jazz. The green rabbit saluted to Ray, Vectorman and TJ, then tapped Sonic's chest and said, "Don't forget--we have a race planned." Then he leaped through the portal and vanished.
Sonic went next, mumbling about how ticked off someone named 'Knuckles' would be when he found out the teleporters had been ripped off. Then TJ set the coordinates for Earth, and Ray and Vectorman went through together.
Ray, of course, was welcomed home by his family, who had been informed that he was dead. Because of his crash, it was decided that he was finished with the space cruiser part of high school.
Later he saw on the Interstellar News Network (INN) that a vorticon had been arrested and tried for assorted crimes, one of which was cryogenically freezing people without their prior consent. In other news, a giant intergalactic museum had opened, yada yada yada. Ray recorded the newscast on holodisk and sent copies off to Jazz Jackrabbit and Sonic the Hedgehog.
It was a while before Ray heard anything about Vectorman. Mechanics had removed 57 bullets from his hull and patched him up, and he was again at work, piloting a garbage freighter. Ray made it point to drive out once a week to the droid base to visit, and Vectorman was always happy to see him.
Only one thing remained to be done. Ray located the name in the phonebook and called the number. A woman's voice answered. Ray had to swallow twice before he could ask, "Is Billy Blaze there?"
"Yes," replied the woman, and called over her shoulder, "Billy, telephone!"
The other's boy's voice came over the phone. "Hello? Whose calling?"
Ray grinned slowly. "I'm Ray. Hi, Commander Keen."