“This is a nightmare.”
Silpks twirled his mech-anisma, anxious to establish communication. The fifty-six sides of his office, each capable of omni-dimensional interlacing, rifled furiously through his client list. It was astonishing how fast he was running out of options. Silpks began to hastily converse with each of the entities and organizations contemporaneously.
[ %Glad to hear you’re doing % please express my % far too long since I last % now, the reason I called % accumulation of benefits % an absolutely splendid display of social breakdown and renewal % not scheduled to occur again for another % thematic displays for a sensation and experience % please, don’t go]
The agent spun around his cyclical office in agitation. Over half of his previous clients had politely declined and sent his extension back. The others were fading fast. Blast it, he was losing them!
“K-Rawl!” he flashed the name of his secretary conspicuously. Immediately the spherically compact society slid into his domain and offered her services.
“Get me an immediate compilation of any recent openings or findings.”
A question came, and Silpks was forced to divert an unprecedented amount of attention to answer it. “All of them, everywhere! Not just the established tracts, I’ll even take something for a demo visit. Just… give me something to work with here, for simple’s sake!!”
[ Yes, deluxe accommodations % Certainly, we can return up to half… did I say half? I meant to say ‘all’ % I simply know you will enjoy our latest deal % I never said that!]
This shouldn’t be happening to him! Silpks raged and spun as his connections dwindled to the last few customers. He was scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel in more ways than one, even going so far as to offer TELA + accommodations to NEVSA category clients. And he still wasn’t getting any takers! K-Rawl’s updated list came in, and the master travel-planner almost immediately scrapped them. Nothing new! Just the same tired sites and splendors that he had been pandering for the last 20 meks. The ruin of it all! Had every single spot in the unending reaches of form and spirit already been scouted and packaged up for sale?!
With mounting dread, he realized that he was down to the last two.
[ I’m prepared to offer a deal you can’t turn down % Yes, family pack incentives and pets are included % No, you see I… I did not just say ‘no’ to you % Are you serious? % No, wait, please I just need a moment to%]
The last wall in his office came back empty.
Silpks reeled backwards, collapsing onto his throne. Spiraling gravitational massage fields caught his triangular golden form, offering him a bliss that he failed to enjoy. The latticed mask of his face slowly spun round and around in abject misery.
Where had it all gone? Only a few Gricks past, he had basked in an unprecedented array of clients, including 320 CHILF level, 46 TELA+ and even a TELA*, for simple’s sake! He had laughed to watch the other travel agents in the Ottual Dimensional Satisfaction Chuv scramble to find new destinations and entertainments for clients seeking leisure in various locales. Their organization, whose strata was anchored in no less than 12 friendly dimensions, catered to the wants of advanced entities scattered throughout all the permutations of recognizable universes. The Chuv’s reputation for service was well-deserved, and Silpks had prided himself on contributing to that favorable public perception. The clients trusted them. They trusted HIM, to anticipate and provide for their needs, and he had never failed to rise to the occasion.
Perhaps therein lay the problem. He had been too good. Throughout his long career, he had excelled at locating and establishing ideal vacation spots for his clientele. Through Silpks’ diligent efforts had come the recognition and inclusion of numerous major providers of all categories. And he had been rewarded for it! Exclusive side-trips to some of the most luscious societies, first pick from the perks pool instead of the desperate snatch-and-hope conducted by new agents. Not to mention this fine office he had inhabited for the last 3 cycles, which provided him with peak isolation in which to conduct his affairs and prime scenic views of nearly 1,000,000 dimensional hotspots. Silpks had basked in his success.
And he had gotten lazy.
No more searches for rare and engaging spots, just continuing pre-arranged trips to the places he knew his clients liked best. Torpor had crept up on him, while the other, less-privileged agents had been striving to expand their client-base and identify greater venues, to the point where Silpks found himself out-of-touch, with nothing at hand to satisfy a population that was clamoring for something new. Some of these young upstart agents were even beginning to aspire to his position. Clients he had relied upon from the beginning had sought his services less and less, but he paid it no heed. After all, he was a TELA* agent, one of the select few to court such an exotic assembly of personages. So long as he had that, there was nothing to fear.
And then it had come. Notice from the DEelei family, his prized TELA* client, that they would not be renewing their regular trip schedule this cycle. Instead, they were opting for a more meditative bevy of choices from the Total Syndicated Creative Spliff. And though he had cajoled, enticed, and ultimately groveled miserably, the head of the family had politely continued on this ruinous course of action. Ruinous for Silpks, at least.
After this, a close examination of his domain had revealed he was in far worse trouble than he had realized. While he had been enjoying the perks of his exalted position, he had been hemorrhaging clients. Over time, they had eschewed his services for other markets. He had been blind, Silpks realized. Hung up on the belief that he was a fixture now, that this place would never see a time without him. He believed himself to be above the petty day-to-day efforts of his colleagues.
This self-delusion had been shattered at the worst possible time.
Travel engagements were down across the board. Some civilizations were stuck in negotiations pending future socio-intellectual development. Other universal packages had experienced unexpected deo-morphic collisions that no one had seen coming. The Predictive Analysis Division had been caught with their slurks out, it seemed. And over a tenth of the known dimensions were still under an Edict of No-Contact due to a Quarm Stage ^* quarantine for the next eight vellaeons.
Superlative and unexplained disruptions ranging from large to small, and Silpks was caught in the middle of it.
“What am I going to do?” he croaked, and spun his gleaming features wildly.
“Having problems, Silpks?”
The bubbly, lyrical tones made his inner workings shift with rancor, and the top-level agent turned to find his sanctum invaded. K-Rawl was unhappily displaying her helplessness, emulating how this was not her fault. Behind her floated a large ball of blue liquid, encasing a Melian by the name of Lilq/emo. He looked to be made of black tubes, bundled and merged smoothly together to form arms, a torso, and a head. Two flat, sparkling silver eyes contrasted with the rest of his dark body.
Silpks let the different plates of his face contract into an expression of cool rebuke. “I never gave you permission to enter here.”
“Well.” An auburn rose color gushed from the Melian’s tubes, quickly saturating his sphere with the emotive-conductive chemical. “Not a very courteous host, nonetheless. No need for hostility, it’s not like I’m here to stay.”
The smug, suggestive undercurrent to his words! How dare this up-and-comer even hint at residing in my office, Silpks fumed. Before he could begin a more detailed invective, Lilq/emo preempted him. “I just volunteered to deliver the latest findings from the Predictive Analysis Division to all top-level agents. You still qualify for that, don’t you?”
His carrier-vessel now turned a bright glowing plum shade of amusement, and Silpks’ physiognomy twitched wildly at the slight. The gall, the sheer nerve! Trying to get friendly with the PAD, was more like it. Only recently had Lilq/emo’s name come to his notice as anything but a minor tour guide. The Melian had distinguished himself by not only retaining every single one of his clients through the recent travails, but by amplifying his attachments to several notable client names. Through a series of admittedly bold and creative moves, he had gained concessions on research viewing from the Egdal Scientific Loop, who were infamous for restricting viewings to their experiments regardless of whom it might be. Giving them the option of audience volunteers was a novel and apparently irresistible idea. Lilq had then gone on to reestablish deals with Extra-Dimensional Rae’s Touring Circus of the Unseen, healing a rift that had existed between their organizations since before even Silpks’ time. Many now were wont to whisper at his brilliance, and admittedly, they were right. Such fey tactics had Lilq/emo in high regard with his colleagues at the moment. He was a rising star, the boy wonder. He also had lofty ambitions, and was unconcerned with who might know it.
A purple pseudopod extended from the junior member’s shifting capsule, bearing with it the PA Division’s report in swirling semiotic format. Silpks shot a mech-anisma appendage from his own body and snatched it up, noting as he did how his proboscis felt silky and smooth where they had made contact. Smooth. That described Lilq/emo very well. Like nothing bad could attach to him. In an even fouler mood now, he absorbed the information and codified its contents.
“So after all their analysis, they are incapable of locating the source of the previous inter-dimensional upheaval. Worse news compounded on bad.”
“And since that is the case,” Lilq lilted in an overly merry vein, “their recommendation is that we curtail any expeditions to uncharted prospects for the next 13 rads, effective at the end of this business cycle.”
“I see.” Silpks’ voice remained calm, but his inner formulae clenched. NO! He had been counting on an extended bout of sojourning to provide him with fresh material! A few explorations into some planes he had noticed in the past, some concessions made afterwards, and it would have at least gotten him past the next office shuffle evaluation. Without it he might have to lose…! Silpks drew back into his throne possessively.
Lilq/emo emitted a resigned topaz, almost like a shrug. “No big deal, right? Fortunately there isn’t anything major scheduled for the immediate future. Well, unless you count the office evaluations. But I’m sure you’ll find ways to keep busy. I hear the Complaint Dept. is always looking for people to help lighten their load.” He turned about in his globe, eyes sweeping the room. “You know, this really is a great place you have here. Better watch out or somebody might snatch it away from you.”
A pink substance poured from his tubes and lit the room with a mocking happy glow. “ ‘Look After Yourself,’ remember? That’s Rule #3 around here.” Then he folded the edges of his sphere together and vanished.
Silpks could have screamed, but he knew better. Instead, he sulked. A blanket warning against uncharted expeditions. Of course, neither he nor anyone else was truly restricted. It was, however, the best advice from their colleagues who specialized in such matters. If he ignored it, people would know, and that would lower their estimation of him. He might lose more than just clients. What he really needed was something new! Untouched territory, without any competition. But where could he go to look, where no one else would dare or even think to go?
A thought occurred to him.
Immediately Silpks shoved it aside. But it came back unbidden. A chance. Dangerous, so very dangerous. If anyone ever found out… but it might be enough to entice some of the more eclectic clients, provided they didn’t know where it had come from. Should he do this? It wasn’t like anyone kept a close eye on these locales. The whole point was that you didn’t want to look at them, for fear they might look back. This could be his only chance.
The veteran vacation solicitor looked around his wonderful office at all the comforts he had grown to cherish. Was it worth the risk?
In the next instant he had called up the search protocols, avoided several prompts and warnings, verified his authority to view, and had a comprehensive list of all Quarm quarantine zones.
Their descriptions made him sick. The thought of subjecting his precious clients, much less himself, to these horrors almost made him reconsider.
I hear the Complaint Dept. is always looking for people to help lighten their load.
Never. Never would he do that. I’ll make you eat those words, Lilq/emo!
[So, what do we have? % Fleq, no, that’s out of the question % Estimated survival rate of, oh, Blorsht! % How does something like that even live?! % This is such a bad idea, I can’t believe I’m doing this]
It was almost painful, existing like this. Perhaps living in between dimensions really had made him soft, if shutting off parts of his awareness felt this bad. But Silpks wasn’t about to take any unnecessary risks on this gambit. A sweet office was good, but being owned by a Quarm was something no sane intelligence would care to contemplate.
So here he was. In an off-limits time-space zone that wasn’t supposed to be safe for travel ‘til at least another 6 vellaeons. Big margin of error. No one wanted to be caught here with something of this magnitude.
Silpks had never been so scared in all his lives. The last 320 areas he had visited were no picnic, to be sure. And he still hadn’t found anywhere in them he could risk bringing clients. But this one was a Quarm Stage ^*! He was courting an obliteration of self on any level worth existing in! But frightening as that was, he was even more desperate. Never, he repeated over and over. Never, never, never. This dusty rock was the satellite of a satellite. Its parent might be visible, but Silpks was not about to risk making contact with anything beyond the range of its gravity well. He could have chosen any of the other major attachments to this star, but they might have produced life at some point in the past, which would have definitely attracted the attention of the Quarm ^* when it woke up. This little chunk didn’t even possess an atmosphere, its surface was cold and dead.
Silpks moved along carefully, mapping his terrain. He didn’t dare to look around the rest of this dimension, no matter how much his curiosity egged him on. No evidence of the Quarm’s influence here. He could have cried with relief. Just a small demo visit then, very brief. Only a few clients, and he would yank their dimensional presence passes at the first hint that something was about to go wrong. He’d think of an excuse after they were all safely away. Silpks only hoped it would never come to that, for all their sakes. This place would be new to them, that was at least worth a look, right? The last thing the Chuv had done in this dimension was put up a warning notice in the dust rings of an outer satellite of this system. Nobody had wanted to come any closer to ground zero, even if the thing wasn’t technically conscious yet. Better safe than sorry, right?
The sound echoed through his face plate.
What?!! What just happened??? The Quarm, it was here, he had to…!!
Wait, wait… wait. Hold on a moment. What was this?
Lost in thought, Silpks had not been paying attention to his surroundings and had run right into something sticking out of the ground. But the coloring, the atomic structure… they didn’t belong on this little rock. It wasn’t alive, the travel agent realized. Just bits of colored metal, arranged in consecutive lines and shapes, attached to a pole. There was composition here, he realized. Someone had made this!
But why? And who?
This area in particular was off-limits. Anyone entering could read the sign! And the life-forms that had been catalogued before the evacuation hadn’t had the ability to string two words together, much less surpass the laws that bound them to their home satellite. So then where had this come from?
Just a little bit, Silpks let the number of his senses expand. It was then that he determined something else out of place. A device that bespoke of transport, with evidence of low-end dimensional manipulation used for propulsion. And on it was something even more perplexing. Another small piece of purposefully crafted element, indigenous to the dimension but not to this sub-satellite. It too was arranged in an orderly fashion, and this one was even marked with some form of communication method. In the next instant he had translated its meaning.
When he did, Silpks stood mystified.
“Here, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon? July 1969 A.D.? We came in peace for all mankind?”
This was recent, he determined with a start. Just what was going on here?
A temptation disguised as opportunity swam through his mind. Take a look, it said. What if it’s true? Could this place really be… clean? But it was early! Very, very early. Granted, you were never certain when it came to something as crazy as Quarms, especially grade ^*, but still…
A risk? Or an opportunity?
I’ll show you who belongs in Complaints, Lilq/emo!
And thus Silpks threw caution to the wind and conducted a danger-zone survey for that sector of space. He was careful, ready to bolt at the first sign of contact. But none came.
Nothing. Not even a trace.
It was like the threat had never existed here at all.
Astonished, Silpks found himself staring up at a perfect little blue planet, with a gorgeous sable backdrop and charmingly disorganized star wallpaper. In one part of his mind he automatically brought up the archival records for this place, examining the basic layout and predictions of potential. When it was done, only two words came to mind.
Instantly Silpks was back in his office. No time to do a current survey, doubtless very little had changed. He could work out the kinks later. All that mattered was he was back on top and brimming with elation at his own creative daring. Oh, this was wonderful! But he needed to take care. The personal danger was passed, but the professional peril was still very real. An exclusive demo-visit, then! Satisfy the clients without having to send in a provisional sample beforehand. And since he had “found” it, so to speak, he could call first claimant right and bar anyone else from entering until he was finished “evaluating” the area’s possibilities. That way, no one would ever know. He would be safe. He could have it all! Why, this might even be enough to tempt back his forsaken DEelei clients! Oh yes, they were going to thrill at the possibilities, he just knew it.
“K-Rawl!” he shouted enthusiastically. “Get me two thousand debut invites, a demo-visit certification, and a notice of first claim! Hurry, the clients are restless, and its time they knew that they’re all in good hands with Silpks!”
Cyborg had flipped the switch a minute past. He and Starfire now waited patiently for the results. The faint ticking was continuing smoothly, when suddenly…
It stopped altogether.
The biomechanical teen involuntarily clutched his comrade’s hand.
Then the jets swept smoothly into life.
“Well, what do you know?” Cyborg murmured. “It’s the end of an era.”
Starfire beamed and hugged her friend. “I had every confidence.”
He nodded slowly, continuing to stare at his creation as though it might spring to attack them any moment now. But the dishwasher did no such thing; only continued to peacefully and purposefully perform its duties.
With another pat for victory, Starfire left him there to stare at his hard-won prize. It was good that Cyborg had finally accomplished this. The determination he had found in pursuit of a goal had been slowly giving way to frustration. Although now, of course, he would have to find something new to occupy his creative knack.
The Tameranean princess did not begrudge him his pursuits. They all had found themselves in a quandary lately. In the two months since the banishment of C’thulhu from their world, the Teen Titans had found little in the way of typical superhero duties to occupy themselves. An unforeseen result of that battle had been a total and dramatic downswing in terms of conflict on this planet. For perhaps the first time in human history, there was no war of any kind. Ancient hostilities were discarded as the entire population engaged their day-to-day efforts in a peaceful, contemplative manner. It had been over a week before the Titans received a call about anything. That time it was a robbery attempt from a museum. They had arrived to find the suspect in conversation with some security guards, who informed them that the thief had willingly surrendered after they shouted ‘Halt!’ He had then gone on to explain his deep affection and dream of owning these particular paintings. To this his captors had listened in respectful and empathetic commiseration, even being drawn in to discuss their own favorite works. The museum had declined to press charges, and after a short lecture on private property, the Titans conceded to let him go.
Starfire understood this
situation would not be permanent. Just yesterday there had been a report on the
television of increased sectarian tension in the
One might consider this her legacy.
As sadness overcame her, the princess of Tameran let herself slump against a wall, eyes closed in dejection. Though they had been queried by news media and regular citizens, in the main they had each chosen to keep silent about their absent teammate. Robin’s most common response was to say that it was a private issue and ask them not to press it. Privacy. Though they had all yearned to proclaim their friend’s selfless sacrifice to any who would listen, in the end, after much debate, the Teen Titans had agreed to keep her actions and passing from the world a secret. Instead they only admitted to their compatriot being missing, a statement based at least partly in wishful thinking.
Raven had always been a private person. She would not have cared for a lot of attention.
Still, Starfire had been secretly thrilled to learn of what was being referred to as a “universal blue period” in the songs and artwork of humans. The color seemed to captivate the minds of the aesthetically inclined, for some unexplained reason. Even now, the knowledge gave Starfire joy, and allowed her to rise and continue on her way. It was an homage, albeit an unknowing one. For their friend and teacher.
Before she knew it her steps had brought her before that door. She raised a hand to knock, half-expecting the portal to slide open a crack and reveal Raven peering out, her features composed and disinterested as she silently asked what the disturbance might be. That was never the case now, but Starfire still knocked. She was not the only one to visit this room. Cyborg would come in, ostensibly to clean, but she suspected it was to retain some connection with its departed occupant. A few times she had entered to find Beast Boy curled up at the foot of the bed as a fox or a cat. She never woke him. It did them all some good to be here.
Her knuckles rapped the metal, and the door slid open. For a moment Starfire felt her heart beat faster.
But it was only Robin.
“Star,” he said, staring at her. At the look on his face, she stepped forward into the room and embraced him.
The door slid shut. His arms came around her, to touch her hair and skin tenderly. It had taken a monster tearing apart their world to make the two of them realize they wanted more from each other than simply friendship. It had taken the loss of a friend to get them to admit it to each other, and to slowly build on that foundation. To slip back into denial would have been an insult to the memory of that person.
When the embrace had done its work, the two young lovers sat down on the floor of Raven’s room. There was never much furniture in here to start with, and somehow they all felt the bed was off limits. So they made do.
“How are the others?” Robin mumbled, tracing his fingers over Starfire’s hand.
“Beast Boy has gone to purchase snacks. Cyborg has finished his project, and will be leaving soon to bid farewell to Patty.”
“I forgot she was leaving.”
Cyborg had introduced them all to Patricia Hastings a few weeks after Raven’s
passing. She had been the victim of a burglary, and Cyborg had made a special
effort to help her get past it. The objects stolen had been returned to the
authorities, no questions asked. Robin hadn’t found it in him to probe deeper.
He liked Patty, who had quickly gotten over her initial nervousness at meeting
them all. She and Starfire had hit it off greatly, the outer-space visitor
finally finding someone who enjoyed the same topics of conversation as she did.
And unless he missed his guess, Patty’s presence had a good effect on Cyborg as
well. He was sorry to hear that she would be heading back to
“Not enough crime.” Robin chuckled softly. “Never thought I’d hear myself say that. I’ve got so much free time on my hands, I guess I get to brooding.” Then the rueful smile faded. He looked around the room absently. Starfire waited for him to organize his thoughts into words.
“When Slade and I were talking, he asked me if I loved her.”
He cast an apprehensive glance at Starfire, but the love of his life only smiled in encouragement. “I wasn’t about to answer him. Now I’ve been thinking about it, I can see why he would ask. I wanted to protect her, Star.” He drew his legs up and rested his chin on his knees. “In spite of everything she could do, no matter how strong I knew she was, I always had this feeling like Raven needed our help more than anyone. But she never said it out loud.”
“Raven kept many secrets,” Starfire agreed, floating before Robin to copy his position. “I remember what she said to us before the end. She expressed a fear that she would always do more harm than good. I do not understand what made her believe this to be true. But I feel that, in those final moments, Raven was at last able to cast off this impression of herself and affirm the person she always wanted to be.”
“I just wish,” and Robin gave a deep sigh. “I wish I had done more to make her happy. To save her from whatever it was that had her scared so much. I wish… I had tried to know her better.”
Starfire glanced off to one side. “You and I… her friends. We knew as much about Raven as she felt safe showing. Anything more might have caused her pain. And friends do not seek to hurt one another.”
The masked hero stayed quiet. After a few moments, he leaned forward and gave his love a kiss. She accepted his gesture wholeheartedly. When they drew apart, both felt a little sad.
Starfire rose and gazed down on her paramour. “Were she here, I would rejoice in telling her all about my love for you, though I suspect I know what her reaction would be.”
Robin gave a soft laugh as he stood up. “She’d have shut the door in your face.”
“Yes. That is exactly what Raven would have done.”
“So how do you suppose people started with alcohol anyway? I always thought it must have been an accident of some kind, like Fleming and the Petri dish, or Becquerel and the film.”
Patty was talking to herself more than anyone else. The airport bartender was busily preparing drinks. Or pretending to be. For the last two months, people had been more willing to listen to her, or at least less prone to rudeness. Unfortunately that sense was fading. Still, she was going home now, and that was something to look forward to. The Scrolls had been returned, her reputation was restored, and she had even made some new friends. Superheroes, even! Speaking of which…
Patricia Hastings checked the clock over the bar. 12:15 pm. He had promised to meet her at 12:30. Plenty of time. Her flight didn’t leave for another three hours. Even with the abysmal waiting period of American airports, that should given them more than enough time to talk. She nervously adjusted her glasses and glanced about. He wasn’t here yet. A few other commuters were watching some sports on the telly, and two men were chatting up a lady at the end of the bar. No one else to talk to, except the bartender. But he was probably accustomed to that. So Patty sipped her gin and tonic and thought about her life for a while.
The Teen Titans had provided her with a tremendous show of support. They had lost a teammate in the recent event, and she had noticed that they seemed eager to talk to someone who didn’t know her personally. It meant they didn’t have to broach the subject. Starfire and Beast Boy were especially friendly, and though the latter’s stabs at humor often left her perplexed, they still got along quite well. Robin, in spite of being several years younger and a few inches shorter, left her tongue-tied just by looking at her. Only when Starfire was with him did she perceive the sensitive teenager behind the costume. Actually, Patty felt a little sorry for all of them.
They had refused her suggestion of a memorial. In a way, she felt certain that they were all half-expecting their teammate to just reappear in their lives. A public admission of farewell would cost them that last tiny dream. She didn’t begrudge them. Though her own perceptions of that day remained too chaotic to render into any semblance of order, Patty did recall the girl who had spoken to her, urging her to remember her own paltry dream. It was nice to know the name of that person.
“Is anybody sitting here?”
For once she wasn’t taken by surprise. She had seen him coming in the mirror before her. Turning, she was greeted by a towering figure. Composed mostly of titanium alloy and hardware, Cyborg could still move with exquisite grace. Which had allowed him to almost sneak up on her. His cheerful grin caused her to smile in return.
“If you can squeeze in, I’d be glad for the company.”
Cyborg complied. His enormous frame was so broad he blocked off her view of the bar. “Well,” the big teen began. “Here we are. Sure am glad they didn’t card me to get in.”
“What?” Patty blinked perplexedly. Then she gasped. “Oh blast! I completely forgot, you’re not…”
“Old enough to drink,” he finished, and laughed. “I wanted to see what would happen.”
She gave him a pat on the chest. “As if you couldn’t guess.” He just shrugged good-naturedly.
“Still, I had to do it.” He glanced around, looking just a bit anxious. “Well, ah…Here.”
From behind his back he withdrew a colorfully wrapped box about a foot in diameter. It gave her a little thrill, without even a clue as to what might be inside. “I didn’t get you anything,” she realized with a pang of guilt as she accepted his gift.
“Don’t go apologizing just yet.” His eye twinkled. “And don’t freak when you see what’s inside.”
Patty looked up. “It’s not a bomb, is it?”
“Hsst!!” he hissed, peering quickly around, and Patty gave a little jump.
“Oh lord, I’m so sorry, I forgot where we are! Is anyone coming?”
“No,” and he laughed a bit. “No and NO! To both your questions.”
“Oh for mercy’s sake.” Patricia began to hastily unwrap the parcel, ducking her head to hide the bright red flush of her features. Cyborg leaned on the counter, enjoying her reaction and ignoring the looks the other patrons were giving them.
The paper was off, the lid came up, and even with the warning, she nearly dropped the box when she saw the face looking up at her.
Not a real face. Red eyes and mouth, drawn onto a white plate. There was no danger of confusing anything so outrageous for real features, especially since the whole thing seemed to be smashed in on itself. Patty looked at Cyborg and cocked her head.
“Well, it certainly looks pulverized to me.”
He raised an eyebrow. “We were kinda in a hurry, so I had to settle for one good shot. Robin got in his licks too. Just so you know, Manifest probably still has trouble sitting down.”
There came a tremor of uncertainty. “Is he…?”
Cyborg’s smile was gone. “Yeah. When I finally figured out where we left him, he was long gone. That was all I found.” Then he brightened noticeably. “But hey, on the plus side, the guy he worked for is probably gonna do a whole lot worse when he catches him.”
“Well.” Patty lifted out the crushed and dented mask. “Whatever the case, I think it’s a perfectly appropriate gift, considering the circumstances. I’ll treasure it.”
It was just an impulse, but it seemed so right. And with that, Patricia Hastings stood up and laid a quick kiss on Cyborg’s cheek.
When she drew back, his fingers rose to his face and hovered there. The look he wore was one of complete surprise. Finally his mouth moved. “Thanks,” he said softly. And then, very fast, “Why did you just kiss me?”
“Do what now?” They both stared, and she suddenly noticed her fingers hovering over her own lips. “I did, didn’t I?” She stopped, feeling a little hazy. Maybe it was the gin and tonic, but looking at this young man was causing her to feel very light, like the world couldn’t hold her down. “I suppose, I wanted you to know that I am very grateful to you, Mr. Cyborg.” Then, growing more brave, or heedless, she proceeded. “And I think you’re splendid. Every inch of you. You are… the kind of man girls dream about.” She felt her face growing heated, and finished with, “I thought I should tell you that.”
Hurriedly she took another drink, hoping to quiet her tongue before it did something embarrassing. Maybe this wasn’t the best track for conversation.
Cyborg was staring at her, looking a bit taken aback. Leaning forward in his seat, he opened his mouth, closed it, shut his eye and finally shook his head.
“Y’know, it’s been awhile since I joined the Titans. I guess I’ve been thinking of everybody in terms of heroes and villains and innocent bystanders for years now. People call me a hero, but… you’re probably the first person since my accident to call me a man.”
His dark brown eye reopened. “I love you for thinking of me that way, Patricia.”
Her heart was going too fast now, she couldn’t think of anything to say or do next. So she just looked at him, unaware of the tears gathering behind her glasses, focused as she was on the way he gazed right back at her without saying a word.
Suddenly there was movement off to the side, followed by a soft clink. Immediately Patty and Cyborg turned their heads to find the bartender placing two glasses of bubbling champagne before them.
“Ah, excuse me,” the British techie sniffed and wiped her eyes, “We didn’t ask for these.”
“From the lady at the end of the bar, with her compliments.”
He gestured, and they both craned their heads. Farther down, a petite woman in a dark coat with a fur-trimmed hood finished her drink and stood up. Her hair was long and black, skin the golden color of Asian ancestry, and eyes protected by a pair of dark glasses. She saluted them with one gloved hand and smiled, lips curving in perfect plum-colored lines. Then the woman turned and glided smoothly away, followed by two men carrying a small mountain of matching luggage.
“She a friend?” Cyborg asked as they watched her go.
Patty shook her head. “We didn’t speak a word. You don’t know her?”
His brow furrowed. “No. Least I don’t think so.”
He turned back to her, and they both gave one another the same blank stare. Upon realizing this, each of them struggled to hide a laugh. Then the young man gripped his glass and raised it to the lady, laying a finger to his lips with a conspiratorial wink. She looked around quickly before picking up her own, and both threw the amber liquid back. Cyborg gave a snort at his first taste of alcohol. Patty laughed and tried to pat him on the back, and upon realizing the futility of this gesture began to laugh even harder. This caused him to join in, until both had tears streaming down their faces.
Being so engaged, neither of them noticed the three airport security guards who were approaching the bar in response to a danger word being uttered. With eyes only for each other, they also failed to see those guards meet with the party led by the woman in black. She spoke to them briefly, smiling all the while. By the time she left to board her flight, the report was radioed in that the situation had proven to be no threat and the guards had returned to their posts.
“You changing your tastes?”
“What?” Beast Boy blinked. “Come again?”
The salesclerk held up his bag of purchases. “Usually it’s something louder. These’ll just put you to sleep, man.”
“They’re not for me.” He took the parcel and its wrapped contents. “They’re for a friend.”
The kid nodded, and then noticed the other bag he was carrying. “Jeez! What are those?!”
Beast Boy pocketed his wallet. “Books.”
His teenage audience goggled. “No way! Like what?”
He left the clerk laughing wildly at his joke.
Statistically, I suppose someone has to.
“You’re right. You’re always right.”
And he shook his head ruefully, strolling down the sun-drenched lanes of the shoppers’ paradise, oblivious to the stares, whispers, and cheers. Beast Boy took it slow, dragging his heels and staring at the reflections in the polished marble floor.
You’re starting to repeat yourself.
“I know that,” he whispered to the mirror image of himself.
The green-tinted teenager sighed. Maybe he should have gone to say goodbye to Patricia Hastings with Cyborg. He liked her, she was nice and everything. And smart too. But today was the two-month anniversary. And he kind of got the feeling that Cy had wanted to be alone with her. He could relate. Beast Boy was a pretty sensitive guy, after all.
Without looking where he was going, the changeling trooped right into the midst of a flock of pigeons. The birds took flight in a rush of frantic feathers. Startled, he watched them ascend high into the air, up towards heaven.
We cannot change the truth.
He winced and shut his eyes against the light.
No matter how much we dislike it.
“I don’t know what’s true. And so what?” His brow creased in a scowl, and he plodded on resolutely. “It’s my money, I can do what I want with it. You think Robin was the one who paid to have the Tower built? Nu-uh, ‘twas me. I can do that. So what if I bought you things? They’re just in case…”
He didn’t finish.
Instead, all that came out was, “You don’t mind, right?”
Somebody bumped into him, and the Titan realized he had been standing still. Better stop blocking traffic or Raven might…
He stopped. All around him, the lane was empty. People were standing in a circle, staring.
Staring at him.
Apprehension. It even sounded unpleasant. And it was.
“What?” he asked nervously, eyes darting from one face to another. “You never heard somebody talking to themselves before?”
A little girl holding her mother’s hand lifted her arm and pointed at him.
Or maybe, he realized, at something behind him.
Slowly, Garfield Logan turned around.
He saw more people staring. But that was all right. Only natural. What wasn’t natural was the thing floating in front of him.
It looked like a jellyfish, he thought. Or, to be more precise, a Portuguese-man-of-war, all colorful and gooey with a big mass of tentacles hanging down from it. There was a kind of movement going on around its edges, and Beast Boy thought he could see different angles of the creature’s body super-imposed along with the frontal view. The smooth, glowing mass hovered just a few feet away, like it was watching him. Beast Boy stood stock still, holding his bags and completely flummoxed.
“Ah,” he ventured. “Hello?”
The rainbow-shifting jelly made no response.
He decided to take a closer inspection. “Can I help you?” he spoke a little louder.
He began to notice that the
crowd was whispering, a soft murmur that bespoke of their uncertainty, wonder.
And, he realized as he sniffed the air, fear. If he didn’t do something soon,
things might get out of hand. So
The alien jelly glowed brighter. One of the long, milky strands rose up and touched his bare fingers.
It tickled. Beast Boy gave a start.
And before he knew it, dozens of thin tendrils sprang up and surged into his sides.
Around the crowd, more of the entities appeared and grabbed hold of those closest to them. Throughout the open-air mall there could be heard panicked screams, horribly audible to his keen ears. That, and one other thing that didn’t quite fit.
“Wait, w-wait, I… B-B-Beast
Boy, I mean, Garfield, I… Huh?... Hold it, stop
that, I’M NOT
Starfire dropped the plate with a crash. “ROBIN!”
A few seconds later, he burst into the room, weapon at the ready. “Star! What’s wrong?!”
In response, she pointed out the window.
Robin looked, and nearly keeled over when he did.
Off in the distance, out in the bay, something tremendous had risen from the ocean and now rested partway out on their island. As the two heroes watched in amazement, the enormous mass shifted round and around, slowly bringing itself into a more comfortable position. Finally, it stared up at the sky. A bulge grew out of the ocean. It broke the surface, too big and fast to make out. Then it plunged back down, sending white plumes shooting up into the air to dissolve into mist and rainbows. Another appendage rose and did the same. Then a few more, and more after that.
Treading water, the out-of-place colossus closed its eyes, let out a huge, blissful sigh and began enjoying its vacation.
“I was thinking,” Cyborg rubbed the back of his head, “You might want to come back here. Not just for work, or like, even, a vacation, but more… permanent.”
Stupid, stupid, get it together, he rebuked himself.
“Yeah?” He found himself staring at her shoes, and looked up.
“What…” Patty asked with a perplexed frown. “What is that?”
She pointed behind him, and the Titans’ strongman turned to see what it was.
Not that seeing helped much.
At first it just looked like a commotion at the baggage check. But a closer examination revealed more. There were some odd wavy things that looked like giant carbon bucky-balls rolling in and out of the X-ray conveyor belts. Only in place of carbon atoms, there were things that resembled feather-dusters. Every time one of these inhuman objects traversed the length of the conveyor belt, they would leap and spin and flock around one another. Then, they would do it all over again. Airport personnel and passengers gaped helplessly at this weird display.
“Man!” Cyborg whispered. “Are we being invaded again?!”
[An exquisite choice% Glad to hear that it% Yes, I knew you’d be thrilled, that’s why I brought it to your attention% No, no, don’t bother, I’m just glad to be of service% I know! Isn’t it charming? You should see it during the daytime when% Hello, it’s Silpks, just thought I would make some recommendations you might not have been aware of yet]
“What is going on?” Robin swore.
The alien just shook out its wings, ruffled its spine, and went back to chasing pigeons.
Starfire watched this and several other bizarre occurrences from her vantage high overhead. There were screams from beside her, and something spherical and colorful simply moved out from a wall. Roughly the size of an elephant, it floated by her face and passed through the side of another building, disappearing altogether.
That was more than enough for her. She decided to rejoin Robin on the ground. Her boyfriend gave her a hapless look. “Anything?”
A shake of her head sent luxurious red hair flying. “I recognize none of these life-forms, nor do I see any means of communicating with them. None of them have any lips. Believe me,” she shivered violently, “I looked everywhere.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.” The Boy Wonder cast his gaze around the downtown business district. At a glance he counted almost fifty different aliens, some airborne, others transparent, and all seemingly engaged in various nonsensical displays. It was a total fiasco. Citizens were forced to flee the scene on foot because none of the cars in the vicinity were starting. This was due to a cloud of living sparks that had swarmed over every vehicle, sucked out their fuel, and were now engaged in lighting themselves on fire. The fact that they were doing this several miles above the ground did nothing to diminish the panic their actions induced in the locals at seeing the sky set ablaze. The churches were packed, and the police were overwhelmed, all their efforts spent on trying to evacuate the citizens in a calm and safe manner.
Robin flipped open his communicator, and was again greeted by static. Why!? He cursed silently. Just what was happening? Before the TV stations went dead, emergency reports from across the globe had come in detailing a planet-wide invasion. But from what he could see, there wasn’t any organization to this attack. If that’s what it was. Rather more like a bunch of intergalactic animals had been let out of the zoo and were running amok in their town.
“Robin,” Starfire hovered closer. “What must we do?”
The Titans’ leader slowly scanned the area. A crowd of business-folk came surging out of an office building, to be met by several floating sheets with oars sticking out of them. The humans scattered in every direction, and the aliens… did nothing. They ignored them, as certainly as all the others.
After it had become clear to Robin that the beasts were not directly attacking the citizens, he and Starfire had tried to make first contact with them. Any of them. But with no success. It was like these creatures didn’t even see them.
“I have no idea, Star.”
He took her arm and quickly drew her out of the way of something he chose not to look at too closely. “For now, it doesn’t seem like they pose any threat. I think we should try and locate Beast Boy and Cyborg first, maybe find out if they noticed anything beforehand that might explain what’s causing this.”
“Do you suppose…?” Starfire hugged herself and shivered. “This might be related to…?”
The word hung unspoken between them, but they both knew. After all, the whole situation seemed eerily familiar.
“I know it looks bad, Star. But somehow, I don’t get the feeling that these guys are in any way involved with C’thulhu.”
She had hoped to never hear its name again. “I must concur. Though they are as alien to me as they are to you, they do not fill me with the same dread I felt just by being in his presence.”
Something that looked to be made of oil puddles and stained glass pieces cart-wheeled before them, granting both a multitude of their own reflected faces before proceeding to scale a wall behind them and climb out of sight.
“Actually,” Starfire murmured as they both continued to stare upwards, “Their behavior seems almost… joyful to my eyes. Liberated.” A thought occurred to her. “You do not suppose… might these creatures all have been C’thulhu’s prisoners? The ones that he and his Dream harvested throughout the eons, set free again now that they are gone?”
“It could be.” Robin pondered thoughtfully. “Or maybe our fight with him somehow affected our dimension, and these aliens are traveling here from a parallel reality.” He shook his head forcefully. “But what’s the use of wondering like this? How are we even supposed to know how to react when we don’t know what’s going on in the first place?!”
Starfire placed her hands on his shoulders. He reached up to grasp her fingers, and they stood in weary confusion amid the alien extravaganza.
“If only there were someone to tell us what is happening,” the Tameranean beauty spoke wistfully.
“One ready-made explanation, coming right up.”
The two Titans spun about just as Beast Boy dropped down behind them, accompanied by what resembled a troop of rainbow jellyfish. The changeling grinned at them.
“You’re not gonna’ believe this.”
“For Pete’s sake!” Cyborg shouted. “Don’t shoot!”
“Are you nuts?!” the security guard hissed, white-knuckled hands holding his trembling pistol out before him.
“Trust me.” Cyborg gritted his teeth. “I can handle this.” With that, he slowly advanced on the ogre. That word suited it as well as any other. Those might be arms. That might be a head. And the fins could pass for legs. But he was more concerned right now with the Arabic family that stood petrified before the monster at the foot of the escalator.
Slowly, the hulking hero eased himself between the terrified security guard and his target. Shooting these things was not an option. For one thing, they didn’t seem to be hurting anybody. And for another, shooting them might change that. Although from the way they all seemed able to move in and out of walls, and disappear at will, whether or not they would even register a bullet was debatable. But Cyborg was not about to open that debate. He edged a little closer, hands raised to show he meant no harm.
The father and mother had noticed him now, and they clutched their son even closer, still rooted to that spot. The way they were looking at him, you would think he was an alien himself. With his best effort at a sincere smile, Cyborg beckoned them over.
“Come on,” he spoke softly. “Just come over here. It’s all right. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
The trembling family only darted nervous glances from him to the monster, and the Teen Titan fervently wished he didn’t look so unnatural.
He was just pondering what his next move might be, when suddenly Patty stepped around him.
“Asalaam Aleikum,” she waived with a smile, and then spoke a few more words in Arabic, gesturing back to Cyborg and holding out her hands invitingly.
The trio stared at the offering, perspiration dripping down their faces. The hero held his breath.
Then the father took his wife’s arm. They both nudged their son, and together shuffled carefully off to join Patricia. The monster did not move, only continued to stare at the rising stairs as though entranced. At last the family reached the odd couple, and with a few more words, Patty pointed them off to the huddled mob of collected travelers.
Cyborg let out his breath with a sigh. “Good timing,” he breathed.
“Well, I just thought…” Patty straightened her glasses and grinned wickedly, “…that you might not have much experience in situations outside of blasting people. A bit of diplomacy really works wonders, you know. You Americans might want to try it one of these days.”
“Are you insulting my country now?” The metal man draped an arm around her and drew Patty off from the mesmerized ogre. “You wanna’ question our national policy now that Hell has dropped in for a visit?”
As they moved off, Patty turned her head to stare at the alien behind them. “I’m not scared, you know. Isn’t that odd?” She placed a hand over his, an act that Cyborg did not fail to notice. “I should be going out of my mind, because it really does look like a nightmare around here. But I haven’t been afraid since it started.” She shifted back and cast a glance up at her companion. “I think maybe it’s because you’re here.”
He flicked his good eye down to sneak a peak at her, and then continued moving straight ahead. “Yeah? Well, usually my first instinct would‘ve been to start brawling with these guys right away. But you were there, and I was afraid you might get hurt. So I thought maybe just moving folks off to the side might work.” And he smiled. “You’re a good influence on me, Patty.”
Without warning, she reached up and pinched his cheek, making him jump. He turned a cross expression on her, to which she responded with a smirk.
“Don’t go getting all limp on me, Sir Borg. If worse comes to worst, you might just have to deploy a bit of that famous American bravado.”
They rejoined the gathering of huddled refugees which had accumulated in the first floor lobby. Over two hundred pairs of eyes watched their arrival with anxious relief. Patty and Cyborg regarded the rest of the airport, whose population now included a host of unusual forms not native to this world.
“Let’s just keep these people safe.” Cyborg’s hand found hers again. “I’ll watch out for you, so don’t worry.”
[There wasn’t? Well… Surprise! Something just as exciting instead! Wonderful, glad to hear you’re% The entertainment… Well, it’s a rustic locale, after all. Certainly fits to have people that are, hmm, how did you put it? ‘Barely functioning?’ Just pay them no mind and% The name of the troupe? To lodge a protest? Just a moment, I’m sure I can handle this for you% Oh! Hello sir! So wonderful to be at your service again. And what can I do to improve your… Sorry, your daughter is doing what now? With whom? No, please, allow me]
Starfire squealed joyfully as dozens of feather-soft tentacles touched her skin, sending the crowd of aliens around her into a colorful dance.
Beside her, Robin shivered uncomfortably, and his lone jellyfish quickly departed to join the ones gathered around the Tameranean. It left him with the rather huffy last thought that he was no fun at all.
“Wild,huh?” And Beast Boy giggled when his partner ran some filaments over his ribs. “Guess you’re not ticklish, huh, Robin?” He yelped and grinned as one tentacle touched a sensitive spot. “Princess Ojryu says not to feel left out, her friend is just touchy about how you think towards Star. Jealous, maybe?” For this he received another tickle from the royal dimensional visitor.
“But you’re right.” Robin watched the commotion around Starfire warily. “I really did understand what it was saying. Just by touching me.”
Ojryu ghosted the green teen’s ribs, and he laughed before responding. “She says my ‘mental state’ when we talk is terrific. Makes her feel happy and stuff. If that’s so, it looks like Star’s reaction is like a drug to these guys.”
They watched the effusive alien girl continue to shriek and giggle amongst her admirers, try to speak, and then get stopped by another round of exuberant hysterics. Robin regarded this scene, equally concerned and amused at his girlfriend’s predicament. “So, Beast Boy,” he cast his eye over to the other Titan. “You say they’re here on vacation?”
“Yup.” The shape-shifter nodded enthusiastically. “A package deal from the …” He paused, then turned to Ojryu. “What was the name again?” She drew a strand over his ear. Beast Boy jumped, and Ojryu glowed brightly. “Hee! Thanks. Yeah, it’s the ‘Ottual Dimensional Satisfaction Chuv.’ She tried to explain what that meant, but it included stuff that wasn’t words. I’d ask her to show you, but seems you’re not appealing to all aliens. Sorry, dude.” The princess nuzzled him again, and he snickered. “That was for her. I wasn’t laughing at you, really. Anyway,” he rushed to continue as Robin’s face grew grim, “She says they got a call from their… travel agent, I suppose you’d call him, about a new spot that opened up. Her parents decided to give it a shot, and they brought their court with them. “
“Is that what all the other aliens are?”
“No.” They paused as Starfire flipped head over heels and convulsed on her side. “Those are other people that got clued in, some pretty important guys, I guess. Not as big as Her Highness here. She says that the DEelei have a TELA* qualification for travel, which is the highest you can get. It means you’re like a god to your travel agent.”
“That’s it?” Robin stared around at the chaos and confusion rampant throughout his city. “Somebody opened our planet up as an inter-dimensional tourist trap and now we’re stuck with a bunch of vacationing aliens? Why?!”
[HERE SHE IS]
There was a glimpse of something transparent sliding over Robin’s field of vision, and then the illusion thickened into real life, broad and solid. It was yellow and metallic, glowing like gold, with wide shoulders but no arms, and a tapering waist without legs. From somewhere in the middle of this object there emerged a face. It reminded Robin of the interior of a pocket-watch, with pieces clicking and rotating around inside it. But there were two round red eyes, and from this newcomer there came the voice that had just spoken.
“Princess Ojryu, so this is where you ran off to. Your Father was looking for you.”
Suddenly beside this entity there appeared a much larger jellyfish, glowing a deep, hypnotic blue. The opal-luminescent princess wound her tendrils in apparent consternation.
“Ah, excuse me.” Robin spoke up.
“Boring?” the yellow alien trilled. “Well, that’s the appeal, of course! Untouched splendor, bereft of the fabulous enhancements to which we are accustomed. How better to appreciate what you have than by seeing what does not?”
“Excuse me.” Robin raised his voice, but the two new attendees ignored him.
“A DiVuCle poetry reading? Here? Unlikely. Your family came here because there is nothing refined to speak of.” Something in the alien’s tone made Robin take notice. It sounded almost… anxious. “I’m sure there must have been a misunderstanding or…”
Princess Ojryu clustered around Beast Boy. The other members of her race had immediately detached themselves from Starfire at the arrival of her father, and now floated softly around her still-chortling form.
“What, this?” the gold-plated monster huffed. ”Why, that’s just part of the entertainment, nothing special there, only a bit of…”
“Silpks!” Beast Boy suddenly blurted out.
The creature stopped and turned its attention on him.
“What was that?”
“Silpks. It’s your name, right? You’re the travel agent who brought everyone to our planet.”
For a moment, no one spoke.
Then Silpks flickered, and there was another Silpks moving in, detaching Ojryu from Beast Boy carefully and drawing her and her father away, chatting good-naturedly about client services and the difficulty in finding good performers in these parts. The first Silpks extruded a series of intertwining plates and yanked Beast Boy over to join Robin.
“Your planet? What are you, colonists? Didn’t you see the sign? This area is designated for the use of the Ottual Chuv and I am its agent. The zone has been off-limits for vellaeons!”
The Titans exchanged glances. “We’re not aliens,” Robin spoke. “Earth is our home.”
Silpks watched them, his features flipping around and reconnecting. Suddenly his eyes flashed a bright red, illuminating all of the Titans in a crimson glow that set their skin tingling. When the light faded, he gave a jerk backwards.
“You’re native to this world!” He regarded the two humans with obvious surprise.
“Uh… yeah. Is that a problem?” Beast Boy found he couldn’t stop staring at the travel agent’s rippling face. Maybe it was just him, but it sort of looked like an owl with those big unblinking round eyes.
He doesn’t like us, he thought briefly.
“What did you mean about a sign?” Robin asked. “You’ve visited our planet before?”
Silpks considered them. Off to one side, the other version of himself suddenly disappeared along with the DEelei party. Starfire was still trying to get her bearings back. She surveyed the depopulated alley with an almost forlorn expression. Then the golden entity spoke.
“Yes, we took a survey of your world several vacation cycles back, and deemed it currently unsuitable for our clientele. The message inscribed in one of your outer satellites was to let any other agencies know of our intention to cultivate this area for visits once its inhabitants had reached a certain level of sophistication.”
Robin continued to study the constantly shuffling physiognomy of this being. “Didn’t you just tell those other aliens that we were ‘performers’? And just what made you decide to come here all of a sudden?”
Silpks turned a decidedly unpleasant look on the boy hero. “First, that was an honest assumption on my part. I assumed you were brought along by one of my clients for their entertainment. And second, if you must know, there’s been a downswing in inter-dimensional vacationing lately. We decided to take advantage of the lull to set up a test-run of this planet, to garner information in preparation of future long-term engagements. Once things start to pick up, we can…”
It was Beast Boy who said it. When the weirdo turned its fluctuating features on him, he stared right back. “Ojryu told me her family dumped you guys for another group. Then you showed up and told them that you had found a place that no one had ever seen before. You said that nobody lived there, and that it was a one-time only thing so they had to try it now.”
Robin crossed his arms. “So? You want to try explaining again?”
There was no mistaking it this time. The look on Silpks’ face was definitely not friendly. “Listen,” the hovering entity grated, “Why don’t you all just relax and bear with me here? The novelty of this place will only last a few tae of time. I’m sure your species can manage a little inconvenience until then. Just let the clients have their fun, it’s not like they’re going to damage you little creatures.”
That did it. Robin was through playing nice.
“Now you listen.” He strode forward and planted himself before the gleaming figure. “I don’t know where you get off just dropping in uninvited, but we’re not about to put our world on hold for any time just so some bored tourists can treat it like a souvenir stand. This is our planet, and we fought too hard to let it just be taken away from us!”
“Yeah!” Beast Boy chimed in. “We object! Doesn’t your group have a complaint department or something?”
Silpks’ pieces spun round and around wildly. “The temerity! How dare you attempt to equate yourselves with my clients! This underdeveloped gravity-mass couldn’t produce any worthwhile life-forms, it’s only good for sightseeing!”
“If that’s the case, then pack up your clients and leave!” Robin spit back. “Go find somewhere more advanced to play!”
“They’re not going anywhere, they’re staying right here!!” Silpks bellowed. “You unthinking barely-aware accidents, you should never have gotten this far! The only reason we didn’t turn your world into a zoo was…!”
He stopped short.
And the detective studied his opponent.
Uncanny. This might really be a highly-advanced species, but it still exhibited familiar behavior. It displayed anger, contempt. And fear. So then. What did keep them from doing anything? What could have deterred someone like this from…?
It was so obvious he could have laughed.
“C’thulhu,” he whispered.
Among the Titans, Robin was probably the most perceptive. This was never a term Beast Boy would apply to himself even if he knew it. But when Silpks trained his unearthly gaze on them now, even he could tell things had just become dangerous.
The shining pyramid seemed to loom larger before them. On instinct, Robin’s hand strayed to his utility belt. When the invader spoke next, his words were eerily calm.
“Should I know what that is?”
There. Right there.
Robin drew one step closer, his masked eyes locking with Silpks.’ It was bizarre. He actually felt to be on an equal footing in this situation. In a regular battle, he depended on his trained body and reflexes to carry the day. But he had been tutored in many forms of combat, and this was not a martial arts contest. Much to his surprise, the leader of the Titans found himself conducting an interrogation. His own cunning and powers of perception versus the duplicity and self-interest of the enemy. You use what you know to try and break the opponent’s bravado, encourage them to believe that for all their careful conceit, you are the one who is actually holding all the cards. Let nothing they say appear to surprise you. Seize upon the other person’s fears and weaknesses, and exploit them.
And right there, Silpks had given himself away as surely as could be.
The Boy Wonder smiled coldly.
“You already do. Maybe not the name, but you know who it was. You didn’t take our world because you knew C’thulhu was sleeping in it. Because you were scared of him. Don’t try to deny it,” he spoke as Silpks flinched. “It’s not like you were wrong in fearing him.”
He had the advantage. All that remained was to press it. But tactfully, now. This being was unpredictable and powerful. It would definitely not do to provoke hostility. So just let Silpks’ own uncertainties do all the work.
“Well, you don’t need to worry. C’thulhu is gone for good. We finished him.”
Don’t reveal anything more, Robin thought. Let the silence do its work. Silpks probably knows better than us what C’thulhu was really capable of. He can work out the implications himself. An unspoken threat is far more mentally devastating than a real one. Robin knew that.
Unfortunately, Beast Boy didn’t.
“That’s right!” the changeling jumped in. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take your friends and hit the road before we do the same to you!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Garfield Logan felt a familiar sensation. It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced in some time. But when it came, there was no denying it. Whenever he went too far, with a joke or just talking, Raven always used to give him a look. And whenever she did, he always knew that he had just made a mistake.
That was the look Silpks gave him now.
“Do you intend to do my clients harm?” His cold red orbs fixed on Beast Boy, who stood still now as he realized what he had just said.
Swiftly Robin interposed himself between them. “No one needs to get hurt here.” He tried to catch the travel agent’s attention, but it gave no indication of having heard him. “Just try to understand that your arrival is creating chaos. If you really want to visit our world, then maybe we can sit down and work something out in the future. But right now, it would be for the best if you and your clients just left.”
He was trying to deter conflict. There was no telling what an entity like this was capable of, but if Silpks really was just a businessman, then surely he could appreciate the reasoning here.
The plates and segments of the face continued to detach and maneuver around one another. “Work something out.” There was now nothing readable in Silpks’ voice or demeanor. He slowly looked back and forth between them. “With you.”
The crimson gemstones flashed.
“You make a good point.”
Robin allowed himself to hope, just a little.
“I concede that our arrival here lacked a certain level of discretion on my part,” Silpks continued. “As you’ve requested, I will inform my clients of the need to postpone their engagement.” A small glow began to burn at the core of his scarlet orbs. “And as further demonstration of my chagrin in this affair, allow me to do one thing. You mentioned before that you wished to lodge a complaint against me. I have no problem with that. Allow me to arrange for it accordingly.”
The gleaming god turned to confront Starfire. Having just then fully recuperated, her gaze went from Robin to Silpks questioningly.
“This one seems quite intelligent,” the travel agent purred. “I’ll transfer her to the Complaint Dept. right away. No sense in delaying, am I right?”
The feminine powerhouse opened her mouth to speak.
Before she could do so, she vanished.
“Star!” Beast Boy cried. Immediately Robin flung himself at Silpks. The metallic form suddenly turned transparent, and the martial artist hurtled right through him to collide loudly with a dumpster.
“No need for alarm,” Silpks spoke calmly. “She will be well looked after. It’s far more dangerous on your world than in our offices. I regret that our first encounter could not have been more sociable.” The dimensional facilitator began to fade from sight.
“Rest assured. There will be no more disputes between us.”
He left them there, Beast Boy staring wordlessly, Robin hunched and trembling on the ground.
The gall! The audacity!! To imply that they might do him harm?! That he should negotiate with them as though they were worth his patronage?!!
No, Silpks thought to himself. He was not about to submit to this.
Already, he had convinced his clients to vacate the locale, on the admittedly flimsy pretext that he wanted to take a commemorative picture for souvenirs. The excuse wouldn’t last long, but he only needed a brief interlude to…
What? What was he doing here?
Was he really about to…?
For the second time in a very brief span, Silpks felt an unbelievable horror welling up within him. Only now, the source came from within himself. Maybe, he thought swiftly, maybe I should stop and think. Yes, stop and think about all this.
Needing somewhere isolated, he eventually settled on the dusty pale sub-satellite he had originally pinned his hopes on. Shifting over to that planetoid, he gazed about the scene with something like nostalgia. He had known what a risk this had been from the start. But at the time, it had been a desperate situation. As he thought back now, it was painfully clear that his decisions and judgment had been swayed by purely selfish reasons. He had been prepared to expose his clients to a potential disaster, among the worst known throughout the multitudes of sentient space. Had he truly been so deranged at the time as to believe it was worth the risk, just to hang on to a fancy office and a few trivial perks? The burden of his own mistakes and inadequacies crushed down, making it feel as if this satellite’s meager gravity had expanded infinitely. He was a professional, for simple’s sake!! His obligations lay with his clients and respective domains, not to himself!
But is that all I am, another part shot back? A job? A professional identity? Don’t I deserve to be acknowledged as an individual in my own right?
This isn’t about material things! Silpks swung restlessly back and forth across the wasted landscape. This was about lives! True, he might have gone a little overboard with the invitations when he realized the area was clean. But if he had thought for an instant that there was a chance the Quarm ^* would notice the visit, he would never have brought so much as a NEVSA level client here!
The Quarm… it was gone. And that… creature had implied awareness of it, even gone so far as to insinuate that they had destroyed it! Unthinkable! Completely outside the realms of feasibility by any stretch of the imagination. The possibility simply didn’t exist, not for him, not for them, not even for the DEelei, for simple’s sake! Quarm ^* didn’t fall to anyone! It was a rule of life, death, and everything else that existed. So then how did they do it? Did they do it? Were these trivial beings actually capable of something like that?
They threatened me.
Silpks shoved the thought aside and concentrated again on his situation. He felt very clear-headed now. There was the option of declaring the place was in danger of universal collapse and cutting short the clients’ packages. It would be a huge blow to his status, but not as bad as the truth. He would definitely lose the DEelei and other clients and They Threatened Me.
They Threatened My Clients.
That’s what it means to be professional, right? You look after your charges. You protect them. And if someone intends to do them ill…
You make sure that they don’t.
What am I thinking? The horror came back, but not as strong. Now he had an excuse.
I did it to protect the clients.
Am I really going to do this? They’re aware. They’re alive. It’s my own fault for not thinking it through, for not realizing that there were native inhabitants to this world who might take offence at an intrusion. He was to blame for all this. And what if they resist? Could I wind up like the Quarm? Gone but not forgotten, if that? Who was he really thinking about here?
This is your last chance, something from inside told him. The only thing worse than making a mistake is compounding on it.
Inside of his form, he performed the necessary adjustments and made the connection.
“The Contaminant Detrax, at your service. What do you need taken care of?”
“I have an infestation I need you to clean up.”
“You’re from the Ottual Dimensional Satisfaction Chuv. Since when do our interests coincide with yours?”
“Since now. Do you want the job or not?”
“Well, I guess if anyone should be wondering whether or not to do this it’s you, not us. Just tell me what you want.”
He did. In great detail, so there would be nothing incriminating left behind. And then Silpks closed the connection.
“ ‘Satisfy the Clients’ Needs,’” he told himself. “That’s Rule #2.”
Starfire gave a jolt, and then slowly fell backward. At first she thought she had slipped. But then it occurred to her that there was nothing beneath her feet. By the time that registered, she was already well on her way. And when she had turned completely upside down, she suddenly realized she was standing up.
Disorientation failed to kick in, as Tameraneans had an especially adaptable sense of balance. But the process kept repeating. Over and around she went, and what she could see in front of her was too complicated to grasp anyway. Like layers and layers of glass screens stacked around her, and on each successive plate something different was happening. Aliens moving about, lights and flashes, spinning vortices of energy and strange inscrutable languages. She had no idea what was going on. There was a pressure building in her ears, accompanied by a steady buzzing. Now it was actually growing painful. The battle maiden clapped her hands to her head and screamed, “STOP!”
“Finally. I thought we’d never get her to open up to us.”
The pain was gone. Starfire opened her eyes. When she looked around, she noticed that she was now accompanied by a pair of small silver clouds.
“All right, so we know how she communicates,” one of the clouds spoke in a voice like tingling wind chimes. “What do you want to do?”
“You don’t seriously expect me to take her,” the other scoffed. “I’m dealing with over nine-hundred and fifty clients as we speak. The least thing I need is one I actually have to shut down parts of my mind just to converse with.”
Starfire tried again. “What…?”
“I’m right there with you. No time to spare. Any bright ideas?”
Once more. “Where…?”
“Bright? For this one? Who needs it? Just go with easy. Shove her off on the new guy like everybody else.”
Maybe now. “Excuse me…”
“Good idea. You’re excused.”
Then they flattened her down to one dimension, slipped her through several layers of transitive space and went to lunch.
Starfire stood trembling, shaken to her core. That experience had been very disruptive. She patted her limbs and torso awkwardly to make sure everything was still there. What was happening? Where was she?
Then the lights came on.
“Oh, very funny. Do you people ever actually resolve a problem, or do you just make it go away?”
Several voices laughed behind her, accompanied by what sounded like a door slamming shut. Now that she could see her surroundings, Starfire discovered herself to be in a room with only three triangular-shaped transparent sides. Immediately outside the room there appeared to be a storm raging. And from out of this tumult there suddenly shot something that collided with her chest. It was cold, wet, and slimy.
“Here, let me get that.”
Suddenly her torso was encased in a green sparkling mixture, and whatever had struck her melted away. At the same time, the flaming-haired female felt her skin tingle and her muscles relax with pleasant ease. Then the aura pulled back. It retracted into the side of a glowing green bubble that moved around to hover before her. At the sphere’s center was a vaguely humanoid figure, though it was lacking legs and entirely composed of dark tubes. Its head was long and featured only a pair of reflective eyes.
“Sorry about the locale,” the bubble-dweller sang in a blend of voices. “I’ve just been moved to this department. The office wasn’t my idea, either.” Gradually the melding of speech began to subside until only one voice was audible. “Is that better?” the alien asked. “Are you able to understand me now?”
Starfire stood stock still. Finally, she managed to nod faintly. As she did, another stream of glop hit her in the leg, which her host promptly wiped away, again leaving that spot feeling renewed and healthy.
“Well, now that communication’s been settled, I’ll waste no more of your time. My name is Lilq/emo, and I’ll be helping you during your visit. What is the nature of your complaint?”
“Cyborg, are you all right? Where are you?”
“I’m at the airport with Patty.” His image on the screen flickered. “We’re both doing fine here.”
Suddenly Patricia’s face popped in from the side. “Hello Robin, hello Beast Boy. Where’s Starfire? I don’t suppose you can tell us what’s happening here? We’re managing on our own, but for an hour it was like a bad acid trip. Not that I really know firsthand how that is, I’ve just read…”
Robin’s brusque tones cut her off. “We just got hit by some tourists from another dimension. They’ve cleared out for now, but I don’t think that’s the end of it.”
The team tactician scanned the city from his perch atop a skyscraper. Immediately after Silpks’ departure, his brethren had vanished instantaneously. Worldwide communication had been restored, and the reeling citizens were now cautiously poking around the streets in great confusion, like sobered partygoers wondering where the festivities had gone.
That same question was being asked across the globe. From secret government enclaves to online video sites, the attempt to determine just what all that was about and where it had gone was in full effect. In comparison with previous interplanetary invasions, the damage sustained was hardly noticeable. With the so-called “blue effect” still in place, the majority of people had opted to flee from the intruders. Another percentage had tried to speak with them, while an even smaller portion of the population had decide to attack the apparent despoilers. Neither of those tactics had yielded tangible results in any cases. The aliens had barely noticed their reluctant hosts for the most part.
Beast Boy revealed that his own contact with Princess Ojryu had been unintentional. She had apparently picked up on a residual string of language in his subconscious, the result of having been exposed to a communiqué from Azerath meant for Raven. She had mistaken it for poetry, and established first contact with their species as a result. This was what had allowed him to communicate with Silpks earlier, as he had been piggy-backing off the DEelei until the travel agent had striven to speak with them both on their level.
Robin related everything he knew to his comrade across town. When he finished, Cyborg pondered thoughtfully.
“So basically, C’thulhu was like the Mother Of All Landlords, and nobody wanted to have to pay the rent when he finally woke up. But now that he’s gone…”
“We’re open for business.” Beast Boy gnawed his lip ruefully.
“And what about Starfire?” Patty asked again.
Behind his mask, Robin shut his eyes. “I don’t know. Silpks could have done anything to her. He’s still out there now, and he didn’t leave me with the feeling that he was happy with us.”
“You think he’s gonna try something?” Cyborg shot back.
“Like what?” Beast Boy put a foot on the rooftop’s edge and gazed down at the milling crowd far below. They looked so small and vulnerable. Not able to do anything to save themselves. That was how Silpks had made him feel. Changing into a bug was one thing, being made to feel like one was another. He didn’t like to think what had been going on behind those glowing eyes.
“He wasn’t glad to find us here,” Robin continued. “And his last words… the way he said them, it sounded like a threat.”
“Man, this freaks me out!” The team shape-shifter kicked back off the ledge and started pacing about restlessly. “What if Silpks is getting ready to tent the planet so he can drop some bug-bomb on us? What are we supposed to do then?”
Cyborg groaned and rubbed his eye. “Never thought I’d miss having C’thulhu around.”
“We don’t know how to deal with
weird dimensions and magic freak-shows, that was Raven’s thing!”
Then slowly, he sank down and sat on the roof.
“I miss her,” he said in a tired voice. “I’m so sick of missing her all the time. Why couldn’t she…?”
“Stop it, Beast Boy.”
Robin’s back was turned, so he couldn’t see his face. But his words were uncharacteristically soft.
“You can’t keep hoping for something you know isn’t going to happen. It’s torture to do that. Raven… wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself. You least of all.”
He had almost been hoping that Robin would say something blunt and snappy the way he tended to when it came to emotions. At least then he could have gotten mad or something. But that wasn’t the case. And what Beast Boy did feel was sucking the joy from his life. Would this feeling ever go away? Should he want it to?
“It’s just she always took care
Suddenly he stopped. “Hey. You feel that?”
“Tourists,” Patty sniffed as Cyborg closed his arm back up. “That’s no surprise. Now that I think about it, they all had that same behavior, where they just barge in and act like they own the place.” She paused and studied him carefully. “Are you all right, Cyborg?”
“Yeah,” he turned his head hurriedly and passed a hand over his face. “It’s just we hadn’t said her name in a while. It hit me harder than I thought.”
The lady glanced away, giving him this moment by pretending to adjust her glasses. “I tried not to mention it after I saw how much the subject pained you all. But you know, Cyborg, seeing how you miss her so, I really do regret I never got the chance to meet Raven.”
Cyborg chuckled. “She was something. A real mystery. And scary sometimes, though you got to like that too. I don’t know if you two would have hit it off, cuz’ she never liked to talk much. But she loved books too. I like to think you would have worked something out.”
“Well.” Patty turned back about. “We should trot on back to our wards, I think they still might need a bit of guidance.”
She took one step towards him, and the feeling hit them both at once.
Have you ever done anything like this?
Yes, I have.
So why all the minutia? Why are we doing something so careful for some targets that barely rate on our quotas? We’re not going to get any praise for this.
I know what you mean. This is more like something to let the zoo brigade handle.
The client’s from the Chuv, you really think he wants a slaughter fest disrupting the scenery?
That’s another thing. Since when does the Satisfaction Chuv hire enders?
That’s his problem, not ours. And take pride in your craft. This dimensions’ laws are primed for termination. I’ve always wanted to try something like this.
What we’re doing here is very slick, I’ll grant you that. We’re taking every life-form capable of contemplating the inevitability of its own demise, then slipping and stitching the time points so that each of their deaths in the future happens now instead of then, and all at once.
That’s killer, my friend.
You said it.
Ready for the test run?
This is the spot he specified.
Everything blurred, like seen through a rain-streaked window. Robin knew. Everyone in the city felt it. The awareness, the presentiment. Of death.
Their surroundings became a backdrop of foaming red and grey. A deep moan shuddered through the world, as temporal forces blended present and future into one moment. In that dreadful terrain, every one of them felt completely alone.
It was a noose tightening around your neck. A blood vessel bursting in your brain. Impact from a three-hundred foot drop. Multiple organ failure. A blow to the head. A bullet through the temple.
It was how they all died.
There. Now we finalize the time blend for the precise moment, clone the period and…
Did you do that?
Are you serious?
Beast Boy fell to his knees and sobbed. He pressed his forehead desperately against the tar and concrete, breathing in its fumes, registering the surface digging into his scalp. His memory of the experience was unreliable, but one thing was certain. He had almost died.
So then why hadn’t he?
“Raven?” he whispered.
Then something tickled him, and he jolted up instantly.
Robin lay just a few feet away, surround by the DEelei. Ojryu emerged before him.
“Hey,” he whispered.
The floating mass began to glow, shifting through successions of luminous emerald, amethyst, and cobalt. Then all the light flowed down out of it, reminding him of a rainbow. But it moved like it was solid, branching off and settling into distinct shapes. Beast Boy gaped in amazement. Before him now there was a human body fashioned out of glowing pink energy. A girl’s body. And a nice one too, he thought with a blush. The head was capped by Ojryu’s real form, making it look like she was wearing a big floppy dashiki with dreadlocks hanging down. And that was all she was wearing. The teenager couldn’t bring himself to look away. The outline of her body sort of reminded him of Raven. And the face… There were two big, fabulous eyes that shone with every hue he could ever imagine. As Beast Boy stood transfixed, the princess reached out with her new hands and touched him.
The contact left him both elated and horrified at what she told him.
“Robin!” he shouted. “There’s some kind of…!”
“I know.” The captain of the team waived away the clustering attendants and turned to face his companion. “Agents from a deconstruction commission hired to kill us.” He glanced around at the hovering aliens. “They stopped it.”
Beast Boy grinned at Ojryu. “I guess where you’re from royalty really can do anything they want.”
The princess glowed brighter and traced a finger over his lip, making him shiver. The young hero gave a sheepish smile.
“Yeah, me too. I mean, I like you too. Oh, I almost forgot, thanks for saving us. That is… I mean…”
“Princess Ojryu.” Robin strode forward, and the super-powerful entity turned to regard him. “We need your help.”
The sloppy missile hurtled forth, and instantly Starfire turned her head and vaporized it with a glance. Readjusting to face Lilq/emo, she smiled.
“And that is why I am here.”
From within his color globe, the Melian ombudsman regarded her thoughtfully. His next words sounded quite puzzled. “So you’re a native to the dimension, but not to this planet in question.”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
He cocked his head slightly. “I’m afraid so, and not just for logistics. For instance, no matter how this case progresses, when it comes time to return you home, we won’t be able to send you to the same planet. It’s a new find, so we have no record of this ‘Urth.’ And since your species doesn’t originate from there, we can’t use you as a reference to determine its location.”
“But,” the Tameranean blinked, “Where am I supposed to go?”
“For starters, we can return you to Tameran.” A pseudopod extended from his bubble, and one of the triangular walls grew bright, then darkened to reveal a picture of Starfire’s home planet. The two of them watched it pulse softly against space. “I took your phase signature when I first touched you, and that matched with our records. We have a sample for your planet’s potential from some time ago, and your species is due to receive an offer of our services in about a quarter million zeld. That’s not for a while, but sending you back should still be no problem.”
“Oh.” The princess was distracted by the need to shoot down another slimy projectile that came her way. She noticed that Lilq/emo did nothing to evade the missiles himself. He merely allowed them to connect, and then emitted a chemical that turned that portion of his sphere black. When it cleared, the offensive matter was gone.
“But what of Earth?”
“We’ll have to bring Silpks himself in on this.” Lilq/emo settled back into his personal space. “He can provide the requisite location, and also explain his conduct. But I should tell you, he’s a very popular agent, now more than ever. When you reach a certain professional level in this business, you can influence virtually anything you want.” He glanced around his office distastefully. “Like transfers.”
“Oh, I do not understand this!” Starfire leapt up and strode furiously around the meager space.
“Allow me to explain.” Lilq gestured her back to the seat he had provided, and when she returned to it he began. “Silpks has discovered this new society and arranged for first-claimant right, which gives him exclusive authority to conduct pre-contractual visits and negotiations. No other agent is allowed to enter there for any reason until his assessment has been submitted. However, prior to an official inclusion of your Urth in any of our travel packages, Silpks can entertain established clients by way of demo-visits, as a means of piquing future interest and demonstrating the types of clients who would be attending the planet following its acceptance as one of our venues. These are brief tours, usually with small groups, but there is no actual set limit on their size.”
“Since the local inhabitants have the option of relocating, under an initial finder’s statement an agent does have the right to request that they vacate the area. This is usually done when he wishes to woo favorite clients without native interference. And of course those natives have the option of refusing these requests, but it comes at the risk of losing the agent’s offer of membership. Since the Chuv provides numerous benefits and protections to its family of destinations, this is not something to be spurned lightly. It’s entirely at the discretion of the agent. All in all, such interactions help us determine how to market new locales and lay the groundwork for future long-term settlements.”
“Um,” Starfire raised her hand. “Question. What do you mean by ‘relocating’?”
Lilq/emo peered at her with his bright mirror eyes. “Traveling to another suitable living environment. An interplanetary sojourn for your Urth friends, in this case. Just like you did to get there. Does that help?”
A pair of star-beams sizzled some gray glop, and Starfire turned back around. “But Earthlings are not capable of significant travel beyond their planet. They do not even know how to surpass the speed of light.”
Lilq crossed his arms. From out of his tubes there now began to ooze a bright yellow color. “They can’t? I’m sorry, I assumed that these friends of yours were on an intellectual par with your own race. If they haven’t even reached that level, there’s no way we’ll be officially dealing with them any time soon.”
Starfire had to blast another bit of gunk. “You would not?”
“There’s no need.” Her attendant revolved about in his globe, like he was mulling over something. “Underdeveloped life-forms can’t be expected to appreciate or contribute to the intricacies of our negotiations. You’re an up-and-coming species, and it sounds like they’re not. For that matter,” his globe turned a confused rust color, “why did Silpks send you here? He must have realized you didn’t belong to that world, and even if you did have a temporary alien status there, you don’t officially have the authority to level a complaint on behalf of Urth. No matter how inferior their society, he should have sent one of them. So why, then?” The orb became a suspicious gray field and began to darken as he spoke.
“Perhaps he did not feel Earthlings could ‘appreciate’ the experience?”
“It has to be more than that,” Lilq pondered, exuding several different shades of gray to indicate concentration. “If they are developmentally stunted, there’s no way Silpks would have believed they were ready for site status. At best, he could have turned it in as a zoo trip, you don’t need permission from the natives to start showing then. But the fact that they could level complaints at all automatically rules that out. So at most he should have just submitted a sample for Predictive Analysis and left the place for greener pastures. But he didn’t.” The bubble was now a match for the storm clouds that continued to menace them from all sides.
Then it went transparent, and Lilq/emo turned to face Starfire.
“Are you absolutely certain that you don’t have any material from a living Urth species that I can examine?”
The slender alien frowned in thought. “My clothing is from Tameran, and I do not breathe their atmosphere. I had nothing to eat today so…”
And then it hit her. “But wait! Robin’s kiss!”
“Come again?” The globe went bistre with perplexity.
“Yes, yes!” Starfire bounced up and down. “When he kissed me today, some of his tongue-moisture may have been left on my mouth! Might that work?”
“Hold on.” Lilq extended a limb and encased Starfire’s whole head in it, then exuded a pink substance along its length. The experience proved painless, like vibrations shooting through her skin and hair. The extrusion retracted.
“Got it. Phase signature foreign to your own. Now, let’s see what happens if I submit it for analysis.”
There was a flash, and all three walls of Lilq/emo’s office were filled with patterns, shapes, and noises. Starfire stared, bewildered. Then they went blank.
“Pattern refused.” Lilq/emo glided out from behind his desk to join her. His words came quick and cold. “I thought Silpks might have been squatting in another travel agency’s territory, which would explain why he didn’t want to submit a test sample. But I’ve checked everywhere I could think to look, and there’s no match.”
Starfire was crestfallen. “Does this mean we have no recourse?”
“No, Starfire” Lilq turned to reassure her. “It just means we aren’t asking the right questions.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “Then maybe… it is somewhere you would not think to look?”
Lilq pondered this in a beige cloud.
Suddenly the globe lit up with white.
“Silpks,” he whispered. “Were you that desperate?”
Again the walls came to life. Lilq/emo submitted his approval code, accepted the warnings, separated his system from the rest of the Chuv, and called up the list of Quarm quarantine zones.
When he entered the pattern sample, the match came back immediately.
“Son of a gilb,” he muttered.
Okay. We all set to try this again?
Say, does this technically count as two jobs? Because if so…
No kill, no credit. You know that.
As I was saying! Let’s try this one more time.
Oh, come on!
It’s even less funny the second time.
That’s it! I’m getting to the bottom of this!
“They tried it again,” Beast Boy related Ojryu’s account. “She scrambled them up.”
“Do we know where these enders are? Maybe we can take the fight to them.”
The changeling glanced over at his admirer, who proceeded to ruffle his hair.
“She says…” He shivered at the sensation rushing up his spine. “Sorry. She thinks they’re acting out of a temporary lapse dimension, which is something like a layer of plastic wrap spread over our planet. Only they can live in it.”
Robin drove his fist into his palm. “We can’t just keep waiting for these enders to launch new attacks. There has to be a way to put a stop to all this now!”
A warm radiant cheek rubbed against Beast Boy’s own. “Ojryu is going to keep blocking the enders, and she’s told her Dad what’s happening, but Silpks is the real problem. She sent some of her court to catch him, but nobody knows where he is.”
As Robin opened his mouth to question him further, the world stopped turning.
The disorientation was followed by horror, and just as they felt the ground start to disappear beneath them, Ojryu clapped her hands on Beast Boy’s head. "It’s Silpks!” he screamed. “He’s forcing out everyone who doesn’t belong in this dimension! She’s going to try and help us but…!”
Everything rearranged itself in an instant. When they looked around, nothing seemed to have changed.
Except that Ojryu was gone.
“Not again,” Beast Boy muttered.
“It was for her own good,” Silpks reiterated to himself. Since the DEelei were here under the auspices of his organization, he could rescind their occupancy permit whenever he wanted. Good thing, too, because otherwise there was no way he could force them to leave. Her father would understand, it was for her own good. Associating with those nuisances, what a thought!
He turned back to the Detrax emissaries. “Terminate them.”
Like he needs to tell us to do our job.
Forget it. With the heat he’ll probably take from that stunt alone, anything we did would be a waste of effort.
And anyway, we’re past our Deadline as it is. What do you say we just cut to the chase with these pests?
Let’s pick up some samples from the primary target zone, just to be on the safe side.
This time when the dimensional shift occurred, remarkably few people panicked. It was almost becoming commonplace. Even when every living person in that city found themselves in a crowd, each one standing on a separate transparent disc situated over something that looked like a vision of Hell.
It might have just been the inner crater of a volcano far below them. Or perhaps close to them, it was hard to tell. But it was still much too big, it took up the entirety of the landscape, a vast plain of seething red and black sludge that was convulsed by inner explosions. The glow that came off it lit them all with the same bloody splash. There was furious cold, noise and a repellent stench coupled with the sheer loss of control over one’s own life. It hit them all en masse.
In the crowd of millions, Patricia turned a questioning look on Cyborg. “Are we dead?”
He craned his head around. “My sensors say no. But that’s about all they’re telling me.”
She reached out a hand for him.
The moment her arm traveled over the bound of the circle on which she stood, it felt as if the weight of that appendage increased a hundred fold. The experience wrenched her forward, for a moment she thought she might fall headlong into the flaming pit. Fortunately her knees buckled, and when she collapsed her arm pulled back in. Cyborg began to reach out for her, but Patty shook her head.
They were separated by a little over a foot of space. But to move any part of themselves off the platforms meant death. The cyber-teen stared at the trembling young woman, who returned the expression with wide, frightened eyes. He had hoped to never see that look on her again. He ground his teeth in helpless rage, and tears gathered in his right eye.
“I can’t reach you,” he whispered.
Robin, the Boy Wonder, stood on his own private disc. There was no need to ask what was about to transpire here. It should be obvious even to those not clued in to recent events that they had been brought here to die.
He had reached the limit of his abilities.
How could he stop them? He didn’t even know where they were. And what good was a birderang or a fist against something that lived two dimensions away from you?
The truth was painful, but he could not deny it.
“There’s nothing I can do.”
Beast Boy was still beside him, standing on his own execution block, and he turned at Robin’s words. “Don’t say that! I’ve never heard you say that before! You’re Robin!”
“I’m nobody.” The teenage boy seated himself slowly on his perch. “Star’s gone too. I can’t protect anybody. I can’t do anything. I’m just a human.”
“I know that everybody thinks that about you. I’ve thought it too sometimes, when I’ve seen you go toe-to-toe with someone you didn’t stand a chance of beating. But so what? You still beat them every time!”
Robin’s lip quirked up, and he raised his head. “You want to know a secret, Beast Boy? I was hoping she’d come back too. I was hoping that, when things started to pick up again, when something really bad did happen, Raven would show up and save us all, and we’d be together, like a family.”
The sad smile vanished. “I’ve lost them both now. What good is a hero who doesn’t even save the girl? I’ve done all I can, and it wasn’t enough.”
“Stop it!” Beast Boy would have shaken his friend, but something told him not to move off this spot. “We never give up, remember? We beat C’thulhu, didn’t we?!”
Robin chuckled. “Raven. She did that. Without her it would have just swallowed us and we never would have cared. She’s not here to save us. Maybe Star’s dead too. I don’t know.”
Beast Boy thought he might cry at this.
But instead he rose, and straightened his shoulders resolutely. “Then I’ll save you.”
“We’re the ones who come to the rescue, Robin,” he continued. “Because not everybody can save themselves. But that doesn’t make it wrong for us to hope somebody’s gonna’ rescue us when we need it. We’re just like anybody else, no worse off and no better. We all need somebody to swoop in every now and then. That doesn’t mean we’re not still heroes!”
When Robin still sat there quietly, Beast Boy just lost it.
“Raven died for you, dammit!! Didn’t that teach you anything?!!”
Robin heard those words. And he thought.
There wasn’t a warning, or even any sense. The transparent discs just disappeared for some of them. One was Patty, and as the support gave out from under her she dropped like a stone towards the lake of fire.
Cyborg screamed, and dove off after her.
At the sight of the first body falling down, Robin didn’t hesitate. He didn’t stop to wonder if it actually mattered, or why he tried when there was clearly no way to win. Before he knew it he was off his seat, streaking down towards the nearest screaming person. In a second he had caught them, and the grappling line was shooting back upwards.
But everything was too heavy here. The cable didn’t even reach halfway up.
Then a green pterodactyl was there, claws snagging the grapple, beating its wings furiously. To no avail.
Cyborg reached Patty, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. She looked up at him, and all the screams and terror vanished.
It was good to die unafraid.
All the discs went away, and the people fell.
This is a joke. It has to be.
We’re gonna’ get docked for this.
Cyborg found himself holding Patty on solid ground. He looked around with weary disbelief.
Beast Boy automatically changed back into a human, and felt arms wrap around his chest.
Robin stumbled forward, still holding onto his charge.
“I’m tired,” he rasped.
There was sunshine and clean air around them. Tall buildings of glass and stone. Traffic lights, stop signs, cars and clouds and cans of trash. Everything where it belonged. He felt warmth, and relief. Life. A gasp of amazed laughter escaped his throat.
The girl in his arms shivered, making him remember her.
“It’s all right,” he whispered, and held her close. “You’re safe now.”
Her head came up, and there was a flash of purple hair, the glimpse of pale skin.
The name came to his lips unbidden. And at the sound, she blinked her teary brown eyes.
“Huh?” the chubby-faced Goth stared at him uncomprehendingly, tears running down her red pimply cheeks.
He set her on her feet and stared up at the sky. Such a bright sun. How many times had they cheated death today? And nothing seemed the worse for wear. Could this all have been just a dream?
Her voice made him shake. When he turned around, Starfire slammed into him like a shot, clutching him with superhuman strength. Robin couldn’t bring himself to protest the rib-creaking embrace, only returned one of his own that held all his relief and joy. The Tameranean princess drew back to look at her lover.
“Star,” he whispered, and grinned foolishly.
Then he disappeared, leaving her standing there.
Robin landed on a dusty surface. There was no air. His hands went automatically to his belt, but then his blood began to seethe, and the bright light beat him to the ground. It was so cold. Above, he could see the Earth.
Silpks loomed over him.
“They’re all safe.” The alien’s voice in his head almost sounded sad. “And I am finished, just like you said. What an absolutely bizarre conclusion.”
His fire-crystal eyes studied Robin struggling futilely on the ground before him, the face shifting and flowing. “But I couldn’t let you go. Not you! It’s not even that I hate you. I’m not really doing it for any specific reason. But I suppose if you need one, I can think of it easily. It’s because… you don’t matter.”
Robin began to grow still, and Silpks continued without notice.
“I don’t know how all this happened. Where did the Quarm ^* go to, anyway? It’s not supposed to be like this. The Quarm isn’t supposed to be gone, and I’m not supposed to kill people. I’m a professional travel planner for the Ottual Dimensional Satisfaction Chuv! I set up vacations, not mass murders. I’m making my punishment so much worse just by killing you. And still, I can’t stop. Why is that?”
“Because you’re not thinking, Silpks.”
Suddenly Robin was encased in a bright turquoise substance that picked him up off the ground. He could breathe in it, and his body relaxed back into uncontested life. Floating in this jelly along with him was a collection of dark tubes joined to form a torso of sorts.
Before them, Silpks remained motionless. From out of the pipe-alien’s openings, a black liquid flowed. It coalesced in the front part of the bubble.
“We’re the Chuv, Silpks.”
The black section sharpened into a spike. Silpks knew what was coming. But he didn’t even think to avoid it.
“And WE DON’T HARM THE LOCALS!!!”
The weapon shot forward, punched right between his bright eyes and exited out the back of his body. The face sections stopped spinning.
“That’s Rule #1.”
The implement broadened, increasing in width. Then it pulled back, leaving a perfectly round hole where Silpks’ face had been. The golden body faded away, and a moment later, so did the other two. In just a few moments the moon was deserted again, as it had been for ages.
“Where did he…?”
Before Beast Boy could finish, Robin reappeared.
Starfire surged forward immediately, but hesitated as she drew near him, as if afraid he might disappear once again.
“It’s all right,” Lilq/emo said as he slid in beside them. “He’ll be fine now. Silpks has been taken care of.”
The exuberant warrior needed no further assurances, and grabbed hold of her boyfriend tightly. Robin draped an arm around her, but kept his attention settled on the newcomer.
“Did you kill him?” he asked.
“Oh please,” Lilq/emo drawled. “Is that all you can think of? Trust me, when he finds out how much he’s lost, Silpks will be the worse for living.”
“And you are?”
“Lilq/emo, newly reinstated travel planner for the Ottual Chuv.” He glowed a cheerful burgundy, and gestured to Starfire. “Thanks to your lady friend.”
“Excuse me.” Beast Boy waived from within Ojryu, who now had her arms and legs wrapped around him in an even more intimate fashion than Robin and Star. “Are we safe now?”
Lilq/emo gushed a self-satisfied green. “You’re better than safe, my little one. You’re sanctified!”
“Guh?” Then Ojryu gave a wiggle, and realization dawned in his bright green eyes. “No way! For real?”
“Ah,” Robin raised a hand. “Could somebody please explain everything that just happened today?”
“Gladly.” Lilq/emo transformed his vessel to a sable pearl version. “Your Highness, if you would be so kind as to bring your guest along, we can repair to my office.”
The glossy orb grew and expanded to slide over Robin and Starfire. At first the young fighter tensed, but his love reassured him with a quick peck on the cheek. The sensation this substance produced in them was a sharpening of their mental faculties, a particularly welcome experience after the brief but perplexing day they had experienced. Soon they arrived in Lilq/emo’s vast and well-appointed domicile.
“Awesome view.” Beast Boy and his princess moved to inspect a transparent wall.
“Thank you, it just became available.” The bubble’s color was a very smug teal. “Now, I will explain what happened to you.”
Some ovoid seats appeared beneath them, and the Titans felt obliged to relax, seeing as how they were so wonderfully comfortable. Lilq took his place before them.
“At some point in your distant past, the planet Earth came to be the domain of a Quarm ^*, an entity of unmatched power and menace to anything in existence.”
Uncharacteristically, it was Beast Boy who caught on first. “You mean C’thulhu.”
“Whatever you want to call it.” Lilq/emo’s bubble was now a timid clay color. “As you can guess, the presence of such an entity residing there negated any possible development of that sector of your dimension. However, since this particular Quarm was of the mobile persuasion, our Contemplative Peril Department estimated that in another 8 vellaeons, the Quarm would have abandoned that locale and continued on to ruin some other area. Of course, this would be preceded by roughly 12 to 18 Relavins of complete inter-dimensional misery after the thing came back to life.” He directed a look at the three present aliens. “An entity of that magnitude has an influence that cannot be restrained to only one level of existence. We’ve been long prepared to shut down regular activities on a multitude of planes altogether, just to limit the scope of your C’thulhu’s effect on our clientele. And ourselves for that matter.”
He shivered in his globe. “But as Starfire explained to me…” Lilq/emo gave her a nod, and the princess smiled, “The Quarm has been removed from all calculations. This is something that is altogether impossible, unprecedented, inexplicable, and fabulously good. On behalf of the Ottual Dimensional Satisfaction Chuv, you residents of Earth have our most grateful and impressed thanks.” His globe turned a warm gold, and the Melian bowed forward.
“Unfortunately, one member of our organization chose not to consider the implications. Instead, Silpks viewed your planet’s unexpected return to the market as a personal opportunity. It comes as no surprise that he didn’t check to see if your world had any inhabitants. Everyone assumed that all sentient beings would be removed from consideration once the Quarm was finished with your world. And we put up a sign in another of your region’s satellites to let everyone know to leave the place alone. But all the same, Silpks’ reaction to your apparent existence was abhorrent. The very idea, eliminating a native species! We’re vacation providers, for simple’s sake!”
His carrier globe was flushed black and crimson, and it took Lilq a few moments to recover from his shock. “So to conclude,” he continued under a more placid peach shade, “Silpks thought he would play it safe by acquiescing to your demand to file a complaint, on the suspicion that you might have actually defeated the Quarm. He believed sending a non-native of your planet would buy him enough time before anyone could figure out what he had done. After all, just evaluating a Quarm territory is grounds for serious repercussions.”
“But when Starfire and I realized what he had dared, we made it known to the rest of the Chuv, who conducted an immediate survey, denounced the contract between Silpks and the Contaminant Detrax, and restored your people to their natural state before any loss of life could occur. Of course,” he hastily added, “even if we had arrived too late, we would have been ethically obligated to insure that whatever subsequent state the deceased found themselves in, all the clout of the Chuv would have been available to insure that their new home treated them with the best of care.” He actually winked at Robin. “We deal with a lot of spiritual dimensions.”
Beast Boy had closed his eyes when Ojryu began nibbling on his ear tips, but they opened wide at that. “What do you mean?”
And Lilq/emo flashed a very self-satisfied emerald hue. “Glad you asked.”
The next thing they knew, all the occupants of the room were orbiting the Earth.
The planet on which the Titans lived seemed enormous, even at this distance. Still sitting in their seats, all of them, even Starfire, found themselves struck by its beauty.
“Pretty,” she murmured, her words traveling through the vacuum.
“That was Silpks’ mistake.” Lilq/emo moved to float above their world. “He never bothered to consider this place as anything but a sightseeing jaunt. No creativity. I guess with his client base, he didn’t think he needed it.” The Melian threw a glance at Ojryu, who remained clamped to Beast Boy. “But I’ve never felt the obvious strategy was always the best. So, I thought over our situation, and hit upon a solution I feel will be amenable to everyone.”
His eyes flashed, and suddenly superimposed over the planet was a colossal curving white structure that glowed like the moon.
“What?!” Robin gasped and leapt to his feet, then quickly noticed he was standing on nothing and sat back down.
“Relax,” Beast Boy called.
“Yes, there is no cause for alarm.” Starfire drew his attention to her. “Lilq has explained this to me.”
“It’s a sub-reality complex.” Lilq/emo spread his tubular arms to encompass it. “It exists separate and unnoticeable from the bounds of your dimension. Even if they stood right where you are now, no one in your universe would be able to see or feel it. And that’s exactly how the clients your world will attract want it.”
“What sort of clients?” Robin asked warily.
The Chuv representative noticed the look of incomprehension on Robin’s face and spun about in his globe. “You still don’t realize what you’ve done, do you? Your people, your world, your dimensional location- YOU are the draw! This is the place where a Quarm ^* met its end! Your species accomplished a miracle here that no one, not the Chuv, not the DEelei, not even the Contaminant Detrax could ever achieve! There are clients who will rush to make a pilgrimage to this planet, just to pay homage to the race that conquered the very face of fear! There might even be a new religion sprouting from this.”
Beast Boy brightened. “So does that make us like gods?”
“No, no, think of yourselves as… religious icons. Something to be revered but never touched. The clients will just observe your world, they won’t interact with it in any way you can conceive.”
Robin shook his head distractedly. “I guess we can live with that.”
“So,” Cyborg said.
“Hm,” Patricia replied, clutching her bag in both hands.
“I guess,” the mech-tech drew his words out slowly, “you won’t be catching your flight today.”
She glanced up at the screen on the wall, and the long list of red ‘cancelled’ marks. Behind them, hundreds of commuters and airport personnel were quietly conversing and sipping caffeinated beverages, trying to come to grips with everything that had happened. For most of them, that would take a while.
“It’s no trouble.” Patty turned
back to look at the gleaming gallant. “To be perfectly honest, I’m thinking
“No, huh?” He took a step closer.
“No,” she replied, and took off her glasses. “There’s no place that makes me safer or happier than right here.”
It wasn’t a question of boldness. More like honesty. And it was realizing this that kept Patty from hesitating any longer. She placed her hands on Cyborg’s shoulders, rose up on her tiptoes and kissed him. His arms folded around her and drew her against his chest. He returned the kiss, and the shaking in his knees, coupled with his pounding heart, let him know that he was still human, and always would be.
“So, you’ll come back again?” Beast Boy rocked back and forth on his heels. “You can do that if you want to, right?”
Ojryu hugged him, causing his pulse to race at double pace. She made him a tender promise, and with a final touch to his face, she disappeared. The master of forms gave a contented sigh and trotted over to join his comrades and Lilq/emo.
“You have my assurances; there won’t be any effects to your regular functioning reality. We’ve taken all your factors of existence into account.”
“Thank you, Lilq/emo,” Starfire reached out and touched his globe. “We are most grateful for the support you have provided.”
The bubble churned into a reflective state. “Not a bad place you have here, not bad at all. I don’t really understand how you did everything you did, but don’t think I’m not appreciative. Inter-dimensional travel is going to boom after today! And we’ve got you to thank for it. Tell you what,” he leaned closer to them, “It might be a bit premature, but I’m going to offer you little ones my services as a travel agent. Let me set you up with a relaxing sojourn to another realm. My way of saying thanks, on the house. Or anywhere specific you want to try, just name it.”
Starfire exchanged a look with Robin. “We thank you, but…”
“Right now, I think we’d be happier staying here.”
“Seriously?” The eager salesman sounded disappointed. “Well, the offer stands if you ever change your minds. Just remember, we’ve got deals with every mode of existence you can dream of. If you reconsider, just say my name and I’ll be there. Whatever you want, nothing’s out of reach.”
“You have our thanks, Lilq/emo.” Starfire waived goodbye.
With that, the bubble’s edges slid together, and the Melian was gone.
Robin looked down at his hand holding Star’s. Then his head snapped up.
“Wait! Lilq/emo, hold on!”
Immediately the travel agent reappeared. “Well, that was fast.”
“No, it’s not me. I mean, it’s not us.” Starfire threw him a questioning look, but Robin only smiled ruefully. “Just staying hopeful,” he whispered, and turned to regard their patiently hovering ally.
“There’s something you can do, but not for us.” It was hard to even ask, somehow. The pain was coming back full force, but with it there was the sweet salve of dreams.
“You said that you deal with all kinds of dimensions. Does that include the afterlife?”
Lilq/emo shrugged. “You mean yours? Sure, if you want to call it that.”
Robin’s throat felt tight, but he had to say it. “I wanted to ask if you could try and… find someone for us.”
Starfire’s eyes went wide, and she smiled. Beast Boy’s face brightened.
“Her name,” Robin spoke slowly, “is Raven.”
To be concluded…