The first thing Gadget became conscious of as he blinked away the darkness was the fact that he was no longer wearing his Geist-Verstärker Helm. That, and the fact that his wrists were bound, and that his arms hurt because he currently dangled from them. Fear and panic filled him; his heart beat faster, andhis breathing quickened. He chanced a look at his surroundings. He appeared to be in some large interior space filled with lots of cardboard boxes and plastic-wrapped palettes stacked with various household goods—the Wal-Mart’s rear stockroom, maybe; that made sense; apparently his memory wasn’t too impaired—along with twenty other people, all unconscious, their hands and wrists all bound, just like his, and all of them dangling from hooks like he did, on what looked like suspension-lines made of fishing twine, strung-up between the large room’s tall shelving units . . . just like he was. Further down the long, wide corridor that made up the rear stockroom of the Wal-Mart, there were six-foot plastic picnic tables set up every ten feet, with strange-looking lab equipment on them, and more of the fishing twine suspension-lines, with more comatose humans dangling from it by their wrists. All totaled, there had to be around three hundred people here, hanging around unconscious: Men, women, children of all ages, all hanging by their wrists, which were all bound using the same handcuff-like devices that he found himself bound by.
Next to him, Dizzy had been hung-up as well, and was also unconscious. Her captors, whoever they were, had removed her mechanical exoskeleton. It lay on a long, plastic-topped card-table a few yards away, spread out next to a set of odd-looking tools, the likes of which Gadget had never seen. Whoever had done this to them didn’t know that Dizzy could summon the thing if she wanted . . . which meant that whoever “they” were, “they” didn’t know much about their captives. That could mean that he and Dizzy had been abducted by only one of the two foes they faced, and it wasn’t Harkonnen: It had to be the aliens, the Star-Dwellers.
“Great,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. “Just freakin’ perfect.”
What the frak had happened? His ears rang and his head pounded, clouding his thoughts, as though feeling the aftershocks of a wild night partying with too much booze and loud music. He tried to think back. They had been walking down the darkened corridor, on the lookout for whoever had been making the weird noises in the pharmacy, when suddenly . . . what? He remembered that something had sure as hell happened. Dizzy had cracked some kind of lame joke, or something. He’d turned to reply to her with a funny pun, or something, and then had seen . . . well, something unexpected, and then they had run. He remembered that much—the running, the fear of death filling his heaving chest, his brain bleating out, over and over like a distress call, “This is it, this is where I die, this is where I die, this is where . . .” Then, they’d both been clubbed over the head . . . or maybe stunned by some kind of beam, some kind of ray-burst, or something. Brought down, in any case. At any rate, it didn’t really matter how they’d gotten here. Just that they were here, and that it sucked sour frog-ass. And that whatever was going on, they had to escape. Somehow.
In the shadowy darkness of this rear stockroom nether-realm, he could see shapes moving among the dangling humans. Star-Dweller shapes. The black rubber of their exo-suits gleamed in the half-light of this place, the glass bubbles with forward gas-masks that enclosed their true selves—the spider-legged brains with the black, gelatinous eyes—occasionally caught the dim light and reflected it, lending them the kitschy, gory-yet-unreal look of 1960’s-era Mars Attacks comic-book aliens draped in shadows, as opposed to the very real things that they were. They milled around at the plastic picnic tables that had been set up as lab tables, apparently collecting data on the humans . . . some of whom had electrodes attached to their heads, just as others had been hooked-up to machines that seemed to be processing their blood, somehow.
Suddenly, Gadget gasped and jerked in both fear and surprise, his thoughts interrupted, as a rough hand with only four fingers grabbed the back of his head and wrenched it backward. He tried to turn to the side to see who or what had got hold of him, only to have his face turned sharply away by another pushy hand, with the one holding his head remaining firm where it was. He winced as a needle pierced his neck.
“Agra, natch’a haka!” came the gurgling alien language from the grill embedded in the alien’s gas-mask-like face. “Ratch naka’ak nash’ka’lation nanodroids injected. Subject appears alert and focused. Can you . . . understand me, human?” The Star-Dweller stepped in front of him, still holding his head up by the scruff of his neck and staring into his eyes with the black orbs that sufficed for its own. In the spherical ovoid glass bubble that was its home, the spider-legged brainiac monster of the alien’s head jostled slightly, readjusting its legs, as though getting more comfortable where it sat. The alien’s black orb-eyes blinked sideways at him—God, that what an unsettling sight!—and cocked its head at him curiously. He looked almost exactly like Klaatu did; it was hard to tell them apart. And yet there were subtle differences—in their postures, their voices, the way they held themselves. Presently, Not-Klaatu lifted its claw-like hand and shined a harsh, glaring pen-light into Gadget’s right eye then his left, nearly blinding him twice. “Well, can you understand me, you half-evolved ape-creature?”
Words failed him utterly, and so Gadget nodded as the bright splotches of color died away. “Um . . . uh, yeah,” was all he could manage. “Wait . . . what? Who are . . . why am I here? Who are you . . . what are you . . . what—where are we?”
“You are in what will soon be my new Earth-side laboratory,” said Not-Klaatu, as politely as could be. He let go of Gadget’s hair, and stood a few feet away from him, his ‘hands’—which looked exactly like Klaatu’s—clasped behind his back, almost standing at attention, as it were. “The current decor is, of course, only temporary, until we get underway with our full-scale colonization efforts. My name is Gnarl. I am a scientist. I am tasked with . . . well, there’s no easy way to put this, so I’ll come right out with it: I am tasked with studying you and your kind. Your bodies, your brains, your strengths and weaknesses. Your stamina, your constitution, your abilities and aptitudes. What you’re made of. So that you might better serve our needs as servants, laborers, miners, assistants, or whatever other kinds of underlings we might have need of in our society. Many of you will, of course, be used as a source of spare biomechanoid parts—spare nerve tissues, eyeballs, corneal lenses, muscle stock, skin, bones—for building our encounter-droid bodies, such as the one you see me using now. And, a very lucky few of you will be chosen to become part of the Great Experiment, as we call it . . . to see if one of your kind can handle containing within you the living essence or consciousness of one of us. We will take you from your current masters, and become your new masters, as is only right and fair, for to the victors go the spoils . . . and after what the Shyphtorilaen did to us, we have a right to take our vengeance from their hides, and we will.”
“Um, uh, yeah, about that,” said Gadget. “I think I’ve detected a small kink in your ultimate plan, there. We—the humans of Earth, that is—don’t have any ’masters.’ We’re not slaves to anybody . . . we figured that mess out a about a century and a half ago. We’re more advanced than that, now. We’re sapient beings. And we’re pretty much in charge of the planet and ourselves, thanks. For better and for worse.”
Gadget hadn’t had that many opportunities to see Klaatu exhibit much emotional range, but from what he could tell now, the Star-Dweller, Gnarl, seemed genuinely perplexed by this.
“So you are not . . .” Gnarl began, “the slaves of the mighty Shyphtorilaen? And this is not their colonial homeworld, whispered of amongst the stars of the cosmos as being lost to the ravages of the ages?”
“Nope, not as far as I know,” said Gadget. “And if it is, well, nobody sent any of us humans the memo, and there’s only seven billion of us. Well, maybe less now, since you guys showed up and fucking decimated the goddamn planet like a bunch of fucking assholes.”
“Then our job here will be exceedingly simple,” replied Gnarl. “No entrenched power to struggle against, no current regime to overthrow, no messy cleansing the place of unwanted former colonials or their offspring. As for you humans, why, you barely make for any threat at all! Your quaint airships and seagoing vessels are no match for our star-borne Fleet.”
“Huh,” said Gadget. “Well at least you’re pretty matter-of-fact about it. Speaking of which . . . how is it even possible that we’re . . . talking right now?”
“Translator nanodroids, injected into the brain stem, as well as into the brain’s linguistic centers,” said Gnarl. “An ancient—and yes, mostly harmless—technology, but one far beyond your planet’s level of technological sophistication. Which brings me to my next point, and the reason why I awakened you.” He crossed in front of Gadget, who had to wriggle in the air in order to get his bonds to swing him around so that he could face the plastic-topped card-table where the aliens had laid out Dizzy’s exoskeleton. “This,” said Gnarl, gesturing toward the exosuit, “contains technology that is not of your world. In fact, pieces of it resemble a slightly older iteration of several technologies that my kind once employed in our ships. Now, then. Tell me. From whence on your world does this technology originate?”
“B—b—blow me, Gnarl,” replied Gadget, summoning what courage he could. His eyes involuntarily flicked leftward, to take in Dizzy’s unconscious form hanging next to him. He hoped that Gnarl didn’t see them do so. “I’m not sayin’ another w—w—word ’til my attorney gets here. Now p—p—piss off.”
Gnarl leaned his head forward, shook it, and sighed. “I had hoped we could do this quietly, peaceably, with decorum . . . and that I would not have to resort to some means of persuasion other than simple cordiality. I see that is not possible, now. Forgive me, human, but you have brought this on yourself.” Gnarl picked up what looked like a small box that had a single switch and a dial mounted to it. “You’ll recall that I mentioned that the translator nanodroids inside you are mostly harmless, yes?”
“Er, uh, yeah . . .”
“And so they are. But the device binding your wrists is not.” Gnarl flicked the switch, and Gadget screamed as a sharp, stinging agony ripped through his limbs and his chest and head, crashing over him in shuddering waves that caused his body to vibrate all the way down to his bones, as though he’d just stuck a fork in an electrical outlet and kept it there without dying. His teeth chattered, and his stomach revolted; his vision blurred, and his skin felt as though insects danced a jig on it in combat boots, the soles of which were lined with needles. His nerves felt like high-tension power-lines cooking during a lightning storm. A second later, and it was all over, and his body slumped, his wrists and arms aching from his hanging by them and from his just having clenched every muscle in both of them all at once. His wrists burned as though his arteries pumped acid. He felt exhausted beyond belief as he sucked down ragged breaths of air one after the other.
“Oh Jesus, God, fuck!” he moaned. “What the fuck! Jesus . . .” He was loathe to admit it, but the simple truth was that there was no way he could stand up to another round of that kind of heinous torture. It was simply too much for any human being to endure too much of and come out the other side still sane.
“I’m very sorry I had to do that,” said Gnarl. The worst part was, he actually sounded sincere. “Now, tell me, if you please: Where did this tech come from?”
Gadget didn’t respond at first. There had to be a way to tell Gnarl something he’d believe, or that was close to the truth without actually being the truth, or at least didn’t lead back to Dizzy, or. . . wait. That was it.
Duh, he thought. Why not just be honest? He’s asking where it came from, not whom it came from.
“Area 51,” he blurted out, lowering his head, trying to look and sound utterly defeated—even if he didn’t have to pretend very hard. “It comes from a place we call ‘Area 51.’ Near Groom Lake, Nevada. I can . . . I can show you on a map where that is. It’s this place in the, uh, in the desert where we keep anything . . . extraterrestrial we find. It’s run by our military. So you’re in for a fight if you go there.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard, now was it?” said Gnarl, and Gadget could almost hear the condescending smile in his voice. “Worry not, though; we already have your ‘military’—if you want to call it that—well in hand. You know, I have a feeling that you and I are going to be good friends. Until the inevitable time when I am forced to kill you and carve your body up into spare biomechanoid parts, of course. Now, then. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to what this is and what it does.” Gnarl reached under the table and pulled out Gadget’s Geist-Verstärker Helm. Gadget tried to control his reaction, tried to make it seem as though this were no big deal, that he didn’t want to lunge right for it and grab the thing. Eh, so what . . . just another random piece of tech, right? Right. No big deal at all. It was too bad that judging by the delighted expression on his alien face, Gnarl saw through this with ease. “Don’t try to pretend that you don’t know what it is, for we removed it from your head. And I can tell by the dilation in your eyes that you know the answer to both questions. Answer me, human. And I will know if you are lying . . . my eyes can see the tiniest change in your body temperature and your morphic field.”
“I . . . I made that,” said Gadget, and sighed. “It . . . amplifies latent psionic talents. Telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, force-field projection, zero-point field manipulation, what have you. I originally built it in an attempt to ‘fix’ people who suffer from mental illnesses. Like me. Things like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. But instead it gave me . . . powers. Abilities. To be honest, I still haven’t got it all figured out yet.”
“Mental defects,” said Gnarl, somewhat dismissively, “such as those you speak of, are a thing of the distant past, as far as as my species is concerned. We did away with genetic defects and in-born illnesses such as those you speak of several millennia ago.”
Just then, across from where Gadget hung by his now-aching arms, a set of swinging double-doors opened, and in came two more Star-Dwellers, leading a pair of familiar faces: Buffy and Klaatu, followed by a third Star-Dweller, his ray-gun pointed at their backs. Buffy looked fit to be tied. Her hands were bound like his were, by a pair of electric-glowing manacles. The baleful, angry expression on her face was one of terror and fear, yes, but also one of barely-restrained fury. Gadget knew that look; she was holding something back . . . perhaps holding a lot back. Why didn’t she just do it, he wondered—why didn’t she just burst into flames and roast the enemy aliens where they stood? Then again . . . she was still learning how to control it. If she went for broke and unleashed the fire now, it might kill all of them, he and Dizzy included.
Shit, thought Gadget. Well, there goes that hope of rescue.
“Ah, Klaatu,” said Gnarl. “How good of you to return to us, to the loving embrace of your own kind! You’ve been missed, my good fellow. Of course, you will be punished for your insurrection and your betrayal . . . and that punishment will be your death, a death you have earned for your treachery. But know that we only do this because we need to set an example for any other . . . deviants who might decide to betray us in future. So you can die knowing that your death has served a noble purpose . . . just as you had hoped all of our deaths would serve your ideals of nobility, had your traitorous plans not been discovered. Why so silent? Have you nothing to say to me?” He turned toward the three soldiers. “Good work, you three. Go, now, and search for the others we saw on the feeds. I will deal with this one and the traitor.”
“Yes, Commander Gnarl,” replied the other three, in unison. Klaatu said nothing. Instead, he stepped forward and took a seat next to the table where lay Dizzy’s exoskeleton, and simply stared straight ahead, acknowledging neither Gnarl nor the three Star-Dweller soldiers who had brought him here. He looked toward Gadget, his eyes holding an apology, then looked away, and hung his head. The other three turned heel-toe and marched back out the way they’d entered.
Gnarl turned his attention to Buffy and began to prepare another injection. He regarded her for a moment, as though taking the measure of her with his eyes, then turned back to Gadget. “You, human. Tell this other one that I will be injecting her with translator nanodroids. Tell her there is nothing to fear from me—at least, for now.”
Gadget heaved a sigh. Sure, why not. “Hey Buffy.”
“Gadget!” she cried, her eyes catching sight of him for the first time. She seemed to relax—a little, at least—all at once. And, despite the circumstances, she almost seemed to smile. “Oh thank God you’re alive!”
“Listen, Buff,” he said. “In a minute or so, that alien—yeah, the one standing next to you—is gonna stick a needle in you. Don’t freak. It’s an injection that’ll allow you talk to each other. Doesn’t hurt or anything. So just let him do it. I think I have an idea.”
“Oh gee, great,” she replied, perfectly deadpan. “That’s fantastic news.”
Gnarl laughed as he lifted the needle to Buffy’s neck. Buffy appeared to steel herself, gulping nervously as the metal pierced her skin. As he depressed the plunger, Gnarl spoke conversationally, almost casually. “Oh, if only I had a bar of gold-pressed alluzinium for every captive of mine who has ever said that, my new human friends. ‘I have an idea! I have a plan to escape!’ they all tell each other excitedly, in the dead of night, when they think I’m not listening to them conspiring in their cages. And still, they perish beneath my knives and my microscope, often the next day, well before their schemes can come to even a hint of fruition.” He withdrew the empty syringe from Buffy’s neck, and laid it back down on the table. “There we are. All done. Do you understand me?”
“Holy shit!” she breathed, her eyes flicking toward Gnarl. “Yes. I do. I mean, I can . . . Shit. I can actually understand you. And you can understand me. How the fuck—”
“Translator nanodroids,” offered Gadget. “They colonize inside your brain, and—”
“Ugh, nevermind. On second thought, I don’t really think I want to know the rest.”
“Please take off your clothes and sit down, human,” said Gnarl. He gestured to another folding metal chair stationed near his makeshift lab table, the one next to where Klaatu sat, stoic and unmoving. “There is something . . . different about your morphic field and your electromagnetic signature seems . . . strange. You are unique among humans. Thus, I wish to inspect you more closely than I do these others.”
“Um, excuse you?” said Buffy, her eyes widening, putting her hands on her hips. “You gotta cool million dollars and a lucrative modeling contract hidden in that spacesuit somewhere? ‘Cause last I checked, this isn’t a gentleman’s club, and even if it were, you are most certainly not a gentleman.”
“Your presumption of sexual attraction is prosaic, provincial, and nonsensical,” said Gnarl, sounding slightly offended and a little angry. “My species has no concept of sexuality. Thus I have zero interest in either your sexual organs or in your mammary glands . . . nor any in your physical proportions, nor their weight as factors in the choice of you as either a mate or as a broodmare. Do you understand? No interest. None.”
Wow, thought Gadget, blinking in surprise. She really must’ve touched a nerve there. These guys must be really proud to have outgrown the need for sex. Their homeworld must’ve gotten really boring after a while. No wonder they left.
“Heh. Y’know, I’m not really sure, but I think I’ve just been insulted,” said Buffy. “Plus, all things considered . . . fuck you and your lack of sexuality, you prick!” She put out her hands to her sides and immediately caught ablaze with blue, incandescent fire. Gnarl raised his hands to shield himself from the heat and light, and backed up a couple of paces. Buffy’s voice echoed in some unseen but cavernous space as she said, “Hmm. Three thousand degrees, eh? Let’s see how hot I can get . . . pun intended. Klaatu—quick. Give Gadget back his Helm, set him and the others free, and for Gods’ sake, wake up Dizzy!”
Klaatu moved with grace and speed as he reached around behind Gnarl, grabbed the Cerebro Helm, and the small remote with the torture controls on it. He pressed a button on the remote’s side, and Gadget cried out in surprise as the bonds on his wrists suddenly let go of him, and he fell to the floor. Klaatu tossed him the Helm, and wonder of wonders, he caught it. (He had always sucked at sports; thank goodness the one time he needed them, his kickball skills were actually on active duty.) The other human prisoners fell from the twine-lines too, one by one, until all twenty or so had dropped to the ground and had started to wake, just as Gadget finished fitting the Helm onto his head and flicking the power switch. Dizzy was the last to fall from the twine lines and the first to fully awaken. As soon as she hit the floor, she looked wide-awake and alert as ever.
“Huh, what . . . huh? What the—!” she said, blinking open her eyes. She sat bolt-upright a second later and looked around quickly. “What the actual frak! Gadget! What the frell are we—frak! Shit! ACCIO EXOSKELETON!”
Gnarl’s makeshift lab table rattled as the pieces of Dizzy’s exoskeleton lifted themselves into the air on micro-repulsivators, and flew at her, one of the gauntlets smashing into Gnarl’s ovoid glass helmet so hard that it put a crack in it; a whirling jet of something white and gaseous began escaping, and Gnarl’s hands went to his facial area to try and contain the leak . . . but it was too late. He was already a “dead alien walking,” thought Gadget. The gauntlets came to Dizzy first; they slammed onto her forearms and wrapped themselves around them, the wheels and gears configuring themselves so that the gauntlet enclosed her wrist and wrapped around her fingers, its interface-points ready for the elbow joint, which came flying at her next, followed by the shoulder-mount and upper-arm pieces, which locked themselves into place accordingly, the wires, gears, and circuits patching themselves into the other pieces. The chest-mounted zero-point reactor followed suit, and almost hit Gadget in the head as it flew toward Dizzy. It and the sculpted chest-piece containing it crashed into her chest and ratcheted itself into place, as did the pieces of the opposite arm, then the individual armored pieces of both legs, and the segmented metal snake that formed the spine, its wheeled-and-geared vertebrae snapping into place in one fluid, synchronous motion. The whole exoskeleton then lurched upward and to the left, taking Dizzy with it as it repulsivated itself up into a standing position, whereupon Dizzy finally regained her footing . . . just in time for both she and Gadget to turn and see the other twenty Star-Dweller scientists abandon their human charges—all two hundred and eighty of whom were now slumping down onto the concrete floor and beginning to stir from slumber—and advance toward where the three of them stood, firing blasts from their ray-guns as they came. The darkness proved itself their ally as Dizzy and Gadget took cover behind Buffy’s pyrotechnics, but they would soon be within point blank range of the oncoming Star-Dwellers unless they moved their asses right now, Gadget feared. Quickly, he beamed the thought to both Buffy and Dizzy. Buffy advanced on Gnarl, though, his bubble-helmet now leaking atmosphere from four or five new cracks that had spread throughout the helmet’s surface. A pair of yellow and orange fire-tentacles—their color quickly becoming a blinding white; Gadget could feel the heat where he stood—shot out from Buffy’s body, wrapped themselves around Gnarl and enveloped him, the serpent limbs of a hellspawn succubus seducing her inevitable prey. The rubber of Gnarl’s suit began to melt wherever the fire-snakes touched it, the gas-leaks in his helmet becoming jets of seething flame. The spider-legged brain-creature inside his ovoid helmet began mewling and squealing—a frightful, wailing, high-pitched keening noise that set Gadget’s teeth on edge—before it finally exploded all over the helmet’s curved inner surface . . . a bursting piñata of blood, grey-matter, and viscera. Gnarl’s biomechanoid body fell to its knees and then crashed to the floor, his helmet shattering and spilling whatever goop remained of “him” out onto the floor in a waterfall of crimson mucus.
Gadget pantomimed throwing up a wall before them and concentrated on the mental image of a force-field strong enough—or at least one he hoped was strong enough—to deflect the Star-Dwellers’ ray-gun blasts, about fifteen yards ahead of them. And as he imagined it, so it became reality: The approaching twenty Star-Dwellers’ ray-gun bolts blasted into an invisible wall of energy that had materialized in front of him, Dizzy, and Buffy, the shots bouncing off its rainbow-hued, oil-slick-like surface and ricocheting randomly back into the Star-Dwellers’ own ranks, picking off four of them with shots fired from their own weapons. Ah, karma, he thought with a slight smile. What a sweet bitch it can be, and what a pleasure it is to watch it in action.
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer species,” he thought aloud, folded his arms defiantly, and nodded with satisfaction. The trick with force fields, he had learned, was that you had to keep that part of your mind sort of walled-off from the rest, and you had to dedicate a certain amount of brain-power to maintaining that one little section of your mind . . . and that little section alone. It took some mental discipline, a lot of hard work, and some failure before getting it right, but it was possible. Thankfully, he’d also thought to create the force-field so that it only functioned as a one-way energy dampener: Dizzy could still fire her Romulanators and do damage to things outside the field, though no energy coming the other way could enter it. She did so now, right after levitating ten feet into the air. Two plasma bolts at a time, one fired from each wrist; she fired and fired, picking off Star-Dwellers left and right.
I could never have done this without taking my meds earlier, thought Gadget. Never. Which reminds me: Don’t walk off and forget them when we’re finished here! Remember—go back through the pharmacy. Assuming we all live through this, of course. Jesus, I just realized that Angelus and Victor aren’t here. Holy shit, I hope they’re okay! He immediately felt guilty; he hadn’t thought of either of them until right this minute. Did that make him a bad person? A total dick? A bad friend?
Dude, said a small voice inside of him that sounded suspiciously like Angelus’s voice. Listen. Now is not the time for you to get all socially paranoid and freak out over nonexistent problems in your relationships, the way you always do. Just keep calm and remember you’re among friends. Friends who would die for you. And who probably will die if you don’t focus on what’s going on right fucking now!
As if on cue, just as he snapped out of this reverie, the Star-Dwellers ceased firing at the force field . . . and instead started to move their ranks forward at a very slow, deliberate pace. Not quite a march, but not quite a leisurely saunter, either. And sure enough, one by one, they began to pass right through the force field. As it turned out, Gadget supposed, Gurney Halleck, the Atreides’ Weapons Master on the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, had been right: “The slow blade penetrates the shield.” But as he stood there, his heart beating wildly, his body shuddering with raw terror, seeing his own death coming right toward him, his feet frozen to the floor out of sheer panic and the Star-Dwellers drawing ever-nearer, he remembered another quote from that same book—and from the four-hour network-TV cut of the movie, or as he liked to call it, “the only cut worth watching”—a speech by Paul Atreides: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Ah, Frank Herbert, one of the Grand Master Storytellers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Motivational speaker extraordinaire.
Gadget lifted his hands up before him, shut his eyes tightly, and focused all of his fear, anxiety, and panic into a taut, nervous ball of pulsating, overwound, electrified nausea in the direct center of his stomach, so palpable a thing that he could literally feel it growing there, taking root in his gut, his body’s secondary nerve-center. Into this awful, toxic sludge of anger, madness, and terror, he poured every last ounce of his white-hot hatred of bullies and fascists and terrorists, along with what effort and energy he had left in him . . . and then imagined the resulting acidic, volcanic mixture traveling up and out of his stomach, consuming his every internal organ, the molten substance burning his insides as it bubbled up through his chest, poured down through his arms, and finally flowed outward to his fingers, where it became bright, cancerous-green stalks of eldritch lightning that whipped out from his hands and skewered each of the Star-Dwellers right through the eyes, burning sizzling holes all the way through their helmets, eyeballs, brain-bodies, and then beyond, to those Star-Dwellers in formation behind them, and so on. Horrid squeals and a choir of those hideous keening noises arose from them as they dropped to their knees, their helmets cracking open as soon as their heads smashed to the floor, their spider-legged brains exploding inside.
As the last of them fell, Gadget then saw that they had a new problem: Three hundred frightened, bewildered, freshly-awoken people who saw the green lightning bolts coming out of him, saw the carnage they unleashed, and saw the bloodshed and their dying, head-exploding Star-Dweller captors. The human captives were, by this point, completely freaking out and practically clambering over one another to get to the exits, all the while backing away from him, Dizzy, Klaatu, and Buffy, whose glowing, fire-ensconced form they were most definitely terrified of, to say nothing of their reaction to Klaatu. They made for an unruly mob that hollered, screamed, pushed, shoved, and kicked one another, clawing to be away from this awful place and who, in their terror, now drew closer to their saviors not with thanks or praise . . . but with whatever blunt instruments they could find, a look of intense hatred and fury etched upon each of their faces. Gadget and Klaatu started to back away slowly, and Gadget turned to Dizzy, desperately looking for some help. Dizzy merely shrugged and backed away herself, as did Buffy, headed for the double swinging doors the other Star-Dwellers had come through earlier. The mob kept its distance from her alone, afraid of the fire pouring out of her.
Buffy extinguished her aura of blue flame, the white-hot tentacles of fire retreating back into her body once more. “Uh, guys? They don’t look very happy about having been rescued.”
“Figures. Frakking Mundanes,” muttered Dizzy. “Ungrateful muggles!”
“Alright,” said Gadget. “Enough of this crap.” He stopped backing up, cracked his knuckles, and put two fingers of each hand to each temple and concentrated, amplifying his stream of consciousness, making it louder . . . visualizing it as radio-waves rippling out from his head and on out into the aether as he loudly beamed it into all of their heads at once: “People, people, people! Please. Just. Stop! Stop what you’re doing, and just listen to me for a second, okay? We just saved all your asses from the aliens! We are not your enemies! We’re your friends, and we wants to help. We might look pretty weird. Hell, we might be pretty weird, but we’re totally on your side! For real, yo. The aliens—the alien monsters whose brains all just exploded—and yeah, it was me who did that, by the way, but please don’t freak out about it—they’re the ones you should be royally pissed at, and not us. Well, except for this alien standing next to me. He’s cool, yo. His name is Klaatu, and he’s okay. He’s gonna help us destroy the others who look like him, and he’s gonna help us make the world right again. Trust me. We’re here to help . . . My name is Terry. Terry Anders. My friends call me ‘Gadget.’ Or just ‘the guy with the weird-looking machine on his head.’ Look, I know you’re all scared right now. Hell, I’m scared too. I’ve practically got a firehose full of piss running right down my leg this very second. But you can’t let your fear get the better of you. Fear the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration, guys.”
What was more, Gadget didn’t just sell it with words: He made sure to radiate an aura of sorts along with them, to send along with them an emotional undercurrent of sincerity, serenity, and peacefulness . . . a steady stream of soothing, relaxing alpha waves, images of kittens, panda bears, and newborn babies, even though he himself felt anything but relaxed or serene. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t work on all those assembled.
“What the hell is toto-obliggeray-jun?” one person wanted to know.
“Who the fuck put you in charge, kid?” shouted some guy near the back.
“Yeah, who elected you our leader, dickhead?” came another voice.
“And what the fuck is that thing on your head?” yelled another.
“Hey—how come his lips don’t move when he talks?” asked one woman, her thick northern accent almost comical.
“Dude!” shouted some skater kid in the front row of people. “Did you just quote the movie Dune at us?”
“Uh, yeah,” Gadget said to the kid, folding his arms and puffing out his chest a bit, trying to sound confident. “I did. Dude.”
“Rock on, dude,” said the kid, nodding, and giving him the rock ’n roll devil-horns gesture with both hands. “Kwisatz Haderach for the win.”
As long as the odds were and despite the hecklers—and despite the surprise it might’ve been even to Gadget himself—his thought-broadcast actually seemed to be working on most of those present, even if some were too dimwitted for such Jedi mind-tricks to be effective. The time-bomb of the angry mob began to defuse itself—at least, a little—as the people in it milled about and began to question each other rather than advance with all manner of bludgeoning implements raised high, and as they started to murmur and consider their predicament rather than holler, shout, and freak out, and as they exchanged puzzled looks instead of glaring at their rescuers. But, just as the crowd began to settle and argue amongst themselves—namely about what exactly had happened here and how they’d all wound up prisoners—