It says here you have a great amount of experience wearing jumpsuits.
Mike gritted his teeth, reflecting on the day's failure. He pumped the accelerator, feeling the tires spin vacantly against a thin sheen of ice. It was winter in Minnesota. The sky was the color of burnt toast, malformed snowmen dotted the endless stretch of suburban homes, and every self-respecting thermometer had flown south for the winter. It was cold beyond reason, to the extent that every exhalation coalesced into a solid and collapsed to the ground with a pitiable thump.
Blue jumpsuits, to be precise.
Really. Blue jumpsuits, you say.
Mike realized he was speeding. He eased off the gas, feeling the tiny rental skidding in response. A cold cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee sat close to hand, perched precariously in a jerryrigged holder. In the passenger's seat was his dinner for the evening: a ham sandwich on bleached bread. There might be a slice of cheese in there, as the wrapper enthusiastically advertised, but Mike couldn't shrug off a lingering sensation of doubt.
Oh, yes. Powder blue, Navy blue, aquamarine. Or azure. I can even pull off cerulean in a pinch.
That had been a lie. No one of Mike's limited acquaintance could actually wear cerulean with the level of dash and sophistication it required. Still, one tiny lie against feasible unemployment seemed like a worthy gamble. Mike shook his head slowly, not even flinching when a soggy snowball collided with his windshield. A gaggle of children mocked him as he sped past, and Mike briefly allowed himself the fantasy of soaring above the moribund weather. Higher, higher, above the ionosphere, in orbit aboard a mad scientist's geosynchronous satellite.
And how, exactly, does the ability to wear blue jumpsuits in any way qualify you to process insurance claims, Mr. Nelson?
Mike attempted to banish the fantasy with a deliberate sip of coffee. It was cold, bitter and completely devoid of comfort; in short, it did little to dispel his guilty desire. No, he thought to himself, no. I'm not a prisoner anymore. I don't have to wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming of being strangled by celluloid. I will never again have to stare into the labyrinth of Tor Jonson's eyebrows.
The Satellite of Love had plummeted to earth in a blaze of fire and debris. Various astronomical societies had discounted the event, calling it a freak comet, a massive asteroid dissipating in the upper atmosphere, a bit of swamp gas caught in a weather balloon reflecting starlight from Alpha Centauri. Only the conspiracy theorists had the right of it, as usual. Evil Scientist's Mad Creation Plummets to Earth, they had proclaimed. Whether or not Nostradamus had predicted it, whether or not the mad scientist was an ancient Atlantean, they'd been on the right trail.
Mike shifted into a lower gear, fondly remembering the cover of last week's Weekly World News. It was a sensational expose on Leonardo da Vinci's spaceship. He lives amongst the stars! the rag had proclaimed, and Mike's lips had twitched in amusement. They were half-right. There was definitely a spaceship, but New Jersey really didn't qualify as celestial.
He pulled into a narrow, snow-coated driveway. The house was small, the color of lint, and expensive. Mike pushed the stick into park, made sure he had affixed every layer of clothing possible, and kicked open the door. Immediately a cloud of frost and cold swept over him, causing every exposed cell to scream in agony. Mike quickly leaped from the vehicle, shut the door, shivered violently, and made for the front door. He took three quaking steps, and halted.
The van was back. He turned slowly on one heel, casting a surreptitious glance over his shoulder. There, parked on the curve, was the plain grey van, its roof festooned with a bewildering variety of antennae and rotating satellite dishes. An amateurish decal was scrawled across the van's midsection, advertising Orrester's Exquisite Carpet Cleaning Service. He thought he could see a shadowy figure moving behind the tinted windows.
Suddenly, with a quick diesel roar, the van careened down the street, nearly tipping on its side. Mike watched it speed into the distance, a familiar sight. It had been haunting the block for weeks now, causing no small amount of consternation amongst his neighbors. If it hadn't been far too cold for children to leave their homes without immediately succumbing to crippling frostbite, the police might even have been called.
Mike turned back towards the house. It really was an incredibly ugly house. Again, his mind drifted to his quarters on the SOL, a snug bunk and a shelf of excellent books that he had tricked Frank into sending up the Umbilicus. There had been a food materializer, a warm blanket, a porthole through which he could watch the stars … Mike shook his head violently. Without further thought he grasped the frigid doorknob and turned it. The door opened, shedding watery yellow light across the snow.
"Mike's home!" came Crow's familiar, grating voice. "Servo, you better put away the underwear collection. You know how testy he gets after a job interview."
Mike shut the door with a grumble. "How do you know I didn't get the job?" he called out, unraveling the first of many scarves from his neck. Ice crystals flaked from his shoulders and arms, coating the threadbare welcome mat.
"For the same reason Macauly Culkin will never have a stimulating career in film," Crow replied. His voice was coming from the living room, and Mike followed it, still stripping off various layers of clothing. He found the spidery gold robot relaxing on the couch, a remote clutched in one implausible hand. He was watching the food network, his bulbous eyes shot through with simulated veins.
"You were up all night again," Mike observed. He removed the final coat, tossed it over the back of a chair. Belatedly he realized that he'd left the sandwich in the car, where it was probably freezing into a tungsten-like substance.
"Yeah. I think I've really hit on something this time." Crow muted the television and turned to Mike. The robot was incapable of smiling, but Mike felt a frenetic eagerness about him that was becoming all too familiar.
"Impress me," Mike said, plopping on the couch. He felt bone-weary. A cup of tea would be nice, but that would involve rising, going to the kitchen, putting on the kettle … the entire process was far too involved. He sat back, waiting for Crow's latest earth-shattering idea.
"Okay Mike," the robot said, his voice the timbre of a carnie advertising a freak show, "I've really nailed it. You know all those cans in the pantry? The ones with the pictures of beans and soup on them."
Mike sat forward in alarm. "That's my food," he said, hands tightening into nervous fists. "You didn't do anything to it, did you?"
"Oh baby, I sure did!" Crow rose on his pneumatic legs, reaching behind the couch. He withdrew a massive, glowing monstrosity of wires, gears, and throbbing tubes. As Mike watched with alarm a faint green miasma rose from the device, accompanied by the violent hiss of steam.
"Crow," he said, backing into the corner of the couch, "we've had this conversation before. People generally avoid products that cause genetic degeneration."
"It's a can opener," Crow announced blithely. Reaching behind the couch again, he withdrew a can of refried beans. "See, Mike? You told me to look for a market that was really begging for innovation. Well, what good is food that you can't eat?" He placed the can in a small, ambiguous depression in the machine. Immediately it began to whirr, chug, and belch clouds of noxious gas.
"Crow," Mike repeated, watching as the top of the can began to wither and melt like candle wax, "I have a can opener. In the kitchen. It's hand-held. And doesn't emit nuclear radiation."
Crow stared at him for several long moments. "Are you sure?" he asked tentatively, pathetically. "I mean, it doesn't use much uranium. Sure, the food will have a half-life of two thousand years, but it'll never go bad."
Mike stood up. Tea. He desperately wanted a cup of tea. Without a word he turned and lumbered towards the kitchen, the linoleum creaking beneath his feet.
"Are you sure this has been invented?" Crow called after him. "I mean, are you absolutely positively sure? It can also be used as a Doomsday device. You know, in a pinch."
Earl Grey. Something bitter and WARM for a change. He opened the kitchen's sole cabinet, only to be deluged by a wave of underpants.
"Evening, Mike." It was Servo's voice, perky and erudite and needling. Mike plucked a pair of pristine cotton underwear from his head with an explosive sigh. The small red robot was hovering several feet away, the wake from his hoverskirt causing the air to tremble like water. His small, ineffectual arms were heaped with unmentionables.
"Organizing your collection again." It was a pure statement. Mike reached up, pushing several layers of cloth aside. His tea. Where was his tea?
"I'm thinking of opening a museum," Servo said perkily. "We could charge admission. Since you're far too much of a loser to actually get hired, I figured someone needed to become the breadwinner. Say Mike, can you had me the pair with the polka-dots? They belonged to the emperor Hadrian."
Mike complied without thinking. "I didn't get hired," he said, staring down at the pair of underwear sadly. "Apparently wearing jumpsuits isn't the amazingly versatile skill I thought it was."
Servo cleared his throat self-consciously. "Did you sing that number from The Pirates of Penzance again?" he asked in a undertone.
Mike tossed him the polka-dot underwear with open scorn. "Of course not. Insurance salesmen have no sense of humor. I was thinking about a recitation, something bleak, but they kicked me out before I could decide between Hamlet and Manos: The Hands of Fate." Pulling aside a pair of plaid boxer shorts, he espied the small box of teabags. Fishing it out, he withdrew a bag, held it close to his nose, inhaled.
Servo bobbed in mid-air, a sort of acquiescing nod. "You can't win them all," he said. "Or any of them, in your case. It's a shame, really. I'll need some capital before we can open the museum. I need display cases, armed guards to secure my hoard, and a PR department that can make merkins sound less dirty than they are. Did Crow show you his amazing discovery?"
"He irradiated my food," Mike said matter-of-factly. He filled the kettle, set it on the stove, turned the gas on slowly. "Thankfully I have a packet of lead-laced saltines under my bed. Any word from Gypsy?"
"Just another press release." Servo gathered up several more pairs of underwear, his hoverskirt whining with the strain. "Her company is releasing a telepathic computer, a brand of coffee that caffeinates or decaffeinates based on your bodily needs, and a laser that turns lawn gnomes into socially acceptable suburban paraphernalia."
Mike nodded slowly, willing the water to come to a swift boil. Really, why hadn't he thought of that?
"The van was back today," he said aloud, passing the tea bag from hand to hand. "More surveillance equipment this time. And we still don't have any carpeting that they could feasibly want to clean."
"The shag in the bathroom really is beyond reprieve," Servo replied nervously. He had been often nervous of late, and inexplicably secretive. "Listen, Mike, you know how I've asked you to stay out of the basement?"
Mike nodded slowly.
"Keep staying out of the basement. It's a wreck down there. I'm still cataloging the Victorian knickers."
Mike felt uneasiness stirring at the back of his mind. Despite their difficult financial straights, Servo had effortlessly produced both his and Crow's portion of the rent for the past three months. Moreover, periodic clouds of people, bedecked in trendy sunglasses and holding small dogs, would knock on the front door and coolly ask if Mr. Servo was around and if he would grace them with a moment of his time. They would then troop down to the basement, where they would stay for hours.
The kettle began whistling, banishing Mike's forcefully aroused suspicions. He found a relatively clean cup, placed the tea bag inside, poured the hot water. A fragrant cloud of steam arose, and he inhaled deeply, savoring the familiar scent. Picking up the cup, he turned and walked from the kitchen without a word, leaving Servo hovering and gibbering about a pair of thermal underwear once donned by Alexander the Great.
Mike's room was a small alcove at the back of the house, a narrow space housing a bed, a small bookshelf, a free-standing wrack of clothes, and a record player. Mike sat down on the bed, the worn mattress squeaking familiarly. He bobbed the teabag in and out of the water, pondering over what sort of music should accompany his sense of personal failure and dejection. He had exactly two records to choose from.
Mike loved music. Mike loved records. When he had been spirited away to the Satellite of Love, his large and impressive collection of vinyl had been left moldering in his mother's basement. With his violent return to earth, he'd reclaimed his property, including a pristine pressing of Abbey Road and the entire works of Frank Zappa.
Then, financial hardship had set in. A recession was brewing, making jobs more and more difficult to find. Especially difficult to find if one was incapable of accounting for one's whereabouts over the past half-decade without spinning wild tales of space travel, terrible movies, and sardonic robot companions. Mike had narrowly escaped his first few job interviews sans straight jacket and padded cell.
As a result, records had to be sold. One by one he auctioned away his least-loved, then his second-to-least-loved, then his loved. Finally he had sold the albums he adored, leaving a mere two records that he absolutely, positively refused to part with under any circumstances. One was a recording of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations. The other was 2112 by Rush.
Mike decided that tonight was a Rush night. The record was already on the turntable, and he was far too weary to actually pick it up, put it away, take out another record, put it on. He activated the record player, gently placed the stylus on the unmarred vinyl, and laid back in bed. Within minutes he was mouthing the words to "The Priests of Syrinx" and taking quick quaffs of rich, wholesome tea. It was, for a few blissful moments, paradise.
I'm sorry, Mr. Nelson. We've contacted your previous 'enslavers''at the Gizmonic Institute. They claim that you are a ravening necrophiliac and cock-fighting aficionado with a penchant for enjoying Ed Wood films. And also that they've never employed … er, 'enslaved' you, in any capacity. Ever. Good day.
His bliss burned away like rice paper. Mike lay in silence, empathizing with the poor narrator as the priests condemned his guitar playing. He went home, slit his wrists, bled to death. The recording ended with Neil Peart warbling on about the Galactic federation. Mike finished his tea, which was suddenly cold, and closed his eyes. He didn't hear the soft, nigh-undetectable knock at the door. He didn't hear the crowd of hipsters enter, loudly discussing their own cultural relevance. And he certainly didn't hear the faint, mechanical whirr of the long-deactivated cambot as the featureless robot hovered into the room and peered down at him, the lens constricting like the coils of a predatory snake.
"What's he doing?"
"What is he ever doing? He's sleeping."
Pearl Forrester stared at the slowly rotating burrito. The microwave was cheap, noisy, and powered by a disembodied brain. She frowned as one end began seeping a viscous trail of cheese. "Brainguy," she said irritably, "my burrito is turning inside-out."
"And it won't be the only thing turned inside-out if I don't have a perfect, delicious burrito in my mouth in fifteen seconds."
A sigh emanated from deep within Observer's non-existent chest. Turning away from the grainy monitor image, he focused his concentration on the power fluctuations inside the microwave. Within moments the gummy flow of cheese had subsided. He nudged the crude machine with his godlike synapses, slowly and agonizingly dragging the burrito back from the brink of uneatability.
"Sleeping, huh?" Pearl raised a clipboard, briefly scanning a list of symptoms. "Sounds like more depression." She ticked off a box that had already been ticked, re-ticked, and ticked again. She mumbled something profane as her pen tore the ink-stained paper.
"Of course he's depressed," Observer said. He blinked his eyes, and the burrito was done. Just for his own amusement, he allowed the microwave to emit a tiny, pleasant ding! "He's unemployed and nigh-starving in the middle of a Minnesota winter. Hardly any valuable scientific observation there."
"Then find something valuable to observe," Pearl retorted. It was a half-hearted stab at abuse, and she closed her eyes, sliding a manicured hand down the bridge of her nose. "There has to be something else. Something we're missing. Growths, neuroses, hallucinations."
"There's nothing," Observer remarked with grudging patience. "His autonomic functions are stable. Eating habits remain unaffected save by budget. He sleeps thirteen hours a day and drinks excessive amounts of tea. Even his back hair count is stable, and by the Thirteen Muses of Apollyon, why am I sitting in this van cooking faux-Mexican food with my cerebral cortex?!" Observer immediately clapped a hand over his mouth, dreading the inevitable shower of swearing, belittling and possible physical abuse.
"You're right." It was a flattened version of Pearl's voice. Lighting up a cigarette, she opened the microwave. Immediately the cramped interior of the van was flooded with the combinant scent of tobacco and processed beef.
Observer blinked, tentatively lowering his hand. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said you're right." Pearl raised the burrito to her mouth, suddenly confronted by the dilemma of removing her cigarette to take a bite. She took a long drag, absently puffing the smoke from cheek to cheek.
Observer blinked. Slow, clear comprehension dawned amid the trackless aether of his ascended mind. "That is the first time you've ever admitted I was right," he said aloud. "Ever."
"I know. Don't let it go to your head or you won't have a head for it to go to." Pearl took a bite of the burrito, staring at a tiny, low-contrast monitor mounted on the van's wall. The vehicle was crammed with state-of-the-art surveillance technology, much of it bearing the distinct vacuum-shaped brand of Gypsy's apoplectically successful tech enterprise. "I don't know what to say, Brainguy. This just isn't the same."
Observer blinked. Reaching out, he grasped the small plastic pan that housed his brain. "In fact, numerous factors are remarkably similar. The control aspect of the experiment was always open to question, and tormenting Mike on board a satellite never produced any tangible results either."
"Well, no." Pearl hesitated, loathing what she was about to say. She took a second drag, ensuring that her words would emerge accompanied by the noxious fume that caused Observer's brain to turn a light puce. "But damn it, Brainguy, I had fun." She took a third drag, stamped out the cigarette in a Niagara Falls memorial ashtray.
Observer blinked. Turning back to the monitor, he watched Mike's chest rise and fall slowly. Cambot's sensors were relaying a tinny version of Rush's "A Passage to Bangkok," a song he was growing all too familiar with. Still, he found himself mouthing "the fragrance of Afghanistan," and bit his lips, hoping Pearl hadn't heard.
"I remember when I could discontinue his food supply with the push of a button," Pearl reminisced. "I remember when I could cause his head to explode with a word." She regarded the extinguished cigarette with remorse, regarded the burrito with disinterest, regarded Mike with frustration. "Right now, Brainguy. Boom. I could have popped his head like a cherry bomb tucked in a redneck's tailpipe."
"But you never did," Observer remarked distractedly. "You had fourteen buttons, each of which could have made his life a living hell. And the only one you ever pressed was that accursed movie sign." Reaching up, he rubbed at his temples. Despite the fact that his brain lived a separate existence from his physical manifestation, he still experienced headaches in the same mundane location. Popping open a bottle, he dropped two Tylenol into his brain pan.
"Speaking of which," Pearl said, her voice resuming some of its caustic command, "where the hell is Bobo? I sent him to get the movie two hours ago. I hope he didn't get picked up by animal control again."
"Likely he was distracted by something small and shiny," Observer snapped. "Remember the adventure of the tinfoil ball."
Pearl frowned, pressing a large oval panel. Immediately a secondary monitor descended from the ceiling, its crystal surface marked by a susurration of neon waves. "He's still in stage 1 sleep," she said, scratching at her teeth with a blood-red nail. "Send him a shock. We can't have him all rested before the experiment starts."
Observer's brow wrinkled. "You never used to care," he said. "Not that I'm arguing. Sleep deprivation is often vital to sadistic experimentation. If only he wasn't getting thirteen hours a night -"
"I could record his pain levels on the SOL," Pearl interrupted. "Down here we're flying blind. Can you believe that idiot son of mine invented something that actually worked?" She spoke without humor, lighting up a second cigarette. "A pain monitor. Clayton could have sold it to the Feds and made a quick mint. But noooooo." She tipped her burrito into the garbage with a snort.
Observer shrugged, the action of mild disagreement warring against millennia of remembered omnipotence. "I've reviewed Dr. Forrester's work," he said, knowing even as he spoke that the words were a mistake. "Certainly your son was erratic, psychopathic, and a habitual mixer of non-complimentary greens, but he was, in his own way, quite brilliant."
Pearl grunted, watching the patterns of Mike's pre-REM sleep dance and contort. "He was a disappointment. Didn't live up to the evil of his great great great great grandfather."
Observer's eyebrows contracted. "And what nefarious act dignifies this ancestor?"
Pearl took a long, satiated pull on her cigarette. "He named Lithuania," she said.
Observer tapped a gloved hand on the console speculatively. "I fail to understand how that is evil," he said after a moment.
"Oh, come on. Lithuania? It's ridiculous! Might as well call it We'remoronsia." Pearl chuckled lightly, blowing out a thin trail of smoke.
Observer's mouth twitched a bit at the corners; he turned away quickly, burying the specter of his mirth. "It seems like a perfectly reasonable assemblage of consonants and vowels," he said.
"Yeah, well, you're a perfectly reasonable assemblage of constipation and whatever." Pearl stood and stretched, her vertebrae popping audibly. She stared at a large rectangular device that was attuned to Mike's heart, lung, and brain activity. He was dreaming about a stage production of King Lear in which he was, inexplicably, naked. "Off, ye lendings!" he cried, only to realize that he had no lendings to off. The crowd hissed and chortled loudly.
"Lithuania," Observer mouthed to himself silently. "Lithu. Ania. Lithuania."
Pearl rounded on him, her lips pursed angrily. "He's in pain. Pain I have nothing to do with. Wake him up, Cream Cheese. I've got some suffering to inflict."
Observer sighed. Bowing his head in concentration, he stimulated the electrical currents of Mike's body, causing a quick and painless spike. Mike sat up abruptly mid-snore, his eyes wide and blinking. Immediately cambot bobbed beneath the bed, concealing himself from scrutiny. Observer watched as Mike's feet slid to the floor, clad in mismatched socks.
"Now," Pearl said, a note of panic limning her voice, "we just need the movie."
As if on cue, an animal scratching sounded at the back of the van. Pearl swung open the back door to reveal Professor Bobo clutching a battered VHS tape close to his chest. His fur was coated in a thick layer of frost.
"Where have you been?" she demanded, snatching the tape. "We go live in ten minutes."
"Oh!" Bobo hooted, climbing into the back of the van and shutting the door with an entirely unnecessary slam. "So sorry, Lawgiver, really I am. But the people at the video store said I smelled funny, and couldn't come inside. I said it was discrimination, of course, and then the police came, and -"
Pearl's eyes opened wide with alarm. "You weren't followed, were you? Bobo, if you ruin this experiment I'll be a very, very angry mad scientist." She glanced at the tape again, eyebrows coming together like two trains colliding. "The Night of the Lepus. Never heard of it."
"DeForest Kelley battling mutated lagomorphs," Observer said absently. "Perfect fodder. Shall I start the broadcast?"
Pearl tossed him the tape. "You know the drill," she said.
When Mike had first returned to Earth, he had eschewed all broadcast media in favor of the arts. He'd made frequent trips to the local community theater, patronized art galleries, tossed twenty dollar bills to mediocre street musicians. Flipping on a television caused him to be instantaneously nauseous. He pretended that movies didn't exist, reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, Dune, and the assembled works of Salman Rushdie. The thrill of freedom, the taste of natural oxygen, the glorious blue of the sky intoxicated him. He was his own man.
Weeks passed, then months. He was faced with the irritating dilemma of hiding the 'bots from public view. This wasn't easy. Crow had a nasty habit of sneaking out at night, egging the neighboring houses and spray painting 'YOU KNOW YOU WANT ME BABY' on every available surface. Tom began answering the front door, taking special pride in terrifying girl scouts and the occasional Jehovah's Witness. Gypsy lay coiled in the basement, sad and lonely, deprived of her continual interface with the SOL's mainframe.
The stress was intense. And there was no work. Not even Hank's Waffle Shack and Doily Emporium would hire him after hearing back from the Gizmonic Institute, which persisted in claiming that he was the carrier of a rare and outrageously contagious flesh-eating bacterium and that, furthermore, he never clocked out for his breaks. Mike maxed out his credit cards and applied for more, which Servo promptly stole and used to buy a three year supply of meat helmets. Slowly, inevitably, Mike's good cheer and newly excavated optimism dwindled. He ventured from home less and less.
Every Wednesday night the local television station broadcast a terrible, terrible film. Crow discovered it first, shortly after Gypsy escaped from the basement and fled to the west coast to make her considerable fortune. At first Mike was scornful: why should I spend my Wednesday night glued to the couch, watching Bela Lugosi point at things ominously and John Carradine smooth his grossly over-oiled locks? But gradually, gradually he found himself drawn to the familiar cocoon of horrific cinema. Now every Wednesday he made bowl of popcorn, plopped down on the couch, propped his feet on the improvised cinder block coffee table, and mocked the living hell out of a terrible film. It made him feel content in a way that few activities did; before long Wednesday nights had become the focal point of his week. The quips, the laughter, the realization that an entire film crew slaved and sweated to produce something so demonstrably useless - in an odd way it reaffirmed his faith in humanity.
"Night of the Lepus," Crow crooned, his mouth overflowing with popcorn he could neither taste nor digest. "Sounds like a winner. Hey, Servo, are you coming or not?"
"Just a minute!" came the cry from the basement. "I'm, err…working on the display of Nordic codpieces. Very important. Just a minute."
"His loss," Crow said. He glanced at Mike, who looked newly awoken. His eyes were wide and gummy, his jaw vaguely slack as he settled into the couch.
"Hey Mike, you look like hell." Crow dipped his beak into the bowl of popcorn, smearing the metallic snout with butter substitute. "You shouldn't listen to Rush right before bed, you know. Progressive rock is good ol' fashioned nightmare fuel."
"What would you suggest?" Mike asked, rubbing his eyes with the palm of each hand.
"Barry Manilow, all the way. Want some popcorn? It's not radioactive," he added thoughtfully, passing the bowl to Mike.
Mike shoveled a handful into his mouth, watching the credit sequence crawl past. "DeForest Kelley?" he said with a surprised chuckle. "I think that puts us on Shatner alert."
"I'm always on Shatner alert." Crow jumped slightly as a tiny knock sounded at the front door.
"I'll get it," Mike said warningly. He stood, imbibing another handful of popcorn. "Don't move. Or say anything. Or do anything." Wiping his hands on his jeans he stepped into the front foyer, opening the door and flipping on the porch light simultaneously. He was expecting something mundane: a package, a neighbor, another restraining order from his latest job interviewer. He didn't expect a tall, willowy thin man dressed in an expensive suit, a priceless leather briefcase dangling from one hand.
"Is Tom Servo at home?" the man asked immediately. He was dressed in pristine Armani, replete with a tie that glistened like an oil slick. "We have an...appointment." He crossed his arms in front of his waist, displaying a diamond-studded Rolex.
"Ah," Mike said, completely taken aback.
"I must meet with Mr. Servo immediately," the man said, glancing at his watch with professionally manufactured impatience. "I would appreciate it if you would move the large van in your driveway. My limo is idling, and it only gets three kilometers to the gallon." He leaned close, face a graven image. "Worried about the environment, you know."
Mike nodded hastily, stepping aside to allow the man through. Looking over one perfectly tailored shoulder, he saw the van, the same inexplicable van, its roof a cornucopia of rotating dishes and quivering antenna. "Excuse me," he said, forcing his way past the man, who sniffed impeccably.
Outside was beyond frigid. Mounds of snow had been accumulating for weeks, and Mike stumbled in an ankle-deep drift. Teeth chattering, hands clutched against his shoulders, he barreled for the van. Again a shadowy image lurked behind the windshield; again the engine roared to sudden, angry life. The wheels spun momentarily on the perpetual ice before the vehicle lurched backwards, tilting side-to-side and colliding squarely with a limousine so massive that it stretched into the night without apparent end.
Mike could feel his veins clogging with ice. He reached the van quaking with the cold, reaching out a blue-tinged hand to seize the sliding door. Grasping the lever her pulled the door wide, ignoring the outraged screaming of the limousine driver, who was leaning from a window and shaking one leather-clad fist.
Inside, three faces turned towards him. Three familiar faces. Mike nearly choked, and he stood back, shaking his head with open disbelief.
"Oh, hi Mike!" Bobo cried enthusiastically. "Say, Lawgiver, aren't we supposed to be spying on him?"
They sat in Mike's living room. The television was off, the supremely important man was gone. Mike, Crow, and Servo sat on the couch, side-by-side, the table in front of them scattered with popcorn. Across from them, sitting on the other couch, Pearl, Observer, and Bobo drank from three bottles of Tab cola.
"How long has this been going on?" Mike demanded. He pointed to the television. "These movies. This experiment. I want some answers."
Pearl cleared her throat, sipped her cola, drummed her fingers on the near-empty aluminum. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, Mike. We were just passing through the neighborhood ... again ..."
"You've been broadcasting terrible movies every single Wednesday night," Mike said. "And I've been watching your terrible movies." He stood, paced a little, ran a hand through his hair.
Pearl opened her mouth, closed it. All resolve left her; she slouched against the sofa, tossing her can on the floor. "All right, yes. You got me. I couldn't pull it as grand dictator of wherever, and Brainguy's brain is so sauced on Babylon 5 reruns that he couldn't maintain his Universal Intelligence cred, and Bobo, well -"
"I got tired of the zoo," Bobo supplied happily. "Apparently they have some big No Feces Slinging rule." His furry fingers rose in belated quotations.
"So, what?" Mike snapped, his voice rising. "You try to make my life a living hell?"
Pearl looked genuinely hurt. "We always tried to make your life a living hell, Mike."
"Yes. But you were never good at it."
Pearl sat forward, a fresh gleam in her eyes. "Wait. Are you saying you're miserable? Because of me?" She fell backwards, fanning herself theatrically. "Mike, you say the sweetest things. It was Troll, wasn't it? Of course it was Troll."
"I haven't had a job," Mike shouted, "in years. In YEARS, because of your meddling." He paced back and forth, his feet squealing on the linoleum. "I knew someone at the Gizmonic Institute had it in for me, I just had no idea who."
"He's been whining like this for months," Tom chimed in. He had deactivated his hoverskirt, and was resting comfortably on a cushion. "Never mind that I've thoughtfully taken care of all the family expenses. Would you guys like a meat helmet? We've got plenty."
Pearl's face had lost some of its euphoric luster. "Wait. You're miserable because you can't get a job? That's it?"
"Of course that's it," Mike said. He raised his hands in a quick, mocking applause. "Congratulations, encore, bravura! The Forrester family finally did something – Pearl?"
Pearl had dissolved into torrential sobbing. "I'm a failure!" she cried, burying her face in a startled Observer's shoulder. "My whole family has been a failure! And Lithuania isn't even that funny of a name!" She cried with abandon, blowing her nose on Observer's pristine blue robe.
"Ah, yes, ah ... madame," he said, gently prying her loose, "I fear you are leaking sputum on my garb." He glanced at Mike, his eyes rolling habitually. "Mike, we had nothing to do with your employment difficulties. The Gizmonic Institute is an independent entity. Our ... diabolic activities have extended as far as weekly broadcasts of underfunded cinema." He patted Pearl's shoulder awkwardly, and she responded by slugging him in the jaw.
Mike's eyes softened. "All this time," he said slowly, "you've been tormenting me?" He inserted a bit of wheedling into his voice, and Pearl's crying decreased proportionately. "You're the villains that have weekly, er, plagued me with the cinematic machinations of Coleman Francis and Uwe Bolle?"
Pearl peeked at Mike through her splayed fingers. Eddies of black mascara trailed down her face, mingling into a dark, salty pool on her chin. "Yes," she said, dabbing at her eyes with Observer's cloak. "I used ... the equipment ... from Public Pearl to launch my own ... television station. Did you say tormented?"
"Pearl," Mike said, slowly sitting down on the couch, "if you wanted to subject me to cruel and dehumanizing experimentation, why didn't you ask me first?"
"I thought you might say no!" she snapped. "I mean, I do hate you, Mike. I curse your name in my sleep. I burn you in effigy. I loathe everything you are. I -"
"I get the idea," Mike said. He laced his hands together, staring at a tea-stained cinderblock. "Look at the six of us. Miserable. Unhappy. Lost in the world."
"We are a pretty ragged bunch," Servo said, hastily hiding the fresh new Rolex on his wrist.
"Not for long," Crow said, his voice gratingly cheerful. "Mike, I was going to tell you tomorrow, after I'd had a chance to test it out, but this seems like a pretty good time. I've invented ..." he paused for dramatic effect, "... the fork. It's like a spoon, but with pointy bits. It runs on heavy water. Want me to get it?"
Mike restrained Crow, shaking his head. "I don't think that'll be necessary," he said, his voice thick with thought. Glancing at Pearl, his hands clenched and unclenched on the denim of his jeans.
"Of course we can launch you back into space," Observer said derisively. "My brain may be atrophied, but I can still assemble a space station."
Mike's eyes widened in surprise.
"I did a stint on a psychic network," Observer admitted meekly. "That whole Universal Intelligence thing was, well...never mind. And yes, you can bring your bottlecap collection."
Mike stood. Pearl stood. Their eyes met, held.
"Can I get a dental plan?" Mike asked.
"If by dental plan you mean hit over the head with a mallet and fired into deep space, than yes," Pearl replied.
"That's exactly what I meant."
Tom Servo sighed. "Insert pithy comment here," he muttered, activating his hoverskirt. Within seconds the cushion had been seared a crispy black. "I'll need to make some calls. Angela Merkel and Bono are supposed to be here next week."
"Tom," Mike said, "what exactly is going on in the basement?"
There was no monster.