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Max_Writer

Paranoia 2nd Edition: Into the Great Outdoors with Gun and Camera Part 2

Rating: 5 votes, 5.00 average.
* * *

Jack-R-JRW-1 still didn’t feel like he was far enough away from the MTV. It didn’t matter, however, because that’s when his rocket boots sputtered and died. He fell straight down into the water below and sank several dozen meters. He dropped the backpack and his gear and started to very slowly float back to the surface.

* * *

Bob-R-OSS-1 pushed the button to turn off the machine guns. The MTV was moving at a better clip than it had been before all of the excitement.

“Sorry I pressed your buttons,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“It’s all good,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

Falion-R-TIT-1 peeked into the cabin where the screaming had stopped.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“Traitor!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Oh ye of little faith,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said to Falion-R-TIT-1.

“Very little faith,” Falion-R-TIT-1 replied.

Grund-G-GUY-3 looked angry.

“Let’s not press any more buttons,” Jake-R-SWD-1 suggested.

Bob-R-OSS-1 asked Grund-G-GUY-3 if he wanted him to turn the MTV around to pick up Jack-R-JRW-1.

“What?” Grund-G-GUY-3 said.

“The other guy,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Where is he?”

“He’s back there.”

“I don’t care. Do what you want.”

“Hey guys,” the voice of Jack-R-JRW-1 came over the helmet communicator.

Bob-R-OSS-1 turned down his volume until no one could hear him.

I need to think, he thought.

So, Jack-R-JRW-1 continued to talk, not realizing that everything he said was unheard by anyone. He tried to give his position, but it wasn’t long before he realized the others were not paying any attention to him.

Bob-R-OSS-1 slid the middle of the three slide controls to the right and the engines slowed to a stop. Then he turned the volume of Jack-R-JRW-1 back up.

“Do you see that other guy?” he asked.

Falion-R-TIT-1, still atop the MTV looked around. He finally spotted something floating on the surface some ways away.

“I see something,” he said. “It’s pretty far. I don’t even know how far.”

“Do you see red?” Bob-R-OSS-1 asked.

“I do. I’m pretty sure I see him.”

“I don’t know. He abandoned the mission that The Computer gave him.”

“Actually I didn’t,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said over the radio. “It was going to self destruct.”

“It wasn’t! Why would The Computer let us self-destruct. It had our back.”

“What?”

“It was just waiting.”

“When you asked it, it said … never mind.”

“We had 30 more seconds. The Computer was going to do its thing when it was time.”

“He does have the experimental rocket boots,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“It was going to stop at two, right?” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

“Besides, I had to test the experimental boots,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “It was part of the mission.”

“Interesting, interesting,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “How did you feel about the results of the boots?”

“They worked very well.”

“All right, let’s swing around and pick him up.”

Bob-R-OSS-1 swung the boat around and got alongside Jack-R-JRW-1. They pulled him back into the MTV and then Bob-R-OSS-1 got them back on course and they continued on their way. It took about another hour to get to shore.

“Use that solvent to patch up the hole in the canopy,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“Why?” Bob-R-OSS-1 asked.

“Yeah, we could try it,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

“I could use my jack hammer,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said. “That might help.”

By the time they spotted land in the distance, Lucky’s voice came back online. He timidly offered to resume autopilot control of the craft. However, Bob-R-OSS-1 was doubtful, wondering how Lucky turned back on when he had the autopilot switch turned off. Lucky told him that there was a switch that engaged the land autopilot mode, but he wasn’t sure which one it was because he couldn’t see the controls.

“Thanks, Lucky,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Yeah yeah, put it on autopilot,” Grund-G-GUY-3 said.

As they drew close to land, the vast panorama of Post-Oops America unfolded. The flooding that followed the asteroid and melting of the ice caps had transformed the coastline. The coastal plains and central lowlands of the North American continent were underwater; in higher elevations, the ruins of civilization had been engulfed by vegetation in the manner of Angkor Wat.

There were many brown things with Green clearance bushy things on top. The ceiling seemed very, very far above and was apparently painted blue.

“What’s Brown clearance?” Falion-R-TIT-1 asked.

When the water beneath the MTV was too shallow to continue, the MTV extended its legs with a grinding noise and strode out of the water, making its way up a slope into a dense forest. That put the cockpit up about the height of a two story building.

“If you could flick that switch, that would be great!” Lucky said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 flicked the switch that he assumed activated the land autopilot.

Lucky charged forward into the forest for about fifteen minutes.

“Lucky, stop here,” Grund-G-GUY-3 said.

The MTV stopped.

“Lower the crew compartment to the ground and open the canopy,” Grund-G-GUY-3 said.

Lucky complied.

“Everyone stay here,” Grund-G-GUY-3 said. “I’ll be right back.”

He climbed out of the cockpit and slid down the side of the MTV. He headed off into the deep underbrush amid the trees. Jake-R-SWD-1 climbed up and watched him for a short while with the binoculars but soon lost sight of the Green-clad mission leader.

“Anybody thirsty?” Bob-R-OSS-1 asked as they waited.

“I’m going to assume everyone’s a little thirsty,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

Jack-R-JRW-1 was definitely not thirsty. His experience in the huge water was terrifying.

They waited for what felt like a long time.

“I want to see what those brown things are,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Doesn’t somebody have an anti-gravity thing they’re supposed to test out,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “Why don’t you check out the ceiling?”

“I really wish you still had that rope,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said to Jack-R-JRW-1.

The 50 meters of rope had been in the backpack the latter had dropped in the ocean.

“There’s 50 meters of twine,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 said he had 10 feet of rope.

“Can I borrow that?” Jake-R-SWD-1 said to him.

“No,” he replied.

“Can you tie it to me?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tie it to the robot?”

“No.”

“Can you tie it to something sturdy?”

“No.”

“What can you tie it to?”

“I can’t tie knots.”

“We worked in power services,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

“We don’t do that,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “Do you know how to tie knots? I’ll give you the rope if you know how to tie a knot.”

“I can tie a knot,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 gave him the rope. He strung the rope through the hole in the glass in the canopy and tied a knot on the other side so that it wouldn’t go through. He stood on top of the canopy, tied the other end of the rope to himself, took out the anti-grav device, held it over his head, and pressed the button. Nothing happened.

“Thank God!” he said.

“What are you doing up there, weirdo?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Jump!” someone called.

He did a little hop but nothing happened. The others observed him through the glass.

“You should probably jump off and see if you fall slower,” Bob-R-OSS-1 suggested. “Push the button again and then jump off.”

“No!” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

He held it close to him and then pressed the button. Again, nothing happened. He pressed the button again and then very lightly tossed it up a little, thumbs above it to ensure it didn’t fly away. Nothing happened.

Peachy-R-LCS-2 climbed out of the MTV.

“Chuck it to me!” he said.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“Is it treason to break R&D equipment?” Jack-R-JRW-1 asked.

He knew that you couldn’t be executed for it but The Computer might fine someone who broke such equipment.

Bob-R-OSS-1 untied the knot and they removed the rope from the canopy. He opened the canopy and climbed out of the MTV. He started fiddling with the metal detector. Falion-R-TIT-1 also climbed out.

Meanwhile, Jack-R-JRW-1 had also exited the MTV and walked over to examine the large brown pillars with green shaggy stuff on top. The brown pillars had a weird texture and didn’t seem to be painting, which was strange. He’s never seen anything like it. Peachy-R-LCS-2 walked over and looked at it. Then he took out the jack hammer and put it up against the tree. Jack-R-JRW-1 quickly walked away from Peachy-R-LCS-2 but Bob-R-OSS-1 went over and observed what Peachy-R-LCS-2 was doing.

Peachy-R-LCS-2 activated the jack hammer and it tore into the tree. Small green things fell from the top of the thing.

“Don’t touch those!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “That’s treason.”

When one of the green things fell onto Peachy-R-LCS-2, he grabbed it and pocketed it, turning off the jack hammer

“Awesome!” he said.

When he tried to turn it back on, nothing happened.

“Peachy, you broke it!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

Peachy-R-LCS-2 took off the backpack. Smoke started pouring out of it.

“Oh jeeze,” he said.

“You broke it!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said again.

The power pack was getting warm and sizzling. Some kind of liquid dripped out of it. When it hit the ground, it hissed very loudly and tiny flames burst from the green stuff there. He pried it open and saw that the battery pack was badly damaged. The acidic fluid was everywhere. He left the battery pack where it was.

It had been about 15 minutes since Grund-G-GUY-3 disappeared.

Bob-R-OSS-1 went over to the MTV and tried the metal detector there. It squeaked.

“See?” he said. “R&D would not fail me.”

“Hey, while you’re down there,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said. “Catch.”

He tossed the anti-grav unit down to Bob-R-OSS-1. He missed catching it and it hit the ground with a clunk. Jake-R-SWD-1 climbed down and retrieved it. It didn’t seem any the worse for wear.

They all ate some of their concentrated algae chip paste.

Jake-R-SWD-1 tried one last thing with his device. He took off all his equipment and tied himself off again. Then stood on the anti-grav unit and pressed the button with his foot. Nothing happened. He jumped very slightly but nothing happened.

“Well, I gave it my best go,” he said.

“Isn’t it weird that Grund-G-GUY has been gone for so long?” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “Shouldn’t he be here with us? Aren’t we supposed to be patrolling?”

“I think we’re supposed to be looking for stuff,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “But, he wanted us to stand here.”

“Lucky,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said. “How far until our destination?”

“Uh, well it’s a little ways, yeah,” Lucky chirped. “It’s not too far. Are we going?”

“Is it walkable?”

“I could walk there!”

“Could we walk there?”

“I could walk there!”

“How far is it in meters?”

“Oh, sorry, what’s your security clearance?”

“Red.”

“Oh, sorry, that information is not available at this time! I’m supposed to take you there. I can’t tell you! Jiminy Christmas!”

“Lucky, what’s Christmas?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“What’s your security clearance?”

“It’s Red.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t give you that information at this time.”

Falion-R-TIT-1 looked around, trying secretly to use his x-ray vision. Unfortunately, there was not much else to see besides more of the strange brown and green structures.

Another half hour went by. Grund-G-GUY-3 had been gone for an hour by then. Falion-R-TIT-1 tried to reach him on the com.

“Grund-G,” he said. Then in a singsong voice. “Where’d you go?”

There was no answer.

“Think we should go look for him?” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“We should send one of the …” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Infrareds, yeah!” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

Jack-R-JRW-1 dragged Mani-GSV-3 out of the MTV.

“Mani, go find Grund-G,” he said.

“Who?” Mani-GSV-3 said.

“He went off in that direction.”

“Uh … I COULD go find Grund-G.”

“But?”

“But wouldn’t you rather send him.”

He pointed back at Lubi-GSV-1.

“I’m just asking,” he then said. “I’m not disobeying an order.”

“The answer is no,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“But Lubi might strong enough to survive. I’m just average.”

“What’s out there?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“I’m not questioning your authority, sir,” Mani-GSV-3 said. “I’m just trying to help you make the best decision possible in service to The Computer.”

“I still want you to go,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Yes sir.”

Jack-R-JRW-1 pointed out the way Grund-G-GUY-3 had gone and Mani-GSV-3 left, heading off into the underbrush.

After an hour, when Mani-GSV-3 had not returned, Jack-R-JRW-1 got Lubi-GSV-1 and Paul-GSV-1 and planned to head off into the brush in search of the others with them. Peachy-R-LCS-2 and Jake-R-SWD-1 went with them. Jack-R-JRW-1asked for more cone rounds, but Bob-R-OSS-1 refused to give him any.

They headed off into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, Falion-R-TIT-1 took the two cone rounds he’d gotten before and used his solvent to connect them to one of his sonic grenades.

* * *

Jack-R-JRW-1, Peachy-R-LCS-2, and Jake-R-SWD-1 searched for Grund-G-GUY-3 for some time. Jack-R-JRW-1 took pieces of twine that they ripped and tied to the trees to mark their way back. The soon spotted a tiny brown creature with a big bushy tale. It was looking at them. Peachy-R-LCS-2 radioed back what they saw. Jack-R-JRW-1 yelled at it. Then he walked towards it and it ran off a little ways and then turned and looked at him.

The Infrareds were freaking out.

“It’s a mutant!” Lubi said.

“It’s not a mutant!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“It’s a mutant! Kill it!”

“It’s not big enough for a mutant!”

“You’re a Troubleshooter! Kill it! You’re supposed to kill mutants!”

“It’s not big enough for a mutant.”

They saw another of the strange creatures off to the right. That freaked out the infrareds even more. One of them shrieked and started whining.

Jake-R-SWD-1 shot the creature, which was blown to pieces. The other one ran away. Lubi fell all over themselves thanking him for taking care of the mutant. Paul, who’d fallen asleep seemingly when they stopped, woke up. Peachy-R-LCS-2 slapped him in the back of his head.

“Praise me as your new god,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

They continued walking and searching.

“Only The Computer is praiseworthy!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said loudly over Jake-R-SWD-1’s helmet.

They soon found Mani-GSV-3. His corpse was lying in a small clearing some ways from the MTV.

“Those brown mutant bastards!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

There was a hole through his chest. It looked like someone had shot him with a laser.

“We found Mani,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said. “It looks like he’s been shot.”

“Neat-o,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“That sounds like Grund-G might be out of commission,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “So we … we have to go …”

“Grund-G’s wearing armor,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Grund-G could have shot him,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 pointed out in a moment of rare clarity.

“Grund-G could have shot him, true,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “But why would Grund-G have shot him?”

“Grund-G wouldn’t do that,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

The Infrareds looked scared and Jack-R-JRW-1 told Paul-GSV-1 to pick up the body and take it back to camp. The little guy grabbed Mani-GSV-3’s body by the feet and the tiny Paul-GSV-1 started to laboriously drag the other Infrared body back to the MTV. The others continued their search for Grund-G-GUY-3.

They proceeded more carefully and saw more brown mutants. But there was no sign of Grund-G-GUY-3. Lubi-GSV-1 was panicking and kept moving close to the Troubleshooters. They continued on for about a half hour but found no sign of their fearless leader.

“Computer, our commanding officer, Grund-G, is not responding on com and is … gone,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Can you find him for us?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Go look for Grund-G,” the soothing voice of The Computer said. “If you can’t find him within a half an hour, continue the mission without him.”

They had already been looking for an hour.

* * *

Back at the MTV, the other two had heard the exchange.

“He’s basically gone,” Falion-R-TIT-1

“We have to look for him for a half hour,” Bob-R-OSS-1 pointed out. “The Computer said look for him for a half hour.”

“We can look for him for another half hour,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 asked The Computer where Grund-G-GUY-1 was.

“Grund-G’s tracker has been disabled,” The Computer said.

“Now I’m scared,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

* * *

“Can you plot the point where it was disabled, Computer?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 asked.

“What is your security clearance?” The Computer asked.

“That was … Red security clearance.”

“I’m sorry, that information is not available at this time.”

“I mean …” Peachy-R-LCS-2 pulled out a leaf. “… Green security clearance.”

“I’m sorry, that information is not available at this time.”

He pocketed his leaf.

They searched for another half hour but found no sign of Grund-G-GUY-1. After a half-hour, they headed back.

“Computer, we’ve searched for the half hour for Grund-G and we couldn’t find him,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “Who will be mission leader from now on?”

“Who is acting mission leader?” The Computer said.

“I guess I am,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“I am acting mission leader,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

* * *

Bob-R-OSS-1 muted all of their coms.

“Before the mission, Grund-G appointed me as second in command,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said to him.

“And do you have evidence of this?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“I do not.”

“So … Computer, I am active mission leader.”

“You must determine who the active mission leader is,” The Computer chimed. “Who will be responsible for the entirety of the mission and who will be responsible for its success.”

“You can have it,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“And then let me know.”

* * *

“Okay, does that mean I’m mission leader?” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

The three on patrol quickly realized that their microphones had been muted, probably by the loyalty officer.

“So, are you going to turn our coms back up?” he said.

He used his wrist com to contact the computer and then he heard Falion-R-TIT-1 over the headset.

* * *

“Computer,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “I’m acting mission leader.”

“What?” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “But he said I was.”

“He was talking to me.”

“How do I know that?”

“Well, if you didn’t keep turning off the coms, you would have understood.”

“Sounds like treasonous behavior to me!”

“But no, I was appointed second in command by Grund-G.”

“How would I know that? What proof do you have?”

“Um … I don’t have proof. It was verbal.”

“That’s not proof. That’s like … no.”

“Yeah, I said I don’t have proof. It was verbal.”

“Okay …”

“How can we trust you?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“How can we trust you?” Jack-R-JRW-1 asked.

“Uh … you have to just assume that I’m telling the truth,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

He walked away from Bob-R-OSS-1 and keyed to have a private conversation with Jack-R-JRW-1. He didn’t know that the loyalty officer, Bob-R-OSS-1 could (and did) have complete control over hearing everyone and made sure he could hear it.

“Grund-G told me,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “I’m going to try to verify this. Give me a second.”

“Okay,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“I’m going to try to find evidence for you.”

Falion-R-TIT-1 then keyed a direct line to only The Computer and gave them secret mission code “sudden death overtime.”

“That is the secret mission code,” The Computer said to Falion-R-TIT-1.

He opened up all of the coms again.

“The Computer has confirmed that I am mission leader,” he said.

“Computer, did you confirm Falion-R-TIT-1 as mission leader,” Jack-R-JRW-1 asked.

“What is your security clearance?” The Computer asked.

“Red.”

“I’m sorry, that information is not available at this time.”

“Well, then there’s no way we can ever prove it! There is absolutely no way we can prove this!”

“She just said it!” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “She just said your clearance doesn’t show that I am.”

“When we get done with this, I’ll talk to you,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “We’ll discuss this.”

“When you get back to camp?”

“When we get back to camp.”

* * *

They were about halfway back to the MTV when they found Paul-GSV-1 on the ground next to the Mani-GSV-3’s body on the ground. Peachy-R-LCS-2, figuring the stupid Infrared had just fallen asleep again, went up to him and slapped him. Then he noticed the hole burned in the Infrared’s chest. Jack-R-JRW-1 ordered Lubi-GSV-1 to pick up the bodies and bring them along. They walked for a moment until Jack-R-JRW-1 realized they didn’t have to retrieve the bodies.

“Lubi, just leave them,” he said.

“All right,” Lubi-GSV-1 said.

He started to take the bodies back where they’d found them.

“No, just leave them right there,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “Right where you are right now. Drop them.”

The Infrared dropped them.

“Do you want the armor off this guy?” Lubi-GSV-1 asked.

“No,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“What armor?” Jack-R-JRW-1 asked. “From what guy?”

“Mani. His clothes are real thick.”

They searched Mani-GSV-3 and found that the jumpsuit he had been wearing was disguised Red level clearance reflec armor.

“I think this was an inside job,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

Jack-R-JRW-1 took the armor off.

* * *

Falion-R-TIT-1 opened a private line to Bob-R-OSS-1

“Do you believe me?” Falion-R-TIT-1 asked. “Because apparently, this guy might have two other guys who want him to be team leader. I mean …”

“I don’t know what to tell you, buddy,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “The Computer knows what’s up.”

“I’m getting the armor,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said over the com.

“They don’t have armor,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

“Mani does,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“Mani does?”

“That’s what we’ve been saying.”

“What kind of armor?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

* * *

The armor that Jack-R-JRW-1 pulled off Mani-GSV-3 was black on the outside, as befitted an Infrared Citizen, but red on the inside.

“Either we have a black market Infrared here, or he was some type of spy,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

He bundled up the armor.

Peachy-R-LCS-2 drew his laser pistol and pointed it at Lubi-GSV-1.

“Show me your armor!” he said.

“I … I don’t have armor,” Lubi-GSV-1 said.

They patted him down but found he was telling the truth. He was not wearing any kind of armor. Jack-R-JRW-1 handed the armor they’d found to the Infrared.

They continued back to the MTV. When they returned, Jack-R-JRW-1 showed the other two what they’d found on Mani-GSV-3.

“You found this on Mani?” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “Where is Mani?”

“He’s dead,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Oh, I knew that. What happened to the other guy?”

“Paul’s dead.”

“Paul’s dead as well! Did it look like he was shot by the same thing?”

“Yes. I have no idea why the people would have shot the Infrared guy with a laser and not us.”

“Well, they might not have seen us. Or there’s too many of us. Oh yeah, The Computer did designate me. I can try to get her to say it over all of your coms.”

“Let’s go talk for a second.”

The two went off and Jack-R-JRW-1 told Falion-R-TIT-1 that he was perfectly willing for Falion to be in command so long as he was second in command. Falion-R-TIT-1 said that was perfectly fine. When Jack-R-JRW-1 said he’d want proof of the second in command thing, Falion-R-TIT-1 gave him the secret mission code.

Bob-R-OSS-1 made sure he heard the conversation over the headsets.

“Everyone back into the MTV,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. “I am acting mission leader.”

“I’m still the driver and loyalty officer,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Yeah, you’re still the driver and … of course.”

“Loyalty officer.”

“Tough luck for the Green guy, but we’ve got to push on!” Lucky chirped. “Okay, who’s in charge?”

“Falion-R-TIT-1!” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

“Please relax, masters, this is a common occurrence,” the jackobot said. “I have been programmed with the deepest confidence in your ability to complete this mission.”

The communicator on the main panel glowed to life. Peter-I-TOL-4’s face appeared upon it.

“Where is Grund-G?” he asked.

“Grund-G is … ah … missing in action,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said. Peter-I-TOL-4 sighed. “His communicator has been shut off−”

“Who is acting mission leader?”

“I am acting mission leader, sir!”

“There has been a change in your objectives,” he said. “Your patrol will still follow the route originally designated; however, your primary mission now is to be on the lookout for mobile military platforms believed to be operating in the area. Nothing is known about their means of locomotion, armament, or origins. The platforms are believed to be capable of great speeds and are thought to be approximately 200 meters in length.

“If one of these platforms is sighted, or if evidence of the presence of these platforms is discovered, investigate immediately and identify it. Make a full report as soon as possible. Get multicorder footage of it. Contact it and determine if it is one of Ours or one of Theirs.

“This objective is of the highest priority. Serve well, and you will be rewarded. I promise you.

“If there are no further questions, carry on, and good luck.”

Jack-R-JRW-1 started to tell him about the two dead Infrareds who were shot.

“I don’t care!” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“Well there’s obviously people with laser weapons in the area, is what I’m trying to say,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Then defend yourselves from them!”

The screen went blank.

Bob-R-OSS-1 engaged the autopilot and the MTV continued inland through the forest. The elevation gradually increased, and finally the MTV emerged from the forest before a low but nasty-looking cliff. The ground before the cliff was an open area covered with boulders and gravel. Lucky headed directly for the cliff and tried to walk up the steep incline. The MTV made it about five feet up the slope, overbalanced, and toppled over. Everyone was jerked to one side and the two bots slammed into the bulkhead and clicked and whistled discouragingly.

“I told you guys I should’ve drove!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

Lucky was very quiet as the MTV lay on its side at the foot of the cliff. The closed canopy was cracked in a couple of places and some cartons had broken open but the damage didn’t appear to be too serious.

“Not quite as easy as it looks,” Lucky said after a few seconds. “Let’s give it another try.”

Bob-R-OSS-1 flicked the switch to close the armor.

“If it messes up again, you get to drive,” Falion-R-TIT-1 said.

“Yes!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

All six legs of the MTV convulsively snapped to full extension with a spine-wrenching jolt. Then the three legs nearest the ground abruptly retracted, while the opposite legs scrabbled for traction in the broken rock. The uppermost legs got traction, retracted, and yanked the MTV over onto its belly. For several seconds nothing happened. The MTV was upright and everything looked good.

Suddenly, all six legs extended convulsively, propelling the MTV five meters up in to the air. The clones grabbed hold for dear life. The MTV crashed stiff-legged into the ground. Metal sagged and twisted throughout the crew compartment. Jake-R-SWD-1, Bob-R-OSS-1, and Jack-R-JRW-1 were stunned by the impact. Peachy-R-LCS-2 was knocked unconscious by the impact. Falion-R-TIT-1 was actually killed by the high velocity impact.

“Well, as he just died, apparently I’m commander now,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Suddenly, the MTV foxtrotted to one side.

“Lucky! Where are we going!?!” Jake-R-SWD-1 screamed.

The MTV hopped.

“Everything’s under control!” Lucky shrieked.

The MTV seasawed to one side.

Bob-R-OSS-1 hit the switch to disable the autopilot.

“Nooooo!” Lucky screamed and went silent.

The MTV made one last convulsive jerk that sent it flying into the trees, where it lodged about three meters above the ground in a clump of sturdy conifers. The legs scrabbled for traction futilely, spraying tree limbs, dust, and small shrubs around like a dog digging in a hole. It finally stopped moving.

A beeping came from Falion-R-TIT-1’s neck.

They stripped Falion-R-TIT-1’s gear and ordered the docbot to help Peachy-R-LCS-2. The jackobot claimed it would fix Lucky, saying it had a cartridge it could use to fix the MTV. He kept putting the cartridge into himself and pulling it back out. Bob-R-OSS-1 took the cartridge from the jackobot and then tried to examine it. Jake-R-SWD-1 asked Bob-R-OSS-1 to open the canopy and the clone complied. He climbed up onto the roof of the MTV.

There, he had a perfect view of something large falling from the sky.

* * *

Falion-R-TIT-2 had been hurriedly off to PDQ HPD&MC where he was tightly screwed into a metal cylinder about two meters long and one meter in diameter: the 1000mm Outdoor Clone Insertion System. He was instructed to try not to breathe too much. He was subjected to two or three minutes of banging around in the dark; then everything was still for a moment; then there was a large “boom.” He enjoyed a second of five-gravity acceleration straight up, followed by thirty seconds of freefall, followed by about one-tenth of a second of impact.

* * *

Jake-R-SWD-1 got to see the impact. The huge missile flew down and struck the earth about 20 meters from the stranded MTV. It flung dirt and debris out as it buried itself in the ground.

Bob-R-OSS-1 poked his head out.

“Man, I wish we had a jack hammer,” he said.

He’d found the jackobot in working condition. The cartridge was for MTV repair so he plugged it in and set the jackobot to work.

Jack-R-JRW-1 carefully climbed down out of the MTV. Jake-R-SWD-1 climbed right over the man and reached the ground well before him, rushing over to the impact crater. It only took them a little while to unbury the missile and unscrew the lid. Falion-R-TIT-2 was, of course, inside, surprisingly still alive. They gave him all of the equipment that the other clone had been carrying.

* * *

Bob-R-OSS-1, realizing he would never be able to climb down out of the MTV safely, took his space suit off, relaxed in the pilot chair of the MTV, and popped a couple more happy pills. The others soon climbed back up.

“You’re not supposed to be out of your space suit for the mission,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“They never said we could not get out of them,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“That’s true. But they did issue them to us so I’m assuming they want us to wear them.”

“Just don’t lose it,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“They issued him a cone rifle, that doesn’t mean they want him to use it right away,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“That is very true,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. He turned to Peachy-R-LCS-2, who had come around with the help of the docbot. “I’m going to need you to stay away from me when you use that.”

“We want you to stay away from us when you use the plasma generator,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Apparently the daycycle was ending as the large light in the high, high ceiling moved towards the floor. The lights were apparently being turned down in Outdoors Sector. It was starting to get dim all around them and, they noticed that it was getting dimmer than it ever got in Alpha Complex. They were used to the lights being dimmed in nightcycles, but they were never, ever turned all the way off. Bob-R-OSS-1 put the red lights on in the cockpit of the MTV and enjoyed how happy the pills had made him.

Someone tossed Falion-R-TIT-1’s body out of the MTV.

“Hey, buddy,” the jackobot said. “Lucky’s not seriously damaged, the MTV, but the autopilot will probably need some troubleshooting and possible reprogramming before the MTV can be moved again. I’m guessing 10 to 20 hours.”

“That’s not bad,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Get to work,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

The jackobot gave them a thumbs up and got to work.

The clones discussed what to do and who should go on patrol. As it got darker and darker, Falion-R-TIT-2 decided that Jake-R-SWD-1 would take first watch. If he saw anything strange, he should alert them. In a couple of hours, Peachy-R-LCS-2 would take watch, and the others as the night passed. Those not on watch would stay in the cockpit or the cargo compartment of the MTV.

Jake-R-SWD-1 climbed out onto one of the trees that the MTV was stuck in and nestled in the limbs nearby. He drank a bottle of Bouncy Bubble Beverage and then looked around with the infrared binoculars.

At one point, as he sat there “keeping watch,” he realized something was wrong when a burst of green laser light struck him but barely burned him.

“Open the canopy!” he said. “Open the canopy! Open the canopy!”

“Wait, what?” Falion-R-TIT-2 said as he awoke.

“What do you see out there?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Lasers! Green!” Jake-R-SWD-1 replied.

He climbed up onto the top of the MTV.

“Climb through the broken pane,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

Another beam of green laser light missed Jake-R-SWD-1.

“Put up the armor!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Jake-R-SWD-1 climbed into the broken window of the canopy and dropped into the cockpit. Then Bob-R-OSS-1 pushed the button to close the armored canopy.

“What was out there, man?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 asked.

“Someone’s attacking us!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “Get your weapons!”

“You know as much as I do,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 set the controls on their helmets so that they would be able to hear Grund-G-GUY-3 but he wouldn’t be able to hear them.

“Hit the machineguns,” Jack-R-JRW-1 suggested. “He might be in front of the MTV.”

“Torpedo?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Please don’t drop a torpedo,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“You want to fire the cone rifle out there and see if you hit him?” Bob-R-OSS-1 asked Peachy-R-LCS-2.

“I … hmmm,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

There was some confusion in the cockpit.

“Why don’t we just drop a grenade or two out?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Let’s open the canopy and drop a grenade,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“The super grenade?”

“Not the super grenade.”

“What’s a super grenade?” Jack-R-JRW-1 asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“I think you should use the super grenade,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“I think we should worry about it!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“I think we should blow that person up!” Jake-R-SWD-1 said. “I think we should blow up whatever was shooting at me! I don’t like that very much.”

“Open the canopy,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Canopy or armor?” Bob-R-OSS-1 asked.

“Both.”

“Both?”

“Both so we can just drop it over the side.”

“But we have a hole in the canopy.”

“But, then we’re going to have to throw it through the hole. That is dangerous.”

“I trust him.”

“NO!” Jake-R-SWD-1 said. “Do not!”

“Okay, open the armor,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 pressed the button to open the armor, which pulled back. Falion-R-TIT-2 moved into the cargo compartment and opened the cargo door. He was ready to flee if the grenade fell back into the cockpit. Jack-R-JRW-1 followed him, the two of them shoving Lubi-GSV-1 out of their way.

“Throw Lubi on whatever was shooting at us!” Jake-R-SWD-1 suddenly said. “Throw him on them. That’ll kill them.”

Peachy-R-LCS-2 took out a grenade while Jake-R-SWD-1 stuck his head out of the hole in the canopy and looked around using the infrared goggles. He saw no one in the vicinity, but his vantage point did not give him a good look all the way around the MTV. He’d either have to open the canopy and to get a better vantage point or actually climb out onto the exterior of the MTV and cross to the other side.

Falion-R-TIT-2 stuck his head into the cockpit and looked around.

“Why don’t you open the canopy?” he said to Bob-R-OSS-1.

“Canopy or the armor?” Bob-R-OSS-1 asked.

“All of it. Open the canopy, he’s below us.”

“Yeah, it can’t be easy for him to shoot in here,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“All right, I’m going to open up the canopy,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

He also ducked down a little bit.

“It doesn’t block lasers anyway!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“It could like−” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“We know this!”

Jake-R-SWD-1 stuck his head up and looked around with the infrared binoculars. He spotted a figure that appeared to be armed. Bob-R-OSS-1 turned off the red lights. There was a blast of green laser fire that missed Jake-R-SWD-1’s head by only inches. He pointed at where he wanted Peachy-R-LCS-2 to throw a grenade.

“Peachy, I’m going to shoot at him with my rifle,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said. “Throw a grenade at him.”

Jake-R-SWD-1 fired a shot at the figure even as Bob-R-OSS-1 flicked the lights on and off to make a strobe effect and make Jake-R-SWD-1 harder to hit. Another burst of green laser light just missed him. Jake-R-SWD-1’s violet beam struck the figure and it fell. Then Peachy-R-LCS-2 flung the grenade out at the figure. It landed right on the prone form and exploded, flinging dirt and debris everywhere. It was very quiet.

“Let’s, some of us go out there and see who it was,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“I have a flashlight,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Jack-R-JRW-1 and Falion-R-TIT-2 both climbed down the tree and stumbled around in the darkness using only the light of the flashlight to see. They found the body of Grund-G-GUY-3 blown into pieces. The laser wound that Jake-R-SWD-1 had inflicted had been in the shoulder and had probably not been fatal. The grenade, however, blew him in half. That pretty much finished him off.

They searched the body and found a knife and a green-barreled laser pistol and a green-barreled laser rifle. One of the barrels was almost spent and the other was full (as they were the ammunition for the lasers in Alpha Complex). That would account for the deaths that had occurred in the field. Jack-R-JRW-1 took them both with him.

Bob-R-OSS-1 radioed The Computer to let it know that some commies blew up Grund-G-GUY-3.

“No,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “Grund-G was a traitor. We’re going to tell The Computer Grund-G was a traitor.”

“Why would you say that?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 asked.

They also found that that Grund-G-GUY-3’s clone replacement beeper had been disabled. Wires hung from it and it was obviously destroyed.

“He ain’t coming back,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“What?” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “Communists?”

Falion-R-TIT-2 was a little confused at Bob-R-OSS-1’s message to the computer because it had been a lie.

“He lied to the computer,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Not necessarily,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Call me a communist!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Maybe.”

“Even Peachy agrees,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“He blew him up when we had him incapacitated so we couldn’t interrogate him!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“I was trying to save the group,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Peachy didn’t know this,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “Only Jake knew this and he didn’t make it known.”

“I knew what?” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“That you disabled the guy.”

“I didn’t know I’d disabled him. He just stopped firing.”

“See, he doesn’t even know.”

“Nobody knew,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Everyone in the cockpit drew their laser pistols.

“I just thought The Computer would be happier if it knew that communists did it,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“So you lied,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“To The Computer,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“He lied to The Computer,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“Fire!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“I’ll just report you later,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 muttered to himself.

Guns were lowered.

Falion-R-TIT-2 and Jack-R-JRW-1 returned to the MTV.

* * *

The next daycycle dawned in the strange Outdoor Sector. As they ate their algae bit paste, a large group of people approached the MTV. They wore brown things on their bodies and appeared to be armed with sticks with pieces of stone on the end (spears) and carried large brown clubs. They also had pieces of metal or skins pulled over a wooden structure that they carried in their off hands.

Assuming they were hostile, Jack-R-JRW-1 aimed at one of them.

“No wait wait wait wait wait!” Falion-R-TIT-2 yelled at him.

“Send our mission leader out to talk to them,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Um … no, that’s a bad idea,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“A representative though,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Yeah, a representative. Someone who can talk well.”

“Mission leader,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“No,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “I do not talk well.”

“Lubi will be sent out to talk to them,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Lubi - no!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

They discussed who to send. Peachy-R-LCS-2 was very likeable, but about as smart as a box of rocks. Though Bob-R-OSS-1 thought it a great idea, Falion-R-TIT-2 decided they could just yell at them out of the MTV. Bob-R-OSS-1 closed the canopy but then opened it. Falion-R-TIT-2 climbed out onto the top of the MTV with his plasma generator.

“I trust you, mission leader,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Are you hostile?” Falion-R-TIT-2 called to the approaching primitives.

He could see that many of them had large, flat, black disks hung with strips of rawhide around their necks. Some of the primitives fell down and were on their hands and knees.

“Trying to push the ground?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“You gotta get under it,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Who are you, cool cat?” one of the primitives called.

“We’re coming over here to just check out the area,” Falion-R-TIT-2 called. “You you all live here?”

“Yeah. That’s like … we’re totally rad! You working for this little god?”

“Yes!”

“We are the little god,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 whispered to Falion-R-TIT-2.

“Only The Computer is praiseworthy,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“That’s communist activity,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“No, I don’t think so,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

Some of the tribesmen were worshipping while others were looking around, confused. Some were looking at the MTV while others were actually looking in the direction they had been travelling. There were probably about a hundred of them.

“Are you communists?” Jake-R-SWD-1 called.

The tribesmen conferred with each other.

“Communists?” one called back. “No.”

“Okay, you’re good then,” Jake-R-SWD-1 called.

“No,” the tribesman said again. “We heard legends about commies. They across big water, many moons journey. They hippie ape-smut, me hear. You dig?”

They had no idea what he was talking about.

“Where is your god?” Falion-R-TIT-2 called.

“Tell them their god is angry at them,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said to Falion-R-TIT-2.

“No! Why would I say that?”

“So, are you related to the other bunch of giant, big-old gods that are walking around?” the tribesman called.

“Possibly,” Falion-R-TIT-2 called. “We’re actually looking for … Yes! We’ve been looking for them. We’ve been separated.”

The tribesmen grumbled among themselves.

Why am I doing this? Falion-R-TIT-2 thought.

“We have been separated from the other gods in our long journey across the … whatever this is … something,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said lamely.

“You should display your power,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said to Falion-R-TIT-2. “Display your power by shooting your plasma generator.”

Falion-R-TIT-2 suggested using the cone rifle for that.

Jack-R-JRW-1 told the tribesmen they were looking for the other gods. He asked what direction they were.

“So, you’re looking for the new gods, huh?” the tribal talking to them asked.

“Yeah,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Well, two, maybe three moons ago, Walking Mountains come from rising sun. Great glistening black jobbers, eyes like ponds, legs like trees. Heap like little god.” He pointed at the MTV. “Much bigger.

“Walking Mountains visit Black Disk clan. Do hully-gully through camp. Many clansmen stomped, teepees trashed, many disks shattered. Really *****in’.

“Walking Mountains speak in voice like thunder with forked tongue, say ‘Welcome to new age of peace and prosperity. Worship your Masters and we will spare your miserable lives.’ Black Disk clan heap cooperative. Whole lotta worship goin’ on.

“Walking Mountains heap interested in clan’s sacred objects. They say ‘Bring us culture stuff. We ever-so-interested in culture. Where’s your Renoir and Proust?’

“We not know what Renoir and Proust are. They take all our sacred objects, say ‘Go, find more, bring them.’

“You got Renoir and Proust? You got plenty sacred objects, sure nuff.” He pointed at the plasma generator. “We take you visit Walking Mountains. They really cool. Having swinging time. You dig?”

“I … dig,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said uncertainly.

“Now display your power,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 muttered to him.

“It’s unnecessary now.”

“‘You’ve displeased us’ - pow!”

“How many cone rifles do we have? How many cones?”

“I’ve got one ready.”

“How many?”

“One rifle,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Only one rifle?” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Ton of rounds.”

“You two guys need to work together with those,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said to Bob-R-OSS-1 and Peachy-R-LCS-2.

“I gave him one.”

“But after he shoots it, he needs more though.”

“I’ll decide that based on what he shoots it at.”

“That is a good point.”

“This is the guy that jack hammered one of those pole things and he’s determined to get you to fire this into the air.”

“All right, all right,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said, standing up. “We’re very pleased.”

He fired the cone rifle up into the air. Bob-R-OSS-1 flung the oval ball bearing over the side as well. The shell flew up into the air and hit the ground somewhere behind the tribesmen, exploding back there. The tribesmen seemed sufficiently awed.

“We’re so pleased,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said again. “Please show us where these other walkers had come from.”

“Where the other gods came from,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

They brought Lucky back online. He was very apologetic for the malfunctions and promised to never go climbing cliffs again.

The tribesmen didn’t want to return to the Walking Mountains but showed them the way to go to get to them. Bob-R-OSS-1 tossed one of the cone rifle rounds down to the tribesmen.

“Awesome!” one of the tribesmen said. “Thanks bros!”

The tribesmen scurried away.

They traveled for only a short while after Lucky got the MTV out of the tree. The first sign that something was going to go horribly wrong was the sound of footfalls and minor earth tremors. Next, two stadium-sized insects became visible, looming over the trees, rapidly approaching the MTV.

“I got this!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Fire the machine guns!” Jack-R-JRW-1 screamed.

“I don’t want to die,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said calmly.

“We’ll die if we don’t kill them,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Cone rifle!” Falion-R-TIT-2. “Go!”

“Exactly,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said. “Open up the canopy.”

Bob-R-OSS-1 opened up the canopy. The MTV was still in motion.

“Full stop!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

Bob-R-OSS-1 brought the MTV to a halt. Peachy-R-LCS-2 stood up and fired the cone rifle at the nearer of the two huge insects. The cone struck the insects and they saw the bright flash and the mushroom cloud as the tac-nuke cone detonated. The blast actually knocked the MTV backwards and the clones started screaming to close the canopy. Bob-R-OSS-1 closed both the canopy and the armored canopy. There was a surge back towards the explosion right before the shock wave struck the MTV. He tossed Peachy-R-LCS-2 another cone for his rifle.

Bob-R-OSS-1 waited a minute and then opened up the canopy. They stood up and looked around. Fires burned in the distance, near where the tac-nuke had exploded. There was no sign of the giant cockroaches but there were giant pillars on either side of the MTV. When they looked up, they realized the ceiling looked light brown because the creatures were standing right over the MTV.

“Excuse me,” one of them said in a voice that shook the Troubleshooters to their teeth. “Have you a got a minute?”

“Uh … yes?” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Yo! What’s up?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“I see you saw our greeting flare,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“We hate to trouble you but we’re looking for Renoir and Proust,” one of the immense insects said. “Have you seen them anywhere around here? We’d really like to speak with them.”

“They’re that way!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, pointing in the direction of the tribe they’d talked to earlier.

“No no,” the giant cockroach said. “We’ve already asked them for Renoir and Proust. They don’t have any. We looked anywhere. Have you got some?”

“Hey, mission leader, can we ask what those are?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Yeah,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “What is Renoir Proust?”

“You know: culture!” the cockroach bellowed. “We want some culture. We’ve been looking for culture all our lives. We’ve been trying to find it. You’ve got to have some culture lying around. Get it for us or we’re going to have to smash you.”

“We do have some culture!” Falion-R-TIT-2 called up.

“I told you they’d have some!” the cockroach said to the other.

“I knew they’d have some!” the other cockroach said.

“Hand it over!” the first cockroach said. “We need culture.”

Falion-R-TIT-2 turned to Bob-R-OSS-1.

“I need your picture!” he said.

“No!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“I need your picture!”

“No!”

“I have one too,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, handing over his picture of video heroine Teel-O-MLY with the mirror on the reverse side.

“Here’s some of our culture!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said, holding up the photo.

A massive claw came down and, surprisingly gently, took the picture out of his hand. It held it close to the cockroach’s eyes.

“No!” it finally said. “No!”

The cockroach tossed the picture back into the cockpit of the MTV.

“Look, we might be from the South Bronx, but we know culture when we see it,” the cockroach said. “That is not culture, it’s garbage. So, we need some culture or we want you to get us some!”

“Okay, where would there be culture?” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“If we knew that, we’d be there getting the culture!”

“Okay.”

“What is cultural to you?” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“You’ll know it when you see it,” the cockroach said. “It’s like Renoir and Proust.”

“Seems legit,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “Why don’t we just ask where to bring the culture if we ever find it?”

“Yeah,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “Where would you like us to find you to get you the culture?”

“Right here,” the cockroach said. “Why? Wait … you’re not leaving until you give us some culture!”

“How are we going to find culture if we don’t leave?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“You don’t know where there’s any culture?” the cockroach answered.

“I told you they wouldn’t know,” the second cockroach said.

“We’re not from the surface!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Could we radio The Computer?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“We could!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“The Computer knows about culture,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“It would but it wouldn’t tell us,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “We don’t have the security clearance.”

“So you don’t know where to get any Renoir or any Proust?” the cockroach said.

Jack-R-JRW-1 knew that Renoir was a pre-oops artist and Proust was some kind of pre-oops artist.

“I know what you’re talking about, but we don’t have any,” he shouted up.

“I think I’ve got some in my cone rife,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 muttered.

“You don’t know any place you can go and get some?” the cockroach said.

“We might be able to get some from …” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“From communists!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 muttered. “If we ever find any communists.”

“I’ve heard the communists have all the Renoir and Proust,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Yes, the communists do,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

One of the cockroaches sighed.

“We should just squish ‘em,” the other said.

“Yeah, they’re so gross and little,” the first one said.

“You won’t!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Should I fire another cone?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“No!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

One of the cockroaches reached down and picked up the MTV.

“Start the auto-destruct sequence!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Someone say self-destruct?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“No!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

The cockroach shook the MTV.

“Look!” it said emphatically. “You need to get us some or you need to tell us where to find it, because we’ve been looking for a long time and I’m tired of looking.”

It shook the MTV again for emphasis.

“Okay!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“I think I left some culture by the beach,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Well take us there!” the cockroach said. “Where’s the beach?”

“I don’t know,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“It’s back that way,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “It’s back towards the beach. There might be some culture in the buildings we found back there.”

“Might!” the cockroach said. “ARGH! You’re killing me here!”

“I don’t think these guys know anything,” the other cockroach said. “I say we squish ‘em.”

“But why would you squish things just because we don’t know the answer?” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“We might find out the answer later, and when we do, we’ll be sure to let you know,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“When?” the cockroach said.

“Soon!”

“All right. Fine.”

The cockroach put the MTV back down.

“You go get us culture and then come back here,” it said.

“We will,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“You’re coming back?”

“Yes.”

“Absolutely,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Yes,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“We wouldn’t lie,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“All right,” the cockroach said. “We’ll be waiting here. Don’t make us mad because we could squish you.”

“You won’t,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said, matter-of-factly.

“Go get us culture,” the cockroach said.

“We will,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Let’s report this to The Computer, I’d say,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“I need to record it on our multicorder,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “It’s really important.”

He made some recordings of the giant cockroaches knocking down trees and looking for culture. They briefly discussed looking for the other Troubleshooter team. Then they ordered Lucky to take them back to Alpha Complex. They patched up the drip that caused the autopilot to malfunction before they entered the water. While they did so, Falion-R-TIT-2 tested out the computer operated plasma generator. He soon found that the computer assistance actually slowed down firing of the weapon. Every time he gave a verbal command, it asked for confirmation or override of safety features. When it did search for targets, it proved to be very literal and followed his directions to a T. He found that normally when he might have been able to fire it several times, he could only do it once. They also picked up the jackhammer that had been left behind.

It seemed to take a much shorter time to get home to Alpha Complex then it did to get out there.

* * *

The five intrepid Troubleshooters were hustled back into the room where they had the briefing before. All of the Citizens and machine intelligences involved in the mission were present. Lucky was available for questioning via radio link. Peter-I-TOL-4 was there, as was Ness-Y-LOX-3 but there was a different R&D representative. Meg-O-FUN-2, the PLC warehouse clerk who tried to unload all of the junk onto the Troubleshooters was present, as was Sampson-G-WIZ-4, the R&D supervisor, each clutching a thick sheaf of forms.

While they stood before the bench, Peter-I-TOL-4 looked at his papers and then at the group.

“I see that Mission Leader Grund-G is not with us,” he said. “Will the acting mission leader please make the mission report?”

“Yes,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “Grund-G is not with us because he left and disabled his com−”

“Yes yes yes,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “We need a brief summary of the mission objectives and whether they were achieved.”

Falion-R-TIT-2 told Bob-R-OSS-1 to show them the video.

“These were the giant structures that were walking around,” he said.

“Hmmm,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “What were your mission objectives?”

“We were to initially test the equipment,” Falion-F-TIT-2 said.

“Was that achieved?” Peter-I-TOL-4 asked.

“Yes,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Yes,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“We searched for a respectable degree for the missing equipment,” Falion-R-TIT-2 went on. “We did not find any.”

“Very well.” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“And … uh … um …”

“We were also to patrol the area,” Jack-R-JRW-1said.

“I’m talking to the mission leader!” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“We were asked to patrol as we did so and found the two giant creatures,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “Which was added on at a later time by you.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes. We found they were giant creatures and not structures.”

“Are there any amendments or corrections to this report?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “Speak now, or be recorded as concurring with the report of the acting mission leader.”

No one spoke.

“Very well,” he said.

He started cross examining everyone about Grund-G and the disappearance of the mission leader. Jack-R-JRW-1told him that Grund-G was a traitor who disabled his beeper.

“You have this on video? Audio?” Pete-I-TOL-4 asked. “Any proof of his traitorous activities?”

“Does shooting us with lasers count?” Jack-R-JRW-1 asked.

“Circumstantial evidence can be taken in the lack of any physical evidence,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “Do you have any proof that Grund-G somehow betrayed you?”

Jack-R-JRW-1 took out the barrels of Grund-G-GUY-3’s weapons and pointed out that number of shots corresponded to the number of times they were fired upon.

“Uh-huh,” Pete-I-TOL-4 said. “Are the rest of you ready to concur with this evidence?”

“There actually is evidence,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Your evidence is circumstantial,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “But in light of no actual concrete evidence, no reprimands will be made. Who executed Grund-G?”

“He did,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, pointing at Peachy-R-LCS-2.

“I believe it was … Peachy,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Peachy did,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “He threw a sonic grenade on him.”

“I sure did,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“You will receive a commendation for dispatching a traitor,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“And he lied about Grund-G and said a commie did it,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, pointing at Bob-R-OSS-1.

Peter-I-TOL-4 looked bored.

“You’ll be given a chance to speak in a moment,” he said.

He looked at the papers in front of him.

“After having looked over the mission report and listened to what you have said, I notice that you failed to find the missing mission group and their gear, but as you did succeed in the main mission of identifying the land juggernauts, that can be overlooked,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said with a sigh.

He asked for more details on the giant cockroaches and when they told him about the immense, monstrous things that a tac-nuke was not even able to harm, that raised an eyebrow. He directed them to make a formal report about the creatures to The Computer as soon as the debriefing was complete. He also noted that as the main mission objectives were achieved, they would receive commendations and vouchers for additional training.

Then he leaned back and relaxed.

Ness-Y-LOX-3 leapt to his feet and started haranguing the Troubleshooters about their failure to capture and interrogate, or execute, the entire Com-symp people.

“The tribals?” Falion-R-TIT-2 asked.

“Commies, yes!” Ness-Y-LOX-3 said.

He sarcastically commended them on their “wisdom” in avoiding a confrontation with the giant cockroaches.

“Only dedicated Troubleshooters can be expected to have the moral courage to run away from danger like that,” he said.

He sat back down.

Next Meg-O-FUN-2 read a list of assigned equipment, noting those things lost or damaged during the mission.

“There was rope and a backpack missing,” she said with real venom in her voice. “You’ll be fined for that lost equipment. The jackobot, though in somewhat fair repair, was also damaged, as was the docbot. It looks like someone was making repairs on the jackobot, probably without authorization. There is also a missing cone rifle shell that is not accounted for. It was not fired from a cone rifle and is not in your inventory.”

“Oh,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Those black disk guys must have stolen it,” Peachy-R-LCS-2

“He gave it to the black disk guys,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, pointing to Bob-R-OSS-1.

“You gave away expensive equipment?” Meg-O-FUN-2 said. She sighed. “However, I do note that you did recover all gear from the casualties … surprisingly.”

Jack-R-JRW-1 asked about Mani-GSV-3 and his strange armor. He was told that his security clearance was not sufficient to be given that information.

Sampson-G stood up. He read the list of experimental devices assigned and asked for the test report on the anti-grav unit.

“Failed to function,” Jake-R-SWD-1 said.

“Equipment failed to …” Sampson-G said. “Did you even bother to test it?”

“Yes.”

“Failed to function. Obviously something happened on the way. Probably one of you. Metal detector?”

“Completely functional,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “Worked like a charm.”

“Great,” Sampson-G said. “Plasma generator.”

“It’s firing capabilities are exemplary,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “But its nitpicking on the targets was definitely delayed how fast it could shoot.”

“Hmmm,” Sampson-G said. “Rocket boots … which were waterlogged.”

“They functioned well,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

Sampson-G stared at him. His eye twitched.

“Thank you for that detailed assessment,” he said.

“They worked well,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “They were not very fast, but they worked very well.”

“We noticed that the jackhammer attachment has been damaged,” Sampson-G said.

“You remember … the jackhammer worked great in the shop,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said. “As soon as it was out in the field, it just broke down. You guys need to work on your battery packs.”

“Which you opened up, obviously damaging the battery inside when you opened it.”

“It was already broken, I was just trying to fix it.”

“Of course. Of course. You will be fined 200 credits for the repairs.”

Sampson-G turned to Jack-R-JRW-1.

“You will be fined 100 credits for the repairs of the boots.”

He turned to Jake-R-SWD-1.

“You will be fined 100 credits for the damage that you caused to the anti-grav. Also, there is the … wait. No, that’s not right. There was considerable damage done to the MTV. Glass was broken, parts were damaged, pieces were missing.”

“That happened because of malfunction in the MTV’s autopilot,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Hmmm, yes,” Sampson-G said, obviously not believing him. “And so Peachy-R-LCS-2, who signed for the MTV will be fined an additional 500 credits.”

“What?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

He didn’t remember signing for the vehicle.

Peter-I-TOL-4 summarized the mission report one last time, commended the Troubleshooters for their good work, scolded them for their poor work and all the damage they did to all of the expensive and valuable equipment, and officially closed the debriefing.

“I’m now going to open formal treason hearings if any,” he finally said. “Does anyone wish to level treason against another person?”

“He lied to The Computer when he told it that it was commies that attacked Grund-G,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“He lied to The Computer?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“I was mistaken,” Bob-R-OSS-1 replied.

“He lied to the computer, that’s treasonous behavior,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. He raised an eyebrow. “You were mistaken?”

“You saw him throw the grenade,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “How could you be mistaken?”

“It’s not that I mistook what happened,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “I firmly believe that the only reason Grund-G would have fired upon us if is he’d been converted by commies. So, that did lead to him being blown up. I just put it poorly.”

“I see,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said, obviously not convinced by that story. He looked at Jack-R-JRW-1. “Do you have any proof of this? Can your teammates verify this?”

“I can verify that upon detonation of Grund-G, that The Computer was wondering what happened and the loyalty officer told The Computer that commies did it,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Because Grund-G was a commie and his switching over was caused by the commies?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“Or calling Peachy a commie.”

“Were you calling Peachy a commie?”

“Yes, he called me a commie,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Do you wish to level−” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“I am not accusing Peachy of being a commie,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“Very well,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

He shook his head.

“The Computer has been assessed of this treasonous activity,” he finally said. “Are there any other claims of treason in your group?”

“I consider it somewhat treasonous that he intentionally damaged Computer property when he fired a shot through the MTV canopy,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said, pointing at Jack-R-JRW-1.

“When did this happen?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

It was explained to him.

“So he did intentional damage to the MTV that Peachy signed out,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “Can anybody corroborate this?”

“This did happen but it was in reaction to a self-destruct mechanism on Lucky being turned on,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“So he shot the canopy because of a self-destruct mechanism?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “That doesn’t seem very effective to me, but …”

“It wasn’t,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“So it is corroborated,” Peter-I-TOL said. He turned to Jack-R-JRW-1. “Do you have a defense to make against this charge of treason?”

“He initiated the self-destruct button,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, pointing at Bob-R-OSS-1. “There was panic.”

“And you abandoned your post!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“I did not abandon my post!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “I tested the rocket boots!”

“Is this another charge of treason, that he abandoned his post?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“Yes,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“Absolutely,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“I did not abandon my post!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said again.

“You did,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“You left the safety of the MTV without permission of the mission leader,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“I stated repeatedly that we would be fine,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said. “We would not self-destruct. And yet, you fired a shot through Computer property and abandoned your post.”

“You also initiated the self-destruct,” Jack-R-JRW-1 said.

“Then waterlogged your test boots,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“He hit the self destruct button, he damaged some of the stuff, he dropped something off the back of the MTV that we have no idea what it was,” Jack-R-JRW-1 blurted out. “He did all this stuff. The reason I fired my gun was that I had it pointed at his back and when he hit the thing, it flew up and shot.”

“Did you also fall out of the MTV?” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

“With your rocket boots on?” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“So charges of abandoning your team members have been lodged,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“What are you talking about!?!” Jack-R-JRW-1said. “Look who else tried! He also tried to abandon the machine!” He pointed at Falion-R-TIT-2. “He climbed out of the machine.”

“I was looking for the other passenger,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“I can corroborate this,” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

“You will help him pay the fine for the MTV,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said to Jack-R-JRW-1. “The treasonable acts have been noted by The Computer and they will be filed in your permanent record. Are there any other charges of treason you with to bring up against your fellow Troubleshooters.”

“Well … uh … no,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

“Nothing was missing from the MTV so whatever ‘fell off’ was … I don’t know,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“Actually, sorry,” Falion-R-TIT-2 said. “I do recall someone trying to use Green-level clearance.”

“Oh yeah!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said. “I DO remember that!”

“When was this?” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“When talking with The Computer, he pulled out a Green object and said he was Green clearance!” Jack-R-JRW-1 said, pointing at Peachy-R-LCS-2.

“Let me show you my Green-level clearance,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said.

He pulled the leaf out of his pocket.

“You realize, of course, that that does not allow you Green-level clearance,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said. “And that claiming to be Green-level clearance when it has not been assigned to you by The Computer is treason and punishable by execution?”

“I assumed I was assigned Green-level clearance when this falled upon me,” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said with conviction. “I thought this Green clearance was bestowed upon me.”

“Peachy-R-LCS-2 … The computer will put you into one of our retraining booths in an attempt to make your brain work better,” Peter-I-TOL-4 said.

“Aye aye!” Peachy-R-LCS-2 said with a grin on his idiot face.

Peter-I-TOL-4 asked the Troubleshooters to stay while everyone else was dismissed. Then he reached under the desk and they heard something click. The room filled with a weird hum.

“It’s a cloaking device,” Peter-I-Tol-4 said. “It’s now blanking all electronic transmissions inside the room. I want to personally thank you all for identifying the land juggernauts.”

He laughed once.

“The things were found by an Armed Forces spybots making routine high-altitude overflights of the region surrounding Alpha Complex to obtain important intelligence vital to Complex security,” he went on. “However, knowledge of the Outdoors is classified Ultraviolet. Since Ultraviolet citizens are way too important to waste their time studying routine high-altitude photographs, they assign lower-level citizens to do this. Naturally, it’s treason for citizens of less than Ultraviolet clearance to examine photographs of the Outdoors. Those citizens’ life expectancy is rather … short.

“No one currently alive in Armed Forces could interpret the intelligence photos.

“However, HPD&MC routinely receives copies of the overflight photos for filing. Of course, since the information is classified, there is no indication of the origin or purpose of the photos. However, the photos are pretty colorful, and they attracted the eyes of a couple of clerk-techs with too much time on their hands who decided to study them. One thing led to another and finally a high-status HPD&MC fellow recognized the photo for what they were.

“Seeing a chance for a real inter-service coup, HPC&MC management put some of their best people on studying and interpreting the maps. With a little help from an Armed Forces intelligence officer who was convinced to cooperate, he’s now recovering from a series of accidents and an unfavorable coroner’s report, the HPD&MC boys found something interesting. The things were moving. So, we go together with R&D, we had to bribe them a little in order to get a machine that would take you to the spot, as Armed Forces controls pretty much anything moving outside Alpha Complex. These alliances led to your mission, finally, to finding out what those were.

“We did this mainly to embarrass Armed Forces because they think they are everything and they’re not.

“Now that all of you know about this conspiracy, you are equally subject to execution for treason.”

He grinned.

“I’m certain you’ll keep this matter to yourselves,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you personally, to inform you that a 200 credit bonus will be credited to your accounts, courtesy of HPD&MC, to remind you that I’ve got something incriminating on each of you, and to let you know you can count on me for a favor in the future.”

“Oh, well thank you very much, your benevolence!” Falion-R-TIT-2 said.

Peter-I-TOL-4 turned to leave, then stopped, and turned back.

“Say, who’s your friend?” he said.

“You are!” Jack-R-JRW-1

“Peter!” Falion-R-TIT-2

“The Computer!” Bob-R-OSS-1 said.

Peter-I-TOL-4 looked at Bob-R-OSS-1 and shook his head.

“Rookie,” he said.

He winked, waved at the rest, and left the room.

* * *

All of the Troubleshooters were elevated to Orange Clearance Level shortly after the mission.

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