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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Wingback Tokamak

[from to(roidal'naya) kam(era s) ak(sial'nym magnitnym polem)]

by David Gunn

The Wingback Flowchart

     THIRTY YEARS AGO, on a frigid, blue-black morning in Klegmore, Northwest Territories, Canada, a dozen Eskimos sit around a table in an old mining shack, their hands and arms gesticulating rapidly in the Athabaskan dialect reserved for native rituals and operetta. They wear ceremonial walrus bag robes and adobe hats, their whiskers are trimmed to resemble crop circles, and all clench rubber earthworms between their teeth. Occasionally, a gesticulator holds up three fingers and, as one, the others remove their worms, take a sip from a beaker of thawed limeade concentrate, then replace the latexical annelids in their mouths. A hydroponic space heater provides scant warmth to the shack, and the vapors from the exhalations of those in the group who choose to breath create billows of citrus-scented clouds which repeatedly obscure the digital activities. Brilliant blue-black light streams in through the window, bathing the interior of the shack with an eerie, filtered luminescence that refutes the entire wave hypothesis of incandescence by a factor of two. The sky is the color of obstreperous fungi that has begun to thrive on the surface of a potpie left alone in the closet for a week. A thermometer affixed to the windowpane registers a temperature too low for Celsius, but just right for safe fusion energy experiments, which in fact is the purpose of the gathering.

     The door bangs open suddenly, and a tall, gaunt figure enters. Except for the titanium jerkin he wears, he could be a fur trader working the Arctic suburbs. He closes the door -- which, despite its rickety appearance, seals with a satisfying hermetical hiss -- and places a bag on the table. Eagerly the Eskimos open it and withdraw a vacuum chamber in the shape of a futuristic jelly doughnut, 270 superconducting magnetic coils from the intake manifold of a souped-up '54 Hudson Wingback, nine or ten -- the number keeps changing -- leather beakers that induce reverse equilibrium in plasma currents, a blanketing material of liquid lithium arranged in six-inch strips, and a resealable xenon bag filled with 270 deuterium and tritium isotopes. It is a tokamak ... or at least the Tupperware equivalent of one. The design of the tokamak, or toroidal magnetic chamber, had been copied from a Princeton University schematic and smuggled into Bolivia, where the unit had been reproduced at a fraction of the original cost. And now, a year later, it patiently awaits reassembly by this odd collection of fogdog-dogged northernmost North Americans.

     As the newcomer removes his jacket, he also sheds eight inches in height, bringing his red-eyed gaze on a level with the others in the room. Although the man says nothing, the word "Mesopotamia" can be heard swirling softly around his head. Stitched onto his shirt pocket is the name Aldeau.

     Many eyes and at least one nose are riveted on Aldeau as he studies a page of assembly instructions, then begins to fit scores of tab As into slot Bs and fold on numerous dotted lines. He makes great progress until he reaches Step 122. It says simply "le flambeau oriange," a slang Bolivian insult that defies polite translation. As Aldeau ponders his next step, three Eskimos engage in a heated handed discussion of the Theory of Disputational Distortion and its influence on the tokamak that sits in partial disarray on the table. The more they debate the existence of the theory, the more the divers components of the fusion energy device flow into and out of focus. Aldeau glances up from the half-assembled contrivance to mop his brow with a chunk of frozen limeade concentrate. The icy green citric crystals trickle down to and saturate his mustache, and he absently sucks on the flavored hairs, thinking abstruse thoughts to himself in the key of G minor.

     Abruptly, the key migrates to A major and the room brightens as a light bulb clicks on in the refrigerator section of Aldeau's mind. Mimicking the Eskimos' wordless gesticulationry, he anxiously requests 70 feet of climbing rope, a roll of duct tape, a medical hibachi, and a dogwood tree. The nine other Eskimos spit the rubber worms from their mouths and dash outside into the blazing blue-black Canadian morning. Two of them head for the Foodies Grocery Emporium a day's hike away in Tuktoyatuk. Two others pry open the door to the adjacent wine cellar -- accessible for the first time in 30 years due to a quixotic thawing of the permafrost -- and descend into its dark and musty interior. A single Eskimo climbs the radio tower for no apparent reason, although the gleam in his eyes suggests an agenda best watched from a distance. As he reaches the particle stream accelerator control panel, he briefly loses his balance and his adobe hat. He regains the latter, but the former falls and hits the tundra with such force that it bursts into flames, swapping its molecular configuration for that of a tweezer. The other four log onto the Global Positioning System computer and locate the 1954 Hudson Wingback buried in a snowbank a kilomile from the shack. Grabbing two shovels and a can of gasoline, they trudge off in the direction of the snowbank, a rounded white monolith easily discernible against the flat, treeless plain. A ray of sunlight gleams off the exposed tailpipe, telling them what the GPS could not -- that the vehicle sits perpendicular to the ground. By unearthing -- or rather, unsnowing -- the underbelly of the car, the four are able to persuade it to affirm the Third Pluperfect Law of Gravity, and the Hudson gently rights itself. After rummaging through the trunk, one Eskimo with strangely translucent hair triumphantly pulls out the sought-after medical hibachi. But instead of taking it back to the shack, they fill the gas tank, start the car, then pile in and slowly drive off in the opposite direction, northwest, towards the vast field of crop circles that abut the Beaufort Sea.

     In conditioned response to an eerie, subdued sound, Aldeau opens the door and peers out of the mining shack. Jerkinless, his limeade-saturated mustache instantly freezes in the blue-black cold. As he absentmindedly forms the Athabaskan word for "Mesopotamia" with his lips, several mouth whiskers crack and break off. While his curiosity is somewhat piqued by the burning tweezer, his attention is riveted on the open wine cellar doorway, whence not two but three voices are keening in parallel fifths, causing a temporal rift in the Theory of Disputational Distortion.

     The tokamak -- and for that matter, the hibachi -- he figures, can wait.

     THE UNIFORM SEQUENCE of Cleveland-Doubling, an abstruse mathematical formula that permits a theoretically infinite number of duplications of that eponymous city by the lake, is by all accounts an oddity. The reason why some ants and all sparkling wines are unaffected by the Third Pluperfect Law of Gravity is another oddity. The occurrence of the so-called Mesopotamian Whimper in the upper third of the argonosphere, nullifying the anagrammatic antithesis of itself, is odder still. But nowhere is oddness given more of a run for its money than at the Foodies Grocery Emporium in Tuktoyatuk, itself an odd little village in northwesternmost Northwest Territories. Foodies is the only supermarket above the Arctic Circle whose goods are arranged alphabetically. Rock 'n roll memorabilia are indexed along the back wall between rocket science lab coats and Rocco's rodentine lip gloss. Books on metaphysic equational arcology theory are neatly stacked next to Cosgrove's Guaranteed Metamorphosis Kits. Giant bags of marshmallows infused with hummus oil are arranged in a confectionarial Mobius strip alongside absentee voting certificates from the Marshall Islands. Regular Foodies shoppers receive monthly notices which tell of special numeric shelvings and locations of hard-to-find items, but even they are frequently perplexed by the seemingly chaotic layout of merchandise, especially given the store proprietor's penchant for illogical alphabetization. Golub's Good Peanut Butter, for example, occupies the space next to Tasmanian Devil Faux Fur Car Mats simply because the owner thought the former was "tasty." But Foodies' eclectic arrangement and downright bizarre pricings of wares had long been accepted because there was nowhere else to shop in a 250 kilomile radius. And its reputation for carrying eclectic merchandise was what drove two Eskimos to make the 20-hour trudge from Klegmore in search of a dogwood tree. One might expect such an item so far removed from its natural habitat to stand out, but the 21 store aisles were so jammed with unusual items -- 35 refurbished computers from the Mir space station were on sale in Aisle 11 -- that commodities more suited to an Arctic environment were the ones that caught peoples' eyes. The dogwood tree, if it was here -- and a grizzled old clerk with a tattoo of New York City on his right arm swore it was ... somewhere -- was not of its own volition going to leap off of the shelf into their arms.

     Meanwhile, an Eskimo emerges from the Klegmore wine cellar holding a roll of duct tape. Rushing back to the mining shack, he places it exultantly in front of Aldeau and his partially assembled tokamak. Puzzled, Aldeau scratches his jerkin, then suddenly realizes his gesticulatory blunder. By crossing his arms akimbo and gesturing towards Cleveland, he had made the Athabaskan sign for duck. Had he pointed in the general direction of São Paulo, he would have made the sign for duchess, which was his intent. Specifically, he sought the Duchess of Fantoccini, the mystical head of an imaginary cooperative of craftsmen that supply the world with zombie au pairs. Coincidentally, the duchess was down in the wine cellar with the other Eskimo, now hypnotized, able to do laundry and multiple shopping tasks, and craving human flesh. Not privy to this useful information, Aldeau curls his arms like an out of kilter caduceus, making the Athabaskan sign for "hibachi." As he does so, a shaft of especially bright blue-black light streams into the room, illuminating a map on the wall. The map is not of Mercator orientation and is of no land familiar to anyone in the room. A red-tipped pin is stuck in the center of the map. It is labeled Vestris and pulses in and out of focus precisely out of time with the fusion energy parts on the table. Shaking his head so as to produce an intercranial rattle and thereby dislodge any accumulated sinus matter, Aldeau picks up the insert to the tokamak instructions and begins to read.

     'THE MYSTERIOUS MADAME VESTRIS,' it says, 'was a metaphor for her time, as well as for Arizona Daylight Time and for that shadowy waking time around 10 past 6 in the morning on the Kelvin scale. The Mysterious Madame reportedly was seen in second-hand stores throughout New Mexico and Chile for 61 years after she left the mortal plain. Significantly, 61 is the only number in the pluperfect Fibonacci sequence not divisible by itself.

     'The Madame lived in total seclusion near Boston but for 27 handmaidens and one manservant, an abundantly tattooed Polynesian named BaBob. Home was a rambling old stone and steel building that had once been the Algonquin Foot Foundry in London which, one may think, is not so very near Boston, but certainly is when compared to the distance to the Babcock asteroid belt, which Madame often did.

     'BaBob's oddest tattoo -- which he claimed was self-etched under the guidance of an intelligent paranormal entity with zippers -- extended from his latissimus dorsi to his adam's apple. It was a blueprint for an addition to a house, complete with a list of construction materials. With Madame Vestris' encouragement, he procured and assembled the odd assortment of materials. When he was done, the former foundry front porch had a new deck made entirely out of zinc, which, too, was a metal floor for her time.

     'The Mysterious Madame had a face which could politely be described as unforgettable. Her limpid eyes shone like reflective pools of hot tar that trapped small ruminants, sometimes for centuries. They were dangerously deep brown in color, midway between a khaki and a Cleveland brown. Her nose could have been pressed from a waffle iron, and the steady seepage from her nostrils was reminiscent of a slow oil leak from, say, a '54 Hudson. Her mouth and gums were distended from engaging in daily oral badminton volleys when she was young, and the residual phosphorescence produced an eerie orange glow visible just before dawn. Her ears, often mistaken for cartilaginous potholders, could pick up the sound of ventriloquistic field mice at 300 yards. Her eyebrows never stopped growing and were so long that two handmaidens coifed them daily into a miniature diorama of Mesopotamia, the ancient birthplace of the tokamak.'

     Aldeau considers the ramifications of the story, discards it, then settles down with a left-behind deck of playing cards with crop circles imprinted on their backs to await the return of his Eskiminions.

     ABEL KENHOWZER, AGE 38, sits in his pick-up truck in the parking lot of the Catbox Café awaiting the 11pm shift change. He has been sitting there slouched behind the steering wheel for nearly four hours, alert for any untoward change in the atmospheric conditions around him. He slowly stretches his cramped feet and knocks over an empty styrofoam cup on the floor. The noise, inaudible outside of the truck cab, sounds like cannonfire to Abel, and he jerks upright, accidentally brushing against the volume knob on the stereo. A hyperactive disc jockey had been playing static for 15 uninterrupted minutes on the radio, but suddenly the gentle susurrus changes into a deafening roar of alpha wave particles waging war on hapless magnetron oscillators, and Abel has to switch off the ignition to stop the racket. He holds stock still, the only sound coming from the jingling of the key ring in the ignition. Glancing furtively about, he satisfies himself that no one else heard the commotion. In fact, no other vehicle is parked within 50 feet of Abel's truck, and a nearby kennel of dogwood trees helps conceal him even more. Relaxing somewhat, he checks the barometric pressure, wind color, and nuclear antimatter bandwidth and enters the data in his notebook. So far, everything appears normal. Everything, that is, except for the fact that he has in the past hour heard the word "Mesopotamia" uttered 11 times and his truck has been twice circled by four hooded characters in an old Hudson Wingback.

     Inside the café in booth #12, Emil and Dorodny are hunched over a huge plate of mashed potatoes. The mushroom gravy sits idly by in a tureen on which cherubs suck on ornate hookahs in basso rilievo. Blanche had served the gravy separately so the two wizened trenchermen could deal with the potatoes on their own terms -- which is to sculpt the mash into a realistic likeness of a certain fusion energy device as alien to the café as are bean bag chairs to the Trilobite hunter-gatherers of the New Guinean backcountry. The hands which carefully knead and massage the pliant tuber mound have done so dozens of times before, and as whatever it is slowly takes shape, a few café regulars crowd around the booth to watch the finishing touches. The time is 10:55pm.

     The Hudson, driving without headlamps, slowly turns off of Boise Street and pulls into an employee parking space. Through night vision field glasses, Abel observes three young giggling women in waitstaff attire pile out and saunter into the building. A fourth person remains in the idling car, fiddling with what looks like an ant farm. He, or she -- the hooded parka conceals the person's genderical persuasion -- attaches a whip antenna to the roof of the car, opens the trunk, and pulls out a mysterious looking console from which green glowing tubes protrude. Working quickly, the cowled character connects a cable from the console to the antenna, flips a switch, climbs back into the car, and revs the engine, shattering the evening calm. Soon, however, the engine howl is displaced by another sound, a low frequency hum that seems to resonate through the earth, but whose focal point is undeniably the Hudson. Abel can actually see shards of the deeply-pitched oscillation emanate from the antenna, and as the pulsing increases in frequency, vision through his glasses begins to distort on the vertical axis.

     As his digital wristwatch chirps 11pm, Emil pours the gravy onto the potato sculpture. The brown slurry sizzles as it hits an energy field, and then the mound begins to flow in and out of focus. The size of the field grows rapidly, and within nanomoments the entire café and part of the parking lot are also wavering between two uncomfortably different focal points. The visual slippage plays especial havoc with the Hudson, seeming to stretch its chassis among an assortment of divergent universes before the car and its occupant abruptly wink completely out of existence, at least on this visual plain. An afterglow from the headlamps is all that remains ... that and the eerie sound of the word "Mesopotamia" echoing in the suddenly chill air.

     Inside the café, the energy field dissipates and normal focus gradually returns to the mound of potatoes, which once again resembles hearty diner fare, prompting Dorodny to dig in hungrily. Emil withdraws a sparkling vial of thawed limeade concentrate from his coat pocket, takes a sip, and joins Dorodny in the culinary dismantling of the potato-flavored tokamak. There will be much to discuss this night.

     Outside in his pick-up truck, the 38-year old former whiskers six-draw champion jots improbable barometric pressure and wind color data into his notebook, sighs, and turns on his radio. The gentle susurrus of static is still there, and he pauses to listen, his senses alert for any change in normal radiophonic frequency modulation. But he hears only the imagined plop of warm mashed potatoes entering a vacuum, and the occasionally whispered polysyllabic metaphor which he has come to both anticipate and apprehend, a metaphor which, coincidentally, is the sole instruction noted in Step 123.

     THREE MONTHS have elapsed since nine Eskimos departed the mining shack in Klegmore, Northwest Territories, in search of a medical hibachi, a roll of duct tape, 70 feet of climbing rope, and a dogwood tree. Inside the shack, however, only ten hours have passed, due to the colossal influence the partially assembled tokamak exerts over the laws of physics. Aldeau stares at the window in a transcendental trance, his breathing reduced to exhalations only. The blue-black light filtering through the window creates inverse shadows on the floor that resemble a frieze of frozen fogdogs. A deep, eerie growl below the range of conscious human hearing emanates from one of the wispish canines. The part of Aldeau that still longs to howl at the moon, chase cars, and eat from a dog dish prompts him to instantly revive, open the door, and adjust his eyes accordingly. Although the upper two-thirds of the nearby radio tower appear normal -- notwithstanding the 1954 Hudson Wingback parked perpendicular to the pinnacle -- the base ripples in gravitational defiance of the rest of the structure, clearly demarking the range of the dismantle-mak. The onset of Celsian Winter has turned the pallor of the landscape from burnt sienna to astrolabe white, and a series of circular tracks surrounding the shack suggests visitors of extraterrestrial origin. The wine cellar entrance is now buried beneath a glacier, but Aldeau can still hear a ghostly keening in parallel fifths. Upon closer scrutiny, he discerns that the sound comes not from subterranean Eskimos, but from the rubber earthworms on the floor of the shack behind him. Caught in a temporal rift by the Theory of Disputational Distortion, they seem to writhe precisely out of phase with the suddenly active fogdogs, creating a macabre pas de vingt-deux whose path along the floor, when viewed from below, resembles the outline of a smoldering tweezer.

     Glancing north, Aldeau is shocked to discover the crystalline shore of the Beaufort Sea a mere kilomile away, a geographical improbability of insultingly huge proportion. The attendant crop circles, too, have been dragged to within yodeling distance of the shack. Could this topologic anomaly be attributed to the disassembled fusion energy device, or had the limeade concentrate come from citrus fruit imbued with psychotropic properties?

     A single Eskimo materializes beside the radio tower two-thirds in focus and holding a large Foodies Grocery Emporium bag. As he approaches Aldeau, his focal point fluctuates wildly, but at last he is close enough to share the same space-time positioning. The two exchange gesticulatory greetings and small cheeses, then the Eskimo withdraws from the bag a dwarf dogwood tree. Instantly the mining shack fogdogs commence howling in long forgotten and forbidden keys that causes the earth around them to convulse. Grabbing his jerkin and adobe hat, Aldeau makes the Athabaskan sign for skedaddle, which they do. The Eskimo leads the way to the radio tower, which they hurriedly climb. Caught between two argumentative realities, the shack begins to slowly ooze into another dimension. The keening from the worms grows louder, more dangerous, and the parallel fifths evolve into minor sixths, tenths, and tritones. At the top of the tower, the two absquatulators jump in the Hudson, lock the doors, and hunker down. Beneath them, the world as they know it ceases to make sense, although the door to the mining shack manages to maintain a kind of noble rationality about itself.

     As the bottom third of the radio tower pursues the mining shack and surrounding terra infirma into The Unknown, the Eskimo instinctively turns on the car radio. A gentle susurrus of static pours from the speakers, almost but not quite masking the shadowy, sepulchral sound of the Athabaskan word for "Mesopotamia" murmured in the key of G minor -- a word uttered long ago that had since bounced off a distant supernova and now exists in that Klegmore space-time locality solely for the purpose of offering tokamakic advice. The advice as Aldeau understands it, requires 70 feet of climbing rope and a dogwood tree. The tree is in his pocket. The rope -- which would appear to be a far more useful item for rescue -- remains at large. Failing to persuade the Second Pluperfect Law of Gravity to take a holiday, Aldeau observes the ground as it approaches. Fast.

     TWO TRILLION YEARS BC in the tiny Greek hamlet of Klondike, Aphrodite, the goddess of cosmetics, and Apollo, the god of moon rockets, were sitting in the godatorium discussing how to impose the Theory of Disputational Distortion upon the race of upstart free-will human beings, who had already given sentience a bad name by inventing the limerick. Into the room then floated Flora and Fauna, the twin goddesses of peat bogs, effectively snubbing the laws of gravity which had recently been imposed by Jupiter, the CEO of goddom ... or, the goddom CEO, as many of the undergods called him. Flora and Fauna brought word that Pluto, god of cartoon dogs, had banished Hermes, god of skin inflammations, to the nether region of Mount Olympus called Nikon, into which no light was permitted to shine. Hermes was to be forever exiled to that darkly foreboding place because he had sworn revenge on Mars, the god of chocolate bars, who had had his sister, Selena, the goddess of durum wheat, slain because she had spurned his lustful advances. Selena had been felled by a spear from Neptune, a really really big planet, during a heated handed antecedent of whiskers six-draw, a game of mythological complexities. Hermes subsequently learned from Juno, amnesiac queen of the gypsies, that Mars had conspired with Neptune after Saturn and Mercury, the respective gods of sedans and thermometers, had refused to take part in offing Selena because they both liked her chaffed lips. At once, Hermes had enlisted the help of Vulcan, god of heat-hardened rubber, who had been on the outs with Mars ever since his daughter, Freya, goddess of old, raveled clothing, had been swindled in a speculative cocoa deal by Mars posing as Astarte, goddess of mining shacks. At this point, Aphrodite interrupted Fauna and Flora to place a conference call to Venus, goddess of flytraps, and Kronos, god of the string quartet. She had sensed something fishy about Mars masquerading as another goddess. Although he was a known shenaniganer of the highest order, she also suspected that the perpetrator was really Adonis, the god of pederasty. But, the line was busy -- this was eons before call waiting, remember -- so at last Aphrodite rejoined the others to hear the end of the story. Apollo, meanwhile, had received a cryptic message from Athena, a Fibonacci scholar, that he was to meet Vulcan and Ronald, a god-intern, at the River Styx Motel at sundown, and to come alone. Apollo was immediately suspicious because on Mount Olympus, of course, the sun never set, a phenomenon that caused many on the Big Hill to suffer sleep deprivation. So instead, Apollo sent Amen-Ra, the big nosed godfather himself, out into the Styx. Anticipating a trap, Amen-Ra assembled his own gang of Athamas, god of the haberdashery, and Judo, god of martial arts, who made a formidable trio all by himself. Meanwhile, Cupid, god of valentines, had overheard everything and was sneaking off to file a story with a tabloid newspaper when he ran headlong into Jupiter, who demanded to know what was going on. Cupid at first haughtily said a free press necessitated source confidentiality, but after Jupiter had turned him into a heifer, a weeping stone, a willow tree, a kingfisher, a white bull, and finally a golden fleece, he finally spilled the beans ... which is extremely difficult for a fleece to do. As Cupid told of Mount Olympus' multiple conspiracies, Jupiter got madder and madder. In fact, when Harry, god of harassment, and David, son of Goliath, strolled innocently by, Jupiter impulsively turned them into a mail order fruit company. And when he at last grasped the vast web of intrigue that had been spun around him, his rage was so great that the heavens around him -- specifically sector Q4z -- burst into equal parts of fire and nymphs.

     By now, Amen-Ra, Athamas and Judo had reached the River Styx Motel. Somehow, refuting the constant of Mount Olympian daylight, the sun did set shortly thereafter, creating a stygian gloom around the lodging premises. Concealing themselves in a kennel of dogwood trees, the three surveilled the motel. All was quiet in units 1 through 5 and 7 through 12, so they focused their attention on unit 6, whence an odd assortment of moanings and low shrieks issued. Suddenly, a bright orange glow shot out of the window, followed by Horus, the god of harlotry. Framed in the window in a silk toga teddy was Dagmar, Horus' employee -- who knew many of the other gods, if you get my drift -- brandishing a bench warrant. Although the exchange of words was muffled, it was clear that she did not hold Horus in high, godlike esteem this day. Vulcan and Ronald appeared, beat up Horus a little bit, then approached unit 6. Ronald knocked at the door, but Vulcan pushed him aside, barged in ... and came face to face with a scene of such mythically depraved proportions that the cause of godliness was set back a million millennia. Zeus, god of animal parks, and Europa, goddess of small British sports cars, were locked in an embrace which no set of keys could ever open, although Freon, god of refrigerators, would later try to cool their ardor. The inventive intertwining of Poseidon, god of disaster movies, Pan, goatgod of critical skillets, and Marilyn, a willowy tart, ultimately led to the invention of the party game, "Twister." And Osiris seemed anything but dead as he put moves on Cora, goddess of apple centers, that would have humbled the Chicago Bulls' starting five. In the corner documenting the event with stone tablet and chisel sat Freya. Vulcan didn't see her, else he might not have departed so hastily, but he was, after all, expecting to meet with Apollo. Ronald, however, was eager to continue his apprenticeship, so he stayed and eventually entered the Freya. Amen-Ra, Athamas and Judo emerged from cover and strode towards the motel. Fearing another thwacking, Horus skulked away.

     As Vulcan backed out of unit 6, he inadvertently stepped on the foot of Judo, who instinctively reciprocated with a chop to the jugular. It was a mighty blow and Vulcan keeled over, ending any prospects for him to "live long and prosper." Aghast, Amen-Ra began to berate Judo, who, involuntarily again, walloped him with the entirely innocent Athamas. Observing the senseless carnage from the kennel of dogwoods was Atlas, god of road maps. As a clearly overstimulated Judo pushed open the door to unit 6, Atlas hurriedly dialed Pluto's private number.

     Meanwhile, back at the godatorium, Fauna and Flora had ended their convoluted narrative and had repaired to the lobby to meet with Hoffius, president of the Mount Olympus Labor Union. Aphrodite, unable to make heads, tails or hooves out of the story, was about to seek out Juno when the phone rang. It was Hyperion, keeper of Algonquin Holes and colleague of Pluto, who warned her of Judo's brutal behavior. As she subvocalized the news, Apollo, an accomplished lip reader, summoned Asgard the guard and posted him at the entrance, armed and dangerous. Unfortunately, the first to approach was Jupiter himself, and when he was challenged by the by-the-book Asgard, the annoyed CEO turned him into a Bolivian insult ... yes, the same le flambeau oriange that will later befuddle Aldeau in Canada!

     As fierce and omnipotent as Jupiter was, he nevertheless failed to watch his back, which is whence Judo attacked. Seemingly completely off his godly nut, Judo pummeled the Olympian monarch until Jupiter's red spot bled and he broke up into 12 tiny moons. With blood on his hands and bloodlust in his heart, Judo then entered the godatorium.

     Weak resistance was offered by Flora and Fauna, whom Judo brusquely dispatched. Venus, who had stopped by for tea, suffered a similarly rapid reduction in her vital signs. Aphrodite had changed into the North Wind and blew herself safely out to sea. Mars had lined up Neptune for a fatal clobbering, but he couldn't draw a bead on Judo while he was in the godatorium. That left Apollo alone to face the Olympian martial artist. But, what's this? Who should materialize out of slim air but Marlin the Fishamagician! Unfortunately, the piece of air in which Marlin emerged was the same space in which Judo was placing a karate kick. Thunk! went Marlin's head, as it unceremoniously detached itself from the rest of his body. As Judo briefly let down his guard to savor the serendipitous moment, Apollo drew four cabalistic runes on the floor and uttered a series of unequal tempered pitches which scholars would later credit as being the first attempt at music. But Apollo surely didn't have ASCAP aspirations on his mind; rather, he was attempting to summon his last hope. And, while Aldeau didn't magically appear in a cloud of carbon tetradioxide, he did pull up to the front of the godatorium in a 1954 Hudson Wingback at that instant. More important to Apollo, and subsequently to Judo, was the fusion energy device clipped to his titanium jerkin. Comprised of an improbable assemblage of magnetic coils, vacuum chambers, six-inch strips of lithium, and a hundred other elements as alien to Mount Olympus as were coin-operated vasectomats, Aldeau's tokamak represented a bridge from the old world to the new, a bridge that Judo was determined to burn. He faced Aldeau, his face contorted into a maze of wrinkles that resembled the arable fields west of Rangoon when viewed from space. But to Aldeau, who had recently ridden in the Hudson's back seat as it followed a mining shack, two-thirds of a radio tower, five crop circles, and a kilomile's worth of Beaufort Sea from one misguided dimension to another to another, the sight of another biped, no matter his mental state, was anything but daunting -- especially with his trusty toroidal magnetic chamber by his side. It had taken him 11 different realities to get the hang of the device, which basically was to not touch anything, but this time he sensed that more extreme measures were called for. So he set the box down on the earth and flicked a toggle switch to "On." At once, the godatorium was bathed in an eerie, blue-black luminescence, and many architectural features of the structure began to flow into and out of focus. One organic item, too, started to waver between two unlike realities, and that, to the dismay of Judo, was Judo. His arms disconnected themselves from his shoulders and reattached to his feet, making walking somewhat easier but making martial art thwacking next to impossible. Adrift in a temporal morass, Judo bobbed erratically towards Aldeau, unclear as to his purpose. But Mars had no such difficulty in deciding his course of action, and when Judo had cleared the godatorium's front porch, he fired Neptune at him.

     Now, you'll recall that Neptune was a really big planet, and if reality had been playing with a full deck, Mars would have kayoed Judo, true, but he also would have smashed to bits the godatorium, Apollo, Aldeau, the Hudson Wingback, Mount Olympus, Klondike, and the rest of the world, too. But luckily for him, the tokamak had already replaced a lot of Big Hill components with discombobulatingly cross-dimensional realities. So, while Neptune did indeed dispatch Judo -- and good riddance -- it then got sucked into a universe newly manufactured by the tokamak where, to this day, it charts its own course across the celestial heavens, chased by Pluto, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter's 12 moons, and Mars, too, all of whom followed the big planet like lemons into the sea. How Jupiter managed to reconstitute himself, and where Uranus, the asteroids, and the Parcheesi Subnebula's puzzling interstellar antimatter came from are mysteries better left to another, better informed chapter.

     (Note: The following is not that chapter.)

     THE THEORY OF DISPUTATIONAL DISTORTION is one of those humanistic hypotheses that gives existentialism a bad name, the willies, and a run for its money, not necessarily in that order. Formulated long ago by a coven of epistemological crackpots, the Theory is so fraught with contradictions and incongruities that, under normal circumstances, it tends to deny its own existence. In its original form, the Theory is over eight thousand words in length, however a recent computer program based upon Mobius strip analysis reduced it to the single, unpronounceable Athabaskan word for "Mesopotamia." Simply stated, the Theory can never be, as it consists mostly of irrational syllogisms, equivocal speculations, dialectic disagreements, functionally abstract absurdities, a priori sophisms, and many conflicting points of view, often all within a single dependent clause. The premises themselves are couched in subheadings so obtuse that even the brightest word scholars have been humbled and left to mutter about Aristotle's pantaloons. In fact, the Theory is so unswayed by logic that utter bewilderment is its most frequent contribution to the store of human knowledge, followed closely by a queasy feeling in the pancreas.

     The most readable version -- both in terms of understanding and penmanship -- was concocted by a trio of International Layman's Language Institute interns 30 years ago. Kuprini, Nuncvik and Blew, candidates for membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Eskimos, had accompanied nine other Inuitians to an old mining shack in Klegmore, Northwest Territories, a remote hamlet in northwesternmost Canada. The camaraderie was warm, but the temperature was so cold that the light appeared blue-black in color and texture. It was too cold to talk -- mouths tended to freeze open or closed -- so everyone engaged in Athabaskan hand gestures. The Klegmore outing was supposed to have been a hedonistic retreat at a volcanically heated spa on the Beaufort Sea but the BPOE member who headed the Travel Committee, since removed, had failed to properly research the accommodations.

     What attracted Kuprini, Nuncvik and Blew to the Theory is anybody's guess, although it reputedly smelled a lot like the ILL Institute's lobby in DeKalb, Illinois. At any rate, they found that by deleting all but every 250th word in the text and anagrammatizing any leftover words sesquipedalian in spirit, if not in fact, the Theory could be distilled to the following: "Equivocal chaos can determine hypothetical conditions for provoking a quantized energy flash in an adulterated essence, notwithstanding the effects of particle wave chicanery, the reactive premise of which exists retrosporadically, whiskers six-draw." The transliteration was nothing if not controversial, and the three sat around the mining shack at width discussing it. By arguing in hand gestures, they didn't disturb the others, plus the rapid motions helped keep blood flowing to the extremities.

     But it did something else, too: the swirling gestures combined with the cold, blue-black luminescence somehow made minute puncture holes in the space-time continuum. The more they gesticulated, the more unreliable the reality around them became. And when a strange new variable based on the eccentricities of Celsian Winter fogdogs was added to the transcendental mélange by a tall, bejerkined fur trader with tokamakic leanings, the three suddenly felt themselves flowing inexorably towards a parallel universe, one whence light seemed uninterested in escaping. Sound, however, was free to come and go at will, and what the other inhabitants of the shack assumed was a weather report from Florida captured on the short wave radio ("The comet which sideswiped Dade County last night has created inverse precipitation in Miami, causing the onset of December to be delayed by several hours. And Frostproof's first land-locked iceberg in over 600 millennia seems to be a result of quirky radiation from Jupiter's moons.") was more likely the sound of existential mashed potatoes entering the outer vacuum of an Algonquin Hole.

     ALDEAD, MEANWHILE, HAVING VANISHED from the Mount Olympus godatorium as suddenly as he had arrived, has slipped safely into unconsciousness, where he encounters a recurring dream.

     'Beoluk slowly trudges across the desert, his legs wobbly from hours of negotiating the hot sand. He has been on foot ever since his camel, which carried all of his provisions, was spooked by a sand witch and ran off. Tired and parched, he stops, opens his canteen, and licks the last drops of condensation from the cap. Above him a flock of vultures slowly circles, patiently awaiting his impending transformation to carrion. Annoyed, he starts off again, following the fading track of the camelprints on the sand. He stumbles more frequently now, but is determined to make it to the top of the dune in front of him. The vultures are closer now, and he can hear them keening in parallel fifths on the wind. But, as he crests the dune, his energy spent, his lungs afire, he miraculously beholds an oasis of buildings in the distance. And beyond the buildings, the end of the desert and the beginning of scrub shrubbery. Delirious with relief, Beoluk charges down the dune and scurries towards the village. He tries to call out, but his throat is too dry to make a sound. The vultures, however, squawk loudly, perturbed that their supper plans are changing before their suppurating eyes. The desert sand extends right up to the gated stone wall which surrounds the village, and Beoluk staggers through the doorway and collapses in the shade of a gnarled old oak tree. Catching his breath, he studies his surroundings. A dozen structures -- including a minaret, a mosque, a temple, and several smaller dwellings -- encircle a grassy square. In the center of the square sits a well, from which he can clearly hear the musical drip-drip-drip of water. Next to the well lurks the skeleton of a 1989 Buick coupe. Once the color of cartilaginous sea foam, it has since been bleached white by the relentless sun. Oddly, no inhabitants can be seen, although Beoluk can hear snatches of conversation in a dialect reminiscent of hot wax. He gets to his feet, scuttles over to the well, and drinks deeply from the cool, clear water. A kippered herring mysteriously materializes on the well wall, and he eagerly gobbles it down. Glancing up, he is shocked to find his camel beside him, chewing on another herring and anxiously eyeing the water. He moves aside, allowing the beast to drink its fill. Another kippered fish, this one a salmon, lands at his feet, and he glances around to see whence it came. Suddenly, the air is full of smoked fish, all apparently having been flung from inside the temple. He is beaned by at least four more fish, and scores more litter the ground around him. The door to the temple opens then, and a wizened old man in a navy brown cassock appears carrying a goat. He marches towards Beoluk, passes him without comment, then puts the goat in the Buick and clambers in behind him. The car starts -- another miracle -- and the odd couple drives through the gate and out into the desert. A dozen people clad in costumes more suited to a Texas barbecue emerge from the temple brandishing kippered fishes, which they hurl into the air with great glee, rhythmically chanting yum yum yum in a singsong manner that mocks tonality, though the camel seems to enjoy the vocal cacophony. Abruptly, ten thousand shrews rush into the courtyard, their yellow bodies turning the grassy square into a squirming carpet of jaundiced fur. This elicits hearty cheers from the people of the temple, who scurry around and scoop up as many of the sharply snouted critters as they can before they disappear back into the temple. All is again quiet, except for the camel, which begins to mimic the keening of the vultures.

     'Perplexed, Beoluk searches for clues as to what it all means. His quest eventually takes him to one of the camel's panniers, from which he withdraws a minature high band digital radio. Uplinking to the TELSAT communications satellite overhead, he dials in The Nietzsche Home Page on the Internet, which tells him the following:

     '"The goat, the desert, the kippers, the old man, the atonality, the rampaging shrews, even the ululating of yum all suggest the ritual of Yum Kippers, the Shrewish Day of Atonalment, when a high priest drives the symbolic goat, the scapegoat, into the desert. The singing camel and the vultures, on the other hand, imply that you will meet a tall, dark stranger disguised as exploding floor covering."'

     Exploding ... what? Aldeau awakens with a start as the ground above him convulses and detonates, sending shards of colorful pressed burlap and rosin into the air below. As his physical safety appears headed for a compromising situation, he is struck by the historical rarity of seeing linoleum blown apart. Moments later, he is also struck by the linoleum.

     BOBBY AND NINKOTA were hunched over the dual steering stalks of the skittering transport pod trying vainly to wrest control of the vehicle from the combined minds of the Paroleans. Blotting out the harmful pheromonic rays which the aliens projected was difficult but not impossible. By concentrating on the image of the Antarean antsucker, the Paroleans' natural enemy, the two youngsters were able to make a crack in the mindshield and gain sluggish response from the navigation mechanism. Still, the aircraft continued ever downward on a trajectory that would converge with the rupture in the space-time continuum that had been breached by the Algonquin Hole. The wings of the transport pod glowed a deep phosphorescent blue as it plunged through the Earth's argonosphere. Heat from the outer hull seeped into the cabin, raising the interior temperature by a factor of 15, forcing the two adventurers to shuck their space parkas. The vial of bug blood that had been extracted from the queen -- and the reason the Paroleans were in pursuit -- had turned white hot and bubbly, threatening to burst. Bobby wondered if he and Ninkota should abandon the ship and the mission, or if they could weather yet another assault from the aliens' mighty antimatter cannons.

     Just one week ago, the Paroleans had been sedately living a life of socially organized leisure in 506 contiguous ant farms in Roswell, New Mexico, as part of a covert research project funded by the Department of Defense's Alien Incursion Response Team. They had been living there since 1957, when one of their spacecraft had crash landed in the nearby desert. They closely resembled common Earth ants in both size and diction, and likely would have been overlooked by the Air Force patrol that had arrived to investigate the crash but for their sophisticated laser armament. After a minor "take me to your leader" misunderstanding had led to the destruction of their spacecraft by the trigger-happy squad leader, and the reciprocal incineration of the squad leader, the Paroleans had been transferred to AIRT Hangar 52 for temporary lodging. The scientist in charge, Milton Levine, built a 9" wide by 6" high by 1" thick containment facility in which to house and study the aliens. The Paroleans took to it like magnets to a refrigerator door and in fact were the first extraterrestrials to breed in captivity. So successfully did they procreate that Levine had to build dozens, and then hundreds more facilities. Eventually he sensed a mass market appeal for his product, got himself debriefed from the AIRT, and went into business marketing Uncle Milton's Ant Farms. The escape-proof and break-resistant ant farm containment facility was an instant hit, and for 40 years -- as aliens were gradually introduced into terrestrial harvester ant colonies -- it had been a staple of both Americana and national alien security.

     But then last Tuesday, a peculiar distortion in the space-time continuum coupled with increased Parolean displeasure with the quantity of clean tunneling sand significantly altered the alien dynamic. Socially organized leisure gave way to arthropodic anger, and a hundred million metapleural glands simultaneously released a caustic formic acid solution that quickly nullified the ant farms' escape-proof clause. With tiny but lethal laser weaponry clutched in trigger-happy mandibles, they systematically vacated their hermetically enclosed environs of 40 years.

     DR. ROBERT G. BEEZER, director of the Department of Defense's Alien Incursion Response Team, pulled up to the security checkpoint which fronted Hangar 52. Ernesto, the guard, acknowledged the doctor, peered at the passengers in the back seat of the old Hudson Wingback, then smiled and waved at Bobby, Beezer's 11-year old son. His reaction to Ninkota, Bobby's exchange student friend from Rangoon, was strained, though, because she had dyed her hair translucent and Ernesto imagined he saw alien entities hunkered down by the roots. But then Ernesto saw extraterrestrial life forms everywhere. When he began working at Hangar 52 in 1957, he really did see them everywhere. From all across the galaxy they came to exchange ideas and small gifts with humans, and Hangar 52 in Roswell, New Mexico was the nerve center from which all unearthly activity radiated. But in the intervening 40 years, most of the aliens had died or teleported back to their home worlds or had been reconfigured as aluminum zirconium. Today, most Earth-bound aliens carried green cards and hailed from Zacatecas or Toronto. Hangar 52, too, bore little resemblance to its GAFS -- or, Golden Age of Flying Saucers -- heyday. In 1995, a café and gift shop opened in what had once been the finest extraterrestrial language lab in the world. Studio Z, the former top secret artificial intelligence research facility, was now a daycare center staffed by aides whose only anxiety was radioactive diaper rash.

     Beezer escorted Bobby and Ninkota to his office next to New Mexico's MUFON headquarters. He smiled to himself. In the 1980s, the Mutual UFO Network had wangled an outpost at the facility by employing a pluperfect clause in the Freedom of Information Act. After a decade of openly biased scientific scrutiny, however, they had determined that extraterrestrial activity was more prevalent in a Baltimore shopping mall, and so they moved the bulk of their staff to the east coast. Only Friar Fellini remained at the Hangar 52 office. Like Ernesto, Friar had also seen untold numbers of alien life forms, but unlike Ernesto, Friar saw his through the bottom of a sparkling wine bottle.

     Dr. Beezer's office walls were lined with ant farms, most of which had gaping holes in their sides and no tenants. The few that remained sealed bore the offspring of those Paroleans who had mated with Earth ants. They were a disappointing progeny; they had none of the acute telepathic skills of the space travelers nor the social graces of the terrestrial harvesters. Their body components had degenerated, too. The hooded eyes, pink beaks and nose talons seemed less in keeping with an attempt at alien inseminated evolution than they did with creations of a frustrated B movie animatronics designer who had been staring at the world too long through the bottom of a sparkling wine bottle.

     While Dr. Beezer attended to business, Bobby and Ninkota were free to roam the facility. As was their custom, they raced to the AIRT spaceship museum where the alien transport pod mock-up, code-named the X252APT, awaited hands-on investigation. Modeled after the craft in which the Paroleans crash landed, the X252APT was too small for grown men and women to comfortably fit in, but was just right for the pre-teen crowd. Bobby and Ninkota strapped themselves into the formica chairs and Ninkota tapped one of the six articulated stalks on the control pad in front of her. The chairs raised and lowered in response, and a bank of lights on an overhead datascreen winked on and off sequentially. From past experience, they knew this meant the pod was gassed up and ready to go, however without the launch code, they weren't going anywhere ... outside of the cafeterium for a noontime snack. Until then, it was fun to just let their imaginations wander.

     Meanwhile, Dr. Beezer, having run the latest Parolean memorandum through the Elsewhere Language Paraphraser, was experiencing an anxiety attack. Originally thought to have been a harmless holiday greeting, the extremely tiny, boustrophedonic words were no less than an ultimatum from a race of smart ants irked at four decades of, to them, inferior living conditions. It said "Immediately return X252 spacepod plus Parolean queen bug vital fluid or suffer 200 xenotides (approximately 40 years, he calculated) of planetwide holocaust that reduces mankind to weasel spit equivalent, making devastation from Antarian antsucker in pale comparison.". The desire for their own spacecraft Beezer could appreciate; he also understood, though did not agree with, their ire towards the ant farm housing. But the reference to the queen bug blood made no sense at all. Unless ....

     Nervously, Beezer rang the AIRT command center. Five rings. Six. Seven, and still no answer. He hung up and dialed channel 41 on his CB radio. Turning down the squelch control, he heard nothing at first. But then, filtering through the static as if it were fleeing from a parallel universe rich in linoleum, he heard an eerie voice without benefit of tongue intoning over and over again the Athabaskan word for "Mesopotamia."

     HAVING TIRED OF TWEAKING KNOBS and pulling levers in the Parolean transport pod, Bobby and Ninkota left to examine other exhibits in the spaceship museum that was located deep within the bowels of Hangar 52. Bobby liked the displays a lot, and was always disappointed he couldn't tell anyone else about them. Like all other facility visitors, he was sworn to top secrecy. To help him keep his little secret, Defense Department administrators had implanted an electrode in his nose. If he ever said the words Hangar and 52 together, it would instantly deploy a helium-filled airbag that would lift him 50 feet in the air while making it impossible for the lad to breathe on his own. Ninkota paused before a display that read "Alien Life Forms, P-Q-R." She scrolled down to number 47 on the list, Paroleans, and clicked her mouse on the antlike icon. The datascreen glowed blue-black, then filled with a holographic image of Dr. Frank Baxter.

     "The Paroleans," said Dr. Baxter in a mechanically gelatinous voice, "first visited the Earth home world in 1957. A crash landing in the desert southwest of Roswell resulted in sanguine resettlement at the Hangar 52 facility. They closely resemble the Earth ant in size, number of palpi, and diction, but have a marginally better sense of humor. Like the ant, the Parolean body is comprised of a head, an alitrunk and a gaster, or caboose, however the middle segment on the alien torso is used exclusively to carry luggage. Both critters sport metapleural glands, but the Paroleans use theirs for species-to-species communication and elimination of bodily waste. We speculate that they move their lips only to confuse their enemies and as attempts to break the ice at alien parties. Not only do they frequently all think alike, but applied concentration on a single thought produces pheromonic rays which, scientists theorize, can affect the behavior of Algonquin Holes in the space-time continuum." The accompanying music track swelled in volume to emphasize the importance of this statement. A video clip showed an artist's conception of an Algonquin Hole in a state of stasis, followed by the same Hole, presumably under the influence of pheromonic rays, doing the galactic equivalent of the Wooly Bully. Dr. Baxter continued, "Continued pheromonic ray production has been shown to cause a kind of massive hysteria among universal constants, even to the point of temporarily discombobulating the natural laws of physics. By projecting this 'mindshield,' the Paroleans can change the will of inanimate objects ... even my no-good son-in-law, Boise!" And here, the normally reserved Dr. Baxter roared with laughter. Composing itself, the hologram continued. "The only natural enemy of the Paroleans is a carnivorous hydroponic bug from the constellation Scorpius called, as best as we can translate, the Antarean antsucker ... but just wait until they meet their first Amway distributor!" And again Dr. Baxter abandoned his staid image of the consummate professional spokesperson and cackled loudly.

     Ninkota turned off the datascreen projection and looked around for Bobby. He was in the Hall of Ultimatums, an exhibition of alien threats -- both real and imagined, both mischievous and deadly serious -- which the Earth had received during the 50-year history of the Alien Incursion Response Team. An interactive computer program allowed museum visitors to formulate and present their own demands. Bobby had written several in the past, but today he was just reading.

     "Did you know that bug blood from a Parolean queen," he said as Ninkota approached, "makes the best fishing bait in the whole universe? Yeah, it's here in the Zontar Ultimatum of 1969. The Zontari had been competing in a galactic fishing contest for 40,000 years and using Parolean blood to reel in the most gigantic astrolunkers. They were way ahead of the other competitors when they ran out of bait and opted to detour to the Parolean home world in the Klondike Quadrant. The Paroleans didn't like their vital fluids being sucked dry 40,000 years ago and they didn't look forward to it again, so they left planet. They were apparently heading for sanctuary in the Cleveland Sector when their guidance system malfunctioned and they crash landed here on Earth. After following their space spoor for 12 years, the Zontari also arrived at Earth, however they came with an attitude and an ultimatum: 'Provide bug juice from the queen Parolean or be incinerated.'"

     Bobby continued to read. "But then, it was as if someone was watching over the Earth and the Paroleans, because an Algonquin Hole opened up right in front of the Zontari spacecraft, swallowed 'em all, then closed and just as suddenly vanished."

     "And they haven't been seen since," finished Ninkota, who'd heard the story many times before. "C'mon, let's get some lunch. I'll call to see if they have the oysteroni today."

     Ninkota moved the museum phone cursor to the cafeteria symbol and watched as the telephone icon rang five, six, seven times. Oddly, no one answered. Ninkota pressed the Stop button, then rekeyed the command. But there was still no answer.

     Dr. Beezer, meanwhile, had likewise been unable to raise anyone over in the AIRT command center, which was not only highly unusual but also incompatible with facility regulations. Sensing trouble, he logged onto the DoD's Wollensak supercomputer and accessed the beezerscope, an invention of his own that measured distortions in the space-time continuum. As he feared, all communications into and out of the Hangar had been suspended pending the arrival of an unidentified sentient entity with humanoid markings through the Algonquin Hole Roswell gateway.

     Who on Earth -- or off -- could it be? And why was he being pursued by -- the doctor reconfirmed the beezerscope's corporeal analysis function - a large sheet of linoleum?

     NO MATTER HOW OFTEN the event occurred, Aldeau never failed to be amazed each time he made first contact with an alien life form. The blepharospads, the goiters, the embryons, the heebie-jeebies, the clevelandors, the Paroleans, the chaoticians -- each initial meeting had been unique and offered numerous opportunities to get inter-species relations off on the wrong foot, or whatever means they were using to accommodate gravitational reality. But this last first contact with the -- well, he never did catch its name -- the creature that resembled pressed burlap and rosin had been especially unsettling, because it wasn't an encounter so much as it was a collision. As far as Aldeau could tell, both he and the, um, the alien had been caught in the throes of an Algonquin Hole as it tore yet another snippet from the fabric of the fabled space-time continuum.

     He had parted company with the last remaining member of his mining shack comrades when the Inuitian bailed out of the Hudson Wingback seconds before it and part of a radio tower vanished from a patch of highly unstable Klegmore real estate. Sensing that his tokamak had had a hand in the event, Aldeau had remained in the car, curious to see what next law of physics the still-disassembled device might discombobulate. A low frequency hum gradually replaced the susurrus of static from the car radio speakers, which rose and fell coincident with his surroundings oozing into and out of focus. Suddenly, everything outside the Hudson dissolved into the visual equivalent of a hiccup, and Aldeau slipped into a bizarrely different, but somehow pleasant alternate universe.

     Pleasantness is, of course, a relative term. What seems agreeable to a human might be lethal to a race whose dietary preferences are based, say, on Fibonacci algorithms. In Aldeau's case, anything short of total molecular discombobulation would be a pleasant distraction from the turmoil he'd endured of late. Equally open to interpretation is the perception of time passing. The German Augenblick, the blick of an eye, is a rapid measurement of time to most sentient species, but to Aldeau in his alternate universe, it was an eternity compared to his stay in the bizarrely different but somehow pleasant alternate universe.

     In other words, the pleasantness didn't last long. His tokamak, determined to maintain instability in the time-space continuum, kept shunting him from dimension to dimension, from reality to reality. He had long since decided not to abandon the device for fear of what it might do all by itself, not that he ever exercised the slightest control over it. In each new universe, the sky was blue-black and the car radio worked, but nearly all other aspects of reality made U-turns and tried to distance themselves from him as rapidly as possible. This time, the Hudson was, for want of a better word, parked -- which is a perfectly fine word after all -- on top of a mountain. Nearby were a heifer, a weeping stone, a willow tree, a kingfisher, a white bull, a piece of golden fleece, and a cup of oysteroni. In the valley below, he spotted several people lounging about in togalike attire. From the declivity of the mountain and the position of the sun relative to the undeniable tokamakic influence on it, he deduced he was on Mount Olympus. But whether he was in western Washington or northern Greece, he didn't know. He put the Hudson in gear and drove slowly down the mountain. There was no road and the angle of descent approached 100 degrees -- certainly this was a motoring adventure that should never be attempted without a tokamak. At the bottom of the mountain two dozen bumpy miles later, the degrees changed to Celsius, and Aldeau nearly swooned from the suddenly oppressive heat. He passed the mythological counterpart of a 12-unit motel whose jagged shadow provided welcome shade to a nearby kennel of sweltering dogwood trees. A paved street branched off from the motel, and he followed it cautiously. It led straight to a large, ornate building whence issued a caterwauling of such chimerically fierce proportions that Aldeau stopped the car at once. Or rather, the car's forward motion was suddenly compromised by emanations from the toroidal magnetic chamber in his lap. As he stepped from the Hudson, a strapping young lad with biceps the size of anteaters stomped menacingly out of the building. If this was the local Chamber of Commerce's idea of a meet & greet, he wanted none of it. The lad gesticulated so threateningly that Aldeau figured he'd better forego introductory social amenities and go right to Plan Z: shoot first and form a committee to ask questions later.

     He removed the pulsating reality-hazard from his jerkin, set it down on the ground, and flicked a toggle switch to "On." While normalcy as he knew it took another holiday and the ruffian began to lose his focal point, Aldeau took time to examine his surroundings. The house grounds were full of baroque sculptures of giant, armed ants, possibly of ancient Greek influence. Sleek marble fountains spat water into a semicircular poolatorium in which a mysterious young woman with a waffle iron nose played oral badminton. A portable sarcophagus in the driveway awaited disassembly from a recent camping and looting trip. Three blond betogaed babes peered at him inquisitively from a second floor window shrouded in bunting. A loud swoosh caused him to glance up further, and, as amazed as Aldeau often was when trying to cope with new and wholly fantastic wonders, he was utterly flabbergasted now to see the planet Neptune bearing down upon him. Hoping for at least one more tokamakic reprieve, he gamely looked the other way, left, towards his car radio, whence a ghostly caterwauling suddenly issued. It sounded -- and here Aldeau admitted to himself that he had no known memory to support his theory -- like imminent linoleum.

     THE STORY SO FAR: A mysterious traveler from ancient Mesopotamia named Aldeau appears at an old mining shack in Klegmore, Northwest Territories. Inside the shack a dozen members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Eskimos are gathered, chewing on rubber earthworms and playing extended hands of whiskers six-draw. Aldeau carries the components of a tokamak -- a toroidal magnetic chamber used in Algonquin Hole research -- which the Eskimos expect him to assemble. But he is a few ingredients short, so he sends the men out in search of 70 feet of climbing rope, a roll of duct tape, a medical hibachi, and a dogwood tree. Four Eskimos unearth a 1954 Hudson Wingback and locate the hibachi in its trunk; two others trek to a grocery in Tuktoyatuk for the tree; a long-buried wine cellar adjacent the shack produces the duct tape; and the climbing rope ... well, that item remains a puzzle, both as to its purpose and where it can be found nearby.

     Thirty time zones away, Abel Kenhowzer has the Catbox Café under surveillance when the Hudson Wingback pulls into the parking lot. Three women dressed as waitresses get out of the car and enter the eatery, where Emil and Dorodny are constructing a tokamak from a pile of mashed potatoes. A fourth person pushes buttons on a console in the car trunk, and he and the car abruptly disappear, while the potatoes flow into and out of focus.

     The car next appears on top of a radio tower beside the mining shack. Aldeau is snapped out of a three-month long trance by the keening of rubber earthworms on the floor of the shack. Caught in the throes of a space-time disturbance, the tower begins to opt out of its present dimension. Aldeau and one of the Eskimos, who just materialized with the requested dogwood tree, climb the tower and jump in the car as this reality sinks into the ground. He vanishes, only to reappear -- with the Hudson but without the Eskimo and dogwood tree -- in ancient Greece in the hamlet of Klondike. The mythical deities are in a tizzy because Judo, god of martial arts, has gone crazy and is attacking everyone. Aldeau gives him a whiff of the tokamak, discombobulating him, just as Mars, god of war, heaves Neptune -- i.e. the planet, not the god of Sea World -- at them both. Aldeau instinctively aims the tokamak at the onrushing planet and fades from reality again. He revisits a recurring dream about a man, a camel, and some kippered herring in the desert, then pops back on 20th century Earth through a seam in an Algonquin Hole where he is whacked by a heavy sheet of sentient linoleum.

     Meanwhile, Bobby Beezer and his friend, Ninkota, are piloting an extraterrestrial transport pod belonging to the Paroleans, an advanced race of antlike creatures who are chasing the youngsters in their own spacecraft. Bobby's father, Robert, director of the Alien Incursion Response Team in Roswell, New Mexico, had been studying the Paroleans for years in several hundred containment facilities, which had once been the prototype for the now popular ant farm. After 40 years of confinement, however, the Paroleans became antsy to move on. But what really triggered the alien anxiety attack was the disappearance of a vial of bug blood. Beezer had extracted it from the queen years ago to study its molecular configuration. In exchange, the Paroleans had extracted from Beezer a promise to never remove it from the laboratory. To the aliens it was a sacred fluid, and they believed it depleted the queen's vitality if it was farther than 200 antfeet from her. But Ninkota had copped it -- we don't yet know why -- and then she and Bobby had vamoosed in the transport pod, with the aliens in hot pursuit. When the scientist had tried to track the absquatulators on the beezerscope, he discovered instead a distortion in the variant relativity curve which suggested another extraterrestrial arrival. Two of them, in fact: a large sheet of sentient linoleum, and a transdimensionally unstable earthman clutching a tokamak. The two entities attempt to occupy the same space-time domain and collide. But instead of an ensuing rending of dimensional stability, Beezer hears only the susurrant aftersound of the word "Mesopotamia."

     WITH A HEADACHE reminiscent of the days when he wore adobe hats that were several sizes too small, Aldeau rolled over and gazed up into a sky that was refreshingly non-blue-black. Staring back at him was a biped with comfortably familiar features, such as a head with two eyes not on stalks. The creature's central cranial orifice worked up and down, whence emanated a series of pitched tones. It took Aldeau a moment before he realized he could understand the sounds.

     "Are you all right?" repeated Dr. Beezer.

     Aldeau struggled to his feet. "Who, what ... is reality?," he managed.

     "I'm Dr. Beezer of the Department of Defense's Alien Incursion Response Team, and you just landed in Roswell, New Mexico the hard way via an Algonquin Hole gateway. If you really are of Earth origin" -- Beezer gestured toward the tokamak -- "can I assume that thing had a hand in sending you here?"

     Aldeau nodded. "It hasn't worked right since ... since ever. It was modeled after the Flambeau reactor unit in Princeton, but apparently was copied by someone blepharospasmically challenged. I'm Aldeau. What year is this?"

     Beezer's answer was drowned out by the unsettling sound of two conflicting energy forces keening in parallel fifths. Aldeau and Beezer looked up. The sheet of sentient linoleum, for lack of a better identifying name, was hovering a hundred feet overhead. The beezerscope was going crazy, registering way up in the pluperfect in the time dilation field. And then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, it popped through the Algonquin Hole and vanished back into another refraction of space-time.

     "The local cosmic continuum has been a bit queasy of late," said Beezer. "And I suspect your -- it's a tokamak, right? -- isn't entirely blameless in the matter. Where did you say you'd come from?"

     Aldeau tried to explain in the simplest terms, but quickly realized that his answer contained little in the Rational Thinking Department. Still, Dr. Beezer followed most of Aldeau's quirky logic anomalies, and only seemed to get lost when he described tokamaking the planet Neptune.

     "Since you're just passing through this particular time-space universe, I wish you luck in your future and past travels. While you're here, though, perhaps you could help with a problem of immediate concern to this reality. You see, I'm trying to keep a lid on potential global annihilation by a race of antlike aliens because my son and his friend absconded with a vial of blood from their queen. That is so unlike him!"

     "But it's quite like his friend," piped up a muffled voice from the trunk of the Hudson Wingback, as it abruptly materialized in front of them both. Dr. Beezer opened the trunk and out crawled a rumpled man clutching a medical hibachi in one hand and a bottle of sparkling wine in the other. As soon as the tokamak sensed the brazier, it began to pulse in and out of focus. At the same time, a crack in the Algonquin Hole appeared two miles overhead and the linoleum, Judo, and the earthworm-strewn floor of the Klegmore mining shack briefly blinked into reality. But then the disheveled stranger flung the hibachi back in the trunk, slammed it shut, and the Algonquin Hole just as quickly winked out of temporal existence.

     "Ernesto!" Beezer exclaimed.

     "Kuprini!" Aldeau hooted.

     "Fzzt fzzt!" sputtered the tokamak.

     The newcomer held up a palm, and plucked from it a coconut. "Yes, I am Ernesto," came the sing-song reply in parallel fifths via the coconut, which was evidently some sort of universal language translator, "and Kuprini, and Haxthorn and Zacatole and Judge Crater and Uncle Milton and a dozen other names familiar only to your counterparts in various analogous universes." The tokamak continued to sputter, attempting to make a nuisance of itself by reversing the polarity of every neutron within 30 miles. The multiple-bipedality whacked its vacuum chamber smartly, and the device settled down with an irked hiss. "Ever since the Klegmore Convergence 30 years ago, I've been following your race as it sprints towards global catastrophe ... and all because of that tokamak." Upon hearing its name, the sentient apparatus briefly effected the quantum mechanical equivalent of a leer. "Had you been less consumed by the project's bottom line, which forced you to use suspect aftermarket parts, this whole strait might be a lot less desperate."

     With the ethereal after-echo of the whispered word "Mesopotamia," the Hudson Wingback vanished. The tokamak tried to follow, but Aldeau grabbed it just before it retreated into a time vortex and buttoned it securely in his titanium jerkin holster.

     The Ernesto-Kuprini amalgam continued. "I still don't know who put you up to reconstructing one of these tokamaks, but it no longer matters. Suffice it to say that all of your actions and those of everyone with whom you've ever come into contact over the past 43 years have been leading up to this moment, this nexus. It's all about the Paroleans and the Zontari and what utter cosmic chaos will result if the situation isn't resolved now, today." He gestured emphatically with his hand, and part of the universe around his arm briefly turned inside out. "You see? The entire space-time continuum is on the verge of utter bifurcation." With a disconcerting shudder, the inverted bit of universe uneasily corrected itself.

     "You remember, of course, that the Zontari were harvesting Parolean bug blood for use in their fishing contest when an Algonquin Hole suddenly materialized and sucked the Zontari fishing craft out of the space-time continuum? Well, they didn't all vanish. Some of them escaped the mothership. Your son's friend, Ninkota, was one of them. Were you to examine her head closely, you'd discover that she wears her hair up to hide two macrowave antenna nodules."

     Beezer thought about her transparent hair, her facility with alien dialects, her fixation on the Paroleans' transport pod, her decidedly unRangoonlike appetite for oysteroni and -- the real giveaway, thought Beezer -- the vast collection of postcards from Zontar she claimed to have "found" on a fishing expedition one day. It all made sense now! But -- his entrails abruptly went cold -- how much danger was Bobby in right now?

     With the Paroleans abreast of and training horrible weaponry on the X252APT and Ninkota about to teleport with the vial of bug blood back to the Zontari mothership which just now pierced the Algonquin Hole Roswell Gateway and his ears ringing from a recent boxing given him by an incorporeal Judo of Klondike, rather a lot, really.

     ALDEAU, BEEZER AND and the Kuprinesto combo hastened to the AIRT command center, where the doctor plugged the beezerscope into the main computer. "If I can get a message to Bobby, maybe he can thwart Ninkota, escape the Paroleans, avoid the Algonquin Hole, and still be home in time for supper," said Beezer. He typed a string of algorithmic mumbo-jumbos followed by the pound sign and keyed in a send command. "This code stream should be picked up by the transport pod's artificial intelligence analyzer," said Beezer. "If Bobby's piloting the ship, he'll have to notice it."

     Bobby Beezer's hands were sweaty from sawing back and forth on the X252APT's steering stalk for the past two hours. But no matter what evasive maneuvers he effected, the Parolean spacecraft drew ever closer. Now the distance between the two vessels had shrunk to a scant kiloacre, and Bobby could plainly see the alien cruiser's array of lethal armament trained on the transport pod. The Paroleans no longer even bothered to project pheromonic rays to discombobulate the pod's navigation mechanism, so certain did they anticipate imminent victory. What had begun as an innocent pre-teen prank had turned into an incident with surely global and possibly intergalactic consequences.

     A faint bleep-bloop on the console signaled a strange energy-matter transference from outside the pod that Bobby couldn't decipher. "Ninkota, what's this mean?" he asked his Burmesean copilot.

     Her slightly out-of-phase voice came from the rear of the pod, "It's probably nothing, but I can't look now. I'm still trying to fix the rudder. Just ignore it!"

     Bobby heard the teleporter motor grind to life briefly, then stall. He couldn't imagine why she was tinkering with that device. Surely she knew the pod's rudder control was under the floorboards of the lavatory in the center of the craft. The bleep-bloop signal persisted, so Bobby downloaded it, decoded it ... and was stunned to discover that it was an ASCII file addressed to him!

     "Bobby!" it read. "Hi, it's Dad. How're ya doin'? Don't let Ninkota see this message. She's really a secret agent from Zontar who means to steal the Parolean bug blood for their galactic fishing contest. We've just detected a Zontari fishing destroyer breaching the Algonquin Hole and presume she'll try to head for it with the vial of queenjuice. Whatever you do, don't let her escape! It could mean curtains for all sentient life here on Earth! Take it easy, son, and try to be home by dark. Signed, Dad."

     Well. This was worse than trying to snag dancing spaceblurms off of a greased mahogany pie! Ninkota an alien? A Zontari? Impossible!

     And then he reflected on how earlier that day he'd let her talk him into swiping the bug blood from his Dad's office and the transport pod from the Hangar 52 spaceship museum. Why? In hindsight, it made no sense. Her "oh, just for fun!" no longer held sparkling water. And how had she known the launch code? As he thought this, a layer of pheromonic residue fell from his subconsciousness and he realized that he'd been hypno-duped. For the first time he clearly saw her for what she was. Or he would have if she hadn't already strapped herself into the teleporter and engaged the "Go" button. But the exit circuitry was tied into Bobby's control pad, and he quickly countermanded the command, locking the door to the teleporter in the process.

     Ninkota banged on the teleporterportal. "Bobby! Let me out of here at once!" she squealed shrilly. With each impact, her demeanor seemed a lot less Rangoonian, a lot more feral. Her poundings, too, seemed to metamorphose. No longer timid taps from a svelte, five-stone 12-year old, these blows were puissant enough to buckle the titanium framework of the transport unit. Suddenly the housing cracked and a long, articulated appendage snaked out into the cabin. Through the viewscreen, Bobby could see that the rest of Ninkota now looked frighteningly like what Dr. Frank Baxter termed "those fiendish Zontari bastards!"

     The former Ninkota creature stuck its head through the gash in the teleporter and opened a horrific acid saliva-dribbling mandible. A tube shot out of the mouth, attached to the cabin wall, and began to suck nutrients out of the formica patina. The creature's translucent hair wavered sickeningly in and out of focus. From the alien's distended throat there arose a chortle so bloodcurdling that even the Parolean spacecraft backed off momentarily.

     Abruptly the console bleep-blooped again and the datascreen lit up with the file from Hangar 52's "Alien Life Forms X-Y-Z" display. 'Thanks, Dad!' thought Bobby, as he punched in Z¦Zontar¦What to do when confronted by hostile emissary.

     Millions of binary text images scrolled across the screen, followed by a snarling Pacman icon that gobbled them up, until the massive datamix was reduced to a mere 20 words:

     A. Avoid situation.

     B. Avoid situation some more.

     C. If situation is unavoidable, employ the Theory of Abstract Inertia Discombobulation and stand clear.

     Although Bobby had never even heard of the Theory of Abstract Inertia Discombobulation, he did know how to stand clear. And as he did so, the transport pod grazed the outer seam of an Algonquin Hole not entirely in control of its facilities. But that was not the worst of it.

     A hundred kilomiles below in the Alien Incursion Response Team's command center, Dr. Beezer watched in horror and fascination as a tremendous antithetical gravitational force materialized from well beyond the purview of the beezerscope, engulfed the pod, the Parolean spacecraft, the Algonquin Hole gateway, as well as all of sector Q4z space up to and including the front half of the moon, then vanished.

     THE FAX MACHINE at the New Mexico Mutual UFO Network office in Hangar 52 chirped "Receive," and a single page dropped into the Incoming bin. Friar Fellini stirred from his marathon 161st game of computer minesweeper to glance at the message. It consisted of 16 lines of squiggly text that were, at least to his bleary eyes, indecipherable, plus 126 numbered dots that formed a haphazard pattern across the bottom of the page. The sender was Bryce of MUFON Baltimore, the administrative jerk who assigned him to stay here and "hold the fort," as he put it, while the rest of the team roared off to Maryland to track known extraterrestrials the government was concealing in its witness protection program. Friar took another pull on his sparkling wine bottle, then pulled a decoding book from a pile of manuals arranged by jacket color in the sink. He leafed through 300 pages of odd cuneiform symbols until he got to the section on squiggles. The very third page displayed 16 lines of text wiggles that closely matched his faxed message. He turned the book upside down for the translation. It read "Connect the dots."

     The image was elusive, becoming apparent only after the 126th dot was connected to the first, but it was one with which Friar Fellini had once been intimately involved. It was a tokamak. A shiver ran up his spine, paused briefly to nip at his latissimus dorsi, then shot out of his cranial electrode implant with such force that the bulb in the overhead light fixture blew out. A tokamak -- the universal symbol of discombobulation from alien cultures throughout the galaxy, and a figure that he hadn't seen since his first day at Hangar 52. Bryce had briefed him on its significance and implied that Dr. Beezer and his secretive government cronies had dozens of them in storage here at the facility.

     But why had Bryce sent it to him?

     Forcing the blear from his eyeballs, he examined the facsimile message again, and noticed two tiny lines of text scrawled boustrophedonically on the upper right of the tokamak. As the significance of the words became apparent, the chill returned to his spine with a vengeance, cooling a potpourri of internal organs at the same time. Chugging the rest of his sparkling wine, Fellini booted up the Pratt & Whitney computer, loaded MUFON's "In Case of Extreme Circumstances" software, scanned the dotted likeness of the tokamak, and fed the image into the Contingency Extraterrestrial Intervention program. Then, he waited.

     Wait was all Dr. Robert Beezer could do at the moment, and he didn't do it graciously. Above him, the entirety of space in sector Q4z had vanished, taking with it representatives from two confrontational alien races, his son, Bobby, a testy Zontari, as well as the better half of the moon. Aldeau and Kuprini-Ernesto were tinkering with the tokamak, trying to get it to work, which it was failing to do for the first time since its debut in Klegmore. The beezerscope, on the other hand, was crunching numbers at a frenetic pace, trying to intuit the next shift in the massive antithetical gravitational force which had corrupted the gateway to the Roswell Algonquin Hole.

     Aldeau thwacked the tokamak. The device remained intransigent. "Why is it," he whined, "I could never get it to stop working when I wanted to! And now ..."

     The computer the beezerscope was plugged in to suddenly buzzed a warning. Beezer glanced at a string of numbers on the monitor screen ... and abruptly shared more than adjoining office quarters with Friar Fellini as his back iced over. "I think," he said, "we have an even bigger problem now. According to these figures, Einstein's cosmological constant has been reversed, meaning the universe has begun to contract."

     Meanwhile, an unknown number of miles and parallel universes away, in the cabin of the Parolean transport pod, Bobby continued to stand clear of the navigational controls while the Ninkota-creature keened an alien kaddish in parallel fifths and struggled to extricate itself from the locked teleportato. Having sucked the formica wall nearest it dry of nutrients, it reeled in its tongue, converted the nourishment to energy, and commenced banging on its holding cell with fresh vigor. Now would be a very good time to employ the Theory of Abstract Inertia Discombobulation, Bobby figured. If only he knew how to do it!

     The external alarm system abruptly went off, filling the cabin with unsettling sine wave squawks. Bobby dashed to the console, glanced at the monitor, and noticed with chagrin that the Parolean cruiser had fired point blank upon the transport pod. Normally, this would have been a matter of extremely immediate concern, but, due to the gravitational vagaries of the Algonquin Hole in which both vessels were caught, the missiles capriciously passed into another space-time continuum.

     Staring at the computer monitor, a lightbulb blinked on in the refrigerator section of Bobby's mind, and he again called up the display from "Alien Life Forms X-Y-Z." He punched in Y¦theorY of abstract inertia discombobulation -- capitalizing only the Y in theory ... and got lucky.

     Millions more binary text images chased each other around the screen until the datamix was distilled to three words: "Abandon. Ship. Now!"

     With a mighty crash, the former Ninkota broke through the outer casing of the teleporter. Shards of titanium debris flew everywhere ... as did the vial of Parolean queen bug blood. Bobby caught it just before it hit the floor. Enraged and quite brawny for a Zontari, the Ninkota creature advanced towards its erstwhile co-pilot and potential afternoon snack. Gulping a big breath of air, Bobby clamped a motion discomfort bag's worth of oxygen over his nose, unsealed the pod door, and dived out into the blue-black void of space.

     The twice refurbished Pratt & Whitney, taxed to its computational limit, crashed and rebooted itself six times, but at last printed out the information Friar Fellini was so desperate for. In the end, the most sophisticated First Contact program MUFON had ever devised resulted in an output of a scant 60 characters. Hopefully, that would be enough. Now all he needed was the tokamak.

     Fellini rapped on the door to Dr. Beezer's office, spied the post-it note affixed to the transom, then raced down to the AIRT command center across the hall from the cafeterium. Beezer, Aldeau and Kuprini-Ernesto looked up in surprise as he barged into the sanctum sanctorum of the covert Hangar 52 complex. "No!" he cried out as Aldeau was about to unplug the electron tube defibrillator from the tokamak. He tore the reality-hazard device from Aldeau's hands and recalibrated it according to the Pratt & Whitney's calculations. "Try this first," he said. And before anyone could react, Fellini powered up the tokamak.

     The light in the room abruptly darkened to an eerie blue-black and the air temperature plunged precipitously. A low hum emanated from the tokamak, around which seemed to swirl the susurrant aftersound of the word "Mesopotamia." Suddenly, a great ball of light shot upward through the command center skylight, disappeared ...

     ... and rematerialized inside the Algonquin Hole six parallel universes away in the by-now familiar image of a 1954 Hudson Wingback. Startled, but amenable to any change in his surroundings, Bobby Beezer reached through the fogdog-abundant temporal vortex in which he was floating, grasped the passenger side door handle, and clambered in. Taking care not to disturb the rubber earthworms that were engaged in a kind of elastic fandango on the floor, he scrunched down in the seat beside the 70-foot spool of climbing rope and gratefully breathed the carful of fresh, limeade-scented air. Behind him, the two querulous spacecraft began to slowly dissolve as the Appleby Layer within the Algonquin Hole unraveled. Within a nanomoment, they were gone, indistinguishable from cosmic kibble.

     Friar Fellini made another adjustment on Aldeau's tokamak, and the Wingback retreated through one rambunctious universe after another, until it finally popped back into Roswell free space, sealing the local Algonquin Hole gateway in the process. Dr. Beezer rushed to the car, which had recorporealized along with a host of confused subatomic particles atop the microwave oven transmitter in the cafeterium. His son was dazed but fine, and the vial of queen bug blood was just what he needed to placate those Paroleans who hadn't been trapped in the Algonquin Hole. Thanks to Bobby, a catastrophic planetwide bullet resulting from miscommunication between alien races had been dodged once again!

     The Theory of Abstract Inertia Discombobulation, reduced to its simplest form, states that the speed at which anything can be misunderstood increases in direct proportion with the attempt to correct the error. The speed with which Aldeau packed up his tokamak and titanium jerkin and, along with the Kuprinesto combo, vanished in the Hudson Wingback was therefore commensurate with the number of tokamakic maladjustments he'd made since initially firing up the device in the Klegmore mining shack amidst 12 adobe-hatted members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Eskimos ... give or take.

     Just before he and his traveling companion winked out of tangible existence, Aldeau tossed an out-of-focus slip of paper from the Hudson. They were gone before it hit the cafeterium floor. Dr. Beezer picked it up, read it, and shook his head. Friar Fellini glanced at it then, and he grinned. He pulled out his MUFON decoding book and opened to page 1 of the section on squiggles. A reasonable facsimile of Aldeau's piece of paper stared back at them. Fellini turned the book upside down and read the translation: "Safety deposit box #660, Roswell Interplanetary Savings or Loan; key behind planter in northeast corner of bank lobby."

     An ill-defined number of space-time periods later, Dr. Robert G. Beezer was in line at the Roswell IS or L with deposit box key #660 in hand. The teller, a tall sylph in a titanium blazer and translucent hair writhing atop her head, processed his withdrawal slip. She seemed unconcerned that it was dated 4000 BC and originated from a previously unincorporated bank branch in Klondike, Greece. Beezer entered the vault, removed the deposit box from its rusty cubbyhole, and nervously inserted the key. Undisturbed for nearly six millennia, the lock resisted opening, but did so at last, and Beezer eagerly poured the contents onto the customer service table.

     There was a thick packet of U.S. bank notes in denominations he was unfamiliar with, a small booklet, an altered deck of playing cards with grainy crop circle images on their backs, and a note. The note -- written in tiny, boustrophedonic text -- said that the money constituted the grand prize winnings of a whiskers six-draw tournament held in Albuquerque six years in the future; the cards were the ones used in that competition; and the booklet explained the treacherously confusing rules of the game.

     He slipped the cards, currency, booklet and note in his pocket, returned the deposit box to its vault stall, and walked home. Whiskers six-draw, eh?, he mused, fingering the cards in his pocket. How hard could it be to learn?

     Barring any interruptions from the Roswell Algonquin Hole, he figured he had six years to find out.

     The End