The Bowe Decommission, Part One
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Dan looked different.

Light saw it the moment he stopped down from the helicopter. He was standing straighter, his head was higher, his movements were quicker and more deliberate. He was also out of his detention uniform; the rotors were playing merry hell with his fresh white labcoat.

He looks like Dr. Dan, she realized, as the chopper took off. Dr. Dan… whatever his last name is.

"Good vacation?" she called.

He swept towards her across the helipad. Yep. Depressed people don't sweep, labcoats or no. They headed for the stairwell together.

"Vacation? Research trip. And yeah, it went well." He reached up to massage his shoulder; for a man who'd been shot a few days ago, he had quite the spring in his step.

"What did you get at 11 and 15 that you couldn't get here?" Here was Site-01, Overwatch. The centre which had to hold, come what may.

"A crash course." They were taking the stairs two at a time. "In everything. I had ten years of homework to catch up on, as you so kindly reminded me."

He fairly burst onto the eighth sublevel, and she followed in his fabric wake. Were you guzzling energy drinks over there? She suddenly noticed he had something heavy in one coat pocket. "I hope you're not gonna tell me you read five thousand SCP files in one day."

"No, I'm gonna tell you five different AIs did, and they taught me everything I needed to know." He paused. "Except for where I'm going, right now."

"I was starting to wonder. You seemed so confident." She took the lead, and he kept pace. "That's still a lot of information, Dan."

"I was being dramatic." They took the next corner briskly. "We didn't go over everything, just the stuff at 19. Especially humanoids and weaponry."

"Makes sense."

"Yeah, I got the Coles Notes on our man General George. He doesn't have a creative bone in his should-be-dead-and-radioactive body. He sees SCPs as two things: soldiers and arms. He's gonna 'deploy' any thinking anomalies he finds as insurgents, equip his men with anything that looks like a gun or carries an edge, and send out non-humanoids as attack dogs. I don't think he'll try chem warfare; he knows we can deal with most of what he's got, and presumably he wants to pick up the pieces once we're all dead, without getting gooped."

They stopped in front of a set of brushed metal double-doors. "Have you called anyone else in on this?" she asked. "You know I can't stay. How about Gears? Or Sokolsky?"

"No." He gave her a strange look. "I don't want an efficient cutting of losses. I don't want… unnecessary casualties."

She gave him a strange look back. "No baby."

"Right, no fucking baby. I want to manage some miracles. A better world through effective mental superheroics." He put one hand on a door handle; she put one hand on the other. "Feel free to chip in, when you're done with your actual superheroes."

They pushed the doors open.

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They were standing in what had once been Foundation Mission Control. The computer terminals had been refurbished and a thorough dusting had been attempted, but the consoles were still stainless teal steel and there were still spaces on the walls for projector screens and blackboards.

In fact, two techs were in the process of installing a whiteboard while Dan's team of researchers gathered in the room and chit-chatted in low tones. Once the board looked stable enough, he waved the techs off and uncapped one of several erasable markers. "Nobody else writes on this," he said. "This is mine."

"Nobody else would write on that," a bald, red-stubbled man remarked. Nate Frewer. Dan checked off a mental box. "Nobody else is a thousand years old."

"Hey," Light remarked. She was leaning on the doorframe, watching.

"I like whiteboards," Dan lied. "They help me focus on what's important." He started writing in big, blue, block letters:

THE BOWE DECOMMISSION

That drew a few appreciative chuckles. He turned to the plainclothes agents standing by the doors, and gestured at the board. "Anybody else touches this, shoot them."

Both agents looked at Light, who crossed her arms and sighed. "Tasers," she suggested.

"Nope," said Dan. He snapped his fingers in the air, and the gaggle of researchers dutifully clammed up. He looked them over: eleven women and nine men, none of them anyone special except for their high security clearances. He'd asked for each of them specifically, and made sure the right people saw his requests.

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"Hi," he said. "I'm Dr. Dan, and this is a Dr. Dan joint. You're here to do what I say, when I say it, and let me know when I should be saying or doing something that I'm not. As of right now, I'm the Director of the SCP Foundation Emergent Threat Tactical Response Authority, which is me and you and nobody else. That scary lady at the door is Dr. Sophia Light, Director of MTF Alpha-9 and our over-boss. She's got somewhere to be in a few hours, so you'll be stuck with my tender mercies for the appreciable future." He grinned; Light smiled, shaking her head.

"You lot," he continued, pointing, "are Shift A. Safiro's in charge." Kelly Safiro, a black-haired young woman, nodded. "The rest of you are Shift B, Frewer's team. We're doing twelve-hour shifts, so pack those calories in." He flicked a switch on the wall, and all the consoles hummed to life. "When we're not dealing with an emergency, the whole active shift's on collate duty. Sift the chaff from our MTFs and Site Directors, find anything anomalous that's not being immediately addressed, and bounce it to your team leads. We're in with all webcrawlers, satellites and spies on this initiative, so it'll take some doing! If you're not the shift lead, I don't want to hear you talking, I want to hear you tapping." He slapped the space bar on the nearest console for emphasis. "Shift leads are on call-out duty, feeding me problems in order of severity." He pointed at the large monitors dominating the room. "I'll tell you what to put on the big board, who to call, and what to do. Site-19 is full of hilarious nastiness, and Bowe's got an impressive catalogue of anomalies to blow through before he'll be vulnerable to attack."

"Is that what we're doing?" Safiro asked. "Softening him up for a strike team?"

"Maybe. Our strike teams, and that includes all potential Alpha-9 members, are tied up with GoI nonsense or worse right now. Are we just marking time until someone else comes up with a permanent solution? Could be. In this room, we focus on damage control. Kick the hard stuff up to me, and if I'm stumped I'll take suggestions."

"Are you likely to get stumped?" Safiro asked.

"And who's gonna be in charge while you sleep?" Frewer demanded.

Dan reached into his bulging coat pocket and pulled out a still-frosty energy drink. He cracked it open and took a deep swig. "I'm not, no," he said. "And I won't. Now go get some junk food, Shift A, and the rest of you hit the sack. We're in for a long haul."

Light left with them, still smiling, still shaking her head.

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Jack Bright sighed, on the video screen. "I haven't got it."

"What do you mean, you haven't got it?" Dan was glad the room was empty, now.

"I lost it." Bright squirmed. "A long time ago. Shortly before we all stopped fucking around so much, you know? Before… Kondraki."

"Who'd you lose it to, Jack? I really, really need it. For a contingency."

"Tilda."

Dan blinked. "Tilda."

"Tilda Moose, yeah. Why are you grinning?"

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General George Bowe took stock of his new office. There was a closet, which was good; he liked a fresh uniform. There was a desk, with a computer, which was better; he liked to keep informed, even when he was dramatically absent from the centre of attention.

There was a statuette on the desk, which was…

"Hideous." It depicted an organ-grinder's monkey reading a book, gaudily painted, about one foot tall.

He shook his head to clear it, then picked the thing up and turned it over. There was a flowing engraving on the bottom: "To The Cleverest."

He snorted. "Not by half." So that's what they spend their time on. Participation trophies and insufferable self-satisfaction. No wonder this was so easy. He set the statuette back down, considered it for a moment…

…then very lightly backhanded it off the desk, like a cat. It hit the carpeted floor with a heavy thud.

"It all comes down," he announced, to no-one in particular.

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Safiro was the first one back to Mission Control. Dr. Dan was standing in front of his whiteboard, eyes closed, tapping a lidded green marker against his lips. He'd written a second line:

AREA-81 IS THE KEY

He turned around, opened his eyes, noticed her, and nodded. "Take a seat." He picked up an eraser and wiped the new line clean, looking thoughtfully at the empty space. She was calling up SCiPNET when the second researcher walked in; Dan had already written another new line, and it was already erased by the time the new arrival sat down.

Dan looked worried.

When all the shift members were back, he dropped the marker on the lip of the whiteboard and sighed. He'd made three attempts at that second line, and rejected all of them. "Alright," he said. "We'll be getting reports any sec-"

"Got one," Safiro interrupted, looking down at her console. "Nice catch." The researcher beside her nodded curtly. "A gathering in Al Azhar Park, Cairo. Someone's giving a loud speech in English, and it looks like they're drawing a crowd. Might be a GoI."

"Throw it on the centre screen." Dan moved out of the way and leaned on a console wall.

An MTF shoulder camera feed now dominated the room. There was indeed a crowd forming in a shaded copse; faint snatches of conversation could be heard.

"This is Dr. Dan. Boost your mic gain."

"Roger."

The voice resolved itself. "What we need to let go of, what we really need to let go of, is the idea that there's some all-powerful non-governmental agency dedicated to securing, containing, and prot-"

"SHUT IT OFF," Dan shouted, scrambling back across the room. He nearly tripped in his haste to reach the whiteboard. "SHUT IT OFF!"

"-lous threats. It's just a coping mech-"

"SHUT IT THE FUCK OFF!" He scrabbled for a marker, wrote

THE SCP FOUNDATION IS REAL

on the board, and tapped it frantically with his finger as the feed abruptly stopped. "Look at this. Before and after everything you do, for the next hour, LOOK AT THIS. Fucking internalize it. And get someone up here from anti-mem to check on us."

All the researchers looked upset and confused. "What the hell?" Safiro asked. "What was that?"

Dan was sweating. "The crowd was a ruse," he muttered. "That was a reality bender, cognitohazardous. Any one of, of, half a dozen at Site-19. Bowe knows we're monitoring for anomalous events, so he set up a honey trap for us." He wiped his forehead and took a deep breath. "Okay, uh, gas the park."

"It's a big park."

"So, use big gas. Knock everyone out, call it a heatwave or something. Make sure all our people on the ground wear ear protection."

Safiro looked pale. "Did we almost get mind-fucked by our first subject?"

Dan massaged his temples and tried to force a smile. "Hey, it's all uphill from here."

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"Three separate reports of men with swords attacking listening posts in Kolkata. Only one MTF from Site-36 in range."

"Alright, there's only three anomalous swords at 19. Any of the men bragging?"

"One of them won't shut up about how great the sword is."

"Lowest priority, that sword's useless. Any of them uncoordinated?"

"Eyes on the ground say one of them is stumbling, like he's drunk."

"Priority two, that one's also useless. Get on that third one fast, though, it gives sentience to severed limbs."

Safiro stared at him.

"Yes, I'm serious. Go on, send the message."

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«You must understand,» the gallery owner pleaded in French.

«I do, calm down.» Lieutenant Joly sighed, patting the man on the shoulder. «Go get some fresh air, we'll get them out of there. I promise.» She gently prodded him towards the exit; when he was facing away from her, she tilted her neck and mimed giving herself a shot. The agent at the door casually palmed an amnestic injector and followed the owner out into the street.

"Report," Dr. Dan's voice rang in her ear.

"Subject's in a locked viewing room," she said. "With nine landscape artists, all of them apparently famous." She shrugged, just to time the pregnant pause. "I've never heard of them."

"All still alive?"

"Last we heard. Nick?"

Her other agent was standing on a stepladder, drilling a hole into the ceiling. "We'll have a feed momentarily, sir."

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The man with the thick moustache drew his brush across the canvas-papered wall, silently begging his hands not to shake. He finished the stroke, reached up, wiped the blood from his neck and whimpered. The chain was biting hard; he could feel it flexing against his skin, scraping it away whenever he so much as breathed too deeply. He started another stroke.

"I'm… I'm finished," the man with the red hair whispered. He gulped, and let out a strangled cry as his Adam's apple pulped itself against the chain around his own neck.

A sentient agglomeration of metal links, the Maker of Chains, turned to examine the new work. It was a pastoral scene, hastily rendered in shades of green and yellow. The Maker cocked its approximately human, glinting head from side to side, considering.

Finally it sighed, like wind through a keyhole. "No," it said. "Too much of you, in it. Too much of your filth. The order is absent. The order of wind, and rain. You are empty of meaning and foul." It tightened its grip on all nine artists. "Tear it down. Start again."

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Dan massaged his neck absently. "I don't think we want to be covering up nine dead artistes today, on top of everything else. We're just lucky it hasn't assimilated them." He blew out a breath. "Okay, warm up the fastest jet we've got. I hate to fight Boweism with Boweism, but we're on a time limit here. That show's supposed to open tomorrow."

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The Maker of Chains didn't notice when a fragment of plaster fell out of one corner of the ceiling and speckled the brown slat floor with white dust. It also didn't notice when a thin roll of paper unwound from the newly-drilled hole, like a tiny rappelling cable.

It did notice when the paper squirreled back into the hole, with the barest of whispers. It turned in place, and nine different voices cried out in agony. The artists stumbled and fell, some of them to the floor, some of them against the unyielding links of their tormentor's body, a few tearing at the landscape-strewn wall.

There was a sketch of a gentle, wooded brook near the door. The Maker had been quite taken with it, had granted the artists a few more moments of life because of the brief breath of peace from their mewling it had offered. But now it was ruined, utterly and completely: a slip of a girl in an SCP agent's uniform was beaming hideously up at the Maker from inside it, up to her boots in the water. She was waving with one hand, and holding a small dry-erase board with the other.

There were words written on the board, and the Maker dragged its unwilling coterie across the room to see what they were.

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"What are you?" it clinked.

She'd already erased the first message, and quickly wrote up a second one with her marker.

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"I think of you as an infection." The Maker would have spat, had it spit.

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The girl strolled from the stock-still, non-babbling brook into the white space bordering it.

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She reached the abstract, comic art-style mountain, which the Maker had decided to destroy ten times in the past hour without ever quite being able to bring itself to do so. She dramatically increased in scale, and winked coquettishly. A speech balloon appeared above her head.

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"No. They are atoning. They are atoning for what they are. They are creating beauty. I am carving it from their flesh, until the flesh is all, mercifully, gone."

The girl nodded, eyes wide, as she wandered into the abstract landscape painted by a woman who was now slumped on the floor, unconscious and rasping. The girl's uniform became two overlapping rectangles, and her delicate face was barely identifiable as such. She wrote something on the whiteboard, but the Maker couldn't make it out.

"You crawl in the artifice," it groaned, a rusting hull in a raging gale. "You corrupt the lines."

The girl crossed the space between spaces, heading into a series of rolling hills rendered in (quite literally) painstaking, vibrant detail. Tongue stuck out of one side of her mouth, she started writing with the broad edge of the suddenly-purple marker.

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"Is there no beauty…" the Maker whispered, releasing its many grips ever so slightly. The room resounded with a cacophony of coughing. "No beauty you cannot mar? You are anathema."

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The illustrated agent was leaning on a bright red barn. now.

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The Maker fell to its knees, defeated, badly denting the floorboards. "It is ended. All… all is desolation."

The girl frowned sympathetically.

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The door swung open, and three flesh-and-blood agents advanced cautiously into the room. The Maker remained upright, kneeling and motionless, until the artists were recovered. Then slowly, very slowly, it topped over into a mass of knotted metal.

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"1770 secure," Safiro reported. "Good thinking, sir."

Dan batted the compliment out of the air. "Anomaly-on-anomaly is dirty pool. I can do better." He sat down at an unattended console, and stretched. "Recover Cassy, and make sure someone talks to her. The misanthrope keychain is gross and depressing."

"On it." Safiro nudged the researcher beside her, who began tapping out the necessary commands. "Oh, we've got…" She blinked. "Reports of a smash-and-grab at Area-81."

Dan sat bolt upright. "Shit! Send in the cavalry."

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"Hammer Down reporting as ordered. OZ looks clear, sir."

Dan grimaced at the video feed. It showed a wide swathe of cold, twilit desert stretching between the MTF and the tiny containment facility ahead. "Right, well, that's a problem."

"Sir?"

"Bowe knows we need what's in there, and he knows we don't know if he took it. So, he knows we'll send Hammer Down to find out. He's not too clever, but he's not an idiot; this is a trap. He's trying to kill off our best MTF." Dan walked into the middle of the control room and jammed his hands into his labcoat pockets, feeling them out. How did I ever think without a labcoat? "Bowe's a theory guy, likes to read up on battles and tactics. What battles and tactics would he have been reading up on recently, to get up to speed? Assuming he's been legitimately out of commission this whole time?"

"Iraqi Freedom," one of the researchers piped up immediately.

"Iraqi Freedom," Dan repeated, looking back at the desert on the monitor. "Yeah, okay. PMCs, IEDs, landmines… landmines. Ha. Shit." He laughed, and stretched his still-bepocketed arms out hard. It felt good. "Okay, awesome. Listen carefully, Hammer Down: whatever happens next, do not pick anything up. Copy?"

"Copy and roger, sir."

"Put me on speaker."

"Roger, you're transmitting."

Dan cleared his throat. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes, sir, you're transm-"

"Not you."

The still night did not respond.

"I'll give you guys a choice, here: we'll put some flowers and grass in your chamber, give you a genuine lawn and garden, or we could take you on a facility tour. I hear some of you like to travel, these days?"

Still the still night did not respond.

"Alternatively, my agents can walk on your heads, and you can pop out screaming, and attack them, and probably explode. I mean, your call, but I know which option I'd pick."

There was a stirring in the sand, and in the dim darkness Dan could just make out the faded blue of the sharp point which slowly wriggled free. Shaking sand off its body and spitting some out onto the desert floor, a nattily-dressed garden gnome with a long white beard and rosy cheeks struggled to its feet. "Glaze," it coughed.

Dan frowned. "What?"

"Glaze, you goober! Just look at me, my finish is all but shot. I'm losing paint by the flake, and this sandpapering didn't do me any favours. We want fresh coats of paint, and glaze, or life's just not worth living." The gnome glared at the assembled agents. "We get our glaze, and such, or you blokes and bloke-esses lose your limbs and phalanges."

"Deal," Dan grinned. "One condition."

The gnome spat again. "What."

"One of you, even one of you blows up, and we sell the whole lot to Travelocity."

The entire dune gasped in one offended voice. The sands shifted nervously.

"You wouldn't," the lone exposed gnome breathed, somehow.

"I'm tired," said Dan. "I've spent a decade in confinement, I'm not afraid to play hardball, and I've always wanted to blow up something I saw on TV."

The gnome laughed, tinnily. "You're not half-bad, chief. Alright, boys? Come out and get your suntans."

The sun was indeed just beginning to rise as the army of explosive gnomes began to emerge into the desert chill.

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Dan had the eraser in hand as Frewer and the rest of Shift B walked in. He blocked the whiteboard with his body and finished wiping out the latest statement:

BOWE HAS THE ARTIFACT

Frewer didn't see the phrase, but he did see Dan's face. The doctor looked fatigued, and defeated. He was rubbing his eyes. "Alright, fuck. Let's start the shift by hitting some of the low-keys."

Frewer called up the feed. "Mass occupations of grocery stores in Moscow. The cops are run off their feet trying to arrest all of them."

"That's… gotta have more to go on than…" Dan blinked. "Wait. Greengrocers, maybe?"

"Uh… yeah. yes."

"5084, tomatoes that present as human." He guzzled half an energy drink and dropped it in the trash, twitching slightly. "Get some fake credentials, bring a basket and arrange a prisoner transfer."

"Wow, okay. Ah… twenty people staring at a statue in Budapest. Can't rouse 'em."

"Damn. That'll be 2274, they're… dead, basically. SCRAMBLE gear, find the statue, get it out of there. Take everyone into custody, guess we'll have a good sample size to reopen that study now." He exhaled heavily. "Fuck. What else?"

"Another garden gnome minefield, in Turkey."

"What, really? How many did we pick up last time?"

"All known instances."

"Ha! Alright. Dig the little buggers up and bring 'em home. Apparently Bowe can't tell the difference between gnomes what explode and gnomes what leave you sweet little notes. Next?"

"Wembley Stadium, big rock concert. The warm-up band never made the stage, because the whole crowd turned on itself and then dove under the seats after the pre-show tapes started playing."

"Wow, shit. You call that low-key? Uh… pfff. Okay. That'll be 3481, the agoraphobia music. Have to bust out a bacteriological threat cover for this one. What's the capacity at Wembley?"

"Uhhhh… like… a hundred thousand. Only using one in four seats, though. Social distancing."

"Great. Great. Fantastic. We're gonna have to amnesticize twenty-five thousand people. Pass that along to Site-91, and tell them it's okay to cry. Anything more?"

"A Foundation front company full of office workers who can't stand up, can't wake up, and don't look too rosy."

"Patch me in to the ground team."

"On the air, boss."

"This is Dr. Dan. Check the lobby, and all the break rooms. You're looking for a bowl of vampiric lollipops, and I do not want to hear your response." He sat down, fast and hard.

Frewer laughed, and Dan shot him a wan smile. "Not a bad day's work, so faaaaaaar." He finished the yawn with a loud snap of his teeth.

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Dan was almost drifting off when the next call came. "SIR," Frewer shouted, taking precious minutes off his lifespan. "We've got a problem!" The main viewer flickered to life, showcasing a New York City streetscape.

"Manhattan," Frewer said. "Security footage of the approach to Area-198. I've already alerted them, but…"

Dan was about to ask what he was supposed to be looking at when a red streak screamed down the road, crossed a T-junction, and embedded itself with a shattering CRUNCH in the wall of a nondescript stone building.

It was a fire engine.

"Oh, come on," said Dan.

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"WATER IN THE HOLE!" the engine gnarred in a deep, gravelly voice, flicking its high-beams on and off. With a sudden, roaring rev of its engine, it began coating the dust-choked lobby with a steady stream of water. Half a dozen Foundation employees slipped, slid, and fell in the greasy muck.

"Give it up, you incendiary invertebrates! I know you're in there, and I'll rinse you out if it takes me the full tank!"

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Dan smeared his face with his hands, stretching out his eyelids in frustration and exhaustion. "Okay, uh, can you get me agent Rodn-"

"We've got another one!" Frewer called out.

"What street?"

"Uh… no street, sir."

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There was a tremendous BANG outside the shattered façade, and the fire engine hurriedly reversed in a shower of powdered masonry. "Sneaking up behind me, eh? I thought you little embers were too dim for tactical maneuvers!"

Standing in the centre of the street, or rather two feet below the street in a crater of its own making, was a spiffy white astronaut suit. It saluted the fire engine. "What HO, people of Earth! You have become large, red and blocky in my absence! It might be your diet, I'd get that checked out."

The engine's wheels began spinning rapidly, churning up loose asphalt and producing a shrill shriek of burning rubber. "You'll never take the Redd Mennace alive, fire man! Hand over the rocket and renounce your infernal ways, or face the wrath of mother nature's extinguishant!" Its low growl became, somehow, even lower: "Which is water."

Moon Champion bounded out of the crater, landing just inches from the engine's bumper. "If this is one of your human courtship rituals, I'm sorry, but my heart belongs to a lass with far-away eyes, a stellar pedigree, a steady job, a stable orbit, and several trillion tons of something which just might be hair." This last was stage-whispered directly into the engine's grill.

The Redd Mennace's lights flashed, and its siren howled like a clown on a rollercoaster. "You just won yourself a lifetime supply of drown, son," it hollered, and it plastered him with its hose full-bore.

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"Okay," said Dan, trying not to scream, trying not to laugh. "Okay, here's… here's what we're gonna do."

"Sir," Frewer called. "Why's that console blinking?"

Dan also blinked, then looked where Frewer was looking. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it, then said something else. "Mission Control."

"What?"

"This was Foundation Mission Control. They moved out ages ago, but the backup systems are still here." He walked over to the console, and frowned. "We're getting a signal from XCPOA-19, a probe near… the south photosphere."

"Photosphere?" one of the researchers repeated. "Like, the sun?"

Dan's heart suddenly leapt into his mouth. "Yeah," he said. "Like the sun." He keyed up the program he knew was there, crossed his fingers and said, in trembling tones, "Hello? Hello, out there?"

"Hello," a monotone voice responded. "I am Sauelsuesor. Did you get the thing I sent you?"

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