When Aurora and the others arrived a few minutes later, Cindy and Jimmy were waiting for them. Jimmy smiled broadly as they entered, and Cindy planted a hand on one hip. She held a tiny vial in the other hand.
“Is that it? Is that the antidote?”
Cindy grinned at her future self. “You tell me.”
“How does it work?” asked April. “Can you demonstrate?”
“Sure,” replied Jimmy. “The procedure is simple, actually. The antidote consists of liquid particles suspended in compressed air. Here, take a look.” He pulled out a vial from his lab coat pocket. “This one here is a dud, but it’ll give you an idea of how the real antidote works. There is an enormous amount of pressure built up within the vial, so when the glass is broken, the contents expand into the surrounding atmosphere with quite a lot of force. Observe.”
He smashed the vial against the floor, and there was a tiny explosion as the pressurized mist sprayed out in all directions. Everyone coughed as the vapor spread throughout the room. The cloud dissipated slowly, and Jimmy stooped to pick up the shards of glass.
“You see?” he said, straightening. “The test vial contained suspended water particles instead of the antidote, but it’s the same principle as the real thing. It’s effective from a range of up to fifteen feet. All you have to do is get close enough to DJ and smash the vial.”
Aurora shook her head. “I still can't believe that's the name we're going with here.”
Cindy pulled two more vials from her lab coat. “There was only enough fungus to make three of these things, so we’ll have to use them wisely. Aurora will get one, obviously, but it’s up for discussion who should get the remaining two.”
Sheen raised his hand and danced around crazily. “Oh! Oh! Pick me! I should get one! Me! Me!”
“Shove a sock in it, will ya?” growled Aurora, pointing to front portal. “Stop yammering for five seconds and look out the window. We’re approaching Planet Gorlock.”
The ship lurched out of hyperspace a moment later, and a green planet appeared ahead of the ship. Red mists shrouded its surface. Aurora took her place in the pilot’s seat and inched the throttle forward, and the Desperado began its descent toward the planet.
“Ah, it is good to see home again!” sighed April. “I was beginning to miss it.”
Sheen tilted his head to one side. “It kind of looks like a giant, mutant pea…”
With a slight jolt of turbulence, they entered the maroon-tinted atmosphere. The solar system vanished behind them as the ship was swallowed by thick, murky clouds. They billowed up on all sides of the Desperado, curling and tumbling along the length of its streamlined body.
Libby squinted at the swirling haze. “Wow, that’s pretty intense. I can’t seen anythin’. How the heck do you fly in this kinda stuff?”
“By sense of smell,” replied Aurora sarcastically. “What do you think? I use the ship’s sensors.”
A moment later the Desperado burst out of the cloud cover. Aurora pulled up hard on the throttle, and their slope of descent leveled out. Below them, a dark, tangled jungle extended out as far as the eye could see.
Future Libby leaned over Aurora’s shoulder. “Wow…look at that!”
“I know. Gorlock is a rainforest planet. It’s covered from pole to pole in thick, untamed jungle. The vegetation cover is almost at 95 percent…there aren’t even any oceans to break it up.”
“Incredible!” Jimmy marveled. “In a place like this, the diversity of life forms must be staggering!”
“You’re telling me. And the majority of those life forms want to eat you, so you’d better watch out.”
She laughed at this, but Carl shrunk back behind the pilot’s seat.
“Really? Is it really that dangerous?”
“Do not be such a whiner!” said April cheerfully. “You will not last two minutes down there if you…Oh, Aurora! I think I see rooftops! Fly lower!”
“You’re right. I see them too. Hold on everyone…”
Aurora swung the throttle to the right, and the rear of the ship continued to sail forward even as the front end stopped. The ship’s back creaked as it pulled a 180 degree turn, and they coasted to a stop. Aurora hovered above the tree line and scanned the terrain below. The trees whipped around wildly from the force of the Desperado’s thrusters, and Sheen squinted into the undulating mass of vegetation.
“I’m not seeing any rooftops!”
Aurora pointed at several dome-shaped metal objects barely visible beneath the trees. “There. You see them?”
“Those are buildings?” he frowned. “They look like…metal igloos or something!”
“Well, they kind of are,” Aurora explained. “The Gorlocks are a mostly nomadic people. The metal tents can be disassembled and moved from place to place. This little settlement is actually just a camp on the outskirts of our destination: the Capital city of Nuku. It’s one of only eight permanent cities on the entire planet.”
Aurora turned the bow of the ship around and flew toward a hill thrusting upward out of the tangled greenery.
April leaned over the pilot. “Aurora, I think we have a problem. What will happen if someone realizes who these kids really are? If we were just meeting with the Gorlock High Council, I would not be worried, since most Gorlocks have a hard time distinguishing one human from another. However, one of our other allies might recognize Jimmy, and I would prefer not to explain to an entire room of my baffled allies why I am consorting with the Dictator’s younger self.”
“Good point. We should keep their identity a secret for now. Plus, they might prove to be a vital trump card if the meeting with our allies doesn’t go according to plan.”
Cindy crossed her arms. “Hey, you know, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t refer to us as 'a trump card'. We’re not just some gamble you’re taking. Jeez.”
Aurora shot her a sideways glance. “Oh, stop being so self-righteous. Life’s nothing but one big gamble. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking that you’re anything but a card to be played.”
“What is your problem?”
“Have a look in the mirror.”
Future Libby fidgeted, then raised a finger. “Uh…Aurora? I think I have an idea.”
“My makeup bag's in one of my suitcases. If you want to keep the kids' identities secret, I could paint their faces up...”
“You know, that's not half bad. With enough makeup, I don't think anyone would be able to tell who they are. Just how different can you make them look?”
“Girl, I could make Carl look like Aphrodite. Back when I got bored in Shangri Llama, I would spend hours and hours just foolin’ around with different ways to apply makeup. Even you won’t be able to recognize them when I’m done.”
Aurora grinned. “I’ll believe it when I see it. Go give the kids a make-over and meet me back here when you’re done. I’ll land and lock down.”
When Future Libby returned a short time later, Aurora was reclining in her chair, legs propped up on the dashboard. The ship had presumably come to rest on the ground, but the portal had been closed and nothing was visible outside. When Aurora heard the door to the cockpit open, she spun around.
“It’s about time.”
“Well, it would’ve taken even longer if mini-Libby here hadn’t given me a hand," said Future Libby. "She did Sheen an’ Carl’s makeup for me.”
Libby walked in behind her. “We figured they kinda looked like aliens already, so they didn’t need too much work.”
The others entered the room, and Aurora glanced at the bizarre patterns and colors that now adorned their faces. Painted scales extended from their hairline to their cheekbones, and their eyes were outlined in white. Two black lines running down from the corners of their mouths gave the illusion of chins on hinges. Cindy and Libby’s lips were painted bright blue, and Carl, Sheen, and Jimmy’s were painted white.
Aurora snorted. “They look weird, I’ll give ya that.”
“Oh c’mon, Aurora,” said Future Libby. “You gotta admit, the makeup's pretty cool. I used bold colors and geometric lines to disguise their features. Anyone who looks at them will be too distracted by all the patterns an’ stuff to notice who they are…kinda like clowns at the circus. Would you recognize them without their makeup? The scales are just an added bonus to give that 'weird sci-fi alien' effect.”
“Well, Carl doesn’t exactly look like Aphrodite, but then again that would have taken a miracle. I think these disguises will work for now. Come on, who wants a tour of Planet Gorlock?”
“Me!” cheered Future Libby. “Let’s get goin’!”
On cue, April appeared in the doorway and motioned for the others to follow. The kids trailed behind the women as they traversed the labyrinth of passages leading to the ship’s exit. Unlike Sheen and Jimmy, who seemed uncomfortable in their disguises, Carl was unabashedly thrilled at the makeup job. He gazed at his reflection in any available shiny surface and giggled with glee, apparently laboring under the delusion that his new look was strikingly beautiful. Jimmy attempted to give him a dirty look, but with no result.
“Almost there…” muttered Aurora, as she gave the command for the exit to unlock.
The door opened, and there was a loud whoosh as the interior decompressed, and a cloud of hot, steamy air rushed in. April inhaled deeply, while the others grimaced in discomfort.
“Ah, home at last!” she sighed, holding her arms out as the moisture settled on her skin. “It has been a very long time!”
Jimmy held his nose. “Your troposphere seems to have a lot of water vapor…”
“Of course! Planet Gorlock is a very wet place. It rains every day without fail.”
“Yup. Welcome to the nightmare sauna, guys,” said Aurora. “I hope you like tropical diseases and blood-sucking parasites.”
They descended, blinking furiously as their eyes grew accustomed to the misty atmosphere. A look around revealed that they had landed in a vast, mossy valley of some sort. Beyond, slopes covered in impenetrable jungle extended outward in all directions. Dozens of other ships in every shape and size lay scattered about the plain: some were titanic, some were child-sized, some gleamed brightly, and others were rusted to the hull. The vast majority, however, were armed to the teeth with sinister-looking weapons.
Cindy surveyed the clearing. “Is this like…an airport or something?”
“Yes,” answered April. “This is where visitors park their spaceships while they stay. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep the area free from trees and other plant growth, but it is a necessary evil if we are to maintain contact with our allies. This is one of the only areas on the planet that is always free of vegetation…that, and the capitol building of Nuku on the hilltop…”
April gestured at the hill to their right, which was really more of a small mountain. An imposing, castle-like structure loomed at the top.
“Whoa,” said Jimmy. “Is that where we’re going?”
April nodded. “It is.”
Jimmy glanced around at the other ships uncomfortably. “You know April, this might sound kind of rude, but I’ve been meaning to ask you this for awhile: why are all these powerful people gathering here, on Planet Gorlock? What makes you guys so special? I would think your allies would want to hold council on a neutral planet. I mean, it seems like you guys are head of the resistance movement, and yet your civilization looks like it's barely out of the stone age. How is it that your people have managed to resist all the Dictator’s attacks when other societies, many of which were surely more technologically advanced, have fallen?”
April smiled. “We are able to oppose him because we have an advantage. It began ten years ago, when I first met you, Jimmy. We were on an alien game show called Intergalactic Showdown, and if you think back, you will remember that the show’s host, Meldar, had a pair of matrix generators, and you gave them to me…”
Jimmy gaped. “You still have Meldar’s cufflinks? You have matrix generators?”
“Indeed. It is ironic, isn’t it, that your gift ended up being our salvation? While we do not fully understand how they function, the matrix generators have brought us out of an era of technological inferiority and have given us an edge over both the Dictator and our allies. It is because of them that we have risen to power. We have…” April stopped short, and her eyes narrowed. “Someone is coming…”
Jimmy frowned. “I don’t hear anything…”
A shriek pierced the air, and there was a flash of green as something charged out of the jungle. They caught a glimpse of sharpened tusks and flashing scales as a giant beast streaked past them and came to a screeching halt. Debris flew out in all directions, and the kids and Future Libby cowered in horror as April shaded her eyes and looked up at the creature.
“Ai! Leeeee-RAA-doh, is that you up there?”
The kids managed to overcome their terror long enough to look up at the beast, which turned out to be a jade-colored, reptilian warthog with a leather saddle atop its bristled back. The creature's fiery eyes flashed back and forth with a fury bordering on madness, and fangs glinted from behind the pieces of hanging moss that lay draped across its tusks. Seated atop the living nightmare was a familiar face: Lee, the Gorlock that had sent them the video transmission back on the Desperado. A closer look showed him to have well-defined muscles and a thick neck, combined with a kind face and long-lashed, almost girly eyes.
“Shiiiiii-ANNHHHH-dohnk!” he called down cheerfully. “It is very good to see you!”
“Lee, you sound so formal! How many times must I tell you to call me April?”
Aurora smiled. “Once more, as usual.”
There was a moment of silence, and then all three burst out laughing, and Lee jumped down off his reptilian steed as easily as if he were dismounting from a horse. The three warmly exchanged hugs.
Lee beamed. “You have been gone for quite a while!”
Aurora shrugged. “Well, you know how it goes, with the war and all. Business as usual I guess. But it is nice to be back, now that you mention it. I was beginning to miss you, you big softy.”
She grabbed the muscular Gorlock in a stranglehold and gave him a noogie, while April circled round and punched him a few times.
Lee laughed happily. “Ha! Haha! I missed you two!”
The girls released him, and they reveled in each other’s company for a second more before turning to their baffled visitors.
April cleared her throat. “Forgive me for being rude, Lee. These are our companions. The tall human female is a friend of Aurora and must be treated as such. She is to be fully trusted and welcomed as our honored guest. The same goes for our smaller visitors. They are alien historians from a far off planet who have…uh…who have…who have come to our home world to learn more about the history of the matrix generator. They are our allies and our friends, and they are very interested in learning about our culture, our government, and our history, as well as our involvement in the war against the Dictator.”
Lee leaned down to get a closer look at them. “Is that so? What species are they? Do they speak?”
“Of course we speak,” said Jimmy. “We are…uh…alternate…lings. Ya. Alternatelings.”
Cindy raised an eyebrow. “Nice name, genius.”
“Hmm, interesting,” remarked Lee. “They sure are small…”
He straightened again, and April turned to the kids.
“Lee has been my close friend since childhood and is one of the cultural experts for our people. I’m sure he will help you with whatever you need while we are gone.”
“W-wait,” stuttered Jimmy. “Gone? Where are you going?”
“You’re leaving us alone on a planet where everything wants to eat us?” cried Sheen.
“We have a meeting to attend, remember?” said Aurora. “You guys aren’t on the council, so you’re out of the picture on this one.”
Jimmy looked surprised. “We…we can’t participate?”
“No. However, Gorlock policy allows spectators, so you can come and watch the meeting as long as you don’t interfere. Make sense?”
“I guess so…” said Libby, “but how will we understand what’s goin’ on if we're stuck on the sidelines?”
“Lee will explain everything. Right, Lee? But right now April and I have to go file some weapons reports and do other boring stuff, and I’m sure you guys wouldn’t want to be subjected to that. I sure as heck would rather skip it. But I can’t, so you guys can stay with Lee and go on a little tour while we’re waiting for the council to start. Lee, will you take our visitors to the assembly chamber when the meeting is about to begin?”
Aurora waved her hand airily. “Try to entertain them in the meantime. The geeky one in the orange suit has some serious attention span problems, so make the tour exciting if you can.”
Lee gave her the thumbs down. “OK!”
“No, Lee,” sighed Aurora. “When you answer OK, your thumb has to point UP.”
Aurora shook her head, and she and April headed off in the direction of the capitol building. April reprimanded Aurora for her earlier comment as their voices faded into the distance.
“What do you mean, weapons reports are boring? How can anything about weapons be boring? I really must protest!”
“Give it a rest, April…”
“What ‘bout me?” Future Libby shouted after them. “Can't I come along?”
“Stay put, Libs. We’ll see you again soon.”
Future Libby looked defeated as she turned to Lee, who was baring his sizeable incisors in a smile.
“Well, well! I am very excited to have visitors! Especially historians! I am what your friend Aurora there would call a 'history geek'. I could talk about it all day, every day!”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “Oh, yay…”
“Now, if you’ll kindly climb aboard Tolly here, I’ll take you on a quick tour, then escort you to the capitol for the council meeting.”
Libby looked up at the warthog. “Hold up. Lemme get this straight. You want us to RIDE that thing?”
“Tolly?” repeated Sheen. “It has a name? Jeez, what is it with you Gorlocks and your big, scary pets?”
Lee gave him a puzzled look. “I am not sure what you mean. Tolly here is neither scary nor big.”
The kids gave him an incredulous stare, and then one by one they clambered up into the saddle. Carl whimpered in fear the entire time, then promptly began sneezing as soon as he reached the top.
“Aaachhooo! I think I’m – aachooo! ...allergic to this thing…”
Lee helped Future Libby into her seat before swinging up and taking his place at the front of the saddle. He grabbed the pair of spike-studded reins fastened to the warthog’s tusks and gave them a sharp tug. The creature let out another unearthly squeal and reared up on its hind legs, then streaked off toward the jungle
“Ooooh…my…God!!” cried Future Libby, holding on for dear life.
The saddle jostled around violently, knocking the kids from side to side and occasionally launching them into collisions with one another. Carl lost his balance and fell over, feet shooting up over his head.
Lee smiled brightly. “See? Isn’t this fun?”
Cindy gripped the saddle tighter. “If by ‘fun’, you mean ‘absolutely insane’, then ya…” The giant beast veered to the right, and Cindy ducked to avoid bashing her head against a hanging branch. “Um, do we have some sort of destination or are we just gonna keep crashing through the jungle until someone gets decapitated?”
The warthog lurched again, and Sheen and Cindy smacked heads.
“Well,” began Lee, “I was planning to take you to the encampment outside Nuku. That’s where you’ll be staying after the council meeting.”
Sheen rubbed his head. “Aww, man! No battlefields? No blood and gore? What kind of tour is this anyway?”
“Sorry, there is no blood and gore here at the moment. If you would have come here ten years ago, things might be different...”
“Ten years ago?” asked Jimmy.
“Yes. Until we were united against a common foe – that is, the Dictator – Planet Gorlock was not exactly what you would call a functional state. Prior to a decade ago, the various tribes scattered across the planet were embroiled in a Civil War stretching back 700 years.”
Cindy’s eyes grew wide. “700 years?”
“Right. But since becoming involved in this galactic war, we have moved past our petty differences, and the senseless bloodshed has finally come to an end. Though we have not achieved the level of civilization that we had prior to the 700 year war, we have still made great strides in culture, technology, and politics during the past ten years and have risen up as one of the most powerful forces in the galaxy. Our militant society makes us the ideal candidate to oppose an equally brutal foe. As it turns out, the best way to fight evil is not with good, but with another kind of evil.”
“Well, I could have told you that much,” said Cindy. “But still, thanks for the info. I think I finally understand how Planet Gorlock fits into all of this.”
“Well, I am glad I could clear that up for you! Now, before we arrive at the encampment, are there any other questions?”
Sheen leaned forward. “Here’s what I wanna know: why are you green?”
Libby held onto Carl's shoulder to avoid being thrown off. “What kinda question is that?”
“Actually, it is a very good question!” smiled Lee. “And one to which I know the answer!”
Lee recited the information as easily as if he were reading from a textbook.
“Gorlocks are an phenotypically variable species ideally suited to living in a warm, water-rich environment! Our mammalian characteristics give us the ability to bear live young, while our amphibious traits allows us to rear those young in a habitat that is occasionally flooded. Our reptilian heritage means that we can adjust our metabolism to be more like that of a cold-blooded organism, which is advantageous to creatures living on a planet that maintains a constant temperature. Unlike mammals, we do not need to waste energy keeping up our own body heat when there is no need to!”
“But what does that have to do with being green?” said Cindy. “That was the most pointless explanation ever!”
“Be quiet, Cindy!” hissed Jimmy. “This is fascinating! It’s like a window into alien evolution! Can you talk more about the phenotypical variation you mentioned earlier? Because I have noticed that Gorlocks come in an unusually large range of shapes and sizes...”
Sheen’s eye began to twitch as Lee launched into another explanation.
“…and so you see, that's where the phenotype instability comes from, and why it extends to many of the other creatures that live on this planet as well. Gorlocks are, of course, the only ones to have developed intelligence, but this is largely due to environmental factors that…”
Cindy gritted her teeth in irritation as Sheen started to go cross-eyed.
“Sheen, you feelin’ OK?”
“Of course I’m not feeling OK!” he wailed. “I come all the way to another universe, and what do I get? More school!”
The warthog began to slow as the vegetation grew less dense. Up ahead, a patch of light came into view.
“Hold on everyone!” shouted Lee. “The forest comes to an end just ahead!”
-> Chapter 25