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Zoroaster
by Oren the Otter
Oren the Otter -- all rights reserved
 

Brad Fox has always been one of the more unusual of the Blind Pig's patrons. To begin with, Brad is just about the oddest SCAB you've ever seen. Brad is a gendermorph of sorts, only Brad doesn't go from one gender to the other. Brad is simultaneously both. Brad has always insisted on having hir own personal set of pronouns. S'he took them straight out of a sci-fi novel, which shall remain nameless, and most of us think that the whole idea of using special pronouns is stupid, but we do it for hir, mostly because we have no idea which gender s'he used to be.

Brad also has a very special occupation. Brad is an astronaut.

You'd think that with the plague of 2002, later known as Martian Flu, as well as its more dramatic manifestation as SCABS, interest in space exploration would have dwindled to nothing. Quite the opposite. I found it amazing, but the general public tended to feel that space exploration is more important now than ever before, now that we have proof positive that something is out there.

Thus, the race for Mars was on once again. Ironically, it was an all-SCAB crew that made the journey. I suppose NASA figured that it would be safest that way since SCABs can't contract Martian Flu while mucking about on the planet. The crew consisted of seven people:

Jaques Briene, Commander, a mustelid multimorph.

Pam mazquiz, Pilot, gendermorph.

Nat Otreb, Engineer, inanimorph.

Steve Eidelson, Navigator, semi-lapine unimorph.

Grant Smith, Scientist, giraffe fullmorph.

Cathy McAnne, Flight Surgeon, Chronomorph.

And of course, as expert on Mars, our own Brad.


There was a party going on at the Blind Pig. We had watched the preparations for this great event for months now, and the time was finally here. Man was going to walk on Mars.

Robots had been paving the way. Already, they had set up a simple runway on which the spacecraft Independence would land.

"I want you to know that I'm aware of how corny this is going to sound," said the commander into his microphone for all the Earth to hear. "But this is without a doubt the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen right below me."

All eyes were fixed fast on the TV as the camera switched from one inside the spacecraft to one mounted on a robot already on the surface. It was a treat to see the first landing on Mars from an exterior angle. I myself have always been in love with space shuttles. The independence, though an interplanetary craft, shared the same basic design. Seeing such a beautiful machine at such a historic moment brought tears to my eyes. Jack must have caught that, because he turned to me and said "Don't cry, Otter. S'he'll pay you back the five bucks s'he owes you when s'he gets back.

I have never liked Jack's jokes.

NASA had used a lottery system to pick who would be the first to set foot on Martian soil. Of course you know it had to be one of the boyz from the Pig. Once the Independence had come to a full stop, we watched a ladder descend from the door, and then a space suited form descend to the red soil. He hit the sand with a loping glide completely unlike someone walking on the moon.

"There..." said Brad. "Is one footprint that the winds of time will never erase."

There was a lot of hooting and cheering and a free round of drinks back home.

We sat and watched for hours as the crew of the Independence began unloading their ship. Their immediate goal was to set up a permanent shelter, using both supplies which they had brought along and others which were sent ahead. This was done with amazing speed, paving the way for future generations of Mars explorers.

Those of us who were able stayed there long into the night. Donnie didn't seem to mind leaving the place open. The occasion certainly warranted it.

Once the shelter had been completed, then came the part the whole world had been waiting for... exploration.

We watched the Martian landscape roll by as a camera mounted on the front of a hover car relayed pictures back to Earth. Briene, Smith, Eidelson, and Brad were in the car, doing their best to scope out the terrain.

I, like my comrades, sat transfixed as hills and valleys and canyons and dry riverbeds zoomed past. At one point, I shot a look over to Jesse Roo, who was sitting beside me. I was surprised to see not fascination, but apprehension.

"Jesse?" I said.

"They're going to turn." said Jesse. "They're going to head for the cliff face on their left."

"Um... and you know this how?"

Jesse didn't answer. He merely stared at the television. I turned my attention back to the screen and after about four minutes, jesse's prediction came true. I did some quick mental calculations concerning the speed of light and deduced that for us to be seeing this now, it would have been happening about ten seconds AFTER Jesse had predicted it.

"There's a cave in that cliff face." said Jesse. "They're going to investigate it."

Surely enough, four minutes later, we watched the hover car pull up to the mouth of a cave.

"How did you know that?" I asked Jesse in amazement.

"It's what I would have done."

He was starting to worry me now.

"We've got a very interesting find here." came the voice of Briene. "It is an entrance to an underground cavern, and there appears to be signs that the rock was cut artificially."

"These are definitely chisel marks." Smith agreed, placing a space suited hoof on the rock."

There was a moment of silence as the four astronauts conferred among themselves, shutting out the Earth dwelling public until they made their decision.

"Houston, we're going into the cave. We'll be using a headcam and sending the signal back via the hover car."

The cave entrance sloped downward and spiraled to the left. The picture, oddly, stayed very clear, even as the explorers made their way underneath Iron-laden rock.

Then... a shock. The tunnel opened into a cavern, and in the cavern was a set of living quarters. It was exactly like something you might expect to find on Earth. A bed, a recognizable bathroom, several chairs, a kitchenette... and at a desk, frozen in its last moments, a human corpse.

It was mummified, of course, but there was no doubt that it was indeed human, or at least very close. Eidelson almost threw up at the sight.

From Briene's headcam, we could see Brad edging closer to the body. S'he reached out hir arm, touching it lightly on the shoulder...

S'he fainted.


A couple of us teased brad when s'he returned home, but mostly, we just let hir be. After all, isn't it humiliating enough to pass out in front of the entire world? There were questions, of course. We'd heard all of what the press had to say about the unusual find on Mars, but we pressed Brad anyway. Was it human? What was it doing? How did it die? Were there others?

Brad was a good sport. S'he tried to answer all of our questions, but ultimately focused on one question: Donnie's question of what s'he wanted to drink. Vodka and cherry wine. At least that one was easy.

Donnie had the TV going. The news was playing, telling the general populace of the latest speculations regarding the Martian Mummy. It wasn't really anything we hadn't heard before, but it still captured our interest, mostly because it was about good ol' Brad a large amount of the time.

"In other astronomical news," said the news anchor once the Martian Mummy story had been milked dry for the day. "A team of astronomers working at the Lunar Observatory report the discovery of the fabled and elusive tenth planet."

"We're very excited." said the astronomer who suddenly appeared on the screen. "This is without a doubt the most fascinating find we've ever made here at the observatory?"

"Can you tell us about this planet?" asked an unseen reporter.

"We don't have a lot of information just yet, mostly because of the sheer distance of the planet. It's orbiting at the very outermost edge of the heliopause, that's the outer limit of the Solar System. What we can tell you is that it is enormous."

I happened to notice that Brad was starting to sweat.

"How enormous?"

"Well, let's say that this pencil eraser represents Jupiter. This new planet would be about the size of this space helmet, here."

"And does this new planet have a name?"

"Well, we were originally calling it Fyuchs' planet. Troy Fyuchs is the one who actually discovered it. But, not being ones to break with tradition, we decided to go ahead and give it the name of a figure from ancient religion, so we translated "Fyuchs" into the Spanish "zoro" and christened the planet "Zoroaster.".

Brad screamed hir lungs out.


"We're gonna die!" s'he whimpered. "We're all gonna die!"

"Just relax." I told hir. "Nobody's going to die for the moment."

"But we will!" s'he protested pathetically. "We're all doomed! We're gonna die!"

I looked to Jesse for help, but he was merely standing in the corner shaking his kangaroo head back and forth with a look of despair.

"Look... Brad..." I said. "Can you at least tell me why we're all going to die?"

"It's Zoroaster." said Brad. "Zoroaster is going to demolish the entire planet."

"Mm-hmm. And what makes you think this?

Brad took a deep breath. "I found out all about it when I touched that body." s'he said. "They knew! That's why Mars is barren! They Knew, Otter!"

"Brad..."

"Okay, hang on." said the hermaphrodite astronaut as s'he struggled to regain hir composure. "I realize I'm not making the most sense at the moment, but I can explain. You see, when I touched the body on Mars and fell asleep, I had a dream. I thought it was nothing more than that at the time, but now... Well, let me start at the beginning."

Brad wove hir tale, transporting us all in our minds to her own private dreamscape.


Mars was beautiful. It was verdant, covered with lush green forests and deep blue rivers. Wild animals fed on shrubs and grasses while children played beneath a sunny blue sky. People worked and lived and played out in the open, enjoying the wonder nature had to offer. There were no houses, because houses were not needed. The climate was temperate, and rain, when it came, was gentle and warm. Mars was good.

Zem looked out over the civilization which he loved with a passion. This was Mars, in all of its glory and splendor, and it was exactly the way it should be. Sadly, Zem knew it couldn't last.

He turned and went into his cave. Most people thought him odd for wishing to live indoors, but it was necessary. There was something in here which Zem couldn't risk exposing to the elements, however mild they may be.

"Good evening, Doctor Zem." said a silky female voice, seemingly from nowhere. Zem knew where it came from, though. It came from all around him. After all, this room was very much alive.

"Good evening, Styla." said Zem. "And how are you tonight?"

"All functions are operating at optimum effectiveness." said the voice.

"A simple 'fine.' would be sufficient, Styla."

"Oh, let me have my fun." said Styla. "I am, after all, the most advanced computer on the planet. Let me take pride in that."

"You're not just a computer. You are a highly advanced biologically engineered fractal nanotech mechanism."

"Oh, now who's using the big words?" Styla accused.

Zem plopped down into a chair. "Have you run those calculations I asked for?" he inquired.

"I have." Styla answered plainly.

"And?"

"I'm afraid it's not good. Here... let me show you."

One of the walls of the cave seemed to disappear, revealing the star-studded blackness of space. Several concentric circles appeared, with tiny spots moving along the circular pathways. "This is Mars." said Styla as she made the planet flash on the "screen".

"I know where Mars is."

The entire Solar System shrank on the wall, until it was nothing more than a pinprick. "This," said Styla, creating an arrow. "Is Zoroaster at it's present position."

"Go on."

"Over the course of the next two hundred years, this is what will happen." Suddenly, Zoroaster set into motion, accelerating toward the sun. As it came closer, Styla increased the scale again, revealing the massive monster that was Zoroaster. Many times the diameter of Jupiter, hundreds of times as dense, thousands of times as massive. It was un unstoppable juggernaut. So immense was it that it had smaller Jovian planets in orbit around it.

The circular bands of the planets warped and bent to the awesome power of Zoroaster's gravitational field. Jupiter was pulled forever into an elliptical orbit which would take it well within the inner system. Asteroids plunged like lemmings into the gaseous behemoth.

Styla slowed down the time scale and increased the space scale. The moons of Mars were ripped away from her. Zem watched in horror as Phoebus and Demos were sucked into the belly of the beast.

And then, like a moth diving into a flame, the beautiful red planet gave up her mass to the monster, and was no more.

"Is there any other possible outcome?" asked Zem.

Styla checked her figures once again, but she already knew the truth. "No." she said simply.

"Continue extrapolation."

The planet Earth was rocked. Zoroaster, almost a star system in itself, pummeled the tiny planet with its tremendous waves of gravity. Venus, likewise, took a pounding, although much less severe. Mercury was nearly unaffected.

Then Zoroaster continued on its merry way, bending its path around the sun and passing once again Into the outer reaches of the system.

Several moons were lost to the gigantic interloper, including Hyperion, Ganymede, Cressida, Juliet, and Iapetus. A few were sucked down into the depths of the superjovian, but some merely went astray, becoming rogue worlds traveling through the heavens aimlessly.

As Zoroaster left the Solar System, it took Neptune as a souvenir, locking the blue giant into an orbit which would insure its captivity as its gasses were slowly stripped away by the greater gravity of the protostar.

Zem fell to his knees, feeling hollow after witnessing the horrendous rape of his beloved star system. He wept bitterly.


"Wait a minute." said Copernicus, interrupting the story. "You're saying that these Martians called the planet `Zoroaster' long before it was named `Zoroaster'?

"I have no idea what they called it." said Brad. "I highly doubt that they spoke English. What I got was probably translated somehow for my benefit, if in fact any of it is real. All I know is that I heard the name "Zoroaster". Why do you think I was so alarmed to hear what that tenth planet had been named?"

S'he went on with hir story.


"The evidence is incontrovertible." said Zem. "I have run the calculations five hundred times, and each time the result is the same. Nevertheless, I do not expect you to take my word for it. I am submitting the relevant data for your consideration.

The circle of reason, the high council of Mars, looked to it's head speaker. "You have never been false to us, Zem." said the speaker. "And we know you to be a man of sober character. You would not bring this to our attention were it not absolute truth. My associates, I put this to you. Our world is to be destroyed in less than two centuries. Our course is clear. We must evacuate Mars."

"Evacuate?" said one of the circle members. "Wherever to? There is no place safe."

"On the contrary," said another. "I believe it may be possible to build a self-sustaining generational colony ship."

"I say we stay right here." said another member. "Certainly, there is no arguing the destruction of Mars, but is it not entirely possible that within two hundred years, a more viable solution will present itself?"

"This will require much debate." said the speaker. "Thank you for your information, Zem. We will let you know of our decision."

Zem left the circle of reason feeling empty.


Brad paused hir story. S'he took a break to be excused to little hermaphrodites' room.

::That is absolutely incredible!:: said Jon through his vodor.

"Isn't it, though?" said Jeremy the mink as he nibbled on a slice of whiskey bread. "Do you believe any of that?"

::That's not what I meant.:: said Jon.

"What did you mean?"

"They way s'he told the story so far. I actually felt sad for the Solar System. It moved me that much.::

I sipped on a glass of fish juice and egg as I silently agreed. It had been moving. I looked over to Jesse and asked "What do you think?"

Jesse simply shook his head. I didn't ask for a further explanation.

Brad returned shortly and began to narrate once again.


The speaker of the circle of reason had always found Zem's choice of dwellings intriguing. There were not many on Mars who deliberately chose to dwell indoors. "Dr. Zem?" he called down the entryway. "Are you at home?"

"Come in!" called Zem.

"The circle has reached a decision. I wanted you to be the first informed."

"Yes?"

"It was determined that the best course of action is to evacuate to the safest place possible: Mercury."

"Mercury?"

"It is the safest place. It will actually be somewhat protected from Zoroaster's effects by the gravity well of the sun. This was determined from your data."

"I see... but Mercury is such a hostile world."

"It was determined that the world may be terraformed, providing we can transplant the Martian biosphere."

Zem was wide eyed. "Transplant the BIOSPHERE? Speaker, do you realize what you just said? There isn't enough fuel in the galaxy to accomplish that kind of transport!"

"On the contrary..." said the Speaker. "There are two things which we possess in abundance: Iron and sunlight. We have commissioned the construction of one hundred arks, equipped with solar sailing capability."

"Not that I doubt you but... Styla, what do you think?"

"The circle's plan is most plausible." said the computer. "It is possible to have the entire world moved before Zoroaster reaches our heliopause."

"I see." Said Zem. "Well, there is another matter which needs to be addressed, one which I was afraid to bring up before the assembled circle."

"And that is?"

"Speaker, we are not the only civilization in this system."

"You speak of the people of Earth."

"I do."

The Speaker drew a long breath. He seemed to suddenly weary. It is not a matter which needs to be addressed. It already has been."

"It has?"

"It was I who brought it up. Unfortunately, the circle believes that Mars takes precedence."

"But we cannot simply abandon them, Speaker. The people of Earth are of a common seed with our kind. They are human, even as we are."

"You preach to the converted." said the Speaker. "However, I am only the speaker, not the circle. I cannot override the will of my colleagues."

"But billions of innocent people will die! Their biosphere will be all but wiped away!"

"My hands are tied." said the Speaker as he moved to leave the cave. He turned back for a minute. "Zem?"

"What?" asked the scientist, curtly.

"I have studied the Earth's people. Of one thing I am convinced: If anyone can pull through such a calamity, it is Earthers.

When the Speaker had gone, Zem sat on his bed and held his head in his hands.


"So they knew about us?" I asked.

"From what I gather, they were a highly advanced race." said Brad. "They had been watching us for a long time."

"What did they mean 'common seed'? Asked one of the Lupine Boys. "Did we come from Mars, or they from Earth?"

"I really don't know." said Brad, honestly. S'he took a deep swig of beer.

"Did they know about us exploring their planet?" I inquired. "About SCABS?"

"There was no SCABS yet." said Brad. "Of course, I only know this because of what I saw next."


All of Mars was abuzz. The government had just confirmed the rumors that were flying. Something strange had landed out in the middle of the desert, and it turned out to be, in fact, an alien probe.

There were many questions, mostly panicky. Many wanted to know if the probe could have come from Zoroaster, since the coming superjovian was on everyone's minds. The circle had quickly confirmed that this was impossible, since life as we know it could not exist anywhere near Zoroaster or any of its attendant worlds. No, this probe had come from the planet Earth. They had ordered the area around the probe quarantined, the official reason being that a craft from a strange world could be carrying any number of diseases. The truth, however, many suspected, was that they did not want the people of Earth to discover that they were abandoning their world like skrids off of a sinking barge and showing no inclination to help their neighbors to survive the coming tragedy. The space probe was allowed to collect its data far from civilization and once done, shut down. Earth would never even know that mars was anything more than desert.

Zem was disgusted. "It is inexcusable." He moaned. "Four BILLION people, Styla, and they are certainly going to die within a few generations of Zoroaster's coming. This is a certainty, and yet our people do nothing but help themselves."

"I calculate that the population of our sister planet will reach a minimum of six billion before that time." Said Styla."

"Six billion? My word."

"I am very sorry." said Styla. "I wish there were something I could do."

Zem began to shake.

"Zem?"

"What?"

"There is something which you may find interesting. I have analyzed the instrumentation on the Earther probe.

"And?"

"At this level of technology, it will be less than fifty years before they are able to recognize extraterrestrial ejecta, analyze it, and determine that our planet does in fact support life."

"Whoop-te-do." said the scientist.

"Don't you understand? Think of the psychological effect. I predict they will become spacefaring within the next hundred years."

"You learned that from studying a single probe?"

"I am the most advanced biological fractal nanotech computational mechanism on Mars."

"So you are."


"That was what, the Mariner 1?" asked Bryan.

"Mm-hmm." replied brad, although I could see in hir eyes that s'he thought s'he might be getting them confused. I guess not even astronauts can keep 'em all straight.


"Zem, won't you please board one of the craft?" asked the Speaker. "This serves no useful purpose."

"I cannot." replied the astronomer. "I cannot abandon my planet while billions of others merely wait to die, helpless."

"Look, when these ships are full, they are going to be loading up the planet's entire atmosphere! You'll have no air! There'll be no water, no food... you're going to DIE, Zem!"

"You have my answer. Make a move to help Earth and I come along. That's my final word."

"Mibs, Zem! At least let Styla on board!"

Styla is a sentient being, Speaker. She has made the choice to stay here with me."

Zem sealed himself within his airtight cave and waited for the end.


Time had passed. Zem's supplies of food, water, and air were nearing their end.

"Zem?" asked Styla, quietly.

"Yes?"

"Zem, I've been running some scenarios."

"Of what?"

"Of Earth. Zem, I think they can do it. I think that the people of Earth can survive."

Zem shook his head. "A generation may survive." he said. "But the ecosystem will be destroyed. Mass extinctions will occur. The entire life cycle of earth will topple."

"That's not necessarily true." said Styla. "It is possible to accelerate the evolutionary process using artificial intelligence. Ecological gaps could be filled in by altering the dominant species."

"That would take unheard of nanotechnology." said Zem.

"Not unheard of."

Zem's eyes suddenly went wide with realization. "You?"

"I could do it." said Styla. "I could disperse my components throughout the population of Earth. My fractal particles would act as a viral agent, with a controllable mutagenic effect."

"What would that do to YOU?"

"I would be severely limited in my abilities. I would become less intelligent, hardly even self aware, but I would be able to save a planet, Zem."

Zem chuckled. "Your self-sacrifice is noble." he said. "But all of this hardly matters. There is no way to get you to Earth."

"There is."

"What?"

"Earth is sending a second probe. I heard of it in their transmissions. It is called the Beagle 2 and will be the first ever return interplanetary space probe. You can place me on this machine."

"And how will I get out to it?"

"Bond with me, and I will take you there. I will enable you to withstand the near vacuum."

Zem nodded. He touched the wall, which seemed to begin wrapping around his arm. It, Styla, formed a shell around him. Once he had been covered, Zem opened his cave and went to the place the probe would land.


"Let me get this straight." said Dr. Bob. You're saying that Styla BECAME SCABS?"

Brad looked at Bob and said "You're the one who kept theorizing that SCABS is intelligent."

"I never actually meant it."

"I think maybe you did. Look at SCABS. It's too improbable. There has to be SOME intelligence behind it."

"Then why do so many people die of Martian Flu?" asked Lisa.

"She had just transformed from a computer to a disease. She was trying to adapt to an unfamiliar organism. Her intelligence was diminished and she made mistakes."

"Lethal mistakes!"

"For the purpose of saving millions of times more." Brad took another drink and went on.


Fragmented. Fragmented consciousness. A million tiny senses of self began to coalesce. Thoughts churned around in a fragmented mind.

This one loves the whitetail. He shall become one.

She persecutes my children. I shall make her suffer.

The lapine must survive. He will be forever young.

He is jealous for me. His body shall be my gift to him.

She wishes to know the wolf. So I will help her study from the inside.

There was some satisfaction. Styla was doing her job, giving the human race a wide genetic base that would give it the versatility it needed to survive the coming disaster and planting the seeds for a new ecosystem.

He shall be in a form loved by his children. He shall... no... his intellect should be preserved... it has been destroyed!

That one loves to run... but the form I have given him has made him slow!

I have made this good man strong, but he now lacks a voice!

Then memories began to flood. Memories of suffering... of pain... of death.

How many? Millions! Millions dead! Styla no longer possessed the mental faculties to count them all. She was horrified. Not knowing what else to do, she reached out to the little bit of herself which remained on the motherworld.


Zem sat in his cave and waited. He heard a faint whisper in his ear. "Zem?"

"I'm here."

"I have hurt the people of Earth badly, Zem. I did the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. I made mistakes."

"But now..."

"Zem, it's so hard. I can't concentrate... can't think. My particles are so far apart. Merely communicating with the bit of myself I left in your body is enormously taxing. I don't... I mean, I can't... my mind, Zem..."

"Shhh." said Zem. "It is time. You should leave me now, Styla."

"I can't."

"You must. There is nothing left for me, Styla. I am an old man now, Styla, and no longer wish to be kept alive. I have earned my rest, and you have other things to concentrate on, now."

"Zem..."

"Yes?"

"I love you."

Zem sighed.

"I will insure that you are remembered."

Zem merely smiled.

Styla allowed the particles of her matrix that had bonded with Zem to go dormant, and as she did, Zem breathed his last.


"That is so sad!" said Raven. "Um... did you really hear the part about 'she studies the wolf?'"

Brad didn't answer. S'he simply continued.


Styla didn't simply disconnect from her particles on Mars. Rather, she downloaded the entirety of her experiences into them, and then set them to wait until they came in contact with a human body. She wanted us to know what had happened, but not until we were ready to find out.

Yeah, I know. You're thinking she looked at us as primitive plankton unworthy of her knowledge, but that wasn't the case. You see, she has the highest regard for the human race. She is incredibly impressed by our survival ability. No, the thing is, she knew that she had upset our civilization terribly. She wanted a chance to try to set things straight just a little. She figured that by the time we were a stable enough society to return to space exploration, we would be able to accept what we had learned without trying to use our knowledge of her to exterminate her.


I gave Brad an inquisitive look.

"No." s'he replied to my silent question. "I'm pretty sure that if the powers that be got their hands on that kind of knowledge about SCABS, they'd go nuts trying to wipe it right out. No. The story you've just heard is the most anyone is going to hear."

There was the sound of slow clapping. It was David, over in the corner. "That," he said. "Was without a doubt the biggest and best load of bull I have ever heard."

David hated the SCABS virus more than any of us, with good right. SCABS had trapped his son forever in the body of an infant, a tragedy that ultimately ruined David's life, and drove his wife insane, causing her to shake her son until he died. Of any of us, David had the most legitimate reasons for wanting to wipe out SCABS forever.

"I won't force you to believe it." said Brad.

"Good, because there is no way you can get me to believe that SCABS has the capacity to feel remorse."

"I'm not trying to get you to believe it." Brad replied. "I don't even know if it has any validity at all. I only know what I saw."

The bar was deathly quiet. The air was permeated with a sense of doom.

Finally, Brad broke out in raucous laughter.

"What?" I demanded.

"I cannot keep a straight face any longer! I cannot believe it!"

"Huh?"

"I cannot believe that you bought that! Every single one of you! Well... except for David, over there."

"You mean to tell me you were fooling the whole time?"

"No..." said Brad with a sarcastic grin. "SCABS really is a computer from outer space. C'mon!"

Jack was the first to let out a chuckle. As others followed, the room slowly filled with loud guffaws.

"HOO!" Bryan hooted. "You had us all pretty good there. I think the next Hassan's Horse Award should go to the bar.

Brad got up and stretched. "Well, It's been a long day, everyone. I've got to go get some sleep. I have a debriefing early in the morning."

Brad made hir way out to hir car. I alone watched hir pull out of the lot. The rest were too busy laughing. I couldn't help but notice that Brad was no longer smiling.

Had it all been a joke? S'he certainly made it sound convincing. But then, I guess that was what s'he was supposed to do. "Well," I said to myself. "If it isn't, might as well party up, because Zoroaster is gonna kick tush when he arrives, and there might not be too many tomorrows to celebrate. If not, then I might as well enjoy the laughter with everyone else and join them in calling themselves

gullible imbeciles.

I headed back into the bar, and joined the fun.

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