And just to wrap up what was started a couple of days ago. We now conclude the story of “Bob, The Annihilator.” It’s a fantasy story, but not dark or dystopian (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Bob, The Annihilator
We heard laughter coming from behind the wall, somewhere beyond our cabbages. Willie found a rock at the garden’s edge and hefted it. It seemed big enough to crush even an oversized chipmunk’s skull. I had little doubt Willie would not hesitate to do so. I exuded what might best be called Stamina and Willie bolted for the cabin. We made it through the door in record time.
Of course the phone wasn’t working. Bob must have taken out the relays prior to making his appearance. Willie stood with the ansible receiver to her ear and strained to hear a dial tone somewhere in the maddening silence. Suddenly Bob appeared in the open window. His fluffy tail jerked eagerly. Willie threw the rock but Bob had vanished again.
Our nearest neighbors were ten miles away. We needed help. Willie stepped toward the door and then suddenly stopped. Her fists clenched and I could feel the anger surge. There was no way she was going to flee our homestead!
“Bob the Traitor,” she hissed. It was a summons.
Bob appeared from behind the sofa. He stood clutching his little leather pouch, his uncannily blue eyes gauging us. Nothing was said for over a minute. Then Willie asked: “Why aren’t you dead?”
Bob spread his tiny arms and said. “I managed to survive, sergeant. During the Battle of Fanglore I passed through our lines and made it to enemy headquarters…your enemy that is. The Keeper’s Cleft was hit hard just an hour after I arrived. Something our side had developed called Benevolent Change.”
“We were told it killed everything inside that haunted chasm,” Willie remembered.
Bob the Annihilator shook his furry head. “Not exactly. The good guys tried to deploy good spells. That’s what Benevolent Change supposedly was. Turned anybody who went over to Faerie into harmless rodents. Then the 8th Were-Cats suddenly appeared. They hadn’t heard about good spells nor had HQ been apprised of the 8th’s commando raid. I managed to escape. Apparently were-cats don’t view chipmunks as good eating.”
“A pity I don’t keep cats,” Willie said. Every muscle was taut. She was ready to pounce.
Disarmingly, Bob laughed. “I appreciate your sense of humor, sergeant, truly. And I’m happy to see you alive.”
Willie’s big foot slapped the ground but the chipmunk had dodged it. “I’m the last thing you’ll see alive.”
“Now, now,” Bob the Annihilator said from under our end table. “I understand your emotions, but any attempt to attack me just causes me to flash away. That’s one of the better side effects of Benevolent Change, sergeant.”
“What about all the other rodents?” Willie flung the end table aside and one of our expensive lamps smashed on the floor. I tsked-tsked in her ear.
“Most were transformed into guinea pigs,” Bob’s disembodied voice replied. “Different side effects and no match for any were-cat.”
Willie shrieked her frustration. “What the hell are you doing here, Bob?”
Bob peeked out from behind the sofa. “I have a proposition for you, trooper. One that you and your little friend may be interested in.”
“He’s my medic, Bob. And unlike you he did his duty at Fanglore,” Willie said. Had flames been available these would have shot from her eyes.
“I see,” Bob said in a very heard-it-all-before sort of voice. “Then perhaps you can both help.”
“How ‘bout we help you back to Hell?” Willie took a step forward. I could tell she was prepared to throttle the chipmunk. I wasn’t sure whether to hide my eyes or help.
Bob pulled something from his leather bag. It glowed with the same blue intensity as his eyes. The gem was eight-sided and looked like a chunk of blue sky. Strange crackles of energy formed lines of twisting discharge around its edges. He raised it in our direction.
“Please,” he begged. “I need you to help me. I need to get back to my human form.”
“Don’t we all,” I said.
As if really noticing me for the first time Bob squinted his azure eyes and tilted his head in my direction. “What did he say?”
“Sit down,” Willie replied. Bob hopped up onto the sofa and rested the gem in the cup of both paws. His chipmunk face looked quite earnest. Willie settled in the easy chair opposite him, but she was anything but easy. Her fists stood like dark knots on her knees.
“Why me?” Willie demanded.
“You’re one of my old cadre, sarge!” Bob said brightly.
Willie folded her arms. “You betrayed that cadre long before we reached the shores of the Outcast Sea. And when we hit the beach they knew right where to take us. But you were immune thanks to that traitor’s talisman you hold. And you left us for dead when you went over to the Keeper.”
Bob sighed, his heavy chipmunk cheeks puffing out. “Guilty, guilty, guilty. But guilty only in the past. Those of us who secretly worked with the Crucible thought we were bettering the world. Saving humanity by tempering the Keeper’s plans.”
“Fools,” Willie spat the word. “You killed thousands.”
“And you killed more.” Bob the Annihilator looked down at his paws and then back up. Were there tears in his eyes? “I can’t make anything better in my past, Willie. Can you? Can anybody? The War is over, the amnesties were given, and now we live in the shadow of what was.”
Willie motioned with a wickedly curved thumb. “The door is over there. Just be glad I don’t keep hounds.”
Bob lowered his eyes and made a placating gesture with his forepaw. “No, please. Hear me out.”
“I have no reason to…”
Bob pressed on: “Willie, old comrade, what if I told you I can return us all to our original forms.”
I fluttered my wings at that. Bob’s actions had killed so many on our side. It seemed strange he would want to do something good. Or was this penance? We all found our penance, in one way or another. The gem in his hand fluttered with light and potentiality.
“What…do you mean?” Willie said between clenched teeth.
Bob raised the gem in his hand. “This traitor’s talisman serves many purposes. But I’ve found, through long and hard trials, a means by which it can de-morph any bearer. It’s an old magic, based on the link between crystal, metal, and extheric energies. By elevating its inherent quintessence…”
“I don’t need a university lecture, lieutenant. Who did you kill to get this information?” Willie said bluntly.
Bob said, “No one, I assure you. But those who went over to the Keeper learned things. And not all were killed, let alone morphed. Some remain human! I found one such worthy living down and out in the ruins of Crypticopolis. I heard rumors and was able to seek him out. He seemed eager to help me.”
Willie frowned and I flicked my forked tongue down at Bob. “So you found some junky in the streets of the Alabaster City and got him the fix he needed,” Willie surmised.
Nonplussed, Bob the Annihilator stated simply: “We had a mutual exchange, sergeant.”
“I’m sure. And what did this junky do in the war?”
“An officer of the Craft. Section Double-Q.”
I whistled, sharp and shrill. The stuff that came out of S2Q had won the war for us. Those kids were geniuses. But I did have to wonder if all the alums of that unit had wound up as junkies. You heard stories about what they had put themselves through. Thaumaturgic programming and demon hopping were said to be far worse than anything we had seen at Fanglore. Or so they claimed. I hoped a few had found peace.
“Who?” Willie demanded.
“Dalton. Did you know him?”
“I knew of him,” Willie said. She had briefly worked for S2Q but then refused further service, and joined the FOEmen instead. “Did something with spirit-animals, yes?”
Bob’s whiskers quivered. “He trans-morphed wolves, bears, rats, and eagles into warplings.”
Willie’s goblin eyebrows shot up. “The warpling program was a disaster.”
“Why?” I asked.
Willie said: “Because the warplings became crazed. They kept eating their handlers, among other things. And…”
“We were doing things to those poor beasts that were on a par with the Crucible Keeper. I’d have none of it.”
Bob the Annihilator hopped up on his hind legs and bounced slightly on the cushions. He was excited. “Dalton felt very bad about it, too. He broke off from the main S2Q group and worked inside the Complex, but in relative isolation. Whoever was supervising him in the command structure allowed this and supported his work.”
“What work was that? Why would they allow Dalton to work alone?” Willie demanded.
Bob’s eyes glowed enthusiastically. “Dalton came up with a way of reversing the warpling effect. He could turn the subjects back to their original forms. I saw this myself. He still had a collection of morphed rats. He turned one back into a mundane normal rat before my very eyes.”
“This was all secret, I suppose? Until you tracked him down? Why?” Willie was on the edge of her seat.
Bob said: “This was important to Command. They had an inkling, even back then, of what we might face in Fanglore. The trans-morphing auras that hit units like ours are almost identical to warping spells. Command wanted some way to reverse that. Dalton figured this out.”
My wings flapped angrily. Willie frowned. “Then if what you say is true…why didn’t they apply the technique to all morphed veterans? Why didn’t they…”
Willie paused as Bob plumped back down on the couch. In a very human gesture he sat with elbow on knee. His chipmunk face had a look of contempt. “Who would they have guard the Fairy Haunted Lands, if not for morphed vets? Where else do we belong?”
Willie leaned back in her chair. I felt the rough hide-back cushion rubbing into her pebbled goblin skin. Around us our snug cabin and all that we held dear glowed softly. We were just one little outpost among many, many. Those who had been morphed in Fanglore were outcasts from the Mundane World, surely. But even homesteading was a way to continue to serve. We did so proudly. Yet if this were true and we all had some type of choice…
The hard silence of bitter memory stretched through the cabin. When Willie finally spoke it was with all the weight of a broken promise: “Bastard.”
Bob looked at us carefully. “Sure. Call me what you will. I went over to the other side. But what is Command doing to its own people?”
“Shut up!” Willie snarled. “Why should I believe any of this?”
“Because you know it’s true. And because it’s a way out. Back to our old, true, human forms.”
Willie bared her sharp goblin teeth. “Why risk it? Dalton worked with lab rats! By the Old God’s sake! Do I look like a lab rat, Bob?”
In an almost wheedling voice, the Annihilator said, “You were beautiful, if I recall, Willie. Don’t you want to be beautiful again?”
Willie thrust a sharp, curved thumb at her chest. “I am still beautiful, lieutenant. And whether morphed or human, you are still nothing but a nasty little rodent.”
The chipmunk shook its head. “If reversal was offered, even from one such as me, you wouldn’t accept?” Bob seemed truly dismayed.
Willie folded her arms. “No.”
“But you don’t speak for anyone else, Willie! Shouldn’t they have their own say?”
“Of course, but…”
“No, no! No corollaries, please,” Bob raised one sharp little chipmunk digit. “If I can prove to you that Dalton’s technique works, then I will make it available to others. I would even make it available to you and your medic should you change your minds.”
Bob tucked the glowing gem back in its pouch and said, “You were an expert in thaumaturgic metallurgy. I can’t use the gem without a focusing cradle. I need you to make me one.”
“Where’s Dalton’s?” Willie asked. “I mean, I assume he needed one to make this reversal technique work?”
Bob sighed. True regret passed before his eyes. “On our last night of work I was to use the technique on myself. I hurried to his flat and found that he had dropped some crazy stuff. I waited for the trip to pass but when he came down he was misery personified. He demanded more money and I was running out of cash and patience. We fought. The cradle was quite fragile and it shattered. In a fury Dalton released the clutch of transformed rats that he kept. They attacked me. I was able to get away with only the gem.”
“And Dalton?” Willie asked.
“To hell with Dalton!” Anger burst like extheric thunder. “Will you help me or not?”
It was dark outside. A breeze blew. High above I saw the first purple flash as weird energies gathered. A moth fluttered plaintively along the edge of the screen door. A thousand voices seemed to call from the gloaming beyond the edge of the porch. I thought of the morphed and dying at Fanglore. My skin dimpled and I shivered. Willie stood up like a rising storm and walked toward her workshop. Meekly, Bob followed.
Willie had to duck as we entered the workshop. Bob had no such problem, but given the dimness and shadow he edged carefully up against the wall, his bushy tail quivering. His whiskers shivered as he drank in the smells of oil, steel, ozone, and smoke.
At the center of the shop a forge glowed, its coals standing hot like a bed of incandescent emeralds. Willie threw on her leather apron and pumped the bellows. The forge sprang up and a heated, green glow filled the room. On the shop’s oaken beams carved figures seemed to come to life, dancing and writhing upon the thick wood. Willie glanced at our guest and her eyes glowed like hot embers.
“Let’s make this quick, traitor,” she growled.
To his credit Bob was a very well prepared guy. He pulled the gemstone and a scrap of parchment from his pouch and handed it up to Willie. The diagram showed an elaborate cradle wherein would rest the gemstone. It looked like a spider web woven by a geometrist. I licked my chops at the sight. Willie was an excellent metal-worker, but this was quite different than the tourist fancies or bedsteads we typically produced.
Without a word she got to work. Bob the Annihilator hopped up on a wooden bench and watched eagerly. Willie pulled some flickering adamantine stock from under the nearest bench as well as several nodules of meteoritic iron. The forge flared and she began laying out the general shape. Outside, the exthermic storm let out a roar. Lightning flickered in the throat of the chimney above our forge.
Hours passed, but in the end Willie completed the cradle. The storm outside was really raging and the blue jewel surged and pulsed with each howl of the wind, every flicker of lightning. Carefully she handed the elaborately worked piece to Bob. He took it gingerly in his tiny paws.
“Amazing!” he breathed. “Truly amazing!”
“Thanks…I guess,” Willie replied with a twisted smile. The work had absorbed her. But now that she had to face Bob the Annihilator and his odd story she was beginning to get edgy again. Who could blame her?
“Please, the parchment!” Bob asked. Willie picked the slightly burned parchment off the edge of the workbench and passed it to him. He turned it over. On the side opposite the cradle diagram were a series of runic words. Bob whispered the words and his eyes glowed with triumph.
Before we could say another word Bob ran out of the workshop. Willie and I had barely cleared the workshop when we heard the porch door slap shut. Tiny feet scurried across the porch and vanished into the night.
“Bob!” Willie cried from the screen door. Extheric lightening flared above and the pine trees groaned at their very roots. The triquetra that Jack had cut glowed at the perimeter of our cabin and cast a dull orange light in counterpoint to the raging storm. Through darkness and flickering energies I saw a shadowy woodland form scurrying for the border.
“Bob!” Willie called. “You promised that that would be used by anyone who needed it!”
“Certainly,” Bob the Annihilator called from the outer edge of the triquetra. There was a harsh sneer to his voice. “And any may have it…for a price! Would you like the cure now, Willie? Is it worth your land, or labor, or body?”
We hurried across the lawn. Bob’s tiny chipmunk arms raised the blue gem in its adamantine cradle up toward the growling storm. The stone flared brilliant blue and cast azure shadows across trees and lawn and Bob’s snarling face. A bolt of vermillion shot down out of the sky and struck the gemstone. In a flash Bob began to writhe and grow and morph.
Willie staggered to a halt just within the triquetra. Bob loomed above us. He was human again, but his muscular frame stood at least nine feet tall. He barked a laugh and glared down at us. The gemstone pulsed and sizzled in its cradle. Weird shadows shifted across his face.
“I’m me again!” Bob cried. Tears coursed down his face.
“Bob, you never looked anything like that,” Willie scoffed.
“No matter! With this gemstone we can improve our lot! Make each of us better than we were! Come on Willie, join me!”
Bob the Annihilator held out the stone. Several heartbeats passed.
Willie tilted her head. “Not for me,” I heard her whisper. “But there are so many others.” She reached for the silvery cradle but Bob snatched it away and laughed. He raised it up into the air, a good twelve feet off the ground.
“Never!” he yelled. And in that instant the gemstone flared like a rising, blue sun. Willie and I were knocked to the ground. Discharged energies and sinuous flux-lines crackled all around us. These soon faded and night returned to our well-kept lawn.
Dazed, we struggled to our feet and looked around. Fighting off the storm, the strained triquetra offered a ruddy sodium-light sort of illumination. A small crater smoked where Bob had once stood. At its center sat the gemstone. Its cradle was twisted and melted. Next to the wreckage sat an innocent-looking chipmunk. It squeaked plaintively as we approached.
“Bob?” Willie said.
The chipmunk was a tiny, normal sized chipmunk: not Annihilator scale. It blinked obsidian eyes and chattered something. Willie crouched down and stared. The rodent darted here and there.
“So much for the cure,” I said. “I guess the gemstone doesn’t work.”
“Oh, it worked,” Willie said. “Just as Bob thought it would. But it could only return its bearer to some original form…as encountered by the gemstone. That’s why Dalton’s warped rats went back to being just plain old rats.”
I nodded. “And why a giant chipmunk went back to being just a normal sized chipmunk.”
“Including scale and instinct, I bet it’s gone back to being just a plain old chipmunk in terms of intelligence.”
I shook my head. “Bob got a lot more than he bargained for,” I said.
It started to rain. The chipmunk, having enough of our conversation, disappeared noisily into the underbrush. Using sharpened thumb and index finger Willie picked up the remains of the cradle. It still channeled whatever extheric energy remained in the air. At its broken center the gemstone crackled and sparked against the raindrops.
“What to do with this?” my friend clucked. “Should we get it to the authorities?”
“Willie,” I said. “I was thinking of a better use. Maybe it would make a good bug zapper?”
Willie laughed. The rain fell and my wings formed an umbrella over our heads. Contentedly, we walked back to our cabin. Above us, the storm raged, but it would be over soon. Tomorrow, we’d fix that lawnmower.