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The Human Experience

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1

Joel was considering taking the pogo sticks away from the bots. They had been pogoing so long, they had just about exhausted every adventurous or epic television theme song that involved riding a horse or motorcycle. Now, they were reduced to reeling off themes with a dwindling relation to heroic transportation, challenging each other to sing My Mother The Car, Petticoat Junction, and even Maude (because Lady Godiva was, after all, a "freedom rider.") But when Joel turned to make a "that's enough" gesture, he saw the red light flashing. Why would the Mads be calling now?

The bots, unscolded, had pogoed off, crooning, "…and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back!" Joel touched the button to open communications with Deep 13. But what he saw was not the usual pair of menacing eyes framed by day-glo glasses, but the back of a black jumpsuit and some blonde hair.

"Hello?" Joel tilted his head. "Sirs? Hello?"

The temp in the black jumpsuit turned. Joel had seen him milling about in the background when the Mads had hurriedly sent Mitchell up to the Satellite of Love. The temp had a pleasant but unmemorable face; the sort of face you saw all the time and never noticed, on the guy delivering your pizza, the young cop, the British pop star on the music video channel.

"Oh, I'm sorry," the temp said, scrambling over banker's boxes to get back to the console. He was impeded by the ball and chain on his ankle. "I just needed a place to set these files while I restacked the…and I guess I accidentally dropped them on the…heh…" He continued to grin sheepishly a little bit, in the eyes.

"No worries," said Joel. "Are the Mads treating you okay down there?"

"The Mads? Oh, the guys. Yeah, they're not so bad. I've had worse jobs. I mean, 'temp' is a pretty crappy job, but as a temp I've been sent on worse jobs than this. I'm sorry, I'm rambling. Is that purple thing a robot?"

Joel had felt Gypsy's presence at his side, but had been politely listening to the temp. "This is Gypsy. She runs all the higher functions on the Satellite of Love."

"Joel, I have to tell you something!" Gypsy was giddy, so Joel wasn't paying her much mind. When things were really in trouble, if the life-support systems were compromised, she became grave, and her reports were accompanied by a shipwide announcement by Magic Voice. Joel gave Gypsy a pat and said, "Hold on one second, girl." He returned his attention to the temp. "I gave her some AI protocols, too. She can come off a little silly, because most of her processing power is dedicated to the functions of the ship. Oh!" He put his palm flat on his chest. "I'm sorry. I'm Joel, by the way."

"Nice to meet you, Joel."

When it became clear that the temp did not intend to say any more, Joel prompted him. "I didn't catch your name?"

"I'm, uh, Mike. Sorry, most people don't bother to ask my name when I'm on the job." He looked down in a deferent manner, but continued to smile. "So I usually don't offer it. Heh."

"Nice to meet you, Mike."

After prodding Joel a couple more times with no result, Gypsy had hurried off, muttering to herself.

"So…being alone up in space with some robots," said Mike. "You got kind of a Foreign Legion thing going on, huh?"

"Foreign Legion?" based on what little conversation they'd had so far, Joel didn't think of Mike as the sort of guy who tossed around references to elite nineteenth-century French military units.

"You know, leaving your past behind and joining the Foreign Legion so you can escape to exotic, isolated places."

"Um…" Joel said.

Mike waved a dismissive hand at his own suggestion. "I'm sorry, it's probably nothing like that at all for you. It's just something I read about in a book once."

"Beau Geste?"

"Gesundheit," said Mike.

"No, I mean was the book you read Beau Geste?"

"Well, actually, it wasn't a book. It was a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie I saw."

Joel nodded in silent bewilderment. Mike continued talking, as though he'd been keeping these thoughts deep inside for some time and had only just found an understanding soul to confide in.

"I guess I just think about doing something like that because my life is so pathetic. I left a three-generation tradition of farming to go to the city and work my way up the ladder at a cheese factory. A cheese factory! Even my dreams were pathetic. But I couldn't even make it as a cheese-monkey, and it's not because I was over-qualified. I'm thirty years old, and the only work I can get is as a temp. And look what they make me wear!" Mike turned around and pointed over his shoulder at the logo on his jumpsuit: I SPELL FUN W.O.R.K.

Joel was agape. "Wow, you're right. That's the saddest thing I've ever seen, and I've seen Servo sing the 'Addio del Passado' aria from La Traviata."

He heard his name being called from a great distance. He looked toward the sound, just for a moment, but when he turned back to the monitor, Mike had disappeared, and the picture from Deep 13 was accompanied only by the indistinct scolding sound of Dr. Forrester's voice.

That guy Mike seemed like a decent fella. Joel had had so little contact with persons who could be classified as "decent fella" since his exile to the Satellite of Love, but he hadn't realized it until then. Sure, he had the bots, and all his life he'd been more interested in surrounding himself with gadgets than with people, but seeing an easy-going be-jumpsuited lackey working for the Mads down on Earth made him feel a little sentimental.

A trio of lights on the console began to flash, and Joel hollered to the absent bots, "We've got movie sign!" He tore down the hall, crunching stray bits of burnt toothpick as he went.


*****


Upon his return, Joel was nonplussed when he saw that Gypsy had not cleaned up the remains of the toothpick Monticello.

"Joel! Joel!"

Oh, that's right, he thought. Gypsy! He'd never found out what she was upset about.

The sound of his name being called grew closer, and more panicked. Gypsy returned to his side, swerving frantically.

"Hey girl," said Joel. "I'm sorry I wasn't listening earlier. What's going on?"

"Joel! Frank and Doctor Forrester are plotting to kill you!"

Joel heard the words "Doctor Forrester" and "kill" so often in the same sentence, he was inured to them. "Now that doesn't sound right. Are you sure?"

"I saw them on the monitor! They said they were going to do it!"

"Gypsy, was the recording unit on?"

"We have a recording unit?"

Joel crouched down behind the table and pulled up an antiquated console, which sprouted cords in every direction. "I helped Crow and Servo hook an editing bay up to the monitor, so they could record footage of the Mads and splice it together to make it look like they're lip-synching to the deathbed scene from Love Story." Joel had never used the editing bay, but after examining it for six seconds, he deduced how to play back the last footage.

"Don't worry, Doc," Frank said on the monitor. "I knew when we brought him on, we'd have to eliminate him. After all, he knew going in, this was only a…temporary situation."

"See? See?" Gypsy bleated.

"I'm not so sure. Look, they're looking right at Mike when they say that."

"So they're not going to kill you?"

"No," said a horrified Joel. "They're going to kill Mike!"

"Oh," said Gypsy, relieved. "So you won't be needing the escape pod, then."

"No, I'll be fine --- escape pod?!"

"I was talking to Mike while you were watching the movie, and he looked at the Satellite of Love's manifest, and he told me where the escape pod is."

"Well, where is it?"

"It's --- oh no, I won't. I won't tell you! You'll leave us!"

"Joel's leaving us?" Crow and Servo appeared behind Joel, still on the pogo sticks they'd been playing with from the last break. "Waah! Joel's leaving us!" they cried, too distraught to dismount. They bounced and wailed around the bridge.

"Guys, calm down! I'm not leaving!"

Without missing a bounce, Crow and Servo began cheering, "Woo! Joel's not leaving us!"

Joel closed his eyes and tried to think. He couldn't abandon Mike. The Mads were more enthusiastic than they were cunning, but Mike was naïve; he might not be able to evade their machinations. Revelation upon revelation had fallen upon Joel, but they rolled like pinion gears into perfect synchronization.

"Gypsy, I promise I won't leave, but you have to tell me where the escape pod is…"


2

The wooden crate was longer than Joel was tall. It lay dusty and alone at the end of Dock 14, which even the bots had not visited in their many mischievous explorations. Joel walked around the crate once, then chose an appropriate spot to employ the pry-bar. (He had ceased calling it a crow-bar, as the term made Crow nervous; it made it sound like the implement was designed just for him, like "elephant gun.")

Inside the crate was the pod that the manifest had promised. Designed for a single occupant, it was the only such vessel on the Satellite of Love. The Mads had provided the Satellite crew with many things they'd asked for, no matter how ridiculous, whether it was sheet music, a blue screen, or a calabash. (Although Servo had been upset about that last one; he had specifically asked not for a "calabash," but a "Kalashnikov.") But Joel doubted he would be provided with a second one of these.

He opened the pod's hatch. The vessel had presumably been designed for some someone who was in a hurry and panicking, for it only had two buttons on the console: DEPLOY and TRANSMIT.

If he thought it over too much, he might change his mind. Even taking into account that he might come up with a better idea in a few minutes, he knew he did not have time to waste. He pushed the DEPLOY button and closed the hatch. He did not know if there was an airlock beyond the docking bay doors, so he darted back into the corridor before the bay doors opened.

"Escape pod launching," said Magic Voice.

It wasn't so bad on the Satellite of Love. His friends were here.


*****


It was unmistakable: the pod landing in the Australian outback was broadcasting the Gizmonic signature, and it's trajectory indicated that it had been launched from the Satellite of Love.

How could Joel have found the escape pod, Dr. Forrester wondered. Did he discover the crate and suddenly find himself overcome by a desire for Hamdingers? No, no. Forrester had perfected cold fusion and had personally witnessed the opening of the Ark of the Covenant unscathed, but a human being desiring a Hamdinger? That was simply not possible.

"We could send someone else into space," Frank said.

"Who are we going to find at this late date to send into space?"

Up popped the temp, holding a dog-eared timecard and whining for it to be signed.

Then Dr. Forrester smiled at his own ingenuity.


*****


Magic Voice purred, "Successful docking of pod in Bay Twelve."

But she could not be heard over the wailing of a trio of robots. "Joel left us! Joel left us! Joel left us!" This was not a chant, so much, because each time this claim was uttered, it was delivered differently: staggered and choking, or plaintive and ear-splitting, or desperate and whimpering.

When Joel heard the announcement, he knew he'd hidden himself long enough. He jogged over to Dock 12. The translucent sign reading PRESSURE STABILIZED was lit, so he pushed the button underneath to open the door.

The occupant of the pod had not yet freed himself. Joel hoped he was unconscious, because the pod was so small, and unlike professional space travelers, the occupant had not been screened for claustrophobia. Joel opened the hatch and found that, indeed, Mike was out cold; a nasty bump had formed on his right temple, the bruise over it slightly off-center.

Mike was bigger and taller than Joel, and Joel had been neglecting his isometric exercises, so Mike couldn't be carried. He would have to regain consciousness here. Joel sat cross-legged on the floor. The poor bots were probably panicking up on the bridge, thinking he had not only left them but lied about his intentions. Mike still seemed like a nice guy, but he had better hurry up with the coming-to business.

Joel leaned over and gingerly patted Mike's cheek, as he'd seen done in movies to revive someone. (His perception of what was acceptable, recommended, normal, or legal was increasingly being absorbed from movies.) For his own amusement, he whispered, "Wake up, buddy. We're home. Time to put on your shoes."

"Hrrrmmph." Mike turned over, apparently to get more comfortable, and banged his bruised temple right on the corner of the life-support monitor. He squealed in pain and attempted to turn his head as far from the source of the pain as possible, only to hit his chin on the edge of the hatch's locking mechanism. A string of obscenities followed.

"Whoa, whoa, shh shh shh!" Joel lunged into the pod to grab Mike and prevent him from harming himself any further. "Keep your voice down if you're going to talk like that. I don't want the bots learning those words."

"What do you want me to say?" Mike whined, holding his head. "I just hit my head twice on the godda---Wait. What did I just hit my head on?" He removed his hands with great reluctance, having reverted to the childhood belief that if you take your hands away from your wound, regardless of its location, all your guts will come out of it.

After examining the pod in disbelief, Mike's gaze fell on Joel, who chirped, "Welcome to the Foreign Legion! You've been stationed on the Satellite of Love!"


*****


Joel's explanation of the events of the past few hours was not comforting to Mike at all; when you try telling an ordinary person that you stranded them (and yourself) in space in order to save them from being killed by mad scientists, "comfort" is predicated on that person believing that mad scientists were intending to kill them in the first place.

"You can believe it or not," Joel sighed, as the two men leaned against the docking bay's control console. "But in a minute things are about to get so weird for you, you'll have to believe it."


*****


Mike had a technique for waking up from nightmares, which he'd developed over the years. When something horrific was happening in a dream, he'd trained himself to realize that it was just a dream, and all he had to do was count to three and force his eyes open.

Mike had counted to three twenty-seven times just in the time it took the two hysterical robots to finish ecstatically hugging Joel. Those two robots didn't look like any Mike had ever seen; they looked like cute, red and gold (respectively) piles of rubbish. Another robot, the purple reptile that Mike had gone over the manifest with, stood by and watched the ruckus with a single eye, patiently waiting for its hug.

Fondly, as a parent would for their children, Joel introduced Mike to the robots. He even introduced him to the camera.

It would be easy to remember which one was "Cambot." And "Gypsy" Mike could probably remember because she was the only female. Er, "female." But he just knew he would get the other two confused. He tried to come up with a mnemonic device to keep track of them both. He decided that "Crow" and "gold" had the same number of letters, and "Servo" looked like a machine that "served" gumballs. Unfortunately, as Joel was explaining about the movie ritual, he forgot these things entirely. Ten minutes later, when he found he needed to call one of them by name, he decided that the one that hovered flew like a crow, and the other one seemed to be made of sports equipment, and in some sports the games begin with a "serve," and basically he botched the job of addressing them entirely.

At first, Mike was relieved when the bots got his name wrong. It made him feel less self-conscious about his own mistakes. His relief was short-lived, however: he'd been called "Matt" before, and "Miles" once, but when the bots called him "Mitch," "Mortimer," and several times "Murgatroid," he began to suspect that they were having a joke at his expense.

Whenever Joel heard Crow and Servo tease Mike, he gently scolded them, but the only result was, the bots began to make sure Joel was out of the room before they started in with the teasing.

Thankfully for Mike, Joel stayed by his side pretty much all the time, those first few days. Although, as Joel revealed more about himself, his intelligence, and his routines, Mike had a dim notion that Joel was just keeping an eye on him until it was clear that he was not inclined to poke at buttons he wasn't supposed to poke at, or otherwise sabotage devices that were more important than he was.

This was not actually Joel's motivation. Joel was more enthusiastic than cautious; the utter absence of approval from the Mads had left Joel desperate to impress someone with his ship full of cool gadgets. And, nothing personal, but Mike didn't appear to him to be a guy that was difficult to impress.

"This is my hobby room," Joel said at the beginning of Mike's Official First Tour of the Satellite of Love. "I do most of my work in here, so that my bedroom doesn't get too cluttered."

Mike peered around the door frame and was confronted by a kaleidoscope of cogs, trinkets, pistons, dials, gears, triggers, gizmos, toggles, processors, switches, calipers, props, tools, gauges, buttons, panels, monitors, springs, keys, peripherals, deely-boppers, thingamijigs, whatzitses, and some other miscellaneous items that didn't fit into any of those other categories. A workbench had one square foot of available space, but every other surface was piled high with anything Joel had suspected he could remove, modify, cannibalize, break, fix, or re-calibrate.

"After five years up here, I've finally got everything organized in this room," Joel said offhandedly. "It's always such a relief when you can do that." He stepped lightly over a few indistinct heaps to reach an object that Mike would never have discerned in the clutter. "It's a raincoat," Joel declared, "but when you fold it up, it turns into a coffee cup." He gave a demonstration. Mike watched, nonplussed. Joel shrugged apologetically. "I thought that people in Seattle would appreciate it," he said.

The next stop on the tour was the kitchen. Or rather, Joel identified it as a kitchen, but it would more accurately be called a "break room." It had a linoleum floor, a sink, mini-fridge, coffeemaker, microwave, and a few tables. Joel said there was a proper galley just beyond, but he never bothered with it. "Gypsy prepares the food, or else I'll just nuke something."

After seeing the hobby room, Mike looked questioningly at Joel.

"Nuke, figuratively, I mean."

"Ah. Okay."

Something about the room was eerie to Mike. It felt…wrong, as soon as he'd walked in. Not until Joel opened the fridge and pointed out the contents did Mike figure it out: no foul odor when the fridge was opened! No food had been left to rot inside. And the light-bulb worked!

Once he understood what was up, the eerie feeling crystallized. There were no neglected plates in the sink. The room didn't stink of stale coffee, industrial-grade dishwashing liquid, and someone's crafty cigarette. The floor wasn't sticky.

"No one must use this room," Mike remarked. "It's not like any breakroom I've ever been in."

"Gypsy cleans up," Joel said.

"Wow. How does she manage all the higher functions of the ship, and cook, and keep the place spotless?"

"Did you ever wonder anything like that about your mom?"

Mike's eyes went glassy for a moment as he made the connection. "Come to think of it, when I first moved into my own place I did wonder how my mom had done it all."

Joel smiled. "I shouldn't knock curiosity, but you'll stay sane a lot longer on this ship if you try to wonder less about how things happen."


*****


The door had a placard on it: J. ROBINSON.

"These are your quarters?"

Joel was amused by the question. "Quarters? This is my bedroom. I'm not the captain of the Enterprise." But the humility of this statement was negated when Joel pushed a button to make the door slide open with a whoosh.

Mike took one look inside and said, "I thought you said you had a hobby room so this room didn't get cluttered."

"What are you talking about? You can see the bed! Mostly."

Mike conceded that. "That's a full-size bed. Who ever heard of a full-size bed on a spaceship? I thought Doctor Forrester was trying to torment you."

"He torments me with movies. If I had to sleep on a narrow concrete slab, and all I had to eat were nasty rations, and I didn't have any entertainment, and then I went insane, how would Forrester know it was the movie that did it?"

"Makes sense. So you just asked him for a bigger bed, and he sent you one?"

"Yeah, I like to roll around a lot in bed." There followed the most awkward silence that can exist between two men. "What I mean to say," Joel tried again, "is that I'm a restless sleeper."

"Got it. So, if I'm gonna be here indefinitely, is there a place for me to sleep?"

Joel looked down the corridor, leaning back on one foot, as if the answer might be visible at the far end. "Probably," he said. "It's a big ship. I haven't explored a lot of it."

"I would've figured you had by now. It must get boring up here."

"Not really. I've resolved to explore more, but every time I open a new door, I get an idea, and I take whatever's inside apart. That's how I came up with the bots."

"We're little miracles!" chirped Crow. Mike hadn't heard the bots approach.

"That's right, buddy." Joel patted Crow on the shoulder, then returned his attention to Mike. "Tell you what, follow me." He led Mike and the bots down the corridor, around two corners, and down another corridor. It looked identical to the first corridor, and Mike wondered if this was a practical joke.

"I haven't opened any of these doors," Joel said. "You're welcome to try them, and see if there's a suitable bedroom around."

Mike nodded at this intriguing prospect, but Joel continued, "I haven't been down here, but the bots probably have, so they may have staked some of these out already."

The bots began to whistle nervously.

"I'm gonna leave you to it. I promised Crow I'd look at his new screenplay. Servo, will you help Mike find a room?"

"Sure! It beats listening to Crow read from yet another script about Kim Cattrall and her forbidden love for a spindly but intriguingly sensuous gold robot." Servo leaned over to stage-whisper to Mike. "All that changes is the setting: Kim Cattrall and a robot in space. Kim Cattrall and a robot in a cave. Kim Cattrall and a robot after the zombie apocalypse. Kim Cattrall and a robot in Dallas, 1963. Come on, I'll show you my room! It's down this way."


*****


Servo guided Mike from room to room along the corridor, and each time they opened a door, he explained why that particular room could not be converted for Mike's use. "We better not, Gypsy would get mad if we moved things around in here," was the perfectly sensible reason for leaving a few rooms alone, but Mike also heard, "This is a maintenance room," "This is the ball pit," "There's still a wolverine loose in here somewhere," "We're shooting our own version of Moonraker in here," and so on.

As their fruitless search plodded along, they chatted. "What made you want to come aboard the Satellite of Love, anyway?" Servo asked, and Mike detected a hint of suspicion.

"I didn't have much going on back on Earth," Mike said. "I was watching you guys on the monitor in Deep Thirteen, and it looked like fun up here."

"Won't your family miss you? What about your friends?"

"I lost pretty much all my friends in the last few years. I was just waiting for them to get divorced so we could hang out again."

"Oh, divorce," said Servo in a somber tone. "Yeah, me and Crow have been divorced. A couple of times."

Suddenly, Servo's curiosity about Mike evaporated and he announced, "This is my room!"

Mike didn't mention the envy he felt when he saw Servo's race-car bed, but as the bot rattled off the various other features of his room, Mike weighed the pros and cons, dignity-wise, of asking for something comparable for himself. He was not envious, however, when Servo showed off his most prized possessions. "Why would a robot want to collect underwear?" he asked.

Servo became agitated. "Oh, you know what? You're right. Why would anyone want to collect underwear? For that matter, why would anyone want to collect shimmering drops of dew on that first warm spring day of the year? Why would anyone want to collect the light of the stars reflected in their lover's eyes? Or the laughter of children?"

"Alright, alright, I'm sorry for judging you." Mike cowered a little, but in an indignant way. "Maybe we should just move on to the next room."


*****


"This is a storage room," Servo explained. "It's where we keep stuff left over from old skits. Just something we do to pass the time."

The door opened on a dark room, and Mike could not distinguish any shapes until Servo flicked on the light. The room lit up like a discotheque, as the single row of incandescent lights reflected off thousands of sequins, rhinestones, and studs.

Mike examined the piles of dresses, wigs, shoes, hats, and jewelry. He had never seen so much pink taffeta. Well, he had once before, but this was still a lot. "It was my understanding," he said, "that it was just you robots and Joel up here."

"It is," said Servo.

"So," Mike gestured into the room, "when will Elton John be returning?"

Servo chuckled with deliberateness and condescension. "Ah, Mark, you are indeed catching on to what we do here."

"It's Mike."

"That's what I said."

Mike meandered into the room, picking absently at the bright, synthetic piles as he went. "I'm sure it'll be fun watching you guys dress up and make fools of yourselves," he said.

"What do you mean, 'you guys'?" Mike turned to see Servo descending on him with an unraveled strip of vinyl measuring tape. "Now hold still so I can get your inseam."

"Hey, hey --- HEY. How about later?" Mike dodged and made for the door.

Servo set aside the tape. "Suit yourself. Plenty of time."


*****


Mike had once heard that a spider's quick reactions to external stimuli bordered on pre-cognition. And for a moment, he felt a kinship with the arachnids, because it seemed like the instant before he pushed the button to open the next door, he was already gagging on fumes which he could swear exited the room in a solid block, like a gelatinous blob squeezing through the doorway. He prayed, swore, and wished for death before crying, "What is that? It smells like G.G. Allin had a hot-dog burp!"

Servo, resistant to odiferous calamities, peered inside. "I don't see anything," he said, but dared not venture in. Instead, he called out for Joel, who came running, with Crow close behind.

"What's going on, budd--- augh, what is that smell? It's like we're inside Shane MacGowan's mouth!"

Servo sighed, "Joel, we're way past the time for making allusions to stinky punk rockers." He turned to Mike, seemingly about to say something, then turned back to Joel, then finally back to Mike. He whispered, "I think I like the G.G. Allin one better. You'll probably do alright in the theater, Mitch."

"Mike," Mike managed to gasp.

"Mark, right."

Joel gagged, "Close the door!"

Mike slammed the button, and the door slid shut. The two humans stood slowly upright, still cautious about the possibility of their upper GI tracts in revolt. Joel's eyes were watering, but he could see that Crow looked guilty.

"I didn't want to say anything about what I was working on in there…" Crow peeped, under Joel's judgmental gaze. Joel waited for him to continue. "…aaaaaand I still don't."

Joel could see by his expression that Mike was regretting having come aboard the Satellite of Love. "Let's…step away from this abomination for a second," he said, and took Mike's arm to lead him to the less foul-smelling end of the corridor. "Listen, this mission went awry, as missions tend to do when the bots are involved. It's not a biggie; the original bed I was bunking in when I got here is still in storage. I'm gonna pull it out and we can set it up in my room. Cool?"

"I would rather do that than open another door," Mike replied. "Actually, I would rather fight a grizzly bear, armed only with a beefstick, than open another door today."


3

Even though it was just one step up from a cot, the bed that Joel had wrangled out of a crowded storage closet suited Mike just fine. Actually, the mattress was less lumpy than the one he had back on Earth. With the tiny shelf unit against the wall, acting as a nightstand, and his spare possessions, it was quite like his college dorm room. He felt he only needed a Hendrix poster taped above his headboard.

Space had had to be cleared on Joel's floor to make room for Mike. Joel was picking through shoved-aside gadgets and parts, attempting to organize them. But every other object, it seemed, reminded him, "Oh! I meant to do something with this," until he ended up only re-distributing the junk into "to-do" piles, which had started accumulating on the bed.

Mike sat on his own bed and tried to make conversation without taking up too much precious space; he kept his feet off the floor for now. "When do we have to watch the movies?" he asked.

"It used to be Friday nights," said Joel. "But then the Mads moved it Saturday mornings at nine."

"You only have to watch one a week?"

"Doctor Forrester has all sorts of projects that he's working on, in his quest to destroy human minds. He can't devote all of his time and resources to me. Besides," here Joel paused in his work to lean over to Mike and whisper conspiratorially, "I think he's afraid that if he pays too much attention to me, he might give the impression that he has a little crush on me."

"Would he really care if you thought that?"

"Oh, I don't think he's worried about me thinking that. But he may be worried about Frank thinking that."

Mike didn't understand Joel's implication, so he just moved on in his anticipated line of questioning. "How do you know what time it is here?"

"The clock on the bridge keeps Greenwich Mean Time. We set our clocks to that."

"Is it…Sunday?" Mike was not sure how long it had been since he'd slept. His period of unconsciousness had not been restful at all.

Joel looked at his watch. "Yeah, it's Sunday now."

"So what do we do until the next movie?"

"Oh, there's plenty to do!" Joel said. "This week I'm installing a more ergonomic joystick on the Galaga machine."

Mike smirked. "Okay, but what is there for a guy to do if he isn't gizmo-oriented?"

Joel looked thoughtfully into the middle distance. "Did you see the room where we stored all the costumes and wigs?" He had expected Mike's reaction to be more gradual and amusingly despairing. Instead, Mike got so furious so quickly, Joel hurriedly continued, "I'm kidding! The Mads will send you books if you want. The bots have already got some books up here. I assigned them some so they could learn more about being human. And they'll play games with us, and…just whatever. I built the bots to be good company."

It was clear to Mike that Joel was floundering. He was genuinely having a hard time coming up with other ways one might pass the time besides inventing.

"What are we going to do when Doctor Forrester finds out about us both being here?"

Joel looked up from his task, gazing at the blank wall. "Yeah, I've been thinking about that."

"Or do you think we should try to keep him from finding out?"

"No, let's not make a farce out of coming up with a new wacky way each week to keep me hidden. I don't want this to turn into some kind of comedy show. I'll just show up when it's time to watch the movie, and we'll see what happens."

"Okay, then." Mike was ashamed that he had no ideas to contribute to the solution. He got up and started to walk out, so Joel could be alone and get some work done.

"Hey," Joel stopped him. "Don't worry about it." He looked Mike in the eye now. "I know about the Mads. We might be punished, but they won't hurt us. They're stupider than they are malicious."

Mike shifted from one foot to the other. "If that's the case, why did you sacrifice your escape pod to save me from them?"

Joel did not answer the question. "I said don't worry about it."


4

"Although I'm not a great romancer, I know that I'm bound to answer when you propoooooose…"

Before the jazz hands came out, Crow went into his final spin, although his costume did not. The clunky cardboard box on his head only managed a wobbly four degrees, so fast was the 360-degree turn of the body beneath it.

"Anything goes!"

The cardboard box had two square eyeholes cut in it, plus a drawing of a ten-by-two grid meant to simulate a robot's "mouth." Two ping-pong balls on springs bounced atop this sorry mask.

"Anything goooooes!"

Crow also wore a chest-piece, covered in rows of cough-drops meant to resemble buttons.

"Anything goooooooooooooooes!"

A drumroll signaled that the finale was imminent. Crow slowly reached for the box-mask, and then plucked it suddenly from his head. Underneath, he wore a rubber Jimmy Carter Halloween mask, grossly misshapen, as it was meant to cover a human head.

As the box was removed, Joel, Mike, and Servo humored Crow with a collective gasp. The music exploded into a climactic self-congratulatory fanfare.

When it ended, Gypsy said, "I don't get it."

Crow sighed and tried to look wan. "Mine is the story of a robot singer in 1930s Paris, shut out of every venue in town because the hip trend is to book robot impersonators. Desperate and daring, I've found I can make a living by pretending to be a human who pretends to be a robot."

Gypsy said meekly, "Oh." She still didn't get it.

"Look out, Heckle and Jeckle are calling," Joel announced, and gave Mike a look that said, once more, Don't worry about it.

As Joel pushed the red button, the bridge monitor was crowded with the faces of Frank and Dr. Forrester, faces which appeared unsurprised. "Hello, Mike," said Dr. Forrester, then, as an aside, "Hello Joel. We're busy men, so why don't you get on with the invention exchange."

"You're not surprised to see me, sirs?" Joel implored.

"I discovered your pitiful attempt at subterfuge days ago. Two heat signatures appeared on the Satellite, and one of them was so spindly and cringing, I knew it could only be Joel Robinson. But we're not angry, are we Frank?"

"Not angry at all," Frank said dutifully.

"This will only aid me in my experiment, for now I can see the effects of execrable movies on a man of Joel's intelligence, and on a man of…significantly reduced intellect."

Joel looked at Mike. "Wow, zing and double zing. Well, my reduced friend?"

Mike straightened up. "Yes, my spindly friend?"

"Are you ready to present our invention?"

"I sure am!" Mike actually had nothing to do with creating that week's invention, but he appreciated Joel's efforts at solidarity.

"Our invention is called the SAM: Scheduled Activity Machine. It looks like an ordinary slot machine, but it's designed to help parents decide how to over-schedule their children." He adopted a mocking, whiny tone, "'Gee, what should I enroll little Timmy in?' Well, you just pull the lever, and here we go." The three slots spun, then came to a stop one at a time, left, center, and right. Joel recited the results: "Violin, tennis, and Boy Scouts!"

From behind the table he produced another machine, this one wider than the first. "And here's an edition for East Coast Establishment parents; it has the same activities, but there are ten slots instead of three."

Once more Joel hauled a machine onto the counter. "And this one," he said, pulling the lever, "is for parents in Texas. As you can see, each slot is guaranteed to come up as High School Football. Whaddaya think, sirs?"

Dr. Forrester was trying to look bored with Joel's presentation even as he was obviously excited about his own. "Not your best work, Robinson. I, on the other hand, may have reached the zenith of my talents at destroying the moral fabric of society, one person at a time. Behold, the Vice Machine." Dr. Forrester stood back from the two-way monitor so that the Satellite of Love crew could see that behind him there stood what appeared to be an ordinary vending machine. "You put your quarter in," he said, "and it dispenses something that you want, but shouldn't have. Frank?"

Frank held out, for viewing, the quarter that he pinched between thumb and forefinger, then made a show of putting the quarter in the coin slot. He pushed the large square button, and the machine produced a pack of Kools. "Oh my," said Frank. "You know, I quit eight years ago, but I still think about 'em every single day."

Dr. Forrester stepped back into the foreground, leaning in so that his nose and moustache were featured most prominently on the monitor. "I've taken the liberty of sending you poor suckers a miniaturized version, so you can try it out for yourselves."

Unprompted, Joel opened the hatch next to the theater doors and pulled out a device about the size and shape of a coffee-maker. He set it on the table and pushed the button. The machine whirred, and from it emerged a Jolt Cola.

"Wow, what a blast from the past." Joel held up the bottle, proudly showing it to his companions. "I lived on this stuff in college. I figured I should cut down after my dentist retired at thirty-two."

"I wanna try!" Servo said. He pushed the button, and received a bottle of bubble-bath. "Yippee!" he cried, and darted out of the room.

"Why shouldn't Servo have bubble-bath?" Mike asked. "Is he prone to urinary tract infections or something?"

Joel peered at the doorway that Servo had just zoomed through. "I have no idea why he shouldn't have that," he said.

About an hour into that week's experiment, the Satellite of Love crew learned precisely why Servo should not have bubble-bath, but by then it was far, far too late.

Also, before Joel was able to find where Servo had hidden the machine and destroy it, they all learned why he should not have plant food, pickles, Confederate money, or sea monkeys.


5

The smell was of food cooking, but not any specific kind of food, and not any specific kind of cooking. Joel approached the bridge with caution, because he was savvy about the old comedy cliché of "Hey guys, what's going on in h---" SPLAT WHOOPS WALKED INTO A FOOD FIGHT.

Mike and the bots hovered over a labyrinth of glass piping and flasks, all filled with bubbling substances. Rather than the archetypal bright greens and blues and reds, the liquids had the colors and consistencies of batter, broth, and curry.

"I wanted to get in on the invention exchange rapport you've got going on with Forrester," Mike explained, before Joel could ask. "Even though I wasn't a proper Gizmonic employee, it seems like an important part of fitting in. And your Scheduled Activity Monitor kind of inspired me, so this is my invention. It's for parents who don't want to buy a gender-specific toy. See, progressive moms and dads might feel guilty about trapping little Johnny into pre-conceived notions of cold, calculating masculinity by buying him a chemistry set. Or they might believe it would place a limiting feminine standard on little Susie to give her a cooking set. With the Culinary Chemist, you can give either child this one gender-neutral gift, and they can explore based on their own inclinations. Every piece in this set serves dual purposes; as chemistry or culinary equipment. That's what the bots and I are doing; figuring out which pieces of equipment work best in the set."

Mike had obviously been practicing his presentation, but he paused to come around to the other side of the counter. Behind him, Servo and Crow jostled each other. Mike leaned toward Joel and whispered, "Really, I'm just trying to bond with them. I think they're warming up to me. One of them called me 'Mike' today, although it might just have been a slip."

"Try some, Joel!" Servo said. "This Bunsen burner can be used to find the boiling point of benzene, or to grill sandwiches!"

Joel saw that, indeed, in the midst of all the test-tubes and spatulas, there was a sandwich on a plate. He picked it up, certain that if it was hazardous to eat, Mike would stop him.

The first bite was not fatal, and in fact, it featured a number of flavors which, taken individually, would have been pleasant. The combining of them, however, would best be described as "unfortunate."

"What's in this?" Joel mumbled around the mouthful of sandwich, which he refused to swallow. "Something in here has a point on it!"

"Oh, that reminds me," said Crow. "Mike, did you say 'provolone' or 'Toblerone'?"

"Hey, you called me Mike again!" Mike said, as Joel looked for a place to spit up.


6

Privacy on the Satellite of Love, like an ore on Earth, was theoretically abundant but unpredictably distributed. More than once, Mike had looked up at the clock on the bridge and found he'd been reading for hours, uninterrupted; but just as often, he couldn't enjoy a soda and a bag of potato chips in the kitchen without being tormented by the sounds of Crow and Servo playing "Satellite of Love-opoly." (Lacking a board, the bots chose four corridors that formed a square and used each room as a property. Their version of the game involved a lot of shouting, particularly when Servo was on Baltic Avenue and Crow was on Marvin Gardens. It was appropriate that they designated Joel and Mike's room as Water Works, because about the third time one of them "landed" there, Mike began to cry.)

His utter inability to count on having ten minutes entirely to himself meant that Mike had not masturbated in two weeks. The movies were not what was going to drive him insane.

Finally, on his way to the showers one day, Mike poked is head into Joel's workshop, rapping on the door jamb as he did so.

"Joel? Can I ask you a question? Do the bots…Is the shower off limits to them? I mean, is there a way to keep them out of the showers entirely?"

Joel put down his hot-glue gun. "The bots are like kids," he said. "They know they're not supposed to come in when you're in the shower, but if they've thought up a really good prank that can only be executed in there, they'll sneak in and get you."

"How often do those pranks occur?"

Joel shrugged. "How often do you shower?"

He caught on when he saw Mike's expression, that of a man who is both terrified and suddenly, desperately plotting his way toward a solution. He got up from the workbench and sauntered toward Mike, so that he might plant a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Tell you what: I'll go tell the bots right now that shower pranks are off-limits. They'll listen if they know I'm serious. But you realize this may increase the frequency of pranks in non-shower situations."

"I'm fine with that," said Mike.

"Then go forth and shower in peace, friend."

That comment gave Mike pause, but he decided not to look a gift shower in the nozzle, and continued on his way.


*****


The Satellite boasted what Mike's uncle, a Navy corpsman, referred to as a "Hollywood shower." Continuous hot water on demand. Mike was in the habit of purposely turning the water hotter than he needed, and left it on longer, because after a turn in the suffocating hot steam, for a while the recycled air on the rest of the Satellite would seem fresher and cleaner.

Still flustered from his embarrassing conversation with Joel, Mike did his routine out of order. He should have turned the water on, then gotten undressed. When he did it the other way around, he had to stand there naked and cold for two minutes while he waited for the water to heat up. And naked or not, he didn't care for situations on the ship where he had nothing to do but stand there and think. When compelled to, he sometimes thought about his future, whether he had one or not; sometimes he thought about his past, whether he could or should forget it; sometimes he thought about Joel.

He could never hold back the deep, growling sigh, when he got under hot water. He was always uncomfortable about this primal and vaguely erotic utterance, although if someone back on Earth had asked him, he wouldn't be able to explain why one should be embarrassed about something no one else was seeing or hearing. Of course, now the paranoia was more justified, even though Joel had insisted that the only cameras viewable by Deep 13 were the ones on the bridge and in the theater.

Paranoia led to superstition, and today, in honor of his new freedom, Mike began a new ritual, to lend a confining balance: he washed himself first, then looked around the stall for cameras or suspicious gaps in the tile, then briefly popped out of the stall a ways to look for any surveillance devices which may have suddenly appeared, and finally, finding nothing, ensconced himself in the stall once more and started playing with himself.

Then, this first time, he weirded himself out when he realized he didn't know what to think about.

His fantasies were usually fed by recent encounters or, more often, observations. A pretty girl he'd been sent on a temp job with, or a movie on late-night cable. Having had no new visual input for two weeks, he had nothing fresh in his mind. He decided to soldier on anyway, falling back on the memory of Tricia Fredrickson. Tricia was a girl he'd taken Drama with in high school. She wasn't bad looking, but not particularly pretty, either, and she always harped on and on about how she was going to be a famous film actress. There was nothing special about her that made other kids believe her dream would come true, but Mike would patiently listen to her as she detailed her determination to make it in the movie business. The day after graduating from Columbus High School, Tricia got on a bus, saying she was going to Hollywood. Two years later, Mike did indeed see her in a movie. He didn't realize that she was in this particular movie until her first appearance at about the halfway mark, because she was billed in the opening credits as Trixie Foxxx. And even then, Mike didn't recognize her beneath the blonde hair and surgical innovations. He only realized who she was then she let loose her distinctive giggle and hair flip, just as she had done in Our Town.

After seeing her, Mike had started fantasizing about her, alternately as Tricia and Trixie, compulsively for a week or so, then only occasionally as time went on. When he was in the mood to feel dirty, nostalgic, and guilty all at once, he thought of her.

Trixie was a reliable subject. Mike tilted the showerhead to rinse off the tiled wall. He checked the ceiling too, just in case; it had been a pretty intense one.

In his own home, Mike might get out of the shower and putter around naked for ten or fifteen minutes, especially in the summer. It didn't seem like it should be a tough habit to break, but as had been the case for the last two weeks, he had to stop himself this time, just before hitting the button to open the door. He'd have to get dressed here, in the hot damp. He shouldn't even jump across the hall in a towel, to change in his room, because his room was also Joel's room. Picking up his clothes, Mike thought about that: What's the worst that could happen if Joel saw him naked? He'd be embarrassed, but Joel wouldn't be. He was so laid back about everything. For some reason, Mike pictured Joel's friendly, droopy gaze appraising him. Approving.

Also, for some reason, Mike didn't think about Trixie again, after that.


7

True crime seemed an inappropriate genre. A man stranded in space, removed almost entirely from civilization, uncertain of his fate, should be reading Virgil, Homer, Shakespeare…or at least Vonnegut. This was the notion that was keeping Mike from enjoying the Ann Rule paperback he was currently holding. Why the classics held more merit, he couldn't quite explain, , but where he came from, culture and how one interacted with it were pretty much divided into "right" and "not right," and that was all the explanation necessary.

Across the room, Joel lay curled on his side, turned affectionately toward the manuals cluttering the other half of his bed. He seemed to be asleep, which was a shame, because Mike had just been reading excerpts from the poetry Ted Bundy had written in prison, and it was so truly awful, it just begged to be read aloud to anyone who happened to come along. Instead, Mike folded the corner of the page for now, to remind himself to go back to it later.

The way the room was lit was disconcerting. Typically, either both lamps were on, as both men read or worked, or only Joel's lamp was on, as he continued to tinker long after Mike had put away his book and turned in. Tonight, with only Mike's lamp on, the shadows cast were unfamiliar; Mike's eyes often darted off the page, detecting and following unfamiliar shapes. Something was less warm, less comfortable, about this version of the room.

When he began to nod off, Mike set his paperback on the floor beside his bunk and switched the lamp off. Again, uneasiness, as he was used to Joel's lamp still lighting the room when he heard the familiar click of the switch. He scooted down into a sleeping position, but shortly found himself not drowsy anymore. Apropos of nothing, he felt a little…randy. At least, he hoped it was apropos of nothing, and not triggered by one of Ted Bundy's elementary couplets.

A nagging voice in his head said, "You should have taken care of it when you were in the shower." To which another, defensive voice replied, "I didn't feel like doing it then!" Mike shifted in his bed, musing that a grown man should not be obligated to masturbate when he does not feel like it.

He considered turning the light back on and reading some more; that might make him drowsy again. But he didn't want to disturb Joel with switching the light on and off all night. And anyway, he was currently achieving a condition that he did not want illuminated.

Perhaps, if I just lie here, and think about invasive surgery or sausage-making or something, it will go away. His aroused state could not accurately be described as "raging;" rather, it was a congested feeling, a sort of "When you have a moment to spare" level of urgency. But Mike's evaluation of his condition, his dwelling on this low-grade intensity, caused said intensity to rise considerably. Now he was in a bind.

Then it occurred to him: Joel was a regular guy. Well, regular in some ways. He understood these things. It would be just like when Mike and his buddies went camping as teenagers: when one guy silently left the tent to go sit in the truck, the others knew what it meant, and maintained a conspiracy of silence.

Mike waited until his eyes adjusted to the dark, and then the faint LED glow of Joel's machines helped guide him across the room without incident. But when he pushed the button to open the door, Joel turned halfway over, uttering an inquisitive noise.

"I'm just gonna…grab a quick shower," Mike explained softly. "Go back to sleep."

Joel sat upright and faced Mike's general direction. "Aw, hey buddy, come here." He patted the bit of empty mattress by his knee.

Mike swallowed. "That's really not a good idea right now."

"I know what's going on. Just come here. Sit down."

Frozen in the doorway, Mike thought that Joel could not possibly have known what was going on, or else he wouldn't be making such an invitation. But then again…

Pieces fell into place. No, not really. Pieces fell into a pile. But it was a big enough pile that Mike could discern what was going on.

"Come on, right here." In the darkness, the shadow of Joel patted the bed in a clumsily forceful way, clumsy being the way Joel's rare forcefulness tended to manifest itself.

As Mike took that long walk around to Joel's side of the bed, he started making up ridiculous reasons why this situation might still be perfectly innocuous. Perhaps Joel was about to hand him a secret stash of some kind of suppressant, a space-saltpeter that would tamp down inconvenient urges.

Instead, when he sat down on the bed, Joel's right hand darted into the unzipped top of Mike's jumpsuit, and Mike could feel each fingertip through his thin cotton shirt. He could have sworn that he leaped backward, right off the bed; but when he finished leaping, he found himself still right where he had been, with Joel's hand still flat against that ticklish area where one's chest becomes one's side. It was warm.

Joel removed his hand only to pull the zipper of the jumpsuit the rest of the way down. Slowly.

"What are you doing?" Mike whispered.

"If you don't know what I'm doing, then maybe you need more help than I can give you." Joel was reassured by the fact that Mike had said What are you doing?, rather than What do you think you're doing?

Once Joel had unzipped as far as he could, far enough to brush Mike's dilemma with the heel of his hand, he paused. Mike put his hand over Joel's, to keep it from doing any more wandering. "Listen, are you serious about this?"

"What do you mean, serious?"

"I mean, is this a joke? If I let you keep going, are you going to stop and laugh and call me a queer?"

"Uh, no," Joel replied. "If you let me keep going, my plan was to fool around with you."

Mike abruptly took his hand from Joel's. "Oh, wow. I never got it, because you're so laid back, but all this time you've been seducing me!"

"Not all this time," Joel said mildly. "I didn't start thinking about doing this until you'd been on the Satellite of Love for an hour and a half or so."

"I see how it is, now." Mike pushed Joel's hand away, stood up, and stripped off his jumpsuit. Next went his boxers.

"I was gonna do that," Joel protested.

"Oh no, you don't! I will not be seduced anymore! Think I'll just stand idly by and let ---" Mike's next words were muffled by his shirt coming off. He plunked himself down on the bed and folded his arms. "There. How do you like that?"

In the faint light, Mike could see that Joel's eyebrows went up, but his eyelids remained drooped. He looked Mike over and said. "Wow. You win, I guess." He had installed a rheostat in his bedside lamp, so when he reached over to turn it on, it shed only enough light to see the most important bits. When he got a look at the source of Mike's embarrassment, the reason they got into this situation in the first place, he smiled. It was as the creator intended, having had no surgical intervention in Mike's infancy. Joel asked, "Did you get teased in the showers after gym class, too?"

Mike's expression was one of a man who'd found a kindred soul. He admitted, "One time, Neil Wakefield asked me why I was wearing a turtleneck in June."

Joel smirked an understanding smirk. He pushed the last corner of the sheet off him and did the little getting-your-boxers-off-bounce on the bed, revealing that, indeed, he was also uncircumcised. "I'm glad my folks didn't have it done," he said. "Such a traumatic first experience with machine technology might have turned me off gadgets forever."

"Glad things came out okay for you. Um, can I ask why we're doing this?"

Joel made a great sweeping gesture with one arm as he turned away from Mike and gazed into the middle distance (i.e., in the general direction of the oscilloscope), as he said loftily, "Some men see awkward nakedness as it is, and say 'Why?' I see putting an end to our sexual deprivation and say 'Why not?'"

"Okay, but I was just about to put an end to it on my own, in the shower, and that would have been fine."

Joel's sweeping hand retreated and --- finally --- took hold of Mike's cock, pulling the foreskin first up, then back, to reveal a moist, tender pink glans. At the same time, he breathed warmly in Mike's ear, triggering a seismic spinal shiver. Already adrenaline was being pumped into Mike's body at an alarming rate, and these few simple touches made him squeeze his pelvic floor muscles for fear he would lose control.

"When you're in the shower," Joel asked, "does it feel like this?"

"Um, listen," Mike confessed after a soft gasp, "I'm probably gonna come, like, instantly…"

"Uh huh. And how long before you'll be ready to go again."

"Again, instantly."

"Excellent. We'll get this first one out of the way, and then we can do round two, and it won't be awkward anymore!"

"Great," Mike said dubiously.

Joel's was not the timid, bewildered touch administered by the girls that a seventeen-year-old Mike had wheedled into the backseat of his parents' Pontiac Safari. It was the grip of a man who knows how men jerk off --- firm and increasingly rapid. Mike looked down at what was being done to him, then came with an mortified whimper.

An awkward silence could have bloomed there, but Joel filled it with the sound of books being shoved off the bed and onto the floor. For a moment, Mike felt sorry for those manuals; no doubt many of them would now have crumpled pages, which could never quite be uncrumpled. It was the second disquietingly impulsive thing Joel had done tonight.

Joel gently guided Mike backward, laying him on the bed and then joining him alongside. Their legs still dangled over the side; Joel touched his knee to Mike's, and poked ankle with toe. Mike stared blankly at the ceiling, breathing shallow and swallowing occasionally. Joel had hoped that Mike might be up for returning his favor, but he couldn't bring himself to disturb such a spent reverie.

The rhythmic movement of Joel's arm caught Mike's attention. He tilted his head, unsure of whether he was supposed to be watching Joel's hand or his face. The hand was a strangely erotic sight, pulling briskly even though it was already glistening with come. Mike looked back and forth, back and forth, until he noticed Joel looking intently at his face. He held the gaze. Joel's mouth was slightly open.

He stopped. Mike looked down. Joel had finished, without ever having increased his pace or made a noise. He smiled lazily, and Mike tried to smile in return, but it required so much effort…He closed his eyes.

When he awoke, he was lying properly lengthwise on the bed, though he didn't remember having moved there, or being moved there. He sat up. He was naked, and Joel was gone. Disoriented, he took a moment to decide that this was indeed the room he'd lost consciousness in, and felt to make sure he still had both kidneys. It started to come back to him, what had happened. He quietly took the Lord's name in vain, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and kicked Joel in the head.

"Look out!" Joel grunted, too late. Mike jerked fully into keen awareness, scrambled up and stood on the mattress. Joel hauled himself out from under the bed. "This transistor rolled under there," he explained. "I didn't mean to scare you."

Joel stood up, brushed himself free of dust-bunnies, and gazed amusedly at Mike, who was standing on the bed, completely still, wide-eyed, and naked. "I know, this has just been the weirdest slumber party ever, right?" He picked up Mike's clothes and held them out to him. "The Mads will be calling soon."


8

Joel carried his tray at the quickest slow pace he could manage, fearing its contents might tip over. He hoped that if he didn't make it in time, Mike and the bots could keep the Mads occupied. They'd been on the bridge all morning; the bots had invited Mike to play some sort of game they'd made up. He was glad they were getting along so well these days.

Both hands being occupied, Joel raised one knee and used it to tap the button to open the door. He found a squirming Mike bound and gagged on the table. Tears streamed from his tightly-shut eyes, down his reddened face. Crow stood menacingly over him, and Servo, in a pristine white lab coat, hovered to one side, holding a clipboard.

"What is going on in here?" Joel barked.

"We're re-enacting the Milgram Experiment," said Servo. "I'm going to see whether my white lab coat and authoritative presence will persuade Crow to continue participating in the experiment even after it's apparent that he's torturing Mike."

Joel dropped his tray, spilling the invention. "You're giving Mike electric shocks?!"

"We couldn't figure out how to do that," Crow said. "So we're just tickling him."

Servo studied his clipboard, then said with gravitas, "Crow, it is absolutely essential that you continue with the tickling. Don't worry, there will be no permanent damage."

Crow feigned ambivalence. "Well, gee, Mister Scientist, if you say so." He then commenced a merciless bout of tickling, making Mike writhe in agony and scream through the handkerchief stuffed in his mouth.

"Stop that! Stop it!" Joel nudged Crow to one side and began unhooking the bungee cords that held Mike tight. "Guys, the idea behind the Milgram Experiment was convincing people to do things that they really, really didn't want to do. You kind of missed the point."

The red slowly faded from Mike's sweaty face as he rolled off the table and gasped for air.

"Apologize," said Joel.

The bots hesitated for a minute. "Oh, you mean us," Servo said. Then they groaned in unison, "We're sorry, Mike."

"Alright now, the Mads are calling. Mike, are you going to be okay?"

Mike was still under the table, picking himself up off the floor. He whimpered a vague affirmative. "At least the movie won't seem so bad, after that."

Joel looked at the monitor and quailed. Dr. Forrester was holding his contribution to the invention exchange; Frank was holding a film canister labeled The Tenth Level.


9

What they called "the observation deck" was really only a corridor that wrapped around one of the Satellite's four spheres. Along the dimly-lit corridor was a waist-high railing suitable for leaning, and floor-to-ceiling silicate glass. The Earth was close enough to fill much of this picture-window.

Mike and Joel stood very close to each other, hands grasping the railing, and enjoyed the relative quiet of the moment. It was never completely silent here. Or rather, it had been only one time, when Joel had refused to watch the movie, and the Mads had shut down all life-support systems on the ship. The din of ventilation and temperature regulators had stopped. After that, Joel never wished for total silence.

Soaring above the Earth, Mike studied the land-masses and remarked, "Do you think Africa and South America miss spooning?" To his dismay, this quip did not provoke a laugh from Joel, not even an amused snort.

Mike was pleased, however, when Joel took a half-step to his right, putting himself close enough to Mike to warrant the lifting of one hand to caress the small of Mike's back. Mike wasn't sure what gesture he should offer in return, but he leaned a smidge in Joel's direction, to indicate that he was appreciative.

"Sometimes, when I'm not looking out this window, I forget that we're not on Earth," Joel said. "I feel like this is just another department of the Gizmonic Institute I've been assigned to, in the basement or something."

Mike was incredulous. "How could you mistake this for Earth, even a basement on Earth? I mean, even if you worked in a room with no windows you'd occasionally go out and see a tree, or a bird."

"Maybe," said Joel. "but even back home it was hard to get me to go out much. I even had to be born by C-section."

"You miss Earth, though, don't you?"

"Sure I do. I spend a lot of time inventing, but I like people, too. It got lonely up here sometimes." Joel was silent for a while, then admitted, "I am really glad you showed up. I was worried that if I spent too much more time alone, I would turn into one of those guys that has a really elaborate masturbation ritual. I didn't want to have to do it every time with thirty black candles lit, spread-eagle on the bed, staring at my oiled, naked self in the mirror on the ceiling, with the stereo blasting My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult." He paused. "I mean, not all by myself."

Mike laughed with shock, and shifted in place a little. He wasn't uncomfortable, he just felt like…something was about to happen. Joel sensed this, and his hand moved to grasp Mike's. He leaned back a little without moving his feet, gently tugging on Mike's arm. When Mike made eye contact, Joel smiled mischievously and tilted his head in the direction of their room.

A fan blew cool air into the corridor. The breeze caressed Mike's face as they passed it. He stopped, took a step backward, and leaned into the blowing air.

"Lu-u-u-u-u-ke," he bellowed into the fan blades, which distorted his voice. "I am your fa-a-a-a-ather."

This triggered a memory in Joel, of his mind being blown when he watched an older cousin demonstrate this trick for the first time, almost fifteen years ago. He giggled.

"Hey, that's great, I made you laugh!" Mike said, pointing at Joel delightedly. Satisfied, he let Joel lead him the rest of the way down the corridor.

When the door closed behind them, securing them safely in their room, Joel held onto Mike's hand but took a step back, silently inviting him to make a move. Mike just sort of twisted slightly from side to side, as if to say, Well, here we are. After a few moments, Joel determined that it was his duty to not prolong the awkwardness any more, and started to unzip Mike's jumpsuit, which only served to make Mike laugh nervously and squirm a bit more.

"What's up?" Joel said.

"I'm sorry, it just seems weird. I spent so long temping in one of these things," he tugged at the jumpsuit. "I'm not used to being in one and then being all, 'Okay, time to get freaky.'"

Now Mike was really making Joel laugh. "Do you want me to run back to the costume storage and find a loincloth or something for you to change into first?"

"That's okay. Just…keep going, I'm fine." His tone made Joel hesitate, but he insisted, "Trust me, it's really fine."

As Joel pulled Mike's jumpsuit down over his shoulders, Mike tried to respond in kind, and simultaneously shuck off his own shoes, and he ended up almost falling over and taking Joel with him. "Wow, am I turning you on now?" He said as he righted himself.

"Yes," whispered Joel slyly, and continued his work. Mike's arms fell to his sides and he surrendered to Joel's hand on his bare skin.

"Get on the bed." Joel's breath in his ear, his quiet assertiveness, was extremely compelling. Mike stepped out of his heap of clothes on the floor and laid himself down on the mattress. He didn't know if he should lie a certain way, try to be sexy, but he looked up at Joel as he turned hesitantly this way and that, and Joel's pleased gaze told him everything he needed to know. The look was like the one he'd imagined, that day in the shower. Only with him horizontal. And without a towel. And with Joel removing his own clothes. And, it wasn't just Joel's eyes expressing approval.

But once Joel had dropped all his clothes and pushed them aside with one foot, he gave Mike his own chance to look. For a long while, both men, one standing, one reclining, studied each others' bodies. Perhaps they were delaying the inevitable, in the way that people do who enjoy anticipation just as much. They were tense, stomach and thigh muscles taut, both from the looking and the being looked-at. Mike wasn't sure what the correct word would be for what he was doing. Examining? Admiring? Comparing? All he knew was how disarming Joel could be; he was not trying to be provocative or sexy, so far as Mike was aware. He just showed up, said something goofy, smiled, and it was all over.

Joel, for his part, had heard men sing the praises of naïve, corn-fed blondes from the Midwest, but he didn't think this was what they had in mind. He didn't care.

Without breaking eye contact, Joel kneeled onto the mattress, between Mike's ankles. His erection bobbed somewhat comically as he shifted his weight from foot to right knee to both knees. Mike's gaze drifted from Joel's eyes down, and the sight of it caused a visceral reaction in him. His own cock got so hard, so fast, it made him even more nervous.

"What's happening to me?" Mike said, perhaps to Joel, perhaps to himself. "You just…do crazy things to me."

"It's actually normal for a man to be aroused by the sight of another aroused male," Joel said. "It triggers a competitive urge: 'He's about to pass on his genetic material, so I better try, too.'"

"That's not precisely the situation we're facing here," Mike rasped.

"Not precisely. But you've got ten thousand years of natural selection behind you. And me in front of you."

Through his biology lecture, Joel remained kneeling between Mike's legs, and his cock stayed hard, twitching with each heartbeat. Then he started stroking it a little bit, absentmindedly, and Mike groaned softly.

"I don't want to compete with that," Mike said. "I just want it."

There was a hitch in Joel's rhythm, like he hadn't expected Mike to say something like that. A few more strokes and he stopped, then tipped forward onto his hands, putting him squarely eye to eye with Mike. "Tell me what you think is going to happen next," he said.

Mike's brow furrowed. "Aren't we going to…have sex?"

"Right, but tell me what you think the very next thing will be."

Mike started to get it. Joel wanted to hear him talk about it more. That made him shy.

"Um…you're going to…touch me? Actually, yeah, if you could please be touching me, that would be great."

"Where do you want me to touch you? Here?" Joel pointed at Mike's forehead and touched him with a fingertip between the eyebrows.

"Lower."

Joel shifted backwards, and gripped Mike's right calf, where it met his knee. "Here?"

"Higher."

Joel's grip became a caress which traveled up Mike's thigh and cupped his balls, barely brushing the fine white-blond hairs. "…Here?"

Mike squirmed. "Yes. Touch my dick. Please. It aches." He spread his legs, thrust upward, downward, anything to get that hand where he wanted it.

Joel obliged him for a few long, thorough strokes, then took Mike's hand and replaced his own with it. He said, with atypical haste, "Here, take over for a minute, I'll be right back." Mike held his own cock in his hand, bewildered, and watched Joel rummaging around under some circle-templates and bubble-wrap by the bed. "I just had it. Hold on. Here it is." He came out of the clutter with a small, clear glass jar. Inside was something viscous. It did not slosh when Joel stepped over the clutter to get back into bed. Mike watched him unscrew the lid, unsure if he was still supposed to be holding his dick. Joel dipped two fingers in the jar.

"This is a water-based compound of my own design," he said. "It should negate the fundamental barrier to our mutual mechanical success in this endeavor."

Joel was nudging Mike's knees apart, wider this time, but Mike wasn't really aware. His head was swimming. "I understood everything you just said," Mike breathed, "up through 'This is a.'"

Joel leaned over, rubbing his thumb and two fingers together to demonstrate. "It's lube," he whispered confidentially.

"Oh. Okay." Mike blinked. "Wait. When I said 'Okay' just now, I meant, 'Are you serious?'"

"Calm down. My understanding is, being penetrated is a very pleasurable and sometimes even spiritual experience."

Mike was alert now. "Your understanding is?"

"Yeah. You're going to have to follow up with me about it later." Joel had one hand pressing and stroking Mike's cock against his belly, as if to smooth it back, and now he was sliding two slick fingers underneath Mike's balls.

He didn't push; he let his fingers find where they were supposed to go, more or less, and just teased with them. Then he decided to forego all that laborious work of moving his hand, and instead bent down and breathed warm, moist air on Mike's cock, which provoked Mike into doing all the moving himself.

Mike could see Joel's wet, pink tongue in his open mouth, hovering mere inches from his pulsing erection, but no matter how he arched his back, he couldn't seem to make contact with it. That tongue was as sly and effortlessly seductive as the rest of him. Mike grunted in frustration. He barely noticed the other slippery appendage, the one gently working it's way back and forth…until it was inside him. He fidgeted, only to realize that his fidgeting was what got the finger inside him in the first place. He uttered a loose assemblage of frustrated syllables.

"This reminds me of a joke I heard once," Joel said mildly. "Well, not so much a joke. It's just a humorous anecdote, about an old Southern colonel who went down to the basement and caught his daughter having sex with their Yankee houseguest. And he says, 'Daughta, wheah is yo' Southin hospitality? Lift up yo' ass and get that gennelman's balls off the cold stone floor!'"

When Mike laughed, Joel pushed a second finger in. Just a little. Mike hollered in protest. "Relax," Joel said. "If you relax, I can push my fingers in further, and it will feel better."

Mike was fuming. "Oh, is that your 'understanding'? It feels like six kinds of uncomfortable right now, how's it going to feel better if you --- uhhnnnghh…"

With Mike's eyes rolled back in his head, Joel's wry expression had no audience. "You need to start trusting me, buddy."

Mike pounded the mattress with both fists and groaned, "I don't understand anything that's happened in the last twenty minutes! Do you know how upsetting that is?"

Joel continued pushing and curling his fingers. "No. Tell me more about it."

"You've made me…want things," Mike said, quiet but brimming with tension.

Joel said philosophically, "In situations of long-term isolation, it's normal for men to turn to each other."

"I didn't turn to you! You seduced me!" Mike pointed accusingly at Joel with one hand, and continued clutching at the sheets with the other. "I would have been happy jerking off in the shower!"

Joel gently removed his fingers, and leaned back. "So go get in the shower."

"No no no no no," Mike whimpered. "That's not --- I just meant that this is weird. I didn't expect to feel…things. Just come back and keep…doing…stuff."

Joel looked Mike up and down. Is he ready? Joel had no practical experience with men; he'd only absorbed some theory. But Mike's breathing was labored, his chest was flushed, and his hips were rocking slightly, almost involuntarily, in the absence of physical contact. And there was the hard-on, obviously. Truth be told, Joel had never feasted his eyes on a woman at quite this level of arousal. He must be ready. Joel went for the jar again; it slipped from his hand and back onto the mattress. Now who's nervous?

It seemed important to Joel that Mike not see past his cool exterior right now. Joel tried to roll with things, but he wasn't made of stone. At this moment, though, Mike's perception of him as unflappable in the face of true weirdness might be all that was holding the situation together. He unscrewed the lid on the jar and put his fingers in again, scooping rather than dipping this time. He applied this generous portion to his cock, and when he saw that Mike was watching intently, he tried to do it more sexily.

While he'd been doing this, Mike's knees had started to come back together, moved, perhaps, by his last shred of modesty. Joel spread his own knees to prod Mike's thighs back open, and placed one hand behind each of Mike's knees to pull them upwards. He closed in, now, tucking his thighs underneath Mike's. When their cocks glanced off one another, Mike jumped, and Joel used this as an excuse to hold him more tightly, spread his thighs wider and higher. Mike's stomach dropped at this uncharacteristic moment of forcefulness.

Joel took his own cock and directed it, purposely nudging and sliding it all around, underneath Mike's balls. He wanted to look up to see Mike's expression, but he had to focus on what he was doing. He moved his hand up, to grip his cock just behind the head, and pushed the first inch in.

There was an eerie silence. When Joel stopped and looked up, Mike was covering his face with his hands. "What's going on?" Joel asked.

"I don't want you to look at me right now," Mike said pitifully.

"Okay. But I think it will help get it in if you kind of…push back. Then maybe can I look at you?"

Mike nodded beneath his hands. "Um…" He seemed about to ask a question, but didn't. Instead, a moment later, Joel felt, just a little bit, Mike open around him. He seized his chance and pushed the rest of himself in. He grunted with surprise at the sudden ease, and said, softly, "Damn."

It felt natural now to tilt forward, and he planted one hand on either side of Mike's shoulders. "Time to look at me," he said.

Mike said, "Mm-mmh," behind his hands.

"Please?"

Slowly and one by one, Mike's fingers came away, and he looked up at Joel. He was startled by the nearness, the intensity, of those eyes. Never before had Mike felt so utterly vulnerable, but Joel's eyes made him feel, at the same time, safe. Like this was something to laugh about. He tried to laugh, a little.

"Doing alright?" Joel asked. "Am I hurting you?"

Mike felt like saying "Yes" wasn't an option. "It's okay. Does it feel good to you?"

Joel bent his arms and whispered in Mike's ear. "It feels so good."

Mike looked down the length of their bodies, saw what was going on down there, saw where the hot, damp contact was made. And then he saw Joel begin to move, pulling smoothly out, pushing slowly back in. Mike watched the hypnotic rhythm of what from this angle were a few abstract curves of flesh, and he moved, too, searching for that squirmy, ticklish feeling inside, that Joel had given him before. When he found it, he groaned with relief, and when Joel pulled away again, he instinctively put his hands on Joel's ass, urging him to return. This sudden lustful gesture was disarming, and Joel had to stop and reposition himself, reinforce his balance, before continuing.

Everything was coming together now. Joel's thrusting, Mike's breathing, Joel's breathing, Mike's hands gripping Joel's body. Mike was wide-eyed, desperately trying to puzzle out what was going on, while Joel's cool exterior was rejoined by his usual cool interior. He was once again ready to just go with the flow.

A revelation was creeping up on Mike: Joel's gentle but firm strokes. Joel's playful whispering. Joel's honest, lustful eyes. "Oh god," Mike couldn't help but cry out, when it dawned on him: he was being made love to.

This was too much. It was mortifying to be a part of all this, the soft wet noises and the absurd slap of flesh. Though he certainly wasn't discouraging anything by jerking himself off as fervently as he was. Mike just became more embarrassed, and more embarrassed, and more embarrassed, until he came.

He was kicking, struggling to gain leverage, panting pathetically, shouting something. Joel's merciless treatment of his prostate was giving him the most powerful ejaculation he'd ever had; he was aching from the contractions of all those muscles, the pain of the initial penetration renewed.

Then things quieted down. The clear, copious fluid on his sternum cooled, and one stray drop trickled down his bottom rib. Joel kept still.

"I thought I was going to die," Mike finally sighed. Joel smirked. He knew what that meant: The first really good one I've had in a long time. He considered himself complimented.

Slowly, Joel raised himself up again, shaking out his arms a little. Mike felt bereft for a moment, as though Joel had left the room entirely. But then he felt a reassuring grip on his flanks, as Joel resumed his thrusting. He increased his pace gradually, and murmured, "I hope you don't mind, I'm gonna finish inside you."

Mike watched closely and tried not to blink. He was sated and sore, but eager to see Joel come as hard as he had. He didn't get what he was expecting. Joel found a suitable pace, then just closed his eyes and smiled beatifically. Distracted by the mesmerizing cadence of Joel's thrusts, Mike almost missed the slight parting of his lips, the marginally greater force of one exhalation.

Joel stopped, and his head drooped. He wanted to fall forward, to collapse upon Mike, continue to be cradled in his thighs. But he couldn't help being reasonable: if Mike's legs ached as much as his own did from being in this position, it was probably time to move. He grasped his cock at the base and removed himself gently, letting Mike's body push the last softening inch of him out. With a satisfied sigh he stretched out alongside Mike, who now appeared catatonic.

Joel rolled slightly, to nudge Mike's body with his own. He made an inquisitive noise. Mike made a tiny, ambiguous noise in return. Joel decided to give him a few minutes. A brief bout of silence and stillness was welcome, anyway, as far as Joel was concerned. He used the time to ponder whether he had the materials to build a device that would make future sexual encounters more ergonomic. He could sew together a couple of towels to make a washable cover for a pillow to put underneath Mike…or perhaps a foam triangle (isosceles?) would be a better shape…

When Mike began to stir, Joel asked if he would like to bathe. Mike agreed to this, and with much effort both men picked themselves up and shambled into the showers.

Mike went ahead of Joel, turning the shower to his preferred, scalding setting. When he stepped back to reach for a clean washcloth on the shelf, Joel batted his hand away and took one instead. "I'll wash you," he said, not an offer but a declaration. Rolling the soap over and over inside the washcloth, Joel created a ridiculous lather. He soaped Mike from head to toe, alternating the scrubbing of the cloth with the caresses of his palms, his fingers. He slow thoroughness was a far cry from Mike's usual, perfunctory treatment of himself. Joel teased him with a little tickling around his ribcage, then soothed him with deep, massaging pinches around his neck and shoulders. When he softly commanded, "Turn around," Mike complied. Dazed, he pressed his palms and cheek against the tiled wall as Joel used the washcloth to gently wash his most private area.

"You were very brave," Joel whispered over Mike's shoulder.

Mike smiled with embarrassment, and turned his face the other way. "No, I wasn't."

"Yes, you were." Joel put his arms around Mike, rested his head on Mike's shoulder.

Mike had not anticipated this quiet intimacy. He'd expected, perhaps, a furtive coupling followed by a few days of slinking around, averting their eyes in the corridors, until the urge overcame them to do it again. Thinking on it now, however, it seemed silly to have expected Joel to exhibit either furtiveness or shame.

Wrapped in towels, Joel and Mike crossed the corridor to their room. "You ready for a nap?" Joel said as he pushed the button to open the door. Mike's contented grunt signaled his approval. But when Joel stepped in, he inhaled sharply and reeled backwards as if compelled by an invisible force.

"Whew! It smells like people were having sex in here!"

"Shh!" Mike looked around for the bots, saw none.

Joel dropped his soggy towel on the mattress, then pulled the sheets off and over it. He tossed the bundle into the laundry chute, then pulled a fresh set from under a stack of manuals in a drawer. Mike contributed by doing his best not to look mortified.

When Joel had the new sheets on the bed, he dove onto the mattress, then patted it to encourage Mike to do likewise.

"So," Joel asked as Mike settled in, "do you want to be the big spoon or the little spoon?"

"Oh, um…I don't know---"

Joel suddenly leapt forward, tackling Mike. "Too late!" he cried as he wrapped himself around Mike's cool, still-damp body. "Dibs on the big spoon!"


10

Mike had only intended to go to the bridge for one quick second, to grab his coffee mug. When he got there, Joel, Crow, and Servo were seated at the table, chatting.

"Do you remember last week," said Servo, "when you met those beggar children?"

"Oh," said Crow brightly, "the ones we slaughtered mercilessly!"

Mike stopped and slowly turned towards the bots, mug in hand.

"Word is spreading." Servo's tone was oddly solemn. "There is a lot of chatter in the town about these new vigilantes. Crime has gone down. There is not nearly as much arson…"

"See?" Crow said, nudging Joel. "Vigilantism works!"

"…Mainly," continued Servo, "because the member of your party that set all the fires has died."

"Oh, yeah." Crow looked down at the piece of paper in front of him. "Hey, that reminds me! I haven't chosen a mental illness for my new character." He dropped an icosahedron on the table. "Sixteen!" he called out, then skimmed a handwritten list. "Venustraphobia. Hmm. Joel, what's your Mage lady's charisma?"

"Um…eighteen."

Crow turned and gaped at Joel in horror. "AAAAAAAAUUUGGHHH!"

"What are you guys doing?" Mike asked, as they apparently hadn't noticed him.

"We're vigilantes!" said Crow. "And we're using strongarm tactics to investigate a cult that's been doing human sacrifices in the city we wandered into!"

Joel held up the book he had open on the table. The cover said, Dungeons and Dragons: Player's Handbook.

Crow also had a book in front of him, as well as pages of notes. There were a few normal six-sided dice on the table, but also many dice that had more sides than Mike had imagined dice needing. They were scattered all over a map. Servo had three books in front of him, all open, plus a two-liter bottle of soda. How Servo could lift the bottle with his tiny arms, or consume the contents, was anybody's guess.

"I've heard about this game," Mike said, "but I've never seen it played."

"Pull up a chair," Joel said. "We'll teach you how to play."

As facts, figures, and theories were lobbed his way, Mike didn't feel he was actually being taught very much, but Joel insisted he would pick it up as they went along. Joel said they needed a fighter, and handed Mike a sheet of paper with most of the blank spaces filled in. "Basically, whenever you try to do something, you roll a die and add one of these numbers, and that determines whether you did it successfully. But most of the game is storytelling. You're a mercenary swordsman, so when you talk to people or see stuff happen, you should do what you think a mercenary swordsman would do."

"I think I can manage that," Mike said, not believing himself at all. Joel plucked a few dice from the scattering on the table. "You'll need this one for the damage you do with your sword, and this one for everything else."

A fidgety Servo cleared his throat for the third time. "Can we continue now? When we left off last week, just before you slaughtered those beggar children…"

"Mercilessly!"

"…Yes, it was quite lacking in mercy. Anyway, one of them said something about the old woman who lives in Smith's Alley. Something about how she invited children in for cookies and they never came out."

"Let's go check it out!" said Crow. "I want to waste that old woman! I hope she has her Social Security check on her, so I can take it!"

Servo continued. "You make your way to the house without incident. It's a rickety shack on a narrow, neglected street. There are steps up. One of them looks like it's uneven."

"I walk up the steps and try the door!"

Joel leaned over. "Crow, buddy, you're not going to check for traps?"

"Nope! Not my style!"

Servo consulted one of his books. "When your foot comes to rest on the second step, a blade swings down in an arc. Make a reflex roll."

Crow cast his twenty-sided die. "Seventeen!"

"Hmm. You sense the blade coming down and try to dodge. It doesn't decapitate you, but you lose your left ear."

"Okay. I'll pick up the ear and put it in my pocket."

"Crow!"

"What? I'm a tenth-level cleric. My deity will sew it back on for me. Now let's go find that old crone."

Servo turned to Mike. "Will you follow him into the house?"

Mike looked imploringly at Joel, having no idea what the smart thing would be to do. "Sure," said Joel, "but we'll stay three feet behind him at all times."

"When you get inside the house, it is dark. The windows have been blacked out. The first thing you see when your eyes adjust is an altar in the middle of the floor, with half-melted candles all around it. On the altar is a small child who has clearly been recently eviscerated. Its chest cavity is empty." Servo looked at Mike again. "What are you going to do?"

Mike knew he couldn't just spend the whole game looking to Joel to see how to proceed. His battle-hardened, scar-ridden mercenary wouldn't wait to be led by the hand, and especially not by Joel's character, a posh Elf lady. Mike knew it was time to take this seriously, and be decisive and bold.

"I'm going to get noisily sick," he announced. "Do I have to roll a die to see if I do that successfully?"

"Why not," said Servo.

Mike rolled. "Four."

"You dry-heave a little. Moving on. The old woman appears, seemingly from nowhere. She's caught you by surprise. She gets one free round, then you need to roll for initiative."

Joel pointed out to Mike a die and a number on his sheet. "Roll that and add this number to it."

Mike rolled. "Twelve. Er, plus two is fourteen. Is that good?"

"It's fine."

"The old woman has an amulet in her hand," Servo said, "and when she chants, a beam emanates from it and hits Crow."

"Excuse me, but my name is Manley Bloodaxe."

"Right. Make another saving throw, Manley."

"Seven."

"Excellent. Manley, now that the old woman has turned you into a goat, your abilities have changed somewhat, so you may want to note this on your character sheet. You have improved Climb, the ability to produce wool, and your milk can be used to make fine artisan cheeses."

Mike looked down at his sheet. "Joel? Where it says 'Intelligence, 13,' does that mean I'm smart?"

"Oh, pretty smart."

"Good. So my character also knows that he is completely hosed."


11

Letting the bots pick a film to watch was a crapshoot, but Joel was pleased with tonight's selection; he always considered it a fun movie that couldn't fail.

For "good movie nights," they went all out: popcorn, sodas, nachos, candy, the works. Joel's arms were full of snacks when he saw Mike tottering down the corridor.

"Whoa, buddy!" Joel said, unable to suppress a laugh. "What's going on with you?"

Mike grinned sheepishly and, one by one, held out the items he carried in his own box. "Am I totally ready for the movie tonight, or what? See, I've got my toast…and some rice, here…here's a rubber glove…"

"And you've got your fishnet stockings on, I see."

"That too," Mike coughed nervously, as if he didn't expect Joel to notice. "I figured the more I got into it, the more fun we'd have."

"Uh huh. You know that the movie tonight is not The Rocky Horror Picture Show, right?"

Perhaps the color drained from Mike's face, but who could tell with all that garish makeup he had on? "It's not?"

"No, Rocky Horror is next week. Crow picked Dr. Strangelove for tonight."

"Oh…my….god…"

"It's okay, I can see how you'd get confused. In one of the movies, the guy in the wheelchair sticks out his arm in the climactic scene, and in the other one, the guy in the wheelchair sticks out his leg in the climactic scene."

"I've got to change clothes right now."

"Actually," Joel stepped up to Mike and, having no hands free, nudged him gently with one elbow while he whispered in Mike's ear, "why don't you leave the fishnets and heels…on?"

Mike twitched. "What?"

"Kidding! Go get changed before the bots see you." Joel gave him another, harder nudge, then continued down the corridor.


12

Joel's alarm clock was not designed to make noise. Instead, as eight AM approached, the light in it grew steadily more intense, as though the room were being filled with dawn's first light. It was a much more peaceful and unobtrusive visible-spectrum version of hitting the snooze button ten or twelve times each morning.

The first time Mike awoke that day, the room was still entirely dark, and he fell right back to sleep. The second time he awoke, the faintest glow illuminated the room. Mike rolled a quarter-turn and instinctively cupped his balls. His hand brushed his morning hard-on. This was a good situation: he didn't need to pee, so he wouldn't have to get up and lose his erection. He could stay here in bed and enjoy it.

He toyed with it a little, pushing the foreskin around the head, rubbing his balls some more. It was one of life's little pleasures, to wake up but not have get up, to be able to do this. He felt like he wanted to spread out a little, so he rolled onto his back, and elbowed Joel, who had been watching him all along, in the still-dim light. Half-asleep, Mike had forgotten that Joel was even in bed with him.

"I'm sorry," Mike said, perhaps because of the stray elbow, perhaps because of the other thing.

"No worries," said Joel. "Best one of the day, huh?"

Mike admitted that yes, it was. His hands were on his stomach now, absentmindedly stroking an inch or two of the strip of hair that ran from his sternum to his pubic bone. His cock still stood proudly, though its heaviness made it tilt slightly toward his belly.

Joel shifted and pounced on Mike's unguarded erection. He took it between thumb and forefinger at the base to make it stand straight up, and tilted his head to consider it from a variety of angles. When he parted his lips, Mike heard the faint, wet sound of Joel's tongue separating from the roof of his mouth. Then he felt Joel's warm breath. "Oh, hey, you know, you don't have to do---oooh."

Joel spent quite a while just playing with it, with his mouth. When he gave it a few wet kisses, Mike squeezed his eyes shut with embarrassment. Joel's mouth was warm and wet and soft and hard and slow and fast. His lips squeezed and slid. His tongue darted about. Mike didn't know which was more exciting: seeing his cock going into that smirky, pouty mouth, or seeing it being drawn slowly out a moment later. He did know for sure that he wouldn't last much longer.

"Joel, I'm really close. Joel. You might want to…" This would have been abut the time when the girl grabbed the towel for him to come into, but Joel did not relent. Once Mike realized what was about to happen, and pictured it happening in his mind, it happened.

Joel kept Mike in his mouth, squeezing his cock and balls, until he was sure that Mike was completely drained. He left Mike's cock resting against one damp thigh and stretched out alongside him, looking not a little smug, but also with great affection. Mike looked coyly back at him, then turned his head, pondering what would happen next.

"I can…get you back in a minute," he said. "Just let me lie here for a little while."

"Don't worry about that. You can do that some other time. For now, why don't you just get on your belly."

Mike didn't so much roll as hoist himself halfway up, and then flop over, with a great sigh. Joel covered Mike's body with his own, moving this way and that, letting his hard cock find its way between Mike's slightly-parted thighs. His hot breath was on Mike's shoulder blades, and then his stubbly cheek scratched them, but Mike didn't seem to mind.

"Can you get thrmm mmrvsff?" Joel mumbled into the nape of Mike's neck. Guessing at what Joel was getting at, Mike felt around blindly on the floor with one hand until he found the jar, which he passed behind his head. Joel sat up a little, and while waiting for Joel to do his thing, Mike hummed contentedly, tilting his head ever so slightly back and forth.

"Do you think you can make it again?" Joel said.

"Only one way to find out," Mike groaned, as Joel hit his sweet spot with two fingers.

When Mike was nice and ready, Joel gripped him at the waist and tugged, urging him onto his hands and knees. Mike complied, this time with a sigh not of satisfaction but of effort. Joel got himself all settled in and lined up. He was impatient, thinking to himself that maybe he should have been more playful and teased Mike with it a little before putting it all the way in, but oh well, too late now.

Mike shifted around, trying to get comfortable. He tried putting his weight on his hands, then his elbows, and then he tilted forward and rested his shoulders on the pillow. No good. He got up again, tried arching his back, tilting his pelvis, spreading his knees…and then he felt it. Thinking back on it later, he wasn't sure he'd be able to find it again on the first try, but he remembered clearly that when he had found it, it felt completely different. His grunts of pleasure mixed with discomfort turned to guttural groans of ecstasy. Then he really started moving.

Joel knew immediately that something had worked out really well for Mike. His first response was to remain consistent, so as not to disturb whatever it was that Mike had just discovered. But shortly, Mike disrupted Joel's steady thrusting by pushing back insistently. Joel, true to form, stayed silent, but his jaw dropped as he watched what Mike was doing. Nothing felt like having someone push back, having someone so greedy for your cock that they couldn't wait for you to give it to them yourself. He loosened his grip on Mike's hips and let him do as he pleased.

"Ungh, god yeah, just like that," Mike hollered. But he was directing no one but himself. Joel held still and let Mike have his way. Mike balanced on one hand so he could jerk himself off for just the few seconds he needed to come. He was using language Joel had never heard come out of his mouth before; that is to say, he had heard Mike use all those words, just not in that order, and not repeatedly, in the imperative.

When Mike had finished with the language, Joel guided them both gently down onto the mattress. Joel was kind of a little guy, but with his weight half on top of Mike, he didn't feel so little. Mike decided he felt alright, though, and could just take shallow breaths for a while.


*****


Crow, sheaf of papers in hand, found Servo and Gypsy on the bridge, and inquired anxiously, "Have you guys seen Joel?"

"Since none of us are directly observing him at the moment, he may exist only theoretically," Servo mused. "However, if forced to hazard a guess, I would say he's probably in the shower. I saw him go in a few minutes ago."

"That can't be," Gypsy said. "A few minutes ago, I saw Mike go into the shower."

The subsequent silence between the bots lasted for twelve minutes.

Then Crow continued, "I need him to look at my new script."

Just then, Joel popped in, his hair still wet from the shower. Mike followed, also with damp hair. But Crow wasn't paying any attention to Mike. "Joel, will you proofread this new short story I wrote? It's called The Eldritch Thingamajig, And Other Unspeakable Horrors That Seem To Happen Disproportionately In Small New England Towns."

"Oh, said Servo smugly, "and I suppose that you dedicated so much time to your precious story, you neglected to complete the poetry project Joel assigned us last week."

Mike looked at Joel sideways. "You gave them a poetry project?"

"Poetry is an important part of the human experience," Joel explained. "I gave them some meter and rhyme subroutines and told them to have a poem ready before the next movie."

"I've got a poem! I've got a poem!" Servo said. "Can I go first?"

Joel patted him encouragingly. "Go ahead, buddy."

Servo cleared his throat several times, dramatically, "Ahem, ahem:

Mary had a little skirt
The skirt was split in half
So everywhere that Mary went
She showed her little calf."

Joel clapped lightly. "Thank you Servo, that was somewhat questionable, but ultimately semi-decent."

"Oh, me next!" said Crow. "I wrote a poem, just now! Ahem, ahem:

Mary had another skirt
The skirt was split in front
---"

"CROW!"

"Um, she never wore that one," Crow finished.

"That didn't rhyme," said Gypsy.

Joel said, "Don't worry about it." He spied the flashing red light. "That'll do for now. George and Gracie are calling."

"Greetings, Joelene," said Dr. Forrester, on the two-way monitor. "And…Mikelene. We've got a prize turkey cooking for you today, but first, the invention exchange." He stepped away from the monitor, then prodded Frank to do the same. The camera could now observe a table, covered with a sheet. "If you've ever sat through a blockbuster action flick in its entirety, or heard more than forty-five seconds of Jefferson Airplane, you have no doubt asked yourself, 'When is California going to fall into the ocean, already?' Well, wonder no more!" He pulled back the sheet to reveal something that looked like a cross between a polygraph machine and an 8-track player. "I've devised a, er, device…that measures seismic, cosmic, and geological factors in order to determine the amount of time remaining before the San Andreas fault finally gives way, causing the late, great state of California to break off from the contiguous United States and drift into the Pacific Ocean."

Mike squinted at the screen. "I can't read the numbers from here. Will it be happening soon enough that we can watch it from up here on the Satellite?"

Dr. Forrester covered up the digital display with one hand. "Oh, I wouldn't want to spoil the ending for you. What have you got for us, Joeletta?"

Joel retrieved his invention, a clear plexiglass cube with a contraption attached, from underneath the table. "Well sirs, my invention is based on the idea that no one ever felt better about themselves after realizing that they've inadvertently eaten an entire bag of Doritos. The Sensible Snacker helps make sure that won't happen." To demonstrate, Joel opened the lid of the box and poured a bag of chips into it. "You put your snack in the top, lock the lid, and then, when you press this button on the bottom, the Sensible Snacker dispenses the recommended serving size. And the built-in timer locks the dispenser after use, so you can't get more than two servings a day. Your body will thank you."

Sneering at the device, Dr. Forrester said, "And now, Joel, I will thank you to lock your dispenser, so we can tell you about today's movie. It's a skeevy silver-screen stomach-turner from the swinging sixties…"

Joel continued to gaze at the monitor and nod politely, but leaned over and whispered to Mike, "I finished another invention this week, but I'll have to show you later."

"What is it?" Mike whispered back.

"Well, it's a triangle…"