Damaged Goods

Chapter 2

by Dr. Seth

CHAPTER 2: DUANE DAMAGED

"Another long night at Quark," Erika sighed to herself. That stupid meeting Donovan had concocted about his "meat flavored toothpaste" had lasted well past 10 pm. She was anxious to get working on the further development of her robo-gel again and projected sheíd most likely spend the night at Quark once more. The way sheíd been working lately, she barely went home anymore. She was sleepily yawning as she opened the door to her office, but was confronted by a sight that immediately perked her up.

"Rusty!" she exclaimed, marching up to the robot illegally perched on her computer. He swiftly swiveled in surprise, detaching and leaving his arm jacked into the computer by accident." I thought we had an agreement- no web surfing without permission, and never after power down time!"

"I was just...." He groped for a smooth recovery, but gave it up when he noticed his arm still jammed in the modem. She helped him off the desk and screwed his arm in for him.

"You are in so much trouble, mister...." she sighed, finishing the job.

"I just wanted to see if Big Guy had a web site!" Rusty loudly whined in his defense.

"Rusty, robots donít usually have web sites." Dr. Slate went to shut off the computer but was intrigued by the words on the screen; it read "BGY 11: security clearance only." She twisted towards the robot sharply. "I want you to give me 200 rounds of target practice, now."

"But you said it was past my power-down time!" He stamped his foot indignantly.

"Yes, but youíve been a bad boy! And I want to see printouts of your score, too!" she sternly insisted until he left, though he was quite annoyed. As soon as he was gone, she quickly turned her attention back to the screen and began typing rapidly.

"You donít know it, Rusty," she said through anticipation-clenched teeth, "but youíve hacked your way into a top secret military site!" She filed through pages and pages of details on the project since conception, through the first BGYís, which didnít make it all the way to production until number ten. Ten was eventually scrapped midway through for an updated version, which is the one most are familiar with- the BGY 11.

It looked as if the project was going smoothly until she opened the file labeled 'artificial intelligence'. Partial schematics indicated the artificial intelligence matrix that was installed was seriously faulty. Proof of that came in the form of a short clip, which she eagerly downloaded. The film, which dated back 15 years, contained a grainy image of an older man questioning the halfway-assembled robot. "How many fingers am I holding up?" the figure asked. "Thursday!" Big Guy triumphantly boomed. Erika was dumbfounded; how could they release something so under-developed with such a large arsenal? Ah, she noted; there were still 6 years of development to go- Big Guy was only nine years old. She delved into the next chunk of information hoping to learn more about the system they eventually worked out only to find that the military had impatiently scrapped the artificial intelligence after four years of research that yielded few advancements. No wonder the military is in bed with Donovan! she snidely noted; theyíre both cut from the same cloth. They didnít realize what a slow process it was to build the artificial intelligence template. At this point in the project, Dr. Poindexter, the original creator, left and the schematics became even more degenerated, and finally, non-existent.

The next file was labeled 'Human Factor'. She apprehensively opened it, not wanting to confirm her suspicions. In the sequential pages, there were diagrams of Big Guyís body being mostly hollowed out and replaced with a cockpit. The neural system that used to be connected to the AI brain was rerouted and fed into many crude levers, switches, and buttons for the human pilot to operate. But who was the human pilot? As she progressed to the next page, that question was answered, much to her immeasurable disbelief. Lieutenant Duane Hunter. She read the name, but the picture that hovered above it didnít match the man she had met with that moniker. She dragged her hand slowly across her face in astonishment. The man in the photo was wearing the same dress uniform, though comparably less decorated. He had thick, dark brown hair, untainted by grey, his nose had perhaps been broken once, there were no scars, no missing ears.... But then, she caught it-- there was no mistaking those sparkling green eyes for any others. My God, she thought, what has happened to him?!

She read the credits that came with his name. He had enlisted at 18, and heíd led the first bomb raids into Japan during the Great War of í99, and was consequently shot down. He suffered as a P.O.W. in hellish Japanese camps for some of the war, until he brought it down from within and led the prisoners across the country until they were reunited with American forces. Her heart pounded wildly within her. She could barely imagine living in such conditions, let alone showing such bravery, resolve, and valor. As she shook herself free of those fearful notions, she thought perhaps here was where he gained his peculiar deformities. At the consideration that the Japanese tortured him, her heart ached in pity, but in the following reels of his training, he still looked pretty much the same. She sifted through footage that showed him exhibiting the skills the military desired, and concluded with him joining the BGY 11 project.

She moved onto the next page, which began his Big Guy test runs. A more familiar and recent picture was present. Here he looked just as he did when he met her, give or take a few scars and grey hairs. Just as she closed a window containing a disturbing film in which he was being trained to live in a small, dark container with minimal distractions and necessities, Rusty quietly crept up behind her.

"Iím done now, Dr. Slate. Here are my scores." His voice scared her out of her wits, and when she regained them, she had the presence of mind to try to cover the computer screen with her body. As she stood there, scrunched against the desk, she must have looked as guilty as he did much earlier. She snatched the printout of his scores and hurriedly looked over them.

"Hmm. Well. Much better than before, but you still need some work." She tried to hide her trembling hands by flipping through the papers in an exaggerated manner and readjusting her glasses.

"Heyyy." He craned his neck around to peek at the screen. "Isnít that Lt. Duane?" he innocently implored, peering at the bit of screen visible around her elbow.

"N-no!" she replied, flustered, leaning closer to the screen. Just then, much to her delight, her screensaver kicked in, and she grabbed Rusty and scooted him into his room. "Enough out of you, letís get you powered down," she said, propping him up on his bed.

"Today, I went into Dr. Huckleís office, and he told me all about how people trade pictures over the internet! He sent you a picture too, Dr. Slate!" Rusty naively said.

"Did he?" Erika played dumb, but she began to feel the beginnings of nausea stirring in her gut, for she had already opened the picture (which he 'cleverly' disguised as work) during lunch.

"Dr. Huckle said people send each other pictures of themselves so they can make a love connection." He pressed the tips of his index fingers together and made kissy noises.

"If he really liked me, heíd keep his pants on!" she said under her breath. "Rusty, I donít want you playing in dirty olí Huckleís office any more," she warned, and then, remembering his propensity for repeating verbatim anything he heard, added, "And donít tell him I said that!"

"Ooooo-kayy!" He flopped back into bed. Right as she moved to power him down, he became suddenly serious. "Dr. Slate, are you just going to turn out the lights and leave me in darkness?" he asked quietly. She knew what was coming; he was going to bring up the irrational fear of the dark once more.

"Well, yes. What do you propose I do?" She was rather exasperated, for this bogeyman thing had gone on long enough.

"Please leave the light on! Iím afraid the Meat Man will get me...." He drew his knuckles to his mouth and chewed vigorously.

"Meat Man?" This ridiculousness had a name. "Rusty, there is no Ďmeat maní, except in Mr. Mark Rydenís head, and in your head, too! He doesnít exist, got it?" She had reached the end of her patience.

"But heíll come in the dark and mess with my brains!" He clutched his little cranium in fear.

"There is no such thing as the meat man, and that is that!" But of course, just when she thought her resolution was final, his adorable little face broke her resolve. She sighed in defeat. "Iíll leave one light on, but no more, ok?" She gave in, much to his delight, and he gratefully gave her a quick hug. She lay him back down gently, and then shut him off. How silly! Just what had inspired this bizarre concoction?

She truthfully didnít want to waste any more time and quickly buried her concern to return to her snooping. She continued downloading more training footage, beginning with Lt. Hunter practicing in a partially put-together, skeletal Big Guy, which then progressed into about an hour of film in which he learned to move and emote in a more fluid, human way instead of being a guy trying to operate a huge clunky robot. She could see why the military would choose someone so small for this project; the inside of Big Guy was cramped and full of ambulatory and weapons controls, leaving little room for the pilot. She viewed more footage of him using the extensive arsenal and practicing tricky aerial maneuvers, which spanned a year. He remained perfectly normal-looking during this time. The next file was just a vast list compiling all of the battles that had occurred and the discovery of several weaknesses that they had studied then fixed.

"Oh, dear God..." she shuddered with the grim realization of what this must be like. She attained an immense respect for Lt. Hunter. What horrors had he suffered through? The sudden blaring of Quarkís emergency signal jolted her. She just stared at the flashing red lights dumbly, her mind engrossed with Lt. Hunter. She had little time do so, for Rusty was connected to such emergency signals, and his power down command was overridden.

"Ready and rariní to go!" she heard his voice automatically chime from the next room. She regrettably and quickly shut off the computer. She decided right there on the spot she never wanted Rusty to find out about Big Guyís secret until she had a better grasp of what would occur to the emotion grid. He rounded the corner and looked up at the flashing lights. "Somethingís going down," he said.

"Well, letís go see just whatís happening." She ushered him out the door and followed the trail of commotion. It led straight to Quarkís largest meeting room, where she had just been a few hours earlier. Since the meat meeting had gone on so long, the scientists that had booked it had to wait, and converged there much later than they had anticipated. She noticed a huge hole in the ducts just outside of the room, whose glass entrance had been thoroughly shattered. The scientists were all in their seats, save the one who was probably lecturing and was now slumped over the desk, and they seemed to be staring blankly into space, lying limply in their chairs. Dr. Donovan was already there, and was grilling the security guard.

"Dammit, this is just what happened to Dr. Ellerby!" he fumed. "What the hell is going on? Did you see what in blazes did this?!"

"Well, sir..." The security guard struggled with his next few words. "It was like a spider, only way bigger...and it sucked out everybodyís... brains...I guess."

"Bigger than a bread box?" Jenny cynically asked from her spot on Donovanís shoulder.

"Bigger." The security guard made a widening gesture with his hands.

"Bigger than the Big Guy?" Donovan stroked his chin.

"You got it!" the guard nodded.

"Call the robot." Donovan demanded.

"In the meantime, Iíll scout ahead till Big Guy gets here!" With that, Rusty dove into the hole in the overhead ducts.

****************************************************

Rusty switched on his night vision to better maneuver in the poorly lit ducts. A small apprehension entered his head concerning the Meat Man, but he quickly pushed it aside to concentrate on the task at hand. After all, Dr. Slate said he didnít exist, and since she was way smarter than he was, it had to be true...so he hoped.

He readied his finger and charged it with nucleo-protons, but it did little good- in a moment, he was assaulted from behind. A giant tentacle wrapped around him and overpowered him. He turned to see an enormous hideous spider, crouched in one of the many maze-like tunnels, that descended to peer at him closer.

Rusty couldnít help but recoil slightly. It was one of the most gruesome things heíd seen in his short life. It was a good eleven feet tall, with thick yet graceful long black legs. The most fearsome part of its anatomy had to be its revolting head, which looked like a human face that had been distorted to an extreme. It had a regular sort of human mouth, except the skin was pulled back so it was eternally grimacing, and it was joined by a more spider-like one underneath it. The two tentacles that were holding him fast extended from either side of the mouths. The nose had been smeared back into two small holes and had two deep-set red eyes that hung like emotionless marbles in the hard, black, elongated face. What made up most of the spiderís height was its massive head which seemed to have a rather tremendous brain case, for through the thinnest part of the caseís walls toward the back of the head, he could see coils of pulsing grey matter.

"Hmm, the boy robot...." It slurped noisily as it talked out of the human mouth.

"You know me?" Rusty couldnít help asking.

"Oh, yes. I was Dr. Neugog before I...." He paused briefly. "Evolved. Now, where can I find your mommy? She had a nice, big, juicy brain."

"Iíll never let you near her! You canít have her brain!!" Rusty squirmed to no avail within the monsterís grasp. Neugog sighed loudly.

"I tire of you, Tinkertoy. I guess I shall just have to find her for myself...." With this he violently threw Rusty back down the tunnels from whence he came. He banged around inside the duct until he finally fell out of the hole he previously went in.

"I saw it! I saw the monster!" Rusty announced, sprawling on the carpet outside the meeting room. Dr. Slate ran to his side, followed by Donovan. "It was a huge spider, and he said his name was...." Rusty struggled a bit. "Noi-gogg."

"Neugog?" Jenny and Donovan asked in unison.

"Isnít that the creepy guy that was working on some sort of telepathy machine?" Donovan asked the small simian.

"Yeah, and wasnít Dr. Ellerby supposed to go see him today?" she replied uneasily.

"He said he was looking for brains! Smart ones! He said he was coming for you, Dr. Slate!" Rusty worriedly clutched at her sleeves. He seemed to perk up suddenly, and soon she knew the cause of his elation, for there was a pair of white titanium boots fast approaching right outside the door. Dr. Slate stood up, initially relieved to see Big Guy, but that soon crumbled when she saw him destroy part of a wall just to make it into the hallway.

"Big Guy!" Rusty yelled, leaping into the air.

"Hey, Big Guy!" Dr. Slate called "The walls arenít made of cookies or Styrofoam around here- canít you use a door?"

"Hello, citizens! What seems to be the trouble?" Big Guy asked, ignoring Dr. Slate. Inside, Duane was already looking up her license tag -- that little red car was as good as crunched!

"Thereís a giant spider guy inside the air ducts and heís sucking out smart peopleís brains!" Rusty cried, flying up to the robotís eye level and pointing at the hole in the duct.

"Hmm. Well, itís a tight fit for me, so Iíll smoke him out with a party favor!" Big Guy launched a few smoke bombs into the ducts. "Go fan out and comb the floor, soldier."

"Right!" Rusty saluted his hero briefly and then flew out the door.

"In the meantime...." Big Guy turned to Erika and Donovan. "If this thing's eating smart snacks, youíd better get out of here, Dr. Slate. You too, Jenny. Dr. Donovan, thereís no real threat present for you." Donovan, too slow to catch the joke made at his expense, sighed in relief. Erika couldnít help giggling a little. Jenny, too, had a little chuckle as she leapt onto Dr. Slateís shoulder.

"But seriously," Dr. Slate sobered, "if this thing was at one point Dr. Neugog, Iím going back to his lab to try to piece together what exactly happened to him."

"I donít think thatís such a good idea, maíam," Big Guy strongly suggested. Duane couldnít help but wonder if Dr. Slate was that brave, or just that stupid! Didnít she see what had happened to the other scientists?

"Look, weíve got to find a way to solve this and maybe give these people their minds back. It wonít do to just blow him to smithereens!" She planted her hands on her hips in determination.

"Iíll take my chances!" Jenny hopped back onto Donovanís shoulder.

"Youíre the boss," Big Guy yielded, letting her pass through the giant hole he had made in the wall first. As she marched onwards, she stopped by his leg and gave it a quick pat.

"You be careful in there," she said, looking up at Big Guy circumspectly. Duane rolled his eyes. What did she mean by that? She seemed to act a little strange, but he couldnít put his finger on it. Regardless, he turned his mind back to the task at hand. He used his link to Quarkís security cameras and paired it with his infrared scanners. He identified four more victims on other floors, Rusty flying through the halls, and finally spotted his target hurriedly struggling through the pipes, climbing upwards towards the ceiling. He arrived on the roof just in time to see the ugly creature burst its way out of a vent, coughing furiously with smoke-choked lungs.

"Sounds like you need a lozenge!" he prepared the guns on the top of the hands. "One for each mouth." The spider was caught off guard and began scrambling away. Duane let several rounds loose, but none seemed to have any effect. Having just learned this as well, Neugog quickly scrambled over and wrapped his tentacles around Big Guyís hands, then locked them together.

Swift, Assface, Duane smirked.

"Greeeat, another robot," Neugog groaned. Then, he snuffled a bit. "Wait! I smell something squishing!" he cried with great elation. A long tube with tendrils ringing the opening emerged from his spider mouth and swept over the chest area. "So you are hiding sweetbreads in there, you dickens!" Neugog slurped noisily. Duane, though quite repulsed, felt he had nothing to fear at the moment; after all, he was encased in ten tons of steel. "Hmmm...Tank tread repairs...military salutations.....Sweet Betsy Ross? Ugh, how banal. Your aptitude does not wet my appetite." Just as the spider let go of him, Duane once more aimed his weapons, but found his will slipping away from him.

"Down, boy!" Neugog hissed. Duane labored with the simple task of jostling a lever heíd pulled a thousand times before as he felt the spiderís telepathy seep into every crevice of his mind. Unfortunately, one of his last free thoughts was concern for Dr. Slate, and soon he lay limply and helplessly, a slave of Neugogís telekinesis.

"Ahhhh...." Neugog rubbed his legs together in satisfaction. "You do know of someone whoís a little brighter than you. How delightful! Now why donít you bring that brilliant brain to me!" Without hesitation, Duane commanded Big Guy to his feet, and sought out his prey.

**********************************************

Dr. Slate quickly sifted through the partially destroyed lab and discovered Neugogís journal hidden underneath stacks of useless papers. She flipped through the first few pages, which detailed the machineís construction and got into his later studies. Once the machine had been established and the primary test runs successful, he discovered the machine had limited psychic abilities that were incredibly unstable, but it also had an unpredicted side effect- mild telekinesis and slight mind control. She could see why he had never revealed these details- he seemed to have unscrupulous plans for this unforeseen development. The last page began with a rant, in which Donovan was pressuring him to demonstrate his machineís ability, and he had set up an appointment with Dr. Ellerby, but that was where the journal ended.

She clapped it shut and once again looked around the room. Signs of a struggle, maybe even an explosion, were present. As she began to examine the machineís wiring, her mind turned briefly to Big Guyís comments earlier. How couldnít she have caught it? She had heard Big Guy joke like that before, but real robots had to obey the Three Laws, one being never to harm humans. This included making fun of humans, and damaging their egos. Still, Lt. Hunter had always obeyed the Three Laws (with this small exception), even though she knew the temptation was there. What kind of a man would be able to suffer so much and obey the Three Laws without fail...not to mention make up all sorts of goofy little catchphrases! She tried to fight off a smile and concentrate, but suddenly she was startled by a thunderous sound. Big Guy had crashed his way through the wall yet again...and was reaching towards her rather strangely.

"Big Guy, what did I tell you about the walls not being made out of cookies?" she smiled uneasily.

"Brains." Big Guy grunted.

"Ummm...Big Guy?" Dr. Slate questioned. Big Guyís hand scooped her up and held her tight to his chest. "Big Guy, what are you doing?!" Dr. Slate kicked and screamed, trying to wrestle loose, to no avail.

"Brains." Big Guy once again rumbled. She quickly surmised that Lt. Hunter must be suffering under Neugogís mind control. Dr. Slate covered her head with her arms as Big Guy crashed through the window, and just as she was certain they would plunge to the ground, he rocketed skyward. She fought uselessly within his titan grasp, and as they came over the top of Quark, she saw the fate that awaited her -- Neugog was greedily licking his chops, awaiting her arrival.

"Lieutenant Hunter!" she cried, in a last ditch attempt. "I know you can hear me! Snap out of it!" She banged on the chest plate, desperately hoping to clear his mind and save them both. Just then, Rusty swooped down from the sky, startling Neugog momentarily. It was enough to break his spell on Lt. Hunter.

"Tag team!" Rusty yelled, flying down and grabbing Dr. Slate.

"Huh?" Duane slowly came out of his fog, trying to regain his bearings. Rooftop...spider? There was no spider. There was at one point. It seemed he had suffered a temporary blackout. He lifted his faceplate to rub his aching forehead.

"Iím coming back to base, guys...."

**********************************************

He had only been back on the U.S.S. Dark Horse for less than 2 minutes when he was suddenly needed again.

"Um, he just got out of the bathroom," he heard Jo saying to someone on the phone as he walked down from the robot, yanking off his helmet. She handed the phone to him, mouthing some words he was too tired to make out.

"Yello. Lieutenant Hunter speaking." He sat on the desk next to the phone, his short legs dangling off the ground.

"Lieutenant Hunter, this is Dr. Erika Slate." The familiar female voice answered. Embarrassed about his blackout, Duane scrambled for an excuse.

"Um, about today, Big Guy had some sort of glitch or something, but itís all worked out now...thereís nothing to worry about. I...."

"Zip it." Her command caught him off guard, and he instantly shut up. "I need to see you back at Quark immediately. I have something very important concerning Neugog and the...íglitchí." Her voice was tainted with urgency. As much as he really didnít want to fly back to Quark, he would have to grin and bear it. If she had worked something out, maybe they could get this spider thing over and done with, and he could get back to his insomnia.

"Youíre the boss, Doc." He exhaled slowly.

"Tor Slate!" she snapped.

"What?" Her statement was odd and caught him unawares. In his tired mentality, he groped for meaning to her words.

"Doc-Tor Slate. Youíve got the first part down, but you seem to be struggling with the rest. Whatís wrong with you army grunts? Do you only have one-syllable vocabularies?" she fumed. Oh yes, he was certainly not looking forward to going back to Quark.

*************************************************

She was waiting for him by the helipad on Quarkís roof, and as soon as he had parked the helicopter, she wasted no time in leading him to a secluded annex of her lab. He noticed the halls were completely deserted, and also caught sight of Rusty lying on a bed of some sorts in another part of her laboratory.

"Gee, Erika." He decided to dispense with the formalities in an attempt to make things a little more relaxed. "Are you so sure you should put the kid down for the night? What if that spider comes back?"

"Call me Dr. Slate," she coldly replied, ushering him into the separate room. He furrowed his brow as he took his seat at the table in the center of the room. "Anyway, Rusty swept the building in its entirety, and found it empty. Neugog is gone, for now. But I have something very important to show you." She shut the heavy door and locked it. From the thickness of the walls, he surmised it was mostly a soundproof room; perhaps a library since it was lined with books dealing with her profession. She hauled a heavy case to the top of the desk, taking her place on the opposite side. She popped it open, revealing a strange sort of helmet with several transmitters and coils protruding from the top. She removed it from the case, and placed it in front of him.

"Wow. Fancy beer helmet. Betcha you could fit a whole sixpack in there!" he made a weak joke trying to lighten her mood, but it was lost on her icy faÁade.

"Nothing so crude." She narrowed her eyes. "This is Neugogís telepathy rig. It would amplify his mental powers once it was coupled with his dynamo, which I found destroyed in his office. Iíve modified it so that it emits frequencies contrary to the oneís heís currently emitting."

"So whoever wears it is safe from his telepathy," he noted.

"Or his mind control." She angled a sharp look at him. Her eyes pierced his own, and he couldnít help but stare, affixed to her intense gaze. "Big Guy canít afford to be vulnerable to Neugog again."

"Iím...not sure I follow." Duane could feel his pulse thudding in his ears. Please, not her, a small part of him still found the need to plead in futility.

"There is one component of the BGY 11 that isnít mechanical... The one on the inside." She stared at him sharply, seemingly disappointed that he didnít supply her answer without further prodding, but sat there with a hard, stony, passionless face. She continued on. "The human factor. You." This elicited a small, yet perceivably nervous, laugh.

"Um, Erika...." She shot him the look of death. "Dr. Slate," he recovered, "I think youíre unclear on the concept: Big Guyís a robot!" He waited for her reaction. Thereís still time, just donít say it, please not her... His mind raced with these wasted thoughts as adrenaline coursed through his body.

"Look, Lieutenant; we can cut the crap right here, or we can keep playing games all night. I read the plans, so thereís no use hiding it from me. Now letís put everything else aside and work together to get those people their minds back. Iíve found a way to reverse the process that I think heís using and...."

Dr. Slate continued, but Duane could hardly hear over the frenzied tumult of his own mind. He folded his arms and despondently looked to the side as she continued on describing her brilliant ideas. She was exceptionally intelligent, unfortunately to a fault; now that she had discovered the secret, he feared that the same fate would befall her as others who had done the same. With a sinking feeling in his gut, he knew he would have to do it himself, at the command of the BGY Commission. He had to follow orders, or else he would be next.

There was that pilot, who had stumbled into the Big Guy bay by accident, and witnessed Duane getting out of the cockpit...He put up such a fight, Duane had to order a new flightsuit, since that Teflon toughness just ate up bloodstains and refused to wash... Then there was that one time he was forced to emergency eject, and that kid had followed him into an evacuated quadrant with a video camera, of all things! She was so young...There were a few others as well that came back to haunt the little pieces of sleep he could snatch for himself, and now...and now, Dr. Slate stood next in line.

True, 9 out of 10 times she frustrated him, annoyed him, and refused all of his attempts to be courteous and civil, but he liked her, on one level. She was witty, intelligent, and could put up one hell of a fight. At first, he thought he could perhaps persuade her to keep silent so he wouldnít have to...But then he considered that she would most likely try to help out, as she was doing now, and sooner or later someone important would find out. Then it would go straight to the Commission; then they would give him the orders that he knew he couldnít perform, though he had no choice. Maybe that could be her saving grace -- maybe the BGY commission would recognize this usefulness and spare her! He considered that now that was the only option he had, and he hoped to God this plan of hers wouldnít fail....

************************************************

Dr. Slate was roused from the nap she had inadvertently taken in the copter ride over by Duaneís gentle nudging.

"Dr. Slate, weíre here." He shifted his shoulder, which she suddenly realized she had dozed off on. She shoved him abruptly in disgust, embarrassed by her own accidental actions. She certainly hoped that pervert didnít get the wrong idea! When she looked for his reaction, his face was just slightly creased in silent intolerance, which was fine by her. As they landed, she noticed the many people scrambling about below them.

"Do all of these people know?" she asked incredulously.

"Not a one of them," came Duaneís reply. "General Thornton, my pit crew, the BGY Commission members, and now you. Thatís everybody in the loop." He smoothly landed the helicopter and unbuckled his seatbelt.

"Not even Donovan?" Dr. Slate raised her eyebrow, surprised that the co-owner of the project wouldnít even be aware of this secret.

"Not even Rusty. Thorntonís orders," Duane said.

"Itís...not an issue." Dr. Slate removed the helmet he'd let her borrow.

"Itís not?" Duaneís droopy left eye perked up with his surprise.

"The Big Guy is Rustyís hero. Iíve decided...I want to keep it that way," she stated. He nodded, and rushed to the other side of the helicopter to help her out. Though he politely held his hand out for her, she simply threw him the suitcase containing Neugogís telepathy rig and demanded to climb out on her own.

Now sheís being unnecessarily rude! Duane smirked to himself. Not like I have to guess why. Youíd think sheíd be able to look past my ass-face.... he bitterly thought, despising his perceived ugliness as he did in his weaker moments. Well, maybe he wasnít much to look at, inside and out. After all, he hadnít exactly been a sweet peach to either her or Rusty when he had first met them. They both had a knack for getting themselves into trouble, but at least Rusty had proved himself in the last battle they had against a surprisingly difficult foe -- the mysterious robot named Argo. Duane was still awed that Rusty had the presence of mind to convince Argo to take Rustyís faulty powerpack in a trick that successfully ended up destroying the enemy completely. As he pressed his palm into the scanner that gave him access to the Big Guy bay, he was certain Dr. Slate would prove herself as well. She would have to.

"Youíd think a 10 foot bug would be easy to spot..." Jo peered into a computer screen, monitoring for any signs of Neugog-related activities.

"Why bother? Tin Manís useless against it. Need a scarecrow -- no brains," Mack grumbled, digging through a tool chest.

"Hmm...No brains, eh? Maybe itís time for Duaneís little robot buddy to fly solo!" Garth chuckled, taking the tool from Mack to work on the inside of the cockpit.

"That wonít be necessary." The pit crew turned from their task to find Duane marching into the bay, Dr. Slate close behind him.

"Dame on deck!" Jo shouted, tossing her jacket up to Garth for him to cover the exposed cockpit with. Garth scrambled out of the cockpit and threw his own jacket over it as well. Mack removed his hat in the presence of a lady and smoothed his hair back with a handful of spit.

"Cool jets, gang; she knows." Duane walked to the base of the ladder leading to Big Guy with Dr. Slate cowering behind him. She couldnít help but feel intimidated by their harsh stares.

"Goodnight, nurse!" Mack pressed his hat back on his head.

"You told her, Assface?!" Garth angrily descended the ladder to join the rest.

"She wormed it out of him!" Jo sneered, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Dr. Slate here has been working on our bug problem, and we are going to give her our kind attention." Duane turned to face Dr. Slate. "Lay it on us, Doc."

She suddenly fell silent, not even protesting his little nickname. As she stood there mutely clutching the case with the telepathy rig in front of her and swallowing dryly, her eyes wandered over each of the pit crew (all staring at her with impatient disapproval) recalling their biographies from the BGY 11 website. Garth Stewart stood towering over Duane, a huge U.S. Marine who had been enlisted in the BGY Project because he was one of the few people who could tolerate the pressures of being inside of Big Guy. She sort of wondered how he would fit into the cockpit, being that he was well over six feet and rippling with muscles, while Duane was 5í1" and rather lean. "Mack" Forwards had been with the project since conception and had the best grasp of Big Guyís insides, which was extremely useful since the original blueprints had disappeared with Dr. Poindexter. His gruff attitude hid the fact he was a brilliant robotics whiz. Jo Werthís profile was the strangest out of all of them. She had been serving in the air force as a plane mechanic, but she had been chosen for this job not on this merit but somewhat in part for the fact she was female. Apparently, Duane had had some sort of nervous breakdown at one point in this project, and it was suggested that a female presence would ease his discomfort. Dr. Slate wondered if it had worked.

She continued to stare blankly at them in fear, a little amused noting that Duane was much smaller than all of them, and he looked rather cute and doll-like in contrast. He seemed to be the only one not pissed off at her at the moment. Unfortunately, the pit crewís antagonism intimidated her into silence, and in turn, her silence angered the pit crew, thus seeming as if the circle would never be broken.

"Hey, great plan!" Jo said snidely. "Whatís with this chick? Is she going to stare at us all night?"

"Whuzzamatter, cat got your tongue?" Mack chortled.

"Iím sure sheís just a little shy. This is a pretty big deal and you guys arenít helping!" Duane said in her defense. Then, to Erika, "Look, donít let these guys scare you. Theyíre just big pussycats. If you want, Iíll flip Garth over my shoulder to show you what pushovers they are..." He smiled his broken smile, trying to ease her distress.

"No way, man!" Garth snorted. Erika pondered taking Duane up on the offer, just to see if he could (though she gauged from Garthís reaction that it wouldnít have been the first time), then shook herself of that thought and concentrated on her presentation.

"I have a plan." She finally found her voice. "Iím betting Neugog is going to make an appearance at the science expo tomorrow, the biggest gathering of minds in a decade. Using his own modified telepathy rig, we can counteract his mind control and telepathy. We need to use only non-lethal tactics on Neugog to be able to detain him so we can study what exactly happened, then see if thereís any hope to extract the victims' brainwaves. The expo begins at 7 pm tomorrow night, so we have plenty of time to work on this project, but no real way to test if it will work. We will simply have to send Lieutenant Hunter into the field with blind faith." She looked up at them, her anxiety slowly waning.

"Well, it wouldnít be the first time." Garth patted Duane on the head, yawned in a grandiose manner, then leaned on him with his elbow, as if he were a small table for him. Duane simply grinned and shrugged.

"Lemme get a good look at your little thingy...." Mack grasped for the Neugog rig with greedy hands. He lumbered over to a table and took it out of its case, curiously and thoroughly inspecting it.

"Mack, be careful with that thing, you senile old coot!" Jo called, to which Mack replied with his middle finger raised in the air. "If you donít keep your eye on him, heíll probably take it apart and put it back together again, like, twenny times tonight!" she said to Dr. Slate. Erika wouldnít even know how to begin to object.

"Maybe you should just leave it alone, Mack." Duane spoke up from below Garthís arm. "You know..." He turned to look at Erika. "...if you say weíve got till 7 pm tomorrow, maybe we should just get some sleep so we can be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You can explain more about the rig tomorrow morning."

"Ooh, this little toadstool is so comfy, I could just go to sleep right here!" Garth announced, folding his arms on Duaneís head and burying his face in them. Duane rolled his eyes as Garth made loud snoring sounds.

"You asked for it!" Duane warned, grasping Garthís forearm with one hand and planting the other in his gut. Garth had little time to yelp in protest before he was easily lifted and thrown over Duaneís shoulder.

"ASSFACE!" Jo jogged over to where Garth lay sprawled on the ground. "Quit trying to show off for your girlfriend!" She grabbed Garth by his well-muscled arm and jerked him to his feet. Duane simply shrugged, a little self-satisfied smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Erika couldnít help but feel a little impressed with this sudden display but she recognized it less as a show of strength and more as a show of skill. She was also rather happy to be a quiet observer of these interactions, and found it infinitely fascinating. She made a mental note to ask Duane about the origins of his curious nickname at a better time.

"Is it too late for you to fly me back to Quark?" she questioned as Duane started guiding her to one of the exits.

"Oh, itís much too late for that. You can sleep in my quarters, just for tonight." He knew it would do no good to have Erika running free with his little secret in her head and decided to detain her until the BGY Commission made their decision. At this thought, his heart sank, ever so slightly.

"Wait, I donít want to sleep in your quarters!" Erika sputtered. "Canít I sleep with Jo?"

"No way, chicky!" Jo called.

"Iím not going to be in them! Jeez!" Duane pushed his hand into another palmprint reading device that opened a doorway lined with their quarters. Erika noted that the Big Guy bay was a self-contained unit, almost completely separate from the rest of the ship, and such devices guarded the only ways out. Duane pushed open his door, which was seemingly unlocked, though it, too, had a scanner by the entrance.

"Iím going to sleep in Big Guy, probably. It wouldnít be the first time." He flipped a switch, playing light all over the bachelor pad he inhabited. "Oh, crap, um...why donít you just sit on the bed while I clean up? Iím such a dirty man, I never really clean my room since Iím barely in it...." he sheepishly added, scrambling to tidy the place up. He lifted a suitcase off of a tiny, messy bed and dumped the clothes that were inside of it into a drawer unceremoniously, and then slammed it shut, disturbing the piles of books on top of the compact chest of drawers. As he scrambled about collecting undershirts and underwear that littered the floor like fresh snow, she examined the objects on the chest of drawers. There was an enormous stack of books that ran the gamut from ancient literature to pulp fiction with such selections as "The Complete Mythology of Ancient Greece", "Poems of Emily Dickenson", "Fishboy", "Selected Tales of the Marquis De Sade", "I Robot", and on the very top, a well-worn nickel novel entitled "Strange and Mysterious Life" that featured what appeared to be a scantily clad torch singer threatened by a clunky, laughable red robot. She realized there were scores of piles of books accumulated in almost every corner in the apartment.

"You can read any of that. I have a pretty good collection. I like to have a lot of variety." His statement startled her briefly as he passed by her with armfuls of his underthings. He headed into the bathroom to throw them in the clothes hamper. "Whoops!" she heard from the bathroom, which was then accompanied by a flush. She continued to examine the objects as he scrubbed at his sink. There was a toy model of a rocket ship poised between two pictures, one of which must have been taken the day he graduated from flight training. He stood out among his classmates as the smallest of the large group, standing quite handsomely in his dress uniform. The other one only inflamed her curiosity to unbearable proportions and she snatched it up and joined him in the bathroom.

"Is this....?" She wasnít sure how to begin. "Is this your wife and child? Are you married?" she inquired in disbelief, thrusting the photo forward. He turned sharply, caught by surprise, but soon relaxed as he examined the picture.

"I sure hope not!" he chuckled. "This is my sister Darlene, and Jeffy, my nephew." He fondly fingered the photo. It was taken recently, as evident by the condition of his appearance. In it, he stood in front of an idyllic two-story suburban house, complete with tire swing. He was posed with a leggy brunette, each of them clutching a small blonde boy by the hands. Dr. Slate peered at the scene from his side, noting the glowing, doting expression that had crept across his face. He sighed and looked up at another framed picture nestled between a half-eaten box of cornflakes and a beer can with a plastic flower in it on a shelf mounted on the bathroomís wall, this one taken a little earlier. Duane was holding an infant Jeffy on his lap in a fighter jet, and had placed his leather helmet and goggles on the childís head. The expression he wore in the photo was much like the one he had now -- utter, beaming adoration. "Theyíre pretty much the only family I have. I feel kind of bad for Jeffy sometimes because his dadís a traveling salesman, and he doesnít get to see him that often. That, and his uncleís in the military...." His voice attained a certain sadness for a brief moment, but he shook it off. "Luckily, his birthdayís next month, and I get to see him again." The conversation seemed to have ended for now, and he went back to scrubbing the countertop in silence.

She replaced the photo and sat back on the bed, removing her shoes. Pity for Lt. Hunter appeared to come a little too easily for her, and she dispersed her sympathy. What was the point? She was certain he was aware that this life didnít have room for relationships, families, etc., just as her own life was too busy to bother with human relations. It was certainly not as demanding as Lt. Hunterís; however, it was sufficiently taxing. Maybe, to some degree, she felt the need to push those who wished to be closer to her away.

Then she couldnít help but shudder as she considered those who wished to be closer to her -- there was dirty old Huckle, the purveyor of office porn, who kept mailing her images of his Xeroxed butt or files with other such disturbing photos. Every time he made Tekkie of the Month or some other meaningless award, his ego swelled to enormous proportions and he seemed to think he could lay claim to her, as if she was some sort of property to be bandied about. Then there was Donovan, who had gotten a little too touchy-feely ever since he could threaten her with Rustyís demise. How much longer could she refuse his advances before he led the naÔve little automaton into the robot demolition room, like a demented pied piper? She longed for the good old days, when the worst he could do was make a sexist comment in her direction. The more she thought of these and other idiots who had pursued her in unsavory manners simply because she was female, the easier it was to feel less and less for Lt. Hunter. As she stared at him putting countless jars of "Icy Hot" in the bottom cabinets in the bathroom, she suspected the worst from him, for there was no point in her mind to consider him as having friendly intentions. She felt herself grow cold.

"Youíre all set." Duane reemerged, smelling of scrubbing bubbles, and dug through the clothes he had dumped in the drawer earlier. He extracted a pair of boxers and a dark green t-shirt and handed them to her. "You can sleep in these. I donít really have any other jammies for you."

"Thank you, Lt. Hunter," Dr. Slate replied, her eyes frostily scrutinizing him.

"You know, you can call me Duane if youíd like," Duane offered, trying to make their exchanges a little less stressed and formal.

"Goodnight, Lt. Hunter," came her only reply. He swallowed his anger as he exited the room, locking it on the way out. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to eject all of his resentment and disappointment at being treated so poorly by her, and yet he still came back for more. When would he learn his lesson? What was even the point to try to be decent to her, if she was going to treat him like this? That, coupled by the fact that she might soon disappear at his hands dissipated almost all resolve to continue being courteous. Lost in these thoughts, he was a bit surprised to see all of the pit crew gathered in the small kitchenette adjacent to their work area. They each met him with a grim expression, which was no surprise. He pulled out a chair and took his seat to address them all.

"Before you jump to conclusions," he began, "I want you to know that I had nothing to do with her sudden acquisition of knowledge. So, Jo, ye of little faith, she did not Ďwormí anything out of me!" He shot Jo a harsh glance.

"Iím just saying, sheís a pretty girl, and being youíre so hard up for friends..." Shrugging, she returned his glare.

"Remind me to tell you about the Japanese torture camps sometime," he retorted sarcastically.

"Regardless," Garth broke in, "what are we going to do about this security breach?"

"We better first find out just how she got a-hold of our little secret," Mack added, knocking back a lukewarm cup of coffee.

"First, we report to the Commission," Duane announced, causing a silence among them as they each considered what that meant. "Then we go from there. No other person has stepped forward so far with this knowledge, and she made it seem as if Rusty didnít know either, so it looks like we may only have one person in the know. Besides the spider."

"The spider?" Jo sat up.

"Sure. The spider has to know, having mind readiní powers and all that. The thing is, I consider that less of a security breach, because whoís going to stay around long enough to hear a giant, hungry bug spill some sort of wacko story about the Big Guy not being a real Ďbot?" Mack interjected.

"Well, that wonít be much of a problem, come tomorrow!" Garth smugly stated.

"Nope. Gotta use kid gloves on the bug. Doctorís orders." Duane shook his head.

"Is she serious?" Jo bellowed.

"You gotta be kiddiní me!" Mack slapped his forehead in disbelief.

"What? Is she crazy?!" Garth almost jumped out of his seat.

"Look. She has this plan to get everyoneís brains back...." Duane felt his argumentative powers waning under the onslaught of fatigue. "I donít know how she plans to do this, but I think that these are some of Americaís brightest and best minds, and if she can find a way to do that, we should support her completely. It might take a little more time than if we just went ahead and blew this guy to smithereens, but itís worth it in the long run." He paused for a moment. "And maybe, this can prove to the Commission that sheís worth keeping around. I think we can use a scientist to work with us directly on this team, instead of having to rely on other far-removed sources." Another calm settled around as they weighed the pros and cons of Duaneís conviction.

"Iím going to go report to the Commission. We should all try to get some rest." Duane suddenly rose to his feet and left the room, leaving them in silence.

********************************************

Erika peeled her face off of the austere pillow as she finally, consciously acknowledged the faint tapping at the door. She barely had time to do anything more, for the door gave a little beep and opened, revealing a slightly apprehensive Duane.

"What do you want?" she groggily asked the curious lieutenant.

"Well, you werenít answering when I knocked on the door, so I just decided to come and wake you up. Itís already 0900 hours!" He fully entered and stood expectantly at the doorway. Already...? He acted as if he had been up and at Ďem for hours! Judging by his crisp appearance -- fresh, army-ration dark grey tee disappearing into the waist of his olive pants, which in turn were tucked into impeccably shining combat boots -- it wasnít difficult to conclude that this was the situation. She realized that except for the shaft of fluorescent light from the hallway, the room was still pitch black since it lay so deep within the ship. She therefore couldnít discern night from day. Mumbling to herself, she decided there was no point to staying in bed any further, and emerged from the cocoon she had made from the Spartan hunter green sheets. In her bare feet, she made her way down the corridor, brushing her unruly mane from her face, squinting as her eyes adjusted to the harsh light. Duane directed her past the pit crew in the main area, who looked on with dour expressions as they worked on the exposed arm artillery of the massive robot, and into the small kitchenette. She plunked into a flimsy metal folding chair with a squeak and sat at the matching table, waiting to be served, which Duane immediately set about doing. Rubbing his freshly shaven chin, he doubtfully inspected the bowels of the miniscule fridge crammed into a corner of the kitchen.

"Hmm. Looks as if the pit crew cleaned this place out. Iíll make you some coffee, if you like." He filled a mug with water and placed it in the microwave.

"I truly prefer tea, if you have it," she stated.

"What a coincidence! I prefer tea as well, itís just that everyone around here loves coffee, and I can barely stand it. At least no one depletes my little reserve of tea, but when weíre out to sea, it can go quicker than you imagine. Iím so used to having to ration it!" He retrieved the steaming cup of water from the microwave. "Luckily, though, since weíre situated near New Tronic for now, we can easily send choppers over with grocery lists. In fact, I think the pit crew might have sent someone today. Thereís no telling what theyíll get, or if theyíll share, so weíre on our own." He gave a lopsided smile as he handed her the mug and a plain tea bag, plus two individual sugar packets, and a spoon. It seemed as if the condiments, like the rest of this area, were completely self-contained. He suddenly hopped onto the countertop to better reach the highest cabinets, the lowest of which he could never reach from the ground. As she mixed the ingredients together, she watched with amusement at he scooted about on his knees, craning his neck as he searched the three shelves.

"Usually, theyíve got some Pop Tarts or something hidden back here, where they think I canít get to it. Iím not allowed to have too many sweets. Actually, I had a ferocious sweet tooth, until it got knocked outta me!" He leaned back grinning to expose the empty socket in his teeth. Dr. Slate gave no reaction, which he took as silent disgust. He was so used to making fun of himself to relax other people, he was easily dismayed when it didnít work. He didnít want her pity, if that was what was on her mind! Either that, or she doesnít have a sense of humor, he concluded. He went back to searching the barren cabinets, throwing wasted thoughts away.

"Midget! Whatíre you doiní up there?" Jo appeared at the door, startling both the sleepy Dr. Slate and Duane alike. He jumped off the counter as she strutted over to him with a box hidden behind her back. "Our chopper just got back from New Tronic, and I gotcha a little somethiní..." She thrust the package at Duane, who met the present with mixed reactions. "Hereís some Dunkiní Donuts munchkins for my little munchkin!" She patted his head condescendingly.

"Oh, you think youíre so big just Ďcause youíve got 4 inches on me," Duane jokingly replied.

"Hey, if youíre going to be ungrateful, Iíll take those back and steal your Lucky Charms!" She stuck out her tongue as she left, suppressing snickers. Shaking his head, he took a seat across from Dr. Slate and pushed the box of sweets towards her.

"I guess this is it as far as breakfast goes for right now." He knitted his fingers together on the table.

"How...How can you let them pick on you like that?" Erika questioned.

"Aw, itís nothing! It actually helps to relieve the tension," he answered with a little smile and a small wave of his burned hand.

"Why do you let them call you....?"

"Assface?"

"Yes." She sipped her tea deeply, waiting for the explanation.

"Uh, they, um, call me Assface because...well, see this scar right here?" He indicated the scar that ran from the tip of his knobby nose into his greying hairline, directly in the middle of his face. "I guess they think my face has a, um, well, an ass crack in it. After living with all of these sailors, we all tend to use rough language," he sheepishly added.

"I donít mind." She looked into the swirling warm brown liquid in her mug and chewed on a powdered donut hole as she considered how to phrase her next question. As if on cue, he answered it for her.

"You know," he began, "itís actually a funny story, how I got this particular scar." He briefly ran some fingers through his dark hair, which he had already molded into its trademark curl with some sort of thick pomade. She listened intently. "The guys out there were playing this really stupid joke on me -- they stole my helmet, and were playing Ďkeep awayí up on the tarmac, when, before you know it, Mack fumbles, and it heads straight into the drink! Of course, the siren goes off just then,"

"Of course," she added, engrossed with his story.

"Of course! And I had to go in without my helmet. Whatís worse is that since they were too busy horsing around, they left this panel sort of half-done in the cockpit, so, the robot gets slammed from the front, the panel slides out and bam!" He jabbed his thumb right between his eyes. "I end up with an Assface. I let them call me that because...I know they have tremendous guilt about the whole thing. If it helps them get rid of some of that guilt, Iím happy to help. And you know, itís not like I donít tease them back." At this point, it was all Erika could do to keep her raging curiosity in check. She didnít want to be rude and press further, but she was brimming with questions and they each felt like little insects crawling on her skin. Again, he seemed as if he read her mind.

"If you want to know about any other scars, feel free to ask. I donít mind answering them. Iím not self-conscious, really," he offered. She jumped at the opportunity, and scooted her chair closer to his to better examine him. He couldnít help but note that his pulse quickened at the prospect that she might touch him, and he scolded himself for such an idiotic response. He couldnít believe the flames of desire this possibility fanned within him -- the desire for human contact that wasnít a firm handshake, or a swift pat on the back, or some sort of condescending gesture. He wanted something gentle, friendly -- a womanís touch. But what touch could this woman provide? She simply wanted to poke and probe his various deformities, like the true scientist she was. This woman -- Who was she, to inspire such stupidity in him?

She, regrettably, was what he most wanted in a companion. She was incredibly intelligent, feisty, quick-witted -- not to mention extremely beautiful. Sure, she had a gorgeous figure in her stark, lovely lab coat, but this morning, seeing her small frame engulfed in his tee shirt, her shapely, petite legs exposed so openly underneath his boxers, perfectly eye level with him on her tiny bare feet, which were sticking to the cold metal floor -- he could scarcely fight off feelings of want and longing escorting her to the kitchen. He could hardly drown those feelings now, at this moment, when she peered at him through her misaligned spectacles, in her adorably unkempt appearance, reaching towards him with tiny, toffee-colored hands. He was consumed by such irrational, raging emotions. He gathered his wits, reminding himself how much she actually hated him, how pointless it would be to feel anything for anyone, even if there was the remote possibility that it would be reciprocated. He managed a credible pokerface, and braced for impact. His body jolted with electricity as the tips of her curious fingers skimmed the remains of his mangled ear.

"What happened here?" She examined the gnarled flesh surrounding his auditory hole.

"Oh, um." He was thankful his voice didnít crack like weakened glass. "I got that in Japan. I donít know if you want to hear the story...." He trailed off.

"Tell me." She affixed her hazel gaze on his wavering eyes.

"Well. They were trying to get us to say more than just our names and numbers, in this...place. A prison camp. It was my turn, and they were incredibly hard on me, because I was a squad leader and I was privy to more sensitive information. These guys strung me upside down, and started whipping me and...at this point, weíd been in there for a while, and most of our clothes, except for the bare essentials were gone..." His throat dried up, making his words harder to form. Dr. Slate held the tips of his fingers with her own. "Blood started running into my eyes, and all I wanted was for it to end, but I knew that if I gave up any information -- information that was months old, that I didnít even know if it was still valid -- that they would have gained a small victory.

"The camp commander had this really ugly dog that he carried around everywhere. It was a -- what do you call them? A pug, I think...? Those dogs with squished faces, with those stupid yappy voices. The commander orders one of his guys to slice my ear, just enough to make it bleed, and he drops his little mongrel...He said something in Japanese to the little mutt, and suddenly it just starts tearing my ear apart. And that was that." His voice hardened, but his eyes looked haunted and hollowed. "Go on asking me questions, I donít mind answering them at all."

She tried to rouse herself from the grief his story inspired and realized she was holding his right hand. This was the hand that was covered with an enormous burn, which she could see more entirely due to the fact he was wearing a short-sleeved tee shirt. Her fingers traced over the bubbled skin, unknowingly sending tingles down his spine.

"What happened here?" She closely examined the ruptured, discolored flesh.

"Oh, that. Remember that toxic sea monster, about 3 years ago? It had this gland in the back of its head that was full of some sort of acidic poison. Of course, I didnít know this until it was too late, so I grab it by the tail, yank it onto the beach, and start bashing it around on the jagged rocks. This gland breaks, spraying all of this stuff all over the Big Guy. It canít eat through steel or anything, but it starts leaking through the right side, which had already sustained a lot of damage. At this point, the monster was as good as dead, so I had some time to notice that this gooey stuff was sort of sizzling on my sleeve, and I could feel it, all prickly, running into my glove. Thinking it was some sort of poison, and rightfully so, I grab my emergency water that I can use to flush this sort of stuff off, and I start hosing my arm off. Little did I know, that this acid was practically activated by water, and it starts eating through my suit, and eventually through my arm as soon as the water hits it. That was the longest flight home, let me tell you. Iím actually very lucky, because my flightsuit was resilient enough to take most of the punishment, and I avoided more serious nerve and muscle tissue damage. Itís all mostly superficial. The only real side effect is that sometimes my skin isnít as sensitive to temperature, or pain." He rolled his sleeve up to expose more. It ran almost all the way up to his shoulder. Certainly he could stick a pin in his warped skin and barely feel it, but her fingertips lightly touching his arm were intense and magnified. Those fingertips danced right past his shoulder up by his neck, where a huge gash had once been, evident by the puckered pink skin left over.

"Careful, Iím ticklish there!" He jerked his head a little to the side.

"Sorry." She withdrew her fingers. "What about this?"

"Big Guy got smashed on the side of the mountain, and one of my screens blew out as a result. Some glass zipped by, just missing my artery." He fingered the mark himself.

"What about your nose?" She pressed a finger to the tip of his nose, drawing a strange sort of smirk from him.

"In brief, itís been broken in one bike crash, one bar fight, two officer scuffles, and three Big Guy battles." He counted on his fingers. "It doesnít even faze me any more. Honest to peaches."

"Thatís cute. ĎHonest to peachesí." He caught a glimpse of her own smile as her eyes searched the rest of his face. He supposed he was just quaint enough to amuse her with his country boy/old-fashioned dialect tendencies. "How about the case of the missing eyebrow piece?" She rubbed her thumb across the patch of bare flesh between two dark tufts of eyebrow.

"Thatís nothing. It got skimmed off by a pointy part of the cockpit. It never grew back. You wanna hear the real tragedy?" He tilted his head forward, pointing to the crown. "Iím only 34, and already Iím going bald. I think itís from the helmet rubbing the top of my head all of the time. I wear a head cover, but I donít think it helps. Iím also getting all of these grey hairs from all of the stress."

"Itís sounds like itís more hazardous to be inside of Big Guy than on the outside!" she stated.

"Sometimes," he simply replied. Her hands explored the length of his left arm, skipping over what seemed to be more minor injuries. As she turned his left arm over, she was confronted with a most gruesome injury. She turned his right arm over as well, holding both fast to the table, and confirmed her suspicions. Two extensive scars, long healed, ran lengthwise from just before the crook of his arm ending at his wrist. These were the obvious scars of an attempted suicide, by someone who knew what they were doing.

"What about these?" she asked gravely. Unlike before, he no longer wanted to meet her eyes.

"Those were an accident." He retracted his hands from her grasp, and stood as if to leave.

"We need to focus on the problem at this point. Letís not waste any more time. Iím going to work with the pit crew on some more effective artillery, and youíd better figure out how to get the brain waves out of Neugogís noggin." He hardly paused before exiting and making his way back to the work area.

*******************************************

This had to be the lousiest job in the universe! Dr. D couldíve gotten a trained monkey to hold up his stupid note cards for him! Sure, she was a monkey, but she wasnít his slave, and she certainly wasnít trained. Switching another card for Donovan and crammed onto the top of the podium, Jenny thought of all of the more important things she could be doing. In fact, she had kept up with Ellerbyís work since she and Dr. D took over Quark, and she knew this stuff much better than he did, and he had the added benefit of having note cards in front of him!

She was cramped and inconvenienced, but she had to admit, this job carried at least one perk -- watching Dr. D botch this speech beyond recognition! She swore she could hear some of the scientists listening to him at the expo snicker and crack jokes at his expense. The big lummox.... Jenny waited till he had exited the stage after finishing up with Ellerbyís famous formula that had taken him a decade to perfect and had taken Dr. D 10 minutes to destroy, and jumped from the podium to join him backstage.

"Theyíre hailing my genius, Jenny!" Donovan basked in what he considered unquestioning adoration but was actually confused mumbling and polite clapping.

"Brilliant to present Dr. Ellerbyís work as your own!" Jenny scampered up his coat and took her place on his shoulder.

"Ellerbyís too busy drooling on his shirt to mind!" he gleefully chuckled as he headed further into the recesses of the backstage area.

"You may have stolen Ellerbyís ideas," a familiar, German voice hissed from the darkness "but I have Ellerbyís thoughts!" The mutated Dr. Neugog emerged from behind an empty crate to the sickening pitter-pat of giant spider legs.

"Neugog!" Donovan and Jenny shrieked in unison.

"What do you say to that?" Neugog advanced on his hapless victims, both rooted to the spot with terror.

"Youíre...looking good....?" Donovan weakly quipped, trembling in fear as Neugog extended the greasy tentacle of his lower mouth and waved it over Donovanís face.

"Food for thought?" the spider slimily inquired, quickly wrapping the feeler around Donovan. Jenny leapt from his shoulder and scampered to a nearby corner.

"Jenny, do something!" Donovan cried from within the insectís clutches. Jenny almost turned tail and ran, but then thought about poor, dependent Donovan, too stupid to help himself. And he owed her 20 bucks.

"Oh, you donít really want to snack on his empty skull, do you? The most you could use it for is for making cobwebs in it. He really just sponges off the brilliance of others, everybody knows that." Jenny offered his best defense. Neugog threw Donovan to the ground momentarily at Jennyís feet, his slippery tentacle clenching and unclenching around his flailing body.

"Iím going to suck him dry anyways." Neugog leaned closer.

"Why?" Donovan blubbered.

"I donít liiiike you," he ominously answered. He suddenly paused, sniffing the air, and turned his attention away from them. "Mmm! Trigonometry!" he exclaimed, shuffling towards Dr. Patterson, who had just concluded his speech and wandered into the same area. A cry for help had barely formed in the ill-fated scientistís throat before he was felled by the giant spider and sucked dry. Donovan and Jenny wasted no time and quickly made their escape. Someone must have seen Neugog this time, because the alarm went off in the building, and most of the exits were shut off, save for one, which was the main route of evacuation for the scientists gathered there. Unfortunately, Donovan and Jenny were trapped in the exhibition room.

"HALP!" Donovan started screaming and running in circles, like the immense moron he was. Jenny smacked a hand over his mouth and abruptly yanked his hair to get him to stop moving.

"Listen," she hissed in his ear, "our best bet is to keep our pieholes shut, and maybe try to hide, because your stupid behavior will only get us killed." She slowly removed her hand and sat on his heaving shoulder, his eyes wide and white staring at her in moist fear. He scampered to a corner behind one of Quarkís robots loaned to the exposition and began fumbling with the back.

"What are you doing?!" Jenny gasped in anxiety, her simian fingers digging into his suitís shoulder pads.

"M-M-Maybe we can turn one of these things on!!" he stammered, jamming wires together.

"Thatís it. Weíre monster kibble." Jenny resigned herself with a desolate sigh. Why didnít that man ever follow her orders? The tapping of insect legs was heard from above. They both looked up to see Neugog perched above them, hanging nimbly from a decorative sculpture.

"Thought I might find you here!" he chuckled as he descended upon them. "Iím psyyyyyychic!" He leaned closely so that their faces were almost touching.

"See ya!" Jenny leapt from Donovanís shoulder and hit the ground running, never once looking back. She lamented the loss of her boss as she could hear the spider sucking away at his empty cranium. All of a sudden, a thunderous crash knocked her off of her feet, and she looked back to see the Big Guy drop from the skylight amid a rain of glinting glass.

********************************************

Duane was glad, in a strange sort of way, that Neugog had finally reared his ugly head, because another moment trapped in the Legend One with Rusty and his endless, mind-numbing chatter would be excruciating in the extreme. Once he had a clear shot through the skylight, he crashed through the glass and planted the Big Guyís feet squarely into the spiderís back, his legs splaying around his flattened body. Rusty had the presence of mind to scoop Donovan and Jenny up and fly them away to a secure location.

With civilians out of the way, he got down to business. Neugog flung his tentacles at him, but instead of retracting, he met the limbs with his own hands, and grasping them firmly, used them to fling Neugog through a display. The giant insectís body lay motionless among the debris, and seemed to be down for the count.

That was too easy! Duane smirked to himself as he walked to robot over to where Neugog lay eerily still. Of course, nothing is so easy. In an instant, Neugog re-animated and retaliated by striking him with a staggeringly strong limb that sent him tumbling to the ground. Rusty, who had been watching obediently, suddenly dove towards the back of the spiderís massive head.

"I see a soft spot!" he cried out, preparing to strike. Neugog abruptly turned and Rusty was caught in mid-air by Neugogís limb, throwing him through a wall.

"They donít get it!!!" Neugog triumphantly announced, slinking over to the felled robot. "Iím psyyyyyyyychic!!!" he proudly proclaimed. His gloat was interrupted by the clicking of heavy artillery. "Uh oh," he managed weakly in the brief instant before Big Guy unleashed his massive arsenal. Though his body was bulletproof, he staggered under the oppressive hail of bullets, and finally collapsed to his knees. Duane eased off of the trigger for an instant, letting the smoke clear around Neugogís body.

"You wonít be doing that again!" Neugog hissed. Then he gained a strange gleam in his pupilless shiny red eyes. "Take the boy robot in your clutches and destroy him, then, destroy yourself!" he commanded.

Duane smirked. "The helmetís working!" He nodded to Dr. Slate, who had joined Jo at the monitor. He opened fire once again. Rusty zipped around Neugog, taunting him.

"Your mind control-thingy wonít work! Weíre robots! We donít have brains!" he then paused, considering his words. "Not that weíre not smart...." Neugog took advantage of his momentary hesitation and once again smacked him with his leg. Rusty went flying into an overhead decorative globe emblazoned with the words 'technology'. As Rusty plummeted to the ground, the globe, which had been weakened by the blow, fell on top of him.

Poor scooter, Duane snickered to himself, much to Dr. Slateís displeasure. Again, Neugog saw his opportunity in Big Guyís distraction and leapt on top of him, wrapping his tentacles about the robot.

"Youíre human! I can smell it!" Neugog snarled in frustration. "And where thereís a brain," he added ominously, "...thereís pain!" Suddenly, Duaneís hands were jerked away from the controls. The tentacles had wormed their way into the cockpit and had wrapped around his arms, restraining his movements.

"Hullís breached!" Garth exclaimed, pushing Jo and Dr. Slate aside.

"I can see that!" Duane wriggled uselessly within the monsterís grasp.

"Duane, eject!" Jo worriedly commanded.

"No! Rusty will see him!" Dr. Slate cried out.

"I donít got a problem with that, lady," Mack grunted, joining them at the monitor.

Dr. Slate chastised herself for being so selfish; they were right. Compromising her project would be insignificant compared to the loss of Lt. Hunterís life.

"No! Iíd be vulnerable, in plain sight!" Duane managed, straining against the slippery limbs. He could see something the pit crew couldnít- the faint stirrings Rusty made as he struggled beneath the globe.

"What?" Mack gaped "Youíre dead meat in there!"

"At least outside youíd have a fighting chance!" Jo added.

"No, the kid will come through," he retorted.

"Theyíre right, Lt. Hunter. Save yourself!" Dr. Slate pleaded.

"I said, the kid will come through!" Duane said through gritted teeth. He shouldered the microphone switch with a desperate burst of energy. "Any time now, kid," Big Guy boomed. Rusty raised the globe above his head, looking on with a determined expression.

"Aha! My telepathy rig!" Neugogís feelers swept over the helmet, causing his mouth to stretch out in a grotesque way that indicated he was very pleased. "Pop goes the weasel!" he sang, flipping the telepathy rig from Duaneís head.

"Pop this!" Rusty rushed to Big Guyís rescue, and somehow managed to lodge his head in Neugogís mouth, who struggled confusedly with the boy robotís legs kicking wildly from his jaws.

"Knew heíd come through," Duane sighed in relief, readjusting the helmet as Neugog retracted his members. As soon as he'd finally extracted Rusty from his maw with a feeler, Rusty, using Big Guyís earlier example, grabbed him by it and flew to the roof of the exhibition room.

"Say hello to the BGY incendiary trigger device!" Big Guy announced, activating the small apparatus and tossing it below Rusty. Rusty, recognizing the apparatus, promptly dropped Neugog down onto it. "Sure you see it coming; youíre psychic," Big Guy mockingly stated. "Thereís not a darn thing you can do about it." Though Neugog struggled, he couldnít escape in time, and was caught in the blast. As he lay helplessly in the smoking crater, Rusty zipped over with the cables from the model globe that had collapsed and began to hogtie Neugog in unbreakable knots.

"Did I do good, Big Guy?" Rusty beamingly asked his idol.

"Sure did, kid." Big Guy absentmindedly replied. Of course he knew Rusty would do a good job; he had his faults, but he could come through, in one way or another. Now if only his creator could do the same....

On to Chapter 2's Epilogue!

Back to chapter 1

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