"If you don't want egg on your face, don't make omelets."
"I feel really stupid," I exclaimed, as we arrived back on Wuh. I didn't want to endanger any of the locals, so we landed behind the statue in the park instead of at Montgomery's inn.
"I saw what you saw on that screen," Zol informed me gently. "It would appear that we have erred in our judgment. I did try to talk Velda out of running the story, but I doubt I have dissuaded her. Ronkonese believe strongly in word-of-mouth communications."
"I ought to go back there and try and straighten it out," I declared, wishing not as much that I could get away from my friends as that I wanted to get away from myself. "I have been a complete idiot. I'm supposed to be a hotshot, experienced magician, but I have made every single rookie mistake that Aahz was always pounding me over the head for. I made all those assumptions about the Pervects' plans, but I never looked at one of those things up close. A food processor!" I clutched my head. A gigantic ache was hammering in between my eyes like a troll with a mattock. It wanted out if it killed me, and I almost wished that it could.
"Don't," Zol replied softly. "It's a mistake anyone could have made."
I groaned again. Not anyone. Just the Great Skeeve. Just a guy who had had too much success too soon in the last few years, knocked his own supports out from underneath his own feet and tried to jump right back in the first time someone asked him for help without using any of the experience that he had supposedly gained. I made a decision there and then. I turned to the little gray man and put out my hand.
"Zol, I want to thank you for all of your help. It's been a privilege meeting you. I know you were going to stick around, but after today there's going to be nothing left to see."
Zol's thin black eyebrow went up his gray forehead. "Why the farewell?"
"Because I'm going to resign," I informed him. "I've made a total mess of this whole mission. Those things we thought were weapons were labor-saving gadgets. The Pervects were just trying to sell them. The same probably went for those spectacles. All I've done is make a fool of myself and of all of you. I'm going to find Gubbeen. He seems to be the ranking Wuhs around here. I'll tell him I'm sorry, but I can't do what he wants. It may be too late, but I'm going to take Aahz's advice. This mission was too much for me. I'm willing to admit it."
"Oh, Skeeve, that's not true," Bunny cooed, winding herself into my arm. "You can't quit now."
"I'd better," I told them, "because I've made nothing but bad decisions all the way through this."
'Things might not have gone the way you thought they would, Tiger," Tananda purred, burrowing close on my other side, "but you made the right moves. It's not your fault if the plans didn't work out the way you expected them to. You're not finished yet. I've never known you to be a quitter." Her soft lips were next to my ear, and her voice dropped so only I could hear it. "I know why you wanted to take this mission. You wanted to learn on your own, to be able to fail on your own. Okay, but that doesn't mean that you stop after you fail. Right? You try again. Humiliation's not fatal, even if it feels as though it ought to be."
I turned crimson with shame. She was right. I would never have even contemplated backing out of a contract when I was the president of M.Y.T.H. Inc., or leaving a friend in the lurch even before that. Not that I had had too many friends until the day Aahz exploded into my life.
Gleep, not to be left out, plumped down at my feet, making the ground shake, and wound his long neck around all of us. He gave me a big slurp on the face which, with both arms full and my legs immobilized, I was powerless to avoid.
"Those choppers and the spectacles were made by unwitting slave labor," Zol reminded me. "A situation which is still ongoing. And the Wuhses are not yet freed of the Pervects' rule."
"But one of my friends was killed," I reminded them sadly. "I'm afraid to put anyone else in harm's way."
"Isn't that our choice?" Tananda replied, shaking her head with a little smile on her face. "I've been around the dimensions for a while, and I'm not taking a risk without both eyes wide open."
"I may not have been as far around ..." Bunny began, then shot an apologetic glance at Tananda, "no offense— we Klahds don't live as long as you Trollops."
"None taken," Tananda waved, without ire.
"... But I know that you're right, and they're wrong. It's as simple as that."
"Elegantly put, Miss Bunny," Zol applauded.
"You're right," I acknowledged, giving her a warm hug, then letting her go. "You're all right. I felt sorry for myself— really sorry for myself—but I won't let that stop me again." "Oh, look, there he is!"
I turned at the sound of a female voice. Kassery stood on the edge of the park jumping up and down and waving her hand vigorously at us.
"Master Sk—aagh!" the petite, darkhaired Wuhs cried.
Suddenly she choked, grabbing at her throat. She dropped to her knees, her face turning purple. I glanced around in horror. Tananda was throttling a handful of air. I threw a ward in front of Tananda's hands, cutting off the flow of magik to her target, then I ran to help Kassery to her feet. She was gasping for breath. I carried her to the steps of the statue and laid her down.
"Why did you do that?" I asked Tananda.
"Sorry," Tananda snapped out, sounding not at all apologetic. "Thinking on my feet. It was the only way I could think to shut her up before she finished shouting out your name. We're trying to be incognito here. You know damned well that the Pervect Ten will be out for your scalp pretty soon."
My fault again. I should have brought us in with disguises in place. Hastily I remedied the omission, transforming us all into Wuhses. "I apologize, Kassery. Are you hurt?"
"No, I am all right." Wensley's mate stood up and clutched my hands. She seemed more than all right. Her eyes were glowing, almost full of hope.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I have just heard a rumor at Montgomery's," the little female whispered. "Wensley is alive! Gubbeen saw him in the castle."
At first I felt nothing at all, then as her words sunk in joy welled up inside me until I could no longer contain it.
"Whhheeeeeee-HAH!" I cheered, grabbing Kassery around the waist. I kicked off against the ground and flew high into the air, higher than the treetops. He hadn't been killed after all!
The world around me turned white. I realized that in my enthusiasm I had zoomed all the way up into the clouds. I stopped, and looked down. Four tiny specks on the ground in the center of the green sward were looking up at me. Talk about stupid overreaction, when I had just chided Tananda for the same thing. Kassery was clinging to me with all her strength.
"I'm so sorry," I stammered, throwing the illusion of birds on us so that our descent would be more unobtrusive than our ascent. "I bet you're afraid of heights. I didn't mean to scare you."
But the little female's eyes were shining. "I'm not, but thank you for being concerned. It is true what they say, that you care for those you serve, with all the affection a father shows his children. You are as kind and as powerful as your reputation paints you." She gave me a shy kiss on the cheek.
I was glad the illusion covered my face. It felt like it was on fire with embarrassment.
"Believe me, I'm not," I insisted. "I'm just an ordinary Klahd. Ask anyone."
"It's a good thing Aahz didn't see that," Tananda teased me, when we landed. "He'd have been all over your rear end for playing rocket ship."
She gestured upward. "That was a pretty good imitation. So what was that I heard before you two decided to recreate 'Fly Me to the Moon'?"
Since it was daylight I had no idea in which direction the moon lay, but we pulled Kassery around the corner of the statue so she could tell us her news.
"What do you mean, sales are down to zero?" Paldine asked in disbelief.
"Sorry, ma'am," the Ronkonese representative rattled out, not really wanting to look her directly in the eye. "A bulletin from the Bureau of Consumer Affairs rescinded your safety certificate this morning."
"And reissued it this afternoon! I've just spent four hours arguing the matter with the board, and they agree with their original license. Our item is fine."
The rep spread out his hands apologetically. "Yes, but if there was even a question of a hazard issue the public gets absolutely crazy. The recall has made the talk shows, newspaper headlines, even getting talked up in 'man on the street' interviews. The reinstatement will get a mention in small print in the 'Corrections' page of the newspaper tomorrow morning. No one will notice it. I'm sorry."
"But why?" Paldine pleaded. "Everyone was for it! You all like it."
"I love it," the rep said frankly. "I'm keeping mine. It's cool. But this Skeeve guy got a lot of press when he denounced it on television this morning ..."
"Yeah. Do you know him? A Klahd."
Paldine drew her face into a grim set. "A soon-to-be-dead Klahd. What did he say?"
"Read it for yourself." He tossed a newspaper across the desk to Paldine. She read the front page story which was embellished with a picture of a really young Klahd male with blond hair. That was the way the Deveels in the Bazaar described Skeeve the Magnificent. This article described him only as Our Confidential Source. Dammit. How could he have found them? Why was he doing this? The Ronkonese rep looked at her questioningly.
"I'll be back," she informed him. No sense in killing the messenger, no matter how tempting the prospect was. "Don't box up the merchandise yet. We may still be able to move it. Once this Skeeve is history." "I spent hours looking for him, but the reporter who did the original and, it seems, only interview, said he blipped out of there without finishing answering all her questions. She asked if I wanted to offer her an exclusive tell-all. It was all I could do not to reach down her throat and pull her gizzards out."
"Never mind," Vergetta soothed her. "We'll find another place to unload the Pervomatics. Meanwhile, I think we've found our leak."
She gestured to the "hot seat," where a tall, pale-haired Wuhs sat with Tenobia's knee across his thighs.
"An old lady told us that you took a couple of Klahds through the factory,” the torturer hissed. "Confess!"
"But madam," Parrano protested. "Tours are not against the rules."
"They saw our special project!"
"W-w-what special project?"
With a questioning tilt to her head, Charilor held up an eggbeater.
"Never mind the small stuff," Tenobia growled. "Bring me the gumbo!"
This Wuhs had already heard the stories from Gubbeen and Coolea; he was babbling out his entire life story and apologizing for every misdeed, minor, major and imagined, that he had ever committed. Sweat poured down his silly face as he tried to scramble away from the purple goo in the bowl. "I'm sorry! I'll never do it again! I swear to you, ladies, I swear!"
"All right, all right, all right!" Vergetta exclaimed, pushing Tenobia away from her victim. "I believe you."
That declaration was little consolation to the Wuhs, who had passed out cold at the sight of the pseudopods of bubbling stew pulsing out of the bowl at him. Niki slung him over her shoulder and trudged downstairs to put him into a cell to recover his wits. Charilor picked up the gumbo and a spoon. "No sense in wasting good food," she commented.
"But if that gibbering fool didn't show them the Pervomatics," Oshleen pointed out, "then this Skeeve saw through the concealment wards. Damn, but this Klahd must be packing some fierce firepower. His reputation must be true."
"As strong as ours?" Nedira asked.
"Well, it would have to be," Vergetta agreed.
"I'll pit my wards against anyone's magik!" Monishone protested.
"Then how did he figure out where we were going? What we were making? The Pervomatic hasn't been anywhere but the factory and Ronko!"
"He wouldn't have to have seen them at the factory," Caitlin spoke up. They all turned to the littlest Pervect. She pounded her hands down on her keyboard. "He hacked us. I've got a power signature on my computer that came in not too long before the trouble started on Ronko."
"He's got a computer?"
"Why not? He's got a credit card. I found his credit history on line between Deva, Klah and Perv."
"How'd he get into your system?"
Caitlin avoided the eyes her elders, ashamed to be caught off guard. "My bad. I didn't think I'd have to put locks on the back door to this thing, not since this is the only computer in the entire dimension, but it seems I was wrong."
"Wow," Charilor scoffed. "She actually admits she was wrong about something."
"I think all these Wuhses have been lying to us," Loorna growled. She threw a hand at the glass prison on the table. "That one claims that they hired him to get rid of us. I think they brought the Great Skeeve here to bankrupt us so that they can keep us here forever."
"I want to go home!" Oshleen wailed.
"Right," declared Vergetta, putting her hands down decisively on the table. "This means war. He can't be in too many places at once, no matter how tough he is. We'll have several fronts. If he shuts one down, then we'll have the others. He can't cover every dimension. We'll diversify, get into places before he knows that we're there. And we'll shut him down. We are the Pervect Ten. The second he comes back here, he's history."
Oshleen raised a slender eyebrow. "What makes you think he's coming back?"
Vergetta picked up the snow globe and shook it. "We've got his friend."