The cacophonous notes of the sitar-kazoo played by the local Southeast Asian polka-reggae group drifted lazily over the garden, a perfect complement to the odorous mass of fecal matter lying peacefully in the middle of the path. Adjusting her gas mask, He Imaluni, the royal biological waste disposal specialist, gazed for a moment at the genemod bovine basking in the sun several metres in front of her, the proud creator of the distorted mass it was her duty to dispose of, before she stooped and, with a quick movement of the wrist, propelled the device into the humus at a point exactly 2.718281828 millimetres from the edge of the conglomeration, through the layer of topsoil, and out the other side at a point approximately, but not exactly, 3.141592653 millimetres from the more distant end of the hemispheroidal object. The thing was heavy. She dropped the scoop and slowly applied pressure to her forearm with her other hand to relieve the pain of lifting the excrement. Ahead, staring at her with a satisfied look on its face, the genemod bovine uttered a long moo, harmonising with the long, drawn-out sitar-kazoo note coming from the other side of the tall hedge. He had already injured herself the last time she attempted to lift a piece of manure of this size. It was a tough job being the royal biological waste disposal specialist, aka pooper-scooper. Genemod bovines seemed to produce a lot more waste than the normal variety. Maybe they should get an automatic pooper-scooper or something that would do the job more quickly and efficiently. “Gee,” He said. “This is one big piece of...”
A sudden exclamation from somewhere else in the garden startled her. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly the word I was thinking of...”
The word came again, loud and clear and profane. He looked up from the mass of excrement she was contemplating and turned around. Standing a few metres behind her was one of the monarchs, or diarchs, rather, since there were two people running the country. She wasn’t sure whether it was Round Robin or Rotund Robin. The two diarchs were both named Robin, and they looked alike too, being genetically modified to look that way, the reasons for which He never truly understood. She stood up and bowed respectfully. “Greetings, Your Highness,” she said. “It is a good morning, is it not?”
“Some good morning,” the diarch scoffed. “What kind of horrible music is that?”
“I believe it is the local Southeast Asian polka-reggae group performing, Your Highness.”
“Oh, them. Well, they have the right to express themselves, I guess. How are you doing today... uh...” The diarch looked at He’s name tag. “. . . He Imaluni?”
“I am fine, Your Highness. Just doing what I normally do...” She indicated the misshapen mass and smiled stupidly. The diarch looked uncomfortable. “Is there a problem, Your Highness?”
“Oh... I... something terrible has happened. I...”
“What is it, Your Highness?”
“Oh... It’s my sibling, Round Robin. Something very terrible has happened. I... I can’t find em anywhere. E’s just disappeared. I fear someone has come and abducted em. Er room is a mess, and everything is in disarray. No one I asked knows what’s going on. Can you help me?”
“Oh,” He said. The diarch standing in front of her was Rotund Robin, then. The other diarch, Round Robin, the One Whose Gender Shall Forever Remain Unknown, had disappeared mysteriously. “I’ll see what I can do...”
“You must hurry,” Rotund Robin said. “I fear we don’t have much time. Go enlist the help of one of the local superheroes we have running about like idiots. I knew they’d come in handy sometime. Hurry...”
“I will do as you ask, Your Highness,” He said. “I will ask the Time Hog.”
“Good. I hope things will turn out all right.” Rotund Robin, whose gender was known, turned and walked down the path between tall hedges on either side. Known, that is, to everybody but He. She’s male, right? she wondered. Or is he female?
Suddenly, the diarch turned around. “Um... do you know how to get out of this maze? It’s such a horrible labyrinth.”
He Imaluni, pooper-scooper extraordinaire, didn’t know. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I don’t have a map.” She wondered why the two diarchs had made this garden so confusing anyway. There was only one entrance and exit, and no one really knew where it was. People just stumbled upon it accidentally. Shrugging, she returned to the problem of the excrement. I’ll just finish scooping this thing, and then I’ll go look for the Time Hog, as Rotund Robin asks, she thought, plunging the scoop into the soil. In front of her, the genemod bovine mooed, and somewhere outside the labyrinth, the Southeast Asian polka-reggae group started playing a new song.
Discordant Southeast Asian polka-reggae tunes wafting out of its loudspeakers, the taco truck turned right at the curb and, as usual, sped right past Dingo Malfromage without stopping. It skidded on two wheels, the other two half a metre in the air, and ran the stop sign at the end of the block. In the process, it also ran over the stop sign.
Dingo stood on the sidewalk, steaming. The taco truck had no right to treat him this way. He was a customer, darn it, and he was going to get what he wanted, never mind the fact that he had paid for his tacos with postage stamps the first few times the taco truck stopped on this block.
He paced back and forth on the sidewalk. It was time. The world would finally know, once and for all, who Dingo Malfromage was. He had a plan in mind, all the details spelled out clearly. He knew what he had to do, and, by frog, he was going to do it, even if it took him a day away from his computer.
He stopped pacing and grinned malevolently. He laughed and rubbed his hands together. Today was the day. Dingo’s day. Dingo’s Day, with a capital D. Now everybody, all around the world, would know who he was. Dingo Malfromage, the kid who...
The kid who what? What was he going to do? For a moment, he thought he had forgotten his plan, but then, as the sound of screeching wheels from around the corner broke the silence, he remembered. He laughed gleefully and stared expectantly down the street at the approaching vehicle. The taco truck rumbled closer, its Southeast Asian polka-reggae music blaring, and Dingo stepped into the street.
As the Southeast Asian polka-reggae group launched into yet another noisy performance, He Imaluni looked at the piece of excrement and felt sick.
“This is disgusting,” she said to herself. “I can’t do this. I’m sick of scooping poop. I’ll do what Rotund Robin told me to do. Go find the Time Hog.”
The genemod bovine mooed. Startled, He looked up. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s your mess. You clean it up.” She looked down at the irregularly shaped mass. “Gee, that’s really big. I’m glad I’ve got something else to do. Considering its size, to get rid of it must have been one royal pain in the...”
The genemod bovine mooed again. “Right,” He said. “I’ll get going now. Now how do I get out of here?”
She looked around. There were hedges everywhere. She started walking, following Rotund Robin’s footprints. It was so easy to get lost in this maze. There had to be an easy way out. Disgusted, He stopped and gazed at the sky. Overhead, a bird flew past, gliding easily in the breeze. She envied it.
“That’s it!” she said. “I know how to get out of here!” She started running and tried to leap over the hedge but crashed into the leaves. Oh, wait a minute, she thought. If she managed to climb over this hedge, what if she went the wrong direction, going deeper and deeper into the maze? That wouldn’t be fun. She had to figure out the easiest way out so that she only had to climb over the least number of hedges possible.
The discordant notes of the Southeast Asian polka-reggae group’s sitar-kazoo drifted in the air. They must be outside! He realised. Listening intently, she followed it and found a place where the path turned to the right at a 90º angle. That was where she heard the music the loudest. That must be the corner of the maze. If she climbed over that, she’d be outside. She walked back a few paces, turned around, and started running. She leaped into the air, placed a foot on the side of the hedge, pushed down on it, and propelled herself upward and over.
He landed smack in the middle of the Southeast Asian polka-reggae group, disrupting the discordant music and scattering the circle of fans. “Sorry, sorry,” she repeated as she helped the lead wailer to his feet and righted the collection shoe. A plaintive moo from the genemod bovine drifted over the hedge. “Forget it!” He shouted. “Clean it up yourself!”
Extracting herself from the confused Southeast Asian polka-reggae group and their fans, He sprinted off down the diamond-cut Plexiglas sidewalk, leaving a trail of smelly footprints (a hazard of the job) and a scattering of hedge leaves.
Diamond-cut Plexiglas had been a singularly bad choice for a sidewalk. Dazzling reflections of triple suns shot rays in every direction, completely blinding the city’s denizens at midday. He ran right into a young man dressed in a sky blue ducife and matching pointy ferouk. The man’s taco smeared all over his clean ducife, even splattering the fancy hat. The young man shouted and shook his fist, but He was in a hurry. She apologised and added an admonishment for wearing sky blue. “Don’t you know it makes you practically invisible during the day? Sky blue is for criminals.”
He continued on her search for the Time Hog, oblivious to the impression she’d made on the young man in the taco-smeared robes.
The Southeast Asian polka-reggae music blared as He rounded the corner onto the next street. Oh, great, she thought. They’ve started another horrible song.
Then she stopped suddenly. That wasn’t where the music was coming from. Instead, the source of the cacophony was parked in the middle of the street. She gasped. It was a Wild West shoot-out, right here in their beautiful city. This violence had to stop. She ran toward the two duelers, her arms outstretched in protest. “Stop!” she screamed.
The kid standing in the middle of the road turned to face her. “What?” he said.
Realisation struck, and He stopped running, embarrassed. She tripped on a rock and fell onto the sidewalk, which was programmed to melt into a gel-like state upon impact to prevent injury.
“Are you all right?” the kid said.
“I’m... fine,” He said. She stood up, and the sidewalk condensed to its earlier solid state.
This wasn’t a Wild West shoot-out. It was a confrontation between an ordinary-looking kid and... a taco truck. Why was it parked in the middle of the street? The kid, apparently confused, returned his attention to the truck. The Southeast Asian polka-reggae music faded away.
The kid stood there with a vicious-looking grin on his face. The door on the driver’s side of the truck opened, and He could see someone step out. The kid laughed a hideous laugh and made one step toward the truck.
“Hey! What’s going on?” He said. The kid ignored her and made another step toward the truck. The driver of the truck now stepped out from behind the door and into He’s field of vision. It was a genemod pig. No way, He thought. It can’t be...
The genemod pig stepped away from door and cast his eyes toward the kid, who continued laughing. “It’s you again,” the pig said. “Why are you blocking the street? I have to drive my truck through here.”
“Yes...” the kid said. “You do, don’t you? And you know what? I want my tacos. So I suggest you give me two tacos...” He showed the pig part of his collection of vintage 1972 Botswana postage stamps. “. . . and I’ll pay for them.”
The pig cast a contemptuous glance at the stamps. “I don’t want your filthy stamps, kid. You want tacos, you pay for them with money. Now please get out of the street. I’ve got a business to run here.”
“You don’t understand,” the kid said, grinning malevolently.
“Hey!” He said, aware that she was interrupting their conversation. “Are you the Time Hog?”
The pig turned to look at her, a look of surprise on his face. “Uh... um... no. I’m... uh... Umberto the Taco Man.”
“Give me the tacos...” the kid said.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were the Time Hog,” He said. “You looked familiar, and I assumed...”
“Give me the tacos now. . .” the kid said.
“Hold on one moment, will you, kid?” the pig said. “All right, what do you want?” he said to He. “Yes, I’m the Time Hog. Or I was the Time Hog. I haven’t donned that stupid costume in ages. I’m Umberto now. I’ve got a respectable job, unlike those stupid superheroes who run around like idiots, with their so-called superpowers. Geez...”
“Well,” He said, “I was thinking, maybe you could do me a favour. Uh... Round Robin has... mysteriously disappeared, and no one knows where e is. Rotund Robin asked me to help find em, and I... promised him I’d... I’d find you... and...”
“Him?” the Time Hog/Umberto the Taco Man said. “Don’t you know Rotund Robin is female?”
“Huh? Well, that’s what I meant. Anyway, I was wondering if you could help her find Round Robin. You’ve got time-traveling superpowers, don’t you? Can’t you go back in time to find out what happened to Round Robin?”
“No. There’s no such thing as a superpower. Those superheroes you see running around... they’re not superheroes. They don’t got no superpowers. They just think they do. I used to think so, too. That was when all those superhero movies were popular. Superhero this, superhero that. ‘Hey, look at me! I got stepped on by a genetically engineered watermelon! Now I’m a superhero!’ The stupid things people used to believe. Many of them still believe it, too. It’s a pity. Ah, well. Those days are past, at least for me. I’m no longer the Time Hog you thought you knew. I never had any time-traveling superpowers; I just pretended I did. Well, sorry I can’t help you. I’m Umberto the Taco Man now, and I’ve got a job to do. Good-bye.”
“Give... me... the... tacos... now...” the kid said.
“Oh, shut up!” Umberto said, and got back in the truck. The engine started up, and the taco truck rolled backward on its wheels. The Southeast Asian polka-reggae music resumed, and the truck made a U turn and disappeared around the corner.
The kid stood in the middle of the street, steaming. “It’s all your fault!” he said, pointing at He. “You... I’ll get you... you ruined my plan...”
Southeast Asian polka-reggae music screaming in his head, Dingo stood there, steaming. “You... I’ll get you... you ruined my plan...” He pointed at the person standing on the sidewalk. “Maybe not right now, but when I’m ready, you’re gonna pay!” Then he turned around and stormed back through the front door of his house and slammed it.
Now what was he going to do? His plan was spoiled, or was it? How could he take over the world now, when his one chance to hijack that stupid pig’s taco truck had been smashed to bits? And all because of that... what was her name? He didn’t know. But he knew who to ask to find out.
He called Abdul-Akinkuotu Strélski-Hsing, product of the Ethnic Fusion program, whose full name, composed of sixteen hyphenated words, Dingo could never remember, on the vidphone. Abdul answered, looking half-awake. “Hey, man. Wazzup?”
“Cut the crud, Abdul. I’ve got a job for you to do. You hear me?”
“Hey, man. I ain’t your slave. But if it’s somethin’ important, man, I can do it.”
“Look. My plan to take over the world has just been foiled. And I know who foiled it, and I want you to find her and... heh, heh... exterminate her. You got that?” Dingo gave the woman’s description.
“What, man? You serious, man? Come on! Tell me you ain’t outta your head, man, ‘cause you sound like you got in a fight wit’ a lawnmower an’ lost. Man!”
“Shut up, Abdul. Listen, you find out who it is, all right?”
“Sure, man. No prob.” Abdul hung up.
Dingo rubbed his hands together and laughed softly. The plan was going to work, after all.
First published at the Asimov’s Forum, 2002.
Copyright © 2002, 2003 by Sherry Gray, David Norris, The Invincible Spud