He sat down on the bench and thought about what had just happened. The strange, obviously disturbed kid had stormed into his house and slammed the door. What if he intended to commit suicide? Maybe she should call the police.
Her mind wandered back to the issue at hand. So the Time Hog never really had any time-traveling capabilities, after all. What was she going to do now? How could she find Round Robin? If only there was a clue somewhere, some little detail she missed.
A vision of her Toltec ancestors appeared in her mind. She saw herself walking and talking among them, soiled scoop in one hand, making her way through the crowd. King Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was being exiled from Tula. Arms raised toward the sky, he stood there, a surreal figure in the mist, watching over the crowd. And then the vision faded. The god-man Quetzalcoatl, whose name had been used as a title for several rulers, had been prophesied to return and claim his earthly kingdom, but as far as He knew, that hadn’t happened yet. She wondered if King Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was really the deity-human Quetzalcoatl and when he would return. Maybe never.
I have to go talk to the Time Hog again, she thought. She had the feeling Umberto knew more than he told her.
Umberto parked the taco truck in front of his shack and turned off the engine. Then he reached up and flicked the switch to turn off the Southeast Asian polka-reggae music. He was getting tired of listening to the same tracks over and over again. Maybe he should get some new music, but he knew he couldn’t afford it. The only music disc he had had been a gift from the local Southeast Asian polka-reggae group, whatever they called themselves. He couldn’t remember.
He stepped down from the truck and shut the door. Then he walked slowly across the gravel on two legs. It must look funny to see a pig walking on two legs, he thought, but that didn’t matter. His genemod porcine body moved swiftly up the driveway and up to the front door. He inserted his key in the lock, but the rotting wooden door swung open by itself. He shrugged and entered the shack.
Inside, he sat down on the couch and relaxed. He picked up the TV remote control, aimed it at the screen, and pressed the POWER button, but the stupid thing wouldn’t come on. He pressed the button again, gripping the device tightly with his genemod hand, strikingly different from the front feet of unmodified pigs, but the TV still wouldn’t turn on. The batteries in the remote were out; he needed to replace them. He flicked open the plastic battery cover, and all the batteries fell out and rolled around on the wooden planks that passed for a floor, some of them falling through the holes. Umberto didn’t want to get up and manually turn the TV on. He lay back and moaned.
Then he reached over, picked up the vidphone receiver, and called Ngakaukawa Watermelon Sunshine. After three rings, Ngakaukawa answered. “Hello, Umberto. How are you doing?”
”I feel sick,” Umberto said.
”Oh, I can see. What happened?”
”I didn’t sell any tacos today. Except for the one I sold you-”
”Yes, and what an unfortunate thing it is to have sold me that taco. You would not believe what happened today! I was just walking along, enjoying the sunshine, when this person comes out of nowhere and runs into me. She spilled my taco all over my clothes. Just look at this mess!” On the vidscreen, Umberto could see the contents of the vegetarian taco splattered all over Ngakaukawa’s sky blue ducife. “It got on my hat, too!” He waved his matching pointy ferouk. “It is a very good thing indeed that all the latest nanomachines can clean up all this in no time at all. I was just going up to clean my clothes with the nanomachine solution when you called-”
Umberto sighed. Was nothing going right today? “Sorry about all that, Ngakaukawa,” he said.
”Well, if some people would just watch where they are going-”
”Look, Ngakaukawa. The reason I called you was because I met someone today. She looked familiar, but I don’t remember her name. She asked me if I could help her find Round Robin, who, apparently, is missing. She asked if I was the Time Hog, and I said yes, I was the Time Hog, but I’m just Umberto the Taco Man now. I think I upset her a bit. You know, I’ve always wanted to help someone out, to repay the favour that what’s-his name, Quetzalcoatl 4000, paid me back when I was just a struggling superhero with no credits to my name.”
”Oh, so you are thinking about becoming the Time Hog again?”
”Well, that’s what I’m considering. You know, what if there is something to all this time-traveling nonsense, after all? And there is that strange experience I had at the Casa del Queso-”
”I say go for it, Umberto,” Ngakaukawa said. “Enough time has elapsed since the last appearance of the Time Hog. Team up with Quetzalcoatl 4000 and find Round Robin. It is time.”
Umberto looked up, and slowly a smile formed on his face. “It is time.” He nodded, mostly to himself. “Yes . . .” He faced the screen and looked into Ngakaukawa’s eager eyes. “I am the Time Hog. In the name of justice, I will combat crime and save the day using the power of Time. Protector of the innocent and avenger of the wronged, I race through past, present, and future to correct the doings of the evil and preserve the . . . something . . . and whatever the rest of the saying is. I am the Time Hog!”
With that, he stood up and raised a fist in the air. Then he realised how stupid he must look to Ngakaukawa and turned back to the vidscreen. “Thanks, Ngakaukawa. I’ll see you in a little while.” He turned off the vidscreen and raced into the other room in the two-room shack. He plowed through the contents of his closet until he found the elastic yellow-and-green suit, complete with a blue cape, lying at the bottom of the pile. He dragged it out and held it up. It looked wrinkled and scrunched up. When he tried it on, he found it a little too tight. Well, that wasn’t much of a problem, after all; he could get it taken care of in no time. Now was his moment of glory. He was the Time Hog, and it was time.
While the superhero formerly known as the Time Hog admired his figure sausaged into the shiny Spandex, he heard a knock on the door. Then he heard the door swing open by itself, because it really wasn’t a very good door. He turned to find the very girl who had started all the hoopla standing on his rotted doorstep.
”How did you find me?” He demanded in his most impressive superhero voice. For a pig, Umberto could be quite commanding. He planted his hooves and stared up his nose at the intruder. Better to establish just who was in charge from the beginning.
”Um, excuse me, but I followed you here. Sort of. I could hear that god-awful music while you circled the neighbourhood, and I just went in that general direction until I saw the truck in your, ah, yard.” The smell of the shack made He’s eyes water. “Do you mind if we talk outside?”
The Time Hog consented dourly and followed the girl outside. When she could breathe again, He said, “Hey, you’re wearing the suit! Does that mean you’re going to help me?” She reached out and fingered the material of his cape appreciatively. “Uranium dioxinate, lovely fabric. And such a nice shade of blue, it really brings out the pink in your snout.”
Umberto yanked his cape back. The NERVE of this person! “I’ll thank you not to touch the cape. It can be quite toxic to full humans over a period of time.” His beady little eyes narrowed. “On second thougnt, would you like to wear it? I think you’d be quite fetching.” And I would be rid of one pesky girl, he added silently.
”I’ll pass. Now about my problem, which is really everyone’s problem. Can you find Round Robin? Poor Rotund Robin is quite distressed.”
”Maybe.” The pig looked thoughtful. “What ground have you covered so far? Have you ruled anything out?”
He dug her toe into the ground and refused to meet Umberto’s eyes. “I haven’t exactly ruled out anything. I just came looking for you.”
Umberto’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “You didn’t even search er room? Didn’t question the staff? Didn’t look for a trail?” He turned and stomped back into his house, muttering, “Oh, SURE, let the pig do it. Why bother thinking for oneself when there’s a handy former super-hero selling tacos. As if all I had to do in the world is help some idiot girl who doesn’t have the foggiest notion. . . .”
His voice trailed off as he passed through the doorway, and He could hear him stomping around inside. She held her nose and cautiously approached the open door. She called out, “You’re coming, right?”
”Yeah, yeah. I’m just packing my tool belt. It’s been a while, and some of the gadgets have gotten misplaced. You can come in if you want.”
”Thank you, but I think I’ll just hang around out here,” He replied, as politely as she could.
Umberto couldn’t find his tool belt. How could he pack the stupid thing if he couldn’t even find it? He cursed himself and smacked his forehead. Well, he had to look somewhere.
He looked in the oven and found his old plastic Echidna FighterT action figure, now melted into an unrecognisable blob. “No . . .” he said, aghast. “Jojo . . . I . . . no . . .” He placed one hand on the thing and slowly, carefully, pulled it away from the metal interior of the oven. “Jojo . . . I’m . . . I’m so sorry, Jojo. I didn’t mean to . . .” A tear leaked out of one eye, an action that was impossible for unenhanced pigs. “Will you forgive me, Jojo? Please?” Then he realised he was crying over a piece of plastic. He cast it aside and continued searching for his tool belt.
He opened the refrigerator door and peered inside-and saw a big green chunk of cheese, which had obviously expired years ago. It brought back memories. . . .
Umberto found himself in front of the infamous Casa del Queso on a dark, stormy night several years ago, wearing his yellow-and-green suit, his blue cape streaming in the howling wind. He had chased the Indigo Turnip, one of the most evil villains in the history of the world, here, and he wasn’t going to let her get away. But the Casa del Queso-not a house of cheese, but rather the House of the Cheese-was one of the only two places in the world that Umberto, intrepid superhero that he was, was afraid of entering. That and the posterior end of an elephant’s alimentary canal.
Swallowing the bile that was rising in his throat, he stepped forward and reached out with one hand to push open the gate. As soon his finger touched one of the black-painted metal bars, the gate swung open by itself. Umberto unconsciously jumped back. Then he regained control of himself and continued up the walkway to the front door.
”All right, Indigo Turnip!” he yelled. “Show yourself, or I’m coming in!”
Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted. Umberto shivered. He had already seen enough horror movies with haunted houses to know that it wasn’t going to be easy getting out of the Casa del Queso alive. Nevertheless, he continued on, pushing open the front door. It was dark inside. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and covered all the furniture Umberto could see. He brushed them aside and entered the foyer. Outside, lightning flashed in the sky, followed by the deep rumble of thunder.
Umberto traversed the foyer and started climbing up the stairs. It was too dark inside, and he couldn’t really see anything. He dug in his pocket and pulled out his flashlight. Then he flicked it on and shone its yellow light on the steps. He marched up the stairs and onto the second floor. There was a hallway there, lined on both sides by identical doors.
”I know you’re in here, Indigo Turnip!” he called.
Then the yellow light, reflected by the parabolic mirror of the flashlight onto a spot on the carpet, fizzed out. Umberto was alone in the dark.
”Oh, crud,” he muttered. He threw the flashlight into the air and heard a window break.
Then a blinding greenish light from behind one of the doors filled the hallway.
”Oh, double-crud,” he said. “I know that’s you, Indigo Turnip. Come out, or things will get a little messy.”
He walked slowly down the hall toward the door, its edges glowing with green brightness. Then he twisted the doorknob and yanked open the door-
”Oh, crud-squared,” he said.
It was the Cheese. The giant genetic freak accident sat in a corner of the room, its veins pulsing, its holes growing and shrinking as it breathed in and out.
”You have come,” it said.
”Oh, crud to the power of crud,” Umberto said.
”Resistance is futile. You will succumb to the force-”
”Oh, but you know you want to. Come closer to the light.”
The green light came from the thing in the middle of the room. It swirled and rotated, a green spiral floating, apparently, in the air.
”What the crud is that?” Umberto said.
”It is a time gate. Step through it, and you will find yourself in another time. Go on, step inside. You know you want to.”
”No . . .”
”You can’t call yourself the Time Hog for nothing. What temporal superpowers do you have?”
”I . . .”
”Well, now you have one.” The Cheese slid away from the corner of the room. It approached the time gate and broke off a chunk of itself, which it held in one of its two armlike appendages. Then it reached up with its other appendage and seemed to compress the time gate into the small piece of itself. The chunk of cheese glowed. The Cheese slowly oozed toward Umberto and held the glowing chunk out with both appendages. Stunned, Umberto reached out and accepted it.
”I know you will use it wisely. The power of Time is limitless.”
Then the Cheese receded into the room and shut the door. Umberto stood there, completely stunned. Just what had just happened? He wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if whatever it was had actually happened. But he was holding a glowing chunk of cheese. It would serve as a good flashlight-
Suddenly, the Indigo Turnip, appearing out of nowhere, landed on Umberto. He fell to the ground underneath the weight of the Turnip. “Ah!!! No!!!” he screamed. The Turnip shrieked. She grabbed his cape and proceeded to choke him with it. “No,” he coughed. He reached out with one hand and took hold of the glowing chunk of cheese where he had dropped it. Then he hit the Turnip with it, managing to expose the time gate inside. And then, just as suddenly as she had appeared, the Indigo Turnip was gone.
Umberto sat up, stunned. He found the glowing chunk of cheese on the floor behind him, the time gate glowing where it was exposed to the air. He picked up the chunk and pushed the cheese back together to close the opening. It glowed.
Now what had just happened? Where did the Indigo Turnip go? Umberto could only presume she had passed through the Time Gate to another time. Well, let those people take care of the problem. He was glad that he was finally rid of the Indigo Turnip.
He stood up and held the glowing chunk of cheese in his hands. The secret to the power of Time was now his.
He had never seen the Indigo Turnip since. Maybe she really did go to another time. But what exactly had happened on that strange and mysterious night at the Casa del Queso? Had he eaten too many super tacos and dreamed it all?
The refrigerator door still open, Umberto stood there, gazing at the cheese. It no longer glowed, but maybe it still had some power of some sort. Maybe he could actually use it to find Round Robin. He reached into the refrigerator to pick it up.
Abdul-Akinkuotu watched the light on the vidphone fade after he’d hung up. Another one of his half-assed plans, he thought, but it could be fun. Better than peeling a couple of tons of root vegetables. He put on his special robe-of inconspicuous-investigation and walked lithely out of his front door.
The description that Dingo had given him of the woman was clear, and finding her shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, it was all pretty pointless, according to his ingrained Ethnic Fusion creed, but Dingo wouldn’t understand that.
The obvious place to start was with the rather curious odour that Dingo had mentioned, but in the course of his life Abdul had found that taking a less obvious route often led to a more interesting journey. He ignored the knowing smirks of the Carrot brothers and stood calmly at the bus stop, conscientiously doing the fourth-level thumb exercise, alternating between his left and right hands.
The first bus that arrived was going to the Imperial Museum of Dairy Products Abdul thought briefly and bought a ticket to the Museum. The distinctive sound of the Hardanger fiddle in the music being played by the bus driver brought a slight smile to Abdul’s full sensuous lips-happy memories of his time in the Lofotens were evoked by the sympathetic strings.
Forty minutes later, with the bus stuck in heavy traffic, Abdul was not feeling as well disposed toward the music. It was all starting to sound the same-quite possibly the idiot driver was playing a very short tape on a loop. Abdul shrugged, put his ear plugs in place, slumped back in his seat and took his notepad from his pocket to review the information about the woman he was looking for. Then with a start he sat upright again, an old memory about the mysterious powers of folk music suddenly surfacing: Oh no, he thought, Surely this damned driver isn’t trying to take over the world as well, is he? Must be something about the weather-brings them all out. Well, it’s a different approach.
Umberto wrapped his humanlike fingers around the chunk of cheese and brought it out of the refrigerator. Slowly, he squeezed it to expose its interior. Maybe the time gate inside still had some potency left in it.
But there was nothing there, not even a cavity where the time gate should have been. Maybe the cheese had sunken in when the time gate fizzed out. Or maybe it hadn’t been there in the first place, and it was all a dream Umberto had had when he had eaten too many super tacos one night. But how could he explain the moldy chunk of cheese in his refrigerator? He couldn’t recall when he had bought it. Or had it been given to him? Had he stolen it? He couldn’t remember ever stealing anything in his life, but it was possible.
No! he thought. This wasn’t the way for a superhero to be. He had to remain in control of himself at all times. That was the creed of the Time Hog. He shouldn’t have gotten intoxicated over a whole lot of super tacos.
But what if it was real? There was no way to access the time gate now, if indeed it had existed.
Oh, well, he thought. He threw the chunk of cheese away. It was beginning to stink really bad. Now where’s my tool belt?
Then he saw it. It was stuck inside the refrigerator, inconspicuous behind a pile of rotten celery sticks. He lifted it out and washed it in the sink. Then, remembering, he shut the refrigerator door and wrapped the belt around his waist. It wouldn’t fasten; he had gotten too fat over the years. He pulled harder, but it still wouldn’t completely encircle his body. Shrugging, he grabbed some tape and connected the two ends together crudely. Then he dashed out of the shack.
First published at the Asimov’s Forum, 2002.
Copyright © 2002, 2003 by Sherry Gray, David Norris, The Invincible Spud