Hamsters — of all stripe and size — ran, fast as the dickens. They knew nothing of pain, or exhaustion, or dental plans. They knew only the wheel and the water bottle. And the occasional cheerio.
They lived for cheerios.
“Guinea pigs could have provided the power-”
“Don’t back-sass me, I told you: we do this the TRADITIONAL way, or we don’t do it at all.”
I held up my hands in defeat, sighing and sitting back on the barstool’s faded cushion. Karl Überdale turned back to the infernal dials, blowing another smoke ring while petting his “familiar”: an invisible spirit rabbit named Spencer Tufton from the bowels of Dimension 8.
He lived for that rabbit.
Karl has been my closest friend and advisor on all matters metaphysical since we met in San Jose after being busted for smuggling sand into the country… back when America was still a string of colonies, and sand was illegal.
Our friendship has been on shaky ground since I helped rid Canada of the mad hypnotic enclave known popularly as Black Cheddar.
“I will never use guinea pigs — AGAIN!” he vowed, stamping angrily on his own satin cape. “It’s far too much power. My uncle tried to use those wretches…”
“Your Uncle Rix was a genius.”
“It killed his whole family!” Karl held up a photo frame of a smiling man and woman, and two small children. He slammed it on the work station, face down. Coldly. “Should have stuck to tradition.”
I ignored him and followed the cables with my gaze. Thousands of them, cutting from cage to cage, joining at the row edges, fusing into one long, ominous power line, feeding into an energy port magically affixed to the neck of a marble head with closed eyes.
For many, it was an object of legend. It was the rumor of old sailors and treasure seekers. It was mad chatter from drunks and beggars. It was buried in a temple in the Himalayas. It was hidden at the bottom of the sea.
It was here.
The Brain of Artemis. Karl picked it up at a garage sale last September. I urged him to have it appraised instead of using it to prop up his wobbly chair.
According to lore, the oracles of Greece would feed mutton and corn (which back then meant wheat) to the statue, and it would answer their questions. The weekend the Persians had control of Greece, they smashed the statue, leaving only the head as an ironic reminder of the oracles’ hilarious lack of foresight.
Having no stomach, we now attempted to send electrolytes directly to the disembodied head using an “electromagic rebuffer” (bear with me!) to process voltage into vital cosmic energy. If the technology worked, it could help paraplegics shoot lasers and fireballs.
“Karl! The eyes! They are moving!” I said haltingly, waving at the trembling statue as it yawned for the first time in 2,500 years. Talk about morning breath!
“My slumber has been disturbed; My appetite thus has been curbed. Yet I feel a great fright As your towering height Leaves me at once quite perturbed.”
If this was the ancient Greeks’ idea of comedy, I’d hate to see a tragedy. If it was their idea of tragedy, it was pretty funny.
Karl checked his watch. “You have two minutes before the hamsters start to burn out.”
“Artemis, I seek your knowledge,” I said, scratching its nose to curry favor. “My mission is to find the perfect title for my new organization’s leader. We’re just a simple little mom & pop conglomerate… bent on taking over the world. Give us our boss’s name!”
Karl blanched, his moustashe curling in a manner common to his sorcerous race. Something about my history with his Cheddarist brethren and my hypocrisy and my wearing black shoes with a brown belt caused something in him to… to… snap.
Artemis flashed her eyes, as if in conference with beings from an odd-numbered plane. “The Boss-”
A thunderous bang ripped through the lair. The rebuffer — lit up like a Roman Candle! Artemis’s eyes froze, wide open, her jaw locked mid-sentence.
“Karl! Reduce the power. Karl! I swear,” I picked up a wrench, “I’ll bust those hamsters into kibble if I — Karl?”
He sat by the experimental cauldron, hands tented, somber, over a cage attached to the main line by a cable far too thick. The cage was far too large. And the hamster…
“That is not a hamster. Wait… no. It isn’t.”
He smiled as the guinea pig’s cheerio-induced mania transformed the rebuffer’s innards into lava. Before I could act, its casing caved in, and the Brain of Artemis fell into the coursing, electric volcano.
“You’ve betrayed me.”
“No!” He screeched as hamsters exploded, spreading an unchecked firestorm through the shelves of old tomes and spellbooks and issues of People. “YOU betrayed ME! You said we’d use the Brain to go after the Trunk of Infinite Silk! You said we’d have enough money, I wouldn’t need to cross the border with sandbags weighing down my colon!”
“I said a lot of things,” I admitted as I unsheathed my legal firearm. I tickled it like a small, deadly child made of iron.
“I cannot be injured in my own lair,” he boasted as the lava pooled at our feet.
“And I wish that I were a weaker man… so I could apologize for this.” As he stood there, bewildered (if even for a moment!) I aimed above his right shoulder and fired.
He twisted his neck at the gunshot, horrified — and I’m sure I heard a crack. “SPENCER TUFTON! NO!” He bent down to cradle the rabbit only he could see. “Barbarian! Assassin!”
The flames had reached the potion cupboard. I shoved past the wailing warlock and bolted to the blinking green “exit” sign as elixirs erupted.
“You have been an inconvenience, conjurer. But I got the information I needed from Artemis.” I prepared to slam the door. “Regards from THE BOSS.”
Several of your favorite Heroes (or Villains) from all the Universes out there are competing for the dream job of a lifetime. Only the truly deserving will survive the boardroom, the others will be be fired. Who has what it takes to become The Company Apprentice?