The Jape owns a pawn shop in Florence. He has a head a little like a rutabaga; skin is a cheesy, yellow color that seems to glow in the dark.
He wears a perpetually embarrassed look on his face, as if he is sorry for interrupting you in the middle of a heavy conversation, as if he is embarrassed to be acknowledged. His thick hair is parted in the middle, coiffed into two heavy buns, like a thick Red Sea parted to allow the Children of Israel to pass across his hairline.
But it is his eyes, rimmed with red, rouge-like circles (some people actually assume he’s wearing makeup. He’s not wearing makeup.) are his most striking feature, along with the mouth, which is also red-stained, as if he has been drinking a punch drink with red food coloring.
This is because, little by little, he drains the blood from his prospective employees. He does this in such imperceptible ways, in such microscopic amounts, that no one notices him even doing it. He sidles up close to the victim, sucking in wind, wheezing and coughing and sucking up those microscopic droplets of blood, quite like a vampire. Or quite like a gigantic human leech, take your pick.
Soon, the unsuspecting victim of the Red Jape begins to feel increasingly tired; listless. He begins to pale, takes on an anemic sheen. He sweats profusely, but is always cold.
He may begin to have vivid dreams of being battened upon by unseen phantoms, monsters from the Id. In time, he is a shaking, broken wretch, too tired to lift even his arms above the pawnshop counters to exchange currency for goods.
His or her vision will, most likely, begin to blur. In time, death is inevitable, and, in the case of the Jape, is a foregone conclusion, as he has never lost a victim (an unsuspecting victim) yet.
But even the Red Jape fears the Space Beetle.
It was because of actual space beetles that Doctor Sparta and his assistants were rocketing through the dimensional wormhole, past the place where flickering stars burnt out like beetling little match heads against the velvet blackness.
The Digichronofluxometer was heaving ghastly colors and strange, stereophonic pulses around the room, but Sassa was prepared for anything.
“It’s your first time out, isn’t it?” asked Foofur, the friendly (if somewhat overly curious) young budgerigar. Sitting on his perch, taking in the sights from the view screen, he seemed curiously untroubled by the undeniable paradox they were stumbling into.
“Well, it’s not that I’m fearful, precisely, or that I don’t want to be here. I wouldn’t shirk this particular duty for all the world. I mean, after the beetles overran the city, and we realized the only way to fight them was go a hundred thousand years into the future–”
“Not quite,” said Dr. Sparta, coming onto the bridge. “No, in point of fact, we simply alternated between several possible futures. Choosing one path, we succumbed to the interstellar beetle invasion–beastly critters thatt they are, with their clever, hateful little Zanti Misfit faces.”
Sassa had no idea what a “Zanti Misfit” was, but her partner, Laella, knew right away that it was from an old television program.
“The Digichronofluxometer of course did the hard work for us, but the trick was shifting the dimensional spheres until we came to a future we could safely occupy-a future in which the space beetles were vanquished by the aid of the, well, whatever the hell this thing is–”
It, in point of fact, looked like a giant flyswatter. But the inventor had assured them it emitted a sonic frequency that caused the space beetles to explode into dripping, gooey fragments.
“It’s foolproof. Works every time. Blow ’em away quicker than the wind from a duck’s ass.”
(The man HAD looked like an inventor. Or a mad man. His hair had been wispy and white and standing up on end, and his eyes were squinty little slits hidden behind huge Coke bottle frames. He had been wearing a white lab coat, bow tie, wingtips. He had smelled, faintly, like licorice and sweat.)
And, of course, the streets of that mirrored reality (just one of an infinite number arrayed in the multiverse) had been absolutely rotten with the bodies of the nefarious little beetles, whose chief delight, before being sonically reduced to gloopy pie filling, had been to pounce upon unsuspecting strangers and devour them down to the bone.
“We have an infinite key in here in the Digi. It can shift frequency fields, move with poise and grace through the kaleidoscopic variants on the ETERNAL NOW, and deliver us safely–”
“Not so fast, Doc. There is ONE THING you’re forgetting. Laella’s vision of the paradox.” This was Angelus, the big, pudding-faced Whatsit that looked about half-formed, or maybe like dough that is not entirely done becoming bread.
And Dr. Sparta looked curiously troubled, all of a sudden. He bit his lip, nervously.
“Could simply have been a fever dream. Look, the only place we can come out of this particular wormhole, reenter our own space-time continuum with any degree of safety is the Hindu Temple of Swayzee. Already, Mackleberry is waiting to greet us. He’s our liaison with the government.”
“Of course,” offered Sassa, “Laella sometimes gets it wrong. Maybe she was just having a fever dream.”
Laella rolled her eyes, said, “Yeah, honey, I just ate too much Mexican last night. Gave me the psychic farts.”
Laella paused, smirked, leaned forward and said, “No. my love. I saw it clearly. I saw you, me, Dr. Sparta, Angelus and Mackleberry coming down the steps of the temple, out the archway. And then, we…we met ourselves–”
“Ha! See! Classic paradox! It–it cannot be.”
That was Angelus again. Dr. Sparta said, “You’re a natural-born pessimist, aren’t you? Oh dear, I’m afraid such people tend not to live long, fruitful lives.”
Angelus had nothing to say to that.
The Digichronofluxometer suddenly began to vibrate, sputter, hiss, ping, bing, boil and pop, and then a pre-recorded voice came on and said, “Alert! Alert! We are approaching space-time portal. Please extinguish all cigarettes, cigars, pipes or hookahs–”
Sassa said, “But none of us smoke!”
The machine continued.
“Please fasten your seat belts. Please keep feet and arms out of aisles and entryways. Please remain calm. In the event that there is a malfunction, you will all die. I, of course, am simply a computer, and, thus, cannot die. Someone will find the wreckage of me, and, realizing the valuable nature of my endless capacity to store information, will put me online again in some other ship, in some distant future in which all of you, even the eminent Doctor Sparta, will have long been forgotten. As for you biological entities, you may wish to pray to your respective deities. Or, in the event you are an atheist, meditate upon the value of whatever works and deeds you accomplished in the short span of your otherwise mediocre existences–”
“Oh will you please just shut up!” cried Doctor Sparta, stamping his foot and balling his fist like a little child. The rest of them did, indeed, buckle in. The turbulance was become extraordinary, the shifting, prismatic lights of the time tunnel and the beeping and gleeping of their on-board computers conspired to give them a sensory feast of shifting sound and color.
But it was all rather scarifying.
In the temple, a few shifting frequency vibrations away, Mackleberry sat, cross-legged on the floor, intoning in Sanskrit. He was dressed in traditional Indian garb, and would have looked just fine if he were actually female. As it was, he regretted that he had forgotten to shave his moustache.
Also, he knew that men were whispering foul things about “the ugliest woman they had ever seen.” But, it was time for Deep Cover, if for no other reason than to foil the possibly nefarious activities of The Beetle.
Outside, in a bright, whirling flash of lightning and heavy rumbles of thunder, Dr. Sparta and his assistants emerged into a paper-thin facsimile of their proper dimension.
“But, you must realize that, owing to the great advancement in the Willbe Wuz motor computer, we can plaster this mirror reality image over our own and ta-dah! Instantly gratifying and totally beetle-free future for all involved!”
Sassa and Laella weren’t sure. But they shrugged, tossed their heads from side to side and, with big, doughy Angelus following behind, went up the walkway past the blinking lights of fast food restaurants and dirty bookstalls, and, following close at the heels of Dr. Sparta, made their way to the temple, wherein they expected to meet themselves as themselves exiting at the exact same time.
“But how can this be? How can this be? Only if we managed to travel backwards through time to the point of departure and arrive back BEFORE our point of departure. But, it makes so little sense? Have we somehow split ourselves. like a granny apple, along some invisible, central area where one mirrored reality flows into another? Can one be cut off from the rest, so that the model is less refractory and more prismatic?”
And on and on Dr. Sparta went, talking to himself, so that Laella (who was always a bit weary of people) continued to roll her eyes and heave gusty sighs. The doctor, for his part, was bent over like some sort of eccentric bloodhound, sniffing at the frigid air for an answer.
Makleberry shifted uneasily on his haunches, but continued, for all that, to intone in Sanskrit. Beyond, the priests were busy performing ablutions on an image of the god. He suddenly felt the air grow very heavy, and intense.
Outside, through the low windows, the group could spy Mackleberry moving.
“He looks rather fetching dressed as a woman, doesn’t he?” remarked Sassa thoughtfully. Laella answered, “Yes, but I do wish he would have remembered to shave the moustache.”
Inside, in a whirling burst of lightning and strange, humming, pulsating lights, the voyagers came together in this present reality plane, sending shrieking priests running from the holiest of holies. They calmly marched outside, to the waiting round mouths and bulging eyes of shocked worshipers, who followed them out the door in a muttering, gesticulating mass, wondering if they were avatars of some heavenly realm.
Outside, coming up the stairs, our voyagers sensed something heavy and malignant in the air, as birds squawked and died on telephone wires, perched high above the city scaffolding, and as a thick mist seemed to encircle them.
(As I’m sure the cautious reader must now be thoroughly confused, let me categorically state that the phenomenon known as “bilocation” to spiritualists, in so much as that the entity effected appears to exist in two different locations simultaneously, a sheer impossibility, is NOT what is being suggested here.)
At the bottom of the temple stairs, encircled by the thick fog of distant memory, Dr. Sparta and our intrepid crew climb slowly up. Ahead, they see nothing.
At the top of the temple stairs, Dr. Sparta and his intrepid crew, seeing nothing below (and only astonished onlookers behind) begin to laugh and descend, noticing, for the first time the curiously thick mist surrounding them.
But they are satisfied in that they aren’t apparently, going to be meeting themselves in some jumble of the space-time continuum suggestive of a temporal paradox, and thereby unleashing some theoretical quandry, the likes of which, Dr. Sparta would be agonizing over for some time to come (assuming, under the circumstances, he still HAD some time to come).
Whether or not the anti-space beetle super weapon was ever installed on top of the tallest building in the city, and set about its task of exterminating the invading brutes, is purely a matter of conjecture. In another shifting, alternate reality sphere, it was indeed installed, and in still yet another, it was installed, but had the reverse effect of actually attracting all manner of insect and vermin toward it, so that it quickly began to be very heavy (not to mention markedly, alarmingly grotesque) and toppled over on the sidewalk, forty stories below.
Thereby squashing the gigantic mound of crawling insect life that had attached itself to its sonic flypaper-like surface. And sending up a great, noxious splatter or bug grue, which completely flooded the city streets…
…even as, in a dripping alley, a bum named Sidewinder Sam was set upon by a small army of vicious little beetles with amazing, humorously human faces. They devoured him down to the bone, leaving him looking like a dripping ham steak, bleeding wet in his filthy coat.
But that is another story.
Somewhere, the Jape is sidling up next to a coughing, wheezing young man that is a real-life approximation of that old actor from the movie Little Shop of Horrors (the one with Nicholson). He may wheeze himself, or cough and sweat, and look a little nervous.
“Say kid, say…could you just come up a little closer to me? That’s right. I’m a little hard o’ hearin’ ya, know. Say, what brand of aftershave is that? It smells delicious…”
He’s dragging the word out with insinuating sleaziness, gobbling each consonant, sleazing up the syllables. The young kid knows that, lately, he’s felt increasingly tired–but he doesn’t know why.