As Varis returned to the table, she looked about, a quizzical expression on her face.
"Did something odd just happen?" she asked.
Tunney looked at Bacon, whose eyes were unfocussed due to the inadvertent injection he'd just given himself in the forehead. The commander turned his gaze to Loomis, who was looking back at him, puzzlement evident in her expression.
"I don't know," Tunney said. "I do feel a bit odd. Like I've been sitting here for some time."
"Yes," Loomis said, her eyes opening wider. "That's exactly what it feels like."
Varis resumed her seat at the table. "What's wrong with him?" she asked, nodding towards Bacon.
Tunney looked at the doctor again, squinting and leaning towards him. "I don't know. There's a red mark on his forehead, but I have no idea why."
"Does this uniform make me look fat?" Bacon asked, his syllables slurring, his eyes still unfocussed.
"Oh, my God," Loomis blurted, her hand suddenly covering her mouth. "I think he just injected himself..."
Tunney looked at the S C Johnson & Co Dermaject 560 Transdermal Injector still in Bacon's hand.
"With the female personal pronouns," he said, slamming his fist on the table. "Damn it."
"I feel pretty..." Bacon began to sing.
Varis looked around the room again. "I still don't like this weird feeling. What's going on?"
Tunney followed suit, turning in his chair to examine the coffee shop. The proprietor was still behind the counter, the remaining tables were still empty, General Villainous was still laughing maniacally, his head still stuck in the lath and plaster ceiling. Outside, the sun was still at the same angle.
But it felt later. Much later.
A sound at the coffee shop's entrance drew his attention away from his examination. Loomis and Varis turned to look as well.
Bacon was still singing.
A man had just entered the premises. He was of average height and build, had sandy hair and a square jaw, and wore a trench coat. He stopped, turned towards their table, and looked at them.
"You don't look like a Utopian," Tunney said.
"I'm not," the newcomer said. "I'm actually more of an existentialist. But that's not really important right now."
Tunney crossed his arms. "Well then. What is important? And more to the point, who the hell are you?"
The man reached into his coat and pulled out a small wallet. He flipped it open and turned it towards Tunney and his crew.
"Jake Hartigan, PCPA," he said, his syllables crisp and official.
"That supposed to mean something to me?" Tunney asked.
Inside the ceiling, Villainous' laughter ceased.
"I think he may be rebooting," Loomis said. "We don't have long."
"I'll make this brief, then," Hartigan said. "PCPA stands for Protagonize Character Placement Agency. I'm one of their field agents. You folks have been inside a time bubble. Somehow, Villainous here managed to escape the bubble and invade 'Waking Up With Henry'. I managed to intercept him and send him back here, where he belongs."
"That makes absolutely no sense," Tunney said.
"What's a 'Waking Up With Henry'?" Loomis asked.
"It's another story. Completely different genre from this one. And while our mandate is to help neglected characters find new stories, we do not sanction or tolerate characters moving from one story to another of their own volition. Frankly, we have no idea how he even managed it."
"I like the title," Loomis said. "Is it a good story?"
"What, 'Waking Up With Henry?' Yes it's an excellent story. Almost legendary in Protagonize circles. It even appears as a fictional fully-published novel in a Doctor Who fan fiction. Sadly, it's actually unfinished."
"You're still not making any sense," Tunney said.
Hartigan sighed. "All right. I didn't want to have to tell you this, but if you look at the time stamp on the previous chapter, you'll see that no one has touched this branch for over two years."
"Two years?" Tunney said, standing up to face Hartigan. "Are you telling me we've been a time bubble for over two years?"
Hartigan nodded. "That's right. This story has been sorely neglected."
Varis frowned. "What do you mean, 'branch'?" she asked.
Hartigan turned towards her. "This story is an add-venture," he said. "That's a Protagonize term for a story that can have multiple branches. This story has branched off once, right at the very beginning, but this branch is much longer."
It was Varis' turn to stand up. "You mean there are other versions of us out there?"
"Yes, but you shouldn't really concern yourself with that. I'm here to make sure that things get back on track again. It's taken me a while to get here. Frankly, we've been having problems of our own back at the agency. But what's important is that I'm here now, and it looks like this branch can be salvaged after all."
"Why bother?" Loomis asked. "I mean, this whole scenario is absolutely ludicrous. Why save it at all?"
"Well," Hartigan said. "The original author still has hope for it, and he's very particular about internal logic and consistency, even in farcical pieces like this one. Plus, he has this inexplicable need to throw the agency in everywhere he can. I think he's trying to build some kind of multi-universe inter-story cross-threading plot network. I don't know how the hell he expects to keep track of everything."
"Who does he think he is, Michael Moorcock?" Tunney said with a sneer.
Varis and Loomis turned to look at Tunney.
"What?" Tunney shrugged and put out his hands. "I told you I had a lot of time for reading."
"Why, I'd love a mint julep, sir," Bacon said to no one in particular. "Thank you so much."
Tunney glanced at the doctor. "We've got to get him out of here," he said, "before Villainous finishes rebooting."
At that moment, and with a dramatic timing found only in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a beep and a whirr issued from the direction of General Villainous.
"Too late," Loomis muttered.
A rumbling, crackling sound issued from the ceiling. After a moment, the sound resolved itself into a harsh voice.
"Hartigan," Villainous said. "Are you the only field agent that pathetic agency employs?"
"No," Hartigan said, turning to face the source of the sound. "I'm just the only one who's been introduced. And I'm fastidious about followup."
"How very alliterative," Villainous said. "Now prepare to die."
Villainous raised his mechanical arms to the ceiling and began to push.
"Uh, barista," Tunney called, turning towards the back of the café, "I think I'll have that latté to go."
The shop owner stepped out from behind the counter and walked towards the table, latté in hand.
"Here you go," he said. "You're now the proud owner of the only hazelnut latté in the universe that took two years to make. Don't drink it all at once."
Tunney looked at him quizzically.
"Time bubble?" the propietor said. "You forget already?"
"Oh, you were listening."
The owner looked around. "You see anybody else in here to listen to? Now get out of my shop so I can close."
Tunney nodded and took a sip of the latté. "Hey, that's really good."
"Great," the proprietor said. "Now I can die happy."
Tunney turned to his crew. "Let's get out of here. Loomis, help me get the doctor to his feet. Varis, check outside."
"Aye, sir," Varis said, getting up from the table and heading for the door.
Inexplicably, Villainous had not yet managed to free himself from the ceiling. Even more inexplicably, he had not yet made any more caustic or derisive comments. About anyone.
Tunney and Loomis hoisted Doctor Bacon out of his chair and, with one of his arms around each of their shoulders, struggled him to the door.
"And you," the shop owner said to Hartigan. "Get that sarcastic robot out of my ceiling."
"I am a cyborg, you insect," Villainous rumbled.
The shop owner shook his head and turned back towards the counter.
"I can't believe they just used over a thousand words without moving the plot ahead," he said to himself. "Amateurs."
Hartigan looked up at the ceiling, then back at the owner's retreating back.
"Everybody's a critic," he muttered.