"My God," breathed President Leoric as CAIN finished its briefing.
"Indeed," agreed the Central Artificial Intelligence Network. "At the time of the final transmission we were only seconds away from the point of no return. Captain Farnham gave the order to detonate LC4 and initiate a reboot at 16:44:32 yesterday."
Admiral Lachdanan nodded. "Bill Farnham's one of the best men we have. He and the crew of the Azure Drake won't let us down."
CAIN was not so confident. "Concentrations of B/F radiation are nearing the limits of human tolerance. Each time we initiate a reboot, the Adversary becomes more powerful and our version of reality becomes more corrupt. Preliminary analysis shows that some of the corrupt elements from the history you just saw have incorporated themselves into the current version."
"Do we know what caused things to spin out of control so quickly?" asked President Leoric.
"My analysis shows a massive spike of B/F radiation following the battle with the smurfs. Shortly thereafter, the timeline became disjointed and events became increasingly random," said CAIN.
"The cause?" asked Leoric.
"Unknown. It may well have been the Adversary flexing its muscles, however, our data became increasingly unreliable as reality unraveled," explained CAIN.
"Who were those three idiots in the park?" asked Admiral Lachdanan.
"That is also unknown," said CAIN. If CAIN had had a body, it would have shrugged.
"I take it we're without an agent on the ground now," said Leoric.
"Not so," said CAIN. "Captain Farnham dispatched LC3 immediately after the last reboot."
"LC3?" asked Lachdanan.
"LC4 came online almost immediately after LC3 was initially activated," explained CAIN. "Dr. Pepin decided it would be best to use the latest version and upgrade LC3 in case she was needed, which turned out to be the case."
Admiral Lachdanan was not sure about using one of the older versions of LC, and said so.
"I understand your trepidation," said CAIN. "LC1 remains missing and is still considered extremely dangerous, and LC2 believes she's fighting with the French Resistance in the Second World War. However, with the latest upgrades and patches, LC3 will be stable and perform to expectations.
"Plus," added CAIN. "Dr. Pepin reports that LC5 is in beta testing and LC's 6 through 10 are currently in various stages of development."
"That's an awful lot of Lord Cools," noted President Leoric, ever mindful of the budget.
"The process becomes cheaper and more streamlined with each version produced," CAIN reassured him. "As long as we have LC-Prime in suspended animation, we can copy his brain patterns as many times as we need, at minimal cost."
"You know, Lord Cool was not my first choice for this project," said Lachdanan. "I agreed initially because it was an experimental procedure and Lord Cool was expendable. But it's not experimental anymore. We should use someone more reliable."
"We do not have the time or resources to start from scratch with a new candidate," CAIN replied.
Admiral Lachdanan sighed. "I know. It's just that I've read his dossier, and where Lord Cool goes, screw-ups will surely follow."
"Have faith, old friend," President Leoric reassured Lachdanan. "We're TUFF Worlders. Beating overwhelming odds is part of our heritage." He addressed CAIN. "LC3 was dispatched with no undue problems?"
"That is correct," answered CAIN. "Captain Farnham and I agreed to transport her to Time Index 9722.4, just to be on the safe side. She merged into the saved reality smoothly, although, as usual, she asked if she'd ever get her original body back."
"At least with Lord Cool on ice on the Azure Drake," said Admiral Lachdanan, "there's one thing that can't go wrong."
"Oh you poor, brave soul!"
Sugar awoke with a start. She was still in her cage. She could hear Wirt in the distance somewhere. He had cracked hours ago and was now wretchedly singing along.
"My heart will go on..." warbled Wirt. There had never been a more despairing sound in the history of the world.
"It hurts my heart to see you caged like that."
Sugar looked around to see who had spoken and was startled to see Maximum Evil kneeling on the floor, looking into her cage.
Sugar looked around again, to see who had really spoken.
"Are you all right?" asked Maximum Evil. He tried to open the cage door, but to no avail. "Oh, dear. It seems to be locked. I'm so very sorry." He fought back tears.
Sugar's jaw dropped. "Maximum Evil?" It looked like Maximum Evil, but he was dressed in soft, natural fiber pastels instead of his usual black leather. His usually insane red-rimmed eyes were soft and sensitive.
"Oh, don't you fret now," said Maximum Evil, wringing his hands. "I'll go find a key and get you right out of there."
Sugar stared at him in stunned silence that was filled only by Wirt's piteous singing.
Maximum Evil began to weep openly. "Oh," he said fanning himself with his hands. "I just get all teary whenever I hear that song. Isn't Celine Dion wonderful? I'll be right back."
A few minutes later, Maximum Evil returned. He had a shotgun over one shoulder and was pulling a small catapult.
"Did... did you find the key?" asked Sugar.
"Now, now," said Maximum Evil maliciously. "You know what you have to do to get out of there." He pointed at the crotch of his black leather pants.
Sugar drew back, shaking her head.
Maximum Evil just laughed. "Well then, I'm off for a few hours of Wirt shooting. Try not to miss me too much, dear."
A half-hour later, Maximum Evil returned. "I couldn't find the key, but I made you some muffins," he told her. He was wearing the pastels again and a frilly apron.
"Muffins," repeated Sugar. They actually smelled good.
"Oh!" squealed Maximum Evil, jumping up and down and clapping his hands. "I've just had a wonderful idea! Why don't I go ask that nice Bloodlust if she's got a bobby pin I can use to pick the lock?"
"Bloodlust?" said Sugar. "The Hell Spawn?"
"Oh, yes," answered Maximum Evil. "We gave each other pedicures yesterday. I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere." He giggled and skipped out the door.
Sugar was still staring at the doorway when Maximum Evil reached through the bars of her cage and grabbed her butt. She jumped and screamed.
Maximum Evil just laughed and then said, "Hey, muffins!"
"I..." Sugar was at an utter loss for words.
Maximum Evil just shrugged and ate the muffins in front of her. "Mmm, bran," he said. "Just what I needed. Excuse me."
As he left, Sugar sat down in her cage and clutched her head. "I... I think I'm insane," she said, rocking back and forth.
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