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Harry Turtledove—who is often referred to as the “master of alternate history”—is the Hugo Award-winning author of more than eighty novels and a hundred short stories. His most recent novels are The Man With the Iron Heart, After the Downfall, and Give Me Back My Legions! In addition to his SF, fantasy, and alternate history works, he’s also published several straight historical novels under the name H. N. Turteltaub. Turtledove obtained a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA in 1977.

Given the seriousness of much of Turtledove’s work, it might surprise people what a great sense of humor he has. In his career, he’s written several humorous works, such as this one, which explores the adventures of a space cadet, who happens to be a hamster and the galaxy’s last, best hope. Warning: It contains fowl language. Er, actually, it contains rodent language. What I mean to say is, it’s full of puns. But it’s funny anyway, I promise. If you disagree, I give you permission to call it grimpting.

When thieves paralyzed the people—well, the saurian humanoids—inside the palace on the main continent of Gould IV and made off with the famous throne room (and the somewhat less famous antechamber), it made a tremendous stir all over the continent.

When pirates paralyzed the people—well, the ammonia/ice blobs—inside the palace on the chief glacier of Amana XI and made off with the magnificent throne room (and the somewhat less magnificent antechamber), it raised a tremendous stink all over the planet.

When robbers paralyzed the people—well, the highly evolved and sagacious kumquats—inside the palace on the grandest orchard of Alpharalpha B and made off with the precociously planted throne room (and the somewhat less precocious antechamber), it caused a sour taste in mouths all over the sector.

And when brigands paralyzed the people—well, the French—inside the palace of Versailles in a third-rate country on a second-rate continent with a splendid future behind it and made off with the baroque throne room (and the somewhat less baroque antechamber), it caused shock waves all over the Galaxy.

As Earth has always been, it remains the sleazy-media center of the Galactic Empire. Anything that happens there gets more attention than it deserves, just because it happens there. And so there was an enormous hue and cry.

Something Must Be Done!

Who got to do it?

Why, the Space Patrol, of course. Specifically, Space Cadet Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash, a Bon of Bons, a noble of nobles . . . a fat overgrown hamster with delusions of gender. And when Cadet Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash (last name best sung to the tune of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”) got the call, he was, as fate and the omniscient narrator would have it, massively hung over from a surfeit of fermented starflower seeds.

The hero who gave him the call, Space Patrol Captain Erasmus Z. Utnapishtim (last name best sung to the tune of “On, Wisconsin”), was a member of the same species, and so understood his debility. This is not to say the illustrious Space Patrol captain—another fat overgrown hamster—sympathized. Oh, no. “You’re a disgrace to your whiskers, Shupilluliumash,” he cheebled furiously.

“Sorry, sir,” Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash answered. At that particular moment, he rather hoped his whiskers, and the rest of his pelt, would fall out.

Captain Utnapishtim knew there was only one way to get to the bottom of things: the right way, the proper way, the regulation way, the Space Patrol way. “Go find out who is stealing the great throne rooms of the Galaxy,” he ordered. “Find out why. Arrest the worthless miscreants and make the mischief stop.”

“Right . . . sir,” Cadet Shupilluliumash said miserably, wishing Utnapishtim were dead or he himself were dead or the omniscient narrator were dead (no such luck, Shup baby)—any way at all to escape from this silly story and the pain in his pelt. “Where do I start . . . sir?”

“Start on Earth,” Captain Utnapishtim told him. “Earth is the least consequential planet in the Galaxy, and all the inhabitants talk too bloody much. If you can’t find a clue there, you’re not worth your own tail.”

“Like you, sir, I am a fat overgrown hamster,” the space cadet replied with dignity. “I have no tail.”

“Well, if I remember my briefings, neither do Earthmen,” the Space Patrol officer said. “Now get your wheel rolling.”

“Yes, sir,” Shupilluliumash said resignedly, and headed off to check out a Patrol speedster, the P.S. Habitrail.

Now you should know that there are many kinds of space drives to span the parsecs of the Galaxy. You should, yes, but since you don’t—you can’t fool the omniscient narrator (otherwise he wouldn’t be omniscient)—you have to sit through this expository lump. There is the hyperspace drive: traditional, but effective. There is the hop-skip-and-a-jump drive: wearing, but quick. There is the overdrive. There is the underdrive. There is the orthodontic drive, which corrects both overdrive and underdrive but is hellishly expensive. There are any number of others—oh, not any number, but, say, forty-two. And, particularly for fat overgrown hamsters, there is the wheel drive.

The wheel drive translates rotary motion into straight-ahead FTL by a clever mechanism with whose workings the omniscient narrator won’t bore you (the O.N. knows you have a low boredom threshold, and you won’t sit still for two expository lumps in a row). Suffice to say that Space Cadet Shupilluliumash jumped in his wheel, ran like hell, and almost before he’d sweated out the last of his hangover he found himself landing outside of Paris—sort of like Lindbergh long before, but much fuzzier.

He got full cooperation from the French authorities. Once local Galactic officials secured his release from jail, he went to Versailles to view the scene of the crime. “This is a very ugly building,” he said with the diplomacy for which his race was so often praised.

After local Galactic officials secured his release from jail again—it took longer this time—they told him, “The French tend to be emotional.”

“So do I,” Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash said. “Especially about the food in there—it’s terrible.”

“And such small portions,” the Galactic officials chorused.

“How did you know?” Shup asked in genuine surprise. “Or do they bust everybody?”

“Never mind,” the officials said, not quite in harmony. “Go back to Versailles. Observe. Take notes. For God’s sake, don’t talk.”

“Oh, all right,” the hamster space cadet grumbled.

Go back he did. Observe he did. Take notes he did. Talk he didn’t, for God’s sake. Except for two missing rooms and an enormous RD spray-painted on the side of the palace, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Frustrated, Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash hopped into his wheel and departed for Alpharalpha B, home of the sagacious kumquats. “So what kind of jam are you in?” he asked them.

After local Galactic officials secured his release from the thornbush, he proceeded with his investigation. “You see what they have done!” a sagacious kumquat cried, showing him the ruins of the royal palace.

“Looks like the throne room and the antechamber are gone, all right,” Shup agreed . . . sagaciously. “What are those big squiggles on the wall there?”

“They stand for the characters you would call RD,” the kumquat replied.

“They do, do they? Looks like it might be a clue.” Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash’s sagacity score went right off the charts with that observation—in which direction, it is better to specu late than never. The Space Patrol didn’t raise any dummies, but sometimes it found one and took him in and made him its own.

“What will you do? You must get the sacred structures back!” the kumquat keened. “How will our sovereign root in peace without them?”

“Somebody did something pretty seedy to you, all right,” the space cadet said.

After local Galactic officials secured his release from the thornbush again—it took longer this time—they told him, “Perhaps it would be better if you pursued your investigations somewhere else. Otherwise, the kumquats warn, they will soon be pursuing you.”

“Some people—well, highly evolved and sagacious kumquats—are just naturally sour,” Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash complained. Neverthenonetheless, and entirely undisirregardless of the slavering mob of fruit salad at his furry heels, he made it into the Patrol speedster and got the hatch shut just in the proverbial Nicholas of time.

Even with the wheel drive, it’s a long, long way from Alpharalpha B to Amana XI. Our intrepid space cadet put the time to good use, but after a while even porn began to pall and he decided to do some research instead. He Googled RD. How he could get online while far beyond the normal limits of space and time may well be known to the omniscient narrator (I mean, after all, what isn’t?), but he ain’t talking. What the space cadet found . . . you’ll see. Eventually. Keep your shirt on.

Before climbing out of the airlock on Amana XI, Rufus Q. climbed into his coldsuit. Otherwise, all he would have needed was a stick shoved up the wazoo to become the Galaxy’s first Hamstersicle. But he would have been too damn frozen to shove a stick where it needed to go, so it’s just as well he remembered the suit.

“Tell me,” he said to one of the ammonia/ice blobs awaiting his arrival at the spaceport, “are your females frigid?”

Once local Galactic officials had secured his release from the hotbox . . . the space cadet was rather vexed at them. The ammonia/ice blobs of Amana XI tormented convicts by subjecting them to heat well above the freezing point of water, and were also inblobane enough to make them endure an oxygen-enhanced atmosphere. Some of the munchies were stale, but it was the best digs ol’ Rufus Q. could’ve found on the whole planet.

He got back into his coldsuit for a whirlwind tour of the devastated palace. Once the whirlwind subsided, he saw on the icy wall now exposed to the elements—and compounds—some writing in an alien script he couldn’t begin to read. “What’s that say?” he asked.

“In your symbology, it would stand for RD,” the nearest ammonia/ice blob answered.

“Probably doesn’t mean Research and Development, then,” Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash sighed. “That’ll teach me to hit the I Feel Lucky button, even if I did.”

“What are you going to do?” the blob demanded. “Do you not see the magnificence despoiled?”

“Reminds me more of the inside of a root freezer without the goddamn roots,” the forthright space cadet replied. He was, by then, quite looking forward to seeing the inside of the hotbox once more. The ammonia/ice blobs appeared overjoyed to oblige him, too. His only real complaint was that the seeds they fed him still weren’t of the freshest. He stuffed his cheek pouches full even so.

Once local Galactic officials had secured his release from the hotbox again, they gently suggested his investigation might proceed more promisingly elsewhere. He was inclined to agree with them; he’d discovered that spitting seed casings inside a coldsuit was an exercise in sloppy futility.

Thus it was that Cadet Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash reboarded the redoubtable Habitrail, spun the wheel up to translight speed, and sped off to Gould IV and its saurian humanoids. Past walking on their hind legs, they didn’t particularly remind him of Frenchmen. Of course, they were even less hamsteroid, which might have colored his opinion. As far as he was concerned, anything with a long scaly tail at one end and a big mouth full of sharp teeth at the other was not to be trusted.

One of the saurians at the spaceport eyed him and remarked, “You look like you’d go down well with drawn butter.”

Shup drew not butter but his trusty blaster. “You look like you’d look good on my wall,” he replied cheerfully. “In this Galaxy, nothing is certain but death and taxidermy.”

He belonged to the Patrol. He had the right to carry any weapon he chose. If he killed, he was assumed to know what he was doing. The Galaxy, as you will have figured out, was in deep kimchi, but this isn’t that kind of story. This is the kind of story where the saurians would have jugged him not for toting lethal hardware but as punpunishment. And since it is that kind of story, you may rest assured they did.

Once local Galactic officials had pulled the cork from the jug, a somewhat chaster (he was alone, after all, and not even bull-hamster horniness could make the saurians sexy) but unchastened Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash emerged. He didn’t even have to draw his blaster again—which was just as well, since he was no artist—to get the saurians to take him to their royal palace so he could view the missing throne room and antechamber (or rather, view that they were missing—he couldn’t very well view them while they were missing, could he?) and what he was coming to think of as the inevitable graffiti.

There seemed to be rather more of them this time. “What do they say?” he inquired of his guide, a stalwart, shamrock-green Gouldian named Albert O’Saurus.

Albert seemed to have inherited a full set of teeth from each parent, and a set from each grandparent, too, maybe for luck. “‘Royal Drive,’” he answered. “‘Next stop—Galactic Central!’”

Sinister organ chords rang out in the background, or at least in the space cadet’s perfervid imagination. “A clue!” quoth he.

“Faith, what a brilliant deduction,” Albert O’Saurus said—the Gouldians didn’t find sarcasm illegal, immoral, or fattening. “And how did you come up with it, now?”

Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash eyed the saurian. “Well, it’s not exactly a cloaca-and-dagger operation,” he replied.

Once local Galactic officials had pulled the cork from the jug again—it took longer this time, as second offenses, and offensive offenses, were commonly punpunished by devourment—they encouraged him to spread his talents widely across the sea of stars. “If you stay here any longer,” one of them said, “the Gouldians will eat you. With mustard.”

The hamster space cadet made a horrible, incisor-filled face. “Can’t stand mustard,” he said. “Ta-ta! I’m off! Me and the baked beans.”

“Where will you go?” the official inquired.

“Galactic Central, I do believe,” Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash answered.

Ah, Galactic Central! I could go on for pages, or even reams—the disadvantage of being an omniscient narrator. But this isn’t that kind of story, either, and I will pause while you thank your local deity or demon that it isn’t. . . . There. Are you finished now? Good. We can go on.

What you do need to know about the fabulous Galactic Central, and what you will most likely (probability, 87.13%—how’s that for omniscient?) have figured out for yourself, is that it boasts the grandest and spiffiest palace in all the Galaxy, that being where the Galactic Emperor and Empress hang out. Said palace boasts the most garish and over-the-top—excuse me, most colorful and extravagant—throne room in all the Galaxy, and also the most likewise and likewise—excuse me, most likewise and likewise—antechamber in all the et cetera.

“I bet the bad guys are going to try and steal them for the Royal Drive,” Shup said as he powered up the Habitrail’s wheel. Then he said, “What the hell is the Royal Drive?” Except for the graffiti on Gould IV, he’d never heard of it.

Google had never heard of it, either. Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash wondered whether he was accessing the Chinese system. But no. It was—cue the portentous music again—Something New.

Though his electronic aids failed him, the dedicated space cadet persevered. He had one major advantage over the others whom Erasmus Z. Utnapishtim (remember him?) might have chosen to save the Galaxy . . . or at least its throne rooms and antechambers. Not only was he a hamster, he was a punster as well, as he had proved to the dismay and discomfiture of ammonia/ice blobs and shamrock-green saurian humanoids alike.

And as he neared Galactic Central, he suddenly slowed on the wheel in astonishment—and almost pitched the P.S. Habitrail back into normal space in an abnormal place. That wouldn’t have been good—so he didn’t actually do it.

What he did do was cry out, “Eureka!” Why the name of a not very large city in northern California should have become the cry for discovering something, Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash did not know, but it had. The Patrol could be a tradition-bound—even a tradition-gagged—outfit sometimes.

He spun the wheel up to an almost blistering pace. Then, when his feet and little front paws started to hurt, he slowed down again—but not so much, this time, as to endanger his speedster. He thought furiously, which was odd, because he wasn’t particularly furious.

“It must work that way,” he said. “This story won’t run long enough for a lot of wrong guesses.” If he’d guessed wrong there, he might have found himself trapped in a novel, but the speedster wasn’t a Fforde, so he escaped that fate, anyhow. He shook his head and snuffled his whiskers at the iniquity of the throne-room (and antechamber) thieves. “I must foil them,” he declared, and checked his supplies of aluminum, tin, and silver.

He was so transfixed by his fit of analytical brilliance that he almost wheeled right past Galactic Central and back out into the Galactic Boonies. But he didn’t—this story won’t run long enough for a lot of mistakes, either.

Being a space cadet helped him get through the entry formalities in jig time—which, since he didn’t dance, was more than a little challenging. A day and a half later, the freedom of Galactic Central was his, as long as the GPS and radiological tracking devices surgically implanted near his wazoo gave answers the powers that be approved of. Otherwise, the tiny nuke implanted near that very same sensitive place would sadly spoil our upcoming d'enouement, to say nothing of half a city block. So we won’t.

He hopped on the closest available public transport, discovered it was going the wrong way (see?—we did have room for a mistake after all), hopped off, and got on, this time, as luck (and the necessities of plotting) would have it, going toward the sublime (or something) residence of the beloved (or something) Galactic Emperor and Empress.

No sooner had he arrived—talk about timing! I mean, really!—than a giant chainsaw suddenly appeared in the sky and started carving away at (are you surprised?) the throne room . . . and the antechamber. People screamed. People ran. People coughed from flying sawdust. People of several different flavors got turned into hamburger of several different flavors. People inside the palace, caught by the paralyzer ray that went with the saw, didn’t do much of anything.

Guards outside the palace started shooting at the parts of the chainsaw crunching through the walls. Quick-thinking Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash fired at the power button instead: a dot a centimeter wide three kilometers up in the air. Being a Patrol-trained markshamster and luckier than Lucky Pierre, he hit it dead on, the very first try.

The chainsaw stopped chainsawing. It fell out of the sky and smashed one of the ritziest neighborhoods—actually, several of the ritziest neighborhoods, because that was a big mother of a chainsaw—of Galactic Central to cottage cheese. Our bold space cadet cared nothing for that, though. He was doing his duty, and he was damned if he’d let common sense stand in his way.

Dashing toward the chainsaw’s survival capsule (How did he know where it was? He just knew. This is that kind of story.), he was Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash on the spot when a saurian humanoid, an ammonia/ice blob in a hotsuit, a kumquat, and a Frenchman came staggering out.

“You’re under arrest!” he shouted, covering them with his ever-reliable blaster. “Suspicion of firing a chainsaw without a license and operating an unauthorized space drive within city limits. Don’t nobody move!”

Nobody didn’t move . . . or something like that. “What do you know about the Royal Drive?” the Frenchman sneered. “How do you know it’s unauthorized?”

“It must be unauthorized, because I couldn’t Google it. And I know the Royal Drive uses the hellacious energy output from mixing”—our space cadet paused to build the moment, for he was indeed punster as well as hamster—“chamber and antechamber to propel your spacecraft across the Galaxy in pursuance of your nefarious ends. But now you’re busted, space scum!”

The Frenchman, the kumquat, and the saurian humanoid blanched. Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash presumed the ammonia/ice blob did, too—it is, after all, what self-respecting villains do under such circumstances—but the hotsuit kept him from being sure. Palace guards came up behind him. “What do we do with them, sir?” they asked respectfully.

“Take them away,” the hamster replied grandly. “They will trouble the spaceways no more.”

Your omniscient narrator also has the pleasure to report that, shortly thereafter, Space Cadet Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash became Ensign Rufus Q. Shupilluliumash, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. (Of course, he knew that wouldn’t happen. Didn’t you?) Our space cadet’s actions in this case were deemed to be in the highest tradition of the Space Patrol.