Mark smiled as Princess kissed him, his fingers entwined in long strands of her silken hair. Princess' arms wrapped around his waist, holding him in a way that made him never want to leave.
"I'll miss you." Princess told him.
"I don't have to go." He bent his forehead down to touch hers, enjoying the close proximity.
"You have to go." Princess chided gently. "You promised the Chief you'd go. And Jason has everything all planned."
"But if you want me to stay…"
"I don't want you to stay." Princess laughed. "Actually, I think this will be good for you… for us…"
"Good for us?" Mark frowned. "How?"
"I love you, Mark, and I know that you love me." Princess tried to explain. "I can't wait for us to be married on Tuesday. But… it's not like you've ever been involved with anyone else. I don't… I don't want you to regret what you 'missed'."
"How could I regret marrying you?" Mark asked. "It's perfect."
"I know." Princess smiled, her eyes glowing with happiness. "But I think you need at least a little while to just hang out with the guys. To enjoy being a bachelor, even if only for a short time. After all, isn't that what this is all about? And then when you come back, we'll be married."
"I never thought it would happen." Mark admitted. "All of those years fighting with Spectra… I wondered if I would ever be able to let you know how I felt."
"I'm glad you did." Princess grinned.
"I'm glad that the ceasefire is holding." the Commander noted. "I was so worried that Zoltar was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. But it's been six months. Not one attack, not one incident. Spectra really does seem to be keeping to itself."
"The conflict's drain on their resources was worse than on ours." Princess reminded him. "The Chief said that Zoltar is far more busy with domestic affairs, now that the Great Spirit has abdicated power. And there are those rumors about vitaneum discoveries on those outlying planets of the Spectran Empire."
"With that much vitaneum, Zoltar won't need to steal resources from the Federation." Mark admitted. "But still…"
"You worry too much." Princess placed a slim finger on Mark's mouth to interrupt him. "It was the Great Spirit who wanted war, not Zoltar. Zoltar sought out the ceasefire the minute he came into full power. Of course, there's no official peace treaty yet, but that doesn't mean that the war will continue."
"It's difficult being in this kind of limbo." Mark said.
"Although it was this 'limbo' that brought us together." Princess reminded him. "So it can't be all bad."
"No." Mark agreed. "We're together, and that's what's most important."
"So you go have a good time at your bachelor party, and then we'll get married." Princess brought them back to the original subject.
"What will you be doing while I'm gone?" Mark asked.
"Oh, girl stuff." Princess smiled coyly. "I think Jill has something planned."
"Afternoon tea? Shopping?" Mark wondered, amused.
"Um, I think she said something about wearing a hot dress." Princess replied. "And that new nightspot downtown."
"You're going to…?" Mark was aghast. "Without me?"
"And what do you think you'll be doing?" Princess teased. "Look, Mark, just promise me you'll try to relax and have a good time. I'll be waiting for you here when you get home."
"If it's that important to you, then I promise." Mark told her, his mouth meeting hers for another goodbye kiss.
"Let's get this show on the road!" Jason announced his presence by slapping Mark on the back, startling the otherwise occupied engaged couple. "Save that other stuff for the honeymoon! We're off to have fun!"
"Where are we going?" Mark asked curiously, then he frowned. "Wait a minute, the stock car races are in town. You're not going to drag me there, are you?"
"You know me so well." Jason grinned slyly, winking at Princess.
Mark groaned. A car race wouldn't be very exciting for him. But then, it was a lot better than the alternative. The Commander shuddered as he pictured some trashy men's club with naked women making obscene gestures at him. It would be just like Jason to set up a bachelor's party at a place like that. Fortunately, Mark had insisted that Keyop be involved. While Mark, Jason and Tiny were twenty years old, Keyop was still only thirteen. With the boy in tow, they wouldn't be able to get into any place that served alcohol, even if Jason somehow managed to produce fake IDs.
"Are you ready to go?" Jason asked impatiently.
"As ready as I'm going to get." Mark sighed.
"Have a good time!" Princess waved cheerily as Jason dragged the Commander from the room. "Remember, you promised!"
He had promised. That was the only thing preventing Mark from bailing out on this entire thing right now.
"Goodbye, Princess." Jason said pointedly.
"Goodbye, Jason." Princess smiled. "Have fun! Just remember, you had better be back on time and in proper shape for the wedding. No matter what happens, if I have to delay the ceremony… well, you'll regret it."
"Understood." Jason saluted in mock obedience. "You can count on me, Ma'am!"
"You'd better be right… for your own sake." Princess smiled, but there was the slightest hint of menace in her tone. Jason nodded quickly, ushering the groom-to-be out of the room.
Mark was taken aback somewhat by Princess' manner, but also unexpectedly impressed. It had taken him a couple of years to get the hang of controlling Jason, and there were still times when the Commander simply felt that he was only 'along for the ride' where Jason was concerned.
This was definitely one of those times.
"Where are Tiny and Keyop?" Mark asked as they got into Jason's car.
"Right now it's just the two of us." Jason shrugged. "Tiny and Keyop went on ahead."
"Saving seats, I gather?" Mark asked. He should have known that Jason would want the best spot from which to watch the stock car races.
"Something like that." Jason agreed, pulling out of the parking lot.
As Jason drove he gave a running monologue about what a fun time they would have and how Mark was going to relax if it killed both of them. After the third time Jason went over this not-so-subtle message, Mark tuned it out. He focused on the scenery instead, enjoying the views of Center City as the car drove past parks, pretty suburban areas and to the edge of town.
But when they passed the racetrack, alarm bells went off in Mark's head.
"Wait, wasn't that the turnoff?" he asked, doing his best to keep the nervousness from his voice.
"It was the turnoff for the racetrack." Jason agreed. "But that's not where we're going."
"Where are we going?" Mark demanded.
"That's for me to know and you to find out." Jason answered, a strange gleam in his eye.
"If Princess finds out about this, she'll kill me!" Mark moaned.
"Princess knows all about this." Jason assured him as he turned off of the road and into a parking lot.
"We're at the train station." Mark noted.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious."
"We need to be back by tonight! Princess is expecting me back…"
"No she's not. We'll be gone all weekend, Mark, so get used to the idea."
"But I don't even have a change of clothes…"
"Change of clothes? Ha!" Jason barked with laughter. "You can't pull that one on me, Commander. We never change clothes! But if it makes you feel better, Princess did pack an overnight bag for you."
Mark was dumfounded as Jason parked and got out of the car, opening the trunk to reveal two small duffel bags.
"See? One for me and one for you." Jason declared, tossing a bag in Mark's direction.
"All weekend?" Mark's face fell as he realized what he was in for. "It's only Friday afternoon…"
"Yeah, I wanted to leave last Wednesday, but the Chief said it was too long to be away." Jason shrugged. "What can you do?"
Mark remained silent as Jason pulled tickets from his bag and led them over to a check-in counter. Now that the maglev coaches had been approved by the Federation government it was possible to take a train across the entire continent in less than a day; they were nearly as fast as airplanes. Jason could be literally taking him anywhere.
After a brief stop to check the departures board (no help there, as there were at least twenty different destinations with trains in the next hour) they went to a nearby coach. Mark was surprised to see that Jason headed for the first class car, rather than the standard tourist cars.
"I thought it would be good for you to relax as we travelled." Jason explained when he saw Mark's mystified expression. The Commander's eyes widened as he took in the luxurious furnishings in the 'lobby' area, which included a café and table seating. Just beyond this area were the entrances to the private travelling suites, which each housed up to four people. Peeking through an open doorway as they passed, Mark saw a roomy chamber filled with light from open windows and four comfortable reclining chairs, one of which had been converted into a bedspace.
"This looks really nice, Jason." Mark noted.
"You don't have to sound so surprised." Jason grimaced. "We're going to have fun, remember?"
"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of." Mark laughed, his worries beginning to dissipate.
"Besides, I had to book first class." Jason went on as he slid their ticket card into the door handle of one of the suites. "It was the only way we could get him on the train."
"Get who on the train?" Mark asked, just as he saw what Jason meant. The Commander's face blanched as he saw Keyop and Tiny already making themselves at home in the suite, playing cards with…
"Zark!" Mark gasped, his heart stopping in fear for just a moment. "What are you doing here?"
"Why, Commander, it's nice to see you too." Zark replied calmly as he glanced at a card on the table. "Raise you five."
"I'll see your five and raise you ten." Tiny said, throwing chips into a large pile and casting surreptitious glances at the other two.
"Poker?" Mark raised an eyebrow. "That's hardly appropriate, Tiny. Why Keyop's only…"
"This is entirely appropriate behavior, Commander," Zark disagreed, "given where we're headed."
"Where we're headed…?" Mark grabbed at the tickets in Jason's hand before his friend could counter the maneuver. "We're going to Las Vegas?"
"Vegas… baby!" Keyop burbled happily as he added his own chips to the growing pile on the table.
"What better place for a bachelor party?" Jason grinned. "Sit down, Mark, have a drink!" He pressed a button on his armrest, causing a panel to open. A beverage rose out of its depths.
"I…" Mark was at a loss for words. Part of him wanted to get off of the train right then and there, yet even as the idea passed through his mind they began to move. It was too late now. Besides, he had promised Princess that he would go along with Jason and try to have fun.
But what the heck was Zark doing here?
"Jason, about Zark…"
"Yeah, that's why I needed the first class suite." Jason shrugged. "They don't allow robots in tourist class. Who knew?"
"Discrimination, if you ask me." Zark opined. "Robots are second class citizens. Full house."
"Four of a kind!" Keyop chortled.
"Aw man, he wins again!" Tiny moaned, throwing his cards down onto the table in disgust as Keyop made a grab for the chips.
Mark winced. How many rounds had they played? Keyop was far too young to gamble. Then again, they all were. And Zark… well, Mark didn't know anything about the laws concerning robot gambling, but he suspected that wasn't entirely legal either. Still, if they were too young to gamble, that meant that Jason would have to find milder entertainment for everyone, which was just fine with Mark.
Despite all of this, this train was very nicely appointed. Mark pressed a button and smiled as a glass of cola rose up to meet him. Of course, the trip wouldn't be very long. Southern California to Las Vegas would be an hour at most, even going through the desert, and Mark decided to attempt to do what Princess had suggested: relax.
"Here!" Keyop cried excitedly, causing Mark to jump.
"What?" he asked, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. Short trip or not, he had apparently succeeded in relaxing somewhat.
"Everybody out!" Jason declared. "Tiny, you're in charge of Zark."
"Aw, why me?" Tiny moaned.
"I'm so glad we'll be spending this time together, Tiny." Zark said in a pleased tone. "I don't get to see you very often. Why, it's usually only Mark and Princess who visit me. It's wonderful to get out of Center Neptune. I really can't wait to experience everything that Las Vegas has to offer…" Tiny rolled his eyes as he grabbed at some straps on Zark's rear, hefting the robot as if he was a rather bulky backpack.
"Ooh, that tickles!" Zark giggled.
"I'll take your bag, Tiny." Mark offered.
"Gee, thanks." Tiny grumbled.
The others left the suite while Tiny remained behind, literally wrestling the robot through the slim doorway. Mark could hear muted cursing drifting down the corridor, which was then followed by heavy footsteps.
"Now we just need to find a car…" Jason muttered.
"Taxis… no… robots…" Keyop noted. "Zark… too big!"
"This is Vegas!" Jason grinned. "We don't want a taxi… we want a limo!"
"Limo?" Mark was surprised.
"That one!" Jason declared, pointing at a curbside vehicle. The car was definitely a limousine, stretching perhaps twenty feet in length. The exterior was jet black, decorated with brightly painted stars, planets and other galactic phenomena. Its garish colors were nearly enough to blind Mark, even in the daytime.
"Jason Anderson?" A man in a chauffer's uniform came to attention. His black suit was speckled with stars, such that he had been effectively camouflaged as he was leaning against the car.
"Present and accounted for." Jason grinned. "We're ready to go!"
"Welcome to the Cosmic Limo! I'll place your luggage in the trunk." the driver offered, moving around Tiny to pull at his 'backpack'. Zark tittered nervously in response.
"Oh, I'll take this in the car with me." Tiny insisted, moving over toward the open door. Once again, the robot was a tight fit, but Tiny put all of his weight into shoving Zark inside. With a loud pop they both fell into the limousine.
"Hey, free snacks!" Tiny exclaimed as the other three entered the car. He reached for bags of pretzels labeled 'Cosmic Limo'.
"We get charged for those!" Jason snapped, pushing Tiny's hands away from the minibar.
"But I'm hungry!" Tiny moaned. "I didn't get anything to eat on the train."
"We'll eat later." Jason promised.
The interior of the limousine was just as hard on the eyes as the exterior. Lines of 'ultra-violet' lighting snaked along the walls, causing their white socks, Mark's white pants and every speck of dust to glow brightly. Other multi-colored lights flashed and gleamed, making Mark feel as if he was in some kind of 1970s nightclub.
"Where are we going?" Mark asked, doing his best not to stare directly at the pulsating illumination.
"To our hotel of course!" Jason replied. "Only the best for our bachelor party!"
"Where are you getting the money for all of this?" Mark wondered aloud.
"You know, it's a funny thing." Jason answered. "I asked Chief Anderson to chip in and he said no. But then suddenly the next day, the money showed up in my intergalactic credit account. It was right after I'd asked the Chief to allow us to bring Zark, so I guess he changed his mind and helped with the funding."
"Wow… look… hotel!" Keyop nearly fell over in excitement as he raced over to the window. A giant castle was flashing by, along with the Statue of Liberty.
"All of the best hotels in Vegas are themed." Jason stated. "Naturally, I selected a hotel with appropriate theming."
"Appropriate theming…?" Mark wondered, but he instantly understood as the Cosmic Limo pulled up to a massive building emblazoned with stars and planets.
"Welcome to the Intergalactic Stardust Casino Resort!" the driver said as he pulled open the car door. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
"Trust me, we will." Jason winked, climbing out of the vehicle. Mark and Keyop followed, collecting the bags from the trunk. Tiny struggled once again with Zark, eventually managing to force him through the door. The robot landed on the curb with a loud thunk.
"Oh, that's going to leave a mark," Zark fretted. "Keyop, did you pack the self-repair kit I asked for?"
"Forgot…" Keyop smiled ruefully.
"I'm sure we can get one inside," Jason said smoothly. "No need to panic, Zark."
"Oh, I'm not panicking," Zark insisted as Tiny lifted him back to a standing position. "It's just that dents are so unattractive. Why, what would Susan say if she knew?"
Everyone ignored the robot's incessant chatter as they walked into the hotel. Fortunately the doors and pathways were wide, allowing Zark to travel under his own (albeit slow) power, trailing behind the others.
"Jason Anderson?" asked an obsequious man standing near the door. He clasped his hands together and walked in a half-bow, as if he was somehow attempting to imitate Frankenstein's assistant Igor.
"Yes," Jason replied. "We're checking into the rocket suite."
"Of course!" the man gave a smarmy grin. "We've been expecting you! If you'll just take care of a little paperwork…" He escorted Jason to a nearby desk.
"Tiny, what does Jason have planned?" Mark asked, hoping to receive some answers now that his second was out of earshot.
"Search me." Tiny shrugged. "He said we were going to Vegas and that we'd have a good time. I didn't know I'd be responsible for Zark, though." He grimaced briefly.
"Still, the food here is supposed to be top-notch!" Tiny added, brightening somewhat. "I can hardly wait to chow down at the Intergalactic House of Spaceburgers!"
"Over there…" Keyop pointed. Sure enough, neon lights in the shape of a burger blasting into space announced the gaudiest burger joint Mark had ever seen. Tiny literally drooled, enough to elicit complaints from Zark about the splashing on his head.
"I'll see you guys in a little while…" Tiny said, wandering off toward the restaurant.
"Not so fast!" Jason collared Tiny as he reappeared. "We're going up to our room. We get to take the VIP elevator!" He smugly whipped out a keycard and slid it through an electronic reader attached to the wall. Almost as if by magic, the wall panels slid apart to reveal an open elevator car.
"Wow…" A wide-eyed Keyop was clearly impressed. Mark looked around, confused. All of these walls looked the same. How had Jason known where to find this secret elevator? It was decorated like a rocket, and Keyop instantly began poking and prodding every button in sight.
"Off to the thirtieth floor!" Jason grinned. Sure enough, the elevator took off… well, like a rocket.
Three slightly dazed men, one boy and one robot disembarked the elevator a few moments later. With a green tinge to his face, Tiny looked as though he was very glad he had not been able to partake of the fare at the Intergalactic House of Spaceburgers. It was a couple of minutes before Mark was able to calm his own stomach down and take in the sights around him. And what sights!
He was standing in a two-storey living room, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out upon the Las Vegas strip. The carpet and ceiling were jet black, with twinkling stars interspersed throughout. The chairs were spherical in shape, save for indentations cut out in which to sit, and colored like planets. In the center of the room a massive sun flickering with yellow light turned out to be the entertainment center. Soft strains of Musak played in the background, and it was a moment before Mark recognized the tune as 'Major Tom'.
Flabbergasted, Mark sank down onto a chair resembling Mars, his eyes falling onto a lime green lava lamp situated on the coffee table next to him.
"Want… this room!" Keyop shouted as he bounded through one of the doors. His curiosity getting the better of him, Mark went to look, only to see a set of bunk beds made up to resemble an ancient space shuttle. An adjoining bathroom was decorated in jet black granite and chrome.
"You can share that room with Tiny." Jason decided. "Zark can stay in the living room. Come on, Mark, let's figure out who gets the other rooms."
The two other bedrooms proved to be nearly identical. Each featured a king-sized bed in the shape of a fat rocket, accompanied by satellite-shaped bedside tables. These rooms shared a massive bathroom, complete with a 'black hole' whirlpool tub and a 'meteor shower' that was larger than Mark's entire house at the airfield.
"Pretty nice, huh?" Jason practically strutted. "The Chief must really care about you to help us afford this!"
"Does the Chief actually know what you spent his money on?" Mark probed.
"Well, he's getting the bills, so I'm sure he'll find out." Jason grinned. "But for now it doesn't matter." He jumped onto his bed, placing his hands behind his head as he stared up at the ceiling.
"I could get used to this." he noted.
"Somehow, I think I'll be happy to get back to 'normal' décor." Mark muttered.
"Oh, please, this isn't an everyday event!" Jason countered. "It's supposed to be tacky! It's fun! It's Vegas!"
"I suppose." Mark shrugged uncertainly.
"You'll be back to your boring old life before you know it." Jason rolled his eyes. "Although, I suspect being married to Princess might not be so boring…" He lifted his head slightly, eyeing Mark with a speculative expression.
"Do you think the Chief might give you and Princess combined quarters on Center Neptune?" Jason asked suddenly. "Or are you guys going to keep sneaking down the hallway like you've been doing?"
"We are not sneaking down the hallway!" Mark flushed bright red.
"So you haven't been going into Princess' room at night?" Jason questioned him.
"No! Of course not!"
"Wow… we really do need to make sure you have a good time this weekend." Jason noted, shaking his head. "Okay, time to get going."
"Get going?" Mark had a bad feeling abut this.
"Oh, don't worry, you're going to love what I have planned." Jason assured him. "Trust me! And if you don't, too bad. You promised!"
Why had Mark ever made that promise?
"All right, everybody, gather round. Time for our first mission briefing." Jason gestured to the dining room table, which gleamed black beneath a sheet of glass. Between the sheet and the ebony structure below swirled holographic galaxies, planets, stars and moons constantly moving in a multi-colored cosmic ballet.
Tiny and Keyop quickly plopped onto the accompanying rocket-shaped chairs. Zark pulled up beside them, not quite visible over the top of the table except for his antennae. Of course, Mark sat last, with a pinched expression that screamed, 'Dear Lord, what have I done?'
Jason felt an overwhelming urge to cackle. Setting his duffel bag on the table, he pulled out five manila envelopes. Each was labeled, so it took him but a moment to slide each envelope to its intended recipient. Of course, the real fun was in watching Mark open his. The moment Mark saw his fake ID, his normally fair skin managed to lose even more color.
"What…? This is illegal…!" Mark sputtered.
"So?" Jason shrugged, grinning. "We've been fighting all over the galaxy since our teens. If we're old enough to risk life and limb, I refuse to let our age keep us from having a totally wild bachelors' weekend."
"But it's… why? Why do we need this?" Mark fixed Jason with a glare usually reserved for interrogating Spectrans.
"Because you promised Princess that you'd kick back, relax, and go along with the plan." Jason smiled sweetly. "And the plan requires the ID. Oh, and this." He pulled a trenchcoat, a hat, a fake moustache, and other disguise materials from his bag, then shoved the whole pile toward Keyop.
"All right, Keyop, this mission requires making you look old enough to get in. It also means figuring out some way to let Zark go everywhere with us." Jason looked to Zark. "Did you bring the contraption?"
"This is so exciting!" Zark giggled. "I'm so honored to participate in this male bonding ritual. Yes, I designed and created the harness, it should work perfectly."
Their Commander was starting to look a little faint, which was promising. Was there a dirty mind under that prim façade? Jason made a mental note to ask Mark later what exactly he had thought they were talking about, then went to Zark's bag, pulling out the contraption.
"This goes over Zark's head. Keyop will ride on top of Zark. It'll give Keyop height and no one will know we've got a robot with us," Jason explained.
"Cool!" Keyop looked over his disguise materials, practically bouncing in his seat.
"All right, everyone, it's time to get ready. First stop, Madame Bunny's House of Pleasures!" Jason stood.
"What?" Mark squeaked more than spoke. Even Keyop and Tiny had paused, staring in shock.
"Yeesh," Jason laughed, "give me some credit. We're going to the Pink Paradise, Vegas's hottest strip club."
Tiny deflated with an audible exhalation. He headed toward his room, Keyop still playing with his disguise, and figuring out the harness while Zark went on and on about what an honor and privilege it was to be along for this and what fine, upstanding young people they were.
Tuning Zark out, Jason noted that Mark was still sitting, ramrod straight.
"You literally look like you need a stick removed." he observed.
"Really, I don't think Princess …" Mark glared in response.
"Are you kidding?" Jason grinned enough for three Cheshire cats. "Princess helped me pick the place. Face it, Commander, you're going to kick back, relax, and experience a normal right of passage for once in your life. You promised, remember?"
It took Jason a moment to realize the strange noise he heard was Mark grinding his teeth. He stepped in closer, pulling up a rocket chair.
"Skipper, we'll just be there to look, not to touch. Strip clubs are totally legal in Nevada, and if we were normal military, we'd have special IDs that gave us privileges most only get at twenty-one."
As Jason had hoped, his incontrovertible logic had Mark slumping in submission. It was a start.
"Fine." sighed Mark. "Just to look."
"Though, remember," Jason grinned, unable to resist tweaking him again, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
Mark snorted and headed to his room, muttering under his breath. Jason knew that there was no way Mark understood how badly Princess wanted him to experience this, but that was fine. Jason had it all handled. By the time the happy couple headed off on their honeymoon, their Commander would be primed to put the safety of the Federation behind him and get lost in his new wife, assured that she really was all he wanted.
If Jason had thought there was any chance the situation might go differently, he wouldn't have arranged this little scheme. Anyone with eyes could see that Mark had been doomed the day he had met Princess. Jason flipped through one of the many Vegas attraction brochures lying on the desk, waiting for his chance in the shower, amused by the fact that Mark seemed more rattled by his bachelors' celebration than the wedding itself. The only cold feet they had to worry about would be the ones trying to sneak their way back home.