'I don't know, Kowalski. You've been tinkering a lot with our car for the last two days' said Skipper, looking down at his lieutenant, who was currently halfway under the said car. It's not that I don't trust your mechanical capabilities, but I prefer Rico when it comes to such things.
The scientist slid from under the vehicle and got to his feet while wiping his hands. Skipper saw he had some smudges of oil on his forehead and cheek but refrained from pointing it out.
'Well there's a perfectly good reason for that Skipper' Kowalski answered, giddiness making itself noticed in his voice. 'I think I finally did it!'
'What, totally wrecked our car?'
'I'll ignore that... for now. No! I've invented a way to travel to any alternate universe.
'What do you mean by alternate universe, Kowalski?' inquired his commanding officer, somewhat confused.
'I suppose you have heard of the scientific theory of The Multiverse or Metaverse?' he carried on not allowing Skipper to either confirm or deny his knowledge of the said theory. 'Well long story short, there is no scientific consensus on the topic, but if my invention indeed works it would bring irrefutable proof... maybe a Nobel Prize' Kowalski said with an wistful air about him.
'So why the car, soldier?'
'oh right' Kowalski answered, snapping back to the present from his wonderful fantasy of receiving a Nobel Prize. I thought it would need a cloaking device and something similar to a cockpit where we could operate it from, so I took the liberty to incorporate it in the car!' he finished beaming. When he saw that Skipper was not sharing his smile his mouth dropped pathetically.
'Mind running that by me next time?'
'Don't get your panties in a twist, Kowalski! Just, you know, maybe follow the chain of command once in awhile. Now, let's get those other two knuckleheads and test this thing.'
'Wait! What if we end up somewhere with no atmosphere or where people are made of sludge?' Private's concerned voice rang out in the car halting Kowalski's finger mere millimetres away from the button on his tablet which would have put the Metaverse Transporter on the way to its maiden voyage.
'Preposterous, Private!' Kowalski answered with a dismissive air. 'First of all, I set the coordinates so that it would only take us to universes where Earth exists. And secondly, if we have the good fortune of encountering any sludge people: woohoo! The Transporter is set to record everything as evidence. Could you imagine the faces of those derivative know-it-alls?' seeing the faces of his comrades he cleared his throat and push the button.
For a few moments they didn't feel anything different and Kowalski thought this was another of his inventions that had failed. Then suddenly a dizzying feeling took over and for a split second it felt like their bodies were being pulled apart and pushed back together all at the same time.
When they finally cleared their heads, they could see that Kowalski's metaverse Transporter did not indeed bring them to a Space Squid invaded Earth or some such nonsense.
'Kowalski, why are we surrounded by cattle?' asked Skipper with some paranoia in his voice. 'In fact, why does it look like we're on a farm?'
'A farm? Maybe they have some petting animals!' exclaimed Private in his naivety and got out of the car become universe hopper.
'Actually, it's a ranch.' Kowalski could never give up an opportunity to show off his superior knowledge in anything and rub it in your face. 'By my calculations, we are in this Earth's version of Texas.' Said Kowalski checking the data on his tablet.
'Yes, and I think there's the owner coming towards us now.' Continued Kowalski, pointing towards a man on horseback wearing a typical cowboy hat rapidly approaching them.
'Hey, that kinda looks like Private...' Rico piped up from the back seat, leaning in between the two front seats to get a better look at the newcomer.
'It kinda does. Good eye there, Rico!' Skipper praised him.
'Oh, no!' Kowalski yelped, his voice getting one octave higher. 'If this is what I think it is it might destroy all existence as we know it.'
'What are you blabbering about, man?' asked Skipper, shaking the panicking man, his paranoia levels getting higher.
'If this is the Private of this universe, they should never meet. It would create a singularity point that would end us all.'
Before he was finished with his explanation, the rider had reached Private, who was trying more or less successfully to pet a cow. The man was already with one leg over his horse ready to dismount, when he heard a "hello" in Private's charming British accent and promptly fell off his horse, one leg still hanging caught up in a stirrup. Private rushed over, wringing his hands with worry. When they clapped eyes on each other they both let out the same high pitched scream.
'Or that could happen.' admitted Kowalski from the car oddly disappointed.
'Ok men, let's see what the damage is.' instructed Skipper, more propelled by his own curiosity than by anything else.
By the time they were out of the Transporter the other Private had managed to disentangle his foot from the stirrup. At the same time, he looked freaked out of his skin.
'Kowalski why am I... why is he dressed like that?' asked Private, giving a rather nasty stink eye to the bolo tie the other was sporting.
'Who are you people?' asked alternate universe Private with the same adorable accent.
'You don't recognize any of us?' asked Kowalski, cocking an eyebrow.
'Only him, and unless my mom had twins and omitted to tell me or I've been living in a bleeding Prince and Pauper scenario all along, pardon the strong language, this is getting strange.'
'Skipper, it seems that in this universe Private has never met us. I suspect he never joined up.'
'No kidding, Kowalski.' Skipper rolled his eyes.
'Private? My name is Percy. Percival Bilingham.' The alternate universe young man extended a friendly hand, as if forgetting that he had come there to inspect on those suspicious individuals trespassing on private property.
'Kowalski is there any way we could explain this to him without blowing our cover?' asked Skipper in a whisper.
'None that he would buy, sir. Unless we want to make him obsessed with clones or androids for the rest of his life.' Warily, Skipper gave Kowalski the go ahead to explain how and why they had gotten there.
'So you are me... from another dimension?' Percy asked skeptically.
'I'd prefer alternate universe.' Kowalski interjected. Percy carried on without paying him any mind.
'So in an alternate universe I'm... what are you guys... NASA, CIA?'
'Eh, something like that, sure.' Answered Skipper.
'So why are you on a ranch in Texas? Wearing a bolo tie, of all things? We hate Texas!' asked Private.
'We do?' Percy was confused. 'It's not actually my ranch. It's my boyfriend' s.' Rico tried to hide a smirk as Kowalski didn't even bother to hide the eyebrow he had raised out of curiosity. Skipper elbowed his Private, who was faintly blushing although for the life of him couldn't tell you why. 'Yeah, he's a famous golf player. He likes to call himself the Amarillo Kid. Silly!' At that Private's face fell.
'Kowalski, let's get out of here, I think I'm gonna be sick!'
'Wait! Did I say something wrong?'
'Please, never speak about that again.' Private pleaded once they had gotten their bearings after another bout of universe hopping.
'I don't know, maybe there's something there.' Rico teased.
'Ah...' came his teammate's outraged gasp. Then Private promptly got out of the car. 'Hey, look it's our HQ!' the others followed suit.
'Are we back home, Kowalski?' Skipper asked
'In a sense. This is another alternate universe but this is indeed our HQ.'
Going in nothing seemed to have changed at first glance, then a feminine voice called from the kitchen.
'You boys back already?' it hadn't sounded like four men followed the voice to the kitchen.
'Who's he?' the woman who had spoken before said, standing up from the table where she had been reviewing some paperwork.
The men could now see she was about Skipper's height with her brown hair pulled in a ponytail and watching them with sharp, severe blue eyes.
'I'm...' Skipper started.
'...Skipper...' Kowalski warned cautiously, but when both pairs of fierce blue and apparently identical eyes turned on him his hypothesis was confirmed.
'Oh!' Regal exclaimed also getting the point.
After another round of explanation of his metaverse Transporter, this time comfortably seated in their own HQ, things started to get a bit awkward (as maybe they would if you'd met your alternate universe genderbent doppelganger).
'I'm surprised one of your inventions actually worked, Kowalski.' female Skipper said.
'Right?' the other Skipper agreed with her.
'I'm surprised to see you have the same brilliant sense of humour as always.' quipped Kowalski.
'Hey, have you ever thought about making out with something with yourself, if you could? 'Cause now you two can.' Said Rico with a smirk.
'Slap yourself, soldier! Before I do it for you.' female Skipper admonished him.
'No, 'cause you're not my Skipper.' he said petulantly.
'I like your moxie, doll face!' Skipper exclaimed.
'Skipper, you're practically talking to yourself.' Kowalski reminded him. 'Maybe less of the Buffalo Bill routine.'
'So where are the others?' Private asked.
'They're on a simple retrieval mission.' female Skipper answered.
'Do you notice any significant differences between them and us?' asked Kowalski.
'Neah. It's like talking to my own team. Except you two are way more cosier together than my Kowalski and Rico.' she said, indicating the two men sitting on the couch and sharing bodyspace without even noticing.
'It seems we are not on the same timeline. We did this retrieval mission months ago.' Kowalski said
'I have to say though' female Skipper turned to her male counterpart 'I never thought that a male version of me would be such a brash, overly confident, blowhard.' with every word she could see Skipper's face getting redder.
'Golly! Look at the time!' interjected Kowalski, checking a wrist watch that didn't exist. 'We really must go or... the universe will implode. Bye! and started pulling Skipper out of the chair.
'Is the universe really going to implode, Kowalski?' asked Private with his most naive expression.
'No, Private. But Skipper might have blown his top if we stayed one more minute.' answered the scientist and pushed the button, sending them into another universe.
As soon as they landed, Rico got out of the car and made a few shaky steps to clear his head.
'I don't think I can take another trip with this thing, Kowalski. It's brutal.' Only after saying this did he observe the snow around him and the little blonde girl making a snowman in front of a two storied house a few feet behind him. 'It seems I'm really unprepared for this weather. No coat.' he said half-heartedly, rubbing his arms.
Kowalski observed the name on the letterbox, which Rico had seemed to miss in his scramble to get his bearings from the metaverse travel. It was his own family name.
'Skipper, permission to stay in the car and just observe this time.' He indicated the letterbox. 'By what I saw with both your experiences I would eventually come to not like this.'
'Permission granted, soldier. Reluctantly.' said Skipper.
At that exact moment, they saw a man opening the front door of the house with the mine of a concerned father not wanting his daughter to be alone on the front lawn at night with a stranger.
'Nikola, honey, come inside!' He called to his daughter before sparing a second glance to the man on his front yard. 'Uh... Rico, is that you?' The man standing in the door frame hesitantly asked.
'Heh... yeah...' Rico made his way slowly to the door and the man standing there.
'What are you doing here? Is something wrong?' Alternate Kowalski asked concerned. 'By Newton's 3rd law you haven't changed a bit!' He exclaimed, now having a better look at the younger man.
Rico could not say the same. Silver intertwined with Kowalski's normally blonde hair, which made it hardly visible. But Rico had become so accustomed to the man's appearance that they stood out to him like a sore thumb. It was even more so with the few wrinkles that crisscrossed the man's face. The scientist was looking at him with weary eyes.
'What can I say, good genes... Actually...' He pointed over his shoulder to the car parked on the curb. 'You managed to invent that... what did you call it... mega universe hopper?'
Kowalski looked confused at him then at the car where he could see his old team... including himself? Realisation of what Rico's words meant dawned on him.
'Oh, I see. So you're not from around here.' He chose his words carefully mindful of his daughter clinging to his side.
'No. Just stopped for a quick visit.' Rico quipped. 'Hey, can I ask you something? Do you remember that wild party Julien threw years back?' Kowalski seemed to draw a blank. 'You got really drunk and Skipper told me to take you back to the HQ.' He glanced down at the little girl and refrained from saying more.
'Can't say I do. I think I was cooped up in my lab, working on something. Why? Did something happen that echoed through the multiverse that night?' asked Kowalski.
'Apparently not...' answered Rico disappointed. 'So who's the lucky lady? Tell me it's not Doris.'
'Oh... heh... You know I could never persuade Doris to be with me.' Kowalski answered a bit embarrassed.
'I don't know, I think you can be pretty persuasive when you want to be.' Rico answered with a bittersweet smile and a pat on Kowalski's shoulder. Then he turned around and started back to the car. Behind him he could hear a tiny voice going:
'Daddy, who was that man?'
'How did it went?' Skipper asked.
'Let's just say, I'm glad I don't live in this particular universe. I think this might be the darkest timeline.' answered Rico, stretching to give Kowalski a kiss.
As they disappeared to another universe, they left behind them a scientist mind abuzz with memories, what ifs and questions.
'This is the last one, Kowalski!' Said Skipper in a shaky voice caused by the after effects of universe hopping while getting out of the car. The others followed suit, trying to clear their heads as best they could. 'I think you've got enough evidence by now.'
'Yes, sir.' Kowalski answered sheepishly.
'Back to our HQ, huh?' said Skipper, turning around and seeing the too familiar building.
'Something's different about it. I can't quite put my finger on it.' Said Private, leaning his head to the right while inspecting the facade of the building.
The HQ building seemed just as they left it. The Welcome mat was there. The garage door seemed fine. The flowers at the windows looked fresh and watered. What?
'We don't have hanging flowers at the windows.' Kowalski observed.
'Maybe we should. They give off such a nice, homey vibe.' Private interjected, completely won over by the floral aesthetic.
'That's exactly it, Private. Homey. I think someone else lives here.' Skipper said. 'Finally, we won't have to see one of our faces in an alternate universe.'
'Didn't know it bothered you so much, Skipper.' Kowalski retorted.
Skipper gave an noncommittal shrug and started towards the door. Up close, he could see that actually even the Welcome mat had been replaced. The doorbell that rang inside was the generic ding-dong.
The man that answered was plain looking, with light brown hair and wore rectangular glasses with rounded corners. Nothing about him seemed familiar to Skipper, nor did it ping on his danger radar.
'Good day! Can I help you?'
'Hey! Um... I think we were kinda looking for someone else...' Skipper started, indicating his team huddled around the car, Rico leaning casually against the hood, while Kowalski was checking his tablet. 'Do you happen to know who used to live here before?' he asked.
'Sorry, can't help you there, pal.' Skipper fixed him with a mild scowl. 'They'd moved out before my family and I arrived.'
'Oh, well then...' Skipper wanted to turn back when another question came to mind. 'Indulge me one more thing, will you? Have you ever heard anything about them from the neighbours or...'
'Not much...' The other man scratched his head. 'They were some kind of military team. People say one of them... you know... killed himself.' He continued in a whisper. 'No one was home and when they returned, they found him in a pool of his own blood.' Skipper looked back over his shoulder at Rico, feeling his stomach drop. 'But I don't believe it. What kind of soldier would do that?'
'Have you served, sir?' asked Skipper.
'I can't say I have...' Skipper just gave a dismissive nod.
'Thank you for your time.' Said Skipper, returning to his men. 'No, this is the darkest timeline, boys. Kowalski, take us home.'