Gaston Dimble stood on his toes while Marley made his way through the terminal. Marley was subjected to a torrent of updates before he was within hearing distance. “…will be in conjunction in the middle of July. I have more discount vouchers at Eating World. I’m sure I’m going to focus my research on the nomadic Dogons. And tell me about the craft? Moszkowski zoomed by. It’s an old model, he said.”
“You seem to know more than me,” Marley coughed.
“The older the model, the more customisable.” He shoved a diagram over Marley’s shoulder. “Professor Moszkowski said it was from Khanak. Very modular then. We could add an automated food dispenser, but not a CV player.”
“We can do without that.”
Dimble stopped in his tracks.
Marley turned around. “Why are you so suddenly into this spacecraft thingy? You have solid employment here.”
“I don’t get to see much.” Dimbles eyes narrowed. For the first time, he actually looked peeved.
Dimble laughed. “C’mon.”
“I know how to feed myself.”
Dimble hobbled along slightly behind Marley like an obedient spouse. They briefly looked through the duty free shops. Marley purchased some alcohol and cigars and Dimble downloaded a few books.
“Refurbishing a craft would refurbish my mind.” Dimble finished scanning the history of science catalogue.
“What’s the point of that?” said Marley.
“It changes all the time. Sometimes there’s something in store that’s not online.”
“A mysterious book.”
Dimble looked flattered.
Marley had not meant it as a compliment. “Anyway, my old professor, Milton Moszkowksi,”
Before Marley could finish, Dimble leapt forward: “Professor M! One of the few faculty staff who gives me an ear! Genuinely of course. He has many thoughts about my findings. He’d pitch in if ever I gave a lecture series on the history of spacecraft.”
“You might have a chance to learn some history.” Marley dangled a set of keys in front of Dimble. “Go on, scan them.”
Dimble unfolded his flablet and pointed the camera at the largest key. It was shaped like an elongated alien head, before becoming thin, and hooked at the end.
“These are the keys to a Baconian trawler, class 180C.”
“What? Give me that.” Marley wrenched the flablet from Dimble. “This just goes to show you can’t trust the internets. It’s a Fooolzian trawler. Class 180B.”
Dimble didn’t look convinced. Telling someone you couldn’t trust the internets was like trying to convince them they’d never been born.
Marley suddenly felt incredibly tired. “Let’s get out of here.”
They were nearing the exit when they heard a series of squawks. The airport was an ideal place for a pet shop. This was where some of the more obscure lifeforms that didn’t make it through immigration ended up. Such as Chitters. They couldn’t possibly have made the flight themselves. They must have been abandoned. Chitters could be loyal, as long as you fed them silicon-based compounds. These had collars that prevented them from hopping more than a few feet outside the store.
One hopped on to Dimble’s arm.
“Looks like you’ve made a new friend,” said Marley.
Dimble looked uncertain, even anxious.
Marley quickly paid for it and the collar was deactivated. “Now, let us all get out of here!”
Chitters were the leftover results of abandoned bio-tech experiments. Half mechanical-half organism, designed to be a useful, obedient, flexible pet-servant.
“What did we get a Chitter for? I don’t have room for one.”
“You have plenty of room Gaston. We can share it. It can clean for us, drop off and collect packages. Some of them can be trained. Some of them even…”
Back in Marley’s room, the two discussed the importance of having goals. They had already achieved the most important one, obtaining a ship. Now they had to make sure it was flight-worthy to obtain the necessary flight permits to exit and enter planetary systems.
With the craft docked at Doooki’s Spare Space parts they’d already made a saving of 300,000 elon – at least 200,000 for the craft and 100,000 for space-bay hire. Marley told Dimble to note this down. It would surely impress Manager Baines. With the extra capital they could transport Martian truffles as well as fresh American tomatoes. Gaston Dimble incorporated this into a plan under the milestone ‘Commodities contracts.”
“The goal of all successful enterprises,” he told Marley, “is to have a goal.”
“We’re going to ship stuff from Crete.”
“And the most valuable item in our inventory, is a Da Vinci manuscript. But I’m not going to trade that lightly, until I know its true value.”
“Ok, here’s the complete plan so far.” Gaston bent over the desk and pushed the print button. He retrieved the printout, which he proceeded to fold again and again, but it still ended up the same size as him. He promptly tripped on the bottom end of the plan.
“The first goal,” said Marley, “is not to fall on the plan.”
“And the second goal is to get up with the plan intact.” Gaston stood up but failed to take his right foot off the corner of the page. There was an ugly rip. Gaston held a torn sheet of paper. “Don’t worry, by the time we get to this stage the plan will be completely different.”
This did not inspire Marley with confidence.
“What does it say we do first?”
“Acquire or build a ship. We can tick that off.”
Gaston ticked with a flourish. “Next?”
“Store and maintain the ship.”
Gaston gave another flourishing tick.
“We can’t quite tick that off. We need to stabilise the ship. It’s rotating in its parking bay, and Professor Moszkowski says I don’t have custody until it is stabilised.” He showed Gaston the flashkey needed to remotely control the ship’s systems. He plugged it into the nearest terminal, which was right above his bed.
The Chitter they’d brought back with them jumped in delight at the holographic display rotating above Marley’s quilt.
Marley wondered what excited the Chitter. Then he remembered they liked to consume metal. Marley thought he could see the small face of Doooki peering through the viewplate at his old ship. Eventually it would sail into the starry nothingness of the beyond, leaving Doooki and the Cretan Eye far behind.
“Can you do simultaneous equations?” Marley asked the Chitter.
The Chitter jumped faster. It started chasing what Marley thought was its tail. He bent over it. “How do I stop the ship moving?”
The Chitter crouched and wagged its tail. Then it jumped in the air and did an impressive twisting backflip.
With a grandiose gesture, Gaston emitted some hideous squeaks. “Chitters do not speak Standard Galactic Standard. You’ll have to address them in Chitterling.” Gaston squeaked some more, flapping his left arm.
Marley folded his arms. “What did you ask it?”
“I asked it if it can do maths? Not all Chitters are analytically minded. Most are suited to mechanical tasks. That’s what they’re usually manufactured for. Gaston turned back to the Chitter, drew in his breath, and squealed like a lamb on helium.
The Chitter responded. As it bounded about it traced out the shape of a hyperbola. “That’s a start,” said Marley. “It can graph on the two dimensional plane.”
Gaston was impressed but warned, “The solution to this problem requires x, y and z coordinates.” He pulled out a notebook and began jotting observations.
Marley’s bell rang and in walked Zorgeous. After Marley and Gaston briefed him, he seemed to brighten. “You have a ship? And a Chitter that can draw graphs?”
He walked over to the Chitter and peeled off some dry skin from his forelegs. He sprinkled it on the bouncing hybrid of metal and flesh. This was a sign that he was particularly impressed. He approached the diagram and prodded a couple of the air buttons. The craft seemed to steady slightly.
Zorgeous tapped his chin. His shoulders slumped again.
“We can’t solve it either, but that’s an improvement.” Marley put his arm around the antelope-like biped.
Zorgeous brightened, a little.
The door chimed again.
“Aren’t I popular…” Marley said with a lopsided smile that expressed both satisfaction and annoyance.
Insomniac Fluton strode in. “Good to see you all awake.” Fluton was sipping an energy drink. “What’s this?”
“A Chitter,” said Marley and Gaston.
The Chitter buzzed with joy, performed a double twisted somersault and made some loud hissing noises. It was hard to tell if these noises came from its mouth or from the region somewhere near its tail.
It wrapped its tail around Fluton’s leg.
“Whoa!” Fluton bent over with his scanner. “According to Boson, Chitters are good at recycling metal, performing manual labour, and in some special cases, intellectual labour. They are skilful enough to weld and screw, yet can also calculate if designed for this purpose…Ow!”
The Chitter was tightening its grip on Fluton’s leg.
“What’s happening?” asked Marley.
“Normal behaviour, I assume,” said Gaston. “It likes you the most.”
Fluton looked concerned. Marley followed the directions of his eyes. The Chitter’s arms were extending, winding up Fluton’s legs, encircling his torso. Marley gave it a slight smack. Then a slight kick.
The Chitter unwound itself from Fluton, then leapt upon Marley. He threw his hands in the air wailing.
The Chitter refused to let go. It tightened its grip and began inching closer to his vital areas.
The rogue Chitter turned its attention to nuts of the non-metal variety. Marley did what he usually did when he was in trouble.
“Gaston! Zorgeous, Insomniac…Do something! Chitters like metal. They’re not supposed to like me.”
Gaston squawked and flapped his arms like an unthrashed giblet. Marley had never seen him do this before. For a brief moment it distracted him from the gnawing pain on his upper thigh. He assumed Gaston was panicking too, and this was how he panicked.
Squawking and flapping his arms about was, coincidentally, how Gaston panicked. But it was also vaguely equivalent to a dance performed by some Chitters.
Marley’s antagonist loosened its grip. The Chitter slowly swayed, rear or nose in the air. It emitted a high-pitched hum. Gaston urged Marley to do the same.
Any thoughts of sounding silly evaporated in the current situation.
Gradually the Chitter released its hold. It dropped to the floor like a plank. Then it reared up at Marley and hummed at him.
“It now thinks you’re its master,” said Gaston. He chopped the air.
The Chitter dropped to the ground and scampered under the bed.
“A word of advice.” Insomniac Fluton showed Marley the entry from Boson’s cosmogony. “You’ll get the best out of a Chitter if you have lots of gourmet metal lying around.”