Mr Kibbles bowed flamboyantly. The fire of youth burned in his eyes, and although he wore the clothes of someone half his age, he wore them with pride.
Marley half-bowed. “This is quite a collection you have, sir.” Marley added the ‘sir’ as an afterthought.
Mr Kibbles patted the fuselage of the V14 SE1000. “If I wasn’t surrounded by such bright and enthusiastic apprentices, like the man before you, none of our technology would be compatible with anything.”
The representative felt somewhat cornered. He couldn’t accept the praise of his superior without faintly damning him. “It’s nothing boss. We may be bright apprentices, but an expert master leads us.” The representative leaned toward Marley. “He has degrees in applied physics, theoretical physics, astrophysics, metaphysics and art history.”
The last came as something of a surprise to Marley, but the flannel and denim combo made it obvious – a theoretical physicist and art historian.
“I recently discovered the power of Fislebee,” said Marley. In reality he had only purchased a large print from a poster shop. It depicted a classic nude who changed posture depending on the angle of the viewer.
“Fislebee? Bah,” said Mr Kibbles. “My tastes lean towards war photography, depictions of historical battles. Recently I acquired an original showing the sacking of Canis 92d, conceived as the assault took place. When the artist ran out of paint, he turned to blood. When he ran of out of blood, he hid the painting in an underground bunker.”
“Then what did he do?”
“Died of blood loss.”
“While his painting survived?” Marley checked himself. “Quite intense. I was wondering…” Marley remembered the cubist lettering he had seen in the alley in the mildly Bad Ends. “You wouldn’t have a liking for alternative art? Like…”
Mr Kibbles raised his eyebrows. “Graffigraphy? You have seen some of my work?” Mr Kibbles smiled deviously. “Those were the days, roaming with the crew. I was a small fish in a big pond. Now I’m a shark in a bigger pond.” He supressed a cheeky grin.
As Marley looked around he observed now and then an artistic hand behind the exhibit displays: a collection of assault rifles shaped like an oriental fan; missiles arranged in a pyramid of ballistics; poison gas masks attached to mannequins wearing denim and flannel.
“Mr Kibbles, sir. That V13 of yours,” Marley playfully reminded.
“My age, my ideals, my incompetence. Yes, even I am human.” Mr Kibbles winked. “I was always a fan of the V3, with its checkered red and white fuselage, like Captain Querelous. But this housed powerful duel combustion chambers, one for burning liquid hydrogen and a backup for combusting solid state alcohol.”
“The Asteroid Wars.” Marley remembered Doookie going on about Don Bero and how he persuaded the Earthlings to adapt vodka as fuel.
“Indeed I designed it in memory of that great era. Except my V13 has an additional chamber. A secondary backup runs on the finest Falernian wine.”
The Kibbles representative coughed. Mr Kibbles patted him on the back.
“I jest, good son.” Mr Kibbles turned to Marley and whispered in his ear. “Actually I’m not jesting.”
Marley cleared his throat. “Mr Kibbles, you’ll be surprised to hear it is the V13 I am after. Not all of us can afford the latest Escort. I admit I’m fairly far down the food chain of potential buyers. However, I will pay solid hard earned credits for your V13.”
“But it’s almost useless. The only modern craft with the correctly sized aft emplacements is the Delta Capri. And that is Capri for ‘Capricious’. Pretty, but as unreliable as salmon mousse for breakfast.”
“Nevertheless, I’ll take one.”
Mr Kibbles lowered his head. He drew Marley aside. “I’m sorry, but I only have one V13 left. And she’s not for sale.” He whisked a blue tarpaulin off a bulky object 60 feet long and 10 feet high.
Despite its size, it had been inconspicuously stored in a corner, surrounded by steel drums. By the standards of the thirtieth century it was big. It broadened towards the centre like a balloon filled with water. Not only was it painted in cartoon colours, it was of cartoon proportions.
“I know what you’re thinking. The ballooning in the centre houses the two backup tanks for vodka and wine. She’s a beast, but her belly packs a punch.” He unscrewed one of the fuel caps until a small stream of clear liquid ran forth.
He rummaged behind one of the crates and retrieved two small mugs which he filled with the liquid. He handed one to Marley.
“My boy over there may sing the praises of Falernian wine all he likes, but nothing beats pure Russian vodka.”
Marley took the glass and swirled it. Alcohol.
A deafening roar broke the alcoholic silence. The Kibbles representative stood next to the V14 SE1000. An excited group of Sirians surrounded him. They were about to witness a demonstration.
“Here take these,” said Mr Kibbles, “and come watch the show.” He handed Marley a pair of large round earphones. “These should dampen the noise. Mind you, I love the sound of an engine primed. The high-pitch squeal, the vibration in the stomach. Of course, this isn’t primed to full power. Isn’t that right?”
He leaned towards his representative, who didn’t answer because of the noise and the headphones.
The V14’s exhaust thrust was directed into a large concrete sphere filled with water to trap the heat. The sphere dangled from four cables attached to the roof. A further four cables attached it to the floor. They rattled as the orange blaze pushed back the absorption sphere.
As if to reassure Marley, Mr Kibbles pointed at the power output meter. The rocket was firing at one-quarter thrust.
The lead supports upon which the rocket was wedged showed no signs of instability.
Marley looked uncertainly at the cables securing the absorption chamber. A nearby cardboard placard of Jeremiah Kibbles tumbled over. A spotlight dropped from the ceiling and smashed inches away from an oblivious Sirian.
More onlookers surrounded the rocketry demonstration. Some looked concerned, others elated. A Jovian jellyfish recorded on his waterproof flablet.
A familiar but unfriendly face joined the onlookers. To avoid being seen by Rico, Marley hid in front of the rocket. He could see their legs under the nose cone. He walked back to the corner housing the V13. How to persuade Kibbles to part with something that was barely any use to him. To Marley, it was a ticket off the planet.
A crash interrupted Marley’s sulking. A crash so violent it was heard through his protective headphones.
What he saw when he turned around made him blink twice, then three times. He rubbed the corners of his eyes. Everyone was looking at a neat circular hole in the warehouse wall.
The absorption chamber had moved more than 30 feet.
It had come free of its supports and was bouncing along the tarmac outside towards the Sea of Talenia that marked the end of the dockyards. Everyone stared at the gaping hole, pointing, scratching their heads.
Mr Kibbles raced over to the control panel. “Everything is alright. Everyone, the demonstration is a success.”
Rico started clapping. Her three companions joined in, jeering, whistling.
Mr Kibbles whispered into the ear of his worried apprentice. “Find the engineers who rigged the absorption chamber. I will not be made a fool of.” He clapped his hands. “Let the exhibition continue.”
The light from outside caused by the path of destruction darkened. Not by a passing cloud.
Silhouetted against the newly created entrance were three figures. All had their thumbs tucked into their belt.