Marley looked puzzled. He looked more puzzled when the control surfaces began to move by themselves.
“Engine firing initiated.” The console voiced its status report with more urgency.
Marley tried to force-quit the application and shut-down his flablet. Rebooting the system made no difference to the status of the Anaconda.
“Test complete. Initiating launch sequence.”
“What?” said Marley and Gaston in unison.
“Um, what?” Zorgeous added weakly.
Marley and Gaston turned to him. A wafer of electric current flowed between his antlers. It branched to the hologram display and enveloped the ship.
“You!” said Marley. “Shut it down!”
Zorgeous said between gasps, “I..I cannot do that.”
“Launch sequence initiated. Launch time in 30 minutes.”
Zorgeous thrust his head backwards. He shook; his chitin layer began to smoke. His head vibrated like a washing machine on final rinse.
“He needs to be earthed,” cried Gaston.
Marley saw only one way to ‘earth’ Zorgeous. He retrieved a metal wine flagon. With no hesitation he swung and connected with the back of Zorgeous’s head. Zorgeous went down like a sack of frozen giblets. The sound of iron bar against skull gave off a satisfying twang.
Gaston stood rooted to the spot, his eyeballs swivelling. Despite many years of researching the Asteroid Wars and its cast of heroes and villains, when presented with actual violence Gaston was queasy.
“What did you expect me to do?” said Marley. “You saw him? He’s initiated the launch sequence. He’s sabotaged everything.”
The door to the VIP room swung open and the concierge admitted another guest.
“Master Marley. Come quickly. Ship is firing.” Doookie’s limbs flayed about. He ran on the spot, then ran out, practically leaving a trail of smoke.
Marley began dragging the prostrate body of Zorgeous after him. “Come on Gaston, help me.”
Gaston grabbed Zorgeous’s other arm. “He’s breathing.”
“Yes. And he’s got a lot of explaining to do when he wakes up. Wherever he wakes up.”
“Let’s put him on the ship. If there’s a reward for Zorgeous, anywhere, we’re claiming it.”
They fled down the walkway to Dookie’s Spare Space Parts. Moszkowski flagged down a robot-assistance car and they loaded the body of Zorgeous. Everyone clambered on. Although the car was well over its weight threshold, it heaved forward faster than they could walk.
Dookie whizzed out to meet them. “What have you been doing? Hyperdrive is activated.”
“What?” Marley looked at him wide-eyed.
“You said the core was burnt out.” Moszkowski threw his arms up in disbelief.
“What’s it focused on?” Moszkowski knew a craft’s destination could be deduced from the hyperdrive signature emitted before each jump.
“This place I not know. It in Pavlov system.” Doookie jumped up and down before a particularly old monitor.
“Pavlov? That’s where Zorgeous is from.” Gaston tried to rouse the Zorgon by tugging his cheeks accompanied by a few gentle slaps.
“So this is all his doing.” Marley joined in the slapping. “He has greater powers than he imagines. Obviously they are no longer dormant. Wake up, Zorgon!”
Doookie darted back and forth in front of the banks of monitors stacked on his shelves. “Launch time 45 minutes.”
“Looks like if I want to keep this ship…Your ship, Professor Moszkowski, I’m going to have to leave Crete 581d…very soon.”
“Keep in touch.” Moszkowski winked. “I never really believed in the cliché that all things happen for a reason. But I’ll never find a better time to say it…than now.”
Gaston Dimble dragged Insomniac Fluton to the hatchway. “There really is a washing machine next to the warp drive. And it has some clothes in it.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Insomniac Fluton emitted a deep and sonorous yawn, long and mellifluous even by his standards.
“Then go on in.” Dimble uncharacteristically pushed Fluton, who eventually relented.
Suspenseful music played throughout the Anaconda. It had been preprogrammed to select background music whenever it was crewed.
“Music off. That’s better.” Marley turned to Zeen and the Professor. He gave them a cursory nod. Then a smile and a salute. They returned in kind.
He made his way to the cockpit, seated himself in the captain’s chair and ran his eyes over the numerous monitors. Everything was operational. He didn’t know what half the readouts meant, but as long as there were fewer red bits than green bits he was cool.
The radio crackled and the voice of a clearance controller came online: “Hyperdrive signature detected. Loophole 17 has been opened. Passage to Pavlov anticipated. 40,000 credit levy for short-notice declaration.”
“What? We have little choice in this.” This levy was quite steep, and would put a dent in their already fine profit margins.
“This is Gaston Dimble, First Officer of the Anaconda. Beep.”
Marley bristled. Gaston always butted into things. This was his moment. But he had enough to worry about. Zorgeous, for example. Who was safely chained in the hold, with Insomniac Fluton looking over him (watchful and alert, no doubt).
Marley leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Course and destination?” The clearance controller ended his sentence with the customary ‘Beep’.
“You know as good as we do.” The Anaconda was not yet installed with a beeping upgrade, so Gaston voiced the beep manually. “Beep.”
“Stop that ridiculous beeping Dimble, this isn’t Star Busters. Beep. ” Marley fastened his seatbelt.
“Number of passengers and crew?”
A bead of sweat trickled down Gaston’s forehead. It took three minutes to get from hairline to chin. As the Anaconda neared the entrance to Loophole 17, the densely freckled space twisted itself into a horizontal figure eight. Gaston felt his stomach churn. He headed for the cockpit lavatory.
Marley called out, “Make sure you flush and scrub.”
Beep. “What was that?” The monotone voice was back.
“Make sure you flush and– Oh, sorry. My First Officer has had a fit of the tingles.”
Marley did not like tests, and had never dreamed that he would one day pass his moon-buggy exam, let alone get a Flight Permit.
To pass, usually you had to first complete the hologram simulation, and if the instructor judged you capable of manning an actual craft you would get the chance to go for the second test. This involved weaving through asteroid colonies, strutting on magnetic fields and eventually shooting your way out of the solar system into the Oort Cloud. Then you would use the energy gained in the Bow Shock to sling the craft back into the heliosphere, without losing time to buy the instructor dinner. The only part of the test Marley thought he would pass was jettisoning the instructor into any nearby interstellar medium.
But luckily, Insomniac Fluton had a flight permit. He had spent many a night mastering flight simulators and had actually passed a valid test, given online by a provider located somewhere on Crete 581C. Not the conventional route to becoming an authorised pilot. Even as a taxi operator, you’d be starting in all the places where no one wanted to fly.
But what mattered was that Fluton was fine with Marley using his credentials, as long as Marley promoted FaceMash whenever he could. “Flight Permit: 2065-4269C. Fluton, Insomniac. And have you heard of the app FaceMash?”
Gaston returned to his station. Marley nudged him in the ribs. “Feeling better, Dimble?”
The radio emitted strange guttural noises as if someone was swallowing a tissue, then crackled and hissed like a boiling kettle. The Clearance Controller stated: “You may proceed…on one condition.”
“Yes, yes. The condition.” Marley stared impatiently. “Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.”
There was another silence…then a gulping noise that sounded like regurgitation of the tissue. “The condition is…Insomniac Fluton must be in the captain’s chair.”
“How the fuck do you know who’s in the …”
“Scanners. Powerful ones. And thanks for promoting FaceMash. Next time say what it’s about, alright?”
“Insomniac, you’re always just in time.” Marley stroked the captain’s chair as if it was a cat.
“Let’s go. Look, the loophole’s almost open.”
The Anaconda angled towards Loophole 17. The nose of the ship pointed towards the left side of the widening figure eight. “Passengers and crew…”
Marley bent over Fluton and the console.
“…Prepare to enter the loophole!”
He cycled through the singularity shifts.
He eased the flight-stick forward.
The ship, including its contents and the contents of the crew, hurled into space like a vase in a domestic argument.
Then there was silence.
And the multiverse saw that the silence was good.
And it was pleased.
(Not quite) The End