Rocket Science

The Prequel to Space Juice

Copyright © 2018 Dan Wild

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there, you have been, and there you will always long to return.

 – Leonardo Da Vinci

Chapter 1 – Omniverse – 

The Multiverse was in a particularly bad mood when it first noticed Chuck Marley. It had just snacked on Y77, a small test universe on the fringes of imagination. Y77 was a failed universe and the Multiverse decided to eat it and start again. However, the ingestion of Y77 left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Multiverse. The matter was dark and the cosmic background radiation a little sour.

So it decided to take a break from universe creation for an eon or two. The Multiverse turned its all-seeing eye from the macro to the micro. Usually it left organic affairs to the angels and demiurges, avatars and devas.

But it was bored.

Quickly it scanned the Moo, Sha and Om frequencies to see if there was anything interesting going on.

Nothing much was happening in the Sha universe. There was a modern jazz concert on the event horizon of a black hole, but the Multiverse was sure it had seen something like this before.

In the Moo universe (or Mooniverse) everything was perfect, far too perfect.

But in the Omniverse, something was happening, or was going to happen, or had already happened and was going to happen again. Something pitiful, and almost funny if it wasn’t so tragic, so cringeworthy.

A twenty-year-old mortal of the human race was having a mid-life crisis.

Chuck Marley didn’t like what he was doing.

He watched the flickering screens as bug-eyed students tapped away on consoles. They had consumed too much Gelsem X, a strong liquid stimulant that tasted like medicine and was promoted by high-end athletes. Some students had drunk far too much and had not slept for days. They snored on their keyboards while their screens drew out a series of two or three letters. Some had examinations on the Borsk, an ape-like creature genetically modified to carry luggage, and also used as burger meat. Hospitality students read about “Strangbrew”, unaware that it was named by a linguist on a pub-crawl of the Ceti system.

Chuck Marley was on the verge of completing his CFA, the Chartered Flight Attendant certificate.

He was full of confidence because he had just had a haircut. He recalled his visit to the Bad Ends.

The hairdresser had asked, “Do you want to look like him?” He pointed to a picture of Frisky Benjamin, the famous C-grade actor.

And the haircut was good. He didn’t look like Frisky Benjamin, but every hair knew its place. No longer did he have to fear looking like he’d just emerged from an afternoon nap (which was most of the time).

For the next few weeks Marley roamed the college halls trying to catch the eye of as many species as possible. He posed in front of the mirror. Fulucia the Sirian thought he looked quite sweet, but she was engaged to a banker from Betelgeuse.

Marley did, however, succeed in attracting a couple of Tentacled Shrews, who left two love bites either side of his neck after they accosted him at the Quasar Bar.

Most of all he aspired to be like one of the extremely suave Nunchians of Foon. The Nunchians were an elegant species who prided themselves on being the best-looking humanoids in the galaxy (and, some say, the universe). Known for their consummate grace and wit, they spent as much time under artificial tanning machines as they did discussing the latest results of the classic reality show, Persecution Complex. Sometimes it was bland. But often it was interesting.

Recently the Zorgons had agreed to give one lucky contestant a tour of their primitive city, normally off limits for humans. And they would be given a sample of genuine red dust. Not the cheap imitations circulating on the dark market. An incident purporting to show how the dust was converted into mysterious energy-giving balm was uploaded to MetaCoil but immediately sabotaged. The renegade group, Liberation of Life, or LOL, claimed responsibility. The video was re-uploaded the day after, and taken down again. LOL believed the Zorgons were being exploited and that a large cosmetics company had staged the show to test if red dust had any skin rejuvenation properties.

Marley had bought a vial from a dubious source using vital funds from a monthly allowance given to him by his stepmother. He had diligently mixed the dust with water and rubbed it into his cheeks daily for a week. Nothing happened. However his stepmother would have approved. But she would not have approved of his love of Strangbrew.

He indulged this love at the Quasar Bar where he often found Insomniac Fluton, who was always full of his mad schemes. Once he encouraged Marley to blow a month’s income on an app called LookeyLikey, which matched a photo of you to famous historical figures. Marley was sure it would liken him to Don Bero, hero of the Asteroid Wars. But no, apparently he was a spitting image of Pope Urban II.

Marley lifted his head from the desk and looked around the library. He must have spent five hours, sleeping and daydreaming. He collected his belongings: a laser stylus and fold-up tablet. How behind the times he was. Most people these days used thumb-size holographic projectors for all their entertainment and study needs.

He headed to the Quasar Bar for a pint of Strangbrew.

“You know what I want,” he said to Garibaldi the bartender. Before he had finished saying this Garibaldi had inserted a mug between his limp hands.

The beverage bubbled against his nose.

It was obvious. He had none of the skills of a flight attendant, when at any moment a disgruntled Borsk could spit acid at your feet, or a Tentacled Shrew, uncomfortable with the service, could wrap its many limbs around your torso in fear, or worse, ecstasy.

Why not place his soul on the interstellar barge of fortune? Subject himself to the quantum dice! If he finished his certificate he would have to do the unthinkable. Try and earn a living. But what about travel? What about the Outer-Outer Rim, the frontier realm, what wonders lay beyond the solar system?

He purchased another Strangbrew, asking Garibaldi to add a splash of Reticulum Rum. When rum was added to Strangbrew the steaming mixture was a Fancy Fred, cocktail of the working class: guaranteed for a good night’s sleep. Otherwise he would be up all night thinking about tomorrow.

All flight attendants had to be aware of the perils of space flight: overhead lockers were small, too small to cram inside the lunar golf set, a full bag of counterfeit movies and enough cigarettes and scotch for granny. Every attendant should be able to shove bags in the locker. And catch them when they fell out again.

Marley gazed out the viewing glass. A SpaceBus AA360 lumber overhead to Nutol, one of the largest air, space, sea and land ports in the Outer Rim. The entire complex spanned 20 square miles and was situated 3 miles above sea level.

The latest passenger freighters were so large that conveyor belts ferried people to their seats. Passengers could step off the belts onto a foot-wide stretch of immovable floor. Flight attendants, on the other hand, had to cruise along the conveyor while checking the overhead luggage compartments.

Usually a Nunchian of Foon had crammed every outfit imaginable into his carry-on-baggage, shoved it in the locker and seemingly closed the hatch. As if by clairvoyance, a professional attendant could rapidly assess whether the locker was firmly shut, needed another nudge or whether the entire contents needed repacking. Everything should be smooth, designed to give a sense of comfort and security just before launch.

Marley was due to return to practice tomorrow. Two weeks earlier his supervisor had given him his marching orders when a leather bag full of paintings fell on his head, then landed on the floor with a sickening thud.

He remembered the supervisor’s duck-like voice: “If those had been real paintings imagine the insurance bill of the carrier! The anger of our customer. The embarrassment of the staff!”

Marley rubbed his head. A little red lump was still there, two weeks later.

He couldn’t get the instructor’s voice out of his head. He watched lunar golf on the Quasar Bar’s VT. He concentrated on bland elevator music coming from a hidden speaker. But the instructor inside his head continued: “Unless you want to be serving third-class beings with barely any sapience you’d better get your act together. Don’t come back until you’ve had a full health assessment, psychological andphysical.”

Marley groaned. He didn’t want to go back to training. Everyone would be watching him. Especially Fulucia.

He was told to have a full scan before he returned. He still hadn’t done this, so he slurped down his Fancy Fred and headed back to his quarters.

Chapter 2 – Captain Querulous –

Scanners were placed at select points around everyone’s quarters. MyPanelMate provided up-to-date assessments of health and physical ability. As well as optimising the environment, instant feedback on diet and exercise regimes was constantly fed to the server.

Chuck Marley’s MyPanelMate had never taken much interest in him and he had never bothered to customise it. He had failed to install every software update for the past two years.

Now the integration of MyPanelMate with his other devices was causing first-world problems. His shower didn’t dispense enough soap, or worse, sprayed him with an effeminate body wash. His alarm clock, which probably should never have been integrated with MyPanelMate in the first place, woke him up at 230em and asked run around the room for 3 minutes before ordering him back to sleep. MyPanelMate had ceased to care. Perhaps it sensed that change needed to come from Marley himself, within. Conscious, motivated change.

He scanned his forefinger on the lock and entered his condo. Approaching the primary VT, he ordered a full-body scan. This should detect everything from common colds to a malignant tumour. Marley had subjected himself to one of these two years ago when he was ordered to cut down on Betelgeuse Burgers. He always ordered a large chips with his burgers. The chips were deep fried in a mixture of oils and animal fats…good for the soul only.

MyPanelMate also told him to get a new haircut, unless he wanted to look like a predator from the deep forests of Foon. It was ill befitting for a flight attendant to look like a predator.

Marley waited as MyPanelMate booted. It was increasingly slow because it was so out of date.

A bald computerised head hovered in front of him. “1001 updates available. Download?”

Marley was tempted to click the “Customise” button, which allowed the user to choose which updates were installed. Last time he installed all the latest game downloads while overlooking the optimisation patches. He had mastered tennis because the speed of the game was equivalent to watching water evaporate on Eris. His skill at Buzzball was unsurpassed if playing the game against Sentient Snails was skilful. He had uploaded his score to the Panel of Panels, was disqualified, and barred from further uploads…until he updated his system to real-time speeds.

He made a cup of tea and pressed ‘Update’.

Tea. The liquid kept him at the minimum health standard. He selected a Debussian Ginger Spice.

Debussy was a peaceful planet. It orbited Teegarden’s Star 12 light years from Earth. The Debussians revelled in peaceful activities, such as sipping tea and going on cruise ships. Their economy was based on tea, cultivating plants, and serving tourists whose express purpose was to come to Debussy, play golf and drink tea. Marley had a large selection of tea bags from every region of the Outer Rim.

He dreamed of going to Debussy to sip and zone out. How would he secure independence to do this? Not as a flight attendant.

Doing nothing was a family tradition, a tradition being carried on by his stepmother. Sensing the boy had no direction, she suggested Chuck try flight attendancy, imagining a glamorous career serving ambassadors in 1st class. She enrolled him at Crete 581d’s fifth best university. Marley was not bright enough for the Omicron, the smallest and most prestigious university on the planet.

“Updates complete.” MyPanelMate yawned.

Marley yawned.

MyPanelMate yawned again.

Marley was not about to get into a yawning competition with a computer. “Commence body scan.”

“Proceed to the diamond plate.”

An electric halo encased his body. Circular discharges enveloped him, running from head to foot. They tingled.

“Sir, did you have a nice day?”

“No.”

“Stand by for blood testing.”

Marley hated needles. MyPanelMate ran his distraction scripts. “Did you know the astral whale mates once every 300 years?”

A needle pierced his wrist. “Ow!”

“Human beings are the only species that cry.”

A needle shot into his bicep. “Ow!” Several tears welled.

“Riddick Khan’s batting average of 99.93 is second only to which other player?”

This was interesting…until a needle jabbed his left buttock. “Owow!” He bit his bottom lip and tasted blood.

“Plasma extraction commencing. Duration: 3 minutes.”

Three minutes seemed like an hour. Four clamps held him, preventing him wriggling while blood was extracted. Excerpts from an old Pollywood film played on his VT. It was an action sequence with the hero wielding three scimitars – one in the left hand, one in the right, one in the mouth. He was cutting off the body parts of seven Sirian humanoids who each fought on, minus several limbs. One hopped around with one arm, blood spurting, while he closed in on the hero. Marley supposed that the relentless gore was meant to make him feel better.

Just when it looked like the hero was going to get done by a one armed and one-legged assailant, the screen went blank. Needles whisked from his body.

“Cholesterol: 7. Advice, medicate immediately.” A dispensary in the wall shot three red tablets. “Take these.”

Marley swallowed the pills.

“Immunity: 10 out of 10.” This was because Marley never cleaned his kitchen. Puddles of oil, decomposing chips and mouldy glasses were scattered on the bench. Mushrooms sprouted from the floor. Layers of dust coated every surface and bacteria swam through the air. He was immune to every known virus because he was a grub.

“Take your medication three times daily. Anything else?”

“A psych assessment.” Marley sighed.

“Stand still. Electromagnetic envelope calibrating.”

Aura readers measured the balance of forces in the personality complex and colour varied from age to race. White indicated inner mastery. Green, unfulfilled desire. Dark red betrayed a deep vein of cynicism. The aura of Frisky Benjamin was known to change with each role he played, such was the depth of his acting.

Three green arrows directed Marley to the diamond for another scan.

“Do not move. Open your mind.” A rising hum passed through his entire range of hearing, like a Debussian cruise ship lulling its passengers to sleep.

Bags flashed through his mind: leather bags, suitcases, knapsacks, pouches, rucksacks, backpacks, bumbags, plastic bags, swags, beanbags, handbags. He saw every being he had ever encountered, holding a different bag.

Marley assumed MyPanelMate was assessing his decisiveness. He advanced to the end of the corridor and propelled himself down a set of stairs which continually renewed.

A lift appeared. Its doors creaked open. There were no buttons and Marley sensed no movement. Thirty seconds later the doors opened and he emerged into a hospital ward. The instructor from baggage handling tapped him on the shoulder: “Imagine the insurance bill of the carrier. The insurance bill!” Just when Marley thought the haranguing would never cease, the instructor slid through a crevice and vanished.

The walls became wooden and damp. Continuous dripping followed his echoing steps. He reached an enamel plaque next to a bolted door. Each bolt slid out of its socket and the door opened courtesy of some unseen mechanism. Venturing into the dark chamber, he perceived that the only source of light was a thin, solitary candle.

A hooded man sat in a far corner, shrouded in shadow. A harsh whisper escaped him: “Are you the one I’m looking for?”

“No,” Marley said, “I’ve been looking for you. Or I think I’ve been sent to you.”

“Sit down.” A chair scraped along the floor of its own free will. It pushed at Marley’s posterior. He slumped.  Immediately he felt relaxed. He had heard about neon chairs. They sent the sitter into a trance. His awareness of the MyPanelMate simulation faded and the room became the only reality. The chair was surrounded by a wan, pulsating glow.

At least three minutes elapsed.

“You are a tiny drop in an immense pond.”

Another minute of silence elapsed before the hooded figure opened his mouth, his pen poised over very old paper.

“What is your earliest memory?”

“I’m not sure. Playing in the greenhouse garden.”

“If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?”

“That’s tough.” Marley laughed. “A Jovian Sports Coupe?”

“If you could go back and change something, what would it be?”

“There are too many things I would change.” Marley looked at the floor. “Perhaps I should have run away and joined LOL.”

“Go further into your past.”

“I don’t have much of a past.” He remembered the day his stepmother had departed. In hasty tones she had promised to be back in a month. She left him 10,000 credits and settled his tuition fee. Marley then blew 5,000 credits playing games on the multiweb. His piloting skills had improved, but these bore no relation to his chosen calling: Flight Attendant!

He waited months for his stepmother’s return with quiet desperation. Occasionally a letter came, short and sharp. “On a Debussian cruise ship. 2,000 credits.” “We just sailed past Zorge. What a desolate place! …Deposited another 2,000 credits.” Marley wondered who the “we” referred to. Then: “I married a Nunchian! Happy happy! 4,000 credits for you my boy.”

He said to the hooded figure, “I am thinking about my stepmother.”

“Is that all?”

“I also wonder about, my mother…” Marley sighed. He was the cause of her death. A freak statistic. She was the first Cretan to die in childbirth.

The hooded figure threw a page in the air. It burst into flames. “This is your past. Combusting.”

An exhalation of air brushed the side of Marley’s head. Turning slightly, he thought he saw two figures side by side, one brighter than the other, man and woman. When he looked in their eyes, they disappeared.

“Who are they?”

“That is for you to decide.”

“Are they … my parents?”

“That is for you,” and he paused as if to give the words more merit, “to decide.”

Marley’s only remaining family was his stepmother, and he hadn’t seen her for years. The last memory of his father was also his earliest. He was in his flight suit, helmet under one arm.

On second thoughts, that was not a memory of his father. It was the cartoon hero Captain Querulous.

“When you return, there will be a blue pill in the dispensary. Take it. The psychological assessment is over.”

“Is that all? Who are you?”

The husky voice replied, “That is for you to decide. Perhaps I am a projection of your ideal self.”

“My ideal self doesn’t wear a hood.”

“You lack insight into yourself.” The final three words reverberated around the chamber. He withdrew the hood.

There was nothing there. Marley gasped. His pulse quickened.

The lights on the neon chair brightened and relaxed, soothing him once more. The hooded figure began fading.

Marley quickly declared: “Why is my hooded self here? In this dark room? Where is the proper lighting?”

As if in response to his query the candle brightened. “Your ideal self is deep within. The candle represents your force, and how much of it is left!” There was a hint of menace.

Marley was alarmed. The candle brightened, then dimmed. The hooded figure leaned closer, “Every question asked is part of you. You are curious. Good! You want to be something more… more than you are!”

“You’re telling me,” Marley said, “Or rather, I’m telling me!” Marley laughed.

The hooded figure drew its hood back over the nothingness.

“Doesn’t my ideal self have a sense of humour?”

The hooded figure laughed uproariously. The laugh was wicked, unfathomable and unsettling. For twenty seconds it continued, almost mockingly. As Marley retreated, back up the lift, up the stairs, around the corridors, the laugh followed him. The last laugh was a wheeze. He opened his eyes and found himself curled on the diamond plate. A strange exhalation of wind brushed the side of his head.

A blue pill was waiting for him in the dispensary. These were usually given to people who needed stabilising, one way or another. Marley looked at it sternly, before taking it with the remainder of his tea, which was surprisingly hot. He was sure at least 30 minutes had elapsed since he started wandering through his own unconscious.

The colours encircling him ceased to flash.

Weirdly, he heard the hooded figure whisper into his left ear: “Sleep and you will drown. Seek and you will stumble.” The echoing voice died.

His VT shut itself down.

Chapter 3 – Wiseman –

He preferred to think he’d consulted a prophet, not a psychiatrist. That’s what he told Fulucia in Baggage Handling 101 when she was surprised how quickly he identified luggage the next day. He asked her about the final message from his psychological readout.

“It means what it says. There is no hidden meaning. If you look too hard for what you want, you will not find it.” She flicked her hair.

This was promising. Marley had elicited more than a one-word response.

“What about the words, ‘Sleep and you will drown’?”

“That’s easy! If you oversleep you lose motivation.” She went back to work.

Marley was not satisfied. He wished the conversation had gone on longer.

Zeen Crawdex walked up to him.

“Hello!” Zeen was in a cheerful mood, as usual. Zeen Crawdex seemed to have an answer for everything, although often he was wrong, deliberately. He did everything except study and always achieved high marks. When Marley repeated the sentences to him, Zeen parroted them back slowly with an absurd grin: “Sleep, and you will drown!” He drew the shape of a bubble and drawled, “seek and you stumble.” Whisking his hands away from each other, bursting the bubble, he laughed and sauntered off.

Marley asked everyone in class. This was practically everyone he knew. Then he thought of Gaston D’Imbroglio, the historian who lived next door. Gaston was easy to talk to, unlike a lot of academics. In fact you didn’t need to say anything.

He asked Gaston to the Quasar Bar but Gaston nervously replied that he didn’t drink. He invited him for a cup of tea. Gaston excused himself, saying he was researching his third doctorate on the causes of the Second Asteroid Wars.

Marley despaired. How could he persuade him? It was well known there were no causes for the Second Asteroid Wars. Rather, a bizarre chain of events was set in motion when a misconfigured translation unit rendered every word as ‘no’, which in Sirian is associated with coital activity performed on shellfish from a malfunctioning freezer.

When the Sirians requested the Cretans withdraw their ships from the other side of the wormhole, the Cretan translator said ‘no’ fifteen times before exploding into a shower of fiery confetti.

Gaston’s previous conversations with Marley always occurred in the mess hall and were always one-sided, with Gaston jabbering away about the heroics of Don Bero, hero of the First Asteroid Wars, saviour of the Second.

Gaston was harmless, and knowledgeable. He, if anyone, might shed some light on the meaning of the bothesome epigrams.

Unlike the whimsical Zeen Crawdex, Gaston took you seriously. He took everyone seriously and everything literally. He had something to say on every subject under the suns, if you could get him away from his books. Marley thought he was mad, but as the Sirian saying goes, “There is more to a nut than its shell!”

There was one item that Marley thought might tweak Gaston’s curiosity. A manuscript in the Great Library, wedged between two electronic book readers. He had noticed it while meandering through the aisles, looking up every subject except that which he was supposed to be studying. The manuscript was about two inches thick, bound with string. On the vellum cover was a circle of symbols.

At the entrance to the library, on the frieze now before him, was a set of similar symbols. They looked like animal icons.

For some reason he remembered his youthful idealism, when he had toyed with joining the Liberation of Life movement. The LOL was a loose underground collective. No one knew its origins, its leader or where it was headquartered. Its sole purpose was to protect all races against tyranny and exploitation. When he mentioned LOL to his stepmother, she laughed. “LOL does not exist! One day you’ll thank me, when you’re a very good flight attendant.”

Sculpted on the library frieze were great explorers, pioneers and astronomers: Phineas Sheldon, his arm raised towards the sky, on his palm resting the first inhabitable world sighted from Earth using advanced spectroscopy, average by today’s standards but still impressive. Captain Stanislaw Somiva, leader of the first expedition to the third-closest star to Sol, Wolf 359. Captain Somiva found nothing but an aged small red sun surrounded by three dead rocks – these were the days when space exploration was hit and miss – but he managed to plant a flag on each of these rocks, claiming them as his own.

Astride a pillar on top of the frieze was Lord Humbrous of Burgundy, Third Overlord and sponsor of the alarm clock’s adaptable snooze button.

On either side of Lord Humbrous, the flags of most intelligent life forms in the Outer Rim fluttered in a breeze that could not be felt below.

The Betelgeusian flag was ovular, orange with a deep red centre. The Betelgeusians, originally from Earth, declared their independence after the First Asteroid Wars.

The Sirians were represented by a collection of blue stars on a grey background shaped like a dog’s head. Sirians looked almost human, but the two races had no matching genetic material.

The flag of the Tentacled Shrews depicted a tall tree with many branches, while the Nunchians of Foon idealised a Nunchian male, with flowing locks and folded arms.

The Zorgons of Zorge didn’t have a flag, they didn’t know the library existed and wouldn’t have cared had they known.

As for the Sentient Snails, communication on a sensible level was still trying to be made. One of the great debates of the age was whether the snails were sentient as we know it. However, a place for their flag had been left vacant for when they finally came out of their shells.

Jovian Jellyfish had been petitioning for a flag at the Great Library for hundreds of years. They were far superior in intelligence than any other race. But the Library had refused their application, citing lack of funds for the aquatank. This dispute is still before the Interstellar Committee of Equal Opportunity, but Jovian Jellyfish need no affirmative action on their behalf. Despite having to be carried around in tanks, a Jovian Jellyfish is on the board of most conglomerates. There are also Jovian academics and film producers.

Above all the other flags flew the flag of Crete 581d – seven black and red triangles with an orange star in the centre. Chuck Marley thought little of the history behind the flags. Looking at the flag of Crete, he wondered how he could escape, like his stepmother before him.

He climbed the stairs, two at a time, and hovered within the lobby. From here he could see the backs of people sitting on the 49 steps. Others stood with hand above head, blocking out the artificial sunlight.

The Library claimed to house the biggest collection of databases and V-books this side of the known galaxy. When Chuck was last cramming for Xenophobic Etiquette he had stumbled upon the manuscript, loosely bound and precariously resting between two large volumes of Wiseman’s 1000 volume masterpiece, Brown Dwarfs of Crete: The Impossible becomes Possible. Chuck Marley had spent his whole life on Crete 581d and never had seen anything like this. No buttons, no scrollbars, no touch-sensitive screen. It wasn’t a Book, as the larger V-readers were known as. Some texts, such as Wiseman’s Brown Dwarfs of Crete, were so immense and contained so much text and graphics that they needed a V-reader, sometimes even several readers and a server room.

When ‘book’ was lowercase, it was a paper book. These were exceedingly rare. However, it was difficult to tell if they were rare or worthless, as they came back into fashion now and then (the dangers of dropping a V-reader in the bath were well established).

Marley had established that this manuscript wasn’t even a book in the old sense. He remembered smelling it, and sneezing.

He must rediscover the location of the manuscript. It was between two of Wiseman’s volumes, but which two? There were 1,000 of them spread across 10 aisles. He decided to do some studying to clear his mind.

He flicked absent-mindedly through a reference Book on Xenophobic Etiquette. The premise behind Xenophobic Etiquette was that alien species were naturally afraid of each other. Many studies had been conducted on how to overcome the boundaries of fear and, if possible, befriend.

The V-reader Marley used was several decades old and the text was probably out of date. It was well known that you should never refer to a Jellyfish of Europa as a Jovian Jellyfish. However, the reference neglected to mention that ‘Jovial Jellyfish’ was fine, and was a good way to break the ice with particularly high-minded specimens. The V-reader also badly tried to simulate the turning of a page and had a very dodgy screen. The text was hidden behind brown smudges of fingerprints.

“Krimlin!” This was one of many Cretan obscenities censored by the Intergalactic Prudence Board. “I’ll never be able to study. This V-reader is useless.” He slapped it onto the desk. It emitted a hiss of static and began to scroll rapidly and continuously upwards. He shook it. The screen froze and the system went into reboot. He went after the manuscript.

Twenty aisles stretched from right to left. Ten of them housed Wiseman. He knew he was on the correct level of the library because he had been in the private study section when he came across it six weeks ago. He walked down the first aisle. If only the text was catalogued in a database. He knew this wouldn’t be the case. It was far too unusual.

He absently stroked each book in passing, trying to sense if any had been removed or recently re-shelved. The first aisle took twenty minutes. He removed eight black books that looked similar to those next to the manuscript. What exactly was he looking for? Was it an early book, was it even a book?

An hour passed as he made his way through Aisles 5 to 8. Maybe he should return tomorrow. Maybe he shouldn’t return at all but just storm into Gaston’s room and try and weasel as much information out of him as possible. No, hedidn’t want to appear mad.

Perhaps he should give up on Gaston and forget about the psychiatric readout. The final words probably meant exactly what they said. Mere spiritual sayings designed to motivate him, to stop his life crumbling. For the tiniest split second his thoughts leapt as he recalled the crumbling book. Could the crumbs of paper still be on the floor?

He peered under the shelves. He had a view of the entire floor of this section and discerned some very nice ankles. He lay down and closed one eye, squinting.

Over in the corner appeared to be three scraps of paper. Aisle 12! He slammed his fist down with enthusiasm.

A Sirian voice addressed him as he was getting to his feet. “Excuse me Sir. There is to be no sleeping on the floor of the library. In fact there is no sleeping in the library at all.”

“I’m not dozing. I merely dropped something.”

“Oh, is that it? By the way, I was joking about no sleeping in the library. In fact we specialise in providing patrons with books guaranteed to make you sleep. What about Clarke’s Effects of Solar Flares on Sub-polar Industry, or perhaps Captain Grimwald’s Tails of an Eccentric Comet?”

Marley pretended to like the Sirian’s effort at humour. He slapped him on the back. “Next time I’m here, bring me Captain Grimwald and a cushion.”

The librarian found this particularly funny. He hooted and slapped his thigh.

Marley made his way to Aisle 12.

The librarian did a little jig. “I’ll also bring you Memoirs of a Quasi-Geisha.”

Marley quite liked the sound of that, but kept on walking.At the end of Aisle 12 he spotted three scraps on the floor. He hurried onward.

He bent over to retrieve the scraps. He was breathless. They were wrappers for Chester’s Chewy Space Bars. No words could express his dismay. He had spent hours searching for the one thing that would interest Gaston, and it certainly wasn’t going to be wrappings of Chester’s Chewy Space Bars.

He head-butted the shelves. This only exacerbated the painful bump from his baggage-handling injury. The contents on the shelves were as solid as granite. He kicked the bottom shelf. In the next aisle he heard something flutter to the floor.

He rushed to Aisle 13. His kick had been firm enough to dislodge two pages. This must be it! He was about to grab the rest of the manuscript between the shelves when he remembered how fragile it had been. He slowly gripped the bound leather binding. He placed his hand underneath the book to stop further pages slipping out.

Slowly, he opened it. The inside cover had dark green patches of mildew. It had been here for centuries, perhaps eons. He didn’t know how to hold it. In his native stupidity he tipped it upside down and several more pages flew out. He gathered the pieces together and reassembled them on a nearby shelf. Someone had spilt tea on it, long ago. Strange squiggly lines ran in a semi-even fashion. Above these lines were pictures, meticulous diagrams that looked like machines at the dawn of the technology age, or sketches from a cyberpunk V-comic. He recognised writing at the top of one of the pages. He traced the strange flowing ink with the tip of his finger. No way there was a scanning code, so he may as well smuggle the pages out of the library.

Before putting the manuscript in his bag he had one last look. Maybe he could advertise this on the dark market. He pondered the scribbles. One looked like a drawing of a human eyeball, another was an elaborate plan for a building with pulleys and wheels. There was a puppet on strings, a big sheet above its head.

What really attracted his attention was a long tube of toothpaste that someone had squeezed tightly in the middle. It could be a spaceship for all he knew, one of those crazy Jovian coupes made during the mining boom.

Marley purchased a coffee on his way out.

When he reached the bottom of the worn stone stairs he turned around.

The flags of the sentient races reminded him of just how many known and unknown wonders he still had to see.