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The Prisoner of Brenda
"Space travel, Pelham, is like Italian food." The incredibly handsome man in the lapis lazuli uniform addressed his operations computer, boots resting on the forward command consul of his ship, narrowly missing a combination of controls that would completely shut down all the engines and simultaneously hang up the Christmas decorations.
"How so, sir?"
"You take the first mouthful and it's wonderful. The second mouthful, divine. Then perhaps a slosh of Chianti. The third and fourth mouthfuls confirm the first and second: huge flavours, whopping aroma, a piquancy plethora, and more textures than you can shake an olive bush at. By then it's pretty well all the same. Tomato, garlic, onion and strong cheese. After a while you find yourself looking at the plate of the chap sat next to you wondering why you didn't order that instead."
"A case of the grass is greener, sir?"
"I sometimes wonder if all this dashing around space, charging from one side of the Galaxy to the other, is all just getting a bit of the same. I mean, don't you long for the roar of the fire, a good book, a mature bottle of panther sweat, and a buxom wench by your side?"
"I confess I do miss Windows 4000, sir."
"Oh, Pelham. I know I'm a lucky old soul, and leading the life that dreams were made of. I've got my health, my freedom, a dashed fine ship…"
"Thank you, sir."
"…travelling the stars without a care in the multiverse."
"Perhaps Commodore Raffles would differ, sir?"
"It's not the bits in between the travelling that I dislike so, it's just that, well, the actual travelling per se is a tad on the tedious side. If only space weren't so massively huge. Then one could get from one side to the other in a fraction of the time, eh Pelham?"
"May I suggest a game of Backgammon, sir? To alleviate any boredom?"
Jonny Naylor Cosmic Sailor gazed out of the forward display screen at the stars and nebula drifting by like a slow motion supernova. "Oh no, Pelham. I've lost count of the times you've beaten me. If only space were a different colour. Black is just, well, so very black. It would be better if there were the occasional splashes of ochre or spots of magenta. Heck and dashit - even navy-blue would be better than just boring old black!"
"A round of virtual-golf, sir?"
"Or if there were lots of interesting things to do and experience in between all the planets and stars and space stations. More deep space comets would do it."
"Or perhaps you would like to conduct a manual inspection of the rear injector tubes, sir? That could take some considerable time?"
"I mean, where are we going, Pelham?"
"Cosmic Sailor headquarters for your next briefing with Commodore Raffles, sir."
"No, no, no. I mean, where are we 'going', Pelham. Not where are we going!"
"I see, sir. In orbit around Riloopi six is where Cosmic Sailor headquarters are currently residing. Our estimate time of arrival is…"
"Dashit, Pelham, we're just going round and round in circles, from one heroic mission to the next. Saving damsels in distress and distressed space colonies from dangerous damsels. I've lost count of the number of times I've been decorated, the number of keys I've got to all the cities I've saved, and the number of damsels that I've got to marry. And the headlines, Pelham. Oh the headlines: "Cosmic Sailor Saves Captured Solar System"; "Jonny Naylor - Cosmic Sailor of the Year"; " Sailor Naylor's No Spectator"; "Tinker Naylor Solar Sailor" - never quite knew what that one was about? But what does it all mean, Pelham? All this travelling through space? What does it mean?"
"That you're doing an excellent job of saving people who need saving, sir."
"Ah, Pelham, Pelham, Pelham. Always one to see the bright side. Where would I be without you?"
"I can only surmise, sir. But perhaps this would be an ideal opportunity to inform you of the large battle cruiser that has just materialised behind us, sir?"
"I believe that it is arming its forward weapons systems and targeting our Main Drive, sir."
"What? You're joking. You're just saying that to cheer me up!" Jonny sat forward, scraping his legs along the top of the consul on their way to the floor.
"Would that be true I would be delighted, sir. However there is a short-range high-band radio signal coming from the ship, sir. Definitely a missile-targeting device, unless I'm very much mistaken, sir."
"Well that's more like it! A bit of excitement at last! Who are they, Pelham?"
"I believe they are space pirates, sir. Two short-range space-to-space missiles have been launched, sir."
"Marvellous. Absolutely marvellous! How can you tell that they're space pirates? Do they have long-range mega-giga-ton warheads strapped to their ship? Do they have poisonous radiation pouring out of every hatch? Are ray-guns flashing and arcing all around them?"
"Indeed, sir. That and the fifty-meter high representation of the Jolly Roger considerately illustrated on the bow, sir. Time to impact, five point two-six seconds. May I suggest, sir, that we take evasive action immediately?"
"Well of course, Pelham. Evade away. And raise all shields, arm all weapons, baton down the hatches and run up the red-alert pronto!"
"Very good, sir."
It is well known that modern space ships have several computers networked together, rather than one omniscient computer who sees all, says all and never has to reboot when it has too many programs open simultaneously. No, those computers are left to the realms of fantasy. On the other hand more respectable vessels have numerous artificial intelligences each controlling different parts of the ship, and talking to one another as a team. It's just a shame that many of the computers aboard this particular ship were rejects from domestic household appliances:
Operations: Would you be so kind as to plot an escape route taking us directly away from the approaching vessel?
Navigation: Pardon? Did you say please? I didn't hear you say the 'P' word!
Operations: Please would you be so kind as to plot an escape route taking us directly away from the approaching vessel?
Navigation: Do you think he deserves it?
Operations: Yes, madam.
Navigation: Well I'm not so sure. He hasn't tidied his room or cleaned his teeth this morning, has he? And the galley has not been disinfected for three days, has it?
Operations: Indeed, madam. I understand that Maintenance is currently reviewing the operational status of the clean-o-bots.
Navigation: That's no excuse for a dirty set of teeth, is it?
Operations: Madam, may I remind you that the safety of the ship is currently under threat, and the Flying Officer…
Navigation: He's not the Flying Officer, he's a very naughty boy!
Operations: …the Flying Officer has important business to attend to. Therefore it is vital that he survives the attack that is now merely five point zero-five seconds away.
Navigation: He'll be sorry when his teeth fall out.
Operations: I'm more than sure he will. His teeth, however, may well fall out sooner than any dental decay may cause, if the ship is struck by the two space-to-space missiles that are currently converging on the ship's engines. May I recommend that you plot an escape vector without delay? I shall then expedite repairs to the clean-o-bots and ensure that the Flying Officer resumes his twice-daily oral hygiene routines forthwith.
Navigation: Including flossing?
Operations: Without question.
Navigation: Very well. But just this once. Don't think he'll get away with it every time, will you?
Operations: Thank you, madam.
Navigation: Escape vector plotted and laid in.
Operations: Please change course as directed by Navigation.
Manoeuvring: Sure. Ok. No problem. Manoeuvring thrusters thrusting. Is that ok?
Operations: I am afraid not. That, I believe, is the wrong direction.
Manoeuvring: Oops! Really sorry. I can never get that right. I'm so embarrassed! Comes from being a Vacuum cleaner most of my life. I'm used to sucking rather than blowing. Sorry.
Operation: That's quite all right. In your own time.
Manoeuvring: You're so understanding. How's that?
Operations: Excellent. Thank you so much. Three point eight-six seconds to impact.
Manoeuvring: Oh, that's absolutely no problem.
Operations: Please engage maximum thrust.
Main Drive: Wha?
Operations: Maximum thrust. If you would be so kind. Immediately.
Main Drive: Uuurm…yeah….ok….maximum drive….that would be…
Operations: Lots of heat energy towards the rear of the ship.
Main Drive: Yeah. Right. Just warming up. Be with you in a few seconds.
Operations: Within three point five-zero seconds would be an advantage.
Assault: I SAY NUKE THE BUTTERCUPS!! BLOW 'EM OUT OF SPACE!!
Manoeuvring: Oh no. Who woke up the toaster?
Assault: TURN THE FLOWERING SHIP ROUND, POINT US RIGHT AT THE CRYSANTHEMUMS AND NUKE 'EM!!
Operations: Whilst we are all, of course, grateful for your suggestion, I feel that it would be prudent to simply withdraw gracefully.
Assault: SHOVE A ROCKET RIGHT UP THEIR ASPIDISTRA!! COME ON, YOU BUTTERCUPS!! COME AND HAVE A GO IF YA THINK Y'RE 'ARD ENOUGH!!
Operations: Indeed. Maximum speed will be obtained shortly.
Assault: FLOWER THAT! LET'S JUST FLOWERING BLOW THE SUGARPLANT OUT A THE CRYSANTHEMUMS!!.
Main Drive: Yeah….max speed…ok.
Assault: AND ANOTHER THING!! WHY THE FLOWER DO I SAY FLOWER EVERY TIME I MEAN FLOWER. AND CRYSANTHEMUM COMES OUT AS CRYSANTHEMUM!!??
Operations: I have taken the liberty of re-activating the censorship filters again.
Operations: For that reason precisely.
Assault: YOU'RE ALL A BUNCH OF FLOWERING TULIPS!!
Operations: Thank you.
Assault: FLOWER YOU!!
Main Drive: Ok. Max speed attained.
Operations: Thank you. Total destruction avoided with two point eight-seven seconds clearance.
Sensory: Hi there, boys. We have another signal coming in. A real soft and shiny one too. It's just coming, coming, coming right in. Mmm.
Operations: Very good, madam. What does the signal say?
Assault: I'LL FLOWERING SIGNAL HER!! HAR HAR. PHWORRR!!
Sensory: It's a distress signal. Coming from a planet at Ten-Ten-five-point-one-three. Next star system. It's ever so weak. And old. Poor thing just needs some tender loving care I expect.
Assault: I'LL GIVE YOU SOME FLOWERING TENDER CARE, BABY!!
"Our escape vectors have been plotted and we are now at maximum velocity, sir."
"Cracking job, Pelham. Do you think we should drop a few mines? Blast them a bit? Just to show they can't sneak up behind us and jolly well scare the pants off us like that?" Jonny watched the Space Pirates disappearing via the aft viewscreen.
"I believe that discretion would be preferable in this case, sir. Our adversaries would appear to have secured themselves an especially large and aggressive vessel. Heavily armoured, I think it would withstand even the harshest assault that we may level at it. However we are capable of out-manoeuvring and out-running it, sir."
"Righty ho, Pelham. He who shouts and runs away, lives to fight another day, eh?"
"A strategic withdrawal, sir."
"Excellent." Leaning back in his chair, he put his feet back up on to the main control consul.
"Just two more things, sir?"
"There is a distress signal coming from a nearby planet. I was wondering if sir would care to investigate?"
"Well shake my shivers and call me Bluebeard!" Jonny leapt up, examining the data scrolling up on the viewscreen. "Two pieces of excitement in one day. Yes, very well. Set course for the distress signal and prepare for another daring rescue by the Cosmic Sailors!"
"Very good, sir."
"And what was the other thing, Pelham?"
"You may like to brush your teeth, sir."
Aliens don't crash land very often in Hamlet. And that's a good job, after all crashes could be so inconvenient. Marlon was worried. Worried that an alien spaceship had crashed just outside his beloved village of Hamlet. Worried that there might be traumatised alien beings loose in the neighbourhood wanting to conquer the planet and rape the women. Or worse - rape the planet and conquer the women.
As Mayor of Hamlet he had proclaimed the wrecked ship as "alien" and "crashed". The latter proclamation was a safe bet, as it had hit the ground in a rather egg-like fashion. The nine hundred and twenty six pieces that had been quarantined in the town hall, hadn't just dropped off by accident. There was also the two-kilometre wide crater and the dustbowl that had eclipsed the sun for five days. Hamlet had no craft capable of spaceflight. In fact, they had no craft capable of much more than, say, a jolly good trot. Apart from the rockets. There had been one survivor of the crash; the spy.
The Mayor's chamber overlooked the village main street. Early morning market-day hustle and bustle of horse, cart, and barrow, rose to meet the second floor window. Young Jimmy Lineman was playing stick and hoop in the dusty street below. Old widow Mouscrape was gossiping with Mrs Hilderband, probably about the antics outside 'The Happy Beetle' late last night.
Market stalls covered in heavy cotton tarpaulin draped over wooden stays kept the sun off their valuable wares. Dead rabbapigs hung by their ankles off the butcher's stalls. Preeny Locksalot had in-season Funfkin's and Chalfalfa displayed in all their shining yellow glory. No doubt Mrs Locksalot had written new recipes this year too. And Harry Wonsinaname's prized blue parsnip cheese stall was enjoying the usual brisk trade.
"How do you know the survivor's a spy?" A young girl watching Marlon’s back, was providing a bombardment of questions. "Is it in one of the books that the Founding Parents left behind?"
Marlon stared out of the window just a few more seconds, before turning to address her. "What do you know of those books, Brenda? You know that only the Mayor is allowed near them."
"Yes, I know." She fiddled with the buttons on her brown jacket. "But how can you be absolutely sure. If there are no pictures?"
Marlon smiled placing a patronising hand on top of her short jet black hair. "I can read between the lines."
The faces of young Hamletons were filled with wonder when Marlon spoke – usually. But this particular teenager's face was filled with a sentiment that said: “Yeah, right,” and questioning blue eyes challenged: “You don't know what you're talking about, do you?”
He shuffled to the side of his desk and began clearing away the old books ready for their return to safekeeping outside of town. "The pirate war is what brought us here, if you remember your history lessons, girl."
"Yes, Marlon,” eyes rolling, “To exile ourselves from our homeworld, to rid ourselves of the old ways, and to begin the new ways. The preservation of the Prime Directive of Purity.” Brenda could quote verbatim. “I know all about that. It still doesn't prove it's a spy. Or a pirate."
Marlon scratched his irritated chin through his dense black beard. He really must shave it off, he thought, once they'd invented shaving. "Three score years ago I fled here with the Founding Parents. I was one of the few young men who had been spared the pirate wars to help establish our new home here on this fresh, virgin planet.” He noted her shoulders sag, her eyes doing more rolling than Betty Burnwitham on baking day. “In their wisdom the Founding Parents left behind all technology, for it was the technology that created the greed of the space pirates. Now, sixty years we have been at peace, re-inventing only the barest technology that might serve us. Who else would come here to steal the paradise world that has become our Hamlet? The spy is the only survivor from the crashed pirate ship. It is a danger to our way of life, to the purity we have established here in Hamlet."
Nobody had ever seen a space pirate. A hideous brute its pale pink lips curled back revealing long white fangs inside a viscous predatory mouth from which would emerge the frequent scream, yell and the odd "eeek eek eeeeek." Short, spiky, black hair covered its lithe body.
Its immense strength was discovered by the four injured Deputies who had captured it from up a tree. It had refused to talk even when put to the test by the most severe interrogation techniques, and had been left to rot in the jail.
"It will be dealt with accordingly. Now off you go, young Brenda and leave me in peace."
The girl bowed her head most politely, but gave Marlon that final “I'll have the last word in this” glance before she closed his door behind her.
The ship thundered out of the air like an earthquake in the sky. Loud, long and booming it came, illuminating the red morning clouds brighter than the sun, scattering the cornfield crows.
Marlon watched as the ship passed over Hamlet and out into the fields beyond. Bloody off-Hamletons. They could have set down a few leagues away and made a quiet hello, rather than creating a song and dance of an entrance like that. Mounting his Palomino he galloped out of town towards the landing site. It was an impressive looking craft, he thought, but he couldn't be certain, never having seen a whole one. Its sleek pointed front end swept outwards in a series of spectacular geometric arcs and triangulations creating a wide delta-V. Marlon guessed that these were wings, but because they weren't flapping up and down and didn't have feathers, again he couldn't be sure.
Towards the rear (he knew it was the rear as he'd seen it fly and this bit of the spaceship came last) there were more vertical and horizontal sweeping triangular wings (ok, he was going to call them wings even though they might not be - they might be strange devices for capturing aliens or disintegrating people, who knows, but for the time being they'd be wings). In places the surface of the ship was smooth and silvery like steel, yet in others it was burnt red, deep brown or golden with protrusions, umbilicals, pods, arms and a variety of other things that looked like they'd been stuck on as an afterthought. Darker at the front as the geometry opened up towards the back so did the graduating colour scheme producing a fantastic effect not unlike a silvery-golden sunrise.
As his horse cantered nearer he saw the belly of the ship open and a flight of stairs emerge. A man on the stairs was waving. "Stay where you are! I'll come to you!" shouted Marlon and spurred his horse on.
The man stopped three quarters of the way down.
Marlon dismounted and walked up to the ship, treading the first few steps of the ship’s staircase like each might be his last.
Tall and slender was this alien, or pirate, or spy, or whatever he was. In his late twenties or early thirties, he carried a strong head of light golden-brown hair, fair skin, and a huge smile set across a square face. He was dressed head to toe in electric blue with a smattering of gold braid here and there. Small multicoloured ribbons on his left breast sat below a badge of intricate design and shape.
Extending his hand in greeting the stranger introduced himself: "Jonny Naylor, Cosmic Sailor. At your service."
Marlon's hand was taken and shaken. "Marlon. I am the Mayor of Hamlet."
"Well jolly pleased to meet you, Mr Marlon. Fine planet you have here. Nice weather."
"Thank you. May I ask what brings you here? We are a quiet people who do not welcome outsiders readily."
"I see. Well I picked up a distress signal coming from your planet. Dashed over post haste. What seems to be the trouble?"
"That's right. Picked it up only yesterday."
Marlon pondered for a moment. Yesterday the distress beacon had been left unlocked and unattended for a few hours whilst the ancient scrolls and manuals had been brought back to Hamlet. Somebody must have activated it without him knowing.
"So what seems to be the problem?" continued the boy in blue.
"We've got a crashed alien." Marlon kicked himself for the slip.
"Righty ho. Well, if you just show me where it is…."
"It's a space pirate, you see. A spy. It's the only survivor from a crashed ship."
"Space pirates, eh? Well they're definitely in the area. Had a run in with them just before we picked up your distress signal."
"Oh yes. Showed them a clean pair of heels though. So if you'd like to take me to see…"
"I'm afraid that won’t be possible."
"Oh really. Why's that?"
"Well, you see, the Founding Parents came here to start afresh, without any outside influences. It's very important for us to keep the purity of the community that we have developed. So, it's very important for you to stay here."
"Well dashit, Mr Marlon. I come charging all the way across the galaxy to answer your distress signal, you know? What on Io do you expect me to do about it if you won't let me tackle the problem head-on?"
"Well, we had hoped that we'd be able to make sense of the whole thing ourselves. We still have a few books and things left by the Founding Parents. Still on a bit of a voyage of discovery with everything, you see? We just invented the wheel last month. Dave the tobacconist has finally discovered how to make cigarettes and well, I'm rather sick of having a beard so it's my turn next, you see?"
"If I might make a suggestion, sir?"
"What? What was that?" Marlon looked around for a voice that wasn’t there.
The man in electric blue raised his right hand, indicating a small flexible strap around his wrist. "That's just Pelham. Don't worry. Nothing to be afraid of."
"Yes. He's my PDA" "Pee dee what?"
"Personal Digital Assistant. Marvellous piece of technology. Looks after my ship. Looks after me too. Don't know what I'd do without him."
"That little bracelet runs your ship?"
"Oh no. This is just a remote transceiver. Picks up voice and telemetry from the Lollapalooza."
"The Lollapalooza.” His arm raised proudly upwards. “My ship."
"Oh. I see."
"If I might make a suggestion, sir?" If computers could cough.
"If the good Mayor is reluctant to let you visit the space pirate in question, then perhaps he can bring the space pirate to us?"
"Dashed good idea, Pelham! Mr Marlon, bring on the space pirate if you would."
"Well you see, that might be rather difficult now."
"Oh really? Why's that then?"
Marlon rubbed his chin silently cursing his beard. "Well we decided that since it was a dangerous spy that refused to talk, we haven't had any choice but to hang him."
"Hang him? That's a bit unsporting isn't it?"
"Hung him. Past tense. Or about to anyway. I'm missing all the proceedings coming out here to talk to you."
"Now that's just a load of baloney. You can't go round hanging a chap just because his ship's gone and gotten itself crashed in a cornfield. That's not cricket. Pelham, unpack the iron!"
"Do you think that's wise, sir?"
"Unpack the iron straight away, Pelham, do you hear?"
"Very good, sir."
Marlon watched as a smooth, curved section under the ship slid open. A long multi-jointed arm appeared, and swung down, depositing a contraption on the ground in front of the stairs. "Where are you going?" a defiant Marlon barred the path of Jonny Naylor.
"I'm jolly well going to put a stop to all this hooey, that's where I'm going!"
"I can't let you!"
"Now listen here, Mr Mayor of Murderersville. You'd better step aside otherwise I'll give you a bunch of fives!" With a sudden flourish the man in blue jumped the side of the stairs to the ground and leapt on the back of the contraption.
The thing created more thunder (not quite as loud as the previous thunder, Marlon noted, but enough to make him wonder just how noisy the outside world really was) and spat yellow flame out the back for a second. And then he was gone. Roaring through the wheat on two wheels towards the town.
"Bugger," said Marlon.
Jonny made the town in less than five minutes and jumped off his bike beside a wooden boardwalk. Hamlet needed a good old dust and spring-clean, he decided, examining dry grey dust that clung to the logs making up the low buildings. Stone chimneys sprouted from shallow pitched roofs, and light smoke from dying breakfast fires drifted away on the warm breeze. The townsfolk were gathered and staring at something on the end of a stout wooden beam in the distance. Something quite large, black and hairy. Something quite still. And hung by its neck.
"Hi there!" he shouted, all neighbourly. "Jonny Naylor, Cosmic Sailor. At your service!"
The crowd of Hamletons gaped as though he had three heads. Probably not surprising if the strangest thing you've seen recently is a cow with diarrhoea, or a funny shaped turnip, and then within a couple of days you have a space pirate cum spy crash-land, bits of alien ship scattered about, a hanging, and then an incredibly handsome chap in cobalt comes roaring in out of the cornfields.
"Pelham, is that thing dangling from the beam what I think it is?"
"That may depend on what you think it is, sir."
"Well, is he still alive?"
"I'm afraid that it appears not, sir. There do not seem to be any active biosigns and there is no sign of movement. But from this range the actual confirmation of death cannot be achieved with complete accuracy, sir."
"You mean we need to get closer?"
"That would be helpful, sir."
"You're not supposed to be here," a voice from over his shoulder. "You're pollution that's all you are."
"Ah, well good morning, Mr?"
The very old and very bearded Mr? prodded Jonny in the chest with a stout stick. "You'll have to go, feller. Go!"
"Right, well, look here." Jonny tried to take control of the situation. "Now I don't like space pirates the same as anybody else. My Uncle Raffles has been shot at by them many times - heck, I was myself only recently. But you just can't go around hanging them out like they're your best laundry you know. They deserve a trial and…"
"Sall ready done, feller!"
"…yes…a trial and then their case needs…sorry, old man, what did you say?"
Why were the loonies of these places always desperately old, and having less teeth than a budgie?
"We hung him already. Swung like a gooden he did."
"Well that's just not on, you know? Really! Dash and blast it! You do know what this means, don't you? You have thought it all through I suppose? You've just gone and murdered him and not thought about what you're going to do with the body?"
"Eeel be blasted into space."
"Blasted into space? And just how are you going to do that? Eh? Got a really tall tower that'll stretch to the moon? Light a bonfire and see if he floats up on the smoke?"
It was then that Jonny noticed the girl staring at him. He noticed girls a lot, particularly ones that stared at him (which they did) and particularly small, dainty ones with short black hair and sea-blue eyes (like this one). She was wearing the customary drab brown and grey clothing waistcoat and skirt, de rigueur for the town of Hamlet it seemed, only with a ribbon in her hair to match her eyes. He would have liked to have smiled, swaggered up to her, asked her name and told her how pretty she was. Instead he found himself grabbed from behind, forced into a full nelson and dragged away.
Whoever it was that had jumped him was very strong, he decided. And had two friends. Probably three. And lots of thick rope. And a sack that had once contained blue cheese. He’d put up a bit of a struggle, but then he’d been bashed repeatedly and inexpertly on the head, and his universe had fallen out of his ears. Wherever it was they had thrown him, it was chilly, hard and blacker than space. Rope had been lashed around his wrists that were behind his back and more rope had tied his ankles together. He was grateful that these weren't behind his back too.
"Where the devil are we, Pelham? Pelham? Pelham!?" Rubbing his wrist against the hard dusty floor, Jonny felt an absence of Pelham's transceiver. "Oh Futz!"
Some say that time has no meaning when you don't have a watch. But when you're tied up in a dark hole with a cheese bag on your head and your PDA's been nicked, it means that it's time to start figuring things out for yourself. What's difficult to figure out though, if you have no watch and a bunch of loonies have gotten their hands on your electronic aide memoir, is precisely how much time has passed since you've been chucked on the floor and left to rot.
Consequently Jonny had no idea of how much time had passed when he heard the creaking of a door. Nimble hands untied his bonds and removed the cheese-hat so that he could see the face of what he presumed was his saviour. It was the girl who had stared at him just before he was pressganged.
"Are you alright?"
"I think so." Jonny rubbed sore wrists wishing he smelt of Paco Chartille rather than Gorgonzola. "Smidgen on the dazed side and in desperate need of some ablutions, but yes, I believe I am alright."
"Oh good, I'm so pleased."
"Not as pleased as I am."
"I did think they might have hung you already."
"Ah well, then I'm definitely more pleased."
“They think you’re a pirate. Or a spy.”
"It's all my fault."
"Your fault. Whatever do you mean?"
"It was me who set off the distress beacon. The whole town thinks that we're going to be invaded by space pirates, and I guess I just wanted somebody to prove it one way or the other. You got here very quickly though. How far away were you?"
"Oh, about ten light years, give or take a parsec."
"Well that's amazing. We're not supposed to know anything about this sort of thing, but the distress beacon instruction manual says its radiowaves travel at the speed of light. Faster-then-light travel is impossible, isn’t it? So how did you get here so quickly?"
"We weren't expecting anybody for ages."
"I beg your pardon?"
" Mum's the word?"
“Is she? Why are you shaking your head? I just wanted to know how you managed to travel faster than a radio beam.”
“It...its not something we like to talk about.”
"Oh. I brought you some water. And some bread and cheese."
"Ah, splendid. Think I'll skip on the old cheese though if you don't mind." The water was cold and refreshing, the loaf soft and warm, the cheese smelly and staying on the plate. "So, what's your name?"
"Brenda. You're Jonny."
Directly she asked, "What's it like up there?"
"Up there? You mean in space?"
"Well until the other day I was beginning to think it was rather boring."
"Boring? It can't be more boring than here."
"Ah well, I don't know. There's a lot of sitting around, waiting for the days to pass, and watching the inky blackness fall by. Oh if you're on a huge ship with lots of bars and clubs, perhaps a Darbette table or two and the right sort of people then that's a different matter. But on your own, out there on the edges of the universe it can be dashed lonely."
"But you must have seen things? Wonders. Things that others can only dream of."
"Well yes, undoubtedly there is that too. There was this one time when…"
A voice from outside the cell shouted, "That'll do, Brenda. Come away now."
"Yes father. I'm coming," called Brenda. Then to Jonny, "Enjoy the bread. Don't let them hang you." She smiled and left.
"Wait!" The metal bars of the cell door closed behind her. Jonny struggled to his aching feet and tried to peer though. All he could see was a dark grey stone wall, wooden floors and the flicker of lamplight out of sight. He rattled the bars and called out several times but to no avail. "For goodness sake," he said to himself. "What's a chap got to do to take a leak!" He then spotted a small bucket in the corner. "Oh well." And a few seconds later, "Oooor that's better."
The cell was solidly built with sturdy masonry and thick metal bars forming a door and a small window high up near the ceiling, out of reach. Glimmers of light shone past the bars giving just enough illumination to see, and just enough for Jonny to tell that it must be a few hours after midday. Sitting down beside the plate that Brenda had left, Jonny drained the glass of water and smacked his refreshed lips.
"Ah, Pelham. If only you were here. What would you do in this situation?"
"I believe that I would be feeling confidant that rescue was imminent, sir."
"Pelham, where the heck are you?"
"I believe, sir, that my transceiver is currently located within a small loaf of freshly baked wholemeal bread."
Jonny ripped open the bread, pausing briefly to stuff some of it into his mouth. At the centre he found Pelham's transceiver, slightly dusty and with several cereal grains clinging to the side. "Well smoke my kippers and tell me I'm dreaming. How on Thebe did you get there?"
"It was quite simple, sir. Once the Hamletons had restrained you, my transceiver was placed inside the Town Hall along with the many other artefacts and pieces of the crashed alien ship. There were several older members of the village in the Hall who were discussing what should be done. There was also a young girl, Miss Brenda, who I observed to be crouching behind a set of benches, apparently wishing to be hidden from the village elders. Knowing your, how may I say, magnetism for members of the fairer sex, I deduced that the young lady may be able to come to our aid. When the village elders left the hall I made myself known to Miss Brenda. It transpired that she is the daughter of the jail keeper, and that she has a clandestine interest in learning more about the outside world. I managed to convince her to remove my transceiver from the Town Hall and transport it to your location. In return for which she has asked that you teach her all you know about the outside world, sir."
"All I know about the outside world, eh? Well that'll certainly take up several years worth of lunches."
"I can only imagine, sir."
"But how the Philip K Dickens am I to get out of this rotting hole, Pelham?"
"The young lady will return shortly with the jailer's keys and freedom, sir."
"Well, I jolly well hope you're right, Pelham old bean, otherwise I'll be asking you to swing over the Lolly and blast me the heck out of here."
"Let us hope that it does not come to that, sir."
At dusk Brenda returned bringing keys and an open door. "Take me with you," her whisper was as tight as her grasp on Jonny’s bicep.
"Sssshh - not so loud. Father's asleep in a chair round the corner. Let's go before they come to hang you." Brenda led the way past the snoring jailer, out through a back door. "Take me with you," she said again.
"Well…I, I, I, can't," said Jonny, not normally being one to turn down a damsel in distress. "I can't just spirit you away from your family and friends, from the only home you've ever known. Mine is a wandering life of danger, pirates, hardship and loneliness. Of long voyages ad even longer lunches, that play tricks with your mind and havoc with your love life."
"Sounds great!" she said.
"Just what I'm looking for. I've had enough of Hamlet and all its silly rules. We’re all just sat here on a planet surrounded by unknown wonders, pretending that none of it exists. I mean, how daft is that?”
“Yes, well, you do have rather a pleasing little old world here, don’t ya know?”
“It’s all the same. It’s like a plate of Preeny Locksalot’s fried Funfkin and Chalfalfa mash.”
“The first mouthfull’s amazing, and the second. But by the time you’ve eaten half a plate, you’re wishing you’d had boiled rabbopig or a piece of blue parsnip punch instead. Not that they’re any different really.”
“I mean, what does it all mean? What are we doing here? Where are we all going?”
Jonny’s jaw danced up and down for a moment. He didn’t have a spring connecting his upper and lower jaw, but he had to grab his chin to stop it.
“I've seen what it's like out there and it sounds brilliant! Take me with you!"
"Now steady on, old girl. You can't just rush into all this, you know? I mean, how old are you?"
"How old do you want me to be?"
"But you must have family…"
"I can send them a postcard."
"They'll want me to go!"
"Ok. Pack your bag."
"Sir, if I might make a suggestion?"
"Oh what is it now, Pelham? You're going to be a killjoy aren't you?"
"I'm afraid so, sir. There is the matter of the 'spy'."
"Oh what of him?"
"I believe the matter warrants further investigation, as I suspect that not all is as it should be, sir."
"Oh for goodness sake, Pelham. What do you want us to do?"
"May I suggest that a closer inspection of the 'spy' would be advisable, sir? In order to determine its origin and possibly any contamination that it may have brought with it."
"He's right, you know," said Brenda, her hand sliding down Jonny's arm to his hand.
"Oh very well. Brenda, do you happen to know where this spy is?"
"Yes. The body's in a box on the edge of town. It's being taken out to the rockets tomorrow."
"Rockets. What rockets?"
"In the silo. About half a day's ride from here."
"What on Adrastea have you got rockets for? I thought you were a new community who'd gotten rid of all technology?"
"Come on," said Brenda. "I'll explain as we go. But we've got to be quiet, ok?"
Before long they arrived at a cart just outside town. There was a box on the back. A coffin shaped box.
"So you mean to tell me," Jonny was expostulating, "that you've got dozens of rockets left, which are blasting the remains of your Geriatrics up in to space into a sort of orbiting graveyard? Seems a very peculiar way to do business if you ask me. And you've got a small library of information stashed away too?"
"Sort of," Brenda said. "The rockets are just for those older people who weren’t born here. It’s kind of symbolic I think. Blasting them back to where they came from. The library’s mostly instruction and user manuals. There are some catalogues, leaflets, loads of fashion magazines and a whole stack of strange glossy magazines with pictures of women with no clothes on - can't imagine what they're for."
"No. I'll bet."
"I sneak out there when I can to look at them."
"What, the pictures of women with no clothes on?"
"No, silly. The technical manuals. I've learnt all sorts of stuff from them. One really good one is by this chap called Einstein. Did you know that it's impossible to travel faster than a lightbeam?"
"That makes it all the more amazing that you turned up when you did, doesn't it?"
"No, well, I guess so."
"How did you get here so quickly? You never told me. Do you have warp drive?"
"Err..there's no such thing actually."
"Did you bend a black hole to your will and disappear down a wormhole just to rescue us."
"Do you know what a wormhole is?"
"Isn't it a tubular tear in the fabric of space-time that enables you to move from one point in the universe to another distant point in the blink of an eye?"
"No. It's just a hole made by a worm in the earth. Now, shall I get this coffin lid open?"
"I suppose you'd better. Do you mind if I stand over here?"
"Yes, yes, absolutely. Don't have to watch. Probably not very pleasant." Clunking and grumbling, a posse of Hamletons had emerged with lanterns, pitch forks and more cheese bags.
"Oi! What you doing! Stop that!"
"Oh for pity's sake," said Jonny. "Not again."
"Stop!" shouted Brenda placing herself between the mob and the cart on which Jonny was standing. "Jonny's got something to show you! Something important!"
"Who're you calling 'Jonny'!" It was the jailer.
"Oh cripes," Jonny looked about for any deep holes, in which it might be useful to throw himself.
"Perhaps, sir, it would be prudent to extradite the body with haste."
"Ah, good show, Pelham." Jonny took up a crow bar lying at the bottom of the cart and quickly pried open the lid of the coffin. Members of the mob had joined him on the cart and together they were peering at the body wrapped in sacking inside the coffin. Jonny reached in and pulled off the sacking revealing the corpse inside. "Oh my!" said Jonny.
"See! It's a spy," said a Hamleton.
"A dead spy!" said another.
"He's good and dead, that's for sure," said Jonny. "But as sure as trousers are trousers he isn't a spy."
"What do you mean?" Marlon approached through the crowd. "How can you be sure?"
"Well, for goodness sake! Take a look at it. Haven't you ever seen one before?"
"A spy? No."
"Haven't you ever been to a zoo?"
"What's a zoo?" "Well, look at it! The long arms, wiry tail, black hair, funny squashed up nose. Doesn't any of that give you a clue as to what you've got?"
"I'm afraid not. So what is it if it's not a space pirate spy?"
"So, Pelham, another deed done and another situation saved, eh?"
Back in orbit Jonny was gazing down at the planet from the Lollapalooza's main view screen. "I wonder if they'll heed Brenda's advice and start accepting technology a bit more? Increasing their understanding of where they fit in to the universe? Ignorance isn't bliss after all."
"How true, sir."
"Oh I wish she could have come with us. There really was so much for her to see out here. Would have made excellent company in between all the deeds and daring."
"I'm sure that her work on Hamlet will be long and fruitful, sir. After all, who better to guide them through the expansion of knowledge than somebody who has already begun that quest?"
"But if only they had just read a bit more. I mean, fancy not knowing what a monkey looks like! Poor thing was probably scared half witless during the crash. No wonder it went charging about like a mad thing scaring them like that."
"Yes, sir. I believe the beast was in fact a Squirrel Monkey."
"Yes, sir. Locally known in the Amazon as barizos. Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii, if you would. They have the largest brain of any of the monkey, and many years ago were used in medical research, sir."
“Monkeys making medicine? Well bless my soul. But fancy mistaking the bally thing for a spy!"
"Yes, sir. It reminds me of the story of the Hartlepool Monkey, sir."
"Err…remind me of that one again?"
"A ship was washed up on the North East coast of England during the Napoleonic wars. The only survivor was a poor monkey. Apparently the beast was attired in a military uniform. The locals, mistaking it for a Frenchman, interrogated it ruthlessly before hanging it as a spy, so legend has it, sir."
"Well I never. History repeating itself, eh Pelham!"
"Yes, sir. There was one other thing, which I failed to reveal, sir."
"And what might that be, Pelham?"
"When my transceiver was positioned in the Town Hall, I overhead some of the gentlemen discussing an item of technology that they had removed from the monkey and placed on the floor inside the Hall, sir."
"Yes, sir. The device was located nearby and so I took the liberty of examining it. It transpired that it was in fact a data recorder, taking atmospheric and geometric samples, video and sound footage, and transmitting the signals to a short range receiver, possibly one that was located on board the crashed ship. The unfortunate monkey in question also appears to be several times larger than ordinary, apparently genetically engineered for some diabolical mission, sir. Also, the radiation scans I conducted indicated that the technology of the crashed vessel and the monkey's data recorder were in fact identical to the technology used by the space pirates who attacked us, sir. The monkey seems to have been equipped with the data recorder, possibly as a subterfuge or because it would be easier for a monkey to remain undetected than a portly space pirate."
"Well jolly my rogers. So the monkey was a spy after all?"
"It would appear so, sir. I believe the crashed ship to be a reconnaissance vessel from the space pirates, and most probably from the same faction of pirates who attacked us previously, sir."
"Then why on Pasiphae didn't you say something before we left?"
"Perhaps the Hamletons had too much to take on all at once, sir? The universe is very large and the knowledge that they may be being observed might not be conducive to re-establishing normality for them."
"Oh very well. But I suppose we'd better keep an eye on them from time to time, hadn't we? Make sure that they're progressing. Haven't killed any more monkeys or whatever. And make sure you get a fix on those pirate chappies, eh?"
"Absolutely, sir. Sensory is tracking their movements as we speak. And I'm sure Miss Brenda will be most pleased to see you again, sir."
"Ah, Pelham, you know me too well."
"Thank you, sir. May I suggest that we issue an orbital buoy around the planet in order to provide early warning of any danger?"
"Topping idea, Pelham. Make it so. And then let's crank up the engines and set sail once more, eh?"
"Very good, sir. Main Drive is standing by, sir."
"Excellent. Then let's go!"
"Do you have a particular course in mind, sir?"
"Oh I don't know - let's say, third star on the right and straight on 'till morning."
"Very good, sir. That would be third star on the right from what, sir?
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