By Hook Or Also By Another Hook

 

“Can you see an entrance to the ship?” Robert asked.

He peered out the windscreen. The large, turret-shaped Physeter was still rising ahead of them, slowly emerging over a small subaquatic cliff.[1]

“Maybe we go in the top of the turret?” said Aleya.

“No,” said Martin gravely. “That’s where they keep the machine-guns.”

“But there’s no holes for them,” said Space Dan. “How will they fire?”

“They can’t fire with all the gas around them, it’d explode,” said Martin.

Safety Ninja beamed with pride at Martin’s thoughtfulness (though not so much at his logic).

“Why would they need machine guns for fishing?” asked Robert.

“Maybe they really hate fish,” said Space Dan. “They could be pro-wobble-shark extremists.”

“Why?”

“Well, we want to protect the wobble-sharks, but moving the fish into swimming pools and bathtubs and sinks means the wobble-sharks don’t have anything to eat,” said Space Dan. “So they’re out for revenge.”

“…the fish, the extremists, or the wobble-sharks?” asked Robert.

“Robert, Space Dan,” said Martin, “I really think we should be concentrating on more important things right now.”

He pointed gleefully.

“A mermaid!” he said.

In the distance, a lithe figure with wide forearms swam, its long white hair swept back by the current of the increasingly-pressured gas-sea. It had a humanoid shape, save for its elongated limbs, clearly having evolved to live in the water.

“Pretty hairy for a maid,” said Aleya.

“Who are they serving?” asked Space Dan.

“Who, indeed?” mused Robert.

“Well, maybe it’s a manmaid,” said Martin. “Since it’s hairy.”

“You mean a merman?” asked Aleya.

“No, they’re called manmaids,” said Martin, “because they’re the man version of mermaids. You know, like how seals are the dog version of mermaids, so their proper name is dogmaids.”

Robert shook his head.

“Don’t get him started on this,” he warned her. “He wrote his thesis on ‘manmaids’. Well, and paper.”[2]

“Manmaid is a real word that’s in the dictionary!” Martin added, as conclusive proof.

“Ohh, I get it!” said Space Dan enthusiastically. “So should lobsters really be called scorpionmaids?”

“No, Space Dan, they’re called crabmaids,” said Martin, “because they’re the mermaid version of a crab.”

“Shh! What’s happening in front of the Physeter?” interjected Robert. “It looks like the sea floor’s coming up with it, or something.”

“Are there mattresses on the C-floor?” asked Martin, craning his neck to look. “I could test my theory about whether manmaids can lie down underwater or not…”

He froze as he saw what was rising up in front of them.

“Whoah,” said Robert, and wondered whether it was worth composing a second stanza.

Even Agamemnon looked astonished, though that wasn’t really a deviation from his standard expression.

The turret shape wasn’t the entire Physeter. It wasn’t even a quarter of it.

The enormous ship rose up from behind the cliff, its long, flat fore-section looking like a huge marble plateau to the turret’s mountain. The front of the ship was a broad curve, with a wide circle recessed into the top; this was clearly where many smaller ships could enter and leave from. A comparatively small downward-facing turbine engine was set into each side of the Physeter at roughly the middle, each of them still the size of a large hotel.[3]

It all gave the impression of a staggeringly sized letter L on its side, architected by the type of person who attaches their name to very expensive designer toilets.

EVIL CAR sped up as it reached the cliff edge, Robert stepping on the accelerator as they careened up the rocky curve. EVIL CAR shot off the top and the Physeter rose up to meet its tyres, the red automobile bumping and skidding as the ship collected them[4] on its broad, white expanse.

Martin pressed his nose against the window to look at the tornado of bubbles streaming from the Physeter’s portside turbine, as EVIL CAR skidded on past. Robert threw the wheel on full lock, and EVIL CAR zoomed straight into the circular hole in the top. At this scale, it was like poking an angry red pebble into a kiddie pool.

EVIL CAR fell somewhat buoyantly down through many floors full of interesting submarine ships in hangars; however, those were storeys for another day. Thanks to the upwards acceleration of the Physeter, it was only moments before EVIL CAR reached the top of what looked like a huge bubble, stretched across the main hangar roof.

“Look, Robert!” said Martin. “It’s making EVIL CAR look all stretched and funny!”

Before anybody could stop him, he wound down the window and stuck his head out, intent on seeing his face warped in the reflection.

“ARRRGGHHHBBBLBBLB!” bellowed Robert as water poured into EVIL CAR, soaking the remnants of maps of Czechoslovakia and beef jerky molecules.

He went to use his driver-side front-seat privileges to wind up the window, but then they passed through the bubble into dry air. To Robert’s dismay, the damage had already been done; water was sloshing around their ankles and dripping from the ashtrays in the rear armrests.

“Martin, when we get back to the Falstaff I am going to put you in the naughty corner,” said Robert.

“What’s the naughty corner of the Falstaff?” asked Martin.

“The room with the 3AM jazz!” snapped Robert.

“But I’m basically never in the mood at 3AM!” Martin protested.

“Well, then maybe you’ll learn not to open windows of cars underwater,” said Robert, exasperated that he lived the kind of life where explaining this was necessary.

Then he noticed that while the air was dry, it was also thin, in the sense that they were falling rapidly through it.

Safety Ninja adopted the emergency brace position,[5] and the others copied him.

With a loud crash, EVIL CAR hit the floor of the circular hangar bay, landing right next to the shuttle-boat, from which the last few occupants had just finished disembarking.

EVIL CAR ‘GRR’ed, and Robert stroked its dashboard soothingly.

“Did the fall hurt your tum-tum?” he asked his car in a cooing voice.

“Is its ickle bottykins alright?” asked Aleya, scowling as she shifted her sopping eyepatch back into place and picked her wooden leg up from the floor, where it was floating.

“His driveshaft could have been dented!” snapped Robert.

Martin opened his door, and the water spilled out of EVIL CAR, taking hamburger wrappers and an empty yoghurt cup from 1996 with it. Drained of the sloshy liquid, EVIL CAR looked slightly more grateful in its anger.

Space Team One all got out and started towelling down their lower bodies, using some towels that a handful of naval troops had jogged out and handed to them. They had the Neptunian Royal Navy’s emblem embroidered on them (the towels; not the troops), including a very small facewasher for Agamemnon.

Two men turned from the shuttle-boat to face them – Neptune, and a red-faced man wearing a navy uniform, in both colour and purpose.

“These be the stragglers that you hired, Captain Neptune?” asked the Bosun.

“Aye,” said Neptune. “Stalwart and true, the lot of them!”

“When do we get paid?” asked Aleya, tossing her towel on the ground.

Safety Ninja held out a scrap of paper to her, and she reluctantly opened it up and read out:

“Also, what are your insurance policies?”

“We can discuss that later,” said Neptune.

“I’m not working for anybody unless they pay me first,” said Aleya.

“Except for Robert,” said Martin.

“I don’t work for him!” Aleya said.

“That’s more of a gentleman’s agreement,” said Robert. “Barring the minor technicality that Aleya is not a gentleman.”

“She’s not gentle in any case,” said Space Dan nervously.

“All the better!” roared the Bosun. “I’m the Bosun, Higgs.”

“Glad we found you,” said Robert.

Safety Ninja keenly stepped forward and bowed to Higgs, for the bosun was in charge of the safety and upkeep of the hull.

“You’ll all need to be fitted for life-jackets,” said Higgs. “And death-jackets, if you don’t make it back.”

“What’s a death-jacket?” asked Martin.

“We put those on corpses and throw them into the sea so they don’t float back up,” said Neptune. “They’re weighted with lead.”

“Is that safe, keeping them around?” asked Robert.

“It’s alright, they’re locked away,” said Higgs. “We can’t risk the crew getting lead poisoning.”

Safety Ninja began making a little origami Higgs from a page of his notebook.

“Now,” said Neptune, “up to the main deck!”

He and Higgs marched off towards some stairs, and Space Team One quickly fell in step behind them, marvelling at the scale of the Physeter.

“Even the Kangalord’s palace isn’t this big!” said Martin with astonishment as they climbed up the wide stairs.

“Martin,” said Robert, “the Kangalord’s palace is the entire Melbourne CBD.”

“Yes, but it’s much flatter than this, from all the stomping,” said Martin.

The group passed through a number of long, labyrinthine corridors on their way up through the ship. The walls were light grey and lit by glowing white panels, the floors polished to a bright sheen. Everything was immaculately clean and tidy.

“How do you keep a place this large clean?” asked Robert. “You must have a lot of janitorial staff.”

Higgs shook his head and went to speak, but Martin spoke over him.

“Look, Robert!” he said, pointing at an officer’s feet. “Foot-loofas!”

Instead of rubber soles, the man’s patent leather shoes had small duster cloths lining the bottoms. This explained why so many of the crew seemed to be dragging their feet, despite otherwise appearing so highly disciplined.

“What advanced technology!” said Space Dan, staring at the crew’s feet.

He pulled out a notepad and began hastily scribbling a drawing of the cleaning shoes, hoping that this discovery would mean some kind of scientific prize once he got home.[6]

Martin gently maneuvered Space Dan so that he didn’t walk into a door, as they started climbing another set of stairs up towards the command centre of the ship. Half way up, Neptune held out his hand to stop for a moment, and held onto the handrail, catching his breath.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I keep meaning to have the men put a stair chair in.”

Martin’s face fell, because he was suddenly sad that he had missed out on a potential opportunity to mess around on a stair chair.

“Phew,” said Neptune after a minute, straightening up. “On we go!”

He pressed onwards and upwards. Robert fell back to walk alongside Aleya and Safety Ninja, to whom he whispered softly.

“You don’t think he could be faking this tiredness, do you?”

“I dunno,” said Aleya. “Check out the bags under his eyes. Trucker Daddy could hang them off the sides of my motorbike.”

“Still,” said Robert. “It’d be a pretty obvious piece of misdirection, if he was well enough to be zooming around and bumping gods off in his spare time.”

Robert looked to Safety Ninja, who finished scribbling out a reply and handed it to Aleya.

“He should have taken way more sick days than he has been,” she paraphrased, scrunching up the note and sticking it in her pocket.

Safety Ninja huffed, partly for Aleya’s mistreatment of his detailed report waka, and partly because somewhere, deep within him, he missed the heady rush of Che Guarana.

The bridge of the Physeter was a long, thin catwalk, too harsh and metallic in colour and shape to be of use to any but the most resilient of fashion models. There were low galleys on both sides of the catwalk, where the crew of the ship toiled by turning levers and checking grimy read-outs.[8] There was an empty cage, which may have once held a parrot.

“This be the bridge crew!” said Neptune.

He waved a hand across the room, sweeping past the rough, gilled Neptunians who crewed the Physeter. Many had at least one hook for a hand, and in one case, a hook for a pinky finger. They wore sharp uniforms consisting of a wooly, navy-blue pullover and dark canvas trousers, as well as shiny steel-capped boots (with the exception of those that had hooks for feet). Depending on rank, some of them wore peaked caps, others large spiked helmets, and many had rough beanies on. The lowest-ranked wore berets. This was a way to encourage good performance, since promotion would mean never having to wear the silliest possible looking military hat again. They had the look of seasoned sea-dogs, with fungal algae beards or jagged scars across their heads, and they all regarded Space Team One with wary and thoughtful interest.

“Hello!” said Space Dan, waving. “We are Space Team One. I am Space Dan, the Level Six – no wait, Seven – Food Preparation Officer. I hope we can synergise with all of your workflow in a courteous and diligent manner.”

The crew all gave a polite golf clap.

“Higgs you already know,” said Neptune, indicating to the Bosun who was taking his seat at a computer in the right-hand galley. “That one over there keeps the ship’s pressure right. He’s Quooster.”

“A pleasure,” said Quooster, who was tall, bald, and missing all four of his limbs, which he had replaced with hooks.

“Over there is Fields,” said Neptune, gesturing to a woman holding a large frying pan.

“She’s the cook?” asked Robert.

“Oh, no,” said Neptune. “She’s here to kill any vermin we find aboard.”

“Why the frying pan?” asked Martin. “Is she going to cook them cheese which is high in cholesterol?”

Fields turned the frying pan over in her hand, her questing eyes darting around in search of rodents, cockroaches, and other dangerous, tiny, defenceless creatures.

“Never mind about it,” Robert told him.

“And this is Gala, the First Officer,” said Neptune, putting a hand on a stonefaced woman’s shoulder.

Gala was a human woman with the look of a coiled spring; her short height, round face, and square-shouldered uniform belied a muscular frame ready to spring into action at a second’s notice. Her blonde hair was tucked into a tight bun and stashed beneath the military pillbox cap atop her head. In terms of litheness, if Aleya was a Porsche, then Gala was… well, not a Panzer tank, but a Camaro muscle car at least.

She reached out her hand and shook Space Dan’s, who winced and flapped it as soon as she let go.

“Now,” said Neptune. “Our quarry.”

“You have a quarry as well?!” said Martin. “This ship has everything!”

“We do,” said Neptune, “but I meant what we’re chasing.”

“I still don’t get it,” said Martin, as they crossed the catwalk to the bay window. “How could a stairwell make a noise that drives people mad? Does it have a creaky step that squeaks loudly? Because that might drive people mad.”

“No, lad, it be a starwhal,” corrected one of the sailors.

“Ohh,” said Martin, “so it’s a starwhal that’s going up and down the stairwell and making the creaky step squeak!”

“Have he the deep-foolishness?” the sailor whispered to Robert.

“I know not what he have,” Robert replied.

“So where is the Starwhal anyway?” asked Aleya, peering out the windows.

“Don’t speak of it so openly!” hissed Quooster.

“The Starwhal?” asked Martin.

“Ssh!” they all cried.

“We dare not say its true name,” continued Quooster, “for we fear that it will hear and come to us. We only call it by nicknames to avoid its deadly presence.”[9]

“Like what?” asked Robert.

“Spicy Tom,” said Fields. “Big Mick, La Ballena, El Spicy Tom.”

She made a gentle mooing sound.

“…that’s a name too,” she explained to the confused Space Team One. “As is looking overly thoughtful, and touching your thumb to your nose.”

“So what do we call it?”

“‘Spicy Tom’ is the most common name used,” said a sailor. “For as it approaches ye, the smell of cinnamon fills the air.”

“Are you sure it’s a whale?” asked Martin. “Are you sure it’s not some kind of giant donut?”

“Few have seen it, but none have called it donut-shaped,” said Higgs.

“Full speed, Mr Dels,” said Neptune.

An octopus-looking crewmember carefully balanced his spiked helmet with one tentacle, then used the other eight to turn a rusty wheel into the right position, and the Physeter’s engines roared into new and louder life as the ship surged forward into the deep blue.

“Steady as she goes,” said Neptune. “Now, let’s have a shanty, lads!”

The crew of the Physeter cheered, and as one, began shouting:

“DUDUDUDUDU, BRRRRRRRR, DUDUDUDUDU, BRRRRRRR!”

“BYAAAAAAOWWWWWW!” shouted Neptune lustily.

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[1] Well, sub-gas-that-is-gradually-condensing-as-it-gets-deeper-eous cliff, but you probably get it by now.

[2] Martin wasn’t required to write a thesis for university, he was just very passionate on the subject. He was given extra credit for ‘taking the initiative’, and received several letters suggesting he pursue postgraduate study to develop his theory, and also improve his spelling. He rejected this offer because he wanted to spend more time watching TV and pretending to be an accented poetic foot.

[3] Including pool and golf course, but not the employee accommodation buildings.

[4] Like the phone calls the displeased rhinoceros at Island Industries made overseas to the merchandise distribution team of Yo! Spinmaster XY.

[5] Not as a child, though he probably would if he could.

[6] Uranian scientific prizes were, traditionally, named after the first person who won them. This was later changed on the basis that it wasn’t fair to the second, third, fourth (and so on) people who had won the award. As a result, Uranian scientific prizes in the modern day were named after all of the people who had won them. Space Dan fervently wished to have his name added to the prestigious Science Roderick Science Andy Engineer Lisette Science Wilfred Science Stephen Engineer Gary Engineer Clement Belligerence Suzy Belligerence Suzy Belligerence Suzy Doctorate Rajesh Award, which had been set up after the name of the previous scientific discovery award was deemed too long to feasibly read out at its award ceremony.[7]

[7] There were conspiracy theorists who suggested that this was simply a sinister plot to prop up the plaque industry. They were generally not taken seriously, despite the head of the awards council being married to the CEO of several major plaque-making corporations, for which business was booming.

[8] Not that they stayed grimy for long; two crewmembers were lying back in specially-designed ergonomic chairs, rubbing the read-outs with their feet as they came out of the ticker-tape machine.

[9]

This was not unlike the historical fact that the word ‘bear’ was originally a euphemism, as saying the actual name of the animal would supposedly summon it to you. (This is true if one is close to a bear and yells “BEAR! BEAR! HEY! HEY, BEAR! BEAR! BEAR! HEY!”, but one suspects that was not what people meant.)