Beyond The Gas

 

Robert’s desire to hurry had been unfounded: over their meal, Neptune had explained to Space Team One that the Physeter wasn’t leaving dock until the following morning.

Robert’s desire to hurry the following morning, however, was very founded indeed.

“Come on!” he insisted for the fifth time, “we need to be at the dock in-”

He glanced at his watch for effect.

“-five minutes!”

He scowled as he realised the effect was wasted, as Space Dan was still nervously following Martin around as he picked up shells from the beach.

“Martin,” said Space Dan, “what if there’s a tiny angry thing with a lot of legs inside?”

“Oh, shells like these are mostly for molluscs,” said Martin, “and they don’t have legs, just a foot.”

“A foot but no legs,” said Space Dan, in awe of Martin’s wisdom.

“But the foot looks like a tongue,” said Martin, dropping another shell that clearly didn’t come up to some internal standard.

Space Dan gently steered his friend back to the other crew members of the Falstaff, who were looking back at them expectantly, though not before flipping the discarded shell with a stick of driftwood, just in case there was a tongue-footed gastropod inside it.

“There’ll be shells at the dock!” lied Robert, and Martin took off towards it, his eyes glued firmly to the ground.[1]

They passed through shady back-alleys and emerged at a long, wide pier with many ships docked on all sides. Space Team One budged their way through gridlocks of swarthy fishermen in bright yellow oily raincoats, who were trading their catches.

“I’ll give ye five rainbow fish fer one of ye snappers,” said one of them.

“Nay,” said another. “This snapper be a prize catch.”

As they passed another sea captain, Martin ground to a halt to take a look at his wares.

“Fish fingers!” said Martin.

“Aye, freshly caught,” said the captain.

Robert, who was both wary of being tardy but also a connoisseur of fish fingers, allowed this.

“Do you usually catch fish fingers on Neptune?” asked Martin.

“I don’t know where else I’d catch ‘em,” laughed the captain. “They swim in the deep currents, far to the polar south. They roll in breadcrumbs so predators can’t catch their scent. Some people mistake them for tater tots, but we usually have to throw those back.”

He held up a fishing ruler to demonstrate, the allowable sizes of various culinary sea-creatures marked upon it.[2]

A deep horn sounded from the end of the dock, where a very official-looking shuttle-boat was beginning its final preparations.

“That’s the one-minute warning,” said Aleya.

“How do you know that?” asked Space Dan.

“Pft,” said Aleya, “like I’ve never stowed away on a ship before.”

She and Space Dan both took a firm hold of Martin’s shoulders, and guided him on from a fisherman who wanted to sell him combustible fishing lures (“Fry on the go!”). Robert was walking backwards in frantic hopping steps, which made him look like he really wanted to go to the toilet, but was also deathly afraid of setting eyes upon the bowl.

The sounds of a strange instrument began to play; equal parts xylophone, flamenco guitar and trumpet.

“What is that intriguing music?” asked Space Dan.

“IT’S NOTHING SHUT UP,” snapped Robert.

“’Tis a balsidone, laddie,” explained the gnarled musician playing it, in a Scottish brogue. “The finest instrument to ever grace Neptune’s high seas.”

It was unclear as to whether he was referring to the planet, or invoking the god’s name as its patron deity, but the distinction was lost on Space Dan regardless, as he was too busy investigating the balsidone’s workings.

The instrument was shaped like a xylophone, but about the size of a lyre and held in the same way. Strings ran down its length, an inch above the wooden keys, with tiny striking-mallets between them, connected to keys on one side. A trumpet-like bell stuck out the bottom, curved so it faced forwards, connected to a mouthpiece at the top by densely-packed winding tubes. From these tubes, four valves stuck out of the balsidone’s other side.

In the hands of a skilled player, these three distinct sounds – marimba, plucked strings, and trumpet – could be played simultaneously, and with intricate fast-paced beauty. In the hands of anyone else, they would create a particularly offensive and vile cacophony.

“Can I have a go?” asked Space Dan.

“NO YOU CANNOT” shouted Robert breathlessly, trying to grab at Space Dan’s ears to pull him away, but failing due to their small size and well-oiled nature (oil being the only way to ward off Uranian anger tics).

Some naval officers on board the shuttle-boat retracted the metal gangplank, and untied the ropes mooring it to the dock. They stepped inside and shut the cabin door, and with a whirring noise, the small pointy ship pulled back from the dock. It drifted across the rolling gases, where it let out a distant warning horn, and dipped into the depths below.

“No!” cried Robert.

“It’s alright,” said Martin, “there’ll probably be another one in five minutes.”

“MMMMGGGGGGHR!” bellowed Robert, angry as a gas station attendant who had been deprived of her Korean soap operas.

Steam began to whistle out of Robert’s ears.

“Is he okay?” Aleya quietly asked Martin.

Safety Ninja quickly scribbled something on his notepad, then held it up so the others could see it.

I fear not! it said.

“It’s just his brainy scheminess,” replied Martin.

Safety Ninja asked Martin via the notepad why Robert hadn’t mentioned this in his work reports, and also why Robert hadn’t been submitting work reports, and also why nobody else had been submitting work reports either.

Space Dan shook his head.

“Anger tics, likely,” he said. “He shouldn’t have been so stingy with the ear-oil.”

“Are you frothing?” Aleya asked Robert.

“FRRRRRVVVFFRRRR” Robert replied.

He fell to the ground and started pulling out fistfuls of grass in frustration, which was particularly impressive as they were standing on a wooden dock.

“You sound like EVIL CAR, Robert,” said Martin.

Robert ceased his wailing, his eyes suddenly wide.[3]

“Eureka!” he cried. “…I mean, Jabungo!”

He stood up, brushed his hands through his hair to make himself look even more like a mad scientist, and then sprinted back down the pier.

“Come on!” he shouted back at the others. “To the Falstaff!”

 

Space Team One trotted up the beach towards the ship, Safety Ninja hopping occasionally to knock sand out of his ninja foot-wrappings.

“What…?” asked Robert, as they rounded some palm trees.

Numerous Neptunians dressed in tradesmens’ clothes were traipsing in and out of the Falstaff, carrying silicone grouting guns and flat trowels for plastering. Thankfully, the proverbial builder’s crack didn’t appear to be a problem, although some of the tradies were ribbing each other for the fins on their backs being visible.

“What are you doing!?” cried Space Dan.

He watched as a pair of Neptunians carried the bartop out of the ship, which was mostly disintegrating in their hands.

“Well, we still need ta get yer tiles sorted out,” said one of them, dusting splinters off of his fingers, “but I know a guy who’ll do ya a whole new kitchen practic’ly at cost.”

“Excuse me,” said Space Dan, “but I am the Level Seven Food Preparation Officer of this ship. Who gave you permission to remodel the Falstaff’s bar?”

“She did,” said the Neptunian, jerking his thumb at VAL.

“Hello!” said VAL.

VAL was relaxing on the beach, her neck-tube coiled up on the deck chair below her. She had propped up a book with the title ‘Adventuring The Man’ on a pair of sticks, and was gently turning the pages with her optic unit. The cover of the book depicted a woman in stylish sunglasses on the back of a motorcycle, while a shirtless and very muscular man with golden eyes stared back at her behind him, in dashingly flagrant disregard for traffic safety. Horses ran in the background, kicking up dust across the sunset.

Some small Neptunian children ran around her, building and kicking over sandcastles, and bouncing a multicoloured inflatable ball to each other.

“VAL,” whined Space Dan, “we just had the bar redone! What about the effort all of our friends on Mars went to?”

“It was very nice of them, Space Dan,” said VAL, “but also it was terrible. And these Neptunians gave such a good quote on formica…”

“What was it?” asked Space Dan.

“‘Formica is useful’,” a Neptunian recited proudly.

“…that is good,” Space Dan admitted, and Robert surreptitiously jotted it down, imagination already working on a spaceship built out of the substance for The Forever Endeavour.

Some workmen were removing various bits and pieces of junk that were stuck to the front of the Falstaff, wiping tape gunk off the hull with long-handled rollers. One of them wiped some blood off of a pencil, and popped it in the pocket of his overalls, to replace his flat one that had worn down.

“Hey, look, they’re removing Space Dan’s Amulet-pushing apparatuses,” said Martin.

“It’s apparati,” corrected Robert.

“No, cos I’m only one, but many is us,” explained Martin.

Robert didn’t pursue it.

“Robert,” said Space Dan, looking at his astronaut boots, “since we’re near the ocean, should we wear sandals?”

Knowing that time was of the essence, Safety Ninja began to work out how he would interpretively gesture to Space Dan that that was a bad idea, since adequate foot protection was vital on a sea vessel.

“No,” said Robert.

Safety Ninja felt relieved, but slightly disappointed.

“Aleya’s dressed appropriately for hunting Starwhals,” said Robert, pointing to her feet.

Safety Ninja slapped his own forehead for not thinking of doing that.

“Aha, yes,” said Martin thoughtfully, his eyes passing right over her steel-capped boot, “because she has a wooden leg, like a pirate.”

“How would you know that?” Aleya asked Robert, ignoring Martin. “You’ve never hunted a Starwhal.”

“Technically, there’s only one Starwhal, so he’s never hunted the Starwhal,” said Space Dan. “But the Starwhal is a starwhal, I think, so you’re right either way.”

“Should we get haircuts like Aleya has too?” asked Martin, who began pensively poking at his right eye.

“Somehow, I doubt you’ll find hairdressers here that do anything beyond braiding,” said Robert, glancing down the beach. “Or misspelt tattoos.”

“What are you doing back here already?” asked VAL, carefully turning the page.

The book was reaching a particularly enjoyable bit, and she didn’t want it to fall over and lose her place.

“We missed the boat, so we have to get into EVIL CAR as quickly as possible,” said Aleya. “We’re already burning daylight.”

“Which is oddly similar to Earth levels, despite Neptune being considerably further from the sun,” noted Robert.

“Oh, that makes sense,” said Martin. “Neptune’s atmosphere is thicker, so of course, it traps more sunlight.”

“EVIL CAR!” Robert called.

“GRR”

EVIL CAR rolled out of the cargo hold door. It came to a stop beside the Falstaff’s crew and opened its doors, revving its engine expectantly.

“Wait,” said Space Dan, “we only ate breakfast half an hour ago, so we should really wait unless we get cramps.”

Safety Ninja scribbled something, and held it out:

Actually, Space Dan

Eating food has no impact

On one’s swimming health.

Satisfied, Space Dan entered EVIL CAR with the others, diligently and conscientiously fastening his seatbelt, and placing his hands together on his lap.

“I spy with-” he began.

“No you don’t!” snapped Robert, yanking the steering wheel left.

EVIL CAR bounced down the beach, spraying sand across sunbathing holidaymakers, and zoomed down into the gas. The sand continued beneath EVIL CAR’s tyres as it slowly descended, and outside the windows became a pleasing light blue haze.

“Robert,” said Martin, “can we listen to the radio?”

“There won’t be any radio,” Robert said.

“Oh, please?” Martin said.

“Yes, that sounds fun!” said Space Dan.

“…fine,” said Robert, turning the volume control dial, “but there’ll be nothing-”

The car was suddenly filled with the hard beats and harsh sounds of early 2000s techno.

Robert turned the radio off.

“Never mind,” said Martin, looking disappointed. “The background microwave radiation of the universe isn’t as funkalicious as I’d hoped.”

EVIL CAR drove deeper and deeper into the increasingly darker blue gas, every occupant’s eyes peeled for a sign of the Physeter.

“How’re we gonna find them?” Aleya asked. “Hope they sing in Russian?”

“‘Russian’?” asked Space Dan. “What an odd coincidence! A ‘Russian’ is a nickname for a magazine journalist, back home.”

“Safety Ninja, this place is pretty rustic,” said Robert. “Can you detect the Physeter through its lack of safety?”

Safety Ninja shook his head. The Physeter was, quite literally, a tightly-run ship, and any minor faults in its operation were too small and swiftly resolved to detect at a distance.

“Look!” said Martin. “There’s an octopus, gardening!”

Aleya rolled her eyes, having no time for Martin’s whimsy.

“It’s just teaching those nematodes to sing, you dillisk,” she said.

Martin’s face fell as he realised that Aleya was right. Disappointingly, a dozen feather-duster looking creatures were popping up and down from a large brain-coral, making little peeping sounds as the octopus conducted with its eight tentacles.

“And look!” said Space Dan. “There’s an old boot!”

“There’s a whole colony of them!” said Martin.

The old boots spiraled past in a large shoal, gently undulating their shoelaces.

“Oh, look, there’s little baby old boots!” cooed Space Dan.

“It’s kinda weird,” said Aleya. “Neptune’s full of gas instead of water, but it just happens to have Earth sea-creatures like fish and octopuses and old boots.”

“It’s strange enough that everyone in the universe speaks a specific Uranian language,” said Space Dan.

He was privately a little upset that his Zubterbistani language lessons were going to waste, although given the fact that he slept through most of them anyway, the point was basically moot.

Half an hour passed without much event. Martin fell asleep on Space Dan’s shoulder, and Safety Ninja spent some time feeling relieved that he wasn’t being drooled on. The blue shades outside grew darker still, clouds of dark turquoise greens swirling in with the deep gaseous blues. Robert switched on the recycled air and the windscreen wipers, as some drops of condensation began to form on EVIL CAR’s windows.

Occasional sea creatures drifted past outside, and the sandy floor became home to increasing numbers of corals and sea plants. Robert made some efforts to drive around them, though EVIL CAR didn’t really seem all that concerned.

“Is that it?” said Space Dan, pointing.

“No, Space Dan,” said Robert, “that is a large bubble.”

“Oh.”

“Is that it?” asked Martin, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Martin, you’re pointing to the map of the USSR,” said Robert.

“There’s lots of-”

“One of the maps of the USSR,” Robert snapped.

He peered out through the windscreen.

“I feel like Jacques Cousteau,” he muttered.

“How?” asked Aleya, her wooden and fleshy feet up on the dash.

“…I’m in the sea and exploring? I don’t know, I just know Jacques Cousteau because people my dad’s age knew Jacques Cousteau and they write all the pop culture.”

“Hm,” said Aleya.

“Well, what do you know about Jacques Cousteau?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“Perhaps the only thing worth knowing is that we know nothing about Jacques Cousteau,” said Martin sagely.

“This ocean is massive!” said Space Dan. “It would take billions of sinks and thousands of swimming pools to fit all the fish inside! But of course, they don’t seem to have the undulating wobble-shark here, so that would be unnecessary.”

“How would they keep the gas inside the sinks?” asked Martin.

“Sinks already keep air inside, and air is a gas, so it wouldn’t be that hard,” said Space Dan.

He stared out the window. Outside, the gas was getting denser and denser; EVIL CAR was now buoyant enough to be bouncing floatily across the silty gasbed.

“This is taking forever! If only we had the Amulet,” said Martin. “Then, we could travel forward in time to when we were there already, and we wouldn’t have to wait!”

“At least you’re not asking whether we’re there yet,” said Robert.

Martin got a certain gleam in his eye.

“Uh…I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Space Dan.

“Because we’d travel forward in time and not space, so we’d be moved around relative to Neptune, so we could be even further away?” said Martin.

“No,” said Space Dan. “Well, yes. That might be true. But usually the Amulet just…does things.”

“Like what?” asked Robert.

“I push the buttons and then it just goes to wherever’s right, even if I don’t know how to get there,” said Space Dan. “It’s like it has a mind of its own.”

“Something around here should,” said Aleya.

There was silence.

“You realise you included yourself in that diss?” said Robert, switching on the indicator as he drove around another shoal of old boots.

“Eh,” said Aleya.

“LOOK!” shouted Martin.

The inhabitants of EVIL CAR looked.

“We’ve seen Agamemnon before, Martin,” said Robert, Space Dan eyeing the little popcorn-fly on Martin’s finger nervously.

“No,” said Martin, jabbing his finger between the front seats emphatically.[4] “Ship, ho!”

The ship in question which was at present ho was the Physeter. Staring out at the gigantic turret-shape rising up from the rocky ground ahead, Robert’s heart was stirred by the majestic

imagery. He cleared his throat, and dedicated a poem to it:

 

“The noble cylinder appears, its looming form a sight
As round as e’er a moon was seen upon a clouded night
And greying metal wraps around the Physeter, a skin
With noble sailors, ancient tars, and planet’s god within,” said Robert.

 

He paused, the better to hear everyone praising his poesy.

He paused for a little while longer an account of hearing nobody praise his poesy.

“Man, check that thing out,” said Aleya, looking through the windscreen, to which everyone nodded and murmured emphatically in agreement.

Robert scowled and started repeating the poem in his head so he could write it down later, annoyed that he was already starting to forget parts of it.


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[1] He only knocked over five different Neptunians as a result; surprisingly, this was better than his average record while looking where he was going.

[2] The largest being ‘pub schnitzel’.

[3] This was partly because the steam had abruptly stopped shooting out of his ears, and the pressure had to go somewhere.

[4] Causing Agamemnon to jolt forward and bounce off the windscreen, where he landed in Robert’s hair.