Hark, Now Hear The Vegans Cry, Smell The Gas And Feel The Sky
“Ahhh!” said Martin, stepping out into the fresh air of Neptune, stretching. “Smell that bracing, highly gaseous air!”
“Which, again, we can breathe fine,” commented Aleya.
“Why wouldn’t we be able to?” asked Robert. “Air is gas. Air is breathable. Gas is breathable. QED.”
Martin nodded in agreement with this line of reasoning, which made Robert somewhat less certain.
The Falstaff had set down in a sandy clearing, dotted by bamboo, wide-leafed mangroves, and tall palm trees that were swaying in the balmy breeze. The sky above them was brilliant blue, the sun warm on their shoulders, and the sound of the sea could be heard through the trees.
A family of small, brightly coloured crabs scuttled past Robert’s feet, heading for the beach.
“Oh, how lovely!” said VAL, poking her head out. “Space Dan, I want to come with all of you this time! It’s so nice out and I don’t want to just look after EVIL CAR again!”
“I can’t, VAL, you’re too heavy,” said Space Dan. “Well, the Falstaff is, and I can’t detach you from it, because that would void the warranty.”
Safety Ninja poked at Space Dan and made concerned gestures.
“Also, since I am not a computer technician, that would potentially be unsafe,” said Space Dan.
Safety Ninja gave a gleeful thumbs-up.
They headed through the clearing, emerging on a long, sparkling white sand beach. It was the kind of place that would make anybody want to get married if only to have the wedding photography taken there, but would largely self-prevent such scenarios due to the high cost of resort suites.
VAL’s optic unit snaked down to the edge of the beach with them, but her neck tube could telescope no further.
“Don’t worry, VAL,” said Space Dan, “You can look at the beach from here, and I’ll bring you back a little drink umbrella if we see any.”
“I don’t want to look at the beach, I want to be on the beach!” said VAL.
“But VAL, we’ve already landed the Falstaff…”
“Oh, honestly, Space Daniel!” said VAL. “After everything I’ve done for you-…”
“Ugggggh!” said Space Dan, dragging his feet and letting his arms flop loosely in exasperation. “You guys go on ahead, Ricey and I will do this.”
“Thankyou, Space Dan,” said VAL sweetly.
The rest of Space Team One made their way down the beach, and Robert and Aleya stared out at the shoreline in puzzlement as Martin and Safety Ninja rubbed a thimbleful of sunscreen onto Agamemnon.
“Is it… water?” asked Robert, looking out at the ocean in front of them. “But in what form?”
Misty waves undulated across the surface, but it certainly didn’t look like water. What appeared to be whispy blue gas was present instead of any liquid, rolling up the sand in refreshing sprays of vapour. As the seafloor – or rather, gasfloor – dropped away, the mist became thicker and thicker fog, of darkening shades of blue and turquoise. The effect was quite beautiful, and Robert walked down the beach taking it all in.
The Falstaff soared overhead and landed noisily in front of everybody, bringing up sand. As sand is unsuitable for agriculture, Space Dan and VAL could not be thanked for introducing such an idea to Neptune. However, while the Falstaff did cast a large shadow, Space Dan had purposely landed the ship perpendicular to the path of the sun, so it wasn’t too large and wouldn’t block everybody’s tanning space. He was, of course, diligent and conscientious.
The Falstaff’s hatch opened, and Space Dan came out, then slid down to its ladder.
“There’s some huts further along the beach,” said Space Dan, pointing.
“He’s right,” confirmed Martin, who was looking through his pretend hand binoculars.
Space Dan set up a small deckchair for VAL’s optic sensor to sit above, and then hurried after the rest of his friends, who were approaching the first of the beach huts, where the locals were going about their business.
“It must be nice, living here,” said Robert. “These people probably don’t worry about anything.”
The door to a hut was flung open, and a Neptunian ran out of it screaming.
He momentarily grabbed Robert’s shirt front and screamed at him incoherently.
“Spicy Tom!” he bellowed. “SPICY TOM!”
The Neptunian then let go and sped off down the beach, his arms flailing about in mortal terror as everyone in his path scattered.
“…or not,” said Robert.
“We don’t know,” said Space Dan, picking up some seashells. “Maybe screaming is just how people express how relaxed they are are.”
Aleya rolled her eyes, then reached out at a passing fisherman.
“Hey,” Aleya said, grabbing him by the scruff of his raincoat. “Where’s Neptune?”
“You’re on it, lass,” said the man, confused.
Aleya dropped him in disgust, and he wandered off, muttering.
“Ugh,” she said, wiping her hand on her stockings. “I got oil from his rain slicker.”
“Why would it be called a rain slicker?” asked Space Dan. “Rain is pretty slick already. I don’t see why it should be slicked even more.”
“The people of Neptune probably demand a higher quality of slickosity to their rain,” said Robert.
“Let’s find a bar,” scowled Aleya.
“But we always end up in bars!” he complained.
“Or behind them,” muttered Space Dan.
“Robert, let’s go to a restaurant!” Martin yelled eagerly.
“Alright, Martin,” said Robert condescendingly. “If you can find a restaurant here, we’ll go to that first.”
Martin dashed down the sandy beach and looked at the row of buildings along the beachfront. Nine out of every ten of them were restaurants, all declaring things like “Fresh fish, crabs and crawdads, caught straight from the sea and flung into our kitchens! Delicious wines on tap! Pips removed while you wait!”.
Martin narrowed his eyes, which then lit up as he saw his ideal dining establishment.
He pointed at it boldly.
“Burly Pete’s Outback Grill And Steakhouse?” said Robert.
“Yes!” said Martin. “Onward!”
“Martin, we’re at a seaside town, we’re not-” Robert began.
“Onward!” said Martin, stamping his foot.
Robert hopped and held the foot Martin had stamped on.
“Alright, alright!” he said.
Space Team One walked and/or hopped down the main promenade of the town, which was bustling with people. Most of them looked quite human, but their skin seemed a little shinier than the average human’s, and the pupils of their eyes were thin, like sharks’. They also had short fins going down their backs, and they occasionally breathed via gills in their necks.
“Okay,” said Robert, as they stopped in front of Burly Pete’s.
“Hello!” said a musclebound sailor in a tight-fitting white shirt, an anchor tattoo on his left biceps. “I’m Burly Pete! Welcome!”
“Your restaurant looks great!” said Martin.
“Ah, thankyou, but I don’t own the restaurant,” said Burly Pete. “The restaurant doesn’t have a name. I just own the sign on top of the restaurant!”
“And the space it sits on, presumably,” said Robert.
“Hm? Oh, good heavens, no!” said Burly Pete, chuckling heartily. “I rent that. But some day, some day…”
Space Team One entered the restaurant. Its decor was full of papier-mache anchors, octopodes, and paintings of waves; evidently, the new owner hadn’t redecorated from its previous theme. It was lit dimly by fire, both in the form of candles and a table that had been set ablaze for reasons unknown.
Martin immediately headed for the fire table, but Robert gently redirected him to one that was larger and had less of a chance of burning them to death. They sat in the corner, Safety Ninja looking perturbed, and looked at the menus.
“Steak sandwich,” read Martin. “Oh, it’s a steak between two slices of steak.”
“No, Martin,” said Robert, leaning over to look, “it just means – oh, no, it is, sorry.”
He looked down at his own menu.
“Bacon salad,” he read. “Bacon…bacon…bacon…and bacon dressing.”
“Prime rib milkshakes, too,” said Aleya, sounding impressed.
Safety Ninja shuddered, as eating here was a heart attack waiting to happen.
A man came out from the side of Martin’s peripheral vision, and strode stiffly yet purposefully towards Space Team One’s table, his eyes full of confidence.
He had the look of a once robust man, who had begun to go to seed. His solid, barrel-like torso belied the small paunch that sat upon him, sticking out from his long, navy blue coat. While he still had a full head of hair, it was grey; its original black remaining only in streaks at his temples. His salt-and-pepper beard was neatly cropped beneath his large, beaky nose, though a few errant whiskers stuck out by his ears.
By far the thing that aged him most were his eyes: though still intense and piercing, they were very tired-looking; heavily lidded and with considerable bags under them.
“Hello there,” said the man, his voice firm and gravelly.
“Good morning!” said Space Dan.
“How about I cut you lot a deal?” the man asked. “I pay for whatever you order, and you hear out my proposition.”
“You pay for everything Martin eats, and I’ll hear a marriage proposal,” said Robert.
“But he’s not a robot,” said Aleya, smiling politely.
“Shut up,” scowled Robert.
The five of them ordered – Martin a double-decker steak burger, Robert a bacon salad, Aleya a diced meatloaf, Space Dan a plate of chicken wedges, and Safety Ninja a glass of water. It took some time to convince the waitress that Safety Ninja didn’t want any meat inside the water, nor did he actually want meat juice, nor did he want the glass to be made of meat. At last, however, the waitress understood, and she left them with the mysterious bearded man, chuckling at the strange order.
“You’re not fishers,” said the man. “I can tell by the looks in your eyes, the lack of callouses in your hands, and the fact that you chose the only restaurant that doesn’t sell fish on the planet.”
“Well,” said Martin.
“So my proposition is this,” said the man. “I’m hunting something’s never been caught by man, woman, beast, or some eerie combination of the three.”
“Is it an undulating wobble-shark?” asked Space Dan nervously.
“No, lad,” said the man. “Seafarers won’t say its name, it’s so feared, but I will. It’s Old Sea Peter. The Crystal Leviathan. The Starwhal.”
“None of those words mean anything,” said Aleya.
“Then perhaps this will,” said the man.
He dramatically held up a blank piece of parchment.
“…it’s invisible?!” said Space Dan.
“What? No, I haven’t turned it around to face you, yet.”
The man flipped the parchment around, to reveal an etching of a huge narwhal; its body full of panes of reflected light, and its horn the trail of a shooting star flying forth from its head. Waves were emanating forth from its roaring mouth.
“And you want to hunt that?” said Aleya.
“It’s the only fair fight, for a god,” said the man casually.
Space Team One looked at each other.
“You’re…you’re Neptune?” asked Robert.
“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Space Dan. “He could be another god of another planet come to visit. Like…uh…Jupiter!”
“Hah,” laughed the man. “I’m certainly not Jupiter! I am indeed Neptune. But I wonder how you come to know of the gods?”
“I wonder how you come to know of how we come to know of the gods,” said Robert.
“A good god sees things,” said Neptune, tapping his nose.
“Mr. Neptune, have you seen any giant animal-like people?” asked Martin. “They keep showing up.”
“Sometimes before I’ve even met them,” said Space Dan.
“I’ve not seen such,” said Neptune. “But the sea is a strange mistress – one day loving, the next, dumping hundreds of lobsters onto your bed.”
Space Dan made a mental note that Neptunian culture considered dumping lobsters onto beds strange.
“My fleet is stationed down at the docks,” said Neptune. “Ask for the Physeter, that’s my flagship.”
“Wait, wait,” said Aleya, indicating at him with a menu. “Why do you need us if you have a whole fleet?”
“Well, you five aren’t afraid of the Starwhal, unlike every other sea-blighter on this world,” said Neptune. “So I figure, only you can help me kill the monstrous beast.”
“How is it monstrous?” asked Robert.
“Right,” said Aleya. “I don’t want to kill an animal just for funsies. Unless it’s a jerk.”
“Fair,” said Neptune. “The Starwhal drives men mad with its singing.”
Martin nodded, understanding.
“Like Michael Bolton,” he said.
“It rarely surfaces,” said Neptune, “but if it does, it’s a danger to every town nearby.”
“We’re not in the business of helping randoms,” said Aleya.
“…honestly, we kind of are,” said Robert, frowning.
“But we’re not paid for it.”
“True,” said Robert. “So it’s more of an unintentional hobby.”
“We do get paid in the form of people changing the Falstaff’s bar for us,” said Space Dan.
Safety Ninja looked around nervously, shuddering at the prospect of all the alcohol in the ship being replaced with non-fish meat products.
Robert regarded Neptune carefully, then glanced at Space Dan, then Aleya.
“…you have yourself a deal,” said Robert. “Everybody, let’s go.”
“But our food will come soon!” said Martin.
“…let’s eat our food quickly and then go,” said Robert.
“But if we eat food quickly and then we fall off the ship we might get cramps from swimming,” said Space Dan, to which Safety Ninja nodded approvingly.
“But it’s not liquid in the ocean,” said Martin, “it’s gaseous vapour, so we wouldn’t be swimming if we fell in.”
“Thankyou, Martin,” said Robert smugly.
Space Dan, still looking not entirely convinced, looked to Safety Ninja. The ninja thought for a moment, and then reluctantly nodded, and Space Dan visibly relaxed.
“But we shouldn’t eat quickly anyway,” Martin went on, “because that would be rude to the people who worked hard to make our food.”
“…fine,” said Robert, pinching his nose. “Let’s eat our food at a respectful and only slightly faster-than-regular pace, and then let’s go.”
“Cheers!” said Martin, raising a candle.
He blew it out and drank the wax heartily.