The Doctor Is In (Well, Technically On)

 

“What are cowboys doing on Mars?!” asked Robert.

Given the fact that he immediately had to pull his head in – literally, through the window – to start fighting Gravesend again, there was no time for anyone to answer this question.

The reason that there were cowboys – and now, as the train surged forth, historically-dressed American Indians – on Mars is long, yet simple.

Martians were quite fond of whisky, as it masked the taste of Mars’ staple food, rice. Rice had been introduced to Mars by Edgar, a human groundskeeper, despite the fact that Mars is exceptionally dry and rice requires a lot of water to grow. Years of dogged rice-breeding eventually created a hardy crop that could survive Martian conditions, but the tradeoff was that it required hours of boiling to go soft, and it constantly tasted faintly of window cleaning liquid. As a result, Martians drank whisky from the day they were born to the hour of their deaths (the interval perhaps slightly truncated as a result) despite being of a far lower proof than its Earth equivalents to prevent stumbling and overfeeding on kebabs.

Martian whiskys varied in quality, and new variants were constantly being invented. Once word got out that a particular whisky tasted bad, its makers would rush to rip the labels off all the bottles and put new ones on, usually with a completely different name. To avoid being overtaken in the market, even high-quality whiskys changed their name every week or so. However, there was a problem: there were only so many possible names a whisky could have, and the Martians had burned through most of theirs already. As a result, competition for who got the right for new names was fierce, often breaking out into all-out war. The Martians wore the costumes as mascots for their distilleries, having been enraptured by tales of the Wild West from Edgar.

“Yeehaw!” cried a cowboy, firing a pair of guns in the air, his trilobite steed rearing up.

He reached into a saddlebag and threw a bunch of medals at a Martian in a feathered headdress, who was hollering.

Gravesend, who appeared confused but not distracted, threw a punch at Robert with his remaining functional arm. Robert ducked, and smacked at Gravesend’s leg with the machete handle, knocking him over.

“Why are the cowboys throwing all those medals?” asked Robert, as he scrambled over Gravesend towards the tommygun.

Gravesend grabbed Robert’s arm, and started pulling him back, snarling obscenities. Robert tried to pull away, stretching out his leg to kick the tommygun further away from Gravesend’s possible reach.

“Well,” said Martin, looking out the window as the two of them grappled, “some American Indian tribes wear headdresses as symbols of military success, and all of those Martians are wearing them, so it makes sense that the cowboys have all those medals.”

It was also that Edgar’s tales were very racist.

“Charge, boys!” shouted the cowboy, pulling out a bugle, as a troop of Martians dressed as the Confederate cavalry appeared atop a slope.

“Yee!” cried the Confederate-Martians.

As the original cowboy trumpeted ‘Take On Me’, the Confederate-Martians thundered down towards the train, the Indian-Martians firing arrows at them as Parthian shots.

“Wonderful,” said Robert, straining as Gravesend’s grip tightened, “we’ve stumbled onto the set of How The West Was Drunk.”

There was a sudden, terrifying yodelling, on the other side of the train to the Confederates.

“Over that hill!” shouted an Indian-Martian, pointing with terror (and also his right hand).

A chorus rose, accompanied by a thousand banjos.

Lemme tell you a tale, of death and of woe, ‘cause this here whisky’s the best in the show!”

“The Mountain Men of Olympus Mons!” said Haizea, gazing at them. “I thought they were just legends.”

“Don’t help, or anything!” squeaked Robert, as Gravesend started wrapping his elbow around Robert’s neck, “I’m fine, here!”

He smacked the handle into Gravesend’s wounded arm. Gravesend roared in pain and his grip slackened just enough for Robert to reach his foot out, and hook his shoe on the tommygun’s ammo clip.

“You know what to do!” Robert wheezed, and kicked the gun through the air towards Martin.

“Gotcha!” yelled Martin, and smashed the gun into the floor with his mop, pieces of it flying everywhere.

“No, I… well, too late now, good enough!” said Robert, and he hurled the handle as hard as he could, out the window.

“Smart,” said Gravesend.

“Not quite, but close,” said Robert.

The handle shattered a pane of glass as it swung back in through the other side of the carriage, and slammed into the back of Gravesend’s head.

Robert unwound Gravesend’s arm from his neck, and moved his unconscious head back by his protruding ears.

Atop the distant hills, a fighting force of men in dirty overalls and straw hats surged down, their stench and fleas following close behind, and with a roar they clashed with the screaming Indian-Martians.

“Woo-eee!” said a cowboy, firing wildly at the Surface Express.

Angered, Gotanda stuck his head out a window and headbutted the cowboy off of his trilobite.

“Stop that!” the porcine oni bellowed, “those are valuable mushrooms!”

This prompted the cowboys to quickly don neckerchiefs and leap onto the side of the train, leaving their trilobites to slow down and graze. The cowboys scrambled up the sides, climbing in through the blown-apart end of the carriage, and started grabbing crates of mushrooms, despite the protests of Gotanda and Armonk.

“These mushrooms’ll make fine schnapps, boys!” said a cowboy, flunging them indiscriminately to his companions.

“Hey!” said a mountain man, “we’ve already staked out this here claim!”

“Git out!”

You git out!”

The cowboy and the mountain man started scuffling atop the train, and the Indians began to climb aboard as well, leaving their own trilobites behind.

 

 

Martin propped Gravesend’s unconscious form up against a crate, hoping he would be comfortable, and not dream of quiches. Then, he hopped up and followed after Robert and Haizea, who were dashing through into the carriage behind them, dodging arrows and gunshots.

Ducking as an errant metal ruler flew over his head, Martin slammed the carriage door behind him as he ran through, straight into a carriage full of battling oni.

“There’s too many people to fight here,” said Robert.

“What?!” asked Hibiya, jumping on the spot at such a statement.

“For our current circumstances,” Robert added, pressing himself into a corner to avoid a Pie Bar oni who was barreling past.

Hibiya looked severely internally conflicted, and tugged on his own shoulder fur.

“…I can kinda get why you’d say that, but-”

“We have to get Space Dan to the end of the train,” said Haizea. “We need to change something up. If Clong gets to Pequod’s Albatross before we do, this will all have been for nothing.”

She looked at the spilled crates of fungus that were rolling around on the floor.

“Well,” she added, “apart from saving surface Mars from addiction to mushrooms.”

Martin, who was pressed up against one of the windows, watched one of the cowboys snatch a bottle of Saber Dropsy from one of his competitor’s hands, and lob it at the train. The bottle bounced around and fell through the open skylight, smashing onto the carpet.

Hibiya leapt back from the trickle of liquid with the kind of expression a cat has when it first hears the sound of a vacuum cleaner. He snapped his large tusklike teeth ineffectually in its direction.

“Haizea,” said Martin, whose face was still smooshed slightly against the glass, “everyone on Mars has whisky, right?”

“Yes,” said Haizea, “these people especially. They make it.”

Martin nodded and jumped up, grabbing the skylight and hauling himself out of it. He ran back and forth across the carriage, looking over either side, before he spotted a cowboy-Martian who had dismounted his trilobite in order to correct his shoelaces, one of which was considerably longer than the other. The trilobite, not being accustomed to such important business as shoelaces, had continued running a short distance from the Surface Express, leaving its rider stranded, albeit able to walk after the battle very smartly.

Martin leaped off the roof towards the trilobite, jamming his mop into the side of the train on the way down, swinging around the handle and landing onto the trilobite. This threw him the extra distance he needed, but left a sizeable slit in the carriage.[1]

Martin patted it apologetically.

“I’m sorry, Giant Rocky Pillow-Cow,” he said.

“Martin, where are you going?” asked Robert, sticking his head out of a window.

“Don’t worry!” said Martin. “I’ll fix this! Onward, my new steed!”

He reared up in the air, waving his mop, and then galloped off into the distance.

Robert shook his head.

“Martin,” he shouted after him, “you amstod!

Meanwhile, in the engine room, oni were stoking the boiler. Technically, the engine didn’t even need a boiler, since it was powered by the millipede, but the oni wanted to be prepared in case they needed to set something on fire.

“What’s goin’ on out there?!” asked the train driver oni, who had memorised a lot about the train.

He was a large oni with huge handlebar underarm fur, a large stripy hat and overalls. He and the other engineers ducked as fletched arrows flew through the engine room window.

“The surface world is weird,” said another oni, gripping his horns in confusion, then pointing forward.

Ahead, an army of Ottoman Empire troops was hacking at a huge force of mounted schoolmarms, curved scimitars striking sharp metal rulers, fine red uniforms against blouses with sleeves rolled up.[2]

“At least we’re nearly outta the soup,” said the driver oni. “Justa little while further, and we’ll be past the whisky distillers’ territory!”

Just audible underneath the cried of whisky battle, a deep rumbling grew overhead like a constant stream of thunder. An enormous shadow passed over the train engine, causing the millipede to scream for its dinner and bedtime.

“What was that?” asked one of the engineer oni, craning back to look.

“Full speed ahead! We’re delivering this shipment of illegal fungus on time, dammit!” barked the driver, hunkering down over the control levers. “Carlton, stoke the boiler!”

The oni Carlton stoked the boiler harder, despite the fact that this didn’t help in the slightest, and in fact made the already hot day even worse.

The Ahab kept pace like a terrible and giant green mechanical swan just above the speeding train, its jets blasting down huge gusts of wind. Dust billowed around the Surface Express, but the whisky armies battled on, a few of their number riding obliviously underneath the Ahab’s jets and being knocked over by the enormous force of air.

“Damn!” said Hibiya, staring up at the Ahab. “That is the biggest flying building I ever saw!”

He reconsidered this as he pulled his legs up out of the skylight.

“‘Cept I’ve only seen one flying building, so far,” he admitted.

“It’s not a flying building, it’s a spaceship,” said Aleya, jumping onto the roof from the previous carriage, narrowly avoiding an airborne schoolbook.

“Or a lack-of-space ship,” Robert noted.

“Either way, if Clong’s here we have to distract him,” said Haizea. “Hopefully, Space Dan will be smart enough to stay away.”

“Hopefully,” said Robert.

He glanced down the length of the train, where the small and panicked form of Space Dan could be just seen in the dust, running away from a large crowd of assorted oni.

“It’s alright, Bob!” said Hibiya. “If Danny gets caught, he can just draw a really big monster in crayons and Clong’ll get scared and run away!”

The Ahab thundered down closer to the remnants of Space Team One, its guns trained on them.

“Hibiya, use your projection power,” said Haizea, the long scarf of her cloak flapping in the intense wind.

“What?”

“The thing where oni make invisible copies of themselves!” snapped Aleya.

“I can’t do that on purpose!” said Hibiya. “I – I think that’s just somethin’ that happens, like sweating or your horns gettin’ flaky when you’re old! Besides, you can’t see what yer doing in either place if you don’t focus, I know plenty’a oni who’ve ran into lampposts an’ things by accident.”

“Oh, this is just what we need right now,” muttered Robert frustratedly. “Aleya, Safety Ninja, can you -”

He glanced around them.

“Where is that damn ninja when we need him?”

A dozen muscular oni exploded from the side of a carriage in shower of wooden splinters as a yellow blur zipped out after them, zooming along the side of the train and leaping up to the roof. Safety Ninja landed on the next carriage back from the remnants of Space Team One in a crouching combat pose, though it was ruined slightly by his safety-tape hachimaki blowing into his eyes, forcing him to blink repeatedly and pull a face.

“That lack’a-space ship’s openin’ its sideways door,” said Hibiya.

As the ramp extended from the Ahab’s underbelly, a small selection of Tannoy Clong’s motley collection of crew jumped down onto the roof of Space Team One’s carriage. Mopiuth the moth-woman, the purple twins Dickens (both Proverbial and Platonic) dropped down, as did Stan d’Numbley, whose enormous metal frame dented the carriage upon impact. The ship pulled back, and hovered a few carriages away.

His shiny bald head glinting in the sun, Yoghur Tedgrass dropped down from the Ahab’s ramp, landing squarely opposite Safety Ninja on the roof of the otherwise empty carriage. Grinning through his goatee, Yoghur flicked the two pistols at his hips into his hands, and cockily spun them around in a blur.

“You reckon you’re quick, little man?” he sneered. “Ain’t nobody faster than me.”

Safety Ninja considered the loaded revolver in his pocket, but decided against using it on the grounds that there was a safer option.

As Yoghur Tedgrass finished twirling his pistols, Safety Ninja flew three steps forward in ninja speed and kicked him off of the train, where he bounced, rolled over two cacti, and came to a stop in front of a corner store, which was all the more impressive given the absence of any corners.

“Aeeeeghghghh!”

Yoghur Tedgrass’ undignified scream rang out, then was snatched away by the Doppler effect as the train sped away from him.

The rest of the Ahab crew kept their various appendages to their weapons’ triggers, but now hesitated to come any closer to Space Team One and Haizea. Safety Ninja slowly stepped back to join his friends, briefly nodding to them.

“Not used to people fighting back?” called Aleya.

“Why would people not fight back?” asked Hibiya, bewildered.

Finally, one last figure jumped out of the ramp, landing in front of the others. It was the robot Doctor Circuits, who calmly stepped up to Space Team One, his lights flashing a dangerous colour.[3]

Landing smartly, the robot put one finger to a button on his shoulder, and pushed down on it to speak.

“They call me Doctor Circuits,” said the robot. “Good morning.”

“Where’s Clong?” asked Aleya.

“Tannoy Clong-” Doctor Circuits began.

Huffing in annoyance, Doctor Circuits took his finger off his shoulder-button, grabbed a mountain man and an Ottoman that had been advancing on him, smacked their heads together and then threw both of them off the train. This done, he pushed his shoulder-button again and continued:

“Tannoy Clong is unsatisfied with how long you’ve taken to give him the Firesabre,” said Doctor Circuits. “He has sent us to take it, and also clean this train of any problems.”

“That wasn’t the deal!” shouted Gotanda from below.

“Tannoy Clong is a changeable fellow,” said Doctor Circuits.

“Yeah, he’s gonna change…into a dead man!” one-lined Robert.

“Nice job, yoghurt boy,” said Aleya.

“…no, Yoghur Tedgrass got thrown off the train by the eye-straining man,” said Proverbian Dickens.

“You should hear his poetry,” said Aleya.

Safety Ninja turned his head sideways at Aleya, as if he was questioning whether she was speaking swiss chard about his rhymes.

“You don’t have to work for Clong,” said Haizea. “You’re a medical robot, Circuits. Mars needs a good doctor.”

“Perhaps,” said Doctor Circuits, “but I am not good.”[4]

He gave a ‘hurk’, and all the syringes and scalpels in his body extended out, making him look like a psychotic mechanical pincushion.

“I’m a doctor of death,” he said, “and yes, I make house calls!”

 

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[1] As well as accidentally knocking out a Zoot Suit Trooper who had been leaning against the carriage wall, slacking off.

[2] Naturally, actual troops of the Ottoman Empire would not drink whisky, as they were predominately Muslim. The position of schoolmarms on liquor is less historically certain.

[3] Mauve, which was code for ‘requires new batteries’.

[4] Doctor Circuits was implying that he was morally dubious, although his medical skills really weren’t particularly impressive in the first place anyway. He had once sutured a headcold, and the less said about his solution to rickets, the better. In fairness, he was not properly medically trained, as the doctor’s college he had studied at had not installed the latest updates, because they couldn’t be bothered waiting for him to restart.