Space Team One sat around a table in the Falstaff’s recently refurbished bar. Everything sparkled, gleamed and shone, for it was brand new, built by the Fejans, herder Venusians, Magellans and Banana Republicans of Venus. It was a marvel of architectural skill. What was more astonishing, however, was that thanks to the combination of the various species’ cultural mores and symbology, it happened to look exactly like a tiki bar.
“Another frosted malt, Robert?” asked VAL, whose optic unit hovered behind the bar top.
“Please,” said Robert, “but if you could leave out the pineapple slice this time, that would be great.”
VAL wrapped her optic unit’s neck-tube around a coconut filled with ice-cream and chocolate milk, and tried to shake it, with moderate success. The movement startled Agamemnon the popcorn-fly, who was wandering up and down the bar in front of Martin. His tiny wings buzzed, keeping his fat little popcorn-shaped body from dragging on the bartop as he waddled about.
“So, Venus is clearly unstable,” said Aleya.
“No it isn’t,” said Space Dan. “We just spent two months making it peaceful.”
“I mean the god,” Aleya said.
“Oh, yes,” said Space Dan, “of course, he’s as mad as a Uranian glow snake.”
“What makes Uranian glow snakes madder than the glow snakes of any other planet?” asked Robert.
“Nothing I can particularly think of,” said Space Dan, “but I didn’t want to assume that every planet’s glow snakes were mad. That would be culturally inappropriate.”
“Decaf coffee, Space Dan?” asked VAL, holding Space Dan’s scalding hot coffee out to him.
“Ooh, it’s here!” said Space Dan happily.
He took it very carefully and put it as far forward on the bartop as he could feasibly manage, because he was sitting on a barstool in nothing but his underpants.
“Could you please put clothes on?” asked Robert.
“…perhaps I should,” said Space Dan, looking down disappointedly at his chest muscles, which were still sadly underexpanded, despite his recent efforts. “I am a bit chilly.”
Safety Ninja, who had been writing a long plea to Space Dan to dress more warmly – since the Falstaff was technically his workspace – scrunched up the note. He looked simultaneously relieved that the situation had resolved itself, and sad that nobody would read his note, which had taken the form of an extended tanka written on a napkin with a palm tree on it.
“It’s definitely getting colder,” said Aleya, who, like the others, had flaunted the bar’s mock-Hawaiian aesthetic by putting on leggings under her shorts and a fairly thick jacket. “It’s cos we’re getting further from the sun.”
No longer shaved on one side of her head, she pushed her newly regrown fringe out of her eyes. The rest of her hair, aside from a thick strip running from the fringe to the back of her neck, she had buzzcut.
“My spacesuit is still ruined, though,” said Space Dan glumly, for he wasn’t even able to repair it, thanks to the tragic loss of his sewing machine. “And those shiny knee things are too gaudy for my tastes.”
He stood with as much dignity as a man in his underpants could manage, and left the bar to find clothing.
“So,” said Martin. “Mercury sent us to Venus the Planet to find Venus, but Venus turned out to be like that angry man at the bus station that shouted at Robert and me when we didn’t line up for the bus like we were meant to.”
“Mmm,” said Robert, swigging from his coconut, “but the man at the bus station is less likely to have been killing gods.”
VAL, Aleya and Safety Ninja all exchanged looks of concentration.
“Really, it could be any of the gods,” said Aleya. “Venus seemed pretty tame, but he started a gacking war to give himself the feel-importants. And I don’t trust Mercury as far as I could spit him. He might have sent us on this whole…thing just to fog the air. He wasn’t exactly helpful in pointing out where Venus was. He just sent us to the planet. No advice, no note, nothing.”
“We have the weapons,” said Robert, gesturing to his machete handle and Martin’s mop. “And Space Dan and VAL found the time-travelling Amulet. This is all too much god-stuff for us to just be Mercury’s patsies.”
Robert suddenly realised that ‘Mercury’s Patsies’ was exactly the kind of nonsensical but vaguely meaningful-sounding title that a science fiction novel would have, and resolved to use the name for at least one act of his gargantuan work in progress The Forever Endeavour, which he was sitting on in lieu of a chair.
“I don’t like how you’re talking about Mercury,” tutted VAL. “He’s not the kind of person you’re all talking about.”
“People can be more than what you expect,” said Robert.
“He seemed nice,” said Martin. “He made me a bunch of profiteroles!”
“No, he made the breathers,” explained Robert for the hundredth time, “you made the string of profiteroles you keep yours on.”
“Oh, yeah!” said Martin, astonished. “I never would have thought I’d had it in me.”
Martin in fact had many profiteroles in him, as he was wont to sneak out and use the Foodcombinator in the night, under the cover of impromptu synthesised jazz sessions.
Robert didn’t mind this, however, because at least it stopped Martin from eating more of the tiramisu.
“Why’d he give us thousands of Italian cakes, though?” asked Aleya, as if reading his mind partially correctly. “Maybe it’s some kind of backup plan, and they’ll all explode or release poison gas when he’s done with us or something.”
VAL shook her optic unit, both in disagreement over Mercury’s nature and because she was attempting to mix a virgin daiquiri.
“I doubt we’re going to get a burn notice via tiramisu,” said Robert.
“No, no, you guys!” said Martin excitedly, waving a napkin. “We could! Look!”
He shoved the napkin forward proudly in Robert and Aleya’s faces.
“I did some calculations on the back of this bar tissue. I think we’re meant to fire the tiramisu out of the back of the Falstaff to go faster! Then we could call it the Fast-staff.”
Robert looked underwhelmed, as some of Martin’s pronumerals were drawings of children’s cartoon character Soren Kierkegaard. Aleya was busy thumbing through her wallet for an explosion patch, and ignored Martin entirely.
“Well, at least you’ve moved on from wanting to eat it,” said Robert, and turned back to his drink.
Safety Ninja pointed quizzically at part of the napkin.
“See? Safety Ninja likes it,” said Martin gloatingly to Robert.
“I think he’s asking what that is,” said Robert.
“Oh, that’s a pirate,” said Martin. “I drew him on the little island because the palm tree looked lonely.”
Safety Ninja nodded appreciatively at Martin’s poetic soul.
From the corridor, a trumpet fanfare sounded, except played rather uncertainly on a bass guitar. This was followed the sound of scuffling, as though the player was having difficulties extricating himself from the guitar strap.
“Watch out, planets!” said Space Dan, proudly striding through the bar door.
He was dressed in a spacesuit, but certainly not his regular yellow SPOOPU-issued one. This one was a vibrant deep red, with a silver locking ring to attach his helmet. The chest computer on this suit was so large and flat that it covered the entire front of his torso, with an unnecessarily large SPOOPU logo emblazoned upon it. A sciency-looking tube connected the chest computer pointlessly to his thick, white belt. Hanging from the belt were two wide strips of white fabric, which ended in loose loops around his knees. Below these, the spacesuit’s legs had large royal purple folds, which hung over gold and silver boots. Round, golden shoulderpads sat atop his shoulders, the silver stripe in their middle continuing either side down the gold stripes on his sleeves, which ended in shiny black gloves. A royal purple cape hung from the shoulderpads, down to behind Space Dan’s knees.
“Space Dan,” said Aleya, “why are you wearing a throne room?”
“That’s your ceremonial spacesuit, Space Dan,” said VAL. “You can’t wear that for everyday use.”
“I can’t wear my underpants either,” said Space Dan, “and until my chest is good and expanded, this is a lot more impressive!”
“And you’re going to wear it with the cape?” asked Aleya.
“I’m not going to not wear it with the cape,” replied Space Dan.
“But…with the cape on, there’s no room for oxygen tanks,” said VAL.
“So, what you’re telling me,” said Robert, “is that it’s a ceremonial space suit…which does not actually function as a space suit.”
“Just put a bonzai in there,” said Martin offhandedly, still pouring over his napkin. “Anyway, Space Dan, I need to talk to you.”
“Shoot!” said Space Dan.
“…well, if that’s the way you feel about that-” began Martin.
“No, I mean, go ahead!” said Space Dan.
Martin looked up for the first time since his bug buddy’s entrance, and fell of his chair in surprise.
“IT’S LIKE YOU’RE MADE OUT OF CHRISTMAS” gasped Martin.
Space Dan was too chuffed with Martin’s reaction to ask what Christmas was.
“Anyway,” continued Martin, regaining his composure, “we need to fire all of the tiramisu out the back of the Falstaff!”
“Fantastic!” shouted Space Dan. “I’ll ready the airlock in the chapel and we can flush it all out at once!”
“Why…why do you have an airlock in a chapel?” asked Robert.
“What if Golly was outside and needed to come in?” asked Space Dan derisively.
Robert opened his mouth to pursue this, but noticed the hint of brewing sarcasm in Aleya’s face. He had hung around with her enough by this point to realise this was a portent that he was about to put his foot in it, and reconsidered.
“No!” yelled Martin insistently. “We need to fire it out of the engines!”
“Even better!” said Space Dan, “the whole lot will get burned to cinders first!”
Space Dan had taken an extreme dislike to the tiramisu that Mercury had left them, as it messed up the numbers in the Falstaff’s strict food inventory, and also because he thought it tasted bland.
Space Team One gathered in the engine room for the tiramisu dumping. The Falstaff’s engines were, of course, highly advanced space-age ones, but they were built by the Livery Company of Engine Constructors, which was an ancient and venerable institution. Hence, they looked suspiciously like old steam train boiler engines, even down to a large pile of functionally useless coal.
“You move sixteen cakes, what do you get?” sang Martin cheerfully, as he transported the tiramisu in a wheelbarrow.
“Come on,” said Space Dan. “I want this tiramisu off my ship!…well, off SPOOPU’s ship that I am the captain of. Mister Robert, stoke the boiler!”
“First my dad, then Venus, then you,” muttered Robert, but he dutifully opened a hatch that lead to a roaring fire, picked up a handful of packets, and flung them inside.
There was a sudden, tremendous whoosh, and Safety Ninja’s list of the inadequate fire safety equipment caught fire.
“What…what was that?!” asked Robert, picking himself up from the floor, and cleaning his soot-covered glasses on his fleecy jacket.
Safety Ninja stood in abject psychological terror, trapped in the realisation that he’d have to stamp his beautifully poetic notes out for their own good.
“Everyone, get to the cockpit!” said VAL.
“Why, what is it?” asked Aleya.
“Something incredible!” said VAL. “The Falstaff has-”
“No, no!” yelled Space Dan over the top of her. “You can’t tell us here! It’s not happening here! It’s happening in the cockpit!”
He strode manfully away, the soot having somehow avoided his ceremonial spacesuit, and the others followed him.
“There!” cried VAL, gesturing out of the front windscreen.
“…the constellation Leo?” asked Martin.
“No, the planet we’re orbiting,” said VAL.
“Oh, right,” said Martin. “Aghh!”
He jumped in fright at the planet Mars, its bright red shape filling the window. It reminded him of the angry soldier’s face from Island Island.
“Mars,” breathed Robert.
“Yes,” said Martin, “the bread planet.”
“The red planet,” corrected Robert, just like old times.
“It’s more brownish than red, Robert,” said Martin, “like a big bread roll!”
“We need to get down there,” said Aleya. “If Mars is as bad as Venus – the god or the planet – we have to get a head start.”
“Alright,” said Space Dan, plopping down into the pilot’s chair. “Preparing to land-…Ricey!”
Ricey was still sitting in the copilot’s chair, his serene smile constant as ever.
“Ricey,” said Space Dan sternly, “you shouldn’t sit in that chair all the time. Your diligence and hard work does you credit, but you won’t be able to fly the ship right unless you get the correct amount of rest!”
Safety Ninja smiled at Space Dan’s care for his co-workers’ wellbeing.
“Ricey, stand down,” said Space Dan. “As captain, I’m appointing Safety Ninja to be co-pilot while Ricey recovers!”
Safety Ninja paled in utter terror.
On the red and/or brown surface of Mars, a bright orange ship came to a surprisingly gentle rest, next to a large rock that jutted out of the sandy desert. Far above in the cloudless blue sky, the distant sun shone its bright friendly light on the world.
The Falstaff’s landing ramp opened, and Space Team One drove out in EVIL CAR. Aleya sat in the front passenger seat, with Space Dan and Safety Ninja in the back. Because EVIL CAR was driving, they left the driver’s seat empty out of politeness, since Robert was the only one whom EVIL CAR honestly liked behind the wheel. Robert was sitting on top with Martin, both with their breathers on, Agamemnon clinging to Martin’s shoulder with his little legs.
“Ugh,” said Space Dan, flapping part of his cape to fan himself. “It’s hot, it’s sticky, and it smells like small, dried meaty things in here!”
He picked up a long since discarded map.
“And what’s ‘Leningrad’?!”
“Never mind about that,” said Robert. “How can it be hot?! It was freezing on the ship! We were going further away from the sun!”
“Of course it’s hot, Robert,” scoffed Martin. “It’s a desert.”
Aleya casually rolled down a window.
“Agh! What are you doing?! We’re all going to-…we’re fine,” said Space Dan.
“That’s good!” said Martin. “I guess Mars has air as well!”
He casually took his breather-belt off, the suit it generated around his body unwrapping to reveal his regular clothes beneath. Agamemnon was pushed up by a strip of the costume unwinding, but quickly clutched onto Martin’s t-shirt once again. Martin, meanwhile, nibbled a little at his breather belt’s profiteroles, until he realised that they were coated with varnish to prevent him from doing exactly that.
Robert did the same, and pulled off his fleecy jacket, tossing it down the sunroof into EVIL CAR.
“Let’s head for that settlement off in the distance,” he said.
Space Dan lifted a walky-talky, and pushed its button.
“VAL, we’re going to head for the settlement off in the distance,” he said.
“Okay!” said VAL, her voice tinny and flanged through the walky-talky.
“Why don’t you use your suit radio?” asked Robert.
“The ceremonial spacesuit doesn’t have a radio,” said Space Dan. “The only thing you should be communicating when you’re wearing the ceremonial spacesuit is how incredible the honour you’re presumably being awarded is.”
“Robert!” said Martin. “Look out! There’s a scorpion on the road.”
“It’s alright,” said Robert. “We’ll pass it soon, and it’s really tiny.”
Space Dan peeked in between the front seats.
“Oh no,” he said, “I’ve seen this before! It’s just far away!”
“Well, if it’s far away, that’s even better!” said Robert, who was clearly an easily frustrated driver even when he wasn’t the one driving.
The distant scorpion seemed to hear this quarrel, and suddenly started to scuttle towards them.
“It’s gaining on us!” shouted Space Dan. “And since we’re heading towards it, it’s basically gaining on us even faster!”
The car-sized scorpion roared loudly and leapt at EVIL CAR, like a much younger and gianter Speedy Jim. EVIL CAR accelerated into the attack, and ‘GRR’ed an equally loud roar in return.
Aleya opened her door, and gripping the gullwing above her, punched the scorpion off the road. Robert pulled Martin’s head down so both ducked under the scorpion’s tail as it went sprawling, then both sat tall once more as EVIL CAR reversed over the huge chitinous beast, and sped off forwards again. Aleya shook out her fist, rubbing her knuckles through her fingerless gloves.
The scorpion scuttled into the dunes, whining.
Far above in the distance, on a tall spire of rock, a woman in a large, brown cloak watched EVIL CAR speed across the desert. She dropped silently down onto the dunes below her, and began to make her way towards the settlement, across the sands.
 She had also rejected the idea of wearing a floral-print eyepatch.
 Safety Ninja and Aleya also exchanged a wallet.
 This was not to be confused with God Stuff, presumably the food of lack-of-choice for lazy bachelor gods.
 Perhaps the soot just had good taste.
 Removed his breather belt, that is; not nibble on Martin’s profiteroles.