Reporting For Duty

 

“Dammit, Martin!” Robert yelled, slamming down on the desk as he chewed on the only cigar-shaped object that was available – one of Aleya’s cigars.[1]

It was not lit, because Robert had been told by Space Dan that he might need it for buying things, and also because Robert didn’t like smoking. Hibiya, who had never seen a cigar before, had also added that a source of smoke in an underground cavern was probably not a good idea.

“Robert,” said Martin, “I know you’re mad at me right now.”

“Damn right, I’m mad!” said Robert. “The mayor, or whoever runs this town, is going to nail my rear to a jetski and mow the water off his frozen driveway for this!”

“That filing cabinet had it coming,” said Martin.

“I don’t care what you think happened!” snapped Robert, dragging on his suspenders (as opposed to the cigar). “That filing cabinet was full of writs!”

“What about the victim’s writs, Robert?!” shouted Martin.

“Turn in your badge!” said Robert.

“I would, but Safety Ninja hasn’t finished making it yet!” said Martin.

Martin and Robert were practicing being policemen, while Safety Ninja and the others were rebuilding the police station/fire department/newspaper building.

“Oh. Well, pretend you turned it in, then pick it up and keep being a cop anyway,” said Robert.

He sat down in his chair, and put the cigar away.

“Good job,” he said, “I think we’re going to make great pretend-cops on the underside of Mars.”

“Like flips I’m gonna do what you say!” said Martin.

“…no, Martin, we’re done with that now,” said Robert.

“You’ve been on my case since the beginning!” said Martin. “I’m gonna clean up this town, with or without your stinking badges!”

He stomped out of the room, then stomped back in because he had left Agamemnon on top of the hat rack,[2] then stomped out again.

Robert put his feet up and flipped through a newspaper. It was the first edition of the Martian Chronicle, with words and drawings by Space Dan.[3]

A great crowd gathered as it was announced that a new big police force was going to be under Mars, and that it would also be a fire department and newspaper, the very one which you are reading right now, it said.

Robert wished he could give Space Dan a copy of Funk and Wagnalls, or possibly Wagnalls’ Funk, the popular 1970s album featuring such Motown hits as “Get On With That Oxford Comma”.

It had been one day since Tannoy Clong had set his deadline, and the newspaper was already flourishing, and with it the possibilities for Firesabre-related investigation. This was despite some confusion caused by how Space Dan talked about the surface, since the oni considered their world to be the right way up and the surface of Mars to be beneath it. There was also the unfortunate matter of widespread oni illiteracy.

“Hey, Robert,” said Aleya, sticking her head around the doorway. “We’ve got somebody who wants to see you.”

“Why?” Robert asked.

“Yeah, I wondered that too,” said Aleya.

Shaking his head, Robert got up and followed her outside of the room.

Robert’s office was a small, L-shaped corner room, with a large window, desk and pinboard, which he had claimed as chief, both of the police and editor-in varieties. Two smaller internal windows with small sets of blinds looked out over the rest of the open-plan office, on the second storey of the combined newspaper, police and fire department.

A frosted glass feature wall separated off a client waiting area, with a bench and a charred tree, for while the entire building was very neat, it was also thoroughly blackened and smelled of charcoal. On the closer side of the glass wall was the main office, with a couple of desks in a row, one of which had been relegated to the corner with burned-off legs. Two smaller desks sat facing each other opposite the front door and waiting area, clearly claimed by Space Dan and Martin, due to ‘bagsies’. In addition to a number of narrow pillars reaching up to the ceiling, a slippery pole jutted up out of a large, circular hole that had been cut in the floor.

Through the glass wall, Robert could see the vague shapes of the open door, and of a large oni who was waiting for him.

“Hello,” said the oni, who was elderly, bright orange and had a purse covered in skulls.

“Good morning,” said Robert. “How can we help you?”

“Well,” said the oni, “this is the fire department, yes?”

“Yeah!” said Hibiya, proudly.

“How much does it cost for you to set something on fire?” the oni asked.

“Um…” Robert began.

“We don’t set fires,” said Space Dan, “we put them out.”

“Then why isn’t it called the not-fire department?” asked the oni.

“What Space Dan means is that we don’t set fires, but we put them somewhere else,” said Aleya, wary of a long argument. “We can help you, but we can’t make a new fire, we have to find another one.”

“Lovely!” said the oni. “If you could find a nice big fire and put it somewhere around the West District, that would be very nice!”

“…why do you want to set the West District on fire?” asked Robert.
“They know what they did!” said the oni, shaking her fist in what was presumably the direction of the West District.

“Yes,” said Aleya, waving her towards the door. “We’ll burn them up for you. Thankyou, goodbye.”

The oni shuffled off.

“Thanks,” said Robert, “now we’re official arsonists.”

“Arsonists?!” asked Space Dan. “Do we have to arrest ourselves?”

“Of course not,” said Martin, “we have to arrest each other. And if we don’t, we’ll be corrupt, and we have to report it in the newspaper, because then if people find out we’re corrupt and we didn’t report our corruption, nobody will take our journalistic integrity seriously!”

“We wouldn’t technically be arsonists,” Haizea said.

The others looked at her.

“If we’re moving the fires around, we’re not setting them and we’re not putting them out,” she explained. “We’re really just doing nothing.”

“Thank Golly,” said Space Dan, who was worried about how hard drawing his friends would be.

“I didn’t mean it,” said Aleya, smirking at them bemusedly, “I just wanted to get rid of her.”

“If you wanted to get rid of her, why didn’t you just headbutt her very hard?” asked Hibiya.

“That wouldn’t work,” said Haizea. “She’d only come back for more headbutting tomorrow.”

Hibiya looked impressed at Haizea’s deduction, though it was hard to tell with oni. His eyes bulged even more than usual, regardless.

“Badges!” said Space Dan merrily, fidgeting with his cape in joy.

It kept getting tangled in the shoulder-satchel he had appropriated as a reporter, having found it in the wreckage left from the previous newspaper, along with a number of typewriters with worn-out ribbons and an enormous amount of gel pens.

Safety Ninja returned, bearing an armful of flip-down police badges. These were handed out to each of the others with great dignity, despite the fact that Martin immediately bit his to determine that it was real leather, and Aleya carelessly tossed hers towards her desk without even waiting for Safety Ninja to look away.

“Thankyou, Safety Ninja,” said Robert. “Well, we’ll need to put you into partners now.”

“Ooh! Ooh! I’m with Agamemnon!” Martin said, waving his hands gleefully, which caused Agamemnon to bounce back and forth on his shoulder.

“You can’t go with him,” said Space Dan. “He can’t recite the Fire Police Paper Oath.”[4]

“Neither can Safety Ninja!” protested Martin.

“Yes he can,” said Space Dan, “he just doesn’t, to spare our ears.”

Safety Ninja nodded, though he didn’t appreciate the implication that his voice was unpleasant, as opposed to just potentially unsafe.

“As the Chief, I’ll stay here to assemble our information and make sure we’re not attacked by the Baseball Furries or whoever,” said Robert. “Aleya, you go with…”

He hovered his finger over the others, trying to decide who Aleya would be least likely to leave behind to blow things up.

“…Haizea,” he said.

“Very well,” said Haizea.

“Space Dan, you’re already good at pictures, and you have the journalist satchel,” said Robert. “You go with Hibiya as an embedded photojournalist. Well, an embedded crayon drawing journalist.”

Space Dan shuffled his cape, then saluted Robert.

“Martin, you and Safety Ninja are together,” Robert finished.

He internally felt relieved that Martin and Space Dan hadn’t been partnered together, if only because he didn’t want the search for the Firesabre to descend into newspaper stories about imaginary pot plants, delivered two weeks past the deadline.

Safety Ninja handed Martin a piece of paper.

“We can’t be!” said Martin. “There weren’t enough badges, so Safety Ninja can’t be a Fire Police News Officer.”

“Well…what’re you going to do?” Robert asked Safety Ninja.

Safety Ninja thought for a minute, held up a finger to ask him to wait, then ran out the door and down the corridor. Arriving again in a speedy yellow blur, he donned a jaunty hat and waved around a revolver.

“A private detective?” asked Robert. “Alright, but if you get anything serious, turn it over to us.”

Safety Ninja slowly nodded, then put the revolver away carefully, because it was loaded.

“So, who do I partner with?” asked Martin.

Robert wondered.

“…Space Dan,” he said, “give Martin your walky-talky.”

“It can’t take the Oath either,” Space Dan said.

“No,” said Robert, “but VAL can.”

 

Aleya and Haizea tried to look stern and professional as they stood in between two large groups of oni, both of whom were trying to intimidate the other.

“You’re outta your heights, boyo!” said the leader of one, who was bright red and wearing knickerbockers.

“Aaaaeyy!” responded the leader of the other gang, who was a deep shade of blue and dressed in rolled-up shirtsleeves.

This was apparently a sentence in of itself, because the second gang all cheered and blew raspberries at their opponents, who punched at the air in frustration.

“Where did the trouble start?” asked Haizea.

“When they started musclin’ in on our turf!” said the blue leader.

“Your turf is clearly from Fourth Intersection to Twenty-Fifth Cul-De-Sac!” said the red leader. “That’s how it’s always been, ever since the days that me great-grandfather came over!”

“Where did he come from?” asked Haizea.

“…elsewhere,” said the red leader.

“Tram!” shouted a scrawny-looking oni child, who was wearing a peaked cap.

Everybody shuffled a few metres to the right to let the tram pass, the oni driver leaning out the window and shaking his fist at them.

“Get a job, you hooligans!” he shouted, eyes bulging.

“We can’t all get the same job!” said the red leader. “There wouldn’t be enough work, an’ I gotta make enough to feed three oni here!”

“He’s got kids?” asked Aleya.

“Nah, he’s just real hungry,” said a tall, thin red oni with whiskers.

“We should move off these tram tracks,” said Haizea, watching the tram turn haphazardly around a corner, causing much distant yelling. “What were you doing, standing around arguing on them for?”

“There’s a perfectly good pavement three feet that way,” added Aleya, jerking her thumb behind her.

The red and blue leaders shook their heads as their followers looked around nervously.

“Big Ota owns the pavements in this town,” the blue one said.

“So you’ve got to pay money to use them?” asked Haizea.

“Huh? Oh, no,” said the red leader. “It’s just, he really likes to keep things neat, and he’ll be upset with us if Lenox gets dirt on them.”

Lenox, one of the red oni, lifted his monstrous foot and apologetically indicated to its muddy underside.

“Besides, we’re tram gangs,” said the red leader.

“Yer,” said one of the blue oni, jabbing a finger proudly into his own chest. “We’re called the Tram Line Trampers! We walk on all the tram tracks in this town.”

“And we’re the Trolley Trailers!” said a red oni. “But they’re stealing our tracks!”

“Doesn’t the tram company get mad?” asked Aleya.

“Tram company?” asked Lenox. “But…there’s four tram companies.”

He indicated to the pair of tram tracks.

“One for the East-West Tram Company, and the other for the West-East Tram Company,” he said.

“What about the other two?” asked Haizea.

“They’re too poor to afford anything more than one tram,” said Lenox, “so they just argue over who gets to use it. But their track only goes from one side of the street to the other, so nobody actually rides it.”

“Unless they’re very tired,” added the blue leader.

“Or they’re one of the filt’y Short-Line Gang.”

Both gangs spat in mutual disdain, although they made sure not to spit on the tracks themselves.

“Was there ever any official agreement about who gets to use what tracks?” asked Haizea.

The oni looked confused.

“Well…we shook on it,” said the red leader.

“Yes, but you didn’t spit in your hand first,” said the blue leader. “That means it don’t count.”

“It do too!” shouted the red leader, puffing up his chest. “I had a cold that day!”

“No you didn’t!” shouted the blue leader, clenching his fists and shaking them, “I saw you only pretendin’ to blow your nose! That was no more snot than usual!”

The red leader leered forwards, eyes bulging as was their wont, and reluctantly wiped his nose.

“Aha!” shouted the blue oni. “Aha! Y’see!”

All the other oni started squabbling.

Aleya, rolling her eyes, stepped in and grabbed the gang leaders’ hands, which were currently swatting at each other.

“Alright!” shouted Aleya, over the din.

She spat in the blue oni’s hand, who grimaced, and the red oni’s, who made a frustrated growling noise.

“You,” said Aleya, jerking the blue oni by the wrist, “get the Fourth Intersection on every second weekday.

“While you,” she continued, jerking the red oni’s wrist, “get it on weekends, and…”

She looked to Haizea for help.

“…Februaryday and Aprilday,” Haizea said.

“Yes, Februaryday,” said Aleya, “but on Aprilday, you gotta flip a coin and share it.”

“I don’t trust them to flip it right!” said the red leader. “There’s a technique you have to follow!”

“Fine,” said Aleya. “You all come down to the Police Fire News Station every Aprilday and get whoever’s there to flip it for you.”

She thought.

“Better make it just me or Haizea. Now, shake!”

“…actually, it’s gotta be our spit in there,” said the blue oni.

Aleya ignored him, and pushed both of their hands together. She circled them around in the approximation of a handshake, while both oni frowned and glared at each other with their bulging eyes, clearly unused to being treated in such a manner.

“Ehhhhh, it’ll do for now,” said the blue oni.

Aleya tightened her fingers on his wrist.

“It’ll do for a really really long time!” the blue oni corrected himself.

She let go of both, and the blue oni wiped his hand on a tuft of back-fur.

“Well, that’s that,” said the red oni. “Alright, everybody, fighting time!”

Before Haizea or Aleya could stop them, the Tram Line Trampers and the Trolley Trackers both broke into all-out brawls – mostly with themselves.

“Thanks for your help!” shouted Lenox, before being pile-drived by his leader.

“Let’s go get some coffee and donuts,” said Aleya, shaking her head.

“What are donuts?” asked Haizea.

“Something I can’t believe this lot won’t have invented,” said Aleya, as the two of them continued walking down the street.

They passed through the intersection where the tram had turned, where a few good-natured fistfights had broken out on the pedestrian scramble.

 

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[1] Aleya had lost her original cigars on Earth, but since Space Team One had passed near to a general store in Pequod’s Albatross, she had mysteriously gained the necessary terbacker.

[2] Having politely taken him off the top of his head, where Agamemnon had been dozing, when he entered.

[3] Space Dan had hesitantly yet hopefully suggested calling it ‘Space Dan News’, but this was quickly turned down.

[4] The Fire Police Paper Oath was: “I solemnly swear to help with fires and crime and newspapers until I don’t need to anymore or if I’m too tired to do it properly, with liberty and justice for all.”