A Yellow Flag Is A Red Flag

 

EVIL CAR slowed to a stop on the rocky hillside, above the large cavelike hole where the train track disappeared down into the hollow Mars. The sun baked down onto the desert and the small cluster of rocky hills, a stark contrast to the ambiently lit caverns that had housed the Fire Police News Department. EVIL CAR’s doors swung open, one sideways and one upward, and Martin and Robert got out, carrying a pair of plastic shopping bags full of equipment. Robert rubbed EVIL CAR affectionately on its bonnet and approached the rest of Space Team One and Haizea, who were already waiting nearby. Martin held up his encircled fingers to his eyes, so he could pretend he had binoculars again, and scanned the horizon.

“Everything’s set?” asked Haizea.

Robert nodded, and solemnly handed the Amulet to Space Dan. This momentous occasion was slightly ruined by the fact that it had been wrapped up in a slightly damp tea towel, but at least the Amulet now smelled slightly of orange-scented dishwashing liquid.

“How’s VAL?” asked Space Dan.

“She’s fine,” said Robert. “She said she thought people on horseback – or maybe bugback – were coming towards the village, but I don’t know how she could tell. Do you have a very sensitive seismograph on board the Falstaff?”

“No,” said Space Dan, “we had to jettison it for weight and also out of fear. Did you tell EVIL CAR exactly what he needed to do?”

“He’s never let me down before,” said Robert.

Though not intentionally lying, Robert did have a fondness for the irascible automobile that somewhat coloured his perceptions. Nonetheless, he called out to EVIL CAR:

“Remember, EVIL CAR! Exactly like we discussed!”

EVIL CAR ‘GRR’ed in annoyance, hopefully because it thoroughly understood already.

“Alright,” said Robert, “see you later!”

He waved cheerfully as EVIL CAR rumbled back down the rocky hillside, suspension bouncing enthusiastically, then sped off into the distance, terrifying a pack of spiky Martian horses as it went.

“I should get going too,” said Space Dan, tucking the Amulet into his journalist’s satchel and patting it, “Hibiya will be waiting for me. I’ll just take a quick picture first!”

He pulled out his camera and a packet of crayons.

“Smile! Everyone say ‘train robbery’!”

“Space Dan, there’s no time!” frowned Robert, shooing him towards the path down.

“Sorry,” said Space Dan. “I guess I’ll just take one of everybody once we’re all together again.”

Suddenly, the wind picked up a great deal, howling through the canyons and crevices of Mars, sending shivers down the spine of Space Dan.

“…anyway, down to the train!” said Space Dan, putting away his crayons.

He disappeared down the side of the hill towards the cave, only pausing a few times to dust his cape off when it got blown against rocks.

Oh, the grand old life of a camper is a grand old life for me,” sang Space Dan, remembering a tune from his childhood. “When the forest monsters come, I shall be brave in victory! With a jump and a strike, they all alike will die, oh yes sirree!

“Well, said Aleya, holding her hand up to shield her eye from the sun, “I guess we wait.”

Martin let out a puff of air, and tried dismally to fan himself with his mop.

“I wish we could sit in EVIL CAR’s air conditioning,” he said, as he rummaged around in a plastic shopping bag and pulled out Agamemnon.

 

“One ticket to the surface on the surface train, my good man,” said Space Dan, affecting a posh accent for no reason other than whim.

The oni at the ticket counter stared down at him suspiciously.

“How do you know about the surface train, pal?” he said. “I’m thinkin’ maybe you shouldn’t be talkin’ about stuff that aint’cha business.”

Space Dan pointed to the only engine behind the oni, an enormous scarlet train labelled ‘Surface Express’.

“…uh…that’s a typo,” said the oni.[1]

One of the train’s carriages’ windows opened, and Armonk stuck his head out of it. Fortunately for him, it was still attached to his neck, and hence the rest of his body.[2]

“Space Dan, hurry it up,” he said. “We’re leaving in four minutes!”

He looked at his watch to accentuate this request, even though oni watches are more or less just decorative, since they are no better at reading numbers than they are letters.

The oni at the gate went pale as Armonk called out,[3] and apologetically waved Space Dan though.

Space Dan looked up at the train engine as he crossed towards the carriages. It appeared the same as any normal steam train with an extremely long nose, but he couldn’t help but notice the boiler looked an odd shape, made out of countless narrow segments. One of the segments appeared to shift slightly as he approached, and Space Dan suddenly realised that there was no boiler at all: it was a gigantic millipede yoked in the middle of the engine, the wheels and front bumpers of which extended forwards alongside the millipede like a steam train catamaran.

Space Dan was suddenly thankful that he had to turn and head towards the carriages, though he privately wished that Armonk had called him to one further back than the front carriage.

Taking in a deep breath, Space Dan pulled out the one object that was vital to the train robbery mission: a giant yellow SPOOPU flag he had hand-sewn, the words ‘Space Team One’ carefully stitched in below a purple SPOOPU logo. Holding it in one hand, like the towel over a waiter’s arm at a fancy restaurant, he strode boldly up the wrought-iron steps into the carriage.

“Hello, friends!” said Space Dan.

“Space,” said Gotanda. “Good to see you made it.”

“Yes, I’m sorry,” said Space Dan. “The traffic was murder.”

Gotanda snapped his fingers.
“And I missed it?!”

The first carriage looked as though it would have been perfectly at home on the Orient Express, were it not for the large and reinforced wooden crate that took up its entire rear third.

“Uh…so,” said Space Dan, as the train began to roll out of the station, “where exactly are we going?”

“All in good time,” said Gotanda.

As the train got faster and faster, Space Dan could hear the rapid clicking of the millipede’s many legs on the sleepers between the rails speed up, until it became no more than a slightly scratchy hum. Space Dan shuddered at the thought as the train disappeared out of the enormous cavern and into the tunnel.

“What’s that cloth you have there?” asked Armonk, reaching for Space Dan’s flag.

“Don’ttouchit!” cried Space Dan, jumping away. “It’s, um…it’s coated with…poison.”

“Why would you coat a flag with poison?” asked Gotanda curiously.

“Umm… because that way our enemies can’t steal it,” said Space Dan, “and if they try, they’ll know we mean business.”

“See?” beamed Gotanda to Armonk. “This is exactly the sort of thinking we need! Even when he’s late for work, he’s late because he’s busy murdering. It’s really worth getting a police officer for this type of job!”

Space Dan awkwardly polished his badge, worrying about how he would square all of this with Golly.

The carriage door opened, and in stepped Hibiya, squeezing awkwardly past the giant crate.

“I’ve checked all the mushrooms, Mr Gotanda,” said Hibiya. “They’re all still there.”

“Ah, very good, very good,” said Gotanda, settling himself into a chair. “Sit down, Hibiya, Space! Have an inkstone!”

He picked up an inkstone off a little tray, and crunched on it as if it were shortbread. Hibiya took one, and poured himself a glass of ink to dip it in.[4]

“Thankyou!” said Space Dan, “but I’d better check on the outside of the mushrooms’ carriages now, just to make sure.”

He tried to casually slide open the window next to him, but found it wouldn’t open.

“Ah, this one appears to be stuck, ha ha!” he said. “Hibiya, could you just innocently help me open it please, thank you?”

“Don’t worry about it!” said Gotanda. “It’s all been checked, and everything’s fine. Now, do hold onto something.”

“Onto wha-” began Space Dan, but he was suddenly thrown into the air and back against the floor by a great jolt, as the train tracks shunted up onto the wall of the tunnel.

“Oh no!” he cried, for he was tangled up in his cape and thought he might have creased the edge.

“You didn’t touch the poison flag, did you?” asked Gotanda, with the disappointed air of somebody who had just lost a prized investment.

“No,” said Space Dan.

Thinking quickly, he added:

“Except I actually built up an immunity to the poison I used in case I touched it by accident, so even if I do touch it later I’ll be fine, but nobody except me should touch it or they’ll get poisoned.”

He unfurled the flag and flapped it to get the folds out of it.

“Oh! Plus I’m wearing gloves,” he added, again.

He tried to quickly shuffle forwards very casually, and open the next window.

“It’s really hot, isn’t it?” said Space Dan hastily. “Let’s open a window to let in some fresh air!”

“What are those words underneath the picture?” asked Armonk.

“Oh! Yes, those, yes,” said Space Dan. “They say… they say…”

“They say ‘The Zoot Suit Troopers’!” called Hibiya, sounding very pleased with himself.

“You can read?” Armonk asked him suspiciously.

“Um, no,” said Hibiya, caught offguard. “But… we saw it on the Writer’s desk when we tried to kidnap him, and so I stole it!”

Gotanda narrowed his eyes.

“So how did you know that’s what it said?”

“Ahhhhh…luckily, I can only read the words ‘The Zoot Suit Troopers’,” said Hibiya. “That’s how much I love this gang! So much.”

“Here comes the second one!” said Gotanda.

The train jolted sharply again, as the tracks shifted onto the underworld’s roof, which was now the surface world’s floor. Space Dan, who had again (as usual) failed to grasp anything, was tossed up and down as his stomach silently resented its owner for the second time.

An idea suddenly came to Space Dan, who curled himself up over the top of his flag.

“Oh no!” he cried, somewhat less convincingly than last time. “I’ve spilled something on it! Hibiya, come over here and look at this! And bring your drink!”

Hibiya did so, putting up with Space Dan taking his drink with only a mild amount of annoyed growling, and watched as Space Dan surreptitiously poured it all over the flag.

“That’s terrible!” said Space Dan, getting up and showing it to Gotanda and Armonk. “I’d better dry it!”

He went over to a window, which Hibiya pulled open for him. Trying to appear as non-nervous as possible, he casually held it out the window, calmly chatting over the roar of the wind.

“So, Gotanda,” said Space Dan, “are you into gardening?”

 

Robert, Aleya, Martin, Haizea and Safety Ninja all stared off the edge of the cliff, down at the tracks below.

“No carriages,” said Martin, putting his ‘binoculars’ in his pockets.

“Your friends’ information said the train would be here soon,” said Haizea, “can we trust them?”

Aleya snorted.

“If only we had some yoghurt to slather our arms with,” sighed Martin, “that would make this plan so much more sensible.”

Robert nodded in agreement.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Haizea, who was steadily getting acclimatised to such statements. “Martian yoghurt is highly flammable.”

“Then why eat it?” asked Robert.

“The thrill of the danger,” said Haizea.

“Oh, like chili,” said Robert.

Haizea stared at him.

“It’s a little vegetable that makes your mouth feel like it’s full of Martian yoghurt,” explained Martin sagely. “Look, the train’s coming!”

Of course, as the train was coming from the tunnel below them, there was no way to look at it.[5] Instead, the five of them crouched at the edge and looked down, ready to jump.

The sound of a train whistle tooted in the distance, though unbeknownst to Space Team One, this was actually the sound of the millipede screeching.[6]

The click-clacking of the rails got louder and louder, accompanied by the humming vibration of the millipede’s legs on the sleepers. With a sudden roar, the train burst out of the tunnel below them, the engine shooting out along the tracks, the carriages rapidly flying along the rails after it.

“Watch for the signal,” Robert called over the noise.

“There it is!” shouted Haizea, pointing to a yellow flag flapping in the breeze, its carriage zooming away from them.

“Wait,” said Martin, “that might not be it. Space Dan said to look for a yellow flag, but that’s a yellow flag with a black bit at the-”

The others having already jumped, Robert grabbed Martin by the scruff of his neck, and they leapt off the cliff together.

They fell through the air for a brief moment as the carriages raced past beneath them, Agamemnon clinging to Martin’s shirt, until abruptly their feet hit the roof.

There were four thuds as everyone landed, Safety Ninja making a three-point landing and Haizea holding a one-armed handstand.

Both noticed Aleya’s spurious look and quickly stood upright.

“That one,” said Aleya, pointing to the front carriage, just behind the engine, where the yellow flag only just disappeared back inside the window.

Space Team One and Haizea began to make the careful trek across the carriage roofs, only pausing if the train was wobbling dangerously, or if the Martian scenery looked really nice.

As they set foot on the penultimate carriage, there was a sudden shock of bright green fur, as a skinny-looking oni with a meat tenderising mallet climbed up from the carriage connector ahead, and waved his weapon threateningly.

“Get off our train, you…train…”

He puzzled over how exactly he would continue to insult them.

“…roof…maggots!” he concluded triumphantly.

“Follow my lead,” Haizea whispered to the others.

She turned back to the oni.

“We’re here for the Firesabre,” she said.

“You can’t have it!” said the oni, his eyes bulging dangerously even by oni standards. “And we don’t have it! And I don’t even know what that is, so you triple can’t have it!”

He whipped his mallet through the air threateningly, like some demented mime whack-a-mole.[7]

“Well, in that case, we’ll-” began Haizea.

Trailing off, she looked with nervous concern into the distance ahead of them.

“What?” said the oni, attempting in vain to narrow his eyes at her. “What?”

Affecting great tension and surprise, Haizea dropped to the roof as flat as she could, the others quickly following suit behind her.

The oni suddenly had a terrible feeling that he was about to be collected by a bridge, a tree branch, or some other low-lying obstruction, and so he too quickly dropped to his belly, clutching tight to his beloved mallet and screwing up his eyes.

Haizea and the others quickly and quietly stood up and stepped over him, then burst into the Firesabre’s carriage through the windows, Aleya and Safety Ninja first.

Swinging in through a brief rain of broken glass, the five of them planted their feet as they landed, and grinned at the totally stunned Gotanda and Armonk.

“Huzzah!” cried Robert, who had the strong feeling that saying ‘huzzah’ was necessary in this situation.

“Anyway,” said Aleya, who didn’t, “hands up, fingerlimes, you’re getting robbed!”

Martin gasped.

“Oh no! We’re not wearing our masks! What if they recognise us?!”

“I have no idea who any of you are,” said Gotanda.

“Oh, good,” said Martin. “Well, we’re the Police Fire News Force, and we’ve come to arrest all of you!”

“You said you were robbing us,” said Armonk.
“Um…uh…that’s because we need to seize your illegally stolen assets,” said Robert.

He indicated generally around them.

“Like all those mushrooms you’re smuggling, and the Firesabre, and…” he glanced around for a moment, looking for a third item, so as to not make the Firesabre sound suspicious or important. “I think that hat you’re wearing is very suspicious!”

He pointed accusatorially at a bright orange oni, who was wearing a jaunty trilby.

“My grandmother gave me this,” said the oni, taking it off and turning it in his hands. “It was my birthday present, after we went and burned down the West District!”

“Damn, we forgot to move that fire,” said Haizea.

“We don’t actually do that!” said Aleya. “We’re not actually gacking cops here!”

“So,” said Gotanda, as the orange oni attempted to reluctantly hand over his hat to Robert. “You’re all another gang, hmm?”

“But…we’re doing it so people don’t die,” said Martin, brandishing his mop at Gotanda, “because Tannoy Clong will kill them if we don’t, and probably us as well, even though we already gave him our Bear Claw!”

“You didn’t want any more of it,” said Robert.

“Well now I want it again!” said Martin.

“Hey, there’s no stinkin’ bridge’at all!” a voice cried out from outside.

“Come inside, Adachi,” called Gotanda. “We have intruders to deal with.”

He looked over to Armonk, Hibiya, and an unusually still and un-fidgeting Space Dan.

“Arrest these corrupt police fire journalists!” he said.

“Wait,” said Haizea, “if they’re working for you, if anything, they’re more corrupt.”

“It doesn’t matter,” hissed Aleya.

“Is it more corrupt to serve somebody bad, or to do bad things yourself in the pursuit of justice?” wondered Martin.

“Martin, stop contemplating your navel, or I will send you to the naughty carriage,” said Robert. “It’s making us look less threatening.”

He looked to Space Dan and Hibiya for support and frowned, puzzled.

“Space,” said Gotanda, his voice growing lower and more threatening as he glared over at him, “arrest these people, or I will be forced to-”

Space Dan fell over onto his face, apparently suddenly two-dimensional and made out of paper.

Every oni in the room jumped in shock.

“How did he do that?” asked Armonk, picking up the life-size drawing and marvelling at its haphazard crayon colouring.

Hibiya quietly pointed to the drawing, then looked at Space Team One and mimed an expression of impressed pride in Space Dan’s flawless ruse.

Not wanting to make Hibiya (or any of the other already violent and angered oni) look stupid, Robert slowly nodded.

“Yoo-hoo!”

Space Dan’s head emerged from the top of the crate, grinning and covered in straws of hay. He held the golden Firesabre aloft.

“I have the Firesabre!” he called, and jumped down out of the crate, his cape narrowly avoiding snagging on a splinter.

“What are you-” began Gotanda, “-Hibiya! Stop him!”

Hibiya clonked Gotanda solidly over the head with a closed fist, as though the latter required percussive maintenance.

“Sorry, pal!” said Hibiya, as Gotanda rolled onto the floor, “he’s my buddy! And so’re all’a these guys, even the dame with the chair leg!”

Armonk blew a whistle, and dozens of oni suddenly started pouring into the front carriage – albeit pouring with somewhat difficulty as they tried to push past the now useless Firesabre crate three at a time.

“Activate ‘run like hell’ contingency plan!” cried Robert.

Haizea quickly vaulted back out of the window and up to the roof, the others close behind.

 

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[1] The train ticket oni couldn’t read, but while collecting some newly-labelled property for the Zoot-Suit Troopers, the Writer had explained the concept of typos to him. He had taken to frequently mentioning them for the social prestige of knowing something about writing.

[2] This type of specification is surely not excessive; one can never be too careful around gangsters.

[3] Oni being as frequently splotchy as they are, this was both more and less impressive depending on how Space Dan thought about it.

[4] Not losing sight of the real task at hand, he made sure he only poured a modest one.

[5] Unless, of course, one were to stick one’s head upside-down under the cliff. As this could easily cause the approaching train to knock your head off, none of Space Team One attempted this, although Martin had to be cautioned against it. It would have been far more efficient if they had access to X-Rays Dave, who was capable of projecting x-rays from his eyes and seeing through such mere objects as solid rock; though to avoid giving radiation poisoning to his loved ones, he had moved permanently to a small shack in the middle of the outback, thus rendering him unavailable – both due to his being on Earth, and due to his crippling depression.

[6] There was no practical or biological reason for this; the millipede just liked making a nuisance of itself.

[7] Safety Ninja remembered back to his childhood folk tales, where oni were said to have magic mallets that would grant wishes. In this case, however, the oni’s mallet would not grant wishes, unless that wish was ‘tenderize this meat’.