For Whom The Clong Tolls
A great shadow hovered over the town of Pequod’s Albatross, cast by a vast, predatory-looking spaceship, like the sword of Damocles, if Damocles had fitted it with rocket boosters to assist in keeping it airborne.
“Wow,” said Space Dan, craning to get a good look even as the townsfolk cowered in fear.
“Bah! I’ve seen better,” said Ogtol, a little jealous that everybody hadn’t been this awed at the revelation that he and Birdy had seamlessly infiltrated them.
Birdy tapped him on the shoulder and pointed, and the two of them crept back into the safety of the Millstone Saloon, where the bar fight was still safely raging.
Robert and Martin reached for their weapons, and Aleya stood side-on, partly so she was ready for a fight, and partly because the air blast from the ship’s great engines was waving her hair into her one good eye.
The ship lowered until it was just gently hovering over the square, and the engines dropped to a quiet hum. There was a burst of steam as the horseshoe-maker nervously dropped a hot piece of metal into a water-trough.
A metal grid slid open, and a ramp came down from the ship, revealing a cargo bay filled with menacing figures. They walked down into the square – lizard people, walking lumps of ridged metal with harsh eyes, a vicious-looking moth woman, a robot covered in flashing lights and sharp-looking medical equipment, a bald man with a goatee, and two very muscular purple men with mohawks.
“Huh,” said Aleya. “A spaceship crewed by the extras from ‘Beat It’. Who knew?”
“We just ended a long war,” said Robert, “let’s try not to start another one.”
Martin pointed at the medical robot.
“That robot looks like the one that pulled people’s arms off on Humble-Thing-Wharf’s Island! Should we bash its face with a mallet?”
“What did I just say, Martin, you amstod?!” asked Robert, incredulous.
The robot made an electronic growling noise, by pushing a button on its chest, which was shaped like an old synthesiser.
“Which one’s the captain?” Space Dan whispered to the woman with black hair.
“None among these,” said the woman.
“Oh,” said Space Dan. “So they decide things democratically. That’s nice!”
There was suddenly more movement at the top of the ramp, and the crew of the ship ceased to glower at the townsfolk. Instead, they stepped back to clear the way, and stood at attention.
Down the ramp stepped a man in huge leather boots, with a long duster coat wavering in the Martian breeze. The outside was worn, dusty dark leather, albeit with grimy white sleeves, and the interior was lined with a dark velvet blue. Under it, on his torso, he wore a fitted dark garment which gave way to similar trousers. A broad cowboy hat sat tilted on his head, which did little to hide his sharp, piercing eyes – or his greasy dark hair, which was slicked loosely back to the nape of his neck. His skin was mottled shades of blue, and his nose was flat and snakelike. A wide, thin mouth grimaced from beneath a handlebar moustache.
“Pequod’s Albatross, I am disappointed,” said the captain in a vaguely southern drawl.
He threw both gloved hands up in a shrug, looking around at the town’s frightened faces.
“No welcome party,” he said. “No parade. No complimentary bottle of any of the whiskeys you’re so fond of.”
“What do you want?” asked the black-haired woman.
The captain hitched two thumbs into his pants pockets and looked at her sideways.
“Blondie,” he said. “Mars damn. I thought you were dead.”
He dusted his hands.
“And these people,” he said. “Out of towners?”
“They’re from Dead Stick!” wheezed Heyurr Stone, who had shuffled out of his chair by this point.
Rolling his eyes, the captain pulled out a large, alien-looking pistol and shot Heyurr Stone. A red laser bolt cut through him, the high-pitched sound echoing through the already-jittery town.
“Oh my Golly!” said Space Dan.
“It’s alright,” said the black-haired woman, “he gets shot all the time.”
Indeed, Heyurr Stone was quite alive, although he was mumbling to all in sight that he needed “A man’s last whisky”. Taking pity on him, the barman of the Millstone handed him a dessert wine.
“If you’re from anywhere near Dead Stick, then I’m a roach’s ear,” said the captain.
“We’re from Earth,” said Robert.
“That ain’t no name for a town neither,” said the captain, levelling his pistol straight at Space Team One.
“Are you a negative addict?” asked Robert.
“Huh,” chuckled the captain, lowering his pistol. “I am Captain Tannoy Clong, and this is my ship, the Ahab.”
He indicated with his finger to the large, vulture-like dark green ship above them, then swooped his arm around the mottley people standing either side of him.
“This here’s my fine ship’s worthless sons-of-mothers crew.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Space Dan.
The wind changed, and everyone in Space Team One wrinkled their noses at the Ahab crew’s lack of hygiene – Safety Ninja doubly so, since poor hygiene is a vector for disease.
“Natak Neaks!” said Tannoy Clong, gesturing to one of the lizard men. “Yoghur Tedgrass!”
The bald man with the goatee nodded, patting the guns at his hips.
“Stan d’Numbley! Copernicus Jones!” Tannoy Clong said, pointing out the two walking chunks of metal.
The moth woman hissed.
“Proverbial Dickens and his brother Platonic Dickens!”
The purple men bashed their mohawks together.
“And my right-hand man, Thassen,” finished Tannoy Clong.
He clapped a tall human man with a missing eyebrow on the shoulder.
“Well,” Tannoy Clong said with a cloying false modesty, “I guess I’m just a sucker for a good ole’ introduction.”
“All of these names sound oddly familiar,” said Robert, scratching his chin.
“Yes, I’m definitely getting a sense of dejah thoris,” said Martin, scratching Robert’s chin.
“You forgot to introduce me, Captain!” said the robot, holding down a switch on his shoulder to speak.
“Oh yes,” said Tannoy Clong. “Doctor Circuits, our medical robot.”
“That doesn’t seem to fit,” commented Martin.
“Yeah, I’m not getting anything there,” said Robert.
“Doctor Circuits is my professional name,” said Doctor Circuits. “My real name is Dynamite Mackerel.”
“Ahh,” said Space Dan, rubbing his forehead. “Yep! Now I’m getting it!”
Tannoy Clong raised an eyebrow at all of this, but smirked, apparently unperturbed.
“Now,” he said, spinning his laser gun lazily, “to the matter at hand.”
He flicked the gun into his grip, and pointed it from his waist in the black-haired woman’s direction.
“Where is the Firesabre?”
“We don’t know what that is,” said Martin. “But we can offer you this Bear Claw!”
He held aloft the Bear Claw, which only had minimal lint on it from his pocket.
Irritated by Martin like so many others, Tannoy Clong fired a laser at him. Martin panicked and held up the Bear Claw to defend himself, and the laser bounced off its surface and down into the ground, leaving scorchmarks.
“Well, I’ll be,” said Tannoy Clong. “Maybe I will take that laser-proof foodstuff, stranger.”
Martin clutched at the Bear Claw protectively.
“You’ll only use it for target practice, and not eating!” said Martin. “You don’t deserve it!”
He gazed at the Bear Claw, with determination and tears in his eyes.
“I must eat you to protect you! To save you, I must destroy you!”
He magnificently took the first bite out of the Bear Claw, tearing off part of the corner and swallowing it without adequate chewing.
“Martin, don’t eat that,” said Robert, “it’s probably covered in dust and Cromwell-era antiques.”
“Actually, I’m really full now,” said Martin, casually throwing it away.
“Much obliged!” said Tannoy Clong, who flicked it into his hand with his boot and put it in his coat pocket.
“Well,” said Robert, “now that you’ve got that delicious, dusty Bear Claw, surely you’ve got no further quarrel with the town?”
Tannoy Clong chuckled.
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just climb back into the Ahab and disappear into some distant corner o’ the sky, and live out my days eatin’ dainty pastries.”
He leveled his laser at Robert.
“Wrong, friend,” he said. “I need the Firesabre. And Blondie there knows the location.”
“No, I don’t,” said the black-haired woman.
“Then I suggest you get real friendly with a cartographer,” said Tannoy Clong.
“…what?” asked the black-haired woman.
“Ambulate in the direction of where you’ve got a feeling it should be,” Tannoy Clong elaborated.
Space Team One stared at him.
“Find it!” he spat. “Or find this town in ashes. Your doves, your shoes, your patented elixirs o’ tonic.”
Thorax McGill threw himself in front of his travelling medicine wagon, in case Tannoy Clong got an itchy trigger finger again.
“You got one week,” he said.
“Alright!” said Space Dan. “We’ll, uh…we’ll take those necessary days…the days that make up a week…that particular number of days…”
“Seven,” said Tannoy Clong, also evidently annoyed by Space Dan, although not to the point of shooting him.
He pointed at the dilapidated clock tower.
“I suggest you get counting.”
“But… but that clock’s been sunk and gone for months!” said a frog man with a bushy moustache from the crowd.
“Then maybe you’d better shuffle real quick-like,” said Tannoy Clong, flashing a wide, narrow smile that didn’t reach his eyes, “just to be on the safe side.”
He turned tail and walked back up the ramp, and his crew followed. Mopiuth spat at the ground, which hissed from the acidity of her saliva. The Ahab’s ramp folded up, the grate screeched back over it, and with a powerful roar, the ship flew away, off into the sunlight.
“Well, gac,” said Aleya, as the dust blew in clouds around them.
“My sentiments exactly,” said Robert.
He looked to the black-haired woman.
“Ugh,” said the black-haired woman. “Haizea. Haizea Ninguno.”
“I’m Robert Island,” said Robert. “This is Martin Faraday, Safety Ninja, Aleya Lethbridge, and Space Dan.”
“And Agamemnon!” added Martin, who was fishing Agamemnon out of a water-trough where the spaceship lifting off had blown him.
“We’re looking for the god Mars,” Robert said. “We’re willing to help you find this Firesabre if you can tell us where she is.”
“There,” said the black-haired woman, pointing a few feet away.
“…really?” asked Robert sceptically.
“Yep,” said Mars, stepping into view.
Mars was the kind of tall, curvy woman who a thirteen-year-old Robert or perhaps a very high-class mechanic would have found irresistible. Her wavy red hair fell down to her bare shoulders, a strapless red dress shimmering in the bright sunlight.
“Lady Mars! Please, free us from this torment!” cried a grasshopper.
The town wailed and begged.
“Good people of Pequod’s Albatross!” called Mars, in her throaty sandpaper voice. “I have sent down heroes to deliver you from evil.”
She stepped back, to show Haizea and Space Team One.
“Haizea, and these people from Earth,” she said. “They are bold heroes, who have fought many battles, and one of them has a chest expander.”
There were appreciative murmurs from the crowd, with several townsfolk placing bets on who had the chest expander.
“That is all well and good,” said the moustachioed frogman, “but that woman’s done gotten been exiled from the town! There are even posters up!”
He pointed to a nearby wall, which featured a poster with her likeness drawn on it. It said: ‘BLONDIE – HIGHLY DANGEROUS – WANTED TO GO AWAY’.
“I’m aware of the posters,” said Mars, “but finding the Firesabre will take her away from the town, through many dangers. Only she and her companions can perform this task.”
“Why can’t you?” asked Aleya.
“The balance must be preserved,” said Mars airily. “I don’t meddle.”
Aleya rolled her eyes when Mars wasn’t looking.
“Heyurr, are you alright?” asked Mars.
Heyurr Stone made various gruff noises, which Mars understood perfectly.
“Good,” she said. “I will guide the newcomers to the edge of the town.”
The townsfolk shuffled off back to their business, with concerned mutterings about their fate, and how they still couldn’t set their watches properly without the clock tower.
“I know your origins,” said Mars. “Earth and Uranus are both far from here.”
“Actually, Mars is pretty close,” said Martin. “Thanks to tiramisu, we got here really fast!”
“I didn’t know Earth had tiramisu-powered travel,” said Mars, looking at Martin and Robert.
“Uhh…my father’s company discovered it,” lied Robert. “They…accidentally launched an Italian restaurant into L2 at one point, but apart from that, tests went pretty smoothly.”
“Indeed,” said Mars.
Mars turned to Haizea, and gently brushed a curl of Haizea’s jet black hair out of her face.
“How’s it going, Blondie?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ve been doing so well,” said Haizea, “I’ve been exiled from three towns already. Or is it four? Busy times, though.”
They reached the outskirts of Pequod’s Albatross, as signified by the words: ‘You are now leaving Pequod’s Albatross! Please come again if the oni don’t kill you.’
Someone had added a smaller sign underneath this, clarifying: ‘Please don’t if they do, because ghosts are bad.’
“I don’t know where the Firesabre is,” said Mars, “but I can point you in the right direction.”
She pointed out into the desert, where a tiny dark point was just visible over the horizon.
“It lies this way, across deserts and through mountain passes, until you come to the place where the sun sets.”
“…do you mean in a metaphorical sense, or is it literally where the sun sets on Mars?” asked Robert.
“Robert, planets go around the sun,” said Martin.
“I know,” said Robert, “but given all the weird things we’ve run into already, I wouldn’t be surprised if stars were crumpets and gods turned into pudding when they died.”
“Are you hungry?” asked Aleya.
“He took the Bear Claw!” said Robert. “Now it’s personal!”
“You didn’t even want it earlier,” said Aleya.
“Never mind,” said Robert. “Let’s saddle up, posse.”
“Anyone who braves the desert braves the oni,” said Haizea.
“…let’s make sure we’re well prepared and careful, first,” said Robert.
Safety Ninja bounced merrily on his heels.
 Space Dan also secretly thought for a minute that if he won their trust, maybe he could be the captain. He quickly abandoned this idea upon seeing the moth woman, however, and wished Ricey was there to protect him, or at least re-pattern her wings.
 No relation.
 The man was missing an eyebrow where eyebrows usually were. He was also missing an eyebrow on his shoulder, but since everybody is missing an eyebrow on their shoulder – indeed, on average they’re missing eyebrows everywhere except where eyebrows are – that isn’t particularly worth mentioning.
 Safety Ninja wept at the poetry of Martin’s declaration, and also because fine Martian silicates were getting in his eyes.
 Due to an unusual coincidence, a seven-day week, with 98 weeks in a year, is almost exactly the right length for a Martian year. Naturally, however, the names of the days were entirely different from Earth’s. They were: Januaryday, Februaryday, Marchday, Aprilday, Mayday, Juneday, and Julyday.