|by John Argo|
gods liked time travel a bit too much.
That was just part of their undoing, as Mars would belatedly realize.
Take, for example, one affair (of many) in Britain in the early Dark Ages. Mars and Diana had a few days off from their duties on the orbiting Survey ship and decided to romp a bit, maybe catch a rabbit or two, camp out, scare a few natives, that sort of thing. They were just friends, nothing more, because she was fanatical about this fiancee back at Blue Star Station, sixty light-years from Geos. She was hands-off, strictly platonic, as a few natives with eager hands learned the hard way. Then too, the ship's captain, Zeus, had a zipper problem, so what happened in the end seemed to Mars inevitable by hindsight.
Shortly after dawn, Mars and Diana alighted on the Kentish plain. As the black night sky turned gray, there was an eerie silence. A fog seemed to creep through the tall grass, cat-like, looking this way and that. Some threat seemed in the air, something ominous, but that only whetted Mars and Diana's appetite for adventure. They parked their light skimmer a half mile up in the sky where it was out of sight but could be quickly recalled -- on this day, not quickly enough, as it turned out.
Humans had evolved very similarly throughout the galaxy, but at different rates, and there were precious worlds like Geos that needed careful watching to make sure they reached maturity unbombarded by deadly meteors and comets that could end all life on a world in an instant. The fundamental rule was: observe, but don't be observed. Worse yet, don't touch and don't be touched. Under the freebooting leadership of Zeus, all the rules had gradually been tossed overboard. What happened on Geos was a story that would be told throughout the galaxy for eons. And the Survey rules would never be the same again.
As he stood on the plain wearing his camouflage jumpsuit, Mars sniffed the air with exhilaration. It smelled cool with fresh oxygen and plant juices. Mars was a fierce-looking, large red-haired man from the Third Arm of the galaxy. Originally a Combat Landing Forces officer, he was now the Survey ship's security chief.
Diana, officially the ship's veterinarian, but unofficially its, ahem, Mistress of the Hunt, was a shapely, athletic gal with a keen mind, a cute face, and a mop of flaxen hair. She was gray-eyed and rarely laughed, but her friends knew she had a sound sense of humor. Otherwise, Mars thought, he wouldn't willingly spend several days with her in the wild, alone in a cold sleep sack.
Diana frowned, and her gray eyes darted looks right and left. "Something's wrong."
Mars strained to listen. "Your ears are better than mine."
She stalked forward, trim in her own camouflage jumpsuit. Though they both wore sidearms, their principal interest was to hunt very small game with small bows. The two gods wore web belts with fire starters, toilet paper, rations, and the like. Over their jumpsuits they wore tunics, and each carried a compact but powerful atomic sword. They wore backpacks with, on one side, the bow case, and, on the other side, a quiver of arrows.
Mars listened, while wind ruffled his hair. He loved being planet-side. Even a large orbiting Survey like theirs was at best an artificial environment, with recirculating air and water. It was shaped like a spoked wheel that housed up to a thousand crew and their work stations under one G, and the wheel had a fat axle (zero-G, for cargo storage). The Survey had three major missions: protect a pristine world from collisions, and, when the humans grew more civilized, protect them from themselves before they could totally pollute their world and themselves to death. By the time the second goal kicked in, the Survey ship would be withdrawn to hide on the other side of the sun, but making frequent sampling missions using heavy skimmers that were usually shaped like flying saucers. Once the humans were safely through the process, and ready to embark to the stars using a Li!3 drive or its equivalent, Survey's third and final mission was to request a welcoming committee from Galaxy Central's bureaucracy. This always surprised the humans as they started to enter what they thought was empty and lonely space. Space was full of people who broadly belonged to the same DNA Group as the Geos natives, and Galaxy Survey had plenty of work.
"Hear that?" Diana whispered.
Mars strained to listen. It was still too dark to see, and stars twinkled in the blue-ink sky. Then he heard it: a thrashing sound. Thrash, thrash, thrash, like something... "Mechanical," Mars said. "Something mechanical. I hear it too."
Diana shook her head. "They don't have threshing machines in this era."
"Marching," Mars said, remembering how it had been with CLF on Rondo and Mackelsie, two of the most bloody wars in his career. That was over a hundred years ago, in a lifespan that could run a thousand, but the carnage and the fleeting space ships seemed as vivid now as then. He remembered the sound of men marching stealthily at night.
"You may be right," Diana said. Her gray eyes sparkled with instant plans. "We could fight them if they want a fight. On the other hand -- ."
"Easy," Mars said. "We came to hunt rabbit and kick back, maybe light a little fire and play home tunes."
"You're right," she said, moving quickly. "Up the tree!"
There was a large old oak tree. Its trunk was huge around, and the two scaled it easily. It had several large branches about twenty feet up, and from there it was easy to run out and hide in the leaves among the smaller branches. Mars sat in one cluster of leaves, in another nearby. He only wished he'd found a fork to sit in; instead, he had to hug the smooth, dew-slippery branch with his legs and arms. Diana seemed to have found a fork, from where he could see, but she was on a rather thin and delicate looking perch. He wondered if he should warn her to scoot back, but then she was impulsive and never listened to anyone, so he resigned himself to waiting.
The thrashing noise grew louder and nearer. Mars strained his eyes and made out what looked like a haystack moving toward them. The haystack, as it drew near, turned out to be holding a shield and a spear. At its side was a bent bronze sword. On its head was a too-small helmet with two cow horns protruding.
"Look!" whispered Diana: "--A bear!"
"That's no bear! It's some sort of man. He's carrying a sword."
The fleet-footed, virginal huntress made a face and pinched her nose. "Pee-yoo-ee! What kind of after shave?" Still rumpling her nose, she reached for her bow, which hung on a small branch beside her, and slowly, deliberately, extracted an arrow from the quiver on her back -- just in case.
"Don't move. He mustn't hear us," Mars whispered.
The creature was now only a few yards away, grunting heavily with each step. It had a near-human face, heavily matted with hair flecked with foam where Mars guessed its mouth must be. Mars, the warrior, nodded respectfully at the size of the creature, which seemed capable of standing, when fully erect on its hind legs, six feet tall.
Suddenly the oak tree groaned long and loudly. Mars cringed, half-closing his eyes.
The creature below rendered a scarlet-tonsiled bellow of challenge and swung fully erect, waving a twisted length of flattened bronze.
At the same moment, the branch holding Diana was, with a final reproving, loud belch from the sad-faced tree, ejected from the camouflaging leaves.
Even while Diana hung for just a moment suspended in mid-air before falling, Mars noticed something else out of sync. Floating at his level about 10 meters away was an object that was clearly not of this world, nor of any that Mars recalled. It was roughly square, and of uncertain dark color. It looked somewhat like a bread-box with its lid open, with the opening facing toward Mars.
Diana shrieked, diverting Mars's attention to herself as she plummeted downward.
The hairy beast roared and blindly waved his sword over his head while the air filled with twirling leaves. Diana landed hard on the ground and sat there, too numb to reach for her bow.
At this point Mars knew what
must be done. Drawing his short knife, he jumped. He landed squarely on
the person's shoulders. The Briton abruptly sat down with a labored grunt.
The helmet slid over his eyes, obscuring his vision, and the massive sword
Mars hopped from side to side, tossing his knife from one hand to the other, challenging the fellow. The Briton ignored him and stared for a long time at Diana. When Mars began taunting him in pidgin Anglo-Saxon, the Briton shoved his broadsword point-blank into the pit of Mars's stomach. The blow registered, sending Mars head over heels backwards, but the blade was so dull that it didn't even cut Mars's skin.
The hirsute warrior roared again, rose to full standing height, and swung his sword in circles over his head.
Mars rolled over, holding his aching gut, and prepared to crab-walk away.
Diana hastily released an arrow that clipped the angered Angle in one shoulder. The Briton dropped his broadsword and pawed dumbly at the intentionally superficial wound.
Mars took advantage of the moment to summon the light skimmer, which floated by. The wounded native stood gaping. As he held his shoulder, he cried out: "You have stricken Arthur!"
"Let's find a better place," Diana said.
Mars punched the All Up Exit, Emergency, and No More Fooling Around buttons.
Diana shrieked: "Hey! What'd you do that for? We wanted to spend a few days -- ."
Even as the British plain, with its tumbled rocks and hoar-frosted greenery, dissolved into a uniformly opaque, reddishly glowing force field, Mars told her about the object he'd seen. "Floating," he said, holding his hands apart to show her, "like some kind of spy device. We've got to go back and tell Zeus."
Diana, who did not like Zeus, wrinkled her lip but nodded in agreement.
* * *
Within fifteen minutes they floated through a docking pore in the side of Survey Ship Olympos. The ship and its crew had orbited Geos a century now. To offset the loneliness of long space duty, the crew were sexually well-integrated and equipped with all the game rooms and other diversions one could imagine. The huge ship even had a bubble-topped athletic field and an olympic pool overlooking space.
Mars emerged in the Transport Room with a stomach ache, but otherwise unharmed. He was happy to see that Diana had also emerged unscathed from murky Z-space. Noticing that she still carried her bow and quiver, he convulsively clutched his empty sword sheath. Oh no! He'd lost it! He cringed at the thought of King Arthur blithely challenging all comers with an X-Caliber Mark Five Sword and Gamma Blaster. Somehow, he'd have to get back and retrieve it.
Diana, in her unaffected manner, dropped her torn jumpsuit around her ankles and stepped pinkly into a shower stall. As Mars sat on the bench examining his stomach, he heard her humming happily. "I'm hungry," she yelled. "Aren't you?" Steam rose and water massaged her from all sides. Then she sang a current hit song from Blue Star Station: "Starry starry night, bah bah bah boo..."
Mars shook his head and grinned. They were so innocent, the bunch of them, he thought, they had it so good, and few realized the risks they were taking. Let them play, he thought, there is nothing any of us can do if Galaxy Central intervenes; let us all have our paradise while it lasts.
* * *
Zeus was dismissive that afternoon as he and several of his top officers had beers in the lounge overlooking Athens below and the Home Spiral Galaxy above. "Baloney!" Zeus belched, and Mars noted that the Old Man seemed to be looped most of the time lately. He still chased native women right and left, though, as if he had unlimited energy. "You say you saw an object floating in the treetops. I say you were dreaming."
"You do sound a bit paranoid," said Aphrodite, the gorgeous technical librarian. She was safe around Zeus -- they'd had their fling fifty or more years ago, and he now preferred young native girls. This of course left Zeus's loyal and long-suffering wife Hera, who served as a dairy supervisor, feeling blue at times; then again, she'd had her fling now and then with the young men -- and milkmaids -- in her department, so she and Zeus were said to have something of an accommodation. Divorce would be nasty, in any case, and the paperwork would have to go through the relentless, endless cycles of Galaxy Central bureaucracy. "You've been working too hard," Aphrodite added.
"I hope you're right," Mars said darkly.
Apollo, the Chief Surgeon, ran a scanner up and down Mars's side. "No, I think our boy is in good shape. Any bad dreams lately?" He made a final pass around Mars's head, shut his gadget off, and returned it to its holder on his belt.
"We'll clean everything up when it's time to go," Zeus said, bringing his fist down so the salsa chips jumped in their bowls. "But that's a couple of hundred years from now, so what's the rush?"
"Blue Star Station could send a surprise inspector," Poseidon suggested. He was the ship's oceanographer and second in command after Zeus.
"Bah," Zeus said, lifting his beer glass, "we'll know about it days ahead of time."
"I hope you're right," Mars said. That night, he stopped in the database and surfed through the various information feeds. He pictured the object he'd seen, as best he could, and projected it from his mind onto a screen before him. Then he ran a pattern recognition program. After a few minutes of churning gigaflops of information, the program whispered in a unisex voice: "No matches found."
He started to tell it to shut off, but it added: "Some possible matches should be examined."
It showed a bread box. "This is a standard ship's galley bread box. Want more info?"
It showed a thing that looked like a darker breadbox. "This is a robot ticket changer for the world-wide subway net on Gimel Aleph. Want more info?"
The shape wasn't quite right. "No. Anything else?"
It showed the object Mars had seen. "This is a Galaxy Central spy device. Want more info?"
"No," Mars said with a sinking feeling, "I'm afraid to ask."
"Thank you," it whispered as he walked away.
* * *
The worst happened just days later.
Mars and Apollo tried to convince Zeus of the danger, but there was no reasoning with the old sot. Zeus had four Persian dancing girls in the ship's mead hall, plus a live tiger on a leash, plus two Abyssinian midgets, and a pair of Chinese female acrobats who kept cartwheeling around the huge, smoky, torch-lit room. Mars and Apollo quickly left when they saw it was hopeless.
Gathering some of the ship's other officers, Mars and Apollo held a clandestine gathering in a small, unobtrusive tavern in a commercial district in the ship's bowels. "We've got to have volunteers," Apollo said. "We're all guilty, we've all had our fun, but we think G.C. is onto us. We've got to get all the loose debris collected -- swords, guns, cars, objects from one era carried into another era where they don't belong. Waste -- containers that could be traced back to Survey."
The men and women agreed. A somber mood spread through the ship. Word got to Hera, and from her to her husband. Zeus came flying out of his harem in a drunken rage, waving a stray power connector shaped like a gold lightning bolt. "Insurrection!" he bellowed, holding up his pants with one hand and the connector as if he were going to hurl it like a sword. Then he tripped over his jumpsuit and landed face first, unconscious, more from drink than the fall. Several crew members carried him to Hera's quarters.
That very night, Mars, who was sleeping with two slender blondes from the Celtic wilds, sat up with a start. His sharp warrior senses told him there was a commotion going on not far away. The nude girls slumbered peacefully as Mars wrapped himself in a bed sheet and tiptoed into the corridors. Two crewmen were just running past, and he stopped them. They saluted and told him what had just happened.
* * *
Diana did not relish the company of men, because she had dedicated herself to a young CLF officer from a good family, and after her Survey tour she planned to marry him in his native Gold Pendant system. Meanwhile, she slaked her needs in bed with the occasional attractive young female, preferably an athlete who could wrestle first and then make love. Diana liked the wrestling, and the Spartans were good at it, but they stole everything they could, so the gentler Athenian hetaeras often had to do.
Tonight, however, she turned her entire attention on the ship's veterinary nursery, for a lioness had just died while giving birth to cubs. Births always caused a commotion among the staff. With the mother gone, Diana and her staff spent hours cuddling and petting and feeding the tiny cubs.
Exhaustedly, Diana made her way back to her quarters, stripped, and stepped into the shower. She turned around amid the warm steamy jets, nearly asleep, when she heard a noise in her apartment. She shook her head and showered on. Must have been dreaming, she thought. Then, as she began to soap herself, she heard a crash. She turned off the water, wrapped a towel around herself, and opened the door. There, in her apartment, stood a naked and enraged Zeus. She slammed the door shut and locked it. A moment later, a spear crashed through the flimsy door, nearly impaling her. There was no way to call out -- the bathroom did not have a phone because at her rank she did not rate such an amenity. She pleaded with the captain to stop, but he hurt his hand amid the splinters, and this caused him to rage all the more. The rest happened in a blur. As he crashed through the door, she climbed over him to escape. He grasped her nude figure, but she was slippery and escaped. As she ran to escape from her apartment, she slipped and fell. He lumbered after her and slapped her on the rear. She jumped up and he chased her around, finally cornering her in the shower. As he came at her with wrath in his eyes, she picked up the spear and ran him through. Then she ran, screaming, to get help.
* * *
"Oh my Hercules!" Mars said upon hearing the story.
Apollo was performing surgery on the Old Man. Aphrodite, Mars, and a few others stopped at Hera's apartment to condole, and then moved on to the Parthenon bar on Level 3, a clean place run by a 2nd Century Corinthian hired not only for his singing talent but also his ability to remember drink recipes. His gibson martini was out of this world.
"The Corinthian will have to go," Aphrodite now said in a hard tone. "So will the dancers, the midgets, and the lion trainers."
"Wow," Vulcan said full of realization, "there go the gals who dive in naked and clean the swimming pools along our street in Beverly Hills." He and several others owned houses along a famed street there. They often left on junkets wearing sunglasses and cowboy hats. Mars personally thought the boots silly.
"We're done for," Mars informed the group. "We had a Z-gram from Blue Star Station. They are sending an Inspector, and I hear from back channels this guy has a reputation you wouldn't believe."
"Maybe he can have an accident," Vulcan growled.
"Easy," Mars said, "we've been playing fast and loose too long here. BSS probably has video of us romping around, like that time Diana and I got pounced on by King Arthur."
* * *
At the last moment, as the Inspector's ship from Blue Star Station lined up for docking a few days after Zeus's mishap, several light skimmers dashed out the other side of Survey headed for Geos with a load of Egyptian dancing girls and snake charmers. There were still crews of Albanian carpet cleaners at work, vacuuming the acres and acres of rugs aboard the ship; those could probably be ferried off by a heavy skimmer while the Inspector was busy in another part of the ship, but boy, they'd blown it, Mars realized. No way could they cover up all the evidence of their misdeeds. In a desperate moment, he even considered Vulcan's suggestion -- maybe a skimmer crash -- but nah, they were bad, but they wouldn't murder a Galactic Service officer.
Shortly, Mars stood beside Poseidon, the acting captain, at the head of the ship's complement, who stood several rows deep on either side of the airlock port.
Apollo and teary-eyed Hera stood beside the stretcher bearing the intubated and electronically monitored comatose Zeus. The Old Man would be missed, Mars thought. He'd be transferred aboard the Inspector's ship for evacuation to Blue Star Station and more surgeries. No more Geos for the old boy. Damn, but why did Diana have to be so good with a spear?
Mars steeled himself as the airlock's inner door slid open with a faint rush of air. Incredibly, nobody as yet had thought up a coherent story. Apollo, Hermes (the Survey's communications expert), and Urania (the astrogator), wheeled the gurney into the airlock, where ramrod sailors from Transportation Fleet Command, wearing red, white, and blue striped uniforms, took over.
Poseidon called "Attention!" Charon tooted three times to hail the boarding Inspector, who would take over as Captain.
The several hundred men and women stood stiffly. Sweat-framed eyes stole glances toward the open airlock.
"Toot once more," a stern voice crackled.
Charon emitted a solitary fweep.
"Thank you." The Inspector was a large, white-haired man. His face had a sort of deep, ruddy glow that conveyed great authority. He wore a purple jumpsuit and carried a swagger stick. "I am your new Captain," his voice boomed, addressing them all. "My name is Inspector Jaw. I am also a Senior Civil Servant, therefore you will immediately toot twice more."
Charon complied, gladly, fervently. Fweep! Fweep! he sounded and eyed the Inspector as if to say, "More? More?"
"Good," the Inspector said, giving the crew a mean look that gave Mars chills. "Order is most important. Everything by the book, every minute of every day. That's how it will be from now on."
At that very moment, the Assistant Inspector emerged from the airlock. A little sorry looking guy, he stumbled under the Inspector's dozen valises, hat boxes, umbrellas, and even an elephant's foot ashtray. Several people tittered in the ranks.
The Inspector had heard the giggling. He strode around the deck, wearing a purple jumpsuit and waving a swagger stick. "You can giggle all you want. Shortly, you will see there is nothing left to laugh about. It's just a question of how far from here I send you, and how low your next job will be, and how many centuries you will suffer in it before retiring to someplace with no running water and very, very raspy toilet paper. I'm going to do a quick inspection of the ship, have lunch, and tomorrow we will assemble in the main hall. That's all."
Poseidon hollered in his best military voice (which cracked slightly from disuse) for the gathering to disperse.
The Inspector put his hands behind his back and strode off, followed by his stumbling assistant who left a trail of strayed knick-nacks. Some of the crew actually managed to laugh.
Mars walked away with Hermes. He told the former track star: "I think I am going to be sick."
Hermes said: "Did you smell something on his breath?"
Mars was shocked. "You know, come to think of it, I smelled something. Couldn't put my finger on it, but now it seems to me it might have been cheap table wine."
Hermes looked wide-eyed. "Oh God, that's all we need. What are we going to do?" There was despair in his voice. "I was going on a three week vacation to Pompeii, and now I'll be lucky if I get to spend it by the phony lake up on the rec deck."
* * *
That evening, Aphrodite decided on a direct act of heroism. The former beauty queen and author of romance novels, who worked as a technical librarian on Survey, stole down the hallway to the Inspector's quarters about midway through the evening. A tall woman of rosy, milky complexion, she had spent hours doing up her raven hair in dozens of ringlets especially for this evening. She wore a red and white striped bikini under a gauzy white robe. Her stunning figure shimmered underneath just out of reach. She had an arresting face, angular, with ripe lips, a small nose, and a tall forehead. Her large dark eyes could tease a man to tears or laughter or passion, whatever she willed.
Now she knocked on the Inspector's door. At first she heard no answer. She was afraid the goofy little Assistant Inspector would open the door. Instead, she heard an angry shout. She knocked again, and put her ear to the door.
"Enter, I said!"
She pushed the door open and stepped into the sterile atmosphere of a large state suite in which obviously nobody had lived for a long time. It was drab and colorless in there, and faintly musty. The Inspector's possessions lay stacked against one wall, as yet unopened. A single suitcase sat open, revealing a bunch of tattered socks and graying underclothes.
"What do you want!" The Inspector lay in a foetal position on the bed and glared at her. His mouth was pinched tight, and his eyes were bloodshot.
"I came to see what you need, if anything, anything at all," she said languorously, walking around the bed. "I see here a man who certainly needs someone to look after him, to maybe take him shopping and buy some really hot little undershorts, you know, red ones? That would be for Wednesday nights." She sat on the end of the bed, a little bit afraid of him, but purring like a cat as she put on her best act. "And then on Thursday nights you could wear little black satin shorties." She growled. "That's my favorite color, black like the night."
"Stop it!" he wailed, holding his ears.
She slowly undid her top, all but revealing two splendid soapy breasts. She purred: "And on Friday nights, why, my darling big guy, you won't wear anything at all while I work on your condition, turning your software into hardware while you moan and -- ."
"Get out!" He was on his feet, tensely pointing. "Out, damn you! Out! Don't you dare come around me with that sex stuff! Out, you brazen female! How dare you! Out!" He held a pillow defensively with both hands before himself as he advanced on her. There were fear and violence in his eyes.
She squealed in terror, gathering her robe as she fled to the door. She managed one more moment of courage as she turned and yelled into the room: "So what do you like, boys?"
"I hate sex! And I never liked girls!"
"We can get you anything you like!"
"You'd be amazed how a good ejaculation will soothe your -- ."
"Out, out, or I'll kill you!" He brandished a black umbrella and ran toward her.
She screamed and ran down the hall. She wasn't used to being rebuffed -- in fact, it had never before happened to her. She ran breathlessly to tell her fellow officers.
* * *
"That's just terrible," Mars said when he, Poseidon, Apollo, and Diana heard Aphrodite's story in the officers' mess in Ring 83. They snacked on orange pound cake soaked in curacao liqueur while soft music played. Nothing like the old days, though -- recorded dinner music, rather than the white-jacketed string quartet from Budapest circa 1933, who never realized they were in space. Mars wondered how long the four old men would continue to show up on Doheny Street every Wednesday night at 7 for what they thought was just a very modern taxi to take them to a weekly gig somewhere out of town.
"You're sure he doesn't like maybe a mature man?" Diana asked, probably thinking of Haephestus, a brawny old metallurgist.
"No," Poseidon said, stroking his beard thoughtfully, "this fellow is real uptight. He's afraid of sexuality. Too much power. Not enough control. He wishes the whole thing would go away." He glowered: "I'll tell you something else, too." He leaned forward and the others put their heads closer to hear his whispered revelation: "He got into trouble his last few tours. I heard it through back channels. He interferes with the natives too, but in a very different way."
Mars said: "Hah! So he's not Mr. Perfect. Well, I'm going to think all night about how to fix his wagon."
* * *
The next morning, the Inspector called the senior officers to a meeting in the Viking-style mead hall. There were about fifty men and women, including Mars and the rest, and they stood shyly in a circle around the central rug. Someone had kindly made coffee and served cookies. Someone else had turned down the harsh lighting and lit the torches Zeus had loved so much, which now roiled and smoked and flickered in their wall sconces. No glistening dark dancers now, Mars thought, no Egyptian belly dancers for the men and Nubian athletes for the women. Hard to believe it was all over.
"You call this a gymnasium?" The Inspector began. He waved his arms up and down as if pumping air into a bellows. Just warming up, Mars guessed.
"This is an outrage," the Inspector screamed. "An outrage. You will all be court-martialed. I will hang you out to dry!"
As the shouting continued, most of the officers pulled up easy chairs or love seats or just sprawled on the rug. The rug itself was from a kingdom in India where the weavers took up to twenty years to hand-braid a single masterpiece like this one, inches thick and impervious to years of spilled mead and stray pork chops. The ship's ventilation system handled the smoke from the torches. There was also a large fireplace where the bleachers had once been. A blaze roared in it, and the ship's mascot, the dog Cerberus, lay dreaming canine dreams before the crackling black logs. Arabian tapestries hung on the walls, as did some banners including a genuine crusader flag. The mahogany wet bar, vintage 1950s Manhattan, carried in its mirrored recesses every drink from Anise to Zinfandel.
"Let me tell you," the Captain yelled. The assembled officers held their collective breath. "I have surveyed this ship with my own eyes, and my assistant has surveyed the planet with rocket probes. In fact, Blue Star Station has had its eyes on this place for a while now. Needless to say, I am outraged." He produced a scrap of paper. "Just some preliminary notes, ladies and gentlemen. Section 8, Para 6, Line 8: Eighty-six violations: iron, steel, or plastic implements detected among stone age cultures. Section 10, Para 3, Line 3: Eight violations: diving tanks lost or discarded founded floating on inland seas populated by bronze age canoeists, seven; Beer cans, same, one. Section 11, Para 5, Line 7: one violation worth twenty years at hard labor, demotion to Stoker E-1, and forfeiture of all Social Security Benefits: lost swords, atomic, of non-native manufacture, in bronze age civilizations, one." He glared long and hard at Mars, who swallowed and felt a pit of fear in his stomach. "Why go on?" He balled up the paper and stuck it in his pocket. "Lists like this will be made and will go on and on and on. I anticipate some serious court martials."
"But sir," Poseidon said, "we are technically all civilians. According to the rules, you can't apply military justice here!"
"Silence!" the Inspector screamed, and he waved his right arm up and down as his voice grew shrill. "Silence! I can do anything I want! And I will do anything I want! Because I am the Captain here! A penal colony! That is where you all belong!"
As the Inspector screamed on and on, Mars's gaze roved toward the fireplace. There, standing shyly to one side, was the Assistant Inspector. He seemed to Mars a truly hapless and gullible man. He was a little guy with thick glasses and baggy clothing. His black shoes and white socks had Nerd written all over them. He had probably never combed his bushy, dirty-looking brown hair in his life.
Pretty soon the Inspector genuflected on the rug, pounding it continuously with his fist; spittle flew as he made his point.
Mars continued to stare at the Assistant Inspector (a one-tooter). At the moment, Cerberus chewed on the Assistant Inspector's trouser leg, and the Assistant Inspector tried to pull his leg away without making the dog angrier or attracting embarrassing attention to himself.
As the Inspector jumped up and ran around the room, tearing down tapestries and smashing irreplaceable ancient Mediterranean vases, he continuing to scream about the rules and the regulations and the instructions and the policies and the guidance books and the laws... Mars's head began to loll. He was already deep in trouble, and had nothing to lose. He couldn't take much more of this. Jaw jutting as befitted an ex-CLF officer, he rose and sidled toward the fireplace. On the way, he took a beer bottle from a cooler and tore the bottle-top off with his teeth.
The Inspector, meanwhile, was on all fours by now. He screamed and foamed at the mouth as he chewed on the edge of a carpet.
Mars put one huge hand on the back of the Assistant Inspector's neck. Cerberus looked up from the trouser leg and growled. Mars growled back, and Cerberus slunk away with his tail between his legs.
"Hello," said the Assistant Inspector in a frightened little voice. He tried to wriggle away, but Mars put his thumb on the little fellow's wind pipe and his fingers around his neck. Mars swilled down the whole beer in one swallow, set the bottle aside, and belched in the Assistant Inspector's face. As the Assistant Inspector grew weak and rolled his eyes up, preparing to faint from the onslaught of Mars' sudsy breath, Mars said: "What's your name, boy?"
The Assistant Inspector moved his mouth. His eyes were terrified and no sound came from his lips.
Mars tightened his grip and shook. "I can't hear you, boy."
The Assistant Inspector stammered out his name.
"A-hah!" Mars said. "Well, I think you and I and the rest of my companions can do business. We admire a guy like you." He pointed to the Inspector, who now lay on his back, pounding his chest with his fists and kicking his legs while shouting profanities. "How much longer can you put up with that?"
"N-not much longer, sir," stammered the Assistant Inspector.
"Well, I have an idea," Mars said. The plot was already thickening in his mind as he began to tell it to his pliable victim. It had to succeed! They must win! Their reign of pleasure would go on forever!
And thus it was that Mars
said to the Assistant Inspector: "So, Lucifer, how would you like to be
captain of this entire space ship?" *
copyright ©1997-98 by John Argo <email@example.com>
Illustration copyright ©1997-98 by Brian Callahan <firstname.lastname@example.org>