“…an Ice-Cream Man from the future named Cyan. He tried to make a new flavor named after him, cyan-ide, but it didn’t catch on…” Puck reached for another slab of metal plating. For a man of his years, he certainly had his share of interesting stories.
Good thing I didn’t have to listen to any of them.
“I found another deadly, deadly, deadly flaw in the H2 intake valve,” Friedrich choked from the cockpit.
It was good to see him interacting with actual people again. Back in my days as a captain of industry Hans Friedrich had been a successful debugger (my Chief debugger, in fact!), toiling until doomsday to perfect a myriad of infeasible products.
Then he contracted Toxic Umbrella Shock Syndrome two and a half years ago. It’s easily contagious and ravenous if you’re one of the 2% of the population that’s susceptible. The doctors said he would never be able to feed or clothe himself again.
Now he’s field-testing a rocket.
“How’s the submarine?” I laid a box of donuts on the launch console. Half were cinnamon, half were glazed, and the rest were munchkins.
“That makes…” Friedrich penned another preachy passage onto his palmtop, pressed print and preened pridefully. “478 defects discovered daily due to my distinguished diligence.”
I perused the printout patiently. “Nice,” I agreed. He smiled — but it wouldn’t last. “Nice nonsense, you nattering nabob of neurotic negativism!”
Chuckling churlishly, I chucked the whole enchilada into the furnace. Friedrich gaped as it burned to cinders.
I clasped my hands over his. I normally wouldn’t, but I was wearing ten pairs of gloves so I wouldn’t touch his clammy paws, completely by accident. “You aren’t well, Hans. That report was a fevered daydream. You’re seeing gremlins in the axles, Hans.”
“But you were the one who recommended him,” Puck trotted over. Gosh, he looked like a little piglet in those goggles. “You said he was ‘better than the best.’”
Time to downplay my involvement.
“Did I?” I sighed. “Maybe he was. The Hans I knew, he could strip-search a borehole in under ten seconds. But this report,” I held up a pile of ashes, “is proof positive. Flaws? In my design? Preposterous! Blasphemous!”
Snapping a cigar alight, Puck started tuning up the gasoline lines while I fiddled. Literally, on a fiddle.
“No— it’s not— you can’t use the rocket!” the poor fool whined as I duct-taped the final bolt down.
“Now Hans,” I said, my attention clearly diverted to the bunker’s trio of vending machines, “the doctors told you that stress could trigger a relapse.”
He covered his ears as Puck drilled a hole through the main reactor. Speed holes. They make nuclear reactions happen more frequently.
“No— ahh! My pills— urrr!” Hans doubled over in pain, clutching his chest. His rib cage contracted and expanded in rapid cycles, stretching the skin like pulpy burlap.
Symptom 1: skeletal parasoling!
Slipping on my helmet — engraved with an ambiguously ominous quote from Wernher von Braun — I initiated the launch sequence. Smoke filled the evacuation chamber, the pod bay sealed around the shuttle, and Puck momentarily broke out in song. “We will return, hailed as heroes by the press and citizenry alike!”
The silence was deftly defeated by the deafening roar of my grand engines.
“P-p-prattling parrots of p-positivism…” was all Hans Friedrich could mutter before his neck elongated to four times its natural length with a disheartening crack!
The Starcore satellite was a lot more spartan that one would expect. No potted plants nor perky paintings were prominent on the plaited walls. And the people done talked funny.
“I have a gift for communication,” I lied to some guy claiming to be an intelligent form of life. “I once sold an icebox to an Eskimo. It was in south Florida, and I’m not sure if he was really an Eskimo, but the icebox didn’t work anyway.”
The station commander went back to his roster. Jerk.
“Eugene here,” buzzed my communicator. Holy Hulk! When did I have that installed?! And why wasn’t I told?! “I’ve got our week’s assignments. We can… we’re going to analyze some black goo—”
“No. I don’t want to do that. What’s the other one?”
Puck frowned. I mean, I didn’t see him frown, since it wasn’t a visual medium, but his brow tends to slope. “We would be involved in some tense negotiations with unknown aliens.”
“A stranger is just a friend we haven’t met yet,” I beamed, openly flirting with a nearby candy machine. A bag of M&M’s fell from its coil. Huzzah!
“The talks are about those radioactive rocks should have investigated last week instead of sitting down with that arctic dictator.”
“Would I get diplomatic immunity if I talked turkey with the Space-Hun?”
“Would I get diplomatic immunity if I talked turkey with the Space-Hun?”
“The aliens want to know why we’ve disturbed their spacecraft at the north pole. Our only goal is to avoid war.”
“That’s a good plan. Grab your hat and scuttle to the shuttle. I’ll call my butler to get Hans Cuttler for the scuttlebutt on these polar proders.”
“Didn’t Hans Cuttler just die?”
“Hans Friedrich, yes, Hans Cuttler, no. Keep up. Cuttler is the best.” I scratched my nose. “Scratch that! He’s better than the best. I swear on your life! He’ll guide us through this terse situation with the wisdom and dignity of an elder statesman.”
“If the alien thing, or whatever, if it gets smart with ya, just say, you know, ‘do it or I’ll [censored] my [censored] up your [censored] and spin you like a plate.’”
“Oh God.” Puck covered his face with one hand while slowly banging the other one on the shuttle wall.
Three hours into our precious mission, Hans Cuttler was giving me all kinds of excellent advice; all thoughts of proper fork placement had been replaced in my mind with a slew of insults and obscene gestures. Being a certifiable genius, Cuttler’s columnar/electrical/diplomantic talents were sought worldwide. But Earth was parsecs behind us, fading from view and memory.
“Show me how to grit my teeth the Cuttler way.”
Contorting his face for a second, Hans furrowed his forehead, flexing his features in a fit of fortitude. He made it look so simple, but years of work went into that consternation.
“How many diplomats did you say you worked with?” Puck asked, had asked before, and would ask again. Someone should answer him. Someone. Me.
“He prepped Lou Tintarello for the Tintarello-Tuscadillo debates of 1980. The winner became head of the National Board of Landfill Ecology.”
“They said it was like watching Lincoln argue over [censored] landfills,” Cuttler added with his trademark grace and tact. The world doesn’t deserve such a skilled diplomancer.
Our RF receiver flashed! Outside the tinted windshield a hung a craft of unknown origin. It was cylindrical and barely visible against the void. The first transmission was inbound!
Feed reels spun, dials jumped, and the massive supercomputer at the heart of our funky spaceship clacked away, racing to piece together the alien language bombarding it. One word appeared on the output screen, then two… then they were taken away as the sentence syntax was reanalyzed. The same message was run thousands of times through a lexical parser, then a cryptographic transmogrifier, then written backwards, and finally translated from French for some reason.
Puck ran his finger over the monitor. “The aliens say… they want to know why we’ve disturbed their ships.”
“They can [censored] their [censored] to the bank!” Cuttler blurted.
“Can we… respond?” I asked in a haltingly Kirk-esque style.
“I’m texting them a response along the lines of, ‘your ships contained material harmful to our ecosystem.’” Puck rasped, grappling his conscience to disobey me.
“Puck! I haven’t given the order yet… to respond! Is this… mutiny?”
“Aw, [censored]! He’s lettin’ the Space-Hun walk all over ya! Grab the little [censored]!”
I held up a hand. “Nay, comrade! For Puck and I share a bond forged in the wastes of Canada — he could no more turn on me than a dog could ride an elephant. If Eugene says that he can commune peaca- pea- peaceably with these gentle giants, then sir, I grant him the chance! Q’pla!”
“I’m dealin’ with Tweedle-Dip and Tweedle-[censored] over here. C’mon! Aliens! ALIENS!”
“The aliens responded,” Puck whispered. “They say… the ship that crashed was a waste disposal barge and they thank us for disposing of it.”
Rage! I shook with rage! “After all Lou Tintarello did to deal with America’s garbage crisis as head of the National Board of Landfill Ecology…! They have the gall to exacerbate our landfill overcrowding…?!”
“They got caught exacerbating,” Cuttler agreed.
Puck continued. “They want to thank us by—”
“Don’t even bother,” I muttered. While Puck was distracted with his precious book-readin’, I opened a terminal window on my own console.
My neurons as fired up as I was, it was barely an effort to tell off those Roswell ruffians. Cuttler was with me in spirit, but physically frozen as I typed faster than the speed of light. By the time I hit “send” the labels were worn off most of the keys. Hah! After my brutal rant, the Space-Hun would never even think of attacking the Earth! I am soooo smart and handsome. And I constantly smell like freshly baked goods.
As if by magic, the vessel vanished from our vision and sensor grid.
“—rewarding us with an exchange of technology. Apparently, they don’t maintain contact with belligerent species… hey, the ship’s gone!”
“Good [censored] riddance.”
“Yeah, they’re gone forever. We can go back to the command center now. We certainly don’t want anything to do with these aliens.”
Grunting like an idiot, Puck persisted. “But we still don’t know anything about them. They could be the biggest threat mankind has ever faced. They could be giant, giant, sea anemones! We need to find out if they’re friendly!”
“Puck,” I grinned with my hand already on the controls, “with anemones like that, who needs friends?”