If a space ship did turn up on my bench, however, I would definitely have a go at fixing it. The old ones are alright to have a go at fixing. A screwdriver a hammer and a pair of pliers and you should be ok with all but the neutrino beam focus plates. You would need a bigger hammer for that.
However, if your client’s space ship was but a few years out of its sell by date, chances are its engine management pcb is dud. Problem. The engine management pcb will cost you about forty times what the space ship is worth. Which is nothing at all if the thing won’t go. And forty over zero (anything over zero for that matter) equals infinity, which is more or less the figure Barclays will charge on your unagreed overdraft.
We are now in serious waters, as the infinite bank rate (not when you are waiting for your interest payout of course. That is zero over infinity which is, technically speaking, in the shit.) will cost you the savings you might have accrued thoughout several lifetimes on the wheel of Karma. So beware when taking in any space ship that dates from 1990 or so.
And now for your Christmas boredom………
Through the screen image breakup, she didn’t look good. The fortunate hundred million miles between them meant he couldn’t see her ‘in the flesh’, where she looked a lot worse.
“Can you not screech into the audio metaboliser? Please!” The distant audio metaboliser she screeched into cringed; she passed a damp flipper across her fevered brow.
“Is this better?” whispered the brow-beaten prospective client for Canary Charter Flights Inc. A pained moan from a hundred million miles away said it wasn’t.
“Try it again from across the room” she insisted. “…And walk quietly please.” The debauchery of the night before had taken a heavy toll on the suffering receptionist/metabolist; NGTOP tip-toed backwards until he felt his shoulders against the cold plaster of the furthest wall.
“How’s this?” he hissed in a stagey whisper that sliced like a Turkish cymbal through the lady’s hangover. She rattled down a half bottle of aspirin.
“I’d rather not,” said the part time detective cum alien, an irascible edge beginning to cut through.
“Why not?” She spluttered through a mouthful of the rest of the aspirin bottle.
“Because I’m twenty three floors up; and” said NGTOP, well on his way to screeching the ceiling down,
“And,” he bellowed, “I don’t want to broadcast this conversation on a loud-hailer because I’m on a Top Secret Mission. Ooops.” NGTOP dropped to his knees and looked furtively about his flat. Satisfied that his mission was still as top secret as it had been prior to his blasting its classified status from the tower block rooftop, he returned, at no more than a whisper, to his abortive conversation with the unfortunate lady.
After his near death experience with Derek Modley and his by now famous Dangerous Greenhouse, NGTOP had decided on an identity and career change. Not that he was convincingly the possessor of either of those things before the changes. The move into the private investigator business had seemed a relatively safe option, compared with his recent brush with the Colyster Generator and Universal destruction.
“Maybe I’ll try another charter company. It was the ‘Canary Charter Flights go Cheep’ advertising campaign that swung it for me. It’s just that there’s nobody else this cheap.” He assumed the Ben Marlin persona that he had recently invented.
“I’ll confirm our conversation by cyber-trace, Mr. NG…err…Thingy” said the telephonist, unwilling to risk another encounter with strangulation on NGTOP’s unpronounceable name.
“What, all of it? No, no. Don’t do that!” NGTOP did summersaults.
“Only the booking arrangements Mr. err…Thingy, that’s all. It will lessen the risk of a distant suicide. Mine.”
The bucket of colour that had drained from Marlin’s face filled up again, assuming its traditional tinge of puce while the gangrenous shades of the far distant telephonist scattered across the screen.
“Marlin!” A corrosive voice from the corridor outside rotted the carpet. NGTOP’s adopted pseudonym had saved many an alien throat from strangulation by epiglottis reef knot. Such were the pronunciation impossibilities of the name of NGTOP.
“Marlin!” another voice, scarcely less musical than the first, elaborated. “We know you’re in there.” There would be little point in verbally stripping the paint off his letter box were he somewhere else, thought Ben Marlin, aka NGTOP. And he knew exactly what they wanted. Why they wanted it, was an answer he felt he might more likely stumble across in a mental institution. There seemed no sane explanation.
“We’ve got the Modley guy. He knows all about the Colyster Generator. So we’ve got all the information we need.”
Ben (NGTOP) mused on this for second. There seemed to be two flaws in their argument. First, Derek Modley knew sod all about the Colyster Generator; that was even though he’d built one by accident. Secondly, the McNasty Brothers’ numeracy went little further than the tally of their collective finger count. The idea that they might have a brain cell between them to wrestle with the quantum physics of the Colyster Black Hole Theorem was far-fetched.
The hinges of the door flew across the room just ahead of a plasma ray beam, and Marlin sprinted for the exit and onto the balcony where he jumped off into the darkness. On his way down he found time in his busy schedule to look back at the half dozen pig-ugly black trilbies peering over the balcony in the company of Derek, who happened to be suspended over it by his feet; and also to wonder what had possessed him to jump off.
“We’ll get you, Marlin, and the Generator” shouted he of the acid tonsils, after the plummeting form of Ben Marlin. “Death will be no excuse.”
Threatened with imminent termination by floor, Ben showed exceptional agility; unprecedented in a life of lethargy. The flash of a grappo-hook split the night as it flew from his sleeve and tore through the decorative tenth floor awning, ‘Massage Parlour and Fish Bar’. Having creatively renamed this as ‘Fish Massage and Barlour Par’, the grappo-hook further rearranged the next six floors awnings into a messy parachute and broke Marlin’s fall by guiding him onto a passing group of carousers.
“Sorry.” He said unsatisfactorily, as he stood up amid the welter of broken bones that had been his landing pad.
It had all been in the interests of making few extra bucks on his fee as a part time private detective, by travelling cheap. He drew up at the deep space terminal in the esotruck flaunting his ‘cool guy’ image, stepping out onto the mica shingle in his slick all-in-one grey moonsuit with the suave flashing rubber tassels.
“There you go, feller,” said Marlin, sweeping his plastic Credit Toad under the attendant’s nose. The Credit Toad was an extraordinary development of ancient credit card technology. The cornerstone of the barter system which followed the great Fiscal Downfall was the Credit Toad.
Inside your trusty Credit Toad were all your worldly goods and chattels; compressed to fit into a plastic Toad. Most of these, in the difficult times after the great fiscal collapse of the early twenty-first century, were of manageable size and would stand in nicely for the rubber duck in your bathtub. There were very few people who had to carry theirs around on a truck. There were few enough left whose finances could stretch to the rubber duck, for that matter.
“Sorry sir, we don’t take Toads,” said the attendant. NGTOP was incensed.
“You don’t take Toads! You can’t be serious, man.” Actually, the attendant’s attitude was not unreasonable. When retrieving one’s worldly goods from the Toad, the resulting pile of broken glass and twisted metal was often not worth the plastic Toad that had crushed it to smithereens.
“We’ve had too many receivership issues, sir.”
The trick with a Credit Toad was never to open it. This was the problem that eventually sank the credit card system but for different reasons. The credit card because there was never anything left in it and the Credit Toad because there was always too much.
None of this was helpful to Marlin.
“How about this?” But before Ben could flick back his sleeve, the attendant had revealed two forearms full of ReAltime watches. “Maybe not” said the detective, wondering how he was going to pay for the parking for his flight; preferably before the McNasty brothers arrived.
“Nobody cares what time it is anyway,” said the attendant; “I’m more into designer tassels. Like the ones on your suit; they’d look good on my hat.” He took his hat off and pushed it into Marlin’s chest. Two minutes later the attendant looked resplendent under his wobbly luminous tassels, and Marlin felt undressed without them. The deal done, NGTOP hefted his luggage and broke into a run for the departure lounge as the McNasty brothers spilled from an aging black stretch limo.
“Welcome to Canary Charter Flights, sir.” The lady behind the departure desk looked uncannily like the one on the end of the metaboliser. The hour’s sleep on the warp trip had done her no good at all.
“Another hangover?” quizzed Ben Marlin as a matter of polite conversation.
“Thought as much” Marlin cast a rapid glance over his shoulder at the heavies stampeding across the departure lounge. “Would you mind if I…?”
“Certainly, Mr. Marlin; please run along to your flight before those morons convert my nice departure lounge into a blood bath using your blood.”
“You are very kind,” said Ben, spinning on a heel and sprinting towards the door for the takeoff pad.
“Not at all;” she shouted after NGTOP’s clean pair of heels, “I’d have to clean it up.” Ben Marlin pushed through the exit doors and stopped as if poleaxed.
“Miss; er; miss!” he shouted in a panic.
“Yes?” grated the pained monotone from behind the desk.
“I might be having a mirage; or something. Could you just take a look at the takeoff pad, it seems to have a very large chicken sitting on it.” Marlin’s eyes boggled.
“No it doesn’t,” she said evenly.
“But, honestly, it is very large, it is a chicken and it is sat on the pad. I can see it.”
“No you can’t. It’s a canary.” The disinterested receptionist turned back to potter with the screen on her desk, and Ben Marlin’s mouth wagged up and down like a cat flap in a high wind. A man with a painter’s ladder strolled across to the giant canary, which looked down curiously at the little man.
“Cheep” it said to him, deafeningly. The receptionist shouted through the departure lounge.
“This is Canary Charter Flights, and you did want ‘cheap’. What did you expect?”
Ben Marlin was suddenly distracted by an unwelcome thought. He watched the approach of the ladder with morbid interest.
“How do I, er, sort of, you know, get in it?” Marlin’s vision was not a pretty one.
“Up the ladder to the little pod that’s strapped to her back,” the receptionist was busy pulling on a suit adorned with a plastic tag. The sparse text on the tag looked alarmingly like ‘pilot’, in red capitals. The McNasty brothers stood in the doorway to the takeoff pad, gaping at monstrous bird preening under its wings, clearly preparing for its take off procedure.
“Hey you!” said Monty McNasty, either to something he’d picked up on his shoe, or the receptionist/pilot/telephonist. “There’s a turkey sat on the take off pad.”
“No, there isn’t” said the pilot/ receptionist/ telephonist-turned-bouncer, walking with some attitude towards the exit that the McNastys were gathered around; “it’s a canary!”
She dealt out a few deft chops of her several flippers, and the McNasty brothers found themselves scattered around on a floor formerly used as a grill pan for fatty burgers. She charged through the doors like a falling tower block, and continued across the tarmac, stopping briefly to crane her neck up to the canary; which was fifty feet high if it was an inch.
“Hello Clara,” she said “nice evening for a flight.” Clara, distracted from her spray of millet for a second, uttered an affable if glass-splintering
The flight’s sole passenger meanwhile had an excellent vantage point from which to witness the conversation; and no interest in it at all. Ben Marlin was completely absorbed in hanging onto the swaying ladder about thirty feet from the ground.
“Cheep” said the cheerful bird.
“Don’t do that!” said Marlin as avian vocal cords shook the ladder to its last molecule.
“Cheeep!” It said happily.
“Eeeek!” said Ben.
“Cheep, cheep, cheep!” replied Clara, clearly in raptures with the conversation, whatever it was about. The ladder began a series of bouncing movements as the pilot swarmed up the underside with incredible agility and passed Ben Marlin who appeared to have been nailed to it.
The McNasty brothers nursed their injuries in the decimated departure lounge. Monty McNasty fumed while poking at a tender black eye.
“That guy Marlin loused up our last Colyster deal; he’s not going to screw this one up; over my dead body.”
“The Martian Colyster Generator deal will settle those two and put us on easy street. We’ll be in the ‘Designer Asteroid’ belt.” Monty McNasty allowed himself a sneer. “They’re never going to get to Mars on a Canary. The job is in the bag. We’ll book the next flight with ‘Package Tours Inc.’
The single most valuable possession in the Universe was a Colyster Generator. There was not enough money in a whole planetary system to buy one; these things were then, all but impossible to buy. And just as difficult to steal, as transporting the black hole at its core was not something you might manage in a Transit van.
One Colyster Generator could heat an entire dead planet for nothing; and Mars had been converted from a dust bowl to an Eden in the space of a decade or two by the Generator built by Derek Modley.
Sadly for Derek, he took bad advice on patent issues and signed it away to a plausible guy called Monty McNasty, of ‘McNasty’s Preloved Armaments Inc.’ for a bootleg DVD of ‘Happy Days’.
Ben Marlin arrived at his seat and found a plain brown envelope on it. Not at that time feeling up to the challenge of a piece of brown paper, he stuffed it in his inside pocket and rummaged around in his bag for his hip flask of ‘Hell’s Dregs’, downing most of it in one. This stuff imbued super-being confidence and the skill levels of a crustacean. Ben was convinced he could fly without actually being able to walk. He fell in a heap in the aisle and took to swimming a front crawl.
Take-off sobered him up with the cabin bouncing through three hundred and sixty degree rolls as Clara got the hang of it.
“Captain!” wailed Marlin from the floor/ceiling.
“What?” replied the telephonist/ receptionist/ bouncer/ pilot/ Captain; who appeared to be having little effect on the course of Clara.
“We’re all going to die!”
The twisting rolls suddenly smoothed and Clara settled into a rhythmic flight not unlike a rowboat on a ski jump. The whistle of wind under Clara’s wings petered into silence and the cabin’s extreme rise and fall flattened out.
“Can I ask a question, miss?” said Ben Marlin, still untying the knots in his stomach.
“If you must,” said the Captain tetchily.
“How do you expect a canary to fly in the vacuum of space?”
“Clara has three boost stages; breakfast, dinner and tea” said the bored Captain.
“I don’t understand” said Ben. The extreme G-force of an abrupt acceleration accompanied by a deafening farting noise kicked Marlin between the shoulder blades. “What was that?” he choked, fighting for breath.
“Breakfast” said the Captain.
Back at the terminal, the flight from ‘Package Tours Inc.’ had just arrived and the McNastys stood on the tarmac around a brown paper package.
“Has everybody gone mad?” remarked Monty McNasty.
“This one is our mini economy flight; you have to blow it up.” The steward handed over a foot pump.
“This is your assignment” read the note that Marlin had retrieved from his inside pocket. “The Colyster Generator on Mars will be attacked tomorrow: you must protect it at all costs.” Ben Marlin flicked through his regulation issue of ‘Code Cracking for Baboons’ before he realised it wasn’t a code.
“Ridiculous” thought Ben Marlin. “Nobody has ever stolen a Colyster Generator; come to that, nobody has ever seen one to know what they might be trying to steal.” The detective read on.
“The attackers have the conversion kit.” The note went on; Marlin had heard of the conversion kit that converts the Generator into a bomb; the power of which made fusion physics look like popping popcorn. “We believe the intention to be Universal blackmail.”
NGTOP scratched his head, and turned the note over, the surface of which was as blank as the expression on the detective’s face.
“Why should anybody want to trade in the whole Universe for a clinker of ash? In what ways could the bomb-terrorists possibly profit? Had they a season ticket for some idyllic afterlife?” NGTOP (aka Marlin) had to concur that blackmail on a vast scale seemed the only plausible purpose. The private dick looked up from his reveries to see the hostess (receptionist/ telephonist/bouncer/pilot/Captain) reeling down the aisle with a tray of drinks and an in-flight meal.
“For your comfort and delight” she read from the ‘recommended greeting’ sheet; “but discomfort and disgust might be closer to it” she improvised; and handed over the concoction to Marlin. Ben retched and made a break for the toilet.
He returned to his seat in time to hear;
“Fasten your seat belts for landing, please.” Ben searched about for a seat belt. “No, ignore that; I forgot this is a budgie flight. Sorry, ‘Budget Flight’. Anyway, the budget flight’s answer to the seat belt is the brown paper bag behind your seat.” There was another short pause. “Please check that this has not been used for, er, anything else, before putting it over your head. Thank you.”
Clara’s second booster stage kicked in as a retro rocket, and after being strained through the fibres of his seat, Marlin settled down to being merely terrified out of his stomach. The full complement of passenger and crew being absorbed in the hazards of a Martian landing, the brown paper parcel following entered the Martian atmosphere unnoticed.
The underground labyrinth hummed tunelessly in sympathy with the infinite power of a Colyster Generator in tick-over. The hiss and crackle of an empathy door sent echoes bouncing along convoluted corridors. The creature strode with the brown paper parcel it had collected from lost property, through the door from other dimensions. It stooped and swayed gracefully as if in an undetectable breeze as it stowed the parcel. Its slender limbs flexed in the subtle glow emanating from walls of crystal, as it struggled with the tartan shopping trolley.
“How do they expect anybody to do a professional job without quality kit?” The Caph cast a withering glance at the little trolley, and turned again to drag it along the corridor. The wheel that wasn’t there scraped unmercifully on the steel floor. “Aagghhh; my teeth!” The Caph swept a delicate aspen hand to its cheek. “Alright, that does it. They can count me out of the next Universe-destroying mission.” It turned back to its course and the trolley resumed its banshee squeal, the Caph mumbling a steady torrent of abuse under its breath.
It plodded through the endless liquid plasma barriers, each one levelling molecule disintegrators at the Caph; which it ignored. The disintegrators could sense it was there, but beyond that had no sense of what it might be. They made enough noise about it though. After the twenty-third barrier of head-splitting bells, the Caph wearily stretched out its limbs into the endless corridor, yawned, and rummaged in the shopping trolley, carefully avoiding the Colyster detonator wrapped in brown paper, to fish out a parsnip for tea break. It munched meditatively while staring at the opposite crystal wall. Subtle reverberations of a distant door circled confusingly and disturbed the Caph. It stood up, repacked its parsnip, and continued its shambling pace towards the destruction of the Universe.
Ben Marlin gazed down the twisting crystal corridor, trying to make out the strange, willow-like figure in the distance. The plasma barriers made it impossible to focus. He hefted a demoraliser ray from his tartan shopping trolley, levelled it on a forearm and sent a long burst into the length of the corridor.
“My mum didn’t like me” blubbed the first barrier, utterly demoralised by the ray, ahead of the stream of heart-rending complaints from the succession of barriers. The Caph, way down the corridor, turned towards the commotion.
“You should go home” it called to NGTOP, “it is dangerous here.”
“Where is this ‘Home’ I might go to that isn’t dangerous?” enquired NGTOP, not unreasonably. This seemed to be something that the Caph had not much thought about, and it put down the handle of its shopping trolley while considering. Ben Marlin sauntered along without fear. There seemed little point in being terrified as he considered himself as good as dead already.
“Nice trolley” said the Caph. Ben looked around. It was definitely talking to him. He smiled a wan shadow and pointed down to his shopping trolley for confirmation. “Yes” said the Caph. “Nice. Got all the wheels as well.” Marlin gulped and nodded.
“Fancy a swap?” asked Marlin tentatively, as he continued to trudge the length of the corridor and up to the Caph. It was dumb ploy to relieve it of the detonator. But then anything dumb enough to consider blowing itself to bits for profit might not notice another dumb ploy. It swayed a little.
“This one squeaks,” it said making a suave gesture at its tartan trolley.
“Nice pattern though.” Ben Marlin listened to himself and thought he’d already made a swap; from average humanoid brain to Lego windmill.
“Yes it is a nice pattern; how good of you to notice. Unfortunately, it is quite heavy.” The Caph shook its head plaintively.
“I don’t mind that” quickly interjected the detective, “it will… er…stop me blowing away in high winds.”
“I am here to destroy your Universe, you know.” The Caph made an apologetic smile. Ben Marlin was a little taken aback by the Caph’s candidness.
“Well, I’m actually here to stop you. But nobody seems very sure of what you might gain from blowing yourself to bits.” Ben Marlin had discovered the answer to that over the course of his brief conversation. The Caph were in no danger at all from the destruction of this particular Universe. They lived somewhere else entirely.
“Your Universe causes a lot of trouble with our TV reception. This Universe makes it impossible for us to follow the story of the ‘Happy Days’ programme. A pained expression crossed its face.
“I’m not surprised you can’t follow the story in Happy Days. There isn’t one.” Ben Marlin stared up at the Caph’s sylvan form.
“Oh.” It said. Then it blossomed into a radiant smile. “Are we still on for a swap?”
Ben Marlin, lugging the alien shopping trolley squealing its objections back through winding corridors, couldn’t help but wonder what he might do with a Universe-destroying tartan shopping trolley with one wheel that was giving him a headache. The answer lay around the next bend.
“We said that death wouldn’t get you off the hook for this one.” Marlin almost walked into the McNasty gang. “We want our shopping trolley back.” The detective’s trolley contained the destruction of the Universe, and to hand that over to a bunch of bent second-hand shopping trolley salesmen seemed less than sensible.
“This, gentlemen,” said Marlin, having decided to brazen it out “is not what it seems.”
“We can see you have not treated it with the respect it deserves, Ben Marlin. Where is our wheel?” Monty McNasty pulled out a randomiser-ray with a barrel nearly as long as tartan shopping trolley he pulled it from. “The deal is simple. Give us our trolley back, complete with wheel, or I blow your head off.” The rest of the gang were standing around sheepishly, each with his own trolley, and each sporting a subtly different plaid.
“Nice.” Said the Caph as it materialised behind the gang, gazing in wonder at the assorted fleet of trolleys. “Don’t fancy a swap, do you?” Monty and the gang were surprised, to be sure, but the boss was quick to get his accountant’s head together.
“I take it you ain’t big on arithmetic where you come from,” said Monty with a sneer, “we’ve got six trolleys, to your one. What sort of swop is that?” Marlin was fascinated. How was the Caph going to talk its way out of that one?
“In here,” it said with an air of collusion as it pointed into its shopping trolley, “is the complete set of DVD’s for Happy Days.” It took a gracious bow for the applause that rippled around. It pointed to Ben Marlin. “His has the Colyster Generator detonator in it.”
A quiet descended. The Brothers McNasty went into a huddle. Monty’s head surfaced briefly.
“Why don’t I just blow you both to bits and take the trolleys?”
“Because you’d wipe out the Universe at the same time?” ventured Ben Marlin. This seemed to settle the quandary and Monty McNasty turned from the scrum.
“O.k. tall guy,” he said to the Caph, “you got a deal.”
It turned out that the Colyster Generator detonator was an out of warranty OEM version that wouldn’t detonate the Caph’s parrot out of its ‘Beano’. Marlin left it outside the departure lounge as a monument to something.
He checked his Toad for a new deposit. Satisfied that all was in order, he walked across the tarmac to where a very big canary sat, preening.
“We’re almost ready for your return flight, Mr. Marlin,” said she of the multiple flippers.
“Cheep!” bellowed Clara. Ben Marlin looked up at the soaring canary with a slight shake of the head.
“I’ve decided to emigrate to Mars” he said.