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”For sure? “
”That’s what I said. “
”No, there can’t be a planet with such a stupid name. “
They flew on for another 200 million miles before Merf resentfully asked,
“No offence, man, but it just sounds weird,” said Zergio, looking at Merf with all three of his eyes.
“Right,” Merf thought to himself. This short and silly name didn’t do much for him either. Before he was expelled from university for selling unvaccinated water monkeys on the third day of school, he had attended a lecture where it was declared that if a planet’s name consisted of less than twelve letters it had to be some kind of a miserable suburban planet which children of good breeding were supposed to ignore. That is what was taught on the planet Gyagg Septimus Omega Mu and this is what was believed in the nearest but equally long-named star systems too. Maybe this was the reason why children were given such short names. If they weren’t able to pronounce their home planet’s name properly, they should at least be able to say their own.
So there were plenty of reasons to think the name stupid and Merf was arguing with Zergio more on principle than out of any real belief. At the same time he didn’t really want to anger Zergio more than he absolutely had to. The voyage promised to become long enough and maybe even dangerous, a fellow passenger was more than welcome.
“I think this is where we should turn right,” said Merf with no particular certainty.
“Right, you say? Then right it shall be,” Zergio replied and pushed a directional joystick, with quite an effort, all the way to the right. Their spaceship was old and its worn-out metal chassis wheezed threateningly as the thrusters started to push the ship in the same direction. The curve was steep and both travellers held on to whatever they could. Zergio only just managed to avoid hitting a small asteroid before actually bumping into some kind of space trash during his dodgy manoeuvre, it was probably an old TV satellite. He tried to mask the rumble of the impact with a well-timed cough and if he hadn’t been just a few seconds late with it there would have been no way anyone would have noticed the accident. But Merf didn’t take it to heart, he was well aware that a scratch or two here or there meant nothing if you took into account the overall state of health of the spaceship. In fact, it was quite probable this impact had evened out one of the existing dents, effectively making the ship a little prettier.
“Damn it” groaned Zergio while wiping sweat off his forehead with a sleeve, “where the hell did you conjure up such a spaceship from anyway? It is quickly beginning to feel less like a spaceship and more like some kind of uncontrollable dumpster!”
“Oh-oh! That’s priceless! Where did I conjure up the Pegasus? I have a faint recollection of someone called Zergio over-eagerly agreeing with every word the salesman said as he praised the beauty and the speed and all the other features of the spaceship. As I remember, you even swore in the name of your laser gun, something by the way, you don’t even own, that if you had any money left over from your lunch, you would have bought one just like it yourself.”
“I guess I might have gotten a little bit too enthusiastic there,” Zergio admitted.
“A little bit? You actually managed to haggle the price higher, persuading the salesman that he was giving away a great thing too cheap!” groaned Merf, pulling at his hair.
“Yeah, but… The paint job is actually quite nice when you look hard enough. At least the spots where any of it is still visible…,” Zergio tried to defend himself but Merf interrupted him,
“Stop. We’re there.”
The Pegasus stopped and started to hover a few feet from the space vehicles parking lot, swinging slowly from side to side. It appeared to be considering how to make a perfect landing and then, probably realizing this was not an option, dropped heavily to the ground on its landing gear. It was not, by any means the smoothest landing in the Known Universe and it made the burglar alarms of the other vehicles protest loudly. At the same time the Pegasus announced in a soft female voice,
“Ladies and gentlemen, please prepare for landing.”
“But,” Zergio managed to say during breaks in the coughing fit that had been induced by the smoke and steam now filling the control room, “but its colour is indeed quite beautiful.”
If a look could kill, Zergio would have been vaporized. Merf released himself from the safety-belts and went to inspect the damage and fix what he could. The first step was to gather tools suitable for fixing the complicated and delicate piece of machinery that was the spaceship. After he had found a pocket knife and a roll of tape he started to look around the leaking and whistling pipes, patching them with pieces cut from the roll. He noticed that Zergio didn’t mind helping out too, shutting off one of the steaming pipes with some chewing gum and smashed a disturbingly blinking red warning light with his shoe.
Slowly the steam in the control room started to fade and the air became clearer. After a while the alarm sirens also went quiet, in the spaceship and outside. Zergio flipped a cigar into his mouth, looked around and said triumphantly:
“You see, it’s not so bad at all!”
“Right. But it sure as hell isn’t good either,” Merf thought and glanced sadly over the rattletrap that was their ship.
Then it struck them both that right there, just behind the door, was a planet with an atmosphere of breathable air and if there was anything Zergio desired more than ion-cider and Merf more than a good meal, it was fresh air. You start to value simple things like air and water when you’ve been continually tripping in space for the last few months, breathing the same old air that has been purified over and over again and having to drink water recycled from bodily fluids. Just like everything else on the ship, the life support systems seemed to be working on only half capacity. And partially recycled body fluids were something that even easy going guys like Merf and Zergio didn’t really care to drink.
As their eyes fell on the door handle so did their hands and they both started pulling on it together. Not only because they were so anxious to leave the ship but because the rusty handle didn’t usually submit to just one life form’s efforts. This time even the combined strength of two wasn’t enough. They tried supporting themselves by pressing one hand each on the wall of the spaceship and taking a fighting stance, with one leg ahead and the other behind, they heaved on the handle. It didn’t budge, so at Zergio’s suggestion, they grabbed hold of the first solid thing that came to hand and hammered at the handle with it. To no effect. In desperation they both hung from the handle and braced their feet against the ship’s wall. The handle moved a few millimetres. And then suddenly a whole lot more. They fell flat on their backs as the door swung open from above with a terrible creak and then slammed straight down onto the metal covered floor of the parking bay. Merf got back up with an effort. As he slowly began to hear again he heard Zergio cursing and saw him inspecting the broken hinges of the ship’s door in amazement. They stared at the gap between the floor of the ship and the ground and weighed their options. They both agreed that the amount of pain it was possible for their aching backs to endure at any one time had already been exceeded so they decided to abandon the already un-tempting idea of simply jumping to the ground. A quick glance around assured them that there were no beautiful ladies nearby to judge them, so they opted for a much safer, although rather less elegant way of leaving the spaceship. Dropping first one leg over the edge and then the other, they hung from the doorstep of the ship with their legs waving wildly before finally letting go. They landed softly on the ground and another quick glance verified that their momentary wussiness had gone unnoticed. Yet there was one pair of suspicious eyes on them. It was a spaceship of some kind, parked on the lot near them. But this did not mean much, since spaceships look at everything with suspicious eyes.
They had a short discussion about whether it was wise to leave the ship with its door open but eventually agreed there was nothing precious inside to be worried about so started walking towards the cheerfully luminously signed pub “DrinkingSpace”. Both of them were quietly hoping the Pegasus would be stolen before they returned.
Merf did not have to walk very far across the parking lot before noticing that most of the other space vehicles on it were not exactly in tip-top condition either. As a matter of fact he had to reluctantly admit that most of them looked even worse than his own schlock that had cost him a mere two hundred and forty golden yuans. The only decent ship on the lot was parked next to the pub. A posh, shiny white cosmolimousine.
The little pub itself with its huge parking ground was in the middle of nothing. All around these two objects one could see only miles and miles of emptiness, just some low hills and red dirt presumably rich in iron ore. Merf exchanged a look with Zergio and pushed the pub’s door open with his foot. He was used to doing this in foreign places to establish his position from the start so no one would dare to pick a quarrel with him.
There was music in the room when they entered and Merf spotted a worn out jukebox in the corner. The pub was full of people smoking the weirdest substances and drinking, so it seemed, the most bizarre distillates. Zergio felt at home instantly and although Merf was a bit worried that an Elysian place like this could easily put a gap of a few weeks in their adventure, he had to admit the pub looked charming. What was not so charming was that as they entered, or to put it more exactly, as they were noticed, the entire clientele suddenly fell silent. “Just like in the movies,” Merf thought nervously as Zergio waved to everyone in the room with a big smile on his face.
Unfortunately, the smile didn’t work here and the situation began leaning heavily towards plain awkward. Merf noticed the jukebox had piped down as well and was giving him the stink eye. Merf was not sure he had ever seen a jukebox that could stare at him. Let alone give him the stink eye. He looked around and noticed, much to his surprise, that there was a distinct lack of humanoid life forms in the room. He counted all of them. Twice. And found the total number to be a lousy zero. There were no humanoids at all. The entire crowd seemed to be mechanical. In addition to the evil eyed jukebox there was an old radiator calmly smoking a pipe filled with burning plastic grindings, two “one-armed bandit” slot machines whose arm wrestling Merf and Zergio had clearly interrupted, a few evil looking toasters and a full range of harder to identify home appliances and droids of variable shapes and sizes in the dark corners.
Merf coughed to clear his throat and said in the most normal voice he could manage, “Howdy, guys!” Even he had to admit his high-pitched, quivering voice was far from normal. There was no reply to his greeting but after a while most of the clientele turned back to their business although a few of them still looked at the newcomers with mild interest.
They found a table that was almost free, they had to push away just one rusty robot that appeared to have collapsed there years ago. As it landed on the ground with a loud rumble they signalled the waitress to come over and take their orders. A pretty android girl was there to serve the customers; she had eight delightful eyes to improve her vision (one for every 45-degrees), four built-in trays and six proficient hands.
“What can I offer you gentlemen?”
“I’ll have roast mutton with onions, make it medium rare, a bowl of lentil soup, some bread and a bottle of ice cold beer,” Merf’s order slipped off his tongue so smoothly and naturally it was pretty clear that he had been dreaming about this meal for an awful long time.
“And I’ll have two cheeseburgers, a glass of cold beer, a large bottle of ion cider and… well a cup of black tea, please,” added Zergio.
The service droid pulled a piece of paper from her apron pocket, looked at it for a while and then said she was going to have to disappoint the gentlemen as some of the items ordered were not actually on the menu at all.
“Oh. What is it that you don’t have then?” Merf asked.
“Well, we seem to be missing mutton, soup, beer, cheese burgers and ion-cider,” she replied, diligently staring at the piece of paper in her hand and tracing every word on it with her finger.
Merf and Zergio were downcast. Both were missing a delicious meal and cooling drinks and felt right now that they had been deprived of something they had every right to.
“All righty,” Merf finally said, “we’ll have two cups of tea then.” His head fell forwards onto the metal tabletop with a muffled thud.
“Yeah, I’m sorry but we have no tea either,” the mild voice of the android informed him.
Merf raised his head and looked at the waitress in astonishment.
“Then what do you do have?” asked Zergio.
The android waitress traced the paper on her hand with her finger again and informed them happily,
“We have oil.”
“Oil? And… what else?”
“Just oil. Nothing else. Nothing else has been ever asked for.”
Merf looked around the pub once again and realised how silly it was to have thought anything else. They were the only life forms of flesh and blood in the pub right now and considering the amazement that their arrival had brought about, their kind was not overly common there. Merf made a mental note not to visit the place ever again.
“We will have to think about it a bit, we can’t decide just yet,” Merf said to get rid of the waitress and she rattled away.
“What kind of a hole is this? There’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing to drink and if the Pegasus has been stolen while we have been in here, which wouldn’t surprise me at all by now since half the guys here seem to be missing some bits and pieces, we can’t even get away.”
Just at that moment they saw the service droid rolling towards them with a big smile on her face.
“Excuse me gentlemen, I guess I might have indicated earlier that all we have is oil,” she said.
“That’s exactly what you said but as I can see from your smile you have some good news for us don’t you,” said Merf in joyous excitement, “you do have something else, right?”
“Indeed we do, sir! I was scolded by the chef just now for not knowing what’s on the menu. You have to understand, I’m new here, I’ve only served here for 18 years. And honestly this is the very first time that someone has asked for anything else.”
“Right, right, all is forgiven. Just tell us already what you can bring us. What have you got for space travellers from far away?” Zergio asked cheerfully and swallowed. Merf looked at him, never having seen him talking so poetically before.
“Electricity,” said the droid delightfully, as if she had just told Merf and Zergio they had been freed from income tax for five years.