by Brian K. Asbury
G’nort started up the ramp. The Beefeater hesitated, but decided to follow, as he had no desire to be left behind on an ancient wooden ship separated from vacuum only by a green bubble. He had a sneaking feeling that G’nort might forget to maintain the atmosphere once he got on board the enormous spacecraft. Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed Colin Privet’s sleeve and dragged him along after him.
Catching up, he said to G’nort, “‘All major credit cards accepted’? What kind of motto is that to have over the door?”
“A non-threatening one, pilgrim!”
“One that speaks of welcome and the joy of plentiful shopping!”
“It used to read ‘abandon wallets all ye who enter here,’ but people tended to get the wrong impression.”
“Yes, the Cluster is the customer’s friend!”
The trio peered ahead. At the head of the ramp were two somewhat small robots. “Greetings,” said one of them, trundling forward. “I am P-Jayeff.”
“And I am J-Emmess,” declared the other. “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, and other sundry forms of greeting from your beautiful blue planet.”
P-Jayeff extended metal arms and shoved what looked vaguely like a lei over G’nort’s head — vaguely, because it seemed to have been carved from a solid lump of meteor rock.
“For you, sweet lady,” said J-Emmess, thrusting a plastic teddy bear into the Beefeater’s hands.
“Lady?!” exploded the Beefeater.
“Don’t worry, it’s free!” said J-Emmess reassuringly. “Courtesy of our sponsor, Garguax Plastic Novelties Inc. It has a picture of a human vital organ on it…”
The Beefeater turned it over in his hands. Sure enough, on the chest of the teddy was something vaguely resembling a bleeding liver that had been freshly plucked from some live sacrificial victim. He glared at the robot and thrust the teddy back into its mechanical arms. “I am not a lady!” he said between gritted teeth.
“Aw, don’t be so hard on yourself, toots!” said P-Jayeff. “We’ve seen worse, haven’t we, J?”
“I mean, you microcephalic mechanical morons, that I am not female. I’m a man!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes… I mean… what the bloody hell do you mean, ‘am I sure’?”
“You’ve got flowers on your shoes.”
The Beefeater snorted and brandished his staff under where P-Jayeff’s nose would have been, had either of the robots actually possessed anything resembling olfactory organs. “This, you tin-plated twit, is my costume. It is based on the ancient and noble uniform of the Yeomen of the Guard, guardians of the Tower of London. It’s considered very manly where I come from.”
“Is it?” Annoyingly, from the Beefeater’s perspective, this came not only from the two robots, but also from G’nort and Privet.
He flushed beneath his mask. “Well… it used to be. A few hundred years ago. Honest…”
During this interchange, J-Emmess had been trying to plant a second solid stone lei over Privet’s head. With the robotic equivalent of a sigh, he gave up and gave the overall-clad little man the teddy bear instead. He turned to the Beefeater and held up the lei, looking hopeful.
The Beefeater growled. “Don’t even think it.” J-Emmess nonchalantly tossed the lei behind his back, where it fell with a crunch, denting the ramp.
“So…” P-Jayeff said brightly. “How can we help you, pilgrims? Perhaps,” he said, looking directly at G’nort, “sir requires a present for his bitch — I mean, his lady love?”
G’nort was still struggling to extricate himself from the half-ton lei, which, being of a slightly yellowish hue, was impervious to his power ring. He finally struggled free and leapt to his feet. “You see this,” he said, displaying his ring. “I am a Green Lantern!”
“So you are,” said P-Jayeff. He turned to J-Emmess. “Do we give credit to Green Lanterns?”
“Don’t think so,” said the other robot. “We accept Interplanetary Vigilantes Express, and the Omega Men have an account with us, but I don’t think…”
“It means I can do this!” said G’nort. His ring flared, and his power beam lifted up the two droids and tossed them behind him. They rattled down the ramp, out of the door, and onto the deck of the Golden Hind.
“Er… was that a sensible move?” the Beefeater said.
But G’nort wasn’t listening. The canine Green Lantern was already at the top of the ramp and disappearing around a bend. Sighing, the Beefeater grabbed Colin Privet’s sleeve and hurried after him.
“Ah, the wonder of it all!” The words were intoned in a carefully cultured baritone voice and emanated from a figure in gleaming golden armour who stood before an enormous window through which the millions of stars of the Milky Way blazed in unison. “Sometimes, one becomes carried away by the enormity of it all, by the sheer magnificence of God’s greatest creation. That one should be alive now, in this time, in this place — what a miracle it all is. That one should be so fortunate to be the bearer of this gift to those less fortunate than one’s self. Ahhh… it does my heart good to contemplate the ineffable majesty of it all.”
A small mechanical noise sounded at a height level with his waist. It was something like a cough, or what a cough might sound like if programmed into a speech simulator by a being from a distant galaxy who hadn’t ever actually heard a real cough. “Er… you don’t actually have a heart, M’lord Manga.”
The golden-armoured Lord Manga Khan continued to stare out of the window. “Neither do you, L-Ron. You’re a robot!”
“I, er, actually know that, M’lord.”
Manga Khan sighed. “You take everything so literally, don’t you, L-Ron? You’ve no romance in your soul.”
“No, M’lord,” agreed L-Ron. “Largely, I believe, because I don’t have a soul, either. I’m a robot.”
“I just said that, L-Ron.”
“I know, M’lord.”
Manga Khan sighed again. “Did you actually want something, L-Ron, or are you just determined to interrupt my contemplation of the greatest wonder in the universe for its own sake?”
L-Ron seemed to think about this for a moment. “The greatest wonder in the universe, M’lord? I presume you mean the stars?”
“No, L-Ron. I can contemplate the stars any time. The greatest wonder of the universe, my mechanical minion, is shopping. We have customers, I believe?” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“Yes, M’lord. You asked me to run an ident check on them.” L-Ron hesitated for a moment, then lowered his voice slightly. “You also asked me to let you know if you started talking to yourself again, M’lord…”
“Ah. Did I? I mean, was I?”
“I see.” Pause. “Ah, the terrible loneliness of command. To be at the very pinnacle of one’s chosen profession — to know that one has no equal in this universe… it is a marvelous thing, yet at the same time an unfortunate one, having no peers with whom to converse on equal terms — having no one with whom to share a joke, an affectionate smile, a moment of love. It is…”
Cough. “You’re doing it again, M’lord…”
“Ah. Yes, I suppose I was. What were we talking about, L-Ron?”
“The customers, M’lord. You wanted to know who they were?”
“Yes, of course. Well, go ahead, my computerized crony. Report.”
“Yes, M’lord,” said L-Ron. He made another noise as if clearing his throat.
“Get that fixed, L-Ron, it’s starting to irritate me.”
“Yes, M’lord. The customers. I’m afraid I’m unable to positively identify two of them. They seem to be natives of Earth.”
“Earth? Where’s that?”
“The third planet of this system, M’lord? Where we were heading before that creature crippled the ship?” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice League of America: Pyre, Chapter 3: Impact.]
“Ah, yes. That. And how are the repairs progressing?”
“They aren’t, M’lord — largely on account of the mechanics you hired still being locked in the brig.”
“Have they agreed to my demands, yet?”
“No, M’lord, but–“
“Then in the brig they stay. Who is the third customer, L-Ron?”
“He’s a Green Lantern, M’lord. His name’s G’nort.”
“Never heard of him. What’s he done of note?”
L-Ron hummed. “Well, that’s not easy to track down, M’lord. It seems he was assigned to the space sector that the Oans designate 2112…”
“That seems unlikely. There’s no life form in that sector more complex than an amoebae. And believe me, L-Ron, amoebae make very poor customers. They never want anything bigger than they can engulf, and they don’t have any money.”
“Yes, M’lord. Well, it seems that G’nort is one of a whole group of Green Lanterns who seem to be currently headquartered on Earth.”
“Really? A whole group of them? Make a note of that under ‘prospective buyers of domestic appliances with no yellow in their colour scheme.'”
“Yes, M’lord. Anyway, the only arrest attributed to this G’nort in our database is that of the Scarlet Skier, on stardate…”
“What?! Is he mad?” Manga Khan whirled about to face L-Ron for the first time. “He arrested the scouting agent of Mister Nebula?”
“Make another note, L-Ron,” said the suddenly rather agitated Lord Manga. “We are not going to Earth after all. If Mister Nebula should come looking for this G’nort while we’re there…”
“Yes, M’lord,” said L-Ron.
Manga Khan began to pace, then suddenly stopped and stared at his robot personal assistant. He pointed. “Speaking of Mister Nebula, is that…?”
“One of his? Yes, M’lord.” L-Ron was obviously incapable of blushing, but his body language, or the robotic equivalent thereof, betrayed his embarrassment over the outer shell he was currently sporting.
“Pink, L-Ron? With lime green polka-dots? And a fluorescent blue fin protruding two feet out from your head? And what are those… those things hanging from your eyestalks?”
“Fluffy dice, M’lord,” said L-Ron glumly.
A low growl escaped from somewhere under Lord Manga’s helmet. “If I have told D-Orr once, I have told him a dozen times — find someone else to model the spring fashions. I will not have my right-hand droid decorated in fluffy dice and Day-Glo fins.”
“No, M’lord. But genuine Nebula creations are a big seller, M’lord.”
“Among the denizens of Pseudocronkite IV who have no eyes and therefore no concept of colour, yes!” said Manga Khan. “But not on my staff!” He flicked one of the fluffy dice, which skittered across the deck before sprouting legs and running away to hide behind a chair.
“But enough of this,” Lord Manga said, crossing to the monitors. “Let’s see what our customers are doing. I presume they have money or a suitable credit chip?”
“I haven’t been able to determine that, M’lord.”
“Well, no matter. We’ll just do the usual and repossess their home planets if they can’t pay. Show them to me.”
Joining his master at the monitors, L-Ron skillfully operated the controls. A screen burst into life that showed G’nort, surrounded by a cohort of yellow-coloured robots and looking very worried. “I see the Green Lantern has encountered our specialist sales staff,” muttered Lord Manga in a satisfied tone. “But where are the others — the Earth creatures?”
L-Ron adjusted the controls, then adjusted them some more. “Now this is odd, M’lord,” he said.
“I can’t find them, M’lord Manga. We seem to have lost track of them!”
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” said Colin Privet.
The Beefeater ignored him as he pretended to study the inscription on a large plaque over the only door they had so far come across in the corridor they were now in. Of course, the inscription was in a totally incomprehensible alien language, but he wasn’t about to admit to Privet that he had no idea what it said.
The problem, of course, that what it said could be anything. It was possible that it said, “This way to an alien harem, where you will be treated like gods by nubile, three-breasted alien nymphettes,” but it was equally likely that it might say, “Do not open this door under any circumstances, as there’s nothing but vacuum beyond.”
Naturally, as he was contemplating this dilemma, Privet just had to come out with the words he was dreading: “So, what does it say?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the Beefeater blustered, tugging on the handle. And indeed it was, once they had looked inside. It said broom closet.
“We really are, aren’t we? We’re lost?” said Privet, who was nothing if not persistent.
“A true hero is never lost,” said the Beefeater indignantly. “This way!” He marched off down the corridor, thinking that wherever it was leading, it was designed to get there by as circuitous a route as possible.
“Not very nice here, is it?” commented Privet, his nose wrinkling at the smell emanating from a brown liquid dripping sluggishly from a suspicious damp patch in the ceiling. “You’d think on a spaceship you’d keep everything nice and clean, wouldn’t you?”
The Beefeater continued to ignore him. It was, though, he had to admit, a fairly accurate, if simplistic, description of their present surroundings. At this point, therefore, it might be expedient to discourse on certain facts about starships, and Manga Khan’s in particular.
Once upon a time, starships were spotlessly clean, all gleaming metal surfaces with glossy black and red trim. However, fashion is a fickle beast, and the current fashion for starships was a look that could best be described as grungy. The main reason for this was a creature from Aldeberan IV named Zprog Vinnity. Zprog was regarded as something of a style guru among starship designers, and it was rumoured that even Mister Nebula was an avid reader of his syndicated column, which graced all of the galaxy’s most fashionable periodicals.
Two years previously, while on a sightseeing trip to Proxima Centauri, Zprog had intercepted a broadcast from a nearby star system that his ship’s computer had decoded from a primitive system known as television. The broadcast had featured a popular movie produced by the inhabitants of said star system, which focused on a group of humanoids on a starship having some difficulty with a large and aggressive life-form that had found its way on board. Zprog had been initially taken by the resemblance of this alien intruder to his own species, and had quickly drafted a letter of complaint to the producers of the movie, citing racial discrimination and insisting that they reshoot the whole thing with the humans as the villains. However, his computer pointed out that one: no one on the originating planet would be able to read the letter, even if they recognized it as such, as Aldeberanean writing comprised mixtures of oily liquids in a bowl that are read by sensors on the ends of their fingers, and two: there was about as much chance of the average Khund taking up flower-arranging as there was of the natives taking any notice of it.
Abandoning the letter, Zprog turned his attention to the background of the film, and instantly fell in love with the vista of poorly lit corridors, some apparently dripping with water from an unspecified source, chains hanging down for no apparent reason, disorientating flashing red lights…
He immediately dashed off his next column, praising the movie-makers for their artistic vision and describing what he had seen as “someday, all starships will look like this.”
Enter Manga Khan, who firmly believed that the successful entrepreneur should always keep up with fashion if he were to keep the custom of today’s bright, go-getting, upwardly mobile young alien. Upon reading Zprog’s column, he immediately ordered L-Ron to set about obtaining several tonnes of rusting chain, a thousand or so rotating flashing red lights, and as much assorted dubious liquids as he could get his hands on.
This explained why the Beefeater and his reluctant companion, having long since given up on trying to figure out where G’nort had disappeared to, found themselves traipsing miserably through corridors that bore a greater resemblance to the sewers of Paris than to the USS Enterprise.