OUR GAME DISTURBED
The universe wasn’t always the peaceful place it is today. No, it used to be quite different. And not so long ago as I’ve forgotten. Let me tell you about it. I was there, you know. Right in the thick of it.
The changes started during a routine voyage. Me and my mates aboard the good ship Hickelroy were enjoying an exciting game of hide and seek. Except for our paper-airplane fights, it was our only fun on many of our interplanetary voyages. The hardest part was finding places to hide on our tiny ship.
In the middle of the game, a mighty roar interrupted the discovery of Jack Black (our candlemaker) hiding under a large pot in the scullery. Now mighty roars are rare in space, and we decided to send Pete Porter (our normally inoffensive elevator operator) to investigate the cause, and continued with the game. Porter had taken a correspondence detective course a few years back and had his own pocket magnifying glass.
But he was still looking for his equipment when another roar came out of nowhere and the room was filled with a purplish-green glow emanating from a large caterpillar which had materialized in our midst. We were irritated at this caterpillar for spoiling our fun. Vladimir “Sparks” Ilness (our normally offensive radio operator) took issue with the intruder. In a blistering outpouring of invective Sparks attacked, “Caterpillar, you bug me!”
The caterpillar arched its back into the air, and snarled an angry reply, “HyTuir iU^ki’lgn!! ”Jack jumped out of the corner. “Now, I think both of you are over stressed. Maybe we should all calm down and share a group hug.” Sparks and the caterpillar both looked at Jack. Sparks sneered, “You can take your incense and your crystals and . . .”
“Hey, is something going on?” Our Captain, Captain McElroy, had come out of his reverie. He rarely took part in our games. We were always pleased when he decided to join us in our reality. His mother had called him “Henri Jacques” but that was a point of embarrassment for the Captain, and it was never mentioned.
The caterpillar spoke, this time more intelligibly, “You bet there is! I’m looking for Fancha . . .” The Captain interrupted, “Now just a minute.” Forceful, our Captain. “You have boarded our ship without permission,” he berated the oversized insect. “You have not followed protocol.” As the Captain spoke Jack was putting the pot back on its hook in the scullery. But the stool he chose to stand on was past its prime. We heard a snap, then . . .
“CLANG!!” The huge pot hit the floor with a deafening noise. Everybody hit the deck. The caterpillar jumped two feet in the air, looked terrified, then dematerialized. That settled the matter. So until morning we all went to bed, except for the man on watch, George (our zebra).
EXCUSE ME, MR. TREE . . .
George added something extra to the crew, always ready with a joke or a story. He would often gallop in tight circles around the room throwing paper airplanes at everybody. And it was his lessons in origami that had gotten us started with the planes in the beginning.
At first, he wouldn’t clean up after himself and that bothered some of the crew. But in time we got used to it, and George Jungle was really more like everyone’s kid brother.
In fact, most of our crew of 15 had been together on the Hickelroy since we were children, pressed into service on our way to kindergarten. Named after ancient King Edmund Hickie, our ship hauled fruits, vegetables and (at Jack’s insistence) a variety of 100% natural dietary supplements to outposts throughout the Federated Planets. Although there was only one room, it was 150 feet across, and the thoughtful designers had artistically zig-zagged the walls so that we each had our little corners. Plus we had neat special corners like the radio shack and breakfast nook. The center of the room was piled high with boxes of sugar beets and kiwi fruit bound for our destination planet, Molevine.
From a distance the Hickelroy’s original bold orange and magenta markings were still visible here and there through the rust. On closer inspection the thousands of parasitic creatures clinging to the underside of the ship gave signs of life to what otherwise might be given up for dead. Molevine was a planet which the Hickelroy had visited many times before delivering various cargoes, but this time we had an extra passenger: a Federated Planets envoy, Montague Plantagenet. He had kept pretty much to himself during the trip, always writing in a little notebook.
A lizard kept poking his tail into my flesh with an insistence that was fast becoming annoying. I reached for my shotgun, but before I could grab it, I woke up. It was really George poking me awake. Rats! Such a neat dream—I wish I did have a shotgun.
“Hey, Carl, wakey-wakey time.” George was whispering intently, or as intently as a zebra can whisper, “Get your gun and follow me.” I suppose I should tell you something about why I was on board the Hickelroy. As the best marksman this side of the Gong planetbelt, I was a natural to be sergeant-at-arms on board a spaceship in those times of full scale war with the Rotnufians. Carl Alexis Thimm could be of great value in a pinch.
Picking up my gun without bothering to dress, I followed the beckoning George out of my corner. Thinking I might be more useful if I knew why I was being accosted in the middle of the night, I stopped him and said, “George . . . ”
“Shhh! Do you want to wake the egg?” I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the egg was, or why it was asleep, but the urgency in George’s voice was unmistakable, even at night. He led me to the cookhouse (another corner of the room) where the reason for his urgency became clear. A tree had sprung up where no tree had sprung before, out of an egg. I had obviously awakened the egg. The tree was filling the room, and its snakey arms were starting to reach for some of the bodies sprawled in the depths of sleep. I guess it was hungry.
I toyed with waiting a while to see if it would feed, then decided it would be best if I shot it where I thought it would be fatal (the head). I lifted my trusty weapon. And then an idea hit me: here’s a chance to try out some of those fancy negotiation skills they’d taught us during the last layover. Let’s see, first establish communication. I lowered my gun.
“Excuse, me, Mr. Tree, I wonder if I could have your attention for a minute.” The tree paused, one branch only a couple of inches from McElroy’s head. OK, now we’re supposed to acknowledge. “Thank you, Mr. Tree, I really appreciate your time.” What was next? Introductions!
George turned slowly to stare at me, mouth agape. I ignored him. A branch from the tree began to move towards me. This negotiation stuff was really working! “Mr. Tree, my name is Carl. Welcome to our ship. Would you mind telling me your name? I hope that I haven’t offended you by calling you Mr. Tree. If you . . .” Suddenly the branch shot towards my head. BLAM! BLAM! My shots found their mark. The tree withered. Clearly I should not have called him “Mr. Tree.” I would know better next time. They did say that becoming a good negotiator took some time.
Then George started laughing hysterically, falling back on his hind legs and clacking his forehooves in delight. “Boy, you fell for that, hook, line and sinker.” Then I realized what was going on and glared at him, beet-red. It was just another mail-order joke. The noise woke everybody up so Barnard Berkeley (our Chinese? stovepipe scientist) suggested that Cook make breakfast. Cook’s insistence on using prechewed whale sinew for cooking oil, salad dressing and as a tenderizer had resulted in variety of digestive disorders and disfiguring degenerative diseases in the crew. But everything tasted great.
Later Jack announced the discovery of a new game. “There must be a reason this came to me,” he said thoughtfully to nobody in particular, “But, if you take a two-credit piece, and put it on a table, press down on the edge with your fingernail, and then slide your fingernail off the edge the piece pops three feet in the air!”
This was amazing, and cries of, “Demonstration, demonstration!” arose immediately. Jack was always looking for the reason behind this or that, and giving us lectures on spiritual oneness and Reiki. He came up with the weirdest ideas.