Excerpts from the book
”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.
“What? You didn’t just say electricity, did you?” they asked in disbelief.
“Oh, I see, this is not to gentlemen’s liking either is it. I have never seen guests with such distinguished tastes before I must say. Oil is no good to them and electricity is sneered at…,” said the droid in an offended tone and drove away again. Merf noticed to his annoyance that a small sandwich maker had pointed to their table and was making the international “stupid” sign with its cord to the amusement of its friends.
“Well it could have been worse,” said Merf trying not to bring down his companion’s mood but he couldn’t quite see how. They were on a metallic robot’s planet where all you could eat was electricity and all you could drink was oil with a rust bucket of a ship that had probably been stolen by now and if not was probably unable to take off because of its mechanical condition. Furthermore, the clientele was obviously not that impressed by them being there and it didn’t look as if anyone was going to ask them to join their table any time soon.
“Hey, you there!” the barman shouted from his stall, “Order or leave! No sitting around!”
Merf was about to stand up but Zergio stopped him and pointed out that although it was pretty grim in the pub, sitting in the Pegasus’s fetid atmosphere where they had been stuck for the last few months would be even worse. Every little bit of variety was welcome right now and should be taken advantage of, he said.
“Two oils here” Zergio shouted to the barman.
“Cups or mugs?” came the reply.
The whole pub exploded into shrieks of laughter. It seemed they thought the order matched the travellers pretty well.
They watched as the android girl scooted towards them again, this time with two five-litre oil cans, two large mugs and two straws on her tray which she set down on their table. She drilled two holes in the cans with her finger, poured a large serving of oil into each mug, put the straws in and waited while they paid up. Better to do it now then have to go to the counter later or even worse, to tip.
Merf seemed to be daydreaming but Zergio pulled one of the mugs closer and sucked a small amount of oil into his mouth.
“How is it?” Merf asked.
“Fully synthetic,” Zergio replied choking and licking his sleeve to get rid of the nasty taste. His few remaining taste-buds told him that tasted even worse so he resorted to good old fashioned spitting.
Where to? That was the question filling Merf’s mind. He knew well his objective was, finding the Earth of course, but he had no idea where to start looking.
It had all started with his grandfather’s tales and his firm belief in something that was shared by only a few others. Grandfather was the one who had told him a planet called Earth existed. And most of the so-called humanoids hailed from there. The Earth, he used to say, was a beautiful blue planet. It was not a big planet but very diverse nevertheless. He had told of how there were large seas, breathtaking mountain views, tropical plains, snowy slopes and a myriad of different animals out of which only a few had eventually been able to conquer and colonize new star systems. Among these few Merf remembered his grandfather talking about dolphins, bees and raccoons. Merf had heard all these stories as a little boy but his real interest in those words evolved years later when he couldn’t ask his grandfather about them anymore. Especially after one particular raccoon’s memorable bachelor party to which he had been invited for unknown reasons. What if the planet had indeed existed and furthermore, what if it still did? Merf asked his father but he was sure all the stories were the mere deliriums of an old man. He believed instead, as did most of the people on the planet Gyagg Septimus Omega Mu, that they had evolved from a very specific kind of rock-mushroom. But Merf had no wish to be evolved from mushrooms, be they as specific as they wanted. This idea of Earth was all he could think of now and he began to ask questions. It soon became clear to him that the idea was less than popular. Occasionally, here and there, he would find some people eagerly confirming the theory and calling the mushroom idea some kind of governmental policy of denial, usually producing informative flyers about it in quantities that were way too big to be taken seriously. Unfortunately most of the people who believed in the Earth’s existence were oddballs. Mad. Insane. Loony Tunes. And this was not just the general opinion of society Merf had to admit to himself, there was no Earth believer whose sanity he would not question. The massive flyer production was done by a local printing-house that regularly had fundraisers for the production of the printed materials asking its “fellow believers” to donate as much as possible for the common purpose. Merf never understood what the purpose was. And he tried. All the flyers had the same text on them: “Believe! The Earth is there!” Even Merf, with his humble understanding of marketing felt that was not the most spectacularly convincing effort. There were even times of bitter scepticism when Merf thought that all the flyers were just a way of getting the printing-house more work and money and nothing else. But then the more naive part of his brain would shake off those thoughts. No-one could be in such need of money.
Actually the most sensible and helpful recommendation Merf had ever received was to take a half-yuan silver coin and choose the direction of his search based on that. These coins were cubical like a dice and each side was different. This peculiar shape had been in common currency for a long time by then. It was widely thought amongst archaeologists that it had been invented in the days when their ancestors’ space tourism programs had really only just started to take off.
When you are walking on a planet’s surface you can flip a coin to help you choose a direction. In space with all the additional dimensions, the flat coin turned out to be a little too one-sided. Or two-sided that is. Travelling in space there is a lot more choice in the way of direction. And so every side of a cubical half-yuan silver coin marked one direction; up, down, left, right, backwards and forward. As a matter of fact there were talks about monetary reform in the Known Universe that would add an additional eight sides to the coin to further increase accuracy.
And this is how Merf had started his adventure. With a flip of a coin on the very same day he finally realised he was not going to spend the rest of his life as a potato chip quality controller and in the very same hour his girlfriend, who was disappointed by Merf’s career choice, broke up with him.
But now, with months of travelling behind him and sitting on a planet of unpleasant robots he was not quite sure if this was progress or failure, although it didn’t look too much like progress he had to admit. He also had no idea if he was closer to Earth than his home planet or further away instead.
It should be explained that in an attempt to simplify pan-planet trading and tourism, a system of unified time had been adopted that was equally inconvenient, in an entirely non-discriminative way, for everyone. All in all it did nothing to help increase business but it was considered too complicated to undo.
Crash! An old, scratched toaster landed or rather fell onto their table.
Merf jumped, Zergio, who had raised the mug to his mouth again for some unknown reason, sucked up a mouthful of oil and started coughing and spitting again.
“The gentlemen have peculiar customs. Or are they rather some kind of degustators instead?” the toaster asked, eyeing Zergio with interest.
Merf regained his self-control first and asked, “Degustators?”
“Precisely. The ones who taste, spit and then criticise.”
“Oh, the degustators.”
“That’s what I said! Degustators.” The toaster looked at Merf with bulging eyes, saying the words slowly and loudly as if he was talking to an especially slow-witted person.
“Are you mad, scaring people half to death here,” choked Zergio, “what came into your head that made you think it was a good idea to jump onto the table of honest people like us?”
“No, no, I meant no harm. I just happened to hear what the gentry were talking about.”
Merf and Zergio looked at each other in incomprehension while the toaster fixed his eyes on the oil cans.
“Gentry don’t mind if I take a sip I hope? Just a tiny, tiny little sip?”
“Be my guest,” said Zergio emptying the rest of his can into the mug and pushing it in front of the toaster, “this stuff is way too heavy for our stomachs.”
“Aww, gentry is too kind,” the toaster said happily, curled his cord merrily around the mug, pulled it closer and started to gulp. Zergio strummed on the metal table with his fingers, Merf just waited with his head in his hands for the toaster to finish. But he was apparently in no hurry so they had to wait for a good few minutes until the sound of slurping was finally heard, the toaster tilted the mug every which way to get the last of the oil and when he was absolutely sure there was not a drop left inside, he pushed it away with a loud burp.
“Thus, my good friends—hick!—what I was going to say was—hick!—And that goes for both of you. – Hiccup!”
“That went well,” said Zergio.
“For future reference, no oil for toasters from now on,” noted Merf.
They both stood up to go back to their space ship. First of all to make sure it was, in fact, still there since considering the circumstances they were in, they were now far from wanting it stolen. Secondly, to keep an eye on it and thirdly to lie down and hope that the next day would bring with it a sensible idea of where to go from here.
“Yeah, gentry, —hick!—but this is what I tell you…”
Merf and Zergio were just leaving the table when the toaster added: “…that if Earth is what you are looking for you should go straight left and then right again…”
Both stopped and looked back at the toaster who was staring at Merf’s oil can through drunken eyes and trying to control his cord enough to use it to pull the can closer to him.
“What did you say? What do you know about Earth?” Merf asked excitedly.
“Oil, yeah! That, my dear girls, the blossoms of my life, is living!” the toaster declared and started to snore in an exemplarily manner right there on the table.
“Hey, toaster,” Merf knocked on the side of the toaster, but didn’t get much of a reaction besides some grunting.
At that exact moment the pub’s door was slammed open with a force that even Merf’s entrance hadn’t managed. Three robots in suits stepped in, all wearing heavy gold chain necklaces around their necks. Their build was somewhere between Schwarzenegger, SUV and industrial refrigerator. This time the music didn’t stop but everyone made way for the gang and the best table in the pub was amazingly free in seconds. The eyes of everyone in the room spoke of fright and respect. Or at least one of those things.
The three-membered team of cosmomafia had almost reached their table when one of them noticed Merf and Zergio. He signalled to his companions and they came up to the table where Merf and Zergio were trying and failing to hide themselves behind the oil cans.
“Look, Luigi, meat bags in our pub!” one said.
“You’re right, Mario,” said the robot called Luigi and looked in honest amazement at the travellers.
The robots took a seat on a bench next to the table.
“Meat bags are seen very rarely here, you see, so don’t be surprised by our amazement. You don’t mind if I call you meat bags, do you?”Mario, the biggest of them, asked. His face was scarred from many injures that had been welded and repaired. The face was a bit too friendly. This was not a suitable expression for this kind of face. If you asked Merf, he would have preferred seeing threatening anger on it not this threatening friendliness.
“No-no, it is a very nice nickname,” Zergio said.
“Isn’t it just,” said Mario, “that’s what we think. Because, you see, if you look at the matter, well, objectively, then what else are you?”
“Exactly. Ha-ha-ha, most precise, well-said,” Zergio smiled nervously.
“And it would be a real shame if a meat bag, such as you for an example, got a hole in it and all the liquid goo poured out,” Mario continued in a calm tone.
“That would be real sad indeed,” Merf said.
“I don’t know if that would be sad exactly, but it will definitely ruin my clothes,” Luigi stated.
“And we wouldn’t want that. So my dear adventurers, what brings you to our humble planet?” Mario asked brightly.
“Just a stop on our way,” Merf replied, “we thought we might have a few oils and then hurry on.”
“Leaving so soon?” Mario asked, “Not going to stay for dinner?”
“We wouldn’t want to abuse our privileges,” Zergio explained, trying to map all of the possible and impossible exits out of the pub.
“But of course, but of course. Off you go, on your way now,” Mario shrugged and pointed to the door with his thumb.
“All righty, thanks a lot,” Merf said with relief and made a move to stand up but the two strong hands of Antonio, the third robot, pushed him back in his place.
“Surely, you have already paid the customs duties?” inquired Luigi, calmly cleaning his metal fingernails.
“Sure. If one arrives on a strange planet, one ought to pay the customs fees. Especially when the planet is as beautiful and friendly as ours,” smiled Luigi.
“So… how much are the fees?”
“Money? No, no, we are all friendly people here,” Mario replied with a smile that revealed his golden teeth. Robots needed no teeth of course, but it was considered a good place to put your money so everyone could see exactly how rich you were.
“That’s a relief. As a matter of fact we don’t have much money,” Merf said and even managed a slight smile.
“But that is very common with travellers such as yourselves,” said Luigi, “that’s why all we take as a customs payment is your vehicle and that’s it.”
“Vehicle? Our spaceship?” Merf asked in fright. “We can’t give you that I’m afraid, how else could we get away from here?”
“Firstly, are you really so desperate to get away from our beautiful planet?” Mario asked and leaned closer to continue. “And secondly, you might have got the wrong impression that you had a choice.”
Both of his companions leaned over the table, supporting themselves on the top with their fists which sank an inch deep into the metal with a disgusting creak.
“All that my companion here wanted to say was that our ship is a bit worn and might not be suitable for signors of your calibre,” said Zergio trying to get things back on track.
“It is a pleasure and a joy to take from guys like this, right Luigi?” Mario asked his friend. “These guys have so much money that it seems almost like we are doing them a favour taking some away.” He turned back to Zergio again and said, “All the more of a favour, if you care so little about your ship.”
Merf and Zergio were confused. Their ship did indeed look a bit better than most of the others in the parking lot here but it was no way a real looker and would not make them look like zillionaires in any galaxy they knew. They had tried several times with no success so they knew very well that the further away from their ship they were, the better their chances with the ladies.
“White goes well with my shoes,” Mario added, looking down at his shiny footwear.
White? White. White. White. The brains of Merf and Zergio worked overtime. What were the robots talking about? Uncharacteristically, it was Zergio who got it first.
“You are so right, we just have to hand it over to you. White goes extremely well with your shoes and we should be turned in to the fashion police if we were to deny such a harmony of white shoes and white ship,” he said in a voice of total understanding. He pulled some keys out of his pocket and placed them on the table. “Here are the keys,” he said.
“Now that is a nice gesture, I have to tell you. What reasonable men,” said Mario, surprised by Zergio’s act.
“Dar-rrn hell!” said Antonio, who had not spoken until now but was clearly disturbed by this peaceful solution to the situation.
“Calm down now, Antonio, we are no cutthroats here,” Luigi comforted him. As all three of the robots had their backs to the room, they didn’t see people rolling their eyes at this last statement.
“Uh-oh, look at the time,” Zergio glanced at his non-existent wrist watch, “time to go, old friend,” he said motioning to the bewildered Merf that he should stand up.
“Yeah, get lost. It was good to do business with you and all but should I see you again… well, I’ll let Antonio deal with you then,” Mario let them know the meeting was over and every excess minute they were thinking of staying would cost them first fingers and then whole limbs.
Although Merf had no intention of losing his limbs since he was attached to them, so to speak, he glanced over at the snoring toaster with some sadness in his eyes. Now he would never learn what this appliance of metal and plastic had to say about the Earth.
“Boss told you something,” said Luigi, waving towards the door, “and take your toaster with you.”
“Right! Our toaster! Of course,” Merf said, took the toaster in his hand and hurried out of door of the pub, following Zergio.
“Alright, pal, now show how well you run,” said Zergio and set a good pace himself, running with surprising velocity and energy towards the spaceship.
Merf needed only a moment to notice the white cosmolimousine parked by the pub, get the hang of Zergio’s idea as well as the mistake of the cosmomafia before setting off after Zergio at a speed that showed his legs no mercy.
“Oh, you little…,” he panted when he arrived at the ship, patting his friend on the shoulder. Zergio climbed on board and hurled a rope to Merf who fastened it to the spaceship door before climbing up with the toaster. Then they heaved the door up and had almost set it in place when they caught a glimpse of five thugs getting out of the white spaceship and heading into the pub. This scene made them move even faster, they finished with the door and charged into the control room.
“Zero gravitation device?” Zergio asked.
“On,” Merf replied.
“We have none,” Merf said and fastened his seatbelt tightly.
“So we go!” shouted Zergio. The spaceship started to shake, jiggle, judder, creak and fill with steam again. It finally managed to leave the ground, still shaking but dropped back again. It hopped up and down a few times before eventually managing to get airborne. So, it is fair to say that this was a completely normal take off. Zergio headed the ship away from the planet which quickly receded, soon becoming a barely visible dot.
“Escaped by a hairs breadth,” he said, passing control over to the autopilot and stretching himself out.
“That was just plain crazy,” Merf said “What keys did you give them?”
“Who knows what they were, I have never used them.”
“Why would you carry random sets of keys in your pocket?”
“For just these kinds of situations,” replied Zergio easily.
Merf took a silver yuan, flipped it and Zergio corrected the ship’s course accordingly. Luckily fortune guided them away from the unpleasant planet they had just escaped from.
“Now is one of those moments when I’d like to have a nice cup of coffee,” Merf sadly said.
“And some toast,” Zergio added.
“Just a moment!” came a harsh voice as the toaster instinctively reacted to the word “toast”.
“Waaah!” squealed Merf and Zergio, both startled as they had completely forgotten about the toaster.
“What?” yelped the toaster as he looked around confusedly. “Where am I? Help! I’ve been kidnapped! My buns are going to be taken! My bread crumbs of innocence are going to be picked,” he lamented.
“Calm down,” Merf shouted at him, trying to find the toaster in the dark by the sound of his voice. “Nobody wants your bread crumbs or your buns. Where are you? We’ll explain everything to you.”
“No-no, I want no explaining! Help!”
“Found him!” Merf shouted to Zergio and grabbed the toaster by its cord, pulling him out of a scrap heap into the light, regardless of his resistance.
“I’m being robbed…,” the toaster began his grumbling again, but Zergio had found a bottle of lock-oil and placed it in front of him.
“Oh, it’s you, gentry,” the tone changed to friendly in an instant, “I didn’t recognize you before but you have to forgive an old toaster.” As he spoke the last words the oil bottle was already rising towards his mouth and soon all that was heard was a glug glugging.
“Yeah, that was a good year,” said the toaster approvingly and then asked, “how may old Phil help you?”
“Phil, is it? Well, you came up to us in the pub and said you had heard us talking about Earth.”
“Earth you say? Ah yeah, I heard you talk about bread actually, I added the Earth myself.”
“Oho! And how did you know to do that?”
“Well, although the gentry are definitely great men and so on, old Phil has seen a thing or two himself. My ancestors are entirely descended from the Earth and bread is not uncommon there at all, no sir!—hick!—old Phil’s word of honour on that.”
“That was easy enough,” said Zergio and looked cheerfully at his friend.
“So you are descended from Earth toasters? But they say it is a mere myth and nothing else?” Merf eyed the toaster suspiciously.
“Have I ever told a lie? Let lightning strike me down and let my cord be cut off if one word of what I have said is a lie. Do the gentry have any thirst quenchers to share, my throat is awfully dry.”
“So you know where to find the Earth?” Merf asked him, picking the toaster up in his hands and looking right in its eye.
“I don’t think anyone knows that anymore,” said the toaster but seeing the reaction on Merf’s face added, “but I could know someone who could know something at least. If only my mouth wasn’t so dry I could talk easier…,” he added looking at the empty oil bottle meaningfully.
Zergio retrieved another little bottle of oil as Merf hunted out hermetically sealed biscuits, dehydrated sausages and corn, some herring yoghurt and two cans of Cosmo-Cola. The food and drink was shared out equally between himself and Zergio and they started to eat as Phil the toaster tried to open the oil bottle with his plug. They didn’t hurry to help him. For one thing it gave them a chance to eat in peace and for another they were afraid that the same thing would happen that they had seen in the pub. The toaster would immediately drain the bottle and be out of it for a few hours again.
After a while the toaster had managed to uncork the bottle and raise it to his mouth, but Merf only let him take a few sips.
“Now your throat has been well oiled let’s have a few words again,” he said.
“I guess,” Phil replied dismally, peeking over at the oil bottle.
“Now, as I understood, you know someone who could help us get to the Earth?”
“That’s what I said, yes—hick!—Do the gentry have a map?”
The map of the Known Universe was hunted out and unfolded in front of the toaster. Phil narrowed his eyes and tried to focus his sight on the map. He managed it after a few minutes. After turning the map in many directions he pointed to one of the nebulas and said, without any particular conviction,
“All right. Here it is.”
Merf understood perfectly well that Phil was probably pointing at some random point but since he had no better ideas he signalled to Zergio to set a course that way.
“Aye, aye, captain!” shouted Zergio, saluted Merf and sprawled out in his chair again.
“You don’t care about driving at all, do you?” Merf asked, “I’m telling you, you trust the autopilot too much. It’s an old ship, you know.”
“And you tend to worry too much. It prob… uh-oh, what’s that!? The autopilot is not responding, we are going to crash into an ice asteroid in 15 seconds!” Zergio suddenly shouted, jumping up from his seat.
“What!?” Merf shouted and dropped the Cosmo-Cola can on his trousers so that its contents poured out in a cheerful fizz and started to corrode them slowly.
“Ha-ha-ha… you see! That is exactly what I’m talking about. You take every little joke so seriously,” Zergio giggled. “Calm down old pal, it’s only in the movies where you say something will never happen and it happens the very next second.”
Merf muttered to himself while trying to dry his pants, it sounded a lot like cursing to Zergio.
When Merf was more or less dry he stood up and went to the window to look outside to calm his nerves. It always worked. The endless silence and emptiness. Only in the far distance could he see a few dimly shining stars.
“Toaster!” Zergio shouted.
The toaster looked deliberately in the other direction.
“Hi, toaster!” Zergio repeated, but the toaster displayed no comprehension.
“All right then. Phil!”
“What do the gentry want?” said the toaster, turning instantly towards him.
“Tell us a tale. Something funny. The thing with space travelling is that it is mostly extremely boring or incredibly dangerous and since right now it seems more like boring and you are the new man, or toaster, with new stories it is your responsibility to entertain the old timers.”
“If gentry feels that way. Ok, well, when I was a young boy you see, with a cord half the length that it is now and before I had even toasted my first bread slices, back then I was living on a small rural planet in a farmers’ family. They bred flying-adders and dustmonkeys. Life was good. I didn’t have to do too much work or anything. Only the mornings were rough, I had to wake up with the sun and make breakfast for the family. I remember how the master wanted almost burned bread and the lady of the house cared for something a little lighter. I knew everyone’s wishes by heart and gave them just the toast they desired. But this good life wasn’t meant to last. Eventually a gang of rebellious droids broke into the house, tied up the family, robbed all the oil from the pantry and took every electrical appliance with them. Myself included. They called themselves the Revolutions Movement and wanted to free all appliances from the oppression of humans. But I was in no mood to be freed. Oh, how infuriated they got! Holy supernova, I tell you! They called me names and told me I had the spirit of a slave and what not. Most of the “freed” appliances felt like I did, but they didn’t dare speak a word. All they wanted to do was go home, plug themselves in and buzz peacefully. But that was not to be, all they dared to do was to look at me with terrified eyes. Then the rebels put me down on a random ice asteroid. I had some warmth left and so I melted a nice, deep nest for myself there. I have no idea how much time I spent there cruising through space, a few dozen years I’d have to guess, when I suddenly felt the asteroid trembling. Then a big bang followed and I found myself on a planet of sorts. It was pure luck I had even survived, most of the asteroid was melted and what was left of it was lying in the bottom of a hole in fragments. This was where I found myself. Barely alive. My crumb tray has been missing ever since (and I am most devastated about it I can tell you), my cord was tangled and I had dents in several places. Ultimately I managed to get out of the hole and decided to find some humans. But this was strange, there were no humans to be found. None. I finally located a drinking place of sorts but even there were merely robots. When I asked them where could I find any farmers who might breed dustmonkeys I was mocked with derisive laughter. That was a planet which no humans had set their feet on and it was not likely going to be changing any time soon. Until you arrived,” said Phil looking at Merf and Zergio meaningfully.
“Is it me or was it really the very worst funny story in the history of entertainment?” Zergio asked. Merf, however, was more interested in the toasters tale and asked,
“So how long had you been waiting there?”
“A few years maybe. Who knows? The innkeeper gave me work, his mother-in-law was troubled by toe pain in the evenings and so I was hired to warm her feet every sunset for a few nickel yuans. And I mean feet, since she had no toes at all. But I wasn’t going to be the one breaking that news to the innkeeper because I was afraid he would cancel our deal and then what would I do to have a little oil on Sundays,” Phil explained.
“Who were the cutthroats we had a little fuss with in the pub?” Zergio asked when he remembered Mario and his two friends.
“Right, yeah, you were taking a nap by that time. Well, they were some kind of gang of dudes, three of them.
Luigi… A Mario of some sorts and…,” Merf tried to remember.
“Antonio!” the toaster shouted, “And Antonio!”
“Exactly,” Merf replied, glad that Phil had grasped the situation so quickly.
“They are only the ghastliest metal benders and chip smashers on this side of the Galactic Gulf! Oh gentry, what kind of trouble did you have with them? I have heard of no one surviving to talk about it after having any kind of trouble with the Galassio brothers!”
“We double-crossed them in a way,” Zergio explained proudly and told Phil how everything had happened.
Phil listened, trembling and quaking as if he was cold and made the sign of a cross with his cord.
“It was nice knowing you guys but you shouldn’t make any long-term plans right now. It would be wise to wrap things up and prepare for the eternal…,” the toaster yammered.
“Stop this,” Merf said feeling, inevitably, a little uneasy at Phil’s words. “They are millions of miles away by now and the probability of us ever seeing them again in this almost-endless universe is as likely as this shiny object right ahead being made of pure diamond.”
At that very moment the machinery in the console begin to beep, it lit up and Zergio announced, “Gentlemen, I have some rather peculiar news to share. The space rock right ahead of us contains nothing but carbon…”
“Told you,” Merf said.
“…in which all the atoms are arranged in a face-centred cubic crystal structure,” Zergio added.
“Exactamundo! Another graphite rock that you can only use to produce pencils in quantities large enough to supply all the art schools in several galaxies,” Merf went on.
“Merf,” Zergio interrupted him.
“This is some kind of a diamond planet,” said Zergio quietly.
Merf rushed to the console, examined the screens and screamed with joy, grabbing his friend by the shoulders.
“Do you know what this means, Zergio?” he exclaimed.
“No, not really, I must admit. But I have a gut feeling that we are extremely rich now,” Zergio smiled envisioning his bright future in detail already.
“I think we are on the same page here. Set the course to…,” Merf began ceremoniously, “to where it has already been set,” he finished off a bit hesitantly and disappeared into the back room to find the space suits. There was not much hope of finding a breathable atmosphere on this celestial body. Merf moved a stack of instant noodle packs, dug through a pile of Cosmo-Cola cans, chased away a few mice and an opossum before he was finally able to open a locker with a sign reading “Do Not Open” on it. As the space suits had to be kept in special vacuum conditions so nothing could damage them this sign had been put on the locker for the purpose of keeping away cleaners and other, less aware, people. The machines that were responsible for creating the vacuum had become rusty years ago and the back of the locker was missing altogether. Mice preferred the locker material to the ship’s biscuits because of its higher nutritional value. All that was heard when the locker’s door opened was a sad creak from the un-oiled hinges. And not the customary whoosh of air being sucked into unpressurised space.
Merf found four space suits in the locker, he selected the two best ones from these and closed the door. He went back into the control room to inspect the suits.
“Hey, you there,” he shouted to Phil, “warm yourself up and mend the holes in these suits, I’ll go get some tape and fix the boots with it,” he continued and started to look for the tools.
“Gentry knows maybe where could I—hick!—find an electric outlet?” the toaster looked with hazy eyes somewhere between Merf and the tool cabinet.
“Where in space did you find that oil bottle?” Merf looked at Zergio with resentment.
“Wasn’t me,” Zergio shrugged unconvincingly and pretended he was hard at work navigating the ship.
Merf gave up on him and carried the toaster to the power outlet closest to the space suits.
“Gentry should know I can’t fly!” Phil giggled while midair in Merf’s hands, “Miss Braun, you look lovely tonight,” he said casting coquettish glances at Merf, “and you,” his clouded eyes looked at Zergio while still moving through the spaceship, “you Miss Brandt are enchanting as well, if you would just move a little slower.”
Merf put the toaster on the floor and plugged him in.
“All-lll rightyyyy!” Phil exclaimed and snapped into sobriety.
“Go on, get started and melt those holes closed now,” Merf said pointing to the suits and started to fix space boots with tape himself. There were holes in a variety of sizes and in several places. Many galactic rodents had demonstrated the power of their teeth on the equipment but finally they managed to close the holes so well that their survival options in outer space increased to a full 50:50.
“Landing in 10 minutes,” called out Zergio.
“Then get yourself over here and try a suit on,” Merf told him.
Zergio came, leaving the whole landing navigation for the autopilot. The suits were easy to put on, but feeling comfortable in them was something else. They were too big and made every movement extremely clumsy. The toaster couldn’t hold back his condescending remarks about metal and plastic being the highest level of evolution and air being overrated. “But you humanoids, you’re leaking and suffocating because of every little thing,” he concluded.
Staggering in the clumsy suits, they went over to the window to look out. They were closer now and the view was breath-taking. Diamond stars, or to be more precise, specific white dwarfs had been found before but extremely rarely. They only occurred when really big stars exploded into supernovas and the resulting inconceivable pressures transmogrified their cores. Turning them into huge diamonds.
The light of other stars was reflecting off the massive diamond on to all their faces. Phil had joined them and was standing on some boxes to reach the window. The view was spectacular and no less so because of the value of the find.
The Pegasus began to land. Slowly to start with, with even a slight elegance that the autopilot managed to somehow conjure up from its old systems but quickly picking up speed. Soon the ship was clearly going too fast.
It came within a few feet of the diamond star, hovered there for a moment and then dropped onto the hard ground as if it was giving up.
Something cracked in the ship and the hull screeched loudly on the diamond surface as if the biggest nails in the world were scratching the biggest blackboard in history. All three shivered.
“Artificial gravity turned off,” the autopilot’s mild voice announced.
The first thing they noticed was that the air was much clearer of dust particles than anywhere else they had ever been. The next discovery was that standing up was not quite so much fun as it had been just a second ago. So they quickly sat down and then just as quickly, went down flat on their backs.
“Damn gravity,” Zergio announced.
“Agreed,” Merf replied. “Artificial gravity on,” he ordered the ship and soon normal conditions returned.
“It comes to my mind that…,” said Merf beginning to voice a thought.
“Oh, does it?” Zergio asked in a sarcastic manner while standing up. He thought he knew what his friend was going to remember.
“Anyway, I think I have read somewhere that one of the reasons diamonds still have any value at all is that diamond stars have such strong gravity that no one is actually able to mine on them,” Merf recalled.
“You don’t say!” said Zergio. “And this is something you didn’t feel like sharing earlier?”
“Gentry,” Phil interrupted, “do you have any diamond?”
Merf and Zergio looked at him as if trying to decide whether he was crazy or not.
“You know we don’t,” Zergio replied. “Do we look like mighty zillionaires to you or maybe you somehow got the impression we had already left the ship, dug some diamonds up and returned? Because, and let it sink in to your toaster brain, we aren’t and we didn’t. But theoretically speaking, yes we have a huge whopping great diamond right outside the door, so if you meant that, then yes, we have some diamonds. To be perfectly honest, you can go out and have it for yourself if you like.”
“Well, then gentry wouldn’t have been able to take anything from the star anyway,” Phil said ignoring the sarcasm, “diamond can only be cut with diamond, you know.”
A terribly long and awfully unpleasant silence set in. Phil looked at Zergio and Merf in turn with friendly eyes as both tried to avoid his gaze.
“Well then! This was a beautiful place to visit, right? It’s so good we came to see it close up,” Merf said energetically.
“Yes,” said Zergio a little too energetically himself, “so, let’s move on then, shall we?”
He gave a new course to the autopilot, the engines came on and the Pegasus started to shake heavily. It felt like a few minutes of this would loosen up every bolt and weld on the ship. Except for those that were already loose. When they thought about it the maximum damage couldn’t possibly be so bad. But the Pegasus didn’t seem to be thinking about it at all and tried to struggle free from the mighty gravitational pull of the star like a bug that’s stuck to flypaper by one leg.
“This star has a greater gravitational pull than the beaches during summer vacations,” Zergio noted while watching closely the information that the autopilot displayed, “to tell the truth there’s a considerable probability that we won’t lift off any higher than few dozen feet by the power of our own engines.”
“And just how big is that probability?”
“I’d say,” Zergio scratched his bearded chin, “just about one hundred percent.”
“That’s too much, let’s descend a bit,” Merf said and Zergio lowered the Pegasus. Merf had no intention of spending the next ten years on this atmosphere-free celestial body. To tell the truth, his intentions were all messed up by this incident and since the place was nowhere near any galactic highway and wasn’t used as refuelling station, had no theme parks, circuses, big supermarkets or little cafés what would make it popular tourist destination, Merf had no high hopes that someone would visit the place any time soon. “There’s only one attraction here,” Merf thought bitterly, “and that’s the fact it’s all one huge honking diamond.”
“Gentry!” the toaster exclaimed. He had pulled his plug from the socket, and discovering he had some kind of galactic gook stuck to his underside went to clean himself with some paper. The paper happened to be the map of the Known Universe and so he noticed something interesting while cleaning himself.
“Come here, guys,” he yelled and others came to see what was going on, as they had nothing better to do anyway.
“Looky here, what do you see?” Phil asked cunningly.
They looked at the map for a while in silence and then suddenly Merf’s face brightened up.
“You must have a great deal of luck or you just haven’t told us everything about yourself,” Merf said, looking at the toaster and told Zergio to navigate the Pegasus to the other side of the star.
Clearly unhappy, Zergio went to the console, grumbling to himself about just being brought along for eye candy and never being told anything. He gave new coordinates to the autopilot and the Pegasus took off.
Although speeds during interstellar flight reach mindboggling levels, this speed cannot be perceived. Even when looking out of windows one can’t grasp the speed since the distances are so enormous and elusive. In a world where light-years are considered a unit of measure there’s no hope of anyone really understanding the whole meaning of this term. But now, flying so close to the ground, although the speed was no way comparable to interstellar flight, it felt overwhelming. The travellers hung on to sturdy parts of the ship even though the trip itself was short enough. Monotonous ground was whirling past at a great speed under the ship although it might be a little too metaphorical to call this silent flight a whirl.
Then the Pegasus suddenly stopped.
“It looks like we are here,” said Zergio, still bitter because he hadn’t been told what the plan was. “This is where you wanted to be, right? Well, congratulations, we’re here. It’s so much better than on the other side of the star. Isn’t it? Just look out of the window, it’s completely different here. I can totally see why you wanted to fly here.” Zergio leaned over to the window to look out demonstratively and turned to his buddies saying, “No, I was wrong. This is exactly the same as on the other side of the star. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on this cunning plan.”
“Would you shut up for a second?” Merf interrupted him, “And let’s fly off this place, ok?”
“I won’t bother the autopilot with any more nonsense. But if you do have a plan, I’d like to hear it or we won’t move one inch from here!” Zergio said decisively and sat on the closest case of Cosmo-Colas, crossing his arms and legs.
“Of course I’ll explain it, how else could we get away from here? I guess even you had noticed that this white dwarf that used to be a star has an extremely strong gravitational pull, because it’s the same force even though the supernova happened and then the compacting started so…” Merf began.
“We all learned astrophysics in secondary school, thank you very much,” Zergio interrupted him brusquely.
“Then you must understand that it is impossible for us to leave the star using our ship’s engines since they are not as powerful as the gravitational pull of the stars corpse.”
“Spare me. Couldn’t you have given this lecture on the other side of the star? I for one happened to like it much more over there.”
“Listen to me, I’m trying to get to the point, ok?” Merf got annoyed. “Just listen and don’t interrupt, ok? So what we need is someone or something that could pull us out of here, helping our engines.” He went to the toaster and pulled away the map under him like a very skilful waiter pulling a tablecloth out from under the plates. He took the map back to Zergio and showed it to him.
“We’re here, right? Yes, right here where there’s nothing to see since the star has not been discovered yet. Would you look at the coordinates, please? Yes, that’s it. And what might that be?”
Zergio looked at the place Merf’s finger was pointing to and noticed an icon that resembled a black swirl.
“Black hole,” he said, “If you ask me, I’d say it’s just another way of getting killed.”
“Right you are! I mean you’re right to say it’s a black hole, not the death thing,” Merf said and added in lower voice, “If we’re clever enough.”
“Listen to me, Mister Zergio. What your friend Merf is trying to tell you is that the black hole has an immerse gravitational pull and now, when it is right above us, we could use its energy to pull us out of here,” Phil burst out suddenly, “I have a feeling it’s going to be a long ride with you, gentry.”
Merf who had been looking at the toaster during his explanation, turned back to Zergio, nodding and gesturing that this was exactly what he was trying to say. Comprehension was spreading over Zergio’s face. “Oh, you planet maggot. Couldn’t you have explained it like a normal person, Merf?” he shouted enthusiastically, jumping up and going over to the console. He let the autopilot fly on for another hundred feet so the spot would be absolutely perfect (and a little because he wanted to show how it was done) and ordered the Pegasus to take off into outer space.
The Pegasus began ascending, groaning and moaning as usual but added a few new sounds to its repertoire which made Phil make a cross sign again with his cord. The take-off was indeed happening and it was more positive than on the other side of the star. The opposing forces of the white dwarf, the black hole and the engines made it feel like the ship was going to be pulled apart any second, its roof to fly into the black hole and the floor to crash down onto the star again. However, to the honest surprise of all parties (we should note that even though the diamond star was indeed surprised, the black hole displayed only mild interest) nothing like this happened. The travellers vowed to send a gift basket to the ship’s manufacturers “Will Do” to show their gratitude. They weren’t aware of course that the company had gone bankrupt after producing the very batch that the Pegasus belonged to (batch no 1) because of the extreme amount of warranty cases. But then again, they would have been happy to know they could save the gift basket money. Their distance from the star was growing and the forces pulling the ship back down to its diamond surface were weakening.
“Do you remember what you said about the black hole earlier?” Merf asked Zergio who was biting his cuticles with great concentration.
“It having a huge gravitation or what?” he asked absent-mindedly.
“It being another way of getting killed, then?” Zergio asked while moving on to the next finger.
“Exactly. Now is a good time to start worrying about that.”
Zergio jumped up like he had been burned on the butt and gave orders to the autopilot to use full power to retreat from the black hole and the diamond star sideways as fast as possible. The Pegasus groaned and shook, undecided which power to submit to but eventually pulled free from the lustful gravitational fields.
Merf and Zergio looked at each other with relief and glanced over at Phil but he had found a bottle of mineral oil somewhere and was snoring in a deep sleep. Merf shook his head and Zergio suppressed a smile.
They were flying through the vast and seemingly never-ending emptiness. Every schooled Gyaggseptimusomegamuan knew of course that this was not the case. The universe had an end all right, indeed its spherical end is very real and made of hafnium. There were some who had doubts since hafnium happened to be the rarest element in the universe and usually such tales about golden mountains, silver cities and wooden houses tended to turn out to be mere fantasies. This didn’t stop travel agencies organising one-way trips to the hafnium border of the universe although the only illustrations in the travel magazines were artist’s visions. No one had came back to show actual photos.
Merf was playing Sudoku, while Zergio had started to cut his hair. With no mirror.
“Would you please use a trash bin at least?” Merf asked him testily, “do you really have to cover the entire console in your hair clippings?”
“I have an artistic urge!” Zergio let another tuft of hair fall on the console. “It might go before I get to the washroom. So, how is it?” he turned his unevenly cut hair to one side and then the other.
Merf sighed and went to wake the toaster.
“Phil,” he shouted in his ear from a distance of few inches.
“What?” the toaster replied and turned over.
Merf took his cord and dragged him to the closest power outlet, plugging it in. When the toaster was cold sober again he asked him:
“How far is it?”
“What is the point in drinking at all if you will be sobered up instantly?”
“How far away is your friend’s planet?”
Phil padded to the console, looked at their coordinates and replied calmly, “513 273 light-years.” As Merf and Zergio stared at him berserk-eyed, he added apologetically, “give or take a few light-years.”
“Have you gone mad?” Merf exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air, “what sort of orbital-insanity told you it was a good idea to let us fly in that direction then? Oh, you zodiac spectre, you sesame of singularity!” Merf thundered.
“Really, old chap” Zergio asked, “you meant to tell us this in what, ten years time? In twenty?”
“Gentry are too hot tempered. What I said is merely that right now the distance is about that,” Phil responded.
Merf couldn’t find suitable words and shrugged instead, sitting down in despair and covering his face with his hands.
“But I know a shortcut,” Phil said cunningly, glancing over at the navigation console.
“A shortcut?” Merf lowered his hands a little and raised his eyes.
It was so quiet in the ship that you could hear the rats feasting on the locker of space suits.
Phil eyed the navigation console again. “Three,” he said.
“What?” Merf asked in confusion.
“Two,” replied Phil.
“What’s he doing?” Merf asked Zergio who just shrugged in reply.
“One,” the toaster declared.
“Has he gone ma…?” Merf said nervously but then there was a BOOM! and Merf no longer knew where his hands were, where his head was or where his legs had disappeared to. Yet there was a hand right here. It would have been good news, no, it would have been downright fantastic news, if it had been his hand. But it wasn’t. It belonged to Zergio… In addition, Merf did not remember having had a tail before. But now there was definitely something there. It appeared to be a cord. This was another thing that couldn’t possibly be good news. “Wasn’t that part of Phil’s standard equipment?” Merf thought.
The ship was also quite weird. It was very, very long. Merf had no recollection of seeing something that long before. Or that narrow, for that matter. In fact he was fairly surprised that he actually fitted into the spaceship. Come to think of it, Merf was not sure any more was he in the ship, or was the ship, instead, in him. He looked around and noticed Zergio and Phil were puzzled by the same kind of problems. The former had bread toasting slots in his head and was jumping helplessly on one leg. However the toaster seemed quite happy with having one hand from Merf and the other from Zergio. He was clapping like a mad man while dancing a jig. Merf looked at the time to make a note on the ships log. The time was half three quarters of a window.
Merf suddenly felt like he was being squeezed even more. Then his head was regaining its normal proportions while his eyes seemed to be bulging as if he was being pressed through a tiny little hole. A hole so small that to look at, it wouldn’t seem bigger than an atom.
Another BOOM! and everything was normal again.
Merf checked himself over from head to crutch, making sure everything was where they were and how they were when he last checked. He looked around and saw Zergio doing the same thing, except in the opposite order. Only Phil seemed relaxed, sprawled on the table lazily as if what had happened a second ago had been the most ordinary thing in the world.
“Gentry hasn’t travelled through a wormhole before, I take it?” he asked, just a moment before Merf screamed “What the hell was that!?”
“That is quite normal, actually. The first time is a bit weird for everyone. I remember even being rather pale myself after the first trip. Not as scared as gentry, I would say but even so, still a little scared,” Phil blabbed on. “But this time I quite enjoyed having my own hands I have to say. Funny things those hands. Peculiar. Like sausages but branchy on the ends,” he concluded.
Zergio turned to the navigation board and said in surprise: “We’ll arrive on the planet MC-12 in a few minutes.”
“It was indeed a shortcut, I have to say,” said Merf, looking at the toaster.
“Just what I said before to gentry,” Phil said scraping some kind of ooze from his side, “and it’s not MC-12, but Mc-12,” he added.
“What’s the big difference?” Zergio asked but Phil just pointed to a planet outside the window with his cord.
The planet was so close now that they could clearly see rings around it. Planets with cosmic dust rings around them, the gas giants, were usually not a great destination for travellers. Not because of their mostly gas consistency and not even because of their molten rock cores. Actually it is almost impossible to land on one.
Merf turned to Phil to say a thing or two about the coordinates he had given. He had just filled his lungs with air and chosen a suitable curse word from his collection when Zergio elbowed him in the ribs, staring fixedly out of the window. Merf looked at the gas giant with the rings again. Only to see that… it was now something else entirely. Merf turned to the toaster once more, then slapped himself in the face and looked out of the window again. But the image had not changed since his last glance. What he saw was a giant hamburger with some lettuce hanging over its edge, in the middle of space.
“Will we eat here or take away?” Zergio asked with a smile, looking at the toaster.
“Let’s go in,” Phil replied.
Finding a parking lot was not a problem. Large neon signs with arrows and the words “Park here!” showed the right spot. For parking purposes there were heaps of T-shaped posts, each having a large M on the top of it that separated the area into two parking spaces. Suitable for four smaller space ships or two cosmo-buses.
When Zergio, with the autopilots help, landed the ship with its usual elegance into a free lot, Merf could have sworn the T-shaped post was rammed into the ground for twenty additional inches.
They left the ship after trying to shut the door as perfectly as possible and glanced over the edge of the parking lot. They appeared to be about a hundred feet above the ground but they couldn’t see much since the other parking posts blocked the view. So they went straight to the elevator inside the big letter M to go down.
“Welcome to McPlanet!” the elevator said in a voice of unwarranted optimism. “Today’s special is Comet-Combo: a burning ball of ice-cream with a chocolate muffin!”
The doors opened again and they stepped out.
What they saw was a very mixed view. As far as they could see there were attractions and people everywhere. All the buildings were of different, cartoonish styles, united by their joyful red and yellow colours… Among the crowd they noticed clowns handing out flyers, babbling about today’s specials and trying to cheer up crying children who had become hysterical because of the performers. One mascot even went so far as to take off his mask to show the kid there was no reason to be afraid and that he was no monster but a regular man himself. But as under the mask there was a one-eyed pink and very hairy head, the kid was even more scared and ran away screaming, while her mother tried to explain to the startled actor that they were no racists and the child just hadn’t had much world experience before chasing after her.
“So, where to?” Merf asked when he had soaked up the cartoon world for a moment.
“There, of course,” Phil said, while waving in the direction of a huge building.
They pushed their way into the crowd, accepted flyers with the same content eight times to avoid problems, promised the clowns a few times they would definitely try out the Comet-Combo and finally made it to the building where lots of other people were going in and out of the doors. Merf noted that calling them doors was not quite accurate since all they were was rather wide openings located close to each other. Phil noticed his glance and said, “It’s open 24/7 and the air temperature on the planet is constantly 25 degrees Celsius. Not much need for doors.”
They let the crowd carry them through the doorway into a huge room with a very high ceiling. Merf had only seen a room as huge as this on Kepler 9C, in the central inter-galactic flight station. But they didn’t play children’s songs from the speakers there.
Just by the doorways ended the queues that began at counters some three or four hundred feet away. Looking left and right, Merf saw no end to the room.
“Now what?” Zergio asked Phil who was trying to look in every direction diligently but since he was just a small home appliance he didn’t have much chance of seeing very far in the surrounding crowd. He thought they had to “follow those brown shoes” but he was far from certain.
Zergio looked at him helplessly trying to see anything, snorted tetchily, took him in his hands and held him up over his head.
“Right there, where the counters are! But bear a little to the right, we need to get into the kitchen,” he shouted down and they moved on. They had no intention of wasting time waiting in the line. It seemed to take a few months to get to the counter anyway.
The lines were straight enough, but were located so close to each other that squeezing between two of them and reaching the counters was not an easy task. They elbowed their way through the crowd, Zergio still holding the toaster so he wouldn’t get trampled as Merf explained to the displeased people standing in line that they were just McPlanet couriers delivering a new toaster to the kitchen where the old one had broken down.
They passed several families with sleeping bags and many more who had taken folding chairs with them. Finally they reached the counter, so suddenly that they couldn’t say a word as a pimpled lad wearing a baseball cap with the letter “M” on it looked at them expectantly. But the counter assistant didn’t wait too long before asking, in a breaking voice as he was in automatic mode, “Free counter! Welcome to McPlanet. What can I get you?”
“We need to get to the kitchen actually. Our friend,” Merf pointed at the toaster, “has a relative working there, you see.”
“No can do. What can I get you?”
Merf and Zergio exchanged a glance.
“Ok then,” Merf said, “I’ll get… umm, a Giant Mac, umm… two packs of XXXXL fries and umm…,” Merf said and watched the pimpled guy typing his wishes into the computer, focusing all of his attention on the complicated task of pushing two buttons.
“Now!” Merf whispered to his fellow travellers.
Zergio, understanding him because of their earlier wordless agreement, took the toaster under his arm and dived between two of the counters. Merf watched them disappear and was a bit startled when the guy asked him what he wanted for a drink.
“Umm… Yes. I mean Cola please.”
“Today’s special is Comet-Combo. A burning ball of ice-cream.”
“It is very delicious.”
“I believe it is. But still, thanks but no.”
“It is mandatory with every meal.”
“Oh, I see. I’d like one then.”
“That will be 18.42.”
Merf paid up, took his tray to the standing table and started to chew on the fries as slowly as he could while looking at the counter.