Waist of Space, part one of the Unlikelihood series (posted in 32 weekly episodes on this blog between August 2015 and April 2016), followed Commanders Tarquin Stuart-Lane and Meredith Winstanley; hapless heroes of the Royal Space Regiment; who were sent on a mission to the Moon from which they were not expected to return. There they met with a group of aliens, descendants from the occupants of one of a number of ships sent from the planet Borbor many generations earlier, who had forged a living of sorts under the surface of the moon. These aliens, Borborygmi, were matchstick thin and stood in excess of three metres in height.
It became apparent, not only that the Borborygmi remaining on their home planet were testing a new kind of spacegoing vessel: one that, incredibly, had the ability to be in many places at the same time, but also that the group on our moon had received a full backup of the plans on their computer when the vessel passed close-by during its maiden test-flight.
Part two, FLATUS, follows our dynamic duo as they help the Borbor diaspora to build their own multi-locatable craft (and the Royal Space Regiment to build one, too).
Will the ships be built and if so, will the drives work? If the Borborygmi's pinching of their forebears' plans amounts to plagiarism, what term can be used to describe the RSR's pinching of the pinched plans (and, for that matter, my borrowing of ideas from, inter alia, Douglas Adams and the Monty Python crew)? What are the possible effects of having potentially three such vessels in finite space at one time? Will the apparent ineptitude of key personnel inadvertently result in disaster, or will it unwittingly avert it?
Confused? I am!
FLATUS — Fantastically Large Assembly for Travel at Unbelievable Speeds
The most unlikely spacecraft never built?
FLATUS. Chapter one, scene one
Flatulon Grumpblast, Explorer Grade 3 and Head Anemologist of the Sol 3A exploring team of the Borbor Expeditionary Diaspora eased himself, with some difficulty, out of the modified bus that had carried him to the Royal Space Regiment’s design and construction facility just outside Swindon. Accompanying Flatulon were his perhaps excessively inquisitive wife, Methanie, who revels in the vaunted title of GDEA (Grand Demander of Explanations and Answers), and their son, trainee Drone Artivon. Together with the seven best-qualified of their peers, they struggled out of the bus that had carried them to the facility, all of them resplendent in their spanking new full-body inflatable splints with which they had been fitted to support their fragile bone-structure in Earth’s gravity, it being something over six times greater than that of the moon, where they had been for the past twenty-odd generations. Their own planet’s gravity, at 1.307 m/s², is only 80% of the moon’s. Aren’t you glad I told you that? I know I am.
Though a great help in supporting their feeble limbs, the inflatable splints did have the disadvantage of turning Matchstick Man into Michelin Man. I leave you to imagine the difficulties that caused in mobility. Remember that in addition to their feeble bone structure, their musculature had also evolved to deal with, compared to conditions on Earth, extremely low gravity.
As Human/Borborygmi Liaison Officer, Tarquin Stuart-Lane accompanied the Borborygmi on their journey to the facility, and was on hand to give any help they might need but, as you will recall, nothing they wanted. It is probably worth mentioning that Tarquin did not bring Hotay, the Regimental mascot donkey with him. Remember that fact, it may be important later on. No promises, but it might be.
Entering the vast, cavernous building that was officially labelled the FLATUS assembly hall, the Borborygmi started chatting amongst themselves. This was Tarquin’s favourite part of his job; he had always been partial to steel drum band music. The newcomers, however, noticed that Tarquin was taking no heed of anything they were playing; sorry, I meant saying, of course. Artivon let flow a volley of what sounded to Tarquin like the most elegant rendition of Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre that he had ever heard. This was followed by a brief burst of the chorus of Habañera from Bizet’s Carmen.
Moved by the beauty of the music, Tarquin started applauding furiously, with cries of “Bravo!”
The Borborygmi engaged their translation devices. Of course they have them. How did you think they communicated with English-speaking humans. Honestly! Anyway, they engaged them and started to speak.
“What are you clapping and shouting about?” Flatulon asked.
“Mull of Kintyre followed by Habañera. Genius.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Sorry. Forgot. Your speech just sounds so musical to our ears.”
“Is he being disrespectful to us?” Methanie asked, “Cos if he is, I’ll want to know about it. There’ll be an enquiry and I’ll get to the bottom of it. And he’ll be dealt with according to our laws and customs as handed down by the ancients. And what’s more—”
“It’s okay, Mum,” Artivon interrupted, “You know how when they speak, and we haven’t got our translators turned on, it sounds like the agony cries of a wounded malfini [a predatory bird similar to a Haitian Buzzard]?”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” his mother chuckled, “a particularly badly wounded one at that!”
“Well,” Artivon continued, “at least we sound to them like something nice.”
“What do you mean, something nice?”
“From what I’ve learned, music is something they like.”
“Okay, clever clogs. If you’ve learned so much,” his father said, “what is this music you’re talking about?”
“It’s vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion, but that’s not important right now. What matters is they like it. Our language, untranslated, is pleasing to them and soothes them.”
“Leave that thought with me, Son. I’m sure we can find a way to use that to our advantage.”
“Okay, Dad,” Artivon said.
Turning to Tarquin, Flatulon addressed him through the translator. “This is just an empty space. What are we supposed to do here? How can we design and build FLATUS? We need materials, computational devices, benches, assembly lines and, for goodness’ sake, robots. Do you hear what I’m saying, human? We need robots. Lots of them.”
“Calm down,” Tarquin replied, “it’s only a commercial—”
“What do you mean ‘only a commercial’?” Methanie demanded of Tarquin. “What does he mean, ‘only a commercial’?” she demanded of her husband and anyone else in earshot which, given Methanie’s voice, was probably a good proportion of the population of the greater Swindon area.
“Let him finish dear,” Flatulon replied.
“What do you mean ‘let him finish’?” Methanie demanded of her partner.
“What do you mean ‘shut up, wife’?”
“Just do it!”
“Yes, dear. Sorry, dear. Carry on, human.”
“As I was saying,” Tarquin continued, “it’s only a commercial space so far. It will be fitted out with everything you need. First, though, we need to design the layout that you need to build your flat thingy.”
“Not flat thingy,” one of the scientists in the Borbor crew said (we haven’t dreamed up a name for him or her yet, but give me time), “FLATUS — Fantastically Large Assembly for Travel at Unbelievable Speeds.”
“Oh, is that what it stands for?”
“No,” Methanie said, “it stands for four lemons and two uncooked squashes.”
“Blimey. That’s an odd name, what?”
“Just how thick are you?” Methanie asked him.
“Well, not for me to say, actually, but I do have something of a reputation,” Tarquin replied.
“Can we swap you for a smarter one?”
“Don’t know. Above my pay grade and all that. Have to ask Merry. She’s the smartest person I know.”
This level of banter continued briefly until the scientist (let’s call him Norman; Norman the Nameless) interrupted and insisted that they start looking at possible layouts for the space they’d been allocated.
“I’ll ask Reggie to recommend someone. I know he had B&Q in to design his new kitchen. Perhaps they can do it.”
“Who’s Reggie?” GDEO Methanie insisted on knowing.
“Oh, Reggie. He’s Rear Admiral Alasdair Farquharson.”
“So why do you call him Reggie?”
“Long story. I’ll save it for later when we have more time.”
“Ooh, impressive. Do I detect a note of urgency?”
“Urgency, moi? Heaven forbid. I just have to get back to Hotay before his dinner time, otherwise he gets all uppity and makes a lot of unpleasant noises.”
“And when is his dinner time?”
“Whenever he chooses.”
“So how do you know when you have to get back?”
“I don’t. Don’t you see? That’s what makes the job of looking after him so exciting.”
“Design!” Norman the Nameless shouted.
“No. I’ve only just been given the job.”
“I said design, moron, not resign!”
“Design more on what? How can we design more? We haven’t designed anything yet. Need to get B&Q in.”
Flatulon looked at him coldly and said in a tone that displayed a significant calm he didn’t feel. “We are not getting B&Q in to do this design. Are we clear on that?”
“Okay, yah. Fine. Magnet? Wren? No. I know. IKEA.”
“Not IKEA either.”
“Gosh, you’re high maintenance, aren’t you? Who do you suppose we should have do the design, eh?”
“Look around you. What do you see?”
“Borborygmi dressed as Michelin men.”
“Well done. And why do you suppose we are here?”
“Because you want to build your four lemons thingy.”
“Because we want to build FLATUS.”
“Yah, that too.”
“Now. Don’t rush yourself. Spend some time thinking about this one; it’s quite hard but very important. Are you ready?”
“Are you ready for the question I’m about to ask you?”
“Okay, yah. Right-o.”
“Here it comes. Remember, don’t rush your answer; give it some careful thought. Who do you suppose is most likely to know what we need to build FLATUS, in terms of layout, equipment, computational devices and robots?”
“Gosh. That is a hard one. You see, I thought B&Q as they did such a nice job for Reggie.”
“On his kitchen.”
“Shall I let you into a little secret?”
“Ooh, I’ll say. I do love secrets.”
“Well, here’s one. We aren’t building a kitchen.”
“You’re not? What about lunch, and coffee, and tea, and—”
“There will be a small kitchen in the corner, and we’ll even let you decide who designs that—”
“If you like.”
“Why not, if you prefer them.”
“We’ve seen their catalogue. Not impressed.”
“Okay. If you’re sure.”
“Shall we talk about the rest of the space?”
“There’s an awful lot of it; Goes on forever, they tell me.”
“Not the rest of space, idiot human, the rest of this space, this building.”
“Ah, with you. Okay.”
“Don’t you have a donkey to look after?” Methanie asked pointedly.
“Oh cripes, yes. It might be his dinner time. I’d best go. Tell you what, people… sorry, shouldn’t call you people, should I? What should I call you?”
“We’ll accept ‘people’,” Methanie said, “and put it down to your abject ignorance.”
“Very kind of you,” Tarquin replied, missing the point completely, “I’ll go off now and, if Hotay’s not ready for his dinner, I’ll come straight back.”
“No need for that, human,” Methanie said in her most conciliatory tone, “we’ll see you tomorrow. Where are we to sleep?”
“Oh, cripes. Hadn’t given that a thought.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be okay on the floor here. Just make sure you arrange something by tomorrow.”
“Right, yah, will do, sure.”
Tarquin turned and started to leave the building. As he did, the Borborygmi turned their translators off and, without meaning to do so, treated him to an impromptu recital of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 In D. Tarquin closed the door behind him as he sang the stirring words ‘make thee mightier yet‘. He marched to the RSR bus, his chest puffed out and his head held high, having no idea that the Borborygmi were entertaining similar pride at their significant achievement in getting rid of him, if only for the rest of the day.
When Tarquin eventually arrived back at his barracks, he found that Hotay had already been fed. Outside the donkey’s stable sat a young corporal munching on a chocolate bar. His uniform was soiled, as though he’d been working the fields, and his general appearance was closer to that of a country yokel than a corporal in the Royal Space Regiment. His hands were in his trouser pockets and he was chewing something.
“And who, may I ask, might you be?” Tarquin asked, haughtily.
“I might be Rear Admiral Farquharson,” the corporal replied naughtily, still chewing, “but as you can plainly see, I’m not the Admiral.”
“I’m not the Admiral, SIR!”
The corporal laughed in a most insubordinate manner. “Neither am I. I’m Corporal Formme. Sir.”
“I can see that. You’re not a spectre, are you?”
“That’d be corporeal, not corporal. And I’ve got two ems. And an e. Sir,” the lad said, rolling his eyes in that sarcastic way that Tarquin was so accustomed to seeing, though it never ceased to annoy him.
“And what’s your job, Corporal Form?”
“Groom to the Regimental ass, sir. And it’s two m’s and an e, sir.”
“I prefer donkey.”
“I wasn’t talking about Hotay. Sir.”
“Carry on, non-commissioned officer,” Tarquin said angrily and emphasising the ‘non’. He walked away, his anger evident to… well, only to himself, truth be told.
“Before you go, Sir,” the young man said.
Tarquin turned to face the corporal and shot him a look that from some could seem, angry, from some cutting, from some threatening, but from Tarquin rather pathetic. “What is it?” he said.
“Note for you, Sir. From Commodore Winstanley.”
“From Commodore Winstanley? What’s Merry want?”
“Not for me to say, Sir, though I have a few ideas.” The corporal leered. Really, he did. As if a mere corporal could possibly be of interest to a Commodore. Unless, of course, that corporal could aspire to the position of CFP.
“Hope you have more luck than I did,” Tarquin said, dejectedly, remembering his numerous, and ongoing efforts to win the affections of the object of his own.
“The Commodore wants to see you in her office at 08:15, Sir.”
“When?” No point in offering times based on the military-style twenty-four-hour clock to Tarquin. Anything that goes beyond his ability to count on his own appendages was a mystery to him. Twenty-one was his absolute limit – twenty-three at a push, but that’s it.
“Quarter past eight in the morning, Sir.”