Waist of Space, part one of the Unlikelihood series, 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 who had forged a living under the surface of the moon, and whose forbears
were testing a new kind of spacegoing vessel that had the ability to be in many places at the same time.
Part two, FLATUS, follows our dynamic duo as they help the aliens build their own multi-locatable craft (and the RSR to build one, too). Will the ships be built and if so, will the drives work? What are the possible effects of having potentially three such vessels in finite space at one time? Will the ineptitude of key personnel result in disaster, or avert it?
FLATUS — Fantastically Large Assembly for Travel at Unbelievable Speeds. The most unlikely spacecraft never built?
FLATUS. Chapter one, scene two
“Enter!” Commodore Meredith Winstanley called from inside her office when Tarquin gingerly knocked on her door.
Entering her office for the first time since his erstwhile lover (or so he’d like to have thought) was elevated to her present position, he was both surprised and intimidated by its quiet demonstration of her new-found power. He had expected to see a large room, decorated and furnished with a distinctly feminine touch: lots of pastel colours and soft furnishings, even some tasteful artwork on the walls. What he saw reminded him more of a cold-war communist interrogation suite than a modern British commander’s office. Apart from anything else, it was less than half the size he had anticipated. True, it was still large, but not very large, nothing like as large as the rumour mill had suggested. The bare walls were stark white. The floor was covered with utility carpet tiles of a uniform yellowish-greenish-brown colour that put him in mind of what he called the ‘dirty corner’ of the cage in which he kept his ferrets as a boy. Towards the back of the office was an ebony desk with a black plastic chair facing it. At the other side of the desk, Meredith Winstanley was seated in a large, black-leather executive chair. The top of the desk was clear, save for a single file folder. There was no other furniture in the room.
“Come in, Commander,” Meredith said, her words echoing around the bare room and serving only to add to the intimidating feel of Tarquin’s surroundings. He approached the desk.
“Sit!” she said.
He sat. He noted that the file on the desk had his name emblazoned across its top.
“Do you know why I have asked you here this morning, Commander Stuart-Lane?”
“N-no, Ma’am,” he stuttered, terrified almost out of his skin.
“Follow me!” she said, picking up the folder, rising from her chair and walking towards the back of her office. Tarquin joined her. Meredith pressed a button on a small device she was holding in her hand causing a section of the wall to slide aside revealing a space behind it that was so totally dark it was disorientating. It was black. Nothing, literally nothing could be seen beyond the opening. Meredith stepped into the room. Hesitating for a moment, Tarquin tentatively followed her. Once beyond its threshold, the door closed behind them. Pressing another button, Meredith brought up the lighting in the room, and what a room it was.
In total contrast to the office they had just left, this was bright, airy and decorated with immaculate taste. Filing cabinets that blended with the wallpaper lined one side while the other side provided the backdrop for a row of computer terminals, scanners, printers, plotters and every other accessory one could imagine. A small number of exquisite artworks adorned both side walls. Tarquin was surprised that the end wall was totally bare. Surprised until… Another press of a button and the rear wall opened to reveal a full-height picture window gazing out onto the finest, undisturbed view of Stonehenge that Tarquin had ever seen. Tarquin surveyed his surroundings. No utilitarian carpet-tiles in here – this office was floored with sound-absorbing, low-impact rubber, of the kind found in children’s play areas, but with an intricate pattern, similar to Persian carpets of old and, like the floor of the Oval Office in the White House, the regimental crest took pride of place in front of the large, leather-topped mahogany desk. Between the desk and the door through which they had come were a pair of overstuffed, beige leather sofas with, between them, a coffee table that was a miniaturised copy of the desk. Meredith addressed the desk. Yes, really.
“Hey, bugler!” she said. A series of coloured lights flashed on a small device in the middle of the table. It had the appearance of a smaller version of one of those small red-and-black vacuum cleaners with an annoying name. “Open doors one and three.”
“Okay, opening doors one and three, Commodore,” the device replied. No, really. It spoke. Tarquin was gobsmacked. At least, if he weren’t, he deserved to be, stood there with his jaw making polite conversation with his shoes like some dumb schoolboy seeing his first… but we needn’t go there.
“Bugler?” he asked, “Why bugler?”
“Why not? What would you have me call my electronic assistant?”
“I don’t know. Computer?”
“But a bugler is someone who plays a musical instrument.”
“And your point is? Watch this. Hey, bugler. Play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 In D. ”
“Okay. Here’s Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 In D.”
The iconic music wafted from speakers hidden in the ceiling, providing a soundtrack to the conversation at a level that was obvious, yet unobtrusive.
“Hey, bugler. Volume 2.”
The level of sound coming from the overhead speakers raised slightly.
After a few moments of that, Meredith said, “Hey, bugler.” The lights flashed again. “Stop,” Meredith continued. The bugler device did and didn’t; did stop, didn’t continue. See what I did there?
“Funny,” Tarquin said, “the Borborygmi were playing that as I left yesterday. Good, stirring stuff.”
Two doors opened, one on each side of the office. The one on Tarquin’s right he had assumed to be a filing cabinet, but it seems not. Patsy (remember her? The preposterously post-pubescent, permanently pouting, preternaturally pugilistic preparer of puff pastry, pies and pasties) had in her hands a tray bearing a teapot, four cups, a milk jug and sugar bowl, all in the finest bone china, and a matching plate topped with an assortment of biscuits.
“Thanks, Patsy,” Meredith said, “care to join us?”
“Why do you think I brought four cups?” she asked, with a wink.
On the other side of the office, another door opened and through it came none other than Captain Joan Weinberg, followed by three young women, also in uniform.
“Joan, will you join us?” Meredith asked, “I could use your input.”
“Surely, Ma’am,” she replied, “Let me just get my girls working first.”
“Of course, Joan. And no need for formalities – it’s only Tarquin here.”
“And my girls, Commodore.”
“Of course.” She turned to Tarquin. His face betrayed utter dismay at what he was seeing. “What?” Meredith asked him.
“I thought your ex XO and Patsy were on the surprise.”
“It’s Sir Prijs, and they were until I pulled some strings and had them both allocated to my office. Joan is my ADC and manager of the technical group, while Patsy is my…”
“Steward?” Tarquin offered.
“Yes, steward, that’s it.” Looking at Patsy, she asked, “Happy with that? Steward?”
“Sounds better than CFP. Do I get more money?”
“You get more of everything, my love.”
Patsy blushed and giggled prettily.
No, she didn’t. People like Patsy don’t blush, or giggle prettily. She just smiled an enigmatic smile; an inscrutable smile, like the smile of the Mona Lisa, or of the Sphinx. What Meredith didn’t realise, was that the smile was one which said I’m getting there. Just give it a bit longer.
“Okay, Boss, what’s occurring?” Joan asked when she joined the party.
“We need to bring Tarquin up to speed,” Meredith said.
“But isn’t he a bit, you-know?” Joan asked, barely stifling a giggle.
“No, he’s a lot you-know, but e-hay ows-knay oo-tay uch-may, if you get my drift.”
“You want me to deal with the problem?” Patsy asked, “You do know that I can, quite easily, don’t you?”
“I know you can, Patsy, but he’d be missed.”
“Only by the bloody donkey.”
“No, not by Hotay. I sent Formme in to look after him. He’d be missed by higher-ups; higher-ups who’ve expressed an interest in his career.”
“Who?” Joan asked.
“Yes, Rear Admiral Farquharson.”
“Beats me, but he has.”
“I say,” Tarquin butted in, “is there a reason you brought me here, Merry, or do you just want to talk about me?”
“I’m happy just to talk about you. What about you girls?” Meredith said.
“Fine by me,” Patsy said almost before the words had left her boss’s lips.
“Me too,” Joan Weinberg echoed.
“Oh, and don’t call me Merry,” Meredith said, “within this room, it’s Meredith. Outside it’s Commodore Winstanley or Ma’am. Clear?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Yes, I suppose so what?”
“Yes, I suppose so, Meredith.”
“Is one permitted to ask a question?”
“Is it rude, impertinent, insubordinate or demeaning to women?”
“What’s with the little office outside?”
“How did it make you feel?”
“Threatened, intimidated, a little scared – like a small schoolboy being called into the headmaster’s study.”
“That’s what it’s for.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Tarquin. Not everyone who wants to see me is as docile as you are.”
“Docile? What’s that?”
“Okay, yah. Really rum, some people. Won’t do as they’re told. Right. Got you. Say no more, wink wink.”
“Quite. Some of the people I have to deal with can be quite belligerent.”
“Gosh. I’d never be that!”
“I know you wouldn’t Tarq, but why do you say not?”
“Don’t know what it means, apart from anything else. Doesn’t sound like a nice thing though, does it.”
“Anyway, it’s there so that anyone who is unfriendly is made to feel uncomfortable. People who are friendly come in here.”
“Yah. I get that. But if you call me in again, will I have to be frightened first? You know, in that other place?”
“No, Tarquin. If I call you in again, and it is a very, very big if, but if I do, you’ll come in the side entrance and in door three, where Captain Weinberg just entered.”
“I say, Meredith, jolly good wheeze that, what?”
“It serves its purpose, Tarquin. It serves its purpose.”
Patsy looked at Meredith and smiled. “Which is more than we can say for some people, eh?” she said, nodding towards Tarquin.
“Quite,” Meredith replied.
The four drank their tea in silence, while Tarquin wolfed down the lion’s share of the biscuits.
“Don’t eat them all,” Patsy said, “I was saving some of them for the lion.”
“Lion?” Tarquin asked, “What lion.”
“I call him the lion. Really, he’s just a yellow Labrador with a lion’s mane costume I bought off Amazon.”
“Three pounds seventy-five, with free delivery on Prime. Bargain, I thought.”
“I think the Commander meant why,” Joan offered.
“Yes, why?” Tarquin said.
“Why did I buy it, or why was it only three seventy-five?”
“Why did you buy it?” Tarquin clarified.
“Bit of fun, really.”
“Bit of fun? Bit of fun? Dog won’t know where he is!”
“SevEn,” Len Goodman shouted in the corner of the room, before disappearing again as quickly as he’d arrived.
“What just happened?” Tarquin asked, shaken by the sudden appearance and disappearance of the erstwhile judge from a TV dancing competition or two.
“Nothing to worry about,” Joan Weinberg responded. “I expected the boffins to run a couple of tests this afternoon. Funny things often happen.”
“What sort of funny things?”
“Unlikely funny things,” Meredith said, “that’ll be why it’s called the Unlikelihood Drive.”
“Ours isn’t. Ours is called PP. And you know what that means in French, don’t you?”
“I do. That’s why although the overall programme remains Project Prodigialis, the device we’re building will be known as the Ubiquitron.”
“I say, that sounds rather swish, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Tarquin, it does. Now, can we get down to business, please?”
“Sure, course, sorry.”
“Will you please stop apologising all the time.”
“Okay, sorry. Understood. Nothing to apologise for, eh?”
“Oh, you have plenty to apologise for, Tarquin. I just don’t want to hear it anymore, okay?”
“Okay, Meredith, so— ouch!”
Patsy reinforced Meredith’s point with one of her own. She smiled at Tarquin and raised her eyebrows. Tarquin sighed and again inspected the grain on the coffee table.
“The point of meeting today,” Meredith started, “is to formulate our strategy moving forward.”
“Eh?” Tarquin asked.
“Decide what we’re going to do, dumbass,” Patsy explained.
“Tarquin, what have the aliens been asking for?”
“Jolly ungrateful types, they are. They need to design a layout, right?”
“Well. I told them B&Q did a stand-up job for Reggie.”
“Who’s Reggie?” Patsy asked
“Rear Admiral Farquharson.”
“Okay. Don’t want to know.”
“So I suggested they should ask B&Q to do theirs. They said no. They also said no to Magnet, Wren and even IKEA!”
“I can understand them saying no to the rest, but IKEA?”
“I know, right?”
At this stage, it was difficult to know who was saying what; just a jumble of voices.
Tarquin continued, “They did agree to let B&Q… well, anyone other than IKEA – apparently they’ve seen the catalogue and weren’t impressed – hah! But they’ve given me a free hand with the kitchen in the corner, but they want to do the rest themselves.”
“What do they need?” Meredith asked.
“They say they need materials, computational devices, benches, assembly lines and robots. They were rather insistent about the robots.”
“Good,” Meredith said.
“Good?” Joan asked.
“Yes, good. When they specify the materials, we’ll have an idea what they’re doing. We will provide computers and robots, all pre-programmed to do three things. First, they’ll be programmed to accept instructions from the Borborygmi. Second, they’ll back up everything they know to our cloud every hour.”
“And the third thing?”
“They’ll hack into the translation devices. At present, when they communicate, their devices render their stuff into English; when we speak, their devices translate it to their language. We have no way of knowing how accurate the translations are; whether what they say to us is accurately rendered, or what they do with what we say to them. If we can’t get hold of one of their devices to reverse-engineer, then we’ll just have to hack their translation databases.”
“I say, Meredith, here’s a wheeze,” Tarquin said.
“Well. I suppose if we get one of these things, or make one ourselves, we’ll be able to translate our speech to theirs, right”
“But wait, listen. We could then make up a message we want them to get but don’t actually want to say to them, translate it and have a steel band play it. Then you can have them come into this office and have your bugler play it quietly, the way she’s playing Land of Hope and Glory now.”
“Oh, Tarquin. That’s brilliant. I could kiss you right now,” Meredith said with more excitement than passion.
“Guys, can we have the room please?” Tarquin responded with the opposite set of emotions.
“Down, boy. It’s an expression.”
“Of nothing. I thought we’d got rid of that nonsense once and for all, back on the moon.”
“Never completely goes away, but. Point taken. Calm down Tarquin.”