by Brian K. Asbury
A golden-armoured figure in a scarlet cloak swept through the ranks of gun-toting droids. “Thus is the fate of all who tempt the wrath of… Manga Khan!” he said, making a theatrical flourish with his cape as he spoke the final words.
This was followed by an exaggerated deep sigh. “Many have tried,” he said, “and all have failed.” He held out a hand, and a robot thrust a deep purple rose into it. Holding the flower up to the face plate of his helmet, he pretended to sniff it. “Many there are who glance longingly at the midnight sky, vainly waiting for their loved ones to return — loved ones who believed they were cleverer or more powerful than I. Long have they been dispatched to that great emporium in the sky where no product is ever out of stock, and yet still those faithful widows keep their eternal vigil, for where there is no news, there is always hope that some day those brave if foolish ones may return. Alas, the very thought of their plight moves my humble heart…”
A small pink robot decorated with fluorescent green polka-dots trundled up to his side and made a small sound suspiciously like a cough. Manga Khan glanced down. “…or would do, if I had a heart.” The robot seemed to nod approvingly. “What is it, L-Ron?”
“You’re doing it again, M’lord Manga,” L-Ron said in a low voice.
“Talking to yourself, M’lord. Most eloquently as always, of course, but might I draw your attention back to the prisoners?”
Manga Khan looked at the Beefeater and the others, as if seeing them for the first time. “Oh. Of course.” He strode right up to them. “Humans, eh?” he said, scrutinizing the Beefeater and Colin Privet.
“According to G’nort,” said L-Ron, “they’re human super-heroes. The big, thin cross-dresser is called the BeefEATER, and the small, scruffy one is Bicycle Repair Man.”
“I see,” said Manga Khan. He looked the Beefeater in the eye. “And how may I help you?”
The Beefeater, who up to this point had been clutching his sceptre to his chest as if it were his only grip on reality, blinked in surprise. “Pardon?”
“I said, ‘how may I help you’?” repeated Manga Khan. “What do you wish to purchase?”
“Purchase?” the Beefeater said. “I don’t want to purchase anything. What kind of bloody stupid question is that?”
Loof tapped him on the shoulder. “Say you want to buy something,” he said in a whisper. “Lord Manga hates window-shoppers.”
“I heard that,” said Manga Khan. “And it’s not true. We have some very fine windows in stock, at quite reasonable prices, from the traditional glass type to intelligent windows from Scrodok IV.”
“Intelligent?” said the Beefeater, still trying to get his head around this sudden change of mood.
“Absolutely,” said Manga Khan. “They are composed of living protoplasm, and they play a mean game of four-dimensional chess, I can tell you. If you’ll step this way, I’ll show you some samples.”
“Wait!” said Fpok-Bmud. “What about us?“
“What about you?” said Manga Khan. “You were engaged to repair a vital component of my ship, and you failed to fulfill your contract. I don’t tolerate failure!”
“That’s a bit mean,” muttered Privet.
“No, it isn’t!” snapped Manga Khan. “The Cluster was seriously damaged some months ago by a strange object passing through this stellar system. We can’t get under way again until all repairs are complete. These two idiots are responsible for that.”
“B-but we told you…” said Loof.
“We don’t know anything about repairing toasters!” said Fpok-Bmud.
“I don’t believe you! You can go back into the brig until you’ve fixed it.” L-Ron whispered something to him. “And you can repair the brig itself first!” he added.
“Toaster? Toaster?” spluttered the Beefeater. “What are you talking about? Are you telling me these two morons were locked up because they couldn’t fix your toaster?“
“Absolutely,” said Manga Khan. “Can’t get under way without a fully functional toaster.”
“Lord Manga is a beast if he doesn’t get his morning muffins,” L-Ron added.
“Ye gods!” exclaimed the Beefeater.
“Now,” said Lord Manga, “about those windows you wished to purchase…”
“All right!” said the Beefeater. “Enough is enough! You’re all completely bloody loony, and I’m getting out of here.” He brandished his golden sceptre. “This thing is loaded, and I’m not afraid to use it. Stand aside!”
Manga Khan exchanged a puzzled glance with L-Ron. “Are you threatening us?” L-Ron asked.
“Yes, my little mechanical Care Bear,” said the Beefeater. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. My God, I thought my wife’s ideas about running a hotel were mad, but this really takes the biscuit. I’m dragged away from Earth in an antique wooden boat on a supposed rescue mission, which turns out to be springing two barrel-headed idiots who came here to repair a toaster!”
“It’s a very big toaster,” said Loof.
“And an exceedingly complicated one,” said Fpok-Bmud.
“Shut up, both of you, and get into your ship.”
“Yes, very good idea,” said Loof, “but there’s one thing wrong with it. “
“Just one thing,” agreed Fpok-Bmud, pointing.
Neither Manga Khan nor any of his robots had moved.
“Look, are you stupid, or what?” said the Beefeater. “Good God, it’s bad enough finding waiters these days who understand a word you say to them, but I’d have thought better of a space dictator, or whatever you’re supposed to be.” He glared at Manga Khan. “I’ll say it just once more. Movee asidee or me blastee! Got it?”
“Why is he talking like that?” asked Manga Khan, looking straight at Privet.
“It’s what we English do abroad,” the little bicycle repairman explained. “Don’t bother learning the local language, just talk very loudly and very slowly, as if you’re addressing someone with an IQ in single figures.”
“I see. And does it work?”
“Actually, no,” admitted Privet. “But it’s a sort of tradition, really. Actually, the Americans and the Germans have a much better system — just flash a wad of cash, and the natives seem to understand every word. Amazing, really…”
“Look, do you mind?” said the Beefeater. “You see this sceptre? You see this finger on it? Well, in just a second or two, finger here will press trigger here, and I’ll blast my own path to that ship! Got it now?” he said to Manga Khan.
“Yes, of course. However, I wouldn’t really advise doing that. It will cause you to be late.”
“Late?” blustered the Beefeater. “Late for what?”
“Not late for anything,” said Manga Khan. “Just ‘late.’ As in ‘deceased’ — ‘dead’ — ‘no more’ — ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’ — ‘pushing up daisies’… you get the idea?”
The Beefeater glanced around. There had to be at least fifty robots in the hangar, not counting the two Srelbmub and L-Ron, and all were aiming weapons at him. He hefted the sceptre in his hands. Well, a full-strength blast might take out a few of them, but the rest…
He lowered the weapon.
“That’s better,” said Manga Khan, clapping him on the shoulder. “Now, let’s do business like reasonable sentients, shall we? If it’s not windows you’re after, just what can I interest you in? A new pocket-frammistan, perhaps? How about a secondhand ‘responsometer,’ only one previous owner? Or how about…?” He gestured. A spotlight went on, revealing a very sorrowful-looking and bedraggled G’nort, being held up by two yellow-hued robots. “How about one slightly soiled (but otherwise in excellent condition) Green Lantern?”
“G’nort?” gasped the Beefeater. “You want to sell him to me?”
Manga Khan sucked in air in the manner of used-car salesmen the universe over. “Well, he did invade my ship, so perhaps I should have killed him — but I’m a reasonable fellow, and I offered him the chance to redeem himself by buying something. He has no money, of course, so I offered to take his home planet as a downpayment. Except that L-Ron, here, pointed out that G’newt smells like a public toilet. And, as you can see, I am a sensitive soul. Of all those who trade across the spaceways, none is more receptive than I to the simple beauty of poetry, or the subtle aroma of a flower in bloom, or…”
L-Ron made a coughing sound again.
“Ah, yes. Where was I? Right.” He shrugged. “Well, the stupid mutt didn’t have anything worth taking, so I repossessed the Thanagarian Ant Farm that he bought — with, of course, a little extra to make up for wear and tear, not to mention interest.”
“M’lord Manga means G’nort himself,” L-Ron explained. “He had nothing else worth taking — well, except for a power ring, and we didn’t really want that. The Guardians of the Universe tend to get really pissed off if somebody takes their property.”
“And now,” said Manga Khan with a flourish, “it’s your turn.”
“My turn to do what?”
“Your turn to buy something.”
“But I don’t want to buy anything!”
There was a stony silence for at least a microsecond. Manga Khan took in another sharp intake of breath. “Show him the sign with the company motto, L-Ron.”
L-Ron opened up a body cavity and withdrew a placard, which he held up before the humans.
The Beefeater peered at it in bafflement. “I can’t read that. It’s just covered in alien squiggles.”
“Oh, sorry,” said L-Ron. He shook the placard, and the alien symbols on it changed. He held it up again. It now read: SHOP OR DIE.
“Your choice…” said Manga Khan.
“So, what you’re saying is, I either buy something or you kill me? Right?”
“Quick, isn’t he, M’lord?” said L-Ron. The little robot had no face, but the Beefeater could have sworn he was grinning.
“Well, that’s just absolutely super, isn’t it?” said the Beefeater. “I come all this way to rescue a pair of failed toaster repairmen, the idiot Green Lantern who brings me here gets himself captured, and I’m given the ultimatum — buy your tourist tat or get fried by a horde or animated Meccano toys. Lovely. And what next, I wonder? I know — some grinning moron with a microphone is going to come up, rip off his false beard, and reveal that this is all a stunt for the latest ‘the public are gullible enough to fall for anything’ TV show.”
“Er… no,” said L-Ron, slightly confused by this behaviour.
“Come on, out you come,” said the Beefeater, looking behind the nearest robot. “I know you’re here somewhere. Come on, I’ve rumbled you. I’ve already figured out where the camera is.”
“L-Ron,” said Manga Khan, “what is this Earthling doing?”
“I have no idea, M’lord.”
“Well, if he doesn’t stop doing it within thirty seconds, have him evaporated. I’m beginning to find this unbelievably tedious.”
This was not lost on Colin Privet. “Mr. Beefeater, sir, please stop it,” he said, grabbing the back of the Beefeater’s tunic. “They’re serious.”
“So am I,” said the Beefeater. “Come on, I’m losing my patience with you now! I know you’re hiding here somewhere.”
With a sigh, Privet walked up to his lanky companion and slapped him round the face.
“Good God!” exclaimed the Beefeater. “What did you do that for?”
“This isn’t a TV stunt,” said Privet. “They’re serious. You have to buy something, or they’ll kill you!”
The Beefeater looked around him as if seeing everything for the first time. “Oh, my God!”
“He… we will buy something,” said Privet, supporting the Beefeater to stop him swooning. “How much for the Green Lantern?”
“What?” said the Beefeater, suddenly shocked back to his senses. “What do you want to buy him for? He’s monumentally stupid, and he smells! If you’re going to buy a Green Lantern, at least go for a decent one!”
“Sorry,” said L-Ron, “but this is the only one we’ve got. Now, will you pay cash or credit?”
The Beefeater pulled Privet to one side. “Now look what you’ve done! Have you got any money on you?”
Privet felt in his pockets. “Fifty-six pence and a couple of pesetas left over from my holiday in Spain. How about you?”
“I’m a super-hero,” said the Beefeater flatly. “Super-heroes don’t carry money.”
“A bit like royalty, then?”
“Yes… no. This isn’t funny, Privet! My wallet’s with my civilian clothes, back in Brixham.”
Manga Khan and L-Ron were staring at them. “I think we’ve got a slight problem, M’lord.”
“Not at all, L-Ron,” replied Lord Manga. “We’ll simply invoke the usual clause and take their planet as payment.”
“It’s very small and grubby, M’lord.”
“Perhaps, but I can trade it up for something better.” He turned back to the two humans. “Well? Can you pay for the Green Lantern or not?”