by Brian K. Asbury
Ten hours earlier:
The Beefeater fumed silently on the floor of the crew quarters (he had long since given up trying to get into a hammock and had concluded that sailors in Sir Francis Drake’s time were either sadomasochists to a man or indulged in some bizarre fantasy that they were codfish). They had been in space for hours now and were so far from Earth that he could no longer see it. That might have been a pretty exciting prospect, except that G’nort did not seem to have the slightest idea of where he was heading.
The canine Green Lantern claimed he was looking for a spaceship in distress, but couldn’t remember which planet it was in orbit around. He had already visited Venus, Mercury, and Mars (at one point mistaking one of the red planet’s moons for the ship — or it may have been a bone), had skimmed the Moon and several large asteroids, and was now convinced that the object of his search was somewhere near Jupiter (or, in his parlance, “the big swirly one with the red nose”).
Colin Privet, whom G’nort insisted on addressing as Bicycle Repair Man, was presumably in the captain’s cabin under lock and key. He had fled into there and locked himself in on awaking from his faint and had not, to the best of Beefeater’s knowledge, emerged. That actually worked to Michael’s advantage to a small degree, as he had found a tool bag in the crew quarters that presumably belonged to Privet, and whose contents included a couple of slightly stale cheese sandwiches and a can of Diet Coke. These had been consumed some time ago.
But at least that meant that Privet would die of thirst and starvation before Michael, who would then have the option of being able to eat him if things became that desperate — which looked likely. To the best of his knowledge, there was no other food or drink on board.
Neither was there a working toilet. He had already relieved himself over the side once, but was not in a hurry to repeat the experience. G’nort’s ring was generating artificial gravity within the ship itself, but this apparently did not extend far beyond the woodwork. This meant that for several hours now, the ship had been orbited by a string of golden-coloured globules, which seemed to be getting closer to the gravity field with every pass — not a pleasant prospect.
He idly wondered why G’nort himself did not seem to be suffering any privations. Presumably his ring took care of that for him. In which case…
“Eureka!” He jumped to his feet, banging his head on the low ceiling. Cursing, he made his way to the ladder. Why had he not thought of this before?
He emerged on the deck, only to see G’nort curled up in the prow, apparently fast asleep. “Good God!” he muttered. “What’s keeping us alive?” However, he could see that the power ring was still sending out a stream of emerald radiance even while its wielder was seemingly dead to the universe. However, what would happen if he were to wake G’nort up? Would the shock cause his ring’s work to be interrupted?
He tentatively tiptoed toward the sleeping canine. Perhaps, just perhaps, while G’nort was asleep, he could take the power ring away from him and use it to return them to Earth, wherever Earth was. A moment of panic overcame him as he realized he had no idea which direction it was in.
“Pull yourself together!” he whispered to himself under his breath. He crept closer, noting that something green and glowing was pulsing under G’nort’s arms (forelegs?). Then a low growl came from the curled-up Green Lantern.
He hesitated. Was G’nort awake after all? No — he was a dog, of course. All dogs growled in their sleep occasionally.
He took a step closer.
And suddenly, G’nort sprang up, teeth bared, barking furiously at him. The object he had been cradling was revealed as a huge green bone. It had teeth marks on it.
Beefeater skipped back in terror, trying to raise his staff in a defensive posture, but instead dropping it. As he lunged after it, it rolled through the open hatch and into the crew quarters.
Meanwhile, G’nort was standing there with a sheepish expression on his hairy face. “Uh… sorry, Mr. Beefbone,” he said. “I was kinda sleepy. You startled me!”
“I startled you?” screamed the Beefeater. “You just scared me out of a year’s growth, you canine cretin! I thought you were supposed to be taking us to Jupiter, not catching up on your beauty sleep!”
G’nort shrugged and scratched under his armpit. “Well, y’know how it is. Jupiter’s a long way, and I got a bit bored. Just thought I’d grab a nap while you guys were doing the same.”
Beefeater stormed off back down the ladder to retrieve his staff, which fortunately had dropped into a hammock. He stomped back up to the deck. “So how much longer are we going to roam aimlessly through the solar system? Or do you intend to take us on a tour of the Andromeda galaxy when you get bored with that?”
G’nort sniffed. “Nah. Been there. You wouldn’t like it. Funny people. You should see the state of their bathrooms. Got no sense of personal hygiene.”
Not like here, thought Beefeater as yellow liquid splashed to the deck, missing him by inches. “Never mind that,” he said. “Has it occurred to you, dog-brain, that human beings need to eat and drink? Maybe that green bauble of yours sustains you, but…”
“Oh, cheeze,” said G’nort, thumping his forehead. “Y’know, I never thought of that. You and Bicycle Repair Man must be hungry enough to lick the pattern of your food bowls.”
“Something like that,” said Beefeater. “So what are you going to do about it?”
“Easy peasy!” said G’nort with a grin. “Ring-a-ding-ding, here, can rustle you up anything you want.”
“Yeah. Just name it, Mr. Beefstew, and it’s yours.”
Michael rubbed his hands together with glee. “In that case,” he said greedily, “have you ever heard of a Waldorf salad?”
Well, thought Beefeater, I’ve tasted better, but I’ve also had worse. The asparagus was a bit over-salty, and the Black Forest gateau could have done with a shade more kirsch, but on the whole it wasn’t bad. Even a decent brandy to go with it. I wonder if this idiot would like a job as a chef in the hotel? Admittedly, the smelly little furball might give me a few problems with the public health inspectorate, and there might be a little difficulty explaining to the guests why all the food is green, but you can’t have everything, can you?
At the back of his mind, a little voice was muttering something about a rumour he had once heard about Green Lantern rings needing to be recharged every so often, and wondering what would happen to the food in his stomach when G’nort’s ran out of power, but he pushed that to the back as he knocked back the last few drops of green brandy from his green glass. He looked up as G’nort walked past and up to the cabin door.
“Hey, Mr. Bicycle Repair Man. You can come out now. We’re there!”
“We are?” said Beefeater, rising. The motion brought into his field of vision what had previously been behind his back, and his heart almost stopped as he saw the great banded globe of Jupiter hanging over the port side of the ship. “Good God!”
“Are we home? Please tell me we’re home,” came a small voice from the other side of the door.
“Sure thing, Mr. Bicycle Repair Man,” G’nort said cheerfully. “We’re home!”
The door opened, and Colin Privet crept through it. He caught sight of the Beefeater and the green table behind him, then looked up — and promptly fainted again.
“Cheeze,” said G’nort, catching him with a power-ringed cushion. “I never saw anybody relax so easy as this fella.”
The Beefeater, meanwhile, had got over his initial shock at seeing Jupiter close up. He strode up to G’nort. “All right, shift him downstairs. My turn for the comfy berth, I think, even if it is a bit pushed for headroom. I could use a nap after that gorgeous meal.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go back to sleep if I was you, Mr. Beefstew,” said G’nort. “We’re here.”
Beefeater grabbed G’nort’s waistcoat in both hands. “That’s it!” he said, going nose to nose with him (and instantly regretting it as his flared nostrils filled with the heady scent of nervous dog). “Firstly, my name is Beefeater. BeefEATER, got that? Not Beefstew, Beefcake, Beefbroth, or anything else. BeefEATER. Repeat that, please.”
“Uh … BeefEATER,” said G’nort.
“Secondly, what do you mean, ‘we’re here’? Forgive me if I’ve got this wrong, but Jupiter is a big ball of gas, yes? There’s nowhere to land. And even if there was, there’s a small matter of the gravity being about a squillion times that of Earth or whatever. Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?”
“We’re not gonna land, Mr. BeefEATER,” said G’Nort, still repeating the emphasized letters. “That’s where we’re going!”
He pointed, and Beefeater did a double-take as he saw a bizarre sight growing steadily bigger as the ship homed in on it. It looked somewhat like a giant pearl necklace badly strung together — a collection of metal spheres joined with flexible cables or tubes — and strangest of all, the spheres were coloured chartreuse. This bizarre apparition was growing bigger and bigger now, until it threatened to dwarf Jupiter itself in their field of vision.
“What is it?” said the Beefeater.
“That’s the Cluster,” said G’nort. “It’s the great Martship of Lord Manga Khan, Supreme Trader of the Stars — and we’re here to rescue two guys he’s holding prisoner!”
Beefeater stared. “You — can’t — be — serious!” he gulped. “You want to take on something the size of a small planet with an antique Tudor sailing ship?”
“Nah, we’re not gonna fight Manga Khan, Mr. BeefEATER, we’re just gonna go in, grab the two guys he’s holding, and get out again.”
“Ah,” said the Beefeater flatly. “I see. Just like that. We just knock on the door, or hatch, or whatever, they let us in, we say, ‘Excuse me, nice alien monsters, but would you mind awfully if we rescue your prisoners? No? Thank you. So kind.’ And then we stroll out, set sail for Earth, and everybody lives happily ever after. Silly of me to have even asked. You’ll have to excuse me.”
“That’s OK. But getting in is no problem.”
“Nope. Manga Khan loves visitors.”
“It’s getting out again that might present a teensy bit of a problemeroonie.”
“Well… no. Not really.”
Beefeater’s eyes narrowed. “Well? Make your mind up!”
“It’s really pretty easy to get out.”
“Are you sure? Now think about this carefully. Listen to the actual words — the ones I’m speaking, not the ones probably speaking in tongues in your flea-bitten head. Is it easy to get out of that ship once you’re in?”
G’nort did not even hesitate. “Sure.”
“Then what are we worried about?”
“It’s easy to get out,” repeated G’nort. “It’s getting out alive that’s difficult.”
Beefeater stared at him for long moments. Then he walked down to the other end of the deck, raised his head to the sky (or where the sky ought to have been, although technically at the moment it was all around), and screamed at the top of his voice until his breath ran out.
“Wow!” said G’nort, moving to his side. “That’s a really impressive battle-howl, Mr. BeefEATER, sir. Manga Khan’ll be really scared!”
Beefeater inhaled deeply and grabbed him by his waistcoat. “Look… it isn’t too late to turn around. We could be home in just a few hours, and I can get my chef to cook some nice beef bones for you. Or you could have them raw, if you prefer…”
G’nort grinned. “Aw, you’re such a joker!” He pulled free and walked back to where Colin Privet lay sprawled out on the deck. “C’mon, Mr. Bicycle Repair Man,” he said. “Time to be heroes!” He ringed up a bottle of smelling salts under the little man’s nose. Privet coughed twice and opened his eyes.
“Are you mad?” cried Beefeater, making one last effort to dissuade him. “We can’t go in there! It would be suicide!”
“Too late!” said G’nort. He pointed. A long tube had descended from the alien vessel. It touched down on the deck of the Golden Hind, and a door opened in its end. A sign flashed up the words: Welcome to the Cluster. All major credit cards accepted from a thousand worlds.
“Welcome to my parlour…” muttered an aghast Beefeater.