The identity and nature of the deity that commands the respect and affection of Lt Joan Weinberg is second in its capacity to perplex only to the signals that CFP Edna Bucket, the radio operator aboard the Royal Space Regiment enforcement shuttle Sir Prijs, was at that moment receiving.
“Begging your pardon, Captain, Sir,” Edna said to her leader.
“What is it, sweet cheeks?” Captain van Winpell responded.
“Please, Captain; we’re on duty. You’re supposed to call me CFP Bucket.”
“Sorry, CFP. Shall I try again?”
“No need, Sir. We’ll talk about it later.”
“What did you want to tell me about, CFP?”
“Receiving strange transmissions, Sir, on the frequency used by the Waist of Space.”
“Strange in what way?”
“Come and listen, Sir.”
CFP Bucket led the way, followed by the captain. Half way along the corridor between the captain’s Ready Room and the radio room, Edna gave a little squeal, abruptly turned to her captain and wagged an admonishing finger at him. He made no sound, but mouthed the word ‘sorry’. Once in the radio room, the pair clearly heard the transmissions playing out over the loudspeakers.
“At first, I thought it was some kind of interference,” she said, adding an emphatic “not like that, Sir” as she batted his hand away.
“I can see why,” the captain replied, “although it seems too organised to be random interference. It has form, pattern, and… quick; think of another word that’ll make me sound clever.”
“Rhythm, tempo, metre, rise and fall, beat, cadency, modulation, inflection — take your pick, Sir.”
“All of the above,” he said gratefully.
“Are you suggesting it’s musical, Sir?”
“Yes, CFP, I suppose I am. What does it sound like to you?”
“It’s rather reminiscent of a West Indian steel band, Sir. What do you suppose it means?”
Lt Weinberg chose that moment to burst into the radio room.
“Captain! Are you aware that you’ve got that signal coming out of the PA system throughout the shuttle?”
“Oh, shoot!” he ejaculated. “No, Corporal, put that gun away; it’s just an expression.”
“I was with the prisoners, Sir,” Lt Weinberg explained, “and they said it sounds like the Borborygmi.”
“What on Earth are they?”
“On Earth. Anyway,” Lt Weinberg added, “you’ll read about them in the prisoners’ reports; the reports that they were at pains to insist wouldn’t have existed had we not come to arrest them. They claim first ever contact between humans and another species. That makes them rather special, wouldn’t you say?”
“That or pathological liars,” he replied. “What did they say about this noise.”
“It’s how the Borborymi communicate, Sir.”
“What, like jungle drums?”
“I don’t think so, Sir. They believe it to be analogous to our speech.”
“Get hem in here, please, Lieutenant.”
Lt Weinberg sprang to attention, saluted him, and shouted, “Sir, yes Sir!” before turning and marching out of her captain’s presence.
“I do wish she wouldn’t do that,” he said to his CFP, “scares the living daylights out of me, every time.”
“Well I’m glad she does,” Edna replied. “If she didn’t, I think she would be CFP instead of me.”.
“We’ll take this discussion off-line, shall we?”
Lt Weinberg who, it is probably important to remember, may or may not admit to allegiance to a power even higher than her esteemed captain, returned to the radio room, accompanied by our two heroes.
“What is this… this noise?” Captain van Winpell asked them.
“Borborygmi,” the prisoner, Commander Meredith Winstanley replied, “specifically the Grumpblasts. I can make out Flatulon’s voice; his is in the lower register; and his wife Methanie’s too.”
“What’s the high-pitched, er, instrument in the background?”
“That’s their young son, Artivon Grumpblast. He’s a trainee drone in the Sol 3A exploring team, don’t you know,” explained the other prisoner, Commander Tarquin Stuart-Lane.
“Okay,” CFP Edna Bucket interrupted, “what are they saying?”
“No idea,” Tarquin said, “don’t speak their language.”
“They speak ours though,” Merry said, “at least, they did to us.”
“So why aren’t they speaking English now?” the captain asked.
“I don’t bally-well know,” Tarquin said. “Have you asked them?”
“Have we asked them, CFP?”
“Why not?” Merry asked.
“Yes, why not?” the captain echoed.
“Because, Captain Rik van Winpell, Sir, I followed your procedure and reported the anomaly to you before taking any action on it, Sir.”
Tarquin leaned forward, placed his mouth close the the microphone, pressed the ‘transmit’ button, and said, “Er, hello. Is that you, Flatulon?”
“It’s me, silly.”
“Good afternoon, Silly. Who, what and where are you?”
“No, I’m not silly.”
“Some would argue,” Merry commented sotto voce.
“Who are you then?”
“We thought you’d gone.”
“We had; have. We’re in a ship in stationery orbit above you. If you look up, you’ll see us. I’m waving to you now.”
“Tarquin,” Merry said, “I think our captors want to know what their message is.”
“Yah, right-ho. Sorry,” he said then, back to the microphone, “Flatulon, I’m putting the captain of the shuttle on for you, wait small.”
“Oh dear,” Captain van Winpell said quietly, “what am I supposed to say to him.”
“You are the captain of an enforcement shuttle. Man up and do your job,” Lt Weinberg said.
“Great, thanks,” he said. He picked up the microphone, pressed the transmit button and said, “Listen here. You are the captain of an enforcement shuttle. Man up and do your job. Over.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Edna said, “Give me the bloody microphone.”
“Borborygmi station, this is CFP Edna Bucket on board the Royal Space Regiment enforcement shuttle Sir Prijs. We have heard your transmissions, but have not been able to understand their content. We understand from the two officers who had been your guests that you speak our language. Can you re-transmit your message in English please? Over.”
“Stay there, Surprise, We need some time to translate. We’ll transmit as soon as we can.”
“Edna, tell them it’s Sir Prijs, not Surprise, will you?”
“What if I make it an order?”
“What if I ignore it?”
“That’s insubordination. I’m the captain. I run this ship. People have to do as I say.”
“Do you really want to go there?” Edna asked, “Or should I tell the entire crew about some of your, shall we say, personal preferences, foibles, peccadilloes?”
“Okay. Don’t tell them. Belay that order. Order rescinded. Just don’t stop—”
The radio crackled into life again.
“Surprise, this is Borborygmus Explorer Grade 3 Flatulon Grumpblast. Stand by for transmission.”