“You’ll need to wear this jacket, Commander,” Merry said to Tarquin as he was preparing to board the landing probe, “it has the RSR crest on it. They’ll know you’re on official business if they see you with that on.”
“Right-oh, Captain. Jolly good. A chap can’t afford to look not official, can he?” Tarquin said, donning the garment. “I say; feels a bit rum around the collar.”
“That’ll be the wire that I had the ship’s tailor put in the collar so it wouldn’t lose its shape under lunar gravity,” Joan Weinberg explained, adding another half-centimetre to the length of her proboscis. “Another thing,” she said, “and listen carefully, for I shall say this only once. It is vital that you keep the ceremonial buttons on the jacket clean and clear, especially the one with the symbolic glass centre.”
“What’s that for?”
“The glass centre.”
“Oh that. It’s a new thing the Regiment is introducing. It is there to signify that the RSR is fully transparent in all its dealings. Never, ever, allow that to become dirty or otherwise obscured. Clear?”
“Only if it’s not dirty, haw haw haw!”
“Is that clear?” Joan asked more forcefully.
“Yes Ma’am,” Tarquin replied, climbing into the probe’s single seat. “Now, let me get this right. You will… what’s the word you technical types use?… propel me toward the moon from the launch port. Then how do I get back?”
“We’ll explain that when the time comes, Tarquin,” Joan told him, “no point confusing you with too much information all at once.”
“Quite right, I should say. You know me too well already.”
Lt Cdr Joan Weinberg, XO of the Sir Prijs, pressed the button that closed the hatch on the probe, leaving Tarquin with only the view that the small monitor in front of him provided. The robotic arm lifted the probe into its launch position, from where it accelerated under ship’s power along its pre-determined path until it appeared at the business end of torpedo tube one, finally leaving the shuttle at a rate of exactly 26.822 metres per second, a rate which it maintained for the first two-thirds of its 300km journey. One hundred kilometres above the lunar surface, the craft’s automated systems turned it to its landing attitude and commenced short-burst firings to reduce its velocity in preparation for a soft landing at the same landing site as had been used by the Waist of Space. Having touched down onto its extensible legs, the engines shut down, and an audible message informed its occupant that it had successfully come to rest on the lunar surface, and that he should keep his belt attached until after the hatch had fully opened. That warning was a little late, as Tarquin had unbuckled his belts as soon as he felt the gentle impact.
The hatch opened.
Tarquin fell out.
The Borborygmi had sent a party to meet Tarquin. Well, maybe not a party. Flatulon, Methany and little Artevon Grumpblast.
Tarquin stood up and brushed the moon dust from his jacket. He was particularly careful to clear away the dust from the buttons. Joan had been most insistent on that point. Especially the one with the symbolic glass centre.
The Grumpblasts were making a strange noise. Nothing unusual about that, except that it occurred to Tarquin that they may have been laughing.
“You chaps laughing?” he asked.
The level of the strange noise increased, and the way they started rolling around on the lunar floor confirmed to our hero that they were, indeed, in the midst of a mirthful episode.
“It jolly well hurt, you know,” Tarquin complained.
That made them worse.
Tarquin sat on the floor, watching their antics and waiting for them to stop.
Three hundred kilometres above him, the bridge officers aboard the Sir Prijs were gathered around a monitor, watching the output from Tarquin’s ceremonial button, the one with the glass centre, and listening to the sound gathered by his collar stays. They were all laughing, too.
Merry was not laughing. Merry was at her station, her head in her hands, shaking gently.
“I told you he’d screw up,” Joan managed to say between outbursts.
“He’s only just arrived,” Merry said morosely.
“I know!” Joan replied, releasing another bout of guffaws.
“Look!” someone standing in front of the monitor said excitedly, “movement.”
There was, indeed, movement. The Grumpblasts had composed themselves and were escorting the seriously diminutive (by comparison) human into one of the red buildings. The camera worked well, and adjusted to the level of light inside the structure.
“So,” Tarquin said, “fifteen hundred of you up here.”
“Give or take,” Flatulon replied.
“In these few buildings.”
“Don’t be silly, we have other locations.”
“You sure? I’ve never seen them.”
They approached what looked like a solid metallic wall. Flatulon made a series of sounds that approximated to those made by a 1980s 300 baud modem connecting to a server. The wall slid aside, revealing a large chamber, some six metres square and as high as it was wide.
“In there,” Flatulon ordered.
“That is where our leaders are, the people who want to talk to you.”
“Can’t see them.”
“Not in there, human. This will take us to them.”
They all stepped in. The room made Tarquin feel small, but his companions were a good fit. Flatulon’s head was less than one metre from the ceiling. When the door closed, the room started to hum – no, not smell badly, it started to make a humming noise – and Tarquin realised that it was a lift.
“Are we going down?” he asked.
“There’s nowhere to go up, is there?” Methany replied.
“Do we still need our space-suits in here?”
“We could take them off now, but there are better facilities in the city.”
“You sound surprised.”
“Well, yah, actually. Thought your red buildings were all there was.”
The humming stopped and the door re-opened. Looking out, Tarquin was faced with what looked like the main square of a small, but busy market town. A group of Borborygmi approached. The one at the front of the group, who stood a full half metre taller than Flatulon, was dressed like Krusty the clown.
High above, Merry saw what Tarquin saw, and the colour drained from her face.
“What’s up, Captain?” Joan Weinberg asked.
“This won’t go well,” she said, “Tarquin is terrified of clowns.”