The history of space exploration is punctuated with incidents where an equipment malfunction (or anomaly, as the boffins prefer to call it) has resulted in an outcome other than that which was intended, planned, or even hoped for.
One such punctuating anomaly; probably, based on its severity and impact, a semi-colon; took place immediately after Captain Meredith Winstanley had called for a show of hands to decide whether Tarquin Stuart-Lane should be left where he was; enjoying the hospitality of the Borborygmi, as their hostage, in their settlement deep below the surface of the Moon. The alternative was that he should be returned to his station in exchange for granting asylum on Earth to fifteen hundred Borborygmi. They, you will recall, are a race of three metre tall, stick thin aliens, whose only saving grace seems to be their lack of requirement for burial space for their dead, as a result of their penchant for eating them as a mark of respect.
While the seven officers that made up the bridge crew were contemplating the pros and cons of leaving Tarquin to his fate, the shuttle’s artificial gravity generator decided to take the afternoon off. The result was a show of no less than fourteen hands and an equal number of feet, passing the motion by a majority of twenty-eight to none. There being no detractors, this was recorded in the annals of the Regiment as a unanimous decision.
Lt Cdr Joan Weinberg, the shuttle’s XO, was womanning the radio that afternoon. Happily, the microphone had floated up with her, so she was able to reach out and press the button.
“This is the Royal Space Regiment shuttle Sir Prijs, Lt Cdr Weinberg speaking. Please bring your Chief to the radio, as my Captain wishes to speak with him. Over.”
Judging by the way the Borborygmi were scuttling around, there was some surprise at the unannounced announcement. One of the Borborygmi, a newly promoted grunt by the name of Aitchtoo’ess Indole pulled a small device from his backpack and offered it to the Chief’s Chief of Staff, Malodor Skatole.
“That’s not a radio, stupid boy!” Malodor shouted, “Who can tell me from whence emanated the voice we all just heard?”
No-one spoke up. This may have been because none present had understood the question.
Chief Marshgass was not impressed. “I want to know where that voice came from,” he bellowed.
“Begging your pardon, Chief,” Aitchtoo’ess said with all the self-assurance, bravado and derring-do of a tiny mouse in the middle of a crisis of confidence, “I think it came from wherever the small creature the Grumpblasts brought with them came from, if that makes sense, Chief, Sir.”
The chief descended to one knee, to place his face, now turned almost purple as though he were about to apoplexy, at the same level as Aitchtoo’ess’s, and almost whispered, “Thank you for that valuable piece of information, young grunt.” He then raised his output by half an octave in pitch and a couple of dozen decibels in intensity and shouted, “What sort of moron are you; huh? Tell me that, if you know how.”
“A h-hard working, l-loyal, r-respectful moron, if it please you, Ch-chief,” the youngster replied.
“By all the Gods of Borbor. Must I be surrounded by nincompoops?”
Malodor Skatole was not familiar with the concept of the rhetorical question. In his mind, questions existed only to be answered, and one that was not answered was denied its destiny. Thus it was that he attempted to respond to his leader’s enquiry.
“Sir,” he offered, “the only way to avoid that fate is to increase the education and training budget. That way you can be surrounded by more accomplished subjects.”
Very calmly, very quietly and in his most controlled manner, the Chief addressed his number two once more, “Where. Is. The. Freaking. Radio?” he asked.
“I. Do. Not. Freaking. Know.” Malodor replied.
Floating high above, the seven bridge officers were, thanks to the modifications to Tarquin’s apparel, privy to all this. When Merry spoke over the radio, it was as though someone or something had mightily thumped the ground on which the Borborygmi were standing. With perfect synchronisation, the entire gathered population jumped a full half-metre and descended with a sound akin to that of the assembled army of a despotic republic coming to attention at the same time.
“Listen up,” she said, “Captain Winstanley here. If you speak, Chief Marshgass, I will hear you. Is that okay?”
“Should we not conduct our negotiation in private?”
“There is no negotiation, Chief. I merely want to tell you what is going to happen.”
“And what is that?”
“I am taking my ship and my crew back to Earth. Your request for asylum will be passed to our governments, who will reject it.”
“How can you know that?”
“I know that because I am going to recommend that they reject it, and they’ll listen to me (a) because I am smart and well respected, and (b) because I’m rather pretty, and the Admiral, who will make the final decision, has the hots for me.”
“But what of your Commander that we have here?”
“Keep him. We don’t want him.”
At that last statement, Tarquin’s face lost all its colour, and his mouth fell open. “But, Merry,” he whined.
“Sorry-oh, Commander; the decision has been made. And, I may add, it was unanimous. Fear not; we’re off back to Earth now, and I shall personally see to it that you have a good entry in the list of the lost.”
The Chief raised his eyes to where he thought the voice was coming from and spoke, “Before you depart, I think we should negotiate, Captain.”
Merry, who could only see the back of the chief’s head, as he was looking in entirely the wrong direction, replied, “There is no point, Chief. You have nothing to offer me.”
“Oh, but I do, Captain,” he said, “I have something that will be of great interest to your leaders.”