Chief Marshgass appeared in front Tarquin and, still looking around for the microphone and speakers, addressed Merry.
“You have spoken with your leaders, Captain?”
“I have, Chief. Now, listen carefully. This is what is going to happen. A number of facilities around the world will be interested in what you have to offer, and many will make offers to you; offers that will be more than you could ever have hoped for, or even dreamed of. Do not listen to them. You are to deal only with me. I have a mandate, from the highest authority on the planet, to deal with your request and with the technology you bring.”
“Okay, Captain. What do we do next?”
“I want you to put together a team of no more than twenty, who will accompany me to the planet, bringing with them a copy of everything you have. We will present that to some of our foremost scientists. If they agree its validity and value, we will assign resources to the project, and provide temporary accommodation for your population, while your drive is being built.”
“We have had a team working on a parallel project for many of your years, Captain. We think its work can be adapted to make use of the data we have inadvertently but most propitiously come by. I shall gather the Flatus team together and brief them.”
“How many are on this team, and what is its make-up?”
“Fifteen on the team. Team leader is our Head Anemologist. You’ve already met him, Flatulon Grumpblast. His team is a mix of scientists, engineers and administrators.”
“Okay, Chief. When can you have them ready for us to pick up? Oh, and one of my officers has asked what Flatus stands for.”
“I’ll have them ready tomorrow, Captain. And Flatus stands for Fantastically Large Assembly for Travel at Unbelievable Speeds.”
“Does what it says on the tin, then?”
“What do you want us to do with your Commander Stuart-Lane?”
“I suppose you’d better bring him with you. We can assign him a ground job, one where he can’t get into any trouble.”
“Oh, I say, Merr… Captain. That sounds jolly exciting,” Tarquin said excitedly, “what is it?”
“I’ll let you know when you get back here.”
During the course of the following day, the small probe, which was capable of carrying six, crossed the chasm between the Moon and the Sir Prijs no less than five times: three times up and twice back. Eventually, the fifteen members of Flatus were given bare cabins as accommodation; there were no three-metre beds on the shuttle, but that’s okay, because the Borborygmi prefer to sleep on a hard, unyielding surface, for which the cabin floor is ideal. Cargo hold number three, generally kept clear for visiting craft, was converted to a makeshift conference room. The chairs used by the human participants were raised by half a metre, placing all seated participants’ heads at about the same level.
Merry addressed the assembled group, reading from the official briefing that she had agreed with the Admiral’s adjutant, Cdr Pippington.
“Our journey to Earth orbit will take about seven hours. I plan to have us all on the surface by this time tomorrow. The Flatus team will be transported to the RSR conference facility in Swindon, where you will meet with our own space scientists. The purpose of this meeting will be to establish the feasibility of the project, and to agree on the facilities and skills that will be needed to complete it. While this is happening, I and my XO will present your formal asylum request to the authorities. Yes, Flatulon.”
“Are you sure the application will be granted?”
“It has already been approved in principle. We just need to work out the best place for you, and agree it with the host country.”
“Will we have a choice of where we go?”
Returning to the bridge, Merry met up with Tarquin.
“Welcome back, Commander. You did a good job on the surface.”
“Gosh, thank you, Captain. I don’t mind telling you, when I saw the chief dressed as a clown, it—”
“Never mind that. We got the result we wanted, and that’s what matters. I’ll record a verbal commendation in my log.”
“Commendation? Me? More used to condemnation, what? Still; big thanks due.”
“Now. Taking into account your performance on the Moon, and allowing for what went before it, we have concluded that a ground position would suit you best.”
“The admiral and I.”
“What do you have for me, Captain? Chief alien negotiator? Commander of ground activities? What?”
“I’ve agreed with the Admiral that you be appointed to the position of Keeper of the Regimental Mascot.”
“Keeper of the Regimental Mascot?”
“But I don’t know anything about donkeys; don’t even like them.”
“You will learn to love Hotay, Tarquin.”
“I don’t think so, Captain,” Tarquin whined.
“You misunderstand me, Commander,” Merry said. “You will learn to love Hotay. That is an order.”