The first thing I notice about Klunk is that she's got a pole in each hand.
"So, I discovered a few interesting things about my situation," says Klunk, "chief of which is that the plane of my mobility is now perpendicular to the previous plane."
"I'm not exactly interested," I say, and I stride right up to the broad man in the cloak.
"I am very impressed," says the man. "You managed to get past Captain Bo -- "
"Shut the hell up," I say. I lift the mummified skull to his eye level. "I don't know what the hell kind of game you're playing with your prisoners but I almost turned into this. What on earth is your problem?"
"Well, we've got a few problems within the woodwork right now -- "
"I want a straight answer."
Klunk poles her way over to me. "Robin, we don't need this attitude right now. These people have the car."
I glare at her. "Oh, the car is important is it? That attitude is helpful when you're fixing an engine in the vaccum of space, but it's not helping anyone right now."
"It's more helpful than you getting mad at the captain."
"Folks -- "
"Why shouldn't I be mad at the captain? Look at thing! I could have died up there! YOU could have died up there!"
"Excuse me -- "
"But we all got out and now we're here, so why don't you give the captain a chance to -- "
"I'm not hardly interested in giving the captain a chance."
"EXCUSE ME!" shouts the captain.
Klunk and I turn to him.
"Whether or not you're interested in listening to me," says the captain, "I happen to have the authority to toss you out of this vessel. So I don't actually need to be polite in order to ask you to shut your damn mouths. But I would prefer to be polite, since you have not yet done enough to lose the hospitality of we on board the Space Slug. May I continue to be polite?" He raises his eyebrows and smiles.
"That would be nice," I say.
"Good. Well, then, I'm sure you have a lot of questions. Before you ask, no, I absolutely did not intend for any of you to be trapped up there with Captain Bones. He's managed to hack our prisoner-processing system so that it transports people up to the crawl space instead of to the regular holding cells. Every time we try to get him out of the crawl space he's back within a month and we haven't figured out how to close the software loophole that Bones is using."
"I've got an idea," says Ramon. "You could just bring prisoners in by hand. You could, I don't know," he waves a hand, "use actual human labor, instead of relying on software."
"Negative, my good fellow. Quarantine is essential for all incomers. There are all kinds of diseases from all manner of planets. We want to run a clean ship."
"You're pretty military for a pirate," I say.
"Pirate?" He frowns. "What a rude thing to call us. This is a rebellion, my good, uh...madam. Sir? Madam?"
"Navigator," I say. "You mean to tell me you don't plunder ships and maroon people?"
"Let us speak in a more comfortable location," says the captain. He mutters someting to a subordinate, who takes his place int he middle of the circular area. He waves us forward and we follow him down a more dimly-lit hallway, where people talk in whispers. We turn right into a room with a deep red carpet and comfy chairs.
"Sit, sit." He plunks himself down in a chair. "So many questions to answer. Yet I have a question of my own. Will you fight for us? We could use your help." He chuckles. 'Well. To be honest we could use the Red Barracuda's help, but Mr. O'Higgins here," he gestures to Ramon, "he says only he understand the pilot's controls, and our best attempts to get the vehicle working have failed."
"Your last name is O'Higgins?" I say.
Ramon says nothing.
"And as for the more interesting controls," says the captain, "Mr. Rabemananjara here says that he can't work them without you, mister, uh, miss -- "
"No prefix, please. Robin."
The captain frowns. "I can't tell if you're being serious or not."
"I can't tell if you intend good things for us or not. So you need me, and you need Ramon, and you need Aristede, and you need Klunk, all because we might be able to fight for you in...what cause was this? Some kind of rebellion? I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of the loop when it comes to politics."
"Are any of you going to sit down?" says the captain.
Aristede sits on a chair's armrest.
Ramon sits in a chair next to the captain and leans over on one armrest like he's about to tell the captain something interesting.
Klunk poles her way over to a chair and hovers over the seat.
I place the mummified skull on one of the comfy chairs. "This poor sap deserves more of a break than I do. Now, about that rebellion. Is this a matter of attempting to overthrow the galactic government? Or just secession? You know what, never mind. I just want to know what kind of money we're being paid for this. Actually, you know what, that issue can wait. There are certain PRESSING matters to attend to. Aristede, you said the Student Loan Company had got a hold of your own Barracuda. Was that the only powerful and useful vehicle in your garage?"
"I'm afraid not," says Aristede.
"How many did you have then?"
The ship shudders. The lights in the room turn red. Warning sirens sound throughout the ship. The captain does not apear fazed. He grabs a communicator, fiddles with it and calmly speaks into it, "Action stations. All hands to the guns, set deflector shields to maximum." His voice echoes in the hallways. He smiles at me, and says, "Well, well, captain of the Red Barracuda. It seems you will have to show us your mettle after all. Come." He rises, and pushes a button on the wall. "I must trust you to use your vehicle in our defense."
The wall panel slides away. Behind it is a staircase leading downwards. He beckons us to follow him, and then strides down the stairs, as if he were descending a Grand Staircase to greet a distinguished guest.
We reach the bottom less quickly than I would like. The ship is still shuddering. It;s making the lights on the ceiling jiggle, and in the jiggling light the Red Barracuda looks slightly larger than it is. Various technicians who have been surrounding the car scurry away.
We pile into the car. Ramon starts the car and rolls up the windows.
I glance at him and raise an eyebrow.
"We don't actually know what we're dealing with out there," says Ramon. "Could be a meteor field. Could be space junk. Could be the Student Loan fleet coming to get us."
The captain of the Space Slug has disappeared, as have the technicians. All doorways to the area have closed. There is a mechanical drone, and the floor beneath us gives way as its two doors swing outward.
Ramon pitches the car towards the exit and we make our way out into space.
There's no Student Loan fleet that we can see. Not from this angle, anyway. Nor any meteorite field. No sign of an actual Space Slug trying to eat the ship. The night around us is fairly empty, save for the star being devoured and the bright line across the blackness.
Ramon flies the car upward and over the ship. Still no sign of anyone or anything. Until we spot it -- in the distance, a gleam followed by a beam of pink light whose spread covers a good five percent of the Space Slug's entire outer hull. Ramon hits the gas and we fly forward, over the long hull, until we spot the source of the trouble.
A silver car, far more pointy than ours. It's dodging around the laster fire that the Space Slug is returning.
"They got the cars," said Aristede. "They're using MY cars. That's MY Aston Martin Lagonda."
"You wanted to own that piece of crap?" says Klunk.
"For good reason!" says Aristede. "Whoever had it last managed to install a very powerful laser. I had fun blasting the surface of Charon until my father told me to stop scaring the Plutonians. Hmph. Anyway, yes, I wanted to own that car, and I got it, because my father can get anything for me. You really think it's a piece of crap?"
"It's British Leyland," says Klunk. "everything they make post-1970 is crap. My people treat them as tests of adulthood. If you can manage to improve the stupid things while maintaining the body of the car, that's supposed to be a sign you're worthy to work with the more important stuff."
"You shouldn't have maintained the body," I say. "It's a terrible design. Let's get in closer, see if we can hail whoever is in the car."
Ramon glances at me. "Sure you want to do that, Captain? They've got a gun that could blow us to bits before we can get away."
"Stop calling me the captain. And set forward deflector shields to maximum."
We fly towards the offending vehicle. When we are within two kilometers, its attacks cease. The car turns toward us.
"Maybe we should be getting out of its direct line of fire," says Ramon.
"Too late for that," I say, "everything in fronf of it for a kilometer is within its line of fire. We have to hope that it doesn't want to -- "
The world goes pink. Something hits us with enough force to slam my head back into the headrest. When the light fades, the space outside the car is spinning over us. Or, as the case might be, we are spinning end-over-end along the length of the ship. In space you could call it either way.
Ramon manages to slow our spin down until we're pointed at the Aston Martin in the distance. It has returned to attacking the Space Slug.
"Let's go at it again," I say, "Only this time, we're going to take it out."
Ramon turns back to Aristede. "Did you ever figure out if this thing has weapons?"
"Still no idea," says Aristede. "I'd love to have some right now, though. We're bringing a fist to a gunfight here."
"I don't remember if we installed any," says Klunk. "We must have, but that wasn't the goal."
"Never mind," I say, "we don't need any to take this car out. All we need is to get it moving too fast. Ramon, take us in on a zizagging arc with random zigs and zags. We want to get as close as possible to the car before we deploy the ultimate weapon."
"The ultimate...what do you have up your sleeve that I don't?"
"Never mind. Just go."
Ramon turns the car away from the ship and puts us into an evasive pattern. As we fly towards the Aston Martin, I reach into the glove box and pull out a marker and sketch paper.
"That's an ultimate weapon?" says Aristede.
"All we have to do is get the car moving towards us. An Aston can chase a Barracuda but not outrun it. If it overheats -- "
"My people must have changed out the CRT screens," says Klunk. "what you're thinking of won't work."
"We have to give it a shot."
We're close to the Aston now. It's still busy attacking the Space Slug, still dodging around the returning fire. We're about a kilometer away now. The Aston turns toward us. Ramon pulls us up and away, then forward, then sideways, then down. The Aston's laser beam just misses us.
"If I've managed to time it right," I say, "the big pink laser has to wait about twenty seconds between charges. That's about as much time as we have to close the distance and pull up alongside. Hit the gas, Ramon."
Ramon pushes the car forward I count down the seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen. The Aston is stil dodging the ship's fire but it's keeping its laser trained on us. Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen. The big pink laser is chargin up. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. The laser is getting brighter. Ten. Nine. Eight. The Aston is getting closer. Seven. Six. Five. The space in front of the laser is wavering like a glass in front of an opera singer. Four. Three. Two.
We pull up alongside the Aston and I slap the pad of paper up to the window. It reads, WHATEVER YOU HOPE TO GAIN BY DOING THIS, THE STUDENT LOAN COMPANY WILL PROBABLY PAY YOU MORE IF YOU CAPTURE FOUR FUGITIVES IN A 1970 BARRACUDA.
The Aston's laser powers down.
Then it powers up again, glowing yellow.
"Evasive manuvers," I say. "Speed away, just enough to stay ahead."
Ramon pulls us out of the way of a yellow beam of light. As he pulls farther away, the Aston gives chase, until we're running about a quarter of a kilometer ahead, while dodging the Aston's tractor beam. Ramon is pushing the car's speed up slowly enough that the Aston has the ability to increase its own speed to follow us.
Faster and faster we fly over the hull of the Space Slug. The Barracuda is halfway to redlining. Which should mean...I glance in the rearview mirror. The Aston is a speck in the distance.
"Alright," I say, "I think that's done it. Let's go see if they're still alive in that car."
Ramon turns the Barrcuda around and we fly back to where the Aston dropped out of the race.
A yellow beam passes over the car. "Dammit!" says Ramon as he pulls the car away from the beam. "Whatever your scheme was, Robin, it didn't work. Now we do it my way."
"But we don't have any weapons," I say. "What do you want to do?"
"All engines ahead full, is what." Ramon turns up the volume knob on the stereo and the space in front of the car goes a little bit green. He turns the car towards the Aston, shifts to first gear and hits the gas.
The impact slams my head against the headrest again and makes the car shudder.
As for the Aston...
What I can see through its windshield someone raising three arms to shield their head from the sparks coming out of the dashboard.
"Well well well," says Klunk, "It looks as though you were right, Robin. Someone forgot to replace the CRTs after all."
"Can we get our assailant on board?" I say. "I've got some questions for them."
"We've got a tractor beam," says Aristede.
Aristede hits a button and we snag the disabled Aston in an orb of golden light.
Hopefully our mysterious assailant will be able to give us some answers back on board the ship.