“Men,” said the colonel, “It is your mission to rescue a downed ship on VZ Camelopardalis delta. Under no circumstances, are you to start a war. There has been far too much of that lately and we are running out of excuses at the UN to justify them all. Anyone who starts a war without permission will be docked two weeks pay and confined to barracks.”
Jones held up his hand, “Sir, is there any hostile life on the planet?”
“As far as we know,” said the colonel, “there is no life on the planet, bar the survivors of the crashed ship. You’re thinking - how can you start a war with no one to fight. Well, soldier I’ve heard of Skymarines start wars that wiped out whole civilizations with little more than a bar full of drunks and a ticket to the Luna Amusement Park. So, I repeat, under no circumstances are you to start any wars. Is that understood?”
“Yo!” came the general cry as they all stood to their feet and saluted.
“And one more thing,” said the colonel, “it has come to my attention that one of you may have robbed the Federal Reserve Bank on Globaxium. Now I’m not asking you to put it back, that wouldn’t be good for morale. Just don’t do it again. Dismissed.”
In fact, Jones had robbed the Federal Reserve Bank on Globaxium by walking in the front office and demanding they refund his used Luna Park ticket. They tried to refuse by explaining they didn’t run Luna Park. Jones explained the Luna Amusement Park was one of their customers, which meant the eleven dollars and fifty cents he felt he was due, was now in their vault. The bank clerk tried to explain the concept of money as a medium of exchange. Jones shook his head and pointed at the nine heavily armed Skymarines standing behind him in Hardlyaman armoured spacesuits, who had enough firepower to send the whole banking sector bank to using pebbles for rebates if they didn’t give him his refund soon. Shortly after Jones walked out with ten thousand Solaris credits and gift voucher to Macy’s.
The platoon regrouped back at the barracks and prepare for deployment. In past centuries pre-deployment was the most complicated aspect of any mission, as equipment was checked, letters were written and brothels were visited. But once humans had started on their conquest of the Galaxy, it had been discovered that all they really needed was spacesuit, a plasma rifle and a can-do attitude. It was the spacesuit that defined the Skymarines, a Hardlyaman generation why-didn’t-we-build-it-before armoured exoskeleton. Powered by a nuclear power cell of seven hundred and forty eight kilowatts, it provided enough power to run plasma rifle, life support and most importantly a video game console in their helmet if they got bored. That allowed Skymarines to survive indefinitely in virtually any environment, from nebula, to deep vacuum, to ocean and desert, almost any environment - baring a kindergarten, as nothing can survive a room filled with screaming five year olds.
“Never bring a banana to a sword fight,” said Jones, attaching his plasma rifle to his back.
“I thought the joke was never bring a gun to a sword fight,” said Mackie and laughed.
“Are you insane, have you seen what our Weapons can do?” Jones looked aghast.
This comment was completely appropriate, for the most important component of the Skymarines were their Weapons. Not your common garden variety, like plasma grenades, or plasma rifles, or plasma … well pretty anything with the word plasma in front of it was a weapon. No, the most important component of a Skymarine platoon was the ‘Gun’. A fully independent, walking nuclear power Gatling Gun with it’s own Turing level Sentient Ai. These Weapons were so formidable they were banned at every level of government from United Nations and Planets Security Council, down to the Junior Hockey League.
This didn’t stop the Skymarines from using them. As who was going to enforce a ban against weapon that could kill you three hundred times in the time it took to read the arrest warrant. The first Gun had killed its maker and most of the Engineering department within five minutes of it being switched on, and would have wiped out the entire university but had run out of ammunition. Because of it’s Turing Sentience, each Gun was unique in its personality, in the case of Mackie’s Gun; it seemed to be possessed by the Haitian god’s of Voodou, and at that moment it was talking to Mackie -the platoon sniper- about the coming mission.
“Is you kiddin' me,” the Gun said with a Haitian voice, “we gots'ta go t'some empty planet, wid out nuthin t'kill. Do ah' look likes some kid's toy? Is dis some blade ah' see befo'e me?”
It jumped about on its tiny servo legs like a deranged corgi.
“Hey,” Mackie tried to placate it, “mission is a mission.”
“Out, damn'd spot!” it shrieked, and for reasons no one understood, it often lapsed into Shakespeare when it was irate. “Right on! out, ah' say! Right on!—One; two, dig dis: why, den 'tis time t'do't. Man!—Hell be murky. Slap mah fro!—Fie, mah' lo'd, fie, some soldier, and afeard? Whut need we fear who knows it, when none kin call our pow'r t'accompt?—Yet who would gots dought da damn old joker to have had so's much blood in him?”
The Gun was truly terrifying; there was no such thing as being in the wrong hands when the Gun was concerned, it simply had to be in the same space as something moving and it would open fire. It often talked about the Haitian Voodou god Papa Legba as if it was in the room. This also was truly terrifying, as the Skymarines never knew when it might suddenly decide to sacrifice one of them on an altar, if it couldn’t find a convenient chicken.
They boarded the Nebulae Class Star Cruiser Aunty Jack en-route to VZ Camelopardalis, a M-type red giant 473 light years from Earth. One minute later they de-boarded the Nebulae Class Star Cruiser Aunty Jack at their destination. Hyperlightspeed travel was awfully fast.
They then boarded a shuttle and began their descent to the planet. This took seven hours. Planetary travel was awfully slow.
“Jonsey,” said Dorfmann their com-specialist, as they fell through the clouds, “I’ve picked up a homing beacon.”
“Does it play Hili-Tetris?” asked Jones.
“More along the lines of Arrrggghh… argghgh,” Dorfmann grimaced.
“Must be some new Jungle Techno Punk Rock, feck I hate that stuff,” said Jones.
“No,” said Dorfmann, “I think that’s the distress call.”
“Aliens? Is it aliens?” said Jones, “they’re worse than musicians this side of the Galaxy.”
“Uh, no Jonsey,” said Dorfmann, “I’m pretty sure it’s a cry for help.”
“Shouldn’t they be saying help or mayday?” asked Jones.
“Maybe its code?” said Mackie in his mournful Southern accent.
“Code for what?” asked Jones, “Help me I’m being torn to pieces by a paper shredder? Help me I’m wearing plaid? Or worst of all, help me I’m a musician?”
“Jonsey, you need to get off the idea of music in a space-rescue,” said Dorfmann.
“Yeah,” Jones persisted, “but if you put all those helps together, you get a musician wearing a tartan playing a Xerox machine, and trust me they’re out there! They are out there!”
Jones watched the glow of the planet’s atmosphere burning up the forward screen of the shuttle as they descended through the lower atmosphere. Outside the shuttle the temperature was above four thousand degrees Celsius, enough to melt glass and incinerate all of them in a brief flash. Planetary descent had never ceased to be extraordinarily dangerous.
“Did we bring marshmallows,” said Jones, looking through the survival kit, as the ship shuddered violently, “tell me we brought marshmallows.”
“I can see a LZ by that tree near that river,” said Mackie leaning over Jones’ shoulder and pointing down to the planet a thousand feet below.
“Where?” Jones looked up with surprise from a box of chocolate he had discovered.
“By that tree,” Mackie pointed again vaguely in the direction of an enormous deciduous forest beneath them.
“That’s a forest,” Jones snapped back, then grinned when he discovered a bag of marshmallows in the emergency survival kit.
“Yes, but in the centre of that forest is a tree with a bird on it,” Mackie insisted.
“Mackie stop showing off,” Jones looked annoyed at his sniper, “if your eyesight is that good, how come I found the marshmallows?”
Jones’ platoon was souped up on retro-virals to give them superhuman abilities, like faster reflexes, better eyesight. In Mackie’s case, his eyes had been grafted with the retro-viral from a golden eagle and he could spot an illegal hooch-still at a thousand yards. Svensson had the reflexes of a mongoose, but for reason he couldn’t explain he was terrified of garden hoses. Dorfmann was their communications expert, his exobiology had come an African Grey Parrot which meant the platoon had a great deal of trouble getting him to shut up.
In Jones’ case he had been given DNA from Einstein’s brain. This last one had the paradoxical effect of making him occasionally smarter than all of his officers, but his native stupidity was often at war with the intelligent part of his brain, hence the obsession with trivial things like potato crisps or cartoons, anything but the mission. Eckelshammer was an Austrian giant, more known for his ability to punch out service robots than his communication skills, oddly he had no retro-virals, as the medics thought he was a medical experiment already gone wrong.
They landed in the middle of the forest by the simple expedient of dropping a RLB-83, the Really Large Bomb was a daisy-cutter bomb in the shape of a duck, it was the size of a football and held enough explosive to strip the chlorophyll from the hardiest of daisies. Anything living simply evaporated like a mist before the morning sun. Shaped like a duck for camouflage, soldiers in a war zone would often look up and see a mallard gliding down towards them and say to themselves –‘Is it duck season, already?’ This in general were their last words, and gave new meaning to the phrase “Duck! For Feck’s Sake! Duck!”
Jones stepped out of the shuttle and wondered where the nearest video store was, an odd thought given they were ten light years from the nearest Torus space station and video hadn’t existed for two hundred years.
“I say we go that way!” Jones pointed vaguely in the direction of a giant flattened tree.
“Why?” Svensson asked.
“Have you a better suggestion?” Jones replied.
“Then that direction it is, and until someone relieves me of command, that’s the direction it’s going to be.”
Jones was a corporal, they were all corporals, and it says a lot for the chain of command, that the Galactic Command had forgotten to include a chain of command in their mission. Jones was normally elected their commander by the other grunts because of his extraordinary ability to stay alive. He put this down to having enough of Einstein’s brain to know what danger was, and enough of a cowardly limbic system to recognize the difference between certain death and where the nearest bar was hiding.
“I got a fix on the homing beacon,” Dorfmann said looking down at his com-ink console.
“Can you play games on that thing?” Jones asked looking over his shoulder.
“No,” Dorfmann explained wearily. “It’s a com-link console, as you very well know.”
“Is it a general purpose Turing Ai?” Jones retorted, knowing all to well it was.
“Well, yes,” Dorfmann rolled his eyes, knowing what was coming.
“So, it could write a game while we’re rescuing these yokels, couldn’t it?” Jones insisted. “Right, tell it to write an first person shooter game. That’s an order.”
“Gah!” was all Dorfmann could manage, and then set about reprogramming a highly expensive military piece of hardware just to entertain Jones.
“I can see the ship,” Mackie said standing on the smashed tree stump.
“Any survivors?” Jones said, and immediately followed before a reply with, “No, right then let’s go. I’m sure we can make it back before the …”
“I can see a flag and smoke from a fire,” Mackie said, looking down the sight of his plasma rifle. “There are clothes drying out, and it looks like they’re built a tepee from branches.”
“Feck!” Jones snarled, “We really do have to rescue them. Right Mackie you and the Gun take point. Eckels you take the six. Let’s go.”
“Ja,” said Eckelshammer, this pretty much summed up an entire conversation with Eckelshammer on virtually any subject.
The Gun and Mackie led them out. The nuclear power Gatling Gun bounced from rock to tree branch with the agility of a spider monkey looking for mangoes. An extremely dangerous spider monkey, mind you, it jumped about on tiny servos legs with all the animation of that spider monkey on Benzedrine, with enough firepower to liquidate of all … let’s say … Napoleon’s Grande Armée in about an hour, and the word ‘liquidate’ exactly describes the state the Grande Armée would be in, if the Gun were ever to discover how to travel back in time – but that’s another story.
It saw a bird land on a tree nearby. A moment later the tree disappeared and the bird flew off.
“It gots away!” it said quoting Shakespeare’s Juliet, “Sweet, so's would I, Yet ah' should waste dee wid much cherishin'. Slap mah fro!”
The Skymarines didn’t care what it shot, as long as it wasn’t them. Arguing with it to go against its natural programming was tantamount to a very unique form of suicide. In any normal psychological profile the Gun would have been categorized as a stage four psychopath, but again no psychologist with a breath of sanity would dare criticise a patient whose response to - what is your first memory? Is to shoot every living and nonliving thing in sight. Oddly, unless the Gun attached to Mackie’s Hardlyaman suit was such a terrible shot that ducking for cover would more than likely ensure your survival.
Mackie made a hand signal to indicate there was a contact up ahead. Jones and the platoon dropped to the ground. Then predictably and Jones should have predicted this, the Gun opened up with a salvo of firepower that not only stripped the bark from the trees - it stripped the trees from the soil.
“Cease fire!” Jones yelled worried they were shooting the survivors.
“Whut?” The Gun shrieked and bounced around on its legs to point its barrel back down the line of the platoon toward Jones. Immediately everyone dove for cover. “Whut gots ya' lost yo' mind?” It screamed, as a torrent of bullets invaded the area the Skymarines had just occupied.
“Cease fire! Please!” Jones quailed, hiding behind a large boulder. “It’s not an invasion! It’s a rescue mission!”
“Oh, be dat all,” the Gun seemed almost contrite, “Ya' could gots'tald me, ah' plum could gots stayed at muh crib.”
Gingerly Mackie crept up and took the clip of ammo from the Gun’s receiver.
“Bad Gun!” he said, shaking his finger at his pet, “Bad Gun!”
The Gun rotated its robotic eyes on their servos stalks like the eyes of a crayfish which suddenly realizes it has just eaten its own children.
“Right then,” Jones looked up from behind his boulder, “let’s get those people out of here, before we have to start burying our own.”
They quickly passed through the bush, Jones making sure the Gun was without ammo, and entered the clearing. A tepee of branches and leafs rose beside a fire, a group of men with trim beards watched them warily.
“Are you here for the review or to kill us?” said one old man, holding up a pot filled with holes.
“Sorry, sorry about the shooting,” Jones lifted his visor, “training exercise gone wrong.”
“You shot my rabbit stew,” the old man shook the pot.
“Really, really sorry, would you like a marshmallow?” said Jones hoping to defuse a diplomatic nightmare.
“Oh - I’ve dreamed of marshmallows for years,” the old man’s eyes sparkled, “I’ve drooled thinking of them, those soft white tender buttons of sugar. The way they squish under my tongue and catch in my teeth. Ah well, pity I’m a diabetic, got any oatmeal?”
Jones hit himself in the side of the helmet with frustration. “Anyways,” he sighed, “We’re here to rescue you. Are you all survivors?”
“You are survivors from the crashed ship, aren’t you?” Jones asked.
“Oh it’s far worse than that,” said another, “we’ve been kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped,” Jones grinned, “Even better, Skymarines to the rescue. Tell us who they are and …”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” the old man waved Jones to a halt, “we’re a xeno-sociologists research team. We came here to study a unique form of xenospecies on this planet. Their culture revolves almost entirely around entertainment, like plays, singing, music and so on. They’re obsessed with entertainment and entertaining. So you see, the aliens, haven’t so much kidnapped us, as holding us for a review.”
“But you sent out a S.O.O.S on the universal distress frequency,” Jones countered.
“No, they did, basically they’re lured you here to watch them perform,” the old man he watched Jones with beady eyes, “you’re the next audience. Tricky hey?”
“I knew it!” Jones hit his fist into his palm, “Musicians! The vilest form of life in the universe, this means war!”
“We can’t,” Maguire said at Jones’ shoulder.
“Course we can, we’re Skymarines aren’t we?” Jones shot back.
“Orders not to start a war, remember.”
“Feck!” Jones snarled and turned back to the old man, “wait, didn’t they start the war by kidnapping you?”
“We’ll we came here of our own accord,” the old man explained, “Really we’re studying them. It’s a bizarre symbiotic relationship we have with them, they sing and dance, and we write erudite papers about their social significance of their song cycles. Kind of a win-win situation, in fact, I’ll probably get tenure from the University from this expedition. Ah, tenure.”
“Fine!” Jones threw his hands up in the air and turned to his platoon, “We’re leaving, back to the shuttle lads.”
“I doubt that,” the old man snickered.
Jones whirled around and stared at him suspiciously.
“Why’s that?” Jones barked.
“You’ll see, you’ll see,” the old man grinned and went back to examining his bullet-shot cooking pot.
Jones had a bad feeling creeping along the back of his neck, the sort you associate with visiting the headmistress after setting fire to the library and finding she only wants you to put on a nurse uniform while she bends you over her knee. It was not a nice feeling.
“Quick, back to the shuttle,” Jones yelped and ran down the path, “double time, no wait, triple time, and can we do triple time? No wait, just run!”
When they arrived back at the shuttle they discovered it had been wrecked, its electronics torn out and strewed about the cabin, the seats had been shredded, the windows cracked, and the manifold to the engine had been smashed to the point where they could see the radioactive core glowing like a small sun.
“Oh feck!” Jones screamed, “The band has been here.”
“Some with the musicians already!” Dorfmann yelled at him.
Jones looked at Svensson their platoon pilot and began strapping himself into what was left of his flight chair. “Can you make it fly?”
“Um,” Svensson puckered his lips looking around the cabin, and not wanting to disappoint, “well…”
“Is that a yes?” said Jones ignoring the obvious like a lion tamer not realizing it can’t tame a great white shark by cracking whip at it and holding a chair.
“Short answer, no,” Svensson shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Long answer, are you completely blind?”
“So no then,” Jones sighed. “Fine, Dorfy signal the Aunty Jack we need another shuttle. Don’t make it sound like we need rescue.”
Dorfmann did a calculation and punched some buttons on his sleeve console. “They’re on the other side of the planet,” he explained, “won’t be in range for about four days.”
“Four days?” Jones was incredulous, “Four days? What orbit takes four days?”
“There’s a large asteroid field all around this planet,” Dorfmann explained in his slow pedantic manner, “they have to guide their way through it carefully.”
“But it only took a second to get here on Hyperlightspeed,” Jones almost wailed. “We have to leave, this planet has musicians! Musicians! Does no one understand how bad this is?”
“Sorry Jonsey,” Dorfmann smiled, “Hyperlightspeed fast, low orbit slow.”
“Fine!” Jones snarled, “We’ll wait here in the shuttle. First sign of a backup cover-band we nuke the planet. Orders or no orders and that’s an order.”
“We can’t nuke the planet,” said Maguire, “we’re on the planet.”
And then the part of Jones’ brain, which had once belonged to Einstein had an idea. “Why haven’t we seen them?”
“Or for that matter,” said Mackie, “heard them?”
“Oh feck! It’s worse than I thought!” Jones screamed as his brain reverted to the non-Einsteinian part, “Invisible Mimes!”
“Yeah…” Maguire said slowly. “Jonsey, how did you get in the Skymarines?”
“I can’t remember I think I got drunk.”
“Me too, but at least I’m not terrified of invisible mimes!” Maguire yelled at him.
“You will be! You will be!” Jones became frantic.
Then came the sound of singing around the clearing, a low melodious round of song that sounded vaguely like “in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the dropbears sleep tonight…”
“No!” Jones screamed, “worse than mimes – choristers!”
“What is it - with you and musicians?” Maguire smashed out a window for a firing port.
“I was dating these twins…” Jones began.
“What, both of them?” Maguire grinned.
“They were cute,” Jones snapped back, “not just cute twins, I mean gorgeous twins and the normal rules of this universe and society just don’t apply to cute twins. Anyway long story, short ending, this feckin’ lead singer from this retro-punk band with powder-puff hairstyle walked off with them during my second date with the twins, I was so close to the impossible duplex. Musicians, they’re evil I tell you, evil …evil.”
Maguire leant his head back and rolled his eyes. “In that case, I say we nuke the planet, regardless of us being on it.”
The song outside repeated it refrain. “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the dropbears sleeps tonight…”
“Does anyone know what a dropbear is?” Jones asked. “I bet they have great big teeth and …”
“Jonsey,” said Mackie, “We have great big guns. Skymarines, remember?”
“That’s it!” Jones was jubilant, “that’s the reason, well that’s one of the reasons I joined up. I get to shoot musicians! On my order open fire.”
“Really?” Dorfmann was quite surprised, “we’re opening fire on a bunch of harmless musos?”
“There is nothing harmless in a nineteen year old lead singing wearing black leather, crocodile shoes and white powder-puff wig. Nothing! Now fire!”
From the smashed windows of the shuttle erupted enough plasma fire and plasma grenades to melt a whole mountain of testosterone fuelled, hip gyrating girlfriend stealing post-adolescent lead singers. All of the Skymarines failed to notice that they had yet to see anyone poking their heads through the trees, and the singing continued unabated. After about three minutes they had run out of ammunition.
“I’m out,” said Mackie pouring water on his nuclear powered gatling Gun.
“Feed me, ya' idiot,” the Gun started shrieking as the water poured over it, “I'm hungry fo' de lead!”
“Jonsey, we’re out,” said Maguire, “what now?”
“How can we be out?” Jones looked worried, “this is the supply shuttle.”
“Yes, but we didn’t put any supplies on it.”
“Right then, fix bayonets!” Jones yelled.
“We don’t have bayonets, no one has bayonets.” Maguire yelled, “This isn’t the Charge of the Light Brigade!”
Jones pulled out his Swiss Army Knife, found the largest blade and set about duct-taping it to the barrel of his plasma rifle.
“Maybe we should just wait and see what they want?” suggested Dorfmann, “after all they haven’t shot back. Besides, they do seem to hold a tune really well.”
“Traitor!” Jones yelled.
Outside the strains of “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the dropbears sleep tonight…” were winding to a close.
“You know,” said Mackie, “you’d think they would have run away, after all the firepower we just unloaded on them.”
“Maybe they thought it was fireworks?” suggested Dorfmann.
A small creature about a meter high and covered with fur, walked on two legs some way out from the under growth, stood in the sun, and quietly coughed. It then looked at them and blinked for a few moments, as if expecting something. The Skymarines crowded around the door and stared back at it, not sure if this was a peace party or if it was demanding their surrender. Behind them Jones was busily cursing to himself as the makeshift bayonet on his plasma rifle kept falling apart. The strange creature puts its hands akimbo and tapped its foot.
“It definitely wants something,” suggested Maguire.
“I think we should clap,” Dorfmann put forward. “Can’t hurt.”
Slowly the Skymarines clapped their hands together, more a show of acknowledgement than appreciation. The creature smiled, gave a short bow and then without further ado toddled back into the forest.
“It’s a dropbear,” Maguire said quietly.
“A what?” Dorfmann said.
“A dropbear,” Maguire explained, “Animals were once space-lifted off Earth to preserve them and dropped on planets round the galaxy to maintain their genepool. Well, that’s the only explanation I can think of.”
“But it’s talking, and singing,” Dorfmann countered. “Singing quite well, I should think.”
“Somebody must have put retro-virals in them, human retro-virals,” Maguire slowly nodded his head as he thought it through.
Dorfmann laughed. “Let me get this right, somebody space-lifted a group of marsupials across part of the galaxy, dropped them off on a deserted planet, genetically re-engineered them and then taught them to sing madrigals?”
At that moment Jones burst through the Skymarines with a fork taped to the barrel of his plasma rifle and holding a nuclear bomb.
“It makes more sense than having Jones as platoon leader,” Maguire grinned, as they tackled Jones to the ground and disarmed him.
Nothing else happened until sunset, so they made camp about the remains of the shuttle and set watch. Wisely Jones’ platoon locked up the nukes and took his fork away from, on the off chance he might start a war with a Von Trapp Family equivalent of extra-planetary rabbits. It was the sort of thing he was like to do, even on his days off. As the stars began to shine, they noticed a set of torches and fire had been arranged on a hill nearby, it was as if the marsupials were inviting them to a concert.
“It’s a trap!” Jones declared without consulting that part of his brain, which belonged to Einstein.
“Looks more like a shindig,” said Mackie looking through his rifle’s telescope sight.
“Shindigs can be traps!” Jones was vehement.
“Ja,” said the normally taciturn Eckelshammer.
Everyone looked at Eckelshammer, a man so taciturn people often mistook him for a mailbox.
“You’re saying Ja it’s a trap, or Ja it’s a shindig.”
“Ja vi is Skymarines.”
“Ah,” said Mackie, “and where there’s a party, there’s booze!”
“Ja,” Eckelshammer echoed in his own unique way.
“No it’s a trap!” Jones wailed, “You don’t understand how evil musicians really are!”
“Whatever it is,” said Maguire, “we should at least check it out. I don’t think these giant rats mean us harm, well yes, they ruined our shuttle but beyond that can anyone think of something they’ve done against us?”
Jones clawed at the air with his gauntlets. “That’s the very same thing I said when that feckin lead singer stole my girlfriends! Twins! Are you hearing me – Twins!”
So it was decided to investigate the campfires up on the hill and Jones was left in charge of the shuttle on the promise he didn’t try to use the nukes. They bound him to his promise by tying him to one of the flight chairs and letting him play the game Dorfmann had written on the com-link console using his neural implants. Jones was able to do all of this within the confines of his suit’s visor screen, and he seemed content as long as he didn’t have to deal with anything approaching a back up singer.
The troopers had not been gone five minutes when Jones, engrossed in his game, felt a tap on his shoulder. Cautiously he opened his visor with his neural implants and discovered a large nosed hairy creature was quite possibly smiling at him.
“Oh feck,” Jones said with a frozen stare somewhere between terror and loathing, “a groupie.”
Meanwhile the platoon made their way to the ring of torches burning in the night. An eerie silence pervaded what was obviously a stadium
“Is it just me,” said Dorfmann, “but has anybody else noticed, these rabbits have discovered fire?”
“Marsupials,” Maguire pointed out, “and yes.”
“So we listen to the music and in three days we leave on another shuttle?” asked Dorfmann.
“Unless, of course, Jones decides to nuke these creature back to the stone-age,” Maguire said, watching for an ambush.
“They already are in the stone-age,” Dorfmann retorted. “See any mobile phones? Wheels even? If they were any further back in the stone-age they’d be fighting off T-Rexs for their lunches.”
“Jones will find a way,” Maguire sucked his teeth, “that weird brain of his always finds a means, and under normal circumstances, I’d say let him blow the feck out of whatever is facing us, but here, new rules and we are safer with Jones out of it.”
The show began as the platoon entered the stadium, as from behind the trees an arc of dropbears holding torches walked out, singing a cappella that was somewhere between a Renaissance polyphony with a Barbershop style accompaniment.
“They’re really are good,” Dorfmann grinned and started tapping his foot. “I pay to see this.”
“Maybe we still will,” Maguire watched the wings in case there really was an ambush.
Mackie’s Gun started working itself up into a mindless frenzy, and reverted to its own unique version of Haitian Shakespeare. “Is dis some knife ah' see befo'e me, plum give me some darn ammo!” As it bounced around on its tiny servo feet targeting each of the three-foot high dropbears, with it’s laser sight and futilely clicking its firing mechanism. “Out, out darn spot!”
A shadow play began as the dropbears hoisted a tattered screen of sewn leaves and acted out an incomprehensible play about a starship and an army of men dressed in stone.
“I think that us,” said Dorfmann, his grin going hyper-elliptical. “I’m the handsome one.”
“We’re probably the first bit of inspiration they’ve had since those science geeks showed up,” said Mackie.
“I finding it very hard to believe a bunch of marsupials, even dropbears on human retro-virals, could put all this together,” Maguire muttered and then he quietly sighed, “Hmm.”
A voice came from behind the platoon and they all whirled round with the blinding skill the Skymarines were famed and feared throughout the Galaxy. “On a scale of one to ten,” The elderly scientist held a pen to a clipboard, “how would you rate the performance so far?”
Jones stared at the three-foot ball of fur sitting on his lap and wanted to scream. He then looked at the plastic fork still attached to his plasma rifle and wondered if he could trick the creature into impaling itself.
“Ha..ll…pp,” it seemed to sing to him in a warbling falsetto. “Ha..ll…pp.”
“Help!” Jones screamed in a way that would have made his boot camp sergeant slap his forehead in disgust.
The creature nodded in agreement and wailed again, “Ha..ll..pp!”
“I’m warning you, I’m trained to kill in over ten thousand different ways!” Jones yelled at the creature as he struggled powerlessly against his restraints. “Help!”
“Sa..ve…..us,” the creature continued. “Sa..ve….us!”
Then that part of Jones’ head which once belonged to Einstein’s brain was able to breach his normal state of stupidity.
"Wait, wait," was Jones’s astonished reply, "just a second. You want help?”
The creature nodded its head.
“You want me to help you?” he asked again, then looked at the rack of nuclear bombs on the ceiling. “How?”
“Fre..ee..dom,” it sang warbling, “Fre..ee..dom.”
Jones looked suspiciously at the overgrown rodent, “Is that a request, or an chorus?”
“St..op…us…si…ging…st..op..t.he…so..ngs..,” it explained as best it could.
Jones looked at the creature and smiled. “Rodent, now you’re singing my song. Let me free and I’ll set you free, but if you start singing, I’ll rip your feckin’ ears off!”
The dropbear quickly bit through Jones’ restraints and warily they stood up and faced other, well strictly speaking Jones stared down and wondered if her should simply beat it to death, but the dropbear wasn’t to know that.
“Good boy,” said Jones and open a bag for the critter, “have a marshmallow.”
“Fo..ll..ow…me,” it trilled and jumped up and down on the spot.
“No singing!” Jones pointed at the dropbear and grabbed his empty plasma rifle with fork attached, “See this?” He held it in the dropbear’s face, “Once false move and you’re dinner!”
The dropbear ran to the door and motioned with one paw for Jones to follow.
“Okay, but at the first sign of a nineteen seventies cover band, I’m nuking you and all the other furballs on this planet.”
They ran through the forest, the dropbear bouncing from tussock to tussock, and Jones followed behind encased in his Hardlyaman exoskeleton space suit leaping through the air like a kangaroo on severely hard drugs. A cluster of buildings appeared in the gloom, no illumination was visible but Jones could tell it was a set of prefabricated houses, not at all what he expected from a crashed spaceship.
“Lab…or..ato..ry,” The dropbear sang pointing at the largest structure.
“Lavatory, no I already, oh you mean laboratory,” said Jones and a puzzled expression came over his face, “what the feck is going on?”
“So, next question,” the elderly scientist was still marking his way down a checklist on the platoon’s response to the show. “On a scale of one to ten, would you recommend your friends to a concert like this?”
“Umm?” Maguire pondered, as the rest of the Skymarines stood around looking uncomfortable.
“Don’t answer that question!” Jones yelled running up the hill, with the dropbear on his back. “Stop the music! Stop the show!”
“Jonsey!” Dorfmann yelled, “it’s okay, they’re harmless.”
“The rodents maybe, but they’re not!” Jones came to a halt as everything fell silent and he pointed wildly at the scientists, “These aren’t xeno-sociologists! They’re music producers!”
“Oh feck,” muttered the kindly old man. “Who ratted?”
“What?” Maguire said with half an eye on the scientists.
“It’s an experiment alright,” Jones said, as he pointed his fork at the erstwhile scientists, “but the subjects aren’t dropbears. It wasn’t the dropbears that ruined our shuttle it was those guys. The dropbears are people, real people reverse engineered to look like singing dropbears. Those musicians are people! All genetically reengineered to be the next biggest musical craze to sweep the Galaxy. We’re not here to rescue them all; we’re here to evaluate their market potential. It’s a music poll!”
Three days later the Star Cruiser Aunty Jack hove into orbit above the crashed ship and a second shuttle was dispatched. Jones was awarded a medal for gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds; the scientists were arrested by the USPCA and spent the rest of their lives making possum boxes for orphaned marsupials. The dropbears went off to form the Wild Ass Wombats, an electro-punk megadeath band that specialised in a line of all guitar marsupials playing covers of Buddy Holly, a band that Jones never managed to see.