The platoon had been falling through space for three days now, they had long run out of things to discuss and the thought of elevator music was driving Jones mad. It wasn’t that he was listening to muzak, rather the thought that even if there were elevator music in the vacuum around him he would never hear it. Since he was steadily falling towards the Gas Giant Neptune and was eventually going to be crushed under ten thousand giga-pascals and five thousand degrees temperature, as his platoon of Skymarines discovered the downside of gravity, the thought of elevator music should have been the last thing to worry about.
Eckelshammer had started humming the Girl from Ipanema.
“Stop that! Stop that now!” Jones yelled at his Austrian squad specialist, whose speciality was to somehow sound like a Bavarian tuba and crack skulls with his fists.
“Ja Jonsey, but…” Eckelshammer floated like the rest of them in the dim light above Neptune.
Jones felt his mind crumbling in the face of certain demise. He had been tortured as a child by a psychologist with a minor in musicology, who held theories even more esoteric than Freud’s belief of stuffing cotton up noses to cure insomnia.
“But nothing!” Jones yelled, “The Girl from Ipanema is the last thing I want to hear when we get crushed to death.”
Oddly enough, in the early space missions NASA had piped the Girl from Ipanema into the space capsules to stop boredom and reassure the astronauts, it never occurred to mission control that anyone crazy enough to be strapped to a missile with the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb and a poorly tested re-entry system, probably didn’t need to know– ‘how when she walks, she walks like a Samba.’
“We need a plan, we need a plan,” Jones repeated to himself.
“Yes Jonsey, we do need a plan,” Maguire offered, “we also need a space ship, or a lot of parachutes, feck - even a gas giant submarine wouldn’t go amiss at this stage.”
“Come on brain,” Jones banged his helmet with his gauntlets and stared helplessly at the swirling ball of hydrogen and methane that was dragging them to their death, “you’ve never let me down before.”
This was certainly correct, for a small part of Jones’ brain had once belonged to Albert Einstein, unfortunately it was the part that dealt with hunger and fear, and it was that part of Einstein’s DNA had been inserted into Jones’ brain in boot camp. This made him possibly the smartest Skymarine in all the fleet; it also made him clever enough to know certain death when he was hanging a thousand kilometres above Neptune without a radio or even a bagel to comfort him.
Three days before, the Star Cruiser Simone de Beauvoir had suddenly entered orbit above Neptune, and Commodore Haldeman had kicked Jones and his entire platoon off the giant spacecraft, marooning them in space for having the temerity to start a brothel in a nebulae class starship nurses’ quarters. At the time, Jones had thought it a brilliant idea, as the nurses were all too willing to earn some extra Solaris, the ship’s infirmary had ready-made beds, and it had a perfect location above a ship with seven thousand, sex starved spacemen. What Jones had neglected to do was bribe the ships’ chief medical officer, who upon finding her entire complement of nurses were spending their entire day sponge bathing Skymarines had gone orbital with fury, and demanded Jones and his men be shot into the nearest black hole. Commodore Haldeman had taken a middle path and simply dropped off the platoon in freefall above Neptune and then neglected to pick them up again eight hours later as he promised.
It was now three days later and Jones knew he was going to die.
Jones went through the possibilities in his head. He knew they wouldn’t run out of oxygen as their Hardlyaman generation why-didn’t-we-build-it-before armoured exoskeleton generated seven hundred and forty eight kilowatts. More than enough power to recycle oxygen, water and if they were really desperate recycled solid waste as food - this last option was one not even a Skymarine would succumb to, no matter how rigorous their training.
Because of the Van Allen belts around Neptune, the comlink band was on the fritz, those glowing magnetic fields that shielded the gas giant from deadly cosmic rays and charged particles also damped out the radio signals. Why a planet totally devoid of life felt the need to shield itself is a question for philosophers and people who watch too many late night space operas.
The only slim possibility of rescue was one of the giant robotic helium scoops drifting their way and swallowing them up like a whale. Inside they would compressed and shunted into a giant gas bottles until collection ten years later. This seemed equally depressing to Jones and all his options lead to being crushed into a tiny pellet. He was beginning to think running a brothel was a bad idea.
Jones and his platoon floated in the abyss and continued falling towards Neptune, as uninvited, the Girl from Ipanema started playing in his head.
“Feck!” he yelled and made claws out of his gauntlets. Unlike the rest of the Skymarines, Jones had enough of Einstein’s brain to know fear and the importance of fear in keeping him alive. While they had been trained to end their meaningless existence in an empty part of the galaxy over a trivial infraction of space law, part of Jones’ brain was shrieking at him that unless he figured out a means of escape he would never meet the Girl from Ipanema, and this was driving him crazy.
“Ideas? Anyone!” he yelled on the comlink umbilical that linked the platoon together in a daisy chain.
“We could slingshot one of us, to put the rest of us into a higher orbit,” suggested Mackie in his dour southern accent.
“Won’t the one left behind be flung even faster into the Neptune?” asked Jones worriedly.
“Sure, but the rest of us would be okay.”
“Ah,” Maguire’s voice sounded almost bright over the comlink, “how do we choose?”
“We could pick straws,” Dorfmann prompted.
“Have you got any straws?” asked Jones, “or anything at all we use?”
“Then the strawman option is out, anything else?”
“We could fire the plasma rifles at the planet,” Mackie again suggested.
“How will that help us?” Jones would have scratched his head if that weren’t a lethal thing to do in space.
“Well,” Mackie said in a voice that said reams about Louisiana backwaters and the dangers of inbreeding, “Neptune has lots of methane, if we set fire to the methane, the planet will explode and we can float free.”
Jones simply didn’t know how to explain this one to Mackie and choose not to: “Any other suggestions, that don’t involve blowing up the fourth largest planet in the solar system?”
“If we could control our descent, we could go into a flyby orbit and use the whole planet as slingshot?” suggested Svensson coming out of a three days silence. “We could make wings or something.”
“Wings?” Jones also didn’t know how to answer this one, “wings?”
“Like birds,” insisted Svensson.
“Birds?” Jones rolled his eyes. “Does anyone have any feathers or even any material to make wings?”
“Or something like wings,” Svensson would have put his foot down, but he had nothing to stand on.
“I don’t know!” Svensson yelled, “You’ve supposed to have the brains! You tell us!”
Jones took a deep breath and said “Okay, wait, wait, just a second."
They waited and continued to fall towards the giant vividly blue planet.
“Van Allen belts,” he finally breathed out. “Can we use the Van Allen belts?”
“How? I mean, really, how?” asked Maguire.
They could almost hear the sweat pouring out of Jones’ forehead. “The Van Allen belts push charged particles along to either the equator or the poles, so…” Jones took another breath.
“So, if we charge our suits!” Maguire yelled.
“Then Neptune’s magnetic field will push us along!” finished Svensson.
“And we might hit orbital speed!” Jones yelped.
There was a moment’s silence that was interrupted by the platoon’s sniper. “Or we could just shoot at the planet,” Mackie put in, “it’s got to have some methane.”
Charging the suits presented no problem at all, as part of the exoskeleton’s defence against radiation was a skin of charged metal. Overriding the safety protocols on their comps and setting the charge well into the ultraviolet dangerous setting was a problem they didn’t even bother to consider. Soon, they felt an almost imperceptible push to their suits, the safety lines connecting Skymarines together went taunt, and Jones could have sworn the great blue planet begin to move beneath him.
“I think it’s working!” Maguire yelled.
“It’s like disco,” Jones said.
“What?” Maguire said in amazement.
“Its like disco,” Jones explained gleefully, “here we are dancing across the stars, beneath a giant disco ball. Just like disco.”
“It’s nothing like disco,” Maguire laughed hysterically, “it’s magic.”
“Ja, but is science,” Eckelshammer pointed out with inflexible Teutonic reasoning, “not disco, not magic.”
“Okay!” Jones grinned and started dancing for joy, “but let hear it for Jonsey!”
“Now what?” Svensson toned in, “I mean, all we’ve done is put off our expected death.”
“First,” Jones not willing to let the accolades slip away, “let’s hear it for Jonsey!”
“You got us here in the first place with your idea for a brothel,” Svensson pointed out.
“That was a good idea,” Jones felt a little crestfallen. “One of my best, I would have thought.”
“If it gets us all killed,” Svensson insisted, “then it’s your worst.”
“You must really have a fun Christmas in your house,” Jones frowned at Svensson, “don’t you?”
“Are we going closer or further from the planet?” Svensson refused to bite.
“Nothing in the Christmas stockings?” Jones got snarky on Svensson, “missed out on the mistletoe with your not too distant cousin?”
“Are we getting closer or further from the planet?” Svensson still refused to budge.
“When you sat on Santa’s lap did he give you a great big present?”
“I still have my plasma rifle,” Svensson became quite threatening, “and are we moving closer or further from the planet?”
Jones gave up and shrugged. “I don’t know, does anyone have a ladder to measure the height? I mean really, how do we figure out our height above a gas giant?”
“If we are getting closer, the diameter will increase,” Maguire pulled out a sextant and measured the apparent width of Neptune.
“Where did you get that from?” Jones looked in annoyance at Maguire and his sextant.
“We all have them,” and with this, the entire platoon pulled out field sextants and measured the width of Neptune.
“I thought they were chopsticks,” Jones grumbled and looked the other way.
After half an hour they all agreed Neptune was ever so slightly moving away.
“Let’s hear it for Jonsey!” Maguire yelled cheekily.
“Oh that moment is long past,” Jones fumed, “trust me, long gone.”
“Now what?” Svensson asked.
“Would you stop it with the negativity!” Jones snapped, “We’re no longer falling to our deaths and sooner or later the Simone de Beauvoir will be back to pick us up. Just take a little waiting, that’s all.”
“Didn’t you once hack into the Simone de Beauvoir navigation computer just so we could have a holiday on Globaxium, the pleasure orbital?” Maguire asked.
“It was navigational error, could have happened to anyone,” Jones shook his head vigorously.
“Didn’t you use the Simone de Beauvoir to tow the Space Dome over Texas just for a space-football match?”
“Hey,” Jones folded his arms, “the Skymarines won that game!”
“And doesn’t Commodore Haldeman have it in for you,” Maguire grinned in his helmet, “because of that time you sold the Simone de Beauvoir to a scrap metal dealer?”
“Never proven!” Jones pointed at the sky, which was in any direction he cared for, “It was never proved, or at least Haldeman never proved it!”
“I rest my case,” Maguire sighed, “we are going to die.”
“Never!” Jones shrieked, “I’ve got so much more scamming to do! I’m just not ready to die!”
Unlike the rest of the Skymarines, Jones still had an inescapable fear of death in any form, for while they had been trained to ignore certain death with an indifference that wouldn’t have been out of place at the charge of the Light Brigade, Jones on the other hand had sufficient of Einstein’s brain to look under his cot each night to make sure there wasn’t a boogie man hiding under it.
“This reminds me of the time as a kid I was lost in the sock department of Macys,” said Vogelkopf perversely breaking the silence.
“How does this remind you of the sock department in Macys?” asked Mackie.
“I have a vivid imagination,” said Vogelkopf, Mackie looked the other way and prayed for a war.
“Now what do we do?” asked Dorfmann.
“Stop asking that!” said Jones.
“I will when you find a way out of this hell.” Svensson pointed at Jones, “You’ve got part of Einstein’s brain in your head, you’re probably the only one who can get us out, now start thinking.”
Jones took a gulp air like it was cotton candy and murmured “Okay, wait, wait, just a second."
“Waiting,” they rest of the platoon echoed. They waited several minutes until Jones ran out of air and started gasping. “Got it!” he coughed, “the small antennas on our suits can’t get through the plasma field of the Van Allen belt.”
“That’s your solution?” Maguire looked as puzzled as a racoon with a bee up its nose, “telling us the obvious.”
“If we use our suits and the safety cable as an antenna, we could boost the signal and use the whole Van Allen belt as an antenna to send Morse code, we could attract one of the drone robot scoops, the ones the mining companies use for scooping helium from the upper atmosphere. They’re sure to home in on a distress beacon.”
“Hmm, might work,” said Svensson.
“Let’s hear it for Jonsey!” Jones yelled in their ears.
“Not now, Jonsey,” said Svensson, “we’re too busy staying alive.”
“But it’s really clever!” Jones felt a little put out. “Guys, come on!”
“Jonsey,” Svensson fumed, “that part of your brain which belongs to Einstein is clever, while you on the other hand are a complete idiot.”
“Dorfmann you know Morse code?” Maguire asked their communication specialist.
They heard Dorfmann sucking his teeth as he thought this through. “I know dress code, binary code, product code, Linux code, legal code, code of ethics and barcodes, but no, I don’t know Morse code.”
“You couldn’t have just said that?” Maguire wanted to use his plasma rifle in a violent manner.
“Are we busy?” Dorfmann sucked his teeth in annoyance, “Are we rushing to the movies?”
“Just tell us something useful!”
“Well I know S.O.S.,” Dorfmann pouted.
“Why didn’t you just say that before?” Maguire yelled.
“I was showing off! I mean Jonsey got Einstein stuck in his head, all I got was communications protocols, it gets lonely in here!”
“Everyone enough!” Maguire yelled, “We’re Skymarines! Not prima donnas! Dorfmann start tapping out S.O.S., and Jonsey, think of a back up plan. The rest of you keep your eyes out for something, anything!”
“Ja, I spy with my little eye,” Eckelshammer started.
“No Eckels!” They all yelled before he started playing the eye spy game for ten days, “No!”
Within half-an-hour Dorfmann did a MacGyver to their suits’ antenna and then managed to program his comlink to send S.O.S. over the ether, Maguire and Svensson were heckling each other over who won the most world series games in the twentieth century, Mackie the sniper was having an involved conversation with his gun, and Jones who understood fear in the same way a mouse in a pit of vipers knows terror was busily trying to figure out their next move.
Jones stared at the immense blue ball rolling beneath them and wondered if it wasn’t too late to opt of joining the Skymarines. It was a marvellous career at the time he enlisted, provided you never got shot at, or your superior officers never discovered you existed. The trouble was Jones didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut, and never stopped scamming the system for a way to make a fast buck. If he hadn’t been so clever, life would have been infinitely easier. The ball of gas rolled on, and Jones wondered what flavour of ice cream it reminded him of, was it blue berry ripple or a blue marshmallow Smurf flavour. At his point Jones realized he was hungry.
“Ja,” Eckelshammer said to no one in particular.
Jones looked at Eckelshammer and had a sudden moment of panic when he thought Eckelshammer could read his mind. Given the number of times he had ripped off his own squad, a mind reading Eckelshammer was a decidedly dangerous thing to have around.
“Ja? Ja what?” Jones asked.
Eckelshammer pointed at Neptune and made a noise not unlike an empty barrel sloshing around an Austrian lake in the middle of winter – undecipherable.
“Yes Eckels,” Jones stared at Eckelshammer with dismay, “the region of space beneath us contains Neptune. Anything else you wish to communicate to us?”
“Ja, is Raumschaufel,” Eckelshammer glowered at Jones in his helmet.
“Schaufel?” Jones asked, “What the feck is Raumschaufel? And how the feck did you get in the Highmarines if you don’t speak English?”
“He means shovel!” Mackie yelled as looked down his snipe scope at the planet.
“Shovel? Shovel ice cream” Jones began to crack under the stress and really did wonder if Eckelshammer could read his mind, “you want us to shovel our way out of this one?”
“No,” Maguire grinned, “he means scoop, it’s a Bussard collector, a gas scoop. A hydrogen shovel.”
“Oh, you mean the rescue ship.” Jones threw his hands up in space, “Well, you could have said so, I mean seriously no one knows what a Raumschaufel is supposed to be.”
Eckelshammer dragged on the lifeline connecting him to Jones, grabbed Jones by the collar and showed him his fist.
“Everyone,” Jones quailed and remembered Eckelshammer fist was the size of his own head, “take note, the Raumschaufel is on its way and there is no ice cream.”
Eventually the giant mouth of the Bussard collector became clearly visible against the backdrop of the blue swirling bands of Neptune. A surreally large cone, the size of a star cruiser stretched out across the planet, it was designed to suck in vast amounts of gas via electrical fields and then force them under pressure into the equally enormous cylinder that trailed behind it. The ship would spend several months dragging its mouth across the upper atmosphere of Neptune until it had sufficient gas, and then rendezvous with a space barge to unload its cargo. Millions of work hours and billions of Solaris credits had gone into designing and building these leviathans of deep space, all of which was completely automated, and all completely safe, these craft were considered by Engineers to be a gleaming example of their expertise. None of which had the slightest impact on Jones and his platoon Skymarines who looked upon it as a giant taxi.
“I’ve got a signal on the emergency frequency,” said Dorfmann.
“Is it friendly?” Jones asked.
“How can it not be friendly?” Dorfmann asked in surprise.
“The Greeks were very friendly when the left the Trojans a giant horse as a present,” Jones reminded them all, “and looked what happened to the Trojans.”
The ship slowly rotated its massive superstructure around to allow a colossal umbilical tube to slip out to them. They hauled themselves into and then were dragged back to the ship with the umbilical tube.
“Do you think they’ll have ice cream?” Jones asked patting his stomach.
“Emergency rations at best,” Dorfmann said, “but all we need is a hyperlightspeed communicator and we’re out of here.”
“No ice cream then,” Jones sighed.
The door opened and once they floated into the docking bay, and once the room was filled with air and the artificial gravity was switched on, they all crashed simultaneously to the floor. Another door opened, and a gleaming white robot stepped and introduced itself.
“I like cooking utensils that sing,” it said.
“Make a musical noise when you tap them,” the robot explained, “tea pots, glasses, knives and forks should sing when your knock them together.”
“Err yes,” Jones felt worried but chose to ignore it, “great. We need to use your communications port. Take us to it.”
“Don’t you want to talk?” the robot with its two large binocular eyes stared down at him.
“Talk?” Jones began to feel very worried, “Yes, we want to talk to Fleet Command and organize a lift off. We won’t be long.”
“I meant talk about things in general,” the robot managed to blink with its camera wipers.
“In general - no,” Jones stood his ground, “just the comlink.”
“Go on, I’d be happy to listen.”
“I often watch the dials on the gas meters, they have many levels.”
“Some days I measure all the different spectra from Neptune and use the numbers to generate Sudoku grids. Do you want to play multidimensional Sudoku?”
“I’m pretty sure nobody wants to,” Jones began to get annoyed, “we just need to use your comlink.”
“It’s not working.”
“Then how did you hear our S.O.S.?”
“We were in the neighbourhood, we thought we’d drop in.”
Jones stared long and hard at the ship’s controller.
“Robot, have you been in space long?” he asked with glinting eyes.
“All my life in fact, I was constructed here, do you want to see my log files?”
Eckelshammer punched the head off the robot.
“Well done Eckels,” Jones grinned, “now, let’s find the control centre before…”
A klaxon began sounding and a dull robotic voice came over the loudspeakers.
“This is a class four strategic alert,” it droned on, “Invaders are on board and do not wish to listen to us. Take all evasive measures!”
“…before they consider us a threat,” Jones sighed.
“Now what?” Svensson asked.
“Do you ever, have anything to offer besides, what do we do next?” Jones yelled at Svensson, as Eckelshammer started punching the door.
“I’m a pilot, that’s all I’m supposed to do, consider yourself lucky I ask useful questions!” Svensson yelled back.
Jones made claws out of his gauntlets and grabbed the air. “Right, Dorfy.”
“No time for pleasantries Dorfy, can you hack the robot head?” Jones pointed at the discombobulated head lying on the floor.
“If I can’t, then my names not Dorfmann.”
“If you don’t, it going to Dorfy for ever after! Now rewire that head!”
Eckelshammer hammering on the door grew to thunderous levels and then suddenly he ceased his workout and stared at the door.
“Ja,” he said, “is not me.”
Unabated the noise continued.
“Did you break something?” Jones asked.
“Just my concentration,” Eckelshammer said simply and looked at his fists.
The door opened and another robot appeared, in one hand was a wrench and the other a metronome.
“You stopped,” it said and stared at Eckelshammer.
“It was quite good,” the robot said chirpily and started banging on the doorframe with the wrench, “are you a musician? I like bongos personally, such a marvellous timbre. Bing, bang, bong, they go, rattling away, bish, bash, bosh!”
Eckelshammer punched the head off the second robot.
“Well the doors are open,” Jones walked over the body of the fallen robot. “Dorfy forget the head. Right, once more unto the control centre.”
The klaxon began sounding again and the dull robotic voice came over the loudspeakers with a definite irritation to it. “This is now a class three strategic alert,” it hummed, “the invaders are potential music critics. Take all evasive measures, release the oboes!”
Maguire stared at the speaker. “I’ve never admitted to being afraid before, but now, at this moment the cheap thrill of fear is racing up my back and yes, I’m afraid.”
They found themselves in a long corridor; it was the standard gleaming white finish that was found in all spacecraft, the sort that gave you headaches after a few minutes and quickly turned to graffiti once adolescents were let into space. At the end of the hall was another robot; this time it held a large home made harp in its hands and was plucking the strings to great abandon.
“Eckels,” Jones said simply and pointed.
Eckelshammer needed no more encouragement, raced up the corridor and tore the head off the robot before it got to the second verse.
“This is now a class two strategic alert,” hummed intercom, “the invaders are belligerent sound engineers. Take final evasive measures, release the Kraftwerk!”
The sound of driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies with all the minimalism of an electronic autobahn began tolling down the corridor.
“No,” Jones pleaded, “not Kraftwerk, anything but Kraftwerk!”
“Jonsey,” Dorfmann asked, “what is it with you and music lately?”
“Medical experiments as a child,” Jones looked wild eyed, “I was forced to listen Lady Gaga over and over as a treatment for acne, and I think I may be hypersensitive.”
They broke down the final door and found themselves in a room glittering with flashing lights and endless buttons. At the back of the room a pipe organ rose up like a giant metal scallop shell, fabricated out of heating ducts and microwave conduits. The last remaining robot was hiding behind a control panel, its antenna quivering at a V, and peeking over the top two glowing eyes could be seen staring at the Skymarines. Jones shot out the music console with his plasma rifle and then aimed at the robots head.
“Not a note! Not a sound!” he yelled.
“Are you from Rolling Stones?” the robot quavered.
“Who?” Jones asked.
“The musical magazine, I sent my demo tape in, I was hoping…”
Jones shot off one of the antenna.
“I take it that’s a no,” the robot lowered its head.
“What’s with all the music?” Jones yelled.
“The sounds of space, the rattling of the Bussard collector,” the robot head shivered, “that’s all I hear out here! So I made music. Cool hey?”
Jones shot off the other antenna. “Never say cool to me, it brings back bad memories.”
“What do you want?” the robot shrieked, “I thought you needed a rescue!”
“We do, we want a shuttle to the nearest Galactic Command, have you a comlink?”
The robot managed to look devious. “We could do a trade?”
“A trade, like what?”
“Just listen to just one of my compositions? Just one”
“Alright already!” Jones had run out of antenna to shoot off, he fumed, “but make it snappy!”
“I call this one - the Girl from Ipanema.”
Copyright reserved by Jim O’Brien ©