~ Book 1 ~
I suppose it was after all a case of all's well ending butter-side up, or Love's Triumphantly Gleaming Chariot carrying off the floating cream of the spoils of war and all that, but for most of it one couldn't see the forest for the canoes, if you catch my angle.
The canoe-paddling commenced the afternoon that not one but two scathing holo-telegrams arrived simultaneously… Actually, before I go into all that and unravel the yarn from the beginning, would you mind tossing me a bit of the old indulge and allow me to soapbox?
Over the years I've read up quite a lot on the wedlock state, don't you know, and became a bit of an expert if I may say so. Find it a bit chafing that, like tie-widths, tattoos, and hats, matrimony through the ages cycles between various orthodoxies: either no one troubles to get wet, or it's a sought-after splash restricted to the few, or there's a high tide of voluntary joining to whomever and whatever one fancies, or there's a state of dangerous undertow where a singleton is considered a halfleton until they are fettered to whomever one's aunts deem suitable. Our modern age, despite its holos and androids and plethora of technological marvels, is chin-deep in this last-described, a status quo that I find deplorable and more than unfair.
Ahem. Well. The burning missives to which I heretofore referred were from the Twin Horrors Aunt Lydia and Great-Aunt Letitia, who had been clashing and grappling titanically for some years, each regularly elbowing the other out of the way to fling a filly from their endless stable of earnest, sensible-hat-wearing girls at me, each competing to be the one to lasso me into marriage. The most recent roundup was a simultaneous attack, a merciless, dual-brunetted prod that had herded me to the very gate of the corral.
However, I now gathered, from the shimmering images and high-pitched invective issuing from the screens that Jeeves held on his—some people use the attributive "its," but that has always seemed unconscionably rude to me—gleaming palms, that somehow my fiancées had collided while ordering their wedding gowns from the same couturier. The resulting explosion, although apparently having the felicitous consequence of fending off my looming matrimonial hobbles, appeared also to have put me in the rôle of an equine fated for a one-way trip to the glue factory. As both Great Aunt and Lesser Aunt began to summon me to their satellite of choice for a Good Talking-To, I gave Jeeves the eye signal that I knew he would correctly interpret as Activate Solar Flares!
After the aunts had been fended off with static—Jeeves' metallic extremities conveniently substituting for obstreperous sunspots—I asked, "Was that your doing?"
"What, sir?" As always, his face was a model of innocence. He really was a marvel of design.
"The wedding shoppe imbroglio."
"Well sir, " he replied, moving to the sideboard to mix me a cocktail, "any young lady desirous to espouse a person of your elevated status and breeding should acquire her accoutrements from impeccable sources." Rather than use the replimat, Jeeves was doing that quaint thing with the bottles of various ancient liquids that adds such je ne sai quoi to our domicile.
"I suppose you're right."
"Thank you sir." He brought the tray with my drink. "I certainly implied as much to the young ladies when they individually consulted me on proper betrothal and matrimonial etiquette."
"Did you now?" I sipped the ambrosia on ice he had prepared.
"Yes, sir. At their request, I also provided each of the young ladies the precise time that the very limited Collector's Edition pre-order gown designs would be downloaded to the Wedding Biometrics Boutique on New Mars." After a pause he added, "It appears that both were punctual."
"Mighty waters deluging each other and whatnot, I suppose?"
"Precisely, sir." He moved to the wardrobe to retrieve my dinner ensemble.
"So I'm no longer wriggling in the traps, then? That's jolly good news. Jeeves, you've saved me from the noose once again! I feel like celebrating!"
"If I might suggest, sir," Jeeves said, using the ion brush on my favorite carbonite jacket, the one with the black buckyball buttons, "it might be prudent to celebrate in such a manner that it affords you a small hiatus from familial contact."
"Run away from Aunts Lydia and Letitia, you mean?" I considered it. "Absence to make their hearts grow fonder?" I set down my empty glass and slipped into the proffered jacket.
"If you prefer to conceptualize it in such terms, then yes, sir."
"Hm. How much fondness ink am I trailing in the L-and-L credit column, do you suppose?"
"It's possible that they shall need to invent a new shade of red for it, sir."
~ Book 2 ~
To pass the time until Jeeves found a suitable place for me to flee to, I faxed myself over to the Lunar Gnat Club. There was some boisterousness involving long stalks of celery and blue-violet paint going on in the front room, so I nipped off to the back where it was quieter.
A fellow with flowing yellow hair and a turquoise brocade waistcoat—Lord Harlowe Melis Nealon XXIII to his family, Melon to sundry all else—was draped over a chaise overlooking the spaceport, the lower half of his face half-buried in the crook of his elbow. " 'ullo, Bertie," he said with complete dejection as I plopped down next to him.
"What's the lugubri all about?" I asked. "Last time I saw you you were over the clouds, writing poems for that red-haired mathematician - Isabel was it?"
"Oh, she's… she's run off with a Grothendieckian topologist." Melon burrowed his face further into his arm. "Said she wanted someone with a more aesthetic temperament."
"Hard luck that," I offered. I wasn't sure what a Grothendieckian was, but didn't think it would cheer Melon much for me to inquire about what particular quality had been responsible for luring away his lady love. Some of those alien chaps—especially the ones with tentacles—seem to exert a weird, Svengali-like charm over the fairer sex. "Buck up, though. Ocean is vast, plenty of fish, etcetera. A refined fellow like you—you'll reel another into the basket in no time."
"I suppose," Melon mumbled from the depths of his sleeve. "I'm all at tens and elevenses, though. This thing with Isabel has cut me so cruelly, cruelly deep that life has entirely lost its luster." He sighed—or at least I assume he sighed, since his shoulders humped up and then deflated. "I shall never love again."
"Oh bosh!" I chided. I'd heard this same lament from Melon so many times that I continue to be surprised they haven't named a day of the week after it. "Come jaunting with me. Have some adventure! That'll cheer you right up!"
Melon turned his head and asked me from behind the curtain of his fashionably draped hair, "Are you intending to travel just as the season is about to start? Whatever for? Did you make one of your aunties angry again?"
"Well… I suppose I did," I admitted sheepishly. "But really, I had no choice. The situation was rapidly converging on bloodshed, and it was either extrication or annihilation."
"Ah… she tried to fix you up again?"
"Not a singular she, old man, a plurality of Shes. To Aunt Lydia and Great-Aunt Letitia I am less a nephew than a coveted loving-cup that proves their matchmaking moxie. Knowing those two, they probably would have split me in twain with a scimitar so I could marry both girls—a fate that's probably twice as probable now that the weddings are off."
"It is, indeed it is. You've heard how Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? I can testify that it most certainly does—scorned women haven't got a patch on dowagers denied."
"So you're going to go incog until they're distracted by some new project?"
"Preferably one not involving me," I said, fervently hoping that wishing would make it so.
I dragged the melancholic Melon back to chez Wooster for one of Jeeves's miraculously refreshing antique beverage concoctions. We arrived to find my traveling cases already packed and aligned in a neat row in the foyer.
"That was quick," Melon said.
"Yes, sir. Embarkation is in two hours."
"So are you accompanying?" I asked Melon. "Come on! It'll be a jolly lark!"
"I suppose. I'll have some cases packed and meet you at the 'port."
"I'll have to tell chère mère where I'm off to," Melon said, flicking up Willoughby Manor on his hand. "Where are we off to?"
"Where are we off to, Jeeves?" I asked.
"A subspace tour of cultural sights in the Atargatis system of the Messier-74 galaxy, sir. On board the luxury starliner Mycenaean Maiden."
"Cultural sights? Really?" Melon grimaced. "Museums and libraries. Abominably early risings. Excursions requiring sensible spaceboots. You propose to salve my broken heart by boring me to death?"
"Not at all sir," Jeeves replied smoothly. "I am assured that all activities are entirely voluntary. And the NeoMetaZagat regularly awards the Maiden's various restaurants, brasseries, and boulangeries an eight zvijezda rating."
"Well, it may suffice, if I can force myself to eat anything," Melon interjected, then turned back to the holo and said to his mother's frowning image, "I'm sure it will be entirely edifying. Temples and nature preserves… No, no nightclub singers or dancers. All vestals and eunuchs and crones."
"So there'll be plenty of un-replicated comestibles," I said uncertainly, "But—really Jeeves, were there no other alternatives for escaping the descending wrath of L-and-L? Alternatives leading to less dull a destination?"
"In such exclusive surroundings," Jeeves said, "it is possible that that there might be members of the Lunar Gnat Club aboard."
"Oh? Such as?" I asked.
"Archduke Nathaniel Evars Gaffy, Viscount O. Colmy Jackson, and Lord Oscar G. Naumann."
"Negsie and Cornpie and Ogger!" I suddenly felt an infusion of enthusiasm. "Well, that would be uplifting! We ought to be able to get a crackling good Freehand Quint game going then, if they have a few spare coconuts on board."
Melon seemed to be wrapping up: he was now placating, sotto voce, "Yes, yes, maman, I'll make sure to pack dosimetric patches and extra sweaters."
"A less-sophisticated and inhospitable galaxy also has the inestimable advantage of being an unlikely place for your aunts to alert their agents to look for you, sir."
"That's… well, all right, you've got me. I concede the point." I had the distinct sense that there had been some mild reprobation flavouring Jeeves' statement, but as it had not reached white jacket or mustache level I decided to let it go. "How much less sophisticated and hospitable?"
"The Atargatissians are a relatively young civilization of dimorphic sentients whose primary activity for much of their history seems to have been raiding each other's settlements, sir. They just recently developed interplanetary travel, the primarily use of which seems to be to raid each other's settlements on other planets. They have an unusually complex value system surrounding the concepts of—"
I sighed. Jeeves' vast databanks were often invaluable, but he did have a tendency to give rather more information than was needed. "And they're far away?"
"Quite far, sir."
"Will there be danger?"
"A luxury starliner's passengers are not likely to be affected by local events, sir."
"Well then, let the epic adventure begin, Jeeves!"
~ Book 3 ~
"I can see why not many go gallivanting among the stars, Jeeves," I said as we approached the departure location. "Those grasshopper-looking vehicles look neither safe nor roomy."
"They are merely an intermediary," Jeeves explained, somehow managing to maintain his aplomb even whilst the spaceport security force was torquing off his access panel to check him for—well, whatever they were checking him for. Contraband consumables or fusionable material, I suppose. "These shuttlecraft will transport us up to where the starliner is docked."
"And that's where we'll see the luxury accoutrements displayed so enticingly in the advertising materials?"
"I am most certain of it, sir."
As the security force re-attached Jeeves' access panel I looked away to give him a moment to recover his dignity, and saw my old chum Melon hurrying toward us with his traveling cases.
Now, ever since our old school days I had been quite fond of Lord Harlowe, who—the opinion of a certain fickle red-haired mathematician notwithstanding—rather enthusiastically styles himself after the poppy-and-lily Aesthetes of centuries past, with the result that he is generally the brightest peacock in the garden. His one flaw, if indeed it is a flaw, is his fervent belief in the égalité of all the colors of the spectrum as appropriate for use in raiment and hair dye. Thus I was not surprised to see that the relatively sedate blond-and-turquoise combination he'd sported at the LGC had been discarded for a scorching orange jumpsuit that—well, if I say it "set off" his newly-magenta hair, you'd not be blamed for recalling that there is a denotation of that phrase that refers to explosives.
I noticed a very faint tremor go through Jeeves' manufactured frame at the sight of Melon, and he irised down his visual receptors in a way that made me a tad envious: still, one must stand by one's friends, no matter how radioactive they may appear to be. "What ho, Melon!"
"Bertie!" he said. "Sorry to be so last minute, I was fending off histrionics. Wasn't sure I'd get out of ma maison before matricide ensued." He shook his amaranthine curls and smiled at the curvaceous porter who was taking charge of his cases.
Then off we went into the flimsy grasshopper, and though I do of course trust Jeeves in all matters of fact and most matters of aesthetic, my doubts sprang anew once we rose above the fuzzy blue ball of home and glided toward a large but severely unimpressive object. "Jeeves, it's a flimflam!" I said. "There's no luxury about that thing—we're just going to be shoved into an enormous cannon and shot across the heavens! And it's a severely scuffed and dented cannon to boot!"
"I believe that is the space station docking ring, sir," Jeeves reassured me, and indeed as we passed over the bumpy dull landscape, a glittering moon—if moon is the word to use for an assemblage of balls and rods and gauzy golden sail-like things coruscant with ripples of light—was de-eclipsed.
"That, sir, would be the Mycenean Maiden," Jeeves added soothingly.
"Well, Jeeves, I stand corrected," I said. "It is rather lux. Do those sparkly bits actually do something, or are they for show?"
"The 'sparkly bit' in the center is the quantum vacuum boson drive, sir, which draws its power from the supercharged filament plasma contained in the glowing spheres—"
"Yes yes. I suppose you know what the dratted thing weighs, too, don't you?"
"The cruiser has a 1-G weight of over 375,000,000—"
"Oh, now you're just showing off, Jeeves. Things you've memorised from the brochure."
"My apologies, sir."
Jeeves sounded chastened, but I knew he knew that I appreciated him.
I was soon surprised to discover that taking a cruise through space would be quite a lot like taking a cruise on good old terra firma. Of course, instead of a promenade deck that assaults one with watery spray, rows of clammy deck chairs, and green-faced passengers trying to be discreet about upchucking over the rail, there were narrow viewing corridors that gave one a view only of the sub-zero airless vacuum that would kill one in an instant, but really, once I was escorted past that—well, you could have knocked me over with an eighth of a feather. The hallways were wide, the carpet was lush, and the fixtures would not have looked amiss in the Winter Palace hotel. By the time we arrived at our stateroom—sitting area, three bedrooms, an opulent bath—I must have been gawping like a fish, because Jeeves asked politely, "Sir?"
"Well, I suppose I thought we'd be slotted into capsules or somesuch and tossed up on a metal rack."
"You will spend a brief sojourn in your personal cryo-stasis chamber during the hyperspace jump to Messier-74, sir," Jeeves said, opening a decorative panel to reveal a row of shiny metal coffin-like boxes.
"It's a sort of super sleep," Melon said, evaluating the bedrooms. "Eases the strain of gravity and acceleration and whatnot. Keeps the relativity wrinkles off one's brow."
"Strain?" This was turning out to be more epic adventure than I had signed on for. "Wrinkles?"
"Not to worry Bertie," Melon said. "I'm a vet of this whole space travel regimen. Commuted to Art School on Callisto… or was it Ganymede?" He pushed the hover-cart with his travel cases though one of the bedroom doorways. "I'm going to unpack a bit before hopping in the deep freeze. Let's go to the post-defrosting dinner and rub elbows with the hubbubbly hoi polloi—if we're lucky it could be smashing."
"Is that what one does in space?" I asked.
"Of course!" Melon said, then closed his bedroom door.
"If I might elaborate, sir?" Jeeves offered. "It is traditional for a planetbound ship's guests to gather on the night of embarkation for a formal dinner, at which time they are greeted by the ship's captain and crew officers."
"Oh, right you are, I've done something like that back home on the old Sol-Three."
"With a spaceship, it's more common for such a gathering to take place after the hyperjump has brought the ship to its intended destination." With the merest flick of his eyes toward Melon's door he added, "In either venue, it's an excellent opportunity for passengers to… locate old friends and make new acquaintances, sir."
"Ah, yes." I could see Jeeves' meaning—Melon's presence would be like a blazing lighthouse at sea, drawing all eyes to our table. "Do you suppose Negsie and Cornpie and Ogger will attend this dinner?"
"I could not say, sir."
I won't bore you with the details of the sleeping and thawing process—it's likely you're familiar with it anyhow—or of the dinner itself, except to say that as expected, our table was like the judges' box at Crufts, with a steady stream of well-groomed (and mostly well-leashed) hopefuls shimmering past in hopes of snagging a ribbon.
Nothing caught the love-scorched Melon's eye, however, and as the trio of my fellow Lunar Gnatters were still no-shows—my hopes for Freehand Quint thereby once again dashed—we considered what to do to amuse ourselves.
"Well," Melon said, turning the pages of the ship's programme with some distaste, "it looks as though our choices are either to attend a revival of some creaky musical called Ask Yer Auntie!, or to actually make honest men of ourselves and traipse through ancient bits on the planet below."
Normally I'm all gung-ho for Terpsichorean strivings, but this one's title was a mottled heap of ill portent. "Ancient bits it is, then."
We marched off to the tour office, and were very quickly swept up in the excitement of signing a virtual sheaf of legal forms, being measured for surfacesuits, and watching an instructional video on how to use the suit's helmet-comm and various other internal amenities. (When I say "excitement," I trust you understand that it was anything but; nevertheless, Melon exactly echoed my sentiments when he murmured, "Still preferable to Ask Yer Auntie!")
Finally the preparations were complete and we four—myself, Melon, and our inscrutably androgynous guide in white surfacesuits (and Jeeves, of course, sans such)—were clomping noisily down a corridor toward the shuttle bay. As we rounded a corner a figure of distinctly female shape flew at Jeeves and took hold of his arm with a shrill cry of joy. "A model GVS-15! I haven't seen a Percy like this in ages!"
"Who are you, and why are you clasping my Jeeves?" I asked. She was a firecracker, that much I could tell immediately; a bit short overall, and a little too sharp in the nose for my taste, but there was a saucy flip to her short blonde hair that I found mildly fetching.
"Why do you call your Percy Jeeves?" She looked at the tour guide and Melon, and then back to me. "And why are you all wearing uniforms? Is this a mining colony?"
"We're going down to the surface to take a tour," Melon said.
"I'll come with," the girl announced. "There might be mysteries to solve down there!" She pulled something from her pocket, a plastic funnel dangling from a pair of sunglasses, and popped the contraption onto her face.
The tour guide, who had watched all of this with growing alarm, looked to Jeeves in supplication.
"If I may?" he asked, and when the guide nodded in grateful acquiescence Jeeves asked the girl, "Am I correct in assuming that you are a visitor from the planar dimension B-Atonnia 1011?"
"Yes," the strange young lady said. "Percies like you come from the Grenville-Pelham catalog!"
"Indeed we do," Jeeves said. "Might I inquire as to your appellation?"
"Stella Helena Diana Strong-Hale-Dare."
"That's a mouthful!" Melon said, removing his surfacesuit's helmet in order to shake out his hair. I could see the burgeoning glimmer of infatuation in his eyes.
"Call me Elsie," the girl said to Jeeves, seemingly immune to the charms of Melon's Dionysian mane. "Let's get a move on! The President might be in danger!"
~ Book 4 ~
It seemed well-nigh impossible—not to mention a bit rude—to try to divest ourselves of the peculiar Elsie-bird at that point, especially after Jeeves explained that as entities from B-Atonnia 1011 only existed in two dimensions Elsie would not require a surfacesuit to protect her from the hostile conditions of the planet below. Melon offered her his arm as we boarded the shuttle, but Elsie continued to hang onto Jeeves, quite literally slipping into the seat next to him, nattering all the while about cats and xylophones until Jeeves went into energy-saving mode.
Melon, who had gone into a sulk—I suppose it was really quite a blow to his ego to be ignored by a girl with absolutely no depth whatsoever—stared out the window the entire trip, leaving me to make increasingly feeble attempts at small talk with the back of the tour guide's head as ze piloted the shuttle.
Fortunately our cheery caravan landed on the planet after less than a quarter of an hour, and after those of us wearing surfacesuits double-checked our seals and gauges and what-not, the shuttle door was opened and we stepped out onto alien soil.
Well, not so much soil as a carpet of tiny black rocks and bones that sloped down and away from us in a somewhat beach-like fashion toward the sea-like part, which wasn't a place a Wooster would want to lounge and take the sun between refreshing dips. Both sky and water were a dark greenish-black, the towering thunderheads above as forbidding as the rough surf below. The oppressive mood should have been counteracted by the thin line of silvery light that rimmed the horizon, but far from having the sort of cheery effect that the sun edging through heavy clouds can have on one, this crack in the gloom somehow conveyed the impression that one was merely a defenseless oyster in a shell about to be shucked.
As if all this bleak wasn't enough, there was also a strong wind, and I was struck by the wisps of greenish gas rippling the fabric of my surfacesuit's sleeve just how thinly we were escaping toxic death from moment to moment. It gave me pause, I can tell you. Death snips proud men, and time's withered branch, and the flame of life so fickle and wan, and so forth. One expected to see the ferryman emerge from the spray at any moment, and I admit to feeling a not-inconsiderable qualm that I had no coin readily at hand.
There was a sudden crackling sound in the visor of my suit, startling the internal systems into action a bit, but rather than a bolt of divine judgment it was only our guide, suggesting we turn our attention to our right, where at the seaward end of a low rocky promontory a circle of ancient pillars was topped by the weathered remains of a small dome.
"Those ruins are thought to be a shrine to owl-less's planetary deity Zanath'kona," the guide began.
"Owls?" Melon asked, tilting his helmeted head quizzically.
"No owls here!" Elsie said, removing her funnel-enhanced sunglasses. "There could be fish, though. They're sneaky."
I glanced over at Jeeves, and I knew that he and I were having the same thought—that, saucy flipped hair or no, this alien girl was one of the oddest ducks we'd ever encountered.
The guide went on to say that the planet was said to be the mythic final resting place of Atargatissian heroes fallen in battle and Melon asked, "So it's an aquatic Valhalla? Good call, as it's rather too soggy for hellfire."
"Hellfire like that?" Elsie asked, pointing to a thin red line wavering down toward us from the angry sky.
The hellfire turned out to be a second ship—seeming, as it passed overhead, much larger than our own tiny shuttle—which landed some distance beyond the far side of the little rotunda. After some moments there was motion: a door opened, a ramp lowered, and several tiny figures appeared and began to move toward the rotunda.
I have to say, I've seen many strange chappies in my day, but those were among the strangest of the lot. As they got closer I could see that their surfacesuits were made of a shiny greenish-silver material, very tight in the chest and arms, with both legs encased in a sort of—bent gliding tube, I suppose I would describe it. Their helmets, by contrast, were oversized, with a corona of antennae jutting up and a massy tangle of wires or somesuch hanging down over their shoulders.
"Alien suit design," I said. "Innovative, I suppose?"
"They're not owls," Elsie said.
"Actually, sir," Jeeves began, but Melon beat him to the draw. "Good grief, they're mermen!" he said.
It was as though I'd had a whack on the side of the head that jostled my brain back into place. I know I'm far from the fastest biscuit on the deck, but even so I couldn't understand how I could ever have mistaken the tails for… well, anything but tails. Bent gliding tubes indeed!
"So they aren't wearing surfacesuits?" I asked, wondering what the approach of so many bare-chested men would have on the lady—or ladies, as I still hadn't sussed out our guide's gender—in our party.
"No sir," Jeeves replied. "As this is their home system, the Atargatissians apparently find this planet's atmosphere breathable."
A group of three split from the main contingent and crossed to our side of the promontory, heading right toward us. I could now see that what I'd taken as wire was probably hair of some sort, although I still couldn't quite tell if the corona of antennae was actually part of each merman's forehead or merely a bony tiara-like crown…
As they continued to approach, all other consideration fled as I realized that they were easily twice my height. And each carried a rather lethal-looking trident or spear.
The group of five stopped thirty paces or so away, and made loud and extremely discordant noises, accompanied by forceful gestures that were highly suggestive of disembowelment.
It was at that moment that I began to feel that returning home and facing my aunts' wrath might not be such a horrendous fate compared to death by burly alien mermen, but as always when I am in my most desperate straits Jeeves performed miraculously. After a brief communication with the tour guide, Jeeves stepped forward and, spreading his bronze-colored arms, began to emit his own series of unpleasant sounds, an action that, far from goading the mermen into attack, seemed to give them pause. After a moment the largest and tallest of the mermen—the leader, if the considerable number of armbands and the very impressive cloak he wore were any indication of his status—nodded curtly and made a gesture that looked to my eager eyes like nothing so much as "All right, get along then!"
Jeeves bowed slightly, turned, and then began to hurry back toward us, broadcasting quietly via the helmet radio, "I told them we meant no disrespect and would withdraw to our shuttle. They indicated that they will consider that to be a sufficiently respectful distance."
"Great frosted catamarans, Jeeves," Melon said with fervent admiration, "you don't say you speak their lingo?"
"I took the precaution of downloading several Atargatissian language expansions before we left, your lordship, so as to be prepared for just such an exigency as this."
"Dashed good idea, Jeeves," I said. "As always."
"Thank you sir," Jeeves said quietly, and though I know it was my imagination, I could not help but hear a tone of sincere gratitude in his voice. "I do strive never to disappoint."
Our tour guide wanted to return to the starliner forthwith, but the rest of us—having just been saved from an unpleasantly barbaric demise—oddly enough were all of a mind to stay and gawk at the mermen. Melon produced an antique miniature spyglass, which worked quite well for long-range observation.
"That big chappie with the cloak and the bracelets," I asked Jeeves. "Is he the leader?"
"Yes, sir, I believe so. He referred to himself as Vashtar Ka'gamu, though I am uncertain if that is a name or a title."
"Quite a sense of style, eh?" I said. "That cape of his—rather swank, don't you think? Draped in such an aggressively diagonal fashion. Quite rakish, the cut of his jib."
Jeeves had the compressed lip-line and distant expression that usually signaled something that he strongly disagreed with.
"I wonder if there's anywhere out in these parts I could get such dashing garb."
"It's likely you'd first be required to defeat several thousand Atargatissians in combat, sir."
"Jeeves," I said, squinting at the mer-ship, which seemed to be discharging additional passengers, "I very much suspect that you've just made that up to discourage me from attempting to acquire one of those cloaks."
"If you say so, sir," Jeeves responded blandly.
Melon muttered, "What in blazes are they doing over there?"
"Are they fishing?" Elsie asked, peering around Jeeves to scowl at the mermen, a number of whom had oiled down from the temple to the water's edge.
"Actually," Melon said slowly, "I think… they are. One of them has just speared what appears to be an enormous squid-like creature. Which… they appear to be dismembering and… eating." He sounded as revolted as ever I'd heard him.
"Poor polpo!" Elsie said. "Should I call the President?"
"Sadly, Miss Elsie," Jeeves said gently, "I do not think he has jurisdiction in this sector of the galaxy."
"Oh, my," Melon then said, with such a degree of awestruck worshipfulness that we all turned to him.
"What is it?" I asked. "Has a sushi chef appeared?"
"No, a… a mermaid," Melon said, as if in a daze. "Or rather a… mer-Queen."
Once I had wrested the ocular from Melon and espied the object of his sudden infatuation I could see that he had, in fact, not exaggerated her charms. The dozen or so mermen who had formed a rough circle bodyguarding her smaller, paler figure did nothing but emphasize how much more graceful and civilized she—and she was, if I might say so, emphatically and abundantly a she—was than the males of her race.
"She must be that brute Ka'gamu's wife," Melon said hotly, clenching a surfacesuited fist. "Oh, if only I were a champion, I would charge madly among them, and rescue her from his monstrous embrace!" Clearly, the elusive Elsie was now decisively usurped from the throne of Melon's affection.
"Calm down, old boy," I said. I could quite understand his cri de coeur, but as I'm unusually fond of the spot between my shoulders that my head has occupied for some years now, I had little enthusiasm for pitting two (or perhaps three: I still couldn't classify our guide) unarmed chappies against a dozen or more giants with tridents and spears. I was in the process of dusting off the old discretion being the better part argument to cool Melon down when the gods intervened.
"Sir," Jeeves said with more urgency than I had ever heard him use, "perhaps it would be prudent to immediately withdraw to the shuttle and prepare for a hasty return to the starliner? My sensors – "
It was at that moment that the world turned to blood and froze.
~ Book 5 ~
Now, when I say "turned to blood and froze" I don't mean chunks of pink ice started to slosh about in the sea while a nippy breeze sprang up; I mean, from one instant to the next everything—the waves and the clouds and even the ill wind—stopped moving and turned red, as if the landscape had become an enormous tinted photograph.
I'm not exactly known for peeking into the abyss—I avoid Deep and Dark whenever possible—but I must admit that at that moment I flashed back to my boyhood and the old hymn In the Bleak Midwinter and sermons about the Valley of Shadow and locusts raining blood and whatnot, and I became as immovable as Gibraltar. I'm not too proud to admit that if Jeeves and Melon hadn't lifted me up by the elbows and moved me bodily into the shuttle, I might still be out there.
As Jeeves began to buckle me in—my hands not yet having received the news that they were still at the ends of my arms—I asked, "I'm at a loss with machines, Jeeves, but shouldn't there be blinking and revving and ascension into the aether and whatnot by now?"
"Indeed there should be, sir."
A moment later our tour guide turned from the pilot's console and said with clear panic, "The shuttle won't start."
"What?" Melon demanded. "How can that be?"
Jeeves moved to assist. I was confident that he would get the old girl up and running.
"It doesn't make sense," the guide told him. "Fuel's at 82%, all systems diagnose green, totally green, but when I push Auto nothing happens."
"Is it possible to pilot the shuttle manually?"
"I… ah… that was optional training," the guide said fretfully. "I mean, everyone uses the automatics for power-up and navigation. They're 110% reliable."
"Stunning," Melon said.
"Do you mind if I try?" Jeeves asked.
"Please do!" The guide almost tripped in hir eagerness to abdicate.
Then ensued a rapid sequence of switch-snapping and key-tapping, followed by the unmistakable sound of button-poking.
"You're right," Jeeves said at last, "It won't start."
My world was cloven asunder. Jeeves had… failed?
"It's unthinkable," I said, rather more out loud then I intended. "Can we call the chappies upstairs and have them send someone down to fetch us?"
The tour guide and Jeeves fiddled with the radio, but the people that they talked to on the other end sounded a bit loopy, ranting about spatial anomalies across the quadrant and being locked in prograde synchronous orbit and other incomprehensible flibber-flabber that went over my head.
It wasn't until Jeeves looked at me and shook his head that I realized that we were absolutely sitting in the soup. "Well, that's the orangutan's pyjamas," I said, slapping my knee in annoyance. "Really, what else can go wrong?"
Melon, who was sitting next to a porthole, said in a choked voice, "Look… outside."
I unbuckled and went to the other window. Something had risen from the motionless carnelian sea, a craggy sort of pillar draped in dripping black algae.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Zanath'kona," the tour guide whispered.
My brain, which was certainly getting a workout taking in impossible sights, gave a jolt and reluctantly comprehended that what I was looking at was indeed a titanic woman, with webbed hands the size of carriages and a head the size of a carriage house and breasts the size of—well, suffice it to say that she was well-proportioned.
"Jeeves," I said, "you don't mean to tell me that we've got to buy that soap about a planetary deity?"
"Oh yes, sir," he replied, nodding, "There are more things in heaven and earth…"
"This is no time for the Bard of Ayrshire, Jeeves! What are we going to—"
Zanath'kona opened her mouth and roared a single word: "KA'GAMU!"
To his credit, the Atargatissian leader waved his people back before gliding alone to the water's edge.
The goddess bent her head to consider him, and then spoke more thunderous rumbling.
"What is she going on about?" Melon asked.
"It appears," Jeeves said, concentrating, "that Vashtar Ka'gamu's behavior has angered Her. She claims that… because he killed one of Her sacred beasts… until She receives… payment, all his ships… are Hers."
"She wants them to replace her pet?" Melon asked.
Elsie whispered, "Poor polpo."
"What does that mean, his ships are Hers?"
"If my interpretation is correct, Zanath'kona has taken control of all spacecraft both on and in orbit around the planet. She is the reason that our shuttle is not functioning, and She has apparently also disabled our starliner."
"She can do that?" I was boggled.
"It would appear She has already done so, sir."
While Jeeves—accompanied by Elsie and the tour guide—went into the back of the ship to try their luck at decursing the engines, Melon pulled out his spyglass and provided commentary on the activities of the mermen. "Well, now another one is standing up and making a speech… oh, someone didn't like that, there's a kerfuffle breaking out—oh no, I think she's weeping, the poor thing."
"What d'you suppose they're jawing about, then?"
"Probably picking which poor sod gets the short straw," Melon said, "as I'm guessing they're all out of sacred octopus."
"So that's the dash-dash-dot?" I asked. "One of them takes the bullet, and we're all free to go?"
"Seems like." Melon straightened up suddenly. "Hel-lo, what's this? It looks like two of the Trident-and-Fishtail Crew are coming over to talk to us."
By the time the others had been fetched, the two figures shimmying across the beach were visible without the aid of the spyglass. One was, as Melon had said, an enweaponed merman—but the other was the mermaid.
Melon practically tore the shuttle door open with his hands.
The two stopped within shouting distance of the shuttle, and we went out to meet them.
This close, the mermaid was both more beautiful and more monstrous than she had been at a distance. Bits of her were almost human: huge, almond-shaped dark eyes, high cheekbones, graceful arms and delicate hands, a womanly bosom demurely covered by a Hellenic-style peplos of pearly satin—but all was wrapped in silvery-green skin.
And she was half again my height.
And from the waist down she was a fish. With thin jade tentacles for hair.
Jeeves, of course, offered his duties as interpreter, and discussed most of his responses with the rest of us before replying, but in the interest of speeding this narrative I'll just relate subsequent conversations as if we all understood each other straight off.
"I am A'klos, mightiest of the warriors of Atargatis," the male began. "The goddess of this place demands a tribute, else she will forever hold within her grasp all vessels within her reach."
"We have seen the power of your goddess," Jeeves said. "Our ships as well as yours are are becalmed by Her."
"Have you many ships?" A'klos asked.
"We have a sufficient number," Jeeves said carefully.
"Then it will be a trivial matter for you to provide the tribute," A'klos said.
("What cheek!" I muttered.)
"Would not your goddess be more pleased with an offering from your people?"
"We are few," A'klos said, "simple soldiers all, on our way to right a great wrong and defend thousands of innocent women and children from slaughter." He glanced at Melon, who had done nothing but stare at the mermaid and sigh. "If you will not sacrifice for glory, then sacrifice for love! Provide the tribute, that this princess' many virginal sisters may not be violated by the enemy!"
"Sisters?" Melon asked dreamily. "She has sisters?"
At this the mermaid turned to A'klos and said, "Surely your words have convinced this valiant stranger to die a warrior's death for me." Her voice was a lilting contralto. "Should not we bestow on him a weapon worthy of his sacrifice, before he is taken to Zanath'kona's realm?"
"As you wish." A'klos turned and shimmied back toward his camp.
As soon as A'klos was out of earshot the mermaid spoke earnestly to us.
"I am Fa'janee, daughter of Vashtar Ka'gamu. My father, the leader of a vast fleet that has gathered here to prepare for war, mocked Zanath'kona and killed the guardian of Her holy place."
"Daughter?" Melon asked. "Not wife?"
"I am no one's wife," Fa'janee said archly.
"Please continue," Jeeves said.
"Zanath'kona, She who rules the crossings, has long called to me to be Her beloved companion. Help me go to Her."
"Wait, you mean—?" I was aghast. "Why?"
"l will become an immortal consort. Poets will sing of me for ages to come," Fa'janee said.
"The men of my people have many paths to glory," she said. "But what glory can I hope for? Whether in my father's palace in peacetime or as a captive of the enemy, I have no value other than property to be bartered or stolen."
"And should I live," she continued, "I would know myself to be the daughter of one who tricked innocent strangers into paying for his sacrilege!" She glanced over her shoulder; A'klos was returning. "Please, man of bronze," she pleaded with Jeeves, "stand with me in Her temple and pretend to be the offering! Allow me my honor. Allow me my glory and my immortality."
Now, you may laugh at me, because although I knew it was a ruse and that Jeeves probably would not come to harm, I still had a knot of fearful worry twisting up my innards about the whole business. And you might think I'm a silly buttercup for being worried over a manufactured servant that had been shipped to me in a box, but if you think that—well, then there's nothing more to be said. You just won't ever understand the tickings of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster XVII at all.
A'klos didn't seem much to care that it was Jeeves rather than Melon who held out a hand to take the highly-jewelled but lethal-looking pointy stick from him. Jeeves told us all to retreat to the safety of the shuttle and then marched toward the temple, A'klos and Fa'janee following behind.
The goddess, who had been watching the proceedings with apparent dispassion, waited until the trio had climbed the platform, and then, raising her arms and spreading her fingers, caused a thick whirlwind of mist to swirl around them.
There was a cry, a splash, and then the mist cleared, the world came back to life, and Fa'janee was gone.
We all—humans and aliens alike—rushed to the temple.
"My daugher!" Ka'gamu bellowed. "Where is my daughter?"
"The bronze servant was to be the sacrifice," A'klos said, "but Zanoth'kona in her wrath has taken your daughter instead." He—well, all things considered, I realize that knelt isn't the word I'm looking for, but it'll have to do – knelt and pressed one hand to a spot of seafoam on the temple floor. "She was a virtuous female, with a maiden's grace and the heart of a huntress. I swear by my ancestors that I shall return here after my death to be her consort."
(I was certain that Jeeves couldn't possibly have translated that last bit accurately, but when I asked him about it later he said that he had, and that for the most part the Atargatissians were on the unfathomable side.)
"I'm so sorry for your loss," the somber tour guide said to Vashtar Ka'gamu.
"Loss?" Ka'gamu said harshly. "There is no loss. The goddess has been appeased. Our fleet can continue onward to glory."
Melon, who apparently was going with High Dudgeon rather then Grieving Lover, demanded, "And what will you tell those who ask why your daughter is no longer by your side?"
"No one will ask. She was a female. Females are unimportant."
"Without her," Melon said, "your soldiers would be sitting around pissing in the sand while your ships turned to rust! If not for her, you would have been defeated even before you started!"
Ka'gamu sneered and, with a hissed command to A'klos, slithered with his retinue back toward their ship.
A'klos scrutinized Melon for a minute, then said, "You are clearly inferior creatures, tiny loose-armored ones, yet your passionate hearts remind me of my cousin P'trokos. For this, I shall allow you to leave unharmed despite the offense you gave to the Vashtar." He handed Melon his trident. "A remembrance of me, if we do not meet again."
You might think our epic adventure was over after that, and you'd be almost right: but there was still an epilogue or two.
As we watched the Atargatissian ship rise into the poisonous sky, the tour guide asked, "What are they going off to fight over, anyhow?"
"Something idiotic, probably," Melon said. "They strike me as chest-thumpers."
"Magpies scrapping over piles of shiny things," I said. "Gems and whatnot."
"Bah." Melon folded his arms. "They can keep their trinkets. A woman like Fa'janee – there's the true treasure. Worth fighting for."
"They're back!" Elsie said, pointing.
Sure enough, there was Fa'janee rising from the waves, with a Fa'janee-sized Zanoth'kona next to her.
The mermaid glided onto the shore, and, bowing to Jeeves, took his hands and said something to him softly. Then, after nodding once to each of us, she unfastened the brooches holding her peplos in place and gave them to Jeeves.
I, of course, quickly turned away as the shining robe fluttered to the sand – not looking being the preux thing to do – and didn't turn back until I heard her splash into the sea.
"Bye-bye!" Elsie said, tossing a handful of sand or seeds or who knows what sprinkly bits of something in a wide arc out over the water; and then, as Melon rapturously snatched up his satiny trophy, the two figures among the waves raised their hands in farewell, put their arms around each other's waists, and dove with tails entwined into the sea and out of sight.
~ Epilogue ~
So we all trudged back to the shuttle—which was now perfectly willing to blink and rev and rise up into the star-speckled aether.
"What a woman, eh?" I asked Melon, who, after allowing Jeeves to run Fa'janee's robe through a decontamination cycle, had removed his helmet long enough to wrap the fabric around his neck.
"Yes," Melon said with a sigh. "I can't imagine I shall ever love again, after losing such perfection."
"You should invite A'klos to the club," I said teasingly. "You two can commiserate."
"Humph," Melon said, nuzzling the folds of fabric lapping his cheek, but he looked thoughtfully at the trident still propped in the decon chamber.
"Where's Elsie?" I asked Jeeves, as he and the tour guide made the final preparations for liftoff.
"She announced that she needed to help some clumsy teenaged boys investigate various unspecified crimes, and then folded herself back into B-Atonnia 1011."
"Indeed she was, sir."
As we made our way through the Mycenean Maiden's lushly-carpeted hallways to our stateroom, I said, "I think I've had enough excitement for one trip, Jeeves. First a nice hot bath, and then I'm thinking of just packing myself into that cryo-can until we get home."
"Very good, sir."
An hour later, as I shucked out of my bathrobe and clambered into the sleeping chamber, I had a thought. "Negsie and Cornpie and Ogger—they weren't ever on board, were they?"
"It seems not, sir," Jeeves admitted.
"Just a carrot you dangled in your plotting? You're a marvel, Jeeves," I said as I lay back on the shiny cushions and eyed the various pads and pokers waiting to descend onto me.
"I'm often told so, sir. Shall I start the sleep sequence?"
"Before you do… one last question. When the princess gave you the brooches, what did she say to you?" I held up a hand and added, "If it's too personal, you needn't tell me, but I do admit I'm curious."
"She said, sir," Jeeves replied after checking the instrument panel and making minuscule adjustments to the aforementioned pads and pokers, "that she thought that we both understood what joy can come from a life lived in service of another."
"I see." A cool mist started to flow in around my feet. "What are you going to do with them?" I asked. "The brooches, I mean to say."
"I hope you won't mind sir," Jeeves said as the lid started to come down, "but I thought I might send them to your aunts."
"That's an idea!" There was a tiny prick on the back of my hand, and a deliciously languid blanket of apricity began to settle over me. "Two aunts, two brooches… it works out nicely." Though knowing Aunt Lydia and Great-Aunt Letitia, I suspected they'd find some way to make even the receipt of identical brooches into a competition.
"Yes, sir," Jeeves' voice was muffled by the glass. "I thought I'd send them in a single package, addressed to both, and let them sort it out equably amongst themselves."
"Oh, very good Jeeves," I said, as I swirled on gentle currents into the cave of Hypnos. "Carry on."
~ The End ~
first posted 19 Dec 2011; rev 7 Jan 2018