On and on, Urgus prowled.
Behind the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes, for once strangely beady, glowed like small red warning lights. His shoulders hunched forward. His lips, twisted in a snarl, made hostile, blubbery growling sounds. He stalked through the spaceship corridor, searching for his enemies.
At the forepart of his mind shouted a single thought: "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
In the back part of his brain, a quavering whisper: "Golly gee, Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk, sir! This doesn't seem right!"
Through the soles of his spacekid's boots he could feel the floor plates vibrate signifying the operation of the starship's drive. The ship was working again. The snarl became an evil smile and was accompanied by an evil laugh. All as it should be, of course. Inevitable and inescapable. He licked drool off his lower lip. Heh, heh, heh.
In the back of his mind: "Gosh golly! I'll bet I'm in big trouble this time."
Up ahead, something moved into the corridor. Urgus stopped still, tensed up. A machine that had seen him and possibly suspected something. One snively little machine of the puny space empire he would conquer. It had made a lucky guess, that was all.
It came toward him. He positioned himself in its way.
The low-slung robot said, "Beep! Beep!"
In its claw-like metal hand the robot held a strange device which consisted of a long pole of some hardened organic fiber. Urgus plucked a word from his memory: wood. It was wood. At one end were scores of thin, ropy tendrils soaked with chemicals. The robot ran the tendrils across the corridor deck in some ceremony of warning. The tendrils smeared a snail-like slimy trail in their wake.
"Beep! Beep!" cried the deadly robot. "Watch it, Spacehand Low Class Urgus. Don't track where I'm mopping!"
Urgus snarled; his eyes glowed red.
He bowled the machine over and with ferocious strength ripped off its thinking module and pounded the low-slung body with it. The wood and tendril instrument flailed the air, spraying the moist, pungent chemical in which it was soaked all around. Urgus didn't care. He was beyond care or caring. He slammed the thinking module down heavily on the rest of the robot and watched a satisfyingly deep dent appear.
"Beep! Beep!" the machine said. "You're tracking."
Urgus snarled and redoubled his attack. "Goshonentlies, die, monster war machine of Earth! Goshonentlies, die!"
The monster war machine complied.
"It just missed us," Thurston said, daring to peer through the bridge porthole at the strange comet that had almost destroyed the Starsnipe. "I bet that means we're going to crash into a star."
McGuirk crawled out from under the alarm console and said, "Your trouble is you got an attitude problem."
"I do? Bummer. Real bummer." Thurston accompanied this remark with a scowl.
So did McGuirk. What irritated him was that Thurston's scowl wasn't very scowl-like. He was a Smileyfacian from Daunbeet XIII, and his face, which covered his whole disk-like bright yellow body, consisted of two beady eyes, a set of cheerful eyebrows, and a big up-curved mouth running parallel to the lower edge of the disk. The mouth always looked like it was smiling. So did the whole face.
McGuirk, on the other hand, large green-feathered mutant that he was, looked something like a condor and was much better at scowling than Thurston ever could be. He continued to demonstrate that fact and in addition whipped the Perpetual Stogie out of his beak and blew noxious smoke at Thurston.
"Much as I hate to admit it," McGuirk said, "Urgus does have the right attitude. The little twerp's always cheerful. The very sight of him might make me want to puke, but I know that no matter how bad things are, I can always count on him to point out the good parts."
At that very moment the door flew open and Urgus stomped onto the bridge. He also seemed to be scowling, though it was very hard to tell what his face was doing behind those thick glasses.
"Gee golly, are you two gonna die horrible lingering deaths," he snarled, slamming the door behind him.
"Ohhhh, bummer," said Thurston.
That was when the meteor hit.
On the engineering deck, Captain Shivers was just completing damage checks when the rock struck. Swearing like the star-sailor she was, she picked herself up and set the DC console on auto-run and said, “To hell with it.” A captain’s job was on the bridge and if she were going to personally run damage checks on this ship, she’d never see the bridge again.
The computer burped and began running through its program. She didn’t wait. The autos could handle the small stuff and the alarms would alert her to problems the autos couldn’t fix. By the time she reached the bridge the alarms were going like crazy.
“Get out from under that console, McGuirk,” she said as she stomped in. But to her astonishment, he wasn’t under it. He was standing behind Thurston and both of them were cowering in the corner.
Glaring, Urgus turned toward her. “Oh, boy, Cap’n Shivers, ma’am,” he said. “You’re gonna be torn limb from curvaceous limb.”
She handed him a patch kit and said, “Go fix the meteor hole.”
The small Spaceman Low Class blinked behind his thick glasses and said, “Goshonentlies, Captain Shivers, ma’am, are you in for it now.”
“Hop to it,” Captain Shivers said, examining the readout screen on the command console. “You go with him, McGuirk. He might have to stand on something to reach it.”
So commanding was her tone that the possessed Urgus gave a small involuntary hop. McGuirk peered out from behind Thurston.
“Uh, Cap’n?” McGuirk said.
“Hop!” she snarled, moving past him to eyeball the astrogation tank. “Both of you. Now. Hop! Hop! Hop!”
McGuirk thought of a good argument against that but by then he and Urgus were both halfway down the corridor.
“Have we been hit by another meteor yet?” Thurston asked the captain.
“We weren’t supposed to be hit by the first one.”
“Something’s wrong,” she said grimly.
“If I’d said that,” noted the Smileyfacian, “no one would believe me. Oh, bummer of a life that I lead. I bet that comet’s coming back for a second swipe at us.”
“Didn’t we just establish that you wouldn’t have believed me about the meteor, either?”
Captain Shivers turned and leaned against the astrogation tank to think. She pushed back her long blonde hair with one hand.
“You’re scowling like McGuirk,” Thurston said. “I bet we’re trapped in the jaws of entropy again.”
“Hush, I’m trying to figure this thing out.”
“That doesn’t seem so hard. I figured it out minutes ago. Something bad happened, followed by something worse, then something even worse happened. There’s a pattern forming.”
She ignored him. Quietly, as if someone with useful opinions was standing next to her she said, “First it was that comet. There was no indication of one anywhere near us, but suddenly it appeared and just missed the ship. Now it’s gone; there’s no sign of it in the astrogation tank.”
“I bet it fell into a black hole. Which probably means we’re trapped in its gravity well even as you speak.”
“Then a meteor hit us despite the fact that we’re equipped with the most sophisticated repeller system in the galaxy.”
In a very cheerful tone, Thurston said, “Are you saying things may be even worse than I imagined?”
“Is there anything else odd going on that I might have missed?”
“Urgus is behaving strangely.”
The captain shrugged. “So?”
“I mean even for Urgus. He’s in a bad mood.”
“He scowled. He snarled discouraging words.”
“Jumping spacefish! Not Urgus!” She started toward the airlock. “You take the controls, Thurston. I’m going outside.”
“Oh boy!” Thurston said, when she was gone. “The captain just abandoned ship and left me in charge.” An eager look in his eyes, he went to the control console and saw all the happy green lights indicating the ship was safely on autopilot. He glanced back at the astrogation tank that showed empty space for light years in every direction.
“I bet we’re all going to crash,” he said confidently.
As far back as the 1940s, the world had known of the super efficiency of the Earle K. Bergey design lady space captain’s uniform. Consisting of a brass bra, brief hipwisps, and boots, it was super lightweight, offering little hindrance to movement. It was proof against the vicissitudes of radiation and vacuum in open space. In the airlock, it was only necssary for Captain Shivers to don the fishbowl helmet and small (but jam-packed) oxygen tank that turned the uniform into the perfect spacesuit, and wait for the pumps to evacuate the chamber so she could go outside.
And then the outer hatch opened and the gravity subsiders kicked in and she exited the ship.
The Starsnipe was not the newest ship in the universe. A good two centuries old if it was a day, it had seen a lot of service. In its time it had been a private yacht, a freighter, a smuggler, even a pirate craft before Captain Shivers acquired it in that legendary mumbletypeg match with her old rival Captain Cruiser, the slut, back on Farbling XII. The match lasted four days but when it was over, Captain Shivers was the owner of the Starsnipe, and Captain Cruiser was covered with several hundred small but annoyingly painful little cuts. The salt content of the atmosphere on Farbling XII didn’t help her disposition any, either.
Despite its years, despite all it had been through, the Starsnipe was one hell of a ship. Shivers loved it. She loved it as she had never – and, she hoped, never would – love anything else. The old vacuum scow could do anything, and its lines were as sleek as the lines of any ship in space.
Now an object of even sleeker lines cut an orbit over the hull of the Starsnipe. Captain Shivers moved with the confidence and skill of an Olympic class space gymnast, her superbly controlled muscles automatically guiding her in a perfect arc as she scanned the ship, searching for something that shouldn’t be there. She knew every pit and scar on the Starsnipe’s metal skin and she loved them all. Then she saw something she did not love.
She swooped closer to the ship. The magnets in her spiked heels grabbed the hull and held her there while she examined the splotch of some alien substance she had found. The alien substance extended a single bloodshot eye on a pseudopod and examined her in return.
As quickly as it had appeared, the pseudopod withdrew and another, this one with teeth, took its place. It snapped at Captain Shivers.
It is no easy feat to draw a weapon in space. Without the pull of gravity, mass can do unpredictable things. Captain Shivers was the fastest draw in the Seven Galaxies, on planet or in space.
As the teeth snapped at her midsection she sucked her stomach in even more than it naturally was. The teeth missed flesh by millimeters. Her right hand flashed toward her hip. The secret of her draw was not in the speed of her hands, however, but in the precise movement of her hips. She could toss a weapon out of its holster to meet her hand halfway.
It was not one of her d-guns that she reached for, however, but her regulation Swiss Army ballpeen hammer. Before the alien blotch could react she smashed the teeth to smithereens. The blotch recoiled, moving away from her.
Now she went for her gun. Her superb astrogational instincts told her what angle would alow her to scorch the thing without damaging the Starsnipe.
Inside the ship, Urgus sneezed and pushed his head up out of the pile of feathers he was buried in. He sneezed again. Then he saw McGuirk. “Golly gee, Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk, Sir! What happened to you?”
“Don’t just sneeze there,” McGuirk said, clinging to a ceiling fixture. “Get me a drabblagging bedsheet to cover myself with!”
“As unlikely as it seems,” said Captain Shivers, “it was a mind control splotch from Pishtabang Minor.”
“Golly gee,” said Urgus. “I thought all of those were wiped out by the Uooltalops in 2783.”
McGuirk, wrapped in a blanket and sipping hot chicken soup, sneezed.
“I thought so too,” said Captain Shivers. “Obviously, however, at least one of them managed to get away. The comet must have been sentient for the splotch to have enough control over it to guide the thing into our orbit without us detecting it until it was too late for evasive maneuvers. It dropped off the comet, latched onto the Starsnipe’s hull and began probing. It gained control of the first mind it found, which explains Urgus’s abrupt personality change.”
“You mean the weakest mind it could find,” McGuirk said. Then he sneezed again.
“Golly gee,” said Urgus. “I’m lucky you figured it all out, Captain Shivers ma’am, before I hurt somebody!”
McGuirk leaped to his feet. “Before!” he shouted. “Before!” Then he noticed his blanket lying on the deck and blushed. He quickly pulled it up around himself again.
“Will you just keep quiet and drink your soup,” Captain Shivers said. “Your blasted feathers will grow back.”
McGuirk sat down again, grumbling. “That’s easy for you to say, all warn and snug in your Earle K. Bergey designed lady space captain’s uniform.”
“Wow, Captain Shivers,” Urgus said. “You sure saved the day, again. Only, are you absolutely sure you got that space splotch?”
“Absolutely. We’re perfectly safe now.”
The door of the ship’s galley opened and in stepped Thurston. “Isn’t it a lovely day?” he said, brightly. “Do you think we could grow roses on this ship?”
McGuirk was the first one to reach for his blaster. Only he forgot he wasn’t wearing one.
He also forgot about the blanket again. McGuirk blushed.