AND STRANGE AT ECBATAN, McGUIRK

By Michael Shack

Illustration by Mark Fults
 

Illo by Jerry Burge
  As they crept through the darkness, Grabby Haze said, “This here reminds me of the time I taught the Shadder all about how to skulk in the dark. Well now, he was all decked out in that there snow white cloak and hat of his’n and I says to him, I says –”

McGuirk said, “Grabby, you idiot, the Shadow never wore any snow white cloak and hat to skulk around in the dark in.”

“Well, no, not after I pointed out to him how much better it would be if he switched to black. Tarnation! Don’t you realize his very name fit better when he put on a black costume? I swear, McGuirk. Sometimes I wonder if you got common sense enough for me to tell you these here historically interesting stories of mine!”

The tips of McGuirk’s wings encountered the corner of the wall they were following. “Hold up,” he said. “I’m not sure which way we want to go now.”

“Dark as it is here on this sunless planet, I don’t think it makes much difference. Jehosophat! Them folks we’re spying on must be having as much trouble seeing what’s going on as we are.”


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  “Fragnabbit, Grabby, the folks we’re spying on are cat people. They can see in the dark. You know, I’m beginning to understand just why Captain Shivers ordered us not to try this.”

“She’s always ordering us not to try something and by Grannies, we always sneak off and try it anyway,” Grabby pointed out. “Tarnation, McGuirk you can be the goldarnedest greenhorn in seventeen galaxies! Don’t you think Captain Shivers knows us well enough now to realize that if she wants us to do something, all she’s gotta do is tell us not to? Thunderation!”

“Well, when you put it that way,” McGuirk said, “it almost makes a kind of sense.”

“Of course it do. Ever’thing I ever say makes sense by Johnny. Now let’s get on with our spying. And, oh yeah, you better put out that there cigar of yours on account of it glows like a beacon in the night.”

“Ha!” McGuirk haed. “Fat lot you know. It so happens this is a perpetual stogie and no way can it ever go out. We’re stuck with its light.”

“By crackie, I never met no numbskull like you, McGuirk. I tell you I never did have this kind of trouble helping to scientifically raise Duck Savage by teaching him common sense, no sirree! Let me show you how to fix that.”

Being unable to see his decapod companion, McGuirk wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next, other than by the vague sense of dread triggered by the realization that Grabby was going to do something. He felt the stogie yanked from his beak and saw for a moment the glowing coal of its lit end twirling like a drum major’s baton in the blackness before his eyes. Then the

 

stogie was thrust back into his beak.

Sudden and pronounced warmth above his tongue suggested that the lit end was indeed now out of sight of prying eyes.


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  “Grabby! You idiot! You put the lit end in my –”

“Of course I did and watch who ya call a idjit, ya idjit. I guarantee ya with that stogie stuck in yore beak thataway it’s impossible for people to know where we are unless –”

“Yeeeeeeeeoooooouuuuuuuccccchhhhhh!” McGuirk yelled.

“—They hears us,” Grabby finished sensibly. McGuirk accompanied his sound effects with a leap so balletic that it was a shame it could not be seen in the pitch-black night. It was a shame also that Grabby was not prepared to catch him just as balletically. The mutant came down on the decapus in a collision of feathers and rubbery flesh loudly accompanied with oofs and curses and the sound of the entangled twosome rolling downhill.

Then there was the other sound: the crashing sound. McGuirk felt himself falling. Alertly he twisted so it would be Grabby who struck the floor, cushioning McGuirk’s fall with his pliant corpulance. It might have worked, too, had McGuirk not already been on top.

He hit the hard cement floor in a cloud of green feathers and the heavy space marshal came down on top of him. He saw stars. He saw, he thought, a very big star.

Then he realized it was not a star but a light. He was in a lit room. In its ceiling he could see darkness through the hole they had made.

He felt Grabby doing a nine-tentacle pushup on his chest so he could look around. “Ah ha!” said the space marshal. “I was right. Them varmints is a-hiding under ground! And you and me has got ‘em surrounded.” Gingerly

  he climbed off McGuirk’s chest. “I’ll just let you stand up so’s you can tell them to hand over their guns and spears.”

2

“Jeepers creeper,” Urgus said. “You really fixed my peepers, Captain Shivers ma’am. I can see through this darkness just like I was wearing night vision goggles.”

“I just wish McGuirk and Grabby had waited while I went to get those eyedrops,” Captain Shivers said. “Has it been five minutes yet?”

“It sure has.”

“Then we can assume they’ve gotten themselves captured.”

“Wow! I can’t wait to see the joyous looks on their faces when we burst into wherever they’re being tortured and save them,” said the young spacekid.

Like McGuirk and Grabby before them, they had followed the broken wall. The difference was that they could see it. It was an extremity of a complex ruin that crowned the top of a low sprawling hill not far away from where they had landed their ship the Starsnipe. With their eyes treated with the night-vision eyedrops Captain Shivers had whipped up in the ship’s lab the faint light of the stars was sufficient to see that the rubble was ancient indeed.

“Golly gee whillikers,” said Urgus. “I wonder who built these ruins.” “

"From its age and a few other things I noticed as we were landing,” the captain said, “my guess is this planet used to orbit a star. What worries me is how warm it is now. A planet that got torn out of orbit and hurled into


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  deep space should have a frozen atmosphere or none at all. Yet we’re able to walk around without space gear. That suggests something more than we were led to expect.”

“Maybe they have nuclear reactors underground somewhere,” Urgus said.

“You’d think so, but when we orbitted this planet the instruments didn’t pick up the usual residuals of radioactivity.”

They reached a corner of the wall and Captain Shivers stopped so quickly Urgus bumped into her. Considering how much shorter he was than her he might normally have been expected to enjoy the experience but he bumped his nose on her d-gun. She paid him no attention but intently studied the landscape ahead of them.

“I see a light,” she said after a few moments. “It’s coming up out of the ground. From some kind of hole.”

“Jeepers!” said Urgus, peering past her knee. “What could make a hole in the ground like that?”

“I can only think of three things that could do it,” Shivers said, grimly. She sighed. “McGuirk, Grabby or McGuirk and Grabby together.” She unholstered her gun and motioned to Urgus to wait for her signal, then cautiously moved across the open ground to the hole.

Urgus studied her actions carefully. Someday, if he ever grew up, he might have to know how to do such things as sneak up on a hole in the ground. Captain Shivers moved stealthily to within a few feet of the hole, and came to a stop. She stooped and moved the rest of the distance in a crouch. The light

  from the hole limned her beautiful face starkly to Urgus’s chemically enhanced vision, as she leaned forward to peer into the abyss. After a moment she signaled for Urgus.

It was a dangerous situation and Urgus knew it was important to be both fast and quiet. He ran like the wind and maintained the silence of a tornado. As he passed her, Captain Shivers said, “Hey, be careful!”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Urgus as he braked himself to a stop only an inch from the rim of the hole.

Unfortunately it was an inch on the wrong side of the rim of the hole.

He churned his arms like propellers and perhaps if they had been longer and designed more like McGuirk’s he might have kept himself in mid-air long enough for her grasping fingers to close on the nape of his neck. But her fingers closed on empty air as Urgus turned an error of judgement into a nosedive toward the floor below.

After a long moment during which he listened to church bells, Urgus rolled over and found himself gazing into the concerned eyes of his captain, who had somehow climbed down into the room and knelt beside him. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“Uh-huh,” he said feebly.

“Good,” she said with an obvious look of relief. Then she punched him in the shoulder and said, “You idiot! We’re trying to sneak up on these people, not wake them up. What are you trying to do, make up for McGuirk not being here?”


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  Urgus clutched his pained shoulder and whispered, “Ow!” He clambered to his feet. “I’ll do much better next time, Captain Shivers. Honest alien!”

“You’d better.” She turned and looked around the room. “Nice thing about this planet is there’s lots of dust. From the tracks I think we can follow McGuirk and Grabby without too much trouble.”

“But there’s so many tracks!” Urgus noted. “How can you tell which are Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk sir’s?”

“By studying them carefully and applying a little thought,” she said, bending down to examine the floor. “This long skidmark is obviously you. The cat tracks were undoubtedly left by the cat people space pirates. That leaves the tentacle marks and the talon prints.”

“Wow!”

She stood back up. “Furthermore, they’re all moving off in the same direction: that tunnel over there. Except for your skidmark, of course. And just to put the icing on the cake, that tunnel is the only way out of here. Which way do you think they went?”

Urgus scowled and thought about it for a long moment.

She grabbed his arm and pulled him along after her. “Come on. I’ll explain it in more detail later on.”

3

The tunnel finally led to a gigantic chamber and McGuirk got his first look at Tabitha, Queen of the Cat People Space Pirates.

 

She was seated with feline majesty on a throne in the center of the room. She was gorgeous. Why were pirate queens always gorgeous? he wondered. Tall and slender, covered with short, yellow fur, she wore a variation of the Earle K. Bergey designed lady space pirate’s outfit with a long, red silk skirt split up both sides to the hips. Her eyes were hypnotic green and they eyed the mutant with an old, familiar, feral interest. Grabby elbowed him in the side


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  with at least three tentacles. “See how she’s a-starin’ at ya McGuirk? That’s on account of she likes ya. Heh heh, are we in luck! I was afeered we’d run into somebody with class and I’d be the one having to vamp us out of here.”

“She’s eying me that was on account of she’s a cat people and I got feathers

  and a beak,” McGuirk said, not without concern. “She’s eying me that way because she imagines me in a can with a label that says ‘Kitty Cuisine,’ that’s why she’s eying me.”

“Well then invite her to lunch while I makes my getaway and calls for reinforcements.”

“Grabby, you idiot, I’m not going to invite no cat to no meal, not while I’m down here on the lower portion of the food chain –”

“Move it you two,” said the chief guard, punctutating her remarks with the point of her spear in McGuirk’s nether feathers.

“Just hold yore dang horses,” Grabby said. “We’re moving, gol durn ya. You just climb down off’n that high horse of yours afore my partner takes ya across his knee.”

“Grabby,” McGuirk whispered desperately as he felt another, less patient prod of the spearpoint. “Will you stop that? She’s got the spear.”

“It’s all right,” Grabby said. “They don’t realize I’m just bluffing.”

As the captives were led to the foot of the throne, four of the five guards moved off to the sides to watch the fifth one prod them on. The pirate queen leaned forward, staring at the captives with great interest. She said, “Where did you find these two, Sabrina?”

“In one of the old rooms. They’d fallen through a hole in the roof. I was tempted to kill them then and there but I thought you might want to question them first.”


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  “Question them? A succulent bird?”

“That thar succulent bird,” Grabby said forcefully, “is just about the orneriest, meanest, space pirate bashing space hero in the entire galaxy. And he demands that you let us go this very minute.”

“Seafood entrée as well,” she added, looking at Grabby and licking her lips.

“Uh, seafood?” Grabby said with a gulp.

“Mama taught me never to question dinner,” Tabitha said, climbing down the steps from the throne to give the captaives a better look. She wore a D-gun and a long, hook-ended sword of the kind called a “Cat’s Claw.” She paid special attention to McGuirk, purring as she did so.

“Do you really prefer your food cooked, Sabrina?”

“Well,” said the spear-carrier. “There are all those space germs to worry about.”

“Mama would bring home a big, juicy bird,” Tabitha said hungrily, her eyes aglow with feline eagerness. “She’d just pluck the feathers and plop it down for us kids and we’d dig right in. It was a wonderful meal. As for the one in the funny hat –”

“Why, this here’s a o-ficial space marshal hat complete with genuine o-ficial bullet hole right in the front!”

“He,” Tabitha continued, “looks like sushi to me.”

  “Oooooo!” crooned Sabrina. “I love Sushi.”

“Young woman,” snapped Grabby. “Don’t you know there ain’t nothing no worse for the digestion that raw decapus? Lessen, of course, it’s cooked decapus.”

Purring, Queen Tabitha rubbed up against McGuirk and pulled her sword, holding it up so he could see the nasty hook at the end. “I just love to play with my food,” she said.

“And I’d love to watch that,” came a sultry voice from the far end of the throne room. “Especially with those two cornpones. But there’s more important fish to fry, I fear.”

Tabitha whirled toward the voice. From a tunnel at the far end of the throne room, Captain Cruiser, the scourge of the spaceways, and her chief henchman, Oswald the Howitzer, strode in. Both had very nasty looking D-guns in their hands.

“Get away from here,” snarled Tabitha, springing forward and brandishing her Cat’s Claw. “This is my planet.”

“Not any more,” said Cruiser. And shot her.

4

They had been in the cage for what seemed like hours and McGuirk was starting to think about supper. “We could starve in this thing,” he told Grabby. Sabrina eyed him with interest. “Thank the space gods we don’t have that problem,” she said. “At least not for a couple of meals.”

“Would you can it with the food-chain comments?”


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  McGuirk snarled. “I’m sick and tired of being talked about like I was a side of beef.”

“Ooooo,” said Tabitha, sitting up in the corner. “I’d just love a side of beef right now.” McGuirk decided to settle with biting his tongue.

The cat pirate queen was almost recovered from the low-order D-gun blast Captain Cruiser had knocked her out with. She scrambled to her feet and grasped the bars of the cage. “Damn,” she said. “We built these cages pretty good. I don’t think we’re going to be able to bust out.”

Across the room the other four cat-women were in a second cage.

“I’m working on a plan,” McGuirk said.

“That reminds me of the time Richard Nixon told me I ought to tape record all my adventures,” Grabby said. “‘By crackies, if you do that, everyone will hear tell of yore adventures,’ he said.”

McGuirk ignored him. “You know, this cage isn’t that impressive. I could cut through these bars with a good ato-torch in a tenth of a second. And a little plastic nuclear explosive would punch a hole in the ceiling and we could all climb out of here. And we could all just high-tail it for the spaceship.”

“Is them yore plans?” asked Grabby.

“Yep.”

  “We ain’t got no ato-torch. No plastic nuclear explosives, neither.”

“You’re good with details,” McGuirk said. “I thought I’d leave a little something for you to do.”

Before Grabby would recall what that reminded him of, Captain Cruiser walked into the chamber and up to the cage. “Have you fools decided to talk yet?”

“Talk?” Grabby said. “Why, little pirate lady, you are plumb fried in luck. Cause if there’s one thing they all says about ol’ Grabby Haze, it’s that he ain’t never been at no loss for words. Why, I recalls the time me and William Jennings Bryant was debating e-volution and I tells him, ‘Why Billy,’ I says –”

“Shut up,” said Cruiser.

“Well,” replied Grabby. “I might not have put it that bluntly, but that is about the gist of it.”

“I know you’ve been using this planet as a hideout for at least a year,” Cruiser told Tabitha. “By now you must have figured out how the machines work. Are you going to tell me about their secrets or do I need to get mean?”

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” said Tabitha.

Cruiser broke into a smile. “I’m so glad you


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put it like that. You don’t know how much I’ve been looking forward to torturing you people.”

5

“I was right,” Shivers told Urgus. They were in a large chamber not far from the throne room. Gigantic alien machinery filled the place.

“But these can’t be nuclear reactors,” he said. “My radiation detector isn’t picking up anything. In fact, I don’t see any evidence of shielding at all.”

“It’s nuclear, all right. That’s the only way the inhabitants of this planet could have kept it warm enough to be habitable. Unfortunately for them, heat wasn’t all they needed. They must have died off a thousand years ago. These reactors are 100 per cent efficient. They produce no radiation spillage at all. No wonder the pirates are hiding out on this world. They must think this discovery is worth a fortune if they can figure out how it works.”

“Golly gee, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid not. Look at that coiling apparatus over the damping chamber. It’s the exact same design used on Algernon XVII for their world wide energy system. The radiation isn’t actually converted to useful energy: it’s stored in those overload coils. Eventually there will simply be too much and the same thing will happen here that happened on Algernon.”

“Goshonentlies, I don’t know anything about the history of Algernon XVII except that it blew up. What happened to their radiation storage system?”

“That’s why the planet blew up.”

“Oh.”

 

“I think we’d better find McGuirk and Grabby and get out of here while we can.”

“Gosh, yes. Do you think Captain Cruiser knows what kind of reactor this is?”

“Not unless she’s actually seen it. Wait a minute. Why do you ask that?”

“Oh, yes!” said Urgus. “I forgot to tell you. Just before we left the ship, I saw her pirate ship on our viewscreens. It was orbitting this planet.”

“And you forgot to tell me?”

“I guess we’d better hurry and go rescue Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk and Grabby, huh?”

“Come on. If that slut’s on the planet we haven’t got any seconds to spare.”

“Right behind you, Capt – oops!”

Captain Shivers braked to a stop and turned to see Urgus sprawled on the floor. He looked up at her sheepishly. “Is that red button I ran into anything important?” he asked.

6

“It’s amazing,” said Cruiser. “But different cultures can apply the same solutions to different problems. For example, on my home planet Earth, every household has one of these, but they’re much, much smaller and not used as torture devices.”


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McGuirk stuck his head over the rim of the bowl and tried to say, “You won’t get away with this, thubbunit!” before Oswald knocked him down again. He failed.

“What other possible use could such a fiendish device have?” Tabitha asked.

“We use it in the kitchen to mix batter and the like. Those two metal things that are going to be lowered into the bowl with our friend McGuirk would be called eggbeaters on Earth. But they’ll whirl and whirl and we’ll soon have the makings of a good, old-fashioned mutant omelet.”

“You evil person,” said Tabitha furiously. “How can even you do such a thing!”

“If you want to prevent it from happening, you just have to tell me the secret of this planet’s power sourse.”

“Never! No matter what sacrifices McGuirk has to make.”

“I realize he’s nothing to you,” said Cruiser. “That’s why I put your friend Sabrina in there with him.”

Tabitha strained futilely against the grasp of Oswald the Howitzer. “Let her go. Listen to her! She’s hysterical with fear! Can’t you hear her giggling? I’m sorry Sabrina. But you know I cannot tell this monster such a secret.”

“Just be brave a little longer, Captain Tabitha,” Sabrina called from inside the bowl. She giggled again. This time McGuirk joined in the giggling also.

 

Cruiser snarled with fury and said, “I’m not delaying this torture any further. And after we finish with those two, Captain Tabitha, in you go.”

“Oh the other hand,” Tabitha said thoughtfully, “it would be wrong to leave my loyal crew without a leader.”


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“Oh no you don’t,” snarled Cruiser. I won’t be cheated of my revenge! You don’t tell me anything until those two are fool pudding.”

She reached for the switch to the gigantic mixmaster of death.

“Damn!” snarled Cruiser, whirling to face her archenemy. “What a time for Blondie!” She grabbed for her gun. Shivers’ gun was already out. It spit red, yellow, blue and purple circles toward the pirate queen’s hand, blasting the gun from her grasp. Oswald the Howitzer shoved Tabitha at Shivers and moved to leap at her while her aim was blocked, but Urgus chose that moment to bite him on the ankle, Oswald’s most (in fact, his only) sensitive spot. Oswald yelped, dropped his gun and began hopping on one foot. It would have been a moment of triumph for Urgus had he not forgotten to let go of the ankle.

Shivers snatched the gun out of Oswald’s holster. “All right, you two, line up against that wall over there.” She glanced at Tabitha. “You all right?”

“I am now,” said the cat pirate-captain.

That was the moment McGuirk chose to topple out of the giant torture bowl into which he and Sabrina had been unceremoniously thrown. There was a foolish grin on his beak. Sabrina climbed to the rim right above him and seeing the feathery green cushion on the cement floor below, dropped on to it.

“Whhhoooooooooosssssshhhhhh!” McGuirk announced. The cat woman bounced from his midriff and ran to the cage where her fellow crewmembers and Grabby were being held. “Jehosophat!” Grabby called to Shivers. “You and that thar space munchkin with the

  jaw grip on Oswald couldn’t have cut it any closer!”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Shivers said. “As we were coming here, Urgus tripped the safety switch on the reactor. This planet’s going to blow in about ten minutes. I suggest everyone head for a ship and fast. You too, Cruiser.”

“You aren’t going to arrest me?”

“No time. Besides, I suspect there’ll be other opportunities. Real soon, too, I bet.”

“Don’t count on it, Veronica! I intend to win next time.”

By now Oswald had loosened Urgus from his ankle and together, he and his leader ran back toward their ship. Tabitha looked around. “I have treasure stored on this planet!”

“Ill-gotten, no doubt,” said Shivers. “I’d like to collect it myself and return it to its rightful owners, but there isn’t time. This planet’s going to blow up in eight minutes.” Urgus, only a bit more groggy than usual, picked himself up from the floor and ran over to McGuirk. “Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk, sir! Are you all right?”

From his prone position, McGuirk still managed to backhand his faithful companion and send him rolling into the wall. Shivers grabbed Urgus by the seat of his pants and began running. “No time for fun now,” she called to McGuirk and Grabby.

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“We’ve got to get going!”

7

They were in space, watching on the rear vision screens when the planet blew. “That was close,” Shivers said. “I just hope the others made it.”

“Golly gee,” Urgus said. “If Captain Cruiser wasted just ten seconds, she and her ship could be blown to bits now!”

“We’re not that lucky,” Captain Shivers said. She looked around. “Where’s McGuirk? I wanted to ask him something.”

“Gee whillikers,” said Urgus. “He’ll be sorry he wasn’t here for that, Captain Shivers ma’am. You almost never ask him anything.”

“I’m curious about all that giggling in the mixing bowl while we were rescuing him and Sabrina, that’s all.”

“Waal,” said Grabby, “I think you can ask him about that in just a little while, little lady. He’s down in his cabin but I don’t think it’s anything serious. Course, this is the first time I ever heered of a bird with a hairball. But I’ve heard of stranger things. Reminds me of the time –”

 

Illo by Jerry Burge

The End

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