ow just you stop that struggling, dear, before you hurt yourself," said Emily Bronto, holding a cup of steaming tea under Captain Shivers' nose. "Would you care for some of this? It's pepper root, you know. It's quite the pick-me-up."
“You don’t have to be so hospitable,” said Charlotte, her sister, tightening a knot. “She can hardly be expected to drink that stuff anyway, while she’s chewing on that gag. Besides, when I turn on the motor of this rocket she’s tied to, Captain Shivers is going to get all the pick-me-up anyone could want.”
“Oh, dear,” said Emily, flustered. “I just never seem to know what the proper thing is for these occasions. Do you suppose after we put her in orbit we could stop off in town and buy a nice book on etiquette?”
“Considering that the nearest town is six star systems away it might not be practical,” Charlotte replied. She stood back to look at her handiwork. “Drat!” she said, after a moment. “I really hate to just pull the switch and fire her into space like this. It always seems like a waste of a perfectly good prisoner to be humane like that.”
It seemed like a waste to Captain Shivers as well, though she did not consider it particularly humane. She was tied securely to the fuselage of a small rocket that was pointed straight up. It was only a little over eight feet in length so it probably didn’t have a lot of fuel. But since the idea wasn’t to land it, the Bronto sisters probably didn’t mind that it would crash. Captain Shivers wasn’t worried about crashing, either. Being a space captain and naturally interested in the scientific issues
of space flight and rocket propulsion, she was worried about atmospheric friction and other such technical problems she would personally encounter when this thing took off and zoomed toward the stratosphere at Mach 30. Even her Earle K. Bergey Designed Lady Space Captain’s Uniform could protect her from only so much. The situation was serious.
In fact it was so serious she began to wish that Nadir McGuirk would show up.
Not that the green-feathered mutant who was her first officer aboard the starship Starsnipe, was the most reliable rescuer she could hope for, but he and Urgus were the only ones she could think of who were actually on this uninhabited planet they had been, she now realized, lured to as part of the Bronto sisters’ plan of revenge. The distress signal had been faked, of course; there was no wrecked space liner. There were only the Bronto sisters, ruthless interstellar jewel thieves and archenemies of Captain Shivers and her crew. Not for the first time, she tested the ropes she was tied with. And not for the first time, she found herself unable to work free.
“I think she might be trying to escape again,” said Emily, seated nearby in a rocking chair and sipping tea. It was a disconcerting sight, an eight-foot tall bronto-person in a rocking chair. But there was a more disconcerting vision on the other side of Captain Shivers: Charlotte, rummaging through a cardboard box filled with a miscellany of torture instruments, looking for something she could amuse herself with before setting off the rocket. Emily wore a demure and grandmotherly gray flannel dress but Charlotte was wearing a tight corset and high-heeled boots. They both wore wigs, Emily's gray and spinsterish, Charlotte’s red and in ringlets. Captain Shivers knew
that the wigs were armor plated to protect the soft spots in the middle of their scalps, the only vulnerable portion of the armored saurian bodies of the bronto people.
“She can try all she wants to,” said Charlotte, grimly. “It’ll just add to the fun when she realizes she can’t get away. Ah!” She gave a squeal of girlish delight. “Just what I was looking for.” She pulled a cat o’ nine tails out of the box, but her excitement quickly gave way to frustration when she realized how tangled up it all was.
“You really should take better care of your things, Charlotte.” Emily picked up her bag of knitting and began sorting out her yarn. She made a show of letting Charlotte see how neatly arranged it all was.
“Oh, shut up, sister,” said Charlotte, snarling. She tossed the whip back into the box and poked around in it some more. She picked up a branding iron worked into the shape of a street map of Asia, then dropped it back into the clutter. “If only this wasn’t so backward a planet. There’s no electricity, no running water, barely enough oxygen to breathe, much less start a good hot fire. I never realized how dependent I am on the amenities of civilization.”
“You are such a sensitive child,” Emily said, not bothering to look up from her knitting. “Those scandalous things people say about you are really so unfair. If you just gave people the time to get to know you better, they’d stop saying them.”
“Most of them I don’t give time to stop saying things,” Charlotte said. “But they stop just the same.” She kicked the box aside. “There’s nothing useful here. I’ll just have to improvise.”
Emily either knitted one or purled two – neither of them knew enough about knitting to ever be sure which it was – and asked, “And how do you intend to do that, sister dear?”
“By turning on the rocket now and letting it warm up a bit before I launch it.”
“Oh? How warm?”
“Two or three hundred degrees,” she said. “Celsius, of course. It shouldn’t require much more than an hour or so of that.”
Emily smiled and worked at the knitting on her lap. “That’s just a wonderful idea. And so much more restful than most of your schemes because you can just sit back and watch this time, instead of having to work so hard, like when you bring out the dentist drills or plumber’s snake.”
“I know,” said Charlotte sadly. “But it’ll have to do unless I can think of something better.”
On a hilltop some four hundred yards away, Nadir McGuirk poked his yellow, condor-like beak up over a convenient boulder, and squinted at the situation through an old-fashioned, collapsible spyglass.
“Golly gee, Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk, sir,” said Urgus, who was
hunkered down beside him. “I hate it when the Bronto sisters capture Captain Shivers. They always tie her to a rocket ship and try to shoot her into space or something.”
“Fragnabbit,” snarled McGuirk. “Can the chatter at least until I figure out what they’re doing down there.” He looked for a second longer then said, “Oh, boy.”
“What are they doing?” asked Urgus.
“They’ve tied her to a rocket so they can shoot her into space. Third time this year. I just can’t believe it. Where the blarfgrubbing snabblekrabs do they get the money for all those rockets? Jewel robbery must pay better than I thought.”
Urgus took the spyglass and looked through it. “Oh, golly whew! We’d better hurry up and get down there to save her. It looks like Charlotte Bronto is turning on the rocket now. I bet she plans to let it warm up to two or three hundred degrees. In just fifteen minutes, Captain Shivers will be baking.”
“Wait a minute,” McGuirk said. “Maybe this is the break we’ve been waiting for. That kind of heat might burn the rope off her.”
“No way,” Urgus said, peering intently through the telescope. “That’s Alphonse Barreux brand rope they’re using. Captain Shivers doesn’t have much of a chance of freeing herself!”
“Luckily she doesn’t have to,” McGuirk said. “She has us.”
“Uh-oh,” said Urgus.
“Because at this very moment, I am in the process of hatching one of my patented 100% Nadir McGuirk Guaranteed Genuine Schemes.”
Urgus said, “Uh-oh,” again. There was that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He should have known things were bad when he called Nadir McGuirk “Unca” and the mutant hadn’t backhanded him.
Though she knew it was futile, Captain Shivers strained against the ropes that held her to the rocket. The hull against her back was growing warmer.
With a wicked brontosaurus grin, Charlotte looked up from her own rocking chair where she was trying to knit mail armor out of steel wool. “Hot enough for you, Captain Shivers?” she asked, adding an evil chuckle.
“Now, now,” Emily said, not bothering to look up from her own knitting. “It’s not proper behavior to taunt your victims, my dear.”
“I’m always forgetting that,” Charlotte said, adding an evil chuckle. She leaned forward and poked Shivers’ sweating midriff with a blunt, armored finger. “Not done yet, are we dear?”
She was saved from hearing a fine example of space sailor’s expressiveness by the handkerchief tied in Shivers’ mouth. Emily said, “I think you’ve made your playmate angry.”
“Imagine that.” Charlotte leaned back and started rocking and trying to knit
“Well, of course, there are two sides to any disagreement,” Emily conceded. “It isn’t very proper of her to allow her temper to flare up at her hostess that way, so I suppose you’re perfectly justified, dear sister.”
“That’s the way I look at it,” Charlotte agreed.
How Captain Shivers looked at it went largely unrecorded, though technically not unsaid.
It was at this point that a suspicious-looking green fellow sauntered up to the Bronto sisters and said, “Madam, that smells suspiciously like pepper root tea.”
“Oh dear,” said Emily. She sniffed suspiciously at her teacup.
Charlotte put her knitting aside and reached for the cardboard box of torture devices. While she was sorting through it, she said, “It smells like pepper root because it is pepper root.”
“Oh yes,” said Emily. “It is.”
“Nectar of the ambrosias, potation of the gods,” said the visitor, smiling cheerfully. “Blabdabbing gourmet swill!”
The fellow was tall and green in color, and appeared to have feathers. Charlotte peered at him intently a moment and said, “Do I know you?”
“How could you?” he said. “I would remember a thing like that, wouldn’t I?”
She peered a moment longer, then gave up. She couldn’t place the face, possibly because of the handlebar mustache affixed at a rakish – or perhaps careless – angle under the fellow’s beak. He carried a suitcase, a rolled up umbrella and wore cutoffs and spats, rather a suspicious looking sartorial style for outer space, she thought. But before Charlotte could perfunctorily kill the stranger, Emily said, “Would you care to join me in a cup, sir?”
“Have you a cup that large?” the stranger asked, chuckling as he unfolded legs from one side of his suitcase and sat it upright on them like a small table. “Just a little witticism, that,” he said. “To pass the time of day. Allow me to introduce myself. Crittenfelcher’s the name. J. Palomar Crittenfelcher.”
“Palomar?” said Charlotte suspiciously. She got out of her rocker.
“Palomar. P as in pay. A as in away. L as in lay. O as in Okay. M as in may. A as in allay. R as in Robalo.”
“R as in recess. O as in obsess. B as in buttress. A as in access. L as in largess. O as in Ontology. Robalo. The J stands for Janice. Frankly, I never use it, so don’t ask me to spell it.”
“Isn’t this supposed to be an uninhabited planet?” said Charlotte, with a low growl.
“Well that certainly explains why my sales have been so puny,” Crittenfelcher said. “Which brings me to why I’m here.” He snapped open the lid of the suitcase, revealing a number of bottles. “Doctor J. Palomar Crittenfelcher’s Guaranteed Patent Herbal Reparative! The finest herbal medicine in the seven galaxies! Guaranteed to cure your gout, and if you don’t have gout it’ll give you a case and then cure it just to make you happy. This is, beyond question, the finest and most reliable cure for scale fungus known to any sentient creatures in this or any other universe. Furthermore, it is absolutely proven to enable its user to grow back limbs like a salamander.”
Emily said sweetly, “You sound somewhat like a salesman.”
“Nonsense,” said Charlotte, less sweetly. “He sounds exactly like a conman.”
“Listen,” said Crittenfelcher, puffing on the most disreputable smelling stogie either of the sisters had ever smelled. “This stuff has been known to put hair on the chest of a bald man. It’s brought vigor and a reddish tint to the cheeks of at least sixty-three species of dead things. It’s a blend of the finest herbs and spices available anywhere in the universe, including pepper root, which is known far and wide to be especially helpful to the digestive processes and sexual allure of saurian ladies such as yourselves. And it’s just seventeen thin – I say a mere seventeen thin - credits per bottle!”
On the fuselage of the rocket ship where it was getting progressively hotter, an impatient Captain Shivers said something that might, under other circumstances, have sounded like, “McGuirk, you idiot, hurry up.”
Crittenfelcher looked up at the starship captain as if noticing her for the first time. “Frozzly grulliks! Have I interrupted a party? She looks like the birthday girl.”
“Something like that,” said Charlotte. “And how would you like to be the birthday boy?” From her box of torture instruments, she picked up something that looked rather like a combination of a Swiss Army knife and a chastity belt.
“Now don’t be hasty, sister dear,” said Emily. “It would be most impolite to disembowel this nice gentleman before we’ve even talked to him about this interesting concoction of his. Did you say it contains pepper root, Mr. Crittenfelcher?”
“Indeed I did, madam, indeed I did. In fact, this elixir is just about perfect. There’s only one thing wrong with it. It seems that in the scientific necessity of making it one hundred percent effective in the curing of ills and abetting of good health amongst mutant and saurian the sevagram over, I’m afraid it was necessary to ferment the stuff.”
“Oh dear.” Emily looked distressed. “Do you mean to say it contains alcohol?”
“Alcohol?” said Charlotte, looking up from her toy box with new interest.
“Yeah, but it’s for medicinal purposes only. Other than that, it’s blubtapping near perfect.”
Emily said, “Well, I don’t know. Mama always said that alcohol was the devil’s milk. Our daddy –”
“That’s only hearsay,” said Charlotte, snatching the bottle from the stranger’s hand. “Especially since we never knew our daddy.”
“True,” said Emily.
Charlotte snapped off the neck of the bottle against a nearby rock and threw back her head. She downed the bottle’s entire contents with one swallow. Scowling, she glared at the stranger and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She said, “Another.”
Crittenfelcher indicated the suitcase, still filled with bottles. Charlotte helped herself.
“Oh dear,” said Emily. “It would be impolite not to join in.”
While all this was going on a small figure, armed with a Buck Rogers Barlowe knife, creeped up behind the rocket and began cutting the ropes that held Captain Shivers fastened to its hull.
“This is pretty good stuff,” Charlotte said. Her tone had an edge of suspicion to it but she helped herself to yet another bottle, in fact to three. She snapped off the necks and poured the contents of the bottles into her gullet.
“Oh, dear, save some for me,” her sister said.
“No problem,” said Charlotte. And there wasn’t because she immediately
collapsed into unconsciousness.
Perplexed, Emily watched her sister lying there on the ground a moment then said, “And only five bottles. How sad. I don’t expect to reach that state for another hour.”
She was wrong. It took five minutes at the outside.
McGuirk watched the prostrate forms for a moment, then peeled the handlebar mustache off his beak.
“Thanks, McGuirk,” Captain Shivers said moments after that – this time it was possible to understand her words because she was free of both the ropes and the handkerchief. “I’m almost sorry I dumped your still overboard on the way here.”
“That’s okay Captain. You only got one of them.”
“What was that you said?” “Uh, I mean, it’s okay because I’m reformed. That’s it. I’m a draklenaging new mutant. Not another drop of xeno!”
“Why do I have my doubts about that?” Captain Shivers said suspiciously. “Not that it matters. Let’s get back to the ship.”
“That’s a good idea,” said McGuirk. “But first –“
He toed the closest of the sisters – Emily – just to make certain she was unconscious. Then he sauntered over to Emily’s purse – Charlotte never carried such frippery – and helped himself to the price of seven bottles of Doctor J. Palomar Crittenfelcher’s Guaranteed Patent Herbal Reparative.