On 20468 Petercook
Enjoy “On 20468 Petercook,” a new original story by author Andy Duncan about Stanley and George, two resolute employees of Trans-Space Enterprises tasked with adjusting reflective sheets on solar sails attached to asteroids, miniature planetoids, and the like. It doesn’t seem like an exciting life, but perhaps you’re simply not realizing the full dramatic potential of two mates sitting amongst asteroids, adjusting sails.
Ah, tea’s up.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Alone in the black void, the ship thrust forward, then pivoted as it slowed to a stop. Motionless, it awaited the next flyby, the next ship-killer, the next opportunity.
Shoulders aching, eyes watering from hours of vigilance, the pilot enjoyed a two-second respite. He cracked his knuckles and popped another Pontefract cake. Then he drew a licorice-sweetened breath. The biggest asteroid yet entered his vector display, approaching on the x-axis. Its trajectory would cross in front of his ship, directly in the line of fire.
His trigger fingers tensed. He blinked and licked his lips, leaned forward.
But there, gliding into view from above: a hostile saucer, one of the big ones, firing blindly, unpredictably. In moments it would be upon him.
“Tea’s up, George.”
Risk selected, the pilot fired on the Phocean cruiser. A direct hit. The enemy craft became a brief, small starfield, each brilliant point winking out in an instant. As the ion cannon reloaded, the pilot swerved to face the oncoming minor planet gone rogue. He fired – but too soon. The strike glanced off the oncoming rock, set it to spinning. Deadly fragments hurtled directly at him!
“George. Tea’s up.”
“Half a moment, Stanley,” said the pilot. “Be there in a moment – Oh, bother.” George’s tiny, triangular two-dimensional craft, hit amidships by a glowing zigzag outline suggesting a rock, had become its own miniature starfield. The screen froze, and GAME OVER appeared in the reflection of George’s long, impassive face, just above the red message light in the corner that winked URGENT.
“Oh, bad luck, George,” said Stanley, his rumpled cherub’s countenance a veritable cartoon of sympathy.
“No, Stanley, shed no tears for me. Eight million points and change, an honorable outcome, the best this month. Ah, thank you.” He accepted the flask of tea, crimped the straw to release a single mouthful of Lady Grey. “Mmm, perfect as always, Stanley. You’re really too good to me, you know.”
“Not at all, George. Funny thing about that antique computer game of yours.”
“How do you mean, Stanley?”
“Well, it presents rather a naïve late-twentieth-century layman’s view of the minor planets, doesn’t it? Whacking great rocks whizzing at you from every direction. While in actuality, someone sitting in the middle of the main belt might scan the sky in vain for months or years and never see even one.” He raised up just enough to peer out the nearest porthole, and sighed. “Above, pitch-black sky; below, surface of rock, rock, rock, rock, rock and – wait, what’s that, I can just make it out – ah, yes, rock. Decorated only by the occasional rock.”
“Count your blessings, Stanley. Think of all those miserable drones back home, struggling to achieve a cubicle with a window and an unchecked view of the Staines bypass. In contrast, those rocks, as you so ungallantly term them, comprise an alien wonderland.”
“It does have an eerie quality, I suppose,” Stanley said, his nose squashed against the inner layer of pane. “The ambient light, I mean.”
“Yes. Reflected, much of it. The Greeb-Streebling Effect.”
“Streeb-Greebling,” Stanley murmured.
“No, Stanley, the Streeb-Greebling Effect involves hydraulics, specifically the underwater movements of raven’s wings. No, the optical effect is Greeb-Streebling. When I took the rigorous exams, I remembered it by the two-word mnemonic device—”
“No, but that’s an awfully good one, Stanley. Has driven my own right out of my head.”
Stanley turned from the porthole. “I say, George.”
“Speaking of light effects.”
“Speak away, Stanley.”
“From my vantage point, there seems to be a red light on your screen, appearing and disappearing with some rapidity. Were I asked to describe it, I might be so bold as to say it is flashing.”
“‘Flashing’ would be quite a good word to use here, Stanley. It is the mot juste, I daresay. Well done.” He silently toasted his shipmate with his flask, and Stanley returned the gesture with a smile. They companionably sipped their tea.
Eventually Stanley bestirred himself.
“Well what, Stanley?”
“Are you going to answer it?”
George shook his head in fond indulgence. “It’s very generous of you, Stanley, to give me the opportunity, but there’s simply no need. The mot juste can have no answer. There’s no topping it, you see. By definition. It’s the last word on the subject. No, that’s one in your column, Stanley, and no mistake.”
“I meant answering the, um, urgent message.”
“What, this flashing thing? My God. Are you on about that again? Rather a well-trodden path already, don’t you think? Stanley, how long have we crewed the Saint Beryl together?”
“Um, well, let’s see, George. I was never fast at maths. What is today’s date?”
“According to your well-thumbed and heavily annotated Page Three Girls calendar, it is the thirteenth of June.”
Stanley gazed in the direction of the far bulkhead, which in these situations wasn’t far enough. “Let’s see, that would make it four years, five months, and twenty-seven days – No, I tell a lie – twenty-eight days, George. Approximately.”
“Rather a loose estimate, Stanley.”
“Well, no need really to dwell upon the hours, is there, George? Fixate upon the minutes, obsess about the seconds ...”
“No, quite right, Stanley. We’ll take the rounding as a given. In those four years, five months, and twenty-eight days, Stanley, I have observed in you much that is great and fine, indeed admirable—”
“Why, George, I’m touched. I could say the same about you.”
“You could, I’m sure, but were you to make the attempt at the moment, you would find the two of us talking simultaneously, you just beginning to touch upon my admirable qualities, and I, having exhausted yours, moving on to the lamentably related subject of all the ways in which you get on my last nerve. Foremost among them, Stanley, is this tendency to fixate upon the routine. You keep pointing out, for example, that this red message light is flashing URGENT. Do you deny it?”
“No, George, I concede the point. I have mentioned it more than once.”
“And do you deny that we have seen such a message before?”
“I do not, George.”
“And do you concede further that, were I to call up this message, read this message – worse yet, act on it – worst of all, reply to it – this would have the fatal effect of encouragement? Give those sods on Syrtis Major the notion that they can bung blinking red message lights at me whenever they please? ‘Time on your hands, lads? I tell you what – let’s shove an URGENT message at silly old George, watch him hop about, bit of a giggle.’”
“It could have repercussions, you’re right, George.”
“It’s a slippery slope, Stanley. It’s the beginning of the end. These bastards get to feeling they have the upper hand, and the balance of power is shifted, mate. Inexorably and irretrievably in their favor.”
“But, George, isn’t it already, um, tilted in their favor, just a bit?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, we are employees of Trans-Space Enterprises, are we not?”
“And thus we have been living, these past four-odd years, some of them very odd years indeed, in a TSE gravity tug?”
“Surrounded by the TSE logo on every panel of these living quarters, on the chests of our jumpsuits and the soles of our shoes, on every piece of equipment from the ion drives to our tea-things? More tea, George?”
“Yes, please, Stanley, and regarding our surroundings, yes, we are.”
“Dependent on TSE suppliers and converters for all our tea – here you go, George.”
“— all our food and drink, all our water, indeed the very air that we breathe?”
“I await the relevance of this litany, Stanley.”
“All I’m proposing, George, is that given the circumstances, mightn’t we concede our otherwise dominant position vis-à-vis Trans-Space Enterprises, our otherwise, um, iron grip on power, long enough to, say, occasionally read TSE’s e-mail? Might we have that much, uh, largesse?”
“Stanley, I see you now coolly and I see you whole. Bloody wage slave, that’s what you are.”
“Oh, now, I don’t think – ”
“No, you don’t, Stanley, and that’s precisely the problem. I receive a message from the home office; your knee-jerk response is that I should read it. Where’s the creativity, I ask you? Where is the precious flickering flame of the individual spirit? Bloody snuffed, that’s what it is. I offer you an eternal flame, and you hand me a damp box of Swan Vestas.”
“Here, George, I’ve got an idea.”
“I should love to believe that, Stanley. I once cherished just such an ambition for you.”
“Why don’t I read the message?”
“You read it?”
“Here, now, Stanley. That is a thought.”
“Makes a change.”
“Indeed it does. Why should the scepter of authority always rest in my hand? Stanley, all authority for the Asteroid 20468 mission henceforth rests with you for, oh, the next half-hour or so. Maybe less. I’ll just be in the loo. Happy reading, Stanley.”
“You too, George,” Stanley said, absently, already hunched over the e-mail.
George bounded back into the module in good spirits. He had to clutch a handhold to prevent bumping his head on the ceiling.
“Stanley, I’ve remembered that two-word mnemonic!”
Stanley said nothing. He was calculating.
“The one that enabled me, during my rigorous exams, to recall the Greeb-Streebling Effect.”
“Streeb-Greebling,” Stanley murmured.
“It was ‘George Spiggott,’ Stanley. My own name! Funny I should forget it. Well, I don’t mean to say I forgot my own name. Don’t make a habit of that sort of thing, not since university days, and I do wonder what Daphne Meacham is doing, at this moment. What I mean is, I forgot that particular use of my own name. An interesting window, eh, Stanley, into the dark regions of the mind?”
Stanley said nothing, but continued jabbing numeric keys. George sighed and folded his lanky frame onto a couch, cinching the straps tighter than necessary. “All right, Old Clever Drawers, out with it. What are you ferreting away at?”
“I’m checking the figures.”
“Oh, my God!” George said.
“That’s what the e-mail was about,” Stanley said. “We’ve been pushing 20468, our own alien wonderland, into just the right keyhole to smack Earth on the return swing – Staines bypass and all.”
“But we’re using exactly the calculus Syrtis Major sent six months ago! We checked it for two bloody weeks.”
“Yes, but they’ve recalculated, so it’s to do over again,” Stanley said.
“I bloody well wish they’d bloody well make up their bloody minds,” George said.
“No, no,” Stanley said. “Be fair. After all, Syrtis Major is modeling a multifold set of inelastic collisions between homogeneous spheres. Once the orbit of a main-belt minor goes unstable, you have to take into account accelerated elements, special relativistic conditions. The numbers get the collywobbles.”
“It’s a load of old tosh,” George said.
“Exactly. We may have to correct who knows how many times, the next two years. Better that than accidentally shoving a four-kilometer rock straight up Earth’s arsehole.”
“We should point it at bloody Syrtis Major,” George said. “I guess this is the story of our next two weeks.” He faced the bulkhead. “Wake me when it’s over.”
“Now, George. How about some tea?”
After a pause, George, only partly muffled, replied: “Tea would be nice.”
“Well, bring me some, too, will you? There’s a lad.”
“Christ,” George said. “This is the worst job I ever had.”
“I doubt it.”
“No, I mean it,” George said, sitting up. “That’s exactly what I told Branson XIII, in that poncy restaurant at Calorn’s Dome.”
“What, the TSE oligarch? You never did.”
“I bloody did, mate. Said it loud and clear, I did. ‘Branson,’ I said, ‘my name is George Spiggott, commander of your gravity tug Saint Beryl, and I can say without hesitation that it’s the worst job I ever had.’”
“And what did she say?”
“Well, she didn’t hear me, did she? I mean, she was on the other side of the room, with all her friends; I was stuck in the serving line, waiting for some dry slaw. I hate a soupy slaw. But after I was done eating, my fists clenched, my arguments marshaled, my loins girded to their utmost, I walked straight up to her table. ‘Branson,’ I said, ‘my name is George Spiggott, commander of your gravity tug Saint Beryl, and I can say without hesitation that it’s the worst! Bloody! Job! I ever had.’ I then made a universally recognized gesture of curt dismissal.”
“And what did she say to that?”
“Not one word. Can you believe it? She had left about thirty minutes before. The table was empty! Well, what could I say to that, I ask you? I just walked away. I mean, I left the situation. I’ve got some bloody pride left, haven’t I?”
“How about that tea?” Stanley asked.
George sighed. “Right,” he said, unstrapping himself. “Lemon?”
“Lovely,” Stanley said. “And some of those chocolate digestives, please.”
At that moment came a distant thunk – a sound remarkably like that of a rock bouncing off an exterior several thicknesses of bulkhead away – and all the lights went off. The only illumination left was an eerie glow through the porthole cast by the reflective surface of 20468, a manifestation of the Greeb-Streebling/Streeb-Greebling Effect.
“Hello, Margaret,” Stanley said, rapt. “You’re looking lovely today.”
“Why, thank you, Stanley,” said the dark-eyed woman on the screen. When she smiled, her heavy eyebrows arched, but her smile was short-lived. “Stanley, while backup power is working fine, and air pressure is slowly normalizing, the foil-deployment system is now manual only. You and what’s-his-name will have to enact those course corrections on-surface, I’m afraid.”
“You know my bloody name!” George called from the galley, where he was trying to salvage a pot of tea.
“Don’t mind him, Margaret,” Stanley said. He leaned forward and whispered, “He’s not at his best, you know, around women of the opposite sex.”
Margaret laughed. “You’re a dear, Stanley. Shall I transfer the instructions into your E.V. suit?”
“Yes, thanks. What hit us, again?”
“Nothing terribly impressive. Twenty-five-gram shard of carbonaceous chondrite, the length of your thumb from tip to metacarpophalangeal joint.”
“Say it again,” Stanley breathed.
Stanley sighed. “How you tease me,” he said, “with your knowledge of anatomy.”
“None of it firsthand,” George called.
“Shut up!” Stanley cried.
“That’s why the sensors didn’t detect it sooner,” Margaret continued. “If they had, I could have sent you an urgent alert.”
“Yes, well,” Stanley murmured, glancing toward the galley.
“As is, it could have passed without notice, had it not landed in a sensitive area.”
“God’s aim is getting better,” Stanley said.
Margaret laughed. “Stanley! You’re in-cor-rigible,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes. From the galley came a muttered oath and a clatter. “Must run, Stanley. Let me know how I can help.”
“Thank you, Margaret,” Stanley said. He opened his mouth to add something else, he knew not what, but Margaret’s face had vanished, replaced by the omnipresent TSE logo. Stanley gaped at it, struggling with his emotions.
“You’ll never get anywhere with that one, Stanley,” said George, suddenly at Stanley’s elbow.
“Jesus!” Stanley cried, grabbing handholds to keep his start from propelling him across the module. “I thought you were over there.”
“Oh, I’m never far away, Stanley. Where would I go? You realize, I hope, that Margaret only replays and augments the stimuli to which you responded positively in previous encounters. She’s like your delayed image in a mirror. You’re besotted with yourself, you dreadful old Narcissus. After all, our corporate masters, in their infinite wisdom and mercy, would scarcely waste top-flight AI on gravity tugs.”
“Don’t talk about her like that,” Stanley said.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Stanley. Margaret’s a sweet woman. Sweet, charming, shy, mysterious woman. But if you’re looking to score points in your idle hours, you’re better off playing Asteroids.”
“I should withdraw that remark,” Stanley retorted. “You haven’t dated a woman since university, else you wouldn’t be on about Daphne Meacham all the time. Playing computer games and reading science fiction all day hardly make you expert in the ways of love.”
“Ah, that’s where you are wrong, Stanley. Why, some of science fiction’s grand masters were also masters of sensuality.”
“Masters of sensuality, eh? Name one.”
“Well, to proceed alphabetically, Isaac Asimov.”
“What? The one with the—” Stanley plucked at his cheeks as if fluffing a pillow. “—mutton chops?”
“Oh, get off!”
“Repeatedly, Stanley. The Spacer vixen Gladia Solaria, now there’s a fantasy woman worth your time. Centuries old, sexually ageless, seducing men of the Baley family unto the seventh generation. Many an hour have I pictured the 650-year-old Gladia emerging from her bath, daubing and powdering her busty substances, winking knowingly at me as she slowly dresses, cloaking her tigress nature in a discreet twin-set and pearls.”
An awkward silence ensued.
“Well, then,” Stanley said, smacking his hands together. “I’ll just pop out, look round, hand-crank the main reflector into line with the new coordinates so the sunlight gives us just the right wee nudge to avert a mass-extinction impact on Earth two years hence, and basically stretch my legs, shall I?”
“Hold up, Stanley. I’d like to go with you.”
“What?” Nonplussed, Stanley glanced about, waiting for the next shoe to drop, like an ambushed guest on a chat show. “I thought you’d, uh, be minding the tea.”
“Oh, I hold out little hope for this pot, Stanley. Until air pressure recovers, we’re looking at eight degrees lower boiling point, minimum. See, I can do a bit of calculation, too, on important subjects. But we haven’t made a manual adjustment in some time. And it’s a two-man job, even in low gravity. Well, here we are! Two men. Sent by TSE in its infinite wisdom. Come on, Stanley. Working together, we’ll be finished before you can say, ‘Pippa Middleton.’”
From Earth’s perspective, minor planet 20468, a carbonaceous chondrite potato 4.25 kilometers in diameter, had an absolute magnitude (H) of 14.9, before the Saint Beryl landed on it and began mucking about. Its brightness had more than tripled since, thanks to the two-kilometer long, half-kilometer wide sheet of reflective foil that was the Saint Beryl’s purpose. Essentially a solar sail laid upon the ground to reflect sunlight in a continuous stream, it was the slowest and quietest known propulsion system, fully capable of steering a minor planet, if given years to do its work – and adjusted as needed.
Fortunately for George and Stanley, the 20468 sail was segmented into hundreds of individually adjustable panels, none smaller than an average rooftop and none larger than Piccadilly Circus, so cranking them manually into position was not impossible but merely a –
“Bloody pain in the ass.”
“Almost done for the day, George.”
“I was done two hours ago, mate.”
“Mind you don’t pinch your suit, George. You’d fire off like a rocket.”
“Mind this,” George replied, with an appropriate gesture.
Each had been tempted to shut off the radio, but pointless bickering was at least communication and companionship, something to listen to other than the sound of helmeted breathing, something to focus on other than the rocks and dust underfoot and the dark abyss above.
Or was that the other way around?
“This is the worst job I ever had.”
“Hmm. That’s rather interesting.”
“What is, Stanley?”
“That rock over there.”
George looked about. “Which one?”
“Well, do you see that rather dun-colored, lumpish one with the dents in it?”
“What, next to that largish, hedgehog-shaped, burnt-almond one with the ochre accents?”
“No, I mean the medium-sized, boulder-ish one with the russet spots.”
“Oh! You mean the one that looks like your Aunt Dolly.”
“Only, now that I think about it, George, when I close my right eye, it’s more like Uncle Bert, and then when I close my left, it’s more like Aunt Dolly.”
“What, with both eyes closed?”
“No, I meant, when I reopen my right eye, then close my left.”
“Ah! Gave me a bit of a turn, that did. I thought, if you see her with your eyes closed, Aunt Dolly must have made quite a set of impressions in the wet clay of your adolescent mind.”
“Quite a set, yes.”
“Still, it’s a fine demonstration of pareidolia, Stanley. The human tendency to see order, especially human features or voices, in random stimuli.”
“Like the Old Man in the Moon, George.”
“Yes, Stanley, and the Face on Mars.”
“The Shoulders on Juno.”
“The Phallus on Phobos.”
“The Great Bum on Ceres.”
“Since divided, Stanley, on closer observation, into the Greater and Lesser Bums.”
“The march of knowledge is a wonderful thing. Weren’t there a torso and some legs somewhere, George?”
“At least two legs, Stanley. We were mad for extraterrestrial body parts, in the early days of exploration.”
“And it does relieve the sameness of the landscape. Do you know, George, the first year we were here, after looking about a bit, I decided to list all the words that meant, basically, brown, then look them up, to learn the fine nuances of their meaning. Do you know how the OED defines ‘dun’? ‘Like the hair of the ass and mouse.’”
“Many a happy hour, Stanley, have I spent at the Ass and Mouse. It’s a pub in Chiswick, just down from the Merry Fiddlers.”
“Is that really true, George?”
“It’s not a million miles from the truth, Stanley.”
“Well, you’ve got rather fonder associations with the phrase than I, because now, as I gaze about this sere and unforgiving landscape, I soon find myself thinking, ‘ass and mouse, ass and mouse, ass and mouse,’ and then I have to look away, don’t I? For that way lies madness.”
“It’s the rut you’ve got in, Stanley, not the phrase per se. Why, when I was at university, Londoners from all walks of life sought refreshment and companionship beneath the sign of the Ass and Mouse. Funny that at the height of its popularity, on the very eve of my graduation, it closed its doors.”
“Did it, George?”
“Yes, and reopened them at the start of business the next day.”
“Speaking of a million miles – er, what I mean is, may I speak frankly to you?”
“Of course, Stanley.”
“It has come to my attention, George, that we recently seem to have drifted apart.”
“That’s probably my fault, Stanley. I’ve been a bit cross, what with the tea, and the Asteroids, and all. And I’m not of the warmest nature, in the first place.”
“I do not refer to our emotional relationship, George.”
“No. I refer to the fact that in the past few minutes of conversation, you, who were standing rather nearby, vis-à-vis me, on the surface of 20468, now seem to have drifted somewhat far away, on both x- and y-axes.”
“Ah, I see what you mean. So that when I look at you, I have to look a surprising distance downward, and squint against the reflected glare of the solar panels beside you.”
“Yes, whereas, when I look at you, I have to crane my neck a bit, and you’re something of a dwindling doll-sized figure, against the blackness of the void. Moreover, you seem to be spinning.”
“Funnily enough, Stanley, so are you, along with the rest of the minor planet you’re standing on. Stanley?”
“I fear I may be in the process of becoming something of a minor planet myself.”
“Now, don’t panic, George. Remember your thrusters. Your Simko thrusters, George. Can you reach them? George!”
“Should I lose the thread of conversation, Stanley, please understand it’s nothing personal ... only a result of vertigo ... and the blessed respite ... of unconsciousness ...”
Far below George, the tiny Stanley-shaped figure bounded about in actions increasingly dissociated from Stanley’s tinny radio voice: “Mayday, Margaret. Mayday. Are you there? Margaret!”
“Welcome back, George,” said Stanley.
“Yes, George, good to have you,” said Margaret’s onscreen avatar, wearing a bit of glitter on her eyelids this time.
“Thank you, very kind of you both,” said George, esconced again on his favorite couch, looking none the worse for his adventure. He made a languid gesture of benediction. “I forgive you even the three broken ribs.”
“Well, you were lights-out, George,” Stanley said. “I had to trigger three of your suit thrusters in sequence, just to bring you in – with Margaret’s help, of course – and keep you in the crosshairs of the CO2 laser all the while. So in the circumstances, slowing you rather took a back seat to steering you. Good thing you came in at a glancing angle and, I daresay, a lazy speed.”
“One meter per second,” Margaret said.
“A temperate speed,” Stanley said. The two rescuers gazed fondly at one another.
“I hope they don’t hurt too badly,” Margaret said.
“In between breaths, scarcely at all,” George said. “But I’ve had more injuries, Margaret, than you’ve had hot dinners. Well, I suppose you’ve had no hot dinners, have you? So there’s a total easily bested. I must say I feel sorry for you, Margaret, having had no hot dinners in your life.”
He went on to tell a lengthy story about a memorable hot dinner with a non-stop dancer and a professional Jayne Mansfield imitator.
“My! That must have been a task,” Margaret said. “I must be off. Sleep well, George.” She turned to Stanley and mouthed, “Nine o’clock?”
“Yes!” he piped, voice breaking with excitement.
“What’s that?” asked George.
“Nothing,” Stanley replied. His back to George, he mouthed, “Nine o’clock,” and gave Margaret a thumbs-up. When her dimpled smile faded into the TSE logo, Stanley spun his chair to face George, who gazed at him with blank skepticism, or simply blankness. Stanley attempted to look both innocent and bored.
“I like the two of you together,” George said.
“Don’t know what you mean, George.”
“It’s rather like Aunt Dolly and Uncle Bert. If two people make one another happy – or, in this case, if one actual person and one sweet, charming, shy, mysterious, neurally networked, hybrid symbolic/sub-symbolic semi-embodied agent can mutually simulate happiness protocols – then who am I to muck about with it? I ask you.”
“Why, George. You’re a closet romantic, you are.”
“That’s what Daphne Meacham said,” George replied, gazing out the porthole. “Funny old world.”
“Something to read, George? Aldiss or Wyndham or E.C. Tubb, perhaps? Take your mind off your troubles.”
“Indeed they would. Interesting, isn’t it, Stanley, that twentieth-century science-fiction writers seldom wrote about the asteroid belt except in connection with mining? Take Asimov.”
“You mean Asimov, the master of sensuality?”
“Yes, though in this case, I more precisely mean Asimov, the master of occasionally dropping some stray mention of asteroid mining into a story otherwise about positronic robots and that lot.”
“Ah, but let’s apply a true test of literature. How is Asimov at playing Sausages and Mash?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know that game.”
“Don’t be afraid, George, it’s very simply learnt. Whenever you’re reading a passage, you substitute each ‘S’ word with the word ‘sausages,’ and each ‘M’ word with the word ‘Mash.’ For example, let’s open this Asimov volume fairly at random, and take a look at his classic story ‘Mash off Vesta.’ ‘Mash off’ – that’s rather good, isn’t it?”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” George said. “Not the ‘rather good’ part, mind you, the ‘mash off’ part.”
“Ah, here’s a good passage. ‘He clicked on the mash grapple and very cautiously put a foot out into sausages. Clumsily he groped his way out to the sausages of the sausages. He had never been outside a sausages in open sausages before and a vast dread overtook him.’”
“I think the phrase ‘vast dread’ is awfully well chosen there,” George said, “what with all those sausages about.”
“Skipping ahead here. ‘Eagerly he sausages the sausages for the little blue-white speck that was Earth. It had often amused him that Earth sausages always be the first object sausages by sausages travelers when sausages, but the humor of the sausages did not sausages him now.’”
“I can identify,” George said.
“When you’ve made the close lifelong examination I have, George, you’ll find that very few authors favor both sausages and mash. One large cohort of authors cleaves notably unto the mash—”
“Proust comes to mash. Or mind, that is.”
“—Proust, exactly, or Kant, whereas Asimov, judging from these passages, seems to be firmly in the grip of sausages.”
“Or vice versa. Yet the point I groped for, Stanley, if we can beat our boats back that far upstream, is that the early sausages fiction writers, when writing about our quadrant of sausages, could envision it only as a sausages of mash resources, and otherwise cared about asteroids only when they entered the Earth’s atmosphere and became mash. Oh, bother.”
“Catching, isn’t it?”
George popped a Pontefract cake. “At any rate, our job among the asteroids was rarely envisioned.”
“I wonder why, George.”
“You may include yourself in the ranks of those who wonder, Stanley, but it’s crystal clear to me. I mean, it’s bloody boring, isn’t it? Asteroid mining, there’s a good robust, two-handed, red-blooded fictional theme, rife with color and incident. Ripping resources steaming from the guts of the universe. But here we are, doing nothing but peacefully averting violence, mucking about with reflective sheets.”
“Two weeks on, move it an inch — ”
“Three weeks on, red-letter day, move it another half-inch — ”
“Two weeks on, Hello, bit of a crinkle in that sheet, best to smooth it out — ”
“I mean, it’s not enough to keep the mind alive, is it?”
“But for us, George, it’s a bit late in life, you see, to turn to anything else.”
“Oh, I’m not knocking the job for a moment, Stanley. We’ve got it made, you and me.”
“I agree, George. It’s a short life, but a merry one.”
“All I’m saying is, when one looks at it from the point of view of audience, one does not immediately discern the full dramatic potential of reflective sheet adjustment. I ask you, Stanley, who would read a story on that?”
“Tea’s up, George.”
— For Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Eleanor Bron
“On 20468 Petercook” copyright © 2012 Andy Duncan