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Nice Place You've Got Here
Fiction. In SPACE.
It’s difficult to gurgle with gravitas, but a poofy purple hat goes a long way. Even in the unsavoury, middle-of-the-throat local dialect, even so far out on the fringes of his domain, the Great Duke Qui could stamp his foot and shake a room. His question bounced off of the cavernous workshop’s distant walls, becoming, to his ear, more scything with each passing echo.
‘Do you know who I am (am am am amm ammm ammmm ammmmm)?’ he asked.
His jawline had won awards, you know. Qui could charm the fangs off of a Boxininan Deathcrawler, he smiled whole planets into servitude. His fourth official biography, due for release in the third solar year of the IV Dynasty of Emperor Squimpy, was titled, ‘The Gift Of The Gab That Won’t Stop Giving.’ Qui’s warm green eyes were cybernetically enhanced to literally twinkle in certain lights. Every fibre of his perfect chocolate hair had been laser printed. This was no ordinary Duke. He did not take kindly to delay.
Qui stood rigid in his purple ceremonial robes, in a polished concrete chamber longer and wider than was visible from ground level. This was more mausoleum than mechanic, the Duke thought, none too kindly. Rockets were clunked down in near total disrepair, in every direction, for as far as his biomechanically retrofitted eyeballs could behold. Big thin yellow gliders were propped up against black ejector capsules. Regular old translight engines were piled on top of warp drives, as if the two were conceivably related. Thick silver wires sprung forth from the cockpit of one machine and coiled into the bellies of many others. The Great Duke found it all very troubling. He had never seen the inside of a spaceship before.
You’d think that they would have covered that in Duke School. Eminent scholars had trained a young and predestined Qui in the arts of kissing babies, cutting ribbons, opening time portals, firing ceremonial phasers, appearing genuine on immensely pre-scripted television, holding a conversation with radiation-poisoned foot soldiers without actually physically breathing, flying all manner of spacecraft for all manner of processions, declaring war, opera singing, ballroom dancing, laser fencing, and how to calculate and execute the precise amount of eye contact that will make a person feel seen without making them uncomfortable. Not once had he seen so much as a flux capacitor with his own fake eyes. Not once had he been taught what real people smell like.
The Mechanic had a sour stink and hadn’t offered a name. She reeked of oils, of metal. Her short flat hair simply fell wherever it wanted, without any adornment. Uncouth. To say the least. Qui felt she seemed uncommonly stupid, even for a Megladoon. So vanishingly, unblinkingly little was the interest that she’d shown in her Great Duke’s question that, had it not still been echoing around the chamber, he might have asked it again. Her face was completely neutral. Eyes glazed like the eyes of livestock, an eerie gateway to some incomprehensibly dim inner world. She stood a full head taller than the Duke. And stout to boot. Physically massive and mentally dull and after a pause she simply repeated, slowly, that the dented piston did not exist this far from the Capitol Worlds, and that she would have to melt down and manually resculpt the damaged part, and that that process would take no less than two full hours.
Smash repair is a difficult business on the ships of Great Dukes. They are not at all designed to be smashed.
‘Do you have any idea—’ the Duke began, but the Mechanic was already elbow deep in the guts of his golden hull. Qui harrumphed. He felt abandoned by the staffers he’d just dismissed, and was not so high and mighty that he couldn’t see, and suffer from, the irony therein. He cleared his throat importantly but found he had nothing to say.
And so it was that the Great Duke Qui, Sovereign Leader of the Myxoman Quadrant of Federated Planets and very possibly the next Emperor of the Galaxy if the assassinations went his way, loudly dragged a large radiator across the hard concrete floor, fussed over his cape, and took a seat.
‘Nice place you’ve got here,’ he gurgled. The Mechanic started to loudly clang tools and metal together for no reason the Duke could divine. ‘Two hours is the best you can do?’
He shifted his weight importantly, massaged his straining trachea, and started again.
‘You know, I was behind the controls when we crashed into the little church in your city square.’ He had to raise his voice to be heard over the banging. ‘One of my staffers sneezed loudly in the back of the flight deck and I thought we were under attack. I lurched us downward instinctively, as part of a routine evasive manoeuvre, and the next thing I knew there was a steeple in my hull. God bless me.’
The Mechanic inserted her head into the Duke’s ship. He frowned.
‘Makes you think, doesn’t it, about the sanctity of life?’ Qui was literally yelling now. ‘Have you ever come face to face with your own mortality?’
Tiny sparks were falling from the hull hole the Mechanic occupied. She’d gone as deep as her waist while the Duke was talking. Evidently his run up was a little long.
‘What I mean is that, well,’ he screamed over the grinding machinery, ‘life is really, it’s a fickle thing and I can, you know, and, well, hello? Can you even hear me?’
The Mechanic heightened some setting on her hand-held saw and Qui had to cover his ears. It’d been a long time since he’d had to threaten someone himself.
Whole entire minutes screamed past the Duke, whose fingers remained one knuckle deep in his perfectly symmetrical ear canals. Finally, through a spray of sparks and cloud of black smoke, the Mechanic emerged from the wreck. She held a dense, warped steel cylinder the size of the Duke’s head in a single gloved hand as if it was weightless. Qui allowed himself to gulp. The Mechanic’s hair continued to fall every which way, drooping even into her eyes and mouth, and now her overalls had an orange goop on the sleeves.
The Great Duke Qui felt the stirring of a very alien feeling deep inside of the very centre of his stomach. It was Awe.
‘Excuse me,’ gurgled the Duke.
He caught the Mechanic’s eye and perfectly executed his most endearing smile—toothy, bemused, marginal drop in the left eyebrow, five-degree head tilt. She blinked back with her same dumb, empty stare. Qui couldn’t tell if he was being looked at or through. He persisted.
‘It’s been many years since I’ve spoken with a Megladoon. My gurgling is rusty. Tell me please, what is your native word for…’ and then, whispered gently in Galactic standard, ‘Beautiful?’
This is the kind of thing that makes a Boxinian Deathcrawler’s fangs go all wobbly, and whole planets eager to impress. By imperceptibly tensing his core and leaning on his elbow, The Great Duke created the illusion of sinking back, relaxed, off guard—that is to say that with great difficulty, he made himself seem like a real human being. His eminent scholars would be proud. Qui dropped his clicks into a lower, sultry register and said, as creamy as he could manage from the middle of his throat, ‘You are very fascinating.’
Without any facial twitch of any kind, the Mechanic pulled on the pair of bulbous black goggles that had been hanging around her neck. She jammed the broken piston into a lathe and shot fire at it with her welding iron. She’d the grace of a dancer from a Capitol World with none of the pretension, heaving gigantic equipment onto her workbench, whipping retractable pliers on and off her tool belt. The Mechanic twisted boiling liquid metal into a complex new shape, she sculpted oozing burning gold into fine, intricate patterns. An unwieldy grinding contraption hummed over the broken part, orange sparks dancing up and down the Mechanic’s massive arms. ‘You know,’ crooned Qui, ‘you really are—’ Bang. The Mechanic smashed a mallet into the piston. Then burnt it with her welding iron. Then smacked it again. The Awe he felt, the tumbling in his stomach, made his heart strike and seemingly ricochet in time with each seismic bang.
The Great Duke Qui knew full well what the native word for beautiful was, and he clicked it aloud now, softly. ‘Hey,’ he cooed. Lythe beneath her layers of thick, oily clothes, perfectly composed and assured under the welding goggles. Hair scandalously, bewitchingly unadorned—an extension of her natural, oily, dirty, poor, genuine self. Hers was a soft, true face. He clicked the word for beautiful again. Still she did not turn. ‘Hey!’ he said, with feeling. He stood from the capacitor. ‘Hello, you!’ The Great Duke planted a royal hand on her massive shoulder and spun the Mechanic around.
‘Do you know who I am (am, am, amm, ammm, ammmm)?’ he boomed. The Mechanic removed the goggles.
Something in her hardened eyes, something in her short breathing, told Qui that this woman did not just know that he was the Great Duke Qui, Sovereign Leader of the Myxoman Quadrant of Federated Planets and very possibly the next Emperor of the Galaxy, but that she knew in a deep and serious way that he was a liar and cheat and a crooner and a politician, with artificial eyeballs, with disgust for his constituents, who was no less capable of being a real person than he was of being in love. In this moment, under this unblinking, disinterested stare, Qui felt a new and horrific sinking feeling that, no matter how fast he ran, he would never, ever escape. The Duke stepped back and the Mechanic stepped forward. She loomed over him, letting him stumble on some engine wiring, the welding iron still burning blue in her hand. Hers was not the stare of livestock. She had neither looked at or through him—she had been looking inside of the Duke with a mirthless Mechanic’s stare, appraising the parts of him that were broken, scanning for warped pistons, and dreaming in her patient, quiet way of setting each and every one of them on fire.