Commander Morgan was not an otter to suffer fools gladly. He stood on the gleaming bridge of the Streamwater and glowered down at the amber planet. “Arm the mass drivers,” he rumbled. He could perhaps have given order to arm the torpedoes, or power up the laser cannons, but the otter commander did not believe in such a thing as overkill. If you annihilated your enemy, you didn’t have to worry about them again. It was simple as that.
The order flashed out to the other ships in the Otter Space Corps. The fleet ringed the planet, even encompassing its solitary moon colony. The Corps vessels pulled in asteroids and other space junk, drawing them through electromagnetic coils, giving them killing speed. A few officers reflected sentimentally on the planet below, remembering happy days spent on the amber seas.
The Commander didn’t bother. The planet’s inhabitants were pre-warp, so ridiculously primitive they thought the wheel was a nifty idea. The Corps had actually told them about the wheel. The Commander himself had outlined the thing on a blasted chart. Had they done anything productive with it? Had they so much as worked up a war chariot? No. Elayne Five had made splendid war chariots, and were well on their way to the steam engine by now. These idiots would never get that far. It was their own fault. They had made their proverbial bed; now they would lie in it. The Corps knew how to deal with wayward pre-warp planets.
“Mass drivers armed, sir,” reported a lieutenant, coolly. “Target sites identified and locked.”
Commander Morgan drew himself to his full height. “Very well. Mr. Wilkins, fire.”
The lieutenant (who was actually part mink, but who kept that fact secret from the Corps) pressed his paw down on the firing pad. The bridge crew waited for the slight rumble of the ship as it loosed the asteroids from orbit upon the unsuspecting world.
Nothing happened. The ship didn’t rumble; it barely even hummed. Bursts of alarmed inquiries came from the rest of the fleet; none of their mass drivers had fired either. Commander Morgan turned slowly towards the lieutenant. “What has gone wrong?” he said, quivering in anger.
“I don’t know, sir!” the lieutenant squeaked. “A weapons system malfunction of this magnitude is-”
“My fault,” said a new voice. The Commander whirled. A new otter had materialized out of nowhere on the bridge. He wore an old tattered uniform that almost looked like it had Corps insignia. In his left paw, he held a massive red sword. The sword hummed loudly.
“Who the bloody hell-” the Commander began, in high outrage.
The otter swung the sword. The Commander’s laser pistol disintegrated in its holster. So did everyone else’s, shipwide. Another pass, and computer screens erupted in sparks and flame. The Streamwater jolted in space, and alarms wailed across its decks. The otter leveled the sword. “You have one chance. Retreat. Now.”
Commander Morgan wasn’t the retreating type. “Again,” he growled. “Who the hell are-”
Once more he was interrupted. This time it was by the shriek of his lieutenant, as the otter calmly ran him through with a lightning slash. Then the red blade was at the Commander’s own throat. Flames filled his vision. The deck of the bridge rolled underneath him. “Who…” he gasped, for the third and last time.
The red sword slashed again, humming happily. Its wielder almost smiled. “My name is Stamper, god of war.”
The tunnel rumbled over Mr. Stamper’s head. Some people might have been unnerved by a tunnel rumbling over their heads, one which gave every indication of collapsing around them and burying them in dirt forever. The space otter, however, was used to this sort of thing. At least the Martian tunnel wasn’t terribly cramped.
Mr. Stamper did miss, just a little, the easy simplicity of earlier capers. The Virgo Diamond, for example, had been locked up in a nice air-conditioned building, behind vault doors that only required an electromagnetic pulse bomb to disarm. That had been almost fun. There hadn’t been any of this crawling through dirt tunnels after mystical artifacts, especially when half the time he didn’t even know what the artifacts were. They were mysterious cups or shiny fat golden men or skulls made of minerals, and they’d usually been left by deities or aliens or time-travelers. Mr. Stamper never knew why the aliens or gods or time-travelers had chosen to leave their treasures in some out of the way hole. It all seemed very odd, he reflected as he kept doing down the tunnel.
Quite suddenly, the tunnel split into two branches. Both looked equally foreboding. Mr. Stamper shrugged, and took the left. He usually took the left in these situations. Either it worked, or it didn’t, and so far it had mostly worked.
His luck seemingly failed him this time. Mr. Stamper had been going for only five minutes down this new tunnel when it abruptly deposited him in a spacious gallery lit with flaming torches. A tall woman stood in the center, bearing a red sword. “You there!” she boomed at him. “How dare you trespass into the chamber of Thursday, god of war?”
“What, you too?” Mr. Stamper said.
Thursday advanced on him in towering outrage. “How dare you-”
“I only meant that I already met a god of war on this planet,” Mr. Stamper said, with remarkable calmness. “Called himself Tuesday. Had armor on. Friend of yours?”
Thursday swore. She did it in native Martian, and Mr. Stamper didn’t have a convenient translator to paw, but from her tone and facial expressions, what she said sounded wildly unprintable. Finally she switched back to his language. “And I keep telling him, I said, Mars only needs one god of war and I’m clearly more appropriate but nooooo, he has to run around with armor on looking ridiculous and now we’re in conflict again and we’ll have to report it to Jupiter and he’ll have to tell Higher Up and who knows what they’ll say and honestly I can’t deal with this AGAIN!”
She said more unprintable things in Martian. Then, to the otter’s surprise, she abruptly flung the sword at him. It landed, point down, in the rock right in front of him. “You be the god of war!” Thursday snapped. “I’ve had it! I’m going to be the god of peace and civilized dialogue now! So there!” She vanished in a burst of red light.
Slowly, Mr. Stamper reached for the red sword. He’d had many things flung at him during his career, but no one had ever thrown a sword before. It was an odd thing for someone to leave for him. Stamper’s paw closed around the hilt. It felt fireplace-warm to his touch, the heat pulsing gently. He drew it from the earth and gave it an experimental heft. It hummed in the air. “Huh,” Mr. Stamper said. “This is interesting.”
The gray shuttle skidded into a bumpy landing, sending up sprays of red dust. It wasn’t one of Mr. Stamper’s better landings, but the otter believed that any landing one walked away from was a good one. Besides, it wasn’t like his passengers cared.
The shuttle was purely for Mr. Stamper’s convenience. Constance, being an angel, could fly quick as lightning. Gaseous Girl possessed the ability to control the gaseous state of matter, and thus provided her own air supply on space voyages. The incarnation of Death didn’t need air, or a mode of travel, at all. But Mr. Stamper was not an immortal incarnation, nor an angel, nor a superheroine. He was only an otter. He had, therefore, required the use of his shuttle.
Now that they had landed safely, the otter powered down the engines and unstrapped himself from the pilot’s chair. He then pressed the comm button. “Attention, ladies and immortals, we’ve now landed on Mars. Looks like winter out there, so temperature’s probably couple hundred below. I gather that doesn’t matter to you lot. I’ll need a space-suit myself.”
“You could just stay with the ship,” Constance said archly. “We can find the Holy Grail from here, thanks.”
“Good luck, angel,” Stamper said, and switched off the comm. There was a long pause, then the distinctive whir-whoosh of the shuttle’s hatchway coming open. Constance strode boldly out onto the desolate Martian landscape. Gaseous Girl surrounded herself with a protective hot air bubble and followed, as did the dour Rain. Mr. Stamper watched as the three figures huddled on the barren rock. Then, the angel turned and gestured irately at him. The otter smiled.
It took several moments for him to don a proper spacesuit and make his way outside. Constance grumbled something inaudible. Gaseous Girl cut bluntly to the chase. “We need your help to find the Grail, okay? You said it’s on Mars. Where on Mars?”
“That way,” Mr. Stamper said, pointing. A tall rocky obelisk loomed in the distance. “We’ll have to be careful as we approach it.”
“Let me guess,” Gaseous Girl said, sighing. “Aliens?” Being a superhero, one tended to be more accepting of the existence of extraterrestrial lifeforms. It wasn’t nearly as complicated as time travel things, or portals to other universes. Another planet had people on it. Big deal.
“No,” Mr. Stamper replied. “Gods. Specifically, a god.”
Rain turned, her dark cloak billowing grimly around her. “It wouldn’t be a god of war, would it? Because I know one. Milroy Birnbaum. We had a date once.”
Constance’s eyes lit up. “Oh-ho! A date! You never told me you had a date! How’d it go? Did you have a second one? Third? What’s he like? Did you-”
Rain might have answered the angel’s flood of questions, or she might have declined, making an acid remark about privacy in the process. They would never know. A sudden loud crack split the air. The ground nearby buckled open, red rock falling away into a gaping hole. Even as Mr. Stamper fought to keep his balance on the rumbling earth, he realized that the hole didn’t look natural. It was too square. And, inside it, he thought he glimpsed sloping flat rock. Then the rumbling grew louder. It wasn’t just the ground.
Spitting smoke and fire, a massively armored tank growled up out of the hole. It lumbered ponderously to a stop in front of them, and the hatch on top clanked open. A tall figure in armor almost as heavy as the tank’s emerged. Mr. Stamper couldn’t even see the face; it was all metal and sharp edges. Then the figure spoke, its deep bass voice booming out over the Martian plain. “Leave my planet. Now.”
Gaseous Girl had averted nuclear apocalypses, plural; she was not intimidated by a deep-voiced clown in armor. “Yeah, no. We’re not leaving. And who are you, anyway?”
“I am Tuesday, god of war,” the man boomed. “You will leave, or you will die.”
Constance waved her hand, and quite suddenly it held a glowing sword. Its golden light spilled across her face. “Wanna bet?”
Rain threw back her cloak. Gaseous Girl flamed up. Constance leveled her sword. Mr. Stamper, meanwhile, made use of the diversion to make a swift, practical retreat. This wasn’t his fight. The Grail, on the other hand, was something else.
All the otter wanted was to be alone. Fortunately, he had picked the right planet. McKean Three was a watery, soggy, cold rainstorm of a world. It was generally regarded as the most depressing place in five galaxies. Its inhabitants, being enterprising sorts, had set about marketing the planet as the perfect spot for love-lorn souls to come and drown their sorrows in one of the floating island bars that drifted across the turbulent seas. Mr. Stamper had come there for exactly that reason.
He held a grey drink the color of the pounding rain outside. He didn’t bother actually drinking it. It just seemed the thing to have. Stamper stared out the window at the rolling water. He wondered if there was land somewhere down there. An undersea mountain, perhaps. Or maybe it was water all the way down. Stamper wasn’t a scientifically-minded otter, and didn’t really care. There were worse planets in the galaxy on which to contemplate one’s life.
“Yeah,” said a voice behind him. “Like the sludge world of Terseron Prime. That’s not fun at all, let me tell you.”
“Not you again,” Stamper said. “Go away, angel. Now.”
Constance sighed. “Look, I’m sorry about the Ark thing, and about Bianca. I know it went pear-shaped. But, really, we need your help this time.”
The otter had a sudden wild urge to smash through the window and dive headlong into the endless sea. He resisted it, with some effort. “We?”
“Rain and Gaseous Girl and me,” she said. The otter turned. Sure enough, behind the angel stood a tall woman in a purple cape and black Starfleet style boots, and another figure in a sweeping black cloak. “Hi,” the latter said. “I’m Rain. Also known as Death. Nice to meet you.”
“Ah,” Mr. Stamper said. Even he felt just the slightest bit hesitant in the presence of the incarnation of Death. “Rain, you said? You must love this place.”
“Not particularly,” Rain said. She didn’t seem to have noticed the irony at all. Mr. Stamper prudently decided not to push the point.
“Right,” he said, “What do you want now?”
“The Holy Grail,” Constance said, her angel wings fluttering in excitement.
“Not the one you see in Hollywood,” Gaseous Girl added. “The real one. Or so they tell me, anyway.”
“Right,” Constance said. “And we’ve got to have four people on this quest, or it won’t work. And we need someone who’s good at breaking in things and stealing stuff. And, well….”
“You thought of me. Touching.”
“I’m sorry already!”
The otter sighed. He considered diving again. But Constance would probably dive right after him and fish him out. “Every time I try to get away….”
“Yeah, yeah, we pull you back in. Sucks to be you, huh?”
“You have no idea,” Mr. Stamper said. “Fine. I’m in. I don’t imagine you people have a line on where the thing is yet?”
“Don’t look at me,” Gaseous Girl said. “The angel’s the leader. Ask her. I’m just security.”
“Earth, duh,” Constance answered. “Probably in England someplace. Or Jordan. Or maybe…”
The otter cut her off. “Let me save you the trouble. I know where it is. It’s not on Earth.”
The angel’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh REAL-ly. So where is it then?”
This post is a follow-up to Party of Three. Constance, Rain, and Gaseous Girl are recurring characters, and especially Mr. Stamper. Thanks for reading!
Everyone kept a safe distance from the flames. Madeleine Smith flicked particles of ash off her shoulder. It didn’t look like her dress was damaged too badly. She’d have to make yet another awkward explanation to her dry-cleaners, but all in all, the night could’ve gone worse.
There was a sudden thud. She turned. Madeleine blinked. She was staring at an angel. Golden halo, shining aura, fluttering wings, the works. The angel dramatically produced a clipboard. “Right, where’s the party?”
The angel sighed. “I’m supposed to be tracking the Holy Grail, but then I got pulled to save a bunch of people at a party from some attacking supervillain dude. The Whomping Rhino or the Blue Terror or some idiot like that. So, tell me where the party is, I’ll save the people, then I can get back to Grail-searching, ‘kay?”
Madeleine, being a superheroine herself, was used to odd things like this. At least it wasn’t a time thing. She hated time things. “Sorry,” she said, “but I already saved the people. It was Crudmuffin, incidentally. With his Pastries of Fiery Peril. That would be why the building’s burning.”
She pointed to the building. The angel looked at it, then had a sudden thought. “Oh, darn. Late again. I keep forgetting you people have that Daylight Savings time thing.” She paused, slightly hesitant. “There weren’t, ah, any casualties, were there?”
“Only my mom. Killed in the fire.”
The angel gasped. There was another thud. A grim figure in a dark cloak had just materialized. “Hi,” the new arrival said. “I’m Rain. Current incarnation of Death. I hear there were casualties?”
The angel narrowed her eyes. “I thought Winifred was Death.”
“She switched jobs,” Rain said, in a somber voice like the tolling of a church bell. “She’s the incarnation of Time now.”
“Oy,” the angel said. “You’re away from Earth for a while and everything changes. There’s new incarnations, people are wearing these acid-washed jegging things, there’s a new Star Wars movie….”
“Yes,” Rain said darkly. “I have seen it. It was… satisfactory.”
“REAL-ly,” the angel said, her wings perking in sudden interest. “Last time I was here there were these prequels, and you know how those went-”
“Oh, look, there’s my mom,” Madeleine said. She pointed to a slender woman who was nonchalantly strolling out of the flames.
“Er,” the angel said. “Wasn’t she supposed to be dead?”
“Not another false alarm,” Rain sighed.
“No, she was dead. It’s just that my mom’s a superheroine too. She comes back to life in 17 seconds.”
“REAL-ly,” the angel said. “Resurrection Lady’s your mom? So that makes you….”
“Yep,” Madeleine said. “I’m Gaseous Girl.”
“Constance,” the angel returned. Her halo shone brightly, reflecting her burst of enthusiam. “Say, Gaseous Girl, old pal, ever wanted to look for a shiny gold cup that may have been the one Christ used at the Last Supper?”