Unnoticed by the crew, the hitchhiker attached itself to the Starship Cassiopeia’s hull. From there, it broadcast a spread-spectrum neutrino beam, undetectable except by a specialized receiver. The creature behind this plot watched with glee from a cloaked warbird twenty light-minutes away.
“You’ve humiliated me for the last time, Captain Tiberius.” He crushed a deep-fried mozzarella stick in his fist. “Now I will have my revenge.”
Captain Dirk Tiberius put his latte in the cupholder on the Starship Cassiopeia’s bridge and brushed a lock of sandy hair off his forehead. Only the graying at his temples hinted at his age and experience. Aside from that, he had the body of a twenty-year-old with ironing-board abs, laundry-basket quads, microwave-oven biceps, and eyes blue as the Cerenkov radiation given off by radioactive waste in the pool of an abandoned nuclear reactor.
“Commander Bandicoot.” He leaned on the right armrest to hail his chief engineer over the intercom. “Status?”
“Filled ‘er up with antimatter and added a pint of fuel-injector cleaner. Nitrogen bladders are at 28 psi. The tritium’s a half-quart low. I suggest we stop at Jiffy Fusion when the odometer ticks over 500,000 light-years.”
“Weapon systems, Lieutenant Brunhilda?”
“Locked and loaded, Captain.” Like all female warriors from planet Amazon Prime, Lieutenant Brunhilda wore the traditional horned helmet and chainmail bikini. She was stacked as the hanging gardens of Babylon 5. Her belly was flat as the amaranth fields of Torrontés 4 and her thighs as muscly as a masseuse on Zatoichi 6.
“Communications, Ensign Pavarotti?”
“Easy listening all the way, Captain.”
“Navigation and sensors, Mr. GRXL?”
“I adjusted the tachyon high beams and topped off the neutrino fluid, Captain.” The piezoelectric circuits in the robot dachshund’s voice box had a limited frequency response making his speech unable to convey emotion, that is if he even felt emotion. His floppy ears and warm brown eyes caused many to underestimate his sheer intelligence created when rogue scientist Knuth Jobniac daisy-chained three million Raspberry Pis into GRXL’s leptonic brain.
“Good boy.” Captain Tiberius tossed GRXL a lithium-ion treat before touching the air freshener hanging over his seat for luck. “Take us out, Mr. Nabokov.”
Actuators on Andromeda Station released their grip allowing the massive starship, eighteen aircraft carriers long and eighty-seven football fields wide, to pull out of her berth. Before Cassiopeia could engage her warp engines, a pterodactyl in a tricorn hat materialized on her bridge.
“What do you want, Q?” Captain Tiberius sighed.
“Ex-councilor Benito Samosa is fighting a one-man battle against the Vulcans who eat babies as part of their Satanic rituals….”
“Mr. Nabokov,” Captain Tiberius said, “You know what to do.”
Seen from outside, Starship Cassiopeia floated among a field of stars like an inflatable flamingo in a swimming pool. A hatch opened, and Nabokov booted a screaming pterodactyl out of the airlock. Q’s tricorn hat drifted by a slogan on the starship’s hull. “Orion Pizza – To Your Door in 30 Parsecs or Your Next Order is Free.”
Captain’s Log, Star Date 2537.9. Delivered three thick crusts and a meatball calzone to the Zeppelin men on Rigel 6. Unfortunately, our cooks did not remember that even a whiff of oregano is deadlier than static electricity to Zeppelin men causing them to erupt in conflagrations of white-hot flatulence. I offered Ambassador Larb a free order of breadsticks, but that did not dissuade him from lodging a formal complaint with the Federation Council. Proceeding at Warp 5 to the Beta Sector with a large sausage and mushroom, extra cheese.
“We’re receiving a subspace distress signal, Captain.” Ensign Pavarotti looked up from his console.
“On screen, Mr. GRXL.”
An image of a white van missing a wheel appeared on the flatscreen monitor.
“It appears to be a taco truck, Captain.” GRXL scratched behind his robot ears from his doggy bed.
“Take us out of warp, Mr. Nabokov,” Captain Tiberius ordered.
The helmsman stepped on the brakes, and Cassiopeia screeched to a halt leaving two smoking skid marks in the spacetime continuum. As always, crossing the light-speed barrier altered the law of causality by sending a pulse of energy backward in time to give every physics student who ever studied relativity a massive migraine.
“Prepare the shuttle, Commander Bandicoot,” Captain Tiberius said over the intercom.
“Captain, may I remind you that the Americium batteries are at 30%? At this rate, we may end up delivering the pizza,” Brunhilda chalked the tips of her horned helmet, “cold.”
“That may be, Lieutenant Brunhilda, but may I remind you of the Deliverers’ Directive?”
“We are not individual slices but one thin crust,” the crew recited, “spread on the pizza stone of interstellar space from Orion to NGC6356 and baked to perfection in the cores of red giants.”
“Commander Bandicoot,” Captain Tiberius ordered, “take an away team to render assistance.”
“Gotta go, baby.” Commander Bandicoot kissed Six-of-One on the forehead.
Like all sentient marsupials from Oz 9, he had a V-shaped head, a complexion the color of a Cobb salad, and dined on small invertebrates. Staring at the mirror through the plastic-rimmed glasses perched on his long snout, he brushed titanium lipstick off his collar and straightened his skinny tie before heading to the shuttle bay.
“I can’t believe our luck,” Crewman Eleanor Expendable buckled herself into the shuttle next to her classmate Norm Naserfodder. “Just one week out of Pizza Fleet Academy, and we’re already doing a deep-space rendezvous.”
Her blonde hair hung in a braid over the front of her left shoulder next to the crossed spatula and pizza-cutter insignia that shone like a Type II supernova of brass. The clingy red fabric of her uniform showed off a body that could have belonged to a gymnast or model. As for Crewman Naserfodder, he had the body of someone who ate too much takeout from Wolfman Puck’s. As the shuttle passed the spare tire and jack, the crew saw a menu board posted on the taco truck.
“Breakfast burrito sounds pretty good right now.” Naserfodder rubbed his belly.
“Copy that, Crewman,” Commander Bandicoot said. “For all our 26th-century technology, no one has yet programmed a replicator to make decent Mexican food.” Bandicoot parked in front of the stricken vehicle and shifted the shuttle into reverse. The backing alarm sounded until the shuttle made contact. “Prepare for extravehicular activity. Here are your oxygen pills.” Bandicoot passed around a bottle. As he chewed the spearmint tablet, he marveled at the technology that crammed two pounds of air into a pill the size and weight of a postage stamp. Not only did it protect personnel from heat, cold, radiation, and vacuum, but should anyone make a movie about Cassiopeia’s exploits, the wardrobe department would not have to pay for bulky spacesuits.
Crewman Expendable was the first to egress the shuttle, followed by Naserfodder.
“Oh boy! Gluten-free! I can eat all the corn tortillas I want.” She knocked on the taco truck’s hatch. “Hello! Anybody home?”
“Smell the onions and garlic? I can’t wait.” Naserfodder yanked open the hatch. A death ray blasted a hole the size of an extra-large Hawaiian in Naserfodder’s chest. “Make mine with guacamole,” were his dying words.
Before she could utter the phrase, “Violence never solves anything,” a mechanical arm clamped its steel jaws around Expendable’s waist and dragged her inside. Commander Bandicoot set his naser to stun. He was going to give someone a stern talking to. His naser raised, he burst through the hatch and came to an abrupt stop.
A half-dozen humanoids and a sentient pizza oven, each wearing the red-and-white striped shirt and paper cap of the Consolidated Pizza Corporation, Ltd., had their death rays pointed at him. Even worse, the largest, an Anthracite whose reproductive organs occupy the space normally reserved for a human’s nose, held Crewman Expendable at gunpoint on the precipice of a dough mixer the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Even in the midst of danger, Bandicoot pondered how the taco truck’s interior could be larger than its exterior. If he got out alive, he’d ask GRXL.
“Throw down your weapon, or the girl gets it,” the rival pizza chain’s assistant manager ordered. When Bandicoot did not reply, the assistant manager asked, “What are you staring at?”
“Oh, nothing,” Bandicoot said. “I was, uh, just wondering if you were still serving breakfast burritos.”
“Of course, there are no breakfast burritos! Now drop your weapon.”
“Don’t hurt her.” Bandicoot placed his naser on the linoleum deck, noting from the splatter of tomato sauce, shreds of mozzarella, and stray pepperoni that it needed mopping.
“Thank you very much.” The assistant manager shoved Expendable into the dough mixer, where its massive bread hook kneaded her into oblivion, a tragic end for someone on a gluten-free diet. He pointed to Bandicoot. “Take him.”
With Crewman Expendable’s dying screams echoing in his mind, Commander Bandicoot struggled against the food-service workers who dragged him to a metal chair and shackled him in place.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the assistant manager said. “My name is Rourke, and I’d like to welcome you to the Consolidated Pizza Corporation, Ltd. family. We’ll direct-deposit your paycheck on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. You’ll find our sick-leave policy on page forty-eight of your employee handbook.”
“I’ll never join! You use bottled sauce,” Bandicoot spat, “and processed cheese!”
“Insert the earworm.” Rourke removed a vinyl record from its sleeve.
“No! No!” Bandicoot screamed as a food-service worker placed headphones over his ears, and Rourke dropped the needle on the turntable.
“Bandicoot to Cassiopeia, open the pod bay doors.” Commander Bandicoot tapped a drum solo on the controls and sang Kansas’s “Carry on My Wayward Son” as he piloted the shuttle back to the mother ship.
Instead of a dozen pies and six side salads, it carried a deadly cargo of rival food-service workers armed with spatulas, pizza cutters, and, of course, death rays. The battle for the shuttle bay was kinetic and vicious. Red shirts’ dreams of joining the circus dropped the ball when Rourke’s assault team sliced through their jugular veins. Under mind control, Commander Bandicoot then led the raiders to engineering. The Cassiopeia engineers set down their welding torches and armed themselves with napkins, plastic forks, and cardboard boxes. Brandishing a pizza peel, Lieutenant Alfredo led a desperate counterattack until a well-aimed glob of dough engulfed his face like an amoeba swallowing a paramecium. Within minutes, Rourke’s assault team overwhelmed the defenders. As one wired plastic explosives to Cassiopeia’s antimatter tanks, Rourke paged the bridge.
“Captain, my name is Rourke. The Consolidated Pizza Corporation, Ltd. now controls your engine room. If you do not deliver all of Cassiopeia’s condiments to me in fifteen minutes, I will destroy your ship. And I mean everything: oregano, garlic salt, pepper flakes, Parmesan, even the ranch dressing.”
“Con!!!” On the bridge, Captain Tiberius shook his fist at the monitor showing a Consolidated Pizza Corporation, Ltd. warbird that resembled a giant penguin with a double chin, uncloaking next to the taco truck.
The doorbell rang. A member of the assault team opened the hatch to find a mechanical dog holding a plastic bag in its jaws.
“Look at those cute, floppy ears,” was the last phrase he uttered.
GRXL’s eyes blazed with naser energy that incinerated the man leaving only a pair of smoking Crocs on the deck. GRXL narrowed his naser’s focus and, within milliseconds, drilled holes the size of personal pan pizzas in each of the assault team’s foreheads. The raiding party fell to the deck, their bodies twisting and writhing like bacon in a cast-iron frying pan, and their vaporized brains smelled much the same. In his death throes, Rourke triggered the bomb. The detonation punctured Cassiopeia’s antimatter tanks. When their contents met ordinary matter, they annihilated with the energy of three-thousand hydrogen bombs.
On the bridge, Captain Tiberius felt his starship shake as alarms went off.
“Captain,” Lieutenant Brunhilda said, “The warbird is charging its weapons.”
Displaying the leadership he’d learned at Pizza Fleet Academy, Captain Tiberius said, “Well, that sure sucks.”
The hatch slid open. Looking none too worse for wear except for some singed fur and mussed hair, GRXL and Commander Bandicoot entered.
“Commander Bandicoot.” Captain Tiberius turned to his right as if for a closeup from a camera that wasn’t there. “We need to get those antimatter converters back online.”
Bandicoot merely drummed on the communications console.
“Dr. d’Annoy, to the bridge immediately,” Captain Tiberius ordered over the intercom.
“What’s a six-letter word starting with Z for a river in Africa?” Dr. d’Annoy stepped out of the elevator. When he saw the Consolidated warbird on the monitor, he dropped his crossword puzzle and said, “Oh!”
He was a Stentorian with arms of lichens and a face like a frog’s anus. Add in a pair of paisley scrubs, and most crew members preferred to suffer their broken limbs, burst appendices, and brain tumors in private rather than visit the sick bay. This kept medical costs down and earned Dr. d’Annoy a hefty bonus every year.
“Dr. d’Annoy, Commander Bandicoot is under mind control,” Captain Tiberius said. “We need him back before that warbird vaporizes us all.”
“Dammit, Dirk. I’m a dermatologist, not a neurosurgeon. If he had a case of Altaran acne, we’d be fine, but this…” d’Annoy noticed Bandicoot moving his lips. “What’s he saying?”
“It appears to be the lyrics from a 1970s rock song.” GRXL searched the 5 ¼ inch floppy disk that contained his internal database. “Captain, if we play back this song one-hundred-eighty degrees out of phase, it will destructively interfere with the original and thus quiet Commander Bandicoot’s mind.”
“Make it so.”
Ensign Pavarotti fitted Commander Bandicoot with a pair of earbuds and pressed play on the communicator. The chief engineer’s eyes focused.
“Commander Bandicoot, the antimatter converters are offline. We need power to raise our shields immediately.” Captain Tiberius mugged for the imaginary camera again.
“Right! Hand me your communicators. If I can wire the batteries in series, that just might do.” Commander Bandicoot’s eyes were unfocused.
“Sorry.” Ensign Pavarotti pressed a few buttons on Commander Bandicoot’s communicator. “Forgot to put in on repeat.”
“This gives me an idea.” Captain Tiberius stroked his massive chin. “Everyone, put on noise-canceling headphones. Ensign Pavarotti, get that song ready and hail the Consolidated warbird.”
An Anthracite in a striped shirt appeared on the monitor.
“He appears to be eating a chimichanga, Captain,” GRXL said.
“Or mating with it,” Lieutenant Brunhilda muttered.
“This is Captain Dirk Tiberius of the Starship Cassiopeia. I demand you power down your weapons and leave this sector at once.”
“Ha!” The warbird’s manager held up a finger while he finished chewing. “You must be joking. Now hand over your condiments, and I’ll give you the choice of being baked to a delicate crunch or deep-fried to a crispy crunch.”
“Hit it, Ensign Pavarotti,” Captain Tiberius ordered.
Kansas blared from the speakers and burrowed into the warbird manager’s mind like a 3/16” titanium drill bit through a strawberry Jell-O salad.
Captain’s Log, Star Date 3618.5 – After ordering the Consolidated manager to dive his warbird into Sagittarius A, patching our antimatter tanks with duct tape, and filling up, Cassiopeia arrived at planet Beta Prime. Lieutenant Brunhilda and I will beam down to deliver the large sausage and cheese.
The transporter placed Captain Tiberius and Lieutenant Brunhilda in a crash pad occupied by three plaid prawns in stocking caps. Even when Cassiopeia’s officers materialized, the prawn men didn’t look up from their bongs.
“I’m Captain Dirk Tiberius of the Starship Cassiopeia.” He looked at the receipt stapled to the pizza box. “I have a pizza for the Master Beta.”
The prawn men snorted ganga smoke from their gills.
“I’m looking for a Master Beta. Is there a Master Beta here?’
This provoked more laughter.
“Look.” Captain Tiberius brushed the lock of hair off his forehead. “Someone owes me $15.99 for this pizza.”
“Dwayne’s a Master Beta,” one of the prawn men said.
“Shut up. I am not.”
“Did you order a pizza or not?” Captain Tiberius asked.
The prawn men giggled.
“This impudence will not be tolerated!” With a blood-curdling battle cry, Lieutenant Brunhilda drew her battaha, shelled, deveined the prawn men, and sliced them into sashimi served with the wasabi of righteous anger.
Captain’s Log, Star Date 1818.5 – After turning planet Beta Prime into a ball of radioactive slag, Cassiopeia is returning to Andromeda Station for repairs and some well-deserved R&R. I, for one, look forward to matching my wits against Oprah and Professor Stephen Hawking in a Wordle marathon on the holodeck. Although the $15.99 for the prank call will come out of my pocket, it was worth it to deliver the message that nobody messes with Starship Cassiopeia.
About the Author
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. http://jonwesick.com