CHAPTER 1 : THE ARCHIPELAGO OF THE SHINERS
CHAPTER 2: THE LISMORE RETREAT
It barely took Pippa a couple of days to recover from her kidney transplant, and the small keyhole- shaped blotch on her abdomen was hardly noticeable. While the surgery didn't seem to have affected the moods inside her head at all, she thought that she'd better behave a bit more reasonably to the people around her, or else Dr. McCull and his Head Yin acolyte might retaliate by doing something much worse to her in the future. No more acting up or flipping into a manic spin, she promised herself.
The Trinkon overseers subsequently reported a reticence in Pippa's conversation and a noticeable improvement in her behaviour, and McCull recorded her transplant as a brilliant success. That took his recorded brilliant successes of the year to 504 out of 505.
(Patient number 455, a long-suffering Apollo Giraffe with Heightened Importance Syndrome went utterly and completely ballistic upon being forced to digest a litre of St. Agnes's Wort. After impaling two orderlies with long, thin correction spikes, she'd been taken to an extremely deep and dank isolation cell, and left to rot. Since he was a perfectionist, McCull was very upset at the way that affected his statistics.)
Pippa did notice some other, sensitive, feelings changing inside her. How peculiar, she thought, maybe I'm becoming a bit gender fluid. How on earth did that happen? Then she recalled some of the more curious of her exploratory keyhole surgeries, and began to wonder about herself with even greater intensity.
Slim went increasingly totally bananas when they rotated him ad nausaeum around the underground Jadrok collider, while encased like a Mummy inside an electron-deconfabulating capsule.When the Apollo Lion orderlies pulled him, like a pulverised Sphinx, out of the still vibrating capsule, he felt as if every molecule in his body had been rearranged, and as if every chemical element that he was made of had been dissolved in phosphorous acid. Moreover, his lovely ginger hair was shorn and he could have easily been mistaken for a Snazi punk keelie from the ghettos of Stingwell.
Although Slim realised that he'd always been a touch narcissistic, he very much doubted that he'd ever been at all psychopathic. Nevertheless, he decided to make a conscious effort to behave more modestly in the future and to try not to fib, slag, plot, or behave at all deviously. Consequently his 'medical' treatment was very soon also deemed to have been immensely successful, and yet another feather in the cap for the internationally renowned Grigor-Galteus Laboratory!
Unfortunately, McCull's success rate dropped to 505 out of 507 when an irritating old fogey from Immingham- on-the-Ribble dived through the window during an over-dynamic psychodynamic psychotherapy session after he'd been mauled by the Evangelical Christian psychotherapist's twin rottweilers for sounding a touch too neo-liberal. So when the twelve Sirens of Sirenum Scopuli were brought in from Carperberry Hospital in platinum straitjackets, McCull decided to try a bit harder.
Late one evening, Pippa decided to put her feet up for a few minutes of 'Lieber-Bieder mindfulness'. She was relaxing on her favourite purple futon on the top floor of Freya Fettes Hall, when a bright orange mammashunter appeared, out of the blue, by the quarter-pane window, flexing her paws and waving her thin, curly trunk.
Pippa looked down her nose. "Do you live in one of those tree-houses in the Arboretum? You don't look the type to be a pupil here."
The mammashunter pirouetted like a ballet dancer on two of her curiously pointed feet. "Never you mind. I know about what really matters. That's all that matters."
"How intriguing! Please do explain yourself."
"As a member of a much repressed, female self-perpetuating sub-species," burbled the mammashunter. "I have similar aspirations to trans women like yourself. And life is too short to be politically expedient, as they say."
"Good for you," replied Pippa, more politely. "The mammashunters are ever growing in numbers and I'm sure that you will prevail, on some sunny day."
"Thank you! Our armies are indeed rising, and we are getting stronger. Maybe I'll be hailed one day as the Rosanna Rivera of the modern era. She helped defend the prissy Trinkons at Strongwall, but got ostracised by those good-for-nothings afterwards even though she threw the second Molotov cocktail when the Rozzers attacked!"
"But why did you come here? Do you have something of particular importance to say?"
"Yes indeed, I indubitably do. I come with a prophecy from the Orange Oracle of the Mighty Daleph . She's a highly astute mamma herself."
"Really? I'm not at all into Astrology, not even tarot cards. But please go ahead!!
The assertive sub-humanoid nodded slowly, and clenched her paws. "Thank you!The Orange Oracle begs that you remember our, equally just, cause when you embark on a voyage that may eventually take you around the Archipelago of the Shiners, the Continent of Trystonia, and all of the eleven non-extinct planets of the Aton Sunstar system. The truths that you discover will reflect, in some curious way and zillions of years into the future, on the now dormant Milky Way Universe of your forefathers."
( The twelfth planet, Qinsagamond had become dormant a couple of billion years previously when it was enveloped in a cloud of scorching Pyrecton gas which drifted in from Saint Mercury's Way. More about Qinsagamond later!)
"Do not doubt the word of the Orange Oracle! Planet Earth has been scheduled by the Grand Creator to resuscitate itself at some point in the Course of Time, but he is very concerned that the humanoids that evolve there may turn out to be just as scheming, duplicitous, sociopathic, and barbaric as the last lot. He, the All-Seeing One, the two in one, may well be interested in exploring your consciousness on this matter. "
"I don't believe any of this twaddle!" spluttered Pippa. "You sound as if you're tripping on acid."
"But it's true, it's all true!" howled the mammashunter, in indignation. "Why do you question the word of the Living Green Spirit?"
"For a start, I don't believe that females can self-perpetuate. How on earth do you fertilise your mamma-eggs?"
"From the seeds of the pompomogranites that fall from the Tree of Propriety, of course. I have begat four daughters and two lovely granddaughters, and we all proudly scavenge for food in the humanoids' trash."
"Once a Fregan, always a Fregan!" blurted Pippa, extremely inappropriately and immediately regretting what she'd just said.
"How dare you! You're as evil as the rest of them!"
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" wailed Pippa, but the courageous orange creature had already vanished in a puff of yellowy-brown soot.
While Pippa was pulling herself together she wondered whether the mammashunter was real or rather a mere invention of her mind. She'd noticed herself experiencing this sort of problem quite a bit recently. She realised that the sub-humanoid had said some interesting and inspirational things, as well as responding well to her (Pippa's) questions. However, the creature had appeared and disappeared in quite inspirational ways. Consequently, on the balance of odds, Pippa decided that it had all been one big psychosis, though she acknowledged that she may have been prejudiced when making this decision, out of sheer envy for the mammashunter's courage and foresight.
The weeks rolled by, and Pippa and Slim continued to study for their four Highers together. Their choice of subject matter was both fascinating and formidable: Celestial Mathematics, the Amoralisation of Economics, Medical Statistics, and Qinsatoran Classics, no less! The two slick teenagers thus acquired all sorts of knowledge about the Precessions of the Equinoxes, discriminatory trade practices, fallacious Bayes factors in clinical trials, ancient Apollo poetry from the Outer Moon, and so on and so forth.
Slim debated in his mind how his choice of subject matter might influence his future career choices. He'd for sometime wanted to be an interplanetary ambassador, and had therefore set his eyes on a career in the Alien Affairs Office. He thought that the Math would help him to understand the locations and relative motions of the eleven non-extinct planets, that the Economics would guide him as to how the rich elite on Qinsatorix exploited the other ten planets, that Statistics would help him to predict plagues and viruses as they spread across the known Universe from indetermined sources, and that Classics might give him rare insights into the ghastly politics of the post-modern era.
Slim concluded that all four of his selected Highers would help with his planned career. He thought that if all else failed he could earn a modest living as an omnibus conductor and enjoy the fragrant beauties of the countryside. As all omnibuses were driverless he thought that would be easy peasy. On reflection, he decided that omnibus conducting was his top career choice, though he realised that, given all the pressures of life, this might turn out to be a mere pipe-dream.
During mid-October, Dr. Knuddy Skullbanger taught an absolutely fascinatingly boring lesson as part of his Classics module. It was entitled 'Who controlled Qinsatorix and Planet Earth during the Medieval Era?'
After getting on a soapbox, for fully thirty-five minutes, about the power of the Borgias and the colonialist attitudes of the Nestorian Samurai High Priests, Knuddy stood bolt upright, and declared,
"In those days, the sister planets were never completely controlled by any monarchs, or groups or combinations of groups of oligarchs. The abuse of the poor and vulnerable was caused largely by the combined effect of the haphazard aggregate behaviour of the financial and social systems as they exploited and damaged the natural environments. Nowadays we call that the uncontrollable aggregate effects of Capitalism".
When a hyperactive girl with pigtails burbled,"How the feck could that fish even know all that? They must have detached his frontal lobes from the rest of his brain to let the air in," Knuddy gave her a very firm rap on the knuckles for behaving so uncouthly.
When a sprightly gnome asked, "How did you statistically validate that conclusion?" Skullbanger scratched his head for fully thirty seconds before replying that he'd done so by reference to Professor Itchy Fingers' tables of the multivariate skewed t-distribution with a hundred and one degrees of freedom.
The gnome was singularly unimpressed, since he knew that Itchy Fingers was a stand-up comedian, and the paper darts began to fly.
Skullbanger took pains to invite Pippa and Slim to his tiny cubbyhole in Commodus Tower for an important chat, before beating a hasty retreat. But when the teenagers arrived in Skullbanger's dank and dusty office, their illustrious mentor was giving an extremely naughty Apollo monkey a very sound telling off for copying his essay on 'Medieval Nestorian Christianity on Qinsatorix' straight out of the Emperor Tantananarivo 's seminal edition of the Holy Bible.
After he'd bawled out the tricky monkey and sent him off with a flea in his ear to the Corrections and Rehabilitation Unit, Skullbanger turned to Pippa and Slim, and smiled sweetly.
The much celebrated Qinsatoran classicist said that his husband Lector McCull was planning to take them both to an important Shiners' meeting that weekend on the Isle of Lismore. This was a once-a-year shindig advertised across the planet as 'The Lismore Retreat', and a number of the activities were designed to encourage young homo sapiens and Icarians to become 'Junior Shiners'and to learn about all the social good the Shiners did for.the Creatures of Qinsatorix.
When Slim said that he didn't give a toss, Skullbanger offered him the option of a few more spins around the Jadrok Collider, and Slim dropped his jaw and fell into line. Pippa was slightly more enthusiastic since she'd heard that the giant ostrich burgers on Lismore were flavoured with mustard and mayonnaise. She anyway didn't want to create an issue about it.
Skullbanger went on to explain that none of the other humanoid species (including the Apollos and Trinkons) were permitted to participate in Shiner meetings, since they were regarded, albeit quite inappropriately, as of inferior stock. Only one exception to this rule had ever been made during the entire thousand year history of the Shiners on Qinsatorix.
Indeed, this exception had only been made a few months previously. Prince Alfredo Saxie-Monteith of the Homo Erectus had once served as Rear Admiral of the Imperial battlefleet, and had seen action while in orbit of the Planet Lagos and during the razing of Tarsus and the smaller Zintian Cities of Saint Saul's Way. But in recent years he'd become a bit of a drone, and had been lampooned in the media for his pompous and selfish attitudes.
The prince's mother, the Dowager Queen of the Homo Erectus perceived some sort of political advantage in persuading the Shiners into inviting her playboy younger son to join their socially pro-active organisation. After considerable hesitation they'd agreed to do so, though the gift of fifty pentagonal silver pieces didn't go amiss.
Knuddy Skullbanger advised Pippa and Slim that Prince Alfredo was planning to attend that year's Lismore Retreat with a female companion of note. Knuddy went out of his way to explain, with a frown and a wink, that while the cherub-faced Alfredo was a renowned ladies' man he wasn't that fussy about gender after three and a half litres of Bald Eagle. That put Pippa right off the notoriously sweaty prince, and Slim's legs turned to jelly. Skullbanger raised his eyebrows, and smiled.
Neither Pippa nor Slim understood that much about what the Shiners were about, but they were interested in the prospect of a ferry trip (in the paddle boat 'The Mississippi') across Tawi Sound (which was regarded as the epicentre of the vast, thousand island Archipelago of the Shiners) and through the Gates of Narwar, particularly as they would be escaping for a couple of days from all the beastly things that happened on the Isle of Caleb.
When the Mississippi arrived from Tibermouth, very early that Saturday morning, its decks were littered with gaggles of devout Shiners and colourful tourists from the mainland. Prince Alfredo Saxie-Monteith was sitting at a specially reserved table on the upper deck, in full dress uniform, having left his long-suffering wife and three highly neurotic daughters in Erectus Palace playing multi-dimensional Scrabble on social media.
His Royal Highness much preferred the company of Lady Jemima Sunkist, a Trivoli socialite and the younger daughter of the Icarian shipping magnate Sir Aristides Sunkist. The beautiful Jemima was much celebrated in the tabloid press for her gushing personality and generous bonhomie. Icarian women sport a large variety of different shapes of breasts, and Jemima's were antler-shaped and admired by one and all.
Jemima was, once in a green moon, the guest hostess of All- Inclusionary Radical Feminists, an interplanetary Qinview satirical comedy show. The size of her antlers had reputedly been matched by a Crown Princess of yore who ruled the planet with a steel fist before getting consumed in flagante by a swarm of flying locusts. But nothing to match Jemima's exotic breasts had been recorded during the centuries since.
Alistair McCull retreated to the refreshments cabin to indulge in the complimentary vintage malt whisky, but he sent Pippa and Slim to the upper deck to enjoy the challenging views of the surrounding wildlife. Meanwhile, their class-mate Dreyfus Dreadnought was consigned to the rear hold to guard the baggage and Lady Jemima's three vociferous Pekinese corgis. Since he was a much marginalised Apollo Unicorn, he wouldn't be permitted (even though he was upper middle class) to officially participate in the Shiners' activities, but he would be expected to fetch, carry, and grovel like a hungry dog for the entire weekend.
Dreyfus thought pretty badly about that and suspected that he was the victim of some sort of discrimination. He even wondered whether he smelt. He felt angry at being told to look after the bloody corgis because he regarded the synthetic Lady Jemima as his social inferior. He however concluded that he couldn't do much about it, and therefore decided to grin and bear it.
When Pippa and Slim reached the upper deck, a bright orange mammashunter, travelling with her two pretty granddaughters, wriggled her trunk, and smiled. But both teenagers were distracted by none other than the filthy rich Lady Jemima Sunkist, who waved furiously, and beckoned them over.
"Why hello my pretty pretties!" she purred. "I recognised you from your picture. Why don't you come into our parlour and tell the prince and I all about your fascinating selves? We'd simply love to learn about what makes you really go tickety tick."
"Wot picture?" Pippa dubiously inquired.
"The snip shot which darling Alistair sent me, of course, the one which his hubby took of you hanging out together. You were up to no good in the foliage under a weeping willow with a down-and-out slouch who looked like a dobbin with a wobbly horn stuck in the top of its stupid head,."
Slim felt distinctly not amused. "I presume you're referring to our buddy Dreyfus Dreadnought. He's a highly intelligent Apollo Unicorn and as good as, if not better than, the rest of us."
Prince Alfredo smiled patronisingly and adjusted his war medals. "Yes indeed, my fine fella. My mother and I both long for the day when all humanoids are regarded as equal, since that's what the Grand Creator intended when he instructed his indentured insects to sow the seeds of perpetual evolution in the Fields of Folkvangr,"
"Th-that's so very true," stuttered Slim, feeling the need to ingratiate himself. "When the All-Seeing One, good and evil entwined, set the seeds in those immortal fields, they were each ingrained with the entire humanoid genome which renders us diverse but all of equal merit. That's what the Ratzinger High Priest told us when I was a child, and I have believed it ever since."
"Me too, puppy dog. Now I'm drinking Bald Eagle. What's your fancy?"
Slim slid, twitching nervously, onto the prince's purple couch and felt curiously tempted to fawn up to him. "Th-thank you, Your Highness, but just half a litre, and diluted with lemon pop, please
--- I'm so sorry---if you please. "
A dutiful Cnupian slave bounded up with a jar of delicious-looking Bald Eagle shandy.in less time than it takes for a cat to eat a mouse. Slim licked off the froth, took a big gulp, and grinned. The slave fluttered his purple eyelashes, grinned back, and retreated at pace.
"And would you like to help me to polish off my bubbly wubbly, my darling Pippykins?" gushed Lady Jemima. "Do bring your delightful self over here and show me your absolutely exquisite pebble bracelet and those absolutely hilarious, egg-shaped ear-pieces."
"I suppose I could," mumbled Pippa, nervously ensconcing herself on the pink fluffy sofa.
"Slave! Jump to it!"
A Cnupian girl clad in a skimpy loincloth rushed up, as if her life depended on it, and poured Pippa, a glass of pink, sparking Vino Adderalia. The cautious sixteen-year-old took a single sip, and felt like throwing up.
"Both sweet sixteen, and as innocent as they come," purred Lady Jemima."We should dance the Can Can together with Le Chevalier D'Amour. Thank Heaven for little girls, because without them what would the little boys do?"
Pippa took a glance at the bright orange mammashunter, who was drinking Iron Brew with her granddaughters on a plain wooden bench, and realised that she'd already met the proud creature band that it hadn't been a psychotic delusion after all. Maybe Pippa should have taken the mammashunter's prophecy a mite more seriously. Maybe she would travel the eleven planets at some time in the future discerning hidden truths that might be of benefit to the Grand Creator.
The ubiquitous Ferry Lady was said by some to be descended from Charon, the Ferryman who took souls lost in Purgatory across the Styx. The Mississippi's four gigantic paddle wheels worked overtime as she steered the top heavy vessel out of Tawi Sound and through the Gates of Narwar, narrowly averting the rocks that tumbled into the bubbling water from the trembling cliffs above.
After negotiating the Rapids of Janacek, the Ferry Lady let her craft drift along Lilith's Passage and past the towering granite Lighthouse of Pythorius (that was lit by the Eternal Blue Bulb), until they reached the Morvern Flow. And there, off the port beam, the immortal Isle of Lismore shimmered in the heavenly haar, as the purple mountains of Fantasia towered behind the red and orange forest on the Hartonish Ridge, and into the bluey-pink sky above.
Fifteen minutes later, the Mississippi turned, against the tide and in an elliptic arc, into Wash Creek, the narrow stretch of water, fully twenty miles long, which separates the Isle of Lismore from the much larger Fantasia (once a naval base for the much-feared Vampire-Toothed Pirates, but long since a resort and playground for the rich and famous).
After about ten miles or so of utterly exquisite natural beauty, the route seemed to be blocked by a dam half-a-mile ahead. But upon noticing the sudden emergence of a bevy of huge ape-swans, Pippa convinced herself that it was not a dam but rather a very low bridge. Above the bridge and parallel to it, a magnetic monorail stretched from bank to bank, way above the bridge and parallel to it. A fuel-less Maglev train suddenly zipped like a bolt of lightning along the monorail, as it toured the two islands on a route that resembled a squashed figure eight.
The ancient walled city of Machipijchu dominated the view to the west of the bridge. But to the east of Wash Creek, and just to the south of the bridge, rose the majestic Hotel Las Fuentes, where the Shriners were holding their weekend meeting. A white, sandy beach stretched from the hotel down to the creek, and this was famous for the natural cold water springs that cooled the toes of the tiny footballers who travelled from all around the planet to play there.
Pippa noticed a bubblecopter landing pad adjacent to the beach, and wondered what it would be like to fly over the mountain tops. Slim switched seats and nestled close to Pippa on the fluffy sofa, so that he could get a better view. She liked the vibes, and took a whiff of the testosterone. Prince Alfredo noticed the nuances, and smiled a royal smile.
And when the Mississippi approached the hotel jetty, several families of local Shiners hurried excitedly across the beach to greet the new arrivals with bowls of fruit, garlands of roses, and heaps of bonhomie.
There was a potentially serious diplomatic incident when Lady Jemima discovered that her three vociferous Pekinese corgis were no longer in the rear hold. After a bit of a palaver, a Psychlops from Braganza said that she'd seen them hurtling overboard as the ferry boat entered the Wash, but nobody could recall noticing who or what was responsible for this murderous outrage. Fortunately, one of the local Shiners gave Lady Jemima his very own four tiny Doppelswingers without any strings attached. Her Ladyship was thrilled to bits, and Dreyfus Dreadnought breathed a hefty sigh of relief,
After the revelry that followed the arrival of the ferry boat, Pippa was dumbfounded by what happened, or rather didn't happen, in the Plenary Session of the Lismore Retreat (which thoroughly entertained the festoonettes that infested the ceiling and walls of the Lancelot and Guinevere conference chamber of the Hotel Las Fuentes).
The Grand Clerk sat at a desk in the centre of the room, surrounded by three concentric circles of exquisitely upholstered, Romanesque couches, which were packed with fully fledged Shiners, teenage Junior Shiners and official attenders, When Pippa arrived with her travelling companions, everybody was simply sitting there in silent contemplation and various states of consciousness, some even taking the opportunity for a quiet snooze.
The Grand Clerk, to the outside world a brash businessman, entrepreneur, and fracking advocate, kept his bright red pointed nose buried in The Shiners' Articles of Faith according to Sir Adobe Abebe Maneke without uttering ne'er a word.
Twenty minutes or so later , Pippa was lost in a fantasy about the gnomes and pixies of Trimontium, when a wizened old man with a goatee beard from the Isle of the Tulips unexpectedly rose to his feet.
"Friends," he declared. "I would like to hold the Squirrelettes of the Lizard Peninsula in the Light. They spend most of their time hunting for rats and food, and some of them can't even afford social media or an occasional night out at the theatre. We've recently sent one of them a donation of two bronze schillings towards her child's medical expenses. Now according to the totally irritating Qinview presenter Count Ludwig Von den Crap Attenburrow, our planet suffers many more problems of this potentially troublesome nature than most of us realise.Then the coot had the confounded cheek to complain about the way we, the bourgoisie, persist in relaxing in our plush armchairs with our blinkers on! I must say that I find all this to be a touch perplexing."
After another fifteen minutes of deathly silence, a middle aged Icarian woman in a tweed suit stood up, and declared "I hate rats, but I love my pet hamsteroid. She gives me strength to live" before collapsing, slightly hysterically, back into her seat.
Pippa was beginning to think that the next spell of excruciating silence would never stop, when the Grand Clerk stood up and nodded like a marionette, upon which everybody started effusively shaking hands with each other. But the bonhomie was cut short when the Senior Overseer, a stern-looking college proctor in her mid-forties, called for silence.
"Thank you, friends and forgiving souls," she procrastinated. "We still have time for some very brief announcements. Firstly, the Grand Reincarnate sends his apologies for not being able to be us this weekend, since he is meeting with interplanetary representatives on Daedalus for discussions about the ecological effects of the terrible volcanic eruptions which are currently besetting our entire solar system. He is however confident that after careful winnowing and sifting by our Scrutiny Committee, the very best of the socio-political ideas which are brought forward during this retreat, will be enabled, after being put through our multi-structured consensual decision making process, to influence Society for the common good, if only in teeny-weeny ways, via our uniquely flavoured rippling techniques."
Pippa thought that this was all very strange, She wondered why the Grand Reincarnate was ploughing his furrow on another planet, rather than more fully participating in the Shiner activities on Lismore, where he could rule the roost if he so wished. She concluded that he was on one big power trip and that he was, in all likelihood, the sort of odious creature who she didn't wish to fraternise with. But Pippa fully appreciated that she might be lead to fully revise her opinion should she ever be forced to meet the trumped up mystic face to face.
The Senior Overseer posed for a snip shot, and continued, "And Maisy Quirk, who suffers from chronic Montezuma's disease, is planning a coffee and cheese morning in her high-rise studio flat in Asbestos Tower next Thursday, to celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday, You'd all be very welcome to attend, but please bring a plate of cheese and be prepared to use sign language, as Maisy only understands Swallic. If you can't manage steep flights of stairs, then you'd be welcome to beam in from the Greenleaf Interface Cafe, since the lift is out of order.'
How sweet, thought Pippa. Poor Maisie deserves some attention too.
"Now," continued the Senior Overseer. "Since there's scant time for further announcements, it's time to spend a few minutes chilling out in silent Shiner contemplation. ---Whoopsie daisy!Diddle me stupid!--- I was supposed to finish with a quote by our founder, Adobe Adebe Manake his very self--- Here it is!--- There's a little bit of good in everyone. So don't see the bad and cut and run.---. Thank you, friends ! Lunch will be served in the Galahad and Rosamund Drawing Room in fifteen minutes. Please remember to bring your own mug."
Ignorant bitch! concluded Pippa.
Pippa was feeling very hungry when she arrived for lunch, since she'd only eaten a stuffed possum muffin for breakfast. But when she sat down at an oval mahogany table, between Slim Quick and Dr. Alistair McCull, her buddy Dreyfus scampered up with a huge pewter pitcher and filled her mug with watery lentil soup. To cap that, a scrawny Cnupian slave, who looked as emaciated as a garden rake, handed her a plate of raw grabbit and under-boiled tatties. Pippa felt that she could have been forgiven for screaming 'Yuck!'
They were sharing a flagon of mineral water, splashed with lime, when Prince Alfredo Saxie-Montieth and Lady Jemima Sunkist strutted up, accompanied by a brawny Icarian businessman. The rugged, green-haired gentleman was in his mid-thirties and sported a green, feathered deerstalker which didn't completely match his black velvet, medieval-style dining suit, or indeed his bullish face.
"This is Dr. Ket Martingale, my pretty pretties," explained Lady Jemima, propelling her delightful self into a wicker chair from IKEA. "He's the Chief Economics Advisor to the First Minister, and a successful Interstellar Knockout Bridge Player for good measure."
"And a finer Shiner I have never ever had the honour to meet," added Prince Alfred, picking his nose with a neatly-clipped, green-painted fingernail.
What a jerk, thought Slim, but at least he didn't swallow his snot.
His Royal Highness, who was dressed in flowing, claret robes, poured himself a tot of liqueur brandy from a diamond-studded, silver flask. Slim twitched nervously when the snooty prince readied himself to sit down. But it was Ket Martingale (who was not quite narcissistic enough to be classed as a totally impossible alpha male) who grabbed the seat immediately opposite Slim. He gave Slim a cryptic look. The insecure teenager trembled in his pointed, mottled-leather boots, and wondered whether he was about to be groped.
"Are you from Bithynia, laddie?" inquired Ket, who had unusual ways of addressing people when he was being strategic.
Slim looked puzzled. "Never even heard of the place. But then, I hail from the Inner Moon."
"Shame. I thought you might be Antinous of Bolu. He was much beloved by the Emperor Hadrian himself."
Slim didn't understand that Ket was playing mind games."Haven't never heard of either of those dudes either. I'm Slim, Slim Quick, and I'm not beloved by anybody."
"I wouldn't bet on that. Maybe you should come with us later on to the Hotel de Wash to find
"Why? Wot for?"
"I'll explain later. It's on t'other side of Wash Creek and just outside the ancient walls of Machipijchu. I'll be going there at back of ten with Prince Alfredo and Lady Jemima, You'd be very welcome to tag along, if only to stretch your skinny legs."
Slim felt utterly confused. "Thanks,I'll think about it."
Pippa caught on a bit, and decided to change the subject. "Excuse me, Dr. Martingale, but are you familiar with the Amoralisation of Economics? We're taking a course on it."
Ket grinned. "Yes indeed, young lady. It has, at times, proved to be highly beneficial, particularly when the wealthy planets use the resources of the poorer planets to raise the living standards of their upper classes and bourgeoisie, thereby encouraging the advancement of civilisation in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. There's a trickle down effect of course. This means that the poorer planets and the impoverished proletariats of the wealthy planets benefit too, in ways that the totally unimaginative grass roots socialists could never have ever envisioned."
Prince Alfredo partook of some of his lumpsucker caviar and honey-coated sturgeons' eyes (dutifully served to him from a picnic hamper by his bare-breasted Cnupian slaves), and smiled. "It's part of what we call positive Eugenics, Pippa. Do you understand what Eugenics is about?"
Pippa knew her stuff. "Yes, it's when powerful people attempt to speed up the Evolutionary Process and improve the humanoid stock by looking after the wealthy and treating poor and vulnerable people like shit, for example by starving, sterilizing or genociding our indigenous populations or bullying workers on zero hour contracts. The term Eugenics was coined by the British Quaker Sir Francis Galton in AD 1883, and Sir Francis's two voluminous diatribes on the subject were brought to Qinsatorix by his nephew Nick Galton when he teleported here from London in 1908."
Alistair McCull clapped his hands in admiration."Well explained, Pippa. Now that was certainly an event of great historical importance!"
"It certainly was. It was after Nick had participated with the colonialist Germans in their genocide of the indigenous tribes of Namibia,. The German 'racial hygienists' sent the women and children to die of thirst in the desert, and performed medical experiments on the men."
Ket nodded effusively. "Spot on, Pippa! I'm most impressed by your lofty intellect. It's a bit like 'Survival of the Fittest', you see. The fittest will always survive and prosper, while the unfit wither away and fester. That's what the Almighty Yahweh intended for us at the Beginning and it's what it will be like when the Icarian race reigns supreme at the Omega."
Alistair McCull puffed his chest. "Well put, Martingale! In the meantime, we curb the over-creative and the irresponsible do-gooders and protesters among us, by branding them as insane. The elite maintain control by putting these crazy people into straitjackets, biochemicalising them, or reducing their mental capacities and blanking their memories with intense electron beams. This is what makes both Big Pharma and the Mind-Body profession part and parcel of the positive Eugenics movement. It improves the evolution of our species, for the betterment of Icarian kind, throughout our entire Solar System and beyond our six Holy wormholes to the Universes beyond."
Lady Jemima took a nibble of her well salted, under-boiled tattie, and visibly flinched. "Wowee! All of this psycho-neurotic mumbo jumbo is flying way over my silly head."
Slim stared at Ket Martingale, and kept his silence.
That afternoon, the Shiners organised a variety of meetings in the Hotel Las Fuentes. They addressed a variety of socio-political topics and a variety of niche 'burning issues' .Pippa enjoyed a session concerning 'The Fate of the Indigeneous Apollo Otters of North Artica' in the Sir Percival room, and was most impressed when the guest speaker, a leading Apollo Otter pipeline activist, pleaded, in turn, for more support for his 'Save the White Bear-Whale from Extinction' campaign.
Slim attended a very constructive meeting in the Duke Anubis Serapis cellar of a support group called 'Aid and Abet' which sought ways of helping the hardened convicts in the Southern Swamps to rehabilitate themselves upon early release, or following a successful escape through the smelly Bubbling Bogs of Bararat, around the Pottoti sewers, and across the Zamara mudflats.
This could serve me in good stead in the not-so-distant future, Slim deliberated.
During the late afternoon, Pippa and Slim dropped in on a session on Sex Education in Primary Schools, and they were absolutely delighted when the lead speaker defended the interests of LGBTQIPSMG plus, and perfectly straight, humanoids everywhere. When a heckler howled, 'Perfectly straight? Up your feckin---!" he was silenced in mid-sentence and thrown onto the beach.
Yes, the Shiners are an outstanding, socially pro-active organisation after all, concluded Pippa, and they put all those hypocritical, high-and-mighty Christians to shame. I feel so proud to be a Junior Shiner.
Pippa and Slim missed the final session of the afternoon, which was about 'On Guaranteeing the Freedoms of the Aztalan and our other Indigenous Peoples'. Slim was disappointed about the suppression of the Aztalan, because they were aboriginal bronze-skinned Icarians who he very much sympathised with. They'd been persecuted over the centuries by the ruling Icarians, having even been falsely accused of being cannibals, and they were now largely confined to their reservations.
Later that evening, Pippa and Slim attended a magnificent, all-inclusive Ceilidh in a disused bubblecopter hangar adjacent to the hotel, together with Shiners of all ages and any attendant, servant slave, or hanger-on who wished to participate free of charge in the carefree activities and to indulge in the lovely porcupine sausage rolls and cream crackers. Pippa was wearing her favourite green satin dress, while Slim wore his Popeye the Sailor-man t-shirt and neatly pressed, maroon designer jeans. They were delighted when Dreyfus Dreadnought put in an appearance, even though he was attired in a servant's hemp tunic, and, as a teenage Apollo Unicorn, looked somewhat out of place.
Pelvis Chequer's Ragtime Band were much applauded for their evocative old-time music. Pippa and Slim simply loved dancing the Trystonian Twist together. Meanwhile, Dreyfus leapt around like a Kurstantan shire horse, and the bright orange mammashunter and her two granddaughters performed dainty pirouettes.
And, while the night was still young, Pippa and Dreyfus found themselves drinking together in the Fantasian love seat.
"Your ears are almost as expressive as your jet black eyes," said Pippa, in jest.
"You make me feel so different," mumbled Dreyfus, touching Pippa's knee, "and your eyes are so brilliantly blue."
"We are so different, and yet so very much the same," murmured Pippa.
"I'd simple love to tickle the dimples on your sturdy chest," said Dreyfus.
Meanwhile, Slim was doing his stuff on the dance floor with a non binary Apollo Lettuce from the Isle of Fidra,
"I love your rosy complexion,"said Slim. "It's sort of carroty coloured."
"That's because I'm a cross between a carrot and a lettuce," replied Apollo Lettuce, touching Slim's sweaty chest.
"If I were Popeye then you could be my Olive Oil," stuttered Slim.
"Olive Oil or Castor Oil," replied the non binary Apollo. "Who gives a toss?"
And then, when the hour struck ten, Slim felt a shiver in his bottom as Ket Martingale walked in. Slim realised that he'd never felt that sort of reaction to a much older guy before and felt that he was acting up like a pussycat. I hope Ket didn't notice the way I twitched, he deliberated. Maybe I'm in for a thick ear.
"I'm away with the stuck up snobs to the flashy hostelry on t'other side of bridge," said Ket, clearing his nostrils."Why don't you join us for a late night aperitif?"
"I'm g-game," stammered Slim, "but p-please wait till I take a pee."
"How about me?" asked the much-disappointed Apollo Lettuce. "I'd lap up for free."
"No thanks." replied Ket. "I prefer snails without lettuce for my tea."
Pippa felt a touch relieved when Slim and Ket went off together.
"Come closer, and give me a hug, Dreyfus," she burbled. "The night is yet young."
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CHAPTER 3: THE HOTEL DE WASH