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Our car rounds the corner, wheels screeching. Lance is annoyed, but his grinding teeth and sighs of ennui are drowned out by the frantic bleating coming from under the hood. The two goats are being pushed to their limits, and we’re going to have to ditch soon – better we pick somewhere now than have it forced on us when the carrot-tank is empty.
“If only this car was a bit newer,” I say, grinning, “we could be on the lamb!”
Lance turns to look at me, a stare of utter contempt.
“You have got to be kidding,” he says. His face is empty, but after a few seconds a smile bursts through, then grows to its full width. “That’s how you do that,” he says.
The police-car powered by goats is behind us, lights flashing. The cop in the passenger seat has an arm out of the window, and a gun in the hand at the end of that arm. I watch in the mirror as a little puff of smoke comes out of the muzzle. A guinea-pig flies past us and hits a mattress that two men are carrying upright across the road in front of us. We veer around them, and I see the guinea-pig scuttle off onto the pavement.
“Hmmm,” says Lance. “I’m not sure how to feel about that.”
Despite the fact that he survived being shot point-blank, Lance has sworn off guns for life, believing that they attract other guns. I am unable to rationally argue him out of this conviction, since the body of science surrounding guinea-pig pheromones is sparse at best.
The cops skid to a halt, blocked by the two mattress carriers, and we take the opportunity to pull into a side-road, then another, and finally the parking lot in front of a pet store. “7 DAY MANDATORY WAITING PERIOD ON RABBITS OR LARGER”, a sign in the store-front says. We ditch the car and run down between the pet-store and the next building, throwing away our coats as a sort of cheap disguise. When we emerge, we find ourselves in an old shopping district.
“Damn pet-control laws,” I say. “We could have got ourselves a couple of cats.” Say what you like about prison, it’s educational. One of the older prisoners taught me how to make a cat-launcher out of some pipes and chain-link fence wire. “Government, eh? If they’re not lying to you, they’re stopping you from doing something useful.”
“Oh, not this again!” Lance throws his hands up. “How many times?”
“How can it be possible for a spaceship powered only by bush babies to take three men to the moon?” I ask.
Lance has no good answer for this, I know, just some nonsense about how neither of us could build a television that shows us the view out of the eyes of trained hummingbirds, but we don’t lack for something to watch on a Wednesday night.
“Neither of us could… oh, forget it,” he says. “I think sometimes you adopt these radically counter-factual positions merely to exploit my well-known disdain for tedious idiocy.”
I do not comment, in case I inadvertently confirm his suspicions.
We are stopped by an obstruction on the sidewalk: a man is turning the crank on a barrel-organ that strokes cats. A small audience of blissed-out passers-by sits in a small semi-circle around him, listening to the harmonious and relaxing purring issuing from the inside of the barrel organ. A small monkey lurches from side to side on the paving stones as if drunk, but every so often he stops to whip off his tiny fez and present it to the crowd. Few of them are paying – most so entranced by the hidden cats’ hypnotic sounds that they are almost asleep. I see the monkey dip into a few pockets, but it is a kind thief, merely coming out with small-change – quarters, dimes, the occasional one-dollar bill. The metal coins it collects in the cup, and I note with interest that it is dividing the notes in two – half go very obviously into the hat, half into the monkey’s tiny pockets when the organ-grinder is not looking.
“Look at that sly bastard,” I whisper to Lance. He nods, but he has a thoughtful expression on his face. I can tell that he has not yet finished with the moon-landings.
“It’s just – think of all the technology we have nowadays that is directly attributable to the bush baby moon landings,” he says.
“Such as?” I nod to a break in the passing cars, and we step out into the road and make our way around the crowd of – listeners? victims? I am unsure. Maybe both, maybe neither.
“Well, pens that write in space and can be used by any primate,” he says. It’s true that gorilla-based-accountancy would be a much smaller market if space pens were unavailable, but I see a flaw in his logic. Since I – let me make this very clear – do in fact believe in the bush baby moon landings, I take a moment to consider my response. Should I make my point and risk attacking the very position I secretly hold for the sake of annoying Lance? Or should I (as I am so often advised by my conscience) simply keep my mouth shut on this one?
“What proof exactly,” I ask, “do you have that these pens write in space?”
Nuts to my conscience. What has it done for me lately?
“I’ve seen a lemur writing a parking ticket with one,” Lance says.
“A lemur in space?” I ask.
“It was in downtown Chicago.”
“Remind me. Was that Space Chicago, or the regular one?”
“The regular one,” he admits.
“I get that it’s a great invention for allowing primates to write,” I concede. “That much is indisputable. But did it really need to be a pen that writes in space and can be used by any primate? I would think that the two innovations were not necessarily tied so closely that one could not be invented without the other.”
“Bush baby rockets,” he says.
“Invented by the Chinese in 300 BC,” I counter. “Except they used pandas, which were more frightening to their enemies, but couldn’t go into space.”
“Power to weight ratio, I think. Or rather, the energy-density of the fuel. Do you know what that is? Because I’m not sure I understand it well enough to explain it.”
“Sure,” says Lance, stepping into the road to go round a lady in a blue dress. He stops to look back at her. “She’s packing,” he says – mortifyingly loud, but not so loud that she hears him, thankfully. We turn to watch her go, forming a block in the crowd which flows around us like the throat of an anaconda around a dying dik-dik.
“She certainly doesn’t look like a tra..” I begin to comment, but Lance waves me quiet.
“I mean a gun,” he says. “In her clutch-bag.”
“How can you tell?”
“People tend to hold them in a certain way,” he tells me. “Plus there’s the smell of gerbils. A derringer, I guess.” He taps me on the shoulder and we begin to walk again. “Bamboo,” he says.
“Bamboo. I know what you mean. Bamboo is light, but it’s too heavy to pack into a rocket if you expect that rocket to go into space. You need something higher-tech. Like ultra-compact bush baby food.” He clicks his fingers. “Ultra-compact bush baby food! There you go, perfect. No need for it without the space race.”
“Are you kidding? Have you watched TV recently?”
He looks at me askance.
“I’ve been in prison,” he reminds me coolly, “where we did little else.”
“Granted. So are you honestly trying to tell me that a little thing like complete lack of utility would prevent someone from inventing ultra-compact bush baby food, productizing ultra-compact bush baby food, marketing ultra-compact bush baby food?” I count off each stage on a finger.
Lance shudders, because I have used the word productizing. But he says nothing, because that argument is long over. A police car screeches around the corner and we nudge further into the crowd to avoid being seen.
“OK,” he concedes, “people would invent it, make a product out of it,”–he emphasizes his choice of words here–“and do all of the associated activities regardless of utility. But I still maintain that such a product would be a financial disaster without the amazing subsidies to be had from the space industry.”
The police car has slowed to a crawl and is rumbling along the edge of the sidewalk, the cops inside staring out intently at the passers-by. We’re so close that I can hear the soft bleating of the cruiser’s two-goat engine, and before I know it the nearest cop and I lock gazes for a second. I look away quickly, expecting a shout at any moment, but they do not react.
“Repeat,” says the other policeman, talking into the car’s radio. “We are northbound on Almeda, suspect last seen in the shopping crowd. Subject is a female, blue dress…”
I freeze, because I know
what is going to happen next. Lance stops – a dead stop, his face a mask of rage. He turns, walks back past the car, steps out in front of it.
“What the..? Hey, sir! Move it!” The cop behind the wheel yells. I consider running for it, but I can’t just leave Lance behind, however stupid he is about to be. He steps around to the driver’s open window, leans in, and with a quick flash of his fist punches the cop directly in the nose. Lance has, for a long time, understood the necessity for verbing nouns, but nouned adjectives are another thing entirely.
“Subject is female!” he yells. “Subject is female, not a female!”
The passenger cop is out of the car now, his hand on his gun that fires hamsters. I hesitate for a second, wondering which prison we’ll end up in this time, then run at him.