“Welcome!” said Captain Shepherd, as the door to the quarterdeck of the ship Starry McStarface slid aside. “Your grandfather’s told me all about you!”
Freddie Feghoot shook her outstretched hand. “It’s an honour to be invited, Captain.”
She waved her other hand dismissively. Her eyes sparkled. “Would you like to sit in the Captain’s chair?”
Who could say no? Freddie sat in the seat she indicated. It was smaller than he’d imagined. Glowing controls covered the arms. A screen floated in front of him, displaying a complicated pattern of intertwined, silvery strands.
“Strings,” said the Captain looking at the screen. “We use them to bend space, allowing FTL travel, you see. Neat tech. Only trouble is–”
“Captain! Anomaly on Zed!” called a middle-aged woman who’d been studying a display to the Captain’s right. “It’s a way off, but I think we’ll need to alter the knots.”
“Drat! Good spot, Lieutenant Motte. Out you get, Freddie.”
Freddie moved, and she slid into place. He stared at the screen. A red dot appeared, growing into something that looked like a child’s scribble. Captain Shepherd tapped furiously at her controls. Silver writhed around the red.
“Captain,” said Motte, “we need to change–”
“I know! Dammit!”
The floor shuddered. Freddie reached out to steady himself. The red scribble swelled. “What happens if we hit it?”
“Don’t ask,” said Motte, staring fixedly at the screen. “Captain, shall I…?”
Captain Shepherd cursed and pushed herself out of her chair. Motte took her place and reached for the controls. Freddie watched as the silver threads began to tie themselves into new knots which appeared, to him at least, to be pushing the red scribble off the top of the screen. He felt his heartrate slow down.
Then the floor lurched again. He looked and saw that the strands had twisted and slipped. “Are… they back to where they were?” he asked.
“Yes, dammit!” said the Captain. “Keep your eyes fixed on Motte while she tries again, will you? There’s a good chap.”
“Just do it!”
Motte jabbed at the controls again, gazing forward as both Freddie and the Captain stared at her. Freddie thought he could make out a flicker of reflected red in her eyes. Then it was gone. Her face relaxed.
“Thank goodness!” she said. “I thought we were going to collide with the wretched thing.”
Freddie looked cautiously away from the Lieutenant. The strings had adopted an entirely new pattern. There was no sign of any red.
“Well done, Motte,” said Captain Shepherd. “The pattern is dammed hard to alter once we’re underway.”
“Well, you know what they say,” said Motte with a wink, “a Shepherd can’t change her knots!”
“Haha, indeed!” said the Captain, slapping Motte on the shoulder rather harder than was necessary.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Freddie. “Why did we have to stare at the Lieutenant?”
Now it was the Captain’s turn to grin. “As everyone knows, Mr Feghoot, a watched Motte is never foiled!”
I’ve always loved a shaggy-dog story. One the first I ever heard involved a chef called Gervais, a kitchen assistant called Hans and a small, green squid. If you don’t know it, I invite you to have a read. There’s a history of science fiction stories with these sorts of punchline endings, the most famous of which were written by Reginald Bretnor under the pseudonym Grendel Briarton and regularly featured a character called Ferdinand Feghoot. As you might have guessed, this is my little homage to those. I wrote it for the Escape Pod flash fiction competition. It got a smattering of votes but not enough to get through to the next round. Ho hum. But anyway, at the time of posting, you can still vote in the final of that contest – it closes on 27th June 2018. Go and check out the fabulous final stories!