“Earth? It still exists? What for? I thought we ordered its destruction months ago.” Commissaire Glorg of the Intergalactic Planetary Standards Commission glared at the floating image of the distant blue planet and waggled a stern eye stalk in disgust.
“We did sire,” said Gleam, his Aide-de-Campe, executing an elegant grovel, “but the notoriously wimpy Beings Rights Association found a legal loophole and secured a last minute stay order. Before we can proceed with your eminently reasonable destruction order we have to send yet another inspector. If he finds a single sentient creature worthy of preservation the stay order could become indefinite.”
The Commissaire snorted. “Don’t these people have any common sense? Earthlings are disorderly. I can’t bear to listen to them, always bleating on about human rights. What about commissaire rights? What about my right to order everyone around? Who’s going to protect my rights? Earthlings are trouble-makers. Imagine if they were to breed and take over this star quadrant? There would be anarchy!”
Glorg rose from his command module and marched up and down the star ship’s bridge, glaring out of the broad viewing window. He gesticulated at the stars as he spoke. The brass buttons on his immaculate dress uniform were on full alert, threatening to burst as his body swelled with irritation. The glittering array of medals and ribbons festooning his mighty chest jiggled about and tried to hide behind one another, anxious to avoid the ire of his glance. The great leader snatched up half a cow and began chewing it in frustration.
“Perhaps we should suggest a compromise,” he mused, brow furrowed, grease running down his chin. “We could offer to preserve the Earth after all. In formaldehyde. It could be a museum piece for tourists. Surely that would satisfy these do-gooders.”
“I doubt it sire. They are completely irrational.”
“But I do have some good news, sire.”
Glorg brightened to a ghastly florescent green. “What – a new flavor of chocolate biscuit on the market?”
“No, sire, a solution to the Earth nuisance. I convinced the Judge that we should be allowed to select the planetary inspector. I’ve chosen someone so deranged and dysfunctional that he will be unable to recognize a worthy life form, even if he finds one. He’s a complete bum who spent the last eight hundred years living by the beach surfing. Recently a huge wave dumped him on his head and put a permanent kink in his neck. He has been behaving erratically ever since. He is now convinced he is enlightened, has beatified himself and has adopted the name of the fallen archangel Lucifer, imagining that he will impress the Earthlings. I’ve booked him into the worst hotel on the planet, just to put him in the right mood.”
Gleam couldn’t help letting out an evil chuckle. “Don’t worry sire, it’s in the bag.”
Glorg guffawed with delight, his medals dancing with relief. “Gleam, you are a marvel! How can we possibly afford you?”
It had been a long, tiring trip to Earth. Saint Lucifer stared at the front entrance of The Last Resort Hotel in Mumbai, India. At least he thought that was what the sign said – it was hard to tell as it was unlit and appeared to be painted with grime. The whole building looked as though a wolverine had recently chewed on it. Surely this was a mistake. Gleam had promised him five star accommodation. This dump looked like a minus five. If he had not been so exhausted and desperate for a bed he would have looked for an alternative.
The hotel night manager leafed deliberately through Lucifer’s passport, munching on his moustache. He peered closely at the document as though he thought it might contain the lost secrets of Atlantis. Lucifer, exhausted and barely awake, leaned on his elbow, praying for oblivion.
The form filling finished at last, he entered his room, flung his bag on the floor and opened the bathroom door. A huge beady-eyed rat sat perched on the edge of the sink. It jerked its head around and said, “Excuse me, didn’t anyone ever teach you to knock?”
Lucifer tried not to scream, slammed the door and raced downstairs, white faced. He’d challenged ten headed monsters and brain-eating space giants without breaking a sweat, but he could not abide rats.
He arrived back at the front desk. “Excuse me, but I can’t stay in that room. It is already occupied.”
The night manager looked up, surprised. “Is it, sir? I’m terribly sorry – was the other guest that you disturbed upset?”
“It is not occupied by a person. There is a huge bubonic plague carrying rodent with beady eyes in the bathroom. To be precise, a large rat.”
“Oh I’m so sorry sir,” the manager turned to his assistant angrily. “Rajiv! I told you to tell Angelica that she can’t have that room anymore.”
“But she only wanted to stay in the bathroom sir – she promised not to sleep in the bed.”
The manager turned to the Saint. “You see, we can’t very well ask the rat to leave. She has paid in advance. She is a highly respectable rat, from an old Italian family, and she was here first, and it is two o’clock in the morning. Might I suggest that we reduce the room rate. I’m afraid you’d have to share the bathroom?”
Lucifer glared at him as if he was trying to decide which of his ears he should bite off.
The manager took this as a no.
“Excuse me a moment”. Rajiv, looking worried, took his boss aside. They spoke in low tones in Hindi.
Lucifer was impatient. “Hello, is there any chance of getting some accommodation in a bubonic plague free zone? Hello – it’s two o’clock in the morning. Some of us have been travelling for one hundred and forty seven hours in a cramped spaceship and perhaps need a little rest. Look, just give me my money back so I can find a hotel which does not feature man-eating rodents.”
The manager turned to him.
“I afraid that is not possible sir, and if it was possible it would not be possible until the day manager arrived, which will be at 9 am. He is the only person authorized to reverse all the paper work and give a refund, which in any event would not be possible in your case as the room has been used. There is also the matter of room service – someone ordered a lasagna and salad. And there was an international call made from your room.”
“Room service? I’d have to have a death wish to eat in this hotel! And since I only occupied the room for approximately twelve seconds, I don’t see how I could have made an international call. It must have been your aristocratic rat calling her royal relatives!”
Lucifer licked his lips and eyed the man’s left ear. The manager backed away uneasily.
“Er, that still counts as one night sir. Any portion of a day constitutes a full day. Look it’s written here on the wall in plain Sanskrit. And I’m afraid you are responsible for any charges made to your room. The only way to prevent further charges being made in your name is to check out, which means settling the bill.”
“Check out? I want to burn the god-dam building down!”
The manager tried to pacify his irate guest with a little disarming chatter.
“Perhaps you have visited our country before, sir. Do you like cricket?” The word ‘cricket’ alerted all the staff, who were sleeping in various corners of the first floor. They quickly gathered around to listen, smiling happily and muttering amongst themselves about ‘overs’ and ‘fast balls’ and ‘wickets’.
“I like cricket about as much as I like having a rabid dog pee in my suitcase when I’ve just finished packing my best clothes.”
“But how is that possible? Cricket is a very nice game.”
“Oh yes! Cricket is a very nice game!” chorused the staff.
“Look, Beelzebub,” snarled Lucifer. “I hate cricket, I hate your hotel, I hate your rat and I’m leaving. Goodbye. I hope you all have short and miserable lives!”
The clerk interrupted. “Excuse me, sir, I really do recommend that you settle your room account. Your rat friend is at this very moment running up a hefty phone bill. She is speaking with a business associate in Dubai.”
“I don’t care if she’s calling the planet Venus. I’m not paying for it! It’s your rat. You pay for it.”
“Not according the new animal rights legislation, sir – a man cannot own a rat. A rat is an independent entity.”
“Fine. Then it can pay its own bills. Why am I participating in this conversation? I’ve had enough of this. I’m getting out of here.”
The phone rang again. After a brief conversation the night manager put down the receiver. He turned to Lucifer looking worried.
“Sir, we have a problem. It seems that the rat in your room, being a well brought up rat of delicate sensibilities, was very upset about your unannounced intrusion at two a.m. into her private boudoir. She is threatening to call the police.”
“Would that be the rat police or the human police?” Lucifer said, sweetly.
“Please don’t joke, sir. This kind of thing is taken very seriously in our country. It would be best if you were to leave immediately before there is any more trouble.”
“What the hell do you mean ‘this kind of thing?’ Am I to be charged with indecent behavior towards a rat? Are you insane?”
“Not insane, sir. This is part of new animal rights legislation. It is animal rights week. We are obliged to entertain the rat’s complaint.”
“Oh, so it’s not just rat’s rights then – it all kinds of animals’ rights.”
“Including my rights. Am I not a kind of animal?”
“Oh, no, sir. You are a glorious human being!”
“With no rights.”
“Not this week, sir.”
Lucifer stormed out with such a resonant scowl on his face and with so many lightning bolts coming out of his ears that the night manager decided to write off the meal charge and the phone bill.
“That does it!” Lucifer growled, dragging his trolley bag along the pitted street in the dark. “I’ve had it with this planet and its stupid inhabitants. I hate everybody!”
That was the night Saint Lucifer decided they should definitely destroy the earth. If he had only noticed the tip of the rat’s tail poking out of the pocket on the side of his bag, history might have taken another course.
The next morning, as soon as business opened on his home planet – the fourth out from Arcturus – he made the call.
“Hello, Planet Annihilation Pty Ltd. How may I help you today?”
From the woman’s Indian accent Lucifer deduced that the Arcturians had finally discovered out-sourcing.
“Hello. This is Saint Lucifer calling from Mumbai, India, Earth, Solar System.”
“That’s a coincidence, sir. I’m in Mumbai too. Do you by any chance have any interest in cricket?”
“Not as such. But I would like to place an order to destroy the Earth.”
“Why this is your lucky day,” the woman said brightly. “We have a special offer this week. You get a discount of 20% on a planet destruction. And if you order two planets destroyed, we can throw in an extra moon for free.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll just go with the one planet.”
“Very well. Would you like liability insurance?”
“I believe the whole concept is about to become redundant. I’ve noticed that even the most enthusiastic litigation lawyers become less talkative after they’ve been atomized.”
“As you wish sir. I’m entering you in our lucky draw. The winner gets a free holiday for two at the Grand Glitz Vista of Heaven Resort Hotel.”
“Good. I could use a holiday. My neck is stuck you see.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. If you could just give me your credit card details.”
He gave her the information.
“Why, this really is your lucky day. You won the instant draw!”
“I just won a free holiday at the Grand Glitz Hotel?”
“Sorry, no. That’s the first prize. You won the consolation prize – a packet of sea pixies.”
“I see. I have to tell you I’m feeling deeply disappointed right now. Is there any way I can destroy the Earth twice?”
“I’m afraid we don’t offer that service, sir.”
“Okay, just go ahead, but make sure they do a thorough job.”
“Would you like this order fulfilled immediately, or is this an advance booking?”
“Make it a week from today. I think I’m going to take a holiday at that nice hotel you mentioned anyway, carousing with my sea pixies.”
“Very well, sir. If you want to cancel the destruction order in the meanwhile, please just call this number and tell them your mothers maiden name…. which is?”
Saint Lucifer loved few things of this world, and none more than his spaceship. It was silver blue, a sleek sliver of alien elements, the latest model, Laws of Physics Violator XII. Sheer and graceful, designed to slither through space like a serpent seeking something sumptuous, the Violator XII struck fear into friction itself, dashing through dimensions, deftly ducking space time continuums, powered by the mythical Radical Neutron Theory Anti-Alliteration Drive.”
Today the faithful vessel had whisked him from Mumbai to Bahawalpur. Lucifer emerged from the ship wearing a dark cape, like a Lord of the Stars. He approached the front desk of the ultra-luxurious Grand Glitz Vista of Heaven Hotel.
“I have a reservation in the name of Lucifer. First name, Saint,” he murmured. “I need a non-exploding room, lined with avocado, and a mink plated waterproof parking bay for my Violator XII spaceship.
“Of course, sir,” groveled Gershwin the concierge, “but I’m sorry, we no longer offer the mink lined parking bays, ever since 12,000 angry female fashion models with no clothes on blockaded the hotel, protesting the use of real fur. Instead we now line the parking bays with photographs of the protestors.”
Lucifer made a face like a man entirely covered in hair trying to eat an ice cream. “How disgusting. I suppose I’ll have to make do.”
There was a package waiting for Lucifer in his room. He picked up the packet of sea pixies in trembling hands, examining the picture on the box. They were pretty and blond, mounted upon sea horses, floating through an undersea palace. He tore the box open full of anticipation. He could just imagine them, golden hair floating in the surge and pulse of the sea in their silent miniature world. Drifting amongst pinnacles of pink coral, constellations of moon jellyfish floating overhead. Swimming through galleries of delicate shell statues of heroes, monsters and mermaids, above a bed of scattered jewels and breached treasure caskets, illuminated by lancing beams of light from a liquid sun.
The label read, ‘This product is not guaranteed to speak English’.
He drew forth a small bottle from the wreckage of wrapping paper, carefully poured out a few granules into a bowl of water, and waited breathlessly.
After a few minutes, something grey and squishy appeared in the water, and began to move. It was joined by several others like it. They did not have blond hair. They were not riding sea horses. There was no sign of an undersea palace. It was unclear whether or not they were actually alive. Lucifer stared at the grey squishy blobs for a moment, scowled, and addressed them gravely.
“My disappointment upon meeting you cannot be expressed with mere words.” He drew his ray gun and pointed it at the ‘sea pixies’ in a hostile manner, but the blobs didn’t understand. They only spoke Mandarin. He gave up trying to communicate, lowered the gun and decided to console himself by taking a relaxing bath.
The suite boasted an exceedingly fine bath-tub, pastel peach colored and large enough to swim about in. The numerous taps were all shining gold, labeled thus:
Far too hot
Still too hot to touch
Not quite as hot as that
Cup of tea
Common garden warm
Not warm enough
Can’t understand why anyone would want this one
Polar bear uggh
Above the taps was a display of colored buttons labeled:
Plain boring old water
And on the other side of the tub was an array of bath oils, scents, soaps and unguents sufficient to satisfy Cleopatra herself.
As Lucifer tried to decide which particular potion to put in his bath, a knock came on the door. He shuffled into the maroon bath gown, opened the door and found himself face to face with a man of medium height who appeared to be entirely made of hair.
“Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I am The Amazing Sweep, master of gesticulation, and inventor of the electric shoelace. I am to be your personal assistant during your stay. How may I serve you? Perhaps you would allow me to clip your hedge?”
Lucifer glared at him. “I do not possess a hedge. But you may make yourself useful and clean my spaceship. And one more thing. Keep out of my way.”
“Your wish is my command, Master,” The Sweep bowed. Unnoticed, Angelica the rat slipped into his pocket.
The Sweep stood by the Violator XII Spaceship in his shining Valet’s costume. A gawking teenager approached him. “Wow! Is this the spaceship of the famous Rock star Grend McNugget, lead gargler of the neo-gothic grunge death metal band ‘Horrifying Auditory Experience’?
The Sweep drew himself up and replied in a haughty tone, “Do you really imagine that a mere musician could possibly afford a spaceship like this, and a valet like me?”
The teenager fled.
In the dim lighting of the cavern, the Laws of Physics Violator XII gleamed to herself softly.
The Sweep stroked the silky surface. It was virtually indestructible and smooth as the skin of a baby. Suddenly he had a brain wave. To make up for the missing mink lining of the parking bay, he would wash the ship with ass’s milk. His new master would be so pleased!
Moments later, The Amazing Sweep, assisted by Cloon, the vehicle care manager, armed with vats of ass’s milk and a pair of spray guns, opened fire on the ship. The fountain of white fluid slid off the indelible surface like an anthology of English similes off a ducks back. Steam filled the room so that all was hidden in a billowing pale mist.
“Helloooo!” called the Sweep into the fog. He could not see Cloon anymore, and the cave echoed ominously giving him a feeling of impending doom. He heard a swishing sound like a thousand ghostly spaceships flitting through a dimension close to but not precisely coincident with his own. This must be how the dinosaurs felt 65 million years ago when a giant meteor was approaching Mexico, about to obliterate them from the face of the earth, and they all rushed for their meteor proof sombreros.
“Auf Weidersein,” came Cloon’s voice faintly, jagged with fear. He always spoke in German when he was nervous.
The mist swirled like loose jelly, dark half seen shapes loomed and retreated. The Sweep caught a glimpse of the ship’s hull, but it seemed to be receding into the distance. He ran forwards in panic, confused in the clouds of steam.
As the fog cleared The Sweep looked about. He had a feeling that something was missing.
“Where’s the spaceship?” said Cloon.
Good question. The spaceship was completely not there. Sweep strode forward for a closer look at an object on the ground. It was a perfect model of the Violator Twelve, not more than twelve inches long, still gleaming, in the midst of rivulets of asses milk. The terrible truth dawned on him. The space ship had shrunk in the wash!
The Sweep bounced and looked as though he’d just eaten twelve lemons.
“I can’t understand what went wrong,” stammered Cloon, nervous as an antelope at leopard’s feeding time. “This is unprecedented. This is a disaster!”
But The Sweep did not hear him. He was gone. A man of action rather than words, he’d quickly decided that the most appropriate action would be to leave the vicinity and let Cloon do the explaining.
When the two humans were gone, Angelica, the Italian lady rat, emerged from her hiding place.
“This is very curious,” she mused. “Could it be that the ship was lactose intolerant?” She scuttled beneath the miniature spaceship and glanced upward. There above her was the answer to the mystery. Emblazoned on the hull, just beneath the nose of the space-craft, were the fateful words, “DRY CLEAN ONLY”.
Lucifer did not take the news well.
“I’ll kill that Sweep,” he cried. He turned upon Cloon and screamed at him, “and you, moron, you were there. You’re party to this!”
The poor man trembled, gnawing on the edge of his toupee, as was his wont when being terrorized by furious beings from other worlds.
“Sire,” he blurted out, “I have to confess the truth. It was all The Sweep’s idea. It was entirely his fault, and here’s a signed letter from him, taking full responsibility.”
He held out a legal looking document to Lucifer.
Lucifer force-fed the document to the minion before him but spared the man further torment. He turned away, shoulders slumped. He knew who was really at fault. It was himself. He should never have entrusted his beloved spaceship to that obnoxious Sweep creature.
“My spaceship!” he cried, falling to his knees and weeping. “It was my only treasure. My only love. Now I’m doomed to solitude on this Zond forsaken alien primitive dump excuse for a planet…” Suddenly he froze. He’d just remembered. He glanced at his watch. The Earth was due for destruction in thirty-nine hours and twelve minutes, and now he had no way to escape.
Grabbing a copy of the yellow pages, he searched in vain for planetary destruction services. Of course – he’d used his electronic Arcturian yellow pages to find the company, and that was inside the spaceship. Damn. He felt in his trouser pocket for the slip of paper where he’d written the cancellation phone number. Double damn. He’d left it in the other trousers that were now inside the spaceship, shrunken to one fiftieth their original size. He’d need a microscope to read it. But there was no way he could get into the ship at all. It was impossible to break open by force – it was built to withstand pressures greater than anything generated on Earth, and now it was shrunk it would be far stronger – virtually indestructible.
Lucifer pondered his dilemma. He tried to think the problem through calmly. Somehow he had to contact the company on Arcturus 5. Suddenly he had an idea. The cricket-loving Indian girl who’d answered the telephone. She was on this very planet.
Lucifer found ninety-seven call centers listed in the Mumbai yellow pages.
On the sixty-seventh call he struck gold.
“Excuse me, does your company answer calls on behalf of Planet Annihilation Pty Ltd?”
“Why, yes, we answer calls for that company. How can I help you?”
“I spoke to someone there the other day and ordered the destruction of the Earth. And she gave me a number to call to cancel and I created a password, but now some loony Sweep creature shrunk my spaceship and the paper is inside and I really want to cancel the order and can you please give me that number? It’s really important because I don’t want to die you see.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I did not take your call. I take calls for Ajax cleaning products. Did you know that Ajax was a Greek hero who appeared in the Iliad by Homer, and was not originally a cleaning product at all? He was very tall. Do you know the girl’s extension number?”
“No I don’t. She was Indian, a very pleasant young lady who helped me arrange to destroy the world last week. Incidentally, Ajax died young. Like we all will if you don’t help me.”
“I know we all have to die some day. I sometimes think about that, but not often. We are all pleasant Indian ladies at Lachmi Call Centre, sir, but there are 300 of us. I’m afraid I can’t find out who she is without her extension number.”
“She asked me if I like cricket, and I said no,” said Lucifer, abandoning all pride.
“Oh, you’re the one who doesn’t like cricket! You spoke to Priti! I’ll get her.”
Only two hours to go. Lucifer was relieved. He’d found her just in time.
“Hello, sir!” Priti was on the line. “Did you decide you like cricket after all?”.
“Priti! What a relief to talk to you! About the cricket, I’m reconsidering my position as we speak. But what I’m really calling about is my order to destroy the Earth. I want to cancel.”
“I’m afraid you have to call Planet Annihilation Pty Ltd to do that. This is the Lachmi Call Centre number.”
“I know, but it was you I spoke to last week, right?”
“Oh yes, I remember you. You won the lucky draw for the sea pixies.”
“Yes. And I placed the order with you, so can’t you cancel it for me?”
“No you see, I’m not representing Planet Annihilation Pty Ltd right now because this is not their phone number. I can only deal with their business if you call their number. You could call their number right now, I will answer it, and then you can cancel the order.”
“That’s a good idea except it is a very expensive call via the Arcturus star system and I don’t have any money and my credit cards are shrunk to the size of microdots and we only have two hours before the Earth is destroyed. Please can’t you help me? Don’t you want to stop the destruction of the Earth? I mean you live on it, right?”
“Of course, sir, but I don’t represent Planet Annihilation Pty Ltd at the moment. Only when I’m answering their phone number.”
Lucifer began to bite the telephone.
“Hello sir? We seem to have some interference on the line. Can you hear me?”
“Don’t worry, it’s only dental.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help more, sir, but let me give you their number so that you can try to call them and speak to me and I’ll be able to do as you ask. By the way did you get the sea pixies? i got some and I didn’t like them much. They were more like sea blobs than sea pixies. I felt disappointed.”
`Lucifer tried not to weep and grind his teeth as he took down the number. “Yes, Priti. Sometimes life is disappointing. Thank you for your help. If we get through this alive, I’m going to take up cricket.”
“That’s wonderful news, sir. Cricket is a very nice game.”
As the Earth’s last hours ticked away Lucifer wandered the streets in despair. He had the number. He knew the password. But no one he’d approached was ready to help him make the expensive call to Arcturus. Suddenly, he saw a familiar sign. He was back at the Last Resort Hotel. Not exactly his first choice for a place to die. But perhaps the manager would remember him and take pity. He entered and approached the front desk. The manager greeted him warmly.
“Mr Lucifer. How good to see you again! We’ve been keeping a rat-free room especially for you.”
The man had a sense of humor. He didn’t even seem angry about the other night. Perhaps there was hope.
“You can’t imagine how glad I am to see you.” said Lucifer, “How’s Rajiv?”
“Rajiv is well. He is in hospital. Nothing serious. Just a rat bite”
Lucifer glanced at his watch. Ten minutes to go. “Look I have a little problem, and I wondered if you could help me. I need to make an incredibly important phone call, but I’ve misplaced my wallet and I will definitely pay you later if you can just allow me to make a call to Arcturus to cancel the destruction of the Earth that I ordered last week. And you know it’s a bit ironic that I’m here because it was after our little difference of opinion that I decided to destroy the Earth in the first place, and I’m ready to admit that I may have over-reacted a little, and I’m ready to repay the cost of the call at 5 million percent interest, if you’ll just give me this chance to save all of our miserable lives.”
Lucifer looked up for the manager’s reaction. He looked sympathetic.
“I’d really like to help, and for some strange reason, I trust you, but I don’t have the authority to allow that. That is the prerogative of the day manager. He will be here at 9 am. Why don’t you stay the night and talk to the day manager in the morning.”
Lucifer clutched the night manager’s shirt front and jerked him close. “There will be no morning. Not ever again. If I don’t call Arcturus in the next ten minutes we will all be obliterated.”
A powerful hand took Lucifer by the shoulder and pulled him away from the manager. “Please do not manhandle boss, sir. He is trying to help you.”
Lucifer allowed the security guard to lead him to a chair where he collapsed in despair. This was it. The end. He’d tried, but the Earthlings wouldn’t help him. The Planetary Standards Commission were right. This was a rotten planet and the inhabitants were light years beyond stupid. No-body cared about anybody else. They were all just going about their business, their noses so close to their petty concerns they couldn’t look up for long enough even to save themselves. They deserved to die. It just didn’t seem fair that he, the great Saint Lucifer, should die as well. It wasn’t his stupid planet.
A dignified voice interrupted his reverie. “I will pay for the phone call,” it said.
Lucifer looked up in surprise. No-one was about. They’d left him alone. “Who said that?” he stammered.
“I did. I will pay for the call.”
Lucifer looked down. It was the rat. Angelica, the Italian upper class lady rat. The rat with business contacts in Dubai who didn’t pay her own hotel bills. A descendent of the bubonic plague-carrying rats, who were responsible for the death of millions. A noble and generous rat, worthy of preservation.
The rat who saved the world.