They were covered in grease. The only parts of them that were visible were their legs.
“Hand me that spanner,” came a clipped British-accented voice, a bit nasal.
“What?” That voice was a sweet tenor with a Ganymede accent.
“The spanner! Six tenths, I think.”
A hand groped along, and then made contact with a leg attached to the other’s body. “Er, sorry, Reed.” A pause. “What did she say the problem was?”
“A pinging noise, or some such,” Malcolm replied. “Douglas, the spanner, if you please?”
Doug Beckett slid out from under his wife’s car and looked around. “Uh, here.” He handed over the requested article. His face and hands were grease-soaked. “God, I need a shower.”
“Thank you.” There was a little quiet as Malcolm worked. “Huh. Now, a question. You’ve driven this car at times. Have you ever heard this pinging noise?”
“I haven’t,” Doug admitted, “but when I’m driving it, it always seems like I’ve got the kids with me. Marie Patrice, uh, well, ….” His voice trailed off.
“She’s quite chatty, yes.” Malcolm Reed slid out from under the vehicle. He was equally filthy. “I cannot find anything wrong with this automobile.”
“Me, neither. I mean, I’ve checked the solar line. You checked the electric pump and then we did a test run on the catalytic converter. We both drove it separately and the brakes are fine.”
“Right. And neither of us heard this mysterious pinging sound when we test drove it. What about the ignition coils?”
“Checked. And before you ask about the battery, I swapped it out for the one in my car and it’s fine in both. So’s the alternator.”
“All checked. I replaced the most worn one and it didn’t seem to matter, either,” Doug reported. “This sure is frustrating.”
“Most definitely. I even cleaned out the cabin. There were all manner of old toys in there. Declan left his little stuffed stegosaurus in there. And there was, I don’t know what, it was some sort of dried food. I am guessing it was a spot of baby food. It might even have been from when Joss was still not on solids. Took quite a bit of scrubbing to get that out.”
“Uh, Reed, that wouldn’t have been causing a pinging sound.”
“I understand that. But, well, she never lets anyone clean out her car. I thought it would be, well, a kind thing to do.”
“Lili’s a slob. At least in her car, she is,” Doug chuckled.
“Well, I would not go so far as to say –” and then Malcolm caught himself and laughed a bit. “You’re right; she is a vehicular slob. But, eh, don’t tell her I said so, all right?”
“You will owe me for this,” Doug pretended to scold with a grease-covered finger. “We should get cleaned up. They’ll be back any minute now.” He glanced at a wrist chronometer and wiped the grease off it with an equally soiled rag. It slid past the date – August the 28th of 2164 – to the time – 1648 hours.
“Come over for dinner. Mellie and Norri are gonna stay. It’ll be all ten of us.”
“Are you certain?”
“Nine or ten, at that point, it doesn’t really matter, Reed.”
“Well, all right.”
At dinner, they were considerably cleaner. The five adults all sat around, each with a child near them. Neil and Declan, the youngest, were two-year-olds nursed by their mothers, Melissa and Lili. Little four-year-old Tommy sat with his second mother, Norri, who cut up meat for him and praised him lavishly as he carefully ate with a spoon. Marie Patrice sat next to Malcolm and flirted with him, a four-year-old’s flirt as she laughed and smiled and didn’t eat anywhere near enough of her elekai stew. And Joss, the eldest, an old man of nearly six, sat next to Doug and chattered away about the sights they had seen in nearby Fep City, where there was a small Calafan natural history museum.
Malcolm asked Lili, “Dearest, we were unable to locate the noise you heard in your car.”
“Must be gremlins,” Norri joked. “C’mon, Tommy, one more bite!”
Lili stopped talking and eating and was just listening. The rest of them seemed to notice and stopped, even Marie Patrice. Even the two littlest boys stared at her. She cocked her head to the side slightly. “Anybody hear that pinging sound?”