Tommy Verdigris wondered at what point exactly it had seemed like a good idea to throw himself at the big one-armed guy. It was one of those insane, impulsive acts of heroism that, once committed past a certain point, he couldn’t take back. That point had definitely arrived, with him hanging like a medal around the guy’s neck while the gun battle zinged and sizzled all around them.
The leather-clad giant was wheeling this way and that, selectively blowing away Moonbase personnel. Credit where it was due, the guy was handling his weapon well despite the arm shortage and wasn’t the least bit inconvenienced by his newly acquired Tommy Verdigris necklace. To think, Tommy had imagined a one-armed man would be easier to take down.
But why oh why oh why hadn’t he just taken a few shots at the man like everyone else?
As if in answer, a security guard zapped a beam at the guy. It torched a hole in the leather jacket close to Tommy’s ear and Tommy looked up expecting to see the giant grimacing in pain before he came crashing to the floor.
“Ow!” said the giant. “That stung, you little bastard.”
And he turned to shoot the shooter. Tommy saw everything above the guard’s belt engulfed in a blinding flare, leaving the poor guy’s trousers – presumably with his legs still inside – dropping to the floor.
Right, he thought. That was one reason for getting up close and personal. The other was that he had felt the need to impress, to make up for the unfortunate loss of Fleagles by playing the hero. He was convinced this brute with the plasma shotgun was the leader of the invasion force and taking him down might have persuaded his trollish minions to call off the attack.
Unfortunately, although the theory still held, achieving it in practice was looking like too tall an order for one humble second-in-command. All he could do now was seek some means of extricating himself while making it look good for those of the crew who were still watching.
Alternatively, the battle noise was thinning all the time, so if he could just hang on until he no longer had an audience, he ought to be able to simply drop to the ground and play dead.
Shots continued to zing and fizz past each other through the air, barely acknowledging one another. Like shoppers at a busy mall, when they noticed each other’s presence at all it was only to get cross and certainly not to stop and be sociable with fellow shots. Beams, plasma pulses and projectiles much preferred to bump into people.
Braun ducked as a plasma pulse rushed up to shake him warmly by the head. It burned a broad parting in his hair, prompting him to reach up and feel tentatively around for scar tissue or perhaps tiny air crash investigators sifting through the wreckage of a model aircraft.
Scale, he realised, was the major problem with this gun battle. That old adage of ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ was not working out for the Moonbase defenders. Some of the invaders did crash mighty heavily to the floor before they disintegrated, it was true, but it was taking ten or more allegedly deadly beams from the Moonbase sidearms to bring them down.
For some unearthly reason – and Braun had learned to expect unearthly reasons for a great many things when journeying through extraterrestrial domains – the relativistic effects that had shrunk the entire crew had scaled down their weapons accordingly. Despite failing to reduce a single chair to fit his compact butt. Now that kind of selective shrinking had gone beyond being a pain in the ass and looked set to get all his people fried.
Feeling the need for a quick tactical reappraisal, he slowly raised his head to peer out from cover – discovering that he had none. His peace lily had been reduced to a deep-fried leafless stump, black and smoking in its pot of scorched earth.
Beams and bolts were swarming everywhere like white-hot locusts, but thankfully none in Braun’s direction for the moment. Poor Tommy was still grappling desperately with the enemy leader, struggling to throttle the giant and impede his one-handed aim with the plasma shotgun.
Braun vowed to see to it that Tommy got a medal. They didn’t really do medals in the Lunar Administration Service – the uniform fabric was a little on the thin side for anything involving pins – but Braun would make something posthumous up if necessary. In the meantime, he had to ensure that Tommy’s heroic actions didn’t go waste.
“Pull back, everyone!” he called out. “We’ll make a stand at the Command Centre!”
His crew needed no further urging and, loosing off some frantic covering fire, they beat a somewhat more frantic and disordered retreat to the exit. The sliding doors hissed and thunked like mad trying to keep up with the through traffic. Braun squeezed off a quickfire zap or three of his own and was up and running for the doorway, chased by answering blasts that bit great blazing chunks out of the carpet and walls.
He flew through the doors just as they slid closed and landed with a thump, flat on his chest. Winded, he couldn’t help feeling something was amiss, not least because he hadn’t actually thrown himself forward. The smell, like stir-fried Chinese takeaway cartons, was also troubling.
Lieutenant Maroon, who had been running just ahead of him, stopped and turned and stared in a way that worried him further. The man’s eyes bulged and he looked on the point of screaming like only Sandy Beige could scream. Instead, mastering his emotions with an effort, he said, “Fuck!”
Ordinarily, Braun would have had him up on a charge for that. For one thing Maroon hadn’t spelt out the expletive, for another it was one of the few for which he hadn’t been able to come up with a suitable operational acronym.
With an eye to the still-closed door behind them, Maroon trotted up to kneel beside him. “Commander, I – are you all right?”
“I don’t know! You tell me!” The cooked polystyrene smell was really starting to bother him now.
“I – I think you should see for yourself!”
If Braun could have shot bullets from his eyes at that point, he would have. But he really didn’t have the energy for arguing with Maroon right then. Instead, he fired a brief glare at the man, then rolled over for a look at what had his Lieutenant so freaked.
There was a bubbling, molten puddle in the corridor where he had evidently parted company with his legs.
With supreme effort of restraint and even greater volume, he yelled, “F-U-C-K!”
Feeling Unwell: Commander Krispy, was the best he could come up with, in case Maroon chose to question him.
Parting shots fizzled harmlessly against the bulkhead and some of the furnishings, then all was quiet apart from the hasty pitter-patter of tiny feet as the stunted defenders beat their retreat. Knucks was fairly sure he’d hit one of the little blighters before the doors had closed.
He surveyed the room full of smoke and littered bodies and body parts, thinking that he now had a pretty solid idea of what war in a ventriloquist’s doll factory would look like. Technically, he ought to be able to get his money back on the Crematoratrons. But he’d bet good money there was a smallprint disclaimer on the pack somewhere, pointing out that for a truly tidy battlefield it would be necessary to get both sides wearing the devices.
Anyway, the midgets had put up a stout defence and paid a heavy price. And courtesy of one vital intercepted communication, he knew they wouldn’t be giving up. “Fremengor, you heard. They’ll be making another stand at the command centre. Take your mob and secure the base.”
Thanks to the heat of battle and the efficiency of the Crematoratrons, he had no idea how many Goyles they’d lost. With a lot of commanders you might be able to gauge the level of friendly losses by the sourness of their facial expression, but the Rear Vice War Kahn’s blend of ugly and miserable was only an indication that he was still breathing. Added to which, on the descent flight Knucks had explained how the agreed remuneration would be shared between surviving members of the mercenary outfit and even a Goyle could wrap his superdense brain tissue around that kind of maths. More dead equals more dough. For all Knucks knew, Fremengor was rubbing his mental mits with glee at the prospect of a fat bonus.
That in mind, he suspected he’d have no problems requisitioning a bunch of soldiers for his own purposes. “I’ll take four with me. I think we can go ahead and – ” Knucks grew suddenly conscious of the tenacious burden at his neck shifting slightly. “Right,” he decided. “I’ve had enough of you now. If I wanted a necktie I’d have gone in for white-collar crime.” He raised his plasma shotgun, thinking to wedge it between him and the offending article and prise it off.
“Wait wait wait!” urged the voice close to his ear. “I can be useful to you!”
“I imagine you could, yeah, with six of your pals in a mine, in a mine, where a million diamonds shine. Or if I needed some article of jewelry disposed of in the cracks of Mount Doom, say,” said Knucks. “But I don’t need hangers-on, least of all short-ass limpets like yourself.”
“No, no, no, listen. I’m Tommy Verdigris. I’m the, er, Commander here. There are any number of things I can override or bypass or whatever to make your life easier. Whatever you’ve got in mind. And, er, I’d also be more than happy to get down.”
Knucks squeezed a surprising amount of reconsideration into a simple, “Hmm.” This little Quisling sounded pretty desperate, but Commander qualified as seriously authorised personnel and that could cut down on the time factor getting him into certain places. As much as he enjoyed B&E, Knucks wasn’t averse to saving himself a bit of effort here and there. Ferret was probably sweating somewhere, which was one reason to take a while longer, but no, this was one of those occasions where Knucks felt inclined to put tactics ahead of cruelty.
“All right, Frodo, you got yourself a deal.”
What finally persuaded Ferret to spill the beans was having his face shoved closer and closer to Professor Burgerminge’s. What Burgerminge had didn’t entirely qualify as a face and Ferret, once he’d recovered from the close encounter, had to commend Commander Schoenig’s interrogation technique.
Still, as he stood upright and rearranged his rumpled attire, he resolved to give only a carefully rationed version of the truth. Mr Knucks valued loyalty highly and Ferret valued the various parts that Mr Knucks would remove if he ever learned that Ferret had unduly compromised their plans. Mr Ferret was many things, but one thing he was not was a rat.
“When you’re quite finished adjusting yourself, you said you would talk,” menaced Schoenig, reaching for a fistful of Ferret’s coat again.
“And I will. I will.” He was straightening his badly skewed swan’s head when he realised he could probably dispense with it altogether now. He worked his fingers under the hair and feathers and yanked off the whole headpiece, wig and all. “My partner is probably in possession of the Moonbase by now anyway and making arrangements for the next phase of the operation. It’s almost certainly too late for you to do anything about it.”
“We’ll see about that,” Schoenig growled. “What’s your partner planning?”
A number of the crew had gathered behind Schoenig by this time and most of them were backing up their commander with hostile looks, directed exclusively Ferretward. And as much as Ferret liked an audience, he couldn’t help feeling like he was being put on the spot. It was also oddly unnerving seeing a lot of faces that he’d already seen rendered in miniature on the other crew, but he decided that just demonstrated that Professor Burgerminge had a slightly pathological eye for detail and way too much time on his hands.
In any case, while the most he might have feared from the fun-sized versions – apart from the medical probing – was a set of badly bitten ankles, this lot looked entirely capable of getting considerably more physical. And not necessarily in a good way. Their menaces would be nothing to those Mr Knucks could visit upon him, but at the same time they couldn’t be ignored.
Luckily, there were certain details he felt he could safely reveal.
“It’s a moonjack,” said Ferret. “We’re hijacking your moon.”
Schoenig and his crew were utterly stunned. To be fair, it was the sort of revelation easily guessed if reading an account of events with a bit of a giveaway title, but other than that, if he had just woken from frozen sleep, Ferret might also have found it to be something of a shocker.
“Hijacking the Moon?” Tommy Verdigris looked up at the one-armed man who had identified himself as Mr Knucks with newfound respect and incredulity. He had been a formidable foe even before he had confirmed himself as a raving mental case. Tommy felt glad to be back on solid ground, but he was going to have to tread very lightly in his dealings with this man. The fact that he was also flanked by four of the trollish Goyle creatures was the least of his worries.
“Yeah. It’s really dead simple.” Slinging the plasma shotgun over his shoulder – the one with an arm attached, since the other didn’t look a very secure place for hanging stuff – Mr Knucks bent forward to address Tommy on something approaching his level. Tommy still had to look up. The man’s face was like a heavily stubbled meteor descending on him. “Your moon’s hurtling through the universe anyway, so all I’ll be doing is attaching a steering mechanism.”
“But – but how?” True to say, Moonbase Kappa had encountered countless improbables and impossibilities during the course of its travels, but amid all the unlikelihood nobody had ever come up with that one. Just then he was confronted by a vision of a new console in the Command Centre with a large steering wheel attached. In his mind’s eye, he was the one at the controls. Regardless of the actual mechanics, he wondered if this one-armed giant might let him drive from time to time.
Mr Knucks tapped the side of his nose. “I have a device.” He smiled. “I won’t bore you with the science – doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense anyway. But basically all we have to do is install it at your nuclear waste disposal site and let, er, a lot of pseudoscientific bollocks handle the rest.”
Mention of the radioactive waste dump gave Tommy the shivers. Everyone was always nervous about talking about the place. Just as actors referred to Macbeth as ‘the Scottish play’, Moonbase crew, if they ever spoke of it at all, tended to call it ‘the Ready Brek Bowl’. “But – and I am in no way wanting to obstruct your plans here,” Tommy lied, “but that’s where it all started. With a huge explosion, sending us hurtling out of Earth orbit.”
“Good.” He winked and patted Tommy on the head, before standing upright. “Then what I’m planning will bring back a lot of memories for you.”
“He’s going to recreate the explosion?!” Commander Schoenig’s features morphed through several interpretations of horrified in very quick succession.
“There’s more to it than that, but yes.” Ferret wondered if he shouldn’t have broken the news a little more gently. The crew were exchanging gasps in such quantities the air in the iso chamber was growing dangerously thin. They were all taking the news of the hostile takeover in an altogether too negative light and clearly he needed to put a positive spin on things. “But look at it this way, the very thing that blew you out of Earth orbit in the first place might one day serve to take you back home. Who knows, if you’re nice, Mr Knucks and I might be persuaded to drop you off.”
The gasps turned to disgruntled murmurs and Schoenig, wild-eyed, with beads of perspiration on his forehead almost out-bulging his eyes, grabbed Ferret’s lapels again. “Earth? We’re not from Earth.”
“Eh?” As best he could, given the unwelcome proximity, Ferret looked the man up and down. The fellow certainly looked human, if a touch melodramatic. “I’m sorry, I just assumed – ”
“I mean,” Schoenig amended, “yes, of course, we are from Earth, originally. All of us except Inca here, anyway.” Taking a step forward at the mention of her name was a woman who, despite the regulation purple wig, was different to all the others in a few minor but significant respects. First of all, she appeared to have dabbed her eyebrows and cheekbones with glue just before dipping her face in a bowl of Special K. What didn’t stick, she presumably ate and her figure would have been a good ad for any slimming breakfast cereal. Secondly, more of her figure was on display, piped as it was into a more economic version of the Moonbase uniform, with a crop-top to go with the mini-skirt and knee-high boots. Possibly, Professor Burgerminge had singled her out and purloined more of her uniform fabric because she was an alien; equally possibly he had just enjoyed the idea of so much perfectly-formed cleavage, midriff and thigh on display, the dirty old stiff.
“Hello,” she said. “I am Inca, from the planet Sonicon.” Which, despite a funny accent that sounded genuine enough, struck Ferret as no more convincing than his role as Zanac from future Earth. Still, she fluttered her eyelash extensions in a manner that inclined Ferret to take her word for it.
“But this moon never orbited the Earth,” Schoenig went on. “It’s not the Moon.”
“Ah, my fault, I think,” supplied Burgerminge. “Part of the implanted memories I programmed into the substitute crew. I felt sure they’d feel more motivated by the prospect of one day returning to Earth rather than our actual original position.”
“Well, if you don’t mind my asking, where did this moon come from?” Ferret was feeling a tad put-out that Knucks hadn’t filled in him on the back story.
“Moonbase Kappa,” Schoening explained with strained patience, “was established as part of a major interdiction effort around the homeworld of a particularly unpleasant war-like race known as Goyles. It’s a long story, but the bastards launched a missile at our nuclear waste dump and blew us out of orbit.”
“Ah. I see.”
In the list of details Ferret had decided to keep from the Kappans, the identity of the mercenaries he and Knucks had chosen to work with had just been promoted to the top.
Great. Brillisoddingant. Bad enough that relativistic effects should have shrunk everyone, now Braun had to deal with being less than half the man he used to be. He had no desire to calculate the precise fraction. Moreover, he could seriously have done without Maroon’s bulging horrified eyes looking down at him.
“Go!” he ordered. “Get going to the Command Centre and take charge of the defences there!”
“But – but, Commander – ”
“I’ll catch up!” On top of horrified, Maroon’s look now included a clear indication of just how unlikely he rated Braun’s chances. “Just bugger off! That’s an order, Maroon!”
Maroon saluted and hurried away, although not without throwing several more wide-eyed stares over his shoulder. When he was gone, Braun felt free to get on with being depressed. Wallowing wouldn’t get him anywhere, but frankly this sucked. It had been difficult enough dealing with the oversized furniture and fittings around here before. Worse, this sorry state of leglessness had written off any chance of realising that kiss with Henna. Now, if he pictured it, he was clinging to her like one of those face-hugging aliens they had encountered a while back. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Damn it, he had a good mind to go down to the Iso Lab and have words with Professor Burgerminge. The flashforwards never failed to deliver and he damn well wanted answers.
Then he remembered that he had sent Henna to the Med Bay. She would be there. He couldn’t let her see him like this. Shewould be more tactful about it than Maroon, but he couldn’t bear her pity.
On the other hand, a pity snog was better than nothing, wasn’t it? And wait – suddenly a wonderful, inspiring thought lit up like a soft-focus flare in his brain. The scene of his kiss with Henna in the flashforward had only been shown from the waist up.
It could still happen. He would make it happen.
Allowing hope to drive, he started to haul himself along the corridor.
“All right,” said Mr Knucks, “Fremengor’s moving on the Command Centre. Time we were heading for the Nuke Dump.” He turned to lead the way back into the hangar, leaving the Goyles to prod Tommy along with the toes of their armoured boots.
“Wait, no!” pleaded Tommy.
Knucks about-faced and sniffed impatiently. “What’s up, Frodo? Not getting cold feet are you? Surely a little squirt like you’s not afraid of a few rads? What’s an extra mutation or two on a stunted little space-gnome like yourself?”
For one fleeting moment, Tommy imagined a sort of David and Goliath face-off in which he brought this man down for his unrelenting ability to make him feel even smaller. But he had already had a go at that, with his desperate lunge for the giant’s throat, and they both knew how that had turned out. Instead, he was keen to prove his usefulness and earn himself a senior position in the new hierarchy under these villains. “No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that, until your, er, men have disabled the defences from the Command Centre, the, um, Ready Brek Bowl – that’s to say, the waste dump – is heavily protected. Automatic weapons will fire at any ship not identified as belonging to the Moonbase. If you’re really set on saving some time, we should take a Fleagle.”
Mr Knucks raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed, little buddy. That’s good thinking. You got any of your ships left?”
“Just the one.” Tommy did his best to hide his blushes.
“That should do us nicely. Smart lad.” Mr Knucks leaned down and pinched Tommy’s cheek in a thoroughly patronising paternal way to which Tommy raised no objections. Even if he did flinch slightly at the cold metallic touch of the fingers. Suddenly, he twigged what had happened to this man’s other arm and, although he didn’t even begin to understand the mechanics involved, that the creature seen on the security footage ordinarily spent much of its time attached to this guy’s shoulder.
“Um, also, don’t you want your arm back?”
Mr Knucks gave it some thought. Then shrugged. “It’ll get back to me eventually. Come on, lead the way to this ship of yours. We’ve got some blowing up to be getting on with.”
[To Be Continued...]
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