MOONJACK! End Of Act Two

Ferret chose ‘quietly’. Dr Russeau led the way, with him flanked by two guards. He probably could have taken them out, except he was afraid any rough and tumble might knock his swan headpiece loose. He hoped they’d taken it to be attached, a part of him, as really it was the most alien thing about his current (ridiculous) appearance, but if push came to shove and it did come off he would have to explain that it was merely a fancy hat worn by only the most revered members of his race. Or something to that effect.

He was beginning to almost enjoy this making things up as he went along. Knucks had been right: these people had led a sheltered existence. Ferret couldn’t help wondering what his colleague would make of how short they were. He hadn’t predicted that, had he?

Still, as amusing as it was to be escorted along by gnomes, it wasn’t quite so nice to be reminded that he was now a prisoner. And, whenever he stumbled slightly in his platforms, the guards would prod him along with those funny looking guns of theirs. The one consolation was that they weren’t nearly as pointy as most other guns so the pressure of those prods was distributed over a much greater surface area. Ferret wasn’t much of a one for science, but it was okay by him when it meant any nuisance like this being less of a pain in the ass.

Thankfully it wasn’t too long before Dr Russeau was standing back and ushering him and his accompanying guards into the medical centre.

There was nothing unexpected about the room – a couple of beds against one wall, monitors above, panels of instruments and storage cupboards lining the other walls. This was a medical centre devoted to the care and treatment of patients, not breakthroughs in innovative design. Which was a shame, because Ferret was generally far more interested in the latter.

While the guards helpfully guided him towards one of the beds with a lot of stern weaponly gesturing, the doctor went over to a nearby crash cart and plucked a pair of rubber gloves from a tray. She pulled them on, but they were about ten sizes too big for her so there was none of the customary squeaking, stretching noises.

Even so, Ferret eyed the way the fingers flopped at the end of her tiny hands and found their dangliness oddly intimidating. “Are those strictly necessary?” he said, not ready to lie back until he knew exactly what the impending procedure involved.

Dr Russeau finished tugging the gloves all the way up her forearm. “Just relax.”

“Relax what, specifically?”

As she set about securing the gloves near her elbow with a couple of elastic bands, Ferret could tell she was getting slightly aggravated. Her bedside manner wasn’t going to improve any by the fact that she was going to have to stand on the crash cart to have any hope of reaching him.

“It – ah- must be a problem coping with oversized equipment.”

“We’ve learned to deal with it.”

“Oh, me too.” Ferret laughed to cover a niggling concern. Medical scans had not been part of the plan and the scheme could fall apart if these people saw through his disguise. He thought he’d best try to deter her from too close an examination. “I just thought you should know. Since you’re going to be scanning me and all, you’d best be prepared. These trousers only tell half the story.”

“Trust me, I’m a doctor. There’s not much I haven’t seen.”

“It’s my most alien appendage,” he threw in for good measure.

Dr Russeau, to her credit, merely blinked. She was either a true mistress of her emotions or a creature of limited facial expression. She beckoned to the two guards. “Here, help me up on the crash cart, will you?”

“Now, wait, I think we should discuss – ” Ferret was about to suggest a lengthy discussion of the procedure. It was what most doctors did for their patients, after all, letting them know what their operation entailed. He didn’t suppose that aliens extended the same courtesy to abductees prior to a good probing, but he hoped that, as a guest of the Moonbase, he might be owed a verbal consultation before anything more invasive occurred.

He was saved by the beep.

Dr Russeau sighed, faintly irritably, and turned to the comm screen. Her eyes twinkled dimly as she saw the face filling the screen. “John?” First name terms, these two definitely had he hots for each other. Or at least the lukewarms.  “What is it? I was just about to get started on scanning the alien.”

“The alien?” muttered Ferret. His status as ‘guest’ had definitely slipped. “I do have a name you know.”

“Sorry, Henna. That creature’s still on the loose. It’s knocked out two more of our men down at the trav-tube terminal. We’re going after it, but these men could use your help. Isolate our guest in the medical bay and station guards on the door.”

“I’ll be right there,” she assured him. “And John,” she added. “Be careful.”

Oh yes, thought Ferret. It was love, all right. Very touching.

And, more importantly, no touching for him.

***

It was a crime, the quantity of fun Knucks could have with one arm. In this case, the one that was currently on a covert infiltration op deep in enemy territory.

“Detachable is nothing,” Knucks would often say when people remarked with surprise that his cybernetic arms were, well, detachable. “All arms are ultimately detachable. Even yours.” And almost everyone was willing to take his word for it. “No, these are detachable, re-attachable and remotely operable.” In fact, considering he had lost his originals in a high-stakes gambling game, Knucks considered that he’d done very well for himself. At times, he missed his real arms – of course he did – but frankly they couldn’t do half the stuff that these ergosynaptic machine versions could.

When it came to sending them out on missions, he tried to keep things fair, so for the Moonbase op, he’d chosen the left. It was capable of some autonomic function so, for instance, once it was safely on board the station’s trav-tube he could leave it to fend for itself while he went to take a leak. When he returned and tapped back into its POV, everything was hunky dory, although the view, courtesy of a tiny camera in one of its knuckles, was jumping up and down and he realised it was drumming its fingers impatiently on the deck. Soon the trav-tube came to a stop and Knucks steered it off the train and sent it stealthing around the Moonbase corridors on the desired course.

Now, he was guiding it up to another corner for a peek down the next corridor. Everything on the Moonbase was helpfully signposted – albeit in an unhelpfully retro computer font – so it had been no problem negotiating a route to the requisite section.

DEFENCE SCREEN GENERATOR ROOM, the large door was labelled. DANGER. NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY. UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. SERIOUSLY.

The ample warnings were backed up by two guards stationed, one on either side of the door. They were facing this way, which ruled out the sneaking up behind them option. Still, Knucks wasn’t averse to a full frontal assault when circumstances demanded, so he had the arm lock the targets in its little microtronic brain and sent the command to attack.

The arm coiled like a snake, then lunged, propelling itself along the smooth corridor floor at speed. Both men reacted instantly to the flash of silver coming straight at them. Their eyes went wide. They both said, “What the – !” Then they reached for their sidearms. If they’d done things in a different order, it might have turned out differently, but the arm was upon them.

The guards were such tiny guys, they really never stood a chance.

Who said size didn’t matter? Significantly, not the short dead ones. Knucks had been surprised to find everyone on the base so severely stunted, but he guessed it was another effect of the Vorpal Tunnel Syndrome. He didn’t especially care, as long as it made his job easier. Besides, he had other things to think about.

He glanced at his wrist. Then realised that he’d forgotten to remove his watch when he’d packed his left arm in Ferret’s capsule. Oh well, it was probably nearly time to open up communications. He hopped out of his seat and set off to brief the Goylish commander. He could always check the clock up on the bridge.

Lefty could handle the rest from here on.

***

Ferret wasn’t one for sitting around when left to his own devices. Even less so when left to someone else’s. The ‘nice’ Dr Russeau may have locked him in and stationed guards outside, but they hadn’t strapped him down to the bed. He was free to roam around the confines of the medical centre and there were plenty of devices worth investigating.

He toyed casually with some of the surgical instruments, assessing their potential as torture implements. Torture and interrogation were, along with fashion, among his principal areas of expertise, of course. Which, as well as his naturally squeamish sensibilities, was one reason he had been particularly anxious about probing. It felt too much like role reversal. A professional torturer of his standing should never be the one on the table. He should be, well, standing – over the victim. He imagined a baker would feel much the same way if asked to trade positions with one of his cream-filled puff pastries.

Sadly, he had to conclude that these surgical devices would be of no use to him. Most seemed limited to emitting light displays and random sequences of bleeps, flutey-whistles and blippety-plinks like some  kindergarten electronic jazz combo let loose in a music shop. Although one did turn out to be a laser scalpel, which produced a high-pitched whine from Ferret just before he dropped it.

No, for effective implements of torture, you couldn’t beat retro. The subjects only had to look at some of the more inventively styled metallic appliances and their nerve would break. Which made Ferret’s job a lot easier, sparing him the sight of blood and/or the unfortunate attacks of sympathy pains that would occasionally plague him during a session.

Abandoning the handheld gadgetry, Ferret wandered off to inspect the storage units. Then inspected the wall-mounted banks of instruments, idly pressing buttons or sliding sliders that particularly attracted his eye. None of them were labelled Self-Destruct, so he reasoned he was fairly safe to play. None of them appeared to do much beyond altering the pattern of lights flickering here and there on different panels and he was considering trying some of the less interesting-looking controls when his tour brought him face to face with a door marked Iso Lab.

Hmm, he thought. Now why hadn’t they locked him in there? He was a potential alien menace. Iso – assuming it was suffixed with -lation – would surely have been just the thing. Possibly he was jumping to conclusions, but it suggested to him that it was occupied. Maybe there was something already iso-ed in there, something he wasn’t supposed to see.

Which, naturally, was just a gauntlet-slap in the face of curiosity.

Tum-tee-tumming to himself, partly to drive out the weird electronica-jazz non-tune he had going through his head, Ferret set about fiddling with the keypad lock. B&E was more Mr Knucks’s specialty, but Ferret had broken into a few stores in his time when he’d seen an outfit or a pair of shoes he didn’t fancy paying for.

The lock surrendered with a relenting hum, a good note on which to end Ferret’s little song. The door opened with a hiss and Ferret walked in, ready to have a good nose around.

The chamber was in darkness.

“Identify,” rasped a voice that sounded like it had been born of a lifetime of chainsmoking and swallowing sandpaper.

Ferret glanced nervously about. Slowly the lights flickered on and the room was bathed in soft peach.

Ferret watched as the shadowy form in the centre came to life.

“Identify,” it said again.

It was a corpse.

Sitting in an acceleration couch, the grim skeletal form was hunched and twisted, with one hand clutching, claw-like, at an armrest and its skull lolling to one side. Which was fair enough, since there was probably minimal muscle tissue left in the neck, but – much to the discomfort of Ferret’s stomach – there were dried and shrivelled organs visible inside the ribcage and in its lap, as well as a few parched rags of flesh hanging here and there from the bones. It had been shedding bits of itself too, dropping autumnal flakes all about the chair like confetti gone bad. Wires ran from contacts placed about the skull to a screen suspended from the ceiling.

It was also the only humanoid figure Ferret had so far encountered on the base that was what he would consider full-size. But next to its condition that seemed entirely incidental.

“Ewwwwwwwwwwww,” was all Ferret could say.

To Be Continued…

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MOONJACK! Act Two – Part 2

Commander Braun sighed. Not this old chestnut.

Bad enough that meetings were always being interrupted with news of ‘things he should see’, but his crew would never simply clue him in on what those things were, always insisting that he had to – absolutely had to – come to the command deck and see it for himself.

Not this time, chum. “What is it, Maroon?”

Maroon’s face stared out at him from the desk comm screen. “Sir, I really think you should – ”

“No. Just tell me.”

“But – ”

“Is it something on scanner?”

“Security camera, sir. It’s – ”

“Are we recording?”

“Well, yes. I mean, it’s – ”

“And is it urgent?”

“Well, yes.”

“How urgent?”

“My best estimate would place it somewhere from very to extremely, sir. Which is why you really need – ”

“No.” Braun was acutely conscious of the eyes of his fellow officers on him, but that was fairly normal. He’d tried to have this out with Maroon and plenty of others before. But this time he was also subject to the scrutiny of an alien being who was being treated to his first look at how humans – and more importantly, Braun – handled a crisis. Braun wasn’t about to back down now. “You realise how much time we’ve wasted in debating this, Maroon? Well, if anything disastrous happens that we could have prevented with thirty or so vital extra seconds, that’s on you. Now spill the beans, Lieutenant! I’ll come have a look at the footage, but you damn well give me the broad summary right now!”

A few more vital seconds were spent in awkward silence. Braun hadn’t intended to raise his voice quite so much. Maroon, though, eventually recovered the power of speech. “There’s, ah, been an incident in the hangar under Pad Ten, sir.”

“There!” said Braun. “Now how hard was that?” He looked around the room, hoping to be met with a lot of sympathetic shakes of the head. The officers at the conference table still seemed a little stunned and discomfited by his outburst. Even Doctor Russeau – et tu Henna? – was feigning preoccupation with her over-manicured fingernails. Perhaps he’d gone too far. Only the alien met his gaze, choosing to roll his eye in a ‘you just can’t get the staff these days, can you’ kind of way. Braun decided that support was support, no matter what direction it came from.

“Sir,” Maroon volunteered, “I think something other than our guest came out of that alien escape pod.”

Everyone at the table looked shocked. Except Cardinal, who was already donning his ‘I told you so’ face and glaring at Zanac. The alien gasped and shrugged his innocence.

The news was troubling. Braun had left two security guards stationed to watch over the capsule and it didn’t bode well for them. News rarely did. But he didn’t want to go accusing their guest prematurely. Especially not after they’d established that they shared this understanding of the difficulties of command.

“I’ll be the judge of that, Maroon. Your job is to report, not to speculate.” He swallowed, sensing a particularly thick crust on the slice of humble pie he was about to eat. “I, ah, think I’d better come see for myself.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

Braun flicked off the desk comm and declared, “We’re on our way.”

Then thought, Damn it! He’d meant to do that the other way around.

“Everyone, with me,” he ordered and headed for the door. He hoped his minor gaffe would be overlooked in the collective rush from the room.

***

The cameras were watching as it dragged itself from the capsule – but the guards were not. They were facing away, watching the hangar door, as it dropped quietly to the floor.

With predatory patience, it slinked and slithered its way towards them.

Neither of the men moved. Neither man turned his head. Their orders were to guard the capsule and that was what they were doing, alert and ready to prevent anyone from approaching the craft. Completely oblivious to the possibility of anything approaching from its interior.

Perfect.

Extending a digit, it played a quick game of eenie-meanie minie-mo and selected the one on the right as its first target.

Still, the men faced resolutely forwards.

Slowly, it moved up behind the unsuspecting victim’s back.

Raising its ‘body’ upright, it stood as tall as the man. Aware of the camera in the corner panning around to aim its lens in this direction, it paused, awaiting the command. The two guards really were clueless and the camera, although watching the scene, hadn’t triggered any alarms.

It had bags of time to make a quick gesture before it struck.

***

“Freeze that. Right there!”

They had made it to the Command Centre in double-quick time, helped immensely by the fact that it was pretty much next door. But since the relativistic effect had shortened everyone’s legs, even short-distance sprints were harder work than they really needed to be. Braun had had to tell the alien, Zanac, to slow up so that he didn’t get too far ahead. It wouldn’t have done to have the alien guest arrive first. Cardinal was keeping an eye on Zanac as they gathered in front of the main screen and Maroon brought the security camera footage up for all of them to see.

“I wonder,” said the alien, “why you didn’t just have the footage piped through to the conference room…?”

Braun glowered. “Screen resolution wouldn’t have been up to it.” Which was, he had to congratulate himself, a quick-thinking reply to cover for ‘why the hell didn’t I think of that?’ – and ‘where the hell was my quick thinking then?’ He gave all that a hearty shove to the back of his mind and focused on the screen.

Tommy Verdigris stepped forwards and narrowed his eyes at the paused image. “What is that?”

“I don’t know, mate,” said Cardinal. “Looks like some sort of cybernetic snake with – with some sort of hand-like appendage for a head.”

“Like an arm?” suggested Henna.

From over at her console, Sandy Beige screamed. She had already screamed when she’d thought it was a snake.

The creature’s movements were somewhat like a snake’s, but somewhat like a caterpillar’s. Moving across the floor of the hangar, it had alternately stretched out straight then bent at what – in Henna’s arm analogy – could be thought of as its elbow. It was also stealthy and struck like silver lightning. Lightning that, admittedly, had time to pause and raise two of its finger-like digits and waggle them in the air behind the security guard’s head before cruelly striking him down.

It was this peculiar shot that was currently frozen on the screen.

Directly after that moment, it clenched its head into a fist-like shape and clubbed the man down. The other guard turned and, although there was no sound on the recording, appeared to get out the obligatory, “What the – !” before the creature turned and throttled him. The unfortunate fellow thrashed about with the creature fastened onto his collar like a large steel necktie determined to tighten itself. Braun had no wish to rewatch the rest and that, along with plain curiosity, was why he’d chosen to stop the second playback on the strange moment before the attack.

“Listen, can we not let our imaginations get carried away here,” Braun appealed to his crew. He pointed at the thing in the picture. “I’m more concerned with what it’s doing.”

“It looks like it makes rabbit-ears behind that guard’s head before it knocks him out,” observed Zanac with an air of scientific detachment. That or he was fighting the urge to laugh. That was the trouble with impenetrable alien visages, facial expressions were so hard to interpret. The eyepatch didn’t help either.

In any case, that was enough for Braun. Shared understandings be damned, the idea that the alien could be mocking them as well as perhaps having smuggled some kind of intrusion device into the base – well, that took the biscuit. In fact, if they only found it with its ‘hand’ in the cookie jar, they could count themselves lucky. But he wasn’t going to take chances.

“Right, Tommy, you’re in charge here. Cardinal, you’re coming with me. I want that thing hunted down and dealt with. We’ll capture it if we can but eliminate it if we have to. Henna, take our guest here to the Medical Bay.”

“Eh?” said the alien, glancing about. “I’m fine.” He rubbed his thighs. “No more pins and needles from being cooped up in that pod even.”

Braun drew his sidearm. “I don’t care. I want you in isolation. And I want you scanned. We have to make sure you haven’t brought anything else with you.”

“Excuse me? I don’t know what that thing is” – Zanac pointed at the silvery creature – “but it’s not mine. The monster aliens must have slipped it in there.”

“Well, it won’t do any harm to get you checked out.”

“But – I’m the alien here! If anyone should be doing the probing – ”

“I didn’t mention any probing,” said Braun, wondering where the alien had gotten that from. Maybe the monster aliens had done terrible things to him before he had escaped. Maybe this Zanac was telling the truth. But right now, it looked as though he had brought something unwanted into the base. Braun wasn’t in the mood for taking chances. “I’m not talking about a full cavity search, but I insist you submit to a scan.” He put his thumb to his weapon’s trigger. “Now do you want to go quietly – or more quietly?”

To Be Continued…

MOONJACK! Act Two

Act Two

You don’t think the cloak is a bit much?” queried Ferret, wishing they’d had the foresight to install a mirror in the launch bay.

Knucks came around in front of him. “Will you stop blathering on about how you look? I swear, one question about how big your butt looks and I will deck you.”

You need me. For the plan. And a bruise will spoil my carefully prepared alien visage.”

I’ll give you a nice black eye under that patch of yours. Now, shut your moaning. You’ll do fine.”

He sauntered over to the escape capsule and reached up inside his jacket sleeve. He started wriggling about a bit, the way a woman did when trying to that trick of taking off her bra without removing her outer clothing. Ferret glanced away: he never liked to watch that bit. Instead, he focused on adjusting his cloak once more for good luck.

The comms chose that moment to ping. A voice like a troll gargling pebbles came through on speaker. “We’re in position now.”

Knucks tutted and rolled eyes at the ceiling. “We’re in position now, what?”

Sir.” The voice’s owner accompanied his respect with a resentful growl.

Maintain position until we’re ready to launch.”

Aye. Sir.”

The channel blipped off.

Ferret shook his head and whispered, “I don’t know why we had to work with those guys.”

What’re you whispering for? They can’t hear you and anyway don’t be such a pansy.” Knucks gave him a look of withering disapproval. Ferret shrugged an apology. He couldn’t help being nervous around them. They were stupid, but they were much bigger than him. The same might be said of trucks and Ferret would just as equally give them a wide berth if he saw one coming at him. “I’m not especially happy working with them either. But they were cheap, they look the part and we don’t need them for the brains part of this operation.”

If you say so.”

Luckily, I do. Now, shut your moaning and go get em, Ferret. These people won’t know what hit em.”

Ferret finally left his cloak alone. “All right. I’m set. Is everything in place?”

Not quite.” There was a pop, an electronic hum and a hiss, all coinciding fairly closely. Ferret looked over to see the cockpit open and Knucks reaching inside with his right arm, tucking a device down inside the capsule like he was putting a baby to bed. He turned his head to favour Ferret with an evil wink. “Don’t forget to take this with you. I wouldn’t want you going unarmed.”

***

Ferret stood at the head of the table. Or what he liked to consider the head of the table, since they’d been awkward and made it circular. He felt like he was addressing a room full of kids, the way the Moonbase officers looked lost in their oversized chairs and were all desperately trying to sit up further and further in order to see over the table. Ferret decided to take a seat himself in case that helped mitigate the impression any. It didn’t.

“Well now,” he said, adopting the patronising tone he reserved for all children and people who were smaller than him. “The good news is that we, the Guardians of Earth, have been doing more than just look after the place for you. We’ve managed to clean it up a bit too.”

“Clean it up from what?” Commander Braun leaned forward, propped up on his elbows in a manner that suggested his bottom wasn’t touching his chair.

“That’s where the bad news comes in. There’s no delicate way to put this, but basically some time after the Moon was ripped out of orbit, the Earth suffered a massive global catastrophe.”

Henna Rousseau lowered her head, nearly disappearing altogether below the table’s edge. She looked up again. “Tidal effects, of course. Without the Moon’s influence, the seas – ”

“Oh no no, nothing like that. Ha. We wish. No. Nuclear holocaust.”

“What?! Oh my god!” Shocked glances quickly passed around the room with the speed of a ticking package in a game of pass the parcel.

“Sorry,” said Ferret. “I said there was no delicate way to put it. Don’t shoot the messenger, okay?” He raised his hands and smiled. “Anyway, long story short, the entire world population was wiped out. Except for the ones who were horribly mutated. Most of whom wandered into the radioactive wilderness in search of animals to breed with and repopulate the Earth.”

“Ugh! That’s revolting!” said Henna, her features attempting to curl in disgust but never quite finding the flexibility.

“Oh it’s okay, they never got very far. A lot of the wilder animals had mutated into monsters and were entirely disagreeable to any, er, romantic overtures made by the human mutants.”

“So what happened to these people?” said the Italian-looking one in the green blazer. Verdigrease, as Ferret had come to think of him since the Commander had made the introductions.

“They got eaten. And the animals soon got a taste for cooked meals so they started going after the humans who hadn’t propositioned them. And that was pretty much it for the humans.”

Horrified looks were fixed on every face. Henna was doing a brilliant impersonation of Munch’s The Scream. “So the Earth is populated by monsters?” asked Braun.

“No, no. Like I said, we’ve cleaned the place up. Global decontamination and we rounded up all the monsters and put them in a sort of interstellar ark and launched them off into space. It seemed the most humane solution.”

“Wait a minute, cobber,” put in Cardinal. “So where the hell did your lot come into this?”

“Ah well, you see, as well as those who were horribly mutated, there were those of us who were beautifully mutated.” He spread his palms, allowing them to get a good look at himself.

“Do I look like a Matilda to you?”

“No.”

“Then don’t bloody waltz with me.” Apparently the man suffered with some sort of nationality-related insecurities that meant he had to reassert his Australianness at every available opportunity. Whatever his affliction, he wasn’t happy. “That’s a crock of koala dung and you know it. Strewth, that kind of mutation happens over thousands of years. And you’re saying humans evolve swan-heads on top of their heads? I’m not buying that for a minute.”

“I’m not human. I’m a meta-human. We’ve evolved into an entirely different species.”

“Well, you weren’t wrong when you said there was bad news. It’s horrific to think what the Earth has been through while we’ve been roaming through space.”

“I know. And that’s not the half of it.” Ferret leaned forward, pursing his lips as he prepared to drop the biggest bombshell. “You see, the awkward thing is, the monsters have come back. Naturally, our people would love to see you installed back on Earth where you rightfully belong. But I’m afraid there’s going to be some stiff competition.”

“What? From the monsters? But – ”

“Who do you imagine owns that battlecruiser out there…?” said Ferret and he let the full import sink in. They all looked ready to slide out of sight under the table.

The comm buzzed. “Commander!”

“Maroon, what is it?”

“There’s something you should see.”

MOONJACK! End Of Act One

Mr Ferret didn’t like to admit it, but for the moment it seemed that Mr Knucks had been right. The modest gathering of Moonbase personnel appeared to be treating this like an encounter of the authentic kind. Two or three of them were certainly pointing staple guns at him like he was a real alien, not to be trusted. At least he wouldn’t have to open with the ‘take me to your leader’ cliche since one of the men was standing forward of the group, striking a suitably leaderish heroic pose – with a ‘heroine’ attached to one of his arms in a pose designed to set the feminist cause back several hundred years.

Their commander – or captain or whatever he called himself – sighed, as though tired of hearing the same question from every alien visitor who graced his moonbase. “It’s some kind of relativistic effect,” he said shortly. “It’s not important. I’m Commander Braun of Moonbase Kappa. We’ve granted you the sanctuary you asked for. Now perhaps you’d extend us the courtesy of telling us who you are and your purpose here?”

The (little) man struck Ferret as rather rude and abrasive. It was probably a height thing. Relativistic effect or otherwise, the man very likely felt some need to compensate.

He glanced at the other fellows still aiming their staple guns. The devices did feature a row of lights down the facing edge and thumbs were poised over what might have been firing buttons – so there was a strong chance that these were in fact actual weapons, rather than items drawn hastily from the stationery cupboard.

Ferret supposed it was time to clarify his lack of hostile intentions. He’d had a speech rehearsed, but the unexpected height difference had completely thrown him. “Oh, I forgot to say, I come in peace. Sorry, I should have opened with that. I guess I’m just a bit stressed, you know. It’s very stressful having big alien battlecruisers chasing after you. Easy to forget things. But I do. Come in peace, I mean. You wouldn’t believe how peaceful the peace is that I come in. Totally peaceful.”

Ferret was under instructions from Knucks to oversell it, enough to lay the foundations for later suspicions. That was how he’d put it. He’d probably been at the crosswords again, improving his vocab. He worked on that almost as much as he worked out. More, in fact, since his arms could do most of the exercising while he put his feet up and read the newspaper. Although turning the page was sometimes challenging, sans hands. But it was important, Knucks had emphasised, not to over-oversell it, and that was a difficult balance to strike. And to be honest that was stressing him out a lot more than the large alien battlecruiser that had been pursuing him. Fairly obviously, since that was fake. Well, the battlecruiser was real, but the chase was put on and –

Ferret could feel the situation getting away from him. Focus, he commanded himself. The station commander was looking at him expectantly as if he had asked another question.

“I asked you a question,” said the Commander.

“Oh, sorry. Did you? Sorry, I was miles away. Stress, like I said. What can I do for you?”

“Well, I think it’s more a case of what the people of Moonbase Kappa can do for you.” The Commander smiled like he might if he was humouring a small child. Which, Ferret thought, was a bit rich coming from someone who was only knee-high. (Although he’d have been nearly crotch-high if it wasn’t for these OTT platforms. Be thankful for small mercies, Ferret told himself. That sort of eye level could have led to a lot of awkwardness.) “Like I said, you’ve come to us seeking sanctuary. We’ll do what we can, but you need to tell us about your enemies. What sort of capabilities does that ship possess? You called it an alien battlecruiser, so I’m assuming they’re not the same race as you.”

“Oh, no. Certainly not,” Ferret assured him.

Although they could have been, just as easily if Knucks had been willing to wear the same ridiculous get-up. Warring races were better, he’d insisted, more readily believable than warring factions of the same race. Yes, of course, Ferret had replied with more sarcasm than could be conveyed in written form. Knucks valued his street cred far too much to be seen dead in this garb. No, that treat had to be reserved for Ferret. “You’re ideally suited, trust me. Perfect. You’re svelte,” Knucks had said – and the flattery did help somewhat. “They’ll more likely buy the idea of big bad-ass aliens hunting down a svelte one than the other way round. And then, later on, when they find out different, that’ll make sense in a subverting their expectations kind of way.”

“If you say so,” was the only answer Ferret had been able to give to that. He’d had to resort to that phrase rather a lot through the whole sorry preparation phase. He didn’t know why they couldn’t have just gone and robbed a bank like normal criminals. He didn’t mind wearing stockings, on his head or anywhere else for that matter.

“I’ll be happy to clue you in on what I know,” he told the Commander now, “but perhaps we could go somewhere we could all sit down and talk about things. My legs are killing me.”

He rubbed his thighs to illustrate the point. An escape pod with a little more leg room would have been nice.

“There’s a conference room,” said the Commander. “This way – ”

He gestured towards the door but before Ferret had moved, one of the other officers held up his gun in an even more threatening manner than previously. “Wait right there, cobber. Commander, do we really want to let this thing further into the base?”

Ferret blinked, trying to decide whether to take more offence at being called ‘thing’ or ‘cobber’. “You have nothing to fear from me. I come in peace, as I’m sure I mentioned. And rest assured, as long as your defensive screens are active, the Moonbase will be safe from any punitive action they” – he pointed aloft – “might care to take against you for harbouring me.”

“If you say so, cobber,” said the obnoxious one.

“Now, Alan, this alien – ” The Commander broke off. “Excuse me, what’s your name?”

“Zanac.”

“Right. Zanac here is our guest,” he pointed out to Alan, “and we have an opportunity here to show him – him?” Ferret nodded. “To show him human hospitality.”

“You’re humans?” put in Ferret, making a show of uncontained excitement. He even went so far as to clap his hands. “How wonderful. It really is a small world.”

“What is?” said Alan snarkily. Ferret was beginning to dislike him intensely.

“It’s an expression,” he said. It was incredibly easy to look down on the fellow, what with the platforms and him being a midget. “An Earth expression.”

“Earth?” queried the woman, her bosom heaving at the mere mention of the name. “What do you know about Earth.”

Ferret allowed his best enigmatic smile to play across his face. He wrapped it in a condundrum and laced it with mystery. “We are the Guardians of Earth. We have been waiting for this day for millennia.”

“Millennia?” said the suave-looking dark-haired one who’d been silent until now. Even in the uniform, he looked like he might own a trattoria somewhere.

“I’m exaggerating a bit. For effect. But for ages anyway. But essentially we’ve been watching over the Earth ready for the day when humans return to reclaim their rightful home.”

“Sounds like a crock to me, Commander.”

“Does he really have to be here?” asked Ferret, wanting to inquire if the Australian was the base cultural officer.

“Alan, I think we can save our reservations for the conference room. Right now, we need to hear the full story. Tell us more, Zanac.”

“Well,” began Ferret, moving past the Commander to the door. “There’s good news and there’s bad.”

[End Of Act One]

[To Be Continued…]

MOONJACK! Act One – Part 2

Commander Braun came to his decision.

“All right,” he sighed. “We have tractor beams of our own. Bring them in and set them down on launch pad ten. But don’t tell them what we’re doing. We don’t want the hostiles intercepting the signal and finding out what we’re up to before we’re done.”

“Aye, sir,” said Maroon, fingers at the ready on both the defence screen and tractor beam controls.

“Then I want all power back to the defence screens as soon as they’re through.”

“Aye, sir!”

“All available power,” Braun added. Then hurried to the weapons rack to grab a sidearm that looked like a staple gun with coloured lights down the front. Ultimately, even when doing the right thing, it was best to be armed, just in case. “Henna, Verdigris, Cardinal, with me. And, ah, we’d best have a couple of security guards. You and you.”

He pointed to the two men in purple-sleeved uniforms manning the doorway. Then he was charging out into the corridor. His small party of chosen personnel trailed after him. Enough of a squad to make him feel safe, but not so many that he’d look to any of the crew like he was secretly bricking it about what might be waiting for them.

***

This will never work.”

Course it will. Trust me.”

Hmm,” said Mr Ferret. “I already did. That’s what got me into this ridiculous get-up.” He flapped his over-voluminous sleeves. “I feel like a right charlie.”

Knucks stood back to admire the costume. “Relax. You look more like a wally.”

That’s not helpful.” Ferret narrowed his good eye so tightly he broke a sweat. Having a patch over one eye meant you had to put twice the effort into a lot of your facial expressions. “I’m supposed to look like an alien.”

His partner in crime fixed him with a an expression that was not so much deadpan as eye-level grill. “Quit your whining, will you? I’ve done my research.” He smiled the disarming smile that always put Ferret more on his guard. “These people have been out of circulation for so long, they don’t have a clue about the real universe. These people wouldn’t know an alien if it came up to them and slapped them in the face with a hitherto unheard-of appendage.”

Hitherto? You’ve been at the crosswords again, haven’t you?” remarked Ferret. Knucks was always trying to improve his vocab and break free from the stereotype suggested by what he liked to call his thuggish good looks.

Wiki, as it happens. But not for verbiage. Ordinarily I’d prefer to case the objective in situ, but it’s just not doable when the situ is constantly on the move. Luckily for us, there’s a lot of information on this moon if you know where to look.”

Ferret gave a demi-frown. “This moon? I thought it was the Moon.”

Knucks was concentrating, kneeling beside the escape capsule and carefully applying the adhesive stencil. “Nah. It’s a replica. It’s a long story, I won’t bore you with the details. All you need to know is it was blown out of orbit centuries ago and has been meandering about the cosmos in its own little hyperstitial vortex ever since. Pass me the silver will you?”

At one end of the launch bay there was a workbench, its surface cluttered with tools and a number of spray cans. Ferret shuffled over and grabbed the silver. He considered tossing it to his colleague, but decided instead to walk over and plonk it in his hand. He needed the practice moving around in this outfit.

Thanks.” Knucks gave the can a hearty rattle. “Anyway, the interface between our universe and the hyperstitial vortex along which they’re hurtling generates a warped reality. A Reality Suspension Infarction, it’s called. Or Vorpal Tunnel Syndrome.”

Vorpal?” Ferret sensed an impending science bit and frowned in readiness. Knucks was no boffin, but further to his self-improvement efforts he enjoyed baffling his fellow criminals with his newfound knowledge whenever the opportunity arose. Despite the feeling he was likely to regret it, Ferret asked, “How does that work?”

The spray can issued a prolonged hiss as Knucks blasted the stencil with silver. When he was done, he stood and checked his jacket to make sure no paint had dared speckle the leather. “Frankly, I’m not a hundred percent sure.” Ferret placed a ‘phew’ on standby. But Knucks was far from done. “The explosion that blew their moon out of orbit, it opened up some kind of rift between our universe and hyperstitial space. So their moon travels along that tear, where the normal laws of physics – a bit like you after a couple of sherry spritzers – don’t function too well.”

Ha ha.” It wasn’t Ferret’s fault he couldn’t hold his drink. It was his slight frame. “It all sounds a tad far-fetched.”

Knucks laughed. “That’s the point. Warped reality, laws of physics suspended. It’s bound to stretch credibility, right? I expect it’s how there are even people still alive on that base. Remember, they were blown out of orbit centuries ago, like I said. They should have all snuffed it long before now. Some sort of weird relativistic effect going on, I shouldn’t wonder.”

That made some kind of sense, at least. Ferret was struck by another sudden concern though: that these same relativistic effects didn’t assault his complexion with a lot of wrinkles. Temporal anomalies were dangerous things and there were scant few creams capable of combatting their effects.

Anyway,” Knucks reassured – and winded him slightly – with a hefty pat on the back, “situations are like women. You don’t need to know how they work to take advantage of them. All you have to do is show up and do your thing.”

Ferret fidgeted in his outfit. It was hanging far too loosely on his shoulders and now the tall collar had been thrown out of alignment by Knucks’ reassurance. “Huh. My thing might not be at full effectiveness in this stupid fancy dress.”

It’s very you.” Knucks cracked a grin. “But listen, because of the RSI these people will only have met bizarre aliens. The more bizarre-o the better. But it could’ve been worse. We could’ve furnished you with some of those hitherto unheard-of appendages.

I suppose.” Ferret turned away from Knucks. They had taken care to make him still look humanoid, as the surest means of winning their trust. And the more they trusted him, the more deeply they would feel the betrayal and the more they would trust the cavalry when they came to the rescue. And so on. “Well, at least you can do me up at the back.”

Sure.”

***

“I don’t like this, Commander,” said Cardinal. “It stinks. It stinks like a roo’s dunny.”

Braun duly noted Cardinal’s opinion. Whereas Tommy Verdigris claimed Italian ancestry while actually being about as Italian as a pork pie, Alan ‘Crocodile’ Cardinal would have worn a bush hat strung with corks if uniform regulations permitted. The stereotypical notion of Australians painted them all as descended from exiled convicts, and Braun could never help thinking that if they were all like Cardinal he’d have shipped them to the other side of the world too. Even so, the man had a point on this occasion and tensions were high as the team waited in the hangar.

Launch pad ten had already descended, bringing the alien vessel with it, by the time they had arrived. Once the docking bay had re-pressurised they had all filed in to stand before the craft. The craft, for its part, sat there on the deck not doing anything except amping up the suspense.

Braun had to hope they hadn’t just brought a Trojan horse into the base.

It didn’t look like a horse. In terms of resembling anything Terran it wasn’t remotely equine. It wasn’t even porcine, bovine or piscine, despite what he had thought earlier about its comparative minnowness next to the shark-like warship. It was, unexcitingly, wedge-shaped, like an arrowhead. Bronze-hulled, with a single black visor cut across the facing slope and a string of silver lettering along the side. From certain angles it looked like it said ESCAPE POD, but that was almost certainly an optical illusion generated by the alien font the stenciller had chosen.

Finally, the ship appeared to notice it had an audience. It hissed at them.

Braun and his men tensed. Tommy and the security guards levelled their weapons. Cardinal planted his hands on his hips in an effort to look butch. Henna grasped Braun’s arm and nestled against him. Gently he guided her around to the other side where she was less likely to spoil his aim.

The ‘pod’ hissed again and popped its visor. Light and misty vapour spilled from the interior. It looked cramped, perhaps enough room in there for Braun, Henna and two others. Which was not a picture Braun wanted to think about, unless the other two were Sandy Beige maybe and Holly Saffron from Maintenance. But actually, he thought with a sidelong glance, he’d better not retain that image for long if he wanted to avoid incurring his medical officer’s wrath.

Then it was eyes – and thoughts – front again as the ship’s occupant stepped from the illuminated fog to stand on the hull like he was walking out on stage.

It was an apposite simile. If the alien that emerged had a Terran equivalent, it was a piratical swan who had sought fame as a 1970s glam-rock star. Braun was an age looking the figure up and down because, frankly, it was a long and disturbing journey.

From the ground, up: shiny gold boots mounted on platforms that would have served just as well in a railway station; distressingly constricting silver trousers that identified the alien’s gender as male; copper-coloured blouse with silvery frills and sleeves so capacious they may have been fashioned from a pair of circus tents; a shimmery gold cloak that would have hung to floor level if not for the platforms; all topped off with a headdress of white feathers that rose in a graceful S to a swan-like head that peered down at them with beady black eyes. This avian crown seemed so real and alive, it was easy to overlook the pale, weaselly face that gazed out from beneath it. This second, surprisingly human face was lent a faintly fearsome cast by the addition of an eyepatch, but was brightened by a psychedelic combination of rouge and – around the one visible eye – eyeshadow that appeared to be asking them to reconsider all the gender-related evidence put forward by the trousers.

Even so, Braun was left wondering whether the being would speak with its heavily painted lips or by parting the swan’s bill to communicate in hisses. Then he recalled the voice they had heard via the radio communication and looked to the lower, human face for movement.

After what seemed like a deliberately timed dramatic pause, the being opened its mouth.

With a single eyebrow arched in surprise, its first words were, “How did you all get to be so tiny?”

[To Be Continued…]

MOONJACK! Title Sequence

Then it happened. He should have expected it. It happened all the time. But somehow it always managed to sneak up on him.

The scanner blanked out briefly.

Then cut in with a shot of a Fleagle hanging above the lunar surface. Retros dead, it plummeted groundward. The ship hit the dirt amid a massive explosion, coughing up fire and moondust in a great cloud.

It was a blast from the past. Braun remembered the incident all too clearly. He should do: he was subjected to the playback practically every week.

Time distortion, Professor Burgerminge said.

But if that was the case, Commander Braun wanted to know why every time, without fail, it started with the flashback to that time he’d crashed Fleagle Nine in the Sea of Senility. (Not his fault: the things were almost impossible to fly with any proficiency, the cockpits suffering from the same size differential problems as everything around here.) But the Professor had no answer for that. Smart ass didn’t know everything.

Anyway, the ‘time distortion’ – if that was what it was – would always cut immediately from the crash to a rushed sequence of images – explosions and fisticuffs mostly, or weird aliens and intense reaction shots – most of which had, to Commander Braun’s knowledge, never happened. These invariably turned out to be flash forwards, glimpses of the future and Braun perhaps should have paid closer attention to them on the off-chance he could avert some of the events from happening. This quickfire montage hurled images of another Fleagle exploding, an effeminate alien with a swan-like head emerging through a fog of dry-ice, a big black shark-like ship, a massive firefight with huge ugly trollish aliens, another Fleagle exploding – or possibly the same one from a different angle, Tommy Verdigris – his second-in-command – wrestling a one-armed giant, one or two Moonbase buildings blowing up, and a woolly elephantine creature in oversized sunglasses driving one of the Moonbase buggies at high speed through an explosive barrage. None of which Braun was especially anxious to see come to pass.

But the sequence also included a flash of him full-on snogging Henna Russeau the medical officer and he had no desire to avert that. Best let destiny play its course.

Meanwhile, Braun also wondered why the time distortion had the habit of kick-starting one particular track from the station playlist. Some bombastic discofied over-dramatic theme that nobody here remembered downloading. For a time distortion that preferred to bombard them with visions of the future its musical tastes were very retro.

Act One

Commander Braun narrowed his eyes at the screen. Something was emerging through the swirling storm of lights. A black shadow, spreading like a cataract over the blue-green iris of the planet. Aftershock from the loss of Fleagle One died away, replaced by tangible menace.

Seriously, people of Moonbase! If you fail to save me, there will be terrible consequences!”

Now they were issuing threats! Braun couldn’t believe the nerve of these people. Crucially, it was becoming abundantly clear that they could back their threats up.

The black shadow was solidifying into a midnight-hulled battlecruiser. Totally alien in design, but if pressed Braun would have to admit that its hull was vaguely shark-like – and after all he had yet to encounter anything, be it ship or alien life form, that wasn’t in some respect vaguely like something from Earth. (Many of his moonbase crew were still in the habit of wheeling out tried and trusted exclamations such as, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’ and ‘It’s like nothing on earth!’. And if he had a dime for every time he’d had to correct them, well, he’d have a large coin collection that wasn’t really worth anything since the US dollar had probably been discontinued as negotiable currency long ago.) At least in this instance, the vessel’s shark-like qualities were only really recognisable when he tilted his head at a twenty-three degree angle, so that made it more alien than most. But it bristled with protuberances and protrusions so obviously designed to be interpreted as weapons by any culture that he had to assume its intentions were hostile. And it was looming larger and larger, blotting out the lights, smothering the blue-green world. Closing fast.

The frown exchange that had been passing around the command centre had given way to a brisk trade in wide-eyed stares.

“C-R-A-P!” declared Braun.

And everyone in Command Centre knew what he meant. Craft Rapidly Approaching Put-up-defences.

“All power to defensive screens!” Braun ordered.

“Aye, sir!” answered Maroon rather archaically.

Suddenly all the consoles and computer screens went dead and the command centre was consigned to darkness.

“Yes,” said Braun, doing a good job of chewing his teeth, “when I say ‘all’, I mean ‘all available’.” The lights and screens flickered back on, with a sheepish “Sorry, sir,” from Maroon. The command centre was filled with the hums of multiple terminals rebooting.

Braun clamped a hand on his face, so that he looked momentarily like he’d been attacked by one of those face-hugging creatures they’d run into some thirty years back. But rather than attempt to stick a progenitor down his throat and implant an alien embryo in his stomach, he only sought to massage away the slight stress headache he sensed developing.

Feeling only marginally better by the time the room was back to full illumination, he looked up at the main screen to find out just how much their predicament had worsened in the interim.

The monstrous warship, as well as looking more shark-like no matter which angle he looked at it, was looking much bigger.

Mayday! Mayday!” repeated the effete alien voice. “Lost your signal there for a minute, but I hope everything is okay. Because I still very much need your help!”

Whoever or whatever this was, Braun was resolved not to buy ice cream off them. And not to be tempted by anything they were selling, in fact. He stormed up to Sandy Beige’s comms console and leaned in over her, flicking the transmit switch.

“Now listen here – alien vessel.” Names were always tricky before introductions had been made. Braun was keen not to let the slightly awkward stumble undermine his authority, so he pressed on with undisguised animosity. “You fired on one of our Fleagles. You destroyed it and killed two of our crew. We are not, repeat not, under any circumstances, offering you protection.”

He considered adding, “Are you out of your tiny mind?” but given the numbers of aliens they’d met with oversized craniums the statistical probability of that being inaccurate was high. And he didn’t want inaccuracies creeping in to mess with the force of his argument.

But that wasn’t me!” protested the alien. “Take a close look at your screens. Take a really close look!”

Maroon looked to him, awaiting permission. Braun was reluctant to give the order, since zooming in would only make the large scary craft a great deal more intimidating. Morale would suffer. Still, there was the chance they were making a mistake here – they’d made a lot of them in the past, to be fair. “Very well,” he conceded. “Maroon, magnify that image.”

Maroon obeyed and the picture jumped in and in until the black of the now definitely shark-like hull filled the entire backdrop. But against that blackness, the minnow-like sliver of a much smaller craft could now be picked out. It was darting skittishly about in front of the larger ship, sometimes opening up a little distance before being pulled back as the monster bore down.

Braun half-expected the warship to open a shark-like mouth and expose a massive row of shark-like teeth. It didn’t, but occasionally some of the very weapon-like protuberances on its underside would pulse with star-like light and that would generally coincide with the little fish being sucked towards its pursuer.

“Some kind of tractor beams,” Braun theorised aloud.

“John, what shall we do? We have to help them.” Henna had appeared at his side.

Damn it, thought Braun. He already knew it was the right thing to do. He was a firm believer in morality and Henna was his external moral compass. In fact he had moral compasses up the wazoo and their needles pointed infallibly in the same direction. A small part of him always wondered why moral north so frequently landed them in the shit.

To Be Continued…

MOONJACK!

“Commander, shall we initiate Operation Exodus?” Sandy Beige stared expectantly over her shoulder at him, her wide eyes making her look like an over-caffeinated imp. It didn’t help that her chair and console were four sizes too big for her. All the control stations suffered from the same problem, but she had distinctly elfin features that completed the impression of a female who was more a product of Tolkien than the Lunar Administration Service.

“Steady on,” he told her, hoping everyone would take note. “I can see it’s a blue-green planet, but we’re going to need more data than that.”

The entire Command Centre was abuzz with excitement but Commander Braun couldn’t help thinking that some of the ejaculations were wholly premature. Even now, as he hurried towards his own station, a few too many crewmembers were gasping in ecstasy and exclaiming things like, “Oh my god!”, “Can it be?!”, “At last!” and most of all, “Earth!”

Clearly he was going to have to take charge and manage all these spiralling hopes as well as everything else. He hopped up into his chair and stretched for the mic on the PA system. He couldn’t quite reach, damn it. He shouted across the room instead. “Lieutenant Maroon. That strange light formation is obstructing our sensor scans of the planet. We’re going to have to send up a Fleagle.”

“Aye, sir!” returned Maroon, with the efficiency and emotion of a power tool. He resembled a repair man from a low-budget porn movie, his moustache and hair clinging to the belief that fashion moved in cycles and their style would come around again sooner or later. He leaned over his own panel and hit the comms switch. Braun bet the bastard was standing on his seat.

“Clear Fleagle One for launch,” ordered Maroon.

Braun beckoned discreetly to Henna Russeau, who was standing nearby. As Chief Medical Officer, she spent a lot of time standing near his command desk, but he had never once reprimanded her for being absent from her post. He welcomed her proximity, despite the dangers of that pointy bra she insisted on wearing. “Henna,” he whispered. “Would you do me a favour and crank up my chair?” He could have tried to reach under his seat and operate the lever himself but that would have involved a lot of undignified contortionism. As it was the chair squeaked conspicuously as Henna pumped the lever. But soon he was elevated to a more practical height and as well as having all the controls just about within arm’s length he had a much improved view of the main screen.

“You know,” murmured Henna under her Dettol-fresh breath, “you might consider getting that chair fixed. Or even refurbishing this place entirely. The furniture to crew size differential around here is bad for posture.” She smiled, eyes flicking to the screen. “But I suppose none of that will matter if we really have found Earth.”

“If,” he reminded her. Not her too, he thought. She wasn’t usually given to such overt displays of emotion. Of course, the excitement was understandable: they hadn’t encountered a planet of any kind in decades, let alone a blue-green one. And he wanted it to be Earth as much as any of them. But surely it was too good to be true.

And yet there it was. A heavenly disc gazing at them from among the stars. Undeniably blue, with ineffably green patches that, he fancied, would have described familiar continents as clearly as the pages of an atlas had it not been for the fluffy swirls of cloud spilled across its surface. That and the maelstrom of colours that played haphazardly around its edges like badly co-ordinated disco lights.

Reason enough for caution, if not outright suspicion. Especially when coupled with the fact that the sensors were drawing a blank.

What Braun needed was an informed scientific opinion. Or failing that, an educated guess. At some point, even assuming they could gather some data on the word and the surrounding phenomenon, he was going to have to consult Professor Burgerminge. Which was never something Braun relished, what with him being dead and all.

He shuddered. It was the ‘and all’ part that really gave him the chills. It would wait.

For now, Fleagle One shot into view on the screen, making a beeline for the planet.

Fleagles were quite simply the best. Ships. Ever. If there were ever beauty pageants for ships, Fleagles would win every time. Designed by people who understood that, unlike models, ships weren’t all about the streamlining. Oh, they could boast a smooth contour here and there, mostly at the front with their rounded bullet-shaped cockpits. And like models their midriffs were little more than skeletal frames. But onto these were bolted blocky landing pods, an interchangeable module of choice and a big cluster of rockets which, on a model, would translate as chubby limbs, a pregnant belly and a fat ass. Generally unwanted additions on a beauty queen, but on a ship – on these ships anyway – they made for the perfect marriage of streamlining and chunky engineering, perfect for a wide range of space operations and – again like models – tended to give ship-spotters and other nerdy types orgasms.

Their one drawback really was their name. But as mankind had surged forth into space the makes and models of ships multiplied exponentially and coming up with original names for them became a tougher and tougher challenge. Especially if, as was the case with many ship manufacturers, you were dead set on something in the birds of prey category. The Fleagle was an alien bird and a fearsome predator from the world of Ornithaxagoras, and the manufacturers had filled their brochures with pictures of the beast to prove it was every bit as glorious and symbolic of power and grace as the Terran eagle. But still Braun couldn’t help feeling there was something lacking.

They’d gone through a lot of Fleagles over the years and were down to their last half-dozen. The number of available modules was limited too and all they had left at their disposal were two passenger modules, one for refuse collection, the seldom-used mobile catering module and one that he had secretly had converted into a sauna, as a birthday treat for Henna. (Unfortunately within minutes of entering she had started melting and they’d had to assume the module had been invaded by some bizarre alien life form. The module was now in quarantine, awaiting the time Braun felt confident enough to authorise a hazmat team to go in there and convert it back into the laundry module it had once been. Luckily Henna had suffered only minor disfigurement and it was nothing that a little plastic surgery hadn’t been able to remedy. The plastic she’d used had left her with a degree of stiffness in her expressions, but Braun couldn’t say he’d noticed any difference.) Still, even Fleagle One’s basic sensor array should be more than capable of penetrating the strange barrier to deliver some useful readings. Although they hadn’t had a good track record with strange alien barriers in the past, it must be said. But this one didn’t appear especially substantial or formidable and he had high hopes that Fleagle One would return with a few answers at least.

Henna tensed beside him as they watched. The rise and fall of her chest was distracting, but with a superhuman effort Braun was able to train his attention on the screen.

All eyes were fixed on the same view as the ship closed in on its target. And all eyes blinked as the beam lashed out and the ship was engulfed in a ballooning ball of flame. Blinding white faded just as swiftly away to nothing and took Fleagle One with it.

“S-H-I-T!” said Braun, who was in the habit of spelling out all his expletives. He had developed a glossary of operational acronyms so he could get away with profanities without having to make donations to the Moonbase swearbox. He had to take care that the acronym was appropriate to the situation, but he was on pretty safe ground. This one was officially listed in the manual as ‘Something Happened I Take-it!’ – which fitted well, sort of, with his follow-up question. “What the hell happened?”

Nobody had an answer. Everyone had been struck dumb. A plus, in some respects, since many of the women were screamers and while it didn’t take much to set them off, it usually took a good shake or a hearty slap to shut them up. And then it all got horribly unpleasant. Shrill ear-piercing hysteria, or potential law suit whenever they did find Earth. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

Sandy, normally one of the worst screamers – which was probably why she’d been assigned as communications officer – in the event of radio failure, her voice would carry – merely piped up with an urgent, anxious tone: “Commander! We’re getting a signal!”

“Put it on speaker!”

He jumped down from his seat – forgot the extra height and cursed whoever had thought to fit the base with internal artificial gravity. Still, he did his best to roll on landing and come up all straight-faced like he’d meant to do it. Henna ran to his side to check him out but he waved her off, allowing himself a discreet wince. His knee would have welcomed her ministrations, but it would have spoiled the illusion he was desperate to maintain – i.e. that his acrobatics had been intentional. And if anyone questioned their purpose, he’d tell them it was ‘strictly need to know’.

That was one of the privileges of command. Being able to lie your way through the more embarrassing moments.

He hobbled around the desk, Henna following, and stood, looking out over the Command Centre and watching the screen. Waiting for the signal to come through.

Mayday! Mayday!” crackled a voice. It possessed a sort of ethereal, effeminate quality that was three parts strange to one part faintly seductive, like an ice-cream commercial voice-over filtered through an electronic kazoo. “I am under attack! People of Moonbase, I submit to you for protection! In the name of compassion, I demand sanctuary!”

Commander Braun frowned. He looked at Henna and she frowned. Everyone frowned and looked at each other. The Command Centre was like a facial expression marketplace, everyone trading frowns.

Unless he was missing something, this unknown visitor had blown Fleagle One out of the skies and now was asking for their help.

Bloody cheek! was Braun’s first coherent thought.

 

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

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