MOONJACK! End Of Act Four

Ninety-three eyes were glued to the main screen in the Moonbase Command Centre. Ferret arrived at this odd-numbered estimate based on the fact that he had seen at least seven of the Kappans fall in the recent battle and that he, of course, was wearing an eyepatch. Fremengor was bored and was looking around as though wondering if anyone would notice if he just strolled off back to his shuttle.

Ostrogoyles were not built for stealth, but TV had a way of commanding everyone’s attention, even though the view at the moment was of a lot of swirling dust – which, really, was little more than brown static. It was as though everyone wanted to be the first to catch a glimpse of the ship once the dust had settled. Maybe they were all dying to be the one to say, “The Fleagle has landed.”

To be fair, the undercurrent was one of fear, dread and general doom, so Ferret doubted naff punchlines were high on the agenda. Indeed, nobody was saying anything, as though, convinced that they were already dead, they had decided to stage a three-minute silence in remembrance of themselves.

Ferret considered joining Fremengor in a bid to slip away quietly, but just as the thought occurred to him the silence was broken.

“Buggies, Commander!” blurted Inca, the allegedly alien woman, and Ferret wondered if this was some grade of profanity on her planet, reserved for the direst of situations. There was a lively glint in her eyes though that was more suggestive of a light bulb – or alien equivalent – flashing on in her head.

Schoenig wheeled about and grasped her arms. “Brilliant, Inca!” He looked on the brink of embracing her, except Elena, who had been unfortunately brushed aside to facilitate the grasping, was fixing him with a warning glare. He shot glances all around the gathered faces. “All right, everyone! We’re not beaten yet! Moonbuggies can get a small team of us there in the space of a few minutes. There can’t be many of the bad guys on board that Fleagle. We can take them out!”

Ferret debated whether to point out that, clearly, they’d never met Mr Knucks. But he figured, both he and Knucks were partial to a taste of crushed hopes. Ferret liked his rare, Knucks preferred his bloody.

“You!” Schoenig jabbed Ferret in the chest with a finger. “You’re coming with us! With you as a bargaining chip, your partner will think twice about blowing up our moon!”

No, decided Ferret, they didn’t know Knucks at all. Ferret’s unfortunate predicament as a hostage might make Knucks think, yes. But, he rather suspected, not nearly as much as twice.

***

The Fleagle settled on the dirt with a soft bump, its springy suspension initially lending the impression it had landed on a trampoline. As the engines were whining down, Knucks hopped out of the co-pilot’s seat and Frodo, like a loyal puppy, followed him back into the module where , after fighting their way through the steam they found the Goyles sitting about and sweating like Frankenstein’s lesser known hot rocks research. Four big fat porous boulders.

Knucks sighed and waved some of the vapour out of his face. “Didn’t I tell you not to touch anything?” When they’d taken the Fleagle, the range of modules available amounted to one and little Frodo Verdigris had been nervous about taking this one, babbling something about a sauna conversion and melting faces. Knucks had pointed out it was either take the module or share the cockpit with four Goyles. That said, the Goyles were under strict instructions to leave everything the hell alone – not that a molten fizzog would do a Goyle much harm, but there was no sense in taking chances with his own ruggedly handsome features.

Now he heard whimpering and he looked down at his side where he could just make out puppy-boy, clutching his face in horror. “Can you shut this thing off?”

Still wearing his hands as a mask, Frodo nodded and hunted about for the control panel. This took some time, what with his vision obscured by all the steam and his fingers.

“Right,” said Knucks, keen to make up for the delay. “We’re all going to suit up and vent this bastard.”

“Ooh yes. Great idea.” Frodo parted his fingers enough to orient himself then bounded with puppyish enthusiasm towards the airlock and the suit locker. Probably much more eager to escape the steam than to get outside, but Knucks didn’t mind as long as the little bugger was motivated.

Frodo started pulling on his suit – red, with yellow boots, gloves and helmet – like a kid who’d just been told he could go to a fancy dress party as an astronaut. Like the guns the Moonbasers had been packing it was tailored to fit – basically a Large, in doll-size. Vorpal Tunnel Syndrome or no, the idea that the Kappans had all been shrinky-dinked along with selected gear and equipment stretched credibility like a Ostrogoyle’s butt in a supermodel’s panties. Knucks wasn’t about to buy either – the theory or the image. Some weird shit had happened to Moonbase Kappa, but Knucks figured, his was not to reason why, his was just to get the fuck on with the plan.

The Goyles only had to lower the visors on the space-age medieval battle armour ensembles they had going on. While Knucks just had to hit the button on his right breast pocket that activated the various seals on his leathers and unpacked the ‘helmet’ from his jacket collar. Unfolding a bit like the roof of a convertible, it soon encased his head. Soft-top and clear in front, not much protection for the bonce, but Knucks had a thick skull so that didn’t worry him any. Style and convenience, Mr Ferret had assured him when he’d first unveiled his design and Knucks had been suitably impressed. “All right, go ahead and make an outfit up for me,” he’d said, adding the very firm proviso, “only keep it masculine and if I see a speck of pink on it you’re dead.” If there was such a vehicle as a space-motorcycle, he’d’ve looked right at home on it. Course, it wasn’t quite as cool with the one empty sleeve flapping limply about, but Lefty was making good progress and would be right here with them before too long.

Meantime, down to business. When Frodo was finished suiting up, Knucks picked out one of the Goyles and jerked a thumb back towards the cockpit. “You’re manning the ship. The rest of us are out on the surface, getting everything set up.”

“Um, what are we setting up exactly?” inquired Frodo reasonably, giving his helmet comm a test run.

Knucks tapped his visor roughly in the vicinity of the side of his nose. “Well, that’s ‘need to know’. Our pals here,” he explained, gesturing at the three waiting Goyles, “will attend to the main assembly. Somewhere in the centre, lads, doesn’t have to be exact. And you and me, Frodo, we’ll plant the bombs.”

Knucks sauntered over and punched the controls for a swift depressurisation. Now that he was safely tucked away in his suit, Frodo was probably less bothered about the steam and possible facial disfigurement. Luckily Knucks’ judicious use of the word ‘bombs’ had given the munchkin’s nerves a fresh focus.

“I, uh, take it we’ll be relocating once we’re, um, finished planting?”

Knucks patted the lad’s helmeted head. He tended to think of Frodo as a lad. “Actually, we’ll stick around. Treat ourselves to a front row seat.”

“Er, is that, well, wise?”

“Relax.” Knucks cracked a grin and might have ruffled the little guy’s hair at that point. “You won’t feel a thing.”

***

Schoenig fired a brief barrage of orders around the Command Centre, then led the mad dash to the Moonbase garage. Altogether there were eight of them going, not including Ferret, who as a hostage made it plain that there was no ‘him’ in ‘team’. Commander Schoenig warned him not to try anything to derail their plans. As it was, he was leaving Fremengor under guard in the Command Centre, not as an additional bargaining chip – nobody believed a Goyle would be worth much currency ad a hostage – but because someone had pointed out that the Rear Vice War-Kahn wasn’t built for jogging let alone an all-out run for vehicles.

On the way through the base, Ferret earned a few black looks from Schoenig for slowing them up. Ferret pointed repeatedly down at his platforms, which were entirely the wrong kind of footwear for speed-dependent operations, but the Commander wasn’t buying it and he prodded Ferret to move faster. “Fine,” said Ferret, “but if I sprain an ankle, that may qualify as a Human Rights violation.”

“If you don’t shut up I’ll violate more than your rights.”

“Walter!” admonished Elena Russert, who would have looked much more schoolmarmy and disapproving if she hadn’t been fully committed to a boob-bouncing run at the time.

“I’m sorry. He just – he winds me up.” “And – and these people are trying to hijack our moon!” he reminded her.

“I know, but if we sink to their level, we’re no better than them.”

“You’d be worse,” supplied Ferret helpfully. Earning questioning looks from the two of them. “Honestly, take it from me. You’d be really really rubbish criminals.”

Neither seemed to know what to say to that, so they ran the rest of the way in silence. Soon everyone was charging into the garage, which was a dimly lit hangar with several buggies parked two abreast, bumper to bumper. They were compact little six-wheelers, with wedge-shaped prows and square backs. Four seats to a buggy. Everyone rushed to grab a pressure suit off the rack on the near wall.

“Strewth, got a problem, Commander,” observed Carver, getting himself kitted out and nodding at the rack. “Looks like we’re going to have to leave someone behind.”

Aside from the one Carver had made sure to reserve for himself, there were only seven suits. “I don’t mind staying,” Ferret volunteered. What worried him most was that the suits would make Ferret indistinguishable from anyone else Mr Knucks might choose to shoot at if he saw them coming, which he would since the outfits were strawberry red with custard-yellow helmets.

Hands on hips, Schoenig ignored Ferret’s offer and looked unhappily around the room, clearly debating which crewmember he could most do without. “Elena, I think you should – ”

“No, Walter,” she appealed. “If there’s going to be fighting, you need a doctor out there.”

“It’s all right, Commander,” Inca chipped in with a wily smile.

Suddenly there was a sound. A piercing, warbly sort of sound that throbbed in Ferret’s brain like a high-pitched migraine as rendered on an early synthesiser. Even weirder was the way he felt his eyes being sucked out of his head and drawn deep into Inca’s gaze, as though her pupils had just turned into black holes. In their darkness, all he could see was a miniature portrait of Inca – but the image rippled and blurred and transformed.

Ferret blinked and shook his head. He stuck a finger in his ear in an attempt to put an end to the warble echoing around in there.

When he opened his eyes, instead of Inca standing before him, there was a woolly bipedal elephant with spotted pink flappy ears, large Elton John glasses and a red fireman’s helmet.

“What just happened?” he asked, entirely reasonably.

***

Knucks put another bomb to bed in the lunar soil. He figured kissing these babies goodnight or reading them a bedtime story would have been going too far, so he did like he’d done with all the others and simply stood back to admire his handiwork. Like a gardener proud of his planting. Yeah, these beauties would come up a treat.

Verdigris, or Frodo, as he had submitted to being called without complaint, was dancing from foot to foot like a little kid – in a space suit – badly in need of the toilet. His constant fidgeting was spoiling the moment. “You’re a bag of nerves. Small, but definitely not fun-size.”

“I – I’m sorry. I just – don’t share your affinity with explosive devices. It’s a flaw, I know.” The little bugger’s helmet visor was steamed up and he was probably giving Knucks a filthy look from in there.

Knucks glanced around, hoping that his Goylish labourers were doing an adequate job with the assembly job. When he’d first stepped out of the Fleagle, he’d been greeted by a broad shallow crater liberally strewn with garbage tips. Treading the paths between the trash heaps, it was readily apparent this was no ordinary scrapyard or landfill site. The mounds were all comprised of radioactive waste canisters, rusty and yellow with barely legible radiation warning labels. The place was like Hobbiton meets Chernobyl.

Now, courtesy of the Goyles’ construction efforts, it had its own Eiffel Tower smack in the middle. Well, not exactly, but the device had that open-frame, cobbled together look about it. The central drive core housed in its upper reaches added a touch of industrial don’t-fuck-with-me ugliness, but it wasn’t as if there were any local inhabitants to complain about the eyesore. And if there were, well, he’d tell them that was nothing to the noise and the fact they’d be turned into individually toasted sub-atomic particles whenever this baby was fired up. Truth be told, he rather liked the aesthetic anyway – it had the look of a small broadcast tower converted into a mighty space gun – a scheme which, even in purely theoretical form, could only qualify as a good idea in Knucks’ books.

He waved over at the Goylish workers and gave them a singular thumb up.

As they were looking at each other, trying to figure out what the gesture signified, Knucks spotted the fourth Goyle emerging from the ship – and heading this way. The low gravity invested the trooper’s lumbering movements with a degree of grace, but it was like watching one of the ballet-dancing hippos in Fantasia. Assuming they ever developed a flagrantly militaristic culture.

“What’s up now?”

The Goyle landed, like a meteor on legs, thankfully not too close. “Sir, we’ve lost Rear Vice War-Kahn Fremengor’s signal.”

“Hmm,” thought Knucks aloud. He searched the horizon beyond the crater rim, principally back in the direction of the base. No ships on the way, at least – yet. Of course, he had taken the last Fleagle, but he wouldn’t put it past some surviving munchkins trying to fly the Goyle shuttle out here. “And you didn’t think to tell me that over the comm?”

It seemed an especially wasted trip since they were speaking over their helmet comms right now.

The Goyle blinked. “Rear Vice War-Kahn Fremengor always has us report bad news in person, sir.”

Oh yeah, right. So he could shoot the messenger there and then and not have to go chasing him up later. “Fair enough. Me, I’d prefer a more up to the second update. Quicker response time. As it is, I think we’re okay. But, tell you what, why don’t you get back and fire up the ship’s guns. Anything comes our way, you blast it, all right?”

The Goyle’s features arranged themselves unusually expressively, as though ‘all right’ didn’t even begin to cover it. “Be my pleasure, sir.”

Executing a quick about-turn, he launched himself into a hop, skip and jump back towards the waiting Fleagle. Any grace he demonstrated was entirely owing to the low gravity, Knucks had no doubts on that score, but he had to hand it to that particular Goyle, he was a polite one.

***

“Inca is a Pi-sonic,” explained Schoenig.

He was clearly impatient, in a hurry to get moving, so Ferret forgave him for what he assumed to be a slip of the tongue. “Psionic, you mean?” He regarded the elephant warily, thinking that if his captors hadn’t in fact drugged him while he wasn’t paying attention, then some sort of psionic influence at work was probably the next best explanation. Yes, some kind of telepathically maintained illusion, he figured. Although Inca’s choice of alien guise was evidence of drug-use on her part – or that she was mental.

“No, no,” said the elephant, shaking its – her? – woolly barrel-like body from side to side and making her trunk bounce in the process. “Everyone thinks I’m psionic but it’s all to do with soundwaves.”

“Exactly. Pi-sonic,” repeated Schoenig irritably. “She does something clever related to pi to sonic wavelengths. Transforms her physical shape at a molecular level. Now can we please get a move on?”

“And, um, are the shapes she changes into always this insane?”

“Actually… yes,” admitted the elephant. “My home planet of Sonicon was located in one of the more outlandish arms of the galaxy. You wouldn’t believe some of the alien creatures we used to get dropping by.”

Schoenig sighed and gestured at everyone else to carry on suiting up.

“But if you look beyond their strange appearances, their forms all had their practical applications,” Inca the elephant carried on, throwing in an illustrative little waggle of her trunk. “Right now I’m hoovering in a lot of air and storing it up so that I can breathe out there in the vacuum.”

Schoenig stomped over and thrust a suit and helmet into Ferret’s hands. “Right. Now that we’re done with Shape-shifting 101, put this on, or I’m driving you out there and seeing how you breathe through a fresh hole in your head.”

Ferret felt that the elephant really warranted more explanation. Much more. But Schoenig looked like he meant his threats and anyway he was keen to rejoin Mr Knucks and hopefully see their carefully laid plans reach fruition.

***

Once the airlock had cycled, the door opened and Lefty was free to trade in its rather monotonous passage along smooth corridor floors for the rugged terrain of the great outdoors. Actually, it wasn’t that great, but the pocked and pitted landscape was much more the stuff of epic journeys home.

Still no rivers to cross on this airless dirtball, but there were a few mountains to climb. Not to mention a number of crater walls.

The arm could have made its life easier by negotiating a path around these natural obstacles, but it preferred the direct route. Its information on its owner’s plans gave a high probability that he would remain in the same approximate area for some time, but plans were fluid and there were no guarantees. And if said owner decided to move again, for whatever reason, then Lefty wasn’t sure it would be up for another trek, no matter how much he felt he belonged on that shoulder.

‘As the crow flies’ and ‘as the arm crawled’ essentially amounted to the same thing, but one of the reasons the former had passed into common usage was that the latter involved a lot more hard work.

***

“Oh my God! Henna!”

After all his hard slog to get to the Med Bay, the sight of Dr Russeau stopped him in the doorway. It would have stopped him for quite some time, except the door biffed him repeatedly in the side, reminding him that it would like to slide closed. Annoyed as well as horrified, he dragged himself into the room and across to the Iso Lab door where poor Henna lay.

Sprawled, squished, crushed, mangled – this wasn’t at all how he’d imagined finding her. Worse, she looked to have been pinned in place, like a beautiful dead butterfly in a collection of one. The pin, in this case, was a dirty great hypodermic syringe. Well, probably not dirty – she was always fastidious about hygiene, was Henna. But the cleanliness of the needle didn’t enter into it, since her eyes appeared to have rolled back into her head, adding the probable insult of a massive overdose to the rest of her injuries.

“Fuck,” said Braun. “Fuck!” He bunched a fist and brought it slamming down on her chest.

It was a kind of CPR that was more for him than her.

He looked at her lips, slightly parted, no trace of breath escaping them. He could go ahead and kiss her anyway, of course. But as well as feeling bad for the thought, it also made him mad that, no, that wasn’t what he’d seen in the flashforward. Sure, it had been shown from the waist up and in terms of the event taking place legs were optional. But Henna had definitely, no way, no how, by any stretch of the imagination, been dead in that scene. There had been clear indications of a snog returned in full, with gusto and tongues.

“Damn it!”

Teeth grinding, he glanced away. And saw the Iso Lab door looming like a cliff face.

Burgerminge, he thought. That bastard. He was the one who’d first identified the flashforwards as images of the future. And that was exactly what they had turned out to be, every time. And they’d always, always come true.

Braun wanted answers. He’d beat them out of Burgerminge, if necessary. He didn’t need legs for that either.

***

Four buggies sped out from the Moonbase garage, rocking and bobbing along on their suspensions and churning up their own little dustclouds in what seemed a determined effort on the part of the vehicles to inject some added drama into what amounted to a 30mph hurtle.

Schoenig had insisted on taking at least four vehicles, to spread their numbers a bit and improve their chances. Also, Inca, now bulked out as the weird-ass elephant creature, required a buggy all to herself.

Ferret, meanwhile, was blessed with Schoenig as his chauffeur and a guy named Tony Vespucci to sit with him in the back seat and keep a gun trained on him. As well as being the spitting image of Tommy Verdigris, this man had lodged the strongest protest when Schoenig had initially proposed to leave him in charge of the Command Centre. So at the very least, Vespucci seemed a determined sort with something to prove. And as long as he was the one holding the gun, well, Ferret would deem whatever it was sufficiently proven.

Besides, he was suffering a touch of motion sickness from the joggy, bouncing progress of the buggy. Either that or he was nervous about the coming meeting with Mr Knucks. Poor Knucks probably still had no idea there were these life-sized versions of the Kappan crew going around, let alone on a mission to put a stop to him. He wasn’t going to be overjoyed to see Ferret in this kind of company. There was a chance the sight of the elephant would offer some distraction, but in his experience, Knucks was not usually fazed by anything.

Of course, all those worries could be set aside if they never actually made it to the site.

And when the laser blasts started chewing up the landscape around them, that eventuality became a distinct possibility.

***

The Fleagle was in sight when a burning spear of light stabbed at Inca’s buggy. She pulled the wheel hard right and the laser beam blew chunks of moondirt out of the low ridge to her left.

She slammed her elephant foot on the accelerator, squeezing every last drop of power out of the buggy. Break-neck speed was beyond its humble capabilities, but she might manage fractured-ulna. The bruised-coccix speed she’d been maintaining up to this point just wasn’t going to cut it when it came to evading heavy weapons fire.

A trio of shots lanced out in quick succession, violently turfing up more lunar soil either side of her vehicle. The buggy made a furious grrrrrr sound, as though frustrated at its feeble efforts to keep up anything nippier than a high-speed trundle. Inca spun the wheel this way and that, forcing the vehicle into drunken swerves.

She glanced around, searching for the others. They needed no warning from her and were already fanning out, weaving their separate courses as they continued to close on the Fleagle.

One of the buggies – thanks to the traditional shades worn by this particular elephantine species, she couldn’t tell which – rode up a rugged incline and met a stray beam. It disappeared in a flare of white – sparks, molten debris and other bits she didn’t care to think about spraying every which way. The shades spared her eyes from the glare, she’d say that for them at least.

There was no time to mourn. She just hoped it wasn’t the Commander’s buggy: she was pretty sure Tony fancied her and there was quite a lot about interspecies shapeshifter sex she was keen to try out. But there wasn’t time to think about that either. She had to focus. On her driving and her form.

Blast after blast punched hot craters in the dirt, sometimes chasing her buggy, sometimes the others. The rumbling explosions shook her vehicle and threatened to disrupt her shape. She routinely took more trouble to maintain her shape than most women, but it was even more important when you were dependent on that shape for breathing in a vacuum.

The way explosions rumbled in a vacuum was frankly annoying and an affront to a rational mind like Inca’s, but this moon travelled in some sort of physics-free zone and there was nothing anyone could do about that. The sonic shockwaves – not to mention the piercing whistle of the laser beams – were hard unscientific facts, messing with her metamorphic ability and she had to deal with them. What she needed was some alternative sound, something more pleasant, to clear her mind of the disruptive assault on her senses.

In mid-veer, she reached for the dashboard and punched a switch with a pudgy digit, activating the buggy’s radio.

Na na na, Na nanana. Na na na, na nanana…!”

Some puerile tune pumped out into space in some long-forgotten transmission, its composer probably long-since dead.

One banana, two banana, three banana, four…!”

It was a cheerfully trite sort of ditty and the lyrics struck Inca as faintly silly. But it was more than sufficiently catchy and for her purposes, it was perfect.

She even started to hum along and nod her big elephantine head in time with the music as she continued her frantic, dodge-and-weave drive through the barrage of laser fire.

***

The Fleagle was still blasting away with abandon when three Moonbase buggies rolled up from different directions, zipping about a bit before zeroing in on the centre of the crater. Where Mr Knucks, the three Goyles and Tommy Verdigris had all but completed preparations and Mr Knucks was just running through a few final checks on the recently finished structure.

As to what exactly the Goyles had assembled, Tommy couldn’t say. Transmitter? Engine? Weapon? Decorative feature? With the vehicles closing in, he couldn’t much care.

His first fear was that Commander Braun was leading the attack. But it was worse than that. The spacesuited figures in the vehicles were big. If they were Moonbase crew, then they had found some way to reverse the relativistic effects and restore themselves to full size. And if Braun discovered his part in aiding the enemy, well, he would be in for a full-size ass-kicking.

The Goyles pulled their weapons and Knucks sighed as he unslung his plasma shotgun, wondering, “Who the hell are these guys?”

Tommy settled for yelping and diving for cover in one of the garbage tips.

He tried not to think how like a frightened puppy he must have looked. Ironically, self-preservation also obliterated all realisation that he was hiding in a mound of radioactive waste – at least until he had burrowed in a couple of canisters deep. By which time, he just shrugged and thought, what the hell, he’d rather grow twelve extra fingers, an eye in his navel and a nose on each testicle than be out there in the thick of the fighting. Giants were about to do battle out there. Even if the radiation accidentally imbued him with superpowers he decided he wasn’t coming out until it was all over.

***

“Frodo! Get back here!” Knucks had seen his little helper disappear down his hastily made rabbit hole. Alice wouldn’t be going in after him without a full NBC suit. “Fine. I hope you glow a nice yellow!”

He shook his head, then picked an approaching vehicle and sent it a warm energetic greeting by shotgun. The firearm gave its usual comforting kick and the plasma bolt blew the front off the target buggy. Stopped dead, the buggy tipped forward, catapulting driver and passengers out of their seats. All three of them came flying at Knucks in a slow-motion arc through the explosion that would have filled most action movie directors with pride.

The Goyles welcomed the opportunity for a spot of skeet shooting and started blamming away at the flying bodies as by far the more interesting targets on offer. Knucks hoped they wouldn’t completely overlook the other vehicles moving up on their flanks, including the one containing what at a glance had seemed to be some sort of woolly alien elephant-thing. For his part, Knucks raised his shotgun, confident he could take out three-for-one with a close-range blast.

“Don’t shoot don’t shoot don’t shoot!” yammered one of them over the helmet comm. “It’s me!”

Ferret, damn it. Knucks couldn’t be sure which of the three was his partner in crime, but at a guess it was the one doing the most panicky flapping and flailing as he sailed through the absence of air with a distinct shortage of grace.

The real bastard thing to do would be to fire anyway and watch his partner rain down in deep-fried pieces that a popular fast food chain could sell as Ferret McNuggets. And Knucks counted himself as a real bastard.

By the time he’d thought about it though, one of the bodies had crashed into him and sent them both sprawling on the ground.

Through the man’s visor, Knucks got a snapshot of a face that was the spit of Frodo’s. Enlarged. Whatever that meant, he figured he could solve that mystery later.

After he shoved the guy off and biffed him in the gut with the butt of his shotgun. Leaving the guy to squirm and writhe satisfactorily, Knucks got to work picking himself up.

With Lefty yet to join the party, it took him a second or two longer, that was all. Aggravatingly, they were the kind of seconds that made all the difference.

***

Despite his sometimes sensitive disposition, Mr Ferret had no fear of flying but he did prefer first class with a comfy seat, plenty of leg room and complimentary cocktails. Experiencing it as a clay pigeon in low gravity was not doing his stomach any favours.

So although he belly-flopped hard into the dirt, he welcomed the ground with open arms. Less welcome was the heavy body that slammed down on top of him and low grav or no he felt compelled to roll over and tell whoever it was that he needed to lose some weight.

Unfortunately, this was interpreted as a hostile move by the other party and Ferret ended up tussling with him for a while before he ended up pinned – visor to visor with Commander Schoenig. As though Schoenig’s gritted-teeth weren’t intimidating enough, the fellow felt a need to shove his gun in Ferret’s – thankfully shielded – face.

“Hold it right there!” Schoenig growled.

“I am!” Ferret protested.

“I’m talking to the other guy!”

Ferret couldn’t tip his head back to see where Schoenig was looking. But Schoenig obliged him by standing and hauling him onto his feet, turning him around in a fairly traditional hostage hold – firm grasp on the shoulder, gun at the side of the head – to face Mr Knucks.

“Um, hello, Mr Knucks,” said Ferret.

Looking at the scene optimistically, it was a stand-off. On one side, Knucks and the three Goyles lined up with the tower in the background, as though posing for a particularly aggressive holiday snap. And arrayed against them, Commander Schoenig, three Moonbasers – including Elena Russert and the brash Aussie, Carver – on the right, Inca the elephant shambling up on the left and one hostage. Oh and not forgetting Tony Vespucci who, although currently still rolling on the ground clutching at a winded stomach, might leap into action at any moment. That or throw up. He could go either way.

Knucks was taking it all with his customary philosophical calm, but Ferret suspected he wasn’t overly happy with the situation.

“Hullo yourself, Mr Ferret. Managed to get yourself taken prisoner, I see.”

“It does look that way.”

“How they treating you?”

“Up to this point, not too badly.”

“Maybe they’d best keep you, then.”

“Now, Mr Knucks, you don’t mean that.”

“Will you two shut up! This is over! Right now!” Ferret was in no position to see, but he imagined Schoenig was spraying the inside of his visor with a lot of spittle. “Now just what the hell do you people think you are doing with my moon?!”

His gun-arm reached past Ferret and aimed the weapon squarely at Mr Knucks. You could point a Death Star at Mr Knucks and he wouldn’t blink, but despite his partner’s untroubled demeanour Ferret couldn’t help feeling that their carefully laid plans were well and truly scotched.

This was not the ending he had hoped for. And Knucks didn’t look like a man who had any great ideas up his sleeve.

[To Be Continued…]

MOONJACK! Act Four – Part 2

And so began the incredible journey of one arm seeking to be reunited with its owner. Such journeys were fraught with challenges and difficulties that even the bravest adventurers might find daunting, but the scale of the task for a lost and lonely limb can scarcely be imagined let alone captured in prose.

For the arm known affectionately to its owner as Lefty, it began with a few simple flexes of its digits, finding what purchase it could on the smooth floors as it made like a steel spider with its hand and prepared to drag the rest of its length through the maze of Moonbase corridors.

***

Elsewhere, in a scene that, to crueller imaginations, somewhat mirrored the epic endeavour of Lefty, Commander Braun was dragging his sorry carcass along similar corridors in a mode of forward movement he had dubbed ‘land-swimming’. His event was freestyle, varying between a sort of butterfly and a desperate crawl. When he attempted a backstroke it got him nowhere but on the other hand it gave him the occasional opportunity to lie there and sob for a bit while he recovered some of his energies for the next –

Damn it, he had almost thought of it as the next leg. Whatever didn’t kill you made you stronger, according to popular wisdom, but so far all his unfortunate injury had done was fill him with contempt for the word ‘leg’. He never wanted to hear the word ‘leg’ again, in any context, least of all plural. Besides which, a ‘leg’ in land-swimming terms was suggestive of a length or two of an empty pool – whereas the distance he was expecting to cover, all the way to the Med Bay, stretched ahead of him like a marathon.

But, damn it, he would make it. No matter what.

He flipped himself over onto his front and resumed his crawl. And he thought only of Henna, waiting for him in the Med Bay. And as he battled his way along, he trained his mind’s eye to start picturing her just as the flash forward had done – from the waist up.

***

Henna was deeply worried. New frown lines were already competing for prime facial real estate that was, frankly, already overcrowded. Commander Braun – John – never complained about her lines, he said they added character. Occasionally, Henna would secretly visit Professor Burgerminge to ask him to develop a better anti-character cream, but he would always tell her sadly that there was nothing he could do. Relativistic effects, he would say.

Peering warily around the deserted Med Bay, she thought of the Professor and feared for his safety. The guards had been called away to the defence of the base, but she had found the door locked when she had arrived. She assumed Zanac had secured the door after him when he had escaped, whether through some effort at deception or some compulsive disorder. So she had clambered up onto one of the medical couches and sat there, waiting for news of the battle. Any minute now, she expected the doors to swish open and a steady stream of wounded to be wheeled in on gurneys, testing her medical skills and quickfire pronunciation of complex medical terminology to the limit. Old TV broadcasts had reached the Moonbase over the years and if the dramas were anything to go by her methods were very sedate and stale by comparison, but she liked to think that with a lot of cases to handle at once she might step up her pace a bit.

John might like it, seeing her in action.

After a longish wait with no news, she started to fret and she hopped down from the couch to try to monitor the comms. The chatter and the distant sounds of battle from out in the corridor did not bode well, but still no gurneys came. It was around then, when she was worrying about her worry lines, that she thought of the Professor and it occurred to her that maybe Zanac hadn’t escaped at all. Maybe their alien ‘guest’ had tried to gain access to the iso lab.

Arming herself with a large hypo full of sedative, she crept cautiously towards the lab. She put her ear to the door. It was a heavy barrier, but she thought she could hear muffled sounds. Raised voices, perhaps? And a strange drumming?

She held the hypo firmly at the ready, then glanced around for the trolley she usually stood on to reach the keypad.

The door hissed unexpectedly open and a stampede of giants came pouring out. Knocked flat on her ass, Henna looked up a lot of skirts and flared trouser legs rushing by. Even through her dazed senses, among the boots trampling her, she recognised Zanac’s gold platforms.

Amid the multiple crushing impacts, she was aware of a piercing jab to the solar plexus and imagined that one of the giants must have been wearing stilettos. But once all the feet had charged on past, she could just about crane her neck to see the oversized hypodermic sticking in her abdomen.

As the sedative flooded into her veins, so several hundred medical terms flooded her brain, none of them remotely adequate to the task of summing up her current condition.

***

“Wait! What did I just step on?” said the woman right behind Ferret and the whole group stopped and turned. Commander Schoenig in particular didn’t look like he appreciated the delay.

“Elena!” he reminded the woman. “We have to get moving. Fast.”

Before the mad rush for the door, Schoenig had attended to a few introductions – although there were at least fifty revived crew and Ferret lost interest after the first dozen names. Ferret was being taken along as a bargaining chip and although he had tried to explain that they wouldn’t get much for him, Schoenig had insisted. Anyway, it meant that he knew the woman who was holding up proceedings as Doctor Elena Russert and the object of her fascination was immediately clear.

She was squatting to examine the not too dissimilarly named and creepily identical looking Henna Russeau, whose crushed little body was pinned to the floor by a dirty great syringe.

“She – she looks just like me, Walter.”

“Yes, Burgerminge did a great job.” Schoenig shrugged impatiently. “So?”

Ferret opened his mouth to point out what he’d thought earlier – i.e. that the attention to detail Professor Burgerminge had shown in crafting his dolls shed a great deal of light on the state of his corpsified mind. But something in the way Doctor Russert’s lip trembled – or tried to tremble, as though her features still had a lot more thawing to do – suggested she had other concerns.

“Where’s your compassion?” she demanded, big dewy tears forming in her eyes as she stared at her Commander. “Don’t tell me your heart froze too while you were in suspended animation?”

“Of course not,” said Schoenig, softening his tone and coming back to take hold of her hands. The rest of the crew let out a collective sigh, as though matters of urgency frequently had to wait on these sorts of tender moments. “But we have a base to save.”

“They’re – they’re like little us-es, Walter.” Her upper lip was just about managing a proper tremble now, but the rest of her face remained stubbornly stiff. The wrinkles looked in danger of becoming full-on cracks and Ferret’s cosmetic sensibilities would have compelled him to warn her to get a hold of her emotions before her whole face became structurally unsound. Ultimately though he didn’t care for these people, what with them being his captors and all. Mostly he just wished she’d stand up and get moving. Of all the females here, she had the legs least suited to miniskirts but Professor Burgerminge, in his madness, hadn’t thought to spare her uniform fabric. If it had been Ferret, he’d have had a few of the puppet crewmembers going around more scantily clad rather than have those past-their-best gams on display. The fact that she was squatting just made it harder on the eyes of all those present. Except, apparently, Commander Schoenig.

“Look,” said Ferret, “I know my partner would seriously mess up my face for saying this, but if you really are set on stopping him, can we get a move on?” In truth, Ferret was still hopeful an opportunity would present itself to scupper these people’s plans and make sure his and Knucks’ scheme was firmly on track.

Schoenig glowered at him, but was soon appealing to Doctor Russert. “He’s right, Elena. We have to stop these criminals. We have to prevent that explosion.”

Whether it was the gentle press of his hands on hers or the stilted dialogue, she was persuaded. Finally, she stood and smoothed down her skirt, banishing those cellulite-riddled thighs from sight.

With some things out of sight wasn’t immediately out of mind, but as they all hurried on out the room, Ferret reasoned that the Goyles ought to be in control of the Command Centre by now, so Schoenig and his friends were probably running straight into a gun battle. And, while he was never over-fond of shootouts, he trusted in the unmatched ability of some good honest violence to dispel memories of even the most shuddersome kind.

***

From the brief view of them he’d had on the assault shuttle’s screen before they’d been vaped, Fleagles had looked like pretty cool ships to Knucks. The interiors were nicely appointed too, including a comfortably padded pair of seats in the cockpit that might have served well as recliners for watching a bit of TV. So all in all it felt pretty cool to be flying in one, especially since he could sit back in the co-pilot’s seat and extract full entertainment value from the sight of the midget grappling with controls at least four times too big for him and straining to see over the console and out through the viewport.

The little blighter was doing a grand job though and Knucks got to watch the craggy and cratered lunar landscape rolling past underneath them, untroubled by threats of a crash. The four Goyles were sat in the back, out of sight. Mini-Lieuntenant Verdigris had warned them not to mess with any controls back there, as the only available module was a sauna, apparently, and had been placed in quarantine for some reason. Knucks didn’t grasp the full story and could only conclude that a lot of weird shit had happened on the Moonbase over the course of its long journey.

Regardless, they were on their way and soon this moon would be making other journeys.

Reveries had the habit of being interrupted – such was the nature of reveries and this one was no exception. The comm bleeped and a screen on the panel between the seats lit up with Fremengor’s face, although ‘lit up’ was far from the right phrase. It turned out he had good news though, so he might have been smiling.

“We have captured the Command Centre,” he reported.

***

Well done. We’re a few minutes away from the site now.”

Fremengor nodded at Knucks’ ugly features on the screen and surveyed the Command Centre with satisfaction. The scene was very like the one, post-battle, in the lounge outside the hangar, but with fewer potted plants. Smoke and debris and only the corpses of his enemies littering the ground or sprawled over control consoles. They were good devices, these Crematoratrons that Mr Knucks handed out. No having to confront your own losses, so assuming he gave the fallen Goyles no more thought – and it was a lot easier to do with them being disintegrated – the victory here looked a pretty good one. Enemy dead, everyone, Goylish mercenaries, nil.

The mini-humans had put up a stiff resistance and it had taken a lot of heavy fire to shift them. Which had led to some structural and systems damage, but if their employer wished to complain about that then Fremengor would sagely point out that this was to be expected when hiring Goyles.

“Some systems have sustained damage,” he admitted. “It’s possible that the defences around the waste disposal site have already been deactivated.” He surveyed the mess once more, noting several ruined stations that continued to spark furiously. “It may be some time before we can verify that.”

MOONJACK! Act Four

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…]

MOONJACK! End Of Act Three

Alan Cardinal fancied himself as something of an action man. Actually, if he was being totally honest, he fancied himself, period. But strewth, what was not to like? He was one of the few crewmembers who still worked out in the Moonbase gym since relativistic effects had rendered all the weights about four sizes too big. And despite muscular shrinkage in proportion with the rest of him, he could still benchpress a respectable six kilos. Many a Sheila, alien or human, allowed him to swagger up on a first encounter and place his arm around their pretty little shoulders. And those who slapped him for doing so were, he was convinced, only playing hard to get. Which he liked. So he’d usually reward them with a wink and get slapped again.

Anyway, all of this meant he was brimming with confidence as he closed in on the Defence Screen Control Room. Even the sight of the fallen guards was no deterrent. He stepped over the bodies and crept inside, of the guards, panning his gun this way and that around the darkened interior. This was one alien invader that wasn’t going to give him a slapping. Not only because he had no intention of putting the moves on it, but primarily because as soon as he saw the thing he was going to give it the full beam.

He had already set the weapon to ‘kill’ for the purpose. Blast the critter, reactivate the defence screens. Nothing could be simpler. Once it was dead, he might even throw it on a barbie.

He scanned the shadows, listening for telltale slithers.

There! A flash of silver moving between the machinery. He would have to take some care not to hit the generators. He advanced, taking aim. “I’ve got you cornered. There’s nowhere else to go. Come on out now, don’t be shy.”

He smiled to himself. Actually that wasn’t too far removed from one of his chat-up lines.

Suddenly the silver snake-thing leaped out at him and started slapping him.

Bugger.

He toppled backwards, lost hold of his gun. He heard it skittering across the floor as he grappled with the thrashing creature. It bunched its hand-like appendage into a fist-like configuration and attempted to punch him in the face. Alan held fast to its long, vigorously flexing body and laughed a brash, confident laugh. This was not really much different to wrestling crocs back home.

And if he had ever done any of that, he might have stood a chance.

***

Another blast shook through the control centre and everyone grabbed onto a console for fear of being tipped to one side of the room. It was a ridiculous response, but it was something they did at the slightest vibration. Tommy had even known crewmembers to run to the opposite side of the room, driven by some irrational urge to try to balance things out and tip the control centre in the other direction.

He decided to fall against Sandy Beige. She was securely anchored to her console and didn’t seem to mind.

Once he’d straightened himself, he clenched a fist and shook it at the main screen. The view switched from a crisped and flattened portaloo in the middle of a blackened crater to a shot of some kind of shuttle peeling away from the alien battleship and beginning a descent towards the moon’s surface. The enemy barrage continued to pound away, pulverising various facilities out on the base perimeter – mining stations, the old pig sties, tool sheds and more portaloos – none of which were currently in use, but that was besides the point. The structures were being destroyed on his watch.

“We’re not going to just sit here and take this!” he declared. “Lieutenant Maroon! Launch Fleagles Seven, Eight and Twenty Three on an intercept course!”

Maroon stared at him. “That’s all but one of our remaining Fleagles!” He reached for his comm switch. “I think we should clear that with the Commander.”

“I’m in charge here!” He blushed. The entire Command Centre crew were looking at him like he’d stamped his foot and thrown a tantrum. He hadn’t meant it to come out quite so petulantly. He endeavoured to iron out the uncomfortable silence with a calm smile. “Look, I just think that ship could be carrying hundreds of troops. We don’t want them arriving on the base, now do we?”

***

On screen Tommy watched the Fleagles soar into view, moving in on the approaching alien shuttle. The squadron of four, flying in diamond formation, was a glorious sight.

He counted them all out. And he counted them all as they blew apart in a punitive fit of enemy beams. He lost count of the bits as they rained slowly down over the lunar surface.

KADOOM.

***

Tommy kept watching long after the dust and Fleagle debris had settled. Not least because he was acutely conscious of Lieutenant Maroon’s gaze trained hotly on him.

“Oh boy,” Maroon remarked. “You are so busted.”

***

Braun led Henna along at a run, holding her hand. Shockwaves from the blasts occasionally threw them into accidental embraces, but so far none of their inadvertent tussling had led to a kiss. With everything else that had been going on, Braun was getting impatient for that little piece of foreshadowing to fall into place.

As they raced for the med bay, a comm screen on one of the support pillars lit up with Tommy’s face. “Er, Commander,” he said. Any report that began with ‘Er’ was not a good sign.

Braun pulled up sharply at the pillar and stabbed the respond button on the comm panel. “What is it, Tommy?”

“The alien vessel dispatched an attack shuttle of some kind. It’s on an approach to Pad Twelve.”

Braun and Henna traded worried glances. Still no kiss.

Focus, Braun commanded himself. “A landing party?”

“That would be my tactical assessment, yes, Commander.”

“Send Fleagles to intercept.”

Tommy paused conspicuously. “That’s a great idea, Commander. Brilliant. I’ll order the launch right away.” Again Tommy appeared oddly hesitant. Braun attributed it to stress. The man just couldn’t hack the responsibilities of command. “But, uh, if, say, they do happen to get through…?”

“Then we’ll meet them with everything we’ve got. Issue every firearm we have. Assemble all combat-trained personnel at the airlock to Pad Twelve.” Braun turned to face Henna, wondering what to tell her. “Henna, if it comes down to a fight, I need to be there with the men.”

“I’ll come with you,” she volunteered, one hand gripping his right arm.

Her touch threatened to cloud his decision. Braun wasn’t sure about taking her with him, into the thick of it. On the other hand, if he sent her off to the med bay and he snuffed it, he might never get that kiss. But no, the flash forwards always came true. It was destiny or something. Safe in the knowledge that he would get that snog, no matter what, he gave his orders with the kind of gentle firmness he hoped to get from her later.

“No. I need you standing by in the med bay. Sedate our guest if you have to.”

Henna’s lips hung slightly open, on the brink of saying something or perhaps…

“All right,” she said and set off at a run that set various parts of her jiggling.

Braun sighed, wishing he was watching her from the front. Much as he hated to admit it, her ass was no great shakes.

***

Ferret stood waiting by the corpse, averting his eyes and only occasionally sneaking glimpses between shielding fingers to see how the full-sized Moonbase crew were getting on with the revival process. He saw a lot of naked bodies and a lot of nipples standing prouder than genitalia on both genders. He also saw a lot of bald heads, mostly female.

Luckily, like any sensible human being in the cold, they didn’t hang about getting dressed. Hastily towelling themselves down, they kitted themselves out in whatever attire they found waiting for them in their equipment lockers. For the men, that meant ensembles of white tunic and trousers, with coloured sleeves and flares that, had they only been made of brass, would have filled out a trombone section admirably. For the women, crop tops and mini skirts.

The bald ones were some while overcoming their surprise at what seemed to be cryogenically-induced hair loss, but after further rummaging in their lockers they found that, in addition to their standard uniforms, purple wigs had been provided.

Ferret began to think that perhaps his swan headpiece wasn’t so unusual after all. “What’s with the dress code?”

“I had to borrow some fabric for my Cybermarionettes’ uniforms,” explained Burgerminge quietly. “The womens’ clothing seemed the most viable source.”

“And the wigs?”

“My creations needed hair. I tried a few synthetic substitutes but they just didn’t look the part.”

Ferret was moderately puzzled as to why he hadn’t considered the shimmery purple wigs adequate for his munchkins. Further discussion of Moonbase fashions had to be set aside, however, as the tall and imposing figure of Commander Schoenig came marching over. He wasn’t especially large, but his features had a carved look about them, as though his face had been borrowed from the side of Mount Rushmore and reduced to fit. Eyes staring from under a prominent brow, he glanced fervently about, eventually deciding to focus primarily on the corpse in the chair.

“Ewwwww,” he said.

Ferret ahemed. “He doesn’t like it when you call him that.”

The longer his gaze dwelt on the stiff, the more his eyes bulged and his stoney features demonstrated a certain rubbery quality as they formed a look of horror that evoked the Golden Age of silent-movie melodrama. “What the hell is that?!”

“Hello, Walt,” said the corpse.

“Burgerminge!” Schoenig’s face went through a range of rubbery fluctuations that probably added up to surprise. He turned rather violently on Ferret and grabbed him by the lapels. “What the hell did you do to him?!”

Ferret didn’t especially appreciate being pulled so close to the man’s face. Not least because, despite the cold conditions of his slumber, his breath had the exact level of minty freshness you would expect from a centuries-long sleep. “Nothing! Time did that. It’s hardly my fault if your Professor chum can’t just decompose gracefully!”

“It’s true, Walt,” confirmed Burgerminge gently.

Schoenig held onto Ferret and did some more staring, frankly looking like he still had plenty more waking up to do. He gave Ferret a vigorous shake. “Just who the hell are you anyway?!”

“I’m – I’m a Guardian,” Ferret offered weakly.

“He’s a human. That’s what the scans tell me.” Ferret groaned. As well as decomposing, most corpses had the decency to shut up.

At that point the whole room shook as another explosion rumbled through the base. Schoenig’s eyes rolled about, searching the ceiling and walls.

“And I think he has something to do with that,” supplied Burgerminge, still in aggravatingly helpful mode.

Snarl-faced, Commander Schoenig yanked Ferret in for an intimate close-up of his teeth. “What the hell is going on?!”

“I couldn’t possibly say.” Ferret tried on a winning smile. “I only just got here myself.”

***

Commander Braun knelt behind a potted plant. A rather droopy peace lily that nobody had thought to water in an age. The fact was, whoever had designed the Moonbase had furnished it with far too many launch pads and Pad Twelve – along with its associated vestibule – was rarely used. Braun would have preferred something less flimsy in the way of cover, but all the best bulkheads had been taken by his subordinates. He could have pulled rank, he supposed, but that might not have gone down too well among a crew already nervous about what might be about to come storming through the airlock door.

Braun masked his own fears fairly well, aided by the wilting leaves of the plant, and clutched his sidearm tightly, thumb over the trigger and prepared for action.

Every one of his men had a weapon trained on the airlock as the light above it turned green, signalled a completed pressurisation cycle.

Ping! BLAKOOOOOOOOM!

Amid the thunder and a rolling cloud of smoke, the airlock door blew in and sailed clear past Braun. It slammed into a couple of guards at the rear of the room, pancaking them against the wall. The first casualties.

“Fire!” yelled Braun, about a second after everyone started pumping energy beams into the smoke-filled airlock doorway. Bulky shadows forced their way through the opening, letting rip with rifles the size of cannons. The air was hot with plasma pulses as big as Braun’s forearm that packed a heftier punch. To Braun’s right a security guard flew backwards, his chest largely replaced by a sizzling hole, while to his left another man fell, with a molten glob where his head used to be.

Beams lanced furiously into the invading monsters and Braun saw one, then another crash to the floor. But the impact-tremors had barely subsided before the enormous bodies flared and vanished.

Steadily, against the hail of beams, the enemy advanced, emerging through the smokey veil and Braun realised that Tommy – who was somewhere here in the thick of things – hadn’t exaggerated their ugliness in the slightest. They were the same troll-like soldiers he had seen in the flashforwards, even more hideous in the flesh. They looked like armour-clad demons, raised on warfare and a diet of fast food.

Stepping through their front lines came another dark figure, quite different. Close-cropped military haircut, features all brute-force and stubble, one sleeve of his black leather jacket dangling empty while he wielded some sort of plasma shotgun in one hand.

Braun gasped. It was the one-armed giant he had seen in the relativistic video forecast. The one he had seen grappling with Tommy Verdigris.

From out of the thinning cloud on the other side of the room, he heard a brave battle cry. And saw Tommy leaping at the giant’s neck.

Whether it was the gun battle with the trolls or the wrestling match with the giant, Braun was conscious that the flashforwards had been decidedly sketchy about the outcome.

But right now, it didn’t look good.

[To Be Continued…]

MOONJACK! Act Three – Part 2

Tommy wasn’t about to make Maroon’s mistake. He gave the Commander the full report.

“And you’re sure it’s not something I need to see myself?” queried Braun, his face looking satisfyingly tiny in the comm screen.

Tommy sighed. “No, Commander. Trust me. They’re really abominably ugly.”

“This wouldn’t be the first time the ugly ones turned out to be the good guys and the, er, pretty alien turned out to be evil.”

“True, Commander.” Tommy didn’t need reminding. Usually Braun only found out the pretty ones were evil after he’d practiced a few lip-based docking manoeuvres with them. “But I don’t know, something about this lot’s ugliness makes me think twice.” He was on the point of suggesting the Commander head down to the medical bay and subject Zanac to the snogging test when klaxxons blared and the lights dimmed to an alarming shade of emergency red.

Another thing that would change when Tommy was Commander. Emergency lighting needed to be brighter, in his opinion, since that was just when you needed a clearer idea of what was going on.

Sandy Beige hastily scanned her instrument panel. But it was Maroon who isolated the fault. “Defence screens are down!”

“Alien vessel is moving in!” warned Sandy, getting the words out just before her voice spiralled into ultrasonic.

“What? Get on to them! Remind them they said they’d give us an hour!”

Sandy stopped her scream short and got to work, trying to hail the ship. Tommy leaned over the small comm screen, where Braun’s unhappy face still lurked. “Well, I think that settles it, Commander. The ugly ones are the bad guys. They’re the ones who stand to gain from this.”

“I can’t make that assumption. I’m sending Alan on to reactivate the defence screens. I’m trusting you, Tommy, to defend the base at all costs!”

“You are?” Tommy was momentarily overwhelmed by the great responsibility thrust upon him. Finally! he thought. “I mean, you can count on me, Commander!”

“Good. I’m taking Henna back to the medical bay. We’re going to check on the pretty one.”

A brief image flashed in Tommy’s mind of the Commander necking with the glam-rock humanoid swan-being. “Good luck, Commander.”

The comm screen blanked, leaving Tommy in charge of a fast-developing crisis.

Sandy was looking up at him. “Tommy, I have the alien ship’s response. Audio only.”

“Let’s hear it.” He tensed, preparing himself for the worst. If they acknowledged their mistake, that could bring a swift end to the crisis and that was going to leave him feeling a little bit cheated. This was his moment. Evil or no, these bastard aliens had better not let him down.

The gargly gravelled voice came through on speaker. “Moonbase, we said one auer. A-U-E-R. What, you think we all use the same units of measurement? If you’re quick you might be able to find a conversion table before we commence our attack.”

“Huh,” said Tommy. It was just the kind of answer he’d wanted, giving him every cause to celebrate. But, curiously, none of the inclination.

***

Knucks settled back in the command chair on the bridge of the Goylish War Pinnace. Rear Vice War-Kahn Fremengor kept shooting him disgruntled looks, not best pleased at having his seat taken. Ostrogoyles were wider of girth than most Goylish species and enjoyed taking all that weight off their feet as often as battle plans permitted. Knucks didn’t care. He’d paid good money to hire these grunts and he figured the least they could do was throw in a front row seat as part of the deal.

“Give em a blast or two of the main guns.”

“Any particular preference?” growled the Goyle sarcastically.

“A few missiles? A couple of zaps of the particle decelerators?” Particle decelerators were great. When applied to whole objects, they could double as a tractor beam, but they produced more exciting results when focused on a selected section of a fast-moving target. “Just aim for a few outbuildings. Nothing major. We want the base mostly intact.”

Fremengor demonstrated his worthiness of the title ‘grunt’. “So why not just send in the landing party?”

Knucks shook his head at the commander. “You’re a Goyle. What the hell do you care?” Typical he would get the only group of Goyle mercenaries to want some justification for violence. He offered a shrug. “I’m a pyromaniac. Indulge me.”

“Good enough.” He turned to his rows of weapons officers and gave the order to fire.

***

KERBLAM! BOOM! BLAMBLAM! FOOM! KERRUMBLEBAMBOOM!

No Goylish gunner was going to be satisfied with a blast or two, so the poor moon was subjected to a sustained barrage of pot shots. Rashes of explosions threw up fireballs and moondust all around the edges of the base in a pyrotechnic display that, had he been in a position to watch it all, would have even sated Knucks’ pyromania. As it was, he set the ship’s hull cameras to zoom in and record the whole show for later.

***

Despite the temporary distraction of the shockwaves, Ferret continued to stare at the opening cryochambers. The bombardment, he reasoned, would certainly be Knucks’ doing and so, in theory at least, nothing that should trouble him unduly. Hence, he was far more concerned with what might emerge from the freezers and he sincerely doubted it would turn out to be a lot of ready meals and several tubs of soft-scoop raspberry ripple.

“What have you done?” he inquired of the corpse.

“Not my doing. The revival was triggered automatically.”

“What? It’s time for your annual defrost?”

“No. This room scanned you and concluded that you were human. Confirmation of an encounter with another human is a key parameter for initiating Operation Exodus.”

“But – I’m an alien.”

“The scan says differently.”

“Oh all right. Screw it. Yes, I’m human. But I’m not here as part of any kind of Exodus.”

“The system doesn’t care why you’re here. Just that you are. The crew, you see, entered cryogenic suspension.” There was that word, ‘cryogenic’. At least there were some things Ferret could rely on amid all this insanity. “One of us had to remain behind to supervise the freezing process. And to build all the puppets. But it was fully expected that I would die and frankly I didn’t know at that stage how successful my Cybermarionettes would be. So I had to build in some automatic revival that would be triggered under certain conditions. The arrival of another human, I thought, would afford the crew their best chance of being saved.”

“Well, I do hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I think you can suspend this Operation Exodus of yours right now. There’s another operation on at the moment that takes precedence.”

“Too late. I can’t reverse the process now. You’ll have to take it up with the Commander.”

“What? That squirt, Braun?”

“No, no. I told you, my Cybermarionettes have no idea about this. To them, Operation Exodus is all about them going home. No, you’ll want to speak with Commander Schoenig. He should be stepping out of Cryochamber One any minute now.”

Ferret glanced into the other chamber, wondering how, out of that vast array of freezers, he was supposed to find Cryochamber One.

“They’re all numbered on the sides,” volunteered the corpse helpfully.

Out from under the many lifting lids, lightly frosted arms were flapping about, probing the air and striving to figure out the next vital stage in their emergence from their personal iceboxes. It was like witnessing a lot of giant frozen sausages come to life and seeking escape.

An unnerving sight, but Ferret was resolved not to be deterred. If Commander Schoening was the man to have it out with, then have it out he would. “Right. I will.”

He marched off past the corpse and along the nearest aisle, scanning the sides of the freezers and doing his best to avoid being groped by flailing arms. He was wondering why they hadn’t thought to label one of those in the front row Cryochamber One, when he found the freezer he was looking for, close to the centre. As well as the medical monitor attached to one end there appeared to be some sort of equipment locker, which prompted some curiosity as to what might be stored in there.

As if in answer, the freezer lid swung fully open and the man within levered himself into a sitting position, before hauling himself up and out. The cryogenic process had evidently resulted in some muscular atrophy and he was finding it a struggle. As he fought to stand, Ferret could see that the cold had been unkind to him in other ways too.

For some reason, he had imagined the crew all frozen fully-clothed.

“You know what,” he said, and about-turned to make his way back to the corpse. “I’ll wait till he gets dressed.”

***

Knucks paraded along the ranks of Goyles assembled on the deck of the launch bay. The ramp of the assault shuttle lay open and waiting for them. There was just one tiny detail to attend to.

Fishing in his pockets, he handed each soldier a clip-on device about the size of a cigarette pack. “Every one of you gets to wear one of these on his belt,” he instructed them. Rear Vice War-Kahn Fremengor followed behind him, his only contribution to the landing party a discontented grumble. Knucks would have put it down to indigestion, except Fremengor had already voiced his objections.

“I don’t see that these devices are really necessary,” he had growled. Enough times that, when he was done handing them out, Knucks felt that a pre-battle pep talk was in order.

Taking position in front of the squad – who made the Dirty Dozen look like cherubim and seraphim – he tucked his arm behind his back and addressed them as any biowarfare general would his assembled ranks of attack germs. “Listen up. This is going to be a doddle. Even more of a push-over than I’d anticipated, because it turns out – owing to some unexpected relativistic effect – the enemy you’re up against happen to be really diddy.” He held his hand level at about knee height. “So I don’t expect any of you to bite the beam. So the device I’ve just issued is merely a precaution. It represents the very best in personal post mortem disintegration.” That was no lie. The Crematoratron 3000, a tidy battlefield every time, the ads said. Body bags a thing of the past. They were also handy at murder scenes. “It’s of no possible danger to you as long as your fat asses are composed of living tissue, so I expect to see you wearing it at all times. Like I said, I expect zero casualties. But if any of you is stupid enough to get yourself killed, I don’t want you blocking corridors or doorways. Now, let’s mount up and ship out.”

As well as conquering the base, he was quite keen to get his other arm back.

[To Be Continued…]

MOONJACK! – Act Three

“What the hell kind of a name is Ewwwwwww?” said the corpse.

And the screen lit up, interpreting its speech in whirling vortices of colour and a lot of electric squiggles.

Ferret wondered if it was being deliberately obtuse or just trying to be funny. He guessed corpses could be forgiven for being stupid, but the fact that this one was talking implied that it wasn’t completely brain-dead. “It’s not my name. It’s a reaction.”

“I know that.” The colours on screen changed to a rather irritable red. “What do you take me for?”

“Well, if appearances are anything to go by… a corpse. Slightly emaciated.” He sniffed. “But oddly fresh… and faintly lemony.”

“That’ll be the air recycling system. I built in a freshener with a hint of citrus. I have no olfactory senses myself, but I anticipated smell would be a problem. What with me rotting in here. The atmosphere has been chemically balanced to slow the decaying process, but it’s not perfect. It works better if people remember to shut the door after them.”

“What? Oh. Okay.” Ferret turned around and pulled the door closed. Then opened it again to make sure he hadn’t locked himself in. Satisfied, he shut it again and faced the corpse.

“Have you quite done?” it said. It seemed to be scrutinising him with disapproving eye sockets – as well as looking at him at a funny angle. At least the latter could be attributed to the head tilting so far it looked ready to fall off.

“No offence, but I don’t want to be locked in here with you.”

“I can appreciate that. But try to look at it from my point of view.”

“What? Dead? I’d rather not.”

“No, I mean you have a choice as to whether you stay and enjoy my company. I don’t have any choice who wanders in and fails to answer a simple demand like ‘Identify’.”

“Oh, sorry. The name’s Fe – uh, Zanac.”

“Fe-uh-Zanac? I refer the intruder to the response I gave earlier: i.e. What the hell kind of name is that? No, really, don’t bother telling me. I can tell when someone’s prevaricating.”

“You’re pretty smart for a dead guy.”

“Of course. I was pretty smart for a living guy, back when I was alive. And now I’ve experienced more than most.”

“Like being dead, for one.”

“Not actually, you ignoramus.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m conscious, I’m aware. The transition from living state to my current state was seamless. So what I’ve experienced is a continuation of life in another form. Which, admittedly, might be what death entails, but only someone who’s snuffed it would ever know that with any certainty and, as I’m sure even an idiot like you could tell from the lengths I’ve gone to in order to preserve myself, I’m determined never to find out.”

“You’re really rather rude – whoever you are.”

“Professor Burgerminge.”

Ferret nearly choked on a laugh. “What the hell kind of name is that?”

“Oh ha ha, wise ass.”

“That’s Fe-uh-Zanac to you. Honestly I don’t have to put up with this. I’ve better things to be doing than standing here taking abuse from stiffs.” Technically the only other thing he had on his agenda was sitting around waiting for Mr Knucks to implement the next phase of the operation, but even twiddling his thumbs in the medical centre had to be better than this.

“I’m sorry,” said Burgerminge. “Being a self-aware husk tends to make one slightly irrascible. I was quite the stimulating conversationalist when I had more flesh on me. Stick around and I’ll tell you a story.”

“Hmm.” Ferret was conscious of the time, needing to be ready when Knucks did kick off the next phase. Plus, his admittedly piqued curiosity couldn’t possibly compete with the fact that he was having to fight down a faint queasiness all the time he remained in the corpse’s company. Besides, once he and Knucks had taken over the Moonbase, he could always come back, armed with some antiemetics. “No I don’t think so. I’ll take a rain check.”

“Oh, but I insist,” said the stiff. And the kaleidoscopic display on the screen turned a menacing purple.

There was a hum and a clunk of some mechanism locking into place. Ferret didn’t have to go check the door to know what had just happened.

***

Tommy Verdigris was accustomed to feeling redundant most of the time. Officially he was second-in-command, but when you had such a proactive commander it was hard not to feel like a fifth wheel a lot of the time. Like a Vice-President, you’d really only come into your own when the President snuffed it, but the Commander, although he was always playing the hero, getting himself into fixes – possessed by alien entities, molested by the pretty feminoid ones, all that sort of thing – had so far failed to croak. Tommy was younger, blessed with Mediterranean good looks and was more dashing, but the Commander did all the important dashing about.

All that failure to delegate and reckless racing off to do this and that often led to Tommy being left in charge of the Command Centre, but that was small compensation.

There was nothing to do but watch the main screen or maybe stroll around between the stations, looking over console operators’ shoulders like an invigilator at an exam. It sucked.

Really, they should appoint a King. Stage a big coronation for Braun, everyone could celebrate, there would be cake and everything. Then Tommy could be promoted to Commander. Then they could maybe introduce constitutional changes, nudging the monarchy more towards a mere figurehead, leaving the bulk of the responsibilities with the Commander.

Before Tommy’s spiralling ambitions achieved hypnotic speeds, he was interrupted by an urgent call from Sandy Beige:

“Tommy!” Tommy growled silently. Braun generally got Commander this, Commander that. All he ever got was first name. That would change when he was Commander, but for now he guessed he shouldn’t feel too irked. Sandy was cute and he reasoned that maybe under his regime he would continue to allow the good-looking girls to refer to him in any informal way they desired. The guys had better watch out though. “Incoming transmission! It’s coming from the alien ship.”

“Put in on screen.”

This was it, a chance to actually do something. Taking charge of negotiations with the enemy. While Braun worked up a sweat, chasing down some silver snake. Ha, in your face, Commander.

Tommy immediately felt punished for his thoughts by the grotesque visage that stared down from the screen. If he hadn’t known it was a video-communication from an alien, he would have mistaken it for a portrait of Dorian Grey’s more debauched elder brother. Lord only knew what sins he had committed to corrupt his picture so hideously: its bloated, flabby features seemed part warthog and part plain wart, its skin the texture of some strange composite of rubber and rotting cauliflower; the plates of armour that, thankfully, concealed its obese trollish form looked like chunks of granite hacked into roughly interlocking shapes. Tommy hoped he never roughly interlocked with the creature.

“You will hand over the fugitive,” it ordered. Its piggy eyes seemed to pan subtly left to right, as though reading from an autocue, but that could just as easily have been some hard-to-interpret alien mannerism. “He is not what he claims to be. You are in great danger. We will give you one hour, then we’re coming to get him. We will try to minimise collateral damage, but to be honest our weapons are more about destructive power than precision. But, um, rest assured the alien you have in your midst will do a lot worse. One hour. You have been warned.”

Tommy opened his mouth to speak. The screen went dead.

Tommy bunched a fist. Was that it? His one big chance to do something useful in this crisis? He realised Sandy was looking at him.

“We’d better notify the Commander,” she said.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

He leaned over and punched the internal comms switch before she could reach it.

***

Ferret stood with his arms folded and shook his head at the corpse.

“Cadaver or no, are you really that starved of attention you have to lock people in with you?” He didn’t know quite what kind of set-up the dead-but-not-really guy had established for himself here, but he imagined there was some kind of visual sensor involved that could register gestures and facial expressions.

“Well, in a word, yes. Commander Braun’s the only one who comes to visit and that’s only when he wants to be clued in on some scientific gubbins. I generally tell him ‘relativistic effect’, because the truth would be way over his head anyway.”

Ferret realised he’d been handed an opportunity to test the visual sensor capacity. “I’m not sure you’re aware, but most things would be over the entire crew’s heads.”

“You’re referring to their height, of course. Yes, they’re always grumbling about that. Ungrateful little creations. If they didn’t depend so much on me for scientific consultancy, the little buggers might have turned on me by now. Still, if you’re going to make a Frankenstein’s monster, make em small, I say.”

“What? You made them? They think they’re stunted because of – some relativistic effect.”

“Oh is that realisation dawning? Or is it still lurking below the horizon?” Gentle laughter generated pulsing yellows and oranges on the screen. “Like I said, the truth would be over their heads. It’s time I told you that story I promised…”

Ferret shrugged. “I suppose so.” It wasn’t as though he had a lot of choice until this dunce macabre decided to let him out of here. Despite himself he was curious and it was altogether possible that some of the impending revelations might have some impact on the job that Knucks perhaps would want to hear about. “Go on then.”

“With our moon doomed to meander aimlessly, perhaps for centuries, perhaps millennia, we knew we would not be able to maintain pre-disaster staffing levels indefinitely. My own hairline receded dramatically in our first year of roaming. Age was taking its toll.”

Ferret appraised the professor’s near-mummified remains. “You don’t say.”

“It was my idea to build scaled-down replicas. Mini-cyborgs. Each has a computer brain, wired into a rudimentary nervous system centred around the cerebral cortex of a pig. They’re really quite sophisticated, even though I say so myself.”

“You, um, had a lot of pigs then?”

“Absolutely. Moonbase Kappa was originally built with self-sufficiency in mind. Hydroponics and animal husbandry. Many of our secondary systems were powered by manure-fuelled generators.”

“No shit,” remarked Ferret, just because he couldn’t resist.

“Yes, shit,” said the corpse. “But since I found an alternative use for the pigs’ brains, everything’s switched over to nuclear. In the years I spent building my Cybermarionettes, I ate a lot of pork, believe me.”

“You built all of them?” Ferret had a picture of this corpse, presumably in his pre-emaciated state, slaving away like some demented Gipetto.

“Each and every one, crafted by my own loving hands. Anyway, I developed a crude elecro-stimulatory system to keep their minimal organic parts functioning for thousands of years. Which is what gave me the idea for the system you see me hooked into now.”

“Presumably it’s, um, slightly more effective on a smaller scale?”

“It’s a question of focus. My neurons are firing as sharply as they ever did. It’s only the surrounding tissue that’s, well, not as fresh.” Ferret was grateful for the hint of citrus in the air. “Anyway,” the professorial corpse went on, “that was all relatively simple. The difficult part was constructing comprehensive artificial memories for them, so that they believed in their purpose and didn’t stray from their programming and, say, take it into their heads to go off and do something more exciting. I also made them miniature handguns but obviously scaling down the entire base was out of the question. They get by though.”

“And they don’t wonder why everything’s too big for them?”

“They complain about it all the time. I tell him it’s a relativistic effect, to preserve the illusion.”

Ferret’s mind boggled. In some ways, the notion of everyone shrinking due to unspecified relativistic effects was easier to swallow. He let the boggling go on for a while, before wondering, “So what happened to all the real crew? Are they all dead?”

“Oh, far from it.”

Another hum of power announced that something possibly ominous was happening or about to happen. As Ferret watched, the whole wall behind Professor Burgerminge’s screen started to slide slowly open.

Whatever big reveal was set to occur, it looked like it was going to take some time. Ferret studied his fingernails. Finally there was a click, as the section of wall finished tucking itself away and Ferret looked up, to be treated to a panoramic view into an adjoining chamber.

It was a vast white-walled room filled with row upon row of chest freezers. Each freezer had its own medical monitor mounted at one end.

Ferret was beginning to get the picture and he suspected the next chapter of explanations would involve the word ‘cryogenic’.

He looked to Professor Burgerminge, expecting him to continue with his story. But the stiff just lay there, as though there was something more to be seen first. Ferret looked back into the refrigeration department.

One by one, the monitors began bleeping. And the lids of the freezers started to pop open.

[To Be Continued…]

Previously… on MOONJACK!

Hope everyone had a Happy Christmas and here’s to a great New Year for you all.

Alas, even Evil had to take a break for Christmas, so here we have a bit of a recap before we continue with our sci-fi adventure MOONJACK!

Pre-Titles Teaser: 1) Here. Moonbase Kappa finds Earth and is menaced by an alien craft.

Opening Titles & Beginning of Act One: 2) Here. Amid ominous flashforwards, an alien visitor seeks sanctuary.

Act One, Middle: 3) Here. Moonbase Kappa greets the strange alien visitor.

End Of Act One: 4) Here. Alien visitor Zanac brings tales of Earth since the Moon’s absence.

Act Two: 5) Here. Alien visitor Zanac also brings something else with him.

Act Two, Middle: 6) Here. The Moonbase is infiltrated by a cybernetic snake-like creature with a hand-like head.

End Of Act Two: 7) Here. Alien visitor Zanac is threatened with probing.

Next part (beginning of Act Three!) due for ‘broadcast’ early next week. Happy reading. Happy New Year!

SAF 2010

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