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…]

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