MOONJACK! Conclusion – Part 2: The End

Tommy Verdigris gazed up at the face – or what he could see of it through the visor – of the giant who looked so much like Commander Braun. It was tempting to take some satisfaction from seeing the man hang his head in defeat. So tempting, in fact, that Tommy figured, what the heck, and gave into it.

So what do you plan to do with us?” the man called Schoenig growled defiantly. His crew clustered around him like clumping kitty litter. “Keep us on to crew your damned Moonliner? Because that’s not going to happen!”

Mr Knucks smiled, smooth as mustard. “Nothing like that. No, I thought I might pack you lot off in your ships. To be honest, we didn’t really give it much thought. Minor details like that, me and Ferret tend to deal with off the cuff. Mr Ferret suggested we might pack you lot off in your ships. But that was before we knew the Moonbase crew came in two sizes.”

Schoenig flicked a glance at Tommy. It was the kind of look some people might give to their kettle or toaster if it dared to fail them outside the guarantee. “Well, you can forget the small versions. They’re only cyborg servitors. It’s us you have to deal with.”

Elena Russert squeezed her Commander’s arm. “Walter. They’re living creatures. They have feelings.”

It was an assertion that Tommy could verify with just how pissed-off he felt. Hauling himself out of the radioactive garbage tip he drew himself up to his full height. And shook a fist at the large Commander the way he’d often wanted to do at the one who was more his own size. “How about you just – fuck off? Eh? How about that for an idea? Operation Exodus! We were going to do that ourselves – when all this started.”

What?” the big Australian, who was so much like Alan Cardinal, fired off a lot of confused glances at anyone who cared to notice. “What’s Tiny Tony yammering on about?”

Russert, the upscaled Henna Russeau, crouched down in front of Tommy and regarded him with an expression designed for soft-focus. “I’m sorry. Operation Exodus is for us. To trigger our revival in the event of human contact. Unfortunately,” she eyed Messrs Knucks and Ferret dubiously, “these two qualified.” Then she was back to dewy-eyed patronising sympathy. “You were built by the Professor to keep things running in the meantime. Your memories are all implanted. Operation Exodus, the hope of returning to Earth, for you it’s all an illusion. I’m sorry.”

Tommy chose not to believe her lies. As if it wasn’t enough that these giant aliens had arrived and assumed the guise of the Moonbase crew, they had to make up outrageous stories to make the real personnel – well, Tommy – feel smaller. “Bitch,” he said.

Now, Frodo, be nice to the lady,” Mr Knucks advised. “As it happens, Frodo here makes a good point though. There’s a lovely blue-green planet out there just waiting for you.”

Where?” demanded Schoenig, searching the stars.

You can’t see it from this side,” said Ferret. “But if you feel like taking a trip back to the base you’ll see it on the scanners. High definition really brings up the blues and greens a treat.”

Tommy watched the giants trade looks, weighing their options. Whoever these imposters were, Tommy wanted them out of here. Thinking back to his first sight of that lovely blue-green planet, it was amazing to recall how excited he’d been at the prospect of an impending return to Earth. Now, all he could think about was that, assuming he played his cards right with Mr Knucks, this was finally his chance to be in charge.

Moonbase, Moonliner, it would all seem pretty much the same from the lofty position of command, wouldn’t it..?

All being well, Braun was already out of the picture, courtesy of the battle for the base. So really all that was needed was for these towering lookalikes to be on their way.

All right,” conceded Commander Schoenig, his shoulders and most of his face slumped in defeat. “We’ll take a look at this planet.”

And Tommy did a little dance in the moondust.

***

So they all trekked to the Fleagle, the Moonbasers under armed Goylish guard. Boarding the ship, they were confronted by an awkward situation involving two Goyles pointing guns at one another and accusing each other of being a metamorph. But it was all resolved easily by Knucks, who identified the imposter by the fact that one of the said Goyles was wielding a Moonbase sidearm and in any case failed to address him with a polite fashion. Poor shapeshifter chick wasn’t to know she’d doppelganged the one well-mannered Goyle in the universe.

After that, it was an uneventful flight back to the Moonbase and Inca assumed the shape of a sulking, smouldering babe with breakfast-cereal eyebrows for the duration. And Knucks would flash her the occasional charmsome grin, thinking that if this was her original shape Mr Ferret had not been wrong.

The only turn-off was the thought that she might accidentally revert to a Goyle or an elephant halfway through. And once that image leaped up at him, it just refused to let go.

Knucks wasn’t easily disturbed but the thoughts were sufficiently distracting that they were on a landing approach to the base by the time he remembered Lefty. Oh boy, he thought, his arm was going to be sore when it finally hooked up with him.

***

There were no tearful goodbyes, no waving of handkerchiefs at the launch pad. Just a lot of Moonbase personnel shuffling off in the direction of the hangar and the announcement, a few minutes later, from Fremengor that the Fleagle had departed. They watched it up on the main screen, zooming away towards the heart of the blue-green world.

“Part of me’s sorry to see them go,” admitted Knucks, flexing his newly reattached left arm awkwardly as though it was proving a little ornery. For the briefest of instances Mr Ferret worried if his friend had gone a bit soft, but then he added, “That was a cool ship. And that was the last one.”

Ah, yes, his partner did like his hardware. “Well now,” said Ferret in more chipper tone, “perhaps we can do something about that.” He surveyed the Command Centre, littered with all the quarter-pint bodies as though some space-age Snow White had cracked and gone on a shooting spree. “It occurred to me earlier that we’re going to need staff for our Moonliner and I can’t help thinking there’d be oodles of novelty appeal if we had all these diddy men and women to take care of the tourists. And maybe they could knock together a few ships. We could use them as shuttles.”

Knucks tipped his head. “Not a bad notion. The punters would love it, having lots of little people to boss about, tend to their every whim.”

“I could design new uniforms and everything.” Knucks shot him a look. Oops, thought Ferret. “Sorry, I got carried away.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” said a voice at about knee-level. Ferret and Knucks glanced down to see Tommy Verdigris flashing them an A-OK gesture and an incredibly eager grin.

“Hmm,” said Knucks. “I could do a recount, but as far as I can make out we’ve only got one of the little buggers left.”

“Yes,” nodded Tommy keenly. “Me.”

“I thought about that too,” revealed Ferret slyly. “With all his friends gone, there’s a certain Professor down in the Medical Bay who’ll have bags of time on his hands now. I think we’ll be able to persuade him to salvage his puppet people. I mean, not that he has working hands, but I’m sure he can talk a willing assistant through the repair process. Tommy here would be glad to help, I expect.”

“Well, I suppose…” Tommy appeared to have lost some of his keenness.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Knucks. “Let’s go talk to this Professor bloke.”

Ferret figured he ought to – at some point – clarify that the Professor was more of an ex-bloke, but there would be plenty of time on the way. He took one last look at the receding Fleagle, steadily shrinking to dot-like proportions against the blue-green disc of the planet.

“How long before they realise their new Earth is just a special effect?”

Knucks laughed. “Pretty soon, I reckon.”

It was a fairly safe bet. Amazing what you could do really, with a hacked data feed, a painted basketball and a cabin on board a Goylish warship converted into a green-screen studio. The image and the sensor data was all being pumped into the Moonbase systems and relayed to the Fleagle and it was remarkable how space-going types were so much more reliant on their data than the simple expedient of looking out a window. They could have called up to the Goyle ship, had someone shut off the camera and the data feed, but it was more fun to have the Fleagle fly through the phantom planet’s position and spend the next few light years wondering what the hell happened.

Contrary to popular belief, crime paid. In so many ways.

***

When Ferret had first met Professor Burgerminge, he had been in ‘a bit of a state’, it was true, but that was nothing to the mess they found him in when they took a stroll down to the Iso Lab.

The vast majority of his bones were scattered all over the floor, many splintered and broken. All but two of them, in fact, which were being wielded by the savage but pitiful creature who, from his perch on the Professor’s chair, was bashing all hell out of the shattered and fitfully sparking remains of the screen from which Burgerminge’s voice – along with accompanying multi-coloured swirls – had once emanated. Now all it could produce was an intermittent burble or drone, between sparks.

The rabid, legless thing with the bone drumsticks continued to give it a beating, grunting and growling ferociously like one of the apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Occasionally these utterances would evolve into words, spat forth in demented fury. “Did you feel that? Did you? How was that effect, relative to the last one?!”

“So, which one of these is the Professor?” wondered Knucks.

“Um, he’d be the one in bits. This other one is Commander Braun.”

At the mention of his name, Braun stopped and turned his wild eyes on the new arrivals. His gaze latched very particularly onto Ferret.

“Commander Braun,” said Ferret as affably as he thought the situation merited. Thinking it was perhaps best to divert the conversation away from whatever difference of opinion had arisen between the Commander and the Professor, Ferret decided to focus on the inescapable revelation that somewhen the man had become a midi as well as a mini. “What happened to your other half?”

“Gone.” Braun sobbed. “We were meant to kiss.”

Ferret took a moment to catch up. “I meant your legs.”

“Chin up,” said Knucks, who spoke with the experience of someone who knew something about loss of limbs, even if his was usually temporary and voluntary. “We got plans for this place. They may have to wait now until we can get ourselves another professor-type bod, but it’s only a temporary setback. Tell you what, you can be the boss guy who zips about the place in a wheelchair. Every base should have one of those.”

Suddenly, Tommy piped up behind them: “You’re putting him in charge? No!”

Ferret had completely forgotten the little guy was there. “Have a heart. The poor chap’s got no legs.”

“Yeah, relax, Frodo,” said Knucks. “You can be second-in-command.”

For some reason, that was enough to start Tommy Verdigris sobbing.

Ferret sighed and shook his head. It was like dealing with a lot of kids. One of the hazards, he supposed, of stealing candy from babies.

***

“You know, Walter,” said Elena Russert gently, snuggling up to Commander Schoenig at least in part because there wasn’t room on board the Fleagle for more any spare millimetres between them, “we could always turn the ship around and retake our base.”

“Huh,” said Schoenig and he shrugged. He really was taking defeat hard. She was going to have her work cut out for her breaking him out of this depressive funk. “No,” he declared finally. “No. There was something unique, something special about travelling around the galaxy on a rogue moon. But not when there are hundreds of moons out there doing the same.”

“But now we’re doomed to travel the universe on a ship. That’s been done.”

“Not with this much overcrowding. And not in a sauna.”

Both of those were valid points, but Elena couldn’t help feeling that – with all these bodies crammed into such a compact interior – it was doubtful that they’d see the sauna facilities put to much use. At best it would be a gimmick that distinguished them from all the other aimlessly roaming starships out there.

Walter turned his head toward her – he was so wedged in, he was a while wrestling to turn the rest if him. “It’ll be all right,” he promised her. “We’ll survive. Together.”

She leaned in, vaguely aware of the person on the other side of her revelling in the unexpected gift of some extra elbow room. Eyes turned up to meet Walter Schoenig’s gaze, she parted her lips as an open invitation.

He RSVPed with a smile and some more wriggling in an effort to slip his arms around her.

Oblivious to the fact that behind them there was only a blank expanse of bulkhead and if viewed from sufficiently close-up there would be no clear sense of scale, they kissed.

***

Carver sat back in the pilot’s seat. It was going to be a loooooooooooooooong flight.

Ordinarily he loved to show off his flying skills, but he wasn’t used to this many bods looking over his shoulder. Pulling a few aerobatics would be like giving a sardine can a good old shake. Not a great deal of movement among the contents, just a lot of bruised and unhappy fish. Of course, he wouldn’t mind if one of the nicer looking Sheilas ended up sprawled in his lap, but with the way Lady Luck had been playing lately he’d be just as likely to end up with Lieutenant Poul Marrow perched on his knee. Nice enough bloke, for an uptight pom, but still.

No, best just to keep this bird straight and steady and be grateful he was one of the few with a seat all to himself. The fifteen others crammed into the cockpit were already drawing up a time-share rota for the co-pilot’s chair so it wouldn’t be long before Tony Vespucci would be having to give up his leather-upholstered throne.

“Activate the auto pilot, would you, mate.”

Vespucci obliged, apparently glad to have something to do.

Carver looked out at the rushing stream of stars. Which was overstating it a bit. Actually they were bright dots that seemed to crawl towards them out of the blackness. Incredibly slowly.

Yeah. A loooooooooooooooooooong flight.

Reaching forward, Carver flicked on the comm screen mounted on the panel between the seats. Tapping into the computer, he figured he ought to be able to find something in the way of in-flight entertainment. But the best he could dig up was a bunch of Moonbase personnel records. Jeez. Oh well, it’d have to do.

With a bit more searching he managed to call up some music to liven it up a bit, but essentially it amounted to a lot of names scrolling down the screen.

But, heck, it was surprising how many things ended like that.

|SAF 2010

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MOONJACK! Conclusion – Part 1

“Let me break it down for you,” said Mr Knucks.

And Commander Schoenig nearly had a fit. “You are not breaking down my moon!”

“Don’t be a plank. If I’d wanted to blow this rock into smaller rocks, there’re a lot of simpler ways to do that. Allow me to explain, is what I meant.” Mr Ferret was surprised at his colleague’s willingness to lay things out for the opposition. Generally one only did that when the good guys were at one’s mercy and even then very much at one’s own risk. It was a rookie mistake that even some experienced villains imagined they could get away with. It wasn’t the sort of error Mr Knucks would make.

It occurred to Mr Ferret that Mr Knucks might be attempting to buy some time. For what, he couldn’t guess. If he was expecting Fremengor to come over the ridge with the Goylish cavalry then he – and Mr Ferret too – would be out of luck.

“There’s gonna be a real doozy of an explosion but this very handy device here,” Knucks said, gesturing at the tower, “will – a bit like you’ll have to – suck it up. Like I told my buddy, Frodo, here you’re not going to feel a thing.” For some reason, Knucks indicated the mound of radioactive trash immediately behind him. Ferret fancied he saw some of the cannisters shifting slightly, hinting of some small lunar creature burrowing around under there. But it was unlike Mr Knucks to befriend the local fauna, so he guessed it had to be one of Burgerminge’s puppet people.

It was oddly nice to think that one might have survived, after the carnage he had seen in the Command Centre. It wasn’t that Ferret objected to carnage on principle – being evil, it was a perfectly acceptable facet of the villain lifestyle – but there was something more affecting about a massacre when rendered in miniature. Ah yes, the shameful waste of it all. He thought of how neat it could have been to have a lot of little minions to do his bidding.

Mr Knucks, meanwhile, was pressing on with his lecture, swaggering over to pat one leg of the tower’s sturdy frame. “This contraption, assuming my guys have put it together properly, is an Apocalypse Capacitor. A few well-placed bombs will blow open all these cans of radioactive worms you got lying around here, but any blast – and I mean, all sizes catered for – gets stored up in here. And all that energy can then be released in a controlled fashion for any application you care to choose. Cook your chips, drive a moon, whatever.”

Schoenig and his fellow Moonbase crew stood in stunned silence. Ferret couldn’t see most of their faces, but Elena Russert looked like she’d just had sexual reproduction explained to her and that, in fact, biology had it wrong and it was all done by storks after all.

“That’s – impossible,” she managed.

“Nah. Even if it was, you’d be surprised at the un-scientific bollocks that’ll work a treat here. You’ve heard of Vorpal Tunnel Syndrome, right?” Inevitable shakes of Kappan heads all round. “Well, anyway, trust me, this baby works fine elsewhere. Regular pain in the ass too for a guy like me, in the business of blowing stuff up. Luckily they’re not in widespread use. The race that developed them, super advanced and jealously protective of all their high tech.”

“Really anal about it,” Ferret confirmed.

“So,” asked Schoenig, “how in hell did you people get a hold of something like that?”

It was a fair question, but – as Knucks illustrated with a shrug – the answer was fairly obvious to anyone untroubled by a conscience. “Stole it. Sure, it’s ultra high-tech. But this is the product of a pacifistic society. Easiest folks in the universe to steal from, I tell you.”

Either this moon was prone to mild seismic activity or righteous anger was causing Schoenig to quiver uncontrollably. Ferret hoped at least that it wasn’t their prolonged proximity getting the Commander excited. It was probably a blend of moral outrage and generally feeling gutted that, after all these centuries of aimless wandering through the galaxy someone had come along with the equivalent of a steering wheel. “It’ll never work. I’m glad I’ve put a stop to you, but it’ll never work.”

“We could drop you off home, if you like,” offered Ferret, unable to resist a perfect opportunity to tease.

“Shut it, Shiela,” snarled Carver. And he lifted his gun to point it at Mr Knucks’ head. “Just say the word, Commander.”

“Hold your fire.” He waved his own firearm at Knucks. Knucks was getting all the weaponly attention and the Goyles were in danger of feeling left out. “You seriously expect us to believe you can control a moon with this one engine?”

“This is only the drive core. We’ll be installing a network of engines across the surface for omni-directional thrust, natch.”

“Um, I do hate to be a nuisance,” said the elephant, “but whatever other explanations there are, can we hurry them along?”

Knucks shot Inca a deadpan look. “Scuse me, but as the most inexplicable thing here I think you’re going to have to exercise a little patience.”

Mr Ferret sympathised. Mr Knucks hadn’t yet been introduced. “This is Inca. She’s a shapeshifter. Actually, her proper shape is something you’d be very partial to.”

“Really?” Knucks eyed the elephant with interest tempered with incredulity.

“Yes, well,” said Inca, “if we’re not quick about this you’ll get to see my true shape just before it expires. I can only maintain my, ah, alternative forms for limited periods.”

“She has no space suit on,” supplied Ferret.

“Really?” Again, Knucks looked at the elephant. “So what’re you wearing under that lot?”

The elephant gave a hard stare, but the effort was undermined somewhat by the ridiculous spectacles.

Knucks answered with a grin infused with all his roguish charm. “Well, anyway, we wouldn’t want you snuffing out on us. You can wait in the ship if you like.”

The elephant glanced at the Fleagle, seeming to gauge the length of the walk, then nodded its big shaggy head, wagging its ears and bobbing its trunk in the process. But Commander Schoenig wasn’t having any of it.

“No, Inca, wait!” The Commander jerked his gun forward at Knucks, fingers tightening on the grip – while his other hand tightened on Mr Ferret. “He’s trying to thin out our numbers!”

“Commander, I’m sorry, but I really have to go.” And Inca the elephant was, at this point, dancing from foot to foot like she really, really had to go. Offering a shrug, she turned and headed off for the Fleagle without so much as a trump trump trump.

“But, damnit!” protested Schoenig, as though everything was being jeopardised by the need for a bathroom break rather than a matter of life or death. “We have the upper hand right now!”

“Ha!” said Knucks. “Is that what you think?”

And Ferret had a good feeling that whatever Mr Knucks was cooking up was just coming nicely to the boil.

***

Almost there. Just over the next ridge, Lefty’s owner waited for him.

Such was the special bond between a man and his arm that there was also an immediate sense that his owner was in danger and in need of his help. Being cybernetic, the arm experienced this less as instinct and more as hastily streamed data packets containing precise instructions and targeting data. Included was a Knucks-eye view of the situation, from which the relative positions of enemies could be precisely plotted on a computerised map.

All the arm had to do was calculate a few trajectories and search around for some suitably sized rocks.

Some limbs might have objected to the further delay before they could be reunited with their owner. Some limbs might have resented that, after being left to make their own way home, they were only remembered when their owner needed help. But not Lefty. Lefty just did as he was bidden and reminded himself that he was almost there.

Just a stone’s throw, in fact.

***

Donk!

Schoenig felt a hard blow to the back of the helmet and pitched forward, for a moment feeling like he was flying – until he lay sprawled, face down on the ground. Suddenly, he realised his gun hand was empty and he scrabbled around for it in the dirt.

A boot planted itself in front of his visor and Mr Knucks leaned into view, bending to pick something up from the ground just a few inches from where Schoenig had been reaching.

Schoenig misted his visor with a heavy sigh, thinking that if he frosted it some more he wouldn’t have to see that criminal smirking at him. He was sure the missile, whatever it was, had struck hard enough to dent the helmet but so far there was no sign of a puncture.

So the stuff leaking out of him right then, that had to be pride.

***

Knucks turned the weapon over in his hand. It looked like a stapler for the disco age, all silver with four coloured lights down the front. Still, he had to admit it was a pretty neat design and liked the feel of it in his hand. Much more than he’d liked it in Schoenig’s hand.

By the time he’d finished admiring the piece, further beautifully aimed rocks had thunked into other helmets and he had quite a collection of downed Moonbase personnel arrayed around him. Ferret scooted about between them, grabbing up weapons before they had time to recover. It wouldn’t have mattered too much if any did. The Goyles had the upper hand and they were flashing plenty of tusk to show just how delighted they were with the situation.

“What d’ you know,” remarked Knucks. “A freak meteor shower.” He had to hand it to Lefty. He generally thought of Righty as his good pitching arm, but he guessed that was force of habit from back when he’d had an organic pair. Maybe, he figured, he’d send Righty out on an independent mission next time, give it a chance to prove itself Lefty’s equal. For now, Lefty had earned some favouritism. It wasn’t like you could promote arms or give them medals, but next time Knucks scored on a date he’d let Lefty do most of the fondling.

Meantime, he had other matters on the agenda. Chief among them, the Kappans who were picking themselves up. Ferret came over to side with Knucks and, struggling with the modest armful of weapons he’d collected, managed to drop all but one of the guns before pointing the remaining one at the Kappans.

Schoenig raised his hands and the others followed suit. “All right,” he said. “You win. For the time being. But you do realise I can’t let you do this.”

“Damn and I’m such an old-fashioned kind of guy I was hoping for your permission.”

“You expect me to stand by and watch while you take our moon? While you steer it on a collision course with some civilised world?” Like a lot of righteous sorts, he conveyed disgust and contempt really well, even with his features partially screened by the helmet visor.

Knucks and Ferret traded looks. Knucks laughed. “That’s what you think we’re up to?”

***

“I can understand your anger, John, but I’m sorry, I don’t really have any explanations for you. It’s a complete mystery.”

Commander John Braun had already lost command of his Moonbase. Now it was the turn of his faculties. Professor Burgerminge’s irrepressible calm was winding him up something rotten. He wanted the Professor to get as angry as him, show some emotion, damn him. Hearing him talk in such even measured tones was tantamount to seeing his mouldering remains giving a shrug.

The usual array of colours swirled and danced on the monitor above the chair, but Braun only saw red. He let Burgerminge ramble on as he dragged himself up the length of the corpse. “The thing is, John, those flashforwards have always proved true. But perhaps what you witnessed was a variant effect of the usual anomaly. It’s possible you were treated to a glimpse into an alternative future through a window opened into a parallel universe. Think of that, John. What a unique experience, what a rare and – what are you doing, John?”

Braun was perched on Burgerminge’s ribcage. If still blessed with legs Braun would have been straddling Burgerminge’s ribcage. As it was, he just about propped himself up so that when he locked his hands around the Professor’s neck he wouldn’t look quite so much like a human bib.

“And why, Professor?” said Braun, his usually authoritative voice giving way to something more usually reserved for phrases like ‘Heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!’ “Why out of all the moments in all the flashforwards we’ve seen would it pick that one from a parallel future? Do please tell me that.”

Burgerminge’s empty sockets peered up at him and Braun knew there was only one answer he was going to get.

“Some sort of – relativistic effect?”

Braun roared and set about throttling the corpse. It was tough work, what with the lack of a throat and all. But having Burgerminge’s voice droning on all the time asking him nicely to stop just made him madder and madder and inspired him to really put his back into it.

Until finally something snapped and the skull fell off.

“Oh dear. Now look what you’ve gone and done, John.”

Braun contemplated the results of his violent rage. Then carried on throttling.

***

The acid look Commander Schoenig was aiming at Mr Knucks and Mr Ferret was in danger of eating through his helmet visor and popping all those veins that were already throbbing on the sides of his head. The Moonbasers, still dazed and not a little upset about the way events had so quickly turned against them, had all gathered around their Commander, whether to show their support or seek comfort it was tough to tell. Since they all looked like weak-ass plebs, Knucks was going to assume the latter.

“I would have thought,” said Schoenig sourly, “that kind of wholesale destruction was just the sort of thing to appeal to you people. Why else hijack a moon?”

Knucks was all set to answer when he was aware of movement behind him. The clatter and clunk of shifting metal, plus a grunt or two. He and Ferret glanced aft to see Frodo sticking his head up from the heap of nuke waste cannisters like a skittish mutant prairie dog. “That’s – that’s not what you’re doing, is it?” the squirt quizzed nervously. “Driving the moon into a planet? If I’d known that, I would never have – ”

“Relax. What do you take us for?” Despite his initial amusement, Knucks was getting a teeny bit annoyed now. “Sure, drive a moon into a planet, there’s something to be said for that – scale, spectacle, devastation. Shock and horror rippling out through the galaxy. But where’s the smarts in that? Where’s the ambition? Where, more importantly, is the profit?”

Schoenig stared, his eyes bulging in the helmet like fish-eyes in a bowl wondering where their fish-body had gotten to. “Profit?” Confusion now clashed with horror on his face and his features didn’t know quite which way to go. “What the hell were you planning then?”

“I’d struggle to think of anything worse you could do, to be honest,” opined the woman who looked like the sort of middle-aged actress they’d recruit for face cream commercials. Her love of moralising was apparently as deep-set as her wrinkles.

“Ah, well you see, Ms Russert,” said Ferret, “that’s where you’re going wrong. What we’re going to do with your moon is so much better.”

“Exactly.” Knucks nodded. He suspected Ferret might be sucking-up to make up for some undisclosed slip – if he was a betting man, which he was, he’d wager his right arm that Ferret had played a significant part in bringing these full-sized Kappans out here causing trouble – but there was no doubting the fellow was right. “We’re a better class of criminal.”

“Again,” said the Russert woman, “I’m struggling.”

“So, just tell us, damn you,” demanded Schoenig. “What is it you want our moon for?”

“A Moonliner.”

“Our very own Moonliner,” added Ferret unnecessarily.

“Excuse me – a what?”

Knucks shook his head. Full-grown or no, this lot had been travelling in their own little reality just like the stunted ones. He’d met space bumpkins who were more savvy. “You people really have been out of the loop, haven’t you. You probably think your moon’s the only one travelling the universe.”

“It’s not?”

The look on Schoenig’s face then was a picture. Apparently this news was a worse blow than the moonrock to the head. Knucks took a moment to enjoy it, then said, “Course not. Actually, I think yours might have started the whole thing off. Some boffin or corporate bod hears about Goyle’s moon getting blown out of orbit, hits on the idea – hey, imagine if we had these resort worlds that could cruise about the galaxy. Get ourselves a moon, fit a fucking big engine. Imagine how many tourists we could pack in on one of those. Course, it’s expensive. You have to build a lot of facilities – nightclubs, swimming pools, tennis courts, all that gubbins – but turns out the punters love it for the novelty value. Beats just cruising around on a ship, you know.”

“They’re all the rage,” said Ferret. “Every major tour operator has at least one in their fleet.”

“Yeah. So we figured, we fancy a slice of that action. Set up as an independent Moonliner operator, undercut the competition. Which we can afford to do, what with low overheads – zero fuel costs, for one – and not having had to buy our moon. What’s more, we can fleece the tourists a lot more than the tour operators. Worst comes to worst, we can pump gas in the air systems and rob ’em all blind when they’re out cold. Dump ’em on some remote mudball where it’ll be centuries before they can report us to the law.”

“That’s – that’s horrible,” said the Russert woman.

Ferret wagged a finger. “But better than driving it into a planet, you can’t deny that.”

And whether he could or couldn’t, the speechless Commander Schoenig didn’t.

[To Be Concluded…]

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