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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