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…]

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…]

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