Aphelion Issue 268, Volume 25
December 2021
 
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The Good Ship Munders


by Alexander D Jones, Gareth D Jones and Haydn T A Jones




Franz sat in the crew lounge. He'd just finished an eight-hour stint on the bridge. He'd been relieved when V'Ann turned up, an hour late admittedly, but still.

He sipped his piping hot tea, one of the things he missed about home. He checked his wristband: it was getting late and he was meant to be back at the helm in another eight hours. That's what happens with a small crew when there's somewhere they need to be. They should have set off for their destination but the Captain had insisted on spending a few more days on Grantini IV. "Soak up some culture," he said, which meant, "Drink as much of this stuff as you want, guys!" and now they were at full speed heading for their rendezvous with the Statek Rdzy, an old scavenging partner of theirs. There was going to be a deposit of prime pickings, broken ship parts from the Galactic Federation.

Franz plucked himself from the sofa and drudged over to the waste chute, chucked the cup in. He rubbed his eyes and looked down at his hands, they were aching. In the corner, Braunnin was propped up against the wall, a box on his lap, snoring away. He was a Languan, almost seven feet tall, like a Bison stood on its hind legs; but the legs were like tree stumps and he had a flatter snout. He was furry all over, brown fur that got darker towards the two horns on his head. They used him to break down any doors in the way.

Franz picked up a discarded spoon from the table and threw it at Braunnin's head. It clanged off and the beast stirred. Franz ran out of the door.

He made his way down the corridor to the lift, up a level and onto the crew quarters deck. Most of the rooms were empty. The ship was designed for double the crew they had. He went to his door and scanned the wristband, went inside, had a shower and got into his sleeping clothes. Laid in his bed, shut his eyes.

Bang!

Franz awoke with a start. The whole ship was shaking.

"Dammit." He jumped out of bed and put his overalls back on. He quickly grabbed his utility belt and dashed out the door towards the bridge, cursing his bad luck.

*

Albert, whose name was not actually Albert, but had chosen the designation from a shortlist supplied by its current crewmates, emitted a noise/audicon that, had it been human, would have sounded somewhat like a sigh. As the ship's Estimator, it had completed the third iteration of its calculations for their current assignation and came once more to the conclusion that they would barely break even. It did not mind its current assignment but, like all those of its species who ventured away from their homeworld, it was keen to rotate through as many vocations as possible, bearing a different name for each, and return home with a store of entertaining stories and enlightening experiences. It exited the purser's office and headed towards the bridge to berate the captain for his poor judgement.

Albert resembled nothing so much as a glass paperweight in the shape of a penguin. Standing a metre tall, it glided along the floor without it being entirely clear whether it touched anything or was somehow hovering. Its species were variously known as Paperweights, Crystaloids, or Penguins of Death. None of these designations were entirely accurate. Neither were they entirely inaccurate. As Albert traversed the central corridor towards the bridge, there was a violent shudder that suggested incoming fire and evasive manoeuvres. Albert did not need to return to its office and re-run the calculations to revise its Estimate for this trip to 'loss-making'.

*

Delicious. Grimbsby stared adoringly at the thick meat sandwich on the chopping board. He gathered up the butter, meat and bread and turned to put them away. His eyes, as always, trailed behind, meaning he had to wait for his vision to refocus. Once it had, he moved swiftly to store the ingredients and get back to the sandwich. If he left it too long, then he knew …

"Mmm, oh, great sandwich, Grim!"

Grimbsby snapped about. His eyes took their sweet time to turn and focus but even before they did, he knew what he would see. Jonathan O'Hinkley, rotund ship's medic and menace to the food stores of T he Good Ship Munders, stood before him, Grimbsby's meat sandwich in hand, a large bite out of it. Grimbsby's cheek began a'twitching and his lip a'curling.

"Mr. O'Hinkley," he said, his voice tightly controlled. Most men would call it a dangerous tone. Jonathan O'Hinkley wasn't most men.

"Grim," he said, in his jolly Irish accent, nodding his head, "ye truly are a master of sandwich creation." He took another bite of the sandwich.

"Indeed?" asked Grimbsby, taking a step forward. His cheek still spasmed.

"Mmm." Jonathan continued to chew. "Well thanks Grim, I'll catch you later." He turned and began to walk out of the galley.

"O'Hinkley!" Grimbsby roared, storming after him.

Jonathan sprinted out of the galley and down the hall, Grimbsby close on his heels. At the door he stopped, and his his head snapped round to the right. His vision slowly focused. Nothing. He looked to the left, waited for his eyes to swing round and looked down the corridor. Nothing. He cursed his eyes. They were cheap imitations of the real deal fitted by a less than qualified 'doctor' after a less than legal 'accident', and as a result they always trailed behind the movement of his head. Grimbsby's teeth ground side to side and his cheek gave a final twitch.

There was a loud rumble, like thunder, throughout the ship. Grimbsby muttered something rude under his breath and quick-marched his way to the bridge.

*

"Evasive manoeuvres, sir?" shouted V'Ann over the second rumble.

Captain Bartholomew Wise rubbed his forehead, flicking his blond, floppy hair out of the way. He didn't feel well. He waved his hand in a dismissive manner, a "Sure, whatever," kind of wave.

V'Ann expertly moved his twelve digits across the screens in front of him. The ship swerved and dipped and curved.

"What is it that's firing at us again?" the Captain asked, slumping down in his chair, seemingly sheltering behind his heroic moustache.

"A Galactic Federation battleship, sir. They won't stop firing. I don't know that we'll get away …" V'Ann turned one of his three eyes to face his captain.

"Eugh, I hate the GF, they're just so … so … annoying, y'know?" The Captain didn't seem to grasp the severity of the situation.

"What should we do, cap?" V'Ann asked.

The captain sighed, a long deep, exasperated sigh. "Man the guns?"

"Are you asking me, or telling me?" V'ann still had one of his eyes on his captain, but was concentrating mainly on not getting the ship destroyed.

"I dunno." The captain rubbed his face with both hands.

Just as he was about to give out another order, the bridge's sliding doors opened and Franz slid in.

"What the hell is going on?" Franz asked, slightly out of breath.

"Galactic Federation Ship. The brutes are firing at us; unbelievable, right?" The captain turned to look at his second in command.

"What?" Franz looked at the main display screen. There it was, The USS Insidiis Occulte. A colossal hammerhead ship, at least two hundred times bigger than the fragile, squared-off-egg-shaped Good Ship Munders. There was no way they could outgun it, no way they could outrun in. They were stuck.

"What d'ya think, number two?" The captain sat up in his seat.

"Surrender, obviously. How are we gonna get out of this?" Franz gestured to the display screen.

"I agree, sir." V'ann now had an eye on each of his superiors.

The bridge's sliding doors opened again and in floated Albert. It made a noise that, to other species, would probably have sounded like a sigh.

"Captain," it began, "we have a problem, sir."

"You don't say, Al. I thought everything was just peachy to be honest with you. Evidently you have perceived something is amiss with our current situation?" The Captain made a point of looking straight down at what he had always described as a see-through jelly-baby.

"Yes, sir, I have made some calculations—"

"Oh-ho-ho! You hear that Franz? Calculations! A revelation!" The captain made some overly expressive gestures.

Had Albert been able to show facial expressions, it probably would have had one showing exasperation.

"Bart, bigger problems: what are we doing with this?" Franz pointed a thumb at the display screen.

"Yes, our evasive moves aren't going to keep us out of the line of fire for very much longer …" V'ann's digits were flying across his control panel at furious speeds.

"Ah, just …" The captain trailed off.

"Just …" Franz gestured for him to carry on.

The ship took another hit, the bridge rocked.

The sliding doors opened and in marched Grimbsby. He paused for a second, awaiting his eyes' permission to see. "What the devil is going on here, Captain?" he grizzled.

*

After the captain's brief speech about dying heroically for the sake of freedom was loudly derided by the rest of the crew who had gathered on the bridge, he finally gave the order to surrender. The firing stopped, the engines ceased straining and a calm descended.

"Prepare to be boarded," was the substance of a much longer and more grandiose message from Insidiis Occulte.

V'Ann tracked a pinnace that launched from the warship and made its way expertly to dock with The Good Ship Munders.

The captain gestured at Albert. "I suppose we should go meet them." He left the bridge in the care of Franz and led the way back down the central corridor.

Albert followed, doing an undetectable version of a frown. Albert was impervious to most weaponry sported by the Galactic Federation, but still preferred to avoid confrontation where possible. They descended the zero-G lift to the lower deck and traversed the short corridor to the docking hatch.

"So," said the captain as they waited for the clinking and clunking of the docking ship to subside, "I'll take the lead and you just look menacing."

Albert's menacing face was identical to its normal face.

"Or maybe look helpful," the captain said. "Anyways, we don't want to antagonise them. Or, you know, freak them out into destroying us."

Lights turned green and something hissed.

"Remember," he said as the inner hatch engaged. "Professional. That's what we are."

The door swung open and Captain Bartholomew Wise screamed.

Albert's reaction in similar circumstances would have been to emit an audicon of mild distress, but as it happened, its species did not suffer from the same visceral reactions to the appearance of other species as humans were particularly cursed with. Albert regarded the newcomer placidly while the captain cowered behind him, apparently forgetting that Albert was transparent. Or that Albert, possessing no definable visual organs, could see the gibbering wreck behind just as easily as the creature in front.

*

The officer who stepped out of the lock appeared as a creature of nightmare. Pale, clammy flesh of two torsos sat upon a tripod of sinewy, opposed legs. Each torso was gaunt, ribs clearly delineated, a pair of grasping arms fixed at each set of wide shoulders. Constantly fidgeting, claw-like hands. Instead of a head, each torso was topped with a gaping maw. A row of small ventricles circled the top of each torso and these fluttered and bubbled, giving out sighs and flutters, sounding like a pot of simmering soup.

Captain Wise rose to his feet, impressed with himself for recognising the apparition as an officer by the black and gold insignia decorating all four of its shoulders. A lieutenant, if he wasn't mistaken.

Behind the lieutenant lurked two crewmen. All three boarders stepped forward.

"Good day gentlemen, I am Lieutenant Og'dal of the USS Insidiis Occulte and in the name of the Galactic Federation I hereby commandeer this ship." The lieutenant advanced towards Albert and the captain.

"Indeed?" asked Albert, annoyed. More calculations would need to be made but it suspected total loss of investment.

"Hmm, yes what, indeed?" The captain bumbled his sentence out in a high-pitched voice.

"I would like to speak with the captain. In the meantime, petty officer Howell," Og'dal indicated the broad-shouldered man to his left, "and Crewman Dunvore," he pointed to the tall, dark blue-skinned and many-tentacled being on his right, "will escort the crew to their quarters." His voice was surprisingly soft and he spoke with cordiality.

Bartholomew Wise swallowed a large lump in his throat, "I … I, um, I am the captain." He raised his hand feebly in what many would regard as a pointless gesture.

Albert once more released what could have been mistaken for a human sigh.

Og'dal nodded his understanding. "Lead me to the bridge, captain …" He paused expectantly.

"Wise. Bartholomew Wise," the captain filled in.

"Captain Wise. And my men will escort yours to their quarters, agreed?" asked the clammy-skinned lieutenant.

Captain wise nodded silently.

*

Grimbsby sat sullenly upon his bed, eyes glued to the door of his room, fingers caressing the butt of his pistol. He was disgusted that he, the Master-at-arms, hadn't been called as soon as they had engaged the Galactic Federation ship and further that he had been unceremoniously hauled from the bridge to his quarters by a glorified walking squid.

He began to grit his teeth. He hoped the squid would open the door and give him a fighting chance. His finger stroked the pistol trigger. His mind began whirling as to how to retake the ship. He stood and began pacing, pistol in hand. The familiar layout of his room meant his blurred vision didn't matter. He'd seen the officer, a strange two-torsoed being with pale skin and three legs, as well as the tall thin squid. The many tentacles it possessed started at its shoulder height and trailed to below its waist, all of them floofed atop each other in the style of a pom-pom. Grimbsby tried to decide if there were others and how many weapons they may have. He would free the ship.

His cheek twitched. His teeth gritted. His eyes swam unfocused. His hand felt the pistol. He paced his room, thinking.

*

Captain Bartholomew Wise had never before had his ship commandeered by The Galactic Federation and he didn't much like it. He sat on the bridge in the seat normally reserved for his second in command, Franz, who was now confined to quarters for the remainder the trip to wherever they were going.

"Where are we going, again?" the Captain asked the three GF crewmen spread about his bridge.

"Sir, please remain quiet for the remainder of the trip, unless we ask you a question. We have confined your crew to quarters and we have given you the dignity of staying on your bridge. Now, what weaponry does this ship have, please?" The lieutenant span from its position next to the chair that it couldn't sit in, to face Bartholomew.

"Oh, y'know … the usual …" The captain looked down at his hands.

"What exactly is the usual, sir?"

"Y'know, like, guns and that. You get it, Galactic Federation and all, just the average, everyday, bog-standard weapons you would find on any normal ship you'd find in any old spaceport you happen to pull into on any given day." The captain looked dead ahead at the display screen.

"You have no idea what weapons this ship possesses do you?" The lieutenant turned back to the controls.

"No, not a clue, not my circus, not my monkeys, y'know." The captain spun in the chair. "Although, actually, it kinda is my circus this time innit? Hmmm "… He trailed off.

"Who could tell us what this ship can do?"

"Well, for most things, my number two, Fran.z Weapons might be old Grimbsby, but he's a miserable so and so, does what it says on the tin, eh?"

The lieutenant turned to Crewman Dunvore, "Go and collect the human Franz and bring him to the bridge," he then turned to Howell. "Lay in the course we need to get going."

Dunvore left the bridge as the ship set off on its course.

*

Down in the engineering compartment, the only qualified engineer aboard The Good Ship Munders, known to her crewmates as Susurrus, was also the only crewmember not under guard. She observed the blue tentacled guard wander through the room checking for hidden crew and malfunctioning equipment. He stopped and looked at Susurrus, raised an eyebrow-like upper tentacle and continued. Probably, Susurrus surmised surreptitiously, wondering why somebody would keep a houseplant in engineering.

The betentacled one left the room and Susurrus shifted forward. She resembled an origami hydrangea, but was surprisingly more resilient than that description would suggest. She was used to being ignored by plantists. Her paper-thin petals opened and closed in the continuous rippling pattern that she used to communicate with the ship's translation matrix. Following her instructions, the ship defaulted to hijack mode, a feature which the captain had apparently forgotten about; along with most other ship-related facts he had allegedly learned at some point.

*

Pace, pace, pace, turn. Pace, pace, pace turn. Grimbsby continued in this monotonous rhythm. His hand often readjusted its grip upon the shiny wooden handle of his pistol. He tugged at the hem of his boysenberry-coloured jacket. His eyes roved, unseeing. His cheek twitched only intermittently now.

A soft buzz at his wrist. He stopped, stiffened, and brought his wrist into the swimming view of his eyes. Once his vision had cleared, he squinted at the message on the wristband that acted as clock, key and communications for the crew.

Hijack mode activated

A malicious smile pricked the corners of Grimbsby's lips. He turned and faced the door, scanned his wristband and raised his pistol. Grimbsby was loose.

*

Franz was awoken from his long-awaited slumber by the buzz of his wristband. He looked at it quizzically, 'Hijack Mode activated' read the small green text.

Franz smiled. Who would have engaged that? Not Bart; Franz doubted he even knew such a mode existed. Grimbsby wouldn't have had time before he was taken to his quarters. Susurrus was a safe bet. She'd probably been overlooked, although Albert may have managed it. He couldn't really be sure, but he knew who it wasn't, and that was the Captain of The Good Ship Munders.

Franz stood up and stretched. No doubt Grimbsby was already on the prowl. He got out of his nightwear once again and put on his overalls, pulled on his utility belt, bereft of his blaster, and walked to his door and scanned the keypad. The door slid open and he stepped out into the main corridor, stretched again.

He was at one end of the upper deck. There was a lift about ten meters to his left, and another at the far end. Hijack mode would have disabled them though. There were also two sets of ladders on the ship, one of which was directly in front of his quarters. He pulled open the access panel with some effort, stiff from disuse, and started down the ladder. It would take him a while to get where he wanted to go.

*

Captain Bartholomew Wise jumped when his wristband buzzed in the almost-silence of the bridge. He gave it a quick glance, 'Hijack Mode activated' it read. Wise was confused by this, he hadn't a clue his ship even had this function.

He smiled. You learn something new every day. As exciting a revelation as this was for him, though, he didn't really know what it meant, for him, or indeed, for his crew.

*

Petty Officer Howell strode confidently down the hall, a hand rested on his stunner, the other swinging loosely at his side.

"Howell reporting, lieutenant, everything is secure on the top deck. No trouble from the crew." He ended his report as he reached one of the airtight doors that were dispersed through the ship to combat decompression. He tapped the control. Nothing happened. He tried again and got the same result. Howell furrowed his brow. He tapped the control one last time, just to be sure. He waited … nothing. He reached to report the malfunction when the door slid open. A large, furred fist reached through the open hatch and clobbered him into an unconscious state.

Braunnin ducked through the doorway and lifted the limp form off the floor. The ship's Master-at-Arms, Grimbsby, followed him through the door and tapped his wristband to seal it.

"This way," he ordered, marching further down the corridor and opening the door to some unused crew quarters. "Dump him in here, Mr. Braunnin."

Braunnin nodded and plodded towards the impatient Grimbsby, whose booted foot had begun tapping the floor.

After slinging the Galactic Federation crewman into the room and sealing the door, Braunnin followed Grimbsby towards the emergency ladder down to the middle deck.

"We'll be storming the bridge soon now," said Grimbsby.

Braunnin nodded mutely. He suspected Grimbsby was talking to himself, or his pistol. He didn't mind.

*

Jonathan O'Hinkley, Chief Medic of The Good Ship Munders was, he thought, the only crew member not confined to quarters. Instead he was locked in the medical bay. He didn't mind much. He had a lot of reading to catch up on.

His wristband buzzed whilst he was reading a particularly interesting research paper on why wallabies and antolaxian criffs are basically the same thing. He finished the chapter several minutes later and looked down at his wristband.

'Hijack Mode activated' it said.

"Have at 'em, Grim," he said to no one in particular, and went back to reading.

*

Grimbsby's finger twitched obsessively at the trigger of his pistol. Himself and Braunnin, the only other crewman Grimbsby considered might be useful in a fight, stood outside the bridge door.

"You stay out here Mr. Braunnin, I'll go in and call if I need you." Grimbsby turned to stare up at the Languan's eyes as his own focused slowly. "Don't let anyone escape, understood?"

Braunnin nodded.

It was all Grimbsby needed. He tapped his wrist to the door's control pad. They slid open and he stepped through. The gaunt, pale-skinned officer spun round to face Grimbsby.

Grimbsby wasn't sure if the officer was shocked, because there was nothing to go by, but he imagined they were as he levelled his pistol and squeezed the trigger. A dull whine filled the air and the lieutenant slumped in the captain's chair, stunned. Grimbsby spun to face what was only a blue smear in his blurred vision. He raised his pistol.

"Don't move, you pitiful excuse for a kraken," he growled as the tentacled being sitting at the console became a crisp image in his vision. "Captain." He half nodded towards his own Bartholomew Wise.

"Grimbsby?" Captain wise asked, perplexed by life as a whole.

"Aye sir—" Grimbsby's affirmation was cut short by two strong arms gripping him and pinning his arms to his side. "Braunnin!" he shouted.

Braunnin charged through the door. Two whining sounds filled the bridge. Braunnin collapsed to the deck and Grimbsby flopped in the arms of lieutenant Og'dal's second torso. Crewman Dunvore stood holding two steaming stunners in his tentacles and had a third pointed at Captain Wise.

*

Everyone still held the same pose a few seconds later when Lieutenant Og'dal recovered from the stun blast that his species was almost immune to.

"I applaud your heroics," he said. "We're going to need them."

"Heroics?" the captain blurted. "We're a salvage ship, we don't do heroics!"

Og'dal lowered Grimbsbsy gently to the floor and regained his three feet. "We are not your enemy, captain."

"Not our enemy? We'll soon see about that!" Captain Wise blustered. "Oh, not our enemy? Well, jolly good, that's all fine then."

"No," said Og'dal. "We need your help on a highly classified salvage mission to retrieve an item of vital importance to the survival of the Galactic Federation."

"You could have just commissioned us, you know, in the normal manner."

"This mission is a bit, tricky," the lieutenant said. "We're going behind enemy lines."

"Fabulous." The captain slumped back into his chair.

"We're due to emerge into real space, about …" there was a moment of awful tension. "Now."

Onscreen, a brilliant starfield appeared, along with a sight that made the captain slump even more.

*

Petty Officer Howell awoke, his head throbbing savagely. He was sprawled upon the floor in a rather uncomfortable position. Slowly, he hauled himself to his feet.

"Petty Officer Howell calling the bridge, do you read me sir?" he said into the communicator, rubbing his head and looking around.

"This is lieutenant Og'dal to Howell, all is well. We have subdued the attackers and arrived at destination. Report your location."

Judging by the décor and where he'd last been, Howell decided he was in one of the empty crew quarters. He reported as such.

"The systems have been returned to normal. All doors should now open. Report to bridge."

Howell tapped the control and the door slid open. He headed to the bridge.

*

Dunvore scuttled down the hall, stunners gripped in a half dozen tentacles. His eyes slowly scanned the doors of the crew quarters and found the one he searched for. A tentacle tapped the control and the door opened.

Inside, curled in a basket chair sat the ship's pilot, V'ann, six of his twelve fingers enfolded about a book. One of his three eyes looked up inquisitively.

"You're wanted on the bridge," Dunvore said, waving a stunner to emphasise the point.

V'ann rose from his seat and walked ahead of Dunvore in the direction of the bridge.

*

Franz was halfway between the middle deck and the lower, he was headed for the engine room. If he could shut down the engines, he could make a plan.

Unfortunately, 'Hijack Mode' also disabled the crew's comms, just in case a crew members wristband was taken by one of the hijackers.

Franz suspected the Galactic Federation crew would have completely overlooked Susurrus, her looking like a plant and all. Hopefully, she would already be working on shutting down the engines, but if not, he would be there soon enough to help.

He had no doubts that Grimbsby had already stormed the bridge, whether successfully or not. Although If he'd succeeded, he'd have been sure to announce it over the ship's PA.

No matter. Franz had half a plan, and he was going to see it through.

*

Albert was making its way down to the engine room. The ladders were proving rather difficult, though, Albert's body having nothing to properly grip the rungs with. But it struggled on, down, further and further, to where it calculated was the most strategic place to be when a ship had been hijacked. Other than the bridge of course. The comm chimed. It was the captain.

"Er, Albert, can you come to the bridge?" There was a pause. "We're not being hijacked any more. Well, we kind of are, but actually I've agreed to help them."

Albert emerged from the bottom of the access shaft. The captain's voice continued to echo round the corridors, on shipwide mode.

"Oh, and I'm not under duress, in case you're wondering. We should probably have some kind of code word for that, but we don't so, well, anyway just get up here? Soon."

Albert slid along the corridor to the disabled zero-G lift and ascended gracefully to the middle deck. V'Ann was being escorted along the corridor by Dunvore.

"Do you think that's true?" V'Ann asked.

Albert emoted a shrug. They entered the bridge together where Captain Wise was back in his chair, one leg thrown nonchalantly over the side arm. More interesting, and indeed surprising than that, was the view from the main viewscreen.

It was an asteroid—what some would call potato-shaped—at which point Grimbsby, who had a penchant for cooking, would have pointed out that potatoes don't have any particular shape—but it was evidently not natural. It bristled with artificial protuberances, shone with numerous lights, and was surrounded by a swarm of satellites, small craft, mines, moonlets, derelict ships and debris. It was only when one of the wrecks swam into focus and revealed itself to be a Galactic Federation battleship that the asteroid's size became evident. The battleship appeared to be a gnat by comparison. A slightly squished gnat that for some inexplicable reason was spinning drunkenly in its orbit.

"This," Og'dal gurgled, "is the Space Fortress Unassailable, of the Cosmic Domination."

"And, is it?" the captain asked. "Unassailable?"

"Totally."

"So, why did we come here?"

"As you can see, force will not work." Og'dal highlighted the broken battleship on screen. "Hence our need for an expert salvaging team in a small ship, to infiltrate the fortress and retrieve an object of great importance to the future of the Federation."

"What object?" V'Ann asked.

"I shall tell you when we obtain it," Og'dal said. "We have approximately four hours until the fake ID I inserted in the ship's transponder fails and we are destroyed by the fortress."

"Well," said the captain, swinging his leg back to the floor and standing up dramatically. "Let's get on with it then."

*

Grimbsby rose from the floor. He felt lethargic and his eyes swam and focused intermittently. In the corner of the cell sat Braunnin, hunched over and looking about as bored as a bison-like creature could. Grimbsby checked his wristband. The clock showed that approximately half an hour had passed. He grunted. His pistol was gone. He grimaced.

"Captain, are you there?" he asked into the communicator. It would only work if hijack mode had been deactivated. Grimbsby waited. He began to pace the cell. Hijack mode was still in operation. The two feeble strip lights in the ceiling threw a ghostly pacing shadow onto the solid metal bulkhead.

A clunking, clicking, clacking sound interrupted Grimbsby's contemplation. He turned upon his heel and glared insolently at the door as it swung open. Before him stood a blue-skinned creature; a wretched being, a miserable scuttling, low down, dishonourable, upright squid. Grimbsby glowered at it.

"You two are wanted on the bridge." Dunvore brandished a number of stunners in the direction of Braunnin and Grimbsby.

Grimbsby grunted. Braunnin stood and walked silently to the door. They headed to the bridge.

*

The ramp creaked as Braunnin loaded another crate into the shuttle. Grimbsby glared approvingly, his hand caressing the butt of his holstered pistol that had been returned to him. Hijack mode had been deactivated and the mission had been explained. Begrudgingly, Grimbsby had agreed to serve. He and Braunnin were readying the shuttle to transfer to the Unassailable. Meanwhile on the bridge, V'ann was bringing the ship closer to the fortress.

"Good work," muttered Grimbsby as Braunnin plodded back out of the shuttle. Everything but the weapons were ready, they would be loaded at the last, as per regulation.

*

Lieutenant Og'dal looked at the view screen, filled entirely by Unassailable's huge mass.

"So," came a voice behind him, "Me and you are waiting here, y'know, creatures in command and all, but we are sending a small unit in there, y'know, what are their chances of success exactly?" Captain Wise was floundering.

"I am confident in the mission's success," Og'dal said, "I am sending Petty Officer Howell with the members of your crew to make sure of the success."

"Right, right, yeah, no, not a problem, no problemo as they say …" The Captain was still lounging in his chair, stroking his mustache. He pressed a button on his control panel and activated the ship's PA. "Alrighty boys, it's time, good luck to ya, see you in exactly three hours, 'cause later than that, we're all floating in space. Peace out!"

*

Franz shook his head. Not exactly a spirit-rousing speech, but then again, you couldn't expect much more from the man in the chair. He walked into the shuttle and clipped his rifle into the holder on the wall behind the pilot's seat. He was the only crew member other than V'ann who knew how to fly, and V'ann was on the bridge of The Good Ship Munders.

Franz looked at the members of his rag-tag group of scavengers. Master-at-Arms Grimbsby, who had his rifle rested on his lap and three other blasters, that were visible, strapped to him. Braunnin, the silent bison beast, would almost certainly come in handy. Albert, the ship's calculator, the so-called 'Penguin of Death'. An enigma, really. Franz wasn't too sure of his usefulness, but Og'dal had selected the team, and Bart hadn't exactly given him much pushback. And finally, Petty Officer Howell, of the Galactic Federation, selected, Franz thought, because he was the lowest ranking and therefore most expendable of the GF crew. It would have to do.

"Alright people, here we go, you all know the plan, quick and quiet, the galaxy depends on us, yadayada. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you, here we go." Franz turned his seat and started up the engines, pulled the shuttle out of the loading dock and started the short trip across to the landing strips of Unassailable.

After a few minutes the comms crackled, a gruff-sounding voice came through. "This is the command deck of Unassailable, state name and business."

"This is courier shuttle one, from the Great Ship Sanders. We have supplies to drop off." Franz flinched.

"Pass code,"

"Yeah, sure, P-H-F L-Zero-Eight…" Franz waited.

"Courier shuttle one, you are cleared for entrance, please take landing platform twenty-eight and await further instruction."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir." Franz manoeuvred the shuttle through the main entrance of the station and weaved his way around to the designated landing platform.

*

Before they could sneak off the shuttle, one of Unassailable's shuttle inspectors arrived to check the crew in. He was a relatively small creature, just over the one point five metre mark. He stood atop two twigs for legs, he was green and had a pot belly body, he had a human shaped head with a cap on and a baggy uniform.

"ID card, crew manifesto and shipping cargo list," he said in a sort of nasally way.

"Yeah, mate," said Franz, "right inside." He ushered the green man within.

He was encased by two large furry arms and smashed on the head with the wooden butt of a blaster. Out cold.

"Cool, okay," began Franz, "tie him, gag him, stick him in one of the crates, I'll take the clothes, I hope to God they fit."

"I will take the clothes," Howell interjected.

"You, sir, are not getting in those," said Albert, pointing out the obvious, as he normally did.

Howell cleared his throat. "Well …" he said, "I'm in charge,"

"Of course," Franz said. "Grimbsby, get him in that crate. Albert, we'll take you in a crate too, I'll see if I can get us some sort of hover-trolley," Franz pulled the creature's uniform on, which fitted rather snugly, and headed out the shuttle doors. A bay filled with hover-trolleys was just to his right.

"Let's load up," he said.

"I'm in charge," replied Howell. "Load 'em up boys."

Braunnin set about lifting the heavier of the crates onto the trolley's base whilst Grimbsby took the others. Franz spent his time convincing Albert to get in a crate and eventually won him over by getting him to calculate mission success with and without him in a crate. The odds won him over and he hovered, or glided, Franz didn't really know which, into the crate.

They loaded it on top of the others and headed for the main entrance.

*

It was a relatively short walk to one of the entrance doors into the main working body of Unassailable, a large metal one, a bay door really.

Franz went over to the small check-in desk. Sitting behind the glass screen was a creature not dissimilar to the one they had unconscious in a crate.

Franz scanned the fake ID badge Og'dal had given him. The creature on the other side gave a puzzled look, then looked up at Franz.

"This expired yesterday," the creature said.

Franz heart skipped a beat. "Ah, yeah, I know, they, uh, they were having trouble printing new ones yesterday, they said I'd still be able to get in, John said it'd be fine." John was the only name he could think of at the time.

"Hmm," the creature mumbled, "Alright, just get it done today, alright?"

"Yes, mate, thank you."

"The crew you're escorting in all up to code?"

"Yeah, yeah, all good, checked everything, just running them in and running them out, same old same old."

"You got that right, see you around," said the creature, giving a little wave.

"You too, dude, have a good one." Franz made his way back to the group and waited for the door to open. It groaned upwards and they walked forwards. They were now inside Unassailable itself.

*

It wasn't like the interior of any normal warship. The corridors had been bored from the solid rock of the asteroid. Occasionally a tunnel had bored through a natural void in the rocks and these had been utilised for storage or decorative wall sconces. There were an estimated 18,000 personnel aboard the fortress, depending on how you counted them — would Og'dal count as one or two people? And how about the Wackleeth that constantly split and re-absorbed clones on a regular basis? Despite this somewhat vague yet large number, the place was so huge that Albert detected nobody else from within its crate for the first three minutes as they made their way deeper into the rocky interior.

"This is it," Howell said. Braunnin pulled the hover-trolley into position. A second later one of the crate's creaked open and Albert slid out. Howell was working on a hatch set into the wall. Braunnin and Grimbsby watched the corridor in both directions. Franz gave urgently whispered instructions to everyone, telling them to do what they were already doing.

The hatch slid open, giving way to a similar, slightly narrower, corridor. Howell led the way inside.

Every couple of minutes one of them would ask where they were going and what they were retrieving, but Howell remained stubbornly quiet.

"This is it," he said when they had arrived at a dead end.

"Looks great," Franz said. "Highlight of my salvaging career."

"The vault is behind this wall. We estimate 500mm of rock to get through." Howell stepped back and gestured to Grimbsby.

The Master-at-Arms squared his shoulders, rotated his neck and cracked his fingers. "Alright."

Albert could hear the gentle whir of his false eye focussing.

Grimbsby opened one of the crates that was on the hover-trolley and from it selected a UV-meltomatic. He pulled his favoured tool up, aimed it with a solid, two-handed grip, and fired gently at the rock face. It glowed, melted, flowed away from the impact point, sputtering and smoking.

"Don't touch the metal cabinet behind," Howell said. "The room's heat sensitive. You'll set off a fire alarm."

Grimbsby cracked his jaw, licked his lips and began stuttering the UV ray expertly so that the rock melted, crumbled, fell away and cooled at exactly the correct rate so that the last fragments fell away leaving a metal casing, untouched and unscored.

"Done," said Grimbsby.

"We need to push this cabinet out of the way," Howell said.

Braunnin sighed in a way that suggested he was fed up with being type-cast as the muscle man, but nonetheless he stepped forward into the narrow space, braced himself and heaved.

For a few seconds nothing happened. Then, seconds later, nothing still happened.

"Come on, man," Franz urged. "I mean bison. Whatever."

With a grunt and an accompanying screech of metal, the cabinet began to move. Slowly. Centimetres at a time. Then it was gone and there was a dark space ahead, dimly lit with a red glow.

"Two hours," said Howell.

"One fifty-nine, actually," Franz corrected.

Albert ignored them both and led the way through.

Inside was a large, cavernous, cavern. Numerous cabinets were dotted around, included the one they had shifted, which was now warped and broken open. Two corridors led away, one lit red from a criss-cross of lasers.

"That's where we're going," Howell said.

"To certain laser-induced death?" Franz said. "Great."

"And floor pressure sensors too," Howell added.

Grimbsby pulled out a surprisingly large laser gun from somewhere. "No problem." He licked his lips and blinked several times.

"We can't disable them," Howell said.

"Alarms," Franz said quickly.

Albert glided forward and into the tunnel of death.

The laser beams refracted from its crystalline surface and were redirected into alternative receivers.

"And that's why they call them Crystalloids!" Franz enthused.

Albert shot him the equivalent of an aggrieved look, then continued down the short corridor to a neatly carved alcove. The alcove contained a shelf. The shelf contained an impregnable steel box.

"The box contains the item we need," Howell called, eerily echoing Albert's thought pattern.

Albert redirected some of his crystalline energy field to slide the box off the shelf and adhere it to his surface. Then he began the much more tricky reverse journey in which he had to compensate for a solid, non-reflecting object blocking some of the laser beams.

Howell took the box, realised how heavy it was and handed it to Braunnin who took it long-sufferingly and loaded it onto the hover-trolley, along with several small containers he had already liberated from the damaged cabinet.

"Let's go," Franz said.

*

Grimbsby stalked down the hall, his gait long, his eyes roving unfocused, his fingers traced the curve of his pistol butt. He watched the slow, methodical stride of Petty Officer Howell who led the group back through the corridors and caverns of the fortress. Braunnin plodded at Grimbsby's side, pushing the hover-trolley. The others were bunched behind, alert and on edge.

About three metres ahead a hatch in the wall slid open. A figure shambled out. It's thick legs were buckled outwards, it's torso and head had no distinguishable meeting point, no appendages protruded from the almost cone-shaped body and the singular green ovoid set in its otherwise grey skin shone luminously. It turned to glare accusingly at the group that made its way down the hall.

"Err," Howell stopped short. The being loomed over him and filled the corridor, it being about eight feet tall.

"Oh, um, y'alright mate?" asked Franz, dodging through the group towards the creature. Grimbsby settled his left hand on his pistol and reached into his jacket pocket for a smaller one that was stashed there.

"Vwuurm," the creature said, extruding a pseudopod and laying it on Howell's shoulder. It sounded like a bass drop on a techno tune.

"We have the permits and stuff," Franz spluttered, slightly unnerved. He fumbled in the uniform pockets and yanked out the documents. "See," he said, holding them up for the benefit of the creature.

"Vwuurm," it said again. It retracted the pseudopods, turned and walked down the corridor, entering another door further down.

Grimbsby's cheek twitched. That had been close and their alleged 'leader', in the form of Howell, had done naught.

"Keep moving," Howell said, beckoning with his hand.

Grimbsby scratched his cheek, gritted his teeth, fingered his pistol and marched onwards.

*

Jonathan O'Hinkley stood, walked the room and collapsed back in his chair. His stomach growled lowly. He patted it and thought about a jaunt to the kitchen. A lot of effort, he thought. He wondered if he could convince the tentacled crewman to cook something for him. He doubted it. He wondered fleetingly what was going on outside the medical room. The thought passed quickly, hunger reasserted itself. He stood and headed for the kitchen.

*

The rag-tag group walked onwards, back through the corridors they had travelled down earlier on their mission.

"What's on the clock?" asked Grimbsby.

"One hour thirty-seven," said Howell.

"Plenty of time," said Franz, a smile creeping across his face.

"We still have to get back out of here," Grimbsby said, "There may be unforeseen problems coming."

"I doubt it," said Howell. "Us lot in the GF are very careful about these things."

"I'm sure you are," came a voice from a crate, it was Albert, "But there are three armed guards around this next corner."

The group stopped dead in their tracks.

"What do we do?" asked Franz

Howell was breaking into a sweat. Grimbsby pulled out two blasters.

"They're coming," said Albert.

Braunnin pushed the hover-trolley to one side and squared his shoulders.

"We don't want a fight, guys, we can't shoot our way out of here." Franz lowered Grimbsby's blasters for him and waved off Braunnin.

Howell was breathing heavily, he was panicking.

"Ten seconds," came Albert's voice.

"Braunnin, Grim, walk round that corner with the hover-trolley, keep walking, go."

The two stoic figures obeyed. They turned the corner and nodded at the security officers, who stopped in front of them.

"What's this?" the first officer said.

"Well," began Grimbsby.

"Hey," called Franz to the security officers, "A little help?"

The security officers walked to Franz, Grimbsby and Braunnin walked on, towards the loading bay.

"What's the trouble?" the officer asked to Franz.

Franz gestured to Howell who was now in meltdown, "He's having a panic attack, he's claustrophobic, I think, any tips?"

"Take him to the nurse, down the hall to the left," said the second officer. "Need help with him?"

"No, thanks, I'll get him there,"

"As you were," the officer said, and headed back on their route.

Franz breathed a sigh of relief. He hauled Howell to his feet.

"Come on, Mister GF, let's get you out of here," he walked on down the corridor after Grimbsby and Braunnin, towards the loading bay.

*

Seconds later Albert detected a much larger body of life-forms heading their way.

"We should find some concealment," he said. A door creaked open and Albert's crate was wheeled sideways. A moment later a multitude of footsteps could be heard through the door. Albert slipped out of his crate to join the others in a low utility room. Franz listened at the door.

"They're looking for the missing docking officers," he said. "It's not going to be easy to sneak back the way we came."

Albert examined the conduits leading away from the cramped room they were in. "This way," he said, and led the way down an even more cramped crawlspace. It opened up after a short time, much to Braunnin's relief, as it cut through a fissure in the structure of the rock.

"This will lead us down to a cargo hold, where we can cut back across and up to the docks," Albert said, and dropped over the edge of the fissure into darkness. The others followed swiftly and Albert realised it should probably have mentioned the rough edges, occasional shelves and the fact that the drop was around thirty feet altogether. It was at a slight angle though so that seconds after Albert had smoothly arrived in the cargo hold, its companions bounced, cursed, yelled and rolled their way to a stop at what could be described as Albert's feet. The only person who did not curse and yell was the still-unconscious shuttle inspector.

"Why did you bring him?" Franz asked.

Grimbsby shrugged. "Thoroughness."

Howell shone a light around the barren, slimy, jagged, chilly space that they were in. "This is not a cargo hold."

"Somebody else is here," Franz said. A dozen dull, yellow lights shone in the distance. Then they began scurrying across the floor towards them. They stopped at the edge of Howell's pool of light and revealed themselves to be the dozen eyes of an unpleasant-looking creature that resembled a porcupine-frog's long-dead cousin. With teeth.

"Howdy," said Franz, "we're delivering cargo."

"It's not a member of the crew," Howell said. Suddenly the entire space, much bigger than they had appreciated, lit up with countless dozens of yellow eyes.

"There appears to be an exit this way," Albert said, and scooted off. Braunnin hefted the unconscious inspector and the box onto his shoulders and the whole group hurried after him.

In only a few seconds they were surrounded by the snarling, salivating creatures. Grimbsby started firing with a mismatched pair of weapons and waded forward valiantly. The porcufrogs barely noticed the weapons fire and seemed to shrug off any wound. Braunnin started kicking them aside and they surged forward.

More of the creatures flooded in from somewhere.

Albert stopped moving and let the others get a little way ahead. Several of the creatures flung themselves at him and broke their teeth and spines.

"Keep up!" Franz yelled back at him.

Albert concentrated on his stored crystalline energy.

Dozens of the snarling creatures launched themselves at the fleeing group and bore them to the ground.

Albert loosed his stored energy in a controlled emission.

Grimbsby was the first to climb back to his feet from amidst the pile of unmoving porcufrogs. "And that," he said, brushing alien spittle from his shoulders, "is why they're known as Penguins of Death."

The group headed on to what Albert was fairly sure was an exit of sorts.

*

The exit, if the crack in the rock which they'd shimmied through could be called as such, led into a large open cavern. Embedded into the far wall was a large hatch. At the midpoint was a small metal shack outside of which stood two armed guards. More sat inside.

Grimbsby examined the guards, his pistol in hand and his finger tapping the trigger. He was crouched behind a pile of storage containers, the others strung along the back wall behind similar cover. They were, allegedly, waiting orders from Petty Officer Howell. Grimbsby's lip twitched in a sneer. He doubted it. After Howell's breakdown in the corridor Grimbsby was sure that Franz wore the captain's hat.

A blur in the corner of his eye caused Grimbsby to snap his head round. His eyes focused onto the guards moving towards the crates they hid behind. His grasp tightened on his pistol. He licked his lips, cracked his neck, shuffled his shoulders and squinted down the line.

Franz waved his hands until he caught Grimbsby's eye. He pointed at the guards and indicated that Grimbsby should deal with them.

Grimbsby stalked along the line of boxes. He reached the corner of the room, pulled out his pistol and the smaller one from his jacket. He licked his lips. How to deal with them? he wondered. The guards advanced, the others shuffled, Grimbsby gritted his teeth, his cheek twitched, he shifted his grip on the pistols, and he thought.

*

"Do ya think they're alright?" quizzed Bartholomew Wise. He sat slumped in his chair on the bridge, eyes focused on the ceiling.

Og'dal turned from facing the screen, his arms clasped behind his backs. "I am confident in the capabilities of both your men and my own. They will get the job done," he stated, matter-of-factly.

"Oh? Really?" Wise sounded surprised, "well, your choice, I suppose." He shrugged and wriggled further into the chair.

Og'dal turned back to the screen. Debris floated past, eclipsing the view of the fortress. He waited. One hour and three minutes until the clock ran out.

*

Grimbsby squared his shoulders, moved his main stunner in a slow swing, picked out three of the guards.

He lined up, bang, bang, bang. Three down.

Grimbsby then started firing at the remaining guards.

Franz popped up, fired some shots, Howell stayed crouched.

The four remaining guards were firing in all directions, they couldn't pinpoint either of their assailants. Bang, bang, bang. Three more.

The final one squatted behind a crate.

"Officer 542 to command, assailants on deck twelve, send backup ple—"

Wallop!

He was struck by the flying unconscious body of the shuttle inspector.

Braunnin rolled his neck, picked up the box and nodded.

"Time to go," said Franz, "Albert!"

Albert started off, as quick as he could go, to what he was pretty sure was an exit. The group followed, with Howell bringing up the rear.

Grimbsby was still twitching. Howell was proving to be a liability, and he didn't like it.

*

Albert scooted along the floor at an enviable pace. The group behind him jogged to keep up. There hadn't been enough time to get their rifles from the crate on the hover-trolley.

Grimbsby was running with both his stunners drawn, his eyes swimming in and out of focus. He was following the large blur in front of him that was the bison-like beast Braunnin.

Franz was able to jog just behind Albert, blaster drawn. Checking each corridor they went down.

Braunnin plodded along at a steady pace, though he was struggling with the box. It was awkward to carry, but he hoped they didn't have too much farther to go.

Howell was struggling, his brain was racked with stress. He was following behind, hoping the strange see-through creature leading them knew where it was going.

*

By a somewhat devious route, Albert led the way to the shuttle bay next-but-one to the one they had used. It was sealed up and pressurised and an ancient-looking cargo-drone sat within. It was otherwise deserted. The group made their way swiftly to the front of the bay and across to the three-way airlock that allowed passage between neighbouring bays and to the outside when either or both bays were open to space.

An orange lamp on the ceiling began to flash.

"It's an alarm," Franz pronounced.

"No," Howell contradicted him, earning a severe glare. "It's the external bay door warning."

A high-pitched whistling began and the air stirred.

"Meaning the external bay doors are about to open!" Grimbsby yelled. He rushed forward, crowding into the back of everyone else, who were also attempting to get into the as-yet-unopened airlock.

Clothing and fur began to flap as the cargo bay slowly depressurised and the air rushed out into vacuum. Franz managed to open the airlock door and squeezed through the gap as it opened. Howell and Braunnin bounced off each other, regrouped and tried again. Grimbsby was pulled off his feet by the gusting air, dropped several pistols and knives and landed flat on his face. His weaponry skittered playfully towards the widening gap of the cargo bay doors. Braunnin stuffed Howell into the airlock and shoved his way in after him.

Grimbsby's fingers found no purchase on the flooring and he slid a few centimetres away from the airlock.

Albert scooted across to him and reconfigured his crystalloid field to drop himself to the floor, trapping a flapping expanse of Grimbsby's jacket.

Grimbsby grinned up at him grimly and reached around Albert's base. Albert slid forward, dragging the master-at-arms into the personnel lock.

The door sealed behind them and peace descended.

"And that," Grimbsby said, pulling himself to his feet, "is why they call them Paperweights."

Albert half-wished he had let the man go.

*

Grimbsby attempted to shuffle. He couldn't. He wasn't sure that the airlocks' designer had intended for three men, a penguin and a bison to all squeeze in.

"Open the other door," he growled, attempting to shift himself into a more comfortable position. A crack of light ahead preceded the door opening. Everyone piled out.

Grimbsby staggered out into the shuttle bay. He cracked his knuckles and neck, rolled his shoulders and patted down his pockets; he assessed what he had lost.

"Raise yours hands and get on your knees," a booming voice echoed around the cavern. Grimbsby snapped about, his eyes slowly focused. A line of heavily-armed men stood by the main door. Howell had already complied. The others stared in shock. Grimbsby's cheek began spasming, his hand twitched near his pistol as he judged their chances of shooting their way out of this situation.

*

Albert, having no hands or knees with which to comply to the order, instead lowered himself to the floor and began to run some numbers. There were twenty men, all armed with rifles. Howell was already on the floor, Braunnin was encumbered with the box, which left only Franz and Grimbsby to fire back.

He didn't like the odds.

"Hey, hey!" enthused Franz, best he could. "Boy, are we glad to have run into you!" He eyed Grimbsby's hand moving to his pistol and stepped in front of his Master-at-Arms.

Howell looked up at Franz. "What are you doing?" he whispered.

Franz ignored him. "We were ambushed, you see, there we were, going about our business, when low and behold, these guys dressed as guards attack us, out of the blue! We fought back, but in the end we had to just run!"

"On your knees!" the guard bellowed again.

"Buddy," Franz took a half step forward, "You need to get after those guys, I can show you all the paperwork you like to prove who I am, they certainly won't, check my ID, left back pocket, I work here." Franz raised his hands and took another step forward.

The guard reached out a hand and pulled the fake ID from his back pocket, he scanned it on a device on his belt, a light lit up red.

"Fake. On your knees!" he shouted.

"Fake?" Franz said, "What? I picked it up this morning, must be your machi—"

He was pushed aside and Grimbsby fired at the guards. "Run!" he bellowed.

They didn't need telling twice. Albert zipped to the left, Braunnin right behind. Franz hauled Howell up and pushed him on. Grimbsby fired and fired and fired.

Franz drew his stunner and started firing too, seeking cover where he could find it in the loading bay.

Albert had made it to the next airlock door into the bay that was theirs. Locked.

Crash! The bison careered through the door like it wasn't there. No more need to be subtle.

Albert was next through, followed by a stumbling, blubbering Howell, running for his life.

Grimbsby retreated into the bay and Franz ran for the door, firing wildly over his shoulder. They retreated strategically, a bit at a time, barely being missed by the onslaught of guards.

Albert made it to the ship first, opened the doors, shimmied in. Braunnin arrived next and threw the box in, grabbed a stowed rifle from under the rear-most seat, took cover behind an abandoned crate and started firing.

Howell clambered straight into the shuttle and collapsed into his seat.

Grimbsby and Franz saw the fire coming over their shoulders and looked back to see their bison-like ally firing back. They ran, firing over their shoulders, Franz pushing Grimbsby along. Grimbsby's vision was nothing but fuzz, he couldn't see where he was or where he was going, he was completely dependent on the man behind him.

"Run!" shouted Franz, rather unnecessarily.

The two crewmen got to the ship, Franz climbed in and started it up.

Grimbsby positioned himself in the doorway, waited for his vision to focus-up again, fired.

Braunnin hauled his great mass up into the shuttle.

"Fly Franz, fly fly fly!" Grimbsby was firing at a rapid rate.

Franz gunned the engines. Lift off.

*

"Blast the cargo doors!" Franz yelled as he spun the shuttle round to face the exit.

"Erm," Grimbsby said, assessing the few weapons he still had about his person. "The shuttle isn't armed."

Franz edged the craft over to the corner of the docking bay and swung round so that the personnel door was close to the controls for the cargo bay door and protected from the guards' assault.

"One of you jump out and hit the controls," he called.

"It won't open while the hatch to the neighbouring bay is open," Albert pointed out.

"I'll swivel round and herd them back that way," Franz said. "Then we can close that door and open the main door."

"Braunnin kinda broke the door," Grimbsby said. "I doubt it'll seal now."

Braunnin looked sheepish, in a bisonly kind of way.

"Well," said Franz, taking a firm grip on the control yolk, "luckily this is a tough little salvaging shuttle." He swung the nose round to face the cargo bay hatch again and increased power to the thrusters.

The guards, seeing his intention, scrambled for the airlock.

"I once busted into a two-thousand year old derelict Orbship using nothing but the nose of this shuttle." He shunted power to the rear thrusters and the little craft lurched forward, throwing its passengers to the floor in disarray, except for Albert, and crashed stentoriously into the cargo bay hatch. There was a brief series of shudders and shrieks, and they were away and in free space.

*

Grimbsby, ensconced in the seat behind Petty Officer Howell, glared daggers at the chair and the man seated in it. Howell had instantly surrendered, been shaken at every turn, and generally made himself useless. Further he'd risked all of their lives. Grimbsby fingered his pistol, considered shooting him here and now. His lips twitched at the thought of it. No. He'd wait.

The ship, under Franz's expert guidance, weaved through the wreckage surrounding the vast fortress Unassailable. At any moment he expected the cannons on the fortress to blast them into atoms. Nothing came. Checking his watch, he saw that they were down to twelve minutes on the clock. He wondered why the men in the docking bay hadn't reported yet, why they hadn't been destroyed. His tension increased.

The Good Ship Munders came into view on the screen.

Franz keyed the comms "Franz to bridge, are we clear to dock?" He turned the shuttle ready to enter the bay.

"This is the bridge," Captain Wise's voice crackled over the comms, "you are clear to enter the loading bay." His words where accompanied by the opening of the bay doors. Once they fully opened Franz moved the ship in to land.

*

"Crewman Dunvore, relieve Mr. Braunnin of his burden," ordered Lieutenant Og'dal, pointing with one of his hands at the box Braunnin carried.

Dunvore scuttled forward and wrapped a half dozen tentacles round the box. He retreated to his officer's side.

"We should leave, immediately," Grimbsby said, fixing Og'dal with a glare. He scratched his cheek. Something was off. He couldn't put his finger on it. He rested his hand on his pistol butt.

Og'dal held up a placating hand. "Your report, Mr. Howell?" he asked, a note of uncertainty in his voice.

"No report," he said, raising a blaster to face Og'dal and pulling another to put against Grimbsby's head. Grimbsby stiffened, hand clasped around his pistol butt. "Hands above your head, all of you," said Howell.

For a moment everyone was dumbfounded. Then they slowly raised their hands, tentacles and, in the case of captain Wise, eyebrows.

"Up against the wall," Howell said, gesturing with his pistols, "all of you … quickly!"

Grimbsby slowly shuffled round along with everyone else.

"Weapons on the floor!" shouted Howell. A rain of pistols, blasters, stunners and knives fell upon the deck.

Grimbsby's cheek twitched furiously. He'd known something was off. His mind whirred. What could he do?

"This is Warden Kzark to Unassailable. I've got them all and the asset as well. Awaiting further orders." The words came from Howell's mouth but didn't sound like Howell.

Grimbsby's eyes shifted about the room unseeing. What to do?

*

Franz was looking at Howell with a dumbfounded expression. He didn't really understand. Why had Howell betrayed them? Although, it wasn't really Howell.

The thing that looked very much like Howell but actually wasn't had a finger to its ear.

"Yes, Sir, awaiting your arrival," it stiffened up, rolled its neck, rolled its shoulders and began to spasm. Howell's body dropped to the floor. He spasmed some more. He coughed hard, out came a large ball of fleshy goo.

Franz grimaced. It wasn't a pretty sight.

The ball flipped and twisted, started expanding. Once it had finished contorting itself and growing to an extraordinary size in such a short space of time, it was something Franz recognised. The creature that had crawled out of the wall after they had retrieved the box. The one that sounded like a dubstep baseline.

"You?" he said, "Howell?" he called to the man laying on the floor.

"He won't be alright for some time," it replied bluntly.

"I am Lieutenant Og'dal of The Galactic Federation and I am giving you one chance to surrender to me, or force will be used." Og'dal seemed to be going for a bluff. It didn't work.

"My commanding officer will be here shortly and you will all be remanded into custody and returned to Unassailable for questioning. Now shut up." The creature held Howell's blaster at the line of crew, backed up against the loading bay wall.

"Hijacked twice in one day, that's got to be a record." Captain Wise was rather nonchalant about the situation.

Grimbsby nodded, at what no one knew. "I knew something was off with you," he said, "I felt it."

"Good for you," the creature replied.

"Yes, indeed …" Grimbsby floated his eyes around the room, they focussed on one of the security cameras in the corner of the room. He hoped someone was watching.

Og'dal's watch buzzed. The time for their ruse was up. Their ID had just expired.

*

Sussurus watched the screens as the thing that had once been human pointed a blaster at her crew. She moved her leaves to speak to the ship's matrix, to do two things. Firstly, reactivate Hijack Mode. Secondly, call for a little bit of backup.

*

The hostages looked out of the loading bay doors into the vacuum of space as the speck of the creature's commanding officer's ship edged closer and closer.

Franz couldn't see a way out of this. He nudged Grimbsby next to him, Grimbsby looked at him and shook his head. No ideas.

Og'dal seemed to be working on something, though it was difficult to tell, and there was no way of reading Albert. Braunnin wouldn't voice a plan even if he had one. It seemed, at present, that they were just going to have to rely on outside forces. If there were any to come.

At that moment, their wristbands buzzed. They all looked down at their wristbands, the green text read 'Hijack Mode activated'.

Franz laughed.

"What's so funny?" the creature asked.

"Come," he beckoned to the creature, laughing to himself, "Come look at this."

The creature came closer, Franz held up his wristband, "You see that? Twice in a day!" he shouted.

Wham! The creature was knocked back by a hairy fist. Braunnin jumped on it.

They wrestled and Braunnin threw it towards the loading bay door.

Grimbsby, Franz, Og'dal, the captain and Dunvore unleashed their blasters into its body. Shot after shot.

It dropped. Braunnin ran over, hefted its mass onto his bison shoulders and hurled it out into the vacuum of space.

The relieved hostages took a breather. Then the ship was rocked.

"Franz to the bridge!" Franz shouted into his wristband. The ship rocked again.

"This is the bridge," came V'ann's voice.

"Get us out of here!" Grimbsby shouted.

Grimbsby hit close on the bay doors as the ship was rocked again.

Og'dal's comms cracked into life, "Insidiis Occulte to Luetenant Og'dal, come in."

"This is Og'dal," he said

"Good to hear from you, we got a distress call, coming up on your location …" there was an uncomfortable pause, "Now."

The crew in the loading bay heard shots ripple overhead. They had some firepower behind them now.

*

Of course, even the firepower of a battleship like Insidiis Occulte was nothing compared to the might of Unassailable. The arrival of the second ship merely served as a distraction, allowing V'Ann to boost hard around a moonlet, fire at a couple of satellites to cause distracting explosions and lose themselves amid the debris field.

A moment later they left real space and fled back to Federation territory.

"So, what's in the box?" the captain asked when they had all breathed a sigh of relief, except for Albert who did not breath.

"That's classified," Og'dal said. Dunvore tightened his tentacular grip on the prize.

"Oh, come on now. We risked our lives for that thing," Franz said.

"For which we are exceedingly grateful," Og'dal said.

"So, you'll just be rejoining your ship when we emerge back into real space?" Franz asked.

"That is the plan."

"Shame we didn't tell your ship where we were going."

There was an awkward silence.

"Perhaps," said Franz, "we should negotiate a payment for services rendered, rather than just assuming we could be commandeered for free."

"Great idea," the captain enthused, "Exactly the kind of thing I'd've come up with myself."

Og'dal flexed its four arms. "How much did you have in mind?"

*

The airlock sealed and a dull clunking announced the departure of the pinnace containing Lieutenant Og'dal, crewman Dunvore, a rather dazed Howell and the mysterious box. Grimbsby stood near the control panel in the loading bay. His lip gave a spasmodic twitch. His hand fluttered over the butt of the blaster he'd lifted from crewman Dunvore as he left. A hefty military model, illegal for civilians to carry. He looked forward to using it.

"Grimbsby to bridge," he said into the communicator. "Our guests have departed, airlock is secured and we are clear for departure." He turned and headed to the lift. His eyes focused on the hatchway, his hand caressed the pistol butt, his feet rhythmically slapped the floor, his lips twitched into a smile.

*

Braunnin plodded his way to the crew lounge and got himself a large cup of Languanian Ale. He slumped down in the corner of the lounge. He was too big for the chairs and sofas they had.

He took a big swig and breathed a sigh of relief. No more grunt work to be done. Well, not for a few hours at least.

*

Jonathan O'Hinkley, feet on desk, magazine in one hand and sandwich in the other, barely glanced up as an announcement came over the ship's intercom.

"This is the captain to all hands, we, err, what was I saying Franz?" A brief pause and a subdued voice followed. "Ah, yes, of course. Well done people, good job and all that, but time to hunker down and get to work. We still have to make our rendezvous with The Statek Rdzy."

Jonathan shook his head, bit into the sandwich, resettled himself and continued reading.

*

Franz made his way down the corridor to the zero-G lift and ascended from the middle deck to the top. He walked along to his quarters and scanned his wristband.

He showered and got into his night clothes, climbed into his bed.

He was awoken by his alarm ten minutes later. It was time for his next shift on the Good Ship Munders.

*

Susurrus sampled the air blowing from the vents, assessed the chemical make-up, confirmed that all strangers had left the ship, and relaxed into a pose that was difficult to differentiate by anybody else. She fluttered her petals at the computer's sensors and confirmed that all systems were nominal.

*

Albert returned to the purser's office to re-run his calculations. On the negative side, they had lost several pieces of equipment on the mission, made themselves late for their next rendezvous and sustained some minor hull damage. On the positive, they had been paid a small retainer by the Galactic Federation and retained two small containers from Unassailable's vault that Braunnin had kept hold of.

One contained an uncut Brown Dwarf hyper-diamond, worth several tens of thousands of credits. The other contained an interstellar trading encryption key that covered the entire domain of the Cosmic Dominion, an entirely new market for The Good Ship Munders and potentially worth tens of millions in future trade prospects. Assuming the Cosmic Dominion powers-that-be did not link their ship with the raid on Unassaiable.

That mission would be an interesting one to estimate.

THE END


Copyright 2020, Alexander D Jones, Gareth D Jones and Haydn T A Jones

Bio: Alex and Haydn Jones are relatively new authors, following in the footsteps of their father Gareth, who is now unofficially the second most widely translated science fiction short story author in the world, though they like to point out that they published their first stories at a much younger age than he did.

E-mail: Alexander D Jones, Gareth D Jones and Haydn T A Jones

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