Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 29: Not quite what they expected.

     Margot Jones, communications officer fifth class, was still pulling on her boots and savouring the last wisps of her dream of wild passion as she stumbled around in her cramped cabin, little more than a broom cupboard with a bed and barely enough room to turn around in, when the doorbell buzzer sounded. Outside three armed and armoured mech Earth Fed troopers waited patiently to escort her to the Comms deck for duty shift. “Just a minute.” She called out as she straightened her uniform and hair in front of her mirror.
     “This way, ma’am.” One of the troopers beckoned courteously with his hand as she stepped out the door. They fell in place around her as she set off towards the Comms deck, one on each side and one behind her. She mused wryly how back on Earth only VIP’s, politicians, celebrities or criminals got an escort like this yet she had an escort daily to protect her from being mobbed and possibly lynched on her way to and from work. Not just her, but everyone who worked in the Communications and Administration sections up on Metropole 1 orbital space station. At least the riots had been quelled.
     The first part of their journey through the crews’ quarters was uneventful. Here everyone was nominally on the same side. Once they got to the main public section of the station things changed radically. She could see the questions, fear, barely suppressed panic, hostility and surly resentment on the faces of the people they passed. Occasionally someone would shout at her. Today no-one made any attempt to attack her. In spite of her guards it had happened on many occasions. Instead there was a surly security-cordoned mob gathered outside the entrance to the Communications deck holding up makeshift banners, bawling, begging, pleading, threatening and chanting fear-tinged poorly-rehearsed slogans. Margot ignored the plastic bottles thrown her way as she slipped in through the door. They’d still be there when she came off shift. Different faces, the same old desperate mob.
     Inside, a poorly-maintained pretence at normality surrounded her. Viewscreens arranged along the walls displayed video signals from various feeds or else just video noise, switching at random unless one of the operatives deemed it interesting enough to pay closer attention. Intel officers from the SF Trumpton, which initially arrived to quell the riots on Metropole 1, crowded around each workstation constantly quizzing their operators. Some of the workstations had been taken over by the military. Crumpled plastic cups and litter piled up untidily in corners and the air was tense with the reek of desperate overwork. She glanced over at Pablo Esquador who worked the station next to hers as she slipped into her control seat and adjusted her HUD. He flashed back a furtive friendly smile and winked, just visible through the data readouts on his translucent HUD, in between dealing with the Intel officer assigned to him.
     Normally all Margot had to do was to monitor the quality of the signal from Earth and make sure it was routed to the correct destination. Her job was to make sure the terrestrial vidcasts were routed to the commercial transmitters that filled the sky waves with infotainment, entertainment, shopping channels, porn channels, news, net data, video calls and the like. It was an easy life and impressed her parents, family and relatives Earthside. But that took a sudden change when they lost contact with Earth three weeks ago. The actual break, although disorienting when it happened didn’t last long. The feeds simply degraded to the point that they were nothing more than static noise. It was what came afterwards that didn’t make any sense.
     One moment she was surrounded by a field of readouts and displays in her HUD monitoring the data flow between their station and Earth and fielding calls from self-important Plutarchs who insisted on the human touch in between the constant banter amongst her communications team. Then the data stream began breaking up: The video stream began deteriorating into random jumbled images, blocky pixels and video mush while the sound degraded to unintelligibility and rushing noise. And then it would come back only to start breaking up again. Sometimes it would break and go dead or simply jump to another scene as if they were randomly channel surfing. Data transmissions would occasionally come online but the encoding was all wrong or it would come in on previously unused frequencies. When they managed to get audio and video it would be in languages or dialects they didn’t recognise. The names and scenes would be different; sometimes subtly, sometimes radically.
     And that was just the beginning. First it was just harried admin executives from the station storming in demanding to be put through to Earth. It wasn’t long before they were flooded with calls from angry Plutarchs and their flunkies demanding to be put through to Earth immediately. Something she and her team were desperately trying, and failing, to do. At best they were only able to raise sporadic comms with Earth. And what little they were able to get was mostly unintelligible.
     At first they assumed it was some sort of system fault. Techies were rushed into the comms suite where she and her team worked but to no avail: all their comms hardware and software checked out A-OK yet things got worse. The Techies’ supervisor decided that it had to be some sort of sabotage or terrorist action Earthside as they couldn’t find anything malfunctioning on the station and ordered his team to pack up and tend to more urgent matters in the landing bays.
     Three days later the riots started with panicky residents desperate to get back to Earth. Ugly but no-one was killed at first. Not until Anton Mikhailov, a Russian Plutarch, and his armed guards stormed the landing bay and commandeered a shuttle craft back to Earth just ahead of the Space Force arriving at the station. The Space Force cruiser, the SF Trumpton, despatched three interceptors to catch their quarry.
     The rioting died down as everyone on the station followed Mikhailov’s journey back to Earth. At first they were subjected to Anton’s colourful tirades against Earth Fed’s incompetent bureaucracy and its bullying military but once they re-entered the atmosphere and began their descent over Russia he began to describe what he saw for the benefit of everyone back on the station. The last thing they heard from him after they landed was a confused Anton complaining as the Space Force pilots climbed out of their ships to arrest him. “What’s this chemical works doing where my dacha should be?” Then their signal began to break up and nothing was ever heard of them again. Not even the Space Force interceptors. It was as if they’d winked out of existence.
     The riots were easily overwhelmed by the Space Force troopers but that only reinforced a surly, panicky and increasingly paranoid mood that grew on everyone with each passing day. After the first week Space Force allowed traffic to and from Luna and the Lagrange stations but blocked all traffic to Earth. Some people left to go to Luna but even more flooded in. Metropole 1 was Earth’s main orbital station. Being the closest to Earth it was on the front line so the curiosity seekers poured in quickly filling it to capacity. That left the Space Force cruiser stationed alongside the thankless task of turning away incoming passenger ships.
     Margot adjusted her perception to the datastream readouts in her HUD and activated local chat:
     [Eric] * GTSY. Margot.
     [Suzanna] * WB, hon.
     [Ricardo, Mgr] * Get yourself plugged into the funhouse, Margot.
     [Margot] * Any luck Earthside?
     [Arkhan-D] * Lol.
     [Miu-La] * No.
     [Eric] * Same old same old.
     [Margot] * What, the Hapsburg and Franco-Prussian guys swearing at each other on analogue audio?
     [Arkha-Dn] * No, we lost them.
     [Suzanna] * Got some cranky Riechmarshal blowing hot and cold.
     [Margot] * The one we had last week?
     [Ricardo, Mgr] * No.
     [Miu-La] * Doesn’t seem to remember us.
     [Eric] * Uniform’s different. Names are different, too.
     [Ricardo, Mgr] * I’ll patch it in for you, Margot.

     A red-faced blustering and spluttering Riechmarshal in mid-stream of what seemed to be a never-ending tirade popped up on Margot’s HUD. He shook his fist as he strutted in front of the screen accusing them of violating the non-aggression pact and that the glorious Reich demanded that the reprehensible Soviet aggressors must move their station out of the Reich’s space or face the consequences.

     [Suzanna] * Who got out of the wrong side of their bed this morning?
     [Miu-La] * He’ll bust a blood vessel at the rate he’s going.
     [Eric] * Lol.

     This kept on for the next hour and then the signal began to beak up. At least he hadn’t launched any missiles towards Metropole 1 as had happened last time. The last they heard of him was a faint wash of militaristic music drowning in a sea of noise.

     [Arkhan-D] * Uh oh, here we go.
     [Ricardo, Mgr] * Fasten your seatbelts, kids ;)

     Rushing white noise filled Margot’s HUD as the datastream monitors flatlined. For the next few hours all they picked up was occasional unintelligible washes of garbled voice and faint images on video. Her datastream readouts barely even lifted off the floor the whole time so she tilted up her HUD visor and watched the array of viewscreens on the walls for any signs of life. When she broke for her lunch break they were receiving a cacophony of low-power transmissions, some military, some commercial. Very little civilian chatter. What they could pick up was distorted by heavy background radiation. The few distorted images coming through showed a war-torn landscape. It didn’t look good.
     But she was hungry and needed a break so she sloped off to the canteen with Miu-La and Eric. The food was awful but going to one of the noodle bars on Promenade D was out of the question. She’d need an escort of guards to make it past the mob and they’d only find her on the Promenade. Ricardo had been ambushed on the first day after the comms break and had to be rescued by Earth Fed police. Since then the Communications Centre canteen did a roaring trade inflicting its indifferently-prepared pre-packaged meals onto its captive victims.
     They were served in turn by a team of tired and overworked caterers. Margot chose what claimed to be a lentil lasagne but looked more like a blob of cheese-coated sludge in a steaming mud puddle and a slice of strawberry cheesecake that had all the allure of a lump of plaster dripped with translucent red paint. The cheerlessly functional hard enamelled metal walls reflected the conversation in the canteen so that it became a wash of babble that gave the background music a good fight. At least it wasn’t so loud as to be unpleasant.
     Each wall of the noisy, bustling canteen sported a large flatscreen overlooking the seating featuring a rolling news feed. The voiceover was drowned out by the chatter and music in the canteen but you could pick up the main points from the ticker-tape at the bottom of each screen. Ever since the break their regular pro-corporatist news feed from MetroMedia on Earth had been replaced by the Luna-C Broadcasting Corp’s news feed which, in spite of its libertarian slant, was generally regarded as the most thoroughgoing news channel still on air. A few people watched the screens attentively though most were in groups chatting about the days’ events.
     “You know, I keep expecting Comms Central at Kourou or one of the hubs to come online and say it was all a joke or that it’s been the work of anarchists or something.” Margot mused as she poked at her lunch. It didn’t taste or feel like any lasagne she’d ever made at home but it would have to do.
     “I wish” Eric agreed as he listlessly worked his way though what must have been the most lifeless bean sprout salad ever. “It doesn’t make any sense. Even if there’s been some coup Earthside you think someone would get online to us to tell us who the new owners of the station would be. But no, it just goes on and on…” His brittle laugh failed to hide his uneasy exasperation.
     “Maybe whoever’s taken over is testing us.” Miu-La suggested in between mouthfuls of noodles dripping with a synthetic sauce that almost looked fluorescent.
     “If that’s all those anarchists are up they ought to end this charade.” Eric snorted. “It’s gone on long enough. Surely they’ve got their answers by now. If they want the plutarchs and corporate nobs, fine. Let them have them but leave the rest of us alone. We’re just ordinary people with jobs like them.”
     “They might not see it that way.” Margot interrupted before Eric could launch into a rant. The current opinion held my most people aboard the Metropole 1 was that there had been some sort of coup on Earth and that they just had to wait it out until the dust settled. “They’re not going to shoot us down. If that was their plan they would have done it by now. It’s been three weeks and we’re an easy target.”
     “I’ve just started my 3-month tour.” Miu-La wasn’t going to let things get on top of her. “It’ll probably be all blown over by the time I wrap this one up. If not I’ll go to Luna and visit my cousin at Herschel-B for my break.”
     Margot glanced over at the screen to see a brief replay from Ruby and Veronica’s time on Vermthellyn. She was amazed by how normal it all seemed even though it was an alien world. Everyone knew that story now. It had been plastered all over the news from the moment they’d set foot on that alien ship until Veronica’s return. There had been wild speculation about Ruby’s fate but the Space Corps and Amalgamated Metals & Mining were being very tight-lipped. Meanwhile the Mech Sensorium on Mars ran a cloned replay of Ruby’s adventures… if you could log in. The connection rates from Metropole 1 were extortionate so it was a luxury Margot passed up on.
     “I’d like to go there.” Margot mused aloud while staring at the images of Vermthellyn on the screen.
     “Huh?” Eric was interrupted mid-stride in his griping political rant and looked up at the screen. “Oh, that. Good luck with that. It’s light years away. Even on our fastest ships you’d be long dead before you got there.” He sneered as he brutally squashed Margot’s wistful dreams. “Fascinating place though.”
     “Yeah but they used some sort of teleportation device.” Margot countered defensively. “I watched the vid, you know. One moment they were on the reptilian’s worldship or whatever it is then the screen went white. When the picture came back they were in what looked like a huge tube-rail terminus on that alien planet. If they can do it maybe we could, too.”
     “They faked it in a film studio.” Eric had a tendency to run with whatever conspiracy theories he came across. “I mean, really? You believe all that guff?”
     “Why would they want to do that?” Miu-La accepted the story of Ruby & Veronica’s first contact encounter with aliens at face value. “Even if they did, they haven’t had much time to produce a fake.” Miu-La was more annoyed with the limp slippery noodles in her lunch which kept slipping off of her chopsticks than she was with Eric’s sneering scepticism. “Especially now that we’ve lost contact with Earth, they’ve got too much on their hands already.”
     “To distract peoples attention away from the comms break with Earth.” Eric replied with the certainty of a true believer.
     “Well, there is that.” Margot conceded. Losing all comms with Earth was a big deal which left them very vulnerable, especially if the approaching alien worldship proved hostile. People were getting panicky about that. Margot had seen the replay from Veronica’s interceptor as it approached the alien ship and it was huge! She still sided with Miu-La in believing that the first contact encounter as broadcast on the media was genuine. It was too sudden and unexpected to be a fake.
     Ghhk-Ack! Miu-La choked on her listless noodles and slapped her chest as tears streamed out of her eyes.
     “Miu, are you all right?” Margot forgot all about Eric’s cynicism at the sight of Miu-La choking.
     “I, ah...” Miu-La gasped as her eyes widened in fear. Her chest heaved in an attempt to breathe but all that came out were desperate choking noises. Eric jumped out of his seat and grabbed Miu-La in a Heimlich Manoeuvre to unblock her windpipe and made a valiant effort but to no avail. From behind he could only see Miu-La’s back and lustrous straight black hair as he did his best. Margot, who had been sitting opposite Miu-La watched in a fascinated horror as Miu-La’s skin darkened, at first through deepening shades of red, then to a glistening purple-black as her body morphed into something that, when it finally burst out of Miu-La’s clothes, was anything but human.
     What had been Miu-La tumbled backwards onto Eric. By now people were getting up from their places and clearing a space around them more out of a desire of not wanting to get involved than anything else. The creature scrambled upright on its reverse-hinged legs and, in one effortless motion, grabbed Eric, broke his neck and tossed his lifeless body aside. The canteen erupted into a panic with people rushing for the exits. Margot backed away as fast as she could as a few brave souls stepped forward brandishing chairs and pieces of furniture to fight it back.
     “Yes…. Go to Luna.” It hissed as it fought off its attackers with an inhuman ease. Margot took one last look back at the creature as she pushed her way through the crowd struggling to escape out one of the canteen doors. It had curled its lower abdomen between its legs so that it pointed forward and was squirting viscous purplish goo onto its attackers. Earth Fed and Space Force troopers were pushing their way in through the crowded exits and shooting as soon as they could see their quarry.
     It was over quickly. Margot could tell as the noise from the canteen behind her had died down. Ahead of her was another problem. The entire foyer for the canteen has been sealed off with a temporary wall of clear plastic sheeting sealing everyone inside. Beyond the wall was a rank of fully combat-armoured Space Force troopers with their laser rifles primed and aiming right back at her and everyone who had just escaped from the canteen.
     A few people walked up to the wall, meaning to push their way through but backed off when they saw the red spots of the troopers targeting lasers shining on their bodies. The troopers meant business. So they waited, milling around sullenly and taking furtive peeks back into the canteen to see what had happened. After what felt like an interminable wait a voice finally broke through on the PA system.
     “We apologise for the inconvenience but you will have to wait until you can be processed for decontamination. Please avail yourselves of the canteen facilities. Meanwhile here’s some music for you.” Margot was certain she heard someone snickering off-mic just before the foyer and canteen flooded with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. They were in for a long wait.

     “Lee-say! Lee-say! Mystery moons spotted in the sky! Lee-say!” The grubby street-corner hawker held a copy of his newspaper aloft as curious passers-by bought their copies and made their way along the rain-drizzled cobbled street dodging in and out between laden steamwagons and horse-drawn carriages. “Armoured Infantry defeats the Franco-Prussian League in the Mid-Plains! Lee-say! Lee-say!”
     Sam Humphries had heard enough scuttlebutt flying amongst his apprentices all day at the Aerodrome workshops. It had been almost impossible to get any work out them as they had been swapping ever more exotic rumours all day long so he pulled his waterlogged cloth cap forward to shield his eyes from the seasonal cold drizzle and dodged his way through the bustling traffic to buy a newspaper to read for himself if there was any truth behind the rumours.
     “That’ll be thruppence, sir. God Save the King, sir.” The hawker perfunctorily doffed his cap and exhorted Sam as he thrust the day’s edition into Sam’s hand. Up until this morning all the talk for the last few months had been nothing but the ever-advancing Franco-Prussian army pushing their way northward across the Mid-Plains and speculation as to when and how they would capture their great city of Windsor on the Great Lakes. Now that story seemed almost old and forgotten with the appearance of the new mystery moons. They had appeared overnight… not the brightest of objects but easily tracked in the night sky with a pair of field-glasses if you knew where to look. Or so they said. He’d check the rumours for himself this evening if there was a break in the clouds.
     Meanwhile he glumly trudged homeward unable to get his mind off the fact that his home would be cold and empty. His fiancée, Petunia, had recently left him for a well-to-do banker. He didn’t blame Petunia but it left a sour knot in his heart. Morton earned four times what he did on his threadbare engineer’s salary and had a sumptuous house in a select part of town. He could provide handsomely to support a family while all Sam could do was struggle to keep a roof over his head. And that was without any children. Raising a family would break Sam’s back and he knew it. But in his heart he knew that it was engineers like himself that made their society great and not the parasitical bourgeois fops like Morton who sucked the lifeblood out of all around them.
     He stopped in at his cramped apartment just off the Windsor docks for a quick bite to eat and packed his telescope and binoculars in his rucksack and took his well-oiled pistol from its locked cedar wood cabinet over the cold cast-iron mantelpiece. One had to be careful these days especially with the advancing battlefront. Rather than sit around in his cold apartment waiting for the sky to darken, he set out on the tram towards Richmond Hill and stopped off at the Flywheel and Firkin public house on the way where the local Astronomy Club held its meetings in the hope that some of the regulars would be there and interested in taking a jaunt out to take a look at those so-called mystery moons.
     By the time he was on his second pint of light ale, Sam’s bones had warmed up and his thoughts had drifted away from Petunia, helped along in no small part by the musicians in the pub and their endless repertoire of ridiculously comical songs. One was a voluptuous woman with a voice like a foghorn who seemed intent on tearing her accordion to pieces or at least stuffing it down her bustiere and her accomplice was a wiry violinist who towered over her and spent his time manically sawing his fiddle to an early and painful death.
     He was basking in the warm glow of the pub and a contentment that he hadn’t known since Petunia had left while he waited for the sky to darken and to see if any members of the Amateur Astronomy Association turned up when a cold, wet hand grabbed his arm and shattered his pleasant reverie. “Mr Sam, sir. Thank goodness I found you here.”
     Sam looked up to see Martin Chmura from the Chippewa village of Tecumseh ten miles outside the city limits of Windsor and one of their few regular members of the Amateur Astronomy Association. “There's something you must see, Sam. I have a horse waiting for you at the stables. But first get yourself something to eat. We may be there all night.”
     Sam's curiosity was piqued. “Is it those mystery moons? I was on my way to Richmond Hill with my telescope.” Sam waved to the waiter and ordered a steak pie and brown ale for himself and Martin.
     “No, it's something different.” Martin replied with the urgent tone of someone who was already familiar with the latest rumours but not wanting to give too much away. “It appeared shortly after we spotted those moons. Your telescope might prove useful.”
     An hour later they were galloping in earnest tearing along the earthen track next to the cracked bitumen road leading out of Windsor towards Tecumseh and beyond. The clouds hadn't broken so Sam was at a loss as to what Martin wanted him to see. But Martin was insistent and had even paid for Sam's horse at the stables. Not having anything else to do and still looking for any diversion to put Petunia behind him, he followed Martin through the damp night-time gloom. Martin veered away towards the lakeshore away from Flat Top Hill, one of the favoured viewing locations the Astronomy Association often visited as they approached Tecumseh. You got a good view from the shore, but only to the North and West, which was lovely for romantic nights out but not like Flat Top Hill, which had excellent all-round viewing for serious astronomy. Surely Martin didn’t have that in mind? No matter, if things turned awkward, he would ride straight back to Windsor.
     Any doubts were soon dispelled when they were met by a group of villagers with carbines slung across their backs. Martin dismounted his horse and silently indicated to Sam to do likewise. They left their steaming horses in the care of a village stable boy who led them away to a watering trough. Sam looked up dubiously at the night time sky. It was still largely overcast and the altostratus undulatus clouds were floating along at speed in an Easterly direction with a few clumps of nimbostratus floccus hanging motionless below them. So much for stargazing.
     Sam and Martin fell in silently behind the villagers who led the way along a well-beaten path through a thin stand of reddening maple, silver aspen and white pine towards the lakeshore. They still had their carbines slung across their backs so they weren’t in any immediate danger. Nonetheless Sam opened a button on his jacket and undid the strap that held his pistol in its holster just in case. Not the he was much of a marksman but the noise might be enough to scare off an attacker. No doubt even the women of Martin’s village would be a better shot than himself so he felt safe in their company.
     Their group leader, Red, motioned to their group to stop and spread out at the edge of the trees. Once everyone was in their place he made his way over to join Sam and Martin. They could see what looked like a private dirigible resting on the beach. Even from their distance he could see that it was too small to be a commercial freighter, most likely a private dirigible belonging to some rich east-coast millionaire who hadn’t a clue how to fly one properly. “What’s the fuss?” Sam asked after Red had joined them. “It’s some rich boy’s toy. They’ll have a wireless to get help. Might as well leave them to their own devices.”
     “Nuh-uh” Red flatly contradicted Sam.
     “What do you mean?” Sam asked.
     “My wife threw me out of the house for being drunk last night.” Red chuckled in his deep melodious voice. “So I spent the night slumped up against the side of the house. Anyway, about an hour or so later I saw what looked like a shooting star except that it was way too low. It shot over our village and towards the water so I got off my ass and trekked out here to see what it was.”
     “And?” Sam prompted him.
     “It’s not a dirigible. They can’t move that fast.”
     “Maybe it’s a Hapsburg Tesla Craft…” Sam speculated softly as he peered through his binoculars observing the scorch marks on its smooth white metallic hull. “But what would they be doing here?” He’d read about the Hapsburg’s latest invention in some of the more obscure pseudo-technical journals that peddled quackery alongside genuine science with a disreputable ease. “Their nearest territories are in the Caribbean or on the Pacific Coast.”

     “They’re out there again, ma'am.” Corporal Bill Smedley, the ship’s comms officer informed his commander, Lieutenant Nora McDermott.
     “Show me.” She ordered Bill as she leaned over his console. She was as exhausted as her entire crew. The previous day had been harrowing. Ever since the comms blackout the wealthy tourists and Plutarchs holed up in the Hilton-Hoshii complex aboard the Metropole 1 orbital station had gone on the rampage rioting and taking their staff hostage with the vain ultimatum of being returned to Earth safely. She and the rest of the Space Corps had barricaded themselves into their quarters leaving the Earth Fed garrison with the unenviable task of being the riot police. Something they did only half-heatedly as they too could sense that things were not quite as they should be.
     So Nora jumped at the chance to command the reconnaissance mission to Earth that had been negotiated by the station’s civilian commander with the tourists in return for releasing the hotel staff. Anything to get away from that madhouse. Now they were on an Earth they didn’t recognise and had also lost comms with Metropole 1 “Dammit we should be in the middle of the Detroit-Windsor burbs. My Aunt Bessie has a sports shop here.” Nora kept up the pretence that things were normal even though they could plainly see that something was very wrong when they shot past Cleveland as they came in to land.
     “Not here she doesn’t ma'am.” Her pilot, Sergeant Sergei Rudovski, calmly pointed out as Bill brought up the infrared image on their viewscreen where they could clearly see the heat signatures of twenty-three people ranged out in groups along the perimeter of the woods in the distance. He zoomed in on each group in turn and switched over to their optical intensifier to get a better look.
     “Fuck me; we’ve landed in an Indian Reservation.” Nora blurted out incredulously. “You sure you’ve got the right coordinates, Wilson?”
     “Yes ma'am.” Her corpulent navigator, Corporal Bennie Wilson wheezed.
     Nora went over to her console to consult its screen. “Background radiation is nominal and no signs of biocide. Right, let’s get some rest. We’ll fly over to Lake Onega in the morning and find out what’s happened to that idiot Mikhailov, his crew and the Trumpton’s interceptors. Then we can ship out those whining babies back to their palaces. Smedley, keep pinging Metropole 1 until we get a signal. Wake me up when you do. Rudovski set the perimeter defences to stun at 20 metres and kill at 10. And set the alarm clock for 7:30. I’d advise you lot to get some sleep while you can: you won’t get much once we get back to Metropole 1.”

     “We can get in close to them without being seen.” Red explained as he led Martin and Sam through the trees along the edge of the clearing on a path towards the lake shore. Sam couldn’t take his eyes off the strange airship parked up on the beach as he trudged along noisily snapping twigs and stems lying on the ground behind his silent compatriots. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it but something seemed quite wrong about it. For a start the design seemed sleek and at odds with the gothic rococo currently in vogue in the Eastern Hapsburg Empire. As they got closer Sam could smell a faint tang of ozone which struck his as odd since that was what you’d normally expect by the seaside, not from an inland lake. He could feel his hair beginning to stand on end but put that down to his nervousness at being confronted by something totally alien.
     A crow fell out of the sky and landed with a graceless thump on the ground beside Sam. It lay there twitching helplessly as it died; its wings and bones broken by the force of its fall. Looking around he noticed a few more birds dead on the ground as well as a few dead squirrels.
     “It must be that airship.” Martin suggested as they spied on the alien craft from the safety of the woods. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” He added as he pointed at a dead jay on the ground.
     Sam was about to add his own hypotheses when he felt as if he’d slammed into a wall of electrifying knives that scythed through his very being knocking him to the ground in agonising torment. Now he knew what had happened to the birds and wondered if he too would soon be as dead as they were. He tried to turn around to call out to Red and Martin but was unable to move although he was able to hear that they too had been struck down just as he was.
     But he did not die. Instead his mind wandered feverishly in a vain attempt to take his attention away from the unending pain that wracked his body. The hours passed like an eternity. Another bird fell out of the sky and thudded into his chest with a crunch of breaking bones sometime before sunrise. Another eternity of electrifying pain passed until shortly after sunrise when, cold and sodden he watched the mysterious ship lift off silently. As it did, the paralysing pain faded and he was able to look around and saw Martin grunting in pain as he struggled to his feet.

     “Well, Detroit sure looked different.” Bennie commented as they set course for Lake Onega in Karelia. Sergei took them in a sub-orbital arc across Greenland and Scandinavia. It would only take a few hours by going up into sub-space.
     “Did you get a video log?” Nora quizzed Bennie.
     “The whole way, from the moment we left Metropole 1.” Bennie reassured her It was SOP anyway. Most times the video logs were wiped after each, usually routine, mission was completed. “No-one’s going to believe us otherwise.”
     “And they only use analogue comms. That’s so stone-age.” Bill still couldn’t get his head around that one. “It’s as if everything digital has crashed.”
     “Maybe they had a massive EMP.” Nora clutched at straws. Electromagnetic pulses could knock out electronics locally, but not on a world-wide basis. “That might explain why we lost contact with Metropole 1.”
     “Then why is anything in our ship still working?” Sergei shot that idea down. “It would have affected us, too.”
     “Hey check this out.” Bennie drew their attention to the viewscreen as they shot up through the ionosphere. Luminous streaks of purple plasma flickered and snaked around the planet. “It looks like an aurora except it’s going from pole to pole.”
     “Comms with Metropole 1 is coming back online.” Bill announced.
     “Tell them we’re on our way to pick up Mikhailov and send them a copy of our video log, Smedley.” Nora always addressed her crew by their surnames. She really wasn’t the bossy type. If truth be told she was more the typical easy-going small-town girl. But she was in command and it helped her stay focused.
     Mitch Connolly’s cheerful face pushed its way through the static and came into focus on one of the viewscreens. Mitch was one of the flight controllers on Metropole 1. “What happened to you then? We lost you for a while.”
     “I was going to ask you the same thing.” Nora allowed herself to be warmed up by Mitch’s easy manner. After their strange experience Earthside, she found his geniality reassuring. “We made landfall in the Detroit-Windsor conurb but it didn’t look like anything you’d recognise. We’re on our way over to Mikhailov’s dacha at Lake Onega to see if we can pick him up.”
     “Are you sure you didn’t just get your landing co-ordinates wrong?” Mitch went for the easiest possibility.
     “What should have been the burbs turned out to be an Indian Reservation. And, yes, we got the co-ordinates right because I recognised the shoreline. I’ve been there before. You’d have to see it to believe it.” In spite of that Nora still didn’t quite believe what she’d just seen Earthside.
     “Have you got a video log?” Mitch’s request was a formality. He knew they had as it was SOP for every flight.
     “Sending it over now.” Nora looked around to Bill who gave her a resounding thumbs-up. The chatter continued as they arced up across Greenland. By the time they started descending over Lapland their easy conversation had turned into an earnest interrogation from a battery of Space Force intelligence officers stationed aboard Metropole 1. They plunged through the layer of strange flickering purple plasma over Finland and lost contact with Metropole 1. The feed from Metropole 1 on their viewscreens faded to random video mush.
     “We’ve lost comms with Metropole 1 again.” Bill stated the obvious as they plunged downwards across Finland towards Western Russia. “The good news is that we’re in range of Earthside comms now.” However the signals were weak so Bill didn’t bother with them, preferring to focus on their flight and wait until the signals were stronger and more intelligible. It would all go in the flight log. No doubt the Intel officers would pore over it for days.
     By the time they crossed the border into Karelia they could see that something was wrong. What should have been a pristine arboreal landscape appeared to be a scorched and defoliated lifeless wasteland. The capital, Segezha and Petrozaodsk on Lake Onega were nothing more than rubble and craters. The closer they looked, the more they could see that the landscape was dotted with massive craters in all directions.
     “Background radiation’s off the scale, Commander.” Bennie informed Nora. “Suggest we abort and recommend that Space Force from SF Trumpton deal with this instead.”
     “Noted, Smedley.” Nora wasn’t going to give up just yet. “Rudovski, you’ve got the co-ordinates for Mikhailov’s place. Wing past there before we head back.”
     “Yes ma’am.” Sergei set in a course. When they arrived they found neither Anton’s fabulous dacha nor the chemical works he complained about in his last message. Instead all they saw was more desolately denuded woodland and the rusting hulk of a part-submerged ekranoplan just off the shoreline.
     “Hostile incoming.” Bennie announced as he stared at his screen. Somewhere below someone had launched a surface-to-air missile at them.
     “Evasive manoeuvres. Take us back to base, Rudovski.” Their shuttle craft was unarmed but easily outran the missile as they climbed up out of the atmosphere until it ran out of fuel and fell back to Earth. This time the mysterious flickering purple plasma was nowhere to be seen. Nor were there any comms incoming from Metropole 1. All Bill could find was a navigation beacon.
     “I don’t get it ma’am.” Bill scratched his head. “We’ve got a beacon signal but it neither idents as Metropole 1 nor is it on any of the standard frequencies. But it is coming from the right location.”
     “Lay in a course, Rudovski.” Nora had enough surprises for one day. She just wanted to get back to her cabin on Metropole 1, read a book and listen to some music. But that was not to be. As they coasted in towards Metropole 1 not only was the bloated tadpole of SF Trumpton missing, but so was part of Metropole 1. Instead of its gleaming white exterior with light shining out from its countless windows what awaited them was an unpainted and derelict version of Metropole 1. It was the right design but one of the rings was nothing more than a scaffolding frame and the main ring itself was incomplete.
     Sergei swung around it a few times. At first it looked completely lifeless but then Bennie spotted a few lights.
     “Still no comms, ma’am.” Bill was puzzled by their radio silence.
     “Take us in close to those light sources, Rudovski.” Nora ordered Sergei. “We’ll do an EVA and take a look inside. We can’t stay in this shuttle forever. We either have to dock here or go back Earthside before we run out of air, fuel, water and food.”
     Sergei Rudovski was an ex-Space Force pilot and edged their shuttle craft towards the station using the attitude thrusters with the easy confidence that only comes from a lifetime spent in space. When they touched their forward cockpit window to the station’s hull the impact was so slight the only thing they noticed was that they were looking in through one of the windows. Vines had spread up and down the walls as well as across the desks and a comms terminal. It looked as if it had been abandoned for a long time. They watched as a solitary rat sauntered lazily across the room inside.
     “Well, there’s an atmosphere in there.” Nora sized up the situation. They had about eight hours of air left aboard their shuttle; enough for another foray back Earthside. “Bring us around to the docking bay, Rudovski. We’re going in.” Two dark brown shuttle craft of a design they had never seen before were parked up and secured on the unlit docking bay. Undeterred by the lack of a welcome, Nora chivvied her crew into their suits and out the airlock. It was deserted. They wandered around looking for signs of the stations’ crew and an airlock so that they could get inside.
     “I think I found something.” Bennie called out over his suits intercom. “It looks like an airlock and there’s something stencilled on the wall: ‘Premu por aktivigi la airlock.’ Whatever that means.”
     “It’s Esperanto.” Sergei recognised it immediately. “It means ‘Press to activate the airlock’”.
     “Wait there, Wilson. We’ll be over right away.” Nora kicked out and coasted across the micro-grav of the docking bay. Once they had arrived at the airlock Bill pressed the button and waited. And waited. And waited. They were about to give up when wisps of ice-crystals puffed out from around the edge of the airlock door as it began to slide open. “OK, lowest rank first. That’s you, Wilson.” Nora ordered Bennie into the airlock.
     “Oh great, I get to wear the red shirt.” Bennie grumbled as he stepped into the airlock.
     “What do you see inside, Wilson?”
     “A button next to each door labelled Fermi and Malfermi, ma’am.” Bennie wheezed as he floated around inside the airlock.
     “That’s Close and Open.” Sergei translated.
     “Anything else?” Nora quizzed Bennie.
     “Oh yeah, this is easy.” Bennie sounded a bit more chipper. “Two more buttons: one labelled Pressurize and another labelled Depressurize.”
     “I want you to close the outer door, wait and then see if you can get out again.” Nora ordered him. “If not we’ll cut you out and try something else. There’s bound to be more than one airlock.”
     “Gee thanks” Bennie didn’t sound too optimistic as the outer door slid shut. A few minutes later the outer door re-opened. “Well, that one works,”
     “Smedley, go in with Wilson and try the inner door.” Nora gave Bill a gentle push sending him into the airlock. “Be sure to pressurise the air lock before you go inside.” It was pitch-dark inside the airlock except for the headlamps on their suits. Bennie hit the button to pressurise the air lock. Puffs of ice crystals shot out of the air inlets. As the air pressure inside the airlock increased, their suits slackened. Bennie watched the gauge inside his helmet. It stopped climbing at 0.9 Atmos and, assuming that was as good as it was going to get, hit the Malfermi button to open the inner airlock. They could hear the door scraping on its tracks as it slid open.
     Inside it was a scene of neglect and dilapidation. Wall panels were missing in places leaving wiring and plumbing exposed. At a casual glance it looked as if half the lighting was either broken or flickering erratically. The computer terminals and workstations nearest the airlock were completely dead. Flowering vines snaked around the corridors and across terminals that looked as if they hadn’t been used in a long time. Bennie was about to shut the inner airlock door when a screeching parakeet flew in.
     “Shoo, get out!” Bill attempted to chase it out of the airlock.
     “What’s that?” Nora asked from outside.
     “A parakeet. Damn bird…” Bill cussed as he flailed his arms in a futile attempt to scare the little green bird. “Ah finally… Quick, Bennie, shut the door before it comes back.” A few minutes later they were back outside.
     “This isn’t Metropole 1 but there’s air and life on board.” Nora sized up their situation. “We’ll need an operations base until we can get back to Metropole 1. Things don’t look too good Earthside, so this place is as good as any. Hopefully we’ll get some answers from the crew here. Rudovski and Wilson, I want you to stay with the shuttle. Smedley, you’re with me. We’ll keep a live feed going the whole time. If anything happens to us or you encounter hostiles, get the shuttle away from here as fast as you can and wait at a safe distance. Is that understood?”
     Sergei and Bennie mumbled their reluctant assent and kicked off back to the shuttle. Bill and Nora went into the airlock and waited until they had a robust comms link with the shuttle before opening the inner door. Nora checked her portable chemo analysis unit: the air inside the station had the usual oxygen - nitrogen - carbon dioxide mixture: nothing toxic so she loosened the visor on her helmet and switched off the air supply in her suit. The air smelled a bit musty but it was bearable. With a bit of filtration they could use it to top up the air supply in their shuttle.
     “Open up, Smedley.” Nora gamely tapped on his visor. “It won’t kill you. We need to save our air.”
     “Yes ma’am.” Bill reluctantly unlocked his visor, flipped it up and wrinkled his nose at the musty air. He didn’t share Nora’s gung-ho attitude.
     “Oh and keep your pistol handy.” Nora breezily waved her laser pistol. “Never know what we might find here.” The docking bay was at the hub of the station’s wheel. As a result it was pretty much a zero-grav freefall zone.
     Bill grasped a vine that snaked along one wall and pulled himself around the central landing bay reception peering into the long-deserted rooms and offices that surrounded it. Aside from the sounds of himself and Nora bumping their way around it was deathly quiet save for the subliminal shushing of the air circulation system and the occasional faint creaking of the stations’ frame.
     Three parakeets burst out of one room screeching excitedly as Bill passed its door and gave him such a fright that he lost his grip and drifted out across the reception area.
     “Just grab the first thing you can and make your way over to one of the access lifts, Smedley. I think we’ve seen everything here” Nora had no intention of joining Bill in free-fall and adjusted her headset. “I hope you’re getting all this, Wilson.” She addressed Bennie over her headset.
     “Loud and clear, Ma’am.” Bill could hear Bennie’s wheezing voice leaking tinnily out of Nora’s headset as he drifted across the reception desperately trying to grab hold of fittings and consoles that were just out of his reach.
     “Make sure you get Smedley’s feed as well, we’re going to need it.” Nora ordered Bennie as she made her way over to access lift nearest where Bill was drifting towards. Bill got there first. “Stay there, Smedley. I think you’ve landed next to one of the access lifts.” Nora pulled herself over to the access lift, cleared away the growth of vines over the control console and, with Sergei’s help, translated the instructions. Nora confidently punched the call button for the lift and waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing happened.
     “Maybe it’s broken.” Bill suggested. He patted the door which fell inwards off its hinges, bounced in slow-motion against the back wall of the access lift and floated out across the reception area. “Whoops.”
     “Never mind.” Nora aimed her torch down the lift shaft. Lines of dull red LED’s receded into the darkness. She grabbed Bill by one of his arms, pulled him into the lift shaft and kicked off, propelling down towards the station ring below. “It’ll be slow at first.” Nora explained. “Further down we’ll pick up weight and start accelerating. When we do, grab onto the rungs and then we’ll climb the rest of the way down.”
     At first it was relaxing and effortless as they coasted along in zero-grav with their weight and speed increasing imperceptibly. “OK, now.” Nora ordered. But Bill missed his grip.
     “Ow!” Bang, crash, thud as Bill bounced off the side of the lift shaft and collided into the rungs. “Help! Argghhh!!! Ow!” Thump, bang, crash. “Got it!” He called out from a distance below Nora.
     “Hang on! I’ll be right there.” Nora climbed down as fast as she could to join Bill as he endured the humiliation of Sergei and Bennie laughing at him over his headset.
     Bill felt something run across his hand. Then something else. He looked up and saw a nest of rats looking back at him, their eyes reflecting the light from his headset lamp. “Ahhh!” One of them ran up his arm. He freaked out, let go and kept on falling. When Nora eventually caught up with him, Bill was hanging upside down by one foot caught between two rungs.
     “What happened to you?” Nora coolly asked her hapless subordinate.
     “I didn’t see any.” Nora refrained from scoffing. The first sign of life they had seen aboard this station was a rat. “Hold on to a rung and I’ll get your foot free.” She waited until he had a grip, gently eased his foot out and turned him around so that his feet were on a lower rung. “Anything broken?”
     Bill put his weight on his foot. It was OK. “No, ma’am. But it’s mighty sore.”
     “Be careful.” Nora scolded him. “Let’s keep going. We can’t keep Wilson and Rudovski waiting forever.” The rest of the way down the lift shaft was uneventful. By the time they got to the top of the elevator car Bill almost felt his usual weight again. The handle securing the access door was stuck so Nora kicked it but it wouldn’t budge.
     “I’ll give it a go.” Bill put his weight behind his good foot gave it an almighty kick which sent the handle spinning around. They were in! Nora lifted up the access hatch and looked inside. The door was jammed wide open. No wonder it never moved. She dropped in and caught Bill so that he wouldn’t hurt his foot.
     Inside the ring the living quarters were several floors high with a central concourse that would have run all the way around had it been completed. From the outside, the station had two sections of the ring diametrically opposed so that it would balance properly. They were in one of those two sections. Plants and trees had overgrown the interior as far as they could see in both directions along the ring. Hanging gardens cascaded down to the floor and vines had spread along the floors and walls. It was silent except for the occasional rustling sound or bird flying overhead.
     Nora led the way towards an arboretum that was in view a short way around the ring. Every shop, home and office they passed was unoccupied and looked as if they hadn’t seen any use for a long time. Doors and windows hung open at random. Most were unlit. Bill spotted a wiry tortoiseshell cat with a mouse in its mouth trotting along the walkway. It saw them and jumped in through a broken window. What life they found so far was feral. Not a sign of any human crew or residents. Nowhere did they see anyone. It was as if they’d all been whisked away in the middle of the day.
     It was the same in every place they inspected. The ground level establishments had mostly been shops or offices. Furniture, tools, cables, fittings and computer terminals in some premises were untouched, in others scattered around at random. Every single one of them looked long-deserted with unbroken layers of dust on just about everything broken only by occasional traces of paw-prints much like what one would see in fresh snow. One office had a working wall-sized viewscreen that was active but all it displayed was a rush of video static mush.
     They passed what appeared to be a dead service bot, a small wheeled boxlike contraption that had four multi-jointed arms and a head that was little more than a stereoscopic camera on a short post attached to its top. Seeing the service bot made Bill aware of the fact that they hadn’t encountered any mechs, which surprised him. He was used to a world where mechs were ubiquitous. After all, many were free citizens just like himself.
     They reached the arboretum surrounded by what would have, in better times, been shops. All that remained were cavernous rooms with wide doorways and windows that had long since fallen through revealing their interiors littered with neglected debris. A raccoon darted out of a dimly-lit side passage, raced past Bill and Nora, leapt onto a tree and climbed up to one of its branches where it chittered noisily.
     Barking! Dogs! Moments later four more raccoons came racing frantically out of the passageway with three lean medium-sized mongrel dogs baying, barking, growling and snarling behind them. The dogs got three of the raccoons whose dieing screams and last pathetic whimpers echoed hauntingly around the station. The last raccoon kept running until it joined its compatriot in the tree. They looked down at Bill and Nora, the dogs and their fallen comrades then darted off up onto a branch that grew out to a balcony above before disappearing back into the upper decks.
     The dogs glowered menacingly, snarling and snapping threateningly at Bill and Nora. Bill and Nora backed away from the dogs into the grassy undergrowth in the arboretum. Satisfied that the new intruders weren’t a threat, the dogs loped off with their prey casting wary looks back in Bill and Nora’s direction.
      Something crunched under Bill’s foot. Bill looked down and jumped back in horror. That crunching sound was a human ribcage that he’d stepped on that was grown through with vines, tree roots, grasses and flowers. And it wasn’t the only one. Not wanting to, but knowing he had to, Bill pulled back as much of the growth as he could to reveal its hidden secret. He stopped after he found a dozen skeletons held fast by the trees and vines. He could tell there were more to be found.
     “I think I found the crew, ma’am.” He called out to Nora who was still looking up at the balcony where the raccoons had gone.
     “Really? That’s good.” Nora joined Bill and looked down at his find. Her excitement drained away. “Oh.”
     “If this is anything to go by I don’t think there’s anyone here.” Bill pointed down at the skeletons.
     “Except for this wild menagerie.” Nora pointed out.
     “I wonder how they died.” He tried to imagine. Had it been a battle? Poison? Gas? Disease? Mass suicide? It looked as if this group had died together.
     “Whatever it was didn’t affect anything else.” Nora looked around hoping to spy a raccoon but only saw some birds flitting around above the concourse. “We may never find out, Smedley. But it was most likely some human-on-human action.” She, too, looked down upon the fallen skeletons being gradually reclaimed by the stations’ ecosystem and wondered what their lives and last moments had been like.
     “Best keep your pistol primed, Smedley.” Nora advised Bill as she looked up from slowly-decomposing skeletons. “Those dogs acted like top predators. There’s bound to be more and to them we’re food. Remember, they hunt in packs. If you see one, you’ll see more in a hurry. So keep your eyes peeled. Shoot to kill unless you want to be eaten. And don’t think that killing one will stop them. You might have to kill the entire pack.”
     Bill gulped, uneasy about Nora’s advice but primed his pistol nonetheless and resolved to pay a lot more attention to his surroundings. This wasn’t the safe, familiar Metropole 1 that he knew. Realising that safety in numbers, even if that number was only two, was a better idea than wandering off on his own wherever his curiosity took him, he decided to stick close to Nora until they got back to their shuttle. That and the fact that Nora, as an ex-Earth Fed supply pilot, was properly weapon-trained.
     Sure, Bill had played countless hours of combat simulator games. Whole days. Weeks, months even if truth be told and was able to level up respectably. But the first he time had ever actually held a weapon of any sort in real life was during his employment induction which was more to familiarise the new employees with the weapons used rather than teaching them how to use them or, more importantly, useful things like marksmanship. They were supposed to know things like that already and had to provide a license certificate proving that they were qualified to own and use handheld weapons at a very minimum.
     Bill was desperate to make something of his life and decided that he would leave his rural small town and carve his future out in space. He had faked his way in with an over-the-counter ten-dollar NRA license from the local corner-shop in his home town. Not even worth the paper it was printed on and everyone knew it. They were happy to accept it at his employment interview so Bill had presumed the certificate requirement was just a redundant formality. Now he wished he’d actually bothered to take marksmanship classes instead of playing online combat simulators. He practised drawing his pistol on imaginary targets when Nora was looking the other way and quickly realised that shooting from a real weapon in your hand was going to be very different from squeezing a controller to shoot pretend guns at imaginary targets on a screen.
     Nora decided that they should return to the shuttle. They were about to go when Bill heard a scraping noise coming from one of the abandoned shops surrounding the arboretum and managed to convince Nora that they take a look. They stood in the entrance and watched a solitary service bot sweeping mounds of discarded plastic dishes into a recycling hatch. Along the far wall was a row of illuminated vending machines. They dispensed their wares onto a shelf at waist height. Piles of discarded cups, bowls and plates rose up from the floor in front of them. The welcoming aroma of cooked food greeted them when they arrived at the bank of vending machines.
     Nora picked a bowl off the shelf. There were traces of its contents which were still moist. It smelled like lentil dhal. “Unless this stuff’s laced with industrial-grade preservatives, someone’s eaten this in the last few days.”
     Bill looked around. The only other thing in this derelict cafeteria was the service bot which ignored them as it swept up the litter. “But who?” So far he’d seen no sign of anyone who could use the vending machines. Let alone want what they had to offer. “And they just throw their trash on the floor.” He added with disbelief. Although he had to admit that, given the current state of neglect they’d seen so far, it didn’t seem out of place.
     The vending machines were all labelled in Esperanto. Not wanting to bother Sergei for a translation he chose a button beneath an illuminated picture of a pie. He could hear the vending machine come to life with gears and machinery humming inside it. Moments later a plate dropped down into the serving hatch with something that looked like a passable slice of Shepherd’s Pie. Bill sniffed it. It smelled OK. He poked it with a gloved finger and tasted it. Nothing great, but it certainly tasted edible. He scooped up a portion in his fingers and ate it. He felt fine. “Would you like some?” He offered the plate to Nora.
     “No thanks.” Then Nora could smell it. “Oh OK.” She tried a bit. “Not bad. Which one is it?” She asked while looking at the vending machine. In the background the service bot ignored them as it continued its task of clearing the floor trundling around the cafeteria and sweeping up piles of discarded plates into the recycling hatches.
     Bill patted the button and it wasn’t long before Nora had her own meal. There was no cutlery available. Bill looked at some of the discarded bowls, thinking about breaking a bit off to use as a spoon but gave it a miss as they didn’t look too clean and he had no idea who or what might have used them. The bowls were made of a soft, light plastic so he broke off a piece of his bowl to use as a crude spoon. Messy, but tasty. When they finished there ware no disposal bins in sight so they just dropped their plates on the floor and stepped out of the way of the service bot which was making a pass along the wall with the vending machines.
     “Goodness knows what that stuff really was.” Nora commented as she wiped her lips clean. “Probably processed fungi, algae or both. But it proves that this station has a basic functioning food production system. And, by the look of that service bot, this place also has the means to recycle and manufacture new material; quite impressive for a station with no visible crew.”
     The service bot was still at its task when they stepped out and set off back to the lift shaft. “Try not to fall and break anything, Smedley. We’re a long way from home.”
     “Yes ma’am.” Bill’s ankle still hurt and it was all he could do to keep from limping which was something he didn’t dare do around Nora. He was desperate to regain an aura of competence in her eyes after his ignominious accident on the way down the lift shaft.
     “You know there’s something strange about all this.” Bill felt unsettled by their journey from Metropole 1. Nora hummed in agreement but said nothing preferring to let Bill speak his mind.
     “For starters the Detroit-Windsor conurb was nothing like it should be. It looked like something out of the history books.” Bill unburdened himself as they walked past the deserted offices and shops along the concourse. “Then when we go to pick up Mikhailov neither his dacha nor the chemical works are there and it looked like there’s been an all-out nuclear war. Which has never happened, at least as far as I know. I don’t think it happened during the comms break. Those craters and wreckage looked too old. The background radiation level was off the scale even at 5 klicks altitude. But the Detroit-Windsor conurb area was normal. It’s as if they were totally different planets. And here, what is this place?” Bill looked around to emphasise his point. “It’s where Metropole 1 should be and looks a bit similar but it’s pretty much an abandoned derelict.”
     “Something’s up.” Nora agreed with Bill. “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There has to be a rational explanation. Maybe this is some sort of test Earth Fed has sprung on us. Let’s get back to the shuttle and take stock of things.”
     “Well I haven’t signed up for anything.” Bill huffed self-righteously. He, his family and entire community were avowed pacifists. “I know you and Sergei are ex-military but I’m strictly civilian, ma’am. That’s how I am and I wouldn’t have signed up for any of their programs.”
     “Okay, okay.” Nora threw up her hands. Pacifists were one of her pet hates. Them and their self-righteous ways. But right now she’d let it pass. “Thing is, we’re here, wherever ‘here’ is. And our first objective is to get back to Metropole 1.”
     “The other odd thing I noticed was that there was no beacon for the StarComms station.” Bill mused.
     “I thought it was decommissioned.” Nora knew it was still in orbit around Earth. But it was an old first-generation space station without the luxury of spin-induced gravity and had fallen out of use once Metropole1 got into full swing.
     “No, it’s a service depot for orbital satellites now.” Bill was keen to show that he, too, had some space experience. “That, and picking up the decommissioned satellites before they end up as space junk. I applied for a job there before I got my job on Metropole 1. They put you through a station simulator to see how you perform in zero-G.”
     Nora hummed but said nothing. Given Bill’s clumsy antics on the way into this station she could see why he was passed over for the StarComms job. They climbed up the lift shaft until the gravity diminished enough for them to kick off and coast inwards to the hub. Much to Bill’s relief there was no sign of the rats on the way up. As they floated out of the lift shaft door at the landing bay reception a rough-hewn net made of vines and lengths of old nylon ropes snapped around them. Nora looked around but couldn’t see their captors.
     “Use your pistol to cut the ropes.” Nora shouted to Bill as she attempted to burn her way to freedom.
     “We’re on our way in.” Sergei called out to Nora and Bill over their headsets as he and Bennie suited up, grabbed the pulse rifles out of the weapons locker and stepped out of their shuttle to drift across the landing bay to the station airlocks.
     Inside, Nora and Bill were still struggling with the net when it was whisked into an anteroom adjoining the reception. Nora’s struggles with the net became weaker and Bill fell drowsy as knockout gas flooded the room. The last thing Bill remembered seeing before he passed out was a net with Sergei and Bennie flying in through the doorway.
     It was like a dark fog slowly lifting when Bill came round. At first he could only hear vague sounds and suffer what felt like the mother of all hangovers. He and the rest of his crew were still in their pressure suits. People were arguing and talking in a language he didn’t recognise. He didn’t recognise any of the voices at first but was eventually able to recognise Sergei’s Russian accent as the fog lifted in his head. He could feel the ropes holding his ankles together as well as the ones that held his arms behind his back.
     Bill opened his eyes but the glare of light hurt too much so he shut them again. Not that he saw anything other than a few blurry shapes. He tried again a few minutes later, this time squinting so as to shield his eyes a bit while they accustomed themselves to the light. Nora was already awake and tied up to his left as was Sergei who was further to her left and talking to their captors in that damn gobbledegook language. Bennie was to his right and still out for the count.
     This side of the station wasn’t much different from the other side they’d explored earlier. Rather than the decay and neglect of the other side, this side appeared worn and scruffy from indifferent overuse. The lighting wasn’t as bright or harsh. Vines and creepers working their way up and along the walls, Trees growing all the way up to the concourse ceiling several floor above them. But there were signs of life: banners draped along walls, crates and worn-out furniture littered around, a blackened pot hanging over a fire ringed with broken furniture, clothes hanging out to dry, working data terminals and clearly visible footpaths worn into the grassy floor of the arboretum near where they were being held.
     Their captors were a ragged bunch and, in spite of their appearance, looked quite a young group of men and women. Scruffy outfits that looked as if they’d grabbed random pieces of clothing and wore them: a jumble of worn-out military uniforms, civilian flight gear, outdoor survival wear and party costumes all held together with animal skins and rough stitching. They appeared to be carrying various pieces of electronic hardware, tools and weapons on their belts and bandoliers. Bill couldn’t understand a word they were saying but the tone of their voice and body language told him enough: They were arguing amongst themselves about what to do with their new-found captives. He leaned his head over towards Nora. “What’s going on?”
     “They think we’re either from one of their enemy tribes or else from an alternate Earth.” Nora tried to sum up what Sergei had gleaned in conversation with the crew. “There was a battle between two alien fleets in their solar system and a lot of Earth was destroyed in the crossfire. It fragmented their society and it’s now broken into nations, or tribes, as they call them which are all at war with each other competing for resources. This station, or what’s left of it, belongs to their tribe, the Naryan.” Nora nodded towards their captors.
     “Are those alien fleets still here?” Bill really didn’t want to die in the middle of a space battle.
     “No, they left over a century ago.” Nora explained. “They weren’t interested in Earth. No-one ever found out who they were. They found bits of the alien tech but no survivors.”
     It was still a lot for Bill to take in given his fuzzy state of mind. “What’s with this alternate Earth crap?”
     “Remember that purple plasma that Bennie spotted when we were flying over to pick up Mikhailov?”
     “This lot saw it too.” Nora continued. “It flared up when they lost contact with their Earth and every time a different Earth took its place.”
     “You mean there’s more than one?” Bill wasn’t ready for alternate Earths. Not right now. He felt nauseous and just on the edge of chucking his guts. Alternate Earths would really have to wait for another time.
     “So how are we supposed to get back to our Earth and Metropole 1?” Being tied up on an alternate Earth space station wasn’t Bill’s idea of adventure.
     “Wait here until our Earth shows up and make a run for it before that purple plasma kicks in again.” Nora laid out their plan that Sergei was negotiating with their captors. “If they let us.”
     “What do you mean?” That last ‘if’ of Nora’s sounded ominous to Bill.
     “They were going to execute us.” Nora put Bill in the picture. “But Sergei talked them out of it for the time being. They want our tech. That’s do-able and they’ll learn it a lot faster if we’re alive to show them how it works.”
     “Ri-i-i-ght.” Bill thought he got what Nora was hinting at. “Stretch it out until we can win them over?”
     “Or get the hell out of here.” Nora was glad she could count on Bill. “Whichever comes first.”
     “What about Wilson?” Nora glanced over at Bennie.
     “Bennie’s the boss of bullshit.” In spite of their dire circumstances Bill managed a wry chuckle. “He could make an epic trilogy out of folding a piece of paper. I think he’d consider it a challenge to see how long he could string them along.”
     “Could you ask them to untie me? I’m aching for a dump.” Nora asked Sergei. She did have to go but not as badly as she was letting on. She thought she’d use it as an opportunity to see if he’d managed to soften up their captors a bit.
     Sergei relayed Nora’s request to the group of two men and a woman he’d been negotiating with. “Bonvolu tuj malligi nia Kapitano. Ŝi bezonas iri al necesejo.”
     One of the men looked over at Nora. “Ŝi povas merdo sin por ĉiuj ni gravas.” The woman in their group who had a broad ruddy, freckled face and long straw-coloured dreadlocks cascading down from a top-knot sneered contemptuously at Nora and spat in her direction.
     “I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then.” Nora grimaced and clenched her butt cheeks. Given the curry she’d eaten the night before, it was going to stink like hell when she did crap herself.
     “I’m sorry about that, ma’am.” Bill offered Nora his emotional support.
     “Never mind, Smedley.” Nora put on a brave face. “A couple of hours ago they were going to execute us. From there, anything’s an improvement.” One of the men in the negotiating group, tall and wiry dressed mostly in black leather and with a shock of raven black hair above his pallid face, stepped over to Nora, pulled his knife out of its sheath, cut the ropes and vines holding Nora and helped her to her feet. She was a bit unsteady at first; her hands and feet were numb from a lack of circulation. When she was ready he escorted her to the toilet which was off the concourse where they were being held.
     They’d been gone a while and some of their captors were looking around nervously when Nora reappeared no longer wearing her pressure suit and holding a laser pistol to her escort’s head and pushing him along in front of her as a shield. She’d yanked his right arm so hard and far up his back that she’d badly dislocated his shoulder. Something you could read from the pained and terrified expression on his face. Nora kept her position so that the Naryan couldn’t shoot her. “That fucker tried to rape me when I was on the pot!” Nora shouted out angrily. “Any of you shoot and this fucker gets it.”
     Sergei didn’t need to translate. The Naryan took up position, some to shoot at Nora, the others aimed squarely at Sergei, Bill and the still-slumbering Bennie. It was an ugly standoff and the odds weren’t good. If they called Nora’s bluff, she and her crew would all be dead.
     Nora saw that Sergei hadn’t said a word. “Sergei, tell them what this fucker did. And that if they don’t untie the rest of us, put their guns down and give us our guns back or I’m going to blow this fucker’s brains out.”
     “Via asociita provis seksperforti nia Kapitano. Ŝi postulas ke vi malligi nin kaj metis viajn armilojn malsupren aŭ ŝi mortigos lin. Ni ankaŭ volas niajn armilojn revenis.” Sergei relayed Nora’s message as robustly as he could with five pistols aimed straight at him. They didn’t flinch. One snorted derisively. The others looked around at each other waiting for someone to take the lead.
     “Now!” Nora yelled at the top of her lungs and jabbed the pistol at her would-be rapists’ head. One, who appeared to be a leader of some sort, laid his pistol on the floor and backed off. The others slowly followed suit and stepped back. Nora motioned with her pistol towards the middle of the floor. They got the message and kicked their guns across the floor so she could pick them up. Nora hooked a foot around her assailants’ ankle and pushed him forward so that he fell on his face and skidded across the floor towards his compatriots who picked him up. She then kicked the guns over towards her tied-up crew so that their former captors couldn’t attempt to make a run at her and get their guns back.
     “You!” Nora bellowed at the straw-haired woman who had spat at her earlier. Nora motioned with her pistol for her to step forward. “Untie my crew. No funny business or I’ll kill you. And you, over there, get me my pressure suit. The rest of you, stand back. Further, further.” Sergei translated Nora’s commands. Sullenly, they stepped back until Nora stopped shouting at them leaving Straw-hair to bear the brunt of Nora’s wrath. For a woman who had arrogant airs and graces only an hour earlier, she looked positively frightened now as she nervously fretted and struggled with the ropes that bound Sergei, Bill and Bennie. Nora moved to keep Straw-hair and the other Naryan in her line of sight in case she had to make good her threat.
     Bill and Sergei were back on their feet and stuffing as many of the pistols as they could into their pressure suit pockets when they heard Bennie groaning behind them: “Huh? Whazzup?”
     “Shut up, Bennie.” Sergei snapped back. “Just sit still. You missed the action. We’ll tell you everything later.” Bennie was in no condition to argue and just grumbled pathetically in the background.
     Nora, Bill and Sergei looked like fantasy soldiers ready to rumble in a VR game with guns sticking out of all their pockets and what looked like primed laser rifles in each hand. Speaking through Sergei as her translator, Nora addressed her still-defiant Naryan captives: “We seem to have a similar problem. You’ve lost contact with your world and we have with ours. Now, we can either work together or we can continue as we were before. Only now I hold the advantage and I will shoot to kill if I have to. It’s your choice.”
     A heated argument rippled through the Naryan crew. Nora waited. And waited. Eventually she got a reply through Sergei: “They’ll work with us.”
     “There’s hope yet.” Nora relaxed gladly now that the standoff was over… for the time being. They’d have to be on their guard at all times. “Tell them it’s over now but they won’t be getting their guns back any time soon.” And as an aside to Sergei: “Once I’m damned sure none of those kids will try to shoot us in the back. Then I’ll think about it.”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 28
Chapter 30